Tag Archives: Cancer

You’ll never beat the Irish (breakfast)


“It’s survived recessions and depressions, world and civil wars.” Pic: Gus-DLC

First things first. There’s a great deal I like about being Irish.

An appreciation of the underdog, the mental ability to handle days and weeks of rain at a time, a healthy bulls***meter.

But more than once over the years I’ve felt that it’s time to hand my passport in.

It’s not the old post-colonial self-loathing (blaming the Brits being a national sport), but there are times, when I spot a news story or overhear a remark, that I wonder: what the hell is this place?

Like when I see this.


Because the first question you ask, when you discover that you’ve spent your life eating carcinogens is: ‘can I still eat carcinogens? Two or three types fried up together?’

Of all the gifts Ireland’s bestowed on the world the ‘Irish breakfast’ is the one that leaves me the coldest.

It’s ‘wrap the green flag round me’ on a plate. It’s traditional (but don’t the Brits, and the Ulstermen, have their versions too?), it’s salt of the earth, it patriotically supports the Irish meat industry, and it’s washed down by that other Irish morning staple – tea.

It’s eaten by all ages, from cradle to grave; and served everywhere, from the overpriced, tears-in-your- ketchup nostalgia version at departures in Dublin Airport, to the under-heated, shrivelled apology-on-a-plate passed off to you at your mid-range b and b. And in a thousand sad breakfast buffets in between.

The bacon’s either see-through or incinerated (occasionally both), the sausage an emaciated Denny Gold medal, the tomato cold and the eggs rubbery – but not as rubbery as those tumorous button mushrooms you try (and fail) to spear.

Porridge - carcinogen-free. And grey. Pic: Nillerdk

Porridge – carcinogen-free. And grey. Pic: Nillerdk

At least the baked beans are edible – but that’s probably because they’ve come from a tin.

Now it’s under threat. The World Health Organisation has advised that processed meat causes cancer, prompting panicked warnings of ‘the end of breakfast-as-we-know it’ and fuelling vox pops in greasy spoons with red-faced, recalcitrant diners who pledge a dying loyalty to their daily sausage.

Irish civilisation  – or that part of it that exists between 8 and 10am and is collecting its cholesterol medication afterwards – is under threat.

But fear not. Given that the Irish are among the most prolific drinkers in the world, and that one-in-five of us still smoke, one or two other cancers are likely to have first call on our national mortality.

Much as it disturbs me, the Irish breakfast always endures. It’s survived recessions and depressions, world and civil wars. Even dioxins in pork couldn’t stop it. When the last Irishman drags his wearied, ragged frame across what remains of post-apocalyptic Dublin his final words will be: “what time does Matt The Rashers open at?”

As for me, I’ll stick to a couple of the other things the Irish are famous for. Like porridge. And complaining.

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God’s a maniac…but we really, really need him

Detail from ' Creation of the Sun and Moon' Michelangelo (1511) Sistine Chapel

Detail from ‘ Creation of the Sun and Moon’
Michelangelo (1511)

Well that’s Him told.

Comedian Stephen Fry reckons God is “utterly evil, capricious and monstrous”. He’s also “quite clearly a maniac” – one who inflicts unjust pain on people.

Something similar has occured to most rational people at some point, and even to the most devout, surely, on occasion. And yet we believe.

The believers were among the many who read and shared Fry’s remarks after they were reported this week.

But the comedian missed the point somewhat. It’s not God himself, a grumpy reactionary with odd, millennia-old, moral habits and preachy ground staff that we need, it’s the comfort believing in him offers us.

How would we get up in the morning (or face what’s lies before us at any other time of the day) without a repository for our fears, a cosmic counterweight to life’s unpredictable shifts?

God is an answer to the headline terrors: fear of death, fear of illness, fear of losing loved ones. “But he allows horrible cancers to kill children,” it’s pointed out. Well, we let that go.

We know most sin is bad and that some of the Ten Commandants have merit, but we seem less interested in holy box-ticking than in having an otherwordly comfort blanket to keep the bad stuff away.

