Lockdown calendar of online events – Ireland

A work in progress! Here’s the background.

From live music, to festivals, book clubs to online training, quizzes, workshops, art classes, literary events, make-up classes and more, here are some interesting things happening online over the coming weeks that might be of use to you or your family. Starting today!

Please note that all this information is subject to change, and I as the author of this post am not responsible for any postponements, cancellations or amendments to any of the below events. Neither is the inclusion of an event an endorsement of its content – you’re all grown-ups and can make up your own minds.

How to submit an event

  • Tag me on Twitter with a line describing your event and a link
  • Leave a comment below with a line describing your event and a link
  • Drop me an email here with with a line describing your event and a link.
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Let’s hear it for the kids of Covid

Well over a month – nearly two – into the Covid crisis, and it’s now becoming tiresome to muse upon the reality of it, or assess the impact it’s had on our daily lives and the fear it’s injected into the hearts of our communities. It has been ruminated upon at length; to the point of pure saturation; it’s now a case of adapting and turning our faces towards the future as we mourn the loss of loved ones, livelihoods and the sense of invincibility most of us were probably guilty of possessing until early March.

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The legacy of Christmas ’87

Christmas morning, 1987. A cold one, I recall. Condensation on the windows, and a hint of your breath in the air. Dark and dreary the morning might have been – indeed, it was probably still the middle of the night – but that didn’t matter. Santa had arrived!

As my father laid the fire and cleaned the bould Mr Claus’ footprints from the hearth, I vividly remember tearing open the presents. The yields were modest.  A yellow-covered hardback storybook; tales from which I still recall over three decades later. A black-haired, floral-bedecked doll, immediately named Caroline, who would remain a loyal companion for years, despite the subsequent subjecting of her lustrous curls to some unfortunate butcherings behind my mother’s back. And a couple of coloured plastic necklaces. That was all. But it was enough.

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Marking 25 years of Rape Crisis services in Mayo

A few days ago, Mayo Rape Crisis Centre marked 25 years in existence with a simple ceremony at Lough Lannagh, where the first of 25 trees were planted to mark each year of operation. While the occasion was powerful, and sang of hope and light, the ceremony was also a reminder of just how complex the conversation around rape and sexual abuse is, and how it has continued to evolve in recent years. I left feeling I had gained additional new perspectives and learned new things, but most of all, I felt humbled, hearing from the powerhouses of women who took that initial step to set up the service in what was then a very different Ireland.

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Five things we learned from the elections

There’s nothing quite like a good election, and the last couple of weeks have given many of us food for thought and conversation. Is the Green Wave real? How do we encourage greater female participation in politics? Will the Big Two dominate forever in West of Ireland politics, or does anyone have an interest in taking them on? How do new candidates persuade people to vote for them and not incumbents? Is the loss of posters a good or bad thing? And are “they” really “all the same”? We could talk all day about it and it wouldn’t get any less fascinating, but here are a few things that jumped out at me throughout the election campaign and count.

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Our World View – Through the Looking Glass

They say you should do at least one thing a week that scares you. I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but there is nothing like a good dose of paralysing nerves to make you feel alive, so when I was recently invited to open an art exhibition, it was not without some trepidation that I accepted the opportunity to be flung out of my comfort zone. Public speaking and media work has been a part of my working life for over a decade now, and while the fear of making an idiot of yourself in front of an audience never truly deserts you, I’ve reached a point where I’m relatively comfortable with and almost enjoy it. This however was something I’ve never done before, and it brought with it a sense of responsibility, given the special nature of the project.

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The damage of diet culture

Happy new year, readers! It’s that time again, when the tinsel and Christmas jumpers have vanished from the shops, to be replaced by a range of items designed to make you hate your body. Lycra, dumbbells, kettlebells, diet pills, skinny tea, diet books and magazines, protein powders. To turn on the TV or open Facebook is to be bombarded by images of skinny, muscled humans advertising weight loss programmes. Just like the relentless fake-happy-clappy magic-of-Christmas advertising onslaught since October, there is no escape. And this writer is having none of it.

