The Covid Diaries 7

What is it about baking?

What is it about baking?  It has been my ‘go to’ activity when stressed for decades.  I first realised this about 15 years ago.  We were on our way to Bray, I was driving, the kids who were small, were in the back and we were involved in a kind of pile up on the N11.  It wasn’t very serious but it was scary.  Ambulance men peering in at us through the windows, talking to each of my girls to make sure we were all OK.  I was still shaking when we got home.  But I went straight into the kitchen and began to bake. I remember my husband being somewhere between appalled and fascinated by my reaction.  But when I can’t make sense of the world, I bake. 

The magic of turning a bowl of slop into a feathery, fabulous confection is something perhaps deeply embedded in our female bones.  It carries with it comfort from our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers. It can bring you right back to your childhood kitchen as you become enveloped in the sweet aroma of cake rising in the oven. And then of course there’s the delicious anticipation of tasting the results of your labours.

Baking also got me into a fair amount of trouble over the years.  I became what I ate until I resembled a large cake myself and gave myself diabetes.  So, my baking days are largely over, reserved now for state occasions and bonfire nights only.  I have replaced regular baking with gin… but sin scéal eile.

However, the next best thing to actual baking is watching the sublime, gentle, Great British Bake Off which finally made a welcome return to our screens recently.  Of course, I was always a fan of the Bake Off but this year its return is akin to seeing a hunky fireman coming to rescue you from a burning building.  The relief is almost overwhelming.  An hour of guileless entertainment that (and a huge thank you to the producers for this) is completely Covid-19 free.

We live in interesting times and that’s for sure.  Well, I say interesting because I am trying to remain as positive as possible.  But you know and I know, that what I actually mean is stressful.  Pandemic life is stressful.  We are all getting tired and fed up.  It’s worrying and it’s hard.  Very hard. All of which is why The Great British Bake Off shines forth like a beacon of light and fluffiness in a sea of our stewed and rancid emotions.

So, it was with great anticipation that I snuggled down on the sofa to begin to get to know this year’s crop of participants. As usual they were a motley crew of quirky but essentially nice people.  People for whom the fact that this is a competition is a by the way.  They help each other, advise each other, congratulate each other and urge each other on.

This year when nothing is as it was, the Bake Off remains unchanged.  Contestants hug and are close to each other.  There are no Perspex screens, no oceans of sanitizer, no masks.  No mention of corona virus at all except to explain how they had achieved this miracle by the contestants having moved into the Bake Off village for the duration of filming.  Oh glory alleluia.  It’s like a peek into a nirvana that for now we can only dream of.  And all in a pastel hued tent in the middle of the glorious countryside.

The Bake Off is as indulgent as a good Victoria Sponge.  The jokes are gently seasoned with some double entendre to add a hint of spice.  There is no shouting and bawling.  No making a holy show of someone when their best efforts turn out disastrously. And best of all, no tragic back stories designed to make the audience cry. 

Anyway, I know that none of this is an accident.  It’s all part of the brand but it’s a brand that I not only like but this year feel I need as part of my personal armoury to keep me sane in this mad world in which we find ourselves.

The hour spent watching nice people try to bake, sometimes very ambitious confections is a salve to our overheated heads.  And it’s great that they do the baking, so you don’t have to. Lessing the stress of our lives without adding the calories. 

Kidnap on the Blackwater

26th June 1920

One hundred years ago, on the 26th of June 1920, one of the most extraordinary events of the War of Independence began to unfold on the banks of the beautiful River Blackwater just outside the north Cork town of Fermoy.

Fermoy was a major garrison town and the local IRA had intelligence that the most senior officer, General Lucas, had planned a day fishing on the river with two other officers.  It was decided to mount a kidnap operation to take Lucas hostage in exchange for IRA prisoners held in Cork jail including Michael Fitzgerald, who was on hunger strike..

General Lucas

The first part of the operation was a success and Lucas along with Colonel Dunford of the Royal Artillery and Colonel Tyrrell of the Royal Engineers were successfully captured by the IRA men who told then they would be held pending further instructions from IRA HQ.  In order to make a swift getaway from the scene, the IRA,who had their own car, also took the British touring car and split into the groups and headed away in convoy.  One of the IRA volunteers, George Power’s witness statement provides us with a detailed account of what happened next:

“Lucas and Dunford held a brief conversation in a strange language, subsequently discovered to be Arabic and, at a pre-arranged signal between them, they sprang simultaneously on Lynch and Clancy. The attack was so sudden that the I.R.A. officers were at first taken at a disadvantage and almost disarmed before they realised what had happened. In the melee the driver lost control of the car, crashed into the ditch and rendered himself unconscious. It was, therefore, an even fight between the two British and the two I.R.A. officers.

The struggle between Lynch and Lucas was particularly severe, as both were strong-built, well-trained men, about six foot in height. In the first onslaught Lucas had got on top of Lynch, making frantic efforts to wrench the gun from him and had all but succeeded when the door of the touring car gave way. They both rolled on to the roadway, still struggling, until finally Lynch wore down his opponent and the General shouted: “I surrender”.

Meanwhile, Colonel Dunford and Paddy Clancy were fighting desperately, with Colonel Dunford on top; he had almost succeeded in throttling the I.R.A. officer when Lynch turning round, took in the situation at a glance, shouted to the British officer: “Surrender or I shoot.” but Dunford ignored the command and maintained his grip on Clancy’s throat, whereupon Lynch fired at and hit Dunford in the face, making him collapse over his opponent.

Once those in the leading car realised that something was up, they turned back.  It was decided to release Tyrrell in order to attend to his comrade Dunford and one of the IRA volunteers was dispatched to fetch a local doctor.  George Power also left the group to make his way immediately to Dublin to report to Michael Collins and Cathal Brugha.

In the end Lucas was held for about four weeks before he escaped or was released by the IRA.

George Power

As the granddaughter of George Power, I have been forever familiar with this story as it was one I heard many times growing up and it fascinated me.  Not only did it seem to have a relative happy ending, unlike most of the stories from that period but I was also told that when free, Lucas had stated that the had been “treated like a gentleman by gentlemen.”  Apparently, the IRA had sourced his favourite whiskey and made arrangements for him to correspond with his wife in England. But I always wondered if the story had become imbued with a fairy-tale element over the years: something added perhaps to protect my childish ears from the harsh reality of the situation.

But a new website, launched by the Lucas family is testament to the fact that I hadn’t been told a lie.

This website was introduced by Ruth Wheeler who is General Lucas’s granddaughter, in a letter last week to the Irish Times.  www.chtl.co.uk will feature letters written by Lucan in captivity to his beloved wife who gave birth shortly after his kidnap.  These letters are being released daily from 18th of June until the beginning of August.  The website describes this story of the kidnapping of General Lucas as one that “unites both Irish and British sides in a shared celebration of humanity, humour, respect and basic human kindness. It is an extraordinary, true story.”

General Lucas in captivity

I am really delighted that the Lucas family are sharing these personal letters with a wider public because this story something special and provides us with a reassuring example of man’s humanity to his fellow man at a time of such horror and violence.

I am sure that George Power or General Lucas couldnot have ever imagined that one hundred years on from that fateful day on the banks of the beautiful river Blackwater, their respective granddaughters on either side of the Irish sea would take such heart and pride in the story.

POSTSCRIPT

If you have any interest in this period of Irish history I highly recommend visiting the www.chtl.co.uk website.  Along with the personal letters of General Lucas quite a deal of background information is provided.  All in all a wonderful treat to read every day.  

Covid Diaries 6 – THE ATTIC KEEPER

This is a story I used to tell my girls when they were small. I told a short version to my granddaughter via Whatsapp Video yesterday and she seemed to like it. So I am sharing it here for all of you who are doing trojan work keeping your children entertained during this lockdown.

It might make a good bedtime story or perhaps you could print it out and let the older ones read it themselves.

The illustration is by my youngest, Mia. And this story is dedicated to my granddaughter, Emie in Perth, Australia.

THE ATTIC KEEPER

It’s March.  Springtime is nearly here.  The first yellow daffodils have appeared in the garden but it is still cold and tonight it is very windy. 

