Property of the Irish Arts Council

Richie Fingers first realised he was a genius the day his sister was born.  He was locked inside the grounds of a castle when it struck him, aged four.  Richie’d been locked in that castle by an elderly gatekeeper in a headscarf called Mrs. Doolin.  Dressed like a granny in the spud-famine, Mrs. Doolin was a severe woman who took great pleasure in closing the gate between the hours of one and two, every afternoon.

Richie’d been taken to the castle grounds for a walk that morning by his American cousin, who he’d meet by chance on a tour of Auschwitz concentration camp, fifteen years later.  That has nothing to do with this particular story; but it went on to become a pivotal event in the formation of Richie Finger’s belief system in later life.  Especially after he saw a documentary about Quantum Physics on YouTube.

Locked in the castle that lunchtime, with the American cousin he’d later meet in Auschwitz – on the day his sister was born, Richie Fingers for the first time recognised the idiocy in everybody around him, as he sat on a bench waiting for Mrs. Doolin to open the gate – and release the bewildered tourists.

That’s a powerful feeling for a four year-old.  An important frustration to manage appropriately, something that needs to be gotten out of the way – like chickenpox.  Otherwise you could go mad in later life, and end up like Colonel Gaddafi.  Or Charles Tayler.  And if you don’t know who Charles Taylor is, type ‘Cannibal child soldiers of Liberia’ into YouTube and you’ll quickly get the jist.  He’s even worse than measles, or whatever adults who never got the chickenpox as kids get.

Thirty-five years after the day he’d diagnosed his own genius, locked in the castle with the American cousin he’d later meet in Auschwitz, on the day his sister was born, Richie Fingers was driving a rented Ford Focus up the Dublin-Belfast motorway, when he pulled off into one of those AppleGreen service stations.  The ones that have the exact same layout in every branch, like a giant Ikea flat-pack service station.

That level of uniformity spooked Richie.  He always found it disorientating – entering the exact same space at various different points, up and down the motorway.  That uncomfortable sensation of something not being quite right, like the opening bars of a stroke.  Apparently you smell burning hair too, thought Richie, as scanned the forecourt of the service station.  The place was packed with Limerick people – or at least people who looked like they were from Limerick.  Richie felt they were always very distinct, in their boot-cut jeans and Garda training college haircuts – never more than two thoughts away from a conversation about Paul O’Connell.

Inside this flat-packed purgatory was a SuperMacs, so Richie Fingers ordered salt, vinegar and a drink.  He wouldn’t eat Supermacs chips if you paid him – even worse than MacDonalds, which he thought were surprisingly nice.  Especially when he’d heard there was no actual spud in them.  Just flour and water, which seemed quite fraudulent.  The spotty attendant asked Richie if he wanted chips to go with his salt and vinegar, but this just annoyed him – and he told the kid to mind his own business.

Back out in the car-park, Richie relished that lovely new car smell as he sat into the rented Ford Focus.  He took a few deep breaths, before he switched on the engine. After he pulled back out onto the motorway, he took out his phone, and with one eye on the road and one eye on the phone he typed Alanis Morissette into Spotify.  Richie was acutely aware that his quest to blu-tooth ‘Jagged Little Pill’ was causing him to drive in the distracted style he’d read about in a court case, where some poor fucker’d wiped out an entire family.  Texting while driving, he’d taken his eyes off the road to find a suitable emoji to send his girlfriend who wore too much fake tan.  They didn’t stand a chance, that family, with the kids in the back listening to Ed Sheeran.

Once he’d travelled exactly sixteen kilometres from the service station, Richie Fingers slowed down again and pulled into the hard shoulder.  He’d a friend who was a fireman-paramedic – the new type they have in Dublin these days.  A sort of superhero job, based in Pearse Street Fire Station.  Not like the fireman from his hometown, thought Richie, who were basically just jumped-up scouts.  Except unlike the scouts, Protestants were allowed to join the fire brigade too.

Richie’s paramedic-fireman friend’d told him the most common causes of fatalities he sees are people who’ve pull into the hard shoulder on the motorway to answer the phone.  Until a lorry ploughs into the back of them at full-tilt.  Game over, stone dead – like that family mowed down by the fella trying to find the right emoji for the girlfriend with the fake tan, with the kids in the back plugged into Ed Sheeran.

