Stalag FÁS – Dublin in the Tiger’s Paw

Stalag FÁS – Dublin in the Tiger’s Paw

On 23 November 2008 an Irish Sunday newspaper exposed the colossal waste of public money at the State training agency, FÁS, an acronym that is also the Irish language word for growth. The agency had spent €643,000 on foreign junkets in the space of four years and the details of the first-class flights for officials and their wives, the top hotels, the gourmet meals and the rounds of golf in Florida led to a public outcry. The next day the agency’s director general Rody Molloy went on the radio and proclaimed he was “entitled” to travel first-class. On 25 November he resigned.

Less than a year later, the scandal exploded once more with the publication of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General into the matter. This revealed more astounding waste, with €600,000 alone spent on a TV commercial that was never even broadcast. On 13 September 2009 it emerged that Molloy’s pension had been boosted by €1.4m following the intervention of two Fianna Fáil ministers. Following the severe thrashing handed out to Fianna Fáil in the general election of February 2011, the next government abolished the agency in October of that year.

Dickens always cringed at his memories of pasting labels on pots in a blacking factory. For me, it’s the coal face at FÁS, where there were no junkets and no entitlements. With a well-paid, part-time job in Dublin City University, I was looking forward in 1999 to finishing my Ph.D., out in Maynooth, but then I discovered that I wasn’t on the new tutor list at DCU.

The first excuse offered was that I’d been there too long (“four years”). That was false. The second was that I’d proved incompetent, after they had doubled the amount of students in my care. That excuse was also abandoned. The third and final explanation was the old reliable – “a terrible administrative error” – and I was verbally promised a contract for the following year, which of course meant nothing.

I had to do something else. Unwisely, I chose a computer programming course, chez FÁS, on the Jamestown Road in Finglas on Dublin’s north side. Doing it meant twenty-five quid a week on top of the dole and the rent allowance. Looking back, I think maybe the real lesson that entire period imparted was that the whole of Dublin was a blacking factory.


5 July, Monday

Let the course begin: our leader (Dazza) is facially part Peter Sellers, part Victor Buono.

8 July, Thursday

Some nice women can be seen in the canteen and on the grass. It’s like college out there. The interior design class contains some attractive ones and so they are our stars.

13 July, Tuesday

The plankton eater was complaining about the pointless questions asked by his neighbour (Hugh – hair cropped, red-faced, all that seems missing is the Dublin football jersey). The plankton was eaten for his colon. Gone overboard on health food (including liquid protein) and still he doesn’t look overly healthy.

14 July, Wednesday

Some petty c*nt of an assistant manager put me out of the “staff toilets” in the corridor next to the canteen. I couldn’t believe it when it happened. I’d finished my leak. I didn’t say a word to him in response to “You’re not allowed in here” but just washed and dried my hands and left. We’d been told not to react to things like that.

21 July, Wednesday

I’ll be able to produce my thesis on my machine out there. More typing but think of the money saved.

9pm: some c*nt is roaring, somewhere out the back. I heard him for the first time last night. He’s upset about something. I want to move to a peaceful, bourgeois suburb.

22 July, Thursday

Today was the first day I felt like throwing the mouse through the screen. The others are hooked up to sixteen-man Quake. We’re waiting for more people to come on Monday.

11 August, Wednesday

Eclipse: the class of welders had dark glass visor squares so we could see a green crescent. It gave us twilight and a drop in temperature.

12 August, Thursday

Stalag FÁS: Marcos and the Limerick boys were prevented from driving out at breakfast time and then Marcos was put out of the staff toilets.

3 September, Friday

Niall and I are sitting down to breakfast in the canteen when the plankton eater comes over. “I’ve got nits,” he says, straight out, before we take a bite. Niall christened him Nit Boy.

Near midnight. I just had a shower to feel better, what with the blocked nose and not a breath outside. Had a few pints this afternoon with Niall and Hugh. Niall had tequilas. Hugh won’t sit upstairs on a double-decker bus. He’s afraid of heights.

6 September, Monday

Went to James’s Street post office this morning but got no rent allowance. They had new computers. Made it more of a pleasure, more of a breeze, for the blonde to tell me there was nothing there. Any question was cut short by telling the customer to go see social welfare. Who are the true parasites? The option is always to f*ck them out of it, for some small satisfaction, but you ration that. What about the day one of the Hitler Youth behind the glass gave the fella called Mustapha the grief about ID? No one else, just the dark-skinned gent. He said he was coming there every week and that he wasn’t a refugee (“I’m not refugee, I’m married here”). Not that the public servant’s words were objectionable but his tone was far out of order, as was his ‘discretionary’ (i.e. discriminatory) cheek. They wouldn’t be long having manners put on them up in the Barn. According to my neighbour Dermot, they never give anyone hassle up in Dolphin’s Barn. They wouldn’t dare.

