2017 – A Pace Odyssey

Greetings, readers of this blog. Real life has been so, so busy of late that blogging has really taken a back seat.

Funnily, when I moved back to the west, I somehow imagined that life would be much less busy; that I would have more downtime. I even harboured quaint notions of writing a book. However, that’s looking more like a pipe dream at present, and in fact the opposite has proven to be the case. Happily, it’s not because of workday drudgery – I’m lucky enough to have a job I adore, even though it takes up more time than is ideal – or time spent on a soulless commute. Rather, it appears it’s down to my rather worrying inability to say no. But life’s short, right? And when there are fun things to be done, there’s no time like the present to jump in and take part.

These days, when I write, it’s mostly for work, either in the day job, or for The Mayo News. Speaking of which, here’s (a slightly edited version) of the latest column, on just one of the things that’s filling my time.


 

Back in January, you may remember me sharing my new year’s resolutions in this column. As usual, mere weeks later I can barely remember these virtuous aspirations. The road to hell, and all that.

One thing I do remember however, is resolving to become a better runner.

Now, we must bear in mind that the bar was pretty low, given that I’d only run three times in the previous six months. One of those times was from car to house to escape a shower. Any progress on this front, therefore, was a guaranteed win. At the time, I think I may have harboured ambitious notions of running five kilometres every day for the month of January. That wasn’t at all delusional, was it? Looking back, I can’t help wondering whether I was still under the influence of the Christmas cheer when I signed up for that challenge, but needless to say, it didn’t happen.

Before you scoff, however, it wasn’t a total disaster. While I didn’t run every day (I mean, really, who was I kidding?) I did manage (mostly out of shame) to pull on my runners at least every two or three days. And something unexpected happened. Over the course of the weeks, I started to feel fitter. Now, this of course may to a normal person seem like a natural progression, but remember, we are not dealing with a typical athlete here. By the end of January, I found I could run those five kilometres without needing an ambulance on standby. I even started to enjoy it.  Somehow, in failing to achieve what I set out to do, I discovered my running mojo. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Of course, having reached these dizzy heights of achievement, the thrill started to wear off. I was craving a bigger hit, a stronger high. So I went and did what any notoriously flaky runner would do. I signed up for a half-marathon, obviously.

Look, I can only conclude that I’m in the midst of a mid-life crisis. For thirty-odd years I have regarded long-distance running with suspicion, much like the way a dog will look at a curled-up hedgehog or a child will look at an electric fence – with the assumption that by going there, there will inevitably be pain. I’ve always thought those people who ran distances for fun were a bit mad. Now, I suddenly want to be one of them? Anyway, seduced by the prospect of actually achieving something worth bragging about in 2017, I signed on the dotted line, victory speech already in mind.

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What I do not look like when running. 

Three weeks in, and I won’t lie – it’s daunting. I’ve entered a whole new world of jargon and terminology I never knew existed. Aerobic pace and anaerobic pace and lactate threshold and marathon heart rate and high intensity training zones. Luddite-like, I don’t even own a sports watch and the thought of learning how to use one stresses me out more than the thought of running thirteen miles. (THIRTEEN MILES. Mother of God.) The soles are about to fall out of my year-old running shoes and I can’t seem to dress for the weather, no matter what I wear. I’ve committed to training four times a week, and the sessions are already ominously long. I’m afraid of getting injured, getting bored, or just becoming a bore. But, barring disaster, I am seeing this out if it kills me. (God, I really hope it doesn’t kill me.)

 

Already though, the bug is biting. Last weekend, I ran an unprecedented (for me) 14 kilometres, and I swear, I felt like an Olympian. A very slow, very sweaty Olympian with old lady feet. But I’ve started to believe I might be able to do this.

D-day is the River Moy Half Marathon on 13th May. It’s on home ground, so should be special. I’ve decided not to set any timing targets, so there’s no pressure. Frankly, I don’t care how long it takes – I just want to cross the line. I also want to be one of those people who nonchalantly wears the souvenir top that subtly, smugly tells people I ran 13 miles (13 whole miles!) without dying.

