Friday, December 24, 2010

Pogues' Fairytale is not a good Christmas song

As I write this I'm listening to the "Top 100 Christmas songs" countdown on ChristmasFM, Ireland's Christmas-only radio station. The countdown is only now in the 90s so there is a long way to go before they get to Number 1, but I'm sure it will be Fairytale of New York by the Pogues & Kirsty MacCool.

How can I be so sure that Fairytale will be Number 1? Well, this isn't the first of these polls. In fact, it is one of the annual features of the Christmas season that some media outlet will release a poll of either Irish or British people and invariably Fairytale is Number 1.

I am at a loss to understand how this can be. Fairytale of New York is a good song; I like it. However, it is a cynical, hopeless song that seems devoid of anything that makes Christmas special.

Now I know there are some people who don't like Christmas and probably enjoy the gritty "realism" that Fairytale evokes. Yet there is no way that most people feel this way about Christmas otherwise there'd be no way that It's A Wonderful Life would regularly feature as the best Christmas movie of all time.

I really don't understand why anyone would want to listen to Fairytale of New York at Christmas time. It's so depressing.

I used to think maybe it was a case of people not really listening to the lyrics, as happens (happened) with couples who love The Police's Every Breath You Take. I don't think that is the case with Fairytale, however. It really is inexplicable to me.

Springsteen's Santa Claus is Coming to Town is fantastic and just about any Christmas song from Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra hits the right note at Christmas time.

If it has to have "grim reality", I prefer Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas, which is an upbeat song despite the story behind it. And I really like Garth Brooks' Belleau Wood, which is an excellent song about the 1914 truce during WWI (although full of historical inaccuracies).

Both Do They Know It's Christmas and Belleau Wood contain that essential Christmas ingredient - hope. Fairytale starts with hope, but spits it out.

I have to say, however, that my favorite Christmas song is none of those above. It is Good King Wenceslas, which is the very opposite of Fairytale. The story of the man of wealth and power trudging through the snow on a dark, stormy winter's night to bring "flesh", wine and pine logs to a poor man is the essence of what Christmas is about. Hope. Hope was born 2010 years ago and Good King Wenceslas is a great summary of what tomorrow should mean to all of us.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Irish Weather goes "viral"

At the old saying goes, "it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good." That's certainly the case in Ireland where winds from the north have reestablished themselves bringing frigid weather and falls of snow to most of the country.

For many people this means another spell of trouble getting to work, dangerous icy roads and sidewalks and loads of cancellations. Given it's Christmas week, the return of the frosty weather has meant another blow to those stores that were hoping a good Christmas might save them.
However, there is a web site for which the snowy weather has been a boon. (Twitter: @iweatheronline, #IWO), a web site and now a viral social phenomenon, has captured a huge audience in a few short weeks.

I've mentioned before how it doesn't snow in Ireland like it snows in Albany, where i grew up, or New York, where I lived as an adult. Snow in Ireland, when we have it, comes in waves off the sea. This is one of the keys to Irish Weather Online's success.

Unlike the national weather service - Met Eireann - IWO provides a localized, "nowcasting" service which has been very popular during the recent spell of cold and snow.

Met Eireann will set the tone for the day with a general forecast telling us there is a chance of snow showers in the East or the North or wherever. IWO provides that as well on the web site, but through Twitter they provide SNOW ALERTS: "Snow in the next 15 minutes in Kilmihil, Doonbeg, Carrigaholt." What I've really enjoyed about this is that so many of the reports are about towns/villages/hamlets that I've never heard of before. I go to Google Maps to find where they are.

The past few weeks my phone has been buzzing with these snow alerts. When I'm at home they're mostly just fun (& annoying to my daughters), but when I'm out I love being told that a heavy snow shower will be heading my way in 15 minutes. That's just enough time to determine whether I should return or carry on with the journey. It only takes about 15 minutes for the roads to go from slushy to impassable.

Oh, and one more point in their favor: IWO has been (maybe only marginally) more accurate in forecasting the two cold spells we've had this month.

