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.


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.

Cloghoge Valley walk

Waterfall on Cloghoge Brook

Having completed 6 days walking on 2 sections of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain last September, 2 of our group decided to try another section in May this year with another new pair. Our plan is to walk from the French border at Irun through the Basque country to Bilbao over a week or so. To get in shape for the tough Basque hill country, I have been doing walks around Wicklow, including the Cloghoge Valley between Loughs Dan and Tay.

David Hermans map of Cloghoge Valley

Using David Herman’s “Walker’s Companion – Ireland” as my guide, I set off on a beautiful early April afternoon from the car park overlooking Luggala, residence of Garech de Brun.

With my dog Toesun on his lead, we descended the steep hiilside to the valley floor alongside the Cloghoge river. All around us were deer grazing, numbering in their hundreds.

With Toesun sniffing the deer, I had my hands full trying to keep him in check as we wandered along above the river bank, enjoying the rustic pleasures that abounded around us. Following a rough roadway, we eventually made it to Lough Dan, where a beautiful spectacle awaited us.

With the afternoon sun shining through it, an oak tree welcomed us to the northern shore of the lough. Away from the deer now, Toesun was at last able to wander around sniffing the hedges and paddling in the stream. From here, I followed the directions along the shore to the beach at the northwest corner of the lough and looked up at the very steep climb that was to take me to the peak of Knocnacloghoge, towering above us.

Girding my loins, I started up the sheer side of the hill, resting every 30 steps or so. With Toesun taking some of the workload, I allowed him lead the way, holding firmly to his lead as he worked his way up, rock by rock. The stops allowed me to enjoy the fantastic scenery that was unfolding below us, the Wicklow Mountains were in view over the vista of Lough Dan.

Beauty abounds in the Wicklow Hills

Near the top, we stopped for another rest break and snacks. Around us were small remnants of the snow that had fallen on the mountains earlier in the week – very cooling on my sweaty brow.

After taking nearly an hour to climb up the 150m or so, I was glad to be able to move freely again once we crested the top. Our taget now was the peak of Knocknacloghoge Mountain across heather on mixed peaty and rocky ground. With the sun now on it’s evening retreat, it was important for us to keep moving and we eventually made it to our goal.

My shadow made it to the top!

Looking down the northern slope to Cloghoge Brook, I could see it was a lot kinder looking than the formidable southern slope we had just ascended. Setting off down the boggy slope, we made it to the right bank of the brook, but try as we may, there was no handy crossing point to get onto the recommended left bank. So with the sun dropping in the sky, I decided to keep following the bank down towards the valley floor. It was tricky at times but we made it in about 30 minutes.

The final leg was to work our way back up the roadway from the de Brun homestead, climbing to the car. In all we covered about 10kms (6 miles) in 4 hours. However, the climb from the shore of Lough Dan to the top of the mountain, a distance of c. 350m, took one and a half hours of that time. My dodgy knees survived, my muscles ached but it was a fabulous experience and a good tester for my upcoming Camino walk.

Walk to Wicklow Head blocked

Wicklow Head Lighthouse

 For many generations of Wicklow people, the coastal walk out to Wicklow Head Lighthouse has been a source of exercise, pleasure and previously, for the light keepers, their pathway to work. The path skirts Wicklow Golf Club and the latter part, farmland. It is beautiful and has many features to attract sightseers, nature lovers, walkers and romantics of all ages. However, in the recent past this path has been blocked, which has created problems for people searching the coast for a probable drowned loved one.

There is a long established right of way along the path, which has been used on a daily basis, weather permitting. A number of years ago, the local council erected signs and a barrier at the Glen Turn (about half way along the path) to warn walkers that the cliff was dangerous and prevent access. This was soon dismantled by locals who were very upset at the intervention of their councillors in restricting acess to their cherished walkway. It has remained down ever since.
In the last few months, another barrier suddenly appeared out near the end of the walk, where it joins the Lighthouse access road. A crude barbed wire fence was erected on an old stone wall where walkers exited the coastal path. In addition to the wire, a dense mix of oils and animal fats was applied to the posts to upset unwary walkers who might touch same. This was again dismantled and access re-established.

