WHAT ARE WE AFRAID OF?

I am afraid to watch the television news at the moment.  I am afraid of what I might see.  I am afraid of the nightmares that might result.  I am afraid of images that will burn into my brain and resurface at some time in the future.  I am afraid to confront the reality of what is happening in the Middle East.  I can’t seem to process what I am hearing and reading.  I don’t know how to react or what to do about the horror that seems to be spreading through the region.
I don’t understand the politics of the area beyond the most simplistic outline of recent history.  I don’t pretend to have any particular insight into the cultures of the Middle East.  But what is going on right now in Syria, Gaza and Iraq in particular is beyond politics.  It is beyond reason.  There can be no excuses, no justification for the cruelty and the barbarism that has become rampant. 
It began with the killing of children in Gaza.  How can there ever be a reason to bomb a school?   And it happened not once but at least twice.  Day after day, week after week, we saw photos of these broken little innocent bodies as they lay dead or dying.  This destruction not caused by some madman on a solo rampage but by a sovereign nation’s army.  Big, well armed men, killing tiny children.  How can that ever, ever be justified?  It was evil when it was done by the provisional IRA bombing campaigns and it is wrong now.  No matter what history has done to a people, no matter what injustices have been perpetrated against them, killing and maiming children is a war crime.
There is little worse in my mind than killing babies but the depravity of the violence in Iraq in recent days is just beyond comprehension.  It’s like hearing the story line of some very violent and sick movie.  I have skimmed reports that have mentioned crucifixion, beheading, and dogs feeding on bodies. I have seen reference to a photo of a young boy, the son of a fighter holding the head (just the head) of a man – the enemy.  He is another young child who is lost to war.  I have read about women being taken in large numbers to be sold or raped.  I can’t do more than skim the reports because the detail is too shocking, too sickening, too upsetting.
And if that sounds like a very wimpish and, dare I say it, girly response that’s because it is.  
The countries of Syria, Gaza and Iraq are populated by ordinary families and by women who are far more like me than they are different.  Women who are mothers too and whose lives revolve around caring for their families and particularly their children, feeding them, loving them, educating them and protecting them.
And it is these women and their children who are increasingly haunting my dreams.  I see the fear and the horror in the eyes that stare at me from the appalling images that are carried on news bulletins and in the press. 
Somehow I feel that these women, who have suffered appallingly, who have lost children and loved ones, who live with the threat of rape, know that I know what is going on.
And I am struck dumb by not being able to process these stories.  I have taken weeks to try to even write this blog post.  I can’t articulate a response to this horror.  Anything I say or write seems wholly inadequate.  But yet to do and say nothing is to ignore those eyes I know are looking at me. Looking at us.  Wondering when we are at least going to say something, to condemn what is patently immoral.

Our government didn’t represent me when they chose to abstain from the UN vote on Gaza recently.  If any country on this planet should be able to identify with injustice, violence and the need to broker peace it should be Ireland.  So it is doubly shameful that we chose not to stand up, to speak out.  Our President has spoken only informally on this matter, stymied as he is by the constraints of his office.  Perhaps he is also afraid to watch the news, afraid of what he might see.  What the hell is wrong with us?

HE WAS SOME CAT….

16 years is a long time to live with someone regardless of how many legs they have.  In our house we live with as many four leggeds as with two leggeds and the bonds of love are strong. 
This week our oldest four legged – Simba died.  He had been in decline for months but my philosophy for elderly animals is that as long as they are enjoying life I would prefer them to fade slowly away.  I am not inclined to interfere with nature’s natural leisurely journey towards the end unless there is pain or discomfort involved.  Simba had lost weight and also his hearing but he was happy and still enjoying life right until the last day or so.
It was Carla, our eldest who brought Simba home to our first house in Shankill when she was about 11 years old.  She found him in some old woman’s shed where a cat had just had kittens and the old woman said she could keep him.  He was probably a bit too young to have been taken from his mother but I had a baby myself and probably wasn’t fully paying attention and so Simba stayed. 
He was cute like all kittens are and very playful.  But as he got older we discovered a dark quirk to his large rambunctious personality.  He wasn’t that keen on children or older people.  It began when he took a swipe at some of the cousins, all of whom were very young.  He missed but we realised that if young visitors came to the house we would have to lock Simba into a room for their safety. 
This was also a problem when we hosted parties for the girls, with lots of kids running about the house Simba was invariably released from his captivity.  So with the next party on the horizon I decided to visit the vet and investigate how best to deal with his behavioural quirk.  The vet advised some behavioural realignment using cat valium.  Yes, I kid you not.  I came away with a month’s supply of cat valium which would hopefully teach Simba to chill and not attack children.
The problem with the cat valium was that they were tiny tablets and the vet told me administer one quarter of a tablet per day.  So for three days I attempted to quarter a tiny tablet which resulted in bits of cat valium bits about my kitchen.  Not ideal when I now had two small children who spent a lot of time crawling about on the floor.  So I gave up.  Instead I decided that I would administer a tablet on the day of the party to keep him calm and the visiting children safe. 
Simba was a pig when it came to food so it was no problem to get him to take the tablet.  I will never forget the faces of the parents who dropped their little darlings off, when they spied a huge fat cat comatose on the back of an armchair with his mouth open and tongue hanging out.  He was happily out of his head for hours… and no one got hurt at the party.  The supply of cat valium lasted through the parties at home stage and Simba had no recollection of any of them.
Simba grew up into a huge, lazy, vocal, affectionate cat who loved being around us and in the house.  In winter no one got as excited as he did on a cold evening when we lit the fire.  He would be in, staking his place in front of the hearth at the first sound of coal being rattled. 
He grew and grew so much that I got tired of visitors asking when ‘she’ was due to give birth.  Then someone arrived one day who looked at me as if I were really thick.  “That cat has a tumour or something” he said.  “I’ve never seen a cat that size.  Have you taken him to the vet?”  “No”, I said sheepishly. 
Next day, full of guilt I took Simba to the vet.   “What’s the problem” he said.  I recounted the story of the man who said he must have a tumour.  The vet examined Simba and then asked me two questions.
“Does he eat a lot?”
“Oh yeah,” I said “he loves his food”
“Does he take much exercise?”
“Em, no not really,” I answered “he likes to be indoors, with us. He’s kind of lazy”
“Exactly,” said the vet.  “He’s just fat.  Fine but fat.”
We were kindred spirits in many ways – me and Simba.
He was a constant in our house for the last 16 years.  He loved dinner time – watching me as I prepared food in the hope that I would drop a tasty morsel for him.  He would then join us at the table – sitting on a free chair preferably at the head of the table from where he would listen to our conversations and wonder what our food tasted like.
He thumped down off beds and down the stairs in the manner of a large child.  He talked a lot and was the only cat who always answered us when we greeted him.
Although he had issues with some two leggeds he loved other cats.  We have fostered many kittens and older cats for the DSPCA and Simba never objected to a new arrival.  In fact without Simba we would have struggled to win around some of our very nervous fosters.  It was Simba who would give them the confidence to come out of hiding and feel safe in the world.  His greatest achievement in this regard was the rehabilitation of Oprah, the feral kitten who came to us at Christmas.
Simba was the last of our first generation of cats.  In hindsight we should have staggered our cat adoptions a bit better.  Like the way most of our white goods blew up in year seven of our marriage, over the last 18 months or so I have held the paws of four beloved cats as they left this world. 
Simba knew the end was near and took himself off to die at the end of the garden. Unfortunately he (we assume) took a tumble into a little inaccessible stream at the end of our garden and it took us some hours to locate him.  In the end it was Mia (13) who found him and she had to come back to get help to reach him.  While she did that, another of our cats, Diego took up position beside the dying Simba until Paul arrived with a ladder and took poor Simba home. 
He was weak and his body was shutting down so bundling him into a soft blanket we took him to the emergency veterinary hospital in UCD where they agreed that we should help him on his journey.  So he died as he lived – mainly peacefully with a bit of drama. 
We took him home with us and on Wednesday evening in a soft rain, as the light drained from the sky, Paul dug a grave for our beloved boy and we lay him to sleep by the lilac tree in the garden.  Diego watched from the wall.
We now have four young cats – the oldest is about 2 and so I guess in another 15 years or so I will once again be shedding salty tears as they take their leave.  It’s always sad and you never get used to it.  But it is a tribute to the animals any of us chose to live with, that they connect with us in a deep and meaningful way, that they colour every day of the life we live together and that they become true members of the family.