Rosie is tucked up in bed but she is not asleep.  The wind is whipping around the old house and is blowing strange noises down the chimney that is opposite her bed. On stormy nights like this, Rosie often thinks of the people who lived in her house long ago when there was no central heating.  They had to light fires in every room to keep warm.  She imagines how cosy it would be to have a fire lighting in her bedroom.  Maybe one hundred years ago, there was another girl like her, who slept in this bedroom and who fell asleep in the orange glow of a dying fire.  She would love that.  But the fireplaces in the bedrooms are not used anymore.  Her dad had stuffed rolled up newspaper up the chimney to stop the cold breezes coming down.   In a corner of the room, near the door, Baby Lucy is fast asleep in her cot.  Rosie can hear her gentle snores as she dreams her baby dreams.  Unlike Lucy, Rosie’s eyes are wide open and she is staring at the ceiling as she listens to the noises in the room.  The whistling noise the wind makes as it comes down the chimney and every so often the old pipes moan and wheeze softly.  This house is like an old man with tired bones, groaning as he tries to settle for the night.  Outside the window, in the garden the branches of the big old tree are being blown about, casting moving shadows on the wall.  Rosie loves stormy nights when she is tucked up in her bed. 

She knows she should be asleep.  It’s much too late to be still awake.  She closes her eyes still listening to the wind and the house groaning.  Then she hears another noise.  A noise she hasn’t heard before.  She holds her breath and opens her eyes.  Yes, there it is again.  It’s not very loud.  It’s a kind of plod sound.  Yes, plod, plod, plod.  It seems to be coming from right above her head, in the roof.  Plod, plod, plod.  It’s not a frightening noise. It is a soft thud and it seems to be going around in slow circles, on the ceiling above her bed.  Plod, plod, plod.  Round and round and round.  What could be making that sound? 

Rosie knows that sometimes there are bats in the old attic, but they couldn’t make a plod kind of noise.  Bats fly. They don’t walk about in circles. Could it be a mouse?  No, she thinks.  Mice scurry about.  They don’t plod.  No, it’s not a mouse.

Then the noise seems to move away from above her head and plods its way out towards the landing.

Rosie climbs quietly and carefully out of bed.  The floor is cold under her bare feet.  She tiptoes over to the door.  She is very careful not to wake little Lucy.  The bedroom door squeaks as she pushes it open and she steps out onto the landing.  It’s quiet on the landing.  She looks up at the ceiling and waits.  There it is again – plod, plod, plod – around in circles. 

The noise is definitely in the attic, a place that Rosie has never been to.  Her dad is the only one who goes up there.  Mum went up once but she met a bat.  Mum is not keen on bats so she doesn’t go into the attic anymore. 

But Rosie has watched her dad many times climb up the ladder, open the trapdoor in the ceiling and then disappear inside.  He goes up there to put stuff away or take stuff down.  Suitcases go up when they come back from holiday.  The Christmas and Halloween decorations live in big boxes up in the attic.  But Rosie has no idea what the attic looks like on the inside.  She knows however that it must be cold up there, because if she is on the landing when Dad opens the trapdoor, a rush of cold attic air falls out and makes her shiver. 

Rosie is 8 years old but when she was a little girl her Dad used to tell her that he was going up to the attic to check if the stars and the moon were all working OK.  But Rosie knows that the moon and stars don’t live in her attic.  If they did, she wouldn’t be able to see them when she looks out her bedroom window at night.

Plod, plod, plod.  The noise is slowing down now – long slow circles around the attic door.  Rosie sits down on the landing floor and listens and watches.  Then the noise stops.  It is very quiet.  She can just hear the faint sound of the TV from the living room downstairs. 

Rosie’s bare feet feel the swoosh of cold air.  She looks up to see that the trap door has opened just a tiny bit.  Inside the attic is pitch dark.  There is a light up there that Dad always puts on when he is fetching stuff but it’s off now.  Rosie squints her eyes to try to see who is there.  The trapdoor opens another little bit.  She holds her breath. Slowly two eyes appear in the blackness.  Two huge, shiny, twinkling green eyes and they are looking straight at her.    

“That’s not Dad,” thinks Rosie.  In fact, she doesn’t even think it’s a person.  But it doesn’t seem like an animal and is too big to be her cat. So, who is it?  Who is in her attic? 

The trap door opens a little bit more and the landing starts to get colder.  As well as the two green eyes, Rosie can now see a tiny nose and a pair of the biggest ears she has ever seen.  Rosie stands up and wonders if she should go back to bed and pull the covers over her head.  As she gets up, the eyes look scared and the door closes again. Whatever it is, thinks Rosie, its scared of me.  This makes her a bit sad.  So, she waits where she is, on the landing and very slowly the door begins to open again.  As the eyes come into view, Rosie thinks that she should say something.  “Hi” she whispers, “I’m Rosie”.  The eyes open wide and now Rosie can see that the funny face sits on top of a little body dressed in a huge long coat of every colour of the rainbow.  A little, high pitched voice says “Hello.” 

“Why are you in my attic” says Rosie. 

“I live here” said the little face with the big ears.

“My Dad never told me that there was a ……….,  a……….. someone in the attic.”

The big face looks a little sad and says nothing.

“So,” says Rosie, “who are you?”

“I’m the attic keeper”

Rosie thinks about that for a few minutes.  She is checking to see if she knows what an Attic Keeper is.  But she has never heard of such a thing.  Her dad, being the only person to go in the attic has never mentioned an Attic Keeper.  Maybe she is really asleep and this is a dream.

But she couldn’t be dreaming because by now she is very cold.

“Em, do you want to come down and have some milk or something in the kitchen.  It’s warmer there” Rosie asks the Attic Keeper.  She wants to know more but the landing is too cold a place to have a chat.  “Ok,” says the funny little person.

Suddenly and without making any sound the Attic Keeper with the big coat and ears is standing beside Rosie on the landing.  She is about the same size as Rosie.  Her coat is red and blue and green and yellow and lots of other colours.  It reaches down to the floor but does not cover her big feet which are wearing a pair of soft and cosy giant yellow slippers.  She gives Rosie a huge smile and together and very quietly they set off down the stairs to the kitchen.  Rosie does not want to disturb her mother, who is in the lounge, chatting on the phone and watching the TV.  Her dad is out.

Into the kitchen they go, making no noise at all.  The only sound is the faint hum of the fridge, well until Tabs, their fat tabby cat who was asleep on the old armchair opens an eye to see who has come into the kitchen.  He takes one look at the funny woman with big ears and an enormous coat, makes a hissing noise and takes off like a rocket out the cat flap in the back door.

“Cats don’t like me,” says the funny little woman sadly, “and I like them.”

She looks very sad. Again.

“Never mind” says Rosie kindly, “have some milk and a biscuit”.  She hands the Attic Keeper a glass of milk and one of her favourite chocolate cookies.

As they sit down at the table, Rosie asked her new friend when she had arrived in her attic.

“I have always lived there.”

“Always” says Rosie, who knows that her house is over 100 years old. 

“Yes always.  Even before your family came to this house, I was in the attic.” 

Rosie knew that that meant that the funny little woman was over 100 years old.  She doesn’t look that old. 

“So, what is an Attic Keeper?”

The little woman whose big feet don’t reach the floor sits back in her chair and tells her story.  This is what she says.

“Every house has an Attic Keeper.  We are special beings.  We do not all look the same.  But we are all small which is good as attics can be small too.  And most of us wear big colourful coats.  We need them to keep us warm up there in the attic where it is very cold in winter. 

We do very important work.  We are the keepers of the space between the top of your house and the roof.  This is special place because it is where most families keep lots of precious things – like Christmas decoration, old baby clothes, boxes of old photographs and suitcases for going on holidays.  If I were not keeping my eyes on these things – well anything could happen to them.  I keep safe all the baubles and angels you hang on your Christmas tree every year.  I mind the tinsel.  I make sure that your suitcases are all safe and ready for when you need them for going on holidays. 

I also mind a lot of your family’s memories.  Because, Rosie, in your attic, like most attics there are memories.  Your attic has lots of albums of old photographs and boxes of baby clothes from when you were little.  I mind all these memories.  I mind them well, because just like the Christmas decorations, I know that some day someone will come into the attic to take these memories down and have a look at them.  They are precious.  So, I keep them safe.  That’s my job. 

But the most important job I do is to make sure that there is enough space left in the attic for your dreams to get through.  Because Rosie, when you dream, your dreams float up from your head when you are asleep and they land up in the attic.  Lots of dreams.  Rosie, did you know that you dream every single night?  You can’t see your dreams and often you can’t even remember them.  But I do.  I hold all your dreams in the attic.  And your sisters and your mom and dads’ dreams’ – they all float around in the attic. 

The attic is dark and often very cold but it is the dreams that keep me warm.  At night when everyone is safely asleep, I go into my special corner of the attic and I gather lots of the dreams and I place them inside my coat like a cosy lining.  And then I go to sleep.  Because, you see, Rosie, Attic Keepers do not dream.”

She stops talking and looks at Rosie.  She has finished her milk and her eyes are beginning to close.  “Come on Rosie” she says, “I think it is time for bed”.

