2015 Grateful 11

I have my life back. Rugby, for me, is over. To say that I’m gutted would be an understatement, but the disappointment I felt as I threw my jersey into the laundry basket to be washed, ironed, and packed away until next spring, is nothing to what the Boys in Green must be feeling. To do so well… and not have it be good enough. Heart-breaking.

That said, while the week might not have ended as I’d have liked it to end, it was a good one, all in all.

I was introduced to someone in the pub on Sunday as being ‘famous’ – not in any spotlight sense of the word, of course, but in the sense that so many people know me. That in itself isn’t particularly amazing – I’ve been here for years and a sizeable portion of that time has been spent on stage with the Gift of the Gab. So yes,  my name, if not me, myself, is known. Famous, I don’t think so. Known of? That’ll work.

PlanNot a week goes by that I’m not asked if I know someone who can do something. An English-speaking accountant to sort out the web of Hungarian tax laws. A Spanish-speaking football fan to decipher a player’s call to the camera. Someone who makes stained glass. And I get great satisfaction from hooking people up – connecting those who need something done with those who can do those somethings. This week was particularly good in that respect and at one stage, when I sat back and watched three strands of my life engage in a fascinating conversation at the Art Hotel in Budapest on Thursday, I mentally congratulated myself on a job well done. As Hannibal of A-Team fame might say: I love it when a plan comes together.

I don’t know where I got it. I doubt it’s hereditary. Perhaps it’s because I’ve needed stuff done so often that I’m particularly attentive to what others need doing. I don’t know. More often than not, I find myself volunteering contacts and connections. Just applied for a junior diplomat’s position? Never spoken to diplomat? Let me check. Want to export honey to Ireland but don’t know where to start? mmmm… am sure I met someone lately who was into the honey distribution thing… I’ll get back to you. Looking for a size 6 pair of roller skates? I think I know someone who just quit.

Perhaps I have the fixing gene – the one that wants to be sure that my world, as I know it, continues to function as it does. The one that wants to keep things going so that the status remains quo’d. As I said, this week was particularly good with regard to cosmic connections. And for that I’m grateful.

Had Ireland made the semi-finals… now that would see gratitude take off to a whole new level. Next time, lads. Next time.


2015 Grateful 32

When I was younger, and a lot more innocent, I used to worry that my gay radar was a little out of kilter. Working in London in the early 2000s, one colleague I had figured for gay was straight and another I was sure was straight wasn’t. It upset me a little that I could get it so wrong until I realised what I was doing – labelling.

Both were lovely. It didn’t much matter what their sexual orientation was. It was immaterial. And yet I had subconsciously bought in to the need to classify. Back then, the discovery that someone was gay was something that was talked about, often in terms of surprise – Hey, did you know? Me? I hadn’t a clue.

I had my first open and frank conversation with a couple of lesbian friends about 20 years ago – the whole nature vs nurture debate was raging and I was curious.   I’d grown up in a predominately white, straight, Catholic society and had an innate curiosity about anyone who didn’t fit that mould. I asked questions – I’ve always asked questions – because I wanted to understand, to know more.

I wanted to know what it was like to be black in LA during the Rodney King riots; I wanted to know what it was like to be gay in Uganda where it still warrants life imprisonment; I wanted to know what it as like to be Jewish in Europe in the 1940s. I didn’t trust the books or the scientific studies  – I wanted to hear first-hand and so when I got the chance, I asked questions. And the more I learned, the more amazed I was that the nature vs nurture debate still had traction. That anyone could believe that being gay is a choice is beyond me – but that’s just my opinion.

We all have our life stories, our scripts. How we choose to tell those stories pretty much defines who we are. That some people still struggle in telling their stories, still feel the need to hide the fact that they’re gay or in a same-sex relationship, says more about society’s intolerance than it does about them. But it’s sad.

Supreme-Court-gay-marriage-11People ask where God was hiding in the camps in the 1940s; perhaps a better question might be where were the Christians hiding? I’ve been taught that mine is not to judge. I’ve been taught that everyone – everyone – is equal in God’s eyes. I’ve been taught that the first tenet on which Christianity is based is to ‘love thy neighbour’ – and that one didn’t come with any caveats like to love them if they’re Catholic, if they’re straight, if they’re solvent.