As well as the snow alerts, the site has been answering questions and posting pictures from people all over Ireland, basically providing an online forum for Irish people to talk about - share, really - one of their favorite topics: the weather. Blogging, tweeting, Facebooking the weather has really taken off and Irish Weather Online is at the center of the conversation.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Laid low by a snowball

It's always great fun until someone loses an eye. Who hasn't heard that old adage before?

Well, even a hurt eye can put a serious damper on the fun, as I found out last night. We had a heavy shower of snow yesterday evening and every kid in the neighborhood was again out throwing snowballs. I (and I refuse to say stupidly) decided to go out and join in.

My neighbor was out there with his kids and he was under assault from all sides. I joined him and shortly afterwards another neighbor joined our side. There were three of us; there were at least 10 of them.

We were doing fine. We had a neat operation watching out for each with occasional forays into enemy territory to administer 'justice'. All was going well.

Then - somehow without me noticing - my two teammates vanished to investigate a house alarm. I was on my own. Soon a swarm of junior Visigoths was overrunning our citadel.

I was making and throwing snowballs as fast as I could, driving back the horde. I was having some success, but then it happened. The smallest kid out there had snuck up on me. He got within 18 inches of me and then opened up...

My eye was hurting. I instantly threw up the white flag and headed for a shelter to see if it would clear. I stayed out another 10 minutes before I realized my eye was stinging too much for me to take any further part in the war.

I couldn't open my eye for most of the night. Today it's still fairly red and sore. I can't see too well - reading on the computer is a strain.

So, lesson learned? Maybe, but I hope not. I'd hate to think my last ever snowball fight ended in pain rather than the silly chatter about successful strikes. Throwing snowballs is great fun - until someone loses (the use of) an eye.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Absent shoppers out of sight, soon out of country

You've read so many times about how bad Ireland's economy is that if you don't live here I'm sure you're sick and tired of hearing it. Well, regardless, it's true. Things are really bad here. The IMF bailout is only a part of the story. It's BAD.

Yet, yet, yet ...

Twice recently as I've walked around Dublin with my head up and eyes open (not always the case) I've been struck by how many people seem to be out shopping, spending money. Maybe there are fewer than in prior years. I don't know, but by no means is Dublin a ghost town this Christmas.

The streets were busy with shoppers, the stores seemed crowded - no way I was going into one of those! - and the people on the train had loads of shopping bags.

So what's going on? I don't know. I've heard people talking about this Christmas as a 'last big blowout' before they have to live with smaller 2011 paychecks (thanks to new taxes in last week's budget). I guess that's possible. I really hope it's not a case of the people following the government's lead, taking on more debt when they already have more than they can repay.

I don't really think that's the case. I think it's just a clear demonstration as to how uneven the pain of a recession (depression, really) is spread. This is a 'tough time' for Ireland, but for each of those who have lost their jobs or businesses it's a tragedy, a crushing blow.

There are tens of thousands of people in the Dublin area who have been laid off over the past two years. I presume they were not among the mass of people I saw shopping in the city. They're just absent, out of sight, possibly nearly in hiding. Soon they will be not so much out-of-sight as out of the country.

This is Ireland after all and many of these laid-off people will not be sitting around waiting for things to improve while their skills and self-esteem atrophy. They're heading for the exit. Niall O'Dowd's column on the two young women emigrating two weeks before Christmas speaks volumes. A gut-wrenching decision especially with Christmas looming, but staying was too big a gamble on their future.

Sure it's only one case, but one that's being played out time and again all over Ireland. We don't have the statistics yet, but everyone knows someone who has left or is going just after Christmas. The numbers leaving are significant and if things pick up elsewhere, the numbers will explode. The press in America, Britain and Canada is already noticing the increasing numbers of young Irish around.

For the middle-age unemployed it's a nightmare. Families are harder to relocate. My daughters know girls their age whose fathers are now working in Britain, France, the Middle East and traveling home to see their families when they can.

Many in the media speak about a decade of correction before the current problems are resolved. That's a nightmare without end for the middle-aged unemployed.

The economy is bad, very bad, but it's a lot worse for some than others.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It's raining in Ireland, praise be!

Ireland is melting. Two weeks after snow and ice first started covering big chunks of the country it's losing ground. Grass is reappearing and those unshoveled sidewalks are gradually becoming less slippery.


