Cork Chilli Company: Too Hot to Handle?

Cork Chilli Company is set to host its first-ever eating competition at its stall at Douglas Farmer’s Market, in aid of St. Vincent de Paul. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with company head Gary Barriscale about what potential contenders are up against, and SVP regional co-ordinator Gerry Garvey about the challenges the charity faces this winter.

It’s a novel idea, albeit one that resonates with both pop-culture kitsch and the county’s growing reputation for homegrown food production. A chilli-eating contest: competitors square up to the specialist produce of the Cork Chilli Company, a Douglas-based start-up, and test their mettle, as the heat intensifies with each round. It’s not for the faint of heart, or the weak of constitution, but oddly enough, Cork’s first chilli showdown, happening on October 6th at Douglas Farmer’s Market, is the product of popular demand. The company’s stall has been kept busy by the adventurous palates of the city’s foodie community, who called for the competition to take place.

Gary Barriscale is part of the team behind Cork Chilli Company, and while the idea is an opportunity for potential competitors to sample a wide range of palate-testing peppers, all proceeds from donations raised by entrants go to St. Vincent de Paul in Cork, a cause close to his heart, as his father was deeply involved in the charity’s activities in the city and county. “It was the obvious choice for our business. We grow more than forty different varieties of chillies here in Cork, so we have the means and raw material to be able to run the competition. Several of our customers had asked about doing one, and running it as a fundraiser seemed like a much better reason to put it on, rather than doing it just for fun alone.”

St. Vincent de Paul has been a source of support and help for people in need throughout the country for generations, assisting families and individuals through difficult times in their lives with the help of public donations. This winter poses the greatest challenge in a generation for the charity, as living costs skyrocket amid an unprecedented housing crisis, and weather events continue . Gerry Garvey, South West Regional Co-ordinator for St. Vincent de Paul, speaks on the importance of fundraisers like this. “We can’t help out people in need unless we get donations and fundraising coming in. It’s particularly important at this time of year, because we’re just into back-to-school costs, and with cold weather now, we’re going to have huge costs for heating, as well as our everyday costs. Now until March is an important time. People are struggling to pay mortgages and meet rental costs, especially people on welfare, which hasn’t risen in line with living costs. People are under immense pressure.”

Barriscale’s family connection to SVP informs his decision to run a fundraiser for the charity, but the other part of this story is also born from homegrown efforts, with the Cork Chilli Company quite literally growing from a window box. “The interest originally came in 2013, from a fascination with growing a few chilli plants on the windowsill at home. In 2014, I filled my window sills with chilli plants, and started a night-course in horticulture to learn proper growing skills. Around that time, I also became very interested in hydroponics. I found it fascinating, as it eliminates the traditional soil-borne challenges with growing, but it also adds many other challenges. In 2015, we built our first polytunnel in the back garden, and in 2016, with the help of some friends we built our first commercial-sized polytunnel. The number of plants has increased every year since then, and all are grown hydroponically. (The same year), we started developing our range of chilli sauces. We had just two to begin with. We also did our first farmers market on 1st of October 2016, selling sauces, fresh chillies and chilli plants. We moved to Douglas Farmers Market in December 2016, where we have been ever since. We continue to develop our range of products, and as of this week we have 8 different sauces, ranging from very mild to blisteringly hot, with several in between to cater for all tastes and heat preferences. We’re happy to keep things small for now, concentrating on growing quality chillies, and making high-quality, small batches of delicious sauces.”

There’s been plenty of interest in entering the contest, but as of yet, very few have been brave enough to line out. For those that fancy themselves brave enough to tuck into some speciality chilli – what exactly will be served up, and how will a winner be determined? “The contest will be run across a series of rounds, with participants able to withdraw at any stage. The chillies will begin at a mild heat, and will increase in heat, based upon the Scoville Scale of chilli-pepper heat as the rounds progress. Each contestant will receive a single chilli in each round, and will be required to eat the entire chilli but excluding the stalk. Chillies likely to feature in the contest will be Jalapeno, Ring of Fire, Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Ghost Chilli, Moruga Scorpion to name a few, and culminate with the world-record holding hottest chilli, The Carolina Reaper, if anyone makes it that far. The winner will be determined by being the last remaining contestant willing to continue in the contest. In the event of a tie, remaining contestants will be given an additional minute to consume as many chillies as possible, with the winner being the individual that consumed the most whole chillies in the time.”

So, with the gauntlet thrown down and the terms outlined, what’s the interest been like, and more to the point, in the spirit of good fun that events like this are about… what’s at stake? “Loads of people are interested in coming to watch, but what we really need is people to put their mouths where their money is, and enter the contest. The prize for the winner is incredible: a lifetime’s supply of bragging rights… and possibly a small trophy. All going well, we would like to make it an annual event, where the champion can defend that title again next year.”

Initiatives like this are a lifeline for St. Vincent de Paul, providing fun and unique experiences for people to partake in, that come from others’ passions and bring help local communities together for the cause. But with the challenges that lie ahead, fundraising is of utmost importance. Gerry Garvey explains how people can parlay their life’s loves into helping the effort. “Lots of people do fundraising efforts. Schools often do food and clothing appeals, we often have independent companies come to us and ask how to get involved. Our biggest fundraiser are our Flag Days, starting from October, through to the end of December. If people want to organise individual fundraisers, they can reach out to us and speak with our regional fund-raiser Anna McKernan, and lend a hand with our ongoing campaigns.”

Foróige Big Brother & Big Sister: “It Changed Me”

For over a decade, youth work organisation Foróige has been matching socially-minded working people with teenagers that can benefit from an hour or two a week of chat and collaborative activity. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with programme facilitator Sinéad Murphy, as well as programme siblings Martina Lyons and Jamie Halpin, about the project.

