A Visit from Cousin Joe


Joe Biden in Ireland

Cynicism.  It is often scorned and derided in what is, ironically, an act of cynicism. But cynicism is underrated. It’s an alternative path to simply giving up. A reason to stay engaged. A calice developed to protect against disappointment. But sometimes, something will happen to disappoint the cynic inside. And I’ve forgotten the name of the feeling that comes over me when my cynic is silenced.

Joe Biden is in Ireland. My home town. I’d say home-country, but it’s pretty small. He is here on a four day trip, ostensibly to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a quietly remarkable piece of paper that has managed to keep extremists from shooting for a quarter of a century. It needs a push to stay alive and that’s one of the reasons that Air Force One touches down on Irish soil in the middle of a rain-sodden April. 

The real reason Cousin Joe is here, I’ve decided, is to have a photo op with what seem to be the hundreds of thousands of cousins he’s traced here. Hard working, salt of the earth men and women that are delighted to find that they’re related to this US President and quietly relieved that they’re not related to the other mad fellah. They get their picture taken with him. Their kids, juxtaposed between tooth loss and freckle gain, get their picture taken with him. His dog, the one who bites people, is probably related to our dogs; dogs get their picture taken with him. 

Ireland is a photo op. Cousin Joe is touring his way across the country posing in a million photos that we will post on our facebook and instagram accounts. Our American cousins will see the posing. And they might just vote for Cousin Joe in the next election. Cousin Joe is a politician, after all. My inner cynic has spoken.

Ireland has had a long love affair with US presidential visits. Obama came here to discover the missing apostrophe in his surname. Clinton came to play a round of golf and they built an honest-to-God statue of him playing golf. Reagan came and had a pint in Ballyporeen. Later, the entire pub was bought and transported to the Reagan Presidential Library. And then there was Kennedy. He came and we swooned. My father used to tell me that the cathedral in Dublin had two photographs framed on the wall; one of the Pope and one of JFK, two rivals for the title of Catholic-in-Chief. 

Cousin Joe is going to Ballina in County Mayo, where his ancestors came from. And he’s going to give a speech in front of St. Murdoch’s Cathedral, no doubt hoping that our American cousins will see him posed with a cathedral and think that he’s a safer vote than whatever heathen he’s up against in the election. 

This I can’t miss. He is due to speak at nine. I jump into my car and drive four hours across to Ballina, on the Irish west coast. My cynic wants to be there. Assess the size of the required cynical response in person.


The queue is long. Very long. The first security screening queue I join seems to be about a kilometer long. I join another one, a mere pup of a queue at four hundred meters. The woman in front of me in the queue is talking to a much, much older gentleman about the problems with ‘getting me tubes tied’. The couple behind me are convinced that every bus or fancy car that passes the queue is either the man himself or a ‘decoy’. They are clearly missing the point about Cousin Joe: his greatest political skill has always been to be his own decoy. There is an announcement – no drinks, no food, no vaping. Have your pockets emptied. A man about three people in front of me is holding a full pint of guinness. He seems worried, looks from side to side and, rather than let a good pint do to waste, quaffs it down in three unenjoyable swallows. His partner takes the glass from him and places it by the kerb. “Be sure to check your pockets for shite, now”, she says. “Get all of that shite out of your pockets.” He fumbles some nondescript materials from his pockets onto the road before they reach the head of the line.

Soon it is my turn.  I reach the tent where security searches are being conducted. A man, perhaps 25 years old in body but with an age decreed by the US constitution grabs me by the shoulder and leans in to my ear. “Sir – your fly is unzipped.” He did it discreetly. He must be Secret Service.

I make my way to the banks of the River Moy and its low stone walls. Across the river is the Cathedral. The stage is prepped. There are thousands of people filing in. It is only 6pm – another three hours to go to Cousin Joe. In a blatant act of socialism, free American and Irish flags are being handed out. People are elbow wrestling to get a good spot to hear the speech. The air smells faintly of cheap hamburgers with a soupçon of greasy chips smothered in curry sauce; the scentscape of a good Irish day out. 

I ramble around the quays. Ballina isn’t a Disney-Ireland town. It is a town that is a survivor. It has a character that tells you it has survived for the last three hundred years because it has chosen to. It has survived wars, famines, recessions and emigrations. But it perseveres. The river Moy tears angrily through the town on its way to the nearby Atlantic Ocean. This is the 300th anniversary of Ballina being incorporated as a town. That sounds old. But it is only 3.75 Biden units. 


Music is playing. First The Academic, then the unfortunately-titled but always entertaining Coronas. The Ballina rain pours, the harsh cold wind pings the droplets hard against my skin. But everyone is in a decent mood. They know why they’re here. They know that they’re a giant photo op. But it’s not every day that the Roman Emperor comes through your town. I was in Dublin for the Obama speech back in 2011. It was very memorable, but precisely what we all expected. He talked about his Irish ancestors with a glint in his eye that said he knew it all to be hocum. But he never broke character. He said some words in Irish and we all felt better about ourselves that he had noticed us. I expect the people of Ballina know what’s coming.

The first hint that the evening may be extra-twee comes during the Corona’s last song. As they sing, the rain stops, the clouds break and a double rainbow appears, perfectly framing the set with the cathedral right in the middle. A thousand cameras are foisted upwards to honour the weather gods. “A feckin’ double rainbow,” I hear a woman beside me say to her young son. “The Yanks will lap that up.”

Soon, former Irish President Mary Robinson takes the stage. She is from Ballina. The stage is directly across the river from her childhood bedroom in what is now the Mary Robinson Centre. The crowd is feeling pretty good since the double rainbow appeared. Mary Robinson tells the crowd that she wants to read them a poem – The Emigrant Irish – by Eavan Boland. Ah Jaysus, I think to myself. Don’t read them a poem. They’ll hate it. I know this because of my own failed poetry attempts. It’s hard to win a crowd of thirty over with a poem. But a crowd of thirty-thousand?

“Like oil lamps,” she begins, “we put them out the back/of our houses, of our minds. We had lights better than, newer than and then/a time came, this time and now/we need them.”

