No one told us life was gonna be this way!

I miss my friends. The passing of time may have scattered my core group of childhood / young adulthood friends to the four corners of the planet (due to jobs and relationships), but over the past 25 or so years we always made time to meet up whenever possible and had more recently gotten into the habit of planning one annual trip away together. But COVID 19 and its related lockdowns has taken that away from us and now we are left with the occasional Zoom calls and our WhatsApp group.

As WhatsApp groups go, it is definitely one of the better ones (currently competing with my “dad, aunts and uncles” WhatsApp group for top content). First of all we have a broad geographic spread with residents in the US and Belgium and a bonus Asian living in Ireland to give us a global perspective on any hot topic. Although we probably could do with someone from the UK for full coverage given Brexit and all that. A full screening process will be required for new entrants, please see Ewan McGregor interviewing potential housemates in Shallow Grave “what on earth could make you think that we would want to share a WhatsApp group like this with someone like you?” I jest of course, we’re not interviewing at present!

We also have a broad range of professional backgrounds from law-talking guys, to pharmaceuticalists (I know this isn’t a word but feels most appropriate for people who know about pharmaceuticals but don’t work in a pharmacy), to civil servants, to law enforcement officers, to doctors and yours truly as financial services person and wild card! In truth everyone on the group thinks of him or herself as the the wild card. We have a female within the group which I find keeps things on the straight and narrow when they are threatening to get out of control, actually scrap that she is likely to be the one sharing the less than PC stuff. There is pretty much an interesting take on every subject from amorous snails to the best movies of Jack Black (High Fidelity for me). There are a few recurring themes, the top seven of which would probably be (i) bad jokes, you wouldn’t believe the amount of times I’ve checked my phone for something urgent to find a pun about Fergal Sharkey in a fireplace store looking for a good hearth or something similar, (ii) reciting our favourite lines from Modern Family, needs no explanation it’s just so goddam funny, (iii) decrying the high humidity levels which have made our alcohol disappear, seems to be especially a factor in Belgium and the US, (iv) nostalgia for TV programmes of our childhood, did you know Floella Benjamin was on Desert Island Discs last week? (v) anything which involves a poll particularly if it’s on the Guardian web-site, please see the greatest UK no.1s of all time which nearly tore the group apart! (vi) Trump and anything Trump related, actually our US member tends to steer clear of this one probably because it’s too close to home but safe to say we normally have a good chuckle and eye-roll at his latest outburst (I have personally championed Sarah Cooper’s approach on a number of occasions) and last but not least (vii) COVID 19, enough said really, we used to talk about it a lot, particularly on our zoom calls, but now like everyone we try to avoid it because it’s just so damn depressing.

Then just when we think we have exhausted our stock of witty banter and repartee one member of the group will butt-dial us all for a group call (actually he clearly is the wild card) and then blame his young daughter. It’s like the moment when the bar staff would drop and smash a pint glass and everybody in the pub gives a cheer. We all smile and shake our heads and go back to our daily life.

Still much as the WhatsApp group provides a great source of amusement and I actually know far more about my friends’ daily lives than I ever did before (like they don’t spend as much time working as they should), it still doesn’t match the enjoyment of meeting face to face. In fact the last time a few of us got together was back in late January / early February in the excellent Boco pizzeria on Bolton Street and I can remember asking our resident doctor what he thought about this coronavirus emerging in China? He shrugged and said nobody knows but it doesn’t look good! Of course we did have an ad hoc Irish meet-up during the summer lull in COVID 19 cases but I chose not to go as cases had just spiked to 200 that day. The increases since then and subsequent lockdowns have shown that perhaps that was a bad call on my part!

Anyway we shall keep going on our WhatsApp group, who knows maybe this blog will generate some discussion. And perhaps next year we will meet up again to sing some songs, drink some beer and play Belgian charades!

Space The Final Frontier

One of the major issues in a household with four kids is the lack of space and the issue has only gotten worse as they have gotten bigger and they need more, for want of a better word, “stuff”. Sure, we have gotten rid of changing tables and cots but now we have bicycles and scooters to worry about. Up until last weekend the bikes in particular were a source of concern. We don’t have a garage so the typical place for bike storage isn’t available to us. I had tried to convert our spare room into a bicycle bunker but Niki (my wife) was having none of that, something about wanting to have guests sleep without bicycle spokes near their face, pssh. So we had settled on the far from ideal solution of keeping the bikes in the shed out the back. What made this arrangement particularly unappealing was that there is no way around the side of our house, so all bikes needed to be wheeled or carried through the house to get them out onto the road and the same again on the return journey. Now when you consider what young, carefree boys can cycle through, this was a situation we couldn’t allow to continue.

Following a significant amount of internet searching and a lot of measuring of the available space in front of our house, we decided upon a metal bicycle storage unit (see photo above) as the way forward. Problem solved you might think, but then our solution arrived one sunny afternoon in three very large, very heavy, flat-pack containers! Myself and Niki were so overcome by the size of the task ahead of us that the flat-packs were allowed to stay in our hall for two full weeks (further cluttering up the place). Eventually last Saturday afternoon we got up the courage to attempt to put it together. The instructions said that it should take two people three hours to assemble, we budgeted for four and crossed our fingers. We both knew that once we had taken the materials out of the packaging we were “locked in” and would have to see it through until the bitter end, like an astronaut heading to the moon or a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire!