Stephen Fry Pic: vpjayant

Stephen Fry
Pic: vpjayant

If we were guaranteed this comfort blanket we could do without the judgmental heavenly curmudgeon Himself, constantly watching and assessing us. But one comes with the other and – despite Stephen Fry’s outrage – most people find it hard to drop the lot.

There is a way out of this existential echo-chamber, of course, which doesn’t involve hoping, praying and queuing, fingers crossed, outside the Pearly Gates. This is to reject a God, accept the meaninglessness of life…and just get on with it.

If only it were that easy. Even those of us who profess disbelief, who can’t see through the celestial curtain to whatever lies beyond, have an occasional ‘what if’ moment.

What if there is a God? What if he’s reading my mind, putting me on His List or taking me off it? And if I believed would have to go through this tortuous second guessing every time I have insomnia, or am stuck at the traffic light, or walking on a beach?

There may well be a God. if it’s not each of us, or Stephen Fry, it may – to pick one contender among millions – be Randy Newman.

After all, didn’t He sing:

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me


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‘Burned by my vision of a world that shone’

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard

Some time on November 1 a 29-year-old woman in Oregon will take medication to end her life.

Brittany Maynard’s decision went global over the past couple of weeks. She has an untreatable brain tumour and faces a certain and debilitating death.

Faced with this Maynard decided that “death with dignity was the best option”. She intends to end her life, with legal medical assistance, later this month, shortly after her husband’s birthday.

Now an advocate for America’s leading end-of-life choice organisation the coverage of Maynard’s story has, understandably, precipitated a debate on assisted dying/suicide (take your pick), medical ethics, and the existence and role of a God.

At times the commentary, again understandably, has overshadowed the tragedy of Maynard’s diagnosis, the fact of a life unlived, plans unfulfilled, the cruel cost of mortality.

Reading her story I tried to focus on that, rather than the mechanics of her death.

Two days after I first encountered Brittany Maynard’s case I was sitting in work when, on a radio in the background, I heard the familiar, now fainter, voice of the writer and critic Clive James.

James has, like Maynard, an aggressive cancer which he acknowledges will soon claim his life.

Clive James. Pic: RubyGoes

Clive James.
Pic: RubyGoes

Interviewed two days after his 75th birthday he spoke of his surprise at still being around. “I do have a brand of leukaemia that will come back and get me, but nobody knows when,” he stated.

While Maynard has faced her illness by becoming a public activist James, a long-time public figure in Britain, has turned inwards, writing poems that address his mortality and assess his life.

“I had a new subject, death itself…It’s all very interesting. It’s adventure. And writers are usually a bit short of adventure,” he explained.

Maynard will die with the help of medication, James will not.

When I foresee their passing it’s not the pain or distress, the ethics or the tablets, that come to mind.

Instead it’s the last stanza of one of James’ final poems, Japanese Maple, in which he foresees his death, lying in his room and looking upon his garden, his “slow fading out” complete.

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Japanese maple, Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris. Pic: Line1

Japanese maple, Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris.
Pic: Line1


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We tipped our hats to Mr Chevron

Phil Chevron

Phil Chevron, New York, 2011.
Pic: Marnie Joyce

In Manhattan’s desert twilight, in the death of afternoon,
We stepped hand-in-hand on Broadway,
Like the first men on the moon…

Then we said goodnight to Broadway, giving it our best regards,
Tipped our hats to Mr Cohen,
Dear old Time Square’s favourite bard.

Then we raised a glass to JFK, and a dozen more besides…

Fifteen years later I can’t remember if that was me or the emigrant in Thousands Are Sailing, Phil Chevron’s song about the 1980s’ Irish-American diaspora.

For a brief time in the sticky, smoky, all-night summer of 1998, we seemed interchangeable.

My stay in Manhattan in September of that year was a brief one; Chevon’s song was populated by those who went and remained and perhaps never returned.

I stumbled up Broadway to a pal’s apartment; his characters rode the 7 train home to a room in Woodside, tools under the bed, next to their suitcase.