A hush fell over the crowd. A genuine hush. There was a complete silence. People were listening to the poem and throwing the sugar at it that it deserved. My inner cynic is rattled at this revelation, that an Irish crowd will still give a steady ear to a careful poem. 


It is after eight. There is still no sign of Cousin Joe. The crowd is in good spirits, however, and the burger vans are doing a roaring trade. To keep the audience in a good mood, the surviving members of the Chieftains reunite to do one last set. And they are good. Very good. I hear a group of twenty-somethings standing near me describe each tune as ‘A banger’. They’re not wrong.

The rain falls again, drenching us all for just long enough to make us wet. But the crowd doesn’t care. It has stood here for three hours, drenched, cold, windswept, and beaten into submission. As I stand around looking at thousands of Irish people clapping their hands and stomping their feet to Tuair dom do Lamh, my inner cynic has an epiphany. Leo Varadkar, our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) had promised Cousin Joe that crowds of Irish people would come out to see him. Crowds had, indeed, come. But the hours of brutal weathering had finally cracked open our 21st century carapaces and revealed the clapping, stomping come-all-ye hootenanny Irish beneath. That’s why Cousin Joe is taking so long. The Ballina weather needed a few hours to draw out our inner Paddy. A Varadkarian master plan. Now – finally – after ten – with the sun having set, with the cathedral lit up like a rare Irish summer, with the crowds more Irish than a freckled potato – on he comes – Cousin Joe – to a backdrop of white lasers filling the sky like a 1950s movie about the Resurrection. Saint Patrick may be the Patron Saint of Ireland, but here, revealed in front of us, is Cousin Joe – the Patron Saint of Being Irish. Although my inner cynic knows what’s really going on here, I enjoy the spectacle none the less. A president is a great fairground attraction, after all.

Cousin Joe takes to the podium and starts to speak. He speaks about his Ballina ancestors, the Blewitts. He talks about how they worked in the quarry that delivered the stone to build the cathedral behind him. He talks about Irish history. He talks about JFK. He talks about the role of peace in a modern world. And he reflects on how unlikely it is that he, the descendent of a family from Ballina, would be the inheritor and inhabitor of the greatest office on the planet. Cousin Joe, a local boy done well, returning to his homeland in Ballina to see if people were proud of him.

I wait for the glint. I wait for the knowing  wink that says ‘I know that none of this is real and I’m only here for a photo op – but play along with me, because you’ll get a photo op too.”

…but it doesn’t come. I look around. The locals are responding in a way that I hadn’t expected. They aren’t frenzied. They aren’t winking. They are, instead, nodding back to say ‘Well done, Joe. You’ve done us proud.” Suddenly, it dawns in me: I am the only lonely cynic here.

There may be a photo op. There may be political overtones to the visit. But that’s not why Joe Biden has spent four days in Ireland. He is here because he wants to be and because we want him to be. He is is a descendent of immigrants from this place – people that had left over a hundred years ago – but that never forgot where they came from. Cousin Joe is here to tell them that it worked out. You may fall down on your luck. You may come from a place that has wars, famines, poverty. It’s not easy, but you can start again. Sometimes it might even take a few generations to get back on your feet. But don’t give up. 

My inner cynic is disappointed. Cousin Joe, it turns out, may be a human behind that political curtain after all. Knowing this makes me feel … I’ve forgotten what it’s called. But it’s not cynicism. 

The double rainbow: A common feature of US presidential visits

The Trumpulous Trump


fullsizerenderSo Donald Trump is about to be sworn in as President. Fancy that. Here’s a children’s poem I’ve written about him.

Trumpulous Trump


Have you heard of the trumpulous trump?

Replete with its trumpulous hair?

And using its trumpulous language

With trumpulous words formed to scare?


It lives in a trumpulous building

With a trumpulous solid gold door

With trumpulous gold on the ceilings

And trumpulous rugs on the floor.


And he’s building a trumpulous border

To trumple on drugs, crime and guns.

‘Cos while good fences make for good neighbours,

Great walls make for trumpulous ones.


The trumpulous Trump is doesn’t judge you –

Doesn’t care if your decisions are rash.

Your trumpulous poverty doesn’t matter as much

As the amount of your trumpulous cash.


Now, if you’re not a trumpulous woman,

He won’t understand what you’re at.

He might treat you in a trumpulous fashion

Or grab on to your trumpulous cat.


So resistance is trumpulously futile

As is obstruction and subterfuge,

Because the trumpulous Trump is in charge now

And the trumpulous future is Huge.


So prepare for your rights to be trumpled,

And for respect to end up on the floor,

And for waves of kids in trumpulous wigs

When you open the Halloween door.


But don’t despair of this trumpulous era –

Or get lost in the trumpulous maze –

Because the world may only be trumpulous

For fourteen hundred and sixty one days.

Franken-bracket (aka Mary Shelley’s Nightmare)


A Short Story




Howya Sis-

Drove to the Northside today – to finally see The Great Furniture Shop for myself. Saw the craziest thing in the carpark. A man – couldn’t tell if he looked either in desperate need of a drink or in desperate need to stop – pushing a trolley thing on the path outside the shop. On the trolley was the biggest feckin’ set of shelves I’ve ever seen. I have no idea how far he’d pushed them – but they were a monster of a thing. He was struggling – exhausted like – he just keeled over when I was looking at him. A couple of us stopped to see if he was alright. I bought him some meatballs and, eventually, he came around a bit and started talking a bit. Went on a lot about how he’d ‘lost everything’. He then told me a story – a crazy story. I tried to make him feel better – was going to tell him that he still had his health – but changed mid-sentence after looking at him again. I ended up saying “You still have your … shelves”. Bad idea. “Where are they!” he shouted like a maniac. I pointed out the window to where they were … but they were gone. Probably taken by some of the local kids for a bonfire or something. But yer man just slowly stood up – still looking out the window – and said “I go to seek the shelves that fled from me.” Two lads at the next table had been listening and started laughing at him to themselves. But then he was gone.

Anyway – that was my day. How are you? Did they get all of the tumor?

