Pyrrhic Victories

On Saturday morning, Ireland beat New Zealand, in New Zealand, for the first time ever. It was the second Test of a three Test series. In the first Test, the All Blacks had won convincingly, on the scoreboard at least, and the commentator was ringing alarms bells about how badly this series could turn out for Ireland.

It was lazy commentary, in my view. He was commentating on the score, and not the game. In the game itself, Ireland made a few critical errors, and seemed to switch off for ten minutes or so in the first half. NZ also got away with some stretching of the laws of the games. They usually do. Most teams do, to a degree, but NZ are perhaps the most adept at getting away with it. They are also more adept than most teams in the world at punishing sides for mistakes, and clinically taking any chances that are presented, and they did this, and scored some good tries.

But aside from the lapses which cost Ireland a couple of tries, they caused NZ problems with the variety of their attack, scored three tries of their own, and were held up over the line on another couple of occasions. The final scoreline of 42-19 didn’t so much flatter NZ as it was harsh on Ireland, but was a true reflection of the ability of each team to take their chances.

In the second Test, Ireland were out of the traps quickly and scored first, as they also had the previous week, but this time didn’t cough up easy tries. What the first half was most notable for, however, was a lack of discipline from New Zealand. They had one player red-carded for a head collision with Garry Ringrose, which certainly looked accidental, but fundamentally was due to bad tackle technique. They had another player yellow-carded (which entails ten minutes in the sin bin) for connecting his shoulder with Mack Hansen’s face, and—frankly—he should also have seen red.

Ireland went on to win the game 23-12, quite deservedly, for an historic first ever win on New Zealand soil.

And although I was overjoyed with this result, I found myself wondering later if it was really worth it. As I saw Garry Ringrose departing the game, and various other players from both sides going off for head injury assessments (HIAs) throughout the game, I wonder at what cost are rugby match victories being bought?

The number of HIAs in this game was far from unusual. It’s a common occurrence in every rugby match—every international match at least. And so I have to ask—is it worth it? I love sport. I love rugby. But are the long-term effects on the players a price worth paying for sporting success/gratification in the short-term?

Jonny Sexton, an experienced and world-class player who seems to be pivotal to Ireland’s success, failed an HIA during the first Test and was taken off. He was declared fit for the second Test, and murmurs abound as to whether he should have been, given the time it takes to recover from a concussion. I wonder, personally, if the decision to play him was taken in the best interests of his health, or Ireland’s chances, or sponsors’ wishes.

In the middle of a Test series, that—because of Ireland’s win—has now taken on a greater degree of importance for both teams than it might have if New Zealand were 2-0 up, it’s perhaps hard to step back and look at the bigger picture. But the bigger picture, in this case, is the long-term health of guys who are repeatedly taking knocks to the head, and the long-term prognosis for that is not good. And the long-term importance of this series is, honestly, not that great. Sure, the squad that won the second Test will probably get together again for a commemorative dinner in ten years’ time. And if Ireland go on to win the series, the team will “always be remembered” for that accomplishment. In a sporting context, it would be an immense achievement, and worthy of being lauded. I just wonder if—because of the inherent violence of the sport—the result is worth the price being paid.

Because I fear NZ’s response in the third Test, with the series on the line. The “series” is not a Championship, there probably is some random silverware at the end of it, but it’s a bilateral series, and so—in the context of the global game—not that important. However, for New Zealand—a team and a country that is not used to losing—another defeat would be potentially catastrophic for the team coach and management. The ABs have now lost three out of their last four Test matches, to Ireland, France, and now Ireland again.

I fear not their sporting response, although it’s not impossible they will go up a gear and play Ireland irrepressibly off the park. This is what we have come to expect from the All Blacks over the years.

I fear the violence of their response. New Zealand are not sporting losers. The desire to win, and the desire to not lose a series to Ireland—a team who until only a few years ago they had never lost a game to—could provoke an ugly reaction.

