My father's last trip to Irelandtommy makem, ireland, doctorate, university of ulster, northern bank robbery, graduation Blog

Want to know a culture? Check out their groceries.

Hear me out. I know that to understand Irish culture, you need to visit the pubs, but for me, the most underappreciated establishment for any culture is the grocery store. It’s the commonality between almost everyone in every country around the world.

Roam the aisles and cast your eyes on the foreign variety of biscuits and beer, frozen foods and chocolate bars. I absolutely love experiencing the local Lidls and Tescos, the Carrefours and Aldis. Food is at the heart of every culture and these shops are where your average Juan and Maríah Sixpack grab their essentials.

I’d argue that you learn as much about a culture by visiting their food marts as you do from their museums. Sure, museums will teach you their history, but the grocery store will tell you who they are.

Among my favorite pastimes in Ireland, for example, is to hit the petrol stations and peruse the sheer volume of crisps: gammon and cheese; scampi; buffalo; Irish stew; Wuster sauce; chorizo and cherry tomato; bacon and cabbage. It seems endless and that’s before considering the styles like chipsticks, hula hoops, potato puffs and waffles.

And it’s not just what the stores stock, it’s what they don’t. I searched high and low through store after store in Romania before I found a container of maple syrup. It made me appreciate not only the different offerings they stocked, but what I had back at home. Speaking of which, I’d like to offer a shout-out to the cashier lady at our local Carrefour in Sebeș, Romania. For three months, the other half and I saw her almost every day and not once did she crack a smile. After months, the shop’s security officer wouldn’t stop following us around through the aisles. I wanted to pull him aside and explain that Libby and I probably spent as much in the store as a family of eight. But I digress.

Anyhoo, a grocery store will tell you what the average home puts on their plates day after day. In Spain there’s plenty of rice and seafood, in Germany, local sausages and infinite beer, in Puerto Rico, tropical fruits and corn flour.

I was in a small shop on the island of Curacao. The shop wasn’t busy at all, but there were four lanes, each with cashiers and baggers. There was no waiting. I zipped through. When I made an off-hand remark to one of the locals in the parking lot, he informed me that that’s common down there.

Conversely, he said, you can’t always find what you want. There might be days without salsa, or seasons where certain produce just isn’t available. One just needs to be ready to adjust based on the offerings. It dawned on me that that’s not the worst thing.

There was a child running a corner store in Córdoba, Spain, probably ten-years-old. I was looking through packages of biscuits and she pointed to a container of butter cookies, a selection I likely wouldn’t have chosen. But she was right. I brought them home and Libby and I devoured the entire package with cups of tea.

Are international flights not in the cards for you? Not to worry. The offerings in the southwest are quite different from the northeast, from dried hatch chilis to local wines to beef tongue. One of my favorite shops is in Abiquiú, New Mexico. Called Bodes General store, it serves a small community of 231. It’s a gas station that sells just about everything you can imagine, from cattle feed to hats, local wine to frozen meals.

There’s a food takeout window inside Bodes where you can grab a cup of chili or freshly made tamales, load up on their baked pastries and snack as you drive past craggy red rocks and desert. It’s an experience, let me tell you.

And for those of you not in a traveling mood, may I suggest you make use of import shops and Irish bakeries, some of which you can find advertising in iIrish. If you’re new to Irish cuisine, here are some of the items it is compulsory to start with: Tayto Cheese and Onion crisps, Irish sausages, vegetable soup, Cadbury Dairy Fruit and Nut bars, and Smarties. I’m not saying you want to make a diet based on these things, but…well, if you add potatoes, you should be okay.

Cruises: The good, the bad and the ‘rona

Be prepared to do a little walking. You’ll find the best anywhere has to offer will be found when your feet are on the ground.

As I start this column, the snow outside my window is falling at a rate of three inches an hour. So, I do what any sane person does: I curse myself for living in New England and let my mind wander back to memories of cruising around tropical islands and sipping on margaritas by the pool in the shade under a blistering sun.

