Wars are now fought right where we live.

Another regular day bleeds into an uneventful evening which ends on the sofa in front of the TV.  As I begin to think about heading to bed, I check Twitter and my heart sinks.  That now almost familiar, feeling of dread, seeps through my bones as I try and piece together what is happening in Manchester.  I have been here before.  I was also watching TV at home in November 2015 when the news started to break online about the attack on the Bataclan in Paris.  I was also at home in July 2016 when we got the first tweets about a truck, mowing down people watching Bastille day fireworks, on the seafront in Nice, France.

Each time my first reaction was a refusal to accept that this is terrorism.  Each time I hoped for a logical explanation to the horror that was unfolding in real time and I was witnessing virtually from my suburban home in Dublin.  And each time I was wrong.

On last Monday night as I went to bed, I prayed that only one or two people may have died.  I hoped it was a gas explosion.  Not that that would make any difference to the outcome for the victims but I didn’t want to believe that such callous evil could exist in the world.

Less than twenty-four hours later, the names and photos start to appear of the first victims.  Georgina Callander was 18 years old and described as a super fan of Ariana Grande.  Little Saffie Rose Roussos was only 8 years old.  There will be at least twenty more photos and names to be revealed in the coming days in a roll call of heart-breaking devastation.

It is just over one hundred years since the end of the Great War when the world lost a generation of young men, young soldiers who died on battlefields, fighting for their country.  Today’s wars have no battlefields.  Wars are now fought where we live, in our cities, among communities.  Approximately 25,000 children have been killed in Syria since 2011, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.  We have moved from a world where men signed up for war, to one where children have somehow become legitimate targets.  Children, for whom death can come straight out of a blue sky over Syria, or when walking with their families on the seafront in Nice or while in the foyer of an arena in the UK where they were attending a concert.

I don’t understand for one moment how any man (and it is usually men) can justify their actions when their intended targets are children.  Innocent children.  Of course, they would say that the children are just collateral damage.  The intention is to instill fear and terror into the hearts of the population.  And they do.

As the news from Manchester began to break on last Monday night, my first thought was of the parents.  Waiting outside the venue to pick up their precious children.  I can only imagine their terror and fear.  And then I thought of the children, most of them young girls, who must have been feeling so happy and grown up to have been at a concert with their friends and suddenly thrown into unspeakable horror. Alone, with only each other to try to work out what they should do.

Taking your child to a big concert is almost a rite of passage.  Most of us have memories of producing the magic ticket for a birthday or Christmas present and the intense excitement as you prepare to share, what is one of the best experiences in life, going to see your favourite artist with thousands of other fans.  I took my eldest to the Spice Girls in The Point Depot.  For the younger two, it was One Direction in the same, renamed venue.  There is something very special about being able to introduce your child to the joy of live performance and the excitement of a big concert.

As your children get older, you have probably, slightly anxiously dropped them off at a big venue with strict instructions to leave immediately it’s over and proceed to your agreed rendezvous point for their lift home.

And if you are parents of very young children, all of this is in your future.  And it most likely will be a deliciously bonding, joyous experience.

But right now, when the world feels like a dangerous place for our children, it is important that we hold on to hope and to love.  As parents, we must shine a light on the goodness that is all around us and was much in evidence in the aftermath of the horror in Manchester.  To do anything else is to let the bastards win.

In Many Ways Nuns Are Great Feminists But They Shouldn’t Be Given Our National Maternity Hospital

I was educated by nuns in Secondary School in Dublin.  My experience was almost entirely positive.  After five years (no TY then) I left my Catholic ethos, convent school with a clear idea of how to be a strong independent woman, able to speak up for herself and stand her ground; because I watched one such strong woman every day – our principal, the Head Nun.  She was accomplished, compassionate, tough and mainly fair.  She ran the school efficiently and with steely discipline.

I left school in 1979, the same year that contraceptives were finally on sale in Ireland although only on production of a prescription.  Women’s liberation was a feature of Ireland in the 1970s as second wave feminism took hold.  As school-girls we were very aware of the national conversations and one day a heated debate took place after school on the subject of abortion.  We were so exercised by the topic that in our innocence we decided to ask if we could have a proper debate in school on the issue.

There was war.  Ructions.  Shock and horror that the word abortion had been uttered within the hallowed walls, never mind that we had the audacity to ask if we could debate it.  Our request was turned down immediately with no explanation.  However, the following day, during Morning Assembly the girls who been involved in “the devils work” were called out and one by one we had to approach the top of the hall and remove from a collection bucket whatever donation we had made to the “black baby appeal” (a kind of non-PC forerunner of the Trocaire Lenten Campaign).

Looking back now it’s clear how naive we were in thinking that the head nun would have allowed such a debate.  But it was she who infused us in a belief that we could achieve whatever we put our minds to.  Every day she provided us with a real time female role model of a strong, independent woman.  But first and foremost, she was a Catholic nun and she never forgot that, not for a second. We had crossed the line.  Abortion was wrong on all levels, in all circumstances and it was not a topic for debate.  The churches stance on the matter remains absolute.

Ireland has changed hugely from the country that it was when I left school in 1979.  From freely available contraception to divorce, from same sex marriage to multi culturalism, our country has embraced so much change in the last three decades.  The Catholic Church, not so much.  Sure, it’s been damaged.  But it hasn’t fundamentally changed.

Back in the 1970s, nuns were among the only group of women who were running businesses.  They ran hospitals and schools and by all accounts did so very well.  But they did it without compromise and with a high degree of discipline.  Many of the nurses who trained under ‘the nuns’ will tell you that.  It wasn’t always a happy experience.

I still have huge respect for nuns.  In a lot of ways, they are great feminists.  But they belong to a highly patriarchal and chauvinistic church and they generally display an unwavering loyalty to that church.  They are strong women and many are great business women but they are women of the church first and foremost.  And that is why they should NOT be given ownership of our new National Maternity Hospital.

I listened to Rhona Mahoney this morning on RTE Radio One and she was persuasive.  Her passion for this project was palpable.  I could sense her frustration at the possibility that this vital project for women and their babies could be stalled by the people’s anger at the church in general and nuns in particular.  It would be a wonderful legacy if she were to retire from a state of the art, top class maternity hospital.

But we are at a watershed moment in my view.  And as the mother of daughters and a prospective grandmother I understand the urgency of providing a proper facility for mothers and babies in Ireland.  But we cannot gallop into a situation that will cause us problems down the road.  Now is the time for Ireland to begin the long process of taking back our health care and indeed our education infrastructure from religious orders.

These orders have largely ignored their responsibility for redress to those they wronged in Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries.  We need our government to show leadership and to put in place whatever is needed in terms of legislation to begin to restore these vital elements of our social care to ownership and responsibility of the state.

The nuns taught us well.  Perhaps if more of our ministers had been convent educated we might see more leadership on this issue.

I’M WITH THE IRISH STAND AGAINST TRUMP

If the last couple of months have taught me anything, it is that I am an eternal optimist.  To the point of possible stupidity.

I wasn’t surprised when Trump won the Presidency and even though I wasn’t at all happy, I comforted myself by thinking that he will be surrounded by the machine that is the office of President of the United States of America, and this will prevent him from dragging that office into disrepute and the country into chaos.  How naive was I?

I watched the horror show that was his inauguration.  His complete lack of basic manners and any sign of affection for his wife, Melania was unnerving.  His speech was bombastic and lacked any of Presidential vision.  I wondered if he knew that he had won, that he was President.  But I still hoped, that now that he had proved he could win the highest job in the world, he would just put his head down and be, at worse, an ineffective president who ultimately achieves very little.  Such fairy stories helped me sleep at night.

Immediately after he was installed in Washington, the debate on whether the Taoiseach should go ahead with the annual visit to the White House to present a bowl of shamrock, began.  As someone who is allergic to sulking, I have always believed that communication is the way to resolve contentious issues.  I agreed with Leo Varadkar and Enda Kenny that we should keep this standing date on March 17th and not throw away this annual privilege of having the ear of the so called ‘leader of the free’ world (and never has a title been so inappropriate).   When has ‘not speaking’ ever solved anything?  Dialogue is key.