Simba will live on in our hearts and the stories of his life will be told for years to come.  He was some cat!

THE BEST OF TIMES

Oh, how my summers have changed…
Clichéd and all as it sounds, it really does just seem like only yesterday, that summer holidays from school started with a trip to the Zoo.  The first sunny day after the kids finished in early July I would pack up the car with all necessary supplies and we would head over to the Phoenix Park. There we would pass happy hours marvelling at the exotic creatures until they started to flag – the children that is, not the exotic creatures.  The final few enclosures could be a bit tortuous but it was always a great day, well except for the traffic on the quays on the way home.
                   
Summer also meant a visit to Glenroe Farm in Wicklow, usually with the cousins.  A good summer meant we may get there more than once.  With the sun on our backs we would wander around talking to donkeys, cows and pigs before finally choosing a picnic table or two on which we would spread our food and treats.  Afterwards the kids would do another round of the animals or just spend an hour in ‘pets corner’ while the mammies and the grannies stayed and chatted or gossiped.  It was bliss.
But days out weren’t always so organised.  Most summers we had countless picnics in the local park which has a great playground which would keep them amused for at least an hour while I read my book.  Or we could go to the river bank – well stream bank really – with our fishing nets to catch pinkeens – on the strict understanding we threw them back.  Or we could just sit on the grass making daisy chains or eating ice cream. 
Other days we could head to the beach at Killiney for a walk and for skimming stones or to Sandycove for a paddle. 
The last summer treat, which began as they got a little older, was to take a trip down the N11 to Bray.  Old fashioned fun which carried echoes of my own childhood as we sampled rides on the bumper cars, the ghost train and the Waltzers.  We also had a budget amount of small change to lose on the slot machines.  The best part of the day though was ending with a bag of chips and a coke consumed in the car as we watched the sea through rapidly steaming up windows.
I miss eating chips from a bag in the car.  I miss paddling.  I miss daisy chains.  Hell I even miss catching pinkeens.
But we weren’t always out.  Every summer began in the hope of lots of warm weather and so we bought a paddling pool which over the years got bigger and very slightly more sophisticated.  But we had one rule for our paddling pool – it had to be able to accommodate the end of the garden slide.  On those sunny days, before water charges were even a glint in a Minister’s eye, I would rig up the garden hose to the top of the slide and off they would go; an aqua park in the back garden.  It made a muddy mess of the lawn and many bushes got permanently damaged from small bodies careering into them at high speed but it was the best of craic, even just for the observer.
As the summer slipped towards autumn, we bought new schoolbags and school socks in Dunnes Stores and assembled the books for the coming year without needing a mortgage. 
We also paid a visit to the toy store and the art shop to treat ourselves to some indoor activities for the winter; games and crafts and colouring books and crayons.  God I miss the excuse to lie on the floor for an hour colouring in.  Talk about being in the moment – ‘colouring in’ is the most amazing de-stresser.
I miss spending hours in the kids section of the bookshop among so many beautifully illustrated and magical books. 
But that’s what happens with kids – suddenly your sunny, exuberant, up for anything darlings leave junior school and head into secondary.  They get very tall and all of a sudden you are not great craic anymore (well you are, but never in public).
And while as a parent you relish the new freedom their independence affords you, there are things you will miss and will probably continue to miss until some day you will be called ‘granny’ and get to do them again.
But until that day comes, I vow that this summer I will return to the Zoo – on my own if necessary.  I might even paddle in Sandycove.  And come late August if you spot me in the local toy shop buying a colouring book and a box of crayons…. say nothing.  Oh and it is true that we view the past through rose tinted specs…. but they were the best of times…. honestly.

It’s that time again… SUMMER READ RECOMMENDATIONS

As usual here are my top picks for Summer Reading for you…. You are very welcome!!
My very top recommendation goes to THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion
This is an Australian story in the true tradition of Australian stories in that it’s quirky and witty and warm.  It’s the story of a nerdy, highly intelligent Genetics Professor called Don Tillman and his attempt to find a life partner.  But it’s not really that.  It’s a love story… but it’s not really that either.  It’s about relationships, control, love, food, travel and everything else that is important in life!
It will make you laugh and it will engage you totally.  I read it in just over 24 hours and I didn’t want it to end.  The film rights have been purchased… doubt the movie could match the book though.  It’s a cracker. 
Next up is WOMAN UPSTAIRS by Claire Messud. 
This is an unusual choice for me because although it’s a beautifully crafted book, the main character is not totally likeable. Nora Eldridge has been a good girl all her life.  She is a great teacher to third grade.   She lives alone, is childless and looking after her elderly dad.  But she is also an artist who doesn’t ‘art’!  Those closest to her have no idea that she is unhappy, unfulfilled and craving a life that she glimpses through a new boy in her class. 
It’s not the easiest read but the main theme is one that I feel will particularly resonate with women who generally fulfil multiple roles in their lives while often subjugating what it is they really want to do.  It was an interesting read for that reason. 
STILL ALICE is by Lisa Genova is a beautiful book that tells the story of Alice and her journey into Alzheimer’s Disease.  It’s gracefully told and is set in one of my favourite places – Boston and Cape Cod. 
The main character Alice is not an elderly lady in the final decade of her life – she is a 50 year old Professor of Linguistics at Harvard University.  She is very much a career woman with three grown up children. 
What strikes me most about this book is its central message.  It is a message that I know something about from years working for The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and of watching my mother in law lose her memories to dementia.  That message is that behind the disease – our main character is Still Alice!
A moving but not depressing read.  I highly recommend it.
SUMMER OF 76 by Isabel Ashdown was recommended to me by a Twitter friend after I had written a piece about The Last Summer – you know that delicious summer you leave school and stand of the cusp of life.  For the record – my last summer was in 1979!  You can read my piece here.
The actual summer of ‘76 was remarkable for the heatwave that hit Ireland and Britain.  Temperatures soared and people sizzled.  Our story is set around the main character Luke who is enjoying his last months at home on the Isle of Wight before he heads off to college.  It’s a momentous summer of coming of age, of male friendships and at the centre is a salacious scandal that shocks the local community.
Again this book is well written and will have huge resonances with anyone who was a teenager in the 70s with the references to music and styles of the time.
This book for me is everything a summer read should be.
Now can I mention some Irish books that I haven’t read yet as they have all just or are about to hit the bookshops.
First up is Maria Duffy’s latest offering ONE WISH which tells the tale of Londoner Becky Greene who moves to Ireland for a fresh start only to find herself pregnant after a one night stand.  Four years later and her daughter is asking questions about her father. So Becky decides to track him down.  Maria is a prolific writer and this book is sure to be another goodie.  It launches this week but is in bookshops now.
Muriel Bolger is one of Ireland’s best known and most experienced travel writers who has taken to writing fiction in the last few years with some great success.  I have just started her latest book called THE PINK PEPPER TREE.  Muriel’s books always feature travel which is why they are such great summer reads and this latest one is no different with a trip to Monte Carlo featuring prominently.  Sure what’s not to like?
Caroline Grace Cassidy is another talented Irish writer whose story telling style often reminds me of Maeve Binchey.  Her last book The Other Side of Wonderful was an engaging tale but with a dark edge which was deftly handled.  Caroline is putting the finishing touches to her
latest story “I ALWAYS KNEW” which is out in August.  I am confident it will be another great story.
Finally anyone who was moved The Diving Bell and The Butterfly will be interested in IT’S NOT YET DARK by Simon Fitzmaurice.  In 2008 Simon was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.  He was given four years to live.  Against medical opinion he chose to ventilate in order to stay alive.  This book tells us starkly and clearly about his inner life, the power of love and living every moment.
So there you have it.. and like old Uncle Gaybo used to say every year on The Toy Show about giving the gift of reading to a child… let me say what I say twice every year… don’t buy online if you can support your local bookshop.