Things did not start off promisingly. There are two types of people in the world (i) those who follow instructions slavishly and become very perturbed with any deviation from the prescribed method and (ii) those who see instructions as a guideline to be used as a reference when things don’t appear to be going correctly. My wife is very much in the former category, whereas yours truly subscribes to the latter approach, a mix of both is a true recipe for disaster. To make things worse, Niki will freely admit she gets confused by assembly instructions, straight away we were behind the 8-ball. To make matters worse, after we had spread all the parts on the ground Niki asked where the screws were, I looked around and pointed out that there were no screws, only nuts and bolts. Then she asked for a nut while clearly pointing at a bolt! There followed a five minute discussion while I advised that as an easy memory aid “bolt has four letters and is therefore bigger than nut which has three!” Niki accused me of being condescending and started to look menacing with an electric screwdriver in her hand. We had just about completed step 1 out of 10 when father-in-law Mick (an engineer by trade) was called on Facetime to give much needed technical advice and relationship counselling.

Mick gave us some helpful pointers on the vital importance of the correct use of spanners only for us to discover we didn’t have the correct size of spanner. 45 minutes later, Mick was at our door (having travelled from Shankill so within the county boundary!) with the biggest bag of spanners I had ever seen. Unbelievably, he didn’t have the correct sized spanner either. Drastic times called for drastic measures so I managed to locate our toolbox (which I think has lain unused for the past 12 years) at the bottom of the cupboard with the wedding china, of course that’s where it was! While I didn’t find a spanner, I did find an attachment to a screwdriver that seemed to do the trick, with that one piece of genius, I felt that my work here was done, but alas no. Three hours later with the aid of Mick we finally managed to put the bloody thing together. I am quite confident that without Mick’s arrival, this week’s blog would have been about the end of my marriage and how building something with your wife / ex-wife does not necessarily bring you closer together! Mick had a similar disregard for instructions as I did but with the added bonus that he actually knew what he was doing! We may have had to re-do a few nuts and bolts along the way and things did get bent quite out of shape at one point but the end result was very pleasing. Although Niki is still having nightmares about the bolt (or was it a nut) that went missing down our neighbours’ drain and the fact that we had three parts leftover at the end is a cause of concern (for her, not for me, I think they just gave us some spares).

For now we have solved our bike issues, well at least until Ella (3) starts to cycle and we probably have to buy another one of these yokes. Maybe Ella will just stay petite and perfect forever or maybe we can pay the delivery guy to assemble it for us next time, no price is too much!

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Running to Stand Still

So after four or five months where we were struggling to fill the days for the kids, we have rapidly hit a situation where we need our own personal family organiser to manage our schedules (although maybe not for much longer given how things have gone recently in Dublin). Niki (my wife) has had to point out a few times that the role of family organiser clearly falls under my remit and to be honest it’s hard to argue with her (in general as well as relating to this particular point) so I have been plunged in at the deep end. You see in addition to the GAA training (which in fairness had continued for the bulk of the summer), we now have GAA matches at the weekend and more importantly, swimming lessons have returned with a vengeance. Well I say swimming lessons but that is only true for two of our three boys as Aaron (the eldest) is already a better swimmer than I ever was or will be, the term coaching is more apt in his case but technicalities aside, whether he is doggy-paddling or butterflying he still needs somebody to bring him there!

Now we have five trips to the swimming pool to manage each week in addition to the seven GAA matches / training sessions. As the cherry on this particularly appetising piece of cake, the Saturday swimming sessions are at 7am in the morning. That’s right, weekdays are actually the ones where we get to “lie-in”! I can remember one of my first appearances on the red-eye shift when one of the other parents greeted me with a knowing smile and the comment “the road to glory begins here!”. Did we think that we were doing this for our children’s health and well-being, or did we all secretly believe that an Olympic swimming pool lay at the end of this particularly watery rainbow?!

As the piece de resistance for 2020, Lochlan (my second boy) has decided that he wants to give football (soccer in addition to gaelic) a shot this year. He had been making overtures about doubling up between Na Fianna and local club Glasnevin FC for some time but the pressure was seriously ramped-up in late August early September, dates and times of training sessions were provided and lists of names of friends who were already on the team. Hey presto we have another three matches / training sessions to add to the mix (although this has mercifully dropped to two this week as the evenings start getting shorter). That’s 15 different events that we have to make sure our kids attend each week. Suddenly the weekly planner which Niki bought in Flying Tiger at the start of the year has become my best friend. Without it I wouldn’t know where I was supposed to be from one day to the next. There are no free days and Saturday usually involves five different excursions. Now sometimes you can be lucky and get a string of home matches at the weekend, on others you may not be so lucky and you can end up rushing from a windswept field in Balbriggan to a soccer pitch in Newcastle (south Dublin). Where’s my petrol allowance when I need one?