Barbed wire barrier on stone wall

More recently, as in the last week or so, a more comprehensive set of barriers has been erected at the same exit area, which all but makes it impossible for walkers to get through. The farmer in question is also apparently taking photographs of “trespassers” and notifying the Gardai. With a long established right of way, he surely cannot have any legal right to deny any walkers access to this area.
As a compromise, surely it would be feasible for him to consider erecting a suitable stile at the wall, to allow access to all who wish to enjoy the area. It might even be possible to get a group of those who are regular users to build one, at no cost to the farmer in question.
This matter has taken a serious turn this week. An unfortunate incident involving a missing person, believed drowned in Wicklow Harbour, has necessitated a lot of search activity along the local coastline. This barrier has proved to be a major impediment to allowing concerned searchers follow the coast out as far as Wicklow Head. Those concerned are very upset at this obstruction to their efforts, necessitating a long detour to complete their regular sweeps as they keep a vigilant lookout.

New pathway opened by Wicklow Co. Co. 22.02.2012

The County Council have today by-passed this barrier by creating a new opening a short distance from the offending structure. The question now is – will it be allowed to remain in place without interference from the landowner? Fingers crossed, our pathway will remain open for all concerned and allow the joy of the Wicklow Head coastal walk to be available to locals and tourists alike.
Our beautiful coastline should be available to all to enjoy. Farmers and landowners are entitled to respect for their property and livestock but should also have consideration for the rights of others. Live and let live.

Facing our Mortality

Since my feeble effort to raise funds for Prostate Cancer Ireland by growing a mustache during Movember, I have received news that another good friend of mine is undergoing tests for same. As one of the most frequently diagnosed forms, after lung and breast cancer, it is comforting to know that with early diagnosis, a 90% survival rate is now common. It still triggers fears for their mortality in the sufferer and it will only ease as a worry when they get the all clear.

Several of my friends and a first cousin have had encounters with this particular form over the last few years and thankfully, all are still with us enjoying life as survivors. While chemotherapy, radium treatment and radical surgery can have long term consequences for the survivor, especially in the bedroom, the price is a relatively small one as long as they can have a reasonable quality of life. An uncle of mine with lung cancer and another first cousin with breast cancer were not so lucky in the last few years.

Those of us lucky enough to have avoided the Big C have a responsibility to do our bit to help the experts develop further tests and treatments for this potentially killer disease which is no respector of status or privilege in society. Every citizen in this country has had contact with victims of cancer, either family members, close friends or acquaintences and has felt the pain of their loss when their life has been cruelly shortened by an insidious invader.

While I have escaped cancer so far, on another front, I have had to deal my mortality through my battle with Bi-Polar Disorder or Manic Depression. When I was diagnosed in my mid-20’s, I had gone through a summer of total madness, with episodes of extreme elation countered by deep depressions. In one of those depressions, the hole was so black, I could see no other way out than through the end of a shotgun. As you are reading this 30 years later, it didn’t happen.

With a lengthy stay in St. John of God’s Hospital,  Stillorgan, I responded to treatment and started the next phase of my life with a new badge to get used to. It took me a long time to accept that I was now offically a fruit cake, albeit one with a reasonable chance of living a normal life aided by medication. I thought I was cured after a few years and chose to live my life drug free. My coping mechanisms were reasonably strong and I survived some more minor episodes until a major disappointment triggered another deep depression about 10 years later. This time, I knew I was in trouble and took myself to hospital for treatment.

My psychiatrist convinced me to go on a different treatment this time – Lithium, a naturally occuring salt – and with him holding my hand, I tried it out and 20 years later, am still functioning reasonably well. It creates a balance in the brain’s electrical impulses, evening out the up/down episodes to allow us MD’s carry on reasonable lives. For me it has been a life saver.

