Winston Churchill painted, Bill Clinton plays the saxophone. From keeping bees to visiting bridges, Ronan McGreevy asks some well- known Irish people about their unexpected pastimes
Tethered as we are these days to mobile technology, the concept of free time has become nebulous. Far too many of us are always on or always on call. In such circumstances, hobbies have never been more important in fostering mindfulness, creativity and peace of mind. History is full of examples of those who pursued hobbies despite the stresses of high office and demands on their time. Winston Churchill was an accomplished painter; George W Bush turned out to be surprisingly good at it too. Bill Clinton plays the saxophone, and the billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett plays the ukulele.
The State Pathologist, Prof Marie Cassidy, recently remarked that if Ballet Ireland had ¤ 1 for every child who wanted to be a ballet dancer, it wouldn’t need to fundraise.
The same could be said in so many walks of life. The five- a- side pitches are full of men of a certain age who thought that one day they would be professional footballers. The golf courses, too, are full of would- be Rory McIlroys.
Hobbies are often a reminder of how few of us actually now do what we wanted to do when we were young. Hobbies are often what many people would really like to do if the real world hadn’t intervened.
For others, hobbies are a continuity of childhood. Children have a curiosity and time on their hands that adults often lose. It is impossible to pursue a hobby unless one remains curious and prepared to learn new things.
The writer Aldo Leopold defined a satisfactory hobby as being intrinsically “useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant”. It was, he explained, a “defiance of the contemporary” and needs no rational justification.
If hobbies remove us, albeit temporarily, from the stresses of the real world, they are not really hobbies. They are a potent form of connection in a world that is becoming increasingly disconnected. We speak to some well- known people about their more unusual pastimes. PAUL HOWARD, WRITER: BEEKEEPING I have been keeping bees for the last 12 years. I have always been into bees and read about them when I was younger. I was fascinated about the hive and what happens there. Bees live in a matriarchal society; the women do all the work and, at the end of the summer, the men are booted out because they have not contributed – apart from impregnating the queen, which is the sole function of the drone.
I didn’t really have any hobby that got me out of the house. I didn’t play golf or five- a- side football. Now, if I find myself getting stressed with work, I’ll jump into the car and go and find out what is happening in the hive.
Keeping bees is hard. It is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. The biggest challenge is keeping them alive. They are very robust if you have the perfect environmental conditions for them, but in Ireland in the last few years, especially with the weather we have had, it is difficult to keep them alive.
I find it very relaxing to put the suit on and drive to where they are and take the smoker with me. When I take the top off the frame, I try to find the queen. The queen is very difficult to spot.
I find it relaxing to watch bees doing what they do. In the hive there is a constant turnover of life. Look at the bottom board of a beehive: You see bees dropping dead all the time. You have all of these roles within the hive. Every bee takes a turn at each job.
Certain bees will walk back and forth across the brood cells to maintain the heat until the egg hatches. Other bees are detailed to fan the hive to keep the temperature down because the temperature can get up to about 40 degrees in there. Bees even do undertaking duties. When bees die, you’ll find other bees who will carry them shoulder- high out of the hive because they don’t want decomposition.
My hives are about 3km from my house in Avoca. You can go as little or as often as you want to. Your job really is to stop them swarming. There isn’t something to do every day. You just have to make sure the hive doesn’t get too full.
In the autumn you have to go to the hive every day because they have to be fed with sugar and water mixed into a syrup. That is basically to replace the honey you took out of the hive to make sure they don’t starve.
You never know from month to month about many hives you have. I have had 14 hives and I have lost all of them in a bad winter. Then you start again. You get a swarm and put it in the hive. At the moment I have two.
Keeping bees has taught me patience. I don’t really have any patience. I expect things to be done now. It is learning that there is a season for everything and a time for everything. You get honey when it is ready and not beforehand.
HEATHER HUMPHREYS, MINISTER FOR BUSINESS: PLAYING THE ORGAN
I began learning the piano when I was seven. My mother made sure that I completed all my exams. I got up to grade eight. I may not have always been a willing pupil, but my mother persevered and I’m really glad today that she did.
I started playing the organ in Drumkeen Presbyterian Church in Co Monaghan, which is my local church, in 1998. We had a rota and I did two Sundays in the month. I continued playing it after I was made a Minister, in 2014, but I then found it difficult to make the commitment.
There were a number of young musicians coming forward with guitars and different musical instruments. That was much less boring than the piano!
I don’t get to play the piano as often as I
Not everybody in my house appreciates my musical talent so I close the door and I just get lost
want to. It is not every week I get to play, but every opportunity I get, I sit down and enjoy it. Usually on a Sunday afternoon, if I get a chance, I’ll shut the door and go into another world. Two hours could go past and I would not even know it. It would just disappear. Not everybody in my house appreciates my musical talent so I close the door and I just get lost.
I particularly like playing hymns. When I was learning, I learned a lot of classical music. I also like playing country and western, Irish ballads and Elvis Presley.
In my previous job, as minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, I think I had an appreciation of talented musicians. The amount of work spent achieving that standard is quite amazing. It is not until you try and play a violin that you realise how much work is involved. I can personally appreciate the commitment and dedication it takes to get to that level.
SINÉAD MCSWEENEY, HEAD OF TWITTER IRELAND: CROCHETING
“I started crocheting when I was 10. Initial-
ly, it was something I learned in school in Midleton, Co Cork, and then I used it as a means of having an income. Our confirmation class in St Brigid’s primary school had to wear crochet berets, so everybody was knotting their wool and throwing it around in frustration. I offered to make everybody’s berets for £ 1 each.