Yesterday, Ireland went out to vote on ‘gay marriage’. I read somewhere today that for every two who voted in favour, one voted against. And they I’m sure have their reasons, reasons that should be respected if democracy is to work. We are all entitled to our opinions. Much has been said on social media in the last few months. And the one post that sticks with me is a photo showing Rosa Parks sitting on a bus.

Some people ask, ‘why do gay couples need to get married when they can already have civil partnership?’ Well, that’s not equality. That’s like saying, why did Rosa Parks need to sit at the front of the bus when she could sit at the back?

Not all gay people voted Yes. Some are happy with a civil union, believing that marriage should be reserved for a mother, father, and child. Many of my friends who voted No believe this, too. And that’s fine. If you’re gay and you’d prefer a civil partnership to marriage, that’s your choice. But remember, you now have a choice.

gayFor me, that’s what the referendum was about – equality of choice. I personally don’t think abortion is right and I have issues with IVF. But I would never vote in favour of denying another woman her right to choose or castigate someone who has made a choice I wouldn’t make for myself. I’m straight. And if I want to get married, I can. I have that choice. That this choice is denied to some of my friends around the world is inconceivable.

There are 196 countries in the world and about 20 or so have legalised or are on their way to legalising same sex marriage. Not great by any means but it’s a start. I wondered about Ireland, whether we’d do it or not. Honestly,  I didn’t think it would pass. I hoped. I prayed.  I doubted. But it looks like it has. And I’m so happy about that. Now my friends have the same choice … a choice that I’ve always had. They can choose to get married. And for that, I’m truly grateful.





Life lessons from the kitchen

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in January, Hungary made the news as the PM shared his belief with the world that economic migration is endangering Europeans and should be stopped. He called for a Hungary for Hungarians. Fast forward to March, when Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Irish Minister of State for New Communities, Culture and Equality, addressed a Budapest gathering on St Patrick’s Day speaking of the necessity of embracing migration as a key part of global living. Two rather diverse opinions there for the taking.

Governments and their representatives know how to talk. Very often that talk, however motivating, is simply talk. It’s those on the ground, dealing with the daily pressures of life on a fixed income that can fall short of covering basic necessities, they’re the people who make the difference, with their attitudes, their openness, their initiatives.

In the north Dublin suburb of Finglas sits Coláiste Íde, a college specialising in life-long-learning programmes that equip students with the skills they need to pursue paid employed in the catering, tourism and business sectors. Deputy Principal Ms Lisa Bohan has been instrumental in developing three such programmes, overseeing projects for Art students in Florence, Italy, and Travel and Tourism students in Valletta, Malta. Since 2007, students from this Irish college have been coming to Hungary to complete the 15-day work-experience segment of the Professional Cookery course in Hungarian hotels and restaurants under the guidance of Mr Derek Flynn. The course is designed to equip them with the relevant knowledge, skills, and competence to work autonomously using a range of specialised skills in a professional kitchen. They’ve done their time at the Radisson Blu Béke, the Best Western Hotel Hungaria, Thermal Hotel  Viségrad, La Perle Noire, Mamaison Hotel Andrassy, the Arcadia Hotel, and various restaurants in Budapest and Szentendre.

RUS_1259But these are not just Irish students. This year, the 17-strong contingent aged 18‒38 included students from Malaysia, Moldova, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Hungary – all now living in Ireland. Melinda Novak (second row left), a former midwife from Szombathely, has been in Dublin for four years. She’s retraining to be a baker and this year she got to come home to Hungary as part of the Coláiste Íde group from Ireland.

The students learn more than their trade. They get a taste of how to deal with a foreign culture, and a language that no one but Melinda had ever heard before. They stay in Szentendre and make the daily commute to the city. The work is intense and slacking off isn’t an option, not that any of those I met would take it, even if it had been.

The food they prepared for a reception hosted by Irish Ambassador to Hungary, Kevin Dowling, had all the hints of great things to come, with a couple of future culinary stars in their midst. They showcased various Irish speciality cheeses, including a porter cheese that looked too much like chocolate to be real. We had the traditional smoked salmon, an Irish stew, and smoked Irish duck with Guinness marmalade. With a nod to the host country, Baileys cheesecake found competition in Hungarian desserts that the students had perfected during their training.

