Living in the City of Joy

The first thing that hit me was the smell. My nose had been blocked by a cold in Dublin after a stressful finals exam season. My nostril canals opened to a combination of incense, sewage and dense air in the back of sweaty taxi. I had arrived in Calcutta to teach children in a slum the basics of Maths, Geography and English. I was 22 and was numb.

The Indian God of Ganesh sat smiling on the driver’s dashboard, shaken by the primitive engine’s rumble. My stomach was in sync with the car when I realised where I was and what I had done. I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to applying for SUAS, an Irish charity that specialised in sending wet behind the ear students to some of the world’s poorest cities to teach. Completely engrossed in the important task of not failing my final exams, I gave no thought to spending three months in a country I had done no research on with a collection of strangers I wondered if I had anything in common with.

There were a dozen of us, varied in ages, personalities and universities across Ireland. We checked into the Marble Palace on Beck Baghan road in India. It was coming into evening and the sun was setting over the river. Famished rickshaw drivers sprinted through the fetid streets dressed in thin loincloths burdened by fat families. Men sat cross legged playing a type of dominos on the street, drinking small clay cups of chai. The passing of time is an art form for men in this part of India, who can find conversation in the most unlikely of places that can last for hours.

I decided to go for a walk with a new friend through the streets. We lasted a few minutes, our pale skin was attracting mosquitos and stares from locals, not used to tourists in this part of India. We retreated to our room for a briefing on how we would be approaching our teaching duties. The fact that none of us had any teaching experience was not unusual and in a few days we would be facing crowded classrooms of expectant Indian children.

If you cannot teach Indian children, you should never be a teacher. Indian children value learning and are enthusiastic about the most banal tasks. They find it rude to say no, instead giving you a sad, but ambiguous head shake, their equivalent of saying maybe to an event on Facebook you have no intention of going to. The fact that I couldn’t teach pupils like this effectively, drove a nail into any precocious thoughts I had once had about teaching as a fall back option. I was corrected in elementary mathematics daily by the children and even my best attempts to inspire them in English literature fell short. On Indian independence day we were selected to devise a play in English, the fact that most of the children only had Bengali was another issue. The play I painstakingly devised complete with dance choreography, depicted the slums we taught in falling victim to flash floods.

Calcutta is undoubtedly architecturally sore on the eye, punctuated by a context of former colonial grandeur and the finest people I have ever met before or since. Negotiating your way through monsoons, the constant cacophony of car horns and a fear that I was actually sending the children’s education into reverse, anxiety was a frequent uninvited guest in my mind. While you were walking the local streets frustrated, a child might stop you and ask you to join in with his friends who were flying homemade kites high over the city. I saw motorways stopped, not by traffic, but by businessmen, street kids and chai vendors playing impromptu games of mass cricket or barefoot football. The city provided poverty and difficulties that was usually negated by the joy of its citizens, who found happiness in the simplest parts of life.

I tried to learn some words in Bengali and enjoyed my morning chat that consisted of two sentences with the taxi driver I used on the way to my school. I had perfected these sentences to such an extent, he mistook by as a fluent speaker, and spent the rest of the journey telling me his travails with his wife. His fare varied according to his mood and we became firm friends. Calcutta is a city that lends itself to friendship. I was invited into homes across the city, normally to shelter from the monsoon. I had a cup of warming chai thrust into my hand and was ushered to sit down and watch TV. Almost always the flickering set was showing football, a strange fascination for most Calcuttans. Celtic v St Mirren was playing in one such home I ended up in. The father nodded at me with a smile, while his children sat transfixed at a cold Scottish game far away from their dusty streets.

Rugby, a game I had never been able to play in school due a lack of size became my main recreation in an exhausting city that strains every inch of you physically and mentally. Calcutta Cricket and Football Club became an oasis for me, the dusky white walls housed a full sized rugby pitch that in the summer months became a famous manicured cricket ground for the likes of Sourav Ganguly.  For us, the soaked pitch swarmed with warm mosquitos, desperate to feast of seasoned Irish skin. After games with the Calcutta Police , my body wasn’t covered in the normal stud scrapes, instead I nursed festering sores from insects that had feasted on my skin when I dived on a muddy ball on the ground. I made dear friends from all over the city and we managed to win the second division of the West Bengal championships, with me doing my level best to lose the game as an mercurial and erratic out half.

