After months of journalistic curiosity, Peter Molloy finally got his grubby paws on a bottle of God’s own mixed flavour drink. Puzzled? Read on!
There’s a long-standing convention in journalism – even at this level – that private jokes shouldn’t make their way to print.
It makes perfect sense. After all, what’s side-splittingly amusing in a newspaper office at half-past eleven on the Friday night of a production weekend might not necessarily translate to the real world when crisp new copies of The University Observer emerge on to campus on a Tuesday morning.
In any case, journalists of any description are usually strange creatures. They might be able to make a cursor bounce across a laptop screen to create something magical week in and week out, but that doesn’t automatically make them the kind of hilarious social animals you’d like to find yourself wedged beside on a long bus journey. More often than not, hacks are best left to scribbling away in darkened news rooms, only sporadically emerging for a gasped cigarette and a cup of plastic-tinged coffee.
Occasionally though, just occasionally, something happens that’s significant enough to merit breaching that unspoken boundary. For me, that something happened this week.
A certain amount of explanation is required here. Two things about the The University Observer have always struck me: one is the sheer amount of tat that can sometimes blag its way past the bouncers at the front door in the guise of free gifts, samples, and products for review in one issue or another. In that respect at least, there’s nothing particularly unique about this newspaper – it happens the world over.
Over the years I’ve spent desperately clinging on to a role within this paper; I’ve had to avoid tripping over everything from piles of unwanted CDs (thanks, otwo), to box after box of blue Doritos (seriously – there’s still enough here to enable us to weather out a small-scale nuclear winter).
The other thing that’s always given me pause for thought is the sheer level of geographical variety our staff roster has always reflected. This may be a student newspaper based in University College Dublin; but the backgrounds of the people that make things happen around here have always been much broader than just the big smoke. Over my time with the paper, I’ve worked with section editors and deputy editors from Meath; contributors from Canada and the US; and others from even further afield.
There’s one group, however, that have always held a particularly prominent role in this organisation – those who hail from God’s own county: Donegal. The north-west has contributed more than its fair share of talent to The University Observer over the years, from editors to deputy editors and more again. This year has been no exception to that.
In fact, a decent argument could at times be made that the small, L-shaped office in the Student Centre, from where all of this filler originates each fortnight, is in fact simply an annexed back lot of Stranorlar or Killybegs (or, depending on your perspective, an eerie echo of the Leaving Cert Irish aural tape).
It begins to have an effect. The only experience I’ve ever had of that little portion of Ireland has been a rainy week in June here and there spent skidding on a racing bike around the back roads of Glenties on school trips. I don’t have any O’Donnells or McDaids hidden away anywhere in the family tree; and I’ve never nipped across to Derry to do a spot of discount Saturday morning shopping.
For all of that, though, I’ve developed a funny attraction to the place. I don’t actually think I’m from Donegal, and I’m not about to amble over to the Belfield Bowl to watch Finn Harps on a windy Friday night any time soon. But it’s growing on me.
They’re lovely people, they really are. But just like any group, they have their own quirks and funny points. As a Dublin student through and through, nothing has ever seemed funnier – or more intriguing – than the latest addition to the stock of the Centre Club: a concoction called Football Special.
At this point, if you are a reader who hails from Donegal, you’ll be excitedly rubbing your palms together and getting ready to group-text your friends to tell them that you’ve just read about it in the student newspaper. Elaboration will be required for anyone else, however.
Football Special – according to those raised on the stuff since just after their mother’s milk – is something that defies easy categorisation. It’s a refreshing mineral. It’s a sports drink. It’s a hangover cure to beat all others. It just… is. And most intriguingly, until recently, you couldn’t buy the stuff anywhere south of Bundoran.
Now, anyone who’s ever even considered a career in journalism is nosy. It comes with the territory. Express a desire to squint into the windows of houses with a long-lens camera in hand, or hack into someone’s e-mail account to snoop through their messages in any other context, and you have issues. Do it with a notebook in your back pocket and a quaint fedora hat with a small card saying “Press” wedged in the brim and you’re merely displaying a keen sense of dedication to your chosen profession.