I’ve learned a few things along the way; I’ve learned that if you run slowly, you’ll always get there eventually. I’ve learned that motivation comes in very different forms for different people. I’ve learned that encouraging oneself aloud on tougher runs may earn some funny looks, but is well worth the ridicule – whatever gets you through. I’ve learned that I feel happier in my head when I’m running regularly. I’ve learned that the support and encouragement of a group is invaluable. And I’ve learned that a long run in good company is the very definition of time well spent.

It’ll be an interesting journey. Here’s hoping it’s not the road to hell, in every sense of the word.

I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

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Volunteers – the people who make the world go round

Working in the tourism and development sector over the past year has taught me a lot. It has taught me that when dealing with public bodies, everything moves agonisingly, achingly slowly. Patience is a virtue. It has taught me that diplomacy is the greatest untaught skill you’ll ever need, and it has taught me that in the West of Ireland, no-one ever reads emails. But most of all it has reminded me that frequently, good things happen because good people make them happen, and more often than not, in their own time and without payment.

Volunteerism is what makes the world go round in rural Ireland. From festivals to football games, funerals to fun runs, the success of community initiatives depends on people giving up their time, their energy and often their money, to work for free. They give up their time with their kids to go to meetings; they leave the fireside on dark, rainy winter nights to sit in community centres. They dream and aspire and plan and toil to make their communities better places to live. And it’s damn hard work.

Sometimes they don’t get it right. But you know what? At least they’re trying.

Volunteering is a double-edged sword. If you put yourself out there and put your neck above the parapet, you will be recognised and thanked for it. At the same time, you’ll probably be criticised if something goes wrong – usually by the perennial hurlers on the ditch who never lift a finger to contribute themselves. And volunteerism isn’t sunshine, lollipops and rainbows either. Working with a committee with people of differing opinions can be really challenging. There are times when you’ll have blazing rows, you’ll run out of patience and you’ll feel like throwing in the towel. Sometimes you will. But the sense of achievement you’ll get from being part of a successful event, and giving something back to your homeplace will generally far outweigh that – it’s a feel-good factor like no other.

I’ve heard it suggested that sometimes volunteers are only “in it for the glory”, for the ego boost, to make themselves look or feel good. And to that I say – if they are, fair play to them. There are far easier ways to get your ego boosted. And if contributing to your community makes you feel good, I can think of worse drugs to be taking.

Volunteering is a masterclass in compromising, listening and learning. The boss in the day job reminds me occasionally: “Being right is nothing – getting it right is everything”.  He’s good with the lines, but there’s truth in it. You might disagree with someone nine times out of ten, but if you can find that 10 per cent of common ground, everyone benefits. Learning to put aside the ego when you’re not getting paid isn’t easy, but speaking for myself, I’ve found it’s good to be reminded now and again that I don’t in fact, know everything and am occasionally wrong about stuff.

One thing that’s struck me since moving back west is the age profile of community volunteers. At every community meeting or event I attend, with a few notable exceptions, the people giving up their time to help out seem to be the people that have been doing so for the past 25 years. Where’s the new blood? Where are the twentysomethings and the thirtysomethings? Many of those who have been active in their community for years are getting tired and jaded, and want to pass the baton on, but are often left standing on the line for the want of a replacement. And that needs to change.

But maybe sometimes, it’s just a simple matter of picking up the phone and asking someone to help, or telling them what you need. Joining a committee or putting yourself out there can be daunting; sometimes a bit of encouragement is all it takes. And at the end of the day, we all like to feel wanted.

The concept of community is continuing to evolve, but increasingly, it feels like we are becoming less integrated and more isolated. But if you live in a community and avail of its facilities, its public spaces, its amenities, you have a responsibility to contribute to that community.

And who knows? You might even enjoy it.

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on 16th August 2016. 

 

10 more things I’ve learned since returning west

Last June, I made the decision to take myself out of the city and head back to the bright lights – no, sorry, the dark skies – of North MayoAny regrets, you ask? No, not a single one. But adjustment does takes time and it continues to be a learning curve.