For youth work programmes all over the world, the idea of a ‘sibling’ programme has been a mainstay of their services. Pairing working adult volunteers with the experience of a lifetime with young people at a crossroads in theirs has long fostered mutually beneficial relationships, providing the young person with purpose and direction as they move forward with careers and study. On September 8th, Foróige in Cork City will provide training for prospective new big brothers and sisters for their programme, at the project’s headquarters on Watercourse Road. There, potential big siblings will garner experience on both informal and formal levels, regarding the place of their efforts in the wider world of social work in the city.

Programme facilitator Sinéad Murphy gives us some insight into the creation of the programme, explains how the idea found its way to Cork, and how it was implemented not just in the inner-city, but at Foróige clubs around the country. “It came from America, a programme that’s been running there for well over a hundred years at this point. We would have brought it in Ireland in the early-2000s. A pilot programme was set up in Galway in 2003, 2004. We’ve had it in Cork since 2007. The siblings will meet up once a week, usually for an hour or two, to go for a coffee and a chat, or do some fun activities. It’s a commitment for a year: based on studies here and internationally, for the best benefit of a programme for a child, it should be running for a minimum of a year. It’s not something you can dip in and out of – you’re making a commitment to this young person.”

For the programme itself, Foróige liaises with local community organisations and agencies to ascertain young people’s strengths, in order to match them with an adult that can help develop them further. “We don’t seek them out as such – they might come to us through an agency that refer them to us, they might be sent to us through school, through a parent or a youth worker. We have young people from all over the city and parts of the county – it’s not targeted areas, as we don’t want to stigmatise young people over where they’re from, we work with them on the basis of individual need.”

For Murphy, the programme’s reward is in seeing the results of matches, as bigger siblings spend time developing ongoing friendships and mentorships with their charges as their time in the programme moves on. “You can tell from seeing matches, you can see confidence and self-esteem building for a young person when they’re involved. I’ve clearly seen it, in my time working with people, I can see that change. Definitely, it’s very positive in terms of promoting school, and school completion, having a goal regarding what they’d like to do after second level… it definitely does work for young people in terms of development, goal-setting, and helping them with independence and decision-making.”

At present, the programme is in recruitment mode, as the number of children and teenagers seeking mentorship or being referred is beginning to surpass the number of adults currently able to commit. Murphy outlines how people can get involved, and what to expect at training on the 8th. “Contact us directly. We have a Facebook page now, ‘Big Brother Big Sister Cork’, and you can get in touch via our website. We arrange to meet people on an individual basis, where we would chat with them, explain what’s involved, and it goes from there. It’s a stringent recruitment process, because it’s a one-to-one situation, and we have to make sure they’re the right person for the role, really. Interviews, references, garda vetting, big-sibling training and child-protection training. It can be a lot more difficult also, to get male volunteers, but certainly, we’re always, always looking.”

Getting involved with the programme came along at the right time for Jamie Halpin, as his academic career in social work required something a little extra to ground him in his discipline. Working with young people helped broaden his understanding of the demands of his course and the work that would follow. “Originally, I was going to study Social Work in UCC. I met with the director, she recommended that I do some volunteer work before going into it, so that sparked my interest. I went to VolunteerCork on North Main Street, asked for some help with voluntary work, and the Big Brother/Big Sister programme was the one that appealed to me. I contacted them, had an interview with a case worker, and it went from there, and I haven’t looked back.”

Of course, it’s not just a one-way exchange. While the aim is to link up with young people and provide them with direction and encouragement, the perspective that such a relationship can bring to the big sibling bears much consideration, while the supports that are available to him via the programme have helped him in other ways. “Getting involved with the programme is one of the, if not the most, rewarding things I’ve ever done. For me, the main thing is it’s helped me become a far more responsible adult. Spending time with a young person on a weekly basis, biweekly basis, making sure that we’re both on time, because they’re younger, in their teens. Organising with them or a parent regarding where to meet. I always want to have something different, interesting or fun to do. I want to actively listen, then, I suppose, to anything that’s going on for them, good, bad, that’s big in their lives. It was a great way of improving my own socialising too. I’d moved around the country, so finding like-minded mentors (was a big help for settling back down).”

For Big Sister Martha Lyons, once the initial interviews and exams were all done with, the process of getting to work with young people on their personal development was a matter of drawing on her training. Getting herself in the right headspace to be a Big Sister was another matter. “I suppose, sticking with the same time every week to meet with your Little is important, or not going out the night before if you’re meeting your Little the next day. It’s something you do when you can schedule things around it so it doesn’t feel like a burden, you’re excited to do it.” Like Halpin, Lyons’ experience in the programme, working with young people and helping advance their development comes with the upside of getting their perspective, and depending on the young person’s willingness to share, getting into their interests. “I’m quite lucky I have a lot of nieces and nephews roughly the age of my Little, so it wasn’t completely alien. Our parents look at us and think everything we do is out there, but I’m just learning with K-Pop is, what all these PlayStation games are, and I don’t think I’m going to get my head around it! But if she’s interested in it, happy about it, that’s all that matters.”

Getting involved is, as stated, a commitment, and one that requires a lot of thought and planning on the part of potential Big Siblings. Lyons has words of advice for anyone considering giving their time and effort. “Do your research, get stuck in. There’s so much support, and Foróige are so good with support, always on call. Other than that, it’s all down to your Little, what she likes, what she doesn’t like. They will tell you, and you can trust them to tell you!”

For more information on the Big Brother/Big Sister programme, email brenda.keatingomeara@foroige.ie, check out https://www.foroige.ie/volunteer-enquiry, or find Cork Big Brother Big Sister on Facebook.

Cork City Ballet: “Never Use the Words ‘I Can’t'”

Over the last 25 years, Cork City Ballet has gone from strength to strength, hosting international superstars and bringing the genre’s classics Leeside. Ahead of the premiere of their new documentary ‘Breaking Pointe’ at the Opera House, MIke McGrath-Bryan speaks with director Alan Foley.

