The Sound of Music

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of film of the The Sound of Music but I saw the stage version in London when I was a teenager- over fifty years ago.

A girlfriend and I had made the journey from Edinburgh to London aboard the Starlight Special. This was by overnight train, leaving Waverley late in the evening and arriving in London around 6 am the following morning. The attraction was the ticket price – five pounds sterling.

The £5 entitled us to a seat and a journey.  We settled in a compartment where we were joined by a husband and wife who were making the same journey.

There were lots of lads aboard the train and we headed off to the buffet car, ‘for refreshments’ but really to eye up the talent.  The drinks were flowing, there was a good natured fun crowd and the stewards joined in the laughter and fun.   We headed back to our compartment at one point, but the husband and wife had stretched out full length on each side of the compartment taking up all the seats.  With nowhere to sit we retraced our steps and joined in the party which was in full swing.

Around 3 am the revellers started to quieten down and we stayed on in the buffet car playing cards with a group of lads who had no intention of closing their eyes all night.  We’d never played cards for real money before, but beginners’ luck was with us, either that or our competitors had really had far too much to drink.  We arrived in London having doubled the spending money we had for the week!

We were staying with a television personality of the time, the days of live television.  She got tickets for us for the Sound of Music stage show which would later become one of the most enduring favourite films of all time.

She had arranged for us to go backstage after the performance and meet the stars of the show.  But firstly she told us not to tell anyone we had watched the show from the gods!

We duly went backstage. It was exciting and thrilling and another world, although the dressing rooms were smaller than we expected.   After all the colour and atmosphere on stage during the performance, somehow backstage was duller, a bit jaded and didn’t live up to expectations.   I knew there was something different about the man who was the leading character’s dresser, but didn’t understand what was different or why.   It was to be quite a few years later before the penny dropped.

Fast forward eight years or so and I had a little boy called Raymond.  I used to sing him the song Do Ray Me from the Sound of Music and call him my little ray of sunshine.  In retrospect I don’t know why as he whinged and cried through the first two years of his life.    It was so constant friends gave up asking what was wrong with him.

He was happiest when he was taking things apart.  If he was silent you understood it was a clock or a watch which was being dismantled.    It got so that when he entered the house of anyone who knew him everything that was musical or mechanical or could be wound up was hastily put out of his reach.

He didn’t sleep as a toddler but was content in his cot as long as he had his Fisher Price wind up musical toy with him.   We would awaken in the early hours to the noise of the crank crank crank as his little fingers wound up the movement and drift off to sleep again to the gentle sounds of Little Boy Blue….

He wore the teeth of the movement completely out and the toy was eventually discarded.

He was my third child and as he got older would ask me, ‘Why didn’t you have me first?’  He had a reading age of 13 at 6 years old, so determined was he to be on the same reading books as his older brothers.  He always wanted to run or cycle faster than anyone else and one time flew over the handlebars of his bicycle. I was on top of a ladder removing a brick fireplace at ceiling height when he came in the house screaming.  His hand was covering his eye and blood pumped freely through his fingers.  I thought he had lost his eye, but thankfully his eye was intact.  He had a nasty cut on his forehead above his eye and a scar which he carries to this day.

He was two weeks’ late making his entrance into this life. I believe he has been trying to make up for those two weeks ever since.   He arrived without warning and within five minutes of deciding it was time to make an appearance.

(We had friends staying that weekend with us, friends who were childless and who would remain so throughout their lives.  They adored being in our home that eventful day in May.)

Many years later we went to Austria with Ray, one of his brothers and some others.   We walked through the tunnelled avenue, and saw many of the scenes where The Sound of Music had been filmed.

I remember being on a coach going into Salzburg and this is where I learned I was no longer the mummy who had to take care of things for the little boys.  The tour guide asked for either passports or some information and I opened my mouth to answer and deal with whatever was necessary.  But the little boy – in my eyes anyway – dealt politely and calmly with what needed to be done.  He was after all 27.   I relaxed back into the coach seat, having learned that a part of my job was done.

The little boy now has boys of his own who have appeared on stage in theatre and musicals, film and television but not as far as I know in The Sound of Music, at least not yet.




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.


I was born in Scotland but live in Ireland. When the Moroccan taxi driver found out my nationality he asked, ‘Why did Scotland not vote to break free from England when they had the opportunity?’ He was totally bewildered as I am about the result.

As a Scot living in another country I don’t believe I should have had the right to vote. But should English people who have worked in Scotland have the right to vote if they have worked in Scotland for a twelve month period?