But I have changed my mind, for a number of reasons.  Talking to Donald Trump will not make any difference at all.  He doesn’t care that millions of his own people are protesting on the streets, he isn’t going to give a hot damn what the people of Ireland think.  Trump is not just some odious, semi-literate, bad mannered, orange man.  He is a hateful, dangerous, racist, misogynist who pedals fear and suspicion and mis-information.  If we turn up at the White House delivering a bowl of shamrock, even with a mild chiding from Enda, it is the photos that will be remembered.  Ireland celebrating our national day with Trump.

But the main reason that I now believe that we should not attend the White House this year is not about America, it is about us.  It is about who we are in Ireland.

We are a country whose actions often speak far louder than our words, which is ironic considering our literary reputation.  We have dispatched our Defence Forces to the Mediterranean to assist in the rescue of refugees and as a nation take great pride in their sterling work.  We still donate more than most countries to those less fortunate.  We have a great well of empathy and compassion in Ireland but too often we still speak out of both sides of our mouths.  We still cannot seem to overcome, our seemingly instinctive urge, to stay on the right side of the man in the big house.  This tendency, which makes us appear mealy mouthed and cowardly, is no doubt due, in large part, to our history but it is this very history that should propel us to be braver.  To be better than that.

Ireland is a first world country, that has experienced colonisation, that has never invaded anywhere but that has been a breeding ground for terrorism in the very recent past.  Anyone who travelled to the UK during ‘the troubles’ will know how unnerving it was to be viewed with some suspicion purely because of your nationality.  But this unique history gives us a moral authority that belies our small size and it is this which should compel us to make a principled stand against a racism and injustice.

New York, that confident, multi ethnic, exuberant city, knows more than any other in the US about terrorism.  Yet New Yorkers led the protests in the immediate aftermath of Trumps Executive Order restricting travel from certain countries.  Sometimes we can over think things.  Sometimes we just need to do what is right.

So, I am firmly with Aodhan O Riordain in taking a stand against all that Trump stands for.  I am mortified that all the signs are that our Taoiseach will fudge it by making gentle noises of disapproval while smiling and joking with the President of the USA over a bowl of shamrock.  Why can we not overcome our mortifying instinct to show that we are still pals with the biggest boy in the class?

The decision by our government to keep the annual St Patrick’s date in Washington with President Trump will have little effect on him or on America.  But their decision reflects very poorly on who we are as a people.  It should not be allowed to define us and our values.

 

values.

Living With Our Ben

Yesterday while clearing our some old files I found this.  A cutting of the first piece I ever had published in a National Newspaper.  It was from the Sunday Independent in 2002 and is the story of growing up with our Ben. I remember how thrilled I was to have something published.  I shared the cutting on Social Media yesterday and a few people said they would like to read it.

So I found the original copy – some of which now makes me cringe – it’s not great in places, however I am reproducing it here as I sent it in.

 

living-with-our-ben

Ben came to live in our house in 1971.  I was nine years old and my grandmother (Ben’s mother) had just died.  I am the eldest of four children and had three younger brothers.  Ben is my mother’s older brother.  Our family lived in a modest four bedroom house in Blackrock on the south side of Dublin.  My father was a civil servant and at this time my mother was a full time home-maker.

Ben was born ‘mentally handicapped’ or, as we should say today, with a learning disability.  He had lived all his life at home, which for the most part, was in Dun Laoghaire.  When he was born, my grandmother was told that he would never be in any way independent and would need constant full time care.  His life expectancy was short.  My grandparents were advised to place him in an institution and begin work on getting pregnant again!  My grandmother, although a slight, bird of a woman was a teacher and not used to being told what to do.  She also managed to see through this rather crude evaluation of her firstborn son to the spirit that makes Ben special.  She took her baby home and set about loving, caring and teaching him.

No one knows what has caused Ben’s brain to function at less that ‘normal’ capacity.  It could have been due an injury at birth or could be a congenital defect.  Ben does not look any different but his mental capacity could be compared to a child of about five or six.  Ben’s speech is also difficult to understand as he speaks with a very deep voice.

When I was very young, my maternal grandparents lived in a large house on Lower Mounttown in Dun Laoghaire.  The house, which was built in the 1920’s was full of little nooks and crannies and features from a bygone era.  For me and my brothers, it was a magical place.  Through the front door, one entered a rather grand hall which featured the ultimate in posh – a stairs with a turn in it!   But the best feature of the hall was the separate cloakroom – a little room, not unlike a large phone booth just inside the front door.  The kitchen, which was dominated by an old fashioned range (on which my grandmother heated her daily pint of Guinness), featured a separate pantry and scullery.  Off the kitchen was another room – the maid’s room.  By the time her grandchildren were visiting, my grandmother had no longer any need for a maid and so this room was a truly wonderful place housing as it did a huge collection of model aircraft.  In the centre of the room was a large table covered with aircraft.  More were displayed on numerous shelves around the walls and hanging from the ceilings.  There were World War One Messerschmitts, World War Two Lancaster Bombers and Spitfires and Commercial Airliners (as they were called then).  This precious collection belonged to my other uncle, Ben’s younger brother.  The house also contained a piano and a forerunner to the modern conservatory – a greenhouse attached to the kitchen.  It was a house to run through and play great hide and seek.  The house was called Hebron, named before this Israeli town found fame through that region’s conflict.

The garden in Hebron was enormous and divided in two by an imposing trellis which crossed the middle of the garden with an archway at its centre.  One side of this trellis was fashioned like a spider’s web and was complete with a detachable wooden spider.  In my mother’s youth the garden also featured an Air Raid shelter which, when the emergency passed, was filled in, as it was considered dangerous for the children and it regularly flooded in winter.  My grandfather, George, died when I was very young and so my memories of the house in Mounttown are peopled by my grandmother – Kathleen, her cats – big furry balls called Dove and Mighty and Ben.  To a child Ben was like a gentle giant.  An imposing man of over 6 feet who spoke with a deep booming voice that none of us children could understand.

We probably visited my grandmother’s house once a fortnight in those days.

As a mother myself now, I can hardly imagine the energy, patience and determination that Kathleen must have had to teach Ben to speak at all.  At the end of her life he could feed himself, dress himself and in fact was a great help in the house.  He also loved music and could bash out notes that seemed to blend together on the piano.

Then Kathleen died.  One day she collapsed with a brain haemorrhage in the kitchen.  Ben called to the neighbours for help.  Kathleen was pronounced dead when she arrived at the hospital by ambulance.  My mother was very shocked and upset.  She dealt with the arrangements and Ben was sent to some relations in Clontarf until all the immediate aftermath of a sudden death had died down.

Kathleen had left instructions that her house was to be sold and the proceeds used to find Ben a suitable residential place in which he could spend the rest of his days.  It fell to my mother, as next oldest to organise this.  Selling the house was easy.  Finding a place for the gentle giant was not.

So my parents took the decision that Ben should move in with us until his future was settled.  And very suddenly (children do not see things coming), Ben, all six foot of boom was coming to stay.  If I said anything at being told this news I am sure it was a rather nonplussed ‘Oh’.

As a nine year old, Ben was fine living over there in Mounttown.  It was not at all fine to find Ben living in my house.  None of my friends had anyone living with them other than parents and siblings.  Certainly no-one had anyone who came close to a Ben.  How did I explain Ben?  I couldn’t and so I didn’t.  Friends came to my house and I pretended that Ben was invisible.  I ignored him and his presence and so did they.  This went on for many years, until I was well into my time at Secondary School.  It was all working out OK I thought, until one of our well meaning teachers decided to have a discussion on mental health.  I kept my head down and said nothing although I was obviously the only expert on this subject in the class – going on the ‘one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind’ principle.  Then one of my friends piped up “sure Barbara don’t you have one of those mad fellas living in your house”.  I took my street cred very seriously at this point in my life.  Having three younger brothers was bad enough – this was a nightmare.  “He’s not mad, he is mentally handicapped” I replied frostily.  But something clicked in my head.

Ben was now part of the family.  My parents had never come even close to finding somewhere suitable for his gentle spirit.  He was with us for keeps and it was time to educate my friends about him.  I then realised that most of them was somewhat scared of this huge man – who said little but when he did, it could be heard in Howth.