The arts are a labour of love, of this there is no doubt. Look at the city’s veterans, the people that have rowed in behind their passion, and laid the foundations for future generations to build on theirs, and you see an unswerving dedication to their work, inextricably tied with the city, building their artistic and facilitative identities in its venues and spaces. These same intangibles are evident as your writer sits down upstairs in Cork Opera House for a chat with Cork City Ballet director Alan Foley, as he casually discusses corralling over twenty-five years of archive material for ‘Breaking Pointe’, a documentary on the troupe’s development and milestones, co-produced with Frameworks Films. Premiering at the Opera House on September 11th, the documentary feature includes interviews, professional performance footage and never-before-seen audiovisual material.

For Foley, it certainly doesn’t seem so long ago since he made a break with the city’s musical establishment to do something new, a change borne of frustration and the need for a body to represent the city’s dance community on the world stage. “I was a dancer, myself. I got to dance with the legendary Joan Denise Moriarty. I came to her when she was older, and tired, I suppose, and it used to drive me bonkers, when I asked her, ‘please, may I do this, may I go to New York, or London, or Russia?’, and she’d say ‘no, you may not’. ‘Why?’. ‘You just may not.’ I put up with that for so many years, I could not be dealing with it and needed to do my own thing. I was always very sure from a young age that I wanted to be in the driver’s seat, so as a result, maybe out of ignorance, I did. So, I set up Cork City Ballet in 1991, and we had our first performance at the Everyman Palace in 1992, and it’s just gone from there… it feels like about five minutes ago, then I look at this lifetime it’s been, and I can’t believe how quickly it’s gone.”

Foley has choreographed and produced all of the troupe’s productions since its foundation, alongside a busy professional career, both as a dancer, and later on the boards of various ballet organisations around the country. One imagines the work/life balance has been a bit of a challenge to maintain. “Necessity. Bottom line. It had to be done. All the jobs, I’ve always done myself to save money, and the one thing I did learn from Moriarty was to never use the words ‘I can’t’. Don’t be coming to me with excuses. If you do have a problem, come to me with it, but come to me with five solutions, and we’ll pick one. So that’s what I’ve employed, even with the young dancers I teach today… I can’t stand bureaucracy, the bulls**t that goes with so much of the world today. ‘Oh, you can’t do this because Memorandum A, Subdivision Q, Article 13 states that the green form and the blue form have to be triplicated and duplicated, etc.’ Are you serious? I want to do a ballet! That kind of thing used to, and still does, drive me to distraction. I can’t cope with it, so I avoid people like that as best I can. I surround myself with doers. Anyone that causes grief, or isn’t willing to make the tea. I don’t care if you’re the prima ballerina or the cleaner, we’re all on the same train, and it’s worked!”

The City Ballet is well-known and regarded on the international stage, with dancers from all over the world coming to town for its productions, as well as to coach and hold seminars. As anyone in the arts will tell you, relationships are everything, and Foley has over the years made a virtue of building on international working agreements. “Very much of it comes from my training or upbringing. I was the youngest of eight kids, airs and graces weren’t tolerated by my parents or my family. Very often, in the arts and particular in the ballet world, the elitism is there. Maybe not so much now, thankfully, but I’m one of those people that believes ballet isn’t just for the privileged. Talent doesn’t have an address. And I bring that ethos into every part of my working life, as well, when trying to attract sponsors or patrons, because we don’t get Arts Council funding. There is a very good product, we deliver that. And if you have that you can go anywhere. You can do anything. Another thing I don’t do too often is dichotomise and politicise. ‘Here’s the ballet, if you like it, fine, if you don’t, that’s fine, too.’ It’s a bit like Picasso, he painted, ‘d’you like it or don’t you?’.”   

The troupe’s business model has increasingly included community and corporate patronage, which allows those involved to enjoy the benefits of supporting the troupe – DVDs, discounts on the door, etc. In an age of crowdfunding and collectivisation of resources, Foley is open about how this model has added to sustainability for the group. “Ballet is very expensive. The tutus that ballerinas wear can go for upwards of three grand. The pointe shoes that they wear, they can go for €100 per pair. They run through three or four pairs of them per show. That’s a lot of money just to make this happen. We’re very lucky over the years to have had some great sponsors, great supporters. The Irish Examiner, Evening Echo, RedFM, have all been brilliant. The Arts Council pulled all their funding in 2011, they don’t approve of us as they say we’re too old-fashioned. Heard that a thousand times before. Innovation is great, it has to come along, but you also have to respect the traditions. Ballet as a modern artform has been around for over 250 years, and will be there for the next 250. The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty. They’re all milestones, that great dancers are judged by. This is what I’m trained to do. I don’t want to bring swans in on horseback or in roller skates. I want to bring them in on pointe shoes! We’ve had a presence here for 25 years, we’re bearing the torch of Aloys Fleischmann and Joan Denise Moriarty before us, so there’s a very rich legacy, and the support we get every year is phenomenal. That’s how we survive.”

‘Breaking Pointe’ began production earlier this year, mining the troupe’s extensive and meticulously-kept archive, as well as engaging dancers and staff in new interviews. While the Ballet had chronicled itself in years prior in text form, the idea occurred to Foley amid unhappiness at how the history of dance had been documented prior. “I had gone to see another documentary about Joan Denise Moriarty, and I was appalled at some of the footage that was used. It was all very well to use old footage, but there was nothing new or progressive. Nothing young people can identify with, and go ‘oh my god, this is cool’. Young people see the fifties or sixties, and it means nothing to them. They can’t relate. Bring it into their world and let them have a look at beautiful dancers, doing beautiful things, to their kind of music. You’ll attract a new audience. And I looked at the archive we have, and I thought, ‘I want to do something different’, and show people what we have today. We are all only of our time. Moriarty had her time, she did things her way. This is my time, it’ll be over soon, and someone else will do it their way. You can only do what you can in your time, and make the most of that.”