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Farewell, Facebook

It’s well past lunchtime on Thursday, December 27 and I’m still in my dressing gown. Isn’t Christmas great? Tea and biscuits beside me,  I’ve  just submitted my first Mayo News column of the year (toxic January diet culture, I’m coming for you next week), and am remembering, as I do fortnightly, how much I enjoy writing and how little of it I do for fun, these days. 
I’m now in my sixth year of writing for the Mayo News and I will never not be grateful to the team there for the opportunity they gave me in 2014, particularly Edwin McGreal, Michael Duffy and the late Neill O’Neill. Somehow they thought that the ramblings they spotted here and on my various social media platforms were worth encouraging, and as a result, for over five years I have had a reason to sit down and do what I enjoy more than anything else. It is a privilege and one I never take for granted.
The turn of the year is always a time for reflection and also, for forming new habits and ditching some old ones. My attempts at new year’s resolutions are usually pretty feeble, but there is a common theme every year, and that is to attempt to spend less time online. Earlier in 2018, I made the decision to mostly quit Twitter in an attempt to claw back some time for other stuff. It is a decision I have not regretted, despite sorely missing the interaction and learning I had enjoyed on the platform for years. I still use it to auto-share blog content there, though I rarely engage. 
But online addiction does not relinquish its hold easily, so it’s time to cast off some more of the chains, and this time, it’s Facebook that needs to go.
2018 has been quite a year. It was a watershed year for women, and in Ireland, the repealing of the Eighth Amendment was one of the most historically, socially and politically significant events we will ever encounter in this country. Much of it played out on Facebook. Eight months after the campaign (mostly) concluded, its effects are still being felt on a social level, but also on a very personal level by many. World politics has been more tumultous than ever, with the Brexit storm raging, Trump breeding hate, and wars and genocides on enormous scales that barely merit a mention in the mainstream media.
Closer to home, social media is once again playing a strong role in raising awareness of social injustices such as evictions, and providing a platform for right-wing reactionaries to hijack people-powered movements. Closer to home again, outrage on local issues often trumps logic or accuracy of information.  And always, Facebook plays a pivotal role by providing the platform but absolving itself of all moral obligations or responsibility.
Personally, it was a challenging and relentlessly busy year. Yet I’m pretty sure that had I not spent considerable amounts of my spare time, scarce as it was, scrolling through my phone minding other people’s business (or being typically unable to resist a good argument!) I might have have felt a lot better mentally for it.
The conversations that take place on these platforms are simultaneously informative and misinformative, passionate and vicious, progressive and regressive, enlightening and worrying, but always mentally taxing. Alongside the nuggets of learning and food for thought, the mundane is celebrated, and most terrifyingly of all, crimes against grammar continue to mushroom. And still we scroll, and scroll, and scroll.
This year I will revisit the New Year’s resolution I make in some shape or form every year. And that is to put my time to better use, by creating, writing, volunteering, spending more time with loved ones. Planning rather than drifting, and re-introcuding some discipline. So the scrolling needs to stop. The biggest casualty of my online addiction (there is no point in denying this reality) has been my ability to focus and concentrate. In 2018, I read three books. Three. Yet I probably scrolled about ten miles on Facebook using my thumb. What a miserable tally and what an absolute waste of time.
A bit like diet culture, Facebook now feels toxic.It breeds negativity, gives a platform to liars, promotes division and judgement of others, and it thieves hours and hours of time that could be put to better use. I have always advocated the power of social media as a learning tool (and without it, I would not be in the job I am today, nor I would I be lucky enough to know a lot of brilliant people), but as of December 31, I’m done with the Big F.
I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg will lose much sleep over this, but I am far from alone in deserting the platform, when people who bought so much into these  platforms and embraced the technology early are leaving in their droves, it says something. I am tired of implicitly supporting the bad behaviour and moral bankruptcy of these tech giants by maintaining a presence. I am also tired of having my private data commoditised – something that never bothered me in the past, but I am getting quite elderly, odd and cantankerous now, so he can sod off.
I’m well aware that many people quietly depart the platform without feeling the need to write about it, but it was my friend Nick McGivney who inspired me to actually bite the bullet by posting about his own departure, and maybe this will provide food for thought for others too. Also documenting something like this means that you have to stick to it and I need all the help I can get to keep my resolve.
Inspired by Nick, a group of us plans to write a letter or two to each other throughout the year instead. Anyone wishing to stay in contact can get me by emailing thecailinrua@gmail.com. For now, I’ll continue to man a feeble attempt at an Instagram account, though given the narcicissm on that platform, I doubt it will be for much longer. And of course, anyone that knows me can pick up the phone or knock on the door. Because no matter how useful technology is, nothing will ever beat the warmth and civility a face-to-face conversation.
Thanks for the memories, Mark. Now, here’s to making some 3D ones instead.

