It’s a mad mad world.

I heard today from a young woman thrilled that her family had made it out from Iraq and arrived in Turkey. They hope to make it to the UK or USA.    She misses her parents as she hasn’t seen them for a number of years, not since she moved to safety.

She spent her teenage years in Iraq during the downfall of Saddam but said the ‘freeing’ of her people had made them more afraid, frightened to raise their heads, voice what they were experiencing.  Her friend, 17, and her friend’s family were killed in an explosion.

Occasionally an email would come through from her, brief one line messages, and then for several years, nothing – no contact at all.

I believed she had been killed and pushed the painful thoughts from my mind.

Then early one morning a message on fb.   Was I the Carol she had met ten years ago?  She had tracked me down and since then I have shared her sorrows, her fears and her painful losses but also her hopes and her delight at joys.

I hope and pray she will be reunited with her parents soon.  She has blossomed from a shy awkward teenager into a beautiful confident young woman.

Next I heard from a young couple who have added a gorgeous baby boy to their family. They already have a daughter so I am thrilled for them.

The Irish water meter protesters have been released from prison.

An Irish county council has withdrawn its case against a man who believed there was no legal basis for the household tax and refused to pay.

Like many hundreds of thousands, I have paid my household / property tax.  Was I wrong to do so?  I had no choice as I had to be tax compliant to continue to run the Made In West Cork business – log on to

The court did not find in favour of the man who refused to pay.  The county council who took him to court, withdrew their case – so who wins and who loses?

Wouldn’t the girl’s parents, who are leaving everything behind them as they attempt to flee to the West and safety, love to be in a position to pay a property tax.

It’s a mad mad world.


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.

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


We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns

I was baptised Catholic, attended the village Sunday School run by the Baptists in the local primary school, because I could do so without crossing a road, and I went on summer camps with them until I was a teenager.

It says much for my world that I attended school in Edinburgh unaware of the reason for the divide between Hearts and Hibs football teams. Somehow I was aware that a school friend I brought home was the daughter of Jew.  I didn’t really understand what that meant other than that Jesus had been a Jew according to Sunday school.  However I’d overheard she had two older sisters and her parents had really wanted a son each time so I empathised with her as I was in the same position.

My father was Italian but had died at a very young age.  I grew up overhearing how Italians only wanted sons and realised that because I was a girl, I was not quite what had been on the agenda.  I also grew up being told that because I was a girl my Italian family wanted nothing to do with us and that if we had been boys, they would have been never off the doorstep and our childhood would not have been so impoverished.

The absence of my Italian family in our lives might have been more to do with the fact that my agnostic mother had run the priests, sent to comfort us in the days after my father’s death, out of the house, yelling at them all the way up the path.

They’d had the misfortune to ask for money for candles and there was no money for food, never mind candles to pray for the dear departed soul of a young man who was taken from us through illness far too soon.   My Italian family were relatively wealthy for the times, unaware of our predicament and the poor priest would have naturally believed we were being looked after in similar circumstances.

My mother was too proud to ask for help but she did the best she could, as all mothers do for their children in whatever circumstances they find themselves in.

I grew up unaware of a brand of religion – and trotted off to church on a Sunday with whomever I felt sociable with at the time.   Often we couldn’t go to church because we simply did not have ‘best clothes’ to wear.

The full force and divide of religion was brought home to me when I moved to another Scottish city where Catholic and Church of Scotland schools were built side by side.  Generally there were daily fights on the way home from school.

Then the biggest drama and divide occurred one year before Christmas when I had young children of my own.  Because of decimalisation a large national company had recruited thousands of extra workers.  I watched aghast that year as the first to be laid off were my neighbours who were Catholic.  Church of Scotland members were kept on but realistically they had been working in the factories before the need for the huge influx of extra staff.

That was when it hit home that religion can cause problems.  There were many children in houses on our estate who had a very poor Christmas that year.

It was the most classic illustration of those who have and those who have not and that’s when religious troubles arise.

ITV’s programme on Cilla touched on the religious divide that prevailed in the late 1950s/early 1960s.  Both Cilla’s father and Bobby’s father stated their religious preferences for partners for their respective children were not the ones chosen by them.

‘We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns’ is a popular saying in Scotland and is attributed to The Reverend John Thomson {Jock Tamson} who was a much-loved minister of Duddingston Kirk, Edinburgh from 1805 to 1840. He called the members of his congregation ‘ma bairns’ {my children}and this resulted in folk saying ‘we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns’ which gave a sense of belonging to a small but special group. Nowadays, the phrase is often used to indicate we’re all the same under the skin.

I like to think of it that way.