Lady, you’ve been trolled

Kenmare, July 2020.

By Francine Cunningham

When I was living abroad, reading the whiplash wit and self-effacing humour of the social media posts of friends back in Ireland could cause the odd pang of homesickness.  Now that I have one foot firmly back on Irish soil, I’ve discovered that there are trolls, too, living among the rocks and mountains of this island.

The Twitter account @WhigNorthern styles itself as a tribute to Francis Finlay (1793-1857), founder of the Protestant newspaper the Northern Whig, and it’s stated purpose is to track Sinn Fein’s “subversive influence on Irish media.” As a firm believer in the idea that pluralistic and pithy opinions are not only necessary, but essential, to democratic debate in Irish society, I would normally celebrate such a forum. Indeed, the anonymous host of this account claims to have serious journalistic credentials.

Yet a quick scroll through the tweets coming from this account show that the most basic fact-checking has given way to some sort of fevered fantasy.

So, dear readers, it’s time to play truth or troll!

Troll: “Francine Cunningham has always been at the extreme end of radical nationalist politics – ex wife of one Frank ‘Colombia’ Connolly, long active at the anarchic end of tourist politics.”

Truth: I have only been married once and in fact I’m still married (to Peter Vandermeersch, publisher of Independent News & Media). I don’t know Frank Connolly, but looking up his name he seems to be an Irish journalist and writer who was the subject of an allegation in 2005 that he had used a false passport to gain entry to Colombia, at a time when there were suggestions of links between the guerrilla group FARC and the IRA. He has denied the allegations. If he does have an ex-wife, it’s not me.

Troll: “Francine Cunningham, from Strabane Co Tyrone, formerly of the Sunday Tribune, carried a lot of hard northern nationalist baggage into the ST, and is now depositing some of it in the Belfast Telegraph, Irish Indo and Sindo.”

Truth: I have never worked for the Sunday Tribune. I wrote for The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post in the past. On arts and culture. Never politics. Nor have I ever set foot in, or have editorial influence over, the other newspapers mentioned.

Troll: “This dirty piece by Fionnan Sheahan which dotes on Sinn Fein, shows Sheehan’s political corruption and the new Francine Cunningham pro-SF line in INM [independent News Media] titles.”

Truth: Leaving aside the comments on a very experienced journalist (who can choose whether or not they are worth responding to), the presumption that anyone from Strabane must be pro Sinn Fein is a sad, sectarian stereotype.

Elsewhere, this Twitter account repeatedly refers to me as “Lady Macbeth”, “Lady ‘Colombia’ Connolly” and “an Irish consort who has a Northern agenda.” As someone who has spent most of her adult life abroad, has never taken any public political stance and currently works for an international law firm, these tweets fall somewhere between sick and crazy.

Yet in the social media bubble,  it is said that fake news travels six times faster than the truth. Presumably because the truth is just so much more boring, so much less inflammatory. 

In fact, I do have an agenda for the Irish media and it is this: full the public square with fearless, honest and irreverent journalism. According to Scandinavian folklore, trolls turn to stone when exposed to sunlight. (FC)

United Covid nations?

Dublin, September 2020.

By Peter Vandermeersch

We’re all in this together, aren’t we? Covid-19 is basically the same in Dublin, Brussels or Amsterdam. According to the official figures, in Ireland, Belgium and The Netherlands combined almost 20,000 people died due to Coranavirus over the last seven months. The English terms “social distancing’, “lockdown” and “second wave” are also used in Dutch and French. In all three countries, too many people in care homes died in the course of the last few months. In all three countries, the number of new cases is rising rapidly and the respective governments are considering stricter measures.

So, we’re all in this together? Yes, but in very different ways. Having spent time in Ireland, Belgium and The Netherlands for work over the last couple of days, I’m completely confused. A couple of examples: in Dublin all the restaurants are closed to indoor dining. In Brussels, where there is a higher number of new infections per 100,000 people, restaurants are open but all the serving staff are obliged to wear mouth masks. 

In Maastricht, The Netherlands, no-one in the restaurants are wearing any protection. On the streets of Dublin, you see about one in four people wearing a mask.  In Brussels, everybody is obliged to wear a mask on the street (and does so). In The Netherlands last weekend,  I barely saw anybody with a mask.

In Dublin, so-called “wet pubs” are closed, while in Belgium and The Netherlands they are open. Nevertheless, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, announced that from this week onwards, Dutch bars will be asked to close… at 10 p.m. every evening.

