Pouring cold water on the ice bucket challenge

Opinion: ‘Heck, even columns complaining about the exercise invite contributions to the cause’

‘Once wetness has been achieved, money can then be sent to a fund for Motor Neurone Disease.’ Above, Kathryn Thomas takes the ice bucket challenge. Photograph: RTÉ

‘Once wetness has been achieved, money can then be sent to a fund for Motor Neurone Disease.’ Above, Kathryn Thomas takes the ice bucket challenge. Photograph: RTÉ


This ice-bucket business invites many worthwhile observations on contemporary discontents. Aside from anything else, it demonstrates how quickly, in the social-media whirlwind, a phenomenon can pass from intriguing oddity to ubiquitous menace.

Though devised many months ago, the charity stunt did not, most likely, come to your attention until the past week. That video of Bill Gates immersing himself in frigid water passed five minutes amiably enough. A day later, you were sick to death of it. Then you open The Irish Times to discover that some fathead is only now getting round to whingeing about it.

Aren’t we at the backlash-to-the-backlash stage? Don’t we deserve articles arguing that, far from being an excuse for self-indulgence, the ice-bucket challenge is creative philanthropy in action?

We offer apologies if you have failed to encounter the blasted thing. First making its appearance at the turn of the year, the challenge invited citizens – celebrities in particular – to video themselves while a bucket of iced water was poured over their heads. The operation is connected in some way to charity. In an early form, the idea was that, if challenged, you had the option of sending a cheque to a good cause or allowing full pneumonic immersion. The current incarnation sees people dump the bucket over themselves and then nominate two other victims for the cause. Once wetness has been achieved, money can be sent to a fund for motor neurone disease.

Gruesome condition

Before proceeding with this rant, I took a moment to donate to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association. This is a particularly gruesome condition that, in the words of the late historian Tony Judt: “is best described as being in a prison cell that gets steadily smaller”. Had I not encountered the campaign, I would not have passed on the money. In the US it is estimated that some $15.6 million has come the relevant body’s way in the first half of August, as opposed to $1.8 million over the equivalent time period in 2013. The IMNDA’s website (imnda.ie) is easy to find and efficient to use.

So, it cannot be sincerely argued that the viral sequence has done no good. Heck, even columns complaining about the exercise invite contributions to the cause. None of this makes these idiotic displays of public dampness any less irritating. “Look at me! I’m being a bloody good sport.” I have always hated “good sports”. They wear Christmas jumpers. They wallop the piano at parties. They volunteer to play board games with the children. Worst of all, they will insist on sitting in baths of beans or wearing comical hats for charity.

If somebody decides to run a marathon for a decent cause this is a commendable thing. As well as gathering funds, they are attempting a daunting physical challenge. Give them a cheque. If, however, there is any suggestion they will run dressed as Charlie Chaplin, a tin-foil robot or Khaleesi out of Game of Thrones, pass the money directly to the charity. These people are “good sports” and should not be encouraged. They are likely to find enterprises such as the ice-bucket challenge not only “gas”, but also “great crack”.

The most depressing aspect of this horrible business is that it has forced me to feel sorry for one of the world’s very wealthiest men. Over the past decade, Bill and Melinda Gates have, it is estimated, given somewhere in the region of $28 billion to worthwhile causes. This should be sufficient, but, once challenged, Bill felt obliged to erect the bucket, set up the camera and establish his credentials as a “good sport”. The talking paperclip was an atrocity. Windows Vista was staggeringly ugly. None of this, however, justifies the sorry sight of Mr Gates shivering in icily moistened Sta-Prest slacks.

There is now pressure on Barack Obama – challenged by Ethel Kennedy of all people – to make with the soaking. It seems he is resisting the public indignity. Let his bravery be an example to us all. Yes, we can. But, no, we don’t have to.

Do readers yearn for ‘Irish fiction’?

Here’s a question to sop up the last few days of the silly season. Why do domestic bookshops insist upon setting aside a separate section for “Irish fiction”? One can imagine a reader feeling in the mood for a particular genre. Keen for science fiction or crime, they will make their way towards areas likely to harbour alien invasions and murders in locked rooms. But do readers really enter the shop and think: none of that foreign muck for me, today; only a slice of the pure Gael will do? If this helps Irish writers sell their books, then we rejoice. It seems unlikely, however, that a nation of top scribblers requires any such special pleading.

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