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‘It feels nice to spread some joy around the place’

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Penpals is a word that suggests a specific era in time; decades back in time, when people wrote with pens and posted actual letters. A time before email and Facebook and WhatsApp. Unlike other kinds of correspondents, penpals were usually people you hadn’t met personally, and who often lived in other countries. Back in the pre-internet day, you found them through girls’ magazines, or school forums. It was almost exclusively something teenage girls engaged in.

Penpals are having a bit of a moment again, nudged by all that extra time people have had this last year, on account of not being able to go anywhere. American-born Liz Maguire (27), who came to study marketing in Dublin, and now lives here, has accrued an astonishing 80-plus penpals in the last year. One thing that hasn’t changed is that all but two of them are female.

“The majority of them are in the US,” she says. “Some are in the UK. A handful in France and Germany. ”

Maguire found them though a digital platform that was created last year called Penpalooza, by a staff writer for the New Yorker, Rachel Syme. It uses Elfster – a programme used a lot at Christmas time for Kris Kindles – to randomly match people with each other via an algorithm. Some 12,000 people have signed up to date. Word of it spread via Twitter, on @penpalooza.

“The postman knows my house well by now,” she says. (Incidentally, she is the rare interviewee who can recall her Eircode instantly, without having to look it up.) It’s Thursday when we’re talking, and so far that week, she has sent seven letters and received 11. “I keep them all listed in my book,” she explains.

Some of her correspondents, who range in age from early 20s through late 50s, write frequently. Others just once. One correspondent writes 20 page letters akin to short stories, which she saves to read. “My house is still full of glitter from all the Christmas cards,” she says. Maguire has only met one of her many correspondents, but that’s not really the point.

Why does she do it? “It feels nice to spread some joy around the place. I send strangers birthday cards,” she explains. For birthdays and Christmas, she seeks out cards on Etsy or Instagram made by Irish designers and independent stationery brands. “I believe in the value of shopping Irish and supporting Irish.” For letters, she writes on a legal notepad. She used to use rollerball pen, until her partner gave he a fountain pen at Christmas, so now she writes all the cards and letters in blue ink.

What about the cost of all the cards, not to mention the stamps? “I’m not able to go out to the pub or to restaurants, so I’ve found external ways to spend my pocket money. I have definitely spent money on it. My dad is an accountant, and he is always asking how much I’m spending on it all.”

The earliest thing Maguire recalls getting in the post herself was a card from her grandmother, Gert. “She is a real card sender: Easter, Christmas, birthdays, all of the holidays. She has has the knack of making sure they all arrive on time.

Not all her penpals have kept in touch. It’s in the spirit of the randomness of the contacts: some just send one card or letter and they drop away. Others write regularly, although Maguire won’t reveal about what.

Will the penpal card-writing and letter-writing survive when All This is over? “That’s what a writer working on a novel involving letters contacted me to ask,” she says. “I think it will slow down a bit, and it won’t be the same because we won’t be at home all day, but it will change.”

Maguire believes there is a possibility in creating new kinds of networks of people in the future, who had been corresponding as penpals, but who, when travel restrictions end, will want to meet up in person in different locations around the world. This is what some of her correspondents are telling her. “It’s a new community of people.”

The penpal project is not the only correspondence-based project Maguire is engaged in. She also set up the website fleamarketloveletters.com.

“Since 2017, I have been buying up old letters and diaries from the 1940s.” She posts these letters up on the site. “It’s a history project,” as she puts it.

She buys them on eBay, at fleamarkets and in antique shops. In addition to posting the letters themselves on the site, she also has pieces about preserving old letters, books that feature letters in their plots, letters and love songs – pretty much anything where letters and culture intersect.

I go into the site, and have a random look at a few letters. The viscerality of handwriting is somehow so intimate and moving. One letter was written on Christmas Day, 1944, from the Union Service Men’s Lounge in New York city. From a distance of almost 80 years, the yearning is palpable.

“My Dearest Darling, this is Christmas evening . . . and I am so lonely without you. I just sorta walked around all day in a trance . . .”

What about the ethics of publicly posting formerly private pieces of correspondence on the internet, particularly as many of them are love letters? “If anyone contacted me and said, oh, that’s my grandmother or whatever, I would take them down immediately,” she says. To date, nobody has claimed to be a relative of any of these long ago letter-writers from the 1940s.



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Travel agents experiencing increase in bookings since Covid-19 restrictions eased

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Travel agents are experiencing an increase in inquires and bookings since the government announced the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions on Friday.

Pat Dawson, CEO of the Irish Travel Agents Association, says there has been a “phenomenal” turn around in bookings, and travel agents are busy getting back to inquiries.

“We are looking at a healthy summer season, it’s the first time I’ve been positive in two years.”