7 September, Tuesday

Nothing there again this morning. This was the extent to which the Nazi with the earring was helpful: he muttered something behind the glass and when I said “What?” he exaggerated the words “Is it your day for signing on?” After a long wait in Bride Street, where I was almost the only Irish person in the queue, I discovered it was only a computer problem. I asked if I could get changed back to Leonard’s Corner post office.

10 September, Friday

A bunch of us were drinking in The Full Shilling in Finglas. Niall was asked to leave after slagging a one-legged biker.

12 September, Sunday

Sunday drags along and I await another week (no. 11). There’s a new, more attractive interior design class to cheer up the canteen. So what?

13 September, Monday

Compassion on the bus. I gave Niall and Dara a tenner each and we had a few pints in Bowe’s. Niall was thinking of nine quid out of reach in the bank and Dara was locked out of his flat.

15 September, Wednesday

Earned my first re-sit. It didn’t help that I felt tired, sleepy. What piece of happiness remains? A wardrobe full of clean laundry. I must pay more attention in class.

16 September, Thursday

Dazza told me five more minutes on the test and I’d have passed. Barely. I’ll re-sit and get it right.

21 September, Tuesday

At breakfast in the canteen, the plankton eater complimented the state of my teeth. He said he’d noticed on the bus the previous afternoon.

Last night I’d fallen asleep when the Algerians underneath came in after midnight and woke me up with their mouthing. They kept it up for an hour and when the guests left, one of the tenants had a ferocious dump. The smell wafted up to me, like a coup de grace. Open both windows. They had been good, quiet boys since the confrontation over the blaring of Rod Stewart a few weeks ago, when I stamped on the floor and one of them came up, giving out in broken English. I had a cold so I wasn’t worried about this Arab hothead. I figured the only way to get through to him was to speak French. He backed down and said sorry, once I’d explained and turned up my radio full blast, as a demonstration.

28 September, Tuesday

Breath mist on a bright morning. They’ve finally transferred my rent allowance back to Leonard’s Corner. Caught the tall blonde looking at me across the canteen (she’s tall in comparison with most of her class, the ‘new’ interior designers).

29 September, Wednesday

She’s elegant. Nice clothes, not glammed up. Our gazes, stares met, today, as she was about to sit down with her tray. She broke away. I’d be interested. My Ph.D. has more words than my M.A. now. Lastly, I managed to do a Basic 2 assignment, with help from the lads.

1 October, Friday

In Finglas I passed a re-sit (my cogging was more educated). Went to wet Maynooth, to the library. Back into town on a 66 bus with F. and C. C. Listening to them and their academic bitching and talking shop I thought, ‘I can’t do this, this is bullshit’. I knew that long ago.

15 October, Friday

Passed the second re-sit. Our class is being disrupted by re-roofing. Weather gloomy today after the blue skies. Yesterday morning on the bus I told myself to have courage, to persevere. Smell the bakery every morning on Sycamore Road.

18 October, Monday

A whirlwind start with Mike, the fat English instructor, at ‘C’, or C++? He described one of my programming attempts as “logical spaghetti”. Three days a week at this, for five weeks.

19 October, Tuesday

Most were in at nine. No let up. Never mind the litost, you’re learning and this stuff is worth it. I have to grasp the maths problems. The plankton eater told us he’s been riding a married woman for a couple of years and in an effort to get her to break it off with him he stole £60 from her purse. It didn’t work but it’s not much of an exaggeration to say Gary was in awe.

21 October, Thursday

In the night the winos were fighting in the back alley. When given out to, a woman among them mentioned the (symbolic) fact that a window was between them and the person giving out. A male wino shouted, “Nobody tells me what to do with my woman!” The power of the powerless.

26 October, Tuesday

It got to a stage where (I reckon) Mike was trying not to tear out his hair, while I was trying not to laugh, as he attempted to drum in the structure of a program I couldn’t grasp. I wanted the code, not the (mathematical) philosophy.

27 October, Wednesday

No class due to roofing. Three radio ads are signs of the times:

(a) an appeal for factory workers in Blanchardstown, money spelt out;
(b) the soccer player Paul McGrath on about a plastic surgery clinic;
(c) a hotline for software piracy.

28 October, Thursday

Trying to come to grips with the book Teach Yourself C++ in 21 Days, which I printed off some months ago. Home study tries to master this so I can get off this course. So I can get a job and get off this f*cking course. I shut down like Hal (except quicker) every time it’s back to Basic.

29 October, Friday

A multiple choice exam in Basic 2. 14 from 18 = pass mark. I got 14. Some educated guessing and plain guessing.

2 November, Tuesday

Cold and bright. No heating due to the roofing. Had a couple of pints in the Bridge with Niall and the plankton eater.

4 November, Thursday

The tool’s equation of maths with fun reminds me of how in school such problems seemed as meaningless as cryptic crossword puzzles. What on earth is the relevance of calculating massive prime numbers to what we’re doing?

5 November, Friday

Rain. I barely attempted the Basic 2 practical exam today. Went to see American Pie in the Savoy. Do I really need to be reminded about sex? Had my dinner in the Portobello because it’s raining. First time there in ages. The Portobello is the ancestral home of Captain Shamrock.

