The Man From Strabane

In happier times. Myself and Decky Coyle at Zeb's wedding.

Yesterday I had to attend a meeting in Donegal Town. On the way home I called in to visit an old friend in Strabane. It was pretty much a one-way conversation as usual these days. It wasn’t always thus.

My mate Decky Coyle passed away from Acute Myeloid Leukaemia on 23 February 1997. It was the inevitable end to a story that began the day I got a call at work to tell me he was unwell. Although I was optimistic for him, that gradually ebbed when his illness recurred and I began to fear the worst.

The last time I saw him alive was in the Cancer ward in the Royal in the last week of his life. What had brought him to this stage I thought? I couldn’t speak to him, so choked was I. He just looked at me and shook his head. I will never forget it.

He once told me if I was coming to visit not to be feeling sorry for him or depressing him. His reasoning being the hospital was bad enough without us boys coming and making it worse. On my first visit I brought him a copy of War and Peace, I figured if he was in for the long haul he would need some reading material. My naivety was quickly disabused when I called once after a bout of Chemo. I think he would have hit me with Tolstoy if he could have!

Decky was from Strabane. A larger than life figure, if anyone ever epitomised the phrase joie de vivre he did. At school he entered wholeheartedly into the craic. He used to regale us with tales of being out and about in Strabane, chasing girls, smoking; drinking excessively, throwing his guts up; being caught on by his dad Denis or mother Rose (he called her Aggie) and suffering the consequences.

When we were at school he frequently stayed over in our house for nights out. My mother loved him. He had that effect on women of all ages, charm, a great sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye. He could get away with swearing and saying things I never could.

Through University we shared a house and many’s a night reeling home, or propping up the bar in Queen’s Union, the Elms or the Crescent. At one stage he decided a girlfriend had become pregnant and we drunkenly agreed to raise any resulting progeny. Happily the drink was talking and he wasn’t as fertile as he thought he was, or maybe neither was she.

After graduation he went to work first in Draperstown for Workspace where he was known as the Man From Strabane that Couldn’t Drive. How he got to and from Draperstown I still don’t know. He moved on to Dublin.

There he began a short but impressive career as a Planner working on a range of prestige projects. He was a smart guy and had a very canny eye for detail, he was prescient and whilst he could bullshit with the best, he also saw through it a mile off. He also looked the part – perhaps that harked back to cutting a dash round the fleshpots of Strabane.

We used to head to Dublin for the craic at weekends, sometimes staying at Decky’s place in Portobello or later out round Terenure. And we would paint the town as red and white as we possibly could.

Latterly the long-standing love of his life Catherine had returned from the States. They had met through a school youth development project in Dublin. She from Dublin, he from Strabane. A match made in Heaven. They married when he was in remission although sadly their time together was short.

Decky’s influence on me was profound. As a friend he was resolute, always there. Willing to tell you when you were right and wrong. I recall one conversation in the basement bar in Toners’ Bar in Dublin, where he castigated me for working in the University. He said ‘you are better than that’. He encouraged me to go and work for myself and use my writing skills. It was more than the beer talking. I couldn’t argue with him.

Eventually about ten years after his death I left the University and ultimately realised that he was right. And my decision to work for myself was reinforced when entirely by chance his name appeared in a writing job I was doing for Workspace in Draperstown, his first employer and one of my early clients. It was as if he had spoken to me again across the years and from another place, reassuring me that this was the right thing to do.

He was buried on a typical February day in Melmount Cemetery in Strabane. Some years after his beloved father Denis died. Denis to whom I would speak to regularly on the phone as Decky’s illness progressed. Then shortly after Rose, his wonderful mother, also passed away. She of the beautiful home baking and sandwiches – we always loved the visit to 7 Owenreagh Drive in Strabane.

And now every year, those of us that know him well and a few that don’t gather somewhere in Ireland to play a game of (bad) golf; to eat, drink and reminisce about the man from Strabane.

I realised yesterday standing in Melmount that I miss him as much as ever. The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more.

Inca Kola – La bebida del Perú

Inca Kola is to Peru what Irn Bru is Scotland and Football Special is to Donegal. If you’ve never been to Donegal then ignore the last reference. If you haven’t been to Peru, well you dunno what you’re missing.