In early November 2016, Ireland beat the ABs for the first time ever, in Chicago. Two weeks later, New Zealand came to Dublin, and “beat Ireland up” in a return fixture, featuring off-the-ball cheap shots and a high degree of thuggery. They prevailed on the scoreboard as well, which they may well have done in any case, but I lost a degree of respect for them that day.

I seriously hope that the final game of the series will be a fitting sporting climax—two excellent teams pitting their skills and wits against each other for eighty minutes. But I fear that instead we might see a cynically violent response, even more head injuries, and the very definition of a pyrrhic victory, for either team. 

Competitive camping and raw worship

I put it to Ickle Bef that I couldn’t quite recall if I had packed my tent.

– “That’s ok,” she reassured me. “You can sleep in the lee of mine.”

What a generous offer. IB’s tent was so tiny as to afford lee to perhaps my lower shins.

Having not over-communicated with each other in the run-up to this camping odyssey, the duplication of camping items did indeed turn out to be significant. Ickle, of course, had to turn it into a competition.

– “Did you bring saucepans?” I wondered.
– “Yep.”
– “Kettle?”
– “Of course.”
– “Washing up liquid?”
– “Absolutely.”

She took a narrow lead by destroying me in the “out-of-date food” micro-category. Given the questionable nutritional quality of out-of-date food, and its danger to our health on a trip already fraught with danger, being in the wild outdoors, only a narrow lead could be awarded.

– “Hand gel?”
– “Yeah.”
– “Cereal??”
– “Mmm hmm.”
– “Yup!”

– “Chopping board?” she enquired.

Dang. I was now slipping behind to the tune of one chopping board and a few past-their-sell-by-date items. Time to play my trump card.

– “Black pepper?”

Her face fell. Triumphantly, I applied the coup de grâce.

– “PINE NUTS?!?”

Her shoulders slumped. I dialled for my smuggest expression.

Then she produced the fairy lights.


Game, set, and match.

I set about that evening’s pasta dinner with one of the sporks I had on loan from Wiseman. In a misplaced attempt at being grown-up, I initially attempted using the -ork but quickly realised that the sp- was much more efficient.

We returned to our tents after the evening session. They were easy to find, being the only ones in the whole field with fairy lights entwined around the guy ropes.

It was a cloudless, starry night. I might have paused to appreciate the grandeur and majesty of creation, but it was baltic. The mercury plummeted to 7C that night. That’s only 2 degrees warmer than a fridge.

Saturday morning I queued for the use of one of the four showers available to the several hundred campers. It was, I discovered, one of those showers with binary water temperature settings. I spent a few minutes, shivering, with hand held under the freezing water, until it warmed up slightly. Stepping properly into the flow of water, I realised it hadn’t actually warmed up – my hand had gone numb and couldn’t feel the cold any more. The rest of my body could, however.

I jumped back out. A few seconds later, it did warm up. I jumped back into the stream and started lathering up. At which point the temperature shot straight through Comfortably Warm like an express train through a rural station, and onwards to Scalding Hot. Fast enough to be one of those French trains. I jumped out again. Fiddled with the dial. No effect whatsoever.

Eventually the temperature train, maintaining its enigmatic French unpredictability, came back the other way, entirely of its own volition and at a time that suited it, and not me, and in the few seconds it took to rocket through Comfortably Warm I managed to rinse off most of the lather.

Ickle Bef and I breakfasted in the sunshine that day.

The following morning, we breakfasted in a steady drizzle. Sitting with one’s back to the drizzle direction, with one’s rain jacket hood up, one can get quite effectively drenched before one realises one is wet at all.

As the drizzle intensified, we packed up our arsenal of camping stoves and retreated damply to the coffee shop, with its array of sizeable traybakes. Anyone who’s been to Northern Ireland, or been hosted by a Northern Irish hostess*, will surely be aware of the Province’s not-unwarranted reputation as producer of the world’s best traybakes.