Culinary legend James Beard maintained that ‘food is our common ground, a universal experience’. This Erasmus+ programme shows that to be true. This six-nationality team are living proof that migration isn’t necessarily the threat it’s seen by some to be. Our common goal is survival, to live the life we’ve been given as best we can, working together, learning from each other. Thank you, lads and ladies. A timely lesson indeed.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 April 2015

My heart is in my mouth

rugby 2The minutes are ticking away. It’s getting closer to 3.30 (Budapest time). My nerves have been at me since I got up this morning. I’ve been going around the flat in my colours, trying to occupy myself with work. Mindless work. I can’t concentrate. I so want our boys to win in Cardiff today and yet I’m besieged by the age-old Irish fear that when we’re favourites, we don’t perform.

What is it about us? What are we like? Why can’t we cope with compliments and due praise? Why do we do so much better when we’re the underdog, when we have to prove something to someone?

In an effort to understand, I did some digging. Anything to distract myself and fill the next couple of hours before I head out to watch the game in the company of Welsh friends whom I hope I’ll be consoling come six o’clock.

One study says

Much of the inferiority complex that seems to distinguishing feature of the Irish psyche, and of the consequent sensitivity to real or imagined slights, may stem from the combination of cultural and political pressure.

I can make that fit – if I think about it hard enough. But surely there’s an easier explanation?

The National Identity Management Agency did a study last year that identified three of our major flaws:

procrastination, the inability to delay gratification, and the belief in the correctness of one’s point of view

They prescribed comedy as the solution and no doubt if we get a result today, we’ll all be laughing. But in the meantime, we’re a bag of nerves, too afraid to jinx the outcome by being confident, which may well come across to the rest of the world as indicative of our national insecurity. Freud has said that we’re the only race who cannot be helped by psychoanalysis and perhaps he has a point.

rugbyWe field an all-Ireland rugby team and so when playing at home, have two anthems – our National Anthem, Amhrain na bhFiann, as gaeilge (in Irish), and a Rugby anthem, Ireland’s Call. When playing away, we sing the latter only. And while both stir something in the cockles of this jaded heart, the Call awakens hope, kick-starts the prayers, and provides a modicum of fortitude for what lies ahead.

We’ve won our last ten games (FACT). We’re playing well (FACT). We have some of the greatest players in the world (FACT). All we need now is a little belief.

As to the mysteries of the Irish psyche …  they’ll have to wait until I’m less distracted. Go on the lads!

Old traditions die hard

I got a bit of a shock yesterday from which I’m only now recovering. I received a Christmas card, in the post, from Ireland. I did the usual and spent some time trying to see if I could recognise the writing, something that’s getting harder and harder to do as so few people actually use a pen to write any more. Then I checked the postmark but it wasn’t very helpful. And then finally I saw the stamp.


It cost one whole euro to send a Christmas card from Ireland to Hungary! €1. I was in shock. When did the price of postage get that high? Is it because so few people are using it that the costs have to be increased, spread as they are over a narrower base?

I’m not one for e-cards. I far prefer a real paper card, one that’s preferably made from recycled paper and supports some worthy charity or cause. I’m a great believer in cause-related marketing and I was genuinely excited when I found a shop  around the corner selling Hungarian UNICEF cards. I bought all they had.

ccBut €1 for postage!!! Then I thought back to last week, when I sent my REST OF WORLD Christmas mailing (i.e., everywhere but Europe) from Hungary. I rooted out the receipt and saw that I’d spent nearly 15 000 forints (nearly €50 / $60) mailing cards and packages and that the price of a stamp here is equivalent to about €1.80! I’d never noticed. Probably something to do with all the zeros.

When I go on holidays, I buy postcards and send to about 15 people scattered around the world. And I can distinctly remember coming out of a few post offices marvelling the cost of postage, but for some reason it is always associated with holiday spending in my mind and so never gives me any great cause for concern.

But the price of postage for Christmas cards? That’s different. I get few enough personal letters in the mail any more. It’s all window-envelope stuff – bills, flyers, junk. So I really look forward to my Christmas cards. The thoughts that people might stop sending them because of the prohibitive cost of postage has made me a tad nervous.