He advised people to book their holidays early to avoid disappointment. “The longer you leave it, the dearer it will get. Mid-term break in February and Easter are almost full.”

Mr Dawson believes there is a pent-up demand. “There are some people who have money they haven’t spent, a big chunk of that will be spent on foreign holidays.”

John Spollen, director of Cassidy Travel in Dublin, says he has seen an increase in bookings over the weekend.

Popular destinations include Spain and Portugal, which have been Irish favourites for many years now, says Mr Spollen. There are also some bookings for the US, Jersey, Madeira and the Greek islands.

Peak travel

People should avoid peak travel times from mid June to the end of August and consider booking mid-week, early or late flights to get the best value, according to Mr Spollen.

“In May, September and October, the weather will be similar to summer weather.”

Mr Spollen added people should take out travel insurance and ensure their passport and driver’s licence are in date.

Michael Doorley of Shandon Travel in Cork said they have seen a huge increase in inquiries.

“We are not back to 2019 levels yet… the EU is a big destination. We have had a lot of inquires about mobile home holiday parks. Italy would be the most popular destination for this type of holiday, but Croatia is becoming almost as popular.”

There are also bookings for America coming in, as well as some couples celebrating their honeymoons belatedly, according to Mr Doorley.

It is important that people understand the restrictions in the country they are travelling to, he added, and they should check the Department of Foreign Affairs website regularly.

Aoife O’Donoghue is just one of the many Irish people who have not been on a holiday abroad in two years, and she is excited to be going to Barcelona at the end of March.

“A friend is moving over there in February, so myself and two other girls are going to visit her. It’s actually all our birthdays that weekend too,” she says.

The friends used to live together in Galway, and Ms O’Donoghue says it’s fantastic to have something to look forward to again.

The last time she went abroad was to Switzerland in January 2020. “Just as we were coming back there was news of the big Covid outbreak in Italy, so felt lucky to have gotten a holiday in before it all kicked off.”

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Property group clashes with council over Dundrum residential development

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The owners of Dundrum Town Centre have clashed with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown council over demands for more large apartments as they advance fast-track plans for a major residential development in the south Dublin village.

Property group Hammerson and insurer Allianz, which operate the new shopping complex in the area, have been in talks with An Bord Pleanála to build up to 889 apartments on the site of the old Dundrum shopping centre.

Their company, Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership, has told the council it should scrap new requirements for “a minimum of three-plus bedroom units” in large apartment blocks that are included among proposed amendments to its draft county development plan.

In a submission last week to the council, the company said the new guidelines were in conflict with official rules that said there should be no minimum requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms.

According to the company, the justification for the guidelines was based on fast-track strategic housing development permissions in the council area and “evidence” from certain boroughs in London.

“[Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership] submit that the logic underpinning the policy is flawed and is not a basis for imposing prescriptive unit mix ratios on a countywide basis,” it said.

“The draft development plan needs to be amended to remove the very prescriptive requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms and to allow applicants to make the case for a particular unit mix based on the particular attributes of local areas where a different mix might be appropriate.”

The company also told the council that proposed amendments to the development plan presented “contradictory or ambiguous objectives” in relation to proposals for a community, cultural and civic centre in the area.

Such objections were included among 106 submissions on the draft plan in a public consultation which closed last week. Numerous other developers and the Irish Home Builders Association lobby group also opposed the measures, some saying they would delay or prevent the delivery of new homes.

Asked about the submissions, the council said the response to any issues raised would be set out in a report by its chief executive to elected members which would be published. “It will be a decision of the elected members to adopt the plan and it is anticipated that this will take place in early March 2022. The plan will then come into effect six weeks later,” the council said.

Cost increase

In its submission, the Irish Home Builders Association said its members were concerned that the introduction of “further onerous standards” would increase the cost of delivering new homes and their price.

“This at a time when construction costs are already under huge inflationary pressure and affordability is a major issues for most home buyers,” said James Benson, director of the association.

“A key concern of the home-building sector in respect of the new plan is a lack of consistency with national planning guidelines/standards, which may be considered to be contrary to recent Government policy which sought to bring a greater extent of standardisation to national planning standards.”

The submission added: “The key concerns relate to the locational restriction and unit mix requirements for [build-to-rent] schemes, other standards for apartment developments which are more onerous/restrictive than the Government’s… guidelines, and the requirement for early delivery of childcare facilities in residential developments, all of which have the potential to impact adversely on the viability and affordability of housing in the county.”

Another builder, Park Developments, said in a submission the draft sought “more onerous policies, objectives and standards” that would have a direct effect on housing supply. “We are already seeing the impact of the chronic shortage in the supply of housing on the affordability of rental accommodation and homeownership.”