Holding her by the hand, very quietly the Attic Keeper and Rosie climb back up the stairs.  As Rosie snuggles down in her warm bed she whispers goodnight to the Attic Keeper.  Plodding softly out of the bedroom, the funny little woman with the big feet and ears, gently closes the bedroom door.  Then she slips back up to the attic to mind all that is precious there.

Downstairs in the kitchen, Tabs pokes his head through the cat flap to check that the coast is clear.  Then he makes his way, very slowly, back into the kitchen and onto his favourite chair where he curls up and goes back to sleep.  And dreams of a funny woman with big ears, a very busy coat and huge feet.

The Covid Diaries 2

LIFE, PAUSED..

Published in the Irish Independent, 17th March under the title, ‘Nature’s Message Is One Even Supermarkets Understand.’

And just like that it all stopped.  Life on hiatus.   We have sailed into the doldrums and are becalmed.  The brakes have been applied to how we live, which many us knew for decades was too fast to be good for us anyway. That most elusive of commodities, time, is now something that suddenly we have an abundance of. 

We have been pushed so far out of our comfort zone by all this inaction that some of us are meeting parts of ourselves that we had forgotten existed. It’s like our lives are being pushed through a sieve and all the nonsense is being forced out.  We are now beginning to realise that perhaps the stuff (and it is often actual ‘stuff’) that we have chased relentlessly for years, is really not important at all.  Are we actually being distilled down into our more authentic selves?

These days of enforced calm, of staying home, means that we have time to talk and to listen to those with whom we live.  And yes, I am aware that there is a slight feeling of Christmas about being corralled with your family for long days and nights.  But with all the constant remainders to look out for each other and without the pressure of enforced festivity, we are perhaps being kinder and gentler to each other right now, than we often are when supposedly celebrating the birth of that great teacher on loving one another other, Jesus.

Our dogs are delighted with this turn of events which has their humans at home to give them more attention than they usually get.  The jury is still out on what our cats think but those of us who share our lives with felines at least have constant reminders on how to remain chilled and relaxed. Cats generally aren’t bothered with stressing.

Supermarkets, who normally fill our Sunday newspapers with large ads full of their upcoming special offers, are instead advertising messages of reassurance and, most refreshingly of all, they are publicly thanking their staff who are keeping our shops open and stocked with food.  I like this new caring side of our supermarket giants. 

A look at my local supermarket shelves also reveals that we are baking.  We are baking a lot.  And nothing speaks of home, of security, of love, of comfort than home baking.  Our instincts are good.

We have been forced to walk away from jobs, to close businesses, to abandon a lot of what is totally familiar, to paddle in these very uncharted waters.  We are scaring the bejaysus out of ourselves, with no real of idea of what lies in the weeks ahead but we are so far coping in a way most of us would have doubted possible two weeks ago.  And under all this staying calm and carrying on, I am wondering if real changes are taking place. 

When this is over, what will we want to keep from this new way of living?  Will we demand more time at home with those we love and especially more time with our small children? Working from home is something that many companies have been very slow to implement but they have now been bounced into making happen for their employees.  Could this be game changer in how we work?  Imagine the time saved and the gridlock relieved by large numbers of us no longer commuting.  Our cities could breathe again. 

We are rediscovering the simple joy of going for a walk.  We are relearning the importance of nature to both our mental and physical wellbeing.  We are flocking to the beach, the park, the forest because nature, much like baking, soothes our souls.  She is oblivious to our travails.  The earth is still turning and spring in bursting forth in spite of our lives being in a weird holding pattern. Instinctively we know that Mother Earth’s message is something we really need to hear right now. 

Our global village reinforces just how connected we all are. Globally we are learning from each other and locally we are contacting our neighbours to assure them we care and that we can help those who may need assistance during this crisis.  We are staying apart, not just to protect ourselves but to protect those of us who are vulnerable. 

And our health service, broken in so many ways, is being kept going by some of the bravest and most generous of our citizens. They are the real heroes of this crisis.  We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for all they are doing and will continue to do in the uncertain days ahead. And when this is finally over, in tribute to their selflessness and the people’s sacrifice, we must finally ensure we have a health service we deserve.

Dublin Daffodils

This is the text of a my piece which was broadcast on RTE Radio One’s Sunday Miscellany on 15th March last. You can also listen back here

March is the month of the Dublin daffodils.  All over the suburbs of our capital city, in gardens, on grass verges, on roundabouts and central medians of our dual carriageways, there are great swathes of brave daffodils who seem to smile at us, regardless of the battering they may be getting from the wind and the rain.  They do their level best to remain standing, nodding their heads and bringing a splash of sunny yellow to our increasingly grey urban environment.

My father and my brother both died in March – different Marchs and many years ago.  My brother died very suddenly and in the immediate aftermath of his death, my world went very dark.  I found myself marooned behind a black wall of grief and shock.  Everything had seemingly changed and I felt as if nothing would ever be the same again.  Then one morning, about a week after he died on St Patrick’s Day 1996, I looked out my window and for the first time I noticed a large clump of daffodils, standing together in their bright yellow clothes that seemed almost irreverent to me, in my deep mourning.  What right had they to be so cheerful?  

But as I stared at them, willing them to show me some respect, something inside me changed.  Because it was those daffodils, on a piece of parkland outside my house, that made me realise how important it was for me to hold onto hope; the hope that although all may ultimately be changed, all will be well, in time. 

March is often the month when winter feels at its longest.  We are regularly becalmed in the cold, the rain, the storms and sometimes even the snow when we are longing to move forward into the sunnier, warmer, gentler longer days of spring and summer.  Sometimes we can almost smell those days which we know should waiting somewhere in the wings but which tantalisingly remain beyond our grasp.  But the daffodils know better.  They are fearless about breaking through the hard, frosty ground in order to deliver their message, year after year after year.

Last Thursday as I drove along the N11, listening to the radio and trying to come to terms with the new reality in which we all find ourselves right now, the bouncing daffodils once again caught my eye and made me think.   

They made me think that this too will pass.  These days of uncertainty, when many of us are fearful of what the immediate future might hold, will pass.  The Dublin daffodils, stand together in groups to give each other mutual support.  They dare to wear their bright finery while we are still in the grip of cold winds.  Their whisper remains as it ever was.  They say that even when everything goes dark, when nothing looks as it was, when we are unsure as to how to carry on, we must hold onto hope. We must stand together and encourage each other.  And we must never lose the belief that better days are ahead.

So, when it seems like we are all paralysed by the current crisis, when it seems that our world has stopped and our lives have been forced into some kind of weird holding pattern, we need to see and to listen to the daffodils. They tell us that all is not as we might think.  Beyond our awareness, this planet we call home is still turning, so that day still follows night and in time it will also deliver our summer.  And so, while we support each other through these uncharted waters and do what we need to do to stay safe and well, we need to remember that this time will pass.  And all will be well.  The daffodils tell us so.   

Cats and how they can break your heart

Ernest Hemingway said that “a cat has absolute emotional honesty; human beings, for one reason or another may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”  And as someone who has lived with cats all her life, I think our Ernest is right.  But I never really thought that cats were that fickle until I lost the love of two of my most beloved felines.  And yes, I live (or lived) with four of them.  Let me tell you my tragic tale.

We have a permanent population of four cats.  The older two are boys – Scooter and Diego and the younger two are girls – Mabel and Oprah.  Now Oprah was a feral young cat that we rescued from the back yard of a pub in Dalkey, one very cold December day about four years ago. We knew that she would never be a lap cat as she was always wary of people.  But we kept her indoors until she had all her vaccinations and was spayed and then she joined the others in using the cat flap to come and go.  Although not keen on people, Oprah got on well with our other cats and they with her.  And even though she spent most of her time outdoors, all was well.  All was calm.

About two years ago Oprah started to spend more and more time outside, only coming back to us maybe every two or three days.  These intervals increased, although every time she did return, she looked well and happy.  We figured that she had adopted another family who were also feeding her but it seemed to suit her so we were cool with that.  By last summer we figured that as Oprah was now only a part-time member of the family and so it appeared we had a vacancy.  And so as always happens our next kitten came into our lives a few weeks later.

We were visiting our local pet superstore where a local cat rescue group where ‘showcasing’ their wares so to speak. And yep, we all fell in love with a long-haired tortoiseshell kitten with, wait for it, only three feet!  The little mite had been born without the foot on the end of one of her back legs. As experienced cat owners who could afford to pay for the radical surgery she would need once old enough, we knew she was the cat for us.