10 November, Wednesday

Past the halfway point now. With this thing I feel I’m in the trenches. It’s not helped by this tosser, this smart-arse talking to me like I’m a schoolboy. He’s putting me off learning the blasted language. Life feels full of annoyances. This is what it’s like, tired in the evenings.

Walking up through town I saw a city of students. Some buskers on Grafton Street were doing I Shot The Sheriff in the style of Oasis. Some yahoos on the Green were mixing up Brits and Britney Spears in a Spanish guy’s head, explaining the crowd and the limos outside the Fitzwilliam Hotel (re MTV Awards, Thursday) and up on Wexford Street, across from Whelan’s and the Mean Fiddler, an aged-looking Noelle Campbell-Sharp stood in a black skirt and leather jacket talking to some green-jacketed bozos. All I heard while passing was “…really f*cking something. Now let me introduce you to…” One limo was reportedly burnt out on the Northside.

11 November, Thursday

A drunken scumbag landed beside (almost on) me on the bus. Fiddling with a walkman, he said he’d just robbed a car but his mates had driven it away on him.

14 November, Sunday

While my brother was a distant silhouette on a beach I thought about the fact that at twenty-one I couldn’t imagine being thirty but at thirty-five I can easily imagine being fifty.

15 November, Monday

Class abandoned due to lack of heating. Stages of life are only stages but should one worry, getting older, that the chances of better periods lessen? From ‘This will end’ to ‘How will this end?’

17 November, Wednesday

Went down by one mark in the multiple choice ‘C’ exam, then could only get so far into the practical (about bus tickets). I left at two. Any touch of litost is removed when a man knows he’s gotta know his limitations.

20 November, Saturday

An encounter at the salad bar in Dunnes Stores in Rathmines: a beautiful, black-haired, busty beautician in a tight, white coat. She was even nice to me. She showed me how to use the price-sticker machine. If she didn’t work in a beautician’s then at least she worked in a chemist’s. What a ride. You know what you’ll have to do. Life’s too short.

21 November, Sunday

Looking for the hoover, Sarah knocked on the door of number nine (top floor). One of those Algerians emerged (scratching his balls) from a haze of dope smoke and a sing-along to camel music. No, they didn’t have it.

22 November, Monday

On the qt, after I asked, Dazza said that the (telephone) program Dermot gave me would constitute our exam. Dazza did his own version and tonight Dermot put it on a disk so tomorrow I’ll try and slip it from there to “My Documents” to the disk Mike will give me.

23 November, Tuesday

A successful cog, I should hope. Switched labels on disks etc.

29 November, Monday

The cog was found out. The code was too good and the date a giveaway.

30 November, Tuesday

Windy, then wet. Didn’t sleep too well, didn’t do anything re the programming re-sit (and got 18 this time instead of 20 in the multiple choice). Still, there was a bit of poetic justice in the end of the day that made my day. Despite having the exam program done for them by Dazza and then keeping it to themselves, the Three Licks still failed, to general delight. Everyone bar Keith failed.

I wonder how long it will be before I lose it with fat, snide Mike. I’d have done it before now if I thought he was worth rearing up on but he just may pester me over the edge soon. He seems to be goading me to quit, to suit himself, but he’ll be the last person I’ll do anything to suit. As for that other bollocks Dazza, he’s little better.

This morning on the bus I had to listen to a DCU student who incidentally looked a bit like me, with glasses and cap. I saw what he looked like when I looked around to see who was talking like that. He was from the West and he was pontificating in the manner of a typically ignorant student of some technical subject. The object of his bullshit was a girl who was both Australian and Jewish. He told her that the passing of the Millennium marked two thousand years from the start of “modern civilization”. She was able to point out that the Romans were established long before that and when he turned to the purely Christian thing she countered with the priority of Jewish history. Then he said, “You’re a lapsed Jew, I presume” and (luckily for him) she said, “What’s ‘lapsed’?” He had been to America so of course he knew everything. He knew nothing, except that “California rocks”, and I wanted to shoot him.

2 December, Thursday

Dazza told Keith he thought he’d have to extend the course (on a day when he did forty-five minutes’ teaching).

Went to see Morrissey at the Olympia. Seventeen songs. When he threw his (first) sweaty t-shirt into the crowd it arrived back on the stage after a few minutes. (“When I threw it in I didn’t expect it back. Really, I insist.”) When he sang “Do you care how animals die?” … I’d swear I heard a chorus of “No!

3 December, Friday

Docking me three days for last week [while I was hundreds of miles away at a funeral in Kerry] was bad enough but when Dazza feigned surprise and then I saw what he’d written on the timesheet I just f*cked him out of it.

4 December, Saturday

Frost. Tour guide to T. and V. A good day was had, in the cold, bright capital. First time in the Cellar Bar. T. told me his junkie half-brother survived a shotgun blast, which blew a hole in him, but died later of an overdose. The Yugoslavian Mafia have now flooded Oslo with good, cheap heroin.

