Thank you for holding…

Dublin, July 2020.

By Francine Cunningham

First world prices should go hand in hand with first-class service. Frustratingly, that is too often not the case in Ireland. In the last months, there have been multiple examples of inconsiderate, or downright shoddy, service of the type that makes me wish I could remember the few Gaelic curses I once knew.

First there was the eircode experience. For anyone not familiar with the eircode, it’s a postcode system that was introduced to Ireland in 2015. In fact,  Ireland was the last country in the OECD to create a postcode system. Everyone in Ireland tells me that nobody uses eircodes, yet it seems impossible to get anything done without one.

When we first rented a new build in Rathgar last year, it hadn’t yet been assigned an eircode. We tried to get broadband and cable TV installed, but every company told us that our house could not be connected until we have an eircode. Could I apply to get an eircode as soon as possible? No, eircodes are only released by the postal service, An Post, every quarter. So, we would have to wait three months before we could have connected to broadband or cable TV.

Then I tried to set up a bank account in Dublin and naturally enough wanted to opt for an Irish bank. I called my neighbourhood branch and was told I had to apply for an appointment online, so I made a meeting request through the bank’s website. Then I waited. Weeks passed and I received no response. I called again and was told that appointments could only be made online.

Nearly three weeks later, I emailed to say that if I didn’t get a reply within 24 hours I would be going elsewhere. I finally got a call back with an explanation that they had never received my previous appointment request. Strangely enough, they had called me on the particular phone number I had included only in that online request.

Not wanting to give up, I asked what papers I would need to bring with me to my eventual appointment. No, my passport, rental contract and the monthly bill from the refuse collection service, with my name and address on it, were not enough. I needed a gas or electricity bill with my name on it. So, I would have to contact our energy suppliers to get my name added to the utility bills. At this point, I looked up a foreign bank which is trying to break into the Irish market. I could immediately choose a timeslot online for an appointment. Within days my bank account was set up.    

However, in a very crowded field, real estate agents remain strong contenders for Ireland’s shoddy service award. I have never been put on hold, repeatedly, for so long, or had so many professionals failing to call me back.

Last week, when I finally got through to a real, live estate agent, I spent time a lot of time explaining what we were looking for and which particular house in a new development we were interested in. This weekend, we travelled an hour to get to our appointment on time, only to stand at the roadside for ten minutes waiting for the estate agent to arrive. She then proceeded to whisk us through the property in a total of seven minutes, during which time she was calling on the phone to a colleague to say that she would be late for her next appointment.

Was she at least informative? No, she hadn’t heard anything about our requirements, wasn’t aware of which house in the development we were interested in and could not answer basic questions such as when the property would be released on the market. Yet we were expected to put our life savings on the table. 

If Ireland really wants to be the first world economy it is very capable of becoming, it’s time to stop putting its consumers on hold.

Visit Talbot Street, its crime, its colour

Talbot Street, Dublin, July 2020.

By Peter Vandermeersch

‘There’s a lot of colourful people in this street. Some of them are very interested in you. Especially in your wallet and your phone’, a colleague at the newspaper office warned me. It was my first day in the building of ‘Independent News and Media’ (INM), which has its offices in one of Dublin’s most colourful streets. Welcome to Talbot Street.

Dublin guidebooks don’t include many pages about Talbot Street. They send tourists to Trinity College and its ‘Book of Kells’, to Temple Bar with its stag parties, or to Grafton street with its posh shops. Yet to know the real Dublin one has to walk through Talbot Street. It’s easy to find: you look for the Dublin Spire (you know, that strange gigantic needle somebody planted in the middle of the capital but nobody understands exactly why it’s there) and you walk from there towards Connolly station.

At night-time, this stroll could indeed be a bit dangerous. When, after a dinner party in the very chic Shelbourne hotel in central Dublin, my colleague Marc Vangeel told the members of the INM board that he was planning to walk back to Talbot Street, he was immediately forced to call for a taxi. The board members were horrified of the idea that their CEO was thinking about walking through Talbot Street on a warm summer evening.