(*I apologise for any perceived sexism there, but let’s be fair, the astonishing quality and volume of Northern Ireland’s traybake output can not be attributed to N Irish men.)

This cafe was determined to not only maintain, but enhance, Northern Ireland’s reputation. I passed by the giant muffins, and the titanic caramel squares, and enquired as to the ethnicity of the enormous scones. Two types, I was told. Strawberry, and Mars Bar.

I leaned in, and cupped my ear.

– “What did you say?”
– “Mars Bar.”


We spent a great deal of time at the weekend, Ickle Bef and I, along with several hundred others, worshipping our hearts out in a big tent.

I spoke on childlikeness a few weeks back at my church, and this weekend I learned a bit more about it. Or at least, I learned something about the practice of it. Practical learning is the best learning, I reckon. This mostly looked like me dancing like a complete loon in worship. This is not something I’ve historically embraced, having preferred to value my dignity.

Dignity, for me, has been a shroud I’ve used to mask the life within. Dignity is a wonderful thing, but mostly maintaining my dignity has come at the expense of rawly expressing my worship. And the desire to maintain my dignity has been instigated and fuelled by the fear of what others would think.

We learn, as Christians living in our society, to live our lives without risk. We have learned to live in such a way as to mitigate against personal risk, financial risk, emotional risk, relational risk.

We have done this out of fear, I suspect. Fear of looking foolish, fear of the unknown, fear of not having enough, fear of getting hurt. Fear of God not providing for us, not coming through for us.

The antidote to fear is love. Perfect love casts out fear. If God is truly a God of love, and he really is our Father, then we have nothing (literally nothing) to fear.

This weekend, the love-fear scales tipped a little more towards love. My love for Jesus has gradually begun to outweigh my fear of what others might think.

It’s a journey, this Christian life. Sometimes it feels like treading water, like little progress is being made. Other times, it feels like strides have been taken. This is one of those times.

You’re my author, my maker // My ransom, my Saviour // My refuge, my hiding place

You’re my helper, my healer // My blessed redeemer // My answer, my saving grace

You’re my hope, in the shadows // My strength, in the battle // My anchor, for all my days

And You stand, by my side // And You stood, in my place // Jesus, no other name // No, only Jesus, no other name

– Sean Curran

Camping and Emergency Loo Roll

A week or two ago we welcomed an old friend back to Edinburgh – the traditional Scottish Summer.

The greatest, hottest, driest summer since records began, or at least since 1976, is on the wane, it seems. No more unprecedented experiences like selecting the second button on the electric shower, to make the water cool enough to step into. On a number of recent occasions, my thirty minute drive into work has necessitated the use of the holy trinity of sunglasses, windscreen wipers and headlights. Sometimes all at the same time.

With spectacular timing, our old friend has reemerged just in time for me to go camping for the first time in over twenty years. Admittedly a mere nine years ago I did go camping with my Sister and her burgeoning family, but that doesn’t count, since all the camping infrastructure (and a great deal of stately-home-infrastructure to boot) was laid on.

On this occasion I have had to give a great deal more thought to the supply and provisions.

Wiseman, after hearing of my camping intentions, and slowly lowering his eyebrow, kindly loaned me his tent, and camping stove, and various other arcane implements, the usefulness of which, I imagine, will become apparent at around 2am.

After one tutorial on the camping stove, and none on the actual tent-building, I reckon I am ready.

I wandered through Tesco, looking for camping-style easy-to-cook meal solutions, pretending to myself that this was vastly different to what I normally look for in Tesco.

In a flash of inspiration, I picked up some loo roll, for emergencies. Shea Butter ‘flavour’. Four rolls. You can’t be too careful with these things. And some paper towels. And a dustpan and brush. Must return the tent in good nick to Wiseman, or I’ll never hear the end of it.

My companion on this particular trip, to the Openskies worship festival in N Ireland, is Ickle Bef. We conferred about what we were bringing for the first time at 10pm last night. This was possibly leaving it a little late. Ickle confided she was bringing two camping stoves. I feel this is overcooking it slightly.