And so, we were restored to four full time cats.  Now we have long experience of introducing a new kitten into the family. As usual we kept her in a room on her own till she relaxed and was comfortable and slowly introduced her to the rest of them and increased her access to the rest of the house.  As usual the others weren’t overly delighted at this new addition who we named Rio, but that was normal. It would just take time.  Except this time, it didn’t.

From the get go, the boys, Scooter and Diego hated her.  They were clearly very put out and so they went out, a lot.  But it was last summer with its glorious weather and I was sure they’d come around as soon as the days shortened and the temperature dropped. Except they didn’t.

Now let me be very clear, both Scooter and Diego were typical neutered male cats; affectionate, lazy and very laid back.  They were the cats who slept at the end of my bed, who joined me on the sofa to watch TV, who thought all my meals should be shared and who I know loved me.  Like, a lot.

As winter began to bite harder, Rio had her operation which involved the amputation of the footless leg and I hoped this might soften our lads’ hearts. Rio adapted well and hops around more like a rabbit than a cat. But the lads stayed away.  They came in to eat and if it was very cold, they would stay in and sleep – usually somewhere far away from the rest of us.  But they wouldn’t look at us and worst of all if we picked them up, they actually growled.

That was a year ago and nothing has changed, except we discovered Diego’s new family who live two doors away (he was always lazy). We have asked them not to feed him and they don’t but he still prefers their house to ours.  As for Scooter – we sadly haven’t seen him now for weeks. He seems to have found his new home a little further away.

This is not a funny story but a rather sad one which I hope doesn’t spoil your Sunday. But I share it because it underlines what being a cat companion is all about. They are the boss. Every day they make a choice to share their lives with you and when it’s over it is over. As Ernest said they are absolutely honest.

And yes, I guess we now have a vacancy, or maybe two.  But what we really want is our boys back at home where they belong.  So, if you have any suggestions (based on science or solid experience) please send them this way. And getting rid of Rio ain’t one.

Top left is Rio, right is me and Diego.  And bottom is me and Scooter who never really understood selfies.

HOW TO HANDLE THE LONG FLIGHT YOU WILL NEED TO TAKE TO FIND THE SUN THIS YEAR

So, I know I might be a bit premature on this, but the signs so far aren’t great for a good summer and I am beginning to panic.  I have checked my social media posts from last year and by May the weather was already settling into a nice warm pattern which as we all know continued all through June and July and into August.  We ran out of water, we drank lots of cider and made plans for outdoor events like we were Australians. By September last year, Met Eireann had declared 2018 to be one of the hottest and driest on record.  I know this isn’t good news with global warming and climate crisis and all that but boy, wasn’t it glorious?

However, in our hearts we all know that last year’s long hot summer was an aberration.  Ireland, beautiful and all as it is, is usually wearing a grey shroud of mist and rain.  So, have you thought about what you will do if we get to September and the sun hasn’t really shone? If we face into winter with no tan and no vitamin D stored in our bones.  What then?  By the time winter sets in you will have to travel for at least 4 to 5 hours south to find heat and even then, it can be ropey enough in the Canaries in mid-winter.  So maybe we should start saving now for that long-haul holiday we have always dreamed of.  I’m convincing myself here as much as anything else, you understand?

‘But’, I hear you say, ‘long-haul travel is awful.  All that jetlag.  It’s not worth it’.  Well this I know something about and let me tell you with the right attitude and some advance planning, long-haul travel can be easier than a short haul flight on a budget carrier where you will be squeezed into a seat that is designed for a munchkin, where you will have to stow your carry-on bag twenty rows further down the aircraft which also means you will have to be last off the flight, if someone doesn’t mistakenly kidnap it. Or maybe steal it.

So, what do you need to do in advance of your trip somewhere exotic?

Well the first thing is to sign up for airmiles.  Just in case you get the bug.  Booking flights online is the same regardless of distance but I often use a travel agent to make sure I am getting the best rate on the particular route.

Your long-haul look!

Once you are booked you can start planning for the journey. First up is to organise your long-haul outfit. You need to be as comfy as possible, so soft, stretchy, forgiving fabrics – your PJs maybe?  And wear layers so you can adapt to differing temperatures.  And dark colours – you are far more likely to spill your coffee all over yourself when you’re tired and in a confined space.  Mind your feet by allowing them to breath and expand (yep, feet and ankles are not great flyers as you get older – or maybe that’s just me).  Flip flops or a sandal like a Birkenstock are great, although make sure they are comfortable as you will have to walk quite a distance at the airports. And don’t bother with make-up. You skin will thank you and it will need plenty of moisturising during the journey.

What You Should Carry On

Remember you will most likely be able to check in your luggage in for the entire journey but it’s a good idea to take a carry-on suitcase too with a change of clothes and an outfit or two just in case your baggage gets delayed.

Also, in your hand luggage make sure you have a Ziplock plastic bag with a mini toothpaste, deodorant, a little light cologne, face moisturiser, lip balm and hand wipes.  And remember no liquid over 100mls.

Getting Your Head Together

Then you need to put your head in the right space for the journey.  You do that simply by seeing your journey as something to be enjoyed rather than endured. Because seriously how hard is it to sit on your ass for hours watching movies, listening to music or reading a book while you are fed and watered?

Keeping Body and Soul Together

Speaking of which bring an empty water bottle with you. You can usually fill it from a drinking fountain near your boarding gate and most large aircraft have water taps by the galley where you can refill as you like. And it’s easier to manage a bottle on a flight than the tiny plastic cup you’ll get onboard. Staying hydrated and keeping alcohol to a minimum is one of the keys to feeling good when you arrive at your destination.

Buy some of your favourite snacks at the airport, as airline food can be a bit, well underwhelming. I like to take nuts and some chocolate.

A Bigger Aircraft Is Better

Long-haul means a larger aircraft and so boarding is very civilised as it is done by zone. You sit and wait to be called – no unseemly queuing.  Once onboard you will find both your seat and legroom is better than you are used to and you will likely find a blanket, cushion and perhaps a bag of personal items (toothbrush, toothpaste and eye mask for example), depending on the airline.

Are We There Yet?

As you settle in the first thing you should do is to set your watch to the time at your destination and during the journey don’t allow yourself or your travelling buddies to indulge in thoughts of what time it is at home or what you would be doing if you were there. And do not check the progress of your flight until you really have to.  It’s the equivalent of the kids asking “are we there yet” as you reverse off the drive at home. Don’t do it.

Finally, if you’re a reader take a Kindle as opposed to a book, especially if your eyesight is a bit ropey.  In a dimmed cabin it’s much easier to read an e-reader than a book.

Jet Lag

A word about jet lag.  Try to board your flight tired and nap as much as you can.  I have long since lost my fear of snoring or my mouth dropping open.  During the flight keep focussed on the time at your destination and when you finally arrive, STAY UP. Do not be tempted to have a nap. Power through and go to bed at normal bedtime wherever you are.  I have found that by so doing I rarely suffer jetlag.

Sure just thinking and planning about taking a long trip abroad is nearly as good as a holiday itself.  No, that’s a lie. Start saving now. It’s going to be a crap summer.

We need to support our journalists by buying newspapers again.

Whatever else you can say about where we are as a country at the moment we are certainly living in interesting times. Nowhere is the tsunami of social change reflected more clearly in the result of the referendum to lower the waiting period for divorce from 4 years to 2 years. As I write exit polls suggest that in the region of 87% voted for yes for this change.  In 1986 we voted against divorce and in 1996 the vote was passed by the slimmest of margins.  Oh yes, times they are still a changin’.

But what is more interesting is the ‘Green Surge’ that has been delivered in both the European and Local elections.  I am no expert and no political scientist and I still am not fully sure of how PR works, but I tweeted a week before polling day that from people I was talking to there seemed to be a ‘greening’ happening.  And today listening to the radio as we wait for the first results to come there seems to be a fair amount of surprise among the commentators and journalists at this turn of events.

This is worrying.  And it should also be something we are concerned about.  We have great journalists, great commentators and I think we are still a nation capable of critical thinking. However our media, is an industry in big trouble.  We saw stark evidence of this this week with the news that the Times Ireland will no longer publish an actual paper here.  A lot of great journalists lost their jobs.  The problem of course is funding and it is affecting our news media – both print and broadcast as they rely more and more on advertising for revenue as we insist that we should get our news for free.

The bottom line I think is that we need to go back to buying newspapers.  I honestly believe that chasing subscriptions is problematic for all kinds of reasons. But mainly because our attention span when reading on devices is less than when we are engaged in reading the printed word. Studies have also shown that we read faster on screens and so not as carefully as we read the printed word.