In Belgium and The Netherlands, professional soccer matches took place last weekend with half of the normal amount of people in the stadium. In Ireland, this is still forbidden.

When I tell colleagues in Belgium and The Netherlands that pubs are still closed in Ireland and Dublin restaurants have closed their doors again, they find it hard to believe me. But when I tell them that in Belgium (with almost 11 million inhabitants) close to 10,000 people have died because of Covid, while in Ireland (with a population of under 5 million) we have lost about 1,800 people, they realise that the strict Irish system is maybe not so bad.

Small town with a big name

Photo Herbert C Cooper

By Francine Cunningham

Something about those hollow eyes, the serious but suspicious gaze and that pallid skin, speaks to me across the generations. It’s a picture of my hometown of Strabane in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, taken after the flood of 1910. Look closely and you can see the boy’s jumper held together by a safety pin at the shoulder, holes in the elbows of dresses and the well-practiced way in which older girls balance younger siblings on their hips.

The children pictured may be standing in the mud, but it’s clear that many of those feet were used to going unshod. Other pictures from the town at that time confirm that shoes were not a given. Sunday best, or earned when a child grew big enough to start work.

Born generations later, I grew up in comfortable circumstances, but my grandparents could be in that photo.

Strabane is a small, rural town of around 13,000 inhabitants. It is intersected by the River Mourne, which flows on to meet the Finn and turns into the River Foyle that runs through Derry. The Mourne would overflow its banks again, this time in my living memory. The flood which hit the town centre in 1987 wrought economic damage on what was once a bustling market town.

While in many ways this is a typical country town, surrounded by picturesque farmland against the backdrop of the Sperrin Mountains, Strabane nevertheless gained a place on the world map for dubious reasons. At the height of The Troubles, Strabane had the distinction of the highest unemployment rate in the industrial world. Hunched on the border with the Republic of Ireland, the town has also been named as one of the most economically deprived in the UK.

Two decades of bombings and shootings from the early 1970s to the 1990s, put the name of the town regularly in the press. In fact, Strabane was not only the most bombed town in Northern Ireland, it was also reputed to be the most bombed town in Europe in proportion to its size.

When I left Strabane in the Eighties to study and work in Dublin, Paris, Brussels and Boston, I discovered a world of possibilities that I could never have found at home. Many leave because they have no economic choice. Others leave because they no longer care. Some because they care too much.

Welcome to the neighbourhood(ie)

Dublin, September 2020.

By Francine Cunningham

Walk down any shopping street in Paris or Brussels and you will spot scores of women wearing the standard female uniform – a trench coat with a Longchamp bag slung over the shoulder or carried in the crook of the arm. Stroll through the streets of Dublin and you will see this uniform is ubiquitous –  a zip-up anorak, fleece and rucksack. While their continental cousins run around town in feminine T-strap pumps and Mary Janes with modest, but obligatory, heels, Irish women sport chunky work boots and trainers.

Don’t get me wrong: Irish women can look as stunning and sophisticated as any in Europe when they dress up to go out for a special dinner, or event. Then they will make an even greater effort than their French or Belgian peers, sometimes spending almost all of their clothes budget on a particularly lavish outfit, with sky-high heels and shimmering accessories. Yet the average, everyday wardrobe of the Irish woman strikes me as so much more robust and utilitarian than that of their continental equivalents.

My taste in clothes and fashion has inevitably evolved over two decades spent living and working abroad. I hadn’t realised by just how much,  until I tried to go shopping for the first time since returning to Dublin. After a couple of fruitless hours spent wandering around the packed Dundrum shopping centre in south Dublin, I declared to my sister there were no good shops there. Quite rightly, she pointed out that Dundrum shopping centre is crammed full of clothes shops. Only then it dawned on me: it was not any lack of retail outlets that was the problem, it was just that the clothes on offer were so different in style and substance from those I was used to browsing in the shopping boulevards of Paris and Brussels. 

In Paris or Brussels, few women would don a track suit to go anywhere beyond the short trip from home to gym. In Dublin, women wear sweatpants and sweatshirts to go for walks, do the weekly shopping or meet up with friends.

Now that I’ve got one ballerina-clad foot back in Dublin, I’m staying firmly with the trench coat and handbag brigade.  It’s hard to change the habits of a professional lifetime spent abroad. Nevertheless,  I have decided to adapt, just a little, to the practical realities of life on this rainswept island.  

Yes, I finally ordered a track suit online. I’ve worn my admittedly comfy, black fleece-lined track suit for a couple of lazy weekend breakfasts at home. I’ve even put out the bins and answered the door wearing it. Just this morning, I ventured out for the first time to the bakery in my track suit; but walking quickly and wearing a face mask.