Talbot Street may indeed not be the safest street in Ireland’s capital city. It’s not the cleanest street either. It’s probably the street where you encounter most junkies, nutters and crackpots. Apart from some backpackers, you won’t meet many tourists. Some corners of the street smell of piss. When someone approaches you and asks you for a couple of euros it’s hard to judge if he’s begging for money, or threatening you.

It’s not a street with a glorious past either. Talbot Street only once made the news headlines. Sadly enough. On 17th May 1974, during evening rush hour, a bomb, planted by the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group from Northern Ireland, exploded in the street. It happened simultaneously with two other bombings in Dublin and one in Moneghan. The bombs killed 33 civilians and one unborn child, as well as injuring 300 others. It was the deadliest bomb attack in the history of the Republic of Ireland. In front of my favourite lunch place in Talbot Street (Roasted Bean Coffee Company with its delicious bagels), you’ll find a monument with the names of the victims and, a bit further, a mark shows the spot exactly where the car with its deadly bomb was parked.

Yet, Talbot Street became my favourite Dublin street, simply because it’s the most cosmopolitan street in the capital. You can eat at the Iskender Turkish Kebab, or at Eattokyo Asian Street Food. Maybe you prefer Ristorante Italiano, O’Briens Sandwich Café or Le Bon Crubee (‘Euro Brasserie Food in elegant surroundings’). You can shop in the Polski Sklep Cash and Carry, The World of Spices Halal Shop, Under the Bridge Antique Shop or at Gerry Keane Wallpapers. There’s a Mosque, a casino, a ‘Holistic Massage Place’, betting shops and lots of ‘workshops’ for mobile phones. And of course in La Bellissima Beauty Salon, The Ink Tattoo Studio, at Luiz hair salon or Kameleon hair salon, people will make sure you look better than ever.

Strange things happen in this street. In some shops you’re only supposed to pay in cash (and these shops do not seem to have many customers, yet they survive). Colleagues mention the night that a rather excited man with a dangerously big saw was walking around in the street (almost nobody thought this was odd). In another incident, the pub across the street from our newspaper office asked our former legal director to leave and never come back (because he was ‘taking the place of a regular customer who drinks more’). Last week my assistant Lorraine overheard a peculiar conversation on the sidewalk (‘How is John doing? Well, he’s hoping to get out in a year’). And everyone remembers the image of that young woman hit hard in the face by two rivals in broad daylight (but this then was the BBC filming the crime drama ‘Dublin Murders’ in… Talbot Street).

Talbot Street is Dublin in all its beauty and ugliness. It’s happy and sad. It’s grim and mild. It’s day and night. It’s life.

If someone ever decides we have to clean up the street, if yups start to move in, if anyone ever uses the word ‘gentrification’ in the same sentence as ‘Talbot Street’… we have to call in UNESCO. And ask it to classify the street. Places like this should be protected. 

Cultural distancing

Coffee Pod, Donegal, July 2020.

By Francine Cunningham

Ask the average foreign visitor how they would describe the Irish and the typical response is ‘friendly’. Not exactly an original thought. Yet now that I’m spending time back on Irish soil I can’t help asking myself when does that pervasive friendliness cross the line? When does it start to make me feel uncomfortable?

Below are some casual interactions I’ve experienced in Dublin (some during pre-Covid times).

Scene 1: At the nail bar, the manicurist asks me if I’m going out that evening. When I say ‘yes’ the questions come thick and fast:  ‘Is it a special occaison?’ Who are you going with?’ ‘What restaurant are we going to?’  ‘What kind of food does it have?’ ‘What are you going to wear?’ ‘How are you getting home again?’ After three questions I become twitchy and slightly uneasy.