While an extensive archive certainly expedited the process of production, the dig for material wasn’t without its surprises, especially when dealing with external footage and its owners. “There wasn’t much of a process as we have a huge archive. I knew we had it documented. I went to press clippings and marketing materials and they were all there. I had wonderful interviews with some of the dancers that we’ve had, big stars, from the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, the Royal Ballet in London, the Met in New York. I knew I had all of this. And then, in the last two years, there was much more footage. Backstage interviews, interviews with the public. But once I had started exploring, I found some real hidden gems that I’d forgotten about. RTÉ came in and filmed me teaching with the Kirov Ballet when they were at the Point about twenty years ago, there was stuff from TV3. So, I was able to draw on all that.”

It’s a tall order, really: the Opera House’s capacity is about 800, all-seated, a challenge for any promoter to sell out on the local level in the current climate. For something as otensibly niche as a historical treatise on local ballet, though, it seems an even heftier challenge, one for which the venue was only more than ready, says Foley. “The plan was to screen it in the Firkin Crane, the 250-cap theatre where we’re based, and do all our classes and rehearsals. When I was speaking to the CEO of the Opera House, Eibhlín Gleeson, she said ‘no, this is your performance home, you have a great following, you sell out every year, I think you should have it here’. I thought, ‘oooh, it’s very big, will we get an audience, what if we don’t’, etc. And she said ‘no, we’re gonna do it here, and that’s it’. So I went with her gut instinct on it, and I’m pleased to say tickets are selling very well. The company and myself are used to the venue, we’ve been here for many years, so it makes sense that the showing is here.”

With the first twenty-five years of the group’s history now comprehensively catalogued, it’s time for the group to look at the future, both in the short-term and as the arts scene in the city changes alongside the city’s expansion. “We have the premiere on September 11th. On Wednesday 12th, we’re straight into rehearsals for the Nutcracker, which opens at the Opera House on the 8th of November. Nutcracker is always a sellout. There are plans afoot for ‘Breaking Pointe’, to bring it to Irish Arts Centre in New York for a screening, to London, to Cannes. But for now, we’re just focusing on the premiere and, getting that over the line.”

‘Breaking Pointe’ premieres on Tuesday September 11th at 7pm at Cork Opera House. For more info on Cork City Ballet, check out corkcityballet.com.

Gender Rebels: Fighting for Visibility and Rights

Gender Rebels are a group dedicated to working on the rights of transgender, intersex and non-binary people in Cork City, negotiating obstacles both infrastructural and everyday, and providing an outlet for social events and peer support. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with chairperson Jack Fitzgerald.

With Pride month in the rear view mirror for another year, and celebrations around the country winding down, it’s easy to bask in the colour, pomp and circumstance that the weekend’s proceedings confer on the city. Inclusivity and visibility have traditionally been at the heart of Pride celebrations, stemming from its roots in civil rights protest. But with criticism mounting in recent times of co-option by major sponsors of the Pride movement, the importance of maintaining that visibility for the city’s LGBT* community on a day-to-day basis has been drawn into sharp focus. For transgender, intersex, non-binary and otherwise gender non-conforming individuals, representation and community has historically been of utmost importance in the absence of substantial infrastructural assistance, with this year seeing Dublin host Ireland’s first ever Trans Pride march.

Enter Gender Rebels, a group formed last year to provide peer support and social outlets with a distinctly Corkonian identity. For chairperson Jack Fitzgerald, being part of its foundation was about strengthening connections between people in the city. “The last peer support group in Cork had kind of wound down, and (advocacy group) TENI was looking for something to fill the gap. Just from other things, they knew who I was, called me and asked would I be interested in taking up the peer support group. From looking at what the support group did and the resources it had, I kind-of figured that I might as well do my own thing here, that wasn’t connected to any organisation. I thought that would give us more of a voice and more visibility.”

Last November saw the group’s inaugural AGM, at the Village Hall community venue on Patrick’s Quay. With the event’s agenda ranging from social events to addressing the wider infrastructural needs of Cork transgender, non-binary and intersex communities, reaching a consensus among members before settling on a mission statement was a considered process. “It took a while. When I set the AGM, the community was very dispersed in Cork, there wasn’t one epicentre for people. Loads of people are online, in online groups, that’s where we advertised it, we got the name out there, as well as networking with people we know, and we booked the space in The Village Hall upstairs for the AGM. It was surprisingly well-attended, about 50 people, which was absolutely fantastic. There, we just said what each wanted from the scene in Cork, what we were looking for, and then, from that, hearing stories. From there, I was able to pull together a steering group, we set it up and outlined the aims of our community, how to raise awareness, and then also to try and get better resources for ourselves here in the city.”

Among the key items on the agenda, and one that has defined the group subsequently, has been that of addressing the needs of the city’s community, in different ways. Recent years have seen an upsurge in national awareness of the issues facing trans, non-binary and intersex people, but on a local level, Gender Rebels have been putting in the work on educating others on the issues that affect people on a daily basis. “The big one is if you’re wishing to transition and get onto HRT, there’s no services in Cork for you. You have to go to either Galway or Dublin, and the waiting list for Loughlinstown in Dublin is twenty months. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get onto HRT after that time, either. They’re using a very outdated mode of care for trans people, they’re not applying themselves to the international standard, the WPAT. There’s a movement in Dublin, This is Me, trying to get the international standard of care brought in. The other issue is people don’t know. They don’t know what being trans is, don’t know what being intersex is. If you’re an individual trying to access a support or service, the people you’re dealing with don’t know what you are. That can be very difficult. People that are going to their GPs or their counsellors are often in the position where they are the educator, and that can be very difficult as they may not know everything themselves, but they are expected to. Other people may choose not to come out because of that, so they may use a service in the city and people may not know they’re trans because they don’t want to have that conversation.”

Among the biggest issues facing the community in Cork at present, is the coarsening of discussion on the topic of gender, thanks in no small part to the rise in agenda-driven online debate channels and personalities. Recurring jokes and memes belittling minority social groups have been a pillar of their online strategies, and Jack has seen the attrition on discourse in his everyday life. “You get the people that think this is some new fad that just came up, don’t realise there’s a history to it, thinking that it’s okay to have “debates” with trans, non-binary and intersex people. This could be a person just going about their day, and all of a sudden, they’ll meet an individual that has this pre-planned debate, made out in their head. You’d be, y’know, just trying to get your coffee. You don’t want to be debating if the ‘they’ pronoun is singular or not. I just want to have a coffee. You’re always expected to ‘perform’. Part of that is, as the gay and lesbian movements have picked up acceptance, visibility and allies, they’re no longer the ‘easy target’. Trans people are likely to be more vulnerable or isolated, so they might be an easier target for this stuff.”