I’m no exception – I’m a nosy, nosy man, burdened with a pressing desire, once something piques my curiosity, to find out as much as I possibly can about it. Football Special had distinctly ticked that box. After months of listening to colleagues from the north-west sincerely extolling the virtues of the drink, I knew I had to have some. The opportunity just never seemed to arise.
That was, at least, until our Editor made the annual pilgrimage home the weekend before last. She knew of my interest. Anyone who’s ever been foolish enough to admit to coming from Donegal within earshot of me has quickly been made aware of that insatiable puzzlement.
“Would you like me to just get you some?” she asked on Friday night.
I couldn’t believe it. I nodded mutely, and held it together just long enough to make the bus journey home. The weekend passed in a blur – nothing came close to the anticipation of having some of that mythical Donegal elixir in my paws at the start of the coming week. (Sadly it turns out she actually meant a bottle of Football Special, rather than getting me Some.)
So – what’s it like? It’s a revelation, that’s what it’s like. I gingerly cracked open the office door on Monday morning to find not one, but six plastic bottles of the stuff standing to attention on my desk.
At a glance, it fits every joking reference I’d ever made about it. It’s made – and save your gasps of surprise – by McDaid’s; a subsidiary, presumably, of McDaid & McDaid.
The 500ml bottles display a stuck on print label excitedly singing the praises of the drink using only the subtlest of Capital Letters and multiple exclamation marks!!! That’s because (according to the makers at least), Football Special is the distilled result of a “Quest for the Very Best in soft drinks”.
Should the wavering shopper remain sitting on the fence, the Ramelton bottlers have cunningly upped the ante on the blurb at the front of the label: Football Special is “Made with Donegal Water”. I know I’m impressed, and I dropped Science after the Junior Cert, so I couldn’t even begin to guess at what the fluoride benefits might be here.
Holding a bottle in my hands just doesn’t seem real, or right. It’s like glimpsing Shergar trotting around a paddock in the background as you enjoy a gin on the veranda with Elvis and Lord Lucan. Eventually though, it has to be done.
I pluck up my courage and unscrew the cap. It’s… well, very, very nice. I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but Football Special fits the bill nicely. It tastes somewhat like a jazzed-up Ribena, with the added kick that can only be given by Donegal Water, naturally. Well, hopefully the stuff is natural.
Five days on, and I’ve binged on the stuff. The Features desk (there is no features desk Peter, that’s MY desk – Ed) is surrounded by crushed and empty plastic bottles of ‘Special, casualties of my failing efforts to discipline myself and leave some for Donegal colleagues who might actually appreciate that little touch of home more than me.
A monster has been let out of the bag with this one. And no, McDaid’s haven’t paid me in crates of syrupy goodness. Although they’re welcome to.
Some of the lesser known produce from around Ireland that you’re unlikely to find on sale at the campus Centra any time soon…
Prince August Toy Soldiers, Cork
Toy soldiers? In Macroom? Really? It’s true, though. Get yourself down to the Prince August visitor centre and choose from a range of little men ranging from Roman Legionaries to Napoleonic Redcoats. Go on; indulge the child/final year History student inside you. www.princeaugust.ie
Llewellyn’s Orchard Produce, Dublin
Irish wine – surely a misnomer? Not for David Llewellyn. His Lusca Irish wine is grown in Lusk, County Dublin, and is regularly on sale in markets like that at the People’s Park in Dun Laoghaire every Sunday. Chateauneuf de Swords, anyone?
The Alternative Pizza Company, Cork
There must be something entrepreneurial in the tap water down in Munster. Chef Dave Flynn created what has to be one of the only wholly Irish pizza companies in existence in 2004. The Italian staple goes through a distinctively Gaelic overhaul, with flavours like Bacon and Cabbage, or Black Pudding and Provençale Sauce being particularly eye-catching. Available in supermarket outlets nationwide; or visit www.alternativepizza.ie