Meat and Diary – Frank McNally on the importance of food in diary writing

This column was accidentally dragged into the transatlantic debate on whether UFOs exist

In an odd turn of events on Twitter/X recently, this column – or a past version of it anyway – was accidentally dragged into the transatlantic debate on whether UFOs exist.

The context was a report by America’s awkwardly-named All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), a division of the Pentagon, which had concluded there was “no empirical evidence” of alien spacecraft.

Disputing this, a British writer of serial books about UFOs tweeted: “There’s going to come a point where the #AARO report is good for nothing more than fish & chip wrapping paper. Oh wait, that point’s already arrived.”

His joke was indeed accompanied by a picture of fish and chips wrapped in printed material. But on closer inspection, the wrapping proved to be an old copy of The Irish Times rather than a Pentagon report. And clearly visible beneath a battered haddock was the headline “An Irishman’s Diary”.


As I now know, the picture is a stock photo from Getty Images, taken circa 1998 in Galway (I’m guessing McDonagh’s of Quay Street). Further details elude me, including the diary’s subject, the print of which is too blurred to read.

Perhaps the British UFO expert should have thought twice about a joke involving an apparent sighting of the AARO report which can be so easily proven to be something else. That aside, as the latest incumbent Diarist here, I’m not sure whether to be flattered or insulted that this column has been so immortalised by Getty.

But back in the days when chippers did still use the previous day’s newspapers for wrapping, it helped keep journalists humble. Now that they don’t do that anymore, perhaps I should order a copy of the image and frame it for my desk.


Introducing her Diaries of Ireland: an anthology 1590-1987, which we mentioned yesterday, Melosina Lenox-Conyngham makes a telling point about food.

In general, she writes: “What is interesting in diaries relates as much to the perspective of the reader as to that of the writer; the further apart the dates, the more fascinating the trivial details of domestic life, while an introspective diary is of much greater significance to a contemporary.”

In particular, she continues: “What was eaten for dinner 200 years ago is of more import [now] than who ate it, unless they were distinguished or infamous.”

To illustrate, she cites the functional but gluttonously impressive summary of one 18th century dinner by its diary-writing host:

“The Rev. Nixon, who lived at Castle Hume in Fermanagh, entertained Mr Tottenham, the Surveyor-General of Leinster, making a party of sixteen on Saturday, 29 April 1769, with a brisket of beef and greens, a roast leg of mutton, boiled cows’ heels, mutton broth and cod. Fourteen bottles of claret and four bottles of port were drunk. The meal was at half-past three or four o clock and was followed by supper, when they had cold beef and butter and cheese and drank four bottles of claret, two of port, and one of whiskey.”

But the enduring fascination of food in (or on) diaries is also supported by that Twitter/X debate. Many responses to the tweet were about the UFO report. Some were about newspapers. For much of the readership, though, it was the vintage portrait of fish and chips that mattered most. As one tweeter summed up: “Hungry now.”


On Thursday night at the James Joyce Centre, I attended the “special industry presentation” of a stage musical about Joyce and his wife Nora Barnacle.

But before getting into that, for the benefit of future Diary readers, I should perhaps also mention that a friend and I stopped off beforehand in a charming Greek restaurant on Parliament Street. There we had charcoal-grilled halloumi, spanakopita (deep-fried pastries filled with spinach, feta cheese, and herbs) and bifteki, accompanied by ouzo (two shots each).

As for the musical, “Himself and Nora” by Jonathan Brielle, it was first performed off Broadway eight years ago, with a five-person cast and live band. Here it was reprised in a shorter, stripped-down format, performed as a two-hander by Brielle himself and the JJC’s director Darina Gallagher, with a laptop supplying the music.

Among other things, it was a necessary reminder of what a star Darina is, despite usually having to hide her light under the bushel of arts administration these days. But Brielle’s songs were lovely too and the show well deserves the full Irish production that, it was hoped, the industry presentation might belatedly inspire.

If I had one small criticism of the evening – and again this is aimed at future Diary readers – it was the absence of birthday cake (for Nora Barnacle, who was 140 on Thursday), which had been promised.

No doubt a temporary vacuum in the JJC’s administration department was to blame. On the other hand, the multi-tasking director had ordered in several bottles of wine for afterwards. So like the earlier halloumi, Nora was well toasted, at least: in my case by two glasses (possibly three).