The arguments as to the rights and wrongs of the result will raise voices and blood pressure for years to come.

Was it a missed opportunity or an own goal?

True story of how Irish farming nearly went to the wall

In these dire financial times this story is even more relevant, although it is 12 years old.  However it was revealed for the first time in 2002, twenty years after the events occurred.  It says much for the loyalty of those involved in the IFA that these events were never spoken about publicly prior to that time.

The True story of how Irish farming nearly went to the wall

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. In the mid-1970’s, flares and flower power were back in fashion, and another F -farming- was the business enterprise to get into.

Farmers who saw their chance and expanded up to 1977 never looked back. But what a difference a year made. Farm development from 1978 onwards, often involving expensive land purchases, ended in tears for most. In the early 1980’s, interest rates zoomed over 20%. EU price guarantees decelerated, Irish inflation was in the high teens and farm incomes halved from 1979 to 1981. Interest repayments spiralled to 27% of Irish farm income, a disastrous and distressing experience for many farmers. This was Irish farming’s equivalent of the Wall Street Crash. In what looked like a rewarding and promising business, 10,000 Irish farmers were unable to service their debts.

That farming survived, and eventually prospered, is a lasting tribute to the farmers and bankers who brought the industry through, with the minimum of casualties. Amazingly, many of the details have only just come to light of how the Irish Farmers Association led the industry out of its crisis. They have been revealed by the main player on the farmers’ side, former IFA president, Tom Clinton. His account of farming’s Crash of the ’80’s came to be told a couple of months ago at the Rosscarbery Historical Society’s Autumn History School, in West Cork.

To understand Ireland’s farm credit crisis one must picture our agriculture industry of the late 60’s and 70’s. The dairy industry was in its infancy; there was a coastal strip of tillage from Louth to East Cork and some in the south midlands. Cattle and sheep were almost everywhere. Two de Gaulle veto setbacks delayed EEC entry, but in 1973, Ireland went from supplying cheap food to Britain to full market access to 250 million Europeans, backed by intervention price support. Farm product prices increased, up to a 1978 peak. But, from 1979 onwards, the only thing expanding fast in Irish farming circles was debt. If not serviced, the money to be repaid to banks could double in four or five years; a lesson which 10,000 farmers learned the hard way. Some 5,000 of them learned the dreaded new words in Irish farming, “restructuring” and “write-off”. The government recognised the crises, and introduced an interest subsidy scheme, but it was too little too late in a lot of cases, according to Tom Clinton, as farmers struggled to hand over nearly 25% of their shrinking incomes in interest payments. Some worked their way through, but farmers who expanded rapidly, purchased land at high prices, had cattle disease outbreaks or had expensive family settlements never had a chance, particularly so after the EEC introduced milk quotas in 1983.

For IFA, farmer indebtedness became issue number one, and the association’s president, Joe Rea, entrusted a special sub-committee of Frank Masterson, Don Hadden, Pat Butler and Tom Clinton with the onerous task of “managing” the crisis. Clinton had taken over from Masterson as chairman of IFA’s tax and credit committee, the very name of which signified how credit had become a huge farming worry. The IFA met representatives of all the banks, but were getting nowhere in their efforts to ease the trauma for farmers. The Bank of Ireland had been particularly aggressive lenders to farming at the end of the 1970’s and had put up enormous sums for land purchase. AIB would have been the next biggest lender followed by the Northern Bank (who later became National Irish) and Ulster. As the crisis grew, it became clear to the bankers that if they called in all the debts that farmers had defaulted on, or looked likely to default on, they would only make things worse. Land prices would have collapsed and some of the banks’ own equity base would have been jeopardised.

Still, Tom Clinton and his colleagues were coming up against huge resistance to debt write-offs and to allowing IFA to have any role in loan restructuring negotiations. They encountered a view in banking circles that if any organisation was allowed in to negotiate on behalf of farmers, it created a whole wave of new precedents which bankers were most unwilling to contemplate. So there was six months of meetings and stalemate. By 1983, Irish farming debt was a clearly visible crises. There were enormous sums at stake, multiplying rapidly. IFA’s tax and credit committee invited Peadar McCanna and John Clifford of Bank of Ireland to yet another meeting in IFA’s Farm Centre HQ in Dublin. This time, Clinton raised the case of a farmer in Meath, his own county- who had made the headlines because of the amount he had borrowed from Bank of Ireland. The farmer had done his best. He had a large family and was totally backable from an IFA point of view. Tom Clinton asked Peadar McCanna, chief agricultural advisor to the Bank of Ireland at the time, what he would do with the Meath farmer. McCanna said that he would get him to sell the land he had bought, allow him some years to raise his family and then sell him out. Tom Clinton said that he had looked him in the eye and told him “On that day I would meet him at the gate.” Such statements left bankers in no doubt as to the possible repercussions of a hard line approach to debts.

