Charlie does Countdown

In between my sailing adventures over the years, I became a Countdown addict. I have been tuning into the popular letters and numbers game on Channel 4 several winter afternoons a week since the mid 1990’s. The original presenters, Richard Whitely (deceased 2005) and Carol Vorderman, set the standard appealing mostly to a retired audience due to the time slot. Carol was replaced by the lovely Rachel Riley in 2009 and Nick Hewer took the chair a few years later. It would be remiss of me not to say that the attractive mathematical geniuses, Carol and Rachel, were also a reason for tuning in over the years. Of course, the show wouldn’t be the same without Dictionary Corner, which has the long serving and very popular Susie Dent in situ. Each programme also has a celebrity guest to add a touch of sparkle to proceedings. It is the longest running show of its kind in the world, with over 7000 episodes and a Guinness World Record award.

tp-composite-VordermanCarol Vorderman and the late Richard Whitely in their heyday

Guinness Book of RecordsSusie Dent, Nick Hewer and Rachel Riley with the Guinness World Record

The real appeal of the programme is the challenge of finding the longest word from a mix of 9 contestant “chosen” vowels and consonants, interspersed with a numbers game to calculate a computer generated target from 6 numbers, chosen blind from a combination of 14 numbers -1 to 10 & 25, 50, 75 and 100. The programme ends with a 9 letter conundrum – for which only one solution exists –  this is often a deciding factor to find the winner. Two players go head to head each day, with the winner qualifying for the next show, for a maximum of 8 games (octochamp). He/she also gets a Countdown teapot to take home as a trophy – a much coveted item for devotees of the game.

20180726_182612Beautiful Tayvallich in Argyle

In September 2018, having returned from an 8 week sailing expedition to Western Scotland, I finally bit the bullet and emailed the Countdown production company to express an interest in taking part, while watching my umpteenth episode. After filling in a long information gathering form, I was told that someone would be in touch to conduct a phone audition. Approximately one month after applying, James from Countdown set up an appointment to test me. The test consisted of several units of letters and numbers games identical to the show format, in which I had to achieve a standard unknown to me to qualify for an appearance. The 30 second dead zone on the phone for each letter or number puzzle was a bit unnerving but I managed to complete all the tests set for me. Thankfully, my answers were sufficiently good to get me through and James told me that they would be in touch in a few weeks with dates.

IMG_8447Celtic Spirit of Fastnet in Marigold Bay, St Lucia.

The call came at a time when my good friend Ansis was also enquiring about my availability to help do another Transatlantic on “Celtic Spirit of Fastnet”. The Countdown dates were set for filming on 4th and 5th of December 2018, clashing with his proposed departure dates. I rarely have any sort of a conflict in my less than busy winter schedule but to have 2 very desirable options competing with each other was nerve-wracking. Thankfully, Ansis rang to say the trip was off due to the owner looking at purchasing a new boat, so I was free to give James the thumbs up. I booked my flights to Manchester for the appointed filming dates and set about putting in some serious practice on my less than perfect maths.

Once the dates were set, I contacted my Manchester resident friends, Shay and Sam Ryan, to offer them audience tickets and also to meet up. The production company were putting me up in a hotel close to the studios, so accommodation was not a factor. As there was always potential to compete in more than one show, wardrobe was an issue. I had to go through my shirts and jumpers, ruling out – per instructions – stripes, dots and flowery designs. Luckily, I had enough good quality options for 4 or 5 shows, so I only splurged on a few items. I was ready to go, so it was off to Dublin Airport to get my flight. First problem – when I presented my preprinted boarding pass, I was horrified to find I had booked for the previous day! Luckily for me, it was an Aer Lingus flight and not the dreaded Ryanair, but it still cost me €75 to amend to todays date. Later, I made my way via tram and taxi to the Holiday Inn Express in Salford, arriving about 10pm.


As my appointment to arrive in the studio was not until 4pm, I took the opportunity to explore the Salford area and get my bearings for Media City, where the show is filmed. The folk artist, L S Lowry, came from here and has a museum and shopping centre dedicated to his name. All the major TV and production companies, BBC, ITV, Granada, Channel 4, Channel 5 and others have a large footprint here, built beside the old Manchester/Liverpool shipping canal and docks. Across the canal, the enormous Coronation Street film complex is next door to the Manchester War Museum.

After lunch, it was back to the hotel for a change to my 1st Countdown outfit before presenting myself at the studio housed in the Dock White Tower building. My earlier phone-a-friend, James, took a few of us through a maze of corridors to the Green Room for the show. It was more like a small apartment kitchen diner, with a small dressing area attached. Toilets were up the corridor through a few security doors. Just outside, through a connecting door, was the studio, where a show was being filmed and relayed on the TV screen on the wall. The current champion, Stephen Turnbull, was playing his 6th game, so if he managed to make it to an eighth win, I would thankfully avoid playing him, as my Countdown debut was scheduled for 3 games hence. James gave us a talk on the do’s and don’t s before bringing us up to make-up to get ready for our respective slots – another long and winding walk through the bowels of the studio building.


We were encouraged to join the audience so we could get a feel for the show. The warm-up comedian was only a few weeks into the job, having replaced his longstanding predecessor who had retired. Rachel made a point of chatting with audience members and was particularly attentive to some special needs fans, who really enjoyed interacting with her. While the shows are essentially filmed from start to finish in little more than an hour, some retakes do occur and the set has to change each time a numbers round occurs. Racks of studio lights dominate the studio overhead space, with cameras placed on wheeled trolleys moving as required. During breaks, make-up girls tended to the presenters and occasionally the contestants. It was all smoothly orchestrated and purred like a well oiled machine. The audience were even given notepads and a pencil to play along with the contestants, whispering their results to each other while Susie or Rachel gave their verdicts. My friend Shay arrived in time to watch the penultimate show of the day with me, before I had to get ready for my big moment.

