Month: February 2015

The Elephant Orphanage

We were picked up at our hotel in Negomba, Sri Lanka, shortly after 6 am. Two of my sons, two grandsons,  one daughter in law and myself aboard the minibus, driven by Sanjeeva, heading North and East to the elephant orphanage. Our aim is to get there for the 9 am feeding session.

When you travel to other countries and are ferried to popular tourist destinations it is very easy to become cynical. Is this a set up to extract as much cash from the tourist? I was uncomfortable on the way there all sorts of thoughts going through my head. Are the animals being properly looked after I wondered, although what do I know about caring for elephants?  The only ones I have seen close up and in real life were as a child when visiting Edinburgh zoo, and years later when I took my own children to zoos and circuses.

Sri Lankans are an industrious race, up early working, travelling on as wide a variety of transport as one could imagine. There are lots of new roads being built in the country. Some say it is spoiling the landscape and it will never be the same.

We cross several rivers, sometimes the same river a couple of times. We follow diversion signs to take us away from the delays caused by the miles of roadworks but make the orphanage with a few minutes to spare before the designated 9 am feeding time.  Sanjeeva parks the minibus in the car park opposite the entrance to the elephant orphanage amongst coaches, buses, trucks, cars and four wheeled drives.

We join the queues, one entrance kiosk for Sri Lankans and another for foreigners.  Tickets are available to buy bottles of milk to feed the baby elephants.

It’s already about 30 degrees and we walk to a sheltered area where the baby elephants are being fed   There’s a huge canopy above them, shading them from the searing sun.

The Keepers are very smart and uniformed. Like humans the babies display different characteristics   There’s the gentle baby who keeps in the background and who is pushed out of place by the greedy baby when a bottle is proffered through the round bars which separate the animals and the public.

It’s pure entertainment as milk bottle tickets are exchanged for large milk filled suckling bottles which are devoured in seconds.

I am alarmed when I notice the animals, even the littler ones are chained.  But I realise in an instant, these ‘babies’ are wild animals and extremely strong so some control is just a matter of sense and safety.

Because of my fall earlier in the year, and the heat, I can’t walk up the hill to where the larger elephants are being fed, but watch them from a distance.

Then the parade begins as the keepers round up the elephants to escort them to the river to bathe.  The numbers grow and we have not only the babies but the mums and dads and grandmothers and grandads too and everyone inbetween.

The traffic is stopped as the long line of elephants cross the road down the hill through an avenue of shops to the river.   Again the walk is too much for be but a three wheeled tuk tuk and driver quickly take me down the backstreets to the river edge.

One of my sons takes me to a restaurant overlooking the river and the bathing elephants.

It is simply bliss.  The keepers sit atop rocks in the river and the elephants do what elephants do best in a flowing river.

They are having fun, get bold at times and wander off in little groups on their own.  But a gentle prod from the keepers, a call back to order and like naughty children the elephants return to safety.

One of the grandsons declares, ‘This is the best day of my life.’   His dad bought a ticket so the grandson has bottle fed a baby elephant.  He will carry the thrill of the experience with him for ever.

We spend an amazing privileged two hours before the keepers begin to round up their charges.  They start to herd the lumbering elephants back up the hill, past the shops crammed with elephant souvenirs, to stop the traffic again and cross the road to the orphanage.

It’s a magical and emotional experience. These animals would simply not be alive were it not for the care they are given in the orphanage.  Some are land mine victims and have prosthetics.

The spin off is wonderful to see.  The keepers and orphanage staff are employed; the line of shops which flank the road to the river would simply not exist without the tourists and there would be no need for the restaurant where we had lunch overlooking the river.

Sanjeeva explains he had been to the elephant orphanage more than thirty times and never tires of visiting it.  I can understand that.















Sierra stands for Stagger

It’s like another language – stagger, crawler and runner.

Which one are you? Or are you none of them?

you Last year I was introduced to the terms used by airport staff to categorise people who had called for assistance either on arrival at airports or between departure points.

Sierra stands for stagger. Romeo for runner and I think Charlie is the code word they used for crawler.

Even though my late husband had required wheelchair assistance in the final years when he was still able to travel, I had never come across these terms before.

It was whilst I was on the first of five trips away last year that I smashed my foot, even before we got to Cork airport.

A minibus with broken side doors, no step to help access the back door of the vehicle, necessitated the assistance of the six foot plus driver to help five foot and a bit me climb on. My right left boarded upright and my left leg, even with me being pulled aboard by this giant of a man, just couldn’t make it and buckled in a heap under me.