As for Clinton, he felt that this was a defining moment for IFA, for Bank of Ireland, for the other banks and for the farmers in difficulty, ACOT farm advice authority. As for himself, he says it utterly changed his life. Negotiations after that pivotal meeting were still slow, but the lending institutions soon realised that the IFA negotiators were genuinely willing to put their necks on the line. And, most importantly, they learned they could keep a secret, and would not talk carelessly about debt settlements. Bit by bit, bankers and IFA leaders began to thrash out settlements for over indebted farmers. It usually started with a phone call to an IFA negotiator, with information that “so and so” was in difficulty. It was always requested that a farmer in trouble contact a negotiator directly. A meeting was set up, preferably with the farmer’s wife present. Mr Clinton said, “It was always amazing to watch people realise that after bottling up their problems for months or even years, there was someone who understood it from their point of view and were prepared to help.”

The IFA decided that both the lending institution and the farmer involved would have to make sacrifices. Important criteria were the farmer’s age, family circumstances, what had they bought, how much had they borrowed, the pressures that led to such borrowing. The IFA objective was to determine how much of a write-off was needed to leave a farmer hope for the future. As for the banks, the IFA thinking was they should realise they had made a serious mistake and should pay a price for over extending credit.


What were the IFA guidelines in each case? (a) If a farmer had a future, lending institution would accept a lump sum from sale of livestock, land or other assets and lend to that farm at reduced interest rate over 10-15 years. (b) If the farmer was 48 years or over, or if the farm was unable to make repayments the banks would accept a lump sum in settlement. Most of these farmers had then to change banks. Lending institutions in a write-off were not inclined to re-lend to the farmer. The amount written off varied, but it was never below 10%. Each case threw up complex negotiations, traumatic for the farmers. But invariably, within six months, they would appreciate what was done, as the weight lifted off their shoulders, recalls Tom Clinton. He does not know how many individual debt crisis settlements IFA made because all the farmers involved did not come personally to the IFA. But he was personally involved in 1,500 to 2,000. These cases would have averaged at least 100 acres each, involving the Co Meath farmer in settlements involving almost quarter of a million acres. And nearly 2,000 settlements were negotiated by the rest of his tax and credit team. Amazingly, there was little public knowledge of this huge farm rescue operation, farmers having been directed to keep their settlement details confidential. Even the iFA leadership and management were no more than broadly aware of what was being done. No one person knew the overall numbers of farmers involved in write-offs, or overall sums written off.

Mr Clinton said there has been for some time a recognition that the story of the farmers who came to the rescue of debt stricken colleagues should be put on records. The Rosscarbery Autumn School was the opportunity to pay tribute to the IFA members who gave unselfishly of their time, to ease the trauma of crippling debt afflicting Irish farmers. Fittingly, the Autumn School was organised by local historian Fachtna O’Callaghan, one of 15 key people, who Clinton said deserve to be named for posterity. The others are, Pat Butler, Wexford, Don Haddon and the late Larry Cullen, Wicklow, Stephen Liffey, North Tipperary, Dan Ryan, South Tipperary, Eddie Cunningham, Waterford, Michael Coughlan, Cork, Frank Masterson, Kildare, Larry Hannon and Liam Egan, Offaly, Pat Donnellan, Galway, Tom Bradley, Carlow, John Boylan, Monaghan and the late Dee Donoghue in Kerry. He also paid tribute to their wives, who gave tea and sympathy to the callers seeking relief from their crushing debts. “There was total harmony among us” said Tom Clinton of the IFA credit team’s unity of purpose, once they had agreed basic settlement criteria. There were many other farmers involved in negotiating settlements, too numerous to mention, he added. He also paid tribute to the banks’ agricultural advisors who, having given out too much money in the first place, realised that they had a huge problem and helped to sort it out. The length of time to get settlements varied from three to six months at the beginning. In the finish it took from a week to a month to lift the crushing debt burden on individual farmers. The fastest was one hour and Tom Clinton did not meet the farmer involved until many years later. When he heard that Tom Clinton was in his town, he came in to meet him. “I didn’t get home early that night,” says the man who successfully led the IFA campaign against land tax and later became president of the association, but will be best remembered as a saviour when bankruptcy threatened. Carol Gilbert (c) Irish Examiner


And I add my own recollection of  what was said before a stunned audience on that Sunday morning.   Up to 10,000 farmers had their debt written off or set aside in some way, up to one million euros.  The most telling statement for me in understanding the situation at the time was when the man sitting near me stood up and said, ‘You have just explained how my neighbour’s widow and her young sons kept their farm, following their father’s suicide.’