If money is tight – remember we are lucky in Ireland to still have a great network of libraries.

Not Such A Great Little Country After All

I have tried and failed about three times to write this post.  It has been really difficult to work out my feelings about the revelations concerning the treatment of mothers and babies in Ireland in the very recent past.  As a woman and a mother and indeed as a former single parent myself  there is something deeply unnerving and disquieting to learn that your country, the place you live, the place that is rooted deeply in your bones, the place that defines so much of you has been hiding such dark and cruel stories for decades.
I took my youngest daughters to see the movie ‘Philomena’ when it was in cinemas some months back.  They are 13 and 15 and their usual choice of movies is a mix of fantasy and American pop culture… Philomena was something very different.  But they were both moved and disturbed by the story.  What bothered them most was that this was an Irish story and a recent one too. 
It is often remarked on how we still love to be told we are great.  Only on an Irish chat show will the first question asked of a visiting superstar be “and how are you finding Ireland, do you like it?”  Which has to be the stupidest question ever because what do we honestly expect a visiting movie star on a PR trip for their latest movie to say?  “Well actually I am very disappointed.  I find your country dirty and the standard of service is appalling.”  No of course not.  They all say “oh I love it.  I hope to come back soon and spend more time here.”  Our sense of our own wonderfulness established, the interview can continue.
It would be easy at this point to heap all the blame for the cruelty of how single pregnant women and girls were treated at the feet of religious orders.  The orders certainly carry a huge burden of responsibility and their callousness should be recorded for posterity.  They must be held to account and their track record of intransigence and tight fistedness should not be tolerated for one day longer. 
But we must also accept that we all bear responsibility for this dark chapter in our history.  It was the families and communities in which these women and girls lived that sent them into the arms of the nuns who were clearly overwhelmed.  And it is this complicity, our complicity that will haunt our sense of ourselves for decades to come.
There is little we can do from this remove to heal the hurt caused to the thousands of women whose babies either died or were taken from them for adoption.  We cannot rewrite history.  But if we don’t learn from it we are likely to repeat the mistakes, the injustices and the cruelty over and over again.
Right now in Ireland adopted people are still having great difficulty in accessing their birth information.  We must pressure the government to amend this situation immediately.  Today in Ireland Traveller babies have a higher mortality rate than the general population and many Traveller children are living in appalling conditions.  Funding to Traveller services was cut by 80% during this period of so called austerity.  Next month lone parents are facing another cut in their payments when their youngest child turns seven years of age.  Today there are thousands of immigrant families caught in ‘direct provision’ which is having a detrimental effect especially on their children.  What are we doing about all these children?
I love this country.  We have produced great writing and great music.  We have a unique sense of fun and invented ‘the craic’ which is beyond explanation.  We are masters of irreverence and have an interesting relationship with authority.  We have some of the most stunning scenery on the planet.  We have much to be proud of. 
But we also have much to be deeply ashamed of.  For decades I think our history of colonisation, of being a victim of British dominance has defined us.  We were this little nation whose influence has spread all over the world; this little nation who after centuries of failed attempts finally shook off our oppressor and gained our freedom.  Weren’t we just wonderful altogether? 
We are now coming to terms that we are not quite as wonderful as we thought.  Our treatment of Mothers and Babies for most of the twentieth century is surely one of the most shameful episodes in any countries history.  And we have no one else to blame.  We, as a nation facilitated the church in its abuse of these young women and their babies.  Right now we are again turning a blind eye to many injustices which are impacting Irish children.  Are we content to continue to allow our Government to unfairly target groups that are vulnerable in the pursuit of financial stability?  Are some children once again worth more than others?
The last three weeks have changed fundamentally how I feel about my Irishness.  I am still proud to call myself Irish.  But I think that feeling of smug self confidence in my nationality, that one that Irish chat show hosts love to reinforce is gone.  I can only assume that this is a good thing.

Ni Neart Go Cur Le Cheile

“Be yourself, because if you can get away with it, it is the ultimate feminist act.”
Liz Phair – American Singer/Songwriter
According to the Oxford English Dictionary Feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”   The two words that jump out of that sentence are rights and equality.  Surely every woman has the right to make her own choices and live her own life as she sees fit.  You see, for me feminism is as much about choice and freedom as it is about equality. 
And that right there is why I often find myself getting very depressed when feminist women (rarely men) get angry when a woman puts forward a vision of fulfilment that doesn’t rate climbing the career ladder her major priority in life. 
Over the last few days we have had another stunning example of how we women seem to find it next to impossible to accommodate views that do not fit neatly with ours.  Kirsty Allsop is the latest feminist to find herself in very hot water with the mainstream feminists who have been ranting and raving about her in our newspapers and on social media.  You see Kirsty has opinions and has never been afraid to express them.  Surely this is what feminists are all about?  Having women’s voices heard?  Not apparently if your opinions run contrary to the mainstream feminist view which seems to be all about achieving in education and career.
Ms Allsopp had the audacity to say in a wide ranging interview with The Telegraph that she thought that “women are being let down by the system. We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact it falls off a cliff when you’re 35. We should talk openly about university and whether going when you’re young, when we live so much longer, is really the way forward.” 
She went on to say that if she had a daughter (she has two sons) she would advise her to postpone university and to concentrate on having a family while she was young and doing the career and university thing later on.  She further said in an interview with Newsnight that she would have the same conversation with her boys.
Whether she is right or wrong is irrelevant.  The point is that she has every right to express her opinion.  She wasn’t saying that this is what every woman should do but that it is what she would advise her offspring to do.  But the immediate rubbishing of her view along with plenty of derogatory commentary concerning her background (which is reasonably wealthy by all accounts) and her work with interiors, design and crafting surely runs contrary to what feminism should be all about?
For generations women have passed down wisdom and stories along with recipes from mother to daughter; precious nuggets of knowledge borne from experience of our grandmothers.  In our enthusiasm for full equality we have narrowed our vision about what it is to be a woman – what it is to be a feminist.
Some of the greatest feminist women I know are working quietly in the home, caring for children, their aged parents and their household.  They have little if any interest in board rooms or glass ceilings.  Are there views on life less worthy?  Are these women some lesser species of feminist?
We need to be very careful of becoming too macho in our pursuit of full equality and freedom.  Actress Natalie Portman said “I want every version of a woman and a man to be possible. I want women and men to be able to be full-time parents or full-time working people or any combination of the two. I want both to be able to do whatever they want sexually without being called names. I want them to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”

