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 41

‘Ask the Pope to say a prayer for us.’ So went the Viber message I received earlier this evening from a Hungarian friend of mine (a Leinster supporter) who was chomping at the bit while watching the lads attempt to nail the Six Nations. She was sitting in a bar in Budapest. I was on the streets of Naples. She was watching Paul O’Connell. I was watching the Pope. I asked. He obliged. The rest is history.

We’d arrived in Naples anxious to find a pub to watch the match ourselves. I enquired at the information desk at the airport as to where might we go to watch the rubgy today.

Que? What rugby? There is no rugby in Naples. Just football.

A sharp reminder of provincial Italy at its best. I told the duo on the desk that Italy was playing, too. But to no avail. So we tossed caution to the wind and got a taxi, willing to pay ten times the bus fare to get into the city as soon as possible.

IMG_6035 (800x600)En route we  encountered a problem. The city was closed. The Pope was here visiting for the day. Security was heightened, as last year, apparently, he had excommunicated some Mafia heads. And Naples is a serious Mafia city. I didn’t know that…

But then, this morning, when I was leaving for the airport, I ran into my neighbour. He asked (in Hungarian) where I was going. I said France.
Lovely, says he. Paris?
No, Naples, says I.
That’s in Italy, Mary, says he.
I knew that… I did.

IMG_6036 (800x600)Any, back to the Pope. We had to detour. And detour. And then the detours ran out of detours and we had to walk. Fortunately for us, our hotel was in same direction as the route the popemobile was taking. The streets were lined with people waving €1 flags. Toddlers and teens. Three, four generations, all waiting patiently for a glimpse of the man. They might have been waiting for hours. We waited some 15 minutes.  Just to see. And we saw. Himself. In all his glory.

pope (800x577)It was all over in a flash. He had passed by, to the cheers of an adoring crowd, when I realised that I hadn’t actually seen him at all. I’d been too busy trying to get a photo. Other than a vague notion that he was wearing white, I couldn’t have told you what he looked like. I had no feel for him. I’d missed the essence. And I was so annoyed with myself.

IMG_6050 (600x800)The crowd, en masse, turned to their phones to see if they, too, had managed to capture him in photo or on video. Some were delighted; others not so impressed. Some older people who had come to see the man rather than capture the moment had smiles on their faces and some looked a tad moved. It was then that I  remembered a Venetian travel writer saying that to see Venice you need to leave your camera at home. He had a point. I’d missed him. And I might never get to see him again.

IMG_6043 (800x600)As the popemobile turned the corner, we continued our climb to the hotel, following in its wake. But the crowds weren’t moving. We stopped to ask why. He was going to a church at the top of the hill and would be back this way again, in 20 minutes. We walked on and happened upon the very church he was in. This was my second chance.

This time, when he came out of the church and got into this popemobile, I looked through the maze of extended arms brandishing iPhones and camera and looked at the man. As he passed by, I saw him – the head of the church to which I belong – and a man who is doing so much to return that church to the people. Today he visited Poggio Reale – a prison that holds nearly twice the number of people it was built to hold. Of the 2500 inmates, 90 got to have lunch with him – including transexuals, homosexuals, and those with AIDS. I bet that’s something not many of them ever imagined doing. [I wonder how they were chosen? Was it a lottery?] I bet they’re grateful for the change of pace that this particular Saturday brought with it.

This week, I’m grateful, too. For the unexpected. For those unplanned moments. For those unanticipated meetings. And for the potential they can hold. I saw Pope John Paul II back in 1970s Ireland but I was miles away from him. Today, I stood within 15 feet of Pope Francis. That day had been planned and anticipated for months. Today was a complete surprise. I wonder if there’s a lesson for me there.







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!

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.




Grateful 43

It was February 2002. I had just returned from the States and was living in Ireland. It was Six Nations time and Scotland was travelling to play Ireland in Dublin. For those who have experienced this weekend firsthand, there is nothing quite like it. All over the city, after the match, hoards of kilted Scotsmen make their merry way through the gauntlets of jersey-clad Irish women. In dark corners of pubs, you’ll see a gorgeous Scot, eyes shut as he listens to a homely Irish girl blather on about the match, or a gorgeous Irish girl, eyes similarly shut, as she listens to the Scot with a face like the back of a bus, give his opinion of what his lads should or should not have done during the 80-minute on-pitch battle. You see, there is a unique mutual fascination with accents, with each thinking the other’s accent to be one of the sexiest on Earth.

I had been to a rugby match years before when I was dating a chap from the Southside. I wasn’t overly impressed to see these Dublin 4 women painting their nails in the stands as their boys gave their all on the pitch. It was way too poseurish, way too posh for me who had thrown her heart at Jack Charlton and his soccer eleven. But that was 1990. This was 2002. I didn’t have a ticket for the match so I watched it in Northbrook, all the while being coached by my mates so that later I’d be able to hold my own in the pub post-mortems.

We were in Dublin’s smallest pub – the Dawson Lounge – and got into conversation with some Irish lads – D4 heads who had been to the ‘Rock (Blackrock college). I was doing alright, nodding in agreement as they commented on the tries and the whatnots and making all the right noises as they picked the match apart and the players likewise. Then it came time for me to show my colours and ask a question. (To those who say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, I say: you’re wrong!) So, says I, what’s the stringer’s name?

I actually heard a pin drop in the ensuing – shocked – silence. I had thought a ‘stringer’ was some sort of position  – like a hooker, a prop, a flanker.  I hope Peter Stringer never gets to hear of my mistake. It’s haunted me ever since and is regularly pulled out in company to show just how stupid I can really be.