Living in an urban area means that I can avail of the luxury of having a newspaper delivered to my door every day.  Therefore, I can have my breakfast while reading the news the old-fashioned way.  This means that I am presented with the full newspaper – all opinions and stories, not just those that have been curated for me based on my likes and interests by Big Brother – be he Facebook or some other medium.

When the e-reader came on the scene, we all were told that books were dead.  Libraries and bookstores would vanish.  They didn’t.  E-readers have their place and are very useful for travelling but people still like to read books. Because reading is a much more than just words on a screen or a page.  It is about time and space, the touch of paper and the smell of print.

Online reading becomes very cluttered very quickly. You either read when you find or you bookmark for later and the article or column becomes part of a huge online slush pile which will probably never get to.  There is only so much you can read online.  However a newspaper, particularly a chunky weekend one will lie around for a couple of days as you delve into its various parts every time you sit down with a cuppa.

Some great journalist lost their jobs this week because we think that our news should be freely available.  In order to keep their finger on the pulses of a nation, journalists need to be out in the world.  They need time and resources to do their jobs. And we need far more journalists than are currently employed in Ireland at the moment.

But journalists don’t just bring news.  They hold the government and the powerful to account. They investigate stories that need time and energy to uncover.  They are essential for a functioning democracy.

So, if you care, really care about politics, about our democracy and how we live; if you want to make this country a better place, we need a free, independent media funded by OUR money.  So please, buy a newspaper.  Not just today, but every day.

#PlasticFreeForLent

Last week I thought I was being very clever having come up with the hashtag #PlasticFreeForLent to accompany my rant about the amount of unnecessary plastic you encounter in the fruit and veg department of most supermarkets.  However, I now see that #PlasticFreeForLent had already taken flight on Twitter before I coined it.  Nevertheless, although my self esteem is a little dented, it’s still a great idea. And although I am about two days later than I had hoped blogging about it, Lent is 40 days long so there is plenty of time to get onboard.

I am sure I don’t need to explain just why we need to cut down on plastic; it’s killing our wildlife, our marine life, our planet and ultimately it will kill us.  It has become one of the most pernicious inventions ever, although of course it is a brilliantly versatile product.

At this point let me remind you of the original slogan for recycling – REDUCE, REUSE AND RECYCLE.  So many of us comfort ourselves by placing plastics, rinsed and clean into our green bin.  We think, that’s great.  I am recycling and all is well.  But recycling is the last resort.  We need to reduce the amount of plastic we are buying as a matter of urgency.  That is the first step and that is why the campaign – OK, maybe it’s not a campaign – the idea of going PlasticFreeForLent is so important.  For the next 40 days – well about 34 now – we can all make real progress on reducing the plastic we use and bring into our homes.  So, along with the help from some good people on Twitter, here are some of the suggestions we have come up with so far.

IN THE KITCHEN:

  • Ditch the clingfilm and foil. Beeswax wraps are great for wrapping food.  Also, what about the old-fashioned idea of putting something in a bowl with a plate on top.
  • Invest in glass jars instead of Tupperware.
  • Ditch the washing liquid for the washing machine. Go back to buying washing powder that comes in a box.
  • Also wash as much as possible at 30 degrees. This reduces the plastic fibres that come off our clothes and go straight into the ocean.  We also need to put pressure on manufacturers to design washing machines that can trap these fibres.
  • Dry clothes outdoors as often as is possible.

 

IN THE BATHROOM

The bathroom freaks me out because of the number of plastic bottles involved; shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and a myriad of other vital products in a home with three women.  It’s a great room to begin your drive to use less plastic.

  • Soap – we initially dispensed with liquid soap (dispensed… get it?) and replaced it with bars of soap in a soap dish.  However, that became problematic when the soap sat in a puddle and made a mess and kind of melted.  So, I sourced a wooden grid type of soap dish from willowcottage.ie (€5.50) which drains the water and keeps soap dry and so lasts longer.  Willow Cottage also do fabulous natural soaps that smell amazing.  Then I found another company making fabulous soaps – dalkeyhandmadesoaps.ie.  I bought a glass bottle of the most fab peppermint liquid soap from The Sustainable Shop Dublin which have a stall in Blackrock Market at the weekend.  I then bought a foamer dispenser in TKMaxx (by mistake) which means I only use 1/5 soap and 4/5 water and the dispenser dispenses foam.  Really cutting down.  And the soap is much nicer than anything I have bought before.  This is the big win of #PlasticFreeForLent for me.

 

  • I also bought a shampoo bar (also from Dalkey Handmade Soaps). The chap in the shop did say that it takes two weeks for your hair to get used to the natural product.  But I thought I would give it a go.  It is also a totally natural product using essential oils.  It didn’t lather much when I applied it to my hair and massaged it as best I could.  The good news is that I didn’t need to use conditioner.  But that was because, as I discovered when I dried my hair, it left my barnet very greasy.  Not a great look.  If I were off to live in a cave or up a mountain where greasy hair was acceptable, I might persevere but given that I am around other people I will abandon this project and donate the shampoo bar to himself.  Although I have had suggestions to try the ones from Lush.  So I will do that next week.

 

  • Loo roll – why are they always wrapped in plastic? No, I don’t know either.  However, you can go online to whogivesacrap.org and order loo roll wrapped in, wait for it, paper!  Imagine that.   A bit pricey.  But it is an option.

 

IN THE GARDEN

This was actually brought to my attention by a neighbour and enthusiastic gardener.  Garden Centres are FULL of single use plastic pots.  It’s apparently Springtime and so many of us will be visiting these centres to buy plants and shrubs for our gardens.  And we will end up with lots of pots which apparently Garden Centres won’t take back because of the possibility of contamination.  And I don’t think they can be recycled in the green bin either.

So please put pressure on our garden centres to in turn talk to their growers to put plants into compostable pots.  How much easier would that be too.  Just plant the whole yoke in the garden.  I can’t believe I didn’t notice this before.  And of all the cases of single use plastics this one should be one of the easiest to solve.

ON THE MOVE

  • Please, please buy a water bottle and refill it rather than buy a bottle of water from a shop. There are all sizes and shapes of water bottles available everywhere so please stop buying bottled water.  And talk to your kids about it too.
  • And while you are at it get a ‘keep cup’ for your takeaway coffee, or alternatively make time to go into the café, sit down and enjoy your flat white. We rush about pretending to be too busy anyway.
  • Cocktails? Insist on paper straws.  At home invest in some bamboo or steel ones.  Someone on twitter mentioned that they are hard to clean.  I bought a straw brush in The Sustainable Shop in Blackrock Market.
  • Going for a walk on the beach? Why not bring a bag with you and pick up some plastic as you go?

 

SHOPPING

Ok, so we are great in Ireland for bringing our bags for life with us shopping.  But we really need to stop putting stuff in plastic bags in the supermarket that don’t need to be bagged.  Specifically, fruit and veg, most of which can put loose into your trolley.  If you insist on bagging stuff then bring your own canvas bag.

 

TRAVELLING

Don’t waste your hard-earned cash on buying expensive mini toiletries.  Instead buy your own containers and refill each time.  Save the planet and save a fortune.

So that’s it for the moment.  I am really keen to hear the changes you might make and suggestions you might have to make lasting changes to how we run our homes and what we buy.  Don’t forget that it is women who still do most of the buying.  We have the power to put pressure on manufacturers, supermarkets, suppliers to make the changes we need to make and make urgently.  Leave a comment with your suggestions and ideas.

Menopause – what I have learned so far….

Following on from my last blogpost calling for older women to step into their power especially at Halloween, I thought it might be time to share some insights into menopause; something that is not talked about as much as it should be.  And perhaps if we ‘women of a certain age’ start talking menopause we would encourage women of all ages to keep talking about all related topics (fertility, periods, childbirth etc) which until recently have been solely the preserve of ‘female conversations’.

Ok, so first off, let me say I am no expert in anything but life.  And so, these top tips are all based solely on my personal experience, thus far!

Top Tip – all women experience menopause differently.  We won’t all suffer the same symptoms so sharing our experiences and our methods of coping are very important.  So please leave a helpful comment after this post if you have something that worked for you that you would like to share.

The heat is ON…. and it’s not the immersion!

I had heard horror stories from some friends who suffered terrible night sweats, sweating so profusely that they had to change nightwear and bed sheets.  Thankfully, thus far this hasn’t been my experience but having spent at least 52 of my 56 years feeling the cold, my body now thinks it’s in the tropics most of the time.  A kind of personal global warming that means I now have a horror of woolly jumpers, even on the coldest days.  And polo necks are for the moment definitely a no no.

