Starry nights

This striking NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image captures the galaxy UGC 477, located just over 110 million light-years away in the constellation of Pisces (The Fish)

Wilderness Ireland tells us that on a clear night you can see over 4,000 twinkling stars, planets such as Venus or Jupiter and even meteor showers with the unaided eye. Such viewpoints are up to 40 times darker without the intrusion of city lights.

But we must not take this celestial joy for granted, as scientists warn that by the time a child born today reaches adulthood, they will see fewer than half the stars visible to them today.

These lines from an Irish Examiner editorial this week are quite sobering but it’s something I’ve experienced in my own not-quite 40 years on this blue dot hurtling through space.

I grew up at a glorified crossroads and don’t remember many streetlights, if any, though there were possibly some in a group of houses nearby. It was dark enough that as a family we could sit out at night and watch meteor showers from a bench in the garden. That, I remember, was a very cold night but it was still a wonder to just stare up at the night sky and see the streaks of light. And when there weren’t meteors there were simply the stars to look at.

We moved to a more urban area when I was 12 or so and as time has gone on the skies I’ve lived under (Waterford, Abu Dhabi, various places in Cork) have been more brightly lit and cluttered.

But one counter moment stands out. In a previous life, an academic life, I spoke at various conferences and symposiums on medieval studies (I will eventually get around to publishing some of those old papers here). One was hosted at Glenstal Abbey in Limerick. This may seem like an odd place to have a medieval symposium but some of the brothers there are experts on various aspects of medieval history. The silent lunch was weird, plenty of clattering cutlery while a monk read a homily in the corner, but I digress.

Statue of St Benedict at Glenstal Abbey. The monks there follow his rulebook

We stayed overnight and, as you do, wandered down as a group to a pub nearby. Although when I say “nearby” I mean “a fair walk away”. Our contingent stayed out beyond the curfew before walking back to our rooms.

We had arrived there while there was still some daylight. We left there in pitch darkness.

But the stars, dear reader. For the first time in I don’t know how long there were absolutely no streetlights or house lights to interfere with the stars. It was like seeing them for the first time, thousands and thousands of them. It was like having your soul refreshed.

When my wife and I moved to our house in an estate outside Cork City, we did, for a time, have a clearer sky. We lived in an unfinished part of the estate and there were no streetlights, so we could see a great many stars or planets looking out. They’re mostly gone now though. The estate is finished, and with it comes strong lighting. An enormous housing estate has been built in what were once fields wrapping around ours, blasting various shades of light into the cosmos as we constantly try to show mastery of the world by pushing back the dark.

Now, on a good night, you can still see some of the constellations, such as Orion, but the general milieu is more or less hidden. I hope some day to be able to stand out on a dark night and recapture that sense of wonder, a sense I detect in my children. We can but hope.

Bloodbath in Brussels

Bloodbath in Brussels front page

It seems almost a lifetime ago, but in March 2016 Belgium was hit by bombings in Brussels Airport and on the metro. More than 35 people died, including three suicide bombers, while hundreds were injured. The trial only opened in December.

We were going big on it. Europe was already on alert after the Paris attacks and the Bataclan theatre, and there was a definite sense of edginess. We knew Irish people had been in the area in Brussels, which at the end of the day hosts the headquarters of the EU. I remember coming into work with half a concept of a page in mind. Or a vague idea anyway. Some of the details of the attacks had been out for a few hours; it was clear even then that there had been significant loss of life and a huge number of injuries. I wanted to do something that conveyed the horror of it, but also the human cost.

One of the first things I did after starting work was trawl through all the images we had available. I don’t remember how many there were. Presumably dozens. I knew I was looking for something particular. I just didn’t know exactly what it was, until I saw the picture I ended up using.

This was the very first time I asked to drop the ad off the front page. I mocked up a concept to show the editor at the time, Tim Vaughan, because I knew it would be easier to make that argument if he had something in his hand as opposed to words coming out of my mouth. The image was powerful but not powerful enough if it had to accommodate a 20cm, three-column ad. Or not as powerful as it could be anyway.