Such was the ’80s immigrant experience Chevron drew from. But his thousands numbered others: those who left the hillsides of Galway and Mayo in the 1840s on coffin ships to work the railroads to California, police the Five Points on the Lower East Side, staff the five and dimes in Southie.

“Did the old songs taunt or cheer you? Or did they still make you cry?” Chevron’s immigrant asks these earlier generations.

Astor Place, NYC, 2000. Pic: Yinka Oyesiku

‘In Brendan Behan’s footsteps…’
Astor Place, NYC, 2000.
Pic: Yinka Oyesiku

By the time I reached New York such questions were, for many Irish immigrants, historical. The friend I was staying with left Ireland to work for a technology company in lower Manhattan, connected with the multinational flow of the city and never looked back.

‘Irish-America’ still existed – Clinton’s involvement in the nascent Peace Process of that year attested to its strength – but it was long removed from the Sweepstakes or the Clancy Brothers on Ed Sullivan.

Thousands Are Sailing, though released a decade earlier, captured much of this. The song chronicled an immigration born of opportunity, not solely desperation – though the two surely became mixed at times, during the dark hours in the “rooms that daylight never sees”.

It’s possibly the Pogues’ greatest song, no small boast given that this was a band that produced the most famous take on late-20th century Irish-America.

It’s certainly Phil Chevron’s.

This Saturday night in Dublin there’s a celebration of his work at the Olympia Theatre. Thousands Are Sailing is sure to be sung. The night’s a testimonial show because Phil Chevron has, in his own words, “lethal” cancer.

I won’t be there to see and hear it.

But I’ll tip my hat to Mr Chevron, and his finest song, the next time I find myself in the desert twilight of Times Square.

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The light above the Liffey


The Dublin Streets: a Vendor of Books, 1889.
Walter Frederick Osbourne
Pic: National Gallery of Ireland

IT’S hot in Ireland these days. By Irish standards.

It’s also bright, very bright. Last month saw six consecutive days of more than 14 hours sunshine in Dublin, a 71-year record.

This is rare in a city which, since I moved to it almost 20 years ago, is usually marked in my mind by wet streets, gusting River Liffey breezes and intermittent sunbursts between showers. To me Dublin is usually cast in an autumnal hue, the flavour of which struck the English poet Philip Larkin.

“Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops”.*

The past winter saw even less pewter light than usual, with Dublin recording its dullest January since 1964. This was a another Celtic twilight.

I dimly recall weeks of grey runs in the park, low clouds and early nights. (The New Year gloom has one advantage though – it allows Dubliners to see a series of rare Turner prints at the National Gallery. Each January an exhibition is scheduled to coincide with the pale light to ensure the drawings are not damaged.)

Sun, sea, sky. Dublin 2013.

Sun, sea, sky. Dublin 2013.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

This murk seems a world away from the brilliant light of the past week in the capital. Dublin itself appears entirely different when illuminated for 14 hours a day, with the accompanying heat and dry air. The mood of the city and its citizens is lifted.

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?’ is the standard question.

Actually it would. But not because pale Dubliners would acquire a Mediterranean hue or buy sunglasses – and have a genuine reason to wear them.

For one thing, aside from its mood benefits it’s speculated that the summer sun’s higher levels of Vitamin D can help prevent cancer – an interesting argument for a country with, depressingly, the second highest rate of the disease in the world .

We’ll never have Californian levels of sun, though, despite the best efforts of global warming and a changeable Gulf Stream. Dublin is not a city of extremes and neither is its weather. The days of sunshine this month will be mirrored by the gray days of midwinter. The true, unchanging Irish sky is somewhere in between.

More than a century ago the Dublin artist Walter Frederick Osbourne painted a bookseller’s stall at Aston Quay, close to O’Connell Bridge in the centre of the city.

The carts, gas lamps and river punts are all long gone. The bridge remains, as does the Custom House behind and, above it all, that milky red, coppery evening sky – the light above the Liffey.


* Philip Larkin, ‘Dublinesque’, Collected Poems (The Marvell Press & Faber and Faber, 2003), p 140

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