Before we can change the world we must change ourselves.  As a women’s movement we must recognise that we women are as different as we are the same.  We don’t all necessarily want the same things.  Equality is essentially about choice.  The choice to be yourself.  It is vital that we recognise the right of each woman to make the choices that are right for her. And we need to support each other regardless of how we personally view those choices.
So if Kirsty Allsopp wants to tell her children that they might consider fertility and plan a family early and put off career advancement till later, that is fine.  It is another way of doing things.  No more and no less valid that waiting until you are established in your career for the babies.
But women can we please stop being so critical of other women whose views don’t chime with ours.  We are often our own worst enemies… Ni neart go cur le cheile (no strength without unity)

WOMEN ON AIR… MAKING PROGRESS

I was really pleased to attend the inaugural ‘Women On Air’ conference this week in the magnificent surroundings of Dublin Castle.  Walking across the upper yard of one of Dublin’s most iconic locations on a sunny morning was just stunning.  As I carefully picked my way on the cobblestones I was vaguely aware of the centuries of history that was all around me;  ghosts of the British administration and laterally the whisperings that signified subterfuge and intrigue as Ireland pushed for independence.
There was no subterfuge however at the ‘Women on Air’ event which was officially opened by Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte, who didn’t annoy me at all with his speech.  He was followed by Margaret E Ward who outlined how ‘Women on Air’ came into being after a ‘debate’ on Twitter.  I was a silent witness to that debate back in 2010 and felt a frisson of excitement when Margaret along with former radio producer Helen McCormack decided to organise a seminar which was aimed at providing tips and support for women who wished to go on air. 
Back in 2010 I was a …. here we go again… housewife (I HATE THAT TERM – but all others are equally grating) buried deep in suburban Cabinteely.  However my children were 23, 11 and 9 and I was itching to get involved back in the world of work and had decided to attempt to pursue my passion of writing and talking!  I had done a few radio interviews before in my previous career as PRO for a national charity and it was a medium I found very comfortable.  I also passionately wanted to hear more women’s voices and more importantly women’s stories on air.
So taking my courage in both hands I sent a very timid tweet to Margaret E Ward asking if it might be possible to attend this planned seminar.  It was. 
The seminar took place on Tuesday 12th of October and was held in the National Library at 6:30pm.  I got there way too early and heading to the coffee shop for a coffee while I waited.  As I sat on my own in the empty cafe the voice in my head grew louder and louder saying “what the hell are you doing?”, “go home, you eejit, why on earth would you consider yourself part of this?”
As I walked towards the lecture theatre, I tried to counter the feeling of seasickness and terror.  There were lots of women milling about and they all seemed to know each other.  The voice in my head was now in a right panic.  “No-one knows you – turn around and leave before you make a show of yourself”.  I tried to keep my face looking calm and confident as I negotiated a place to sit when I suddenly saw one face that was familiar.  I had met writer Eleanor Fitzsimons just a week or so earlier at a book launch and we had chatted.  Thankfully she remembered me and I clung on to her like she was a life-raft in treacherous seas.
Later that evening I met Helen McCormack, who asked me if I would be willing to come into studio on a news review panel on the Tom McGuirk programme, which she produced on 4FM.
So on that night four years ago, I arrived into the city a bag of nerves, wondering what the hell I was doing.  But thanks to the support, encouragement and faith of just three women I went home wondering if it might actually be possible to pursue a new career in the media… or what Fiona Looney (bless her) calls my midlife crisis media career.
Women on Air has come a long way since October 2010 and I guess I have made some progress on the journey too.  Change is definitely in the air.  RTE Radio One seems to be leading the charge at the moment with rising numbers of women presenting programmes during the peak hours of 8am to 8pm. 
TV3 also have managed to attain a relatively good gender balance in their news and current affairs output – most noticeably on Vincent Browne’s programme.  Something I think they don’t get enough credit for.
During the first session of the Conference TV3’s Political Editor, Ursula Halligan, made the point about women on TV being constantly made feel that they have to fit a specific body type… young, pretty and very slim.  An image, she said, that was largely constructed by men but which was bought into by women.  Aine Lawlor referenced the excellent documentary by Kirsty Wark, ‘Blurred Lines’ and the amount of violent sexual threats that can be made against some women in media, something that another panellist, journalist Una Mulally knows all about.
It struck me that both issues have a connection to each other.  Because TV companies seem to be so reluctant to put older women or women who don’t fit the specific ‘TV type’ on air, broadcasters are actually feeding this view that all women must be attractive and specifically sexually attractive regardless of their qualifications or ability.  The most obvious example of this is that of Mary Beard, the respected academic in the UK, who received horrendous online abuse regarding appearance after a series she made, was aired on the BBC.
Perhaps when we have more balance in the physicality of the women we see on our screens – across body types, age etc we will see a decrease in the amount of abuse someone like Mary Beard receives.  It is much easier to bully the minority.
In broader terms we need to ensure as more and more women make it to air that we don’t follow the men and have airwaves that are almost entirely populated by middle class voices. 
Just as the women at that very first ‘Women On Air’ seminar were accepting of the interloper housewife from the suburbs, as more and more of us make it to air we must ensure that we are bringing diversity with us. 

Congratulations to Caroline Erskine – chairperson of Women On Air, Margaret E Ward and Helen McCormack the originators of the movement and all the current committee for a wonderful conference.  Onwards and upwards sisters.