Give a little something this week

A few years back when I found myself – sorry, made myself – unemployed in Dublin at the height of the recession, I found myself with a lot of time to fill and very little money to spend. So to keep myself busy, I embarked on a journey of exploration of the city, where I visited places of cultural and historical interest and tried new things, none of which cost very much, and blogged about them in a series rather romantically titled Dates with Dublin”. (I was single at the time, and I found that the experience of hanging out in museums with dead people was frequently surpassing some of my  romantic encounters, but enough about that.)

Around that time, in keeping with the theme of “things I always meant to do but never really got around to”, I booked myself into the Irish Blood Transfusion Clinic to give my first donation.

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What if a woman wants her place to be in the home?

Because one referendum this year just wasn’t draining enough, the slow, painstaking journey to make our Constitution fit for purpose in the modern era presents us with a new conundrum – whether a woman’s place really is in the home, and a vote on Article 41.2 is imminent in the next few months.

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When the political gets personal #8thRef

This article originally appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday, 18th April 2018.

A relationship with a close friend came under strain a few years back, when he was adamant in his opposition to the marriage equality referendum, and I was just as adamant in my support for it. We talked, we debated, we argued, we cried (well, one of us did) and ultimately we fell out. He went his way and I went mine and we each cast our votes according to our consciences. Afterwards, we reconvened. We didn’t talk about the issue ever again. And things have changed. I see him differently now, even though he’s the same person. He sees me differently too. And I miss the way things used to be, but we can’t go back.

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Belfast Rape Trial – three small steps to change

I tried really hard this week to write about something else, something other than the verdict from Belfast last week and the subsequent reaction. But I couldn’t. Truth be told, I’ve thought about little else since the verdict.

I won’t dwell on the verdict; it’s been done to death by the amateur lawyers on Facebook. However, it has rightly been acknowledged that “not guilty” does not equate to “innocent”; and in a complex case like this, proof “beyond all reasonable doubt” always felt like a bridge too far. The only positive outcome – if there is one – is the conversations that have been started, but the time for conversation has long passed.

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#IBelieveHer – turn your anger into action

This isn’t going to be a long blog post; I’m at my desk and don’t have time to delve into the horror that is today’s verdict nor to engage with any of the misogyny that is no doubt currently polluting social media.

It is a very short post to say I BELIEVE HER. Beyond a shadow of a doubt I believe her, and so do hundreds and thousands of others.

I can’t begin to imagine the effect that the coverage of and verdict from this trial has had and will, for many years, continue to have on those who experience sexual violence. They, like many others are neglected and abandoned by the state when it comes to providing essential services.

If you’re angry today, make your anger count. Donate, so that service providers can continue to support survivors.

Support Rape Crisis Network Ireland – a fantastic organisation that advocates for survivors, informs policy-making, conducts research and collates statistics

Donate to Mayo Rape Crisis Centre

Donate to Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (Or text ‘DRCC’ to 50300 to donate €2)

Donate to Women’s Aid Ireland

Donate €4 to Rape Crisis Midwest by texting RAPE to 50300

Please feel free to add more links in the comments below if you wish.

Twitter, it’s time

Dear Anne-Marie, you have been on Twitter for

6 years, 8 months, 7 days

(since 30 May 2011)

So says “Twiage”, an app which tells you just how long its been since the last day you didn’t take part in an argument online.

I jest, but …

That duration is inaccurate in my case. I’ve actually been a Twitter user since early 2008, where it seemed like the next logical step after discussion forums. So that’s ten years in total a twitter user, with a brief hiatus in 2011. That’s a story for another post; but my second inception has felt like a lifetime in itself.