We’ve been sending Christmas cards since 1843, when Henry Cole and John Horsely got together and designed and sold the first ones for a shilling each. It’s a tradition that might be slowly dying out as more and more people choose to send electronic greetings. But it’s simply not the same. I’ll be one of those hanging in till the bitter end though, no matter the cost. Old traditions die hard indeed.


What you find when you go looking for cider vinegar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI travel. Quite a bit. And I’m no stranger to unusual ‘bring back’ requests, but this was the first time I’d been asked to bring back cider vinegar from Ireland. And not just Ireland, but from a specific market in Dublin. I could quite easily have said a) I couldn’t find it or b) I didn’t make it to that part of town or c) I couldn’t be arsed – but I didn’t. And I didn’t in part because I was curious to see where they were sending me. And also what they were sending me for. Llewellyn’s Cider Vinegar no less… I’d never heard of it. Among other things, apparently ‘cider vinegar has long been considered beneficial to horses, but it is only recently that scientific evidence has emerged that it seems to improve milk quality in milking cows.’ Imagine that.

It’s been quite a while since I had a Saturday morning to roam around Dublin – so long in fact that the place has changed immeasurably. The whole Temple Bar evolution passed me by as I (quite wrongly, as it turns out) felt that that part of town was strictly tourist territory, to be avoided at all costs.

My destination was the Temple Bar Food Market in Meeting House Square. Thankfully, I had a local guide as I’m not sure I was in possession of the faculties needed to find the place on my own, given that it was the morning after the night before. As we strolled through the cobblestoned streets, I had flashbacks to nights spent in Bad Bobs and the Oliver St John Gogarty.  I noted with surprise the diversity of shops and the distinct lack of twee-ness about their wares. Has the tourist tat been barred from the Bar?

IMG_4732 (800x600)IMG_4731 (600x800)The market itself was impressive. Lots of freshly baked breads and scones and cakes with fresh smoothies and even an oyster bar. I was impressed by the burgers and wishing I was on carb day. There was an international flavour to it all with French crepes and an Asian noodle bar which all sat nicely with the home-grown  fruit and veg (bloody massive turnips!) and the hand-turned cheeses. Yes, were I living in Dublin, I could well see myself dropping in here quite regularly on a Saturday morning to pick up a few things – including a bottle of cider vinegar! How ever did I live my life without it?

IMG_4737 (800x600)With time to spare before our brunch date (sounds posh but we were on the Southside and one simply must do as one does!) we ambled up to Cow’s Lane to the Designer Market  and again, I was impressed by the quality of what was on offer and the reasonable prices. Some of these Irish artists are quite clever! Had they taken credit cards, I could have done some damage. Does the cash-strapped purse so peculiar to the morning after the night before sound familiar?

The sign exhorting me to take a new look at the old city hit its mark. I was looking and I was impressed (how many times can I use that word in one blog?). On our way to Cow’s Lane, we passed an outdoor exhibition space – which really was just a fence with a load of posters on it. On closer inspection though, it gave me plenty to think about. The recent scandals in Ireland about the mother and baby homes was quite heart-breaking and seeing these old photos posterised (is that even a word?) drove it home. The homes and the Magdalen Laundries were a bleak part of Irish history.

IMG_4733 (800x600)IMG_4735 (800x600)It’s mission is to ‘dignify and return individuality to people who were victimised by harsh and unforgiving institutions’. It said that ‘Irish society also needs to take responsibility for the silence and the indifference which allowed such horrors to be perpetrated in plain sight in so many villages, towns  and cities throughout the country’. Sobering thoughts indeed for a Saturday. IMG_4739 (800x600)Seeing as we were up that way anyway, we detoured to see where Handel first performed his Messiah back in 1742 (did you know he composed it in just 24 days?). I had some vague recollection of seeing the organ on which he played many moons ago on a school tour but I didn’t remember walking down Fishamble Street. I felt some vague stirrings of pride that were  amplified when, some time later, I looked down to see a series of brass plaques in the ground commemorating some of our more famous writers. And to think I’d only come out looking for a bottle of vinegar!