Chat soon,



Nodin Orbis was was by birth a Dubliner but by Zodiac sign and an accident of birth both a Leo and a Pisces. His parents were wealthy to the point of financial paralysis and couldn’t pay for his education or upbringing. They did the next best thing and sent him off to be raised by an old woman who had a donkey they were rather fond of because of his name (which they had forgotten). The old woman didn’t have much in the way of possessions and Nodin slept in a drawer until he was eighteen years old – though much of that was broken up into nightly instalments.

When Nodin was of age, he sallied into the world (mainly forth) to seek his fortune, not remembering where he had left it. His parents had died – mainly from fatalities – but had willed to him enough money for him to buy a penthouse suite in Manhattan – which equated, in boom-time Dublin, to enough money for a one bedroom bedsit in Rathmines – and their old furniture – filled, as it was, with memories and loose change – which, when found, became memories of loose change.

Nodin’s bedsit was rather simple by design and complicated in its simplicity. He had inherited his parent’s bed and, once they had been removed from it, it had proved quite comfortable. Beside the small kitchenette was his parent’s old kitchen table – which held many fond memories for him (he and the table had twice visited the circus together). But comfortable though the bedsit was, it lacked proper storage.

Nodin, having grown up sleeping in a drawer, had harboured dreams of inheriting the drawer unit from the old woman when she died. Unfortunately, however, he wanted nothing to do with it when he discovered she had been keeping the donkey inside the drawers. He just didn’t want to have to pull an old woman’s ass out of her drawers.

But what would he do? There was a space that cried out for … for something. Shelves. A drawer unit. Even a china cabinet. Nodin looked high and low for the right piece of furniture to augment and complete his bedsit and, by extension, his life. But he couldn’t find what he was looking for. The more he looked and the less he found, the more frustrated he became. What started one day as a doodle on the kitchen table (the drawing, hygienic kind) morphed into a rudimentary plan for a storage unit. Soon, there were plans strewn all across his table. He became obsessed. By night he’d draw and by day he’d also draw. He began to look in shops to find a unit that matched his plans, but nowhere lived up to his expectations. Chauffeured to near madness, Nodin hatched upon a plan that to a normal human would seem vile and repugnant – but, to the insanity porridge he now called a brain, seemed perfectly normal: He would buy several sets of shelves and hack them together into the ultimate storage leviathan. “I’ll build my own!”, he declared with all the excitement of a freshly barked dog realising that barking is repeatable.


In the dark of night, people passing on the footpath below the bedsit window could see a dim light illuminating the shades. Occasionally, the shadow of a man could be glimpsed – moving – hauling geometric shapes – working. Those who lived in the building could hear things – grim sawings – purposeful hammerings – the resonant scrape of heavy furniture dragged unwillingly across a wooden floor. Many thought he must be building something in there – especially since the sign on his door said “I’m building something in here”.  What was he up to? For three weeks, Nodin remained inside his bedsit without setting a foot outside. Hands occasionally. Head strangely often. But never a foot. His beard had grown long – especially since he had outsourced its growing to a local Mufti. He now received regular photos of its progress and felt somehow manlier.

And then Nodin’s hammer fell silent. He had finished. His eyes fixed upon the grotesque form standing in the middle of his floor. “Storage,” he whispered. “I have storage”. His heart swelled with pride and excessive cholesterol.

The piece of furniture consisted of elements of fifteen different shelving units. A main trunk – originally a pine-laminate book-case – provided seven shelves. A smaller set of display shelves – yellow – were fixed on at the side at the top and at an angle. The base was once an elegant white shoe rack – not quite as wide as the book case – but wide enough for a three foot shoe and a pair of side-stacked flip flops. Affixed to the other side was a long thin red unit designed for a child’s bedroom. And on the back, a funky retro orange shelf unit that didn’t look sturdy enough to store anything heavier than a gentleman’s watch or maybe some pilchards. Some pieces had been put together with hands that were clearly expertised in something else. Other pieces had been sewn roughly together in the manner that an unskilled blacksmith might sew a pigskin football to a miniature schnauzer.

But it was missing something. It didn’t look … lively enough. Nodin took out a small paint brush, stencils and some decals. A Fleur de Lis decal made it look elegant, he thought – but not yet there. He painted on some red go-faster stripes onto the main book case. Better. And then he had a flash of brilliance. Working with the tiny paint brush and yellow glitter paint, Nodin painted on a prominent (though off centre) lightning bolt that any five year old double amputee would be proud of. He stepped back and, with drama and aplomb, threw his arms into the air. “It’s Alive!”


The unit was so monstrous in size that it dominated his entire bedsit. Nodin attempted to move it into position into the space he had left – but it was too big. In order to keep it, he’d have to leave it where it was in the centre of the room.

The first problem that Nodin noticed was the complete lack of floor space. If he wanted to keep his shelves, he would have to get rid of something else. Nodin realised that the table would have to go. With tears in his eyes, Nodin moved the table down to a skip in the car park – a tangible link to his childhood scrapped harder than a Minnesotan at scrap-book camp. Although proud of his storage achievement, Nodin felt his first pang of regret as he ascended the stairs back to the bedsit.

That night, Nodin could not sleep. Despite the removal of the table, the room still felt crowded. The bed, thought Nodin. If I want to keep the unit, I’ll need to get rid of my only other piece of furniture.

The next morning, as Nodin binned the last vestige of his childhood, he felt a part of his soul atrophy. Was it worth it?

Nodin returned to the bedsit and sat on the floor staring up at the unit (he was staring – not the floor). But no – Nodin was sure that the tough choices he had made – sacrificing his family for the gift of storage – had been worth it.

Nodin collected his shelvable possessions – mainly copy books filled with his storage design plans, a pair of flip flops and a three foot shoe – and began to stack. When everything had been placed, however, he noticed something. Something dreadful. The unit didn’t work well as a shelving unit.

The books would not stand up and kept falling over. The giant shoe looked out of place. The flip flops flopped. Nodin fell to his knees.