Loading the car at 6:15am this morning, I noticed that Ickle had her own dustpan and brush. I suspect the duplication, some of which is important for decency’s sake, like having our own tents for example, won’t stop there. I do hope she has her own Shea Butter loo roll, though, because I might need all four of mine. Depending on how the cooking goes, on our multiplicity of stoves, I guess.

Now, on the ferry, halfway across the Irish Sea, the sun is shining, and I wonder what could possibly go wrong. Ickle Bef is out on deck, wisely banking some solo time.

Openskies’ website states that campers have access to showers, charging points, and the presence of the Lord. You can’t ask for more than that, really.

Camping? I feel recklessly optimistic. Bring it on.

Did I remember to pack the tent?

Narin, 31 October


We got up early this morning to wave Karen and Maisie off – sadly she had to return to Belfast for a work meeting this afternoon. Karen, that is, not Maisie. Everyone a bit stiff and sore after yesterday’s surfing exploits, apart from Wiseman, who claims to have only staved his thumb.

Last night Broon rustled up the most splendid roast dinner, and afterwards we settled around the fire. Played just the one game of Articulate, no need to bore you with the details.

Still no sign of George’s ghost.

Plans today are to head down to Slieve League to see the cliffs there, and then maybe on to Rossnowlagh for lunch, or back towards Narin and Portnoo. Hoping to get some more beach cricket in if the weather stays ok.


Broon is pouring tea in front of the fire. We’ve just had dinner, and are settling down with a cuppa on our last evening here. My sister texted earlier to say that she’s expecting a little brother for Maggie in March. Tomorrow’s plans are discussed. Gilly is stopping off to see her family on the way to the boat. Wiseman and I will plan to make a pilgrimage to the Giant’s Causeway instead. He’s been going on about for so long, it might finally stop him nagging. About that, anyway.

Today worked out pretty much as we’d planned. A visit to Europe’s highest sea-cliffs at Slieve League, which involved the hairiest mountain road I’ve yet driven on, followed by lunch in Donegal Town. We then decided to head back north to the cottage. Wiseman had spotted another beach at Narin that we hadn’t yet explored, so we drove down someone’s lane and hiked across their fields to get to it. Once there, we did a spot of paddling – at least Broon and I did – and then played a few innings of beach cricket. Broon topped the scoring charts, despite Wiseman hooking a couple into the sea for four. The showers of the morning gave way to a glorious afternoon, and we climbed back up the dunes in the late afternoon sunshine, pausing at the top to bid farewell to a coastline of sandy beach, rocks and little islands, with the sun glinting off the Atlantic.

Farewell, Donegal, until we meet again…

Narin, 30 October


Today dawned bright and fair. No, really, it did. The forecast was right. Having got the call from Kevin, our Irish American surfing dude, that 12.30 would be a good time, we headed off early to Dooey Strand, and got some beach cricket in before he arrived.

Halfway through Broon’s innings, Wiseman, who had been claiming that he was “not quite 100%” for days, threw up at midwicket, but we carried on regardless. I had half a mind to reprise Allan Border’s quote to Dean Jones, who, having batted for Australia through hours and hours of 40C heat and high humidity in Madras, had got to 170 and wanted to come off because he stopping the game every over to be sick. Border told him “You weak Victorian. I want a tough Australian out there. I want a Queenslander”.

Charming chap, Border.

Kev duly arrived with all the gear, and we got into our wetsuits, with some difficulty. I felt a little like Catwoman.

Surfing was brilliant fun. Actually standing up on the board proved a step too far. About two steps too far, in all honesty. In fact, even lying down on the board, and riding it into the shallows without wiping out, took a fair amount of concentration. And after a few runs, just getting on to the board at all proved exhausting. But very exhilarating.