Call yourself Irish? It’s in the genes

Greystones, Ireland. August 2020.

By Francine Cunningham

My family is nothing if not European. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, I’m entitled to both Irish and British passports. My husband has both Dutch and Belgian nationalities. Our son has a Belgian passport and went to a Dutch-speaking primary school, followed by an English-language international school in Brussels. He is now at university in London, studying international relations alongside students from all over the world. Yet ask him: ‘What nationality are you’? Without a moment’s hesitation, he’ll reply: ‘Irish, of course’.

My son may never have lived in Ireland, but this sense of place is deeply embedded in his DNA. As a small child he loved his holiday trips from Brussels to Dublin, where his gran would have Denny’s sausages and soda bread ready the moment he arrived from the airport. He was always fascinated by the ‘bog bricks’ (peat briquettes) in the open fire and would demand ‘Irish pancakes’(scones) after windswept walks along the beach.  

This boy may have grown up in the bureaucratic capital of Europe, but put him on a heather-covered mountain, with a dog at his side, and he’s the happiest guy on the planet. Or stand him in a freezing river with a fishing rod and somehow a boy who finds it hard to sit still for 10 minutes will contentedly spend hours and hours waiting for a rainbow trout. I remember, too, how my heart missed a beat the first time I saw him sitting on the kitchen floor, meticulously arranging fishing flies and floats into a box of tackle. He was just like the Irish grandfather, who died before he was born.

Now that I’m dividing my time between Dublin and Brussels, my son finally has the chance to spend more time in Ireland. It hasn’t dimmed his enthusiasm. The last time he had to go back to college in London he complained – not that he would miss his parents or his cousins  – but he would miss the sea.

If that wasn’t enough, he even feels at home in this Irish climate. As I write, it’s the end of August, it has rained for days and the temperature is in single figures. Back in London or Brussels, when the thermometer goes over 25 degrees, he begins to melt.

Nationality may be a mere accident of birth.  Just maybe, it is also mapped in the geography of the soul. That might explain why a boy, who grew up in the lowlands has always dreamed of hills.

Cycling in Dublin?

Dublin, June 2020.

By Peter Vandermeersch

For nine years, I lived in Amsterdam and every day I cycled from my apartment to my newspaper. Obviously, as a cyclist in Amsterdam you have to take care that you don’t collide with tourists who are either drunk, stoned, or just don’t seem to realise that you shouldn’t walk in the middle of the road. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Amsterdam city centre belongs to cyclists (and public transport). This is how it should be in 2020 in our European city centres.
After moving to Dublin in August last year, I decided to keep on cycling to work every morning. It’s about four kilometres from my home in Rathgar, south Dublin, to The Independent’s offices in Talbot Street. First I acted as if I still was in Amsterdam: no helmet, no fluo  jacket… I got on my bike and started cycling. After just a couple of days, I realised that I was the only foolish cyclist in this city without a hemet or a fluo jacket. I soon found out why: Dublin does not care about cyclists; Dublin loves cars; Dublin loves trucks; Dublin loves taxis; Dublin loves motorcycles; and Dublin loves cranes. Above all, Dublin does not give a damn about cyclists. With only a couple of exceptions, cyclists do not have separate lanes. They have to navigate big potholes in the roads. They have to share the bus lanes with…doubledecker buses. As a general rule, they have to share the road with drivers who seem to despise everyone on a bicycle, fluo jacket or not. It means that every morning that I manage to arrive safely at the office, I’m happy that I haven’t been killed. Every night that I make it home, I’m even more happy that I survived the Dublin traffic. So, in the end, I gave up. Now I walk to the office. It takes me 50 minutes, but at least my life is not in danger
Okay, I have to admit that there are some nice stretches of cycling paths in Dublin, along the Grand Canal for example. In Rathmines, where I pass every day, the cycling path was improved a few weeks ago and is now a bit better than a simple white line. The new government has also promised to invest more in cycling paths. Yet in terms of looking after cyclists, Dublin is at the stage where Bruges, the city where I grew up, was 40 years ago. It’s where, Ghent, the city where I studied, was 30 years ago. It’s on an equal footing with Brussels. And believe me, you don’t want to be on the same list as Brussels.

Re-inventing the Irish pub

Dublin, June 2020.

