Q&A for possible cochlear implantees

A few months ago, a friend with a cochlear implant recently asked me to engage in some email correspondence with a chap with a roughly similar hearing background to me who was being assessed (and possibly still is, at the time of writing) by the Beaumont CI programme for a possible implant.

He had quite a few questions as it turned out, and the answers I wrote him helped to crystallise some of my own thoughts and conclusions to date about my own experience. I ‘ve reproduced them here, without the person’s name, as they probably help answer some questions other candidates may have or for those who are just curious.

Hello [name withheld]

Nice to hear from you. Delighted to offer any insight I can as you start your ‘journey’. It’s a word I don’t particularly like, but I can’t think of a better one that encapsulates all that you will experience if you go far enough down the road of actually getting a CI.

Thanks for the kind words re the blog. It’s very much stream-of-consciousness stuff and ramblings; I have had the notion of writing something resembling a book or a perhaps an ebook but, to date, I can’t think of an original enough angle beyond the boring memoir genre. But watch this space, as they say. It may not happen for another few months at least as I’m still getting to grips with all the ramifications of my own implant – its only been five months since my switch-on, after all. I would very highly recommend you read Michael Chorost’s memoir, Rebuilt, particularly if you’re at all interested in the technology behind it and the social impact of the technology. I’m no techie myself, but I found it profoundly insightful for a whole variety of reasons. He’s a very good writer, very readable and engaging.

But I shall do my best to answer your very good questions:

Does speech sound like a “Dalek with laryngitis” as a uk politician once said ? ;-)
I think this quote is from Jack Ashley, [recently passed away] who got an implant many years ago. It’s worth pointing out that his own implant was probably quite some way behind the current technology, particularly in terms of the number of auditory channels – he might only have eight or even four. Today’s implants have between 16 and 22, depending on which manufacturer you go for. The more channels you have, the better for sound quality. Eight channels sounds far, far rougher than 16 or 22. For me, speech sounded surprisingly normal right from the very beginning, but any of the weirdness that people often describe on being switched on was probably ‘masked’ a good deal by what I still heard in my hearing aid ear. It takes a while for the implanted ear to become the dominant ear, but it does eventually. The short answer is no, speech really sounds quite OK at the beginning and becomes even more normal. Voices in general, for me, sounded a bit more lower-pitched and more monotone. Chaps with deep male voices sounded like they had marbles in their mouths. But that’s the worst thing I can say at this stage. It’s the more complex sounds that are more difficult to process, particularly music (did you read the article of my interview with Richard Reed)?

Would you consider having the second ear done?
Yes, I think I would, although it if were offered to me now, I probably wouldn’t.  Since the implant, my right ear, which was my good ear, seems to have taken a step back and simply isn’t working as hard. I hear so much more in my implanted ear now, which has long since become the dominant ear. Of course, as you probably know, Beaumont doesn’t have the funds to do bilateral implants except in exceptional circumstances, but the more evidence that emerges of the benefits of going bi-lateral (which are growing in number), I think it’s only a matter of time before it becomes more common. In the meantime, the fear that my hearing aid ear would ‘shut down’ (some implantees with a HA ear report that it shuts down very quickly, a matter of months, rendering it practically dead) doesn’t look like it’s going to transpire just yet. When I listen to something on the headphones or speak to someone on the telephone, that is when it’s most useful (and being a journalist, this will be important for me in the short- to medium term). However, my right ear is likely to deteriorate more as the years progress, but it hope it holds up long enough so that by the time I’m considered for a second implant, the technology will have moved on a bit (ie optical cochlear implants seems to be the nearest thing to the next generation, but efforts to stimulate cochlea hair cell ‘regeneration’ seems unlikely to happen for a good twenty or thirty years from now).

How did they decide which ear to do. Were you tempted to get the dominant ear done first?
For some people this is quite an easy decision but for me, this was a very very difficult thing to decide, and even now I’m still not 100pc sure I made the right decision, but I think I did. In the beginning, I was adamant I would get my right ear done first. It had always been my better ear, the ear that gave me all the sharpness and allowed me to appreciate complex music and use the telephone comfortably. So I felt I had an emotional duty to make my right ear the implanted ear, as a reward for all its years of hard work. If that sounds totally stupid, it probably is, but gradually the logic of doing my left, weaker ear became more convincing the more I talked to others and read what other people had to say online about the subject. The main logic, of course, is that if something goes wrong, you still have your better ear. But more than a few people pointed out that doing your weaker ear makes sense on a pure rehabilitation level if you plan to go bilateral eventually – your weaker ear will, by extension, become your stronger one until such a time as you get your second implant. I added a logic of my own, hinted at in the previous question, which is that by the time I do get a second implant, the technology would be better and the auditory ‘memory’ from my right ear and auditory nerve would still be fresh enough to get the most out of it – possibly more than I’m getting out my current implant in my left ear. Basically, my heart said my right, my head said my left, and the head won out.

How long was your wait from your first screening meeting to having the operation?

Exactly a year – slightly shorter than I expected. Some have had to wait longer, others a little shorter, but not by much.