Of course back in my day, my parents would never take me to away matches (cue violins), you’d be dropped at the home pitch in Clontarf and get bundled into some mentor or parent’s car along with 4 or 5 team-mates for an exotic 20 minute trip to Donaghmede or Edenmore or somewhere similar! Nowadays with health and safety guidelines exacerbated by Covid restrictions it’s every man / child for themselves. Consequently Saturdays need to be planned out with a map and compass (in reality google maps). Who needs orienteering when I have my Friday night logistics sessions followed by a jog on Saturday to find where the correct pitch is. Who knew there were so many pitches in Dublin, one particular sprint (while suffering with tendinitis) to a match in Naomh Maurs following an errant trip to St Maurs Park (not an actual park) in one of the many identical housing estates in Rush was a particular low point! It is during these logistics sessions that Niki will usually throw something into the mix about having to buy food or clothes for the kids which will pile an extra layer of intrigue to the whole experience.

Of course despite my grumblings I’d like to point out that I’m actually delighted that my progeny are as excited about playing sport as I am (or at least was in my youth). I still find that I have to keep my emotions in check as I prowl the sidelines but definitely cannot contain my joy if Aaron scores 3-1 while putting my old club Clontarf to the sword or if Lochlan notches two goals on his debut for the aforementioned Glasnevin FC. Now all I have to do is wait for Ella (age 3) to make her appearance on the sporting pitches of the capital, what’s another few training sessions to add into the overcrowded mix. Who needs your own social life anyway?!

Losing Our Religion

It had all been going so well. The boys had slotted back into their school routines despite the odd quibble about early rising times and the quality of Daddy’s packed lunches! Even Ella was beginning to get used to life in Montessori and her initial vehemence that pre-school was not the life choice for her had subsided. Then at 7.48pm on Wednesday as I sat listening to the Guardian football podcast in the car park of the Santry SportsLink swimming pool (for context, my eldest son swims three times a week so I know this car park very well), I got a text from my wife that would change my mood and the course of the week. Oscar had a temperature!

Now Oscar had been behaving a bit on the “contrary” side earlier that day but with the return to school and the extra associated physical exertions we put it down to tiredness and over-excitement (also, I love him but he does have a “contrary” element to has character at the best of times). But on Wednesday evening Niki thought he felt that extra bit overheated and so took his temperature which showed a reading of 38.8 degrees. Nothing that unusual there you would think, after all he has just been re-introduced to all his school buddies, whether it be in bubbles, or pods, or whatever and there are likely to be a few germs flying around which he had not been introduced to while locked down at home. But this is H2 2020 and instead of just keeping your kid at home for 24-48 hours while the virus works its way through his system, you now have to ring your GP and arrange for a Covid 19 test. Meanwhile all the rest of your family have to self isolate until a result is received. Now what’s the big deal with that you might think? The big deal was that Oscar’s older brother (and tormentor in chief) Lochlan was due to have his first communion yesterday (Saturday 5th), this was the communion that had already been re-arranged from last May. So I did a quick calculation in my head, earliest time to ring the GP would be Thursday morning, then 24 hours to get a test time and another 24-48 hours to get the results back and realistically communion at high noon on Saturday was not going to happen. Noooooooo!

When we broke the news to Lochlan he seemed less concerned about the fact that he was missing out on one of the holy sacraments (again) and more troubled that he would have to postpone his debut for the local football team!

Thursday and Friday felt like we had been transported back to late March, nobody was allowed to leave the house and Oscar was confined to his bedroom (with a tray service being provided by yours truly). Needless to say that by mid-Thursday morning his high temperature had disappeared but we had already informed a slew of people of his potential infectiousness; school, montessori, GAA club, swim club, football club, multiple relations and multiple neighbours and most importantly our GP. Oscar’s test was set for 4pm on Friday but by Friday morning he was getting very restless so we allowed him to come downstairs but only if he wore his face-mask, I think if Lochlan had his way he would have made Oscar ring a bell also but myself and Niki agreed that this went a bit too far.

Those long two days were definitely a bit of a drag although we did have the online battle royal game Fall Guys to keep our spirits up, thankfully PlayStation’s launch of the game for free coincided with our return to private lockdown, still waiting for our first victory!

I didn’t get to visit the testing centre in Cloghran but Niki says that it was pretty packed and full of kids who didn’t seem too happy about having a giant cotton-bud stuck up their nose and throat! Oscar displaying an unusual amount of stoicism (and with the aid of a lovely nurse) endured the discomfort without any screams or even a tear. After that it was just a matter of waiting.

So on Saturday we all got dressed up but instead of heading into St Patrick’s chapel in Drumcondra, we sat down in front of the television and watched a livestream of the service. Lochlan was able to point out where we would have been sitting and Niki was able to note who wasn’t wearing their face masks correctly! I tell you, when the purge comes I hope to be on her side! The service itself was lovely even if Lochlan didn’t seem overly impressed that he wasn’t in a jersey and shorts on Saturday afternoon. He wasn’t very keen to show us the actions he was supposed to have learnt off by heart either. Apparently missing Thursday and Friday had erased his memory banks, at least where spiritual miming is concerned. Once the service was over we still had pizza and cake but couldn’t be joined by grandparents as had originally been the plan which was a real shame.