So, some top tips for dealing with the heat of menopause are:

  • Wear light fabrics and layers that can easily be removed. Scarves (not woolly) ones are fabulous – the disguise a multitude and also can add warmth around your shoulders should you need it, especially in summer.
  • Make sure your car has functioning air conditioning… my aircon was kaput for a few weeks and I was lucky I didn’t expire in that time. I now travel in the comfort of an ice-cold car.  Not great for passengers but in my car the driver calls it on music and ambient temperature.
  • Bedside fan – although I don’t suffer bad night sweats, during sleep I do tend to go from too hot to too cold thought the night. So, a bedside fan is wonderful for blowing some cool air when you get uncomfortable.
  • Gel Pillow – I am still trying this out but it certainly cools down a hot head. Called Your Sandman Cooling Pillow, this gel insert can be placed inside your pillowcase (on top of your regular pillow) and it is cold, icy cold.  Will help cool you down and I then turn it over if I no longer need it.  It’s a bit heavy and bulky but I am still working out how to best use it and am hoping that it will be a great help when I get my next migraine.  But if you want to try it they are available on Amazon UK.

Gone in the head and not gone in the head.

I have suffered with migraines since my mid thirties when they were usually triggered by stress and often (although not always) by my menstrual cycle.  Since I hit menopause my migraines have come back with a bit of a vengeance and can be very debilitating.  Migraine is, like menopause, something that also affects everyone differently so it is vital to try to work out your personal triggers.

As we get older our bodies ability to deal with alcohol changes too and many of us find that we just can’t tolerate the kind of drinking we may have happily indulged in in earlier decades.  Many of us will find that after drinking even a reasonably modest amount (by Irish standards) we don’t sleep well, suffer heartburn and hangovers become worse.  So many of us naturally cut down on our intake.

Me, however, well… I discovered that alcohol (all alcohol) hates me.  And even after a tiny glass of wine I will get a headache that in most cases morphs into a full-blown migraine.  So, after a year of two of experimenting with low alcohol and organic wines I have given up.  No more booze for me.  It’s a bit sad, but hey ho.  And that there is top tip number whatever this is.  Listen to your body and make changes you need to in order to feel better.

On a related note I have also found that I need to drink lots of water…  Yeah, yeah, I know we are all told that.  But I have genuinely found that having a bottle of water with me all the time means that I do drink way more and it also helps me generally feel better, less headachy and less bloated.  Another top tip…. stay hydrated.

The ‘OUCH’ Factor

As we age we naturally become stiffer and less flexible.  And for a few years I kind of accepted that this was just the way it is now.  I thought exercise might help but I hate exercise for exercise sake only.  In other words, I love a nice walk in the countryside but pounding the pavements around suburban Dublin doesn’t really do it for me.  I keep vowing I will take up swimming as I do enjoy it but the palaver of defuzzing and wet hair keeps putting me off…  and yeah, I know that that is only an excuse.  I have also toyed with idea of buying a bike.  Having spent a few days in Sweden and Denmark earlier in the year I have a vision of myself making stately progress through the burbs on my high nelly.  But would I?   Bike lanes terrify me as a car driver…. I would be too terrified to use them on a bike.  Even if I could work out how not to get a sore arse!  Regular cyclists must have bums made of steel.  Mine is made of soft cotton wool!

However, thanks to my youngest daughter I have started doing stretches, yoga moves mainly and I have definitely noticed an improvement in my ability to move without going ‘ouch’.  So, I aim to keep that up and once I am more flexible I might actually take up yoga.  Which won’t make my hair greasy!  Another top tip right there – stretch and bend

Is it bedtime yet?

One of the first symptoms I noticed and put down to menopause was the fact that there are days when I am bone tired and weary.  You know the kind of days that just getting up, showered and dressed makes you feel exhausted.  The kind of exhausted that makes you want to close your eyes and sleep immediately.  Not always possible of course.  Life gets in the way.  But – top tip alert – when I can, I am kind to myself and if I feel that I need a nap and can avail of one, I do.  Although this symptom has lessoned in the last year or so and my energy is generally returning to normal levels now.

Right, so.  These are my thoughts for the moment.  I intend to revisit this topic every so often and would love feedback from you so that we can all share what we have found works and what doesn’t.  Leave a comment if you can!

 

 

Halloween Reminder To Claim Your Power as an Older Woman

Tomorrow is Halloween; the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.  Samhain marked the end of the harvest, the beginning of winter and (most importantly) the celebration of woman as Crone. In ancient mythology woman was represented by the Triple Goddess of The Maiden, The Mother and The Crone.  The triple spiral found in ancient Ireland is said to be a representation of this triumvirate view of woman.  The maiden was of course revered for her physical youth and beauty, the mother respected as the nurturer and carer.  And the Crone was esteemed for her wisdom.

Of course, we know that by the middle ages this idea of the wise older woman had been hijacked to become the evil witch and although we don’t burn witches at the stake any longer, the power of the older woman is now eroded by the constant message that we should be fighting ageing and that, for a woman, growing older is somehow a failure.  When in fact, once a woman passes through the fires of menopause she emerges into her most powerful phase of life.

By the age of 50 most women are on the verge of menopause if not fully engaged with all the joys of hot flushes, and periods that come straight out of nowhere and aching joints etc.  But hey, at least we are very unlikely to become pregnant.  And in this decade, most of us will have finally arrived in a place where our biology, for the first time since we were girls will have receded completely.

For at least four decades we have coped with school, exams, college, more exams, work, travel, relationships while also coping with the monthly mess that causes logistical problems that men never have to deal with.  We become just brilliant at not only powering through cramps, heavy flow, leaky tampons, headaches but all the while pretending that we are fine.  Because to admit you feel like shit would be to display a girly weakness that might come back to haunt you.  This is especially true in the workplace.  You become so brilliant at it that you don’t realise just how heroic you are.  Could you imagine if men had periods?  There would be red tents full of soft cushions, gentle music and hot water bottles in every workplace and tampons and towels would all be issued free and delivered to your doorstep once a month.

With apologies to Dr King but we ‘50 plus’ women have arrived at an age where we are “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”  So, why the hell aren’t we throwing parties?  Freedom from bleeding and all that accompanying side effects means that we are also (more or less – be careful) also free of our fertility.  Fertility is a precious gift and one that most women experience with joy but being the ones who get pregnant means that forever we will be the ones who worry most about getting pregnant.  So, no more worries.  No more pills, diaphragms, coils, other medieval sounding devices to ensure those sneaky sperm don’t get to our baby eggs. Sure, that right there is enough of a reason to be delighted you are now in your fifties. But there’s more.  And you might take a bit more convincing on the next but bear with me.

The Heat is ON…..Kundalini rising

There is a theory is Eastern Esoteric thinking that the menopause signals the rising of a woman’s kundalini energy up through her body, which would explain hot flushes I guess.  But seriously, the menopause can be a huge hassle between hot sweats, aching joints, thinning hair and a variety of other inconveniences.  This ‘change’ can make life very difficult and I plan more blog posts on the subject.  But for now, hang on in there…  I am not ignoring or making light of it.  And remember that this kundalini energy is a very creative force and so menopause was considered to be a great time for personal growth.  What makes me mad as hell is that modern Western Culture tells us precisely the opposite.

Mothering

Ok so once you become a mother you will always be a mother….and your kids, big adults though they might be, will still be in occasional need of your wisdom, cups of tea, your fabulous lasagne or stew or soup and a hug that only a mammy can give.  I know that.  But by the time you hit the mid-fifties your kids are most likely fairly independent.  They may have moved out.  You may be a grandmother.  But your days of active parenting are over.

If you are a mother, then for decades you have had quite a large part of your brain dedicated to ‘kids’ stuff’.  You held all their individual preferences there, what food they liked and what they didn’t.  What books they had read, what their favourite movies were, what cartoons they liked, who their friends are, what those friend’s mom’s names are and where they lived.  You also remembered vaccinations, dentist check-up and doctors’ appointments.  You knew their teachers’ names, kept track of homework and supervised it when they were little.  You knew what extra-curricular activities whey had on what day and arranged complicated rotas with other parents to get them there and back.  You always kept spare birthday cards and possible presents for last minute birthday party invitations – in other words the invites you find when they are a week old and smeared with peanut butter at the end of their school bag.

As they got older you helped with subject choices, and keeping them as calm as possible before exams.  You picked up the pieces when their hearts got broken for the first time.  You saw then through the nonsense of the rites of modern passage such as 6th Year holidays and the Debs.  Whether you worked outside the home or not, you can now retrieve the bit of yourself that belonged to your kids.  Because its now OVER.  Well it’s more or less over!  Your home might still be full but at least most of your head is finally your own.  Well except for the bit they still inhabit and causes you worry.  But in general, you have not got extra brain space; space for you to do what you want with.

Other people’s opinions, so what?