I wrote last year, just six weeks after getting back – about seven things I’d learned since returning west, and here are some more life lessons I’ve learned about relocating back to the country in the past nine months.

Being brave (or foolhardy) pays off. Phew!

So yes, it’s all worked out so far. I moved back west jobless, on a wing and a prayer, to a town which despite not having benefited as much from the boom as other places, was nevertheless hit hard. My fortnightly column for the Mayo News and some news reporting was one of my only – and very welcome – sources of income. That, and a few quid I’d put aside for a rainy day. As it happened, it lashed rain for most of the summer. But by the end of it I’d managed to secure enough freelance work to keep me fed and watered, and by September I was about to start an exciting full-time role in a new and challenging environment.

It wasn’t easy – I had to put myself out there, something that doesn’t come naturally, but it has come together relatively well so far, and I feel very lucky that it has.

Taking time out is good for the soul

When I first moved, I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could take a little bit of time out and not work full time (which is quite convenient when you don’t have any work anyway). I used that time to rest, relax and reconnect with my area again. I behaved like a tourist, walked the streets of my town and the surrounding towns and got to know them again, while rekindling old friendships and acquaintances that had fallen a little by the wayside. Sometimes I got up before 11am. And I visited places in the county I’d never visited before.

Like returning to an old love, it felt familiar and exciting all at once, and the relationship remains solid to this day. And it meant I could take on a fresh start with a bit of energy.

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Taking time out and gatecrashing this guy’s party on Clare Island

Trying to get stuff done? Forget about email

The single biggest source of frustration in my daily life is the reluctance of people to reply to emails. First world problems ahoy! I don’t understand it, but then, writing is my thing and it’s not everyone else’s. However, memo to the people of Mayo, email was designed as a two-way communication tool, y’know?

Here, if you want to talk to someone, you just have to pick up the phone or doorstep them – it might take seven times longer, but it’s the only way to get stuff done. But I suppose personal interaction isn’t all bad either and maybe I should just be a bit less odd.

Positivity breeds positivity

In a mid-sized town, particularly one that has been ravaged by the recession, there will always be a certain amount of negativity. Whether grievances are genuine, or whether it’s hearing criticism of the efforts of other groups or individuals from those who have never volunteering their own time or knowledge, or whether it’s an unwillingness to move past old or perceived slights to collaborate and co-operate for the greater good, there is plenty of it about and it can be frustrating. But that’s life and you’ll never please everyone.

However, there is also a heap of really good stuff and fresh thinking happening – be it in enterprise, tourism, agriculture, hospitality, or festivals and events, people are recognising the need to work together and be creative. Volunteerism is strong. People love dressing up in mad costumes for stuff. And the more people give up their time to make their area a better place, the more it inspires enthusiasm and pride in others.

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Volunteers at Samhain Abhainn Scary Woods Walk – one of my favourite events in Ballina

Returning to the city is a shock to the system

Perhaps it’s the country girl in me, and I’m a bit mortified to admit this but on the rare occasions I need to return to Dublin, the frantic pace of city life comes as a jolt. Drivers drive harder and faster, walkers don’t dawdle, there’s more stress in the air. It’s actually  embarrassing, but I quickly feel claustrophobic, and getting back out is a relief.

But that said, when you’re in the mood for a nice meal somewhere new or a lively gig or a late bar or an excellent Thai takeaway  –  that’s when you realise that Supermac’s doesn’t quite cut it and you start to miss city life. Pros and cons, eh?

Everyone knows your business, but it’s not all bad

One of the downsides of moving back to a small town and trying to participate in the community is that you will be talked about. Now, not being talked about is much worse, but I have at various stages been mildly alarmed by people I barely know being able to tell me my (exact) address, where I work, who I have had a quiet drink with the week before, and what political party I am apparently about to join (spoiler: I am not joining any political party).

That said, you will always have people – like your neighbours – looking out for you and in the event that you die, it is unlikely you will be left alone long enough for your cats to eat you, so on balance I think I will take that.