Stephen managed to win his eighth game and claim his octochamp title, so I would be playing a fellow newbie on the next one. It was the last show of the evening and we were due to start filming at about 8pm. James said our show would be broadcast on the 2nd of April 2019. He also told me there had been a problem as my scheduled opponent was not in a fit state to compete – he had decided to have a few beers in Manchester and wouldn’t be allowed to take part. In his place, they managed to track down the contestant who was due to play in the first morning show and get him into the studio in time for filming. Needless to say, the last minute nature of his call up was not great preparation for him.

Finally, the moment I had dreamt about for years was upon me and I was a bag of nerves as I took my seat in the challengers chair. David Wigley, my opponent, was equally nervous but both Nick and Rachel chatted with us across the studio to help relax us. The celebrity guest today was comedienne, Jenny Eclair, who had starred in Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Grumpy Old Women. On air, Nick asked me about my sailing experiences with 4 transatlantics under my belt and chatted with David about his hometown and playing bridge.

Once we got going, I relaxed somewhat but poor old David beside me, seemed to lose the plot – several times over the game, he drew a complete blank. I had a moment or two also – one set of letters caused for a bit of amusement in the studio – at my expense. From the letters RDNMUEIAD, I declared a 7 letter solution – RANDIER. Susie pointed out there was only one R in the selection and Nick commented “Not quite as randy as you thought” – giving the panel and audience a good laugh. For the most part, I led the way and David ended up only scoring 41 to my 67.  He had  competed on the show about 12 years previously but the circumstances of his rushed appearance did him no favours. During the filming, the stage manager had called for several retakes – it was the end of a long day and everyone was tired, mostly the stars. For my part, while sorry for David, I was over the moon as I now would be bringing home the coveted teapot.


Another bonus presented itself – as it was the last show of the day, the stars stayed around for a few photos. My other target was to get a photo of myself with Rachel and she was more than happy to oblige, with Shay doing the honours. Several of the audience also got photos with the various stars, a luxury not readily available between shows as costume changes necessitated a long traipse back up to their dressing rooms. Shay and I went across the road for a few pints before parting our ways – if I was unlucky to go out early next day, we would probably hook up again on Tuesday evening. Back in the hotel, with my head still buzzing from the excitement of it all, I decided to have a few G and T’s to calm me down. It didn’t work – I was awake pretty much all night despite doing several Sudokus and crosswords to try and get some sleep.

Next morning, I thanked my lucky stars for setting the alarm on both my phone and tablet – the phone alarm didn’t activate and with my severe lack of sleep, I’m sure I would have slept in without the tablet backup. Back in the studio for 9.15am, we were whisked straight up to the make-up girls. This time we had the pleasure of sharing the space with Susie, Rachel and todays celebrity, Raj Bisram, an antiques and property presenter on TV show Four Rooms. Lets just say, it was interesting to see the ladies without their war paint in the morning. My fellow contestants, who were also assembled for our the facial   treatments, seemed to be pleasant characters and we chatted amicably while we awaited our turns.


My only 8 letter word on the 2 shows. Baggiest.

Knowing I was first up, naturally I was interested to find out who would be my opponent. It turned out to be the happy boozer from the previous day – Jeff Markam from Huddersfield, seemingly none the worse for his skite. On air, after Nick grilled me about my Slow Cruise Around Ireland, he pointedly interrogated Jeff about his love of real ale – a topic he was more than happy to converse about! Our game was a real tit-for-tat battle of wits, each of us getting one over on the other throughout. Early on, I bagged my only 8 letter word over the 2 shows – BAGGIEST.


The first numbers game was a real body blow but also, it gave me a great thrill in the losing of the plot. I declared for the correct solution of 272 from the chosen numbers – 100, 75, 5, 10, 1, 6. In relating my computation to Rachel, I used the number 7 – which wasn’t actually there (6+1 was there). In writing down the numbers, I had split the 7 & 5 of 75 and wrongly thought I had a 7. The thrill came from Rachels response to my booboo – a very sexy “Oooh Charlie” – I nearly fell off my seat, the numbers completely forgotten. Luckily, we stopped for a stage reversal to the letters game, allowing me time to cool down again.

That error set the tone for the rest of the contest – we both made more silly mistakes along with good scores, leaving us with a crucial conundrum to decide the winner – 65 for Jeff, 57 for me. When the letters rolled down, DAVEGRRAY, my brain just couldn’t unravel them and Jeff buzzed in to claim the game with GRAVEYARD. I had my teapot and was more than happy with my experience, despite being “buried” at the end. There was one sting in the tail for Jeff – Rachel got in a cheeky remark about celebrating his win with a few pints!


I now had the rest of the day to myself, so I visited the War Museum before heading into Manchester city centre where the Christmas markets were busy with customers sampling their wares. After taking in an afternoon movie, I arrived at Shay and Sams where she had dinner for us. Having enjoyed a few pints the previous night, we just sat in and chatted for the evening before hitting the sack. As my flight home was delayed the next day, I had to cancel my weekly bridge date with my regular partner, Nuala.


It was now a matter of waiting patiently for the 2nd and 3rd of April showings to arrive. Needless to say, I let my family, Enniscorthy, Wicklow, bridge and sailing friends know about the impending programmes. Rather than sit at home, I chose to spread myself about – the Tuesday 2nd show would be viewed in the Antique Tavern, Enniscorthy and the Wednesday 3rd one in Phil Healy’s pub in Wicklow. As the programme goes out at 2.10pm in the afternoon, it’s not exactly a great time to get people into a pub, especially if they are working. Nevertheless, about 10 of my acquaintances and family landed into the Antique and were delighted to be able to get a photo with the teapot. A similar number joined me in Phils the following day and were very complimentary on how well I stuck in despite all the mistakes. The big let down – the cutting room staff had cut Rachel’s exclamation down to “Oooh” – much to my disappointment. C’est la vie – it possibly could have been used for funny clips if left in!