Then just before 4pm (less than 24 hours after the test), we got a text message to say Oscar’s test had come back negative. Sighs of relief all round mixed with the slightest twinge of regret that it hadn’t all happened 4 hours earlier! So now we are faced with the prospect of searching for another communion date whether it be with another local school or with this year’s 2nd class in May 2021. Personally I’m hoping that the church is not operating a 3 strikes and you’re out policy because knowing our luck we’ll need another couple of attempts to finally get this over the line! On a brighter note, Lochlan did manage to make his football debut on Sunday and he scored, so the weekend gets marked down as a success in his books!

What’s That Sound? It’s The Back To School Alarm!

It was 7am on Thursday morning and a strange unwelcome noise crept into my consciousness, a noise that had been thankfully absent for the previous six months, the dreaded alarm clock (or as is more common these days, the phone alarm). Well I say absent but that would fail to take into account the times that my good lady wife (Niki) decided that she wanted to go for an early morning, pre-work jog and set the alarm for “ridiculous” o’clock. Now what invariably happened in those cases was that the alarm woke yours truly (a light sleeper) and I muttered something to Niki who slapped the alarm into submission who then went back to the land of nod (for she is a world class sleeper, a fact that I can testify to having seen her snore delightfully in the midst of North Atlantic storms, a noisy train journey through Thailand, a trek up Kilimanjaro and numerous other situations which were not conducive to catching a few zeds) while I had to stare at the ceiling wondering how my life had come to this! But I digress, back to last Thursday and that unsettling sound which indicated that the hiatus from school had finally come to an end.

Within five minutes of the alarm sounding it was clear that six months had done nothing to change my three boys’ attitudes towards the morning. Aaron (the eldest) was already up and dressed, in cheery form and ready to take on the excitement of the day, Lochlan (the next in line to the throne) was grumbling about not being able to wear a football jersey and shorts but was getting things done in a begrudging fashion, Oscar (my youngest boy) was still completely conked-out in his bed and refusing all attempts to rouse him. Now I know from past experiences that confronting Oscar head-on only makes things worse. So on my first visit to his room one shutter was opened and a few kind words were whispered into his ear, the second saw his light being turned on and his duvet cover being gently rolled back, by the third visit mommy Niki has been enlisted to fight the good fight and I have exited downstairs for the crucial sandwich prep! Oscar did eventually emerge but only after the dreaded threat of losing screen-time had been invoked.

Ah the school lunch, how I have not missed thee! We try to arrange things so that the boys get one source of carbohydrate i.e. bread and two sources of protein and / or fruit per lunch. It sounds pretty simple but our boys’ tastes come and go like the Irish sunshine. A frequent early morning exclamation is “what do you mean you no longer like ham / salami / cheddar cheese / tomatoes / etc?” the list goes on and on and on. In our favour this time round is that Niki has used lockdown to harness the power of home-baked sourdough bread. So now our sandwiches have a tasty and healthy base, albeit that Niki also decided at a later point during lockdown to go for a carb-free diet. As a result she is caught in an eternal circle of feeding the sourdough starter, baking the bread and then being completely unable to eat any of it herself. Sounds a bit too much like Sisyphus and his rolling stone for my liking but Niki has always been built of sterner and less selfish stuff!

Once school lunches had been successfully packed away, we then rushed out of the house in order to meet the earlier than usual drop-off time for Oscar. This had been arranged by the school in order to stagger the arrival of students and entourages. Of course it had to be Oscar who needed to be first to school, for he was still feeling aggrieved by his early wake-up time and decided in his infinite wisdom not to follow the lead of his siblings and use his scooter on the 2km journey to school. Now we live at the top of a hill and while the journey to Drumcondra is not a straight downward line it is pretty close to it so having wheels underneath you is a great advantage. Unfortunately no amount of reasoning with Oscar could convince him of this. In the end his marathon running mother had to pace him over the last km just so he wouldn’t get a late slip on his first day! She also agreed to carry his bag complete with wipes and sanitiser, although from watching Oscar you would have thought it was full of rocks despite the fact that it didn’t even have any books in it yet!

The elder boys reached school at their allotted time and were genuinely excited to be seeing their friends and classmates again. Once this was done myself, Niki and Ella (age 3) celebrated by enjoying breakfast at a local eatery which was very enjoyable. But it was only when I returned home that I realised how much I missed the calmness and the silence of not being stuck with three adorable but highly energetic and competitive males. I sat down and played a game of counting caterpillars with Ella and we weren’t interrupted once by complaining or shouting or screaming once (well I think Niki may have raised her voice while castigating some online retailer for not delivering on-time). Friday ran a bit smoother, Oscar was less grumpy and brought his scooter. People managed to get a bit more familiar with the routine and restrictions around COVID. The only issue was that the heavens opened up on the way home from the school so I was like a drowned rat while the boys were in their sanitised shelter. But still I had that silence, a truly golden silence.


The End Of An Era

There have been many momentous moments in the Doyle household over the last 12 months. We have said goodbye to toilet training and are now nappy free for the first time in a decade, hallelujah! The Stokke changing table and cot which had seemed to be a permanent part of our house and served us so well have been packed up and shipped off to a new home (I have my eye on you bugaboo buggy as the next target for expulsion). We are almost at the stage where apart from a bit of extra food chopping-up, the kids can all feed themselves, I hasten to add that the extra bit of food butchery is for our seven year old (Oscar) and not our three year old (Ella) who is quite determined to feed herself (most of the time). Now we stand but a week away from Ella’s debut in Montessori, which will mean that for the first time all our four kids will be education-bound and I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle the emotions of the day!