Scene 2: I’m absorbed reading a newspaper in a Dublin city centre coffee bar, when the person at the next table starts talking to me. I’ve never met him before. There was no particular reason and no particular motivation for this conversation. Just banter. After years in Brussels, where starting up a conversation usually only takes place after a more or less formal introduction, I’m taken by surprise.

Scene 3: I’m browsing in the ‘Brown Thomas’ store in Grafton Street, looking at things I can’t afford, when another shopper comes up to me and asks if I would do her a favour. Would I kindly try on this jacket that’s on sale since she thinking of buying it for her daughter and I’m just the same size. This would never happen in Brussels, I think to myself, as I put down my bag and obediently try on the jacket. 

I mention the brief encounters above, not because they memorable, but exactly because they of their sheer ordinariness. They are the sort of friendly, trivial interactions of the kind that you can have in Ireland every day. Yet during my years of living and working abroad, a certain cultural distancing has set in.  Now when I am approached in a public place, or questioned by a complete stranger, my first instinct is to recoil in surprise, even slight alarm. Then I remember where I am; all of this is perfectly normal in a culture where friendliness has replaced godliness.

There are moments, too, when it all seems to make sense. Travelling back from Brussels (pre-lockdown) I took a taxi from Dublin airport to the suburb of Rathgar. I don’t even remember how the subject came up, but the taxi driver told me that his sister was terminally ill, and he was obviously deeply affected by this. We ended up having a warm and serious conversation, full of respect and mutual understanding. Thirty minutes later I had arrived at my door and never saw him again. It is in moments like that I realise that openness to strangers can lead to exchanges with fellow human beings that can be every bit as affecting as conversations with people you have known all your life.

Angelus forever

Abbey Island, Derrynane, Co Kerry, July 2020.

By Peter Vandermeersch

Ireland, still a Catholic society? I have been visiting this country since 1990 and maybe there is no region in the world where the massive power of the church disappeared so abruptly. One of the main reasons for this is the way it became clear that the Catholic church was responsible for one of the biggest scandals in the history of this country. As the ‘Report of the Commission into Child Abuse in 216 childcare institutions run by the Catholic Church’ sadly stated: “Sexual abuse was endemic in boys institutions…”

The dwindling influence of the church is tangible everywhere. Fortunately since 2015 same-sex marriage, and since 2018 abortion, are legally possible in the Republic. Since January 2020, same-sex marriage is legal even in Northern Ireland and a couple of months earlier abortion was decriminalised.

Yet every day one is reminded how important the Catholic church and its traditions still are in Ireland. At six o’clock, immediately before the main evening television news on the public service broadcaster, RTE, there is a minute’s pause while The Angelus is broadcast. On radio the same thing happens at 12 noon.

The first time I heard it, I didn’t understand what was happening… Waiting for the news the radio went silent and the only thing I heard was the sound of bells (recorded, I learned later, at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough street in Dublin), calling the people in this country to pause for a prayer. Every single day at 12pm and at 6pm. The same bells. Asking me and all the people who just want to hear the news… to pray.

On television there is more than only the sound of bells. There, just a minute before the news, one sees what should be ‘poetic’ images… A woman feeding swans; an old man washing potatoes; a fisherman out at sea in his trawler. These visual reflections, I read, ‘aim to encourage viewers to take time out from the weariness, the fever and the fret of contemporary life’, according to RTE, which says that the Angelus is valued by many people as a moment of grace and peace.

Obviously, over the years, there have been fierce debates and controversies about this Angelus. Is it excluding non-Catholics in this country? Or is it only a sign of a century-long Catholic tradition? I hesitate. Each time I hear the bells, or watch the poetic images, I think about all the people who have been hurt so badly by the church in this country. Maybe that’s why the Angelus must stay. Forever.

Washed Ashore

Poolbeg, Dublin, July 2020.

By Francine Cunningham

It’s mid-summer when I land at Dublin airport, back in my home country after more than two decades. At the security control, I show my Irish passport, while my Belgian-Dutch husband and our son present their different passports. We join the throng in the arrivals hall where my mother is waiting, already in tears. Two of my two oldest friends from student days are also here to welcome us to Ireland.