Castlethorn Construction said the blanket imposition of three-bedroom requirements “can only serve to militate against development of apartments” in the council area. It said the cost of delivering three-bed apartments was “very significant”, adding that demand was “not evident by reference to market sentiment, estate agents’ advice” and national policy imperatives.

Developer Hines, which has major interests in the Cherrywood strategic development zone, said in its submission that the logic underpinning requirements for more three-bedroom units was flawed.

“While making the case that recent development has been weighted towards one- and two-bed units, it fails to recognise that three-bed semi-detached and detached houses remain the predominant typology within [Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown] and that the [strategic housing development] permissions provide a much-needed mix of housing types within the county to redress this balance within the county.”


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Laicisation of Catholic priest in Tipperary causes disappointment and anger in parish

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Standing in the family’s hardware store on Main Street in Carrick-on-Suir, Fiona Hearn remembers how Fr Richard Geoghegan gave her son First Holy Communion 15 years ago.

Today, Geoghegan is no longer a priest, following the Vatican’s decision to issue a laicisation order, with the history of the story up to that point a subject of disagreement.

The former parish priest at Ballyneale and past curate at St Nicholas Parish in Carrick-On-Suir announced on Twitter last week that he had been officially “dismissed by Rome” on January 7th.

“My Bishop was happy to dispense me. I’m a good man. And he talks about the shortage of vocations,” said Geoghegan, who entered the seminary in 1987 aged just 19, and he was ordained six years later.

The Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Phonsie Cullinan, whose diocese extends over both the borders of Tipperary and Cork, has rejected Geoghegan’s charges.

Fr Richard Geoghegan
Fr Richard Geoghegan

Geoghegan had petitioned Pope Francis for laicisation last March and it was granted on December 15th, said the bishop: “I wish to acknowledge and thank Richard for his pastoral ministry over the years and wish him well for the future.”

Geoghegan came under fire from conservative Catholics following an appearance on hotelier Francis Brennan’s RTÉ show Grand Tour of Vietnam in 2017, wherein he performed in drag as singer Shirley Bassey, wearing a blonde wig and lipstick.

The TV appearance might not have done him any favours, Hearn accepts. “He is only human at the end of the day. He is well loved here in town. We’d love to have him back. I’d have nothing but deep respect for him,” she says.

“He is a real people’s person. Some older priests could be aloof. You couldn’t meet a nicer, more down to earth man. I think he has been pretty hard done by the Pope and the bishop.”

Hearn is not alone in her feelings, with many members of the tight-knit Catholic churchgoing community in Carrick-On-Suir and surrounding districts still shocked and disappointed by the turn of events.

Despite the bishop’s declaration that Geoghegan had himself applied to be laicised, the Association of Catholic Priests’ Tim Hazelwood describes his treatment as “inappropriate, unreasonable and unacceptable”.

In 2020, Hazelwood accompanied Geoghegan to a meeting with Bishop Cullinan, and his secretary.

“It was obvious from the meeting that he wanted Richard to apply for laicisation,” Hazelwood says. “That’s when Richard said he would have liked to be a curate…Richard found it difficult being on his own in a parish. He needed support,” Hazelwood adds.

“Obviously, the bishop had made up his mind,” says Hazelwood, “I was shocked, really because the majority of bishops would be supportive, but what I was hearing was really a put down.”

Geoghegan declined to comment when contacted.

Former parishioner, John Nolan said, “The Church is crying out for priests and is leaving a good man go. He was friends with everyone, an absolute gentleman. Anyone having a wedding here would look for him. I think it is all down to Bishop Phonsie. ”

Describing him as “a fantastic priest”, Carrick-on-Suir butcher Morris Whelan says was a great man. “He knew everyone by name. You’d meet him once and he knew your name forever. He was involved in the parish in every part of it.”

Local Sinn Féin councillor David Dunne remembers Geoghegan’s kindnesses during his mother’s illness.

“Everyone recognised him for the programme he did with Francis Brennan…It was fairly flamboyant and wasn’t in keeping with the Church, but it was typical of Fr Richard,” said Cllr Dunne, “He was always friendly, outgoing and is well-regarded. It is a major loss.”

Describing the former priest’s ability to engage, Luke Foran says: “One of my favourite memories of him is my brother’s Communion where he had all the kids gathered around and Richard’s phone rang, and who was on the phone only ‘Jesus’.

“You should have seen the kids’ faces drop. It was brilliant and he enthralled and captivated the whole place. He was ahead of his time. Richard humanised the priesthood and was a breath of fresh air,” he said.

Besides the memories, there is anger, too. Ashling Ní Fháthaigh said: “When he was saying mass the church was a lot fuller with a younger congregation. (He) was liked by so many and was punished for that.”

Believing that the church’s hierarchy has questions to answers, Margaret Croke says: “A church without compassion and understanding who can so readily dismiss a person who was so dedicated for so many years to its flock and to God really needs to change.”

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