I mean we have had similar days in the past with the boys, but Ella is the baby of the house and she has also been my constant companion for the past two years since I became a stay-at-home parent. The joyous refrain of “today is a daddy and Ella day” has been a true highlight of not just my parenting years but my life, full-stop. Now things have become a bit more muddled in the last six months as I have had to share my Ella with her brothers, her working-from-home mommy (reluctantly as mommy seems to get more hugs than I do, not that I’m keeping score) and Auntie Orla while she stayed with us (which was okay because I knew she wouldn’t be around forever), but I know that the bond we have built between father and daughter in the past 24 months will stay with us forever.

Unfortunately Ella’s attendance at Montessori will also mean the end of one of my favourite rituals, daddy and Ella do brunch! In Glasnevin / Drumcondra / Phibsboro, we are blessed with a number of wonderful cafes and boy did we make use of this abundance of riches. First and foremost (and nearest to home) there is McMahons of Botanic Avenue which thoughtfully expanded its premises around the time I began my new gig. Always friendly, a purveyor of good coffee and I can’t recommend the fresh scones with cream and jam highly enough. Ella just loves the toast. A bit further afield is Two Boys Brew down on the North Circular Rd. Once again the coffee here is excellent but for me, the stand out item on the brunch menu is the overnight rolled oats. I was so impressed by this combination of oat-milk soaked oats, almond butter, fruit compote and mint that I started to make my own version (not nearly as nice but still a good and healthy start to the day).

Just around the corner from Two Boys Brew is the delightfully eccentric White Moose Cafe where the pancakes are top notch and Ella is always fascinated by the fact that there is a giant coffee cup outside. Back over in Drumcondra is the appropriately name Lovely Food Company. This place holds a special place in our hearts as it was the first cafe that we brought Ella to when she was only a week old. The food is fresh and excellent with a wide ranging choice on the menu. Just off Griffith Avenue is the more established name of Anderson’s Food Hall and Cafe which provides a truly excellent Irish breakfast for those in need of something more substantial. Ella enjoys looking at the stacked shelves around the place and it’s not bad for a bit of blue cheese or red pesto on your way out. Last but not least is Le Petit Breton creperie on the corner of Whitworth and Drucondra Road. This has become a particular favourite haunt and they know our order off by heart at this point, La Complete (crepe with ham, cheese and an egg) for yours truly and a hot croissant with homemade jam for Ella. The big windows are excellent for watching the busy world go by. We are always greeted with a smile despite the fact that Ella always seems to leave more of the croissant on the surrounding area than in her mouth.

In fact one thing that all these delightful places have in common is that the level of service is always top quality and the smiles that greet us are always genuine (or at least they are very good at faking it). I’d like to think that my natural charm has something to do with it but I know that my always cheerful daughter is probably the main reason!

So when I drop Ella off to Montessori for the first time it will be these happy memories that will sustain me, well they’ll keep me going for the hour until she is mine again (new arrivals are being eased into the Montessori experience so for the first week pick up time is 10.15am hip hip hooray. I’m already planning brunches!

Way Out West

Last week I blogged about our wonderful trip to the Aran Islands but our fun in Galway didn’t end there. While there were many positives, first of all let me deal with the big negative from our trip, the sleeping arrangements! We stayed in the Connacht Hotel in Galway and had access to a two bedroom family suite (to be clear no fault is attached to the lovely Connacht Hotel for our lack of sleep). We had looked at holiday rentals but in the end the access to the kids club, swimming pool and pancakes for breakfast trumped the alternatives. In theory, this reduced bedroom scenario (our four kids are spread over three bedrooms at home) seemed fine to us as, although it would be cramped sticking four kids into one bedroom, at least myself and Niki would have a room to ourselves to watch the odd episode of Suits! Ahh the naivete, you’d think that after 11 years of parenting we’d be able to figure out what was going to happen if we put all of our kids into one bedroom (including two sharing a double bed). Cue multiple outbursts of “stop kicking me!”, “he’s making me laugh!”, “it’s too hot I can’t sleep!” and that was just from yours truly! Apologies to those in rooms 4111 and 4113 if the shouting got a bit out of control at times. So it’s safe to say the sleeping arrangements were not a success but the waking hours more than made up for it.

At the top of the positives was the availability of good nourishment. We had worried that lack of access to our own cooking facilities would be an issue for our very picky eaters. We needn’t have worried. Our first port of call upon arrival in Galway was Dough Bros, well not the pizza restaurant itself (which is not upon to diners due to covid restrictions), but the outlet they have opened in O’Connells bar on Eyre Square. We have always made it our business to visit Dough Bros when we travel to the city of the tribes. This was our third visit and I can honestly say that the pizzas are the best in Ireland, the bases are light yet substantial and the toppings are innovative yet classic. I am thinking of getting an online petition to get them to open an outlet in Dublin. The arrangement with O’Connells seems to be a win-win situation with the patrons availing of quality food along with beverages of choice and the venue has a substantial beer garden / outdoor eating area. Also if pizzas aren’t your thing, there is also the option of Handsome Burger which operates out of the other end of the beer garden. My wife confirmed that the burgers were top quality and the boys loved the rosemary fries! It is no surprise that queues are a regular feature outside O’Connells but we were so impressed that we had to go there again on the eve of our departure, now that’s a ringing endorsement!