This never happened. Yes, I arrived back with my husband and son in August 2019, but my mother wasn’t waiting. She died three years earlier. I never got the chance to tell her that we were re-locating to Ireland, She would have been beside herself. Of my two oldest friends, one was tragically lost to breast cancer some years ago, leaving behind two teenage boys, while another old friend (one of the bubbliest people you could ever hope to meet) was in recovery from chemotherapy and already cocooning. I’d been away a long time. Maybe too long.

Heraclitus said: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ Well, I had been living abroad so long, the whole river had probably changed course.

In reality, I arrived back in the lashing rain (even though it was August). The days before leaving had been full of frantic arranging, paperwork, packing and removals vans. It was near midnight by the time we drove on the wrong side of the road (for us) around the Dublin airport complex looking for the ‘pet cargo’ depot where I picked up a rather stressed old cat that we couldn’t possibly leave behind. I was exhausted, my husband grumpy. The cat peed in his travel cage in the back of our hired car, just a few minutes from our new place in Rathgar. We had arrived. I already knew it would be a while before we could call it home.  

After two decades spent studying, working and living in Brussels, Paris, New York and Boston, I was going to live on this incredible island again. When I married a Dutch-speaking newspaper man 20 years earlier, I had never imagined having the opportunity to live back in Ireland again. Then, in a strange twist of fate, he was the one whose job actually sent him to Dublin. I would be commuting back and forth between our new home in Rathgar and my law firm in Brussels.

So, there I was, a gone-native European accidently washed back up on the shores of Ireland. Of course, I had been back on visits many times over the years, usually for a few days full of family commitments. The prospect of living here was something quite different. 

Over the years. I also watched with pride, from a distance, as Ireland evolved towards a more liberal state, outward-looking state. It had earned its reputation as a real hub for creativity and innovation. Yet I can’t honestly say that I pined for the place I used to call home. Was that because at that time I had no prospect of going back, so had wiped that possibility out of my mind? Or was it because at this stage I’m more continental European than Irish? I guess that I was about to find out. 

Landlords with euro signs in their eyes

Aran Islands, July 2020.

By Peter Vandermeersch

Moving to Dublin, I was convinced I had a very decent budget. In July 2019, a month before packing my bags for the Irish capital, I had sold a chic apartment of 100 square metres smack in the centre of Amsterdam, one of the liveliest cities in Western Europe, where… everyone is complaining that house prices are ‘completely over the top’. I managed to get, I’m happy to say, a very decent price for my flat.

With this nice sum of money in my pocket, I presumed that I could buy a similar apartment in Dublin. I was thinking about places like Sandymount, Dalkey, Ballsbridge… Nice neighbourhoods close to the sea. Since Dublin is not Amsterdam, I was really convinced I would be able to buy more metres (and luxury, yes!) for my euros. And why shouldn’t I dream of a house with a sea view?

How naive I was. Dublin, I very soon realised, is not as lively, clean, nice, safe or easy to live in as Amsterdam… And definitely not as cheap. House prices are, to put it mildly, completely crazy. They are horrendous and absurd…. The budget which bought me 100 square metres in one of the best neighbourhoods in Amsterdam, would allowed me to buy about 50 square metres in a very average neighbourhood in Dublin.

I had two alternatives. Option 1: go and live outside Dublin and commute to the newspaper offices in Talbot Street. After all, Wicklow is beautiful. But… if you compare the railway system in Ireland with that in The Netherlands, you’re been catapulted about thirty years back in time. Not an attractive option. Commute by car then? Not attractive either: traffic jams in Dublin are amongst the worst in Western Europe.