Funny, I don’t remember my brothers having this problem at all!  They paraded their friends through the house roaring “that’s Ben.  Howareya Ben?”  Their friends took the lead from them and roared “Howareya Ben” too.  “Hellllooo” Ben boomed back.

In most ways Ben melted into the fabric of our chaotic family with relative ease.  Ben is very even tempered and mild.  He is never aggressive and has no behavioural problems at all.  His needs are very simple.  Along with regular meals and a warm bed, Ben’s other requirements are a supply of colouring pencils, colouring books, jelly sweets and the occasional jigsaw.  He loves to help out in the house and from day one there were certain domestic chores that became Bens (great for a house full of teenagers).  Ben made beds (before the advent of duvets) and washed up.  Ben was also a great fetch and carry man.  Our house echoed with shouts of “Ben, can you bring me in this, or that, or the other”.  Along with playing a huge domestic role, Ben was a great DIY assistant who specialised in holding things while nails were hammered into walls etc.  Occasionally Ben got it wrong or got bored holding up the shelf and would start to let it slip.  This would tax my father in particular – “Ah Ben, what kind of a clown are you” he’d roar at an indifferent Ben, who seemed to know exactly what type of clown he was.  The kind of one who had a free pass straight to heaven!

There is a cog in his brain which misfires and causes Ben to follow instructions to the letter.  He is not equipped with initiative at all.  A classic example of this relates to another of Ben’s jobs – bringing out the bins.  In the days before the Wheelie Bin, Ben always helped my father dragging the tons of rubbish our family accumulated each week for the bin collection.  At this time my father went through a period of ill health and so this job became Ben’s responsibility.  He never forgot.  Each Wednesday at 8am, millions of black sacks would be dragged around the side passage to the front gate.  Then one day Ben had a bad back.  My mother issued instructions to Ben on Tuesday night – “You are not to bring out the rubbish tomorrow Ben as your back is sore, OK?”  “OK” said Ben.  But Ben is the type of machine that once programmed it is very difficult to modify or cancel commands.  At 8:15 the next morning my mother noticed that all the rubbish was in place by the front gate.  “Ben – did you bring out the rubbish”  “Yes, Ben did it” he proudly announced.  “You big eejit” says the mother “you could have damaged your back further.  You should have left it like I said”.  10 minutes later she is gazing out the back window to witness Ben dragging all the bags back to their original location in the back garden.  Great craic!

Ben was also very handy when we forgot our keys to get back into the house – at any time of day or night.  During the day it was simple.  Ringing the bell two or three times in succession was his signal to answer the door.  This worked fine until some unfortunate door-to-door collector or salesperson accidentally hit the bell twice.  The door would be answered by our Ben who on seeing that it was not one of the family seeking to gain entrance, would immediately slam it shut again.  Coming home late at night keyless was also easy with Ben.  His room was in front of the house and a couple of pebbles at the window would normally do the trick.  Failing that (it can be difficult to have an accurate aim in the dark after a couple of hours in the pub) a single loud shout of BEN would normally rise him!

And so life in our house chugged along just fine with Ben on board.  He was very useful to useless teenagers!  Then one day we nearly lost him!

One of the first things my mother discovered when Ben came to stay was St Michael’s House.  Ben began to attend one of their sheltered workshops back in the early seventies.  He is now one of their longest attending and their oldest client.  Ben loves ‘going to work’ and is collected by minibus every morning and arrives back mid afternoon.  The red bus from St Michael’s House is a common sight on the road.

When we were all still at home and both my parents were working, morning times got very hectic in our house.  Bathroom time was strictly rota-ed and one overstayed their allocated time at their great peril.  I don’t know how but we managed.  Perhaps the secret was co-operation.  It was no doubt with this in mind that I particularly felt a degree of responsibility that Ben should be ready for his bus and aware of when it had arrived on the road.  It’s normal routine was to drive slowly past our house and go down to turn.  By the time it was back outside our door Ben was at the gate.  The bus normally arrived just before 8:30am.

This fateful morning I glanced out the window to see the familiar red bus driving slowly past our house.  “Ben hurry up” I roared, “the bus is early.”  Ben whose greatest nightmare was to miss work, quickly gathered up his lunchbox and jacket and headed out the door to the shouts of Bye Ben from the house.  We continued our strictly choreographed morning routine when at just after 8:30 there was a knock at the door.  The bus driver from St Michael’s house was not pleased that Ben was not at the gate!

“But Ben’s gone” we said, baffled.

“He couldn’t be” said the driver “we have only just arrived”.

“But the bus came at about ten past eight and Ben is gone.  Could there be another bus doing the run this morning also?”

“I don’t think so but I’ll ring the office and check”

While we waited we double-checked the house and garden to make sure that Ben had not returned.  No Ben and no other bus.

Where was Ben?  My mother decided to phone the Gardai and duly reported our Ben as missing.  We began to get worried.  Could Ben have been kidnapped?  Who would kidnap our Ben?  My father decided to get up on his bike and tour the neighbourhood for clues.  The rest of us were told to go to work or school.  I felt awful.  I was the one who told Ben his bus was early.  But I definitely saw red minibus.  We had no idea what had happened.

Finally at about 11am the phone rang.  It was our local Garda Station.  A person answering Ben’s description and clutching a lunchbox had been ‘handed in’ to Bray Garda Station.  Could someone go and identify him and collect him.  It had to be Ben – but how had he gotten to Bray?  My brother was dispatched to collect him.

While he was gone the phone rang again.  Our neighbour and good friend across the road was laughing so much that it took a while to establish the facts of Ben’s disappearance.

This neighbour had recently started to take in students;  mostly adults coming to Ireland for short intensive language courses.  Many of them worked for Siemens Nixdorf in Bray.  On this particular morning she had two gentlemen who were to be collected by minibus for their day at Nixdorf.  One however was sick and stayed in bed.  At about the same time as her lone student was boarding the bus, our Ben shot out of our door and onto the minibus.  The driver, expecting two passengers  was happy enough and off they went.  I am not sure if anyone tried to make conversation on the way south but the bus duly arrived at the Nixdorf facility in Bray whereupon all the passengers disembarked but our Ben who was cute enough to know that this was not St Michael’s House.

The driver invited him to leave but Ben stayed put.  The driver went looking for help assuming that this fella had no English at all.  A tutor arrived out and again tried to converse with Ben to no avail.  “Where – are – you – from” he asked in fractured English.  Ben could never manage to remember a full address but did know that we lived near Stradbrook Road and so he boomed triumphantly “Stradbrook”.  “Ah Strasbourg” says Mr Nixdorf and immediately switched to French.  Still no joy.  This interrogation must have gone on for some more time and Ben would not leave the bus.  Finally someone arrived who realised that Ben was perhaps a sandwich or two short of a picnic.  And so the Gardai were called in.

Ben was taken back to the Station in the tender care of a female officer who was still entertaining him and drinking tea when my brother arrived.  To this day Ben still recounts this story with great excitement and we have all dined out on the same story for years as, no doubt, have the people at Siemens Nixdorf.

So Ben is now approaching his 71st birthday and is seemingly still going strong.  In all the years I have shared with Ben I have never known him to lose his temper or even say a bad word about anyone.  He is truly a good person and a pure spirit.  Remembering now how I felt when Ben came to live with us when I was 9, I marvel at my kids who all accept Ben as he is but who know that he is different, special.  They talk to him, bring him sweets and engage him in their games regularly.  And Ben, like many of his years, loves the kids and particularly loves it when they go back to their own homes!

Scully’s Christmas Book suggestions

wind-in-willowsJust before Christmas I did my usual Christmas Irish Non-fiction book suggestion on Ireland AM on TV3.  In case you are using up book token presents or just want to treat yourself to a nice book here are this year’s suggestions:

 

WHAT IF…. A Chronicle of What Might Have Been

By Annie West.  Published by New Island (on special of 11.96 on website)

If you are on Twitter at all you will probably have come across the legend that is Annie West – illustrator and cartoonist, wit and Yeats specialist.  Her new book ‘What If… A Chronicle of What Might Have Been is a brilliant dip in and out of book of essays by various well known contributors speculating on ‘what if’s’.

Myles Dungan writes about “what if Irish historians told the full story about women’s’ contribution to Irish History.”  David McCullagh explores “what if London has listened to the unrest over taxation that was demonstrated at the Boston Tea Party” meant for example a union jack had been planted on the moon!  Colm Tobin wonders about  “what if the Big Fella had been short?”