People are doing it for themselves

There is a very real sense in the West of Ireland that they have been left behind over the past few years, and that decision-makers in Dublin are living in a bubble when it comes to acknowledging the reality and the challenges of rural life. In recent times, exasperated at the lack of assistance from on high, locals are just getting on with it and making stuff happen. Working hard, defiantly (but not foolishly) taking risks, rallying their communities and walking the walk themselves with little support from the banks, it is they who will be responsible for preserving rural communities.

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A recent surprise arrival to Belleek Woods. At his size, I won’t argue

Making new friends in your thirties is not as hard as you’d think

One of my biggest reservations about leaving Dublin was the small social circle I would have. Aside from my family, I had a tiny handful of close friends in Ballina, one of whom proved a lifesaver by renting me a room in her house for the summer, instantly making me feel at home all over again (thanks Nic!) and saving both my parents and myself the indignity of dealing with an adult child who was likely to regress to teenage behaviour in the home house.  I learned that the only way to meet new people is to be open to trying new things.

I am an unlikely and uncommitted sportsperson, but I joined the running, cycling and swimming clubs, and while my interest in partaking in sport will never be fanatical or consistent, it worked, and I felt good for it. As a bonus, I now have another small handful of new and delightfully mad people in my life that I feel privileged and proud to call friends. Result!

Romance is like everything else – if you’re looking, you’ll find it eventually

I’m including this because I’ve been asked about it surprisingly often by both male and female friends who are single and considering leaving the city. Before I moved home, I was warned by a dear friend (who shall remain nameless) that whatever chance you have of finding a partner in the city, the chances of it happening in a mid-sized town in your thirties are minimal. And let’s face it, that’s probably correct – the odds, numerically speaking, are not in your favour. But that said, it’s not a dating wasteland either.

I’ve always felt that love and romance can crop up in the most surprising of places, and probably when and where you’re least expecting it, so I’d recommend just going with the flow on that one. Getting off the couch helps, too. Failing that, just go on tour …

Again, this place is bloody gorgeous

I know, I said it last time. And to those of you familiar with the area, it won’t be news. But there’s rarely a week that this place doesn’t cause me to catch my breath and remember how lucky I am. I’m about to start my dream job, marketing, promoting and developing the region, and to say that I am excited is an understatement. And yet, while I want to share the loveliness with the world, there are places I secretly want to keep under wraps such as the below beach (no, I am not telling you where it is.)

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Somewhere secret in North Mayo

So in a nutshell, life is good. It’s cheap to live here, the quality of life is excellent, and while there are certain irritants and disadvantages, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

If you’re thinking of making a similar move, I certainly won’t be the one discouraging you. But don’t get a cat. Just in case.

Ballycastle’s Giro de Baile – a novice’s account of a first sportive

It was some trepidation that I loaded the bike into the boot of the car for the Giro de Baile on a rainy Sunday morning in August. Having never taken part in a cycling event before, and having done no serious training, I don’t mind admitting I was panicking a little at the prospect of what lay ahead. 60km along the exposed north west Atlantic coast in the wind and the rain? Sure, you’d have to be mad.

Giro de Baile sign

Giro time

Having recently moved back to North Mayo, I was on the lookout for a new hobby. Cycling is something I’ve always enjoyed but never pursued regularly, apart from the odd commute or jaunt around Dublin or Mayo. Having been aware of the success of the inaugural Giro de Baile in 2014, and smitten by the stunning route, I’d been keeping an eye on their Facebook page, and had it pencilled it into the diary. As the day drew closer, the nerves multiplied, but there’s nothing like a challenge to make or break an intention, right? Having been chatting with the organisers on Twitter, they very gently cajoled me into giving it a shot. And when a group gets together and puts in a shedload of work to organise and promote an event to benefit and promote their community and locality, I do feel it’s important to support that effort where possible.