Did they get you to try digital hearing aids and if not why not?
I’ve actually worn digital hearing aids since 1997 and never looked back. I think they made a huge difference in my case – at the time – from analog ones. The second set of digital aids I got, in 2007, were the second most powerful in the range but, by the time of my right ear deterioration in 2009, it become underpowered very quickly. I only found this out when I did the hearing aid review at Beaumont as part of the assessment programme (which they do with practically everyone as I understand it), when the audiologist did a test and prescribed a more powerful Phonak hearing aid. I didn’t realise they made hearing aids more powerful than the ones I had at the time. It made a little difference, but not a whole lot. I still have that hearing aid in my right ear.

Are there many settings to tinker with on the processor and which one did you get?
I got the Cochlear Nucleus 5 processor and the current implant. I would have preferred the Advanced Bionics Harmony processor and implant but, unfortunately, it was the subject of a major recall and the Beaumont wouldn’t use them, so I didn’t have the choice. But I understand the recall has ended and Beaumont are using them once again. Interestingly, one of the many reasons I wanted it was because it was the type of processor that adjusts volumes and sensitivity automatically depending on what situation you are in. The Cochlear version doesn’t do that. However, there isn’t much to fiddle with on the Cochlear processor – just volume and sensitivity. The fiddling is really around the four programmes – everyday, noise, focus and music. I tend to stick with everyday, with noise for noisy settings.

Annoyingly enough, my implant was the subject of a major recall, which was announced ONE day before I got switched on. I can only hope and pray that mine was not part of a duff batch of implants that apparently more or less shut down after a year or two and have to be removed and replaced! So far, no-one in ireland has been affected [ed note: I've since learnt that three people to date have been affected]

You may not have the issue of lack of choice by the time you are scheduled for surgery – assuming you are – as the Cochlear recall will probably have ended by then.

If you want me to offer any more advice on which manufacturer you should go for, I’d be happy to. There are all kinds of considerations but, in a nutshell, if I had the choice again, I would still go for AB, even though the processor is bigger and uglier than the Nucleus 5, which is very discreet. The underlying technology seems to be that bit more advanced, and the implant electronics have more space to cater for processor upgrades, so it’s more future-proof, if that makes sense. For many people, it’s a serious consumer maze, but in a way, the whole AB vs Cochlear choice reminds me a little bit like the old Apple vs Microsoft war of the 1980s and 1990s. AB – on the face of it – is like Apple; smaller (although apple is now bigger than MS – go figure), more innovative, more pioneering, and inspires an almost cult following among many techies. Microsoft is Cochlear; still the giant among CI makers, but the technology isn’t as impressive, and the company is more businessy, corporate.

I must emphasise that this is just my view and reflects my own outlooks and attitudes. Take my views on board by all means, but do do your own research and come to your own conclusions – assuming you have the choice when the time comes.

Anyway, I’ll stop now before I bore or bewilder you. But as a final word on the topic, I’m delighted with my Cochlear Nucleus 5. It works in the all the ways that it should and I’ve had no problems to date, touch wood.

Finally – are you happy with it ?

Absolutely. I’m still getting to grips with it and there is more to come, but everything is working well and as it should, which is the biggest relief. As you can probably appreciate by now, it takes time to for it to make the difference and time to habituate yourself to it. Some notice the difference straight away while others take longer – everyone is different. The adjustment phase, for me, is taking longer I think than I expected but only because it’s in my left ear, which was never my good ear. The brain is having to rewire itself to tune more into my left ear than my previously dominant right ear, so that is adding an extra element of adjustment. But what amazes me, even after 6 months, is that the change is still happening – you apparently should reach your ‘peak’ after a year or so, on average – and it has been steady rather than dramatic. But the difference compared to six months ago is dramatic. I’m (just starting) to use the phone again, able to sometimes follow the TV without subtitles, converse with people face to face and in groups far far more easily, hear the radio (still a work-in-progress) etc etc. Not to mention hearing things I’ve never heard before.

I think one of the best things is that I have two young children – 18 months and 5 – and being able to hear them far better than I did before is just the most wonderful gift and at exactly the right time, particularly since they’re both chatterboxes!

In a nutshell, there’s no way to say if you will be happy with it, as the range of outcomes is quite varied, but they do say that those who have normal hearing for at least a few years get the very most out of it. So you, if anything, are far closer to being the ideal candidate than me, and certainly [name withheld].

I’ve yet to meet one implantee who regrets it – although I don’t get out much. The beaumont team are fantastic. You’ll be in very good hands, if it all goes ahead.

Best of luck


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Stuck in a motoring time warp?

My new (to me) classic beemer

If you’re tempted by a 30-year-old beauty, here are the all-important questions you need to ask yourself, says classic car fan John Cradden.

My family, friends and neighbours say I am stuck in a motoring time-warp. It’s probably true. For seven years, I owned a small, two-door BMW saloon from 1974. Before that, I owned a 1972 version.

But a fast-growing young family meant I needed something bigger and more practical, so I recently upgraded to a newer car, a four-door BMW five series — from 1980.

In case you haven’t spotted the pattern, the cars I buy tend to be 30 years old or more — the age cars need to be before they are classified for motor tax purposes as ‘vintage/veteran’ or as a classic.

The classic car bug bit me many years ago and when you become passionate about something, you develop strong opinions.