All great fun and all ponderings accompanied by one of Annie Wests wonderful illustrations.

 

Dublin in the 1960s

Edited by Michael Hinch, photos from Independent Archives.

Published by Mercier. 19.99

And

Looking Back – The Changing Face of Ireland

By Eric Luke.  Published by O Brien Press 24.99

 Two wonderfully nostalgic and endlessly fascinating photography books that would make great presents especially perhaps for your parents or older relatives.  Although everyone can get lost in the pages of the most evocative photos of an Ireland that is now gone.

‘Dublin in the 1960’ will strike a chord with anyone who remembers Dublin at that time with gorgeous photos from the Independent Archives.

Eric Luke is a photographer with the Irish Times and his book spans more recent decades and includes colour photos.  Eric’s book is divided into sections such as The Country, The Capital, Personalities and best of all Music.  Eric’s photos of Irish musical icons such as Rory Gallagher, U2, The Chieftains and the glorious Thin Lizzy are just stunning.

Both books great way to pass a rainy day

 

Healing Creations – Discover your mindful self through mandala colouring and journaling

By Patricia Fitzgerald.  Published by The Collins Press.  19.99

Even if the ‘trend’ of adult colouring passed you by – many of us know how tempting it is to join a small kid as they colour in.  It is hugely relaxing and grounding.  In other words, it calms your mind from the rubbish many of us have spinning around in our heads regularly.

This book is designed to get the maximum psychological benefit from colouring as has been designed by Patricia Fitzgerald who is a mindfulness expert.  Mandalas – are circular intricate art forms which have long been associated with calmness.  This book has 40 mandalas and 10 which also have guided meditations.  And the book is sprinkled with inspirational quotes from people such as Maya Angelou, Henry Ford and Confucius.  There are also blank pages to you to record your experience – journal!   A new year’s treat for yourself perhaps?

 

This year I also looked at some children’s books.  I selected three for inclusion:

First up is my favourite kids story ever, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS by Kenneth Graham – a classic story and this edition by Walker Books, retails at 22.00euro and is simply beautiful.  I found it in a treasure of a book shop called TALES FOR TADPOLES on Drury Street in Dublin (they also have a small shop on Nassau St I believe).  They stock the most gorgeous editions of children’s classics along with prints of the illustrations.  Peter Rabbit series, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl – the common denominator is the books are beautifully illustrated.  They also sell prints of some of the illustrations.  The shop is well worth a visit and a must if you want to gift a book that will become a family heirloom.

Next is an Irish book – the second in a trilogy called The Nine Lives Trilogy – this one is The Book of Shadows (the first being The Book of Learning) and features the adventures of Ebony Smart and her pet rat Winston.  (Her grandpa dies and she uncovers her secret past) It’s by ER Murray, published by Mercier and retails at 7.49 on their website (special price).  Great Irish book for young adults..age 9+

Finally,… one for all the family to get involved with over the Christmas.  The Whiz Quiz Book – third edition of this brilliant book which was compiled by the National Parents Council.  A general knowledge quiz book for all the family., Questions on sport, music, history etc…  laid out in ten rounds of ten questions.  Great way of teaching without teaching.  Collins Press 5.99

SPECIAL MENTIONS

A gorgeous book of short stories – THE GLASS SHORE, edited by Sinead Gleeson published by New Island 14.96 euro on special on the website.  These stories are all by women writers from the North of Ireland. A follow up to the very successful LONG GAZE BACK which Sinead edited last year.  A lovely book for anyone who loves short stories…

Finally, for the feminist or the historian in your life – A CENTURY OF PROGRESS – IRISH WOMEN RELFECT.   A book of essays by various contributors on the role of women in Ireland over the last 100 years.  Book comes from the Markieviez School thro Arlen Press and available in various bookshops including Books Upstairs, Connolly Book Shop in Temple Bar, An Siopa Leabhar Harcourt Street and also kennys.ie with free post

THE PERFECT PACKAGE…apparently

Raising kids is not a job for the faint-hearted.  Babies and toddlers are a lot of physical work but parenting teenagers would melt the most robust brain. They say girls are harder to raise than boys.  I wouldn’t know.  I only have girls.  Two of them teenagers.

But I do know that parenting girls is a lot like being a salmon.  Fighting your way upstream, swimming against the tide and struggling to leap up waterfalls.  Like most parents, I want my girls to reach their full potential and to be happy.  This would be a lot easier to achieve if they weren’t bombarded with images of impossibly sexy women at every turn.  Yes, you know what I am talking about… the music videos, the movies where women are all girlfriends and accessories to the guys, the advertising with the token gorgeous scantily clad woman.  Not to mention endless targeting of us with beauty products so that we can be better version of ourselves.

I have no tools to use against this onslaught except to keep repeating the mantra ‘be yourself, you are good enough.’  Coupled with ‘those images aren’t real, don’t even try to compete, you’ll only wreck your head.’

But then sometimes something comes straight out of left field providing a surprising affront to my attempts at raising confident, assertive, strong women.  Last week’s Life Magazine in the Sunday Independent was one such affront.  When I saw it first I thought it was a jokey mock up of a Top of The Pops LP from the mid ’70s.  Smiling sexily on the cover of the magazine was a model dressed as a sexy Santa.  A sexy Santa – like what even is that? To that image was added the  perfect 70s’ double entendre – “The Perfect Package”.  Yes this was Life Magazine’s Christmas Gift Guide 2016.

I took some deep breaths to calm my rising blood pressure and ventured inside to what is generally a good read.  The gift guide stretched to about 9 pages and each page had another sexy model.  We had sexy green Santa, sexy Elf and a sexy Fairy.  These sexy minxes were not doing anything you understand.  They merely existed on the page to be sexy eye candy while one perused the gifts.  And the gifts may have been great.  I don’t know.  Because I was only able to see red…. All those Santa outfits had blurred my vision.

As I closed the magazine I had that Benny Hill theme tune going around and around in my head accompanied by visions of Brendan O’Connor chasing Sexy Santa’s around the Sindo’s offices.  It was most unnerving.

The cover can be viewed here 

#wherearethewomen

ianodpiece

As some of you might know I have been very exercised by the lack of women guests on Ireland’s premier entertainment and chat show, The Late Late Show, since it began this seasons run in September.  I have been tweeting about it most Fridays using the hashtag #wherearethewomen.  Since this campaign started there have been two supportive pieces written by women – one in the Irish Times by Anthea McTeirnan and one in the Irish Independent by Lorraine Courtney.  And there was a piece by Ian O Doherty in last Friday’s Irish  Independent which is not online but you can read it from the photo above.

This is my response to Mr O Doherty.

I have many issues with the piece Ian O’Doherty,  wrote under the heading “Save us from panel envy” in last Friday’s Irish Independent.  He was referring to the building head of steam that feminists (male and female) are creating at the distinct lack of women on this country’s premier entertainment programme, namely The Late Late Show.  I have been one of the loudest critics of this phenomenon, mainly voicing my increasing frustration and anger on Twitter using the hashtag #wherearethewomen.

But back to Mr O’Doherty and aside from the fact that he didn’t have the manners to credit me with stirring this particular pot he also said that “the complainers don’t do laughter.”  That stung.  I love a good laugh and have even been known to provide a good laugh reasonably regularly.  Unfortunately, by mentioning this slight on my character (and indeed that of my feminist co-complainers) kind of leads me into feeling I have to make this piece funny in order to prove my point.  And I hate that.

But back to Mr O’Doherty who also thinks that we whiny feminists (paragraph one) sit down every Friday with pen and notebook in order to tabulate the gender of the guests, when in fact a pen and notebook isn’t necessary at all.  The lack of women is glaringly obvious, especially to us whiny feminists.  But apparently according to O’Doherty our complaining misses the point that “there just aren’t as many decent guests as there used to be.”  Seriously Ian?

Although in fairness I guess that depends on your definition of ‘decent guests’.  The Late Late Show has always been aware that it cannot compete with the big British chat shows who attract a good smattering of Hollywood mega-stars, week after week.  So, for home grown programmes often the best guests have been so called ‘ordinary’ people who have extraordinary stories to tell.   Panel discussions have equally always been a part of the Late Late landscape and often provide the talking points for the following day.  So, do women have not stories to tell?  Or maybe we just aren’t articulate enough to tell the story?