Arriving in Ballycastle, the festivities were in full swing, with a DJ pumping out motivational beats, an impressive inflatable start line and of course a healthy lashing of green and red flags. Football is at the heart of everything down here. Inside the Community Hall, there was a palpable air of anticipation as 320 cyclists, experienced and novice alike availed of the spread of food and refreshments provided, and prepared for launch.

Giro de Baile volunteers

Volunteers, you rock.

With a cheer, we were off. Pikemen, reminiscent of the 1798 rebellion which forms a huge part of the county’s historical narrative cheered the procession of cyclists at the first corner. Motivational messages on the challenging (this is a euphemism) Flagbrooke Hill gave an extra push (“It’s only a hill, get over it”), though I will admit that it eventually got the better of me and I had to get off and walk. Which I have absolutely no regrets about doing, as it meant I could stop for a second and look back at what is probably the most magnificent view in North Mayo. (If you’re doing this event next year, remember to look around you as you go – on a challenging route, it’s easy to keep the head down, but it means you’re missing out.) A samba band greeted participants at the crest of the hill. Throughout, stewards and marshals were helpful and encouraging. The roads were quiet and felt safe. Even the oncoming traffic was friendly with plenty one-fingered salutes (not that kind, the country kind!) and beeps from motorists.

Flagbrooke Hill

The never-ending Flagbrooke Hill. Yes, there was a “Mayo for Sam” message

I’d tackled the event with a friend who is (thankfully!) of similar ability, and while at times, we found ourselves a little isolated on the route, we were never too far from a race marshal. After the third stop in Moygownagh, we realised we had only 14km to go, and we spent the last 10km telling each other how great we were. Then we turned the last corner into Ballycastle to be met with that last hill! It was probably the most challenging moment of the day and needless to say getting over the finish line was a memorable moment. Our time might not have broken any records (or if it did, it was of the Wooden Spoon variety), but we made it. For two first timers, we couldn’t ask for more than that.

A shot from the 130km route. A good incentive to go further next year

A shot from the 130km route. A good incentive to go further next year

Two things really struck me from the outset about this event.

Firstly, when starting out in anything new, encouragement is important. For novices, taking part in an event like this can be daunting. In the week leading up to the event, the Giro team posted updates on their social media account aimed at participants taking part in their first sportive, such as including practical advice about cycling. In addition, they were hugely reassuring to anyone who might have doubted their abilities to keep up with the pack (i.e. people like me!) If you can do 20k, they said, you can do 60k. There is no pressure to compete. The atmosphere carries you. Plus for every uphill climb there’s a downhill freewheel! Such information might seem trivial to the experienced cyclist but means a great deal to the novice.

Secondly, what stood out was the obvious determination of the wider community of Ballycastle to make this a success. There was a strong and cheerful volunteer presence along the route, plenty of opportunities to refuel and refresh, lots of cheering spectators, and veritable feast of food at the end. The Ballycastle community is a small but proud one, and cycling along the breathtaking route, even in the rain, it’s very clear to see why.

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Probably one of the happiest moments of my life – seeing the barbecue at the finish line after 60k. Thanks to my buddy Martina for keeping me going!

If any of you are considering doing the Giro next year, and are looking for a new route, I’d recommend checking this out. And if you’re a local wondering whether you’re up to the challenge, my unequivocal advice would be to go for it.  The Giro website says: “The ride is not a race, it’s a chance to enjoy a challenge with like-minded people with spectacular views throughout the routes”. What they don’t say is just how well the event is organised and just what a great sense of achievement you get from taking part and crossing that finish line. It’s kickstarted my cycling hobby and I know I’m looking forward to next year’s event already where hopefully I can tackle the longer 130km route. And let’s hope the sun shines!

Only another two hours to wait for us to finish, Bernard!!

The next Giro de Baile cycle takes place on 31st July 2016, and all information on this North Mayo Sportive can be found at girodebaile.com. Proceeds from this year’s events were split between three local organisations: Cancer Care West, Kiddies Korner Playschool, Ballycastle and Moy River Rescue.

Pic credit; Giro de Baile on Facebook.