Another stated goal for the group has been garnering better resources with which to work, and provide spaces for people from the community to meet up and support one another. The processes of dealing with officialdom and venues around the city have been relatively easy for the group, with goodwill being extended from different quarters. “It’s been very positive. I was volunteering with Cork Community Art Link, who are at the Lido (in Blackpool). I had asked them if we could avail of the space and they were more than happy to give us that space. So, while you do have those people online that are anti-gay, or anti-trans, the average person is more than willing to be accepting, almost like they can’t do enough for you, and it’s really been heartwarming to see that. People are really kind, or if they don’t know, say, the right way to go about things, they just ask questions like ‘how can I support you better?’, which is really encouraging. Interestingly, we have had difficulty in accessing (lesbian and gay spaces), but it is getting better. The Cork Gay Project has recently changed their remit to include trans men, which is really encouraging. Bi Ireland has been fantastic. I’m surprised by the amount of trans people in bi groups in Ireland. They’re an accepting space and they’ve made sure that they’re an accepting space.”

With the polarisation of online discussion and subsequent second-hand talk, it could be difficult for some people to know where to begin getting up to speed on matters pertaining to the city’s trans, non-binary and intersex communities. Discussion regarding preferred pronouns, gender identities and trans rights have come to the surface in recent years, but for Fitzgerald, knowing how to help starts with the everyday ways in which people interact and support each other. “The biggest one is, first and foremost, view us as human. There’s a lot of ‘othering’ that can happen. Some people can be so different to you, so out of your norm, that it’s easy to other them, but when you do that, you dehumanise them. Just realise that we are human and the vast majority of us want to live our lives. I’d be very unusual, by being very proactive and advocating for trans rights, but the majority want to live their lives and get on with things. The second one is, if someone has come out to you, and has changed their pronouns, to just respect those pronouns, try and use them. I know it can be difficult if you know someone for a long time to change to a new name and new pronouns, especially if it’s ‘they’ as a singular. It can a take to while to get used to it. If you do make a mistake, misuse pronouns, etc., what works best, I find, is to say sorry and move on. One thing that often happens is someone will get the wrong pronoun, and then spend the next half-hour saying sorry for it. It comes from a place of kindness… if it’s an accident, it’s an accident. It happens.”

Another pillar of the group’s remit is raising the local profile of the community in Cork, with this awareness feeding into the main aim of better resources and support in the city. To this end, creating visibility has been a major part of the group’s activities. “I think the mere fact that we exist has created a lot of awareness. I’m after getting phone calls or emails from people where a family member has come out, or they have a client who’s trans, and they go online because they don’t know anything about it, they Google it and they find us. We’re a place for them to ask their questions. Another one is having been involved in Pride this year, which allowed us to have our own trans event. In UCC, I’d do a lot of talks… when anyone calls us asking to do a talk, I’d always raise my hand. During the Repeal campaign, I was asked to provide my perspective as a trans person. Y’know, we have meetups and social events, we do so in public, to reinforce the idea that there’s nothing wrong with being trans. We can exist in public spaces. When we launched the group, a gay man came up to me and said he thought it was unusual that we would have gatherings in public. He said he knew two trans women that wouldn’t “pass”, didn’t ‘look’ female, and because of that they shouldn’t be out in public. It’s that kind of thing we want to challenge. We are as entitled as anyone to be in these spaces.”

While the social events include coffee gatherings, nights out and games nights in places like Tabletop and Barcadia, an important offering for the group is a closed-doors peer support group at the Lido, happening monthly. Provided is an accepting space for people to present themselves as who they are, with group discussions, workshops and changing facilities available. “Mainly, we meet up in cafes. It’s a lot more chill for people. If you saw us sitting around, you wouldn’t twig that we are trans, non-binary or intersex. We just look like everyone else. We get people that go to our peer support meetings, those are closed spaces, people can be ‘more’ themselves, can dress the way they want, act the way they want. Some people can be more reserved in public, depending on how ‘out’ they are and where they are in their transition. It’s a place to support each other, discuss their experiences. If someone is just coming out, don’t know where they fit, groups like this are very handy, they can hear stories, ask questions. Oftentimes, it’s the first space (people) have been in where they’re ‘out’, or the norm, they’re not ‘unusual’. And just to have that, where they’re not the different person in the room, can be very liberating.”

The group has come along in leaps and bounds, with another AGM due later in the year, advocacy work ongoing, and social activities planned throughout. Fitzgerald points to ongoing growth and hard graft. “To grow bigger, have more events. Weekly events. Down the line, our own centre or space. When you look at Belfast, they have the Trans Resource Centre there. Seeing what they’ve done up there, we’d love to have something similar up there, where you can get resources and info. Another thing is more of an online presence, at the moment, we’re all based on Facebook. We want to move from that to our own website, so that will be a resource to access, as people might be afraid of using socials, others might not know they’re out, etc. There’s a few other things lined up, but right now it’s about getting stable, growing and building our community.”

For more information on upcoming peer support groups and social activities, email genderrebelscork@gmail.com, or find Gender Rebels on Facebook.

Tour de Munster: “It’s Not Just About the Bottom Line”

As fundraising season is on for Tour de Munster, businesses and community groups around the county are doing their part. Ahead of this year’s cycle, Noel Doherty, Sean O’Riordan and Rose Murphy of Fitzgerald’s Solicitors get ahead of the peloton to tell Mike McGrath-Bryan about the route, the sights and the work it does for Down Syndrome Ireland.

