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

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 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, but look also at ‘daily deal’ sites like,, and

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, 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, 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 and 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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Tinny radio rocks!

It’s been just over four months since I was activated, so time for an update.

I knew that my soundscape would change as soon as I got the implant, but even after four months, it’s still changing.

If you’ve read previous blog entries, you’ll remember that I struggled to settle into a program that I liked or that sounded normal enough. Since my third mapping, in December, things had been much better. A few weeks after that, I felt that things, once again, weren’t improving an awful lot, and then it dawned on me that I hadn’t really experimented much with the sensitivity control on my processor. I had been gradually turning up the volume as I got more used to the electrical stimulation, and reached a point a few weeks ago where I think it’s now high enough. Then I started cranking up the sensitivity and – wow – it made another huge difference.

As you might expect, one consequence of cranking up the sensitivity is that various little sounds all around the house have become more prominent and instantly recognisable (as opposed to having to take a second or two to figure out what they were): the clicking of mobile phone keypads or a computer mouse, the soft hums of the gas boiler and the fridge, the rumble of cars’ tyres as they pass our front door etc etc.

I maintain my bicycle well, but it has, all of sudden, developed a cacophony of rattles and creaks that was, at one stage, unnerving to the point where I wondering if I would make it home on a couple of trips. My car, a noisy enough yoke, is the same, all clunks, rattles and whirrs – slightly worrying to my new ears because I’m planning on moving it on. Only my deep, enforced familiarity with the mechanics of this 37 year old car car reassures me it’s working perfectly fine.

But more usefully for me, talking on the phone is now a lot easier, even to the point where I have recently made a few of short, perfunctory calls to people I had never spoken to before and, in a couple of instances, people I didn’t know!

I can hear most of what is said in a short news report on the radio, but it still requires my complete concentration, as opposed to being something in the background you can tune in and out of.

In general, my implanted ear is now even more dominant than before, a sensation that reinforces itself when I hear anything that’s remotely loud, such as the doorbell, which is now identified as a tuneless, low-pitched dong-dong rather than ding-dong.

That’s the downside, in a way — the sound quality isn’t exactly high fidelity. For instance, group conversations in the house with visiting friends or family is a bit like trying to tune into a tinny radio – albeit one that’s turned up very loud. In fact, everything sounds a bit like I’m hearing it through a tinny radio.

But the important thing is that, after just four months, I’m not just hearing everything, but understanding more and more of it every day. I wouldn’t be without it. Tinny radio rocks!

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Mapping a path to a hearing sun

I went for my third mapping on Thursday 1st Dec, a week ago.

First, a warning: what you are about to read is quite long and technical, and therefore probably quite dull and uninteresting if you’re not a CI user yourself, or at least profoundly interested in the audiological science surrounding it.

Jacki, my audiologist, turned down the volumes of the higher frequencies, which were a little too sharp for my liking. But she also added in a new programme with the same moderated high frequencies but with a “smoother” sound scale. It seems that my previous map was based purely on what I could tolerate, which resulted in some simple inconsistencies in terms of the sound information the processor was sending to my implanted ear. When I listened to the “piano scale” of my 22 electrodes, two or three of the electrodes were a good bit out of tune. They were adjusted so that the scale is now smoother but still within tolerances. The result was better, although I couldn’t explain exactly why.

However, in the standard baseline speech recognition test that followed, I only got 26pc again – no improvement on my first test three months ago. A bit disappointing, but both Jacki and speech therapist Lesley were reassuringly philosophical.  Jacki went as far as to say that if someone had told her a patient was using the phone and listening to audiobooks without too much trouble but only getting 26pc in the test, she wouldn’t believe it, which suggests that the standard speech recognition test they use is a bit one-dimensional. There are no words, just sentences.  I do WAY better with context, and through earphones. Also some folk do far less well in these types of tests because they believe that they need to get all the sentences right, not just one or two words. Jacki thinks I exhibit some of the classic signs of that type of ‘test anxiety’.

Lesley ran through some exercises and confirmed that with some context, I score very well, possibly higher than average, but that the next stage is learning to listen to things without context, or open-ended rather than closed ended questions or information. I just need to keep working at it.

She also mentioned that the Beaumont team is working on developing another set of test measures to give a more holistic reflection of progress, such as the way I do with telephones and audiobooks, for instance.

Despite these reassurances and the knowledge that I’m progressing really well on a practical level, does this suggest the quality of what I’m hearing is as good as it could be? I wasn’t 100pc sure about the latest program, so Jacki offered to book me in again to see her a week later – if I wanted to – for a further tune-up.