“What have I done!” he cried. “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.” He now saw the unit with fresh eyes, the eye delivery man having just made his usual Thursday rounds. Where once he saw beauty Nodin now saw disfigurement. Where once he saw functionality he now saw flaw. And where once he saw something he loved he now saw something as unwelcome as a haemorrhoid plume lost in a blueberry factory.

A broken man, Nodin sat in his lonely, family-less room and watched the imaginary vultures of despondency circle and swoop to eat his discarded rodents of happiness.


For days, Nodin lay about in misery and pyjamas – his life a bad combination of ruined and over. He stared up at the monster – his only possession. It looked to out of place. It matched nothing…matched nothing thought Nodin. It matched nothing. The cogs of Nodin’s brain turned like a slow mule train on a rusty Ferris-wheel. It matched nothing he thought again. I must create something that will match it – to complete both its life and mine. I must create another unit of equal malformation. To make the world balance. A yin for its yang. A Bonnie for its Clyde. A Banana Slug for its Banana Slug.

With heavy heart and heavier lungs, Nodin returned to The Great Furniture Shop and purchased another shrewdness of shelving, caravan of cabinets and a cacophony of cupboards. Once again he began to saw and to hammer, to drag and to shape. Every nail that he drove brought him an inch further into misery. The aberrant form grew before his eyes. A stand-alone wardrobe acquired a mock Victorian travel chest and a mirrored bathroom cabinet. A Jewellery box was sewn to the wardrobe door. But it was the attempt to attach a miniature filing cabinet that proved too much for Nodin to deal with. In a fit of madness, he screamed as tears rolled down his anguished cheeks. He took a lump hammer and swung wildly – destroying what he had created. He fell to the ground – a broken man, robed in the shadow of the original monstrous unit.


Nodin loaded the monstrosity onto a hand cart. He turned the key in the lock of his bedsit knowing that he would never return. The cart ahead of him, he began to push it – North  – always North – back towards the shop from whence its ghastly parts had come.

After weeks of pushing, Nodin finally arrived at The Great Furniture Shop, collapsing on the footpath outside from malnutrition, from exhaustion and from gravity.


Wally watched through the great panoramic window as Nodin trudged onward – his greatcoat fraying, his neck scarved against the elements – handcart – now unladen – pushed ahead of him.

“What a feckin’ eejit,” thought Wally as he popped the last cold meatball into his mouth, his mind already beginning to correct the design mistakes made by Nodin …

“The Four Corners Of Hell”, or ” A Danté-Climax”


Comedy is a funny thing. Harpo Marx was famous for being funny despite never telling a joke. Karl, who was even less funny than Harpo, is yet more famous still.  But, in my opinion, the biggest humour fraud of all time is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Despite it’s promising title, it’s just not that funny.

The problems with Dante’s most famous work don’t end there. The Mount of Joy, as my inner snickering teenager was disappointed to learn, is actually supposed to be a mountain. This is the second time that the use of that word by an Italian has led me in the wrong direction (I refer of course to the highly appropriate yet unintended 2011 headline “Berlusconi Resigns Due To Mounting Difficulties”). But by far the biggest problem I have with the Divine Comedy is the arrogant assumption on Dante’s part that Hell lies underground across some Greek river.

It does not. Hell lies in Dublin.

It has long been known in Dublin lore that the intersection of Patrick’s Street, Dean Street, New Street and Kevin Street is called ‘The Four Corners of Hell’. And so, on a surprisingly pleasant March morning, weather completely inappropriate and disappointing for  a hell story, I ventured up to visit the place to get a first hand look at Hell for myself.

Oh I had been there before. Both figuratively and literally. I lived not far from the place and knew of the legends. On each of the four corners of the intersection stood a pub. The wide intersection formed a square in the middle where mongers of various goods would – you know – mong things. That was during the daytime. At night, the square lay empty. Until chucking-out time, that is …

Four pubs, four corners, one square and one closing time. Sound like a recipe for a great Friday night? It gets worse …

The area around this part of Dublin is quite ancient – dating back a thousand years or so. It was a place where the population was so dense that parish lines – markers of identity in the Irish past – often became confused. No fewer than five separate parishes met either at or around these crossroads (as the rather wonderful historical map viewer on the Ordnance Survey Ireland website will show – see www.osi.ie and prepare to waste a day).

That’s the cake. But the sprinkles come in the form of yet another problem. The crossroads was not a ‘natural’ crossroads. It was forced. On more than one occasion, the city planners bought land in the area, demolished old houses and tried to widen the roads or change the flow. Even today, the modern roads that replaced the ancient seem confused and unnatural. It also meant that every few decades, whatever semblance of community had grown up was – quite literally – demolished and the whole local rivalry cycle simply started over again.

Speed's Map of 1610 shows the original roads before they were forced into being a crossroads (1: Dean Street, 2: Patrick's Street, 3: Kevin Street, 4: New Street)

Speed’s Map of 1610 shows the original roads before they were forced into being a crossroads (1: Dean Street, 2: Patrick’s Street, 3: Kevin Street, 4: New Street)

The four pubs –  Lowes, Quinn’s, Dessie O’Beirnes and Kenny’s, entered Dublin folklore. So bad were the fights and so rough was the area that it earned a nickname: The Four Corners of Hell – a place where it was said many a man was ‘called out’ with the phrase “Come out ye coward and fight the ten of us!”

These pubs are long since gone – though new pubs did spring up. When I lived nearby – about twelve or thirteen years ago – there were still a couple. I thought I’d revisit and see what the Celtic Tiger years and subsequent eating-of-the-young that your average tiger is likely to partake in during leaner times had done to the area.

I approach the Four Corners of Hell against the rather spectacular backdrop of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A turn of the corner, however, and I am somewhere else entirely …

From New Street looking towards the awkward intersection known as the Four Corners of Hell. The steeple of St. Patrick's Cathedral rises in the background.

From New Street looking towards the awkward intersection known as the Four Corners of Hell. The steeple of St. Patrick’s Cathedral rises in the background.