And today is my last day. 

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Don’t forget to smell the roses

May, for me is an odd month. Traditionally the time of year when the flowers appear, the languid summer evenings kick in and the sense of rebirth is strong; in all of the loveliness, there is a bittersweet pang. It’s a month of anniversaries, laced with memories of loved ones lost. The sense of time passing, like water flowing, punctuated only by the numbers on the calendar, flicking by faster each year. This year, there are some significant anniversaries. Like a birthday or a wedding date remembered, only a different type of milestone. Though none less significant.

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Withdrawal of SAVI funding an insult to sexual abuse survivors

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on 24th October 2017. 

Last week, amidst all the talk of inclement weather and hatch-battening, it was reported by Ellen Coyne in the Irish edition of The Times that Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan had quietly reneged on a promise made by his predecessor, Frances Fitzgerald, to fund an updated report on sexual violence in Ireland. The first Sexual Assualt and Violence Report (SAVI) was carried out in 2002, and was groundbreaking both in its methodology and the insights it provided into the dark and murky world of sexual violence, as well as estimating the prevalence of the problem. (Hint: a lot more prevalent than many would like to acknowledge).

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2017 – A Pace Odyssey

Greetings, readers of this blog. Real life has been so, so busy of late that blogging has really taken a back seat.

Funnily, when I moved back to the west, I somehow imagined that life would be much less busy; that I would have more downtime. I even harboured quaint notions of writing a book. However, that’s looking more like a pipe dream at present, and in fact the opposite has proven to be the case. Continue reading

Volunteers – the people who make the world go round

Working in the tourism and development sector over the past year has taught me a lot. It has taught me that when dealing with public bodies, everything moves agonisingly, achingly slowly. Patience is a virtue. It has taught me that diplomacy is the greatest untaught skill you’ll ever need, and it has taught me that in the West of Ireland, no-one ever reads emails. But most of all it has reminded me that frequently, good things happen because good people make them happen, and more often than not, in their own time and without payment.

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Asking For It?

I’m aware that it’s been months since I last updated the blog, but I have been doing a bit of scribbling elsewhere, mainly for work and for the paper. There will be a day of retrospective column uploading happening soon. In the meantime I wrote this a couple of weeks back about consent. It was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 16th November 2016. 

Many of you will have seen Louise O’Neill’s excellent documentary, “Asking For It” last week on RTE2 (Irish Times review of Asking for It here).  The documentary sees the acclaimed author explore the issues of consent and sexual assault in Ireland. O’Neill’s documentary is significant, in that it is probably the first time a conversation on consent has gone truly mainstream, and moved away from the feminist arena, where it has, of course, been talked about for decades.

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Walking Home Alone

In the aftermath of the Brock Turner rape case sentencing in the US, and the powerful words of the woman he assaulted, Irish women took to social media to share their own experiences of “rape culture”. From being groped in nightclubs, to catcalling, to casual” sexism in the workplace, it painted a harrowing picture of a culture that is so engrained, we often don’t think to question it. The response to this outpouring from men was interesting and mixed, and I’ll be following up with a column on that. 

In the meantime, here’s the column I had (coincidentally) written for last week’s Mayo News, on one of my own experiences.

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Women and the 2016 General Election

This column first appeared in The Mayo News on 1st March 2016. 

While the 2016 General Election campaign itself failed to set the world on fire, the public’s interest was finally ignited precisely 48 minutes after the polls closed, when the Irish Times’ exit poll gave us a hint of just how much the political landscape was set to alter.

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10 more things I’ve learned since returning west

Last June, I made the decision to take myself out of the city and head back to the bright lights – no, sorry, the dark skies – of North MayoAny regrets, you ask? No, not a single one. But adjustment does takes time and it continues to be a learning curve.

I wrote last year, just six weeks after getting back – about seven things I’d learned since returning west, and here are some more life lessons I’ve learned about relocating back to the country in the past nine months.

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ASIST Training – the aftermath

A couple of months ago I wrote about my decision to enrol for the ASIST training workshop. Devised by Living Works to enable people to deliver “suicide first aid”, the course is delivered in Ireland by the HSE (National Office for Suicide Prevention), co-ordinated by the HSE Regional Resource Officers for Suicide Prevention and most importantly, it’s available free of charge to everyone, though places are limited.