By Francine Cunningham

Ireland’s public houses may be world renowned, but time spent abroad has only strengthened the mixed feelings I have about Irish pub culture. As a young journalist in Dublin, I used to make excuses not to join the crowd who would go straight to the pub after work and stay there until closing time. The idea of spending six or more hours in an over-crowded and (then) smoke-filled bar, knocking back pints with no food, while everyone around me got louder and drunker, was never my idea of a good time.  

Just walk through Dublin city streets on a Saturday morning, dodging the patches of vomit on the pavement, to see how these evenings typically turn out. It’s a distasteful reminder that Ireland has one of the highest consumption rates of pure alcohol in Europe. According to the Health Research Board’s National Alcohol Diary Survey, Ireland has more than 150,000 dependent drinkers, more than a 1.35 million are harmful drinkers, out of a population of 5 million people.

So, when I first moved to Paris, I instantly felt much more at ease with the French approach to alcohol. An apértif on the terrace of a cafe, or a bottle or two of wine shared with friends over dinner. Wine-loving France may also have a high proportion of problem drinkers (‘Quoi, just two glasses?’), but in general the French approach seemed healthier and more considered — less binge drinking and more la vie en rosé.

If I ever did feel like a taste of home, Irish bars on the continent also seemed gloomy and unattractive, full of uncomfortable church furniture and sticky carpets.

Yet now that I’m back in Dublin and the ‘wet’ pubs are still closed due to Covid-19 restrictions (those serving food have already re-opened), the prospect that many of these establishments will not survive the prolonged shutdown has become a source of national controversy (some would say scandal). Even for an infrequent visitor like me, it’s difficult to imagine Ireland stripped of its pub culture. Pubs play such a central role in the fabric of Irish life, especially in the countryside where they offer an essential space for people to get together.

It’s just possible, too, that this time out will give us a different perspective on our Irish pub culture. People have got used to consuming alcohol in a different way, over dinner at home with family or with a couple of close friends. So, when Irish pubs re-open, as I sincerely hope they will, maybe we shall all have outgrown the binge-drinking culture and can instead enjoy the cosy, life-affirming sense of kinship that pubs can offer in a cold, damp island in the North Atlantic.  

New Irish Writing in a time of Coronavirus

St Stephen’s Greens, July 2020

By Peter Vandermeersch

Two distinct articles in two different newspapers, both on the same day: Saturday, 8th August, 2020.

On page 8 of The Financial Times, I read an excellent column by Cordelia Jenkins, ‘An ode to the poems almost foregone’. I learn that poetry is to be downgraded on the GCSE English exam and will become optional next year to compensate for lost school time. Fortunately, Jenkins writes, ‘an army of devotees lined up to join the battle to keep poetry on the syllabus’. 
Teachers have argued that ‘the real value of poetry is not in the veneration of set texts but the way it can be used to encourage creativity and expression’. 

On page 22 of ‘my own’ newspaper, our Review Editor Jon Smith announced that ‘New Irish Writing’, the competition that has fostered generations of leading Irish authors, is returning to The Irish Independent. The initiative began in 1968 when the The Irish Press, which stopped publication in 1995, started to print a regular page of short stories and poems by new and emerging literary talent. The initiative subsequently had successive ‘homes’ in three other national newspapers. ‘It brought 3,000 writers to an national audience. More than 100 of them have gone on to publish books’, writes Jon Smith. The project was suspended by another publication this Spring, after the sponsor left and just ‘as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in this country’.

As a publisher, I’m very happy and extremely proud that from 26th September this initiative is back up and running. In the time of Coronavirus we need poetry and literature; maybe more than ever.

If you’re feeling inspired: short stories should be no more than 2,000 words and up to five poems can be submitted via We accept entries from 1st September.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Dalkey. View from The Great South Wall, July 2020.

By Francine Cunningham

The sea has always lapped around the borders of my life. Childhood summer trips to Buncrana,  Downings or Marble Hill, eating crisp sandwiches full of sand, or sitting in the car looking out at torrential rain falling on the beach. Followed by student days living in an old, damp house along the coast in south Dublin, watching the ever-changing light show over Sandymount strand.

Then there was life as a young journalist in Dublin, sent out to the arty, seaside resort of Dalkey to meet the late Irish writer Maeve Binchy. Charming as ever, she showed me around her little stone cottage with spiral staircase and writer’s desk in the attic, overlooking the sea. I promised myself one day I would live in such a place. [She sent a note back to my newspaper editor to say that I was ‘a nice, kind, sweet girl’ – just when I thought I was being a serious literary journalist!]  There was the interview, too, with the film director, Neil Jordan, at his home in Dalkey’s ‘millionaires’ row’, with its stunning views over Dublin Bay.  