PARENTS – WAKEY WAKEY

Last night I managed to catch the last quarter of an excellent documentary on BBC2 presented by Kirsty Wark called – ‘Blurred Lines – A New Battle of the Sexes?’  In the programme Ms Wark asked whether the internet was now a place of hostility towards women as demonstrated by the level of abuse, much of it of a sexual nature, Professor Mary Beard received online after her appearance on Question Time.
What really resonated with me however was when Ms Wark spoke to three very young women about whether a level of sexual aggression from boys was a reality.  One of the young women described being at a recent party where many of the boys were groping and grabbing the girls as they wished.  Kirsty asked how the girls reacted, wondering did they not have the confidence to tell the boys to stop.  The young women replied that no, she didn’t think that many of the girls even realised that they were entitled to say stop or no.  She seemed to think that may of her peers just thought that was part of being a girl.  Kristy then asked the young women what their greatest fear was in this regard.  They all agreed that being sexually assaulted and it being filmed and photographed for social media was their greatest fear. 
I found this chilling and depressing but also it made me very angry. 
Earlier yesterday I had been trying to find out, for a friend (yes seriously) about an Australian ‘act’ called The Janoskians who are coming to Dublin and Belfast at the end of the summer.
The Janoskians are, according to Ticketmaster “… a group of five best friends who brew ‘social disturbance’ and capture it on camera and churn out infectious and incisive punked-out pop anthems”. 
I asked my own two teenage daughters about them and was told that yeah they are ‘hilarious’, that they do ‘prank videos’ on YouTube and that they can’t sing but that’s not a problem as they are auto tuned anyway!  Is Simon Cowell responsible for the death of music and talent?  But I digress… as usual.
It is very difficult to find any independent reviews of their shows online.  Google searches seem to churn up lots of PR related guff.  But there was one review which was posted on an Australian parenting and lifestyle website called Mamamia.com.au.  The reviewer Tara Lee, described as a mother from Sydney, begins by saying that she was expecting “gross pranks, silly skits, stunts where they harm each other or themselves.”  She was also expecting a level of cursing and swearing.  But says she “found it a little shocking when they came out and said to their audience “girls, shut the f*ck up!” — and warned parents there would be quite a lot of swearing and said that if we didn’t like it we could get our kid and “f*ck off”.
So far so very teenage I guess.  And we all know that teenagers love rebellion and shocking the rest of us.  But what didn’t shock as much as repulse me, was how they treated their fans – mostly young girls (they are a good looking group). 
Tara goes on to say.. “at Q&A time, when asked about what their favourite body part was, one boy said that while he liked a good tit, he preferred arse and commented on how many great arses there were at the meet and greet.  Then it progressed to how the Sydney girls were sexy bitches, corrected by another on-stage star to “sexy SLUTS”. This prompted cheers from the audience, who seemed to think this was a good thing”.
You can read the full review here and if you have a few hours to spare you can go on to read the comments where the fans respond to Ms Lee.  Suffice to say that their loyalty is unwavering just like One Directioners and Beliebers before that.   The clever use of social media by The Janoskians is a huge part of keeping their fans ‘loyal’.  “They love us and care for us… they tweet us all the time saying that” the fans say.   Oh dear.
But seriously when did it become OK for a bunch of guys call young girls ‘sluts’ and reduce them to lumps of meat commenting on the tits and ass quality of the audience.  But for me the far more worrying element of all this is that the girls think this is quite OK and even love it.
One hundred years after the women’s movement began to make serious strides we have produced a generation of well educated girls who think that this is OK?  Or do they?  Or are they like the trio that Kirsty Wark spoke to who are in fear of someday being abused sexually and the event being posted online?  Either way it’s an appalling vista.
Parents have to step up to the plate and we have to up our game.  I have written before about the power of online porn and the fact that saying “I have parental block on my computers at home” will protect your children.  It won’t.  We just can no longer protect our children from sexually explicit content online.  In order to combat its messages we must change our conversations around sex.  No longer is the conversation merely about the birds and bees and joy of sex and committed relationships but also must now include talk about oral sex, threesomes and the like.  I am not for one second saying this is an easy conversation to have with a 13 or 14 year old.  It’s not but we have to ‘woman’ up and do it.
In ten days or so that other paragon of all that’s wrong with pop culture, Miley Cyrus rides into town for her concert in the O2.  According to a review of her London shows by another mother, Annabel Cole (Irish Daily Mail 9thMay) who took her 14 year old daughter, along with Miley’s crotch, ass and tongue being a huge part of her show, she also encourages our children to “make out with each other and use lots of tongue”.  She apparently also extolled the virtue of smoking saying “I smoked for three years and I loved it but weed is much better than smoking…. this show is nearly over and I will be stoned very shortly.”  There were children as young as nine in the audience. 
So parents it’s time we wised up.  Its take our heads out of the sand.  Miley Cyrus has long ago left her Hannah Montana days behind her and The Janoskians may not be quite as hilarious as the PR says. 
But more importantly it is time for us to ensure our daughters have the courage to understand that they do not have to be sexually available all the time.  We must help them find their voices to shout NO.  And we must make absolutely sure that our boys understand exactly what consent is.

And we must do this against the barrage of pop culture with icons way cooler than we ever were spreading messages that are exactly the opposite.  

THE MAGIC OF A GOOD TEACHER

So the teachers of Ireland are having their annual get-togethers as I write this and there seem to be two things that are engaging the nation as a result….well those who are on Twitter anyway. 
Firstly there is the idea that Ruairi Quinn floated about ‘defeminising’ primary teaching by introducing a requirement for candidates to have honours maths.   Leaving the ‘defeminising’ element aside because that would be an entire column in itself, the idea that potential teachers of four to 12 year olds should have honours maths to me shows a worrying lack of what it is that makes a good teacher of  very young children.  Some individuals more cynical than I assumed that this daft idea was merely to deflect the debate away from the Junior Cert mess and other issues. 
Twitter was also consumed with lecturing the badly behaved teachers who showed no respect for their Minister by their heckling, use of a megaphone and slow clapping.  If I saw one I saw ten tweets to the effect that teachers should be providing better example to their students by behaving better.  Mmmmm…  I have a sneaking regard for rebels and strongly believe in the need to make our voices heard when we passionately disagree with something that is being implemented.  I still believe that most teachers have the welfare of our children at heart so I can understand their anger.
Let us not underestimate the power of teachers on our lives and on the lives of our children.  On receiving her Fellowship Award at the last BAFTAs earlier in the year Dame Helen Mirren talked about teachers.  “My journey to this place, right here and right now, began with a great teacher”, she said.  She went on to reference Alice Welding who taught her the power of literature and who alone encouraged her to become an actor.  Ms Mirren asked her audience how many of them remembered a great teacher who had “opened the gate that led to the path that led you here”?  She asked for a show of hands.  “That’s a lot of teachers”, she remarked.
We are lucky if we have had one great teacher in our lives. We are truly blessed to have had two or more.   And these great teachers may or may not have been actual teachers.  My first great teacher was a teacher.  Her name was Mrs Nellie McGloughlin and she taught my class in Oliver Plunkett National School in Monkstown.  When I was 7, I thought Mrs McGloughlin was old.  She had grey hair and wore comfortable shoes which she kicked off one at a time as she warmed her foot on the heating pipe in the classroom on chilly days.  She was one of those brilliant teachers who didn’t force us to learn but rather opened our young minds to endless possibilities, endless stories, and endless interesting facts. 
Mrs McGloughlin also seamlessly shifted from Irish to English and back again, right throughout the day.  She read us poetry – in both languages – not so that we could understand the concepts being articulated but rather so that we could develop an appreciation of the beauty of language.  She encouraged us in ‘creative writing’.  She even gave us advice on how to find a good partner in life. 
We were incredibly lucky in that Mrs McGloughlin taught us from second to sixth class.  When myself and my classmates made the transition to the local convent secondary school our oral Irish marked us out as the girls from Oliver Plunkett.
My second teacher came into my life shortly after I had turned 30 years of age.  I was not in a happy place for lots of reasons, the lack of a job I liked being one of them.  I was ‘temping’ at The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and the Chairman was an amazing man called Michael Coote.  Michael had just turned 80 years of age but was one of the most creative, positive, energetic people I have ever met.  But more than all that, just as Helen Mirren said, he saw something in me and he gave me an opportunity. 
He offered me the newly created role of PRO for the fledgling charity.  For the next couple of years he mentored and guided me.  He taught me so much; about selling, about motivating volunteers, about ensuring your message was heard.  He was simply inspirational.  Just like a good teacher should be.