IMG_4741 (800x600)I can highly recommend being a tourist in your home town – you never know what you might come across. So, next time I go to Ireland, who wants what? Now, be specific please…




I reconnected recently with someone I met when I first came to Hungary nearly 7 years ago. We had coffee, caught up, had a great natter. They came around to see my flat. They commented, in passing, that it was quite big. It is.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard that. It is a lot of space for one person. I have friends who have bigger flats but they also have partners and dogs and/or kids. I have a stuffed moose. I thought about it. Later. After my friend had left. And I noticed a pattern.

I lived in San Diego in a tiny studio apartment, so small that I could literally reach the kitchen sink from my bed. I didn’t need space then, because the beach was less than one hundred metres from my front door.

I lived in a Alaska in a one-roomed log cabin that had a single bed, a rocking chair, a recliner, and a table with four chairs. I didn’t need space then, because I had an unfenced wilderness on my doorstep.

I house-shared, flat-shared, and had roommates on and off for close on 20 years and back in those days, my room was all the space I needed because the world was outside just waiting to be discovered. It hasn’t gone anywhere – it’s still there – with parts still waiting to be discovered but I have grown.

Now I live in a city. A capital city. A city with 1.6 million people. And I need space. When I was searching for this space, the various estate agents helping me were aghast at my shopping list. I wanted at least four rooms plus a kitchen (flats here are advertised with number of rooms vs the one-bedroom/two-bedroom thing I see elsewhere). They repeatedly asked why. What for? Why would I want to pay the additional common cost (monthly payment made here for upkeep based on the size of the flat) on rooms I wouldn’t be using all the time? My explanation was both simple and confusing – I just needed space.

Yes, there are days when I live in my office  and my kitchen, only passing through the living room and never venturing into the spare room. But the space is there. The freedom to move around is there. I even chose my flat because the view from the front windows doesn’t look out onto another building but on to a perpendicular street that stretches quite a distance, which in and of itself creates an illusion of space.

If my front door opened out on to a forest or a beach or the naked countryside, I wouldn’t care how small a space it hid behind it. But it doesn’t. Edwin Way Teale (the Pulitzer-Prize-winning naturalist) reputedly said: Time and space – time to be alone, space to move about – these may well become the great scarcities of tomorrow. How right he was. For the estate agents, my space was a luxury; for me, it was a necessity.

Back in the seventeenth/eighteen centuries, Ireland had about 6000 stately homes – today about 600 are left. That was a different era. Today, if you drive around Ireland, taking the back roads, you’ll see one massive house after the next. During the boom, huge houses were built. Not quite stately homes, but houses with gated entrances and long avenues. I used to think that these were a chronic waste of space – who needs six bedrooms and three living rooms – but on reflection, perhaps their owners were simply marking our their space, too.

Dead, buried, but not forgotten

Someone told me a while back that people die twice. Once when they physically expire and again when their name is spoken for the last time. St Patrick has been dead for centuries and there’s little danger that he’ll ever be forgotten. St Patrick’s Day itself has become a global phenomenon that seems to gather strength each year and shows little sign of abating.

Being Irish, as I admitted earlier this week, doesn’t make you an expert on the man or his life. And this is particularly true in my case. It was only in December that I visited his grave for the first time – and what a shock it was to see that he’s not buried alone.
IMG_9473 (800x600)He lies in the grounds of the magnificent Down Cathedral in Downpatrick,   a Church of Ireland cathedral built in 1183 on the site of a Benedictine Monastery. When I realised it wasn’t a Catholic Cathedral I had to stop and question my belief that St Patrick was Catholic… just because he’s a saint.

Some say he wasn’t. but proving it, according to James Aiken in his article Was St Patrick Catholic ‘[…] is an impossible task, as Patrick was a Latin-speaking Roman noble, grandson of a Catholic priest, son of a minor official of the Roman empire, who had repeated private revelations, practiced penance, spent two decades as a monk, was ordained a priest and sent to serve on the papal mission to Ireland, was then ordained bishop by a papal representative, and had his fidelity to Catholic teaching specially confirmed by Pope Leo the Great (of whom the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon cried “Peter has spoken through Leo!”). He described himself as a Catholic, and a list of canons he drew up for the Irish church orders that any dispute not resolved on a local level was to be forwarded to Rome for decision.’ Enough said.