Later still,  there were many visits back to Dublin from abroad, where we would wrap up for bracing New Year walks on Dollymount strand or Bull Island. Some days you could lean into the wind, before heading home with reddened cheeks, in desperate need of a warming pot of tea.   

So, when life unexpected brought me back to Ireland last year, I had some romantic notion about wanting to live beside the sea; to live life on the edge of an island. Then reality set in.

Did you know that there are only a few dozen houses along the coast of south Dublin that have direct views of the sea, without a busy road in between? Or that such houses typically cost over 2-3 million euros, and counting? My dreams of living in the picturesque Dalkey seem to be dependent on winning the lottery sometime soon.

Just when I was about to give up hope, we went for a weekend drive to neighbouring County Wicklow. It was an uncharacteristically sunny day when we happened to pull up in the coastal town of Greystones, some 24 kilometres south of Dublin city centre. With a population of around 18,000, it is bordered by the Irish sea to the east and the Wicklow Mountains to the west. We walked through a stone arch and arrived on a broad sandy beach with rolling waves and just a handful of people. It was so jaw-droppingly lovely. I was smitten. Now I just need to find a way to live there. 

A year in Irish politics

Neighbours in Covid-times, July 2020.

By Peter Vandermeersch

Dear Belgian and Dutch friends,

As some of you probably remember, I started my job as publisher here in Ireland at the beginning of August 2019, exactly one year ago this week. The past year has been an exciting one in Irish politics, something which has not always been noticed on continental Europe. Belgian and Dutch media do not (understandably) pay much attention to what is happening over here. Now that the Irish Parliament (the Dáil) is in recess for six weeks, it’s a good moment to take stock of a year in Irish politics.

The most important news (which indeed has been covered abroad): the left-wing Republican party, Sinn Féin, which is still closely linked to the IRA, became the biggest party in the parliamentary elections. This delivered a major blow to the two centre-right parties who have been governing this country for the last hundred years, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Voters understandably expressed their anger over the fact that, in one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU, there’s a shortage of housing, rents and homelessness are rocketing and medical care is sub-standard. Two week before the elections, I asked a colleague if SF could ever become the biggest party on this island. ‘Never in my lifetime’, was the answer. The person in question is, fortunately, still in good health.

Another historic event: after very long negotiations (according to Irish standards, my Belgian friends) Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil formed, together with the smaller Green Party, a government. Never in the history of the Republic have these two ‘civil war parties’ (who fought each other in the Civil War, 1922-1923) worked together in government. Only nine months ago, when I asked a seasoned colleague if that would ever happen, he answered ’never in my lifetime’. The person in question is, fortunately, still in good health.

In order to make this possible, the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil decided to split the job of Prime Minister. For the first 2,5 years Micheál Martin will be Taoiseach (Irish PM), then Leo Varadkar will take over. It reminds me of the way in which the job of the mayor is split up in small Belgian communes. Or how farmers strike a deal over the sale of a piece of land. Can you imagine such a deal in The Netherlands? Impossible. In Ireland, nothing is impossible. But, dear Belgian friends, there is a government here!

The new government had a very rocky start. Less than a month after Barry Cowen was appointed as Minister of Agriculture, a very important post here, he was sacked after it emerged he had been convicted for drink driving in 2016 after an All-Ireland gaelic football final. By the way, it turned out that the 49-year old politician was also, at the time, on a provisional driver’s license. There were rumours, too, that he had tried to evade a police checkpoint. The episode cost him his new job. From hero to zero in twelve days.

Another hero in Irish politics last year: TD (member of parliament) Maria Bailey. She fell off a swing (yes, a swing) on the premises of a Dublin hotel during a night out with friends. After falling she sued the hotel… because the swing was ‘unsupervised’. In November last year, Fine Gael decided to remove her from the party’s ticket. Ms Baily said she was ‘disappointed’ at the decision. The party was diappointed in her.

Also disappointed: the Irish taxpayer who had to pick up a bill of almost 2 million Euros at the end of last year after the Parliament ordered a new printer,… which turned out to be too big to fit into the actual building it was destined for. The clerk of the Dáil said ‘sorry’. Taxpayers are sorry too.

Finally, the most insightful quote of the year from an Irish politician undoubtedly came from Danny Healy-Rae, outlining how he represents the people, not the planet: “Vote for the people, stay with the people, and to hell with the planet and the fellas that says we must save the planet”. No he’s not from the Green Party. He’s a Healy-Rae from County Kerry. But then again, Kerry always has been a very special place in this very special Ireland.

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