The second thing that stung in O’Doherty’s piece is when he mentions “some of those who have been complaining loudest don’t seem to have any problem appearing on TV3’s execrable Midday programme, which only features women.”  Yes. I am a regular panellist on Midday and I had to double check the meaning of the word execrable.  According to the Oxford dictionary execrable means “extremely bad or unpleasant”.  Unpleasant Ian? Why unpleasant?  Is it just because it’s an all-female panel (except on Fridays)?  Ahhh well, in fairness, I could understand how that might upset you. The Late Late Show has had two shows this season where there have been no women at all interviewed.  So I know that that can feel very, well weird.  You know, when you hold up half the sky, as men do.

Actually, it feels worse than weird.  It feels like you don’t exist at all.  It silences your soul.  Therefore Ian, I can see how watching Midday (do you watch it regularly I wonder) would make you feel bad about life and yourself. Viewing the world through an all-female lens would be just as disconcerting as viewing it through a predominantly male lens when you are a woman.

But imagine if every programme was the same Ian?  Imagine if you switched on the Late Late Show and it looked like Midday?  If you listened to the Marian Finnucane Programme on RTE Radio One and it sounded very like Midday?  Lots of men chatting away about the big stories of the week.

The lack of women’ voices, stories and opinions is a fundamental flaw in our media and one which needs to be addressed with a degree of energy and urgency, particularly by our national broadcaster who should be leading the way in gender balanced programming.

Demanding quotas you say will drive down quality.  How?  Because women are inherently less able, less interesting, less intelligent than the men we hear all the time?  Unconscious bias exists in all of us.  I acknowledge that it will make it a little more difficult for TV and radio producers to abandon their usual ‘go to’ contributors in order to ensure that women’s voices are heard, that our opinions are as much a part of the public conversation as mens are.  But I think our media professionals are quite capable in doing that without sacrificing creativity which Ian points out will be a natural consequence of such action.

Back to that word execrable.  The Oxford dictionary goes on to give its origins, which are late Middle English in the sense of “expressing or involving a curse”.  So I am thinking it was probably used back then about witches.  Plus ca change?  And this isn’t that funny either, is it?

 

 

AHAKISTA DREAMING

ahakista mary

The opportunity to hear feminist legend Gloria Steinem was the magnet that drew me to West Cork.  As soon as news broke about her coming to Bantry as part of the West Cork Literary Festival I was online booking my ticket.  It was going to be a long drive for a quick overnight stay in a local B&B, but how often does one get the chance to listen to GLORIA STEINEM?

Then I thought about West Cork and maybe taking my mother with me to make a weekend of it.  I began to research hiring a holiday house.  But in high season most only offer Saturday to Saturday rentals.  The universe seemed to want me to come and spend a week and sure who was I to argue.  Mother was delighted.

In the end it was me, said mother, my youngest daughter, who is 15 and our daft deaf dog, Dylan who piled into my car loaded with bags, dog stuff, rain jackets, daughter’s guitar and art supplies and mother’s walking frame and off we headed like the Beverly Hillbillies on Tour.

The journey from Dublin to Cork no longer requires a stop and so after a mid-morning start, we were in the suburb of Douglas in time for a late lunch.  Our journey west was on the N71  which took us through Bandon and onto Dunmanway before turning off onto the Sheep’s Head peninsula and into dense fog.

Driving slowly and carefully we eventually found our rental house and hoped that the view was as nice as it looked in the photos.  That night as I settled into the comfiest bed I have ever slept in (besides my own) I was thrilled to find it was located directly under a roof window.  Although all I could see was cotton wool I looked forward to nights falling asleep while looking deep into the Milky Way.

The next morning, we woke up to find the blanket of fog had turned into a fog duvet.  It felt as if we had become trapped inside the packaging of a gorgeous present.  The woman who owned the house texted and suggested that we head inland to Gouganne Barra in order to escape.  So once again I carefully steered us back along the Sheepshead Peninsula and out of the murky miasma.

Gouganne Barra is Cork’s Glendalough – only smaller, less crowded and with a charming working oratory. We had a lovely lunch in the hotel which is like stepping back into the 1950s but with wonderful 21st century food.

ahakista fog

On Monday morning Dunmamus Bay was right there, sparkling in the middle distance just beyond the field below the house.  To the right the little harbour at Ahakista was marked by the boats moored in the bay just beyond the pier.  The present had been unwrapped and it lived up to our expectations.

As I was attending a workshop in Bantry, every morning I was up early to commute along one of the most wonderful drive that had remained hidden to us on arrival.  The road along the peninsula hugs the coast, along it’s inlets and coves between the villages of Durrus and Kilcrohane.  Each turn and twist reveals new beauty and it was a twenty minutes I savoured each time I drove it.

Ahakista is not really a village.  But it is a magical place with three wonderful hostelries.

ahakista arundels
The view from our table at Arundel’s By The Pier, Ahakista

 

Arundel’s by the Pier is an intimate bar and restaurant, with friendly informal service and great food.  It is a popular spot, so a reservation for dinner is advised.

The Tin Pub is like something you might expect to find in the Australian Outback – a genuinely tin roofed shack, with a dark and very modest interior and a great beer garden which has the best view of the bay.  Myself and my daughter found ourselves drawn to this laid back mecca most days for a cold drink as we sat, often in silence watching the comings and goings in the bay.ahakista heron

Finally, there is The Heron Gallery and Café.  Hidden away behind the harbour this is a magical place.  You can sit indoors and be surrounded by the gorgeous art of the owner, artist Annabel Langrish whose work captures the natural world and particularly the beauty of owls, foxes, hares etc.  But visit on a fine  day (and we were lucky enough to be in West Cork for the hottest week of the summer) and sit in the magnificent garden with its quirky artworks, lush flowers and trees.  In the dappled shadows you can listen to the pigs snorting in the distance while you sample as I did, the divine Moroccan Almond and Orange cake and Mint Tea brewed with freshly picked mint.  Your troubles will melt away and you will wish that you could stop time so that you could remain in this bubble of gorgeousness indefinitely.

Our holiday house had no Wi-Fi, very ropey phone signal and only terrestrial TV channels.  With no distractions we walked in the evening along the narrow roads between splashes of fuchsia and crocosmia, waving at the odd passing car and remarking on how West Cork keep their gardens in great shape. We cooked and we ate and we talked and we read.  It was time out of life.  A welcome break from the horror of daily news.

On Saturday we reloaded all the stuff back in the car as the clouds rolled in from the Atlantic and as Ahakista became shrouded in rain we hit the road back towards reality, stopping in Bantry to bathe in the wisdom of the feminist icon who led me to magic of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula.  Thank you Ms Steinem, for everything

Exams, Kittens and Epic Ireland

harley 2016

I recently found myself getting broody.  Not for another baby – oh no – but for a little ball of madness that is most kittens. Around the same time the stress levels in the house were noticeably heightened due to Junior Cert and fifth year house exams.  There was a lot of moaning and sighing and such like. So I had a brain wave.  “A kitten, we will foster a kitten” I announced to himself who is never averse to such notions as long as we don’t involve him in litter tray maintenance.  “It will help ease the stress and it will make us all happy”.  I should mention that we are experienced fosterers and we also already have four cats.

It is kitten season so the DSPCA had lots of kittens needing temporary minding until they were ready for rehoming so one afternoon I took delivery of a gorgeous bundle of madness we called Harley.  That evening I was very pleased with my own cleverality as I listened to my teenagers happily talking the special kitty language you need to coax a kitten down from the curtains.  Later that evening I found my 17year old lying on the sofa with Harley curled up and snuggled into her neck.  “Finished study” I enquired.  “Mmmmm” was the reply.

Then the campaign to keep Harley started.  I repeatedly explained that we were at ‘max cat’ with four and that impending holidays made keeping a baby cat impossible.  On day four of fostering, my 17 year-old announced that I wasn’t as clever as I thought, introducing a foster kitten as a de-stressor.  “Why’s that” I wondered.  “Because I am now twice as stressed. I love Harley and don’t want to give him back and I got way less done in the last few days because I am spending time with him.”

