Wednesday, September 17, 2014

No Small Beer

by Martin Rea  © 2014

Beer seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance as of late.  For so long the unsung tipple of the plain man, the malt based beverage  is now lauded in the food and drink sections of glossy weekend supplements  in the fulsome language once the preserve of wine reviews.  One reads, among other things, of citrus aromas, robust bodies, caramel undertones and satisfying maltiness when a beer's sensory impact is appraised, and reviewers go to great pains and self-sacrifice to successfully pair a beer with food, decreeing it safe for us all to enjoy.  It's all a far cry from a pint of plain being your only man.

The talk these days is of craft beers and micro breweries; maverick artisans going against the grain (sorry) and putting their very souls into creating sublime brews.  It is a romantic notion, for sure; one where David, the plucky micro-brewer, is cast fighting the good fight against the unfeeling Goliaths of bland, mass-produced global brands.  Having a glass of beer has now become a political statement, an act of defiance, for the discerning urbanite of a certain socio-economic demographic.

A little historic perspective will show, of course, that none of this is new.  At the start of the nineteenth century there were over two hundred breweries in Ireland producing ales and stouts.  The smaller ones were bought out by the bigger ones and subsequently shut down.  Mergers, inflation and World Wars altered beer consumption patterns until some twelve major breweries remained in Ireland by 2000.  Then, taking their lead from the flourishing American beer scene, the micro-breweries began opening, offering new styles and tastes, and now there are some fifty operating in the country.

And is this craft beer any good, you might ask?  Well, generally it is; some of it, in fact, is very good.  Craft beer is characterized by small scale production and the freshness of the finished product is palpable. The intensity of the brews, owing to the unstinting  use of all-natural ingredients often leaves the more established brands in the shade, looking insipid and miserly, so much so that they now are launching their own ranges of craft beers.  (Surely an oxymoron, I think to  myself.)

It's something of a paradox then, that while craft beers have caused such a stir in certain more edified circles, and can justifiably call themselves superior, premium products, they have still made such little impact on the mass market in terms of sales.  Latest figures show that sales of craft beers are up 180% since 2011, but that still only accounts for 2% of the overall beer market.  Some would say it is early days yet and the trend can only go upwards, but some who invested in brewing kettles and fermenting vessels must also be feeling a little nervous by now.

For it seems the core of beer drinkers is an inveterate bunch and unflinchingly loyal to their own chosen brand, the same brand they've been drinking all their lives, possibly, even, the same brand their fathers drank too.  I was in a fine pub in a seaside town recently where I ordered a pint of craft beer.  It was presented in a glass tankard, ruby red with a fine creamy head-a beautiful looking, tasty thing it was.  Between satisfying gulps, I asked the affable barman what he thought of that particular drink, but he had no answer for me; he hadn't tried it yet although they had stocked it for over two years!

My advice to you would be to try a craft beer. If you feel a little nervous about doing this in public you can always buy a bottle or two in an off-licence and take it home discreetly in a brown paper bag. Maybe you won't like it, maybe you will, but at least in buying that one drink you'll be giving yourself the chance of experiencing something new, and you'll be acknowledging  the efforts made by some to bring more choice to your local's shelves.  It's not a new religion nor will it change your life; simply put, some of it just tastes very, very good.

Monday, September 15, 2014


by AIDAN O'SHEA    © 2/8/2010 

My cousin never saw her father. Bernard died on September 15th, 1941, four months before she was born. A massive heart attack, the hallmark of the O'Shea males, felled him at the age of 39 years. He had been 18 years old in 1920 when the War of Independence erupted in Ireland. It was a conflict characterised by ambush and guerrilla stealth on the Irish side, and by curfew, repression, summary arrest and military trial by the governing British forces. Small wonder that Bernard, a printer by trade and an avid reader, was swept up in "The Boys". This affectionate title for The Irish Republican Army (IRA) conveys the covert support and protection then provided by the local nationalist population.

During martial law and curfew in Cork City in 1920-21, each household was obliged to post a list of family members on the inside of the front door. When raided by the police, or the dreaded paramilitary Black and Tans, Bernard's mother struggled to explain his absence, claiming overtime and night working as the reason. The truth was that Bernard was on the run, living hand to mouth in safe houses between acts of sabotage and violence against the forces of British law and order.

A truce with Britain in July 1921 was followed by a treaty establishing an Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann). The treaty was approved by a majority in the provisional Irish parliament (Dáil) and by the people in a subsequent general election. But Bernard's rebel heart could not accept this half-way house to a republic, and he joined the resistance against the nascent state. This resistance dragged on into a bloody civil war lasting into the early months of 1923. Families, friends and IRA comrades were divided during that dark period.