As I said, that was in 2002. Since then, I’ve looked forward to spring time when the Six Nations starts again. I’ve waited anxiously for the Autumn Internationals. I’ve drank manys a sodawater and cranberry or bottle of Bulmers/Magners while shouting at the screen urging my lads on. I’ve drooled over Keith Wood and cried the day he announced his retirement. (To my mind, he’s one of the sexiest men ever to come out of Ireland.) I still don’t know all the rules and I still blag my way through a lot of the half-time and post-match commentary but I enjoy it immensely. I enjoy the escapasim, the patriotism, the unionism (is there such a word?) that comes with a nation united for a couple of hours with one shared aspiration – to do their best on the day. Unlike soccer, it’s not the final score that matters so much; rather it’s the quality of the game, the standard of the players, and the heart that they show.

I’ve been to some memorable matches; I’ve met some great people while bellied up to the bar in pubs  in various corners of the world. I’ve even had a pub open especially for me (in Transylvania) just so that I wouldn’t miss a World Cup match). Some great friendships are rooted in a rubgy match: every year I swap anniversary greetings with a mate of mine that I met during an Ireland/France game in a pub in Budapest and ten years after the Ireland/Scotland game of 2002, I’m still talking rugby with a Welsh mate in Scotland (bloody Wales!!!).

This week, having just seen Ireland give their all against Scotland, I’m grateful for the game of rugby – for the teams, the players, the fans, and the pubs that open around the world to make sure everyone gets a chance to see their boys in action. Whether it came from the Irish tradition of Caid  or the Welsh tradition of Cnapan or the French La Soule, there’s something special about its universality.

Tears for the Irish

March is one of my favourite months of the year. It has everything I could hope for by way of entertainment: great rugby as the Six Nations tournament continues, great speeches as the final of the Gift of the Gab draws near (Orfeum, March 14), and the St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest (March 17). It’s a great month to be Irish in Budapest.

Now I’m on record as having little time for the type of expat who surrounds themselves with people from home; the type whose main aim in life is to recreate a mini-Ireland, a mini-England or a mini-wherever, in whatever city they expatriate themselves to. I’m all for moving abroad and embracing the culture of your new country – for however long you might stay. Travel broadens the mind; living amidst the locals gives you a new perspective and very often causes you to question long held and perhaps outmoded beliefs. I’m not for a minute suggesting that we all forget whence we came. But if we take advantage of our newness to ask questions, read up on the history, make an effort to learn the language, and generally mingle with the masses, it’s surprising how many links to home will appear unbidden.

The Hungarian connection

A couple of matches ago (this is how my time is measured in March) I was sitting in Jack Doyle’s delighted with Ireland’s solid win over Italy. I was in the company of two of the most intrepid expats I’ve come across in years. Their curiosity knows no bounds and their eagerness to make the most of their time in Budapest is a stark reminder of how quickly many of us start to take this city for granted. They’d just come back from Győr and asked me if I was aware of the Irish link with the city. I was a little taken aback to find that I didn’t know and a little embarrassed to think that I’ve yet to take the time to stop in the city and not simply train my way through it.

From Galway to Győr

(C) Des Nix

The story starts in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell was busy persecuting Catholics in Ireland. Priests and nuns were hunted down without mercy; many were executed for practicing their religion. The then Bishop of Clonfert, Walter Lynch, one step ahead of Cromwell, fled first to Galway and then to Inishboffin Island from where he was smuggled out of the country to Belgium. With him, he brought a painting of Our Lady praying over the sleeping infant Jesus. Some years later, in 1655, he ended up in Vienna where he met the Bishop of Győr, János Pusky, who offered him as job as pastor of the Cathedral and later appointed him Auxiliary Bishop.

Exit Cromwell; enter Charles II

Just as Bishop Lynch had decided he could end his exile and return safely to Ireland, he died unexpectedly in 1663. In his will, he bequeathed his treasured painting to the city as a thank you for giving him a home. The painting hung without incident for 34 years in the cathedral at Győr. Many came to venerate, sure that Our Lady had interceded on their behalf ensuring victories over the Turks. But while Hungary was enjoying its newfound peace in 1697, Catholicism in Ireland was once again under threat.

On March 16, 1697, the Irish Parliament in Dublin convened. The first order of business was to consider and vote upon the passage of the Banishment Act to rid the country of all bishops, priests, and religious from Ireland. Drastic times, drastic measures.

One day later, on St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1697, a miracle occurred in Győr. The Madonna in Walter Lynch’s painting began to cry tears of blood. Witnesses from many different religious denominations failed to provide an explanation. Word got out and thousands flocked to see the Weeping Madonna, many leaving their signatures as testament to what they had seen. The linen cloth used to dry the Madonna’s tears is now on display alongside her image.

Irish-Hungarian links

In 1997, to mark the 300-year anniversary of the Madonna’s tears of anguish, the Bishop of Clonfert John Kirby visited Győr. He had this to say: The kindness shown to Bishop Walter Lynch has led to an unusual link between the small Irish rural diocese of Clonfert and the large Hungarian diocese of Győr […] It has shown us the value of friendship and the way that the consideration shown to a refugee can deepen the understanding between peoples who might otherwise never have known each other.

When I think of all the great people, both Irish and Hungarian, whom I never would have met had I not taken that train to Budapest in 2007, I could shed a tear or two myself.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 March 2012