In fact, if you make the mistake of telling me that you are thinking of buying a classic car, I will take you into the nearest dark corner, shine a bright light in your face and ask you the following questions:

Why do you want a classic car?

Seriously, why? They have bags more style and character? More fun to drive? Yes, those reasons are acceptable, but what’s that last one? They are cheap to run?

I was like you once, many years ago. I also fooled myself into believing it made financial sense.

After all, I didn’t need a car for my daily commute.

But what I didn’t anticipate was becoming so bitten by the bug that I would be happy to lavish large sums of money on their upkeep and spend many hours with my feet sticking out from underneath them.

Classic cars cost, and the moment you neglect them is when you start paying. Yes, yes,  a classic car can hold — even appreciate — in value, but not if you run it into the ground or, worse, let it rust in peace.

What’s your budget?

The sky is the limit here. A 1963 Ferrari GTO recently sold in the UK for €25m.

According to Dermot Flynn, who runs a twice-yearly classic car sale and show event in Swords, Co Dublin, the average budget for a classic right now is between €5,000 and €6,000.

“For this type of money you will do really well and land yourself a really good MG, any Ford that you can think of, a Daimler or a Mercedes.”

If you want to keep your costs down, buy the best example of your preferred model that you can afford.

And don’t even think about a restoration project. Leave that to the hard-bitten classic enthusiasts.

How often will you use it?

If you plan on using it for your everyday commute, some words of caution from Thomas Heavey, editor of popular vintage motoring magazine Irish Vintage Scene: “While some people successfully manage this, I think it will affect the longevity of the life of the car.”

Use it sparingly and you’ll still like it in years to come.

Do you have the number of a sympathetic mechanic?

“It’s not so hard to find someone who will service a classic car,” says Jon Millar, who runs Classic Car Workshop, a Co Clare-based car restoration business.

“It is, however, hard to find someone who can carry out quality restoration work on classic cars as these skills are dying out.” Which leads me to my next question.

Are you a member of a club?

There are hundreds of clubs, with mines of information and contacts for mechanics and restorers.

After all, their members have nearly all experienced the pain at seeing lost, naive people like you who end up paying huge money for what turns out be over-polished rubbish and then lose the will to live when faced with the costs of putting them right.

You can also chat to us at the many shows and events coming up over the summer. I am now looking forward to Classic Car and Motorcycle Live at the Mondello racing circuit on June 17 and the popular Terenure show on July 8.

Hope to see you there.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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What are the scores, George Dawes?

I did the standard CI speech recognition test this morning, which is used to measure progress in understanding speech in CI recipients. Here are my scores, along with the previous ones from 6 months and before.

Pre-op: 14.3%

One week post-op:

CI and Hearing aid: 6%; CI only 0%

3 months post op:

CI and hearing aid: 26.7%; CI only 6%

9 months post-op:

CI and hearing aid: 81%; CI only 55.7%

CI and hearing aid in noise: 48%

The average at 9 months across all Beaumont CI recipients is:

CI and hearing aid: 64.1%; CI only 59.5%

CI and hearing aid in noise: 38.6%

So, pretty good I think. I certainly feel the improvement in almost every way. My score at 12 months (3 months time) should be better still, at this rate.

I nearly ripped off my left big toenail last week, causing quite some pain that still persists, but such was the spring in my step as I walked back to the hospital car park after today’s appointment, I didn’t notice it at all.


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Gardening on a budget

Joanne Butler


You can discover your green fingers with some help from the experts, says John Cradden

For many years, gardening was a relatively inexpensive hobby. It tended to be the preserve of the hardcore green-fingered, and it usually took many years of patience rather than wads of cash to create a beautiful garden.

Then, during the boom years, the humble old gardening trade flourished into a serious industry with new garden centres and designers who could create beautiful gardens in a matter of weeks.

These days, of course, not many of us have the money to splash out on ‘instant gardens’.

But by following a long-established culture of thrift in amateur gardening plus a few tricks picked up from the instant gardening trade, you can really spruce up your garden in a very short time.

1 Buy the best tools you can afford

Gerry Daly, editor of Garden.ie, says: “Buy good quality, serviceable tools, the best you can afford. They are easier to use and last longer.”

Ian Gomersall, a professional gardener who runs organic gardening website Gardening.ie, says cheap tools can actually be dangerous as well as a false economy.

“Cheaply made hand tools are not only a waste of money, they are really dangerous when they break under normal working conditions.”

2 You don’t need too many fancy tools

The experts agree that when it comes to equipment, most gardening can be done with very few tools, such as a spade, fork, secateurs, rake, hoe, mattock (pickaxe), shears, hand trowel and watering can.

“There are a lot of cheap, novelty gardening gadgets on the market designed to be impulse buys, and end up in the bin after a short time,” says Gomersall.

3 Source plants at local sales

There are many places to buy plants, but locally based sales, such as church fares, charity plant sales or bring-and-buy sales, can be great for value, says Daly.

However, he adds that you should do some plant research before buying. “Be wary, as some of the plants on offer can be a touch too vigorous.”

4 But don’t discount supermarket plants

Daly also suggests buying discounted supermarket plants as well as those in garden centres, but focus on small plants, “as they are much cheaper than larger, older plants”.