I left Calcutta changed forever. I knew that I could never be a teacher and I found out the value of friendship in the most challenging of places. Crumbling chalky walls and sloppy pavements were counterbalanced by the happiest people I have met before, or since. Six years have passed in an instant, I hope to see old friends in Calcutta soon.


Vale my old coach Tommy Kirk

Thursday nights were sacred in my schoolboy calendar. I sat in the chemistry laboratory urging the clock to tick faster. The bell finally rang, and a group of us trooped off to the swimming pool for water polo training.

Tommy Kirk was our coach, devoting hours of his spare time to try to mould a mixed ability group of swimmers into a competitive water polo team. He sat on a wooden bench with his legs dangling as we entered one by one. I normally had my head down as I was fixated with an academic obstacle that awaited me later that night when I started my homework. He’d stop me everytime, and look me straight in the eye and ask how any equation or calculus could be more important than the task of beating St Mary’s College that night. I couldn’t disagree.

We loved Tommy for his relentless optimism. He genuinely believed we could win every match we entered in our deeply chlorinated pool, despite a painful results list that often left the headmaster unable to read out our full results due to embarrassment. We played matches against schools all over Belfast. Games took place over four often brutal quarters. Fights were common and at the end of each quarter, we would stagger back to the safety of the poolside like a dazed boxer where he gave us his own version of tough love, depending on the deficit we were facing. One bit of sage advice to a player was to hold the boy he was marking underwater until he couldn’t see the bubbles anymore. Mourinho inspired tactics they were not.

Water polo was and remains a minority sport at school. Tommy had devoted his life to the game, as a player, referee and administrator. Primarily, he wanted us to enjoy a game that had given him so much joy. It was a physically demanding game that required you to be an excellent swimmer, able to fight when necessary and capable of catching a slippery ball with one hand under pressure. Under his patience and devoted tutelage we improved, playing in tournaments in Amsterdam, Dublin and Barcelona.

When you are a schoolboy, anyone over the age of 25 appears ancient. We could never place Tommy’s age, but we suspected he must be retired primarily due to his snow white hair. Beyond coaching, he took an active interest in our lives and we used him as someone you could always rely on for a wise word in a world of foreboding adults and self imposed pressures.

Ten years had passed since I had left school, and I always wanted to say thank you for everything he had done for me. He gave me confidence and self belief that wasn’t there before, which went far beyond the game of water polo. I imagine I am not alone. We organised a game of old boys v the current school team in late October. We were so happy to see Tommy again and thank him for everything he did for us as schoolboys. It turns out that sadly that was the last game he coached. The years had caught up on us as we approached the wrong end of our twenties, swimming at pace didn’t seem so easy anymore. Conversely, while we had slowed up, Tommy hadn’t seemed to age at all, a part of our childhoods was frozen in that pool that day.

On behalf of the hundreds of boys who played water polo at Inst, I want to thank Tommy Kirk for everything he did for us, we will never see his like again. Rest in Peace.

Working for the Irish News

I decided I wanted to become a newspaper reporter at the age of 11. The sum total of my ambition then was to write for the local rag, the East Belfast Observer. I cut out the banner and tacked it to my notice board in my bedroom. Not the behaviour of a normal child, but then anyone who considers journalism as their career choice is ticking different boxes anyway.

Ten years later, I got my first job back in Belfast at the Irish News. A family owned and run newspaper that served the nationalist community mostly. For a boy who grew up in East Belfast and attended a school that was infinitely more British than Irish, I was stepping into a world I had lived beside but never experienced.

The newspapers bread and butter beyond reporting news was death notices and Gaelic games. Two things that are not huge fixtures in Protestant East Belfast. I was a news reporter and for the first time in my life was spending large amounts of time in West Belfast, prompting double takes from my local taxi drivers when I asked to be driven to Gaelic clubs at night for social events. I came to know the streets and thanks to a byline picture some local pensioners came to know me too.

A name like Drennan is a benefit in Belfast, as it could be from a unionist or nationalist family, so I flew under the radar mostly. I was asked to interview an old lady who was a doyen of her local community and had turned 100. The interview was going well and the family were touched a reporter had been sent to cover her birthday. I innocently asked my final question, “has the queen sent you a telegram?” silence fell in the room and the clock in the room ticked louder. “No the Queen will send me nothing, but I got a lovely one from the Irish president”. First rule as a reporter know your audience.