Sitting in the rented Ford Focus pulled over on the hard-shoulder, thirty-five years after the day he’d first diagnosed his own genius – locked in the castle with the American cousin he’d later meet in Auschwitz, on the day his sister was born, Richie could see how you’d be completely mangled if one of those cars hit you at that speed.  He considered putting his hazard lights on for a moment, then decided against it.  It wouldn’t be as exciting with the hazards on, thought Richie, as he climbed into the back seat of the rented Ford Focus, with the cars flying past him like bullets.  He took out his phone and began typing ‘sex-change procedures’ into YouTube.  Richie’d watched the video loads of times already, so it popped up as soon as he started typing.

Once he’d found the right YouTube video, Richie reached into the Supermacs bag and pulled out a plastic knife, and the sachets of salt and vinegar.  The YouTube video advised potential amateur surgeons to use hard liquor as both an aesthetic and disinfectant.  But Richie Fingers was three years off the hooch, so the Supermacs sachets of salt and vinegar would have to do the job instead, he thought, as he opened his trousers and pulled down his pants.

Richie tore open the brown plastic Supermacs sachets, and doused his balls in vinegar.  He watched the video for a moment as the voice-over stressed the importance of avoiding arteries.  Richie paused the video for a moment, and took a quick selfie, smiling into the camera.  He only took a close-up head shot, so you couldn’t see that he’d his pants down, pulled over on the hard shoulder – with no hazard lights on.  You couldn’t get any of that information from the selfie, just Richie’s wide grin.  He briefly pondered how ‘selfie’ was a far more appropriate term to describe the act of masturbation.  Too late to change it now, Richie concluded.

Richie Fingers posted his smiling selfie on Facebook, then he returned to the YouTube castration video.  As a self-diagnosed genius, he’d always felt an overwhelming responsibility to reproduce.  So the previous evening he’d frozen his sperm, in case his planned procedure would render fatherhood difficult in later life.  He’d seen a documentary about Lance Armstrong on YouTube, and he’d frozen a load of his sperm too.  Then they cut one of his balls off, and it turned him into the fastest cyclist in the world.

But Richie didn’t have a receptacle handy, and the cold blue light of the midnight kitchen was putting him off his stroke.  So he knocked one out directly into the freezer, and left a note on the fridge.  Richie felt quite confident, that being both German – and a doctor – his housemate would understand the situation.

Safe in the knowledge his future progeny were stored somewhere between the waffles and the fish-fingers, Richie hacked into his groin with the white plastic Supermacs knife, in the back seat of the rented Ford Focus, thirty-five years after the day he’d diagnosed his own genius – locked in the castle with the American cousin he’d later meet in Auschwitz, on the day his sister was born.

Richie held his phone up with his left hand and filmed himself sawing at his testicles with his right hand.  This would show those Arts Council pricks, Richie gasped, as dark jets of blood squirted up onto his belly.  His face contorted in pain as he sawed his genitals so viciously the plastic Supermacs knife snapped in half, and he dropped the phone on the seat.  Richie roared in agony as blood spewed all over the upholstery of the rented Ford Focus.  They’ll never get that lovely new car smell back in here after this, Richie thought, as he frantically ripped open several sachets of Supermacs salt – time no longer his friend, as he began to feel quite faint.

Richie sprinkled the salt on his bleeding balls, which in hindsight he realised was a mistake – as it caused him to pass out with the pain.  Richie Fingers lay slumped in the back of the rented Ford Focus, on the hard shoulder with no hazards, bollocks hacked open.  Salted and shredded like a Chinese takeaway, as the cars and lorries whizzed past like bullets.

Richie Fingers woke up half-an-hour later with a strange craving for Oxtail soup.  Balls bleeding profusely, he took off his jumper and wrapped it tightly around his undercarriage, like a giant woolly nappy-bandage.  Richie was beginning to feel light-headed as took the slip-road towards the airport, but as an experienced drink-driver, he remained quietly confident he’d make it all the way to the rental depot.  He was less confident of getting his deposit back from the clerk, as he glanced behind at the bloody devastation on the back seat.