The truth is that I have a love-hate relationship when it comes to cruises, but more on that later. First, we need to deal with the elephant in the room.

The ‘rona

Is it safe to cruise? According to the Centers for Disease Control, the answer is no (though they did recently lower their risk to level 3). They recommend that everyone should avoid cruise travel, even if vaccinated and boosted, because of the Coronavirus. Cruises are hotbeds of virus outbreaks even during normal times.

In their defense, cruise lines seem to be doing everything they can to make things safe. Almost all are requiring people over a certain age to be vaccinated and they all require a negative Covid test from everyone prior to boarding. Unfortunately, you’ll need to check with your chosen line before booking, because some are allowing exceptions. I’ve also read about some passengers ignoring the mask policies, so be forewarned. And, of course, make your decision based upon your risk and the risk for anyone you come in contact with.

Note that if you have been exempted from receiving a vaccine, countries often will not allow you in unless you are on a cruise ship specific tour bubble. There is also often a travel insurance requirement if you are unvaccinated. In fact, I’d recommend travel insurance for any cruise-goer nowadays. If there’s ever been a time it’s needed, that time is now.

Keep in mind, there is a lot of close contact on board cruises, but how stuffed the ship is depends on the cruise line. A line like Carnival Cruises tends to focus on keeping it economical, so they try to fit in more passengers, whereas companies like Crystal and Celebrity are less crowded, but are also generally more expensive. And as the price goes up, so too oftentimes does the average age. In other words, if you want a party, a cheaper line might be perfect for you, but if you want a relaxing vacation, you might need to spend a little more.

The good

My top suggestion would be to spend the extra money and get a room with a veranda. One of my favorite times in life is sitting on my private deck before bed, a glass of wine in hand, the starry sky glimmering above and the open ocean coursing by. Obviously, it will cost more, but you won’t remember that a few years down the road while reliving your cruise.

Possibly the most incredible part of cruising is waking up every day in a new port. The Caribbean, for example, is filled with island countries and territories. One day you’re dining in the Cayman Islands and the next snorkeling in Belize. No new hotel to book into. You just bring your key card with you and it gets you into the country and back on the ship.

Make sure to take a walk around (always research the safety of the area), stop into a pub or restaurant, but get away from the port. There is often real life just beyond the closest proximity to your ship.

It’s as good a time as any to point out that your room card is absolutely everything. It’s your charge card onboard and generally your passport as well (the line will, of course, require a passport before boarding you onto an international cruise, but you can put it away afterward).

Convenience is a pretty big selling point too. There is almost always food and drink available. Even after all of the restaurants and bars close up, you can order room service. Most of the food is free and easily accessible. Sitting by the pool? Take a few steps over to the burger or taco bar and nosh away. Feel like making it an extra special night? Many cruises offer more upscale restaurants where you’ll find gourmet selections at a much cheaper cost than you’d find on land. It might be $15 to upgrade to a steakhouse restaurant over the free fare and it is really good.

The bad

During these dark Covid times, you’ll need to be prepared for the possibility that there’ll be an outbreak on the ship and in such a case, an island or country is unlikely to let the ship disembark passengers.

Also, you’re going to need to prepare to part with some Benjamins. You can do this whole cruising thing for the cost of getting there and the cruise, but be prepared to spend more otherwise it won’t be that experience you’re hoping for. Just about everything costs more money. “Free drinks” might just include coffee, water and unsweetened tea, not soft drinks and most certainly not alcohol.

Do you want to go see that Mayan temple? You can make your way there on your own (cheapest), you can look for an excursion company not affiliated with the cruise line (cheaper than the cruise’s, but it can be a crap shoot), or you can pony up and be just about guaranteed a good tour with the ship’s (most expensive).

To be sure, the surprise bill you will inevitably rack up during your vacation is always a hoot (insert bulging eyes here) when you see it at the end of the week.