I hope the cynics are right about Minister Quinn’s motives for introducing the mad idea of primary teachers needing Honours Maths.  Because the teaching of young children is as much about magic and endless possibility as it is about reading and writing and adding.  If teachers should require an honour in anything it should be in magic and perhaps another in creativity.  And thankfully some are born with just that.   

Ni Neart Go Cur Le Cheile

When I watched the first of TV3’s new format People’s Debates with Vincent Browne I admired the courage of the station in attempting to give equal voice to ‘ordinary’ people as to elected politicians and aspiring politicians.  However I did feel that there was a lot of shouting and not a lot of coherence.  So when the second one was announced as being a women only debate on the subject as to whether or not we had yet achieved ‘liberation’ I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. 
But being me and afraid I might miss something, a character trait (flaw?) that has kept me on Twitter for six years, I rocked along to the magnificent HD studios in Ballymount last Wednesday. 
As someone who is a member of the National Women’s Council and also involved with the Women on Air group, I was immediately surprised that I didn’t know more than a handful of the women present.  As I took my seat in the studio I wondered if there was some kind of snobbery at work here.  There weren’t many (if any) TDs at the first People’s Debate and there was not a sign of a woman TD last Wednesday either.  I know we don’t exactly have a lot of female TDs but I was disappointed that not one had shown up.
I enjoyed the evening very much.  There is something very …. I am slow to say special…but it is special when a group of women come together.  Perhaps it’s the very different energy, the different dynamic. 
I was struck by the humour of the evening and also by the very articulate contributions from almost every woman who spoke.  There was passion too.  And believe me there were all points of view in the studio… from very Catholic women to women who were very vocal campaigners for liberal abortion. 
I am aware from the commentary on Twitter afterwards that some women felt their voices weren’t heard and that is a shame but I guess an inevitable fact at any event. 
But I felt that there was a tangible willingness in the studio for women to listen to each other.  It was said time and time again that true equality is about choice.  And this is something I have written about many times.  But more than choice I also think that in order for the cause of feminism to move forward we women must be tolerant of views that run completely to our own.
Abortion is possibly the most divisive of these issues but there are others too. It is vital that as women we realise that to move forward we must all stand together.  We must park our differences and our battles over issues such as abortion.  I understand that abortion is something many feminists will say is fundamental to our freedom as women… but if we continue to insist on all women signing up to that agenda we are doomed to failure.  There are also very feminist women who do not support liberal abortion laws.  That does not make them less of a feminist.
Equality is indeed about choice but it is also about tolerance.  We are not a homogenous group – we are as different as we are the same. 
As the debate wound to its conclusion two things were clear to me.   The new Irish women – many of whom on the night were African had so much to add to our conversation about equality.  Their voices were such a welcome addition and they brought wonderful insights to the debate.  The other thing that came up time and time again was the ‘work of caring’.  Until we as a nation value the work of caring and until it is subsidised by our taxes we will never be fully liberated.
Exactly 100 years before we gathered in a TV studio in Ballymount, a group of women met in Wynne’s Hotel in Dublin and founded Cumann na mBan.   I have no doubt that these women were equally full of passion and enthusiasm for their cause and the cause of national freedom.  But in the end they were divided, like the rest of the country on the issue of partition and the Treaty.  And so the cause of Irish women’s liberation ground to a halt.
There is a lesson there for women of 2014.  Some issues will remain divisive for years to come.  Don’t let that force us apart and therefore delay our full liberation for another century. 
Ni neart go cur le cheile

ROARING FOR EQUALITY

International Women’s Day and I was invited by the National Women’s Council of Ireland to take part in their SOAPBOX event which took place in the middle of O Connell Street – just opposite the GPO.  A place famous for oration… some more glorious than others.  It’s also around the corner from some of Dublin’s most formidable women – the fruit sellers and traders of Moore Street, whose powers of making themselves heard over the din of the city is legendary.  I didn’t sell any bananas but I was honoured to take my few minutes on the soapbox.  Here is the text of what I roared!

Michael Harding wrote one of the most lyrical and beautiful columns I have ever read in the Irish Times last Tuesday.  It was called What I Love Most About Women Is Their Voices.  He began by saying that while his father was in the dining room talking about God, his mother was in the kitchen talking to another woman.  His father called it gossip – “what are you women gossiping about now?”  But Harding says “my father was full of ideas – but mother – full of stories – was always more real.”  He went on to say of women “They share a ‘knowing’ beyond words. …. They know things men don’t know.  They shelter men in the fabric of their knowing and they intuit a deeper universe when a man’s world is falling apart.”
It certainly is time that this world of man’s design fell apart.  It certainly is time for women to demand much more than just equality with men.  It is time for us to demand a new world; a world in which we can participate fully and as equals but a world which acknowledges that we are not men; a world where we can express our womanhood without fear that it will be perceived as weakness.
All women are heroes in my opinion.  We bleed every month which can often make us feel like crap but we carry on with our jobs, paid and unpaid, pretending all is fine as we pop another nurofen and dream of reaching home where we can fling ourselves on the sofa with a hot water bottle and a bar of chocolate.  I know menopausal women who suffer horrendous periods which are challenging in a practical as well as physical way – and they carry on working wearing black a lot and praying a lot that their super plus extra sanitary protection doesn’t let them down.  Would men be so silent if roles were reversed?  Would they hell? 
How many women are afraid to display photos of their kids on their desks in case it gives the game away.  How many women miss their new baby so much when they return to work after maternity leave that it causes physical pain?  How many women wish they could take a couple of years of reduced hour working  in order not to miss their children’s early years?  How many women hate that their children are in crèche from too early in the morning till too late in the evening?  And why do so few women articulate these feelings openly?
I know some men feel all these emotions too.. but today is about women.
How come we live in a modern and relatively wealthy country where we have unsafe maternity services and where we have so little choice in those services?  And how come we are not raising a holy racket about it?
But most of all how come we live in a country where the work of caring is so undervalued.  Our children are our most precious asset – both individually and nationally.  So how is it that the people who care for them are in general working for a minimum wage?   And of course this is equally true for those working in nursing homes – caring for our most vulnerable elderly. 
Care, that most traditional of women’s work, should not be left to either charities or the private sector.  Caring should be heavily subsidised by Government in the same way education is and should be run by professionals on a not for profit basis.
Michael Harding spoke of women’s voices.  And yet the day after his beautiful column appeared in the Irish Times, we heard that 1 in 3 women in the EU have suffered physical or sexual abuse.  The figure is 1 in 4 in Ireland.  That means women in our neighbourhoods, perhaps in our families, in our circle of friends have or perhaps still are, experiencing violence.  And yet they are largely silent.  There still exists a shame and stigma to admitting that our vulnerability, that which is part of being a woman has been cruelly and viciously exploited. 
But before we can change the world we must change ourselves.  As a women’s movement we must recognise that we women are as different as we are the same.  We don’t all necessarily want the same things.  Equality is essentially about choice.  The choice to be yourself.  It is vital that we recognise the right of each woman to make the choices that are right for her. And we need to support each other regardless of how we personally view those choices.  Ni neart go cur le cheile
We are 51% of the population and here we are marking an International Womens Day at an event organised by the National Women’s Council of Ireland.  I hope that some day our  grand daughters and great grand daughters can laugh at the madness of such a concept.
Michael Harding finished by saying that “women have been my compass, my anchor, the ground and the completness of my universe.  As I grow older they are the warp and weft of all my spiritual hope, because it was women’s eyes that saw Christ resurrected and it was women’s voices who sang the song of it – until they were silenced. 