Seven things I’ve learned since returning West

At the end of May, after sixteen years living away from my Mayo hometown, in search of a different pace of life and a greater sense of community, I decided to make the move back West. I wrote about it here in The Mayo News at the time.

I’m now seven weeks back on home soil, and can safely say that I haven’t (yet) questioned the decision. I feel consistently more happier, more relaxed and at ease and I treasure being close to my family again, and reconnecting with friends; spending real, unhurried time with them. Because I am in equal measures a firm believer that life is short and there to be lived, and a deluded optimist, I decided not to seek full-time employment for now and have remained  freelance in order to make the most of the west of Ireland summer. So far, that decision has ensured that I have spent lots of time outdoors on my own in the lashing rain.

But all in all, it’s been a surprisingly easy transition, though the adjustment process is ongoing.  Here are just seven things I’ve learned since returning west.

You can get around quickly

Getting around in the West of Ireland takes no time at all. This has been one of the unanticipated delights of the return west. One of the reasons I moved was because commuting cross-city every day was (literally) driving me out of my mind. Living in a small town means that I no longer view traffic lights as a target, and even taking into account the curiously high proportion of very slow drivers, I don’t behave like a deranged fishwife behind the wheel any more. (Much.) I am constantly marvelling about just how little time it takes to get anywhere. In my new blissed out state of mind, I have even found myself coasting along at 50km an hour on occasion, much to the chagrin of visiting D-reg Audi drivers. I also still sometimes manage to be late.

Weather envy does you no good at all

Moving west always came with the caveat of ‘more rain’, and the best way of dealing with it is just to bring a brolly and get on with it. However, in bygone days we didn’t have to cope with being reminded of this all the time on social media by our smug easterly counterparts. There is little so maddening as reading about the rest of the country’s woes as they collectively sweat in a heatwave, having to watch them Instagramming their 99s/pasty legs in surfing shorts while meanwhile, you are donning full waterproofs just to sprint to the car. However jealousy gets you nowhere, and I have consoled myself with the fact that I am saving a small fortune on Factor 40 while maintaining a pale and youthful visage. In your faces, you sunburned suckers.

View of Clew Bay from Ben Gorm in the rain

Clew Bay, taken from Ben Gorm in the Nephin Beg range. In the rain, of course

 Freelancing is fun … but challenging

While there are the obvious advantages of being your own boss such as calling the shots and managing your own time, there is also the uncertainty of not knowing whether you’ll be able to pay the rent in two or three months’ time. But freelancing involves (a) deciding what exactly you’re freelancing in (am I writing, researching, copywriting, social media managing, PR-ing or doing a combination of some or all of these?), and (b) packaging and promoting it; this is something I haven’t managed to do very well just yet, mainly both because I haven’t needed to and I’m still figuring it out. Just today two projects I had in the diary for August fell through for various reasons, so while it does mean I can now go on my holidays without a looming deadline, it also makes the prospect of further holidays look a bit bleaker. But them’s the breaks – and there’s nothing like the prospect of an overdraft to inspire some enterprising creativity.

There is no excuse for boredom

Even if you’re on a budget, I’ve found that here, there are shedloads of things to see and do. Before moving, I was advised by well-meaning friends to think carefully about returning due to the lack of “things” going on. While there’s no Camden Street nightlife and pulled pork eateries are fewer, I’m still a bit baffled; I’ve barely spent an evening sitting in since I got back. It’s festival season down here (and summer of course), so there are lots of local jollies, but apart from pursuing actual hobbies like running, hillwalking and cycling (there are over 40 sporting clubs of various types in this area alone) there are plenty of volunteer-led projects into which to throw yourself. Unless you’re actually sitting in your house watching paint dry, I can’t understand how anyone can ever be bored. And there is always something new and fascinating to learn about your home town if you’re interested in looking. Failing that, you can always take up knitting.