It’s a trek that involves months of preparation, with twice-weekly training sessions placing participants in the right frame of mind for a physically demanding four days of cycling around the roads and byways of the province. And yet, the Tour de Munster, one of the pillars of the local fundraising calendar for businesses and community groups, is embraced by the people that partake and help make it happen, with proceeds going to Down Syndrome Ireland to assist their activities around the province, including Cork’s centres and facilities. It’s happening this year from August 9th to 12th, and among the businesses most intricately involved is Fitzgerald’s Solicitors, based out of Lapp’s Quay in the city centre, where three senior solicitors are among those that swap the suits and ties of legal life for compression shorts and indoor training. Gathered around the phone at their office, it’s clear that the excitement is building, as they discuss their internal fundraising efforts, as well as those happening around the county.

“We do a fun-run in September or October, in Mahon, usually and raise funds from that, everyone gets an hour on the bike, and we’re there for the day”, says Rose Murphy.  “I run the Facebook page for Tour de Munster, and get to share the events that people put on: there’s a lot of coffee mornings, and concerts, especially in rural or provincial areas, as we get a lot of cyclists from all over the six counties.” Noel Doherty, a veteran of the tour, interjects with stories of the firm’s own fundraising. “We’ve had a cake sale, we’ve made cakes and sold them to other businesses around our building. It takes a great collective effort for (groups around the city and county).”

The tour route, well-honed over the last number of years, is absolutely no picnic, and makes for the polar opposite of an office fun-run. Running 640km in total, the route takes cyclists around the counties of Munster, with more than a few hills along the way. Much to your author’s surprise, it’s an involved process to get in shape and focus, says Doherty. “It’s great because we would be regular attendees of Tour de Munster training in Cork, so all of the Tour de Munster cyclists in the area get together every Monday and Wednesday at 5.45 up at Harlequins, we go with Paul Sheridan, the organiser, and we cycle somewhere between fifty and seventy-five kilometres each. Paul organises a different route every single night. Lots of hills, great fun. You could leave the office with your head bent from dealing with cases and issues, and after half an hour of training, it’s fantastic, the wind has blown all the worries out of your head.”

Although the run of the ride is spread across four days, there’s no two ways around the fact that it’s a hard slog. Having taken on the Tour for the last eight years now, Noel Doherty is more than qualified to discuss the challenges that lie ahead, and advise potential riders on what to avoid. “Saturday is the most difficult and most enjoyable day. You move out from Tralee, out the Blennerville Road and take on the Connor Pass. If you have any wind against you, or rain, I tell you, that’s a really tough ride. But it’s fantastic, because the easy riders and the inexperienced would go up first, about thirty or forty-five minutes ahead, and then, the faster riders chase behind, and everyone congregates at the top. And then in the afternoon, the process is reversed: the fastest head away first from Torc Waterfall, and wait for the others at Moll’s Gap, for the last riders to come up. So it’s a real community.” Adds solicitor and cyclist Sean O’Riordan: “That day, we stop for tea in Killarney at Deenagh Lodge, a project run by Down Syndrome Kerry, an employment for adult and older people with Down Syndrome. It’s really fantastic.”

By the same token, the Tour offers a look at the province’s formidable countryside, and the many views and natural wonders along the way. But for those partaking over a number of years, these are far from the only highlights of taking to the road, according to Murphy. “Just the effort that people from different branches of Down Syndrome Ireland put in to be on the road and cheer us on. They’re out there, they organise every stop and break, and they’re there to meet us. We may not see them again ‘til the following year’s Tour, but it’s a special effort they make to support us.” Doherty chimes in on the effect this support has on riders. “They have different signs on the road, blowing their horns, welcoming us, and the support that you get, really picks you up. You could be very wet and tired, sore, but you’re meeting local families, and they’re there thanking you for the effort.” O’Riordan proposes that the finish is the highlight, but perhaps not for exhaustion reasons. “Patrick’s Hill is an iconic location, you’ve done another tour, been through all the hardship, and for the big crowd and the Barrack Street Band to be there, it’s an unreal experience.”

For Rose Murphy, the benefits of the Tour de Munster and its fundraising drives are more keenly felt: her nephew Finn avails of the local services of Down Syndrome Ireland, and the impact that its local activities have had for her and others’ families and friends is profound. The collaboration of businesses and community organisations to support Down Syndrome Ireland, meanwhile, has meant the expansion of its services in many areas. “The Down Syndrome centre in Cork is very involved in bringing their members along, and one example that I can work from is Finn. He’s just turned nine, and he’s still in mainstream school. His speech wasn’t great, but because of the services of the Down Syndrome centre… they offer half-price speech and language classes in Centre 21, and my sister and brother in law avail of that every two weeks. I’ve gone to the service with Finn and the words are just flowing out of him. They have to take credit for that and right away I can see where my fundraising is going. It’s very hard to keep going back, asking for money, but when they meet Finn and see how he’s progressed, and that’s one-hundred percent Centre 21.”

While it’s important to muck in with Down Syndrome Ireland by supporting your local Tour de Munster fundraisers, those that need its assistance all year ‘round will tell you that there are plenty of ways to get involved with their centres, projects and facilities. “People can contribute in terms of sponsoring and cycling in Tour de Munster, and spreading the word. Other than that, there are projects like the Field of Dreams, next to the greyhound track, designed to provide activities, training and gainful employment for adults with Down Syndrome. It’s a huge horticultural project with a lot of effort put into it by Down Syndrome Cork, whereby we have a two-acre site, with training facilities, catering facilities and offices”, says Doherty. Polytunnels and raised beds, with a lot of people involved in the horticultural project there. People can volunteer there, whether it’s planting or weeding, and that’s a huge support as well.”