7 December, Tuesday

Having had a bad night (hot, aching, dizzy, with laboured breathing) I was surprised this morning to find the oncoming ‘flu’ gone. Cold twilights leaving Finglas. The women on Camden Street looked well, wrapped up but feeling the cold. It made them more alive. You could see it in their eyes, in their faces.

8 December, Wednesday

As well as the cold now, the wind is up and the rain is down. Some vessel is missing off Galway in the storm. Since last night I’ve had a pain in my left shoulder, roughly speaking. Nothing’s gone.

10 December, Friday

I thought I was bad, arriving in at twelve, but Hugh didn’t show up until 12.45. This is on a half day.

14 December, Tuesday

I was only words away from a successful cog at the telephone program test. I had a hard copy of the program inside my jacket but made a simple error copying it and the program wouldn’t run. I’d never have seen the obvious mistake.

15 December, Wednesday

Which word is more accurate, “lonely” or “alienated”? When the majority of women seem to dream of timber floors and freezers big enough to hold a man, I cling to the latter term. You know the way they think when you pass them on the street because you can hear them talking into their mobiles.

The Boys from Ballymun

The evening bus picked them up on Ballymun Road. At first they seemed to be talking about an ominously immediate situation like shoplifting or mugging. The more sober and coherent of the two made two points.

(a) He’d batter anyone who decided to mix it
(b) It only takes a minute to get away

When they were talking about how much “a fix” is these days (£20) I thought ‘That’s cheap heroin’ but they were on about prostitutes. The same guy said he got one for £15, when he was a truck driver. He used to park the truck down on Benburb Street and do the business. “You wouldn’t go down there now,” said his more out-of-it companion (who was carrying something in a grey bag). Reason? “They’re all riddled with AIDS.” The first one said he’d had a fourteen-year-old down there who’d been abused by her father since she was six, “until he put her out on the game”. They said they’d roast that man on a small fire. “I’d keep adding coal to it and his screams would be heard for a thousand years,” said the main talker, the leader. Then he extrapolated.

You see some people with their kids and they’re f*ckin’ bootin’ the bollix out of ’em and punchin’ ’em in the head. I mean, what do these people be tinkin’?

They said that Ballymun’s kids had gone quiet “because their fathers told ’em ‘Watch out for him’ and ‘Stay away from him’ and so on”. They were scared, in other words.

But Finglas is still a wild place. The kids are into it, turnin’ over coppers’ cars with coppers inside in ’em.”

Their last earwig-able subject was driving. On being told he couldn’t drive the number two said he’d driven when he was pissed. Then the leader told his own parable.

This is what I did. I went and bought a car off the knackers and I got me ould fella to drive me up to the industrial estate. By nine o’clock that night I was a f*cking rally driver. I was fifteen.”

Those two were an education. And these are only the bits I could make out from their conversation, while the clicks of the lighter signalled joint-rolling was going on (“Put in more soup”).

16 December, Thursday

Ran off a hard copy of the thesis. 190 pages. I need to go over that with a pen in order to come up with a total draft for January. I could have done it by now but who would look at it over Christmas? Who will anyway?

I’ve addressed a letter to the customer complaints section of Dublin Bus on Upper O’Connell Street.

Since last July I have had to use the 19/19A service on a daily basis and in general the impression I have formed is that it is an utter disgrace. What prompts me to write this letter is analogous to the straw that broke the camel’s back. This morning I was the last passenger on a single-decker 19A that turned on to Cedarwood Road. The bald, bespectacled driver stopped the bus and disembarked, saying he’d be back in a couple of minutes. Given that the terminus for the 19A is McKee Road, for which I had paid, what really made me lose my temper was the fact that the same driver had pulled the same stunt at the same point a couple of months earlier. On that occasion he said he wanted to go into a shop to get his breakfast so I said it was okay, got off and walked up Sycamore Road. This time, I got off and asked why he wouldn’t do his job – with a few expletives added, admittedly – and he then gave the excuse that he wanted to go to the toilet. Colleagues of mine who use the same route have had similar experiences with this individual. Employees like him and another individual who happens to live on Sycamore Road and who has been witnessed taking breaks in his own house during shifts only add to the common impression that many of your drivers treat the public with contempt.

Even a fellow driver parked on McKee Road confessed that the last chap indicated was taking the piss.

22 December, Wednesday

Town is mad. It would be a good day to punch a few people’s lights out. I lost it a bit with some screeching little slappers on a bus stuck dead in traffic.

23 December, Thursday

Did my bit of shopping. Got a poster for Bela Lugosi’s Dead in Final Vinyl. At the end of the night Dermot bought a voucher so I could have a lap dance in Strings. I declined the offer.