I loved every minute of my Countdown experience and was delighted that I gave a good account of myself as well as winning the treasured teapot. My bridge club members gave me a standing ovation after the Wednesday showing, which was a very nice and welcome gesture. The Wicklow People gave me the singular honour of putting an article about my appearance on the front page of their weekly newspaper. And also put up a couple of articles promoting the 2 shows.




Moving on and Settling In

My last post was in August 2014, at about the time I finally made the decision to sell my Wicklow home of 25 years and move back to my home town of Enniscorthy, a mere 50 miles down the N11. Between prepping both houses, one for sale and the other for moving into, it took a full 12 months for it all to dovetail after a lot of renovating, decorating, decluttering/removal, blood sweat and tears! My return to the keyboard was interupted by this whole process and the follow on updating of my new home after the move as well as a major family upset.


7 Glenvale Park, Wicklow

Once the big decision was made and it hadn’t come easy after 34 years living and working in Wicklow, I had to start renovating/cleaning up the house, Brendan my tenant of c.15 years had to find new lodgings and the process of emptying commenced. Fortunately, thanks to my semi-retired status having closed my sail training business a few years earlier, my garden had been reasonably well updated and just needed ongoing maintenance.

My tired old kitchen got a lick of paint thanks to Brendan, 2 new floors were laid with laminated boards, most rooms were redecorated, the build up of bits over the years had to be inspected and the wheat separated from the chaff. I must have made 15 or so runs with my estate car to the recycling centre, there were 2 skips filled to the brim, a year apart, to take the non-recyclable materials and c.35 boxes with c.10 plastic bags were filled with


personal items for relocation to my new home. As I did almost all the graft myself, it took time to tick each task off the list before I could give my auctioneer, Brian Clarke, the call to put her on the market. Finally, after a lot of slog, I picked up the phone a few weeks after my 60th birthday and now there was no going back.

In tandem with the work going on in Wicklow, I started getting the house ready in Enniscorthy. When I set up my Sailing School in 1997, I took a career break from my job in Bank of Ireland and the possibility existed that I might not be returning. The following year 1998,  I bought a small townhouse in Enniscorthy that my brother Simon was the selling agent for, to create some form of long term security. Now with my problem Roma tenants recently vacated, the option to move there was the ideal solution once the Wicklow house was sold.

Number 11 had been rented for c.15 years with various tenants, some good, some bad. Everything in the house was showing the trials of multiple users and the most recent Roma tenants had certainly left their mark on the property. I made the decision to completely overhaul the property with pretty much everything revovated – new floors in all the downstairs spaces, a whole new kitchen and living-room furniture with a stove as well as brand new bedroom furniture upstairs. The yard was full of junk and took a lot of trips to empty. I decided to put in a steel shed to house my tools and various useful  bits in the yard. It was supplied by Adman Sheds and was my first addition, followed quickly by the new stove in the living room. What my dog Toesun thought of all the to-ing and fro-ing between the two houses – both in a “state of chassis”  – and being constantly moved from his most recent comfortable perch while monitoring all the frenetic activity, only he will know.


Toesun is bothered by all the activity around him


By Christmas 2014, with the shed and stove installed, the next step was to paint all the walls and ceilings. I chose white as the uniform colour but it had to cover various shades of blue, pink, yellow and green, so 2 or 3 coats were needed to finish the job. My niece Sinead was visiting from Australia and volunteered to help with her traveling companion Andrea. While I was away working in the Canaries over Christmas/New Year, other family members rowed in to help finish the first coat.

Next came the kitchen and after many research visits to various kitchen suppliers, I settled on self assembly units from In House Paneling Centre in Deansgrange. My Wicklow buddy Geo Alcorn and his friend Morgan Davitt agreed to do the installation and got stuck in, once the painting was sorted. My new hot water cylinder was relocated to facilitate the new fridge. All the units fit perfectly and accommodated the various kitchen hardware items. My pride and joy was the new wooden topped kitchen island, which Geo built in situ for me. The living room and kitchen floors followed in quick order.

With most of the basic infrastructure dealt with, it was time to start furnishing the house. Rather than bring my tired Wicklow furniture down, I decided to scour the various Christmas and New Year sales for bargains to furnish the house and managed to save c.€1500 on all the various items purchased. A new 4 seater sofa, wardrobe, king size bed, light and bathroom fittings etc all arrived to be fitted as required, so I could be ready to move in once my Wicklow house sold.

With things moving on the house sale, several offers materialised and it was looking like my time in Wicklow was drawing to a close. The reason I had taken this drastic step to leave my adopted home was due to the oppressive weight of my financial affairs as a result of my failed sail training business, due mostly to the intransigence of the Irish Dept. of Transport Marine Survey Office. Despite having managed to keep my head above water through doing yacht deliveries and working for a number of other sailing schools over the previous 4 years, the lack of consistent income made it impossible for me to stay ahead of my bank commitments. To add insult to injury, just as the offers were being made, Bank of Ireland – my former employer – shafted me by refusing to extend my facilities for a few months to allow the sale proceed and downgraded my account. I might add that there was likely to be a very substantial surplus after all loans were cleared but neither this, my good standing or bank background was taken into account in making this arbitrary decision. The Bank I had given 25 years of loyal service to had descended into a soulless and uncaring organisation with no regard for the human being on the other side of the counter – a symptom of modern computer driven practices. Despite the fact I draw my pension from them, they will not benefit from any new business from me in the future. Luckily my good name had not been tarnished in my local Wicklow and Rathnew Credit Union who allowed me avail of the money that I needed to complete the various tasks in both properties.