Leaving Cert is next year – I mightn’t bother with the fostering.

Anyway we are now all done.  Junior Cert Spanish last Tuesday completed the juggernaut of 11 actual exams and I have a relieved and tired 15-year-old.  So to mark the real beginning of summer myself and the two teenage daughters took off into town to meet himself for lunch and afterwards myself and the teens went to experience Epic Ireland at the CHQ Building in Dublin’s docklands.june 2016 me and girls car

Epic Ireland is located in the vaults of the CHQ building which was originally built as a bonded warehouse for tobacco and wine back in 1820 when it was known as Stack A.  It was redeveloped some years ago as a retail and food space but has really been revived with the recent opening of Epic Ireland which is a wonderfully imaginative and exciting addition to Dublin City’s attractions.

Us Irish love looking inward – wondering about ourselves, about what it is to be Irish and about what other nationalities think about us.  We have a very needy obsession for everyone to love us – something that is currently unfolding in France as our fans pursue some non-existent award for Best Football Fans in the Universe.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the joie de vivre that hordes of over exuberant and inebriated Irishmen are bringing to the Euros but I do wonder if the fact that our soccer team are a bit underwhelming and will be most likely playing their last match tomorrow isn’t something of a relief for the other nations who may be finding us Irish a bit like being in the company of a badly trained Labrador puppy who’s over enthusiasm can be very wearing after a while.

Anyway I digress.  What is wonderfully refreshing about Epic Ireland for me, as an Irishwoman, is that it is a look outward as opposed to inward.  It is a pragmatic gaze at how the world sees us through our diaspora, those who have left, not just hundreds of years ago but right up to today.

The experience is set over a number of different galleries and begins with a stunning silver piece of art depicting all the various modes of transport Irish people have used to leave, from coffin ships to huge modern long haul jet aircraft.  It is a stunning display and thepic ireland 1e linking of all emigrants from those fleeing famine to my own eldest daughter’s journey to Perth in Western Australia I found especially poignant.

The galleries tell stories of why people felt they had to leave and then it features some of those who went on to change our world, from Antarctic explorers to American Presidents to Irish Olympians and world famous musicians.

The dark side of Ireland which drove ‘unmarried mothers’ and gay men from this island and the babies who were illegally adopted is also told.  This is no sugar coated tourist centric exhibition. This is a grown up presentation which will appeal just as much to locals as to tourists.  Technology is used to best effect with some stunning displays and a huge amount of interactivity.

My girls bojune 2016 epic irelandth really enjoyed it thinking it “very cool” – even the one who hates history.

“Who was he?” I asked in front of a captioned photo of Ernest Shackleton.  “Oh he’s yer man who went to the Antarctic with Tom Crean” said the 15 year-old perfectly illustrating our penchant for navel gazing.  Although, I have to say, her answer made me proud.

A wall of Riverdance stopped them in their tracks and I realised they weren’t born when this phenomenon made Irish dancing sexy back in 1994.   “Riverdance” exclaimed the 17 year-old, “it always reminds me of Titanic”.  I am still working on the significance of that… although there probably isn’t one.

We were entertained, amused, informed and moved by Epic Ireland.  As we drove home crowds were heading to the Aviva Stadium to hear Rihanna – who is part of the diaspora too.  Her father is a descendent of the Irish slaves send to Barbados by that nice man, Mr Cromwell.

 

Epic Ireland is located in the CHQ Building in Dublin’s Docklands – just by the Financial Services Centre.  

Disclaimer : I was invited to visit Epic Ireland and so didn’t pay for our tickets.

 

“Having it all” – response to Niamh Horan

I will say one thing for Niamh Horan, she’s brave.  Having sent Twitter into meltdown two weeks on Brendan O Connor’s The Cutting Edge on RTE One, she continued on her theme of women not ‘being able to have it all’ in the following week’s Sunday Independent.

But although she made a lot of women very cross, Horan is prompting a conversation that we really need to have and to keep having.  The kernel, the nugget of truth, which should inform this conversation is contained as an almost adjunct to a sentence when she writes that “capitalist culture doesn’t accommodate family.”  It is this culture which causes the problem which Horan interprets, along with many others, as women being able or unable to ‘have it all’.  And this is where the conversation stalls as women get cross and the conversation often becomes a heated debate, pitching the ‘stay at home moms’ against the ‘working moms’ (and I hate both those terms).  Meanwhile the men just stay quiet and continue to leave most of the childcare and domestic chores to the women.

Unlike Niamh, I have children.  I have had the experience of being a single parent, a so called working mother with two children in crèche and latterly a ‘housewife’ (another stupid term).  I surrendered, as opposed to retired, from the world of paid work when daughter number three came along and I just couldn’t juggle any more.  Our lives were mad.  Well the working bit was fine, it was the bits around the edges of the days and weeks that were mental.  Mornings rushing baby and toddler through breakfast muttering “hurry up” in a high pitched and increasingly maniacal voice.  By the time I arrived at my desk I felt like I had done a day’s work.  At the other end there was driving home having picked up the kids from crèche singing and talking incessantly in a bid to keep them awake.  Arriving into the house to be greeted by the detritus of breakfast.  It was only when I stopped that we both realised what madness it all was. And whereas I would take issue with Horan’s assertion that children suffer when women work, I do have some reservations about how some of our crèches are run.

I was very privileged that I could ‘retire’ and it was only possible because it coincided with the Celtic Tiger years and so my husband could work all the hours God sent while I kept things going at home.  We had ten glorious years and I feel very blessed and lucky, especially when as a single parent this was not a choice that was open to me.  In the aftermath of recession, most parents today do not have this choice either as they struggle to meet the cost of mortgages, childcare and all the other bills.

Equality means choice and all families should have the choice as to how they wish to live their lives.  We are now struggling to live in a world that was designed by men for men who had wives at home looking after the domestics and the children.  We need to make huge fundamental changes to how we organise the world of work.  Horan mentioned some of the measures we need to take such as better use of technology, remote working and more flexibility.  But we need way more than that.  We need compulsory paternity leave, we need care breaks, and career breaks for parents who want to park their career for a few years in order to spend time with their children when they are very young. And we need to actively facilitate the path back to paid work after that period of leave.

My big problem with Niamh’s assertions as articulated in her article is that she is framing this as a women’s issue.  This is not a women’s issue, it’s not even a family issue.  It is a society issue.  Because even those who never have children may well find themselves having to look after or support an elderly infirm loved one.

I am happy that Horan has prompted this conversation again but her focussing solely on mothers and making statements about “some women playing the system” doesn’t advance the conversation one bit and in fact steers it very deftly into a cul de sac.

I hope I will live to see real change happen so that my daughters will have all choices open to them – ones that I was just lucky to get.  What is interesting is that in order for this change to happen we must reach critical mass of women in the corridors of power – in Dail Eireann, in media and in boardrooms.  These women will drive the change if they are supported by men and women who want a better family life for all.

Meanwhile I hope that Niamh changes her mind about having a child in Ireland holding little appeal, whether she decides to have kids or not.  Because for those of us who wanted children and were lucky enough to have them it’s not only appealing but hugely rewarding.  That’s why we get so emotional when someone criticises the choices we have made, out of necessity or otherwise.

Census, Religion & Magdalenes

Every year, on the Sunday before International Women’s Day, the public are encouraged to place flowers on the graves of ‘Magdalene’s’ – so called fallen women, ‘unmarried mothers’ who were placed in laundries run by the church.  I recently discovered that there had been a laundry local to me in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin and the Justice for Magdalene’s Research group are aware that some of their ‘residents’ are buried in my local cemetery at Deansgrange.  So far only one grave has been identified because of the difficulty in assessing the records of these women.  The religious orders who ran these laundries refuse to open records from post 1900.  So one of the very few sources of information as to who was incarcerated in the laundries is the census data from 1901 and 1911 which in the case of the Dun Laoghaire laundry lists 45 women laundresses in 1901 and 48 in 1911.   The painstaking cross referencing the census records with the burial records of Deansgrange which has been undertaken by volunteers of the Justice for Magdalene’s Research Group, is naturally very slow.  But it is vital work as it enables this generation to in some way acknowledge the wrongs inflicted on these women and ensure that they are not forgotten

In the case of the Dun Laoghaire laundry this exercise is only made possible by the existence of the census records.  Currently my family’s Census 2016 form is tucked away safely in a drawer until the night of Sunday 24th of April when it has to be filled in.  It’s a substantial form and reasonably straightforward.  But there is one question that once again is causing me angst over how I should answer it.  The ‘What Is Your Religion?’ question might seem simple enough but for many of us, it is far from easy.   The options are Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Islam, Presbyterian, Orthodox or Other with space to fill in what your religion is.  The last box is the ‘no religion’ option.