After this appointment, I decided to try and just use the implant on its own for a while. One CI-using friend did this and swears that she saw her speech recognition improve dramatically after that. Still uses her hearing aid, but prefers implant, as is the case with most implantees.

After a few days of this, the exercise was useful in that it showed up what I’m missing – and which had been ‘masked’ to some extent by what I was hearing through my hearing aid.  It was basically not as sharp as I wanted and quiet sounds are not coming through as much as I would have expected. My implanted ear, even though it feels the stronger, more dominant ear in general, still feels like its playing only a supporting role to my HA ear when it comes to speech recognition.

So I went back today to see the ever-patient Jacki, and explained some of this to her.  She turned up some of the quiet sounds but also some of the higher sounds (I had used the example of not hearing fans very well, which turn to be in the higher ranges of the sound frequency spectrum). Result: much better again. Sharper, louder, fuller.

On the question of using just the implant alone, Jacki explained that the old school of thought was that you shouldn’t mix CIs and HAs when your CI is first activated until you’ve had a chance to get used to it, but now the school of thought (which Beaumont subscribes to) is to use both from the word go. The logic is essentially that two ears are better than one, and even if the sound information being received seems radically different from one ear to the other, it’s still better to have two ears giving serviceable hearing.

But it also turns out that Jacki is tuning my programs based on me having a hearing aid too. Programs can be tailored for an implant on its own, but if she did this, then it might be too overwhelming if I used the hearing aids as well because the implant output would be more powerful – it would be trying to do the work of two ears in as far as it can. So we’re sticking to the current plan and enabling a set-up that gets the best from both ears – in balance.


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Hanging on the telephone

On Thursday I’ll be going for my second mapping session, so now seems a good time to report on progress.

I had the volume turned up near to its max for the last few weeks in the assumption that I would need more volume as time goes on. But in my case, the volume seems probably fairly close to what it should be. I know this because I’ve had to turn the volume down, and it’s much more comfortable. However, the higher frequencies are a bit strong, and seem out of balance with the middle and lower frequencies, so hopefully the next session will rectify that. I find female voices easier to tune into than male ones, which does suggest an adjustment is needed (it’s usually the other way round, with most users, I think).

My session on Thursday will probably include my three-month baseline speech recognition test. I don’t expect to see a dramatic improvement but I can confidently say it will be probably be better than the 26% I got the last time.

In practical terms, face to face conversations are quite easy now and recently, on a rare visit to a noisy restaurant with my wife Sorcha, making out her voice seemed easier than I remembered.

I’ve also been listening with some pleasure to Stephen Fry’s plummy narration of the first Harry Potter book, and more recently without the need to refer too often to the pages of the book itself. I’ve been listening to the odd radio news report, a couple of podcasts from the BBC Learning English website and a few other bits and pieces. Naturally, it’s all still a bit hit and miss, but I can make out a heck of a lot more than since the early days of my activation, or before my op.

But the most pleasing development is that, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve spoken to my mother, father, and two sisters on the telephone, as well as with Sorcha while she is in the next room. It was a bit stilted at times, and the conversation didn’t go much beyond small talk, but it felt really good. Using the telephone is one of my main rehab aims, so to get the point already of having a brief chat with people I know well is a real boost.

Indeed, it’s not in my nature to get too excited about such tentative signs of progress, but what the hell:

I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall.
If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall.
I know he’s there, but I just had to call.
Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone.
I heard your mother, now she’s going out the door.
Did she go to work or just go to the store?
All those things she said, I told you to ignore.
Oh why can’t we talk again?
Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone.
It’s good to hear your voice, you know it’s been so long.
If I don’t get your calls then everything goes wrong.
I want to tell you something you’ve known all along.
Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone.
I had to interrupt and stop this conversation.
Your voice across the line gives me a strange sensation.
I’d like to talk when I can show you my affection.
Oh I can’t control myself!
Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone.
Hang up and run to me! Oh!

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Richard Reed, a musician with a cochlear implant

I attended a music workshop for CI implantees yesterday at Beaumont Hospital given by a chap called Richard Reed. Reed, from the USA, is a professional musician who lost his hearing several years ago and subsequently got a cochlear implant, although not until about ten years later.

Since then, he has embarked on his own journey back to music appreciation, not to mention resuming a career as a musician. He is now touring around the world promoting a special DVD and CD resource entitled ‘Hope Notes’.

The impetus for producing the resource is that many implantees complain they find music much more difficult to tune into with a CI, and that’s certainly true with me too. But Reed, using his professional skills and experience as a musician, aims to help implantees appreciate music better with some practical tips, advice and theory.