As the city centre’s commercial landscape continues to shift amid change and regeneration, the importance of charity to keeping local, Cork-owned businesses involved in the community cannot be underestimated. Social responsibility will be the key to maintaining ties to the city as change continues to make its way outwards over the coming years and decades, says Doherty. “I think it’s vital. Programmes like these vital because they raise the morale, they bring people together, and allows employees to identify with their industry. Like on the Field of Dreams, companies will sponsor their employees to go out and volunteer, doing a particular project, and at the end of the day they can see that they’ve worked hard and the produce they have at the end of the day. The company makes a contribution, the employees go back and talk to other employees. People like to see that there’s a social benefit and that it’s not just about the bottom line.”

Franciscan Well Fem-Ale Festival: “The First Measure for More Involvement”

With craft beer now firmly at the heart of pubs and venues around the country, women are staking their claim in a rapidly-changing business. Enter the Franciscan Well’s Kate Clancy, who’s spearheading the first all-women craft beer festival on August 10th and 11th. She tells Mike McGrath-Bryan about the idea and how it happened.

The rise of craft beer over the past five years or more has been inexorable: local and regional breweries have become part of the national retail landscape, while home-brewed options have made appearances on taps around the county alongside the brewery giants. Since its takeover by Molson Coors, the Cork-based Franciscan Well has been at the vanguard of this insurgency, leveraging the increased distribution at its disposal with a unique offering of specialty beers and ales, countering the craft-branded alternate offerings marketed to casual drinkers by its parent company’s rivals. It’s against this background of innovation and growth that the latest initiative undertaken by the brewery’s pub emerges: Fem-Ale festival, happening on August 10th and 11th at the quayside superpub.

Talks, musical performances, panels and even Saturday morning pilates sessions make the event’s first annual excursion, which aims to open up the conversation around gender equality in craft brewing, according to the venue’s marketing head, Kate Clancy. “I’ve been working in the Franciscan Well now for three years as their marketing manager. Over the past three years, I have been attending and running beer festivals in Cork. Most events I attend, I normally would end up being the only female attending. This was very noticeable at our last festival, the Spring Beer Festival, which is Ireland’s longest running beer festival. I felt that there has to be women in Cork that are interested in Craft beer but may not feel comfortable in attending these events. I wanted to share with people just how welcoming the beer industry is to everyone, and showcase the women that have been part of the success of the industry in Ireland. Also a female-led beer festival hasn’t yet been held in Ireland, and considering we are celebrating our twentieth year brewing, and that it is The Year of the Woman, I thought, ‘why not do something different?’.”

She might just have a point – craft alcohol has something of a boys’ club around it, but the task of finding other brewpubs and home breweries led by women wasn’t the challenge Clancy quite had in mind, either. “It’s been amazing. It’s snowballed! Once I got in touch with one woman, they were very quick to mention another woman working in some aspect or other of the beer industry, and everyone has helped me to put the list of attendees together (specifically) to ensure no-one was left out! It’s been a pleasure of a festival to organise.”

In terms of the layout of the event, how does it break down between tastings and panels/discussions, and regarding the latter, how were themes agreed upon and reached? “Like all our beer festivals, we will have a bar with over twenty taps set up in the beerhall. Of course all beers that will be pouring will be beers that have been brewed by women. At this stage, I have over thirteen Irish brewers, which is a lot more than what I thought I’d get! As the festival is focused on showcasing women in the industry, the talks will play a major role over the weekend. They’ll start on Friday evening with Melissa Cole, followed by a panel discussion with brewers like Kinnegar Brewing’s Rachel & Libby, and West Kerry’s Adrienne. The talks will resume on Saturday at 2pm, and will be a combination of panel discussions of brewers, journalists, graphic designers, marketers, Christina Wade, the founder of the Ladies’ Craft Beer Society of Ireland, and Edana Hinchy, director of the Craft Brew Labs. There is no specific theme for the speeches, as all the women are coming from different backgrounds. The idea is for them to share their experiences in the industry, and also shed some light on how to get involved.”

The guest of honour is journalist, sommelier and food expert Melissa Cole – a pioneering professional who has blazed a trail for women in specialist service industries. Her importance as a gala headliner, for lack of a better term, cannot be underestimated, especially as part of the festival’s first year. “First off, we couldn’t run a Female festival without asking Melissa, she has done amazing work and is an inspiration to any woman in the craft beer industry. Melissa has been fighting against sexism in the beer industry for twenty years now, and it is an honour to have her speak, and share her experiences at the festival. Everyone is looking forward to meeting her, especially me!” Part of the event’s remit is reaching out to women who would like to be involved with the craft beer industry. Outreach measures are being taken at the event, and followed up on after by the brewery, in addition to the given networking opportunities such an event possesses. “I would hope that the event itself is the first measure to get more women involved, especially in Cork, and again the talks might inspire! I am hoping to run a series of follow-up events after the festival, e.g. tasting nights and tap takeovers. Christina has set up the Ladies’ Craft Beer Society of Ireland, which is based in Dublin, so I’m hoping to set up a Cork based one after the event. I will also be collecting emails over the weekend (and getting in touch).”

That spirit makes its way down to the entertainment on offer across the weekend, as the stage is set for some of Cork’s busiest musicians to showcase themselves and their work. “On Friday night, we’ll have Christiana Underwood and friends taking to the stage, with soul & reggae music. Saturday from 3pm, we’ll have member of local band She Said, and Saturday at 8pm, all-woman vocal trio Koa, off their residency at the Bridge pub on Bridge Street. All females, and all Cork-based!” As the Fran Well looks set to continue a national expansion that has seen its cans land on supermarket shelves and at festivals & events all over the country, the pub where it all started on North Mall continues apace, and preparations are in place for a special anniversary later this year. “We can’t say much about it just yet, but our biggest event to date will be in November, as we’ll celebrate our twentieth birthday. Watch this space.”

Brickx Club: “We Try and Keep It Ethical”

Next month sees the Radisson Blu Hotel play host to a special Corkonian edition of Brickx Club, a regular event for Lego lovers of all ages with its roots in education and therapy. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with co-founder Kathy Lambkin ahead of the event.