I couldn’t speak as the tearing of ligaments, tendons and every other piece of me inside my foot broke free and fought for space as they ripped and began to swell and contort.

I limped throughout my journey and two flights to Marrakech and spent the first few days on a roof top sun lounger elevating my foot. We travelled to Rabat and back and I gamely carried on wincing as I went.

Things and my foot did not improve and eventually medical advice was to request assistance when travelling.

It was in Gatwick airport where I first heard the phrase, ‘I have two Sierras’ used.

A Romeo can walk, maybe not very far which is why they would need help in one of the golf cart type vehicles to cover the distance, often a couple of miles, between departure gates. A Sierra, a stagger, can walk a bit and can climb the stairs to enter the plane. But a crawler will need wheelchair assistance and probably need to be hoisted on to a platform within a vehicle which raises to allow level access into the plane.

I was grateful for the service throughout the time my foot took to heal – some ten months.

I met lots of interesting people during the time I waited in the assisted passenger area, people with all levels of abilities.

I experienced a whirlwind wheelchair journey at breakneck speed through the huge and magnificent Dubai airport. A medical emergency on arrival was dealt with by paramedics before anyone was allowed to leave the flight to carry on to the next stage of the journey.

And I was in danger of missing my connection but my wheelchair driver got me there in plenty time.

People are generally very polite and agreeable when they see someone in a wheelchair and will step back and out of the way. What they don’t do is look at you. It’s as if you are from another planet or perhaps they are worried that your lack of mobility might be infectious?

I met a gorgeous jolly black lady who was quite elderly. We were sitting patiently waiting for wheelchairs to take us through to the departure gates and she listed all the trips she had made even within the first three months of the year. She was a seasoned traveller.

She had sold her house and was spending the proceeds travelling between all her extended family. ‘I travel light and I am keeping going until the money runs out,’ she confided. ‘There will be nothing left for my family to fight over,’ she giggled. ‘And I am enjoying life!’

There’s a moral in there somewhere for all of us.

It could only happen to me

Another spell in hospital. Time for reflection, and I had almost forgotten an incident that happened around thirty years ago.

I don’t know what triggered the memory, save that it is said son’s birthday today.

He had just finished boarding school and exams and had an interview for that first job. Our shopping list, as we walked through the pedestrianised shopping area in Chatham, consisted of a suit and shirt and tie.

We were strolling along in the bright sunshine when suddenly I heard the slap, slap, slap of feet running on the concrete walkway behind us. Just as the runner drew closer he slipped and, with a mighty crash, fell heavily on to the pavement directly to our rear.

I turned and exclaimed, ‘You went down with an awful thud. Are you all right?’ The young man looked up at me and I asked him if he was hurt. I began to gather all the bags he had dropped, neat little  boxes  and leaflets which were blowing about in the breeze.

I helped him to his feet. He was a little unsteady but I thrust everything I could find into the plastic shopping bags which had fallen on the ground and handed them to him.

‘Are you sure you are okay?’ I fussed.  He nodded and limped off heading towards M & S.

My son and I were looking for a men’s outfitters still in search of a suit and shirt to impress the interviewers.

The men’s outfitters had what we would have liked to buy but the suits were way beyond our budget so we made our way back to the shopping precinct to try the department stores.

It was only as we encountered a couple of policemen, then saw police cars lined up along the edge of the walkway that we realised something was amiss.

I stopped by one of the cars and asked the policeman what had happened.  ‘A young man has robbed Ratner’s the jewellers.  He’s got away with a good bit and was seen carrying plastic carrier bags and heading in this direction.’ explained the sergeant.

‘I think you will find he went into M & S.’ I said.

I didn’t hang around to elaborate or to explain my part in helping the robber escape with his ill-gotten gains or why my fingerprints would be on all the jewellery boxes I had so carefully picked up and crammed into the plastic shopping bags.

Cold War hots up

‘British fighter jets escort Russian planes from UK airspace.’

Is Big Brother watching us as these incidents are recurring on a regular basis?

These days ‘Big Brother’ is synonymous with the Channel 4 television programme.

The Orwellian term in my day meant that we were being watched by sinister faceless beings who were listing all the revolutionary comments we were making against the establishment.

As an angst-ridden teenager, when I raged, without knowing what I was talking about, that I was against communism, my visiting grandfather, stood up and waved his finger warning me that ‘walls have ears’.