Two bidders locked horns and offered a figure of €210k, just €5k short of my target price and my auctioneer Brian Clarke advised that it was probably as good as would materialise in the short term. Not wanting to hang on forever, I accepted it towards the end of May 2015, with a closing date in August to accommodate both myself and the purchasers who were getting married early in that month. I had contracted to bring a boat from the United States in June, so I needed time to work on the properties once that was achieved. With certainty now about the closing date, I set about preparing for the move – they required vacant possession unfurnished, so all my furniture had to be disposed of, apart from a few token items I wanted to bring with me.

Facebook turned out to be a great way of offloading many of the items, some for a token payment, more for free. There was however a price to be paid – an old oak double wardrobe was being moved down the stairs with me holding it below. One of the guys upstairs lost his grip and in a split second my forehead was headbutting this large errant wooden hulk. Immediately, I was pumping blood and my right eye was flooded restricting my vision. They were trapped upstairs by the wardrobe, so I had to try and deal with my wound on my own until they managed to clamber past the obstruction on the stairwell. My first aid training had me padding the wound before washing the congealed blood off my face and neck. With the flow stopped, they helped me clean and dress it with suitable bandaging. It was quite a gash and I needed a wraparound head support to keep the bandage in situ.


Le bump undercover!!

Despite my trauma, I managed to help the guys move the offending item to their van and say goodbye to another piece that had been with me all of my 25 years in the house.

I met several nice people from the greater Wicklow area who cherry picked items that suited their houses via the Wicklow Buy and Sell Facebook page. Some items didn’t appeal, so I displayed them outside the house on the grass verge – some opportunistic van borne scavengers took advantage of my living room suite, some tables and chairs, dressing table with mirror and other bits. The good side to this meant that I could fit the remaining lot of unwanted items and rubbish into my second skip, using a sledge hammer to reduce bulky items to manageable proportions for stowing.


Skip takes away last of the rubbish while the trailer awaits final load to Enniscorthy

I had been making delivery journeys to Enniscorthy with the mountain of storage boxes and bags over 3 or 4 weeks and now my old house was virtually empty as the skip was lifted from my front driveway. I borrowed a trailer to take the final load before turning the key on my home of 26 years.

While I had a good relationship with my neighbours, the thing I was going to miss most was the spectacular sea view out over the Irish Sea from the house. It was heartbreaking to be giving that up knowing that my view for the foreseeable future would be the bedrooms of the Riverside Hotel – no contest and a bit depressing. Of course I knew that when I made the decision to sell but it still hurt to know it was no longer going to be there for me everyday as I looked out over my garden.


With that door firmly closed, the money in the bank and a return to the town of my birth and childhood now a reality, I just had to lift my chin to grin and bear the pain of leaving my Wicklow friends behind. In a stroke of both bad and good luck, my boat Stravaiger had another engine problem and was stranded for now on the quay wall in Wicklow Harbour. It was to be a source of accommodation for a few months to enable me keep some reasonable contact for the time being, especially with Wicklow Sailing Club, where I had been given an Honorary Life membership as a parting gift.

While I had concentrated on getting no. 11 ready for my arrival, it was still needing a lot of attention and furniture to finish it off. As I only had one focus now, I spent my time searching for items of furniture and ideas for decoration as well as working on my yard, now cleared of all the junk. Bookshelves for the living room and office were sourced, curtains, lampshades, a sideboard, kitchen tiles, coffee table and a second double bed for the guest room. My paintings and pictures were hung, rooms finished, doors and skirtings painted, a deck, flower boxes and bin storage built and by Christmas it was all coming together.

Then, just as I was clapping myself on the back for bringing it all together, we got the news no family wants to hear. All through my labours, my mother Pauline had been a regular visitor and even managed to help out on a few occasions with little jobs. Less than 2 weeks before Christmas, she was admitted to Wexford General Hospital for tests and a few days later, we got the devastating news. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer and given only a few months to live. She was a very active and alert 85 year old, who loved her 12 children and 27 grandchildren equally without favour. As the news sank in, her children went into overdrive to help in whatever way we could. From my point of view, I pretty much suspended my own house activity and turned my attention to our family home which was going to need a makeover to allow her enjoy her final days. We were lucky to have a friend of my brother Johnny available over Christmas/New Year to fit a disabled bathroom, which would make life a lot easier for managing her. Most of the other jobs were simple enough to be done by ourselves.

Once Christmas was out of the way and Mam had enjoyed her time at home surrounded by family, I took the opportunity to invite the rest of the family for a hastily arranged housewarming. While she wasn’t up to the disruption of getting in and out of the car for the short journey, the rest of us made the most of the night, albeit with a cloud hanging over everyone. My house had nearly reached its goal but its most enthusiastic supporter was not going to see it again. Luckily, she had dropped in for a visit a few days before her trip to hospital, so she had seen most of the works completed. Her time with us was short lived and we bade our final adieus on 26th February 2016, a day all her family will not forget.

I know she would love to see my miniature apple tree in bloom, the roses starting to bud and the flower boxes brimming with colour.


Cheers Mam. Thanks for all the tips and encouragement.


Cliff Walk Blocked Again

Having seen a Facebook post by Cllr Pat Kavanagh regarding the closure of the Cliff Walk from the Glen Turn entrance, I went down to investigate the situation myself this evening. As a regular user of this beautiful walk for the last 25 years, I was very upset to hear it had been blocked yet again.

For most of this year, there has been a potentially serious problem of erosion at a point c.100m from the beach entrance. The path at this point is just about to collapse into the sea and is a serious threat to walkers (see centre right of photo below). This definitely needs to be shut off and walkers protected in case it would collapse as someone walks across it. There is a sheer drop of c.20m below it.