He also suggests making the most of what you buy from these outlets. “Buy perennial flowers in a garden centre, grow them on for a year or two and split them into several plants for re-planting,” says Daly.

However, Gomersall is sceptical about the quality or suitability of plants sold at supermarkets. “Some of the supermarket plants and flowers come straight from controlled environments ideally suited to their growing needs,” he says, adding that once they fall into the hands of a consumer, they are usually short-lived.

5 Share plants and seedlings

Daly points out how the social ‘glue’ of gardening also contributes to it being relatively inexpensive as a hobby. For instance, many gardeners will have swapped plants and produce with friends and neighbours for many years. “There is a great tradition of plant swapping, and passing on, in gardening,” he says.

6 Join bartering groups

Gomersall reports that LETS (local exchange trading system) groups, where people buy and sell goods through bartering, are growing again around the country after being neglected during the economic boom.

“The active groups do a lot of trading in plants and vegetables. Groups such as the GIY (Grow It Yourself) set-up are growing, too, in many areas, and local gardening clubs are more popular than ever.”

7 Join a club or use social networking sites

“Join a gardening club in your locality and avail of proven local expertise and advice,” says Daly.

Social networking is a great resource for obtaining information and tips about basic garden design, says Gomersall, and there’s loads of great websites and forums on the subject as well as computer programmes created to help you design your perfect garden.

8 Recycle items for use in the garden

The world of gardening has long been a hotbed of recycling activity.

“You can recycle lots of items for use in the garden, such as plastic packaging trays for seeds and yogurt cups for seedlings, drinks bottles for covering early plants,” says Daly.

Other funky recycling suggestions we picked up include re-using old Belfast sinks, wheelbarrows, buckets and even old wellies.

9 Check out allotments — but only if they make sense

If you have no garden at home, allotments can make sense for growing your own veg, but only if they are really close to home, says Gomersall.

“The community gardens on housing estates will prove to be the most cost-effective and popular options in the future as you will generally be able to walk to the plot and deal directly with your veggie-growing neighbours.”

In rural areas, by contrast, most will favour growing in their own garden, even if it is less social.

10 Sound out an expert

If you are completely clueless but want to get a head-start in building your garden sanctuary, it may be worth your while seeking out professional help.

“It could work out good value for money getting a professional in to design a complete plan for the garden as alterations can be costly later,” says Gomersall.

He suggests looking at three or more of the designer’s gardens and working out a contract before starting.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

Case study

When Joanne Butler and her family moved to a cottage in Gortahork, Co Donegal, in 2008, they didn’t foresee how the recession would change their ambitious plans for the garden which, at that time, was just run-down land.

After renovating their 300-year-old cottage, Joanne said: “We had to take stock and to start planning the garden more carefully, more slowly and more imaginatively with no money left in the bank, so to speak.”

Armed with a plan and a well-researched shortlist of suitable plants, she found that buying 400 plants at €2 each on average was going to be too expensive.

“This is when I found my love of propagation. I found an old overgrown box hedge on a walk one day, and took a few cuttings from that. When they grew for two years, I took about 40 cuttings from them, and now this year I will hopefully get the 400 cuttings I’m looking for, and in two years’ time they will be ready to go in the garden.”

If she does buy seeds, she uses an online retailer in Co Mayo, called seedaholic.com. “My limit is usually €20 per year.”

Joanne enrolled in a short horticulture course in 2009, on which she met many like-minded gardeners. “This was a great way for me to start swapping seeds and plants and also be able to borrow tools I couldn’t really afford or that I only needed on a one-off basis.”

She also hooked up with a neighbour with a “wealth of experience and knowledge of what grew in our area”, after which she left with a “car-load” of slips and cuttings.

Joanne has also made plans for cost-effective maintenance once the garden is finished, including investing in a wormery and collecting rain for watering by any means available, such as old baths, the wheelbarrow and so on.

For any major work that might be needed in the future, Joanne has joined a small, local bartering group called Let’s Link Donegal. “So, instead of me paying money, for example, to someone helping me plant 100 trees, I will offer them in return something that they might need.”

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Deaf village project

A €25 million community development designed for deaf people will open in September, writes John Cradden

AFTER FIVE years of planning and a huge amount of consultation, the first and most significant phase of a new €25 million community village development for deaf people is set to officially open in Dublin this September.

The development, to be officially named Deaf Village Ireland, will be located at a 30-acre site off the Navan Road in Cabra, and will be the base for a set of new administrative, social, religious, sports and residential facilities designed specifically for deaf people.

These include offices, shops, a sports centre, a museum and residential accommodation for deaf adults as well as for boarders at a new deaf school, which will merge the existing boys’ and girls’ schools on the site.

But during consultations with local politicians, Government and local authority officials over the past five years, the various deaf organisations involved in the project have had to fend off criticisms about the very nature of it.

The criticisms have been many, but the general thrust appears to be that the idea of having nearly all of the available services and facilities for deaf people on a single campus goes against the grain of the Government’s disability policy, which is to integrate as many of the services for people with disabilities as possible into mainstream institutions, including education.