Being family owned, the newspaper was frozen in time. The elderly and kind owner Mr Fitzpatrick did a tour of desks weekly to see how we all were. There was a 90 year old night security man who kept himself awake playing solitaire by the printers alone, I always was relived to see him alive in the morning. We always hoped any burglars were trained in CPR. There was a smoky snooker room that you had to gain an invite to from the photographers, my favourite of whom was Hugh Russell a former champion professional boxer and Olympic medallist. I tried to wangle myself of as many jobs as possible with him to talk about his career. “Were you ever scared Hugh before you fought?” “Is the pope a catholic? Of course I was you buck eejit”

There were wizened old pros who took me under their wing, over a pot of musty tea in Belfast Central Library they gave me advice and handed me helpfully annotated scraps of my articles. The best of whom was Brendan Murphy, a former publican turned chief photographer. He had an ability to capture emotion in his photography like nothing I have seen. He was hilarious and we had lunch together most days. There was sadness to him too, he had seen the worst of Belfast though his camera lenses. He told me he’d been to far too many funerals. Too many funerals on damp Belfast days with a widow crying due to a needless death. He had been held up at gunpoint by the police, the IRA and the UVF sometimes in the same night. He introduced me to Bill Birmingham’s second hand book shop and the novels of Brian Moore, in his eyes the greatest Irish novelist ever, even If Moore did hate Belfast.

I wanted to continue that life forever. Waking up, finding a story and writing it. A simple life that certainly didn’t pay well, but I was happy. I left the job and Belfast six years ago for the uncertainty and adventure of London. I was lucky to experience such a special place.


Tadgh Kennelly interview

Fifteen years have passed since a skinny and scared Irishman sat alone in the cafe at the Sydney Football stadium waiting for his first professional Australian rules training session to start.

Today, Tadgh Kennelly has little in common with that timid youth. Although he is retired from the Sydney Swans, he retains a muscular frame and beams widely when he reflects on a career that boomeranged from Ireland to Australia and back again.

“I remember sitting here in this cafe, I didn’t have a clue what was in store. Fifteen years ago, god, I was so scared. I felt this huge pressure on my shoulders, I couldn’t fathom failure. I was representing Kerry and Listowel coming to Australia, I felt I had to make it work no matter what.”

After finishing his career in Australia in 2011, Kennelly started working as an international ambassador for the AFL, searching for the best talent available globally. The numbers of international success stories in the AFL are relatively limited, but those that have enjoyed long and storied careers like Kennelly keep giving clubs the incentive to make huge financial outlays to source talent from Ireland in the hope that their numbers will come up.

Kennelly is a member of an exclusive club in Australia, he has a Premiership winners medal in his cabinet, giving him special status, even in a rugby league crazed town like Sydney. He nods politely to people who recognise him in the cafe and smiles ruefully when he remembers how hard the journey to success was for him, and will continue to be for any young Irishman who arrives in Australia hoping to find success in the AFL.

“It was brutally hard at times. I cried myself to sleep many times. You come from a place where you’re treated like a god. In Kerry when you do well as a minor, that’s what defines you, your ability in Gaelic Football. Anytime in my life I had problems, I escaped to the football field and everything was fine. I found myself so far from home in Sydney unable to play this new game and everything that had defined and comforted me was gone.”

Kennelly arrived in Sydney in 1999. It was a different era where the distance from home was felt more palpably. He wrote long letters to his family friends, and relied on a heavily worn pay phone card for precious calls home. In his desire to adapt to the Australian code, his knuckles were red raw and his body battered from hours of extra training. Gradual improvement at the football oval was still accompanied by loneliness every time he returned home to an empty flat after training.

Kennelly hasn’t forgotten how difficult his own arrival was and wants to give new Irish imports a better launch pad than he had. Athletic skill isn’t the defining factor whether Irish youngsters make a long career in the AFL, life outside of the oval is even more important he believes. “Irish people are very loyal to their homeland, and we are quite emotional people, those are good things that won’t change. I just thought, there are things that we need to put in place. Simple, basic things that can help. The talent is there in Ireland to make it over here, we are blessed with amazing touch on our feet, but that counts for nothing if we don’t make sure they have the right support networks in place to give them every chance of succeeding.”

