Tag Archives: Cheltenham

Bad language, cocaine smuggling and cavorting nuns in south west Ireland

All this week I have been in the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry in the south west of Ireland – and I have been trying to figure out some way of blogging about it without seeming to be making an Irish joke.

The English make ‘Irish’ jokes.

In Ireland, they make the same jokes about people from Kerry.

The reason for this is presumably because it so so isolated. I am told an electricity supply only reached the populated island of Valentia, opposite where I am staying, in around 1963. The mobile phone signal here varies from eccentric to non-existent (mostly the latter) and, as for high-speed broadband, you can pretty much forget it. Modems tend to be dial-up and publicly-accessible WiFi in pubs and suchlike is a futuristic concept.

But it is always good to be in Ireland.

I am Scottish. I was born in a west coast fishing town and my parents grew up in two different seaside villages in south west Scotland – all of which look and feel exactly the same as Irish seaside villages. So I feel at home in Ireland.

I worked in Dublin in the 1990s. When people used to come over from England, I made sure they knew four of the key linguistic features of the language.

1) You must never talk of the larger of the two British Isles as “the mainland” – Never ever say you have come over from or are going back to “the mainland” – This will get right up people’s noses.

2) British-style football is called “soccer” in the Republic of Ireland – “Football” here refers to Gaelic Football.

3) Never, in a pub, ask for “plain crisps” when you mean salted crisps. Crisps here (as in Irish pubs on the “mainland”) are assumed to be cheese & onion or salt & vinegar. And those two are usually the only choice.

4) Finally, more difficult to explain in print, the Republic’s national flag – the three-coloured green, white and orange flag – is not pronounced with a short initial syllable but with a long one. So it is not said to be a “trick-olour” – it is pronounced like the two words “try colour”.

Some things have changed since I last worked here. In Kerry – and, the locals tell me, now in the rest of he Republic – you are taxed on the amount of rubbish you produce. As an inevitable result, people put padlocks on their wastebins to prevent other people putting extraneous garbage into their bins. There are also tax discs on rubbish bins.

Worse still, there is a high tax on chocolate which must surely, at some time, create cross-border chocolate smuggling. When I was in Dublin, Galway etc in the 1990s, there was a fairly hefty black market trade in cigarettes because of the tax difference north and south of the Border.

The Good News upside to all this, though, is that there are no Council Taxes/rates.

The landscapes here can be spectacularly other-worldly. Apparently J.R.R.Tolkien used to come on holiday here and sketched the Skelligs – two eccentrically pointed islands (I am told) before he wrote Lord of the Rings. They certainly look like some fantastical alien planet style Middle Earthly peaks.

I have been living in a house not too far from Ballinskelligs. When I get up in the morning, there are sheep on the hillside outside with red letters of the alphabet painted on their wool – to show which have been tupped. Some farmers use red, some green, some other colours; and occasionally one farmer’s cheap green dye has been known to run in rain resulting, I am told, in green sheep.

I am also told that, rarely but occasionally, the sheep with red letters on their wool can stand in an order which accidentally spells out a word. The people I am staying with swear they once looked out their window over breakfast and saw six sheep standing in the field spelling out the word FLEECE as if they were in some animal version of Countdown.

People around here often do not make wills and, when they die, any old cousin or familiar hanger-on can claim a bit of the estate, not just the immediate family, so disputes can drag on for years. Even when a will is made there can be problems.

Recently, a local man died and, in his will, he left his house to his son but one room in the house to his daughter. The brother and sister have since fallen out. The people I am staying with do not know how the sister gets to her room via the rest of the building which the brother owns if the brother decides to be really difficult about access.

But a harsher reality sometimes intrudes even here.

Recently, two £500 million cocaine shipments (ie together they were allegedly worth £1 billion) were intercepted within two weeks, both coming in by boat.

In the first case, in keeping with Kerry, the smugglers put petrol into a diesel engine, the ship broke down and broke up on the rocks. Packages of cocaine were washing up ashore all over the place like Whisky Galore!. If anyone found a bundle, they could be made for life. A spokesman for the Gardai (the police) said these sort of shipments were happening not just in this area but in several parts of Ireland every week. It was just a matter of luck if they were able to intercept occasional ones.

When I was here in the 1990s, I was told there was a problem intercepting drugs shipments because the Coastguard had boats and were responsible for guarding the seas, while the Gardai were responsible for inland security, including rivers, but had no boats.

So drug runners would bring shipments in around the Shannon area either by air or by sea and then use the Republic’s extensive river system to transport them to other parts of the country and to the North. If the Gardai wanted to intercept or chase them, they had to find some local with a boat and beg, borrow or negotiate a deal to rent it.

Inevitably things which seem to be likely plots from a sitcom like Father Ted become reality here.

Twenty or thirty nuns regularly take their summer holidays down the road from where I have been living and they used to wear their black and white habits while here (they no longer wear the habit on holiday). They were called “the penguins” by locals and could be seen cavorting on the beach.

“Ah! The penguins are on the beach!”

Someone I know here – who swears this is 100% true – says she was on the beach one day and heard two nuns shouting to each other:

“What’s the water like, Sister Mary?”

“Feckin’ freezin’!”

My chum (a practising Catholic) was shocked a nun would say “feckin”.

I am more bemused by the fact nuns were cavorting on the beach at all.

Who knew nuns took summer holidays? Not me. What else do they do on their holidays?