Most of us begin to notice a subtle change in our attitude to what people think of us at around 40.  But by 50 there is a very definite sense of way less fucks to give as to what others really think of you or how you choose to live your life.  And if you haven’t found this particular freedom yet – listen up and then make an effort.  It’s the greatest gift.

Now I am not suggesting for one minute that we get to the point where we become completely selfish, pursuing our own agenda regardless of how it may affect others, especially those we love.  But most women have been brought up to be people pleasers, to be nice, to be polite, to be gentle and these lessons learned very early get further cemented into place very often as we get older.

At home we learn to put our own needs last.  We care for our children, our ageing parents, our partners and we run our homes.  Every so often we may have a blow out when the pressure mounts but in general women grin and bear the fact that we are still doing the lion’s share of the housework and caring.

In the workplace if we become assertive we are often labelled ‘shrill’ or ‘cranky’ or ‘bossy’ or ‘irrational’ – oh there is no shortage to terms that are reserved purely to describe women who are a bit ‘strident’ (yep, another one).  Some of us relish being troublesome and couldn’t care less what names we are called.  But for most women, trying to juggle it all, being perceived as ‘nice’ makes life easier.

But then you reach 50ish and suddenly you realise you aren’t as bothered anymore about what people think about you.  You realise that what other people think about you is their business, not yours.  I am not sure why this change in our attitudes happens.  Perhaps it’s just that we get too tired to bother.  Perhaps we realise just how precious our mental health is and worrying about what others think about you is a sure way to wreck your head.  Whatever the reason it’s something I began to realise when I turned 40 and with every decade since that I have less and less fucks to give.  And it’s liberating, I tell you.

So this on the eve of Samhain it’s time to reclaim our true power as older women and the freedom to now, finally become our true selves.  To fully step into our power as women.  It is any wonder that society wants to dent that power be reducing us to wrinkles and lines.  Because the truth is that a woman who can look back and see how far she has come and who now realises that she doesn’t give a flying fig what the world thinks of her is the most powerful of all.

We are all witches.  This is our time.

A presidential election will provide winter entertainment, but that’s all.

The media loves an election, for obvious reasons.  It provides cheap entertainment, throws up some great rows, and occasionally provides the great unseating of a candidate who looked like a shoe-in.  Normally I too would enjoy the prospect of an election for all those reasons.  I also like to exercise my democratic franchise whenever I can.  Elections make me feel like I have a bit of a say in what goes on, in this weird little island country of ours.

This time, however, I am very conflicted.  Initially I wasn’t one big keen on this Presidential Election.  It will be a large distraction and a waste of money, time and energy when we have lots of serious problems which still are not being addressed by government with any real vigour.  But most of all it will be a pointless exercise to try to depose one of the most popular presidents I can remember.

But then as each week brings a new and more colourfully daft hat fluttering down into the ring, I find myself salivating at the prospect of their mad ideas and of the debates about stuff that has nothing to do with the presidency.  I have run out of stuff to watch on Netflix and so I would welcome the bonus entertainment as autumn takes the light away and winter beckons.  And sure they are all on a hiding to nothing anyway.

Michael D Higgin’s popularity and the affection in which he is held, is gauged easily by the fact that we have given him a nickname, something us Irish only do when we really love someone or something.  Ok, so it’s not quite as reverent as The Big Fella perhaps but Miggeldy is a name loaded with love.  His popularity is cross generational with young people not only knowing who he is, but also liking him.  In the era of Trump, they take pride in the fact that we have a thinker, a philosopher and an activist as our head of state.  If you were designing a president to be the exact opposite of Trump with all his brash, ill mannered, illiterate, incoherent utterings, you would create our Michael D.

Irish people are canny when it comes to politics.  We are usually ahead of the politicians and we know a good thing when we see it.  Our current president is a man who reflects the very best of who we are.  He is a supporter of the arts, a feminist and an activist with a passion for social justice.

But the best thing about Miggeldy or maybe the second-best thing about him, is the fact that he is a poet.  He is a man who can lyrically weave words together to capture our dreams, our aspirations, our sorrows, our regrets.  And he can deliver his words of wisdom with clarity, fluency and eloquence.  His speeches have moved us, touched us deeply and made us think; he reaches our hearts, our souls and our minds.

Michael D understands the Irish condition, the Irish spirit.  His seamless transition from Gaeilge to Bearla and back again is emblematic of the very best kind of teachers.  In fact, he has spoken out about the misguided utilitarian approach to education.  He would never be so crass to refer to this country as ‘Ireland Inc.’  He knows we are a people, a society and not a business.

Like the country he represents, Michael D is small.  But like Ireland, he punches above his weight on the international stage with his gift of powerful oration.

We should bear in mind that the next presidential term will be very important both nationally and internationally.  Against the uncertainty of Brexit and what that will mean for Ireland, we will also be commemorating the centenary of the War of Independence and the Civil War.  We need a president who can reflect the nuances and the tragedy along with the freedom.  We need someone who will instinctively know how to articulate that, gently and with grace.

Despite this, we have an increasing number of, well it seems a bit disingenuous to refer to them as ‘no hopers’ (although, in my view, they haven’t a hope) seeking nominations for a go at the Aras.  The fact that most of them don’t seem to have any understanding of what the office of Uachtarán na hÉireann is about is shocking.  It’s akin to a crew of weekend walkers deciding to compete in the 100 metres with Usain Bolt.  Maybe it’s the air time they crave?  The cult of reality TV luring them out to compete.

I mentioned earlier that being a poet is the second-best thing about Miggeldy.  So, what is the first thing?  And this is a personal call, obviously.  But, for me, the best thing about our president is that he is an animal lover.  That makes me feel safe.  His large Bernese dogs, Bród and Shadow are clearly devoted to their master.  And the man himself is at ease with them as only someone who truly loves and understands animals can be.  I think being an animal and wildlife lover should be an essential prerequisite for the job.

So, in the so-called interests of our democracy we will have this pointless election but sure it’ll provide some diversion over the autumn.  However, I am confident that it will be only that.

Urgent action by government needed after Pope’s visit.

The summer of 1979 will forever live in my memory as that special gap summer that occurs after you leave school and before you embark on the next phase – be it college or work.  It was a summer of delicious discovery, of excitement and of freedom.  I was 17 and by that September I was settling into a new routine, as I began a commercial course (ask your Ma) while waiting for my dream job in the travel business to come along.

Summer was just about over, when in the early hours of Saturday morning, the 29th of September I was walking home with friends through Glenageary and Sallynoggin after watching the Late Night Movie at the Forum Cinema in Glasthule, where I think the only late movie ever showing was ‘Pink Floyd, Live In Pompeii’.  As we trudged through the normally sleepy suburbs in the darkness, we were stunned to see front doors opening and families pouring out, into their cars, armed with fold up chairs, blankets and picnics.  We had no interest in the visit of the new Pope John Paul II but we were most certainly in the minority.

39 summers later and I had even less interest in the visit of Pope Francis but I was interested to see how our country reacted this time and if Francis was going to take the opportunity to do or say something of real consequence, given the current place the Catholic Church finds itself in, especially in Ireland.  So, I watched the speeches in Dublin Castle as they happened. The symbolism was fascinating.  The head of one of the largest religions on the planet, that believes gay people are “intrinsically disordered” being addressed by our Taoiseach, a gay man.  And in the front row sat a former President and canon lawyer, Dr Mary McAleese who has referred to the Catholic Church as ‘an empire of misogyny’ and has labelled their teaching on homosexuality as ‘evil’.  Leo Varadkar delivered a well-crafted, pointed speech and as we know Pope Francis reply was… well nothing new.

In his speech Varadkar referred to the Irish people remaining a spiritual people, a people with faith, something I absolutely agree with.  But by their non-attendance on the streets and in the Phoenix Park, the people gave a clear indication that they make a huge distinction between their personal faith and the architecture of the church – the hierarchy.   The Catholic Church, for its own best interests, should heed this message but more importantly, the Irish Government should take great cognisance of what happened last weekend.  If Varadkar’s words are not to be lost on the wind to become meaningless noise then a series of government actions should flow from what we learned.

Firstly, ownership and control of our national schools should be put into the hands of the Dept of Education.  Currently somewhere in the region of 90% of our primary schools are under ownership and control of the Catholic Church.  This is not appropriate in a modern republic.  Our publicly funded hospitals should also come under the control of the Dept of Health and religious orders be removed from their running completely.

The second action that should be taken is for the women and babies who suffered in Magdalene Laundries and other institutions should be honoured and commemorated.  And the most appropriate way to do this is by the setting up of a museum in their memory.  The obvious location for this is in the last remaining laundry in state ownership, in Sean McDermott Street which is at the moment earmarked by Dublin City Council to be sold to a Japanese Hotel chain.  You can sign a petition to stop this sale here.