At the depot Richie told the clerk he must have hit an artery, by way of explanation for all the blood in the car.  But this only caused more confusion, when the clerk asked Richie what he meant.  Richie mistook the clerk’s enquiry for genuine interest, and he unwrapped the nappy-bandage and showed him his botched operation. The horrified clerk threatened to have Richie sectioned under the Mental Health Act.  That just made Richie thick – he was sick of these jumped-up pricks behind counters giving him jip.

Richie told the rental clerk in no uncertain terms that if anyone’s getting sectioned, it’s those bastards in Supermacs.  In these days of transgender equality, they can’t seriously expect people to perform sex-change operations on themselves with such flimsy plastic cutlery.  Richie shook his head at the clerk in disgust, and then he left the rental depot, sickened he’d lost his deposit.

Richie Fingers staggered out into the airport long-term parking, and collapsed in a heap on the ground.  Several civilians rushed to his assistance, stifling gasps upon encountering the sight of Richie’s blood, as he lay on the tarmac clutching his bleeding balls, muttering a vague diatribe about political censorship in the arts.

The next thing Richie remembers he’s in the back of an ambulance with a pair of paramedics.  He attempted to inquire whether these lads were also qualified firemen, like his friend who told him about all the hard-shoulder fatalities.  In hindsight Richie realised he must have pursued this line of inquiry with too much vigour, as the paramedics had to restrain him.  Strapped to the gurney, Richie confessed to the paramedics that the whole manoeuvre was a stunt – a piece of performance art – to highlight the attempted massacre of his career by the Arts Council.

Richie explained to the paramedics that by physically inflicting upon himself what he interpreted the Arts Council were trying to do his career – he was proving to them how wrong they were.  A gruesome metaphor for political censorship, and the way Richie saw it, he wins both ways – plus, he’s made a complete fool of the Arts Council in the process.  Not bad for a five-minute performance piece in the back of a rented Ford Focus, Richie thought smugly, as he drifted in and out of consciousness as the paramedics bandaged his balls.

When they arrived at the hospital Richie was halfway through a lecture on Soviet political censorship under Stalin.  The doctor dosed Richie with morphine and asked if there was anyone he wanted them to call for him.  Richie gave the doctor a number for the Midland Tribune and the Irish Times, and a pre-prepared statement on his political performance art piece.  Once they finally unstrapped Riche from the gurney and his arms were loose, he took out his phone and posted the video of his botched castration procedure on Facebook, with the caption ‘Property of the Irish Arts Council’.  He checked his timeline to make sure it had posted, and once he was satisfied it had, he dropped his phone on the pillow and closed his eyes, as the morphine began to kick in.

Job done, Richie smiled in smacked-out bliss, confident the whole world would finally recognise his genius, thirty-five years after the day he’d first diagnosed it – locked in the castle with the American cousin he’d later meet in Auschwitz, on the day his sister was born.

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Skateboards, Tanks & Ecstasy Tablets

There are not many borders in Europe where the cops sell ecstasy. There are also not many countries in Europe currently boasting one hundred per-cent employment. In Transnistria they have it all sorted. The only problem is the country doesn’t officially exist.

Also, you don’t get to keep the pills. It’s a clever recycling initiative. Anyone thick enough to purchase drugs from the man with the gun in the uniform, will subsequently be greeted by another man with a gun in a uniform about ten miles down the road. The yokes are found, the bribe is paid, and the merchandise whisked back to the border for the next eejit’s misfortune.

It’s highly symbolic as the outsider’s entrance into this murky, but fascinating, little corner of Europe.

A breakaway, separatist territory in the east of Moldova, Transnistria is a thin sliver of land bordering Ukraine, separated from the rest of Moldova by the Dniester river. Michael Palin went there and had the craic, but he was from the BBC and had a big camera crew, so he only saw the marching bands and didn’t get offered any pills. He doesn’t look like the type anyway.

I didn’t have a big camera crew or the BBC. I had a Lada with a cracked window, a chain-smoking driver, and a very bad hangover. I also had Franko, and he needed to vomit. We were much more Monty Python than Michael Palin.

As the Lada rattled towards the border I had all sorts of pre-conceived ideas as to what it would be like inside this murky micro-nation. The EU has called Transnistria “a black hole in which illegal trade in arms, the trafficking in human beings and the laundering of criminal finance was carried on”. The locals are subject to a night-time curfew. Would we even get in?