Option 2: rent… and hope that this market becomes more realistic. For more than a month I had been running around like a crazy person for a decent place to rent. It was quite an experience: I visited houses with leaking roofs where the owner was asking 4.000 or 5.000 euro a month. I saw apartments without any light (3.000/month). I visited a house with a great sea view but no decent kitchen or bathroom (6.000/month). I went to Dalkey, Blackrock, Monkstown, Malahide and Clontarf. In Sandymount, I lined up with five other candidates in front of a house. When the owner saw the five of us, he announced on the spot that the rent would not be 5.000 but 5.500 euro a month; for a terraced house without a garden. I visited a lot of real estate, but above all: I saw the euro signs in the eyes of the owners, delighted that all these desperate expats were looking for houses with European standards.

Finally, I ended up in a very nice neighbourhood of Dublin. Paying more than I ever thought I would pay for rent in my life. I live in a very modern and stylish house, while I rent out the beautiful, slightly bigger and more luxurious house I still own in Tervuren, a sought-after suburb of Brussels. The rent I receive from that property is roughly half of what I pay now in rent in Dublin. I can only hope that Brexit and Covid hit the real estate market and this that brings some realism to Dublin house prices, and to those landlords with euro signs in their eyes.

(A version of this blog was published in The Sunday Independent, August, 2th, 2020)

A stitch in time

Aran Islands, Inis Mór, July 2020.

By Francine Cunningham

On a rainswept, wind-buffeted visit to Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast in mid-July, I couldn’t resist the urge to buy a handknitted Aran jumper. This water-repellent knit was definitely more of a necessity than style statement for the farmers and fishermen who have inhabited the islands for centuries,  on the edge of the world and the mercy of the Atlantic ocean.  It is said that an Aran jumper can absorb 30 per cent of its weight in water before feeling wet. 

Each clan on the islands had its own particular pattern. Historic patterns now being archived include the diamond stitch said to represent the small fields on the island bordered by stone walls, the moss stitch said to depict the seaweed used to fertilise the rocky ground and the zig zag stitch, resembling the twisting paths along the cliff tops of the island.  More sombre, these unique patterns were also used to help identify the bodies of fishermen washed ashore in this unforgiving climate.

The Aran sweater may be iconic, but it has taken decades for me to bring myself to wear one again. I had too many memories of itchy, uncomfortable sweaters worn during tedious school assemblies at the convent grammar school I attended in small town Northern Ireland. The nuns invariably wore black Aran cardigans, along with their habits and veils. There were stories that those who knitted black Aran would inevitably go blind due to the strain on their eyes. I was prepared to believe it. My Auntie Bridie also used to wear a cream Aran cardigan with dark brown leather buttons, with a cream blouse and sensible camel skirt. 

There was nothing less sexy than the Aran jumper and corduroy jeans I was obliged to wear as a child. So, it has taken me forty years in recovery before trying on one of those sweaters again. I discovered that you can now buy them long or cropped, with turtlenecks, polo or cowl necks, not to mention ponchos, capes, wraps, snoods, fingerless mittens and even Aran leggings(!) What’s more, they are available in every colour, from pastels to purple heather and pillar box red. 

I settled for a chunky, cream cable knit with a zip instead of buttons. A nod to the past and the present. It will stay now in the bottom of my wardrobe until I take a notion some blustery day in winter, when I want to go for a walk down Dun Laoghaire pier in south Dublin.

A week later,  I pick up the newspaper and see that Taylor Swift has taken everyone by surprise with a new album. Even more unexpectedly, she appears in her publicity shots in a cream, roll-neck Aran jumper which is now apparently hipster chic. Auntie Bridie would have approved.

It’s not the Champs Elysées

Sandymount, Dublin. July 2020.

By Peter Vandermeersch

April 2019. Paris! Fresh croissants! Les Champs Elysées! Le Musée d’Orsay…. I am preparing to leave Amsterdam, where I have been working for nine years as the editor-in-chief and a director of NRC Handelsblad, to move to the city of lights. I have been editing and managing newspapers in Belgium and The Netherlands for almost 25 years and finally decided to go back to what I’m good at: writing. A foreign correspondent in the most beautiful city in the world.