I’m going to put entertainment pretty high up on the list of things I don’t like on cruises. I’ve probably been on seven or eight cruises, but the entertainment can be quite plastic, glossy and stiff, especially for the big productions, which have reminded me of cheap Vegas drivel. Though I’m admittedly not saying this is always the case. A little research will help here. Smaller piano bars and poolside island-style music can also be exceptions, and you might well luck out with particularly personable musicians and singers.

While one of the truly amazing experiences is stepping off the ship and into a new land, there is many a port not near anything resembling a vacation, I’m talking a working port, where containers are being loaded and unloaded. Any town is miles away. This means paying for a cab there and back.


There are Irish themed cruises depending on your musical taste and while I dissed the cruise lines’ entertainment, these ones are exempt. Joanie Madden is offering a Mediterranean cruise filled with trad and folk music in September (; Debbie Casey is bringing folks around the Mediterranean on her folk music cruise (; and Gertrude Byrne, who features a show band-style lineup, has already sailed for 2022, but better luck next year (

Are the palm trees calling you during these cold months? Perhaps Hawaii is in your future.

Why do we Irish love potatoes?

Like the call of the siren, it beckons from the center of the Thanksgiving table in all of its starchy goodness, just on the other side of the green beans. There’s no shame. Everyone with Irish ancestry succumbs to its lure. We’re all powerless in its awesome gaze.

Of course, I speak of the spud, the incredible, edible, delectable master of all tubers, the potato, the perfect vehicle for gravy, the granddaddy of side dishes.

The potato has played a crucial role in our history, sustaining our ancestors and spreading us tragically across the world when nature denied us its bounty. My father used to say that a day without potatoes is like a day without sunshine. Indeed, I’ve been served dinners in Ireland with three different kinds of potato sides. And I loved it.

How seriously do we take our potatoes, any of you non-Irish may ask? Let’s just say that three years ago, in November 2018, a Cork woman was sentenced to jail for damaging a packet of Pringles. Don’t mess with our crisps!

But how did we get here?

Potatoes evolved from the poisonous ancestor of nightshade, so its cousins include tobacco, chili peppers, bell peppers and tomatoes. Just so you know, the part we eat is the root of the plant, where the energy is stored for the following year.

Yet, I digress. Our story starts about 15,000 years ago in the South American Andean highlands between what is now Peru and Bolivia. That’s when human settlers appeared in the region. Somewhere about 8,000 B.C., we domesticated the wild potato. (My personal belief is that the first fish and chip shop opened not long after, but archaeology is murky on this subject.)

The potato remained unknown to the rest of the world until the Spanish conquistadors started poking around the area in the early 1500s. Somewhere between 1570 and 1593, they brought the plant to Europe, but it was hardly an immediate success. Europeans were used to eating the upper portions of plants, not the roots, and as such, the plant was regarded as poisonous and even evil. Doubters blamed the potato for leprosy, sterility, over sexuality and for destroying soil.

But the lowly potato found its salvation in its long shelf life, in particular for the French military. France sought a food not only to sustain their soldiers, but also a populace starved from continuous warfare. The government planted one hundred acres of potatoes and guarded the food. The fact that it was guarded sparked interest among the French and eventually it became one of the most popular food sources in Europe.

The Great Hunger

The potato was introduced into Ireland in the late 1500s and apparently we liked it. Not only did it flourish, but the tuber grew so well in Ireland that eventually farmers began to rely solely on the plant for their crops. Big mistake. It became the staple for the poor Irish family.

So, when a blight hit the potato crop in 1845, the working poor were unprepared. That year, a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans turned up to one half of the potato crop into goo. It devastated about three-quarters of the crop over the next seven years.

Britain—which at the time ruled Ireland—failed the population. Though Ireland continued to export a great many food sources, their populace was dying. Roughly a million Irish people died of starvation or related causes and another million left the shores of their homeland for Amerikay and other less impoverished nations. We spread throughout the world.