To have any chance of crossing the border you need a Russian speaker. Without this essential element you wont get offered the chance to buy the pills in the first place. You’ll be shaken down, turned around, and sent back to wherever you came from. But we were sorted – our Lada-driving chain-smoker spoke both Moldovan and Russian.

As we approached the border our driver stopped. He turned around, fag in mouth, and demanded we hand him over our passports and stay in the car. The Department of Foreign Affairs would definitely frown upon sitting in a Lada with no passport on the border of a country that doesn’t exist. With a cracked window and a severe hangover…

But not for the first time the Paddy passport worked its charm. Even the border guards in this shady non-existent country thought being Irish was hilarious, and they didn’t even know about that whole IMF thing. A Spud-Head victory. We were in.

Despite being repeatedly urged by NATO to withdraw from Transnistria, after crossing the border our chain smoking driver laughed as he pointed at the imposing Russian army base visible from the road into Tiraspol, the capital city. The Russians have permanently positioned an old Soviet tank – complete with hammer and sickle – facing across the Dniester, a symbolic message in case those bloody Moldovans get notions of reclaiming land still internationally recognised as theirs.

I spent the previous few nights in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and experienced the sparse aesthetic of Europe’s poorest per-capita country. So on my way into Tiraspol I expected more babushkas at bus stops and roads with no footpaths. Instead I got teenage skaters in baggy jeans and baseball caps, doing tricks in front of that Soviet tank.

But perhaps the most striking thing about Tiraspol is the huge billboards positioned all over the city, displaying the stern image of Putin’s watchful face – making sure the locals don’t get notions. Putin’s pissed on every lamppost in the city; firmly marked his territory in his strategic little enclave.

But despite the billboards, Transnistria is officially self-governed, with their own parliament, police and postal system.

They even designed their own flag and currency, and came up with a new national anthem. One can only imagine that particular meeting.

Fresh from months of war, bandaged and bedraggled in a bullet-riddled building, armed to the teeth with crayons and sketchpads. Pure Monty Python territory – a Credit Union poster competition for militant separatists. Accompanied on piano in the corner by a locked land-mine victim, bashing out the chords, trying to come up with a national anthem on the hoof. And if that went well, he’d probably have a lash at the Eurovision too.

But sadly for the piano-playing separatists, despite geographically being in Europe, Transnistria doesn’t qualify for the Eurovision. They don’t really qualify for anything. Transnistria’s political status remains up in the air. Internationally unrecognised, yet in effect an independent state. This sketchy political status has it’s definite benefits…..

It is widely alleged that the Russians now run all their dirty work through Transnistria. People trafficking, weapons and drugs, along with the disposal of nuclear waste. And why not; the place doesn’t even exist after all. It’s the perfect little set-up for keeping your hands clean. As long as you piss on all the lampposts.

But despite these dark allegations, the murky political set-up, and the very fact the state doesn’t officially exist, the quality of life for those baggy-jeaned skaters in front of that Soviet tank seemed so much higher than on the other side of the Dniestr river, on the grim streets of Chisinau. The conclusions drawn from this are confusing. How can the standard of living be higher in this shady banana republic, than in either of the two real countries that surround it?

Or maybe it’s all much simpler. Maybe that fag-smoking Lada-driver pulled a pure Palin on me too.

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Roesy and The Belfies…

“I can’t have my photo taken with her. I can’t even be seen with her. We’re having an affair and her fella would kill me.”

I was out shooting people on the streets of Belfast. But in the contemporary sense of the word – armed was I only with camera. The idea was to ask people to stare straight into that camera for 60 seconds, while I filmed them.

The antidote to today’s instant ‘selfie’ method of taking portraits. ‘The Belfies‘, if you will…

When you’re talking about a minute, faces get tired. Smiles start to drop. But nobody scowled. It was all for the art. But sixty seconds seemed a bit excessive. Everyone involved was getting awkward.

Then the singer-songwriter Roesy contacted me. A fellow Birr Bog-Merchant, we’ve known each other years. Also a painter, we’ve done art shows together during Vintage Week in Birr. He consistently outsold me in our native town. Not that I’m bitter. I’ve moved on…

So after talking to my contemporary about a collaboration, I went out on the streets to get more “Belfies” for a music video for a track from his forthcoming album ‘Wolf Counsel’. This time around it was cold, and the Christmas market in the background at City Hall was ruining all my shots. Not that I’m bitter. I’ve moved on…

And just like the two nights I spent on the streets of Dublin sleeping rough a few months ago, I knew I had to bring some hardware. So like the last time, I bought twenty fags I’d no interest in smoking. Those essential ice-breakers that worked so well down on the cracked pavements of the capital.