29 December, Wednesday

Before the end of the year let me note the last strange thing told to me by the plankton eater, of a morning in the canteen. He said he saw a girl electrocuted at a rave in a big squat in London, in Willesden Green. She was heating a hash knife at a cooker when she let the knife touch the ring. Dodgy wiring meant she was blown back against the wall, dead. He said that three fellas tripping with him at the time started crying and that they weren’t right for days. When I asked him what he did, he said he just left, along with everyone else.

30 December, Thursday

George Harrison was stabbed by an intruder but his wife managed to knock the guy out. I hope nothing takes to the air in Russia (Y2K). The Finns have stocked up with iodine tablets.


4 January, Tuesday

What next? Dazza is gone from us, mysteriously. Big Mike is holding the fort, in his own room, while the heating is gone again in ours. He had the Three Licks in with him, while Niall, Hugh and I remained in the cold, doing our own thing.

5 January, Wednesday

Today, in the other classroom, Mike’s last word to try and get me to do something was “please”. Therefore I worked on an exam program or two (esp. the bus ticket one). I’m going to try and get the ‘C’ module and the Visual Basic. Still working on the end of the thesis, at home and in breaks.

7 January, Friday

£27.68 pay. Don’t ask me. Hugh kindly got me five pints in the Long Stone.

10 January, Monday

Failed the multiplication tables test today. Another case of being unable to spot simple errors.

11 January, Tuesday

Dank drizzle. Mike began teaching the rest of them Prolog today, in the other room, so I occupied myself finishing a draft of the thesis (190 pages, 43,000 words). My drawing of Mike with the speech bubble saying “I love to count” is still up on the white board.

About a hundred pages to go in Dracula. Mina Harker is a good name for a heroine. I didn’t expect so much humour, although some of it is unintentional. Where Van Helsing lists the strengths and weaknesses of the Count I was thinking of a phrase from At Swim-Two-Birds (“rat-bite at twilight”). The boys seem a bit incompetent at combating vampires. I’m getting a bit tired of their emotional pledging to each other.

12 January, Wednesday

Wet again. Passed the phone program exam. Maybe I finally knew what I was cogging? It was my third attempt at it. Did a bit more on the thesis, tidying up the last chapter. Added a coffin to the picture of Mike. Put him in it, in other words.

14 January, Friday

Half an hour in Maynooth. Gave the draft to the dept. secretary (Maureen). Saw Rosie, whom I shifted in Parson’s Street time. After a moment of recognition, she didn’t want to know. I said nothing.

It’s five to twelve and I’ve just finished Dracula. The ending is a bit anti-climactic. Overall the Count isn’t in it enough. Mina is quite a heroine after all. She even gets a gun (a revolver). The co-operation of every working-class person in the book has to be solicited with booze.

16 January, Sunday

I passed up South Great George’s Street. The George was blasting the Weather Girls and guys in sleeveless t-shirts could be made out, leaning against the glass, in the crowd inside.

17 January, Monday

Before I got in (noon) some FÁS person had tried to tell the class the Visual Basic module would be cancelled. More annoyingly, it seems the Three Licks in the class knew since November that Dazza would be leaving and again said nothing.

18 January, Tuesday

A good day. I passed the two-hour multiplication tables test and later showed a grateful bus driver – new to the 19 route – how to get from Finglas to Parnell Square. That included a trip round the houses on Tolka Estate.

21 January, Friday

No half days now on Friday because Dazza is back to do VB with us. When he said almost immediately that Cobol was bollocks and useless then I knew for certain I wouldn’t bother with those exams. He got the chop, he said, because it was either that or they would have had to give him a permanent job. They gave that to Mike.

22 January, Saturday

The new beauty (lounge girl) in Cassidy’s is Canadian, I discovered last night. I’d thought she was Scandinavian. Her grandfather was Norwegian.

26 January, Wednesday

Same cold fog. Around this time each week I think of Mr Micawber’s distinction between happiness and misery based on being a bob over or a bob under. As I nearly always manage the former, my empathy with the outlook is reinforced. Until Friday. Mike shaved half an hour off my clocked-in time last week because he claimed I did nothing between 10.30 and 11.00 on one of the days. I told him it was a despicable thing to do.

27 January, Thursday

Didn’t hear the PA say “Gerry Sperm” (Gerry Sperrin?) today until late afternoon. The plankton eater arrived late. It took two hospitals to remove the toilet paper he’d bunged in his ear on Monday night in some night club. We had pints later in Bowe’s. Thanks Niall. I told them that Mike had me sussed (by now I use the course “to pass the time and pursue pet projects”, in his words).

31 January, Monday

Today the canteen served a nice beef stroganoff and pear crumble. Great surprise for a Monday, there, but a Hungarian group was on tour.

4 February, Friday

Had a few drinks after the course with Gary, Hugh and Niall. Niall told me how there came a moment in Holland when he was heading to work and he realized that for the first time in his life he didn’t have to worry about anything. He got off the tram. Three months later it was all gone.