The reason I questioned it is that I’ve grown up hearing how St Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity – not that he made Catholics of us all. And I’m still none the wiser.

IMG_9468 (800x600)But back to him not being buried alone. Apparently there was a prophecy that he’d be buried with St Brigid and St Colomcille, a prophecy which, according the engraving, John De Courcy fulfilled in the twelfth century. Given that he supposedly died back in the fifth century, I’m left wondering where he was in the meantime. In fact, the more I read, the more confused I get. There is even a theory of two Patricks!

IMG_9467 (800x600)Whoever he was or wasn’t, whatever he did or didn’t do, what St Patrick is doing today is what’s important for me. There an immense pride to be taken in being Irish (or there was, before the progeny of the Celtic Tiger years began to worry the threads of the Irish reputation abroad). For me, to see Irishness celebrated around the world is an amazing thing. I used to think it was cheesy and a little naff, but since coming to Budapest and being involved in the revelry and seeing the genuine affinity Hungarians have for all things Irish, it’s nearly enough to bring a tear to this occasionally jaundiced eye.

For more details of what’s happening, check out the Irish Embassy’s Facebook page (and like it while you’re at it) or see the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s website for a calendar of events.







Patrick’s barn

Given the time of year that’s in it, and given the fact that I’ve had more than my fair share of drugs this past week, I’m in a particularly confessional-like mood. [I know now that I can cross secret agent off my list of mid-life-crisis-driven career changes – stick a drip in me and I’ll tell you anything you want to know. I just don’t have the patience to be a good patient.] It’s not often that I’d admit to this level of ignorance but blame it on this week and the week that’s in it.

The lead-up to St Patrick’s Day is always fraught with anxiety for me – Will the Gift of the Gab final sell out? Will the speakers show? Will the judges do right by them? Will Ireland take the Six Nations? Will it rain on the parade?  This year, thankfully, I can cross ignorance off my list of niggles. I used to dread being asked about St Patrick  and would pall at the thoughts of being presumed an expert by virtue of the fact that I was Irish. I’m sure I’ve made up my fair share of stories about the man in my day, stories that are now being repeated as fact around the world. [Well, she was IRISH you know… she must have been telling the truth.] In truth, my knowledge was limited to shamrocks and the Holy Trinity and casting snakes out of Ireland.

IMG_9420 (800x600)Late last year, thanks to a serendipitous combination of invitation, situation, and cooperation, I found myself in Co. Down, sitting in a church that was built on the very site that St Patrick is said to have died. As I listened to the unfamiliar hymns and anxiously wondered when I should sit, stand, and kneel, I reminded myself that there was a time in Ireland when, as  a Roman Catholic, I would have had to seek permission from the Bishop to enter this church. Thank God we’ve seen the light.

The name Saul comes from the gaelic Sabhall Phádraig, which literally translates to Patrick’s barn. Here, in this particular corner of Northern Ireland, about  two miles east of Downpatrick, was where St Patrick is said to have built his first church. Way back in 432, when his boat was swept ashore where the River Slaney enters Strangford Lough, he was met by the local chieftan. Such were Patrick’s powers of persuasion, that Dichu, the chieftan, was converted to Christianity as soon as he could say Amen. And, as a new convert, bestowed on Patrick  a barn at Saul from which he could preach. Legend has it that it was in Saul, on 17 March back in 461 that Patrick died.

IMG_9454 (800x595) (800x595)IMG_9448 (600x800)The beautiful stone church that stands there today, complete with a replica round tower, is a place that begs quiet contemplation.

Its simplicity was a stark reminder of when Christianity first came to Ireland and the limits St Patrick faced in his drive to convert the nation. No fancy churches or ornate walls. No gold-leaf trim or brass candlesticks. No priceless works of art. Nothing but  a barn.

IMG_9439 (600x800)I was a tad surprised to find how peaceful it was to be in a church where nothing competed for my attention. Stone walls and a single stained glass window were the height of the decoration, apart from the Christmas holly and such that sat quietly on the window sills. Perhaps because the congregation was so small in comparison to the city churches I’m used to, or perhaps because this particular congregation was so welcoming, it was the first time in a long time that I actually recognised the embodiment of Christianity. I’m sure the parishioners of Saul are far from perfect; they are human after all. Yet there was something very special about it all.