We lived in a block of four flats with poor insulation so I suppose he was right, but my imagination lifted to heights of more sinister beings than Mrs McDonald next door listening to my teenage hysterics.

It was a time of great fear for most teenagers of my generation. There were still echoes of the pain and poverty of WW2, raw reminders of man’s inhumanity to man.

But more pertinent was the threat of atomic war and then nuclear war. I remember sitting down in Princes Street in a protest and getting told off from my mother for making a mess of my good winter coat. Good winter coats were few and far between.

Our imagination was fired by the American comics which illustrated in graphic cartoon form the after affects of atomic attacks. Horses with their skins peeling off, contaminated water and people exposed to the atomic blasts dying in huge numbers. And no one upright enough to bury the bodies!

With the active imagination which I was always cursed with, my terror had no boundaries.

Years later I learned that schoolchildren in the USA regularly had nuclear attack drills in school. These were executed in exactly the same way we in Scotland would have fire drills. An alarm would go off and we would form an orderly line to the nearest exit where the teachers would do a head count.

I can imagine the terror instilled in the American children as they were growing up being subjected to this kind of indoctrination.

There was the Bay of Pigs stand off which induced terror in the young men of that era who were on standby to enter a different kind of war to that experienced before. (To my shame I was more interested in seeing the latest Jaques Tati film than
taking on board the call up fears of my latest boyfriend).

Then the Cold War years and it would seem that we are there again. The difference this time is that everything is instant.

Communications mean that we know immediately what has happened, where and how.

The ‘why’ might be unclear but thanks to mobile phones and their inbuilt cameras there is less chance of biased reporting and of authority or ruling regimes editing what we see.

In a way Big Brother has come full circle as we all have the ability to monitor what is happening – not just the select few.


We are on a large cruise ship in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska, west of Juneau. Mostly everyone is out on deck at some point scanning the seas surrounding us. The ship’s outside speakers are switched off as their noise could encourage calving of the icebergs which stand like huge monoliths.

There are orcas in the distance, flipping in and out of the water. There are rules here about how close one can get to the wildlife.

We have whales in the waters surrounding Ireland too and I have been fortunate enough to be on deck in a 40ft boat when a 60 foot fin whale surfaced within 20 feet. The thrill of seeing this huge creature, the crenellations of its mouth, and its sheer scale, will stay with me for ever.

And then suddenly it happens. Naturally the icebergs begin to calve and with a sound like a rocket, huge pieces explode in a flurry of what looks like smoke. The ice shatters and islets form and float on the water. They are not white, but a deep turquoise blue colour, and almost immediately, a scattering of tiny birds appear, from I know not where, to land on the floating ice and as the surface of the ice melts they begin to feed.

The blue colour fascinates me. I ask one of the national park rangers who have come aboard the liner where the colour blue has come from. He tells me the ice in the iceberg has been compressed so tightly that the blue is the only colour in the spectrum that cannot pass through the ice.

It’s all a bit beyond me, but I am enjoying the experience, one that I wish everyone could share.


Enough is a funny word, but probably one of the most empowering words to recognise and take on board.

The spelling of ‘Enough’ looks peculiar to me at least, and its meaning is often at opposite poles. Synonyms include – abundant, adequate, ample, full, sufficient, suitable, bellyful, acceptable, all right, already, bounteous, bountiful, comfortable, competent, complete, copious, decent.

Its antonyms include – inadequate, insufficient, lacking and unsuitable.

We also use it when we wish something to stop; for instance too much noise, squabbling children or teenagers at full tilt.

But when do we know we have enough.

I’ve wondered about this word since just before Christmas, when I was at a cash point in town, queuing with others to draw even more money out. It is that time of year when no matter what you budget for and plan to spend, there is always something else you think you will need.

The postman was cycling around town making his mid-morning delivery to the businesses and homes in Bridge Street, Skibbereen. He called his usual pleasant greeting to me of, ‘Good morning. How are you?’ as he swung over the bar on the bike and parked it by the entrance to the bank. ‘Get some for me while you are there,’ he added smiling.

I jokingly replied, ‘I will if I have any left.’ And then I thought about it – what I was actually doing. I was drawing out more money, just in case I needed anything else, when in fact I had enough of everything

‘I have enough.’ I called to him as I stepped away from the cash point.

And I did and I do.

Do you?

Wonderful Life

Today I had a message on facebook from a young musician in Chile. We are mutual fans of Colin Vearncombe (aka Black), whose velvet voice casts a spell over me and many more.  Colin writes his own wonderful music and meaningful words, with many successes including the multi million record selling ‘Wonderful Life’.