In 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a statement, offering a formal apology to Ireland for the British government’s handling of the catastrophe.

And so here we are, with Irish seeds cast all over the world. We stuck by our beloved potato and have—in the inimitable Irish way—bettered ourselves through our misfortunes.

But there’s more!

Allow me now to move past the traditional roasted, mashed, baked, boiled, fried, chipped, crisped potato to offer you a new avenue for potatoes: pizza crust. Yes, it’s possible and yes, it’s delicious (and gluten free).

I’d suggest listening to appropriate music while making this recipe. Suggestions include Bud the Spud and the Ketchup Song, both from Stompin’ Tom Connors; Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon, by the New Main Street Singers (from the movie A Mighty Wind); and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

Potato Pizza Crust

1 ½ pounds potatoes (try red potatoes)

½ cup of shredded cheese of your choice

1 egg

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Salt and pepper

Your choice of toppings

Preheat oven to 425 F (220 C)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper

Peel potatoes, discard peels

Grate potatoes in grater (large holes)

Transfer potatoes to towel and squeeze out excess moisture

Add potatoes to a bowl with cheese, egg, salt and pepper. Stir to combine.

Form a 12-inch circle on the parchment paper with the mixture

Bake 25-30 minutes

Remove from oven and top with toppings of your choice (suggestions: mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes sliced in half, pepperoni and basil)

Bake an additional 10-15 minutes. Crack open the latest edition of iIrish and enjoy.

Writer's Digest Award

Well, don't that beat all. I have won an honorable mention in Writer's Digest for an article I wrote for iIrish about Newgrange.

Not much to add to that, but I'm pretty happy about it.

I didn't order a milk

People ask me all the time, “Is sleeping on the sidewalk outside a busy train station as wonderful as it sounds?” The short answer is no and I normally tell interrogators this with a hearty laugh and a pat on the arm. But there’s a more thorough answer:

I turned twenty in 1988, and celebrated with a trip across Europe, a good friend named Jim accompanying me in the endeavor. It was a month-long excursion, an experience I felt sure I would repeat many times. (Advice to younger folks: take the trip whilst you can. Life has a way of crushing all of your hopes, plans and dreams.)

We hadn’t planned it much. We knew the areas we wanted to hit, and some of the sights we wanted to see, but we wanted freedom, so things were left loose.

Okay, may I just say one thing? Who am I asking? Of course, I can. Going back over the memories, the old instamatic cameras were absolute crap. My photos from the trip are dark and lifeless, fuzzy and indistinct. So, all you young people out there, appreciate what you have on your smartphone. Hold a tissue in front of the lens the next time you snap a photo. That’s how these things used to look.

Anyhoo, we started our journey in London, where we hit some of the favorites like Abbey Road and the Changing of the Gordon’s Dry Gin spokesmen. Near the end of that bit of skylarking, I found a cheap flight to Ireland (yes, we actually read a slip of paper in a window and booked it that way. Crazy, right?)

All of my cards on the table, Jim didn’t want to visit Ireland. He figured we were heading in the wrong direction and was anxious to streel the mainland. I would not acquiesce. And so we went.

I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that he fell in love with the country.

At one point, in the small townland of Derrynoose, which contains more Makems per square foot than any place on earth, we decided to walk into town, which consisted of a church and a post office/shop. Along the way, a single tractor lumbered past, with a pipe-smoking farmer at the helm.

“Hello boys,” the man said as he took to the passing lane.

We waved back and Jim consequently asked who the man was. “I dunno,” I replied.

“No, come on,” says Jim, “who is he?”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, quit kidding around, who was that guy?”

“I told you, Jim, I’ve never seen the man.”

“So, you’re telling me that guy just said ‘hi’ for no reason.”