At the time, suicide was in the news (even more than usual), and it got me to thinking; if the State is going to continue to fail people who are in immediate danger of suicide – and there is no disputing that it isthen the rest of us had better damn well start equipping ourselves to deal with it, and fast.

My reasoning? Once upon a time, I told someone I was close to that I felt so low that I didn’t want to be alive any more. I can still see the look of panic in her eyes, but despite her best intentions I felt even more hopeless and alone after the conversation ended. Late that night I put on my coat, sneaked out and sat numbly for a long time in the cold by the river, weighing up the pros and the cons of being alive. I decided that the pros were few and far between and the world would probably be a better place for everyone else without me in it. But for some reason or another, I decided to go home and sleep on it. The next day brought a different conversation with someone else, with a far more positive outcome. However, many others have left their homes in a similar state of mind and never returned.

Fast forward a decade and a half, to a time when we have realised that far more people than we realise have experienced depression, mental distress or have felt suicidal. There is far less shame in talking about it now, but many of us just don’t know how. We’re afraid of putting someone under pressure, of burdening someone else with our problems, or if we’re asked for help, we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, or not knowing where to get professional help.

Thinking about my well-meaning friend, and putting myself in her shoes, I realised that even  having felt suicidal myself in the past, all these years later if I were placed in a situation where someone told me they were suicidal, I still wouldn’t have a clue how to deal with it. Neither would I know where to look for help if faced with an emergency. Over the two days spent attending ASIST, I learned something very valuable. The help is within each of us.

ASIST

Though the HSE offers a number of workshops around the topic of suicide prevention (and I’m sure others do too), covering general awareness of and alertness to the signs of suicide, ASIST is an intervention workshop, which means that it’s designed to equip you to intervene in a situation where there is a strong and immediate risk of suicide and ensure that the person at risk is kept “safe for now”, while putting in place supports to help them through this crisis period. The workshop also trains participants to seek a shared understanding of reasons for suicide and reasons for living. For some, this can be as dramatic as “talking someone down” from a dangerous position; for others, it can be interrupting the planning process or planting uncertainty about the decision and helping them to focus on reasons for living.

So, having completed the two days’ training, what’s the verdict?

Well, first and foremost, it does what it says it will. I can confidently say I would feel far better equipped to intervene in such a situation now than I would have this time last week. Basically what the training does is:

  • attempt to explore –  and subsequently remove – your own biases and attitudes towards suicide, so that they don’t influence the intervention.
  • It gives you a clear “pathway” or model to have that conversation with someone, bearing in mind that such conversations can be long, circular and challenging.
  • It does not focus on long-term problem solving; merely a “safe for now” approach,
  • and at all times, it acknowledges the need to protect the wellbeing of the person who is intervening.

The course is two full days, though they are shorter than average with lots of breaks and plenty of tea and coffee. We had two trainers and broke into two smaller groups of about 12 people. The sessions are mostly interactive – and while many people (myself included) shy away from group work and role play in sessions like these, it’s absolutely essential to contribute, or at least to witness, if you’re to feel confident working with the model. And you will. And it’s not all doom and gloom – there are plenty of laughs too!

One incredibly important thing I felt ASIST did was  was to acknowledge that not everyone who dies by suicide has experienced mental health issues. This is a point I feel is frequently lost. It also acknowledged the effect of alcohol on our mood and decision-making. And it also acknowledged that as a caregiver, even if you intervene to keep someone “safe for now”, you may not be in a position to provide further care, and that is fine – you can seek assistance or hand over responsibility if you need, once you have intervened.

Given my own experiences I was apprehensive about attending, and make no mistake about it, the two days are tiring and emotionally draining. If you’ve recently lost someone to suicide, or felt suicidal in the past, or are feeling unwell in the present, it might not be the best environment for you. So bear that in mind, but on the other hand, learning to work your way through the model and equipping yourself with this knowledge and confidence is empowering too.

