Time out

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

The Irish Times Magazine - - IN­SIDE -

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.


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.


“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.

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