It is time to break our silence.  It is time for us to sing our songs, to tell our stories, to support each other and demand the changes we need to fulfil our destiny to change the world.  Our men need us as women and our grand daughters are depending on us.  

WOMEN & THEIR STORIES IN THE MOVIES

Aren’t The Oscars just gas all the same?  I watched the ‘Live on the Red Carpet’ last night until my head was literally melting from the vacuous conversation which went round and round and round.  The presenters all sing their questions, in voices that all go up at the end of the sentence.  “How are YOU?”  And most of the questions began with ‘so’.  A drawn out so.  “Soooo, who are you WEARING?”  Gas but grand for very late at night.  I had dreams of floating about in a sea of nicety and designer gowns and sparkling jewels… and pizza?  They ate pizza?  In the theatre?  What?
Anyway each year at this time we hear, once again about how there are so few meaty roles for women.  Cate Blanchette, winner of Best Female Actress in a Lead Role referenced it in her acceptance speech.  She stated that films where women are the centre are not niche.  They are movies people want to see and they make money.
Now I am not much of a movie buff.  And probably one of the reasons that I seldom go to see films is that so few interest me.  What interests me, in life, in books and in movies are the stories of people’s lives; ordinary people who may lead extraordinary lives or do extraordinary things or just ordinary people’s ordinary lives.  And in particular I love to hear the stories of other women’s lives – real or imagined.  It is this fascination with women’s lives that drives my radio show, The Hen House on Dublin South FM. 
So Cate’s comments got me thinking about my favourite movies ever and guess what?  Yep, they were all movies about women’s lives.  So – for your delectation may I present my list of some of the very best movies…. ever!

Steel Magnolias (1989). 

A bit shmaltzy but wonderful cast led by Shirley McLaine and Julia Roberts.

Fried Green Tomatoes (at the Whistle Stop Cafe) 1991

Based on the wonderful book by Fannie Flagg… a tale of intergenerational women’s friendship.  A treat.

Thelma and Louise 1991. 

Ultimate girl power, Brad Pitt as a young fella and the best ending ever.

The Help (2011)

Powerful and moving tale from the 60s in the American deep south.

Beaches (1988)

Bette Midler and Barbara Hersey combine to bring this wonderful tale of female friendship through the decades.  I cried for weeks when I first saw this movie.

Juno (2007)

Wonderful comedy about an unplanned teenage pregnancy, poignant and clever.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

I didn’t watch this when it was first released – you may be surprised to know.. But this is a charming movie.  Maggie Smith plays a revolutionary teacher in an all girls school.  It’s like Mallory Towers for grownups.   Worth a watch. If you don’t know what Mallory Towers is – ask your Ma.

Shirley Valentine (1989)

I will never tire of watching Pauline Collins play every woman I have ever known… and who doesn’t dream of how life could be way more fulfilling if you lived in the sun, near a beach.

Chocolat (2000)

Sublime, magical and with added Johnny Depp playing an Irish gypsy.  Is this my favourite…. maybe.
So gather your girlfriends and grab some wine and fall into one of these beautiful movies. 
INTERNATIONAL WOMAN’S DAY IS THIS SATURDAY, MARCH 8TH

I will be taking part in theNational Women’s Council Soap Box Event… come along if you are in Dublin City.




MY GOOD NAME WAS DEMOLISHED TOO…

A reply to Breda O Brien’s column in The Irish Catholic 20thFebruary 2014
I really do have some sympathy for Breda O Brien, particularly after reading her column in The Irish Catholic (published 20 February) entitled ‘My Good Name Was Demolished’.   Like Panti, I think that “the woman writing in the newspaper” is probably a very nice woman.  And I do believe Breda when she says “I have never written anything designed to hurt or harm anyone”.  I particularly feel sorry when she says that all of the publicity around the so called ‘Panti-gate’ episode has led her 15 year old daughter to ask whether they were in danger from all the vitriol.  It is sad that anyone is left feeling so vilified and vulnerable.
Breda’s latest column in The Irish Catholic outlines all of this and then goes on to explain why she is against what she calls ‘gay marriage’ and yes, it revolves around children. 
Breda says “No gay couple can bring children into their relationship without the assistance of at least one person of the opposite gender. This fundamental difference, with all the profound implications for children of being raised either without their mother, or their father, is supposed to be politely ignored so that adults can receive their ‘rights’”  She goes on to mention about online forums where those who were conceived “through gamete donation” are desperately seeking their biological identities (actually Breda refers to them seeking their siblings and parents which I am sure is offensive to many, if not all, of those who are seeking this information).
These are two completely separate debates.  I agree that all children, whether they are conceived naturally and adopted or via donated eggs and or sperm have a right to their biological information.  I believe that to be a human right.  But Breda – you admit that most parents who use donor assistance are heterosexual.  So why is this relevant to marriage equality?
And what are the ‘profound implications’ for children raised without mother or father?  Breda you must know that for decades children have been raised without two parents, usually by a lone mother who conceived the ‘natural’ way – no gametes required at all.  These women, who decided to parent alone while the biological father resumed his life with little or no interest or support for his child, had to endure the same nonsense about children needing to be parented by a mother and father.  And the tragedy Breda is that for many of us, although educated and reasonably smart, the baloney that was peddled during endless debates in the 80s and 90s about ‘unmarried mothers’ sank in.  Like you Breda – my good name was demolished and demolished regularly.  It resulted in the fact that somewhere in my subconscious there was always the feeling that I was not a good enough.  In fact, like thousands of other single mothers not only was I good enough, I was actually as good as many couples.
My eldest daughter is now a wonderful woman of 26 and I have two more daughters – teenagers, who were conceived within marriage.  I can tell you there is no difference Breda.  Children need security, love and protection and yes it is easier if there are two sets of shoulders to bear the responsibility, particularly financially.  But if there aren’t – one set can  do just fine.  But as to the gender of those shoulders – it matters not one bit. 
I am still angry that it took my daughter reaching 21 years of age for me to really believe that I had done a good job.  But the experience has given me the empathy to know how it feels to be ‘oppressed’ as Panti described it in her Nobel Call at the Abbey Theatre.  I know how it feels to be on the outside; in the minority and having my life choices questioned and my child’s future maligned.  I know where you are Breda and it’s not nice. 
Then I read the last paragraph of your column where you talk about “dissolving a child-centred institution like marriage which is designed to bond parents with biological children, and replacing it with an adult centred institution designed primarily to act as a state-sanctioned approval of romantic sexual relationships” and I get angry all over again! I get angry on behalf of single parents, of childless married couples, of celibate married couples and gay couples seeking equality. 

I am glad that the priest who married me didn’t seem to share your view Breda, as I walked up the aisle behind my then ten year old daughter.  As for ‘state sanctioned approval of romantic sexual relationships”….em., was I nuts?  I got married for love.  