We returned to the cottage and put the kettle on while Broon and Gilly made first use of the showers. Two minutes into our own showers, Wiseman and I found the hot water had all gone, and made sharp exits. I came back downstairs, and found I’d been doubly betrayed. Not only had the girls taken all the hot water, but they’d put on a chick flick in the living room. I escaped with Gilly and Broon to Ardara for some more provisions, and came back to find the film much the same as we’d left it – dapper young gentlemen making opaque statements about marriage, and the inferior breeding and education of young ladies. Most agreeable, I am sure.

Narin, 29 October


Last night was spent digesting Karen’s cooking, which was “just” a wild mushroom and pancetta risotto. Then we fired up Casino Royale on the DVD player, so as to be bang up to date with the Bond story before the new one comes out on Friday. Went to bed with a full view of the stars through my skylight.

Woke up with a full view of the clouds through my skylight, and the rain pattering off the glass. Forecast is for rain all day. Drove into Ardara this morning with Wiseman, and picked up an Ian Rankin novel. It’s a day for sitting in the cottage and reading, I think. It’s the final Inspector Rebus novel – the last of 17 in the series. It seems like a good one to start with. At least it did until Wiseman told me how it ended before I’d even opened it. Broon is baking in the kitchen, which is always a happy occurrence. Forecast for tomorrow is better – sunshine in the morning. Perhaps our surfing adventure will finally get off the ground tomorrow, after having been thwarted thus far by the strong winds.


Didn’t go out much today at all, as anticipated. Gillian, Karen and I made a foray into the village in the afternoon, to sound out possible places to eat tonight. There were none. So we headed back to the cottage, getting soaked en route, and after a quick change climbed into the car and headed into Ardara again, where we found a bistro that looked likely. Headed back there for dinner, sans Wiseman unfortunately, who had sardines for lunch and has since been seen only episodically, looking slightly green.

Dinner was good, there was even a minstrel playing folk/country tunes on his guitar and singing along lustily.

Narin, 28 October


Went for a woodland walk this morning, before returning to the cottage for lunch. Wiseman was feeling unwell, so elected to stay put with Maisie (Karen’s dog) for the afternoon, while the rest of us decided to explore another headland.

The first adventure was at Maghera Caves, where, after a 10 minute walk or so, we found no caves whatsoever, but the most gorgeous deserted beach, penned in by high cliffs on one side. We agreed that it would have made a perfect beach cricket beach, but unfortunately the cricket stuff wasn’t in the car.

We swallowed our disappointment and moved on round the coast, stopping briefly to rescue a sheep caught in a wire fence, to Malin Beg and another beautiful beach, this one populated by what appeared to be a large Irish family. There was about twenty of them. Some of their kids were paddling in the waves, in wellies, if you please. Karen and Broon thought that we should show them how it should be done, and so off came the socks (inner and outer) and shoes, and the trousers were rolled up. The water was eye-poppingly cold, and Karen had to do a little jig to try to keep the circulation going, but we did it. A lone sheep, and a sheepdog, kept a custodial eye on us throughout the whole performance.

If the insanity of the idea had not been apparent when the Atlantic first hit our toes, it was once the hail started coming down and we realised we had to climb 167 concrete sheep-dung-covered steps to the car park before we could get shelter, and dry our numb feet.

The weather closed in at this point, and so we headed over the hills to Killybegs, through various peat fire-burning villages and the road home.

Three pairs of feet now thawing out in front of the fire.

Narin, 27 October


Despite gamely tackling the mountain of baps at every available opportunity, it doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller.

Broon made an excellent bacon, french toast and maple syrup breakfast, after which we piled in the car and headed round our nearest headland, through Rossbeg, where we got out and explored the beach and rocks, and eventually on to Ardara. Wiseman was disappointed, once again, at the lack of ice cream vans around. Sadly it was a local bank holiday today, and so we couldn’t visit many local establishments in Ardara. We had lunch in Charlie’s West End café, the West End of the town not being so far removed from the East End to warrant a separate designation in my book, but there you are.