For  something a bit more upmarket we ventured to the excellent Brasserie on the Corner which is just around the corner from Eyre Square on Eglington Street. Now going upmarket with our kids is always a risky business but myself and Niki had a hunger for something which took more than 5 minutes to cook so we rolled the dice again and this time came up with a 12. As is customary these days, we sanitised ourselves thoroughly before being shown to our seats. The atmosphere was classy yet relaxed, the steaks (which myself and Niki both ordered) were excellent and the kids menu (along with the crayons which came with them) were sufficiently broad to cover all tastes and artistic temperaments! The “piece de resistance” was the dessert which included a black forest gateau ice-cream, all my dreams had just come true! Before leaving the topic of food (and my waistline shows that I should have left this topic halfway through our Galway sojourn, probably around the time the aforementioned ice cream arrived) I must give a special mention to The Gourmet Food Parlour, a local favourite down the road in Santry and also excellent in Salthill but without the Dublin GAA stars!

So apart from the culinary delights of the West, what else did we do on our trip? Well I got to wear my wet-suit for the first (and second) time. Now my boys have been wearing wet suits on holidays for a number of years, ever since Lidl had one of those middle aisle sales, but this year I decided to take the plunge (excuse the pun) as I could no longer face the bitter cold of the Atlantic without some insulation (excluding my natural version of course). Wet-suits are particularly difficult to carry-off with a graceful air especially when the zipping up process brings to mind William Shatner’s corset in his later Star Trek years, I’m thinking of you Wrath of Kaahhhnnn! But I was definitely glad for its warmth and buoyancy as I bobbed along searching for glimpses of fish and crabs (successfully in the Coral Strand but less so in Silver Strand). Speaking of the Coral Strand or Tra an Doilin as the locals in Carroroe like to call it, I made the fatal error of not bringing along my sandals with me and quickly went from “I don’t know what you “snowflakes” are complaining about, it’ll build character”, to “oh my god, the pain, the pain, I can’t walk please somebody carry me to my blanket”. The ultimate ignominy was when the plastic bag for my snorkel mask blew away and I had to be helped retrieve it by an elderly lady because I was chasing after it with the grace and athleticism of the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof!

So our holiday this year may not have taken in the delights of a French boulangerie, or the rush of water-sliding into an outdoor pool, or even my particular favourite pastime, the one hour browse through a hypermarche, but we did have some memorable times in Galway and the food was definitely to be recommended!

Return to Aran

At long last our summer vacation of 2020 was upon us. This year was supposed to be the year of the French but alas, with covid restrictions that was not to be the case so we found ourselves spending four nights in the Connacht Hotel in Galway. To be honest, we were glad to have that as the hotel was only able to give us 3 nights when we originally inquired about a reservation. We have been to Galway a few times before “en famille” and always like the friendly and slightly off-kilter vibe of the place. However this time around, myself and my wife were determined to do something more memorable than simply Salthill and Eyre Square. So I delved into the memory bank of my youth and came up with the idea for a day-trip to Inis Mor, the largest of the nearby Aran Islands.

My only previous trip to Inis Mor had been as a youngster on a family summer holiday when I was as of yet blissfully unaware of the magical places outside of Ireland, so it seemed very exotic at the time. My wife Niki had been there much more recently doing the Aran Islands half-marathon, although she didn’t remember much of the place because she had been slogging through a grueling 21 kms. As if running 21 kms isn’t difficult enough, she chose to do it over extremely hilly terrain on a notoriously windy outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. Anyway despite the protestations of our children (Lochlan (9) in particular wasn’t keen on visiting a place where wifi was likely low on the agenda), we booked our return ticket with Aran Island Ferries and set off for an adventure.

The starting off point of Rosaveel was the same as 30 odd years ago.  This had the added significance that it meant we had to drive past Colaiste Chamuis in the Gaeltacht where I spent two stints in my teenage years. As we passed the school, I got a flashbacks to multiple games of gaelic football and in particular to an errant piece of chewing gum which was mysteriously placed on my seat during one of the numerous cheilis. I never found the culprit and certainly my Ionsai na hInse wasn’t up to scratch that evening! Rosaveel doesn’t seem to have changed much but the ferry to Inis Mor has gotten a lot bigger and thankfully swifter. My childhood recollections are of bobbing around on the Atlantic for over an hour before reaching the safe haven of Kilronan (Inis Mor’s only notable village), whereas this time round we powered through the waves and made the crossing in 40 minutes. Now there was still some rocking and rolling but it was of the theme park rather than life or death variety!