The crossroads is now a shamelessly modern edifice. Gone are the pokey yet charming little buildings that I had known. The road itself still seems to follow a line that it doesn’t believe is there. The crossroads are staggered and the traffic is loud and unsure. A large SUV mounts the footpath – literally – ten feet in front of me in an aggressive fashion. I am startled and stop. It jolts to a stop and blocks the entire footpath. There is no way around it except to venture out onto the death-race of a road.

As I pass, I look squarely and unashamedly into the car to see what was so urgent. I see the driver – a woman of perhaps 40-ish – applying lipstick. As I pass by, the car roars back into action and jerks into traffic – much to the annoyance of the oncoming cars. Welcome to Hell, I guess.

The first corner building I encounter is – or was – still a pub, though ‘Nash’s’ appears to have closed in the past few years. The blinds have long since been pulled down over the windows up and there is dust on the ledges. This was the last corner pub here. To see it lie derelict is something of a surprise. I recalled that the barman who worked here years ago had made the newspapers by completing the amazing task of swimming the channel from Ireland to England in what I assume was a charitable venture rather than an effort to avoid paying for a ferry ticket. The pub not stands as an empty tribute to – well, maybe not better days – but certainly livelier ones.

Across the road where the second of the Four Corner’s pubs stood lies … nothing. A vacant lot – plastered with advertising posters and straggly weeds that seem to think the pinkness in their flowers make them look ravishing. An empty building and a wasteland. The first two of the Four Corners could still make a case for being hellish.

The third Corner – that of Dean Street and New Street – also no longer has its pub. It, instead, carries that loathsome symbol of the Great Irish Swindle – an apartment block!!!

Three corners, three symbols of modern Gehenna.

But it is the fourth Corner that seals the deal and proves that hell is still here and alive for all to see- a sight so terrifying and so ghastly that I have been unable to block the fear from my memory. Where the fourth pub on the fourth Corner of Hell once stood, there now resides … a 99 Cent thrift store. This Hell is made all the more terrifying when I see posters advertising the cheap and tacky Leprechaun beards and green hats on sale inside for the impending doom that is the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations …

This part of Dublin is actually not too bad of an area nowadays – but there is something about these four Corners that continues to symbolize Hell in a manner that we can all understand. Near the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante presents Satan as living underground – standing in the ruins of himself and what he once was. And sure enough, in the middle of the Four Corners of Hell, where once a square stood that witnessed the vibrancy of the worst parts of us, now stands an entrance to the underworld: the door to an underground toilet. And not just the door to any underground toilet: The door to a disused, dilapidated, antediluvian underground toilet.

I do not need to venture in to reach my conclusions: the Four Corners, it seems, are alive … and Hell.

The railings surrounding the entrance to the underworld. The grainy resolution is meant to add effect and does not at all suggest that i forgot to take a proper photo of it ...

The railings surrounding the Entrance to the Underworld. The grainy resolution is meant to add effect and does not at all suggest that I forgot to take a proper photo of it …

Diary of a Sinus Infection


Sinus Infection Log:

Day One: Indian Rope Trick

I awake with a head that I mistake for a thump. My eyes are not happy to be open and are trying to turn each blink into a blonk. Something is very wrong. I initially think that the glass of whiskey or three I had last night has decided to use my head for a cask and is busy charring the oak timbers inside my skull.

I sit up. Bad idea. My head feels as if it has entered a cloud and I quickly have the urge to sneeze. I reach for a tissue. “Ah – pharppghh”. A thick, green rope has appeared on my tissue – but I am not compelled to climb it. My head feels momentarily relieved followed by many more moments of yet worse discomfort. What fresh hell is this?

My head throbs like a rotted and bloating egg. This can only mean one thing. Sinus Infection. Feck it anyway.


Sinus Infection Log:

Day Two: Sawbones

I sit in the waiting room at the doctor. A tired, mono-speakered radio is playing either the call to prayer or the one O’clock News – the sound is too thin to distinguish. I stare at a poster advertising family planning advice and can’t help thinking back to 5am when my three year old decided to wake the house up with wordless song and arrhythmic banging. Children, indeed, are not for the sinused amongst us.

“Mr Carabini?” calls the doctor. Both my sinuses and I enter the room.

“What seems to be the problem?”

I believe that I may have opened with a “Life was so much easier before I had sinuses”. She understands and begins to prod me in different parts of my face – which presumably has something to do with her being a doctor.

A sinus infection is confirmed and a course of anti-biotics are prescribed. “Are you allergic to any medications?”

“Yes – Clarithromycin.”

“Oh – really? Why? What happens to you on them?”

I get a flashback to four years ago when I had taken just the first in a course for a gastric illness and, like an obese Olympic skier, it went very quickly downhill from there.

“After half an hour, my stomach was very ill. After an hour, I was shivering. After two, my skin could hear colours.”

The doctor simply nods and changes the subject. “Right – so Penicillin – one tablet three times a day.”


Sinus Infection Log:

Day Three: Sleeping like a Spiderman

I am ill. My sinuses continue to pulse like a dim bamboo-filament lightbulb. My body, thus far fine from the nose down, has capitulated to the onslaught of the pill. I am a crumbled, shuddering mess. All I want to do is sleep and set free my inner narcoleptic. I pull the blinds. I turn off the lights. I curl up beneath the duvet and lie there, a full two stages below useless and one below burdensome.

I decide to check my email – but sit up too quickly. My body freezes, inhales, and detonates a napalm of sneezing. My hand quickly comes up to my mouth. Barrage after barrage ensues, leaving me light headed and exhausted. I remove my hand from my mouth and glimpse at its green and webbed contents contents. It dawns on me that Stan Lee must have had a sinus infection too when he created Spiderman …


Sinus Infection Log:

Day Five: Lets Google It …

Today I am contemplating the need for the sinus and contemplating simply having mine backfilled. Webmd.com tells me, unhelpfully, that “The purpose of the sinus is unclear”. The human body has a few evolutionary oddities that can be roughly classed. The first class is the “Huh – fancy that!” class, that includes the tail-bone and the male nipple. They don’t do anything good or bad, They just, simply, ‘are’. Then there is the other class – a whole class of useless anatomical features that do nothing except make you miserable. Internal terrorists. Some, like the appendix, lie dormant for a whole lifetime before trying to kill you out of sheer boredom. It is to this class of ‘jerk’ organs that the sinus belongs.