7 February, Monday

Dermot and I went to the jobs fair in the RDS. Met Niall and Hugh. Niall stayed with us but got the boot from Cassidy’s. He’d begun to annoy Dermot before that. Miss Canada still brought us rounds and then some bird sent down a pair of double gins. While Niall, Dermot and I had been up the back, some cops arrived in, celebrating something. Miss Canada brought us some of their cocktail sausages and then we spotted a guy holding a tray full of delicacies like chicken nuggets. He had grey hair and seemed to have some seniority. I went at his cargo with both hands and this was the exchange.

“Who are you?”
“Ah, Inspector Gadget.”
He gave a grunt.
“I’ll give you Inspector Gadget!”

He turned on his heel with the tray.

10 February, Thursday

Passed the first VB exam with a little help from Dazza. Passed the multiple choice ‘C’ exam (22 out of 30) yesterday. This week has been quite bitter, weather-wise. You can see the traffic on the M50 from the window of the room we’re in now. Planes take off close by too.

14 February, Monday

No sign of an instructor today. The bus home was covered in leaflets. A strike tomorrow.

16 February, Wednesday

The FÁS f*ckers are docking us for not going in yesterday, when there were no buses. Passed the last ‘C’ exam (ISBN numbers). We’re out of there on Friday. We only have to check in a couple of times a week after that. The weather is bitter, arctic. A bit of snow fell.

18 February, Friday

Last day. Passed the last two VB exams. I’ve got what I wanted from the course: C and VB.


28 February, Monday

I rang Havas Interactive about contract/freelance work testing games and educational software. N. works there.

2 March, Thursday

A general thumbs-up from Liam Ryan in Maynooth. He said he’d ask Andrew Greeley to be my external examiner. That would be a bit of a coup. Failing that, he’ll ask Steve Yearley. Not a bad name either. It’s a bit like Kafka’s Court out there – even with some kindness, it still receives you when you come and relinquishes you when you go. I must hand the thesis in (with revisions) by the middle of July.

3 March, Friday

Just had a few pints in a packed Cassidy’s. The Canadian called me by name for the first time. I blew her a little kiss before I left. Across the counter, when she took my glass, having signalled a request for permission. Dream on.

14 March, Tuesday

Maybe after Fight Club stupid jobs don’t seem quite so lacking in ‘potential’? Grafton Recruitment want to send me out to Hertz in Swords to enter data. Natasha – a fine-looking girl – good at being professionally nice – push all these people into the front line of shit jobs. The best spin that can be put on something like that is that I have to start somewhere. You have to start from scratch somewhere.

15 March, Wednesday

Last visit to FÁS? On the way out I read twenty-six more pages of Fight Club, on the way in I read sixteen. Niall gave me the book a few weeks ago. My brother rang. He said Swords would be too much hassle.

23 March, Thursday

When she looks at me and smiles is it any wonder that I may expect too much out of life? Her visible enthusiasm on seeing us enter late – Dermot (“your girlfriend”) remarked on it – makes me think I’ve just got to ask her out. What am I saying?

27 March, Monday

N. said Havas were looking for someone. I did four and a half hours in East Point. I’m to go back on 12 April.

28 March, Tuesday

Not only have I no dole but I’ve also had my rent allowance cut off. All because of FÁS failing to send out that letter of termination.

Went to see American Beauty. The satirical comedy is good but the film is a bit pervy. No one seemed to close their curtains in that neighbourhood.

29 March, Wednesday

After closing time the Canadian came in. I went over to talk to her. Eyes were still, like dark forest pools reflecting slivers of light. It was interesting to see her ‘dazed’. It was like her own private joke. The searchlight beam of her smile drew me across in the first place.

31 March, Friday

I got a cheque from Havas this morning. I’m wanted there for a month.

1 April, Saturday

The power of the powerless: yesterday Eugene McGee said there are 30,000 GAA officials. No need for fight clubs here then.

3rd April, Monday

A bright, cold day in April. FÁS finally sent me the letter. I should have my dole back by Friday.

6 April, Thursday

When I had my back turned, getting some milk and sugar, I got a poke in the back. When I sat by a window she asked was I eating anything. I told her I was cold and that was the reason for the coffee. The place seemed quiet. Let her do her job. I slipped away. Being here is just a big adventure. Went down to Bride Street and told Maguire I’m working from next Wednesday.

7 April, Friday

Last night she was telling me in the Horse how she didn’t like to be leered at in that “meat market”. Today I went down to Thomas Street and signed off.

8 April, Saturday

Last night she had a stud in her lower lip, put in yesterday. She asked if I liked it. I said yes. She’d have to do a lot more than that to spoil her beauty. There’s so little beauty in the world so enjoy her presence while it lasts. Like an impending exam or big game, the thought of her sneaks back in and grabs hold of consciousness every time I try to think of something else. You try to grasp a piece of flotsam, only to slip beneath the waves into the black void again. That’s the killer. She is twenty years old.