Once we had arrived in Kilronan we headed straight for the bike hire shop. Just like my last trip, the best way to get around the island was by pedal power so we got fitted up for our bikes. Ella (3) would be my strapped-in companion for the day, the boys (not for the first time) got competitive over what size bike they could choose, while Niki had to overcome her mistrust of all things 2-wheeled (justifiably it would turn out). After much saddle and helmet adjusting we headed out of town to the sound of Ella repeatedly saying “not too fast Daddy not too fast!”. She needn’t have worried, five minutes later at the summit of the first of many of the islands little hills I was out of puff and thankful that I wasn’t in a group of experienced cyclists. Fortunately the weather was stunning and already we were being treated to breath-taking views of Connemara, the Burren and the magnificent Atlantic. Ella wasn’t so impressed by the views but was overjoyed by the fauna all around her, “look daddy a real donkey / horse / cow / goat” was a happy and common refrain as we made our journey along the island. Our destination (once again like it had been 30 years ago) was the prehistoric fort of Dun Aengus.

So after 7kms of hill climbing and descending which involved yours truly pretending to be Stephen Roche (with my very own cheerleader) battling against my two elder boys (or Delgado and Indurain as I liked to call them) for the polka-dot jersey, we reached the blue ribbon beach of Portmurvy at the base of the hill which led to Dun Aengus. Niki and Oscar had taken a more leisurely approach to the journey and were sufficiently enticed by the white sand and luxuriant blue sea to forego a further 1km hike uphill, Ella was also delighted to be able to spend some mummy-time. So myself, Aaron and Lochlan parked the bikes and headed up the cliff-top perch, for Dun Aengus is situated directly 100 metres above the Atlantic, excellent for defending against raiders, not so good if you have a fear of heights! The views from the summit were once again stunning and it really did feel that you might be able to spot North America on the horizon, or at least Iceland! On the way back to Kilronan we took the much easier low road (not something I can remember doing 30 years ago mum and dad!) which passed along by a seal colony for bonus points. The seals were quite easy to locate as they seemed to be singing to each other in a similar manner to my own crooning to Niki in our courting days!

By the time we returned to Kilronan we had all built up quite an appetite so the food in Ti Joe Wattys was gulped down followed by ice creams in the local Spar (the one and only supermarket on the island). In between we did have our one and only fall of the day as Niki’s dismount left a lot to be desired but luckily she had only a bruised shin, damaged pride and a muddy jumper to show for it. Last but not least we headed to another beach for some relaxation and pebble throwing before powering back across Galway Bay to the mainland.

A wonderful day trip and great to be able to connect my own childhood experience with the next generation. Who knows, maybe they’ll be back again in 30 years time, I hope the experience won’t have changed much in the meantime.

We’re going to the Zoo, how about you?

Dublin zoo has been a longstanding fixture in my home town, having opened its doors to the public way back in 1840 (although it was established in 1831, making it the fourth oldest zoo in the world). For generations, families have made the trip to the Phoenix Park (the largest urban park in Europe, see I do some research for my blog!) to get their fill of exotic and wild animals. Certainly I remember many trips during my own childhood when I was fascinated by the large tiger continuously prowling behind a huge glass screen and amazed by the sea lions as they splashed about their enclosure. I also seem to remember polar bears who liked to spray passersby with the fountain in their enclosure but unfortunately they had to be shipped off to Hungary in 2003 citing issues with their shared living space (I know that feeling). I can also remember the great excitement around the visit of the giant pandas to Dublin, ah Ping Ping and Ming Ming how I miss you (subnote; my favourite teddy as a child was a panda or Big Panda as I liked to call him). Although I do remember being unimpressed by the moniker “giant” pandas as they looked normal sized to me. It was only later that I realised they were only “giant” relative to their red panda cousins!

After my childhood years, visits to the zoo became less common with just the occasional trip alongside foreign visitors over the years who were looking for a few hours to kill. This all changed 11 years ago with the arrival of our first child and by the time numbers 2, 3 and 4 came along, we were fully signed up family members (excellent value €190 for annual family pass). Fortunately my return to the Zoological Gardens Dublin coincided with a significant upgrade project which created a number of much larger open spaces where the animals have much greater area to roam and mingle. Predators are obviously kept separately, so zebras can mix with giraffes and ostriches but not with lions, hey this isn’t the movie Madagascar! So now the zoo includes areas such as the the African Savanna, the Kaziringa Forest Trail (home to the much loved elephant herd), the Gorilla Rainforest and the Orangutan Forest. The viewing areas are excellent and provide good access to the animals without being obtrusive. My favourite renovated area is the Sea Lion Cove which allows you to see these wonderful creatures (still a favourite) underwater so that you can marvel at how gracefully they move, a bit like yours truly in my prime on Dollymount beach!!

We made our return to the zoo this week after the Covid 19 enforced break. Things are a bit different but the overall experience remains the same. You have to book your time-slot in advance and you are immediately greeted by a bank of sanitiser stations. Dublin zoo has implemented a very well signposted one-way system which I thought might cause problems but actually turned out to be a god send. Previously the biggest headache at the zoo had been trying to decide which animals we’d visit first. Each of my three boys have very definite ideas on how to traverse the 69 acres that make up the zoo and invariably one of them ends up annoyed and in a huff for the rest of the trip. But this time around I just had to shrug my shoulders and say “we have to go this way so let’s keep moving folks”. The indoor spaces are off-limits so no reptile house including crocodiles and snakes but all the other main animals were taken in by the one way system. We got to see a baby gorilla and a baby sea lion which is always lovely. I tried to engage the boys with my tales of seeing Californian Sea Lions on the wharves of San Francisco but they looked at me like I had two heads!