Dangerous section ready to erode into the sea

Dangerous section ready to erode into the sea

However, immediately above this dangerous section is an alternative route on a rough rocky section that would be perfectly safe for walkers to use. A new path has already been beaten down into the dense fern growth beyond it, so there should be no need to deprive tourists and townspeople alike of the wonderful pleasure of the Brides Head/Wicklow Head cliff walk. Instead of the fence blocking access to the beautiful walk, it should be realigned to protect the dangerous section from walkers and allow safe passage above it – i.e. run it parallel to the walk.

Alternative path adjacent to dangerous section

Alternative path adjacent to dangerous section

This path has been subject to erosion for centuries and people have adjusted to the problem by making new walkways to continue using it. It is important that Wicklow County Council acts to keep walkers safe, but blocking access with ugly barriers when alternative options exist is most unhelpful.

Dangerous section with large blocking fence

Dangerous section with large blocking fence

The start of this section overlooks the Glen Turn beach and it is also subject to erosion. The next big easterly storm is likely to take away a substantial part of the pathway here, but at present this section is safe to traverse. There is no good reason at time of writing for this section to be blocked off. If they are so worried, a small diverting fence could be erected to make walkers move a little closer to the Golf Club fence as they pass through.

Path blocked at Gen Turn beach

Path blocked at Glen Turn beach

Health and Safety is a concept we all agree is important for the protection of the general public but this unnecessary belt and braces blockage on a coarse walking route when a perfectly feasible solution exists, is nonsense. Somebody in Wicklow County Council needs to get a grip and see the damage they are really doing to our “wild” heritage, one of Wicklows’ jewels. Depriving Wicklow residents and our visitors of a fantastic experience is not in anyones interest and our Local Authority, of all agencies, should be doing all in their power to allow access to such amenities.

A boy in 1963

In 1963, I achieved the heady age of 8 years in my hometown of Enniscorthy. As a pupil of the local CBS Primary school, my days were a mix of classroom studies, after school games and horseplay, ekker (homework) and family life. My parents already had 7 children with another on the way, of whom I was the oldest and in some ways, the boldest. I was very contrary, liked having my own way at everyone elses expense and had a history of destructive behaviour as a youngster. The most outstanding black marks against me were when I demolished a whole roost of hens with a stick as a small boy and when I slammed a metal gate on my brother Pete, breaking two of his fingers.

Television had arrived in our house during 1962 and RTE quickly established a foot hold in our lives – Rin Tin Tin, The Virginian, The Fugitive, Daithi Lacha and Amuith Faoin Speir being some of those early programmes that come back to me from that era. Occasionally due to atmospherics, we would get very excited when a BBC progamme would find its way onto our Bush TV screen but only for a teasingly short stay.

Also, in 1962, we had sat transfixed as a family in front of our new TV as the world was about to end – A Russian fleet loaded with nuclear armaments was bound for Cuba, a direct challenge to the power of our friends, the United States of America. We were a religious family and each evening during this tense situation, once the news was over, my father would lead us in a recitation of the Holy Rosary. As the oldest and the only one so far with the sacrament of Holy Communion, I was allowed the signal honour of leading a decade of Hail Marys. To us, it seemed like our prayers were answered when that great Catholic of Irish descent, whose ancestors had left from New Ross, USA President John Fitzgerald Kennedy saved the day and forced the Russians to turn for home with their tails between their legs. Such was the effect of his world saving efforts, my father placed a photo of him on our kitchen wall to one side of the Sacred Heart lamp, with Pope John XXIII on the other side – all great icons of our Roman Catholic world.

Early in 1963, a large American car pulled up in our drive way and it seemed like 5 of the fattest people I had ever seen poured out to be greeted by my father. It turned out they were cousins of ours on a visit from California to meet their Irish relations. Two of them, father and son, were also called Charley Kavanagh. In recent years, I have discovered that these cousins were descendants through a common ancestor. My greatgrandfather, John Kavanagh, had maried twice, the second resulted after his first wife had died in childbirth. My father was a grandchild of the second union, while these newfound extra large American cousins were descendants from the first union. They stayed for a few hours and I’ve never seen or heard from them since.

Summertime in my memory was always sunny, resulting in occasional visits to the sea en famille. Local favourite beaches were Curracloe, Blackwater and Morriscastle, all less than 15 miles from our home. A memory from those trips was the visit to a red Morris van selling ice cream from the back. With no refridgeration, the lollipops were usually a bit runny which we had to consume quickly and our faces and bodies covered in the sugary runoff. Other summer pursuits were playing cowboys and indians in the woods around our house with my school friends and annoying younger brothers, as well as cylcling adventures around the locality.

At the ripe old age of 8 1/2 years that summer, I was allowed to go picking strawberries and earned some pocket money from my endeavours. An ad running on RTE for Clerys Department store featured a wrist watch for 11s 6d and I set my sights on it. My strawberry money came to about 8s and my father stumped up the rest to enable me achieve my target. I was proud as punch parading my new possession on my wrist for the next few years.

My father Simon was a fan of hurling and I was brought along to the occasional big match involving our Wexford heroes in Purple and Gold. Greyhounds were the great sporting love of his life and in 1963, one of his bitches, Cross Mistress, won several trophies at the local Enniscorthy track and set a Track Record which was never beaten in the lifetime of that particular track surface. He had many great successes as an owner but this one was special as he had put her in the ownership of my younger brother Dermot, who was 4 years old. His greyhound gene passed to my brother Johnny, who was born in early November 1963 and today operates as a trainer from our homeplace.

However, 1963 will always stand out in my memory for the Irish visit of President Kennedy, especially to Wexford, and his shocking demise at the hands of an assassin. My father brought my mother, myself, my brother Pete and our cousin Paddy to Wexford Park to witness the arrival of JFK to his ancestral county. In an overflowing GAA pitch, 4 massive green helicopters circled overhead, creating a terrible din, before landing on the middle of the pitch. The President and his large entourage were transferred into a waiting cortege of  official US cars. The excitement of the occasion was fabulous and even though our vantage point was well removed from the actual main focal point, it felt as good as actually meeting the great man. Our TV showed lots of footage of the monumental visit to various centres around Ireland but having seen the man himself in the distance, Wexford Park was it for me.