“That’s what I’m saying, Jim. We’re in a village that could probably fit on a bus and we’re the only three people likely to pass each other.”

And that was that. Jim loved Ireland. His first hope was to move there and set up a pizza delivery business, which I informed him wouldn’t work in Ireland. (Don’t send me mad emails, this was 1988 and what you got at the time was meat, veg and two forms of potato.) Then he decided just to move over and get a job. I shot that one down too, it still being 1988 and him not being Irish and all that and the country being pretty adamant about bestowing any available jobs to the Irish, many of whom were quite looking for one.

So, after a swell time on the ould sod, we caught a ferry to France, saw Paris and what it had to offer, and then booked an eight-hour train ride to Amsterdam. Now, we had Eurail passes, providing fairly good travel across the continent, but we had heard that the trip from Paris to Amsterdam was standing room only and if we didn’t want to be perpendicular for eight hours, we were well off throwing down a few shekels for a booked seat. We happily complied.

Here was the first real flaw in the otherwise perfect Persian rug that was our vacation. For although our seats were occupied when we arrived at them, there was a cheeky young man in Jim’s seat and a weary, old dozing biddy in mine. Jim’s seat was easy enough to clear. He showed the man his ticket and that was that. But what was I to do, kick a frail and sleeping granny out into the aisle?

So, for eight hours, Jim sat happy as a clam as I meandered through the throngs, leaning on seats and generally yawning at an alarming rate.

(Amsterdam is not for a family publication.)

(Nor is Germany.)

Italy was fun. I should mention that in an alley in Rome, we ran into the kid from the train—who was sitting in Jim’s seat—and who we also joined for some festivities in Amsterdam.

Then we returned to France, Nice to be exact. We left our belongings in a locker at the train station, passports, wallets and all. Then we headed out to explore the city.

I had heard that McDonald’s sold beer in France, so we being two twenty-year olds…well, you know. Having had nine years of French at Catholic schools, I approached the cashier and said, “Donnez-moi un bier, s’il-vous-plaît.”

She uttered something that left a blank look on my face. Recognizing how terrible my accent was, she responded in clear English. “Is that for here or to go?”

“Ah yes, very good. To go, then.”

“Beer needs to stay on the premises.”

“Right-e-o, I’ll have it for here.”

“Is that all?”

“Oui,” said I.

“You can’t order just beer. You need to order food with it.”

“I see. Well, okay, I’ll have a beer and a small fry.”

I paid her and she left, returning with a small fry and a carton of milk. So that turned into a whole thing, which ended up with me sulking over a plastic cup of beer and a small fry in a McDonald’s in Nice, France, while Jim complained that it cost money for the packets of ketchup.

(Yes, this McDonald’s episode actually happened.)

When we returned to the train station for our belongings so that we could secure some bedding for the night, we—along with several other young men—were surprised to see that the train station was closed at 6 p.m. and that everything was locked up.

We tried our hand at sleeping on the beach, but to be honest it was comprised of rocks and not comfortable in any way, shape or form. Plus, we were wearing our summer gear, which was shorts and tee-shirts and it was pretty darned cold. And on top of it all, there was a noisy brawl on the boardwalk above us, which put us at unease, so we returned to the station and slept on the sidewalk outside waiting for doors to reopen.

I will say this once and for all. Sleeping on the sidewalk outside a busy train station is not enjoyable, even in Nice, France. Give it a try, if you must, but be prepared for disappointment.

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My father's last trip to Ireland

“I’m afraid this is expired.” This was July 2007 and the Aer Lingus agent was holding my father’s American passport.

The old man was not in the greatest of shape for this trip. He’d mistakenly grabbed the wrong passport. My father, Tommy Makem, had been battling lung cancer all year and we were heading over so he could be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster. I started to panic.

This was weeks before he passed away and I think he knew it would be his last time in the country of his birth. The thought was certainly front and center in my mind. I don’t recall too many times when he sounded as disheartened. “I guess I’m not going to Ireland,” he said.