GENDER DISCOMBOBULATION

I got married in October 1996 and I made a speech.  I had something to say.  And I wanted to say it publicly. 
I began by stating that although I was clearly very happy to be now married to the very nice fella beside me, I was also feeling a bit disappointed with my new title of wife.  Because being a wife meant that I was now respectable.  I had returned to the warmth and security of ‘polite society’ from the draughty corridor where I had lived for the previous ten years.  I felt a bit like a traitor and wondered how I might hold on to a little of my ‘disreputable’ status as I began married life.
My eldest daughter was born in 1987.  Three years after Anne Lovett died with her newborn infant in a freezing graveyard in Longford.  The term ‘illegitimate’ was still very much used to describe children such as my daughter.  I was a working woman of 25 but I was an ‘unmarried mother’.  And while not as scandalous as it would have been decades earlier it was still a status that made the rest of society very nervous. 
I was reminded of my awkward wedding speech last week as I listened to Panti Bliss make her eloquent Noble Call on the Abbey stage.  She spoke about the so called little things that felt oppressive.  Things like listening to TV debates where nice people debate about her and what rights she should and should not be allowed.  Things like reading newspaper columns written by a nice middle class woman arguing reasonably about how you should be treated less than everyone else.
As I listened to her I remembered.  I remember being asked, by people I knew, if I was collecting “the mickey money” for my trouble.  They thought they were making a witty, light remark.  It felt oppressive.  I had ‘friends’ who stopped inviting me to dinner because I had wandered into some kind of no man’s land of being single but not being free.  Or was it because they assumed I had some kind of less moral code than they did.  Yes, Panti, it too felt oppressive.
But as she continued her talk I realised that I was now that middle class woman in the coffee shop that Panti referenced.  The one that Panti thought just may have agreed with the nice newspaper columnist who thought gays were less equal.  Here I am buried in a nice suburb with my husband and my now respectable family.   Panti said we are all homophobic and sure how could we not be having grown up in Ireland?  Oh my God, I thought, have I forgotten what it felt like on the outside?
And yes I had forgotten.  I am now married almost twice as long as I was an ‘unmarried mother’.  But what Panti articulated so gracefully brought back vivid memories.  I also spent years listening to the reasonable middle class commentators debating about me and my likely impact on society.  And the worst part is that after a few years I subconsciously started to believe some of what they said.  Us ‘unmarried mothers’ of the 80s and 90s were told, time and time again, that we were likely to cause society to break down. We heard some of the very same rhetoric that is now being rehashed in the marriage equality debate.  The main point which was always that children need a mother and father in order to grow up right! Our single parent households were bound to produce children who would grow up to be dysfunctional at best and most likely be delinquent.  It was a huge relief and surprise to me when in a stunning moment of clarity at her 21st birthday I realised that I had done a good job and my daughter was OK.  Just like thousands of other single parents in this country.
I have had the pleasure of meeting Panti Bliss last year, when we were both on a panel on TV3’s Midday programme.  I had never met a drag queen before.  Hell, I have never been to a gay bar and until very recently I had never had a gay friend, as far as I knew anyway.  I had to check with the programme’s producer as to whether I refer to Panti as ‘her’ or ‘him’.  I was so way out of my middle class suburban comfort zone. 
This week Panti’s Noble Call has made me take a long honest look into my soul.  Am I homophobic?  More importantly are my children growing up with homophobic attitudes that they are subconsciously picking up in my home.  I certainly hope not.

But it’s not enough to say yes to marriage equality because in my view, that’s easy.  And it’s straightforward.  Equality can’t come with conditions or limitations.   But are we sure we are all sitting comfortably with what Panti refers to as “gender discombobulation”?  That, that Bard might have said, is the question.  

HAVE YOU HAD YOUR SMEAR TEST YET?

I don’t know any woman who looks forward to having a smear test.  But as I have learnt over decades, bringing a sense of humour with you to the doctor’s surgery is highly recommended. 
Now at the outset let me categorically state that I believe in the absolute necessity of regular smear tests.  I have twice had precancerous cells detected which required further treatment and I am glad to say that for the last number of years my smears have been normal.  But my history means that I am called every year for a new test.  So I consider myself a bit of an expert. 
I was probably twenty something when I took myself off for my first ever smear.  Our family GP was a lovely chap.  Described in our house as a bit of a west Brit, he was an angular, tall man in the mode of Basil Fawlty, with a mid Irish Sea accent and an easy laugh.  Being a woman of the world I thought I am not going to seek out a female GP who I have never met before, I can do this with your man I always go to.
So appointment was made and I presented myself at the surgery.  His greeting to me was always the same “Oh Barbara, oh good.  How are you?”  “Hi Doc” I answered trying to calm the butterflies in my stomach, “I am here for a smear test”.  His face displayed that rare combination of delight and puzzlement.  “Oh right. A smear test you say? Great.  Golly gosh no one has come to me for a smear test in years.  I normally just see all the old women round here.” 
 My heart sank and my brain roared “mistake Scully, big mistake”  He ushered me towards the bed with the usual instructions to remove all my lower garments and said he’s be back in a minute.  To this day I suspect he went to consult some medical manual to remind himself as to where he was likely to find my cervix.  Minutes passed as I lay there until I finally heard him re-enter the room and his face came around the curtain wearing a big grin and what looked like a miners lamp strapped to his forehead.  “Jolly good, we’re all set”, he announced as he blinded me with his ‘headlight’.  That test took ages but it was ‘jolly good fun’ by all accounts.
The following years my smear tests were carried out by my gynaecologist due to a combination of recent childbirth and my odd cells.  But some years later I was back at my local GP. 
Basil Fawlty had retired and so my current GP is a younger man.  But it seemed that all the other women in the village knew what I still did not.  Go the practice nurse for a smear test.  So, although he wasn’t quite as gleeful at the prospect of furkling around in my undercarriage, he was just as at sea.  “Right you get sorted there and shout when you are ready” he instructed as he pulled the curtain around the bed.  I took off my shoes and looked around for modesty blanket.
“Em, where’s the blanket, Doc?”
“What blanket?”
“The blanket. I am not going to lie here with everything on show.  I need a blanket”
“Oh, right.  Back in a minute.”
So once again I lay there while he went off in search of a blanket. 
Finally he returned and an arm came though the curtain brandishing a blanket.  A picnic blanket.  A very small one.  A scratchy one.  “Please tell me you didn’t get this from the boot of your car” I pleaded.  By now he was right grumpy.  “No I didn’t” he barked.  So I disported myself on the bed, knickerless looking like I was wearing a tartan mini skirt a la Vivienne Westwood at the height of the punk era.  In the distance there was the sound of a penny dropping.
The following year I made an appointment with the practice nurse.  The room was nice and warm.  There was a gorgeous soft yellow blanket she was that wonderful ‘nursey’ combination of common sense and empathy.  As she approached with KY Jelly in one hand and the speculum in the other she announced that she was using a plastic implement.  “More comfortable, and not as cold” she assured me.  Everything was going reasonably smoothly as she began her furkling.  “Oh I think you have a tilted cervix” she muttered with only a small hint of exasperation.  Then a loud crack, like a gunshot rang through the surgery.  It emanated from my nether regions.
I nearly fell off the bed with the shock, I am sure some elderly patients in the next door waiting room got a right fright.  The nurse turned a bright shade of red.  “Well I have never had that happen before” she said as she retrieved her speculum which was now in two separate pieces. 
 I still go to the nurse but I make sure to tell her immediately that my cervix is round a bend and breaks plastic implements.  I bet not too many women can say that!!


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