Indeed, its purpose appears to be to prevent deep sea diving and getting sinus infections. Nice designing you did there, god.

I lie here, useless and in pain. If I was a jelly, at least I would be able to wobble.


Sinus Infection Log:

Day Seven: Banditry

I have watched all I’ve wanted to watch on the TV. I’ve listened to every podcast I’ve wanted to hear. I cannot read too much as everytime my eyes swivel, they squeeze my sinuses like a jellyfish. I am tired. I am sore. I am ill. And I am now officially bored.

I turn my mind to the history of the sinus. I read that Sinus actually appeared in ancient Greek mythology. He was a bandit and, if myth is to be believed, a bit of a shit. He would apparently stop travellers and ask them to help him bend down mighty trees. When they helped him, and the trees were bent over, he would let go and the victims would be hurtled off into the distance like a cartoon coyote, leaving Sinus behind to plunder whatever they had left behind.

This story at least gives me something to think about – what was it trying to tell me about the sinus? Is there a clandestine message – a secret piece of ancient Greek wisdom about the purpose and function of the sinus here hidden? Is there maybe a morale here that will help me better communicate with my sinus and prevent this from happening again? Is my sinus a lonely outcast that feels it has no choice but to turn to anatomical banditry?

Apparently, not. It is not unloved. It is mis-spelled. The bandit, it turns out is Sinis, not Sinus. I had hit the wrong key …


Sinus Infection Log:

Day Eight: A New Beginning

It is Easter Sunday. I awake – throbless. Cautiously, I stand up. I am a little tired – but I feel strangely unfugheadded.

I pull up the blinds and peer out at a beautiful, crisp, Easter morning. I resurrect my way to the kitchen. So far, so good. I pull on my shoes – now cobwebbed and dusty from a week of non-use. I make my way to the Hill of Tara to allow my nostrils to fill with the fresh air of an Irish spring …

Maybe I’ll be fine after all … if I just take it …one bright and sunny day … at a time …

Hill of Tara on Easter Sunday

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St. Catherine and the Worm: A Family Odyssey


St. Catherine’s Park between Lucan and Leixlip is the type of calm, beautiful suburban oasis that turns peaceful Sunday outings into family legends. It was here three years ago, for example, that I did serious damage to my shoulder when giving my wife a jockey-back up a steep hill. I can still remember the follow-up question the radiographer in the hospital asked when I told him about the fall. “Jockey back? Oh – do you do those wife-carrying competitions?” Alas, I did not. “But why were you carrying her?” he enquired. Embarrassingly, the best – and only – answer I had was “Because it was Sunday”. I have learned my lesson, though. Since then, I have made it a rule not to carry any women uphill.

I still visit St. Catherine’s regularly, however, and so, on a typical April morning, I set out – just myself and the childer – to spend the afternoon in the park. I had read a bit about the park’s history online – about how it had been intact since the Norman Invasion in 1172, about how the area was run by a religious institution – the rather pompous sounding Priory of Canons of the Order of Saint Victor. Indeed, the extensive ruins of the Priory are still very much visible in the park today. I had also read that somewhere around here was the old St. Catherine’s Well, the correct response to which is, I believe, “Is she now?”

I park the car and we walk along the ancient roadway alongside the ruins of the priory. Not far from the carpark, we see a little stream and, a few feet further on, we find the ruins of the still-functioning St. Catherine’s Well. My son and daughter instantly descend the steps into the shallow trickle and begin to splash around in it.


St. Catherine’s Well – apparently renowned for curing sore eyes (or possibly psoriasis – I may have misheard).

After a few minutes, the children begin to climb the ridiculously steep and weed-wrought hill that that extends up from the well.

“Ouch! Daddy! Nettles!”, screams my daughter, followed immediately by “Daddy! stingers! Owwww!” and even an incidence of “Thorns! Everywhere!”. By the time I get to her, she has legs like a lattice-topped strawberry pie.

My three-year-old son is also suffering from the flora, but, in fairness, he seems to have brought it on himself. I spy him lowering his hand into some nettles. “Noooo”!, I roar. But it does not deter him. “Look Daddy – I picked a Dandelion”, he says, having spotted it beneath the nettles. This is soon followed with a “Daddy – my hand hurts”.

“Well that’s because you put your hand into nettles.”


“Will you do that again?”

“No,” he states, solemn as a stoic philosopher.

No sooner have I turned my back when I hear “Look Daddy – another Dandelion!” followed by another plunging of tiny hands into more nettles.

While this is going on, my daughter spies a worm lying atop the mud. She picks him up and proudly brings him over for us all to see. And, in fairness, he is quite impressive with his sausage-ine physique. If served him with a rasher of bacon and some beans, you’d probably not send him back.

“Oh – look at my worm friend. I think he needs a new house. I don’t think he likes it up here,” says my daughter, wrapping him in a dock leaf.

“Ok. Where will be put him?”

“I think we should put him near the Well.”

And, with that, we descend the weed-strewn hill, picking up yet more red marks and participating in more screaming.

My daughter finds a quaint little patch of what look like Primrose leaves beside the Well. She places her worm friend beside them and covers him with a leaf.

“Look Dad – he likes it! Do you think he’s going to love his new home? I’m going to get him some more leaves.”

As she walks away, my son approaches. “Worm”, he says, as he picks it up and pulls it in two with the ease of wet tissue paper.

Oh feck. What do I do now? She’ll be distraught!

She arrives back. She looks down at the scene.

Oh feck …

“Dad! Look,” she says, holding two gruesome halves of the mascherated worm aloft – entrails trailing from one side. “He’s found a friend! They’re going to be so happy together,” she says – his digestive tract bouncing and bobbing as each half of him dangles from her fingers. Not wanting her to discover the barbarity, I try to move her on.

“That’s great – hey – lets go up here – you should leave the two worm friends in peace in their new home” I say, moving on up the road. She follows.

As she reaches me, she stops dead. There has been a flash of inspiration.

