– Robaird O’Cearbhaill
Hong Kong Correspondent
As in the famous old song Irish homesick writer Ralph Cunningham is “a long way to Tipperary” where he was born. Nevertheless, as he told O Clarim, Hong Kong and Asia have very much compensated his intense longing for home. “A very worthwhile and valuable experience, amazing places, stunning experiences, different cultures, ways of doing things.” He is very clear, too, on the value of his Catholic upbringing. “Always been important, what you stick with, all that ethos of being.”
Cunningham is lucky on several other counts too: he wanted to be a writer since his childhood, has found another passion for horses, also an Irish trait, is happily married with a growing boy and despite missing faraway home has cherished the life he was given here.
Why are you a writer and what does it take to do that?
I always wanted to be a journalist from early on, eleven, twelve years old. You have to demonstrate a passion. It’s rare for anyone to have the right place for everything before they start. That’s in sport, before you renovate your house or you set your goals for the next month or year. Knowing what you want to say and how may sound facile, but think about what not being clear is before you start. You waste time – not only your own. It may mean missing the opportunity for a mark.
It also looks unprofessional to produce a piece of work that has no sense of where the start, middle or end are. A hotch-potch of ideas which may mean something, but only if assembled in the correct order. How many clients will come back to you for your next piece of research or insight, if this is what you serve up to them.
Opportunism can be levelled against work based on unclear or muddled thinking. To be opportunist, quickly take advantage of trends but not at the expense of something put together with too much haste.
Horse racing is a passion here and in Macau. Why? And Ireland, US, Australia, France … in many countries. And also for you is it the thrill of the sport, family connections, the studs, rearing, racing, getting the horses to that level, their athletics, competition on the track, the beauty of the animals?
Followers of racing (the sport) and bloodstock (breeding), there are those, like me, who came to through love for the animal and the excitement in seeing them race, and the personalities involved. Stunning creatures up close and galloping, an experience that never fails to thrill. Others, such as many in Hong Kong and Macau, come to racing as gamblers. No breeding industry in Hong Kong or Macau for climate and space reasons, among others, so the bloodstock side of things doesn’t matter so much. Pedigrees have very limited value here. I do have a bet when I go to the races, but I don’t have to in order to enjoy the sport. But of course, one of the biggest charitable donors in the world, as well as a huge taxpayer, is Hong Kong Jockey Club’s. Its biggest source of revenue is betting.
I got my interest in the sport through my mother, who grew up in hunting country in County Tipperary, so I was around horses from an early age. My brother is professionally involved as a stud farm manager and my other siblings all have an interest, to a greater or lesser extent. Ireland, of course, has a very long history with the horse. There is a natural affinity between Irish people and horses, along with an innate ability to handle them. Apart from cattle, sheep and pigs, many farmers would also have a horse or two around their property.
Family matters are central to us all but do we spend enough thinking about how we are keeping it together, consideration, patience, empathy, not to mention sometimes not letting things go, in the way of family harmony, mutual understanding? What does it take to be a son, a brother, a husband and a father?
Families come in all shapes and sizes, and characters, so only you and your other family members know what works in each little unit. I think everyone wants to be treated fairly and to have their personalities acknowledged as valid, so communication and perhaps letting bygones be bygones play an important role in making sure that happens. Certainly as a father and husband, whatever about the rest of it, you are learning everyday about the best way to handle different situations in your family. That sounds as if you don’t know your family very well, but different things can happen everyday that aren’t what you’ve come across before, so you have to adapt all the time.
You can’t react to everything or try to have a view about everything that happens in a family. You have to let things go in the interests of harmony and togetherness. This is especially true when it comes to engaging with children. They will do plenty of things that annoy you, but you can’t pull them up on everything. Otherwise, you would probably never stop disciplining during the day. You can only try to instill in them the ways to behave properly, so they will treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. That’s all you can hope for. Listening is very important. If everyone went round not listening to anyone, thinking they only mattered, the world would be chaotic. That’s what I tell my son anyway. I don’t know if he believes me yet.
How does it feel to be in Asia and in HK, surrounded by historic colorful cultures a warm climate, great food, exotic destinations nearby?
Asia has been a very worthwhile and valuable experience, amazing places, stunning experiences. I’m coming up to eight years in total living in Hong Kong and it has really opened my eyes to different cultures, ways of doing things and insights into local priorities I didn’t know about before. Hong Kong is a very convenient place. Public services and amenities are, for the most part, excellent, a notable energy here, also in other parts of Asia. Saying that it is going, through a very difficult time this summer. It seems to me to be an existential clash between how the East and West view the world and how it should be governed. I agree with people who say that even if the protests die away, they have changed utterly the relationship between the protesters and the police and the government, which won’t be easily or quickly repaired. I won’t predict how it’s going to end, or how it should end, but it is worrying that perhaps we are witnessing the end of Hong Kong as an international city that welcomes anyone who wants to try their luck here. That may not happen very rapidly, but it’s a real danger.
What’s the long term plan, Ireland, your wife’s country, Scotland? Do you your miss your family in Tipperary?
I’m homesick everyday. It’s a battle expatriates fight all the time. We definitely want to return to Europe, most likely the UK, though if there is a no-deal Brexit that isn’t an enticing. We’re from that side of the world, our families and friends are there and we do miss them. Like all Irish people, I have relatives all over the world – Australia, US, UAE, Colombia, France, to name a few countries. My family don’t all live in Tipperary anymore. Two of my brothers and my mother do, but the others live in or around Dublin. My son has missed growing up around his cousins and I feel bad about taking him away from that. I would like to live in Ireland again one day. I just have to convince my wife it would be a good idea. I love Scotland too, though, and have spent many happy times there, so I could see myself living there too.
How important has your religious education been to you?
My Catholic upbringing has always been important. Growing up at 20 years of Mass. I was an altar boy. I was involved in the church. It always stuck. What you grow up, that sticks, all the ethos of being Catholic. How I treat people the way I want to be treated – that comes from my Catholic background. The Benedictine monks at school gave me a good education, a little ‘irreverent’ they didn’t always wear their habits; they would be in casual clothes.