Outside of Kennelly, Sean Wight and Jim Stynes, the long term success stories of Irishmen in the AFL are relatively limited. Kennelly can’t exactly put his finger on why so few Irishmen have a lengthy career in the AFL, but he wants to give the ones that try more than a fighting chance. He puts in place regular flights for family members to visit and introduces new arrivals into an Irish network that is willing and able to support them. “It’s quite simple, but sometimes it’s neglected, if you have a guy who is happy off the field, I promise you his football will be better. We do lots of things, whether it’s getting them Irish food, like Barry’s tea or just getting them involved in a social network. Player welfare was something that wasn’t really thought of hugely when I started, but it’s something we needed to address specifically with young Irish players coming over here if we want them to stay and thrive.”

Currently, Kennelly speaks highly of two young Irish recruits Padraig Lucey for the Geelong Cats and Paddy Brophy who has joined the West Coast Eagles. Both young men have shown huge promise and have arrived into a sport where their Irish counterparts are ready and willing to help them in anyway they can off the field. Kennelly used to ring Jim Stynes for contract advise regularly and is fully willing to act as an unofficial mentor to any Irish footballer who makes a sporting commitment to the sunburnt country.

Before Kennelly, the process of attaining talented young gaelic players for the AFL was conducted through a myriad of speculative training camps conducted by agents, some scrupulous, some not. Kennelly put in place official recruitment combines endorsed by the AFL where the GAA is informed exactly when and where they are taking place. The cloak and dagger camps of agents in rural sports halls have passed. Kennelly’s European combine at DCU in December took place in full view. However, after returning to Ireland to the GAA in 2009 to win an All-Ireland does Kennelly have any guilt about taking players away from their counties and their boyhood dreams?

“All I want to do is give these young players options. I don’t want to be seen as the big bad wolf taking these players away from their counties and the GAA. The first thing I say to young players at a combine is you have a very slim chance of making it in the AFL, the better option is probably to stay in Ireland, play for your county and live a very happy and fulfilled life. However, there will be those kids who stick their fingers up at me and say no, I’m going to make it, this is what I want. They will be in a minority, and those are the guys you want.”

Kennelly lives in the beachside Sydney suburb of Coogee with his Australian wife and on the surface lives an idyllic existence. He has been in Sydney for a large part of his adult life and his accent bears testament to this, with infrequent, but noticeable Australian inflections on his Kerry brogue. Despite the blue skies and sunshine, he says the greatest shock to Irish arrivals is the hardness of the nation’s character, specifically in sport.

“People get this idea of Australia, probably from social media, that it’s a great life on the beach and the sun, which it is, but it’s also a very hard place at times, especially in sport. It is a nation of winners. When you play professional sport here, it’s ruthless. You are marking a guy who is playing for his livelihood, he will think nothing of breaking you in half to win a game. He has everything on the line as do you. In Ireland, we’re self depreciating and affable, whereas here, it’s just a lot more serious than that. Sydney demands a winning culture in all of their sports and you have to be ready to sacrifice everything.”

Kennelly kindly insists on walking me back to the taxi rank, he is on his way to witness an Irish friend being made an Australian citizen. A ceremony that becomes a common fixture in the social calendar for the longterm Irish emigrant. A reminder of the life in Ireland that he left, and the opportunity that he grasped in Australia. He hopes he won’t be an isolated sporting success story in Sydney from Ireland for much longer.


The Instonian Delusion

Over 200 years ago, Dr William Drennan founded the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. My grandfather went there, and so did my two brothers. In many ways, I am a blue blood Instonian. I achieved some academic success at the school and made friends, that should be where the story ends. A sugar sprinkled seven years as a Belfast schoolboy who moved abroad afterwards.

We are all guilty of looking back with exaggerated fondness for our schooldays, I have been more guilty than anyone. I have been asked to speak in London and Belfast about what school meant to me, and have done so. But have I ever really strayed from the expected script? No, I haven’t, and as a result both speeches were met with polite applause for meeting the required brief.