Indeed, some have reportedly gone as far as to argue the village will end up creating something of a deaf “ghetto” or a kind of social enclave, effectively re-institutionalising deaf people or sectioning them off from wider society.

However, the unanimity of the response to these criticisms from all the partners involved in the project appears to have helped them win the argument – and a €3 million Government grant towards the project.

Liam O’dwyer, chief executive of the Catholic Institute for Deaf People (CIDP), which has spearheaded the development, confirms that this is “a subject that has come up all the time”.

The response, he says, is very simple: “Deaf people need other deaf people to use sign language. Deaf people therefore want to be with hearing people who sign and deaf people who sign. It’s very much as simple as that.”

Brendan Lennon of Deafhear, the country’s largest service provider to deaf people, says: “Some people believe that it (the deaf village) is inconsistent with the government policy of mainstreaming, but we believe that this is a misconception.

“Deaf people who are ISL (Irish Sign Language) users need to be able to meet, socialise and make friends together just as hearing people do. This is actually consistent with mainstreaming, where people can meet with their peers and participate on an equal basis.”

O’dwyer doesn’t dispute the wider trend in the disability sector towards mainstreaming, but says “the needs are different for deaf people. The policy makers need to understand that and they still don’t understand that”.

Kevin Stanley, founder of disability organisation Inclusive Enterprises and a consultant to the project, says: “I don’t agree for a minute that the deaf village would ghettoise or effectively section off the deaf community. It will be quite the opposite, as it will become a gateway to opportunities and services, not only to deaf and hard of hearing people, but also hearing people.”

But he also believes the village will provide a space for deaf people that will help cultivate a stronger deaf culture and identity based on using Irish Sign Language.

The project was sparked in 2008 after the CIDP’S €15 million sale of the St Vincent’s Deaf Centre on the Lr Drumcondra Road to the RPA for the Metro North line in 2008.

The village project took its inspiration from a number of projects overseas, but particularly the Lighthouse in Finland, a large building with a similar range of centralised services and facilities to those planned for the Irish project, which was built just over 20 years ago.

The project team also consulted widely on the design of the new development, including with a Us-based architect with experience in creating “deaf-friendly” spaces. According to O’dwyer, this involves considering how buildings and landscaping can be designed to make using sign language easier, such as wider paths and corridors, brighter colours and lighting, and removing objects that might block peoples’ view of signing.

To outsiders, the word “deaf” in the Deaf Village Ireland might turn out to be a bit of a misnomer as it becomes clear that the village has no intention of excluding hearing people, but if they have no knowledge of – or intention of learning – Irish Sign Language, then they may not feel quite at home. “The commonality in the village is not deafness, it’s sign language,” says O’dwyer.

One issue about the village that would prove contentious within the deaf community was about who would run it. While it was accepted that the CIDP will own the land and buildings in the new development, the organisation decided, after much consultation, that it would take a hands-off approach to the running of it.

O’dwyer candidly admits that many groups within the deaf community are “understandably” wary of the CIDP as a Catholic organisation, based on experiences they would have had in the past. But by fully embracing the principle of community-led development, the CIDP fostered the idea of setting up a separate management company run by deaf people themselves, and on which it will have just one seat on the board.

“I think once they saw CIDP was putting in place, or enabling the deaf community to put in place its own management company to run the village, then the community was satisfied and ultimately are now running the project.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Times Insight quarterly magazine

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Dream bangers

There’s a lot to be said for old workhorse cars – they may be long on mileage, but for the most part, they’re much shorter
on cost than their shinier, newer counterparts, writes JOHN CRADDEN

CARS IN IRELAND generally live a hard life. Motorists here do higher average mileages than those in other EU countries, and it’s also remarked that we tend not to look after them very well. But thanks to the establishment of the NCT 12 years ago and a slowly improving culture of regular car maintenance, allied with big strides forward in car mechanical longevity, many thousands of older, faithful workhorses are still to be seen on Irish roads, still in very good condition and still going the distance for their owners.

According to the Society of the Motor Industry (Simi) figures, the number of cars more than 10 years old has almost doubled in five years, from nearly 274,000 in 2006 to more than 471,000 by the end of 2010.

It wasn’t so long ago that cars were only expected to reach the 100,000-mile mark before giving expensive trouble, but these days the average car is reasonably expected to run to 150,000-200,000 miles without too much bother — as long as it is still well looked-after.

(That’s miles, not kilometres, by the way. We may have changed over to the metric system in 2005, but dealers say most of us still live in imperial land when talking about car mileages.)

The owners and cars featured here nicely illustrate the many virtues of keeping cars going for as long as possible. As well as saving money, most of them have racked up so many miles with relatively little trouble that their owners have become quite attached to them.

At least two of the cars here exude a nice “banger chic”, while another is well on the way to becoming a popular classic.

All the cars have mileages of between 155,000 and 215,000 which, while impressive, are probably nowhere near the top of Ireland’s (non-taxi) car mega-mileage league.

For instance, a certain company car park in Co Galway contains, among others, four hard-working VW Boras, none younger than 2004 and none with less than 250,000 miles. A mechanic in Co Longford reportedly services four Skoda Superbs with odometer readings ranging from 250,000 to a staggering 496,000.