After getting married, Angela and myself went there. It was to be the trip of a lifetime and it didn’t disappoint. I was delighted a few years later when my brother decided to get married in Peru, which meant I had to go back.

Unfortunately Angela was expecting our son Leo and couldn’t join me. It gave me the chance to experince the wonders of Peru more as a local that a tourist. My sister-in-law Andrea’s family redefined forever my understanding of the words hospitality and family. As the song says, ‘I’ll n’er forget their kindness’. But more about those trips another time.

The one thing that never changed was the presence of Inca Kola. Everywhere. You may think that in a so called lesser developed country advertising would perhaps be less common or in someway less sophisticated than it is here. Not so and certainly not so as far as Inca Kola was concerned.

The drink itself is a bright yellow colour, sickly sweet and fizzy. It is the Peruvians claim, an acquired taste. It is also for them a statement of their national pride. For although Coca Cola is highly visible in Peru, it is Inca Kola that is the preferred drink amongst the locals. In some way, drinking anything else is deemed to be unpatriotic!

The drink is made from Lemon Verbena and was creatad in 1935 by an English immigrant. It was marketed under various slogans:

‘Inca Kola sólo hay una y no se parece a ninguna’

‘There is only one Inca Kola and it’s like no other’


Es nuestra, La bebida del Perú

‘It’s ours! The drink of Peru’

I’m not sure that Manco Capac or any of the original Incas drank anything resembling Inca Kola but it is as authentic Puruviana as the local weaving and  pottery, Macchu Picchu, the Nazca Lines, Lake Titicaca or the famous walls in Cuzco.

If you’re ever there try some roasted guinea pig washed down with a glass of the yellow stuff! You’ll need a pisco sour to recover!

Made in Scotland, From Girders

I spent ten months in Stirling in Scotland doing a Masters degree after I finished at Queen’s in Belfast. Among the many positives from the course was an introduction to Irn Bru. It wasn’t on the course syllabus I should add, more on the morning after agenda.

I had of course heard of, and tasted the stickly sweet drink before going to Scotland, but I couldn’t believe how common it was. In every shop there were racks of Barr’s Irn Bru – the distinctive orange and blue was everywhere. It wasn’t til’ I was there that I actually began to like the stuff. Going native or what!

The pubs sold it in the way bars here have Club Orange. And on a Sunday morning everyone who was hungover seemed to have a large bottle of it tucked into their coat pocket. Obviously a can wasn’t enough to offset the ravages of a night on the 80 Shilling, single malt or whatever the poison was.

I found myself that it was a surprisingly good drink for these purposes.  Think tongue painted with liquid sugar, and you’ll get the idea.

Irn Bru was initially a Scots only drink – although sold elsewhere it had a rock solid home market and it played up to the market with its famous ‘Made Frae Girders’ tagline. That appealed to the Rab C Nesbitts of the home market, all string vest,  mouthful of haggis accent and twinkle in the eye for unsuspecting tourists.

As its agency Leith put it, ‘For Scots of all ages, it is a reminder of their childhood; for those abroad, it is the taste of home.’

In the early Nineties the market share came under increasing threat from Coke and Pepsi causing Irn Bru to move beyong their traditional territory.

But first they did what all businesses should do before expanding and hitting a new market. They did a lot of market research on the ground with a key target audience. Young people. They found that the ‘Made in Scotland, From Girders’ didn’t translate across into the rest of Britain.

What they did find was a great enthusiasm for the brand, but no two people thought about Irn Bru the same way. They came up with the term ‘likeable maverick’ to describe it and set about building a brand image that appealed to young people in a fun way.

Some of the subsequent advertising would make you laugh out lout. Plenty to talk about in the pub. And the next day, head pounding as if you’re being nailed with a rivet gun on the Govan Shipyard? Nothing like an Irn Bru to get you back on the straight and narrow. Made Frae Girders indeed.

To Die, To Sleep. . . Perchance to Dream

I have discovered the art of sleeping on demand. I am not sure if it is the same as some sort of meditation but basically whenever the urge takes me, I can decide to go to sleep for a while. It can be as little as two or three minutes or occasionally I might really go for it and sleep for a couple of hours as I did on Monday.