Although today felt warm, the temperature probably topped out around 42F (5.5C) this afternoon. Best of all, it rained for a little while. Not long enough to totally eliminate the 3" of solid ice that has covered many of the roads in the Dublin area, but it's a start. The forecast says it will be similar tomorrow and over the weekend. With any luck the roads will all be ice-free come Monday.

This was a significant spell of cold weather, much longer-lasting than last winter's 'once in 40 years event'. And as I mentioned last winter, it rarely gets cold enough for snow to fall and stick here. I haven't met anyone who can remember it staying for nearly two weeks.

On Tuesday I was driving along the highway and caught a glimpse to my right of a wooded, snow-covered area through which I could see a frozen, snow-covered farm. For a moment I was transported back home. I thought I was driving down the NYS Thruway on a January day.

Of course the snow that fell was never properly cleared from sidewalks and side streets, which is where all that thick ice came from. There remains a real reluctance to clear slushy streets.

The public authorities did learn one lesson from last winter: throw a lot more salt and sand on the snow. It's not as good as actually moving the snow off the roads, but there was less disruption this time. Not a lot less, but less.

Despite the extra salt and sand, thousands of people couldn't get to work, costing our suffering economy hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity. Schools were closed, flights were delayed or canceled, and the hospitals saw a massive increase in the numbers of patients presenting with fractures. All due to a few inches of unplowed/unshoveled snow.

A new developing and possibly worse problem than the roads, however, is the water. Thanks to the deep freeze and now the thaw, many water pipes are bursting. Adding to this problem is that during the cold days and nights many people kept their water running in their sinks in a bid to prevent their pipes freezing.

As a result water supplies are extremely low. Many local authorities are asking people to limit their water usage; some are just cutting off the water for hours each evening. This is the third straight night that Dublin has issued water warnings, with many areas cut off completely from 7pm to 7am.

Frozen roads and sidewalks and now water shortages. It's easy to see why the people of Ireland are so keen on returning to their normal wet winter weather. Rain will wash away the ice and fill the reservoirs. Bring it on!

Friday, December 3, 2010

No one is dreaming of a 'White Christmas' in Ireland

A few weeks ago some Irish people, thinking about the leaner Christmas looming this year, were probably wistfully hoping that this might actually be a "white Christmas," something a bit magical to make this a Christmas to remember fondly. Not any longer as I doubt anyone in Ireland is "dreaming of a White Christmas" today.

Early last Saturday morning I had to wake early to bring my daughter to the train. She was heading to Limerick to play in a basketball tournament. We left the house around 5:50 or so. There was a light flurry in the air and a dusting of snow on the ground, but I thought little of it.

By the time I got her to the train, it was snowing pretty hard and the roads were covered. As I headed home two thoughts were running through my head: (1) The need to go SLOW and (2) the hope that it would last long enough for my son to get out to play in it.

I needn't have worried. The snow didn't melt quickly as it usually does and he got to play in it. Later that night it snowed again - more this time - and on Sunday we had a little more snow.

And so it went on and off snow and cold, crisp days and nights. Very unusual for Ireland. Today is the first day since Saturday that we've had no snow at all.

Somewhere along the way, the picture post card scenery and sounds of children laughing and playing wore out for Irish people. Of course, the roads were never properly cleared, although at least there was extra sand and salt around for treating the roads compared with last winter's snow debacle. This evening the sidewalks are a slushy, icy mess that will probably - if the recent trend holds - be frozen solid come morning time. Nobody's looking forward to that.

People are having trouble getting into work. The economy is losing €7m ($9.4m) a day thanks to the lost productivity.

Even the children seem less enthusiastic today. Fewer seem to be out throwing snowballs or building snowmen or just running around in it. Some have been off school all week and are probably looking forward to getting back to normal on Monday.

Everyone just seems a bit fed up with the snow (and ice and cold). The magic is gone.

We are three weeks from Christmas, but I suspect that a lot of people are already sick of 'glistening treetops' and would be happier to settle for the traditional Irish 'green Christmas' even with the standard wet and windy.