May 2019. A call from the CEO and the President of Mediahuis. This takes place in the weeks just before the Belgian-Dutch company acquired Independent News and Media (INM) in Ireland. They want to know if I could be convinced to ‘forget’ Paris and instead become publisher of INM in Dublin? And since I have an Irish wife, I already know the country and its people a little bit, don’t I? And no, it’s not the most beautiful city of the world, but close….

August 2019. Together with CEO Marc Vangeel, I arrive in Talbot Street. Well, it’s not the Champs Elysées. But we quickly fall in love with the brands. The Irish Independent has not made its mark on digital platforms, but it’s the newspaper you have to read when you really want to know what’s happening in this country. The Sunday Independent may look a bit old-fashioned to Dutch eyes, but maybe there is no other paper in the world that combines high and low news and culture in such a distinct way. The Herald maybe small, but it’s pure Dublin on every page. The Sunday World is not exactly subtle, but it is bold, brash and strong. And then there is the Northern voice of The Belfast Telegraph, not to mention our regionals from Kerry to Sligo that are so much part of the local fabric…

Christmas 2019. I look back on four hectic months. INM is changing. We have designed a digital strategy (incredibly there was so to speak none). Cormac Bourke will now edit the Irish Independent and (he is one of the most experienced  editors in  the group).  Alan English has been hired into the group as the new editor of the Sunday Independent (yes, an outsider bringing fresh air). Eoin Brannigan has been appointed as editor of the Belfast Telegraph (coming from the Daily Star, now heading North). We are re-organising the newsroom and the way that we work, we are hiring new people and the word is spreading that the ‘Indo’ is once again  the most interesting place to work in Irish journalism: more people knock on my door than I can possibly hire.

February 2020. The new platform has been launched. INM announced the site years ago, but never set up what we now have: a paid-for website. Why should we give journalism away for free on our digital platforms? There is huge enthusiasm for the project in the building. By the end of the month we have more subscribers than we had hoped to achieve by   the end of the year (8,500). We have proved to ourselves and to the world that real stories are worth paying for. Also in Ireland. Also at INM. Our colleagues in Amsterdam and Antwerp admire our success. I see people in the newsroom walking with their heads high and backs straight.

March 2020. Covid-19. We do what we never thought would be necessary, or even possible. We close Talbot Street and our offices all over the island.  My house in Rathgar becomes my office, Microsoft Teams my favourite programme. With a CEO in Antwerp, a COO in Belfast, a Chief Customer Officer in the French Alps, a digital director in Cambridge and hundreds of people all working from their own homes, we produce three dailies, three Sundays and 11 regional papers. And they’re good!

April 2020. The numbers go through the roof. We celebrate 20,000 subscriptions on And yes, advertising revenue is under pressure. We have to take difficult measures. Some colleagues are put on furlough.  Senior management takes a pay cut. Our dailies are struggling. But our weekend papers are doing better than budgeted. There is a huge appetite for serious news. As I write in an email to my colleagues: it takes a crisis to really see how strong and resilient an organisation is. I am proud and emotional. I admire all these people who made such an effort to get the job done in these crazy times. As a small thank-you, we send a big chocolate Easter egg to each and every colleague all over the country. (Belgians and their chocolate…)

May 2020. We launch, in the middle of the Covid-crisis a digital subscription to The Belfast Telegraph and an e-paper for 11 regional titles.  We have the first meetings for the launch of a new site and app for the Sunday World. We prepare a new home delivery system… and we act as if all of this is normal. There is a tremendous energy in the organisation. Covid-19 did to us what it has been doing to Ireland and the world: we were obliged to look at what is essential in what we do and strengthen our core. For INM it is obvious: produce the most insightful and trustworthy journalism possible for our readers and value for our advertisors.

And no, I do not want to go back to Paris. I love Dublin and the Irish.

A version of this article was published earlier (22 May 2020) on

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