History tells us that many of the republicans left Ireland after the amnesty ending the civil war, while others regrouped under De Valera to form the Fianna Fáil Party, which won a majority in the general election of 1932. Despite the passage of time and the politicisation of republican support, a small group of so-called diehard republicans vowed to resist the Free State and its partition from the six counties of Northern Ireland. This diehard group re-activated during World War Two (1939-45), in which The Irish Free State was neutral. Bernard went on the run yet again, despite being married with two daughters and another baby on the way. Many republicans were interned without trial by the Irish government to stifle any subversive contacts with Nazi Germany.  Then Bernard's fevered life of idealism, fanatical resistance and flight came to a sudden end in 1941.

So, as I have said, my cousin never saw her father, although she was named Bernadette in his honour.  Neither did I see her father, as I was born a few months after her. But I was thrilled in a childish way by his acts of daring and defiance. I failed to see the struggle that his widow Christine endured, raising three girls in the bleak years of the 1940s, trying to add to her meagre pension by doing housework for others. She died in November 1957, aged 54 years. Bernadette was 15 years old and it was then that I lost her. She went to live with her older sister who had qualified as a nurse in England. That entire branch of the family went to the very country whose imperial power their father had resisted.  A pall of distance and silence separated us.

Fast forward fifty years (1957-2007). Ann Cantwell, a client in my pharmacy at Blackpoool, casually mentioned that she might be related to me through marriage. Her late aunt Christine was married to Bernard O'Shea. Not only that, but my lost cousin Bernadette was writing regularly to Ann from Harvey Bay, Queensland, Australia.  Two email addresses and a couple of clicks of a mouse later, we were in touch!

Bernadette's story unfolded like this. Having left school at 15 without a certificate, she left Ireland at 16, worked in unskilled jobs around Portsmouth, and then joined The Royal Air Force!  Did she hesitate over her oath of loyalty to the Crown? This experience gave her discipline, training and the ambition to progress. She trained as a nurse, married a policeman and they subsequently divorced. At the age of 37, she took an assisted passage to Australia, under a scheme to encourage immigrants from the mother country (UK). She worked in hospitals in Sydney, progressing to the rank of a theatre nurse, and then joined the nursing corps of The Australian Army. There she met Bob Ney, a veteran of the Vietnam War, and they married. They had no children, and now work voluntarily for the many widows and injured veterans of the Vietnam campaign, and laterally of the Afghanistan campaign.

Bernadette and Bob recently spent a week in Cork meeting the lost cousins of her youth, chatting in her lilting Cork accent about her early life in Dillon's Cross and school at South Pres convent.  She was full of enthusiasm for the extended family.   Cork bore her but Britain and Australia made her. She was very pleased to learn that my son is named Cormac Bernard O'Shea, and that he lives in Sydney, Australia.

Friday, September 12, 2014

War Ends in the Morning

by Madelaine Nerson Mac Namara    © 2014

Dashing the early mists
like the towers of a keep
beside lake or river
dreams half-forgotten
appear arbitrary
as if they might belong
just to anybody.

You cling to that fancy
though I claim otherwise.

Yet sometimes you relent
propped upon grey dawn light
you'll grip more tightly
the quilt of regained ground
condescend to recount
as you might a weird play
your latest disowned dream.

Other times, as you sleep
you cry out, or moan, agonised.

Unpaid guest of your dreams
baffled interpreter
of your booby-trapped night
I'll sit up, haul you out
of your own no-man's land
where nightmare's chalked your face
rocked your dutiful schoolboy soldier soul.

Monday, September 1, 2014


by Victor Sullivan    © 2010

How a Great Moment in World History was unexpectedly revisited.

Essex, England in 1959 and I was being entertained in my girlfriend's home by her parents.
While preparations for dinner were being made in the kitchen, I sat beside my future father-in-law, Horace Mansfied, watching a documentary programme on a black and white TV set. The subject was the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaaki in 1945.  

Hod Mansfield, a tall, handsome man, addicted to cricket and crosswords, had never told his family or friends what he had been doing during World War 2 other than that he had been a wireless operator at an RAF ground station. He never spoke of what his wartime duties involved and, if asked, he would display a little silver fish badge pinned behind the lapel of his jacket. (Fish do not speak).

The TV programme concluded with vivid black & white images of the two devastated cities and the formal Japanese surrender to General Douglas McArthur on board the American Naval ship, Missouri, in Tokyo Bay on 2 September, 1945. The narrator's concluding words were:
 "..... a message was sent to London saying Japan has capitulated."
Suddenly my future father-in-law, slapped his knee loudly and shouted, "I decoded that message! I knew the war was over before Churchill or the King." 

It was the first and the only indication that he had ever been engaged in anything unusual or exceptional during his wartime service. The only additional information he disclosed was that the hardest part about it was keeping the momentous news a secret. He could not tell anyone what he knew while the entire world continued to live in ignorance of the situation. The official public announcement was not made until two days later.

After Horace Mansfield's early death a few years later, the family requested access to his Service Records. They were informed that no records were available. All the pages had been neatly cut from his Log Book.