For me, the best thing about Dublin Zoo is seeing the wonder and amazement of my younger kids whenever they spot an animal, whether it be a nimble spider monkey, the hulking rhinos, the very cute humboldt penguins or the numerous ducks that have made the lake in the zoo their home. In fact we spotted seven ducklings beside the Gorilla Rainforest and that was nearly the highlight of Ella’s (3) day. It’s also nice that the older kids get to share in the enjoyment of their younger sibling. This time round my second boy Lochlan (9) was less enthusiastic about the zoo trip (he has developed a phobia of walking more than the length of a football pitch) but once we got there he was swept along by Ella’s buoyant mood and he even decided to become her personal guide complete with commentary and lifting service.

We spent an enjoyable two and a half hours in the zoo, the place was even cleaner than usual and the moist Irish summer meant that the foliage was lush without hindering views. The animals always look healthy and well cared for, evidence of this can be seen on The Zoo tv programme. Staff are friendly and happy to provide information about the facilities and the animals such as the fact that Dublin Zoo is home to the oldest Tapir in the world, Marmaduke is 35 years old but doesn’t look a day over 29, a bit like myself!

The Lost Bastille Day

It was Bastille Day last Tuesday and I must admit that I shed a little tear, for you see in a parallel universe without Covid-19, myself and my family spent le quatorze sunning ourselves in a Brittany camp-site with the prospect of a long French summer stretching out before us. Please forgive me this metaphysical musing as I’ve been watching The Umbrella Academy so timelines which avoid armageddon have been playing heavily on my mind! For you see, this summer was supposed to be our big break in France, our grandes vacances. For the first time in a while the stars had aligned to make this possible, I am obviously working at home so free from the constraints of annual leave while Niki (my wife) had organised for 6 weeks of parental leave in order to immerse ourselves in La Vie En Rose for the majority of the summer. Well I say immerse but really we were going for two weeks to the aforementioned camp-site and then for four weeks to a holiday rental is a small French town. So not quite a year in Provence but hey, it seems like paradise when I think about it now.

Myself and Niki have a strong affinity with France, we both studied French as part of our degrees in university. I enriched my soul with the works of Camus, Baudelaire and Victor Hugo while Niki learnt the French for Balance Sheet, Profit and Loss account and that most French of pastimes going on strike! But that’s not the real reason we have a such a strong personal connection with L’Hexagon (as the locals call it). You see when we first met in the bustling Market Bar in downtown Dublin all those moons ago, I’d say that the small chat was faltering slightly until Niki mentioned how much she loved Paris, “moi aussi” I declared. Suddenly cupid’s arrow had been notched and dispatched, the rest as they say is history.

In truth I think the plans for this year’s getaway were sown five years ago when we enjoyed a tremendous family holiday / life enhancing experience travelling to New Zealand for the wedding of Niki’s brother. On that occasion Niki was in the middle of a career break and I had a boss who was about to retire and thought nothing of allowing me take 6 weeks of annual leave over the Christmas period. Our trip which took in Singapore, Sydney and Hong Kong as well as the delights of New Zealand (both North and South islands) was truly remarkable and the fact that we were able to to share it with our 3 boys made it even better, although some of those long car drives across the rolling hills of the land of the long white cloud did drag. There were only so many times the boys would be impressed by another hawk sighting, “where are all the kiwis dad?” was a common refrain! The tales of that trip have been keeping us going through the many struggles of modern life, come on everybody let’s not have another fight about bedtime and daddy will regale you about the time we saw all those waterfalls in Milford Sound! However we felt that it was time to refill the book of family stories.

So five years down the line we have added another member to our happy crew and while the boys were keen for Ella to experience New Zealand, we decided to plump for the less expensive and slightly more convenient (memories of the endless flights with kids in economy class flashing across my brain) option of France. Now I’m not saying that myself and Niki were completely aligned in our visions of how this holiday was going to take place. Niki envisioned a full immersion into French culture whereby the boys would journey through vineyards to the local village and return with baguettes, croissants and tales of how Monsieur Bonmarche from the boulangerie had controversially won the local boules / petanque competition with an illegal over-arm throw all spoken in perfect French of course! I simply wanted a warm place where I could read a few good books, taste-test a few of the local organic beers and occasionally indulge my slightly unusual fondness for hypermarkets!

But alas it was not to be (but at least we got refunds), now all we have are the dates on the calendar telling us when we should be boarding the ferry, checking in to the camp-site, getting the keys for the house, etc. (I am always a bit trigger happy when it comes to putting stuff into the calendar in case it slips my over-crowded brain) cruelly reminding us of the joyful times that we are missing out on. But hey Aaron’s swimming lessons are back on so I can look forward to 6.15am alarms on Saturday and we have 3 days in a hotel in Galway in August if the country hasn’t gone into lockdown again by then! In the meantime I’ll just keep my French play-list on repeat, “Joe Le Taxi”, “Je ne regrette rien” and of course “Voyage voyage”.