Unfortunately, depression can also be triggered by relationship failures, job loss, financial worries, bullying and a host of other factors. Like the Big C, it is no respector of status either and can strike into the heart of the most robust families and groupings, causing grief and distress for those trying to cope with its knock on effects. Some sufferers are past masters at hiding the pain from their nearest and dearest, leaving those around them at a complete loss of understanding, if they take the ultimate step.

Such is a case that occurred in my circle of friends recently. My pal was a very outgoing bubbly sort of character, who had time for everyone and always had a joke or story whenever we met. He had a couple of businesses on the Main St. and everyone in the town knew and loved him. In our club, he had a long history of getting stuck in, having held all the senior positions over a number of years. Like many small businesses, the recession was hurting and he chose to close one of his shops after 21 years of trading.

Whether this was the trigger or some other issue unknown to us, he seems to have snapped and made a fatal decision to end it all by drowning himself. His wife, 3 children, father, brothers, sisters and extended family and large circle of friends are at a total loss as to why this should have happened. His funeral was one of largest ever seen in Wicklow and was testament to the high regard he and his family are held in the town.

Having tottered on the brink several times, I know what the darkness in my head was saying to me so I can only assume that the same darkness engulfed my pal, but he didn’t hesitate, unfortunately. With cancer, other illnessess or even a traffic accident, we can rationalise why we might lose a loved one. However, unless someone leaves a strong clue or note, a fatal depression often leaves nothing but angst and heartache. We tend to blame ourselves for not seeing the signs or maybe, for not responding to an issue that we think, in hindsight, might  have been simmering. The reality is, the person makes the decision for their own reasons and often, it has nothing to do with others in his/her immediate vicinity. It is selfish, it can be devastating and answers are rarely readily available to ease the pain of those left behind.

For myself, I went into a dark place for a few days after his funeral. With a long history of dealing with my own depressive episodes, I have developed coping mechanisms to help me through these darknesses. While it didn’t get to a nadir where I was facing my mortality again, I’m glad that now I know my vulnerability and can reach for my lifeline. My pal didn’t know that he had so many lifelines available to him and the darkness engulfed him suddenly, snuffing out a wonderful life long before its sell-by-date.

For whatever reason, we all have to face our mortality. The older we get, the more likely the grim reaper will be knocking. For those with terminal illnesses such as untreatable cancers, the end of the road is well mapped, often masking the pain in cocktails of drugs and family and friends are reconciled to the loss. Those taken suddenly through heart attacks, accidents, shootings etc., the loss is traumatic for those left behind but at least they usually can come to terms with the loss in time. Suicide rarely leaves any comfort factors and those left behind are often wracked by guilt, on top of all the other grief issues.

Dave Lordan – Creative Writer

(My Creative Writing tutor, Dave Lordan, asked me to share this information with you – pass on the word, please.)

Alan, Dave Lordan, me and Sharon at end of class celebration

Finding inspiration:  A Creative Writing workshop with Dave Lordan.

Hotspot Cafe Greystones Fri Dec 2nd. 7.30 to 9pm.

  •  Where do stories and creative ideas come from? 
  •  How can we make creative use of our own vast store of stories and experiences?
  •  How can we jump-start our imaginations when we just aren’t feeling up to it?
  •  How do we draw inspiration from our every day lives? 
  •  How do we make time in our busy lives for inspiration and creativity?

 All are welcome to take part in this fun, informative and stimulating workshop with Dave Lordan. The cost will be 10 euro, including admission to the fabulous Speakeasy Cabaret later on that evening.  Booking is advised. To book a place phone dave on 0870921117, or e-mail at 

Dave Lordan is a multi-award winning poet, playwright and fiction writer as well as a popular reviewer on RTE Radio 1’s flagship Arena Arts show. He is the current holder of the prestigious Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award. He is also once of Ireland‘s leading creative writing teachers and currently teaches on the MA in Poetry Studies in Mater Dei Institute and for Co Wicklow VEC, as well as to numerous school and community groups.

 Read more about Dave at