At the time I wasn’t even the main front page person (I had done plenty, though) but Tim, to his credit, understood what I was trying to achieve and made the arrangements to go ad free. The result is what you see above.


The covid lockdown in 2020 got me thinking about exploring other interests, or pursuing interests I had put on the back burner. One of these was taichi, which I knew some basic stuff about and had been aware of since my dad came home with a book about it far too many years ago than I’d like to think about. He never practiced it and I’m not sure how he got a hold of the book to begin with (or even where it is). But a combination of ongoing stress along with the need to move and simply do something physically saw me rifle through my bits and pieces.

I had picked up a cheap book/DVD combination at some stage but never actually done much with it. I had definitely tried the DVD at some stage because I remember finding it had to get a grip on what I was supposed to do. And then life, as it so frequently does, moved on and I forgot about the whole thing. Until lockdown. And suddenly I had a little bit more time to pause and reflect.

Youtube was my friend here (it was still a while before I did much with the DVD) and I explored a few basic moves and drills to see if it was either doable or indeed vaguely enjoyable. And it was, much to my delight, as it had been a while since I’d picked up a hobby.

Then, unexpectedly, while searching for beginner taichi stuff I came across qigong videos. I didn’t know anything about, though I know now it’s one of if not the most commonly practiced fitness thing in the world, and that taichi is a strand of it. Oblivious I was at the time though. In the end I did a Lee Holden five-day challenge and now I’m low key mad about it even though I don’t practice it anywhere near enough.

At its most basic it’s a form of moving meditation, where you synchronise your breathing and movement to reduce stress and develop mobility. There are plenty of opportunities for isometric holds (like in yoga; they both seem to have a similar root, tao yin). Lots of people practice it as a form of energy healing (qi meaning energy) but that’s not me. I can say, though, that at one point during lockdown I was crippled with back pain and that qigong movements freed it up and got me moving again. Generally I find the slow movement and deep breathing help clear my head or moments of stress.

This is the video that triggered my love affair with qigong, a routine done by a former Shaolin monk who lives in… Wicklow. I had to check that out twice when I came across him because I was sure that couldn’t be right. But it is, and he is a lovely man with a very good training business. The routine below is one of the most popular sequences in qigong, and there are many variations in it because there are about 3,000 types of qigong.

I still don’t do the taichi forms, mostly because I don’t have that sort of patience but also because I like improvising a bit. Qigong lets you do all sorts of movements repetitively and they may, or may not, be in a prearranged sequence. This makes it good for beginners but also lets you experiment better with what does or doesn’t work for you.


This is one of the most important projects I’ve worked on, probably ever, and it was certainly one where we couldn’t afford to get something wrong in tone or treatment.

Bessborough was one of the most notorious mother and baby homes – where hundreds of children died over nearly 80 years, and where the resting places of 859 have never been found – and is in the Examiner’s heartland. This page was planned about a week in advance of the publication of a government commission into mother and baby homes nationally. Or begun, at least.

The general concept became clear almost immediately – how else could you commemorate the deaths of hundreds of children without putting their names front and centre? We had different options: Just the names with the years and dates, or the names with years, dates, and cause of death. Even a quick draft with the latter showed that it was too much information and it took away from the names, so that concept was dropped.

It was a rare case where I suggested dropping ads off the front page. It made sense given what we were trying to achieve. There were 13 or 14 variations in the end, many with only slight differences in things like opacity of the text frame sitting on the image by Larry Cummins. There were different crops of the image, there were a couple of versions with the image in black and white, and various measures of leading and kerning to balance fitting everything without making the names too small.

The response to this was overwhelming, and not only did it get picked up internationally but it was projected on a grand scale as part of an art installation to honour the survivors of mother and baby homes across the country.