I could tick ‘other’ and insert Christian as I would generally be a follower of Jesus’s teachings but I don’t believe he was God or the son of God and as far as I can ascertain most Christians believe he was both human and divine.

When one has grown up with a spiritual practice and belonging to a religious community like the Catholic Church, it’s not always straight forward to walk away.  Well the walking away is relatively easy, particularly if you were a second class member of that church as I was, being that I am a woman.  I am also mother to three daughters and so I felt I owed it not only to myself but also to them to leave the patriarchal church of my birth, the one which boasted an all-male deity system and an all-male management team here on earth.  The rape of children by some of this team, the continuing attitude of the Catholic Church to gay love all made leaving much easier, especially as a parent.   But once the novelty of liberation fades I was left with a gap in my life. I need a belief system.  I do believe in a higher something – call it God or Allah or whatever you like.

And therein lies my problem.  I consider myself a spiritual person.  I pray almost every day.  Hey, I even love visiting churches in order to experience that sublime peace and sacredness of the spaces with the flickering candle light, the silence, the glinting beauty of magnificent stained glass windows and perhaps the faint, lingering aroma of incense.

There is currently an online campaign to tick the ‘no religion’ box presumably in a bid to take religion out of politics and planning.   Among the reasons listed as to why you should do so (if you do not have a regular religious practice) is to encourage Government and state services to support equal services such as non-religious chaplains in hospitals. But the most pressing reason to tick ‘no religion’ is to help to end religions discrimination in our national schools.  All of which I fully endorse.  My problem is that I do have a regular ‘religious’ or spiritual practice.  But my God does not belong to any church, to any religion.  And nor do I.

I am not sure how this fact might be important to researchers in the future.  Much in the way I am sure that the unfortunate women who were incarcerated to the Magdalene Laundry in Dun Laoghaire one hundred years ago never imagined that a century later the Justice for Magdalene’s Research group were using the information on the census returns to identify their graves.  And that as a result, this writer visited the unmarked grave of the one woman whose identity we do know and left flowers.

Women In Media

This Friday I will throw a bag in the car and set off to the south west of the country, to Ballybunion to attend the annual Women In Media event which is run by Joan O Connor of Kilcooley’s Country House Hotel.  It is a great weekend for anyone with an interest in media and how is portrays and treats women.  All details are at http://www.womeninmedia.ie

women in media progrHere is why I think gatherings such as Women In Media are a great idea.

Women in Media, Women in Business, Women in STEM, Women for Election. What’s with all the women’s support groups?  Why don’t women just get on with the job in hand and stop needing the security blanket of other women who will cheerlead and support them as they embark on their journey in Media, in STEM, in Business or for Election?  Do women really need these groups? Or are weekends such as Women in Media just excuses for women to get together and have some craic?

A recent meme on Social Media said “each time women gather in circles with each other, the world heals a little more”.  I believe this to be true. There is a special energy that flows when women gather together.  A gathering of women often provides a safe place where we can explore parts of ourselves or aspects of the world often in a creative and mutually supportive way.

This time six years ago things were getting a bit rough in my house.  My freelance photographer husband was really beginning to feel the recession bite… work was harder to find and the rates he could charge for jobs had dropped and dropped.  I was a housewife (someone please invent a better term for someone who stays home to do the caring and cleaning).  It was the first time in my life when the world suddenly seemed like a scary place.  The kids were getting older and I realised I needed to get back to some kind of paid work.

The long version of what happened next, includes no one wanting to hire me, my theory as to why that might have been, not being eligible for any social welfare, lots of tears and finally the realisation that I was at rock bottom.  The glorious freedom of failure.  Then I began to apply to myself, the kind of wisdom that I was teaching my children – “you can do anything you want to do if you want it enough and are prepared to work hard.”  I wanted to write and I wanted to do some radio.  The fact that I had little experience of either was not as big a deterrent as my own lack of confidence was.

I began my journey, much like a chicken in a minefield on Twitter where I cluelessly watched conversations among journalists and radio presenters and producers.  I started a blog.  Slowly I began to understand Twitter and made it work for me in building contacts.  But most of all I began to find really amazing supportive women.  And yes, I admit I was surprised.

I guess somewhere along the line I had bought into the, dare I say it ‘patriarchal bullshit’ that women can be very bitchy to each other.  This is a lie. Women who didn’t know me well went out of their way to make me feel – well like a real journalist.  Some men did too in fairness but it was the women read the terror in my eyes as I forced myself into situations that frankly were terrifying, like the first time I did the newspaper review on Tonight with Vincent Browne – thank you Alison O Connor.

For me – confidence was the biggest challenge I faced in pursuing my dream of becoming a journalist.  And it was women who saw that, recognised it and helped me to overcome it.  I won’t try to name all the women because I would be bound to leave someone out.  But there were many radio producers, presenters, editors and journalists who gave me a chance, who took the time to encourage me or just acknowledge my presence on the scene.  And I am so grateful to all of them

We all need mentors, cheerleaders, other women who we know have our back.  For me that is why this gathering of Women in Media is important. I have been inspired by almost all the women who I have listened to in Ballybunion.

As women we understand that we have busy lives, because as study after study shows, we still do the bulk of the domestic chores and the child and elder care.  Many of us don’t have time to hang around in the pub after work or on the golf course in order to network.  We prefer our networking to be in defined times and places and the Women In Media weekend is a perfect opportunity to do all that.  The fact that it is in Ballybunion in beautiful Kerry is a masterstroke of genius – particularly for those of us who live in big cities.  Getting out of dodge for a weekend’s ‘work’ surrounded by inspirational women is better than a spa break in my book.

 

 

Misogyny at work on the Twitter machine after Michaella’s interview

Every year thousands of Irish parents wave off their precious darlings as they indulge in what is now a kind of ‘rite of passage’ (and not a hugely useful one, in my opinion) –  the 6th Year Holiday.  Our teens travel in packs, descending like a flock of over excited parrots on some Spanish or Greek resort while their parents at home spend the week praying that all those years of parenting will pay off and their juniors won’t get themselves into any kind of serious trouble.

When they eventually return the same parents breathe a huge sigh of relief, offer prayers of thanks to all and sundry and carefully avoid asking in too much detail about their holiday, just glad that it’s over and they all seem to have survived.

Perhaps it was the fact that in just over a year’s time I will again be that poor parent as the second of my darlings will probably take flight south, that I found the Michaella McCollum interview compelling viewing.  Yes, I guess I watched it very much as a mother.

Of course I had previously read about Ms McCollum but as I began watching the RTE interview on Monday night the main question for me remained unanswered, namely how did a young Irish woman get herself involved in a major drug smuggling operation within a relatively short time of arriving in Ibiza?

As I listened to her talk I formed a picture of a young, naïve, vulnerable and possibly silly women who left Ibiza on a whim (although in the interview she made reference with being made to leave Northern Ireland – and this wasn’t followed up) with seemingly no plan, no friends and no money.

The drug gang who ‘hired’ Michaella must have been delighted.  She was just the kind of young woman they were looking for.

The huge surprise however was how out of synch I seemed to be with the wave of anger and almost totally negative commentary the interview generated on Twitter.  Comments ranged from how she seemed to be auditioning to be Peru’s next Top Model, to the fact that she must have been coached thoroughly beforehand, to comments about how life must be great in Peruvian prisons because she looked great.  She and RTE were also accused of ‘glamorising drug trafficking’.  People tweeted that she was a liar and they didn’t believe one word she said.

What were these people seeing that I wasn’t I wondered?  On what basis were they making these judgements?  And time and again when I queried this on Twitter the commentary returned to her appearance.  That seemed to really make many people very angry.