As a family, our new TV provided a focal point in the evening time. We would sit huddled near the open fire watching our favourite programmes before bedtime beckoned. One particular Friday evening in late November 1963, at the age of 8 3/4 years, has stuck in my memory. The face of Charles Mitchell, our regular newsreader, broke onto our screens, well before the normal news slot, under the banner of a news flash. The words he uttered sent us into shock and it seemed like our world as we knew it had ended – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas and was feared dead. The great Catholic US President of Irish descent who had captured the heart of every Irish man and woman was no more. I’m sure I didn’t sleep too well that night and probably Nikita Krushchev, our great ogre in the Kremlin, wasn’t flavour of the month, mostly because of the Cuban missile crisis of a year earlier.

1963 has lots of memories for me but the visit of JFK and his assassination dominate. People of my generation around the world still define the moment they heard of Kennedy’s demise by what they were doing at that time, 50 years later. It is a small coincidence that 50 years later, the 22nd of November 2013 also falls on a Friday.

How blows the Wind for Wicklow Harbour?

A number of important announcements were made in the last week (1st/5th April 2013) which could have a profound bearing on the future of Wicklow Harbour – either for its betterment or in a worst case, its demise!

Firstly, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Leo Varadkar, announced the New National Ports Policy which effectively hands over control of Wicklow Port from the Department to the local authority, Wicklow County Council. With a new board in place and a local controlling body, it would be the hope of all marine minded Wicklow residents that the Harbour will finally be run for the benefit of all its citizens and that they will look to the future by developing a new commercial entity beside the existing harbour.


The second item of good news was the announcement by Fred Olsen Renewables that they have planning permission to erect 220 windmills on the Codling Bank, c.12 miles from Wicklow Harbour. They also have applied for a further 200 windmills. This would mean that there could be up to 10 years work constructing these windmills and after that ongoing service needs to create substantial employment for the citizens of Wicklow town and the county.

These coincidental announcements could mark a Red Letter week for Wicklow – if the new Port Company, supported by the County Council, might see Wicklow Port as being the potential hub for building and servicing this massive windfarm undertaking. The controlling company for Fred Olsen Renewables is a worldwide Shipping and Engineering conglomerate with the resources to probably substantially fund a new harbour development. Obviously, it would be in the interest of future generations of Wicklow residents that our own County Council/Port Company should also invest in any new development, to keep some control over its asset.

Fred Olsen operate ferries, cruise ships, all types of commercial shipping, oil tankers, and a huge range of other related interests, including wind farms and other energy renewables. With their financial muscle, the cost of building a new breakwater and quays would be well within their reach. Their input could guarantee suitable facilities to accommodate all types of shipping required for delivery of the hardware as well as the service vessels. An added bonus could be the ability to handle larger commercial ships for Wicklow Port and even Cruise liners.

One of the great assets that Wicklow can offer is the fortunate convergence of the new Port Access road, the Railway and the possible extended Harbour just to the north of the town. Not many marine sites can offer such a land/sea benefit and our new Port Company directors should start focussing their minds accordingly. Should Fred Olsen decide to select Wicklow as its service hub, anywhere from 200 to 400 jobs and spinoff sustainable enterprises could be generated for the general Wicklow area. The only other realistic service port on the East coast of Ireland is Dun Laoghaire, as Dublin Port is already close to capacity.

So far our Town Council, the Chamber of Commerce and Port Company have failed to put any sort of plans into the public domain over the last 15 years to develop the towns greatest asset. A quick look at the last 3 Town Development plans will show a serious lack of foresight by these bodies when it came to its ideas for utilising Wicklow Harbour to its maximum advantage. On that note, I personally submitted Harbour development ideas for each of those three Plans – nothing was published – I rest my case. Perhaps, Wicklow County Council and the new Port Company directors will bring a new broom to the table – at least, this correspondent hopes so.

At a time when families are being divided by the curse of emigration yet again, this small town has a golden opportunity to buy into creating a future for several generations of its school leavers, so hopefully wise heads will grasp the nettle and at least talk to Fred Olsen Renewables with a view to seeing if they might be interested.

Another opportunity might also be out there – if OIL is discovered off the East Coast, Wicklow could be best placed to also service that industry – if we have a suitable harbour.

Of course, a new commercial harbour could have knock on benefits for the existing harbour, allowing it to become a tourism focal point for land and sea based visitors. By clearing the old quays of their ugby commercial buildings, leisure facilities including hotels, restuarants etc could live side by side with a marina. Wicklow could develop several hundred tourism related jobs on top of the windfarm service jobs – another major plus for the town and its environs.

Looking to the future - could Wicklow see a new Harbour?

Looking to the future – could Wicklow see a new Harbour?

Should the powers that be in our community let this opportunity go, Wicklow Harbour will continue to stagnate and deteriorate. The East pier, developed over 100 years ago under the watchful eye of Wicklow’s premier citizen, Captain Robert Halpin, is in need of serious repair. If it is breached, the existing harbour will become non-viable. Several Harbour Boards and Port Companies in my 30 years in Wicklow have run the Harbour as an exclusively Commercial Shipping entity, paying only token lip service to fishing, other commercial operations, sailing and other leisure users. The Harbour should be an asset that all those with an interest in the sea, whether commercial or leisure, all of whom should have a say in its operation. Our taxes have supported it but only a select few have had a voice.

Maybe the new Port Company Directors in tandem with Wicklow County Council will see the potential for approaching Fred Olsen Renewables – I’ll wait to see if a miracle might happen. Wicklow Harbour deserves a chance to join its bigger brothers around the coast to provide sustainable employment and enterprise for its population.Grasp the bull by the horns now – this opportunity won’t come again.