I meet a collection of friends from school once a year normally at Christmas, and without it meaning to be, it turns into a therapy session of sorts. There is a need to articulate our complicated experiences, because who else will understand? Our time at Inst from 1997-2004 was defined by a need to succeed, and we all bought into it. Our personalities then needed to conform to an ideal of social acceptability in the Instonian community, rigidly policed by our schoolmates. Show little emotion or empathy, act tough when necessary, excel at rugby and academics and most pertinently, never ever show any weakness. One close friend probably put it best, “Inst fucked us all up a bit, just in different ways”. This boy represented his country in his chosen sport while at school and excelled academically. Hardly a tragic ending. Like myself, he readily accepts he wouldn’t have possessed the drive as an adult if it hadn’t been for the atmosphere at school, but equally he wonders at what cost.

There were incredible and inspirational teachers in college square East. Teachers I still owe a huge debt of gratitude to for believing in me when I certainly wasn’t able to. They gave me a lifelong love of literature and writing. These men and women stood apart from the highly intense atmosphere that unfortunately often indirectly led to bullying and conformity. A boy I speak to regularly told me everyday he had a terror of walking through the school gates as he didn’t know what awaited him. He certainly wasn’t alone. Mockery in the classroom from a bullying teacher for academic slowness was often replicated three fold in the playground against those boys who dared to fit outside of the standard and approved Instonian mould.

We were offered opportunities many boys could only dream of. Music, drama and sport were represented at the highest levels internationally. You bought into the need to be excellent at all times, and if you couldn’t achieve this, you simply forced yourself to work harder. You voluntarily stayed in a pressure cooker. I was frequently asked why I couldn’t beat my older brother in exams and I responded by spending lunchtimes in the library studying. Academically, we were streamed by ability, and we knew exactly where we ranked on a league table. It made you work even harder, and this led to lifelong habits of perfectionism for some that have been hard to shake.

A wise teacher once told my brother, “if Inst represents the happiest days of your life, you must have had a pretty horrible time at university”. In many ways he was right, and he was an esteemed senior member of staff. We learnt at university that being kind to your fellow man wasn’t a weakness, but something to be encouraged, not denigrated. It took some us longer to learn this than others.

Things have changed largely for the best. I returned to school for the first time in a decade to talk about working for the Guardian as a writer. One of my favourite teachers invited me. A lot of boys came up to me after my talk and thanked me politely. I was watching how they interacted with one another closely that day and I noticed the hardness had gone. The teacher agreed times had changed for good in this aspect of life. The sporting trophy cabinet might be emptier, the Oxbridge entrants might be down, but the boys were more interested in enjoying their school days together.

My experiences of Inst informed exactly who I am as a person for the rest of life. It gave me a drive to succeed and a relentless tenacity to prove others wrong. Is this a good thing? Only those that are close to me could comment. I still feel anger at the treatment levelled at some boys who had the audacity not to fit into the normal mould that was prescribed by a playground mafia. I could have done more to stop the bullying and nastiness, but I didn’t. I don’t think I am alone in feeling this.

Our school motto was quarere verum, Latin for seek the truth; I am finally doing so eleven years later.


Bush telegram

Five months in Australia, two jobs and now two flats.

I am moving from Lavender Bay, an extremely beautiful, if rather quiet area of Sydney from my delightful Colombian flatmates, to Manly beach a short ferry ride away. It’s been an interesting time with the Colombians. The flat has become the unofficial embassia de Colombia with most mornings spent negotiating through a sea of bodies asleep on my floor. Before you start picturing a bevy of bikini clad bodies akin to Shakira let me stop you. It’s more exhausted Colombian men fresh from working in the local burrito shop who have passed out from too much joie de vivre. If a Colombian arrives in Sydney, they come straight to our flat. My flatmate is a head chef at a pub as well as offering unofficial consular advice to his compatriots. He insists I need to eat more, so we never starve. We also have a lovely view of the Harbour Bridge from the balcony.

I have been speaking Spanish most nights, as his friends do not understand Northern Irish English terribly well. I cannot blame them. I have been surprised and delighted at how 11 year old schoolboy Spanish has withstood several dinner parties and untold visitors. But alas, all good things come to an end. I am moving to Manly with a friend I used to work with. The flat itself may have had a Granny as chief interior designer, I am looking out for a carriage clock, but can’t find one on the mantle piece. But the rent is good, the people I will be living with are great and it has a balcony view over the sea. What more could you want. I can see the surfers when I wake up over my avo and toast.