I started doing little jackets for babies and sold them to a shop. I continued doing it in secondary school. I used to collect a box of cotton thread on a Monday and return on a Friday with my 20 or 30 motifs. I was paid about 30p each for them.
I took a break for a while. When I was in college and when I started work, I wasn’t doing it. I took it up again about 10 years ago. Now, I mostly do baby blankets. Whenever I hear somebody’s pregnant, I start making baby blankets, taking a gamble on whether it is a boy or a girl or going neutral.
They are nice gifts to give people. It is something you have made with your own hand. People really appreciate it. You feel like you are giving something meaningful.
Crochet has really become a thing in the last year or two. There are a lot more artisan patterns. I’m going to sound like such a geek, but there is absolutely beautiful wool. It has become a much more interesting craft in a lot of ways. I find myself challenging myself more and more in terms of getting into an intricate project.
The other word I would use to describe crochet is mindful. You can watch TV while you are doing it, but other than that you are just focused on putting the hook in and pulling the yarn around. Particularly if it is an intricate pattern, you are engrossed in making sure that you have the steps and the colours correct. You cannot hold a mobile phone and crochet.
I tend to crochet in the evening for an hour, and on flights. People tell you stories on flights about family heirlooms. Everybody has a connection to crafting. I remember one family telling me about a blanket that went missing and literally turned up years later in a house that somebody was renting. There is continuity in it.
There are three plastic boxes under my bed full of bags of wool. I don’t think I could use all the wool I have in my house before I die. I go to the knitting and stitching exhibition in the RDS. It is ridiculous. I walk out with three or four plastic bags. What can I do? I can’t help myself.
STATE PATHOLOGIST PROF MARIE CASSIDY: BALLET When I was young I decided I would be a bal- let dancer like everybody else, but I was a podgy child. My sister was the little slim one. I certainly didn’t look grand in a tutu. If Ballet Ireland had ¤ 1 for every child who says they want to be a ballet dancer when they grow up, they wouldn’t need to do fundraisers.
Unfortunately some of us realise early on in their lives that this is not to be a career for us and life takes over and we do something else. I did have a letter from a seven- year- old child that she wanted to be a forensic pathologist. How peculiar, I thought, because I never wanted to be a forensic pathologist.
When I was offered a job as a forensic pathologist 30 years ago, I looked at the professor and said, “Really? You hate me so much, you are going to send me to forensic pathology?”
I went into the mortuary and I realised, Where has this been all my life? I seem to manage with the awful things without being traumatised.
I am not known for my grace and poise. You don’t normally associate forensic pathology with ballet. I inhabit a rather ugly and gruesome world, and even though CSI tries to make it sexy, it hasn’t really succeeded.
I have no option but to wear the white suit. It is one- size- fits- nobody.
I am not sporty and I don’t go to the gym. I tried all sorts of hobbies, but I was just not that way inclined.
I saw an advertisement for adult ballet classes and I thought, Good heavens, I wonder should I go along. So I did, and I have never looked back since.
You have to have balance in your life. I see some terrible sights and I hear some terrible things, but you have got to walk away and divorce yourself from it.
You need beauty and bright colours. You need anything that distracts you. That’s where ballet comes in for me. It is an hour getting away from it all.
Every Wednesday I put on my ballet shoes and dance. For at least an hour a week I get to dream. I may be more a dying swan than a sugar- plum fairy.
There is a motley crew of women there and some of them take it very seriously. For that hour the swans, the cygnets and the ducklings all get together and we all think we are prima ballerinas and we are happy.
Most of us should be at the “good toes, bad toes” stage, but we have to have aspirations. Some of us don’t know our left from our right. Our teacher is long- suffering. She deals with four- year- olds who are probably much better to deal with than ageing women. This is an edited version of a speech Prof Cassidy gave at a Ballet Ireland fundraising lunch
VOGUE WILLIAMS , TV PRESENTER: BRIDGES I studied for a degree in construction design and management when I was younger and I developed a love for bridges then. There is so much to them, which is what makes them so interesting – they are a lot more complex than they look and are the literal foundations for people to travel. It’s not just the science and technicalities behind how bridges physically stand up that interest me, but the history behind them and the artistic touches that can make a bridge a memorable icon for a city.
Bridges do mean a lot to me, so much so that my fiance, Spencer, even incorporated them into my engagement ring. He designed the stones in such a way that they actually look like a bridge, and I absolutely love it.
You can find bridges everywhere, which is great, and there are some really amazing ones out there. One which I am quite obsessed with is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It’s so iconic, and I was very excited when I got to see it in person recently whilst filming for the travel show Getaways. But I would have to say one of my favourite bridges is Albert Bridge in London, which we live near. I go past it a lot, and I still love looking at it every time.
I think having any sort of hobby is great for mental health. It can offer some release and a distraction and a way to calm yourself down. I occasionally suffer from anxiety, which walks can sometimes help to ease, and when I do go for a stroll I try to go past a few bridges.
There are three plastic boxes under my bed full of bags of wool. I don’t think I could use all the wool I have in my house before I die
Bee patient: you learn “there is a season for everything and a time for everything,” Paul Howard says. Below left: Heather Humphreys. PHOTOGRAPHS: NICK BRADSHAW
Off duty: Twitter MD Sinéad McSweeney ( right) and some of her crochet ( bottom); Anne Maher of Ballet Ireland with State Pathologist Marie Cassidy ( below right); and Vogue Williams at the Golden Gate Bridge.