Here is a verbatim interview he last year to Audiology Online, a US website, which tells you everything you need to know, (so I don’t have to!) but suffice to say, the workshop was really interesting. Two of the most interesting things he said yesterday were that it took him a full two years after getting an implant to feel ‘goosebumps’ from listening to a piece of music, and also that improving your music appreciation through a CI is said to help you hear better in noisy situations. A lot of implantees give up on music, sadly, but if you work at it, it can reap serious dividends.

Also, Hope Notes is great. Thanks to the visual and verbal clues, it’s like listening to music with subtitles.

Time to dust off my old guitar and get some new strings….

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The digital TV switchover

Saorview will replace all analogue TV by 2012. John Cradden looks at how this will work

Get connected: Paddy Mulhern from Kinsale, Co Cork, with his many remote controls

Thursday October 20 2011

It was all supposed to be a very big deal. The Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, announced last week that the old, analogue terrestrial TV signal would be switched off on October 24, 2012 — a year from now.

A new digital terrestrial TV (DTT) service, called Saorview, which has been fully operational since earlier this year, will replace it.

Until then, both networks will operate in parallel to give every household that still relies on the old network the time to make the switch.

The announcement of the date for switching off of the old signal should have marked the final, mass step towards an exciting new world of free-to-air digital TV for everyone in the country.

Instead, it’s a seriously damp squib.

1 Why is that?

Well, we had already been waiting for DTT for something like 10 years. Plans were put in place by the Government and RTÉ as far back as 1999 to introduce a free-to-air, 20-channel service to replace the old four-channel analogue one, beginning in 2001.

Long after that deadline passed, the Government decided that because of the costs involved, it would seek a commercial partner to create a 25-channel service comprising both a free-to-air service and an (optional) premium pay TV service.

Cutting a long story short, a number of media consortiums bid for the commercial DTT licence, but following protracted negotiations over the contract that took over three and a half years — adding to the delay — none of the three consortiums who were offered the contract accepted it.

This was partly because of the downturn, but also the belief that the service was no longer commercially viable.

All EU member states were given a deadline of 2012 to switch off their analogue TV signals, so that left the Government and RTÉ with no choice but to proceed with launching the basic, free-to-air service, called Saorview, with just nine Irish channels.

2 What are the nine channels on Saorview?

RTÉ One, RTÉ Two, TG4, TV3, 3e, an RTÉ news channel, an RTÉ children’s channel, RTÉ One +1 (showing RTÉ stuff an hour later) and RTÉ Aertel (the teletext service).

3 So who is Saorview for?

If you are among the 69pc of households that enjoy living in multi-channel pay-TV land, you may be surprised to learn that there are still 250,000 households that rely solely on the old analogue TV signal, according to figures from the Department of Communications. That’s 13pc of all households with a TV.

If you are among the 2pc of households that won’t be able to access Saorview, you’ll have to wait for the satellite version, Saorsat, about which more information is expected soon.

4 I live in multi-channel pay-TV land. Is there any point in me switching to Saorview?

Unless you’re happy to return to four (OK, nine) channel land, there seems practically no point whatsoever. Your pay-TV service will have the four Irish channels anyway.

However, you may be considering ditching your pay-TV subscription to help cut back on your bills, in which case Saorview is the way to go.

But if you want loads of Irish and UK channels but would prefer not to have to pay for them, then you could invest in a satellite TV package that can receive free-to-air UK satellite channels and combine it with a Saorview approved set-top box or TV to get the Irish channels. It’ll mean putting up a dish, and more remote controls and boxes to clutter up your home and confuse you, though.

You can get these packages and more information from independent satellite suppliers, such as, or

5 I live in four-channel land and will need to switch over to Saorview by next October, obviously. What do I need to do?

Most people who currently receive analogue signals through an aerial will not need to upgrade their old TV set, but they will need a set-top box (available for around €100) to decode the digital signal, a SCART lead, component cable or HDMI cable to connect the box to your TV.

The aerials in most homes that receive analogue TV signals will also work for DTT.

If you do buy a new TV, most models are integrated digital TVs (or iDTVs) these days, which means they have the digital receiving equipment built-in, removing the need for a set-top box.

To minimise buyer confusion, RTÉ has developed a labelling scheme for digital receivers and iDTVs that are “Saorview approved”. This means that devices with this label attached are guaranteed by RTÉ to work on Saorview.

This is not to say that if you bought an iDTV or set-top box recently without the Saorview approved logo, it won’t work with Saorview. It’s just not 100% guaranteed to, or might need extra tuning to work.