Sydney has been an interesting experience. I certainly have found it a lot harder than anticipated. Whilst we both speak the same language, there are many differences culturally. I have relatively good French and Spanish, but am lost with the local lingo at times. “Yeh mate, I got in a blue in the game, got a spray and got myself hooked.” Apparently this friend got into an altercation in a game, got shouted at and then got substituted. You learn every day. Also the body is a temple in Sydney. I never worried how I looked in my life, until here. People treat chocolate like nuclear waste, and an avocado is treated as an indulgence. Directness is also a surprise. “How the hell do you play rugby mate?” A polite injection from an account director today at my new job. He was referring to my body. I was trying to think of something witty about my brain being a more potent weapon, but he had a fair point, as those of you who have seen me play rugby can attest. God wanted me to be a ballroom dancer or a jockey, not playing rugby.

Like an Australian seeking slim bits of sun in London, I seek theatre here. I went and booked Tennessee Williams at the Sydney Theatre Company, unfortunately it was cancelled due to a member of the cast getting sick. Then I went to As You Like It at the Opera House, Tamara from Home and Away was a very solid Celia. I was as surprised as you are. The set was fairly basic, with a green sheet hanging from the lights to depict the Forest of Arden, I’ve seen better at the Trinity Fresher Coop.

I have also started training with the local Aussie Rules team, the North Shore Bombers. They liked what they saw in my first session, and I got numerous high fives, back slaps and good on yas. I aim to eek out a spot in the lower grades, where I can showcase my fading skills to the two men and their dogs. I have retired from the Ocean Swimming Race series when I found out an 85 year old man beat me. My halycon days on the RBAI water polo team have faded.

Slowly, but surely Sydney is growing on me.


Hiraeth in Sydney

There is a beautiful Welsh word, hiraeth. It has no direct translation into the English language, but its sentiment is universal, a nostalgia or a longing for a homeland that you can never return to.

This word resonates as I type this in the upper floors of an anonymous Sydney skyscraper stuck on a Thursday night at work. Caught in the pragmatism of setting up a new life for yourself and all of the challenges that come with it, versus the need to involuntarily look back at your life in Ireland. You know that the nostalgia is sugar coated and false in many cases, but it doesn’t stop your mind playing back to a land you know is now difficult to return to.

My inbox is filled with messages from school friends in Belfast and university friends from Dublin that tell me I am living the dream. Their dream has a good climate and natural beauty, but it doesn’t include the reality of life so far away from home. I understand the messages, I used to send them to friends far from home in seemingly exotic locations as well.

The picture as emigrants that we paint on social media is often insincere. For every sun kissed picture of a beach that is posted, there are thousands that will never be seen. Nobody posts a picture alone at the office late at night, stranded and isolated with no support network around you. Unfortunately, and foolishly, that would be failing to live up to the dream that we have disingenuously portrayed to our friends and family.

There are thousands of Irish emigrants that arrive in their new countries and integrate into their new lives seamlessly. They have my admiration. My move to London five years ago felt similarly easy. Clapham felt like an extended halls of residence from Dublin. There were familiar faces on every street corner. Australia has been a completely different and in many ways a more difficult experience, but it has taught me more about myself than any other time in my life. I arrived alone, with very few friends, no job, no flat and no idea of what lay ahead.

Arriving on the other side of the world with a blank slate is an exciting prospect, but also a terrifying one. Every lunchtime in Sydney for the last two months I was served by a lady from Cork of my age. I enjoyed chatting to her. She has been blighted by homesickness, and no amount of blue skies and beaches will cure her wish to return home to a sodden sod. I did everything I could to persuade her to stay, but regardless of the many positive reasons to stay, her heart was providing the strongest case to leave. One year ago, I never could have empathised. Today, I wished her well before she left Sydney for good.

Unfortunately, I am stubborn by nature. I feel that regardless of how hard it can be so far from home, the opportunity to live abroad is one that rarely comes around again. I have played Australian Football, rugby and been constantly impressed by the warmth and kindness of the new Australian friends that I have made. I wake up feeling grateful for the winter sun on my face. I feel Ireland will always be there, and no matter how hard this experience abroad can be at times, I will be forever grateful for the experience to grow as a person. These opportunities come by all too rarely.