Wednesday 5 November 2014

A night in Athlone

Athlone can lay claim to being the dead center of Ireland by being close enough to the middle of the country and a town without any obvious attractions. Many years ago, when The Boy was about 12, we had a week on the River Shannon on a cruise-boat.  It was a varied and mildly restful adventure up the river from Portumna at the North end of Lough Derg to Athlone at the South end of Lough Ree and back the way we came.  I think the lowest point on the journey was the approach to Athlone when we came round a bend in the river and saw the profile of its several churches . . . across a wasteland of plastic bags and other trash.  The burghers had seen fit to use the riverside callows as the town dump. It spoke of a systemic embrace of self-contempt that wasn't really calculated to boost the river-borne tourist traffic.

So when I was invited to drive 2 hours NW directly after work to have a 'free' dinner in a fancy hotel outside of Athlone, I was somewhat ambivalent.  But I went aNNyway; figuring that, as I was arriving by road after dark and leaving before dawn the next morning I wouldn't have to see whether the inhabitants had developed a more positive image of themselves. I believe the town dump was used some years ago as the foundation for Ireland's least attractive shopping mall. More importantly, I went also to recognise the achievement of an old friend of mine who was co-recipient of a prize for life time contribution to science as a mentor.  It all happened at the annual Science Foundation Ireland jamboree, at which the smart and the successful recipients of SFI grants get to network with each other and listen to policy [the future of Ireland as a technological nation etc.] being thrashed out. Being a humble worker at the coal-face with more teaching hours in a week than some of the SFI grantees have in a calendar year, I had classes until 5pm and missed the actual presentation.  So I missed a tweet-length fragment from The Blob being read out to the assembled boffins as part of the citation to Life-of-mentoring Cliona O'Farrelly. Without a touch of irony, although I am a few years older, I had been one of the people who had cited her as having guided and advised and supported me during my ziggy-zaggy less-than-stellar immersion in science over the last 40+ years. Such feelings of gratitude and such tributes are articulated far too infrequently. Partly this failing is due to laziness and insensitivity but partly to the belief that the obviously successful don't need or heed accolades and congratulations.  But it's just not true - everyone glows when their contributions are acknowledged. Must do it more often.

I poured into bed at 0100hrs and was woken by the gentle burbling of the central heating in my hotel room five hours later.  I threw down a couple of cups of tea, had a brisk shower and was on my way back to work at 0640.  My return journey started off drizzling in the dark but as the sky lightened and then took colour in the distant East, the rain dried away and I drove though the Irish Midlands at the beginning of another day.  It was just quietly gorgeous - the leafless trees black against the dawn, the tangled hedges, the chill in the air, the little towns still mostly asleep. I was so glad I went.

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