I won’t go into much more detail here, apart from to say that I would highly recommend attending this training. It’s available widely – and for free – through the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention along with a lot of other related courses – check them out here. You’ll need to contact your local Regional Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention to get the latest local info. And please feel free to drop me a line or comment below with any questions and I’ll do my best to answer.

For those based near me in Mayo, the next ASIST training takes place in the Ballina on Tuesday 31st May and Wednesday 1st June – contact Mary for more information. 

A Woman’s Worth Part II – sentencing for violent crimes against women in Ireland

Back in 2012, noticing a pattern of lenient sentencing of perpetrators of crimes of violence against women, I started to keep a record on this blog. 

There was a broader rationale for the original post; I wanted to demonstrate the way that small, seemingly innocuous behaviours and attitudes towards women ultimately impacted upon their safety, and I also wanted to focus on how society regards women who have been victims of crime, versus how the perpetrators of violent and/or sexual crimes against women are viewed and treated.

Month by month, year by year I added examples of judgements that could be construed as unduly lenient to the post; however it started to become very long and unwieldly. You can read the original here, but this post, which I have laid out by judge in order to identify patterns, will focus purely on recording the sentencings. I am happy to receive additions and corrections. 

Judge Martin Nolan

  • In 2012, Thomas Finn, who viciously beat a neighbour in her garden in Finglas in an unprovoked assault had a two-year jail sentence suspended on condition that he pay his victim €3,000. Judge Nolan remanded him in custody for two weeks while he considered the sentence, and cited his clean criminal record and expression of remorse when imposing the sentence.
  • Earlier in 2012 Aidan Farrington, who sexually assaulted two of his adult nieces escaped a jail term after Nolan said publication of his name would “be punishment in itself”. His defence included a large number of character references, and his wife had taken the stand, describing him as a “magnificent person”. Nolan said “the abuse was very serious, but the seriousness of the assaults themselves does not mandate a custodial sentence”, as they were lower down the scale than other cases coming before the court and lasted a relatively short amount of time.
  • Nolan in 2012 also presided over the case of Mark Jordan, who, after assaulting his then girlfriend, leaving her with facial injuries, was handed down a two and a half-year suspended sentence on condition he pay her €5,000. Jordan broke his hand while punching his partner, who has since spoken about the lasting trauma the assault has had on her, and her frustration with the messages that such sentencing sends.
  • In October 2012, Nolan suspended the entire four-year jail term handed out to convicted sex attacker Graham Griffiths – on condition that he pay €15,000 to the woman he admitted violently assaulting while apparently under the influence of narcotics. Griffiths’ victim was just 18 years old, and was too traumatised to attend court.
  • In July 2013, a Dublin father of four who sexually assaulted his neighbour, while her eight-year-old son was present in the room and pleaded with him to stop hurting his mother, was given a two-year suspended sentence by Nolan. The child, instructed by his mother, ran to get help. Nolan said he felt that because of the man’s remorse, lack of previous conditions and the fact that he had since moved out the area, that the crime did not justify a custodial sentence.
    • In November 2014, the DPP successfully appealed this case, resulting in the sentence being increased to four years. However the four-year sentence was also suspended in full in November 2014 by the Court of Appeal. Ms Justice Mary Irvine, while stating that it had been wrong to place the case on the “low end of the spectrum” of seriousness and that it was in fact “very serious”, taking a number of mitigating factors into account, she stated that the court found it “only just and proper” that the four-year sentence be backdated and suspended in full. The father of the victim said that neither his daughter nor her son had been able to access counselling supports due to cutbacks.
  • In January 2015, Judge Nolan gave Stephen McCarthy, who sexually assaulted a woman as she slept in her bed following a party a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence. McCarthy told gardai when questioned that he “tripped and landed on top of” the victim. Nolan took McCarthy’s lack of previous convictions and guilty plea into account, as well as the fact that McCarthy had paid his victim €2,000 in compensation.
  • In February 2016, Jeffrey Mitchell was sentenced to a three years in prison by Nolan for a violent unprovoked assault on a woman late at night as she walked home alone. Mitchell had 70 previous convictions for crimes like assault and robbery. His victim said she suffered flashbacks and felt “crippled with anxiety”, and did not know if she would ever feel safe again. According to Nolan, due to the seriousness of the offence, and the defendant’s long history of convictions, he had no choice but to impose a “substantial” sentence.