Privileged to live in West Cork, I am fortunate enough to be able to join the Black fans at the intimate concerts held in Grove House, Schull.  Colin lives near Schull these days.   He’s a nice guy too.

Francisco José Sylva is all of 22 and is just about to release an EP.  He kindly sent me a link to his work and I listened through icloud, to three of his songs this morning, which I assume will be on his EP.  I particularly like Transcend, the music and the words.

It’s a wonderful life isn’t it when I can listen to music composed on the other side of the world in the rural isolation of West Cork.

Hard to think that my interest in music began with the one and only record we had – a single by the Everly Brothers, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ which was played consistently whilst my mother was at work.  After school, I’d open the windows, carefully lower the needle on to the disc in the portable box radiogram, and play the record consistently at full volume. Our neighbours in the flat above were not amused yet were word perfect within 24 hours!

Accounts, emails or Loom Bands?

Are you ever in the position that you have promised to do something and have completely forgotten about it?

The six year old grandson requested more loom bands when he visited me yesterday. I completely forgot yesterday evening, remembered when I went to bed and then forgot when I woke up early this morning. Switched on the computer to catch up with emails and accounts and then suddenly remembered the loom bands.

Which to tackle first? No choice really. He never forgets a thing and he will call round for his loom band, ‘Cork colour please, red and white,’ either before he goes to church or immediately after – so emails and accounts are again on the long finger.

Steve Coogan and Philomena

The following lengthy beautiful true story was first published last year (2014) in the free West Cork newspaper, The West Cork Times, which is also read extensively on line.  The original version, with the Coogan family photographs, may still be read on line if one logs on to coogan and philomena – a family story.

It was my great pleasure to write this, and if I were a ‘real journalist’, I could have made dramatic headlines in the tabloids, but that’s not my way or the way the Coogan family wished this told.  This is a family story about real people we would all be privileged to know.  They have great ethics, good standards and I hope you find this as heartwarming as I did and still do.

“Steve Coogan and Philomena – a Family Story

“During an interview in West Cork a few years ago, Steve Coogan stated, ‘I like to do things I am passionate about.’   That passion was to the fore when he quite rightly took on the media during the UK’s Leveson Inquiry.

However when I saw a screening of the film ‘Philomena’ earlier this year I wondered why Coogan would have any connection or passion for the story of Philomena Lee.

Why would this highly successful man co-write, star and produce a story of a woman’s 50 year search for her illegitimate son – a story that could never have the ending we all hope for?    It would have been so easy for this story and film to fail and become a media target.  So why would he put himself out on a limb, exposing the frailties and cruelty of the Catholic Church?

I believed I had the answer in my notes of an interview Steve did with Greg Dyke during the Schull Film Festival, a few years ago, but I only had part of the story.  Thanks to his aunt, Patricia Coogan O’Dell, here’s the real story of the Coogan family and the background to what I think made Steve Coogan the man he is today.

Stephen Coogan grew up in north Manchester, one of seven children, five boys and two girls, one of whom was adopted.  But the story really starts with Stephen’s great grandfather, Thomas Coogan, a tailor from Kilkenny and his great grandmother, Margaret Coogan, who was from Cork.  They left Ireland as economic migrants to survive in Manchester before World War I.

Pierce Coogan, Steve’s grandfather was born in Manchester.  Pierce always maintained he had the good fortune to be educated by the Christian Brothers.  He left school well-educated, able to play musical instruments, a qualified electrician and with the manners of a gentleman.

He believed education was the key to success so three of his five children went to good grammar schools, including Tony, Steve’s father, as did Steve himself and most of his siblings.

Patricia Coogan O’Dell explains, ‘Even though there wasn’t tons of money, education was always very important.  Most of us had very little interest in sport of any kind.  We read The Guardian – red tops didn’t come into the house – and we went to the local library each week.   Steve’s family lived in a rambling Edwardian house they owned, although the family had socialist leanings.’

Steve’s grandparents, Pierce and Florence Coogan, had the Astoria Irish dance hall and then the Assembly rooms in Manchester.  These dance halls proved to be a Mecca for Irish people at the time.   Pierce brought Joseph Locke over and then the show bands so there was an established line of entertaining in the Coogan family.

Pierce Coogan was an incredibly kind person, lending people money knowing they’d never be able to pay it back.  He felt a huge sense of responsibility to people who hadn’t had the same opportunities, particularly the young Irish boys who arrived off the boat train with nothing more than what they stood up in.