“Hey!”, she says to my son. “Was that really two worms or did you just pull him apart?”

My son cannot tell a lie.

“I separated him,” he states with the coldness of a serial killer.

There are tears from her, there is frustration from me and there is a worrying lack of remorse from my son.

I have no doubt that this place was a venerated well long before the Normans arrived and was most likely in pre-Christian times an area of pagan worship. And now, in the 21st century, it appears that a Carabini has reinstated a practice of sacrifice here. St. Catherine’s Well. But that’s more than I can say for the worm.


The ruins of the Priory of Canons of the Order of Saint Victor. Useless fact of the day: St. Victor, one of the few African popes, is venerated on my birthday. Co-incidence? Yes. Absolutely.


Rome, Cat Pee and the Invention of the Internet


There are a number of reasons that I like Rome. The food is simple and magnificent. The streets are a chaos of toothless old women, young men dressed as Roman Legionnaires, fat and jiggly tourists and Vespa scooters that, it seems, drive the streets by themselves. But it is the closeness of Rome’s history that I adore – a history refuses to be relegated to the past. But the last thing I expected to find when I was there was a very ancient version of the Internet …

Marie and I do not opt to stay in a hotel. Instead, we  take an apartment for a week just around the corner from the impressive Piazza Navona and a mere five minutes from the magnificent Pantheon. Bags unpacked, we decide to head out for a wander. I figure that with a name like Carabini, I should have no trouble blending in. My freckles give me away however. As does my hair that is blonding-while-you-wait. And the fact that I’m wearing shorts (something that no real Italian would ever dream of doing). And that my legs are so white the locals surely think they are minty.

Rome is a wonderfully walkable city. It does not take long, however, for the heat to begin to pose a bit of a problem for me. In Ireland, summer usually just means that the rain is slightly warmer – but here, the sun throbs like a migraine. I buy a bottle of water from a man who gesticulates wildly as I hand over the money. I initially think that I’ve done something to upset him – but it does not take me long to realise that the Italian language is, apparently, part Latin and part shadow-boxing.

The heat means that we can’t walk as fast as we normally would. Time for a little rest and a little hydration. I spy some ruins across the street – somewhere to rest. We cross over and lean our arms on the wall. This area appears to be a square with some substantial ruins in the centre – all walled off. I can see at least four ancient buildings. It looks magnificent. I inhale a deep breath through my nostrils as I contemplate it all …

“Hey – Marie,” I say, noticing a strange whiff on the air. “Do you smell piss?”

She samples the ether. “Yeah – I do, actually. I smell piss too.”

The temples of the Largo di Argentina, Rome.

The temples of the Largo di Argentina, Rome.

We look around to see where it is coming from.

“Seán – I think it’s cat piss.”

“Cat piss?”

“Yeah – look at the ruins – look at all the cats.”
She’s right! There appear to be hundreds of cats swarmed over the ruins – I hadn’t really noticed until now.

I consult the guidebook. “You’re not going to believe this. This place is called the Largo di Torre Argentina. It has four ancient Roman temples and is used as a cat sanctuary.”

“Well that’s … odd.”

“There are four temples. There’s the temple of Juturna – the Goddess of water springs.”
“Seems appropriate given that each cat is, essentially, a urine spring all of its own.”

There is also a temple to the Luck of the Day. It smells like cat piss. There is a temple to Lares Permarini – protector of sailors. it smells like cat piss. And, finally, there is the temple of Feronia – who, most aptly of all, is the Goddess of Wildlife, Fertility and Abundance. She’s still going strong by the looks of the hundreds of cats that have taken over this place and are trying to dissolve and destroy it with their mighty piss.

Cats, it seems, were somewhat revered, however, in ancient Rome and had free access to temples – so it is perhaps fitting that they still have this access here. As we watch, we see tourists descend into the sanctuary and walk with the cats (perhaps Rome’s version of swimming with the dolphins?).

I later learn that there are health concerns about the area and there are some in power who would remove the cats. I also learn that at this site stood the theatre of Pompey – which was one of the centres of entertainment in ancient Rome. It was, at it happens, also the place where Julius Caesar was assassinated. (the theatre ruins, it should be noted, now smell like cat piss).

Rome Cat re-enacts the death of Caesar more or less on the same spot that Caesar was assassinated.

And then it dawned on me … this place is a lot more significant that it had seemed at first scent. In ancient Rome, this place was the centre of political power – used, as the theatre was, as the senate building. It was a place where people came for answers – boasting no less than four temples. It was, as a theatre, the centre of entertainment. And now, it is overrun with cats. I had made a most important discovery: this place is the ancient world’s version of the Internet … and the original blueprint – power, answers, entertainment and cats – has remained unchanged for thousands of years …

Promotion Interviews: Elvis, Tapeworms and the Great Potoo


Promotion interviews are never something I fully understood. It’s one thing when the employer doesn’t know the person – but when it’s an internal process where the employee has already demonstrated their capability, it starts to get a little off. Sure – you might be able to do something in practice – but can you demonstrate that you can do it in theory? It’s a process reserved usually only for criminal cases – you know – axe murders, chicken molesters, and the likes – we know you did it – but can it be proven?

It was something that I was myself faced with in the not too distant past (a promotion interview, that is …). Now, traditionally, interviews have not been my strongest suit. I’ve muddled through a few – but never really understood what they were really all about. And so, this time around, I was determined to get it right once and for all. I did my research, trawled the internet for tips and called up everyone that I know that is half way decent at them or that had actually interviewed people.

Here’s what I found on my journey.

There are, it seems, three different basic strategies that an interviewee can adopt. I’ve summed them up and given them names. Most of us start out as the ‘Elvis Impersonator’. A few of us as ‘The Pro’. But very few of us try what I like to term the ‘Tape Worm’ – which is a pity – because tape-worms are quite successful at what they do.