(see my post

Sorry for being off the airwaves for so long.

Sailing Mates Revisited

I started out on the old briny in 1977, 35 years ago this year. In that time, I went from being an enthusiastic amateur to being a professional Yachtmaster Instructor. Along the way, there were many adventures on the sea and especially there were several people who had a profound effect on my development as a sailor.

Sun setting over Dublin Bay

In 1977, I was working in the Bank of Ireland Computer Centre at Cabinteely, Co Dublin. I had booked 2 weeks holidays on the staff roster but hadn’t a clue what to do with the time. Chatting on a tea break, one of my colleagues suggested I try Glenans, an Irish-French sail training organisation with 2 bases in Co Cork. I called into their office to get a brochure  and was immediately tempted by their adventurous offering. I called my brother, Simon, and asked if he was interested and sure enough, he said he was game to give it a try.

We spent 2 weeks on Bere Island, in Bantry Bay off the coast of West Cork and to this day, I haven’t enjoyed a holiday as much. We had a reasonable amount of wind all the time with a good mix of sunshine and only a few showers to spoil it all. While the sailing was good, the craic was mighty. Living in mixed-sex dormitory style accommodation, we had what can only be described as the perfect mix – we were c.80 persons, roughly half Irish and half French and again 50:50 male:female, with ages ranging from teens to 60’s. After a hard days sailing, and apres food, we all landed up to Dessies (O Sullivan) pub where the Irish and French drank and sang in competition with each other into the early hours for 2 weeks solid. I needed a week to recover after that wonderful experience. I am forever grateful to my colleague, Mick Mc Loughlin, for opening the door to a complete new and exciting world for me.

I took another 3 Glenans courses over the next 5 or 6 years and was keen to spread my wings further. After doing a 10 day stint on the Asgard II (Ireland’s Sail Training Ship) under the legendary Captain Eric Healy in the mid-80’s, I joined Wicklow Sailing Club. Here I had the good fortune to hook up with a fellow member who was in need of a crew and we forged a sailing friendship that survives to this day. The skipper in question was Dr Willie Fearon who owned a Prout 36 Catamaran called Spelian and we spent 5 or 6 summer holidays cruising up and down both sides of the Irish Sea. Possessing sails, an engine, VHF radio, some charts, a cooker and not much else, we managed to safely explore North Wales, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland and the Irish coast as far as Kinsale. We had our fair share of adventures and long days with no wind and minimal fuel. I was the sailor and organiser of crew (mainly my family and friends) while Willie looked after provisioning, navigation and the troublesome smelly outboard engine – a very agreeable working partnership. It ended when I decided it was time to buy my own boat.

In 1990, I finally managed, with financial help from 2 of my brothers, to realise my dream of being a boat owner. We bought a little gem, a Galion 22 called Irena, and launched her in Wicklow. Not wanting to be too cocky, I decided to get some formal training and signed up for a Coastal Skipper course with Ulster Cruising School out of Carrickfregus, near Belfast. This was at a time when the Troubles were still a major problem in Northern Ireland and my heart sank when I discovered my fellow trainees were all from the Protestant side on board. The RYA Yachtmaster Instructor on board was English and female and managed to put us all at ease straight away. Her name was Sally Livsey Davies and she delivered a momentuous week of training that has stayed with me to this day. I came home from Carrickfergus with a bag full of new skills and a VHF certificate.

Gerry Moran, skipper of Meg of Howth on which I did my Yachtmaster exam

I was now ready to play a responsible role as skipper on Irena and proceeded to take our little pocket battleship on sailing adventures for the next 5 years. In 1995, I had reached my 40th year and decided that I needed to do something other than Banking for the rest of my life. I traded in Irena for a 30 foot cruising boat, Merry Bee, an Achilles 9m yacht. My next plan was to get my Yachtmaster ticket and was examined by my old skipper, Captain Eric Healy, who passed me with flying colours on Meg of Howth along with Gerry Moran and Derek Kelly. My ambitions were now turning towards Sail Training and I decided to take a formal course of training for Yachtmaster Instructor with the Solent School of Yachting, in Southampton. Having never taught anyone anything to do with sailing, I was very nervous on discovering my 4 fellow trainees were all currently working in Sailing Schools. Our instructor, Mike Dymond, an ex RN submariner, took us all uner his wing and taught us (that’s me really) a whole new range of sailing skills and teaching techniques. Indeed, my 40th year was a busy one, but I still had one major hurdle to cross.

In 1996, I decided to finally give it a go and I applied to the RYA to be assessed as a Yachtmaster Instructor. This is a very tough process and they deliberately maintain a maximum 50% pass rate ratio in any one year. I arrived to Plas Menai in North Wales with 2 other hopefuls to be assessed over 5 days by John Goode, a veritable legend in RYA circles. I can safely say, I have not endured as tough an ordeal before or since and I was both physically and mentally exhausted when we stepped off the boat. He referred me to come back a few weeks later, once I had ironed out a few issues and in late September 1996, I became the proud possessor of an RYA Yachtmaster Instructor Certificate.

I duly applied for a career break from the Bank and set up South East Cruising School, which has traded from 1997 to 2011, when the Irish Department of Transport Regulations finally put paid to my dream. Now in 2012, I have been lucky to get some work with other schools – my protogee, Jim Grey in Canary Sail gave me a week in January and recently, Ronan O Sioochru of Irish Offshore Sailing School has been generous in providing me with several training slots.