Very often they would stay with the Coogan family until Pierce had sorted them out with lodgings and a job.  Many found their wives amongst the Irish nurses who flocked to the ballroom as Pierce laid on free transport and free entry for them.  There are people in West Cork and all over Ireland who met there.

Pierce held many charity dances to raise money for orphanages and the convents which looked after the aged and unwanted – the list was endless.  Pierce together with his wife Florence, always worked incredibly hard, their ethos being to treat people as they would have liked to be treated themselves.

Tony, Steve’s father, played saxophone in Pierce Coogan’s orchestra, with Steve’s uncle Thomas on the drums.  One evening Tony spotted an extremely beautiful girl, Kathleen Coonan from Mayo, in the crowd and the rest as they say is history.

Even with their seven children, Tony and Kathleen fostered children too. Steve Coogan recalls, ‘My father was a computer engineer for IBM and my mum raised the family.  They did short term fostering, but on top of those children, there would be abused kids, or kids who would be made wards of court.  They often fostered a brother and sister to keep them together.’

Some of the children came from horrific situations and were unbelievably traumatised.   It was often hard for Steve and his siblings to tolerate the effect they had on the household.  Steve’s parents have always “lived their Christian principles” rather than just given lip service to their Religion and this ethos has been followed by most of the Coogan family.    Even today, although he is almost 80 Tony, together with Kathleen, spend a great deal of their time on charity work.

In 1968 at a time when there was still a stigma attached to unmarried mothers, Steve’s aunt Mollie, aged 27, became pregnant.  She felt she couldn’t put her parents through the humiliation so against her parents’ wishes and of her own volition, Mollie went to the Good Shepherd Convent.  She experienced a dreadful time at the Magdalene Laundry.  Mollie intended to give her baby up to Tony and Kathleen for adoption.  Fortunately she couldn’t bear to be parted from her child and they returned home to Pierce and Florence so there was a happy ending to her story.

Patricia Coogan O’Dell who lives in Ballydehob with her husband Chris O’Dell, BSC (British Society of Cinematographers) explains.  ‘When Steve read the book Philomena he was particularly horrified by the iniquitous cruelty which had been inflicted on Philomena Lee by those nuns.  He is very close to his own daughter so would have felt very deeply the pain that Philomena went through at each stage as her tragedy unfolded.

‘Philomena has been a very rewarding project for Steve as he believed in it from day one.  Together with Geoff Pope, he wrote a splendid screenplay which persuaded Judy Dench to be part of it all.  He is a very clever chap, very much like his clever father and grandfather.  I am so glad that people can now see beyond the Alan Partridge character and see Steve Coogan as he is, a man with a very creative mind, capable of much more.  To be awarded the BAFTA for best screenplay has meant a great deal to him.  He is now inundated with all sorts of challenging projects.  I believe that we will continue to be surprised at the range of his considerable talent for many years yet.’

Steve Coogan became a patron of the Fastnet Short Film Festival at the invitation of Chris O’Dell.  Coogan and his company Baby Cow Productions Ltd, the UK television comedy production company, have contributed greatly to the festival by their involvement.

Coogan’s brother Kevin, who is the community leader for L’Arche, Manchester, and Steve recently joined forces to run the  Manchester Marathon.  L’Arche is an international movement which builds faith-based communities for people with learning disabilities in over 30 different countries across the world.

Steve Coogan divided the money he raised between L’Arche and the Rainbow Trust, an organisation which provides support to the families of children with life threatening or life shortening conditions.

Righting wrongs, looking after the less able, and continuing the giving is a trait most Irish people share.  It seems to me that the Coogans are continuing the good works their forebears began and this explains, at least to me, why Steve Coogan had to right the wrong done to Philomena Lee.

You can catch the man, the film and more at this year’s Corona Fastnet Short Film Festival on Sunday 25th.  One may visit for further information and bookings.

Thanks to Patricia Coogan O’Dell and Chris O’Dell for their help contribution to this article and for the Coogan family photographs.”

(c) Carol Gilbert


Spring days

It’s a wonderful West Cork day. Blue skies and next to no breeze. Spring has sprung hopefully. Dads on bikes, guarding little boys and girls as they cycle down the country roads. Saw a couple of people in short sleeves at the garage on the Cork Road! My castaway wallflowers are in full bloom, but then they never stop and the crocuses are peeping through the tub full of grass and weeds. It will freeze tonight but with a day like today there’s the optimism of what is to come with longer days and warmer climes.FullSizeRender (1)
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