Hard times are upon us again as people lose their homes and farms wholesale – we need another Tom Clinton but this time someone acting for everyone.

Quangos and false impressions

As political parties try to score points against each other in the appointment of a young man to a board – who are they trying to fool?

For any politician to say ‘it’s Fine Gael business’ is naive to say the least in this day of instants  and where lip-readers can bring the dubious remarks made by an equally naive PM to the masses in seconds.

It really illustrates how stupid they perceive us.  And we are absolutely not.

I was reminded of a train journey made earlier this year between Marrakech and Rabat or rather from Rabat to Marrakech.

First of all the story of the journey north when my friend and I had a pristine six-seater compartment to ourselves.  This was first class, cost less than Twenty Euros and the food served on the trolley was fresh, so tasty and presented in pristine paper wrappings.

The journey up was an education in the changing landscape and an education too, as my environmentally enlightened friend pointed out,  of the horrendous method by which rubbish was disposed of – merely ploughed into the land.

It was also an education for two older females travelling alone as we were propositioned by a very handsome young man who spoke French to my friend – asking for her phone number – whilst managing to wink at me and blow kisses to me whilst said friend’s head was turned in the other direction.

There are two train stations in Rabat and our pimp advised us to get out at the wrong one!   He departed from our carriage before the train reached Rabat and we don’t know if he got off the train or had seen more quarry in another compartment.  Another very handsome young man, almost a carbon copy of the first, chose to sit in our compartment within minutes of the first’s departure.

Our day was saved by a third and very studious young man with briefcase and laptop and perfect English who explained we still had two stops before our final destination.   The second young man vanished as we were explaining our predicament to the third.

Our compartment was full on the return journey as it was a public holiday, I think Mohammed’s birthday.  The IMF shared our compartment on the return leg together with two local businessmen.

The Canadian couple were employed by the IMF to investigate money laundering.    When they learned that we lived in Ireland, they said, ‘Well Ireland has done very well.  You have sorted your economy.’

Of course they were quickly informed of the knock on effects and the hardships ordinary people were enduring, the amount of suicides, the stress of people losing their homes, whole areas with no young people between 18 and 30.   They did believe us and were concerned.

So who are the politicians trying to fool?

I think it is set,  game and match, and perhaps game over.   There’s no free channel for the lies any more.



Barbara Zanuttigh

Barbara Zanuttigh

In these heady days of high temperatures and water shortages it’s difficult to think of the ever present threat of coastal flooding.  As West Cork residents and businesses know only too well coastal flooding damages not only buildings and engineering structures, but also the environment and the ecological balance.

Thanks to a European Union (EU)-funded initiative, namely the THESEUS project, there is now a one-stop-shop whereby flooding risks may be identified at different time scales – from one year to 100 years.

The new THESEUS Decision Support System (DSS) is a Geographic Information System (GIS)-based tool. “This tool will help decision makers input all the conditions they are dealing with so the short, medium and long-term effects of building or developing within coastal communities could be identified,” says THESEUS project coordinator, Barbara Zanuttigh, Assistant Professor at University of Bologna, Italy.

The tool enables developers, builders and local authorities to minimise coastal risks and take into account physical and non-physical drivers such as climate change, subsidence (undermining and sinking of land due to flooding), population and economic growth. “The THESEUS DSS is intended as a vehicle for communication, training, forecasting and experimentation,” adds Zanuttigh.

In addition to the DSS tool, a guidelines book, compiled by the project team, will assist coastal managers in the application of THESEUS methodology for coastal risk assessment and in the selection and design of mitigation options. The policy briefs developed are expected to support decision makers by identifying weaknesses and strengths of the existing policies and the key challenges to be addressed.

Last, but not least, the information booklets, also produced by the THESEUS team, “aim to raise the general public’s awareness regarding the scale of the risks involved and help towards a more sustainable future,” concludes Zanuttigh.