There is a “local” mindset … and it can be a sensitive one

While there’s lots of evidence of a strong community spirit – something I missed for a long time, away from home – local involvement also comes with its own politics, sensitivities and dare I say it, egos. It’s been interesting to remember just how easily offended people can be if you don’t explicitly acknowledge their individual contributions, or if you question their established ways of doing things, and sometimes bearing this in mind from the outset can help to keep the waters smooth. Likewise, easing your way gently into a new group is the way to go – tenure can result in territorial tensions. Diplomacy  – treading carefully but confidently – is a skill in itself.  What can I say? I’m always learning.

 Football is a religion

Yeah, we all knew that already. Now I just get to worship inside the church all the time. Watch out Sam, we’re comin’ to get you. Yes, this is our year.

It’s bloody gorgeous here.

Of course, I am completely, unashamedly biased, and this is not a learning, rather a reminder. I wake most mornings feeling lucky to live in such a gorgeous part of the world.  I’m torn between wanting to tell the world about it and share its stunning secrets, and keep it all to ourselves. But sharing is caring, right? Even in the rain I think it’s beautiful (though I may be in a minority there) and a walk on a deserted beach in the wind and the rain oddly never fails to make me feel alive. And at this rate, we might even get another sunny day before September.

Lacken in summer, on 14th July 2015. Yes, that one day.

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Legend has it that a pagan chieftain, Crom Dubh attempted to burn St. Patrick to death, but our Paddy was having none of it. Crom Dubh, seeing that he had met his match hid in his fort, but Patrick hit the ground with his crozier breaking it and leaving the fort – known as Dun Briste – isolated from the mainland. Crom Dubh was eaten to death by midges, something that will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent a day working in the bog in Mayo.

Service with a smile … it works both ways

With a month of country living under my belt after the move back west (God, it’s great to be home), the boxes are finally unpacked and I’m readjusting to the easier pace of life in the homeland. There’s plenty to love, but a constant source of joy is just how little time it takes to get from A to B. Because Dublin has approximately 94 sets of traffic lights per kilometre, sometimes the drive to pick up a litre of milk and a few spuds entails more braking than driving. Here, you just turn the key in the ignition and you’re there. Dorothy and her red slippers ain’t got nothing on life in Mayo.

It also strikes me daily how much friendlier people are. That’s part of our charm, but importantly, in a region depending so heavily on tourism, it’s also an essential business attribute. Hand in hand with that comes good customer service, which, it’s fair to say, is probably the norm. That’s why, when confronted with a bad experience, it jars all the more. But while the majority of encounters are positive, if truth be told, we could still sometimes do better.

As a customer, when you go to the shop to buy a litre of milk, or to buy a stamp in the post office, what are your expectations of that experience? Do you like to be greeted with a hello, some eye contact, a chat? Do you prefer to be handed your change, rather than it being slapped on the counter? Entering a clothes shop, do you expect a friendly greeting and an offer of help? On your weekly shop, do you prefer it when the cashier talks to you, not their colleagues? Most of all, is a smile important? Most of us would probably agree that these are the most basic tenets of customer service. Having someone go the extra mile thereafter is just the icing on the cake.

When the basics aren’t met, there is a knock-on effect. Chances are, if your experience in a shop is an unfriendly, unhelpful one, you’ll bring your money elsewhere next time. As a local, if you experience poor service in a restaurant or café, you’ll probably tell ten people about it. As a tourist, add TripAdvisor into the mix and tack on a few zeros. Poor service and lack of warmth in a business make for a poor tourist experience, and colour their entire impression of an area. Meanwhile, among locals it discourages loyalty. And whoever deals with customers is the face of that business, regardless of the name over the door. If that face is a scowling one, you’re onto a loser from the start. Little things, big implications.

There are, of course, two sides to every argument. Working in the service industry and dealing with the public can be no picnic, and years of retail management in a past life taught me that contrary to popular belief, the customer is most definitely not always right. On the contrary, they can be rude, confrontational and frequently downright mad. Working in fashion exposed me to all sorts, from the “I know my rights” brigade (they generally don’t) to those who think it appropriate to use your fitting rooms for their bodily functions (yes, even that one). Once, I went home with a black eye, the result of a shoe thrown at me by a gentleman I can only describe as being overexcited. So there is little doubt that facing the public on a daily basis can bring its challenges. If you’ve just been eaten alive by an irate customer, it can be hard to plaster on a smile to greet the next one.