With all the hassle of getting ready for an All Ireland semi final over the last ten days or so culminating in last weekend, with disrupted sleep on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night I had booked myself off work on Monday. Purely for the purposes of sleeping you understand. Boy was I looking forward to it.

The reasons for lack of sleep were not a bad conscience or anything like that. I have nothing in particular to lie awake wondering about or worrying about. The days of spending half my nighttime thinking tossing and turning about some work problem at the dreaded University are long gone. I remember at one stage years back the doctor gave me a course of sleeping tablets because I complained that I couldn’t sleep.

All I wanted to do was go to bed sleep and wake up. But then I’ve a perverse sleeper. I like to wake up in the middle of the night, look at the clock and know that I have another few hours in bed. The effect of the sleeping tablet was to make me sleep and miss out on this little pleasure. After the course of tablets was completed I didn’t return for another dose.

Anyhow back to my Scooby sleeping. . . I will consciously totally switch off. Beckett in Murphy describes how his protagonist used to work himself into a reverie in his rocking chair tied to it with seven scarves. In At Swim Two Birds the unnamed narrator likewise was able to retire into the recesses of his own mind and join the cast of larger than life characters that he brought to life in his book.

For me, in the last two weeks, learning to partially control this state I have found that If I focus on a particular thing, say a piece of work or a conundrum related to say a player, I will often come around with the problem solved or at least some ideas. It really is bizarre. I have taken my blood pressure after and it is quite low so it also has therapeutic qualities.

The problem in replicating this in nighttime is that there is someone else in the bed – Angela – and sometimes two others. My daughter is highly obnoxious during the night and kicks and nips in her sleep to gain maximum bedspace. My son is a timid cub in that he puts up with all of this in the interests of managing his insecurity and I haven’t the will to kick him out.

So on Monday past, I got up as usual to get the kids out to school knowing that I would have the decadent pleasure of as much sleep as I liked without the guilt of thinking I should be working. There was also the pleasure of knowing that I had a choice of places to execute this plan. I considered the hammock in the back garden under a quilt but it was raining. Someday though I will sleep in the rain my face exposed to the rain with a waterproof sheet above a quilt keeping me dry and warm. It pleases me even writing about it now.

We used to have a double bed upstairs that one of the lads that lived with me part bought so he could get some action with his girlfriend. I think it was well and truly tested to the max. It had the distinction of being the most comfortable bed in the house and I often would go in there, collapse face down and sleep waking later in a pool of dribble. I did that one time in the Queen’s library as a student opposite a girl I quite fancied. I woke in a pool of saliva as she looked on in pity. I think she may have been interested until that point. We shall never know. I moved floors in the library shortly after.

When Sorcha moved out of her cot, I went to IKEA and bought a set of bunks that I assembled. And guess what, they are mega comfortable too. Not so the boys bed which is like sleeping on an Iron Maiden or Cáit’s which is like grandma’s feather bed.

So having weighed up the bed options, including my own normal bed which is just OK, I decided that down stairs would be better. The main sofa is deceptively comfortable although Hub the black labradog is liable to bunk in wet nose and all, plus then she’s liable to start licking her bits which is detrimental to good sleep. There is the armchair for a drooling oulboy type sleep all belly out, shirt opened type stuff. Or the easy chairs in the kitchen.

There are three potentials in the office, the main desk chair, reclining leather, capable of a swing round; another IKEA recliner – POANG I think they call it whatever sort of fuckin name that is I dunno.

But the winner was. . . the sofa bed with its excellent two pillows. I don’t have to unfurl it, just assume the foetal position, close the door some music on and away we go, into the amnion of my own quiet to borrow a phrase. . . . . . . Imagine my consternation when I woke suddenly and there sitting in the POANG was my friend Richard, laughing at the shape of me asleep.

I sat up tousled, at least I hadn’t been drooling, and shot the breeze for a while. After he left I made a cup of tea and busied myself for ten minutes or so. Then it dawned on me, I had nothing to do. So, I settled my self back down for another go. And I slept, and slept and slept.  That solved that problem. It was different from my usual short bursts but by God I enjoyed it. Having planned it, conceived it and executed it, I love it when a plan comes together.