6 Wasn’t there some talk of scrapping the TV licence and replacing it with something else?

Yes. Earlier this year, communications minister Pat Rabbitte told the Dáil that it might well be worth considering the introduction of a universal household charge to replace the TV licence fee. He said his department, as part of a review of the TV licence system, was trying to get a handle on new platforms being used to access TV services, such as through the internet.

“Seeing that catch-up services are the norm and you can bypass broadcast TV without missing out, there is a logic to having a household charge,” says Niall Kitson, editor of digital media magazine PC Live!

“The argument against it is that it would be tantamount to introducing a broadband tax by stealth. The EU might have something to say about that as well.”

For more information about the digital switchover, check out

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Pondering a book, but still seeking a stable map

Three weeks since my last post. I need to go to blogging confession again.

It’s not as if there isn’t plenty to say. In fact, I am thinking of writing a proper book about all this between now and next year, and have actually spent much of this morning thinking about a tentative outline and structure.

I had thought of just doing some kind of long-form article, but long-form journalism is a bit of a dying format particularly in Ireland, with the result that books are fast becoming the natural home for any in-depth journalistic investigation of a topic. Any journalist worth his or her salt is churning out books regularly, so this seems a good time to try.

The real question is, what angle to take? Getting a publisher interested would be another issue given the subject area, so this is why the angle would need to be very original. There’s always self-publishing, though.

Went for my 2nd mapping session on October 12. By this stage, there was certainly no sign of my implanted ear becoming the dominant ear, much less overwhelm my hearing aid ear, as apparently often happens. Things were quite faint in my implanted ear alone. My audiologist, Jacki, hinted that I had probably been a little bit conservative in terms of volumes during previous two mapping sessions, so I pledged to try to, for want of a better phrase, to be more adventurous this time. Cue a laborious run through 22 channels of calibrating beeps, each ascending in volume until they reach the point where they became either a bit too loud or just right.

Then she switched it back on: whoa. It literally felt like higher volts of electrical pulses were feeding into my auditory nerves. My facial reaction said enough that Jacki, without even me asking, immediately turned it down a bit. That’s better. Yes, nicely louder, and a bit sharper. Quite a difference. However, she still says I don’t have a ‘stable map’, which still means there is more fine tuning to come.

Minutes later, Jacki did an impromptu speech recognition test, in which I did slightly better than last time, but not that much (26pc or something). So far, these tests have been done straight after a fresh mapping, just when you are still getting used to the improved sound, so it possibly distorts the true results – it seems to me. There is possibly a method to this, but I didn’t ask Jacki at the time if there was. I will next time.

Roughly five days later, my implanted ear is actually feeling like its starting to become the dominant ear. When I take it off (but leave my HA on) it’s seriously quiet. Mind you, it’s probably being helped by my head cold, which in turn blocks up my sinuses and affects the hearing in my hearing aid ear. But stills feels like an important transition, a tipping point where my auditory cortex is just starting to get it, and wants more.

Yesterday, I tried listening to an automated voice emanating from the messaging system of my mobile phone operator, using my earphones in both ears. I understood about 80pc of what was said. Mind you, it’s was easy to guess the context. “If you want to record your voice greeting again, please press 4”.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook, and listened to one chapter a second time without reading it, and I got (I think) about 40-50pc of what was said, but only with full concentration.

But i can certainly follow online videos on youtube or RTE where i can at least see the speaker’s face. This is more than what i could manage five weeks ago.

It already feels like I’ve had this implant switched on for ages, but I have to keep reminding myself it’s only been five weeks. Peak adjustment is supposed to take up to a year.

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Self-assessed tax returns: DIY or use an agent?

Like visits from the grim reaper, there is never a convenient time for taxes. But for the nearly 300,000 among us who are self-employed, as well as the many thousands more who have non-PAYE sources of income to declare, it’s not like you haven’t been warned.

The tax-return deadline date of October 31 is well flagged every year by the decent folk at the Revenue Commissioners and, thanks to the ROS (Revenue Online Service) website, those who file online instead of by snail mail benefit from another two weeks’ grace.

But doing your tax returns is likely to be among those jobs that you might perpetually put on the long finger, with the risk that you may miss the deadline and have to pay financial penalties.

According to recent research by tax-return specialist firm, about 20% of self-employed taxpayers are expected to miss the pay-and-file deadline.

If you do file late but within two months of your deadline passing, there is a 5% surcharge on the amount of tax liable, subject to a maximum of €12,695. If you’re more than two months’ late, a 10% surcharge kicks in, with a maximum fine of €63,485.