In terms of car makes, it’s no shock to find the Germans, Swedes and Japanese represented here as they consistently tend to be among the best-built and most reliable, but we also heard of a Renault and a Citroen – both nine years old – that are already pushing their odometers close to the 300,000-mile mark.

However, it will be interesting to see if as many of today’s new cars will still be around in 10 or 15 years time. Judging by reports on several online motoring forums, the trade-off for the huge strides in fuel efficiency, emissions and safety in cars over the past five to 10 years is that there are more things to go wrong. Early failures of highly complex components and electrickery are now proving so expensive to repair or replace that they may well become uneconomic to fix sooner rather than later – and long before the end of their useful mechanical lives.

Indeed, the 1990s and early noughties may come to be regarded as a something of a golden era for car-longevity engineering; with excellent rust-protection but still relatively lo-tech, cars over 10 years old are still cheap to fix.

Only time will tell.


Kilkenny Labour Party councillor Michael O’Brien has racked up 201,000 miles in his 1998 Rover 600, which may surprise some, given how cars made by the now-defunct British company didn’t always have the best reputation for reliability. But it turns out the Rover 600 is basically a re-badged Honda Accord. Bought at two years old, it has proved not just a faithful and dependable hack, but very cheap to run.

“I think that for age-to-mileage ratio divided by maintenance outlay, it’s hard to beat this Rover. All she ever got was consumables and an oil change and filters every 20,000 miles.” The biggest repair bill was for damage to the radiator caused by overheating, but was repaired for just €195. “Great value.”

But running costs aren’t everything when it comes to being happy with a car. “Most of us confuse knowing the price of most things, but how can anyone deduce the real value of something so precious as a good wagon?” asks O’Brien.

So far, he has resisted pressure from his wife to upgrade the “ould banger”, but if he had to change?

“I’d like to have one of the latest 2.2litre diesel Jaguars, a real socialist’s car.”


Most classic car enthusiasts tend to drive their prized motors only at weekends and holidays and garage them over the winter, but not Brendan Purcell. He still puts his 1990 BMW 318is through the daily grind of commuting to work as well as weekend runs taxiing his kids around.

Purcell, from Ratoath, Co Meath, bought the car in 1999 with 82,000 miles on the clock. Today, the odometer shows an impressive 215,000, and it’s still highly presentable. “It has only let me down twice since I bought it, but has been very reliable for the last four years,” said Purcell.

It’s one of the iconic cars of the 1980s, and there’s no doubt about its emerging status as a classic; Brendan maintains a popular website devoted to his particular model.

“When I first bought it, I spent quite a while upgrading and repairing various things. But in recent years it’s only needed wear-and-tear expenditure. I’m fortunate that I can do a lot of work on the car myself.”

However, he has had to pay more attention to the bodywork now that small bits of rust are appearing. “It goes to the bodyshop at least once a year now.”


Most examples of high-mileage cars tend to be larger models with big engines, but Hilton McWeeney’s 1997 Suzuki Swift shows how small cars are just as capable of going the distance. Bought in 2000, the odometer now reads around 165,000.“Growing up, we always kept our cars until they could go no more, and I would always have expected this car to do the same,” says McWeeney, who lives in Maynooth, Co Kildare. “To be honest, though, I would have expected the car to have given up the ghost by now.”

It’s given him little trouble and has only required standard wear-and-tear replacement parts (it’s still on the original clutch), and he does most of the maintenance himself. He wasn’t tempted to avail of the recent scrappage scheme, but nearly bought a replacement three years ago before changing his mind.

“I still get slagged by friends over having the Swift for so long, but doing the numbers, over the years they’ve spent thousands on cars whilst I’ve spent a fraction of that on maintenance costs.”


Old-style, boxy Volvo estates are a firm favourite with the housewives brigade, but if Isabelle Mooney’s experience is anything to go by, they also deserve their reputation for longevity.

She previously drove her family around in two secondhand 240 estates before upgrading to their current model, a 1997 940, which they’ve owned from new.

“We expected that we’d get at least 15 years from the 940 as the earlier cars were sold in perfect working order,” she said. “I read Volvo adverts years ago showing that average life was about 19 years, compared with something like 12 for other cars, so I can well believe it.”

Initially a company car with just about every optional extra available, it has covered 155,000 miles to date. Much of that mileage included undertaking no less than ten 4,000-mile round summer trips all the way to Switzerland and back.

In daily service since new, but serviced strictly by the book, it’s still on the original brake discs, shocks and exhaust. It needed a clutch, an air conditioning compressor, and a water pump. “It has been a tremendous workhorse and it really is part of the family,” says Mooney, who lives in Dublin with her two teenage daughters, a dog, three cats and five chickens.

This article was first printed in the Irish Times

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Holidaying on the cheap

Smart Consumer: How to fund your next holiday

By John Cradden

Thursday January 26 2012

This is traditionally the time of year when many families plan and book their summer holidays, but if a tighter household budget has ruled out your usual two weeks in the sun, there are loads of clever ways to get away for next to nothing.

The Irish spend nearly €800 per person on average on their summer holidays, according to last year’s booking data from online travel and leisure retailer Lastminute.com.