Lastly the government should immediately pass legislation if necessary to force religious orders to open their books and files to allow people find their families.  To finally obtain their identity.  To continue to allow the orders to thwart people is particularly cruel.

These actions are important because the horrors in our past can’t just be left at the door of the Catholic Church as we turn our backs from the hierarchy.  The state and the people of this country were complicit, particularly in the treatment of women who became pregnant outside of marriage and their children.  This new republic that Varadkar refereed to cannot exist if we don’t’ take ownership of our role in these dark episodes and make sure that these stories are not forgotten.  I think the people know this. The question is, do our politicians?

 

This feminists view of The Rose of Tralee

If you’re a feminist it’s very, very easy to hate the Rose of Tralee.  A parade of young women (who up until recently had to be unmarried and not mothers) marched out one by one to have inane conversations with the male host, cheered on by their male ‘escorts’ and families.  It’s sexist, it’s patronising to women and something which in my view has no place in Ireland of 2018.  I hate it.  I don’t watch it.

But it appears that I am in the minority.  In another example of how Ireland is a country of startling contradictions, The Rose of Tralee attracts a massive TV audience for RTE.  Last year it had a 66% audience share with an average audience of 637,000.  This makes RTE very happy indeed.  And makes me wonder what is it that makes this country, a country that in recent years voted for marriage equality and to repeal the 8th amendment, actually tick.

Because the real conundrum is not why women would choose to put themselves through this ‘Mart and Market’ kind of spectacle but why so many of us (well, not me) choose to watch it and consider it to be entertaining.  I mean I get why ageing Irish Americans who have a rather warped view of this country might find it charming and reassuringly Irish in a ‘top of the morning’ kind of way.  But why do we, here in modern Ireland, where we boast proudly of our respect for equality and diversity, love to watch this celebration of De Valera’s ‘comely maidens’ who are dancing not at a cross roads but across the stage in a big tent in Tralee?

I have a theory and it’s simply this.  We (well, not me) love to watch the Rose of Tralee because we are sentimental fools.  The competition began in 1959 and it was first televised in 1967 so that most of us have grown up with it.  And in the days before live streaming and Netflix, families would gather around the one TV in the house and watch the show.  My own father was a big fan and prided himself in regularly being able to identify the winner early on.   Is it the sense of continuity that drives so many to watch?  And in a world where the big TV thing of the summer was Love Island, is the Rose of Tralee so bad?

Reader I am conflicted.  I hate the Rose of Tralee and I hated Love Island.  But at least most of the Roses are smart and accomplished young women, despite the daft ‘turns’ they are expected to preform on stage.  I am not sure the same can be said of the contestants on Love Island, although at least that show is not sexist in its crass stupidity.

As I wrestled with all this over the last two nights – well that’s an exaggeration I was in fact wrestling with finding something decent to watch on Netflix.  Anyway, as I wrestled another thing that occurred to me was this.  Why do we still tell women how to behave and what to do and not to do?  If a woman wants to get all glammed up and parade around the show ring in the big tent in Tralee, should she not be allowed to do so, without condemnation?  If she wants to enter a competition to be crowned ‘lovely and fair’ Rose of Tralee, who am I to criticise?

The #ROT (was there every a more appropriate hashtag though?) is like Ladies Day at the races, which is another anathema to me.  I don’t understand why anyone (male or female) would think it’s great craic to get dressed up like they were going to a very fancy wedding to schlep around a race track in the hope of being chosen to be the ‘best dressed’, likes its another horse category.  Although, in fairness, have you ever seen the prizes on offer?  I don’t get it.  I wouldn’t do it.  But surely it’s any woman or man’s right to do just that.

For centuries women have been told how to behave, how and when to speak and how to dress.  If feminism and our search for equality stands for anything, means anything, then surely it means choice.  Surely feminism means that women can choose to be who they want to be.  And sister, if that means you want to take part in the Rose of Tralee, you go right ahead.  And sister if you want to watch and enjoy the resulting spectacle, well fine day to you, as they might say in the old country.

I won’t be joining you.  And I will be happier when I no longer have to try to explain #ROT, (along it must be said, with the Late Late Toy Show), to foreign friends and relatives.  But sister if it floats your boat, on you go.  Not perhaps with my blessing but my tolerance.

Somewhere near St George’s Chapel, Diana was laughing.

ethereal feministWhen Charles and Diana married in July 1981, I was working, in a travel shop on Grafton Street.  However, my wonderful boss, saved the day by managing to charm the loan of TV from a local TV Rental shop (as your Ma – people used to rent TVs) so that we could tune into what was happening in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.  I was completely captivated as I watched this girl, who was my age, marry into the most famous family on the planet.  She had just turned 20.

I am no royal expert and I am certainly not a royalist.  I am very glad that my taxes aren’t used to keep a big family living in the lap of luxury for purely, well I don’t know, entertainment and national PR purposes?  But I am endlessly amused and fascinated by the goings on of the House of Windsor.

This family, who had to change their surname in the midst of the First World War from the decidedly Germanic and therefore problematic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor (named presumably after their favourite castle) are a wonderful reflection of centuries of history and a microcosm of a Britain that largely no longer exists.

I always found Diana compulsive and mesmerising.  She was beautiful, likeable and as the years went by it became increasingly clear that she was unhappy. She and later Fergie kicked their heels, albeit rather gently, against much of the stuffy nonsense of being ‘royal’.  But, as we all now know, the royal family weren’t ready to change.  This reluctance to reflect the nation they are supposedly head of, was thrown into stark relief in the aftermath of Diana’s tragic and untimely death.  The Windsors did the stiff upper lip thing and seemed to carry on, while the rest of Britain and indeed the world, were mourning the loss of the woman who became known as ‘the People’s Princess.’

Since then, it seems that the Windsors have made some attempt to modernise, albeit it slowly and on their terms.  The most obvious example of this was the change in the rules around accession, so that Princess Charlotte will not be overtaken by her new baby brother and remains fourth in line.  Royals can also now marry Roman Catholics although a Catholic still cannot become monarch.

But Diana was a true trail blazer in many ways.  Her work with AIDS and later with landmines unsettled the establishment. The impression was often given that she shouldn’t bother her pretty little head with things she didn’t really understand, particularly regarding the landmine issue.  But she persisted.

Diana was also a devoted and very natural mother to her two beloved boys, the younger of whom, Harry, was only 12 years old when she died.

Last Saturday the world watched, as Diana’s brave boy, whose heart-breaking march behind her coffin twenty years ago remains scorched in our memories, stood nervously at the altar awaiting the arrival of his bride.  Whereas William seems to have his father’s seriousness (and he has to have, seeing as he will one day be King), Harry embodies Diana’s sense of fun and desire to reach people and make a difference in their lives.  In his work with the Invictus Games he displays the same passion his mother had for her chosen causes.

But on Saturday we saw something else that Harry has inherited from his mother.  His desire to shake up the House of Windsor and make is more reflective of modern Britain and more relevant to the British people.

He has married an American, of mixed race, and a divorcee, hitting at least two previous Royal ‘no-nos’.  Remember also that his mother, not only had to be single and never married but also a virgin in order to marry Charles.  And that wasn’t that long ago.  But Harry and Meghan drove their message home with their wedding ceremony which was a huge leap forward for the Windsors, although some of the family looked, well, decidedly uncomfortable with some of it.

Meghan’s decision to enter the church alone, attended only by two young page boys was a clear indication that this is an independent minded woman.  But the decision to ask the Most Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church from the USA to deliver the sermon was inspired and I think Diana would have approved with bells on.

The Bishop’s address was delivered in typical preacher fashion and included quotes from Martin Luther King and references to slaves in America. It was a stand-out moment.  It was also joyous and energetic and not like anything ever delivered at a British royal wedding before. Reverend Curry was followed by a gospel choir who delivered a beautiful rendition of ‘Stand By Me’.  The contrast between the vibrant, earthy gospel music and the boy choristers was as stark as it was beautiful.

As the last notes of the gospel choir reached the rafters of St George’s chapel, I thought of Diana.  At that moment I wondered if she was somewhere nearby, roaring with laughter and crying with pride in her youngest boy.  She left him at just 12 years of age, when there is still so much mothering to do.  But today he proved that she had done enough.

There is talk of Meghan Markle, now the Countess of Sussex being the new People’s Princess and maybe she will be.  She has the grace, intelligence and charisma needed, but Harry is his mother’s son.  It is he who can rightfully claim the title of the People’s Prince.