13 April, Thursday

Made a start, back at the Ph.D. On the passing of time and what is produced: didn’t it take me long enough to write good academic work? Be patient, you seem to live slowly but you can come up with the goods in the end. In the pub, the Canadian put her arm around my shoulders and leaned into me. “Hello baby,” I said. She said she’d discovered large bottles of Bulmers the night before and had “about ten” of them, with a guilty chuckle. She wore a beautiful, high-neck, grey-brown sweater.

17 April, Monday

It turns out P. M. is in Havas as well. He said he’d put my name down for a localisation project that could last a year or more. My cert from FÁS has arrived in the post. It’s wrong. There’s no mention of Visual Basic. I’m just going to send it back.

28 April, Friday

She told me she read the e-mail I sent. She liked it. Her demeanour suggested telling her she had beautiful eyes did no harm. Ask her out to dinner. Ask her tomorrow night, sick puppy. A couple of times she was standing close to me, waiting for the others to order, and it felt like there’s something not quite wrong here.

29 April, Saturday

I asked her and she said yes. She has to find out what nights she’s off. She said she’d phone me. Relief. Though I got a bit tongue-tied at the start she did make it easy. She waited calmly, expectantly, while I tried to ask.

The Quarry at Mauthausen

The Quarry at Mauthausen

Austria, 28 December 2015

The train from Linz to Mauthausen took only about twenty minutes. There were no taxis at the station and I did the 5k winding hike uphill to the camp. “This is some hike, man,” I said to myself before I realized that the phrase rhymed with Eichmann. When I got high enough away from the wet Danube fog, the sun lightened the soup but I still could see f*ck all except some of the road in front. I was even wondering was it just the murk or was it the effort of the climb too. I started wiping (steam?) off my glasses.


Higher again, the sun was just beginning to burn off some of the fog in the afternoon. The Lager loomed, finally, as a long stone fort of no great height on top of the hill. A woman at the visitors’ centre – a concrete maze – told me it was closed and she unlocked a door to get me a brochure – so I wasn’t going to see the gas chamber – but she added I could walk around the exterior.


Past the monuments, past the wall with a moving verse from Brecht’s poem Deutschland (see below) the highest fog had cleared, there was a piece or two of metal building site fencing across the top of the path down to the Todesstiege (death stairs) and the quarry but it was possible to get around that with no trouble. This was the place I most wanted to see.


I was the only one down there, where the fog was brightly waxing and waning. At the time it didn’t feel eerie. Oddly peaceful and even beautiful, by the black pond below the cliff, the site showed the birds did sing. I even heard a distant cock crowing but the suffering that was inflicted there was and is just unimaginable.


Forty nationalities were consigned to hell in that place. It was like the UN of concentration camps. There is even a monument to the Albanians. Of the thousands of Spaniards who had fled to France in 1939 to escape from Franco only to end up at Mauthausen or one of its satellite camps, the lowest estimate states that 4,427 of them were killed here. All the first consignment of Dutch Jews sent here in 1942 were thrown off the quarry cliff that the SS nicknamed die Fallschirmspringer Wand, the Parachutists’ Wall. Many other prisoners saved the SS the trouble and just jumped.


On the way back up the leafy Todesstiege I counted the 186 steps, stopping to straighten my legs on nos. 75, 100 & 130, though I wasn’t carrying any granite block and the steps are a lot neater now than they were back in the day. I took a look then around the back of the camp. Though the entrance is on the left-hand side, where I got a photo of the gravelly yard via the gap under the wooden gates of the entrance arch, the front is really the long side wall facing the road. Anyway, around the back there was no wall but a fence topped with barbed wire. The remaining huts could be seen across a wide open space drenched in sunshine. From there a short-cut made for a steeper descent into the fog that gloomily took me back to Mauthausen village.

O Deutschland, bleiche Mutter!

Wie haben deine Söhne dich zugerichtet

Daß du unter den Völkern sitzest

Ein Gespött oder eine Furcht!

(Oh Germany, pale mother / How your sons have abused you / That you sit among the peoples / A mockery or a dread).


János Kádár in the House of Terror

János Kádár in the House of Terror

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The Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan had a routine that discussed the standard 1-2-3 division of Irish school classes. For Tiernan, group (1) consisted of those who did arts degrees; group (2) numbered those who went on make money; and, as for group (3), well, that was just where the bus brought them.

A Hungarian friend once explained the very different streaming trinity that operated in schools in the Eastern Bloc:

(1) the children of Party apparatchiks;

(2) the children of actual workers;

(3) the children of those that the parents of group (1) employed to keep the parents of group (2) in line.

On 13 February 2008, I paid a visit to the House of Terror, the Terror Háza, on Andrássy út in Pest, where the tour started on the second floor with an animated map graphic showing the ebbs and flows of Hungary’s borders in the twentieth century. The lines moved to and fro to a rhythmic, ominous soundtrack that was soon echoed elsewhere in the building by the “Hungaria” onscreen ranting of the widely supported fascist leader Szálasi, in a room lined by Arrow Cross uniforms.