“Well,” my chum explained to me, “of course they have holidays. And lots of priests go to Cheltenham over the St Patrick’s Day weekend to bet on the horses. Maybe 80% of the people at the races that weekend are Irish, the local shops accept Euros and the place is awash with priests in dog collars.”

“But didn’t Jesus throw money-lenders and money-changers out of the temple in Jerusalem?” I asked.

“Maybe,” came the reply, “but I am more worried about the ‘feckin’ nuns. What sort of language is that?”

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Wikileaks in reverse? Am I paranoid? Or are the Powers That Be reading every word I write?

Today there are reports that ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown thinks the News of the World may have hacked into his phone calls. Well Whoop-di-doop, Gordon, welcome to the 21st century.

In the late 1960s, I remember the London magazine Time Out reported that MI5 was listening in to all diplomatic telephone calls via a telephone exchange in (if memory serves me correctly) Kensington. A computer was scanning all calls and listening-in for keywords. This sounded very futuristic back then.

When the extremely right wing and, in my opinion, neo-Fascist Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he had no problem attempting to create profoundly anti-democratic laws. I remember one bright idea he had (never actually implemented) was to detain known football hooligans to prevent them going to a match if the police believed they might be thinking of perhaps planning to commit a crime. In other words he believed it would be OK to make Thought Crime an imprisonable offence.

Yet the one thing he was strangely opposed to throughout his Orwellian reign was allowing intercepts – phone taps – to be used in evidence in criminal trials. This continues to fascinate me. Why would he object?

He claimed that allowing intercepts to be used in evidence in open court would expose their origin. But, if we are talking about phone tap evidence, what is the problem?

Criminals know that anything they say on a telephone line may be legally and perfectly reasonably intercepted. They know that already. Everyone knows that. So saying in court that evidence has come from a wire tapped by the police or security services is not ‘revealing’ anything. It would only be revealing a hidden source if evidence had been collected and intercepted in some way other than from a wire tap… in which case, of course, the security services would not want to reveal that they had access to that unrevealed form of interception.

So what could that unrevealed and secret form of intercept be if it were not traditional phone tapping?

Telephones are two-way communication devices with built-in microphones. They are transmitters as well as receivers. You no longer need to install listening devices at telephone exchanges to tap phones. You can remotely make the microphones in the handsets active and thus listen in to anything said in a room. Most people have telephones in their living rooms and often their bedrooms; these can listen to and transmit anything said in the rooms. People with mobile phones not only carry transmitters with built-in microphones everywhere they go, but they are carrying GPS devices which can pinpoint their position to within a few feet.

But this is merely a variation on traditional eavesdropping. Would that really be why Tony Blair was so wary of the security services having to reveal in open court what their intercept sources might be?

I remember back in the late 1960s or early 1970s – certainly more than 30 years ago and before the really vast advances in computer development – a Cheltenham taxi driver called Barry Prime was tried in camera under the Official Secrets Act on charges which were never made public. The Sunday Times reported at the time he had told the Soviets that Britain’s GCHQ and America’s NSA had a satellite in (I think geostationary) orbit over the Soviet Union which could listen in to all above-ground communications – listening for keywords in all phone calls sent via the normal microwave system, walkie talkie calls, radio phone calls between, say, a Politburo member in his car and someone sitting in the Kremlin and possibly even a politician sitting in his office talking to his secretary on a wireless intercom. As a result, the Soviets buried all their sensitive communications in landlines, the West lost invaluable intelligence and Barry Prime was sentenced to a staggering number of years in jail (and seems to have been wiped from history and thus Google searches).

Journalist Duncan Campbell also got into trouble in 1985-1986 for revealing that GCHQ intended to launch a SigInt satellite called Zircon.

At one time, one of the words you were never supposed to speak on a telephone line in the UK was the word “Echelon” because it triggered all sorts of intelligence computers listening-in for keywords. Presumably if you mentioned “Echelon” AND “Burlington” AND “Turnstile” or even “Corsham”, then the eavesdropping computers would have had an orgasm of excitement. If, way back then, you had also mentioned “Stockwell”, “Site 3” and “Hawthorn“, then the Men in Black would probably have been sitting in a car outside your house the next day.

Modern satellites’ cameras can read the markings on the epaulettes of a soldier standing in a field outside Vladivostok or travelling in an open Jeep in Iraq. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that satellites which, more than 30 years ago, could listen in on all above-ground electronically-transmitted voice chatter can now listen-in to all human voice communication on a small area of the surface of the earth – let’s say the whole of the UK – and filter out bird song, traffic noises, water sounds etc to leave only the sounds created by human voices… and then to listen-in for keywords.

There was a saying in the late 1960s: “However paranoid you are, they’re always doing more than you think.”

What if any conversation on any street, in any room could be listened-in to by a satellite? What if anything you say out loud can be heard by the computers?

Plus ça change.

Though, in fact, I don’t object.

It’s a fact of modern British life.

The British public have no real objection to street security cameras. So why object to blanket voice surveillance?  After all, it was us who created 1984 not some foreign johnny. All e-mails leaving or entering the UK are scanned; presumably all blogs are scanned; presumably everything on the World Wide Web is scanned because the Internet was originally a military project.

If Google can do it, then I certainly hope Echelon, GCHQ and the NSA can do it.

And let’s not even start to think about Google Street View.

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