What the hell were they expecting?  This was a young woman, who had done some work as a model, of course the very first thing she would do on release from prison to have her hair done.  Even I would do that and I ain’t no model.

Did people not buy into her remorse because she looked too well, too glamorous?  It seemed to me that many commentators were disappointed that we were not confronted with a broken woman – both physically and mentally.  Surely if she was truly remorseful she wouldn’t have bothered with her appearance?  And the comments were from as many men as women on my timeline.

Was this some kind of misogyny?  The unconscious bias we often hear about particularly in relation to gender equality.

Recently two homeless women, Lyndsey Robinson and Erica Fleming appeared on the Late Late show to talk about their predicament.  Again there was much Twitter commentary that criticised these women because their appearance was also not in keeping with how homeless women should look.  These women had nice hair and make up and were dressed too well altogether.

It seems that the problem of judging a woman first and foremost by her appearance is alive and well still.  We may have learned that it’s not really PC to make such judgements about ‘respectable’ woman but the rule just doesn’t apply to a remorseful criminal who is continuing to serve her punishment.  Her appearance is fully open to comment and ridicule.  As were Lyndsey and Erica’s clothes and make up considered fair game.

Back to Michaella and it is interesting that I hadn’t seen one tweet mentioning the drug gang behind this huge haul of cocaine.  Seriously?

But what really struck me was that after the interview, RTE broadcast a Would You Believe special called Atonement.  It was about convicted IRA bomber Shane Paul O Doherty, a man who received 30 life sentences for his bombing campaign in London.  Mr O Doherty served 15 years for his crimes and has now found God and is now an author working with the homeless.  Twitter was strangely silent on this programme.  There was no querying why a programme was being devoted to this criminal, no charge of his glamourising violence.

Which leads one to wonder why it is that we can seemingly forgive a criminal who inflicted such violence on all kinds of innocent people and yet we seem to have no empathy for a young woman who failed to smuggle drugs out of Peru?  The only difference is that Michaella committed the sin of looking too well.  Of course Shane Paul O’Doherty’s appearance wasn’t commented on at all.

Meanwhile on the island of Ibiza a drug gang are no doubt recruiting another lost young woman into their evil trade.  We have completely missed the point.

When Home Is A Dangerous Place

Waking up on a spring morning to the news of a bomb in Brussels airport was a deeply unnerving experience.  As I scanned up and down Twitter for more information I experienced that now familiar feeling of dread, sensing that this would not be the only attack on Brussels that day.  Ever since 9/11, terror attacks seem to be multiple events and sure enough another bomb on the metro sent the toll on human life upwards. Belgium’s bloody and dark day had arrived.

All day the news media was full of eye witness reports and the opinions of security experts.  The message is always the same; it’s almost impossible to prevent these kind of terror attacks on civilian populations.  I wonder if I should hold off on booking a foreign holiday for the family.  I know that my reaction is somewhat irrational and of course plays right into the hands of these bloody-minded monsters but I, like most other people I think, am deeply disturbed by how frightening and dangerous a place our world can become in the blink of an eye.  And when we feel threatened our first reaction is to retreat to where we feel safest, our homes.

As I contemplated not travelling for a while, the Belgian government was issuing that very same advice to the citizens of Brussels.  The message was to stay home, stay indoors, stay safe.

Then Caitlin Moran tweeted “always good, on days like this, to remind everyone that the guys blowing up Brussels are THE PEOPLE THE REFUGEES ARE RUNNING AWAY FROM”.  Sometimes a simple 140 characters can be very profound.  In suburban Dublin my instinct is to hug my children, postpone travel plans and stay safely at home.  In Belgium the population are being urged to do precisely the same.  Yet on the other side of Europe there are families who have done exactly the opposite and who are now stuck in appalling conditions on the border between Greece and Macedonia.

These families have walked away from all that was familiar and all that should have been safe.  They have left their homes to make perilous journeys into the unknown in search of shelter.  These are families that up until a few years ago were just like mine; their kid going to school, the parents making dinners, doing chores, feeding the dog, watching TV, living their lives just like we do in Belgium and in Ireland.  Suddenly in the cold light of the callous terror in Brussels I have some insight into just how terrifying it must have been in Syria to have forced families to take the action and the risks they did and still do.

If any country in Europe should be able to identify with their plight, then surely it is the Irish.  The neutral Irish, the peacekeeping Irish, the Irish who still donate more to charity than any of our European neighbours, the Irish who for centuries were refugees arriving on foreign shores.  How can we not understand how horrific Syria must be that these families choose to leave all that is precious to them?  And yet there seems to be an empathy gap between us here in Ireland and our Syrian brothers and sisters who are currently camped in the mud and squalor by a fence in Greece.

As I sit and wonder about all this I am acutely aware that we currently have no Government in this country.  We have 157 elected representatives (and one on a free pass) but we have yet to see any leadership come forward with the political will and the sense of responsibility to get to work on forming a government to begin to tackle some of the urgent problems facing us in Ireland.

In the meantime, I thank God that so far Ireland has been spared this kind of terrorist attack because just like in Paris, Madrid, London and New York we cannot prevent such horror but unlike all those cities we would be even less able to deal with the consequences of such wide scale death and injury with a health service that can’t even cope with day to day emergencies.

The world needs a voice of reason and compassion to counter the evil of organisations like ISIS.  Ireland in my view is perfectly positioned to be just that voice.  To be the voice of the poor, the dispossessed and those in desperate need of aid.  But most of all to be the voice of peace.  However, our current homeless crisis (which includes providing homes for the travelling community) are proof that we cannot practice such humanity at home.  So how would be possibly be a beacon of light to counter the dark evil of organisations who are intent on killing and maiming wherever they so choose.

Imagine if we had no government?

It is very depressing to watch and to feel the surge of hope that came with the General Election die slowly. We are now coming to terms with the fact that those we voted back into Dail Eireann seem to be completely baffled by the result of said election.  Meanwhile the media seem to be equally transfixed about who might go into government with who.  It’s all part of the game of politics which is great fun until you realise that all the while our country seems to be slipping deeper into social chaos.

My mother, who is in her early 80’s, told me that one of her greatest fears is of having to go to an A&E department.  She said it is a fear shared by many of her peers.  Imagine being frail and elderly and afraid of our hospitals?

I wonder what fears the 1700 children who are living in hotels have?  What robs them and their parents of their peace of mind?  The fear that they may grow up confined to these tiny spaces that our government call ‘emergency accommodation’.  Some of them have already been there a year or more.  Sounds more like a cruel solution than emergency solution to me.

And what of the rest of us, wondering when exactly it will be when we feel the recovery?  What the electorate said with their votes is that they understand just how precarious this recovery is.  There is much to do before this country is half way sorted.

Meanwhile the men and women of the 33rd Dail are in no hurry to sort themselves out.  There is now even talk of another election.  As I watched a double dose of current affairs programmes last night  I became increasingly fed up.  What’s needed is a leader to go in there and knock heads together and tell our precious TDs just sort it all out and pronto… there are major issues confronting this beautiful country and our people that need urgent and immediate attention.

Then I had a better idea.  With all this talk of new politics, what if we had no Government?  What if we just had the parliament?

We have elected 157 Dail Deputies who have miraculously manged to elect a Ceann Comhairle so what about this?  The Ceann Comhairle asks each TD to compile a list of ten priorities – big ticket items – that need addressing in Ireland right now.  From this list a master list is compiled and the Dail works on sorting each problem out, perhaps by using committees whose membership is based on personal interest, experience and expertise.

There would be no Ministers, the civil servants would run the various departments with full transparency.  Political parties would be disbanded and the whip system would vanish with it.  TDs would elect a Taoiseach who would act as a leader of the entire Dail and fulfill any ceremonial duties required. Imagine the money we would save – each TD would be paid equally.

This would mean that in the future TDs would be elected not on promises of what they would do for their locality but on their vision for the country.  Local issues would be dealt with by the local councils which would function in a similar manner.

Imagine if 100 years after the Rising we reinvented politics, reimagined the way to run a country.  Imagine if Ireland replaced the adversarial parliamentary system by a true democracy.  A chamber where instead of scoring points our TDs would work at being the most creative, the most imaginative and the most effective in their given role.  Just imagine the kind of country we could have then.

 

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