Even when the SS had fled, after the Russians had crossed the Danube upriver, the Arrow Cross continued to shoot any Jews they could find on the Buda side of the city. Many Arrow Cross thugs and torturers nonetheless found new jobs in Rákosi’s post-war secret police and, indeed, there remains a sizeable fascist following in Hungary to this day.

The even more enthusiastic (Stalinist, as opposed to Nazi) puppet Rákosi appeared sinister in a more low-key way than Szálasi – he was like a bank manager, with a shaved head – but it was interesting to note that Kádár himself had received a dose of the medicine there, before he got the top job.

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A bright, likeable boy with an impoverished upbringing (his father abandoned his mother before he was born), János Kádár tirelessly resisted the various forms of fascism that Hungary endured up to 1945. Having been spirited away to Moscow during the Uprising in 1956, he was recommended for the top job by Yuri Andropov and he sided with the inevitable Soviet invasion. In accepting a Soviet garrison of 200,000 in its aftermath, he was able to divert much Hungarian defence spending into welfare.


Today he remains the much-missed (by many) Jani bácsi (‘Uncle Johnny’). His regime proved to be the most liberal state in the Eastern Bloc, even though the communists had destroyed all independent cultural and folk institutions, leaving a deeply cynical, atomised society. Kádár died in 1989, having famously devoted his last, haunted speech the year before to the fate of Imre Nagy, the reformist prime minister tried and executed after the Uprising and virtually made a saint in the West. As it happens, Nagy was a dangerous NKVD informer while in Moscow and he also keenly administered the post-war expulsion of 200,000 Germans from Hungary.

Kádár ruled from 1956 to 1988 at a time when Western loans, Eastern Bloc protectionism and some low-key private enterprise helped maintain a standard of living beyond the reach of most Hungarians since 1989. “A krumplileves legyen krumplileves, elvtársak” (‘The potato soup should be potato soup, comrades’). Life is a compromise, he also famously observed. His favourite book was said to be The Good Soldier Švejk.


The House of Terror dungeons were smelly and it wasn’t like a wine cellar – my companion, a dental patient, thought they might have added some audio (“screams”) down there but then added that it would surely have freaked out the many young girls we saw touring the place.

After all that, I suggested Beckett’s Irish bar, where soon we got talking to a familiar English face in the form of J., late of the French Foreign Legion and security contracting in Afghanistan. He told us that when the late bomb-maker Edward Teller, a Hungarian, was asked during an Internet Q&A session if he thought there were aliens on Earth, his answer was unequivocal.

Yes. There are ten million of them… and they all live in Hungary.

The Wittgenstein Experiment

The Wittgenstein Experiment


In September 1924, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brief career as a country schoolteacher in Lower Austria entered its final, most dramatic phase when he moved to Otterthal. Among his pupils was a sickly boy of eleven, Josef Haidbauer, whose widowed mother worked for a local farmer named Piribauer, whose daughter Hermine happened to be in the same class. Here Wittgenstein continued his strenuous mixture of curricular and extra-curricular instruction, liberally sprinkled with Ohrfeigen and Haareziehen i.e. the boxing of ears and the pulling of hair.

The English literary quack Colin Wilson later wrote that Wittgenstein was “virtually driven out… by resentful peasants” but, instead of attempting any such crude spin or justification of his brutality, the excuse most often given for him in print – that corporal punishment was all the rage at the time – has neglected to admit that by no means every teacher used it, even then.

In April 1926, there occurred der Vorfall Haidbauer, the so-called Haidbauer incident, when Wittgenstein knocked the weak Josef unconscious with three blows to the head. Having sent the other children home, he carried the boy to the headmaster’s room. Before he subsequently fled the scene, though, he was met by an incensed Herr Piribauer, whose own daughter had already suffered bleeding ears and torn hair at Wittgenstein’s hands.

Piribauer called him an animal trainer and told him he was going to get the police. The subsequent court case nevertheless proved literally inconclusive, disappearing in a fog of perjury, psychiatric assessment, Wittgenstein family money and the culprit’s speedy resignation.

The case suggests the addition of a word to his most famous quotation. Wovon man nicht falsch sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. Whereof one cannot falsely speak, thereon must one keep silent.

In 1936, Wittgenstein returned to Lower Austria to the places where he had taught. For whatever reason, he finally wanted to say sorry to the children he had beaten. This was too late for poor Josef Haidbauer, who was by then long dead, but it seems he was warmly received at some houses. Nevertheless the most philosophical response came from a terse Hermine Piribauer. “Ja, ja,” she replied and said no more.

Even that much should have alerted the philosopher to revise his notions of the limits of language. She had rendered even more succinctly the verdict of the father of a gifted boy named Karl Gruber that Wittgenstein had tried to adopt in another village, Trattenbach. The man refused to hand his son over to “ein verrückter Kerl” – a crazy guy – no matter how expensive an education would have been paid for in return. Academic institutions and asylums are similar insofar as the normal and abnormal switch places.