1 Can I not just get an accountant to do it?

Of course, and you certainly wouldn’t be the only one. The Revenue tells us that of the nearly 430,000 tax returns (forms 1 and 11) filed for 2009, more than 345,000 — or 80% — of them were filed through an “agent”. This means that only about 80,000 of us would file the returns ourselves.

However, if you are only submitting all the necessary information to your accountant the day before the deadline, then don’t expect him or her to be able to file the return in time. This is the busiest time of the year for them, after all.

Many will ask that you file at least a week or two before the deadline, but preferably much earlier. Most firms will file returns online, which means they would have until November 15 to file.

2 I’ve never filed a tax return myself before, but is it possible that I could end up paying more tax than I should because I made a mistake or overlooked something?

“Every year, a lot of people make mistakes on their tax returns, which means they often end up having to get an accountant to look over their tax return in the end,” says Christine Keily, senior personal tax manager at “It saves time and money to use a professional at the outset.”

Anthony Casey of accountancy firm Noone Casey says many self-employed people make mistakes when calculating the tax-deductible expenses.

“A good accountant will advise on the correct expenses to be charged,” he said. “For example, many self-employed or small company businesses operate from the family home.

“The accountant will advise on the level of household utility bills that can be used to reduce the taxable profit of the business.”

Most accountants will probably make similar pitches, but working with one might not be a bad idea if you’re doing it for the first time. They can also help navigate you round the tricky issue in 2011 of how to apply the new Universal Social Charge (USC) to your preliminary tax.

If your tax affairs turn out to be fairly straightforward, then you could try doing it yourself the next time.

3 How much would I expect to pay an accountant to do it for me?

In general, what most accountants charge for calculating and filing a self-assessed tax return depends on your personal tax circumstances and what you want them to do.

Some firms and individuals charge by the clock, which usually means that while they have a basic fee, this can rise depending on the complexity of your tax affairs and how much correspondence is needed. So while you can expect to be charged at least €200-250 for a simple tax return, it may rise if your accountant has to chase up information from you.

Some firms, such as Early Bird Tax Returns, offer cheaper rates if you can submit all your information before July, August or September.

Other firms offer a flat-fee structure., for instance, offers a number of flat-fee services ranging from €99 to €400, excluding VAT. “We initially assess the person’s tax requirements and then calculate the cost of filing their tax return,” says Keily.

An alternative to a traditional accountant or firm is to use an online service like, which essentially guides you through the process of filing a self-assessed tax return online yourself, at a fixed cost of €149 including VAT.

“Our online systems are human-proof once you follow the very easy menu systems, so nothing can be overlooked, particularly when rushing towards the end of the tax deadline,” says Cathal Maxwell of

4 OK, well I’m not self-employed, but I do now have one or two things to declare, plus some tax reliefs to claim too. Should I get somebody to do that too?

You might be surprised to learn that more and more PAYE taxpayers are using agents to do the simple stuff too, according to the Revenue. In 2009, around 240,000 submissions by PAYE taxpayers were linked to an agent.

But unless the idea of even contemplating anything to do with personal tax without lifting the phone to your friendly accountant has you breaking out in cold sweat, our advice would be to do it yourself. It’s not so complicated that you are likely to miss anything that would result in you losing out, financially.

5 Is making simple tax claims really that simple?

In most cases, yes. If you have tax-form phobia, then we might not be able to convince you of that here, but at the very least check out the ridiculously easy-to-use Revenue online portal called PAYE Anytime.

Designed specifically for PAYE taxpayers, you can use this portal to manage your tax affairs in much the same way as online banking can help you manage your bank accounts without having to visit a branch.

Once you have signed up (and more than 615,000 people already have), you can claim most of your tax credits, re-allocate credits between yourself and your spouse, declare additional income, request certain forms and apply for tax refunds, such as health expenses, among other things.

You can even access most of this stuff using your phone.

Case study

Before he retired a number of years ago, Sean O’Meara was chief executive of advertising agency, Young Advertising, for 15 years.

Since retiring, he has undertaken some occasional consultancy work and also built up some income from other sources, so he needed to start filing self-assessed tax returns.

Initially, he used a tax consultant to help him file his returns, as he felt he needed the advice and guidance.

That changed when he came across, an online tax-return service that assists users in filing their own tax returns themselves.

Now Sean uses exclusively, and has done for the last three years.

“I like it because it simplifies everything for me, guides me through the procedures with clarity and I feel reassured that everything is complete when I am finished,” he said.

It has also saved him a few bob. “I have saved money because I relied greatly on the advice offered, and obviously still do, and for me that’s an important, essential part of the package,” said Sean.

“In a way, you could say that it’s like having a real, live tax consultant on the screen with me, and I need that support.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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