Picked up some peat briquettes and firewood for the fire in the cottage, which is lit and warming my toes as I write this. Also managed to post to the blog from the Spar there. On our return from Ardara, and after a cup of tea, Wiseman and I went for a walk to a sheltered beach just a little further along the coast from where we were yesterday. We only got soaked by a shower of rain the once. Came back and had a bit more of a nap than I had planned for, which bodes ill for getting to sleep tonight.

Gilly is currently in the kitchen rustling up fajitas. Looking forward to that.


The fajitas were great, enhanced further by the addition of some left-over chilli from last night, and some Coronas. Played a couple of games of Baileys-fuelled Articulate after dinner, and then the chat turned to horses, the Highland Show, and Wiseman’s near-death experiences, as the fire gradually faded. The addition of the fire to an already super-efficient central heating system meant the room felt like a nursing home. Or sauna. Or a sauna in a nursing home.

Not a pleasant thought.

Narin, 26 October


I seem to have landed myself another bedroom with an un-blinded Velux window. Top work. We arrived at half past midnight this morning, which was good enough time, especially since the sat nav completely lost the plot and thought we were driving through fields. At times, granted, it did feel like that, but that’s Irish roads for you.

The cottage is wonderful, although the freezer mentioned on the cottage’s website has turned out to be a freezer-compartment inside the fridge. This leaves us with a week’s supply of rolls, which we had banked on being able to freeze, needing to be eaten before Tuesday. Rolls were a compulsory component of breakfast this morning, and shall likely be taken with every meal for the next two days. The washing machine and drier are incarcerated in the shed, which seems reasonable enough. Along with the microwave, which doesn’t.

The previous owner of the cottage was called George, and his hat hangs on a nail beside the fireplace. I feel sure he must haunt the place, but there was no evidence of him last night. I will keep you posted on any developments on this front. No mice either, although there was a spider in Gilly’s bath.

It’s still windy out, although the sun is breaking through periodically. Wiseman is keen to get to the beach, and mentioned this a number of times, enthusiastically, at breakfast. He was on the verge of becoming obstreperous when we pacified him with more coffee and Gilly’s Dad’s jam.


Suddenly aware that the sun was out and there was a patch of blue sky, we downed books and went to the beach just before lunch. I say just before lunch, but we’re back from the beach now, and there’s no sign of any lunch. Looks like I might have to get it myself. Oh well.

It was unfeasibly windy on the beach. Took some photos, but wasn’t a good day for taking photos.


Broon finally cracked, and made lunch. Spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. Not as easy as it sounds. My mind, unpractised in the art of deliberate relaxation, was looking around for something to DO while I was trying to focus it on the pages of the book in front of me.

As it turned out, I fell asleep only a few pages in as tiredness from yesterday’s journey hit.

Wiseman wandered through from the kitchen, clutching a pint of ale.

“Going well?”

“Haven’t started yet.” He chuckled.

Wiseman was on dinner tonight, and was planning to start his epic preparations at 4pm. However, come 5.30, there was still no sign of him in the kitchen. He had fallen asleep too. Dinner might be a little later tonight. No bad thing, we weren’t finishing lunch until just after 3.


From my vantage point in the sun room (yes, the sun room), I witnessed Wiseman going through the whole gamut of human emotion as he prepared a pot of chilli. Contentment, worry, distress, pain, confusion, they were all there. There was much whimpering, and I think I caught some muttering about health and safety, most notably when fingers were burnt on the casserole dish, which had to be pressed into action when it became apparent that the pans available in the kitchen were not built to accommodate Wiseman-like quantities of chilli. All very amusing. And it was all very tasty, as it turned out.

The Donegal Diary

Managed to jot down some thoughts while I was away in Donegal… have posted them in separate entries for each day. Couldn’t post them from Ireland as didn’t have access to the internet. Which made for a refreshing change, actually.

Will make most sense if you read them in order, if you can be bothered…!

Some really good photos, which can be viewed by clicking on the link to the right, or there should be a link in each day’s post.