The Elvis Impersonator

This is used when you aren’t exactly what they are looking for – but you pretend you are anyway. Who wants to see Phil from the local butcher’s shop dressed in a jumpsuit when they really wanted Elvis Presley? The answer is not as hopeless as you might think. Elvis is dead and won’t show up to the interview. So if you look enough like him and sound enough like him, you might just get the nod. In this role, you essentially have to work the margins – you might have been a team player – but you have to talk yourself up as a team leader. You may have been a cock-up – but you have to come across as half-cocked… (Is that right? Yes – I think it’s fine …)

The Pro

A few that I spoke with came across as really professional interviewees. They were not only good at interviews – they positively looked forward to them. When I asked them for tips to those tricky interview questions – such as “Where do you see yourself in five years”, or “How do you evaluate success?”, they told me to answer with “Look – I know that you have a better question than that. Find me a real question.” I asked my brother – himself an interviewer – what he would do if he asked someone “What are your weaknesses” and they responded with “That’s not a real question – ask me something you really want to know about”? He said that he’d make note of their weakness at answering interview questions and move on.

To be the ‘Pro’ is dangerous – but if you sense that it is right, maybe it’s worth a punt.

The Tape Worm

Most people, I suspect, go for the Elvis Impersonator. But I suspect that they really should try what I’ve termed the ‘Tape Worm’. It would, I think, work particularly well for in-house promotions. What does it involve? Simple – you need to convince them that you’re already well anchored inside the organisation and are already helping to keep it lean.

What amazed me most about my journey was the anecdotes from people who had served as interviewers. In particular, the answers that they had encountered to that old standard “What are your weaknesses?” question. The answers apparently ranged from the overbearing and unbelievable “I don’t have any” to the rather questionable “I’m slow to learn things”, or the downright insane “I’m particularly bad with money”.  For those of you who face this question in the future – what you’re really being asked is to demonstrate how you overcame a particular weakness rather than expecting ten Hail Mary’s for confessing that you touch yourself inappropriately whenever you hear the Hokey Cokey. They are not interested in your personal failings. Or – to put it another way – they are absolutely interested in your personal failings. It is your job to hide them.

So – in my own interview – what direction did I chose? Was I an Elvis Impersonator? Was I a Pro? Or was I a Tape Worm? The answer is, of course, that I was something else. I was one of those animals that adapts my answer depending on the question and camouflaged myself accordingly. I am no less than the Great Potoo of the interview world.

And did it all work? Did all my research and analogizing pay off?


It did.

Three Hidden Dublin Oddities


This week, I thought I’d share with you three little-known bubbles in the pint that is my home city of Dublin. They are not the type of thing that you’d find on a postcard (such as an address or a stamp …) but they are places that, for me, enrich the city. Two will amuse – one in a creepy way, admittedly – and the final one will break your heart. Unless you’re a heartless jellyfish. In which case it will break your Stomach Pouch.

Stop One: Dublin Zoo

We’re all familiar with the images of pirates, clowns and monkeys that are rendered headless and displayed for children – not in a gruesome way, mind you – but in a manner that invites children to substitute their head in its place to have a photo taken and to teach them the valuable life lesson that impersonation is, somehow, a life skill so important that we introduce them to it during their formative years.

Dublin Zoo has a couple of these. There is a – literally – faceless Orang-Utan cutout that is fairly typical of your average zoo. No surprises there. It is two dimensional, cartoonish in appearance, and appears to be more of a draw than the actual Orang-Utan sitting not twenty feet from it.

The Orang-Utan is what you’d expect. What you’d not expect, however, is the faceless cut out at the penguin enclosure…

First of all, the penguin is not a simple cut out. It is a properly carved three-dimensional figure from which the face has been carved out. It therefore resembles a living penguin who has received a shotgun blast that has removed his face entirely from his skull and gives the appearance that his body is standing for a few post-blast seconds before it crumples to the ground – yet another victim of a senseless avian gangland hit.


… but it gets worse. When I bent down to get a picture from a different angle, two horrid cyborgian eyes appeared – poorly placed bolts on a nearby fence. This is the Alexander Murphy of the penguin world ….


Stop Two: The Ass Tree

A burl is a term that I’ve only recently discovered. It refers to those dreadful growths on trees that look like overswelled woody elbow skin pustules that we’ve all seen. They, apparently, the result of virus attacks on trees and can grow to enormous sizes.

Some directions: Beginning at the Wellington Monument in the Phoenix Park, walk out in a South-West direction – down the little slope and into the trees.

There, you will find one of Dublin’s least known – but most intriguing sights: The Ass Tree.


Touching the Ass Tree: Check Out The Burl On Me!

Some (i.e., me) say that touching it can cure a whole manner of posterior problems, including Macaque Bottom Syndrome(also known as Anus Horribilis) , Excessive Barnacles and Recto Large-o – although this last one is cured mainly because finding the Ass Tree involves walking …

Stop Three: The World’s Loneliest Zebra

Dublin has a rather wonderful Natural History museum. It is rather wonderful because it is, essentially, a museum of a museum. It not only feels like a lost piece of Victoriana – many of its exhibits date from that very time. Some of the exhibits – such as the Tasmanian Tiger – have even become extinct during the lifespan of the museum.

Sitting in the back left corner of the first floor, however, is one of the saddest things you will ever see. The museum appears to be a trophy room for a particularly overzealous safari in the 1800s. Nothing points to this zealousness more than the exhibit in this old victorian case. The animal – so old that its once black fur is beginning to fade to a browny red – is a zebra. A tiny little baby zebra. Sitting. All alone. In the corner of the display case. A full thirty feet from another case that displays what was presumably his mother.

Heart Breaker ...

Heart Breaker …

Hope I didn’t break your heart too much with that one …

Podcast Demons


So – for those of you following the American Road Podcast …

This is a photograph of a bottle that once contained juice:

Juice Bottle

Juice Bottle

And this is a photograph of the laptop that I use to edit my podcast:

My Podcastin' laptop

My Podcastin’ laptop

Now time for a mathematical theorem. Juice bottle + unattended laptop + 3 year old son = no more laptop.

This is a picture of a very bold boy:

A Very Bold Boy

A Very Bold Boy

And so, folks – the podcast will be on hiatus for a few weeks until we can figure this whole thing out!

Take Care!