Peddling ‘fegs’, as they call them up here. But I’m not pushing the benefits of respertory illness on anyone. Non-smokers – and children who haven’t decided yet – were obviously exempt. Ironically, a half-naked rugby team sung Christmas carols for a cancer charity behind me, as I filmed my ‘feg’ smokers in action.

As an unexpected result, the first cut of the music video looked like some form of pro-cigarette campaign. Not exactly what I was after. So I had to go out on the streets again.

Lurking around in the Christmas cold, camera and tripod at the ready. Waiting to find another victim to shoot. The obvious target was buskers. But Belfast is home to a breed of busking we don’t see quite as much of down south of the border.

Amped-up with the rest of the strummers and the drummers are a particularly persistent group of buskers. Out on those streets, armed to the teeth with leaflets and optimism. Busking the benefits of Jesus to anyone who’ll listen.

Usually I give them a good run-out – a pre-season practice match to exercise their miraculous patter on a potential convert. But this time I wasn’t biting. I wanted to avoid any sort of buskers – religious or otherwise – seen as this was a music video.

Until I saw an elderly American Evangelist I just couldn’t ignore.

This guy was something special. This guy was carrying a massive metal crucifix over his shoulder. With a little wheel on the end of its base, so it wouldn’t drag along the road as he lugged it around. Like those wheels you see on posh amputee dogs, when they’ve got no back legs.

He told me he’s been traveling across the world with this cross for the last 35 years. Spreading the good word. He had a leaflet, with pictures of himself – everywhere from the Soviet Union to El Salvador. Just him, and his cross. And his bank details. Mastercard or Visa, he was equal opportunities. Someone has to fund his global travel. And Jesus was never known for booking flights.

So after reading his leaflet, I asked him could I have a go on his cross. At first he wasn’t too keen, but my persistence convinced him. So he got out from underneath it, and placed it down on upon my shoulders. It was hollow and light-weight. For a crucifix….

I felt he was cheating a bit, between the dog-wheel and the light-weight frame. I told him I expected it to be heavier. He said it used to be heavier, but he had to change it, now he was over sixty. It reminded me of the bit in Only Fools and Horses, where Trigger gets an award from the council for using the same road sweeping-brush for twenty years. Then Trigger reveals that same brush has had eight new handles, and twelve new heads.

But Jesus or no Jesus, I was still short a few ‘Belfies’ for Roesy. So I went back out shooting people on the streets of Belfast. It was Black Friday, and people were getting arrested for boxing the heads off each other in supermarkets. The Peelers were all tooled-up with armed response units on the Ormeau Road. I never knew people took shopping so seriously.

The significance of Roesy’s song’s title only struck me while I was out there on those cold Belfast streets. His song is called ‘Learning to Crawl’, and maybe that’s what’s happening here now in this city. ‘The Belfies’ have been on their knees for forty years of chaos – the likes of which Roesy and I will never understand – coming from our cosy Vintage Week world of Midlands Ireland.

I keep wondering how the same project would’ve worked out in Dublin, where the Hipsters have no such sense of perspective to remove them from their own holes for a minute to the time for a quick laugh at themselves.

Because of all the people on the streets of Belfast I approached, only a few turned me down.

Not that I’m bitter. I’ve moved on. And to me, that’s what they’ve done here too, as far as my experiences shooting people on the street goes.

‘Learning To Crawl’ Roesy – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGCGNyIklIY&feature=youtu.be

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The Iron Man

Thatcher with crop4

http://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/the-iron-man-and-the-secret-he-hid-in-his-garden-shed-30585093.html – Sunday Independent article

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imbXyVa_BxU Official Trailer

https://www.facebook.com/MichaelThatcherFilm Official Facebook Page

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Escape to Mosney…

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The ha'Penny Hustlers

The Ha’Penny Hustlers

Feature I wrote originally published in The Sunday Independent after going ‘undercover’ homeless for a couple of nights on the streets of Dublin.

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Avoid the acid and lay off the pints (of milk)

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