High angle view of cashier with a line of people at the check-out counter

But good service is essential for business to thrive and survive. Taking pride in your business will garner respect from your customers, and not just in the hospitality industry. Visiting tourists become part of our landscape for a while, using our supermarkets, our filling stations, our corner shops. Their experiences help to build their impressions of our county, as well as building our economy. And for those of us at home, service with a smile can brighten the day. But remember, it works both ways!

This was originally printed in The Mayo News on 15th July 2015.

Are you really entitled to your opinion?

This column was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 3rd February 2014.

“It’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it.”

How often have you heard that conversation-killer trotted out during an argument? If you’re like me, hearing it will have the same effect as nails on a blackboard. It makes me wince, but then, I do love a good argument.

However, I have some news for you, opinionators. You’re more than entitled to your opinion – if you can defend it.

No longer confined to boring long-suffering friends or family in the pub or at the dinner table, modern communication channels ensure that the argumentative among us have soapboxes from which to orate all we like. (Whether anyone’s listening is another matter.) We’re accustomed to a variety of rants, whether about the government, sport, or the horror that is inadvertently biting into one of the coffee-flavoured Roses. No matter what our expertise, everyone has an opinion, and sure, we’re all entitled to them. But having them one thing. Considering the effects that stating them might have is another. That’s where we also have a responsibility.

Words are powerful. We should never underestimate them. We should also be aware of our audiences when using them. Sounding off about a local politician, for example on Facebook, sounds innocuous. After all, it’s your page, right? You’re entitled to your opinion, yes? But consider the effect your words might have on that politician’s family.

You don’t believe gay couples should be allowed to get married? That’s your opinion, of course. But can you explain why not? Because you think it will harm society? Have you evidence to support that? No? Well, my friend, perhaps you should examine your opinion in more detail. You might learn something about yourself.

An openness to having our opinions challenged is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democratic society. Unless you can provide an argument, saying “I’m entitled to my opinion” really implies “There’s no depth to my argument, and I can’t be bothered justifying it.” It’s self-entitlement to assume we can just say whatever we want, consequences be damned, regardless of whether or not we know what we’re talking about. It also suggests that we’re either too lazy or too closed-minded to contemplate the possibility that we might actually be wrong.

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“I’m entitled to my opinion” is frequently used to justify attitudes that should have been abandoned long ago like racism, sexism and homophobia. Without censoring – which may just drive these dangerous beliefs underground – we should instead calmly challenge them with facts and evidence.

In the context of public debate, scrutiny of ‘opinion’ helps to prevent the blurring of the line between it and ‘evidence’. For example, if someone argues for banning fluoridation in our water, despite a lack of scientific evidence that it’s harmful, it is in the public interest to challenge this opinion and debunk myths. The same applies to social and health issues. The media has responsibilities in this regard to ensure that evidence presented in debates is robustly interrogated, and in turn to ensure that when opinion is challenged, when necessary, it’s challenged by people qualified to do so. And we need to be sure that equivalence is not being granted as a rule between experts and non-experts in public policy debates.

Having our opinions challenged can be uncomfortable. Often, our views are so tied up with our self-identify that having them challenged can feel like personal criticism. But wouldn’t the world be a very dull and indeed dangerous place if we agreed on everything? And surely our opinions should evolve as we grow as human beings in age and maturity? If flaws in our thinking are pointed out, in an ideal world we really should try not to get immediately offended or angry (or in my case, sulk), and instead embrace the opportunity to learn. To that end, including subjects like philosophy on the curriculum is worthwhile, in order to foster thoughtfulness and an eagerness to construct, interrogate and defend arguments from a young age. And of course, to help us be comfortable with being wrong once in a while.

Changing your mind is not weakness. Refusing to open it is.

But there’s one thing on which I’ll never entertain a challenge. Those blasted coffee-flavoured Roses have got to go.