IMG_9434 (600x800)After the christening, we wandered the grounds, looked out over the hills and mountains in the distance. Close by, on Slieve Patrick,  the giant statue of St Patrick beckoned but we didn’t have the footwear (or the inclination, if truth be told) to go see the bronze plaques that bear testimony to his life in Ireland.

In the shadow of the church, a number of aged gravestones told the stories of those who, like Patrick, also died away from home. Old stone ruins stood in silent memory of times gone by. No matter their religion, I doubt anyone couldn’t help but feel the sanctity of the place. IMG_9463 (800x600)A little abashed at the fact that despite being Irish through and through, I had never heard of Saul before the invitation came to Finn’s christening, I decided to follow the trail and visit Downpatrick to say a quick one by St Patrick’s grave. [I was blessed that I was in the company of a very patient compatriot who shared my curiosity – graveyards aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.] But more about that later.

2014 Grateful 45

As I write, I’m multitasking. I’m sitting watching Ireland take on England in Twickenham in the 2014 Six Nations. The triple crown is at stake. We’ve already put paid to Scotland and Wales. And we’re also the only remaining unbeaten side in this year’s competition between these six rugby-playing nations: Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, and Italy and so have a shot of the grand slam.

I’m multitasking in an effort to distract myself. I’m like a hen on a hot griddle. I can’t sit still. . I’ve already cried my way through the brief retrospective of some great rugby moments in Irish history and feel for Brian O’Driscoll as he starts what will be his last game at Twickenham. I so want them to win.

The age-old rivalry between the two countries shows no signs of abating. The history of Irish rugby –  from its origins in Trinity College to its famous grand slam win of 1948, to Munster beating the All Blacks in Thomond Park – makes for interesting reading. And today, more than ever, we want our boys to win. I want them to win so that BOD will get his due.

I’m a huge fan of Brian O’Driscoll. Today he joins Australia’s George Gregan as the most capped international player in history as he gets his 139th cap. His records don’t stop at this. He’s also the highest try scorer of all time in Irish Rugby. He is the 8th-highest try scorer in rugby union history, and the highest scoring centre of all time. And he holds the Six Nations record for most tries scored and has scored the most Heineken Cup tries (30) for an Irishman. And he’s only 35. One wonders what’s left for him to do.

My knowledge of the rules of rugby is scant. I’ve only just noticed that they’ve changed the calls again and that scrums are now crouching, binding, and setting. I miss the whole engaging thing. I can’t keep up with the rules but this certainly doesn’t take from my enjoyment of the sport, given that when watching I spend a lot of time with my head in my hands or my eyes squeezed shut. It’s half-time and the Irish lads are no doubt in the dressing room getting a bollicking from captain Paul O’Connell as they face the second half three points down to England. We’re struggling. But as the inimitable George Hook has just said – no match is won at half-time. There is time.

But back to BOD. I wonder at our need for heroes. I wonder at our need for role models, for mentors, for people to inspire is to keep going. Ralph Waldo Emerson reckoned that the youth, intoxicated with his admiration of a hero, fails to see, that it is only a projection of his own soul, which he admires.  I quite like this take and wonder what I see in BOD that’s a projection of my own soul. It’s certainly not purity. When England went for their second penalty and I prayed that they’d miss (hardly a Christian thing to do) – and it bounced off the post – prayer answered.

Felix Alder, founder of the Ethical Movement, reckons the hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for men to see by. And BOD’s success has certainly done that for Ireland. He’s not alone. He’s been in good company but he has that certain something that makes him unique. A mulish obstinacy some say – and yes, that I can certainly identify with.

The sage of Potato Hill, American essayist Edgar Watson Howe, said: A boy doesn’t have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn’t like pie when he sees there isn’t enough to go around. I can relate to this – it’s not all about drama and being centre stage. And I reckon that BOD does far more for the country than we see or will ever know. It’s that quiet self-effacement that makes him so appealing.

So no matter the result – and there’s about 10 minutes to go – this week I’m grateful for heroes of the calibre of Brian O’Driscoll. For the pride they engender and the hope they inspire. The world would be a much duller place without them.