Granted, this is almost half as much as the French (nearly €1,600) and a good bit less than the British (€1,000), but it’s still a fair amount.

The options below could help radically cut the cost of your usual holiday, help boost your holiday budget or help you see the world for less.

House swap/ exchange

Having a holiday in someone else’s home while they have one in yours is now so easy to set up that it’s a wonder why more people don’t do it.

There are a number of international home swap agencies with bases in Ireland, such as Homelink and Intervac, who have hundreds of members here. You pay a flat fee each year and this allows you to put a listing of your house with photos and to browse others. Then you simply email people to see if they’re interested.

Marie Murphy of Homelink says Ireland is a very popular destination for home-swappers, especially with the Americans, Australians, French and Germans.

Best of all, your home doesn’t need to be in a tourist location. “Our members look for a clean comfortable home and use this as a base to visit other parts of the country, so people with homes in any part of Ireland can get involved,” says Murphy.

Get on board

If you’ve always liked the idea of taking to the high seas, look into becoming part of a boat crew. Sites like crewseekers.net put together boat and yacht owners and would-be crew members of all kinds of ability.

You’ll have to work of course, and it won’t necessarily be salaried, but the payback is that you’ll be on a yacht. Trips can be short or long.

Use cashback/ daily deal sites

You can find some very useful discounts on holiday packages if you book through websites like lastminute.com, but look also at ‘daily deal’ sites like Grabone.ie, Citydeal.ie, and Pigsback.com.

Daily deal websites offer products or services for a discount — often as much as 50pc or more — over a limited period of 24 to 36 hours, but sometimes a bit longer. Members of these websites receive online offers and invitations.

A great many of the discount offers are related to holidaying or weekends away.

Similarly, a cashback website, such as Fatcheese.ie, is a type of reward website that pays its members a percentage of money earned when they purchase goods and services via its affiliate links. So avail of any travel offers and you’ll get money lodged directly into your bank account.

Family volunteering

We’ve all heard of holidays spent volunteering overseas, which is fine for students and young people, but can it work for the whole family?

EIL Intercultural Learning is an Irish not-for-profit organisation supporting local projects across the world. It offers volunteering placements of a minimum of two weeks, and participants can volunteer with their family on the same project.

There is a participation fee which covers accommodation, meals, transfers and support, but not flights, visas, vaccinations or medical and travel insurance.

So while you might not save a whole lot, if you fancy a longer trip further afield, it’s one way to go to see more for less.

Bolster the holiday budget

You might not have a holiday home, but if you live in an area where parking is at a premium and have an unused parking space, you could rent it out for anything up to €75 a week.

You can advertise on websites such as parkatmyhouse.com, a free global site that carries Irish listings, but they will charge a small commission if you successfully rent out your space.

If you have a decent camera and can take a decent picture, you could approach stock photography agencies or sites with holiday snaps you have that are picture-postcard perfect.

Websites like Fotolia.com and Shutterstock.com are always looking for professional-looking, high quality pictures.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

‘The only expenses are travel costs’

Thursday January 26 2012

Fionnuala King and her husband Jim have been swapping homes with families overseas and in Ireland for well over 20 years.

The now-retired couple, who live in Raphoe, Co Donegal, have holidayed in homes in Ireland, England, Germany, France and Belgium, but also as far away as Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. They’ve been using the Homelink house-exchange website since 1997. “At the beginning, it was a case of perusing the book and then writing countless letters,” says Fionnuala. “Now it is all online.”

Even with their two children grown up, they rarely find themselves holidaying on their own. “One or other, or both, often accompany us or join us at some stage of our exchange,” she says, while other members of their close family will often join them too. “I generally look for an exchange house or apartment that sleeps at least four, so as to have the flexibility of having family or friends join us.”

Fionnuala says it is difficult to say just how much they save, but there is no doubting that they save considerably compared to someone renting a holiday home for two weeks.

“A home exchange allows you to stay in a place for a longer time as you don’t have to pay for accommodation,” she says. “The only expense is the cost of travel and whatever you choose to spend.”

In addition, you can cook your own food, “so eating out becomes a choice rather than a necessity”. They also generally exchange cars, so that cuts out the huge cost of hiring a car or travel by ferry.

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It’s time to have my ears what?

Smart consumer

Listen up: It’s time to have your ears checked

By John Cradden

Absolutely no pun intended, but here is a piece of information that tends to fall on deaf ears.

One in six people worldwide has a hearing loss greater than 25 decibels (dB), according to the World Health Organisation.

About half of them would have a mild hearing loss (25dB or more), while the rest would have what would be categorised as moderate, severe or profound losses.

What’s that you say? One of six of us has a hearing loss?

This may actually be a bit high. The most frequently-quoted figure for developed countries is around 10% of the population, which still suggests nearly 500,000 of us in Ireland have a hearing loss.

But what is certain is that the numbers are likely to rise thanks to our rapidly ageing population, not to mention ear damage caused by constant exposure to high levels of noise at work, or music at rock concerts and nightclubs, and of course, personal audio devices.

The UK Medical Research Council, for instance, estimates that the number of deaf and hard of hearing people is set to increase by about 14% every ten years.

But right now, some experts estimate that about 6% of the adult population could benefit from the fitting of hearing aids.