“What about your Irish passport, do you have that?” I asked. He handed it to me and I gave it to the agent. “Will this do?”

“That will get him into the country, but I don’t know how he’s getting back here,” the man in the snazzy green vest retorted.

“We’ll worry about that later,” I replied. I called my older brother, Shane, and told him to look for the most recent passport.

Anyway, the pair of us found seats beyond security and I envisioned a week at the American Embassy in Dublin trying to work out a fix instead of being with the paterfamilias. It was hardly the way I had hoped to spend the week. The crisis was averted when Shane returned my call saying he had located the passport and that he would overnight it to our hotel.

We stayed at our go-to digs in the north, the Armagh City Hotel. He had a steady stream of well-wishers and though he was tired, he jumped at every chance to head out for a visit with cousins or friends.

I recall one dinner we had at the hotel, where I had schemed myself a way to pay. My father, you see, was one of those people who always grabbed the bill before anyone else could, and I wanted to treat him for a change. I excused myself for a bathroom break and slipped the waiter a few pound notes on the way. When I arrived back at the table, the man was returning the money saying he couldn’t accept it. In a hurry to beat my father to his wallet, I threw more money at the waiter. He regarded it and said he couldn’t take that either and my father handed him a credit card.

It turns out, Northern Bank had been robbed of £26.5 million in December of 2004 and in a blow to the robbers, all of the ten, twenty, fifty and one-hundred-pound notes were updated and reprinted. The old notes were unusable. Since I hadn’t been up north in a couple years, the cash I had left over from my last trip had to be converted at the bank. My father’s stint of footing the bill remained unbroken.

We traveled to the University of Ulster for the big day so the old man could accept his Doctorate of Letters. I should mention that he only attended school until eighth grade and that he had received doctorates from both the University of New Hampshire and the University of Limerick prior to this. To say I have pride for my father’s accomplishments is quite the understatement.

I was informed that I would be taking part in the ceremony when we arrived and I immediately demurred. But they told me it was in the program, and that I had no choice. Hours before the graduation ceremony, a man brought me out from the backstage area onto the stage to show me where I’d be sitting, the chair up front on the far left. A sheet of paper with my name was taped to it and I told the man I understood. Then he spent a good five minutes reiterating that that was my chair and it was where I’d be sitting. I restated that I truly did understand.

As the witching hour approached, I was given a cap and gown, which I reluctantly accepted. Then they lined us up and told me I was leading the procession into the auditorium. “The what now? I’m not leading this thing in.”

“You are,” I was told. “It’s in the booklet.”

The horns started blaring in the big room and the doors whooshed open and there I was leading a line of professors and dignitaries into a hall filled with thousands of spectators. After a few feet, the professor behind me whispered, “Walk slower.” She was very kind and I obeyed. Then she said, “Slower.” And I once again paid heed.

Then it hit me. I glanced at the stage at the bottom of the gangway, straight ahead. I had no idea where the stairs were to climb onto it. They had only shown me my spot from an onstage access. What was I supposed to do, turn around and ask directions while the music is playing and everyone is standing up and watching the first man in line?

I inched forward, the sweat beading up on my brow. This line was going to come to a stop when I reached the bottom of the auditorium.

Then the professor behind me saved the day. “Turn right at the man with the scepter.” It’s a quote that sticks in my head to this day, one that I never could have predicted I would hear in my lifetime.

When I reached the man, I indeed turned right and there were the stairs, at the end of the stage. Thank the stars. I led the group onstage and there was my seat, just as it had been left. It never dawned on them to run me through my duties at least once.

My father received a standing ovation when they awarded him his degree. I didn’t think most of the students would have been old enough to appreciate what he had contributed to Irish music. But I’ve become an old curmudgeon myself and I sometimes love it when I’m wrong.

Tommy Makem passed away fourteen years ago, on Aug. 1, 2007.

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