Sally Livsey Davies and Mike Dymond on Fortyniner in the Solent Oct 2012

2012 is also notable for a set of happy coincidences relating to most of my sailing mentors. Firstly, Mick Mc Loughlin who started it all for me, helped me out by doing some inspection work on a delivery yacht I was taking from Kinsale – I had limited contact with him over the years. To add to that, my crew for the delivery was none other than Willie Fearon and he came with me as far as Brighton, our first time sailing together since 1989. To top all of that, I went to the Solent to do my 5 year YM Instructor update, a 2 day formality, where I had the good fortune to be reunited with my 2 early RYA mentors, Mike Dymond and Sally Livsey Davies. It certainly is a small world at times.

God only knows what the future will hold for me, but the valuable sailing lessons I learned over the years from my various mentors and my own experiences have made me sure of one thing – SAILING is in my blood and whatever comes next, I’ll be hoping to be bobbing on the waves somewhere. There is a world of lands, islands, oceans, ports and anchorages waiting to be explored – fair winds and a safe passage will get me to some of them.

Forty years on ….. the SPC Class of ’72

The Pugin Chapel and Tower buildings that defined St Peters College, Wexford for many generations.

In 1967, a new intake of fresh faced innocent young boys started on a new adventure (loosely speaking) in the corridors of St. Peter’s College, Summerhill, Wexford. Noted as a distinguished lay school and also as a diocesan seminary, it turned those raw youths into fine young men who served their communities, county and country in matters vocational, sporting and cultural from the early 19th century and continues to do so today. Our class consisted of 66 wiser and fitter lads who graduated in 1972 and 38 of of us showed up for the 40th reunion at SPC for a Mass and school tour followed by dinner in the Ferrycarrig Hotel.

Freshfaced teenagers pose for the 1972 Class photo

A group of early arrivals with An t-Athair Seamus de Val, our Irish teacher and noted historian – now Diocesan Archivist.

Summoned to attend the College for a Reunion Mass, our classmates arrived in dribs and drabs, looking curiously at several faces trying to wind back 40 years to match a hazy name to a somewhat older visage. I was stumped by several but fortunately, I wasn’t the only one, and we had great fun watching each others reactions as new arrivals tested our memory cells. A  quick visit to the Ref (refectory), where the not so delectable fare was served up by the St. John of God sisters aided by young girls and boys in their care was followed by a slow “procession” to the famous Pugin Chapel, built in the mid 19th century.

Class of 72 entering the SPC Pugin Chapel for our Reunion Mass

Fr Jim Butler, the only priest still serving (from 5 in our class), did the honours by celebrating Mass for us. I would think that he had a more attentive congregation than most of his peers in our day enjoyed. After our trip down memory lane, we were brought on a quick tour of the new college buildings by the Principal, Robert O Callaghan. It is great to see the modern college that the current students now enjoy – our classrooms were a mix of 19th and 20th century styles but managed to do the business in equipping us academically for the real world.

The Tower, which had an attaching dormitory, overlooking the Cloisters. It was reputed to be haunted by the ghost of Bishop Furlong.

The majority of us were boarders and the dorms were our places of refuge after a day of learning or on the sports fields and elsewhere. St Josephs, St Aidans, the Attic and the Tower all brought back memories to us. Nowadays, there are no students (or priests) living in the College during school term, the one major change from our day. The Far Side, the ecclesiastical wing of SPC, is also dormant and probably a good thing too. More than one bad egg put on a Roman collar from those young men – giving the College a bad name as a breeding ground for paedophiles.

Members of the class of ’72 pose on the front steps of SPC

After our tour, we congregated on the College steps for a final photo before departing to our hotel for the meal. The old school looked the same with a few embellishments but the new section has certainly taken our Alma Mater into the 21st Century and hopefully will continue the tradition of turning out fine young Wexford men for many more generations.

Students of the ’72 class and teachers in Ferrycarrig Hotel, Wexford

Dick Bates and his organising Committee had arranged for a  4 course meal in the Ferrycarrig Hotel, the same place we had congregated 19 years previously. It was very gratifying to see 38 of our buddies at the gathering but alas not all could be present. Sadly, since we left in 1972, 5 of our classmates have passed on – Richard Culleton, Joe Ralph, John Jordan, Willie Gannon and John Walsh – they were with us in spirit as the night unfolded.  With 5 teachers present, we got into the act of reliving memories, good and bad, of those days when corporal punishment was still a valid tool in our schools.

Our 21st Reunion (1993) in Ferrycarrig

Reliving memories at the dinner table

Frank Scallan winding back the clock

Our Senior-of-the-House, Frank Scallan, now a successful doctor in Canada, spoke eloquently of times past, followed by several other impromptu speakers. Fr John O Brien known to one and all as “Little Sam”, replied on behalf of the teachers. He had been the only resident in the College but has been out of it for several years now and unfortunately has health issues. Others present were the previously mentioned Fr de Val, Fr Seamus Larkin, James Golden and Emmet Cullen.

List (2 of 2) of attendees. Pat O Brien and Con Relihan didn’t make it.








Pat Power wowing classmates and some hotel guests with his tricks

As the food finished and the drink flowed, the chat flourished as old pals caught up with each other. Pat Power wowed us with his magical tricks and even a few hotel guests strayed in to be dazzled by his wizardry. He spends part of each year bringing a smile to the kids of Nepal where he uses his magic as part of a charitable contibution to those less well off in that mountainous state.

After we exchanged e-mails and phone numbers, with the crowd thinning and the bar closed, the time came to bid adieu. Small groups will be in contact, but those of us not living locally will rely on another get together for the next catch up session, probably for our 50th reunion. Let’s hope all will survive to be there and a few more of those not present will see their way to joining us.

St Peter’s College might not have always been the most desirable place to be in but it played a major role in laying a solid foundation for the 66 of us who left in 1972, most of whom are successful in their chosen fields and have made a solid contribution to society wherever they have put down their roots. Lifelong friendships abound and armed with a broad education, our young men have passed on those values they learned to the next generation – a true testament to the priests and teachers who helped to mould us.