But why does all this information fall on deaf ears, exactly?

Research suggests people wait an average of 10 years or more before seeking help with a significant hearing loss.

I wish you would tell that to my elderly dad as I’m convinced he is going deaf, but he won’t listen. (But then again, maybe he can’t hear me.)

There is no doubting that hearing loss has a serious impact on quality of life. And not just for the individual concerned, but their family and friends too.

There is also no doubting that hearing aids still have a bit of a stigma attached to them, in the same way that glasses used to have before they became high-street fashion items.

Not that hearing aids are ever likely to become fashion items, but the stigma isn’t as strong as it was.

There do seem to be quite a few hearing aid shops around the place now, right enough.

Yes, there has been a huge growth in the private hearing aid market. Over the past five years the number of private hearing aid shops or clinics in Ireland has more than doubled, according to the Irish Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists (ISHAA).

Even the large optician chain Specsavers has muscled into the market and now has ‘hearing centres’ in most of their opticians around the country. The biggest chain remains Hidden Hearing, which has over 50 clinics throughout the island of Ireland.

The most famous of them all, Bonavox (the highly ironic inspiration behind the stage name of a certain member of U2), is now expanding too. But there remain lots of reputable smaller, single shops too.

If I manage to persuade my Dad to at least take a hearing test, should I tell him to go to the GP first?

You can go the GP, but unless you have a medical card, most of them will usually point you in the direction of a reputable private hearing aid shop anyway.

Most private clinics will happily give you a free, “no-obligation” hearing test. If the audiologist is properly qualified (as they should be), they should refer you back to a GP if they find any suspected medical issues during a hearing examination.

Ok, but how much do hearing aids cost?

You can buy a digital hearing aid for as little as €300, but the average price is closer to around €1,000 or more, according to audiologists we spoke to. You can spend as much as €3,000 or more on one, and many do. Most of them come with warranties of between three and five years.

Why are they still so expensive?

The standard answer from audiologists is that dispensing hearing aids is nothing like dispensing glasses.

It requires a lot of input from the audiologist, including customised adjustments, programming, reviews and personalised ear moulds and shells – all of which add to the overall cost.

Is there not some grant you can get towards the cost of them?

Yes, you can get a PRSI grant towards the cost of one or two hearing aids. Recently cut in the 2012 Budget, it’s now up to a maximum of €500 per aid, or €1,000 for two, and you can apply for it once in every four years.

If it turns out I have just a mild hearing loss, does that mean I need a hearing aid?

Deafhear, a charity that represents and promotes the welfare of deaf and hard of hearing people says it would not recommend fitting hearing aids to folk with very mild hearing losses.

“The vast majority of our first-time customers have severe or greater hearing losses,” says spokesman Brendan Lennon.

Customers? Deafhear sells hearing aids too?

Yes, it entered the market four years ago. Not to make a profit, but as a result of “continued complaints of exploitation from members of the public”, says Lennon.

It believed “super normal profits” were being made on hearing aids by some hearing aid dispensers. “It is an unregulated industry that does nothing to encourage consumer confidence,” he says.

There’s no regulation?

There is now an EU standard for private hearing aid dispensers in place, but this doesn’t mean the sector is now regulated. The ISHAA reckons that regulation is still a number of years away, but it intends to ensure its members all meet the EU standard and develop a comprehensive patient complaints procedure with the health standards watchdog HIQA.

Individuals firms seem to be doing their bit too. Both Bonavox and Hidden Hearing told us of a number of efforts to improve Irish standards and training for their audiologists.

Indeed, Lennon says prices and terms and conditions have “improved markedly” since Deafhear entered the market, but added that if effective regulation is introduced, it will withdraw from the market.


Panel Joe Duffin

Joe Duffin, 54, from Dublin, has worn hearing aids since his teens, but believes he probably wouldn’t even have got a hearing test in the first place if the family hadn’t moved to Scotland when he was five years old.

“The Scottish health system in schools was much better than those in Dublin in that era,” he said.

Joe isn’t the only member of his family with a hearing loss.

“I vaguely remember my mother telling me my sister developed hearing problems from measles as a young child and that I also had similar problems.” However, his wife thinks it runs in the family as his uncle is also hard of hearing.

He bought his first hearing aid from Bonavox in Dublin 25 years ago, and has remained a customer ever since, as does his sister. He now wears two hearing aids: an in-the-ear model for his moderately-deaf right ear, and a more powerful, behind-the-ear model for his severely-deaf left ear.

“I find the staff very helpful, and we have built up a relationship over the years,” he said.  “They always have an engineer on site for repairs, which I find most helpful.”

Unfortunately, being a self-employed taxi driver, Joe doesn’t qualify for the PRSI grant towards the cost of hearing aids.

“The only assistance that I can avail of is the tax relief on my annual Med 1 returns, which as you know is the basic 20% tax relief off the cost of the full hearing aid.”

This article was first published in the Irish Independent

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Irish Times article: music to my ears

I wrote an article for the Irish Times Insight supplement, which appeared last week, based on a chat with Richard Reed, a musician with a cochlear implant, who I first talked about here.

Here’s the PDF

First page of article

Second page of article

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