Whether you’re an old-fashioned six-prong bricklayer, a Technic connoisseur, or a current-day youngster engrossed in seeing your pop-culture heroes recast in an infinitely destructible world, there’s little denying the cross-generational appeal of Denmark’s number-one cultural export: the humble yet seemingly ubiquitous Lego. An institution that has thrived over the years from the simple idea of allowing children and adults to develop their coordination and push the boundaries of their imagination, it’s little wonder that the line has stood the test of time. From down-to-earth playsets, allowing children to fabricate castles and police stations, to providing the building blocks for satire in many official film and TV spin-offs, Lego has moved with the times, and provides a perfect happy medium for generations of families at playtime.

It’s this time that former teacher Kathy Lambkin shared with her young son that led her to innovate Brickx Club, and put the pieces together on a social space geared toward developing trainee builders’ skills and perceptions. “I’ll tell you, I fostered a little boy named Leo. He has a club foot, so he couldn’t do anything ‘physical’, so we had to find some entertainment, and that happened to be Lego. I was a montessori teacher at the time, and whatever I did with him, I did at school, and they just loved it. And when they went on to primary school, and I’d meet them, they’d go, ‘oh, nobody ever does any Lego with us’. So, I said, ‘d’you know what, we’ll try it’, and I set up a club in Trim, at the school, and it was jam-packed from the minute I opened the doors. Then I had various friends approach me to say ‘whatever you’re doing, this is good’. So I trained a few of them up and they went off to their own areas. I went and did a Start Your Own Business course, because it was getting that way, and I now have twenty-eight running their own, a licence kind of thing. We try and keep it ethical, and make sure that as many people as possible have children, and many of them have children with autism. So, it means that they can have a job, run clubs, have a few quid and (balance that with family).”

From a single primary-school club to training in twenty-eight coaches around the country, it’s been a period of rapid growth for Brickx Club. Lambkin explains the process of laying foundations for aforementioned growth and how people can empower others in the process. “What I did was, I went over to Copenhagen and trained, I did a thing called Lego Serious Play. It’s a whole system of Lego that teaches people to think for themselves, and problem-solve. It’s for everyone, a lot of the people there were businesses going team-building, but I adopted it montessori-wise. I also went to the UK and did Lego therapy, with a girl over there who’d done a PhD, Dr. Gina Gomez. It’s for kids on the spectrum number one, but now it’s huge, I use it to help advance language skills, speech therapy. It’s so good, a very simple approach where you break it down, back to its basics. I teach kids how to put bricks together. I had a session there yesterday where I showed the kids how to make a basic tower. Sometimes it takes a few sessions, but you see it, and they really, really learn properly, y’know.”

The same school of thought applies to the idea of Brickx gathering around the country as destination events – creating a format, looking for venues and garnering momentum behind extracurricular Lego play presented challenges, but none that couldn’t be overcome by the medium’s inherently social nature, and the impetus to raise funds for wider causes. “I have two kids that we fostered, so we’re used to shenanigans, and we’ve been to refugee camps in Greece, giving Lego mini-figures out ‘cause we heard they had no toys. I run a charity called International Orphan Aid Ireland. We’re going twenty-six years now, we work to bring medical and dental treatment over to (rural areas and islands there). So we’re raising money for that, and for local charity Bumbleance. It’s a good way of fundraising, as it involves fundraising, and we’d have a huge contingency of kids from the special schools come as well, in the locality. It’s a great weekend out, and there’s a huge adult community, brick.ie, and it’s a great showcase for them.”

This August 25th and 26th, the Radisson Blu Hotel plays host to the Brickx Club Festival, with ten ‘zones’ set up for kids to get to work on, from tables and classic playsets to literal Lego pits, into which kids can hop and get started. Even on this aspect of setup and production, the thought and consideration required is quite something. “All those Lego guys, they’re a separate package, find out who’s going, and we provide them a room, look after transport, etc. Brick.ie are charitable as well, so we host them, have a night out, etc. They’re serious, and need a whole day of set-up, there’s going to be a big turnaround, and we’ll be ready. But in my home, I have a store room, full of Lego, and I have it set up in a way that we’ll have several vans pull up in the drive and take away containers of Lego, sorted into, y’know, Ninjago Lego, architecture Lego, etc. all divided up, and tonnes of bricks for the pits. We’ve done it a few times now, so we’re well able for the set-up!”

A native Corkwoman herself, with a penchant for coming home to spend family time on Fountainstown beach, Lambkin has made the effort to reach out not only to families and Lego social groups nearby, but also the known community of adult Lego enthusiasts, in order to showcase their creations and pass on their experience to enthusiastic young builders. When asked for the scoop on their show-stealing creations, however, Lambkin tells us that they’re keeping schtum. “They’re reluctant to talk about them! A lot of these people don’t like bringing the same thing twice, so a lot of these would be new builds. They’d send me a press release with a few words and a picture, perhaps. But there’s a very big community in Cork! We’ve quite a lot of teenagers. I work in Castlemartyr, Bandon, all over the place, and there’s a good mix of people out there, a big population involved in Lego.”

The event is priced for groups and families specifically, with tickets going five-for-40. It’s a staple of event marketing: get the kids, you get the parents. But what is the importance of family participation in the event? “It’s a family event, and we have drop-off workshops. But we find parents that will come in, have a cup of tea, we’ll turn around and five minutes later they’ll be on the floor playing with Lego (laughs). Every big event like this, they have to be for families. They love it. We have one family that comes to everything we do. They come from Palmerstown in Dublin, and they plan out everything around these events. I have tonnes and tonnes of (specialist) bricks that some of these builders just love to get their hands on!”

After a period of rapid expansion, the bricks are coming into place for the Brickx Club, with business about to pick up exponentially. Lambkin takes a breath before going into the details. “We’re going bigger in September. I have two girls with me now that are going to help us go countrywide. We’ve all these people and we’re hopefully going to take on another thirty. We know we’re ready. If we can keep it… we know it’s commercial, but the plan is for people to work in special schools, we’re kind-of all inclusive, and that’s the way we want it. That each person would do a bit of charity work, or special stuff in their own area.”