Justice Garrett Sheehan

  • In June 2013, Sheehan handed convicted rapist Niall Counihan of Longford a seven-year suspended sentence. His reasoning? Imprisonment would “impose hardship on his family”. Counihan – who his then 14-year-old victim claimed had shown no remorse since the crimes of rape and sexual assault were committed over 20 years ago – has two autistic children. Sheehan asserted that Counihan had “self-rehabilitated” in the meantime. “What he did to me has affected every aspect of my life, said his victim, “and it has left me with a pain, trauma, loss and sadness that I continue to feel every day”.
  • in 2012, Sheehan opted to shorten rapist Gerard Kane’s 12-year sentence by three years, on condition that he sit his Leaving Certificate while in prison. Kane broke into his victim’s house, raped her twice and threatened to kill her and bury her in her own garden. Kane had, on the night of the rape, been out on bail for a burglary.
  • In October 2013, Sheehan sentenced a Cork man to ten years in prison for breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s house armed with a hatchet and a knife, and subjecting her to a five-hour ordeal during which he physically abused her, raped her repeatedly, and hacked off her hair while he forced her to perform oral sex because she “wasn’t doing it right”. He then threatened to kill her. In court, it was claimed that he wanted to apologise to his victim, but was “too shy” to do so. The final three years of the sentence were suspended due to his willingness to participate in a sex offenders’ programme in prison.  The woman involved had all the details of her assault read out in the courtroom, and reported in graphic detail in national newspapers. She has since left her home. This seven-year sentence was, according to Sheehan, at the “upper end of the scale” for such crimes.

Judge Desmond Hogan

  • In July 2012, Dublin Circuit Criminal Court judge Hogan suspended five and a half years of the six-year prison term he’d handed down to wealthy businessman Anthony Lyons for attacking and sexually assaulting a woman in the early hours , ordering the attacker to pay his victim €75,000 in compensation. His victim was reportedly horrified, claiming never to have wanted money, but a prison sentence instead. Hogan referred to Lyons as being “being of previously good character”.
    • The DPP successfully appealed the leniency of this sentence, and in August 2014, the Court of Criminal Appeal decreed that the correct sentence should in fact be six years, with four suspended. The DPP argued that Judge Hogan had attached undue weight to mitigating factors, one of which was the compensation order.
  • In 2013, Gheorghe Alexandroae of Blackrock, Dublin was convicted of two charges of sexual assault on a woman during a party. Hogan suspended Alexandroae’s five-year jail sentence, on condition that he paid his victim €10,000. Many people “spoke highly” of Alexandroae, noted Hogan. “It is the type of offence where a drunken person took advantage of another person who … had also taken a certain amount of drink”, opined the judge. The woman, who has since left the country, told in her victim impact statement how she now suffers with depression and has difficulties with intimacy.

Judge Carroll Moran

  • Martin Quigley, a businessman, dragged a teenager into a spare bedroom of a Killarney B&B in the middle of the night and sexually assaulted her. He was handed a suspended sentence at the Circuit Criminal Court in Tralee by  in April 2014. While there was a degree of violence involved, according to Judge Moran, all of the touching was outside her clothes. Early admission by the man and the guilty plea to the sex assault charge which secured the conviction and spared the victim from going through a trial was taken into account. Quigley had apparently also suffered adverse publicity, which had an adverse effect on him and on his business.

Justice Patrick McCarthy

  • On July 13th, 2015,  McCarthy suspended a seven-year sentence to Magnus Meyer Hustveit, who confessed to raping and sexually assaulting his partner up to 10 times while she slept, saying he had to consider the fact that had Hustveit not confessed his crimes, there would be no case. Incidentally Hustveit initially confessed not to the authorities, but to his former partner, in an email exchange. His words: “I convinced myself it was a victimless crime because you were asleep”. The victim of his crime suffered from PTSD, anxiety  and eating disorders, and attempted suicide. During the trial, an incident of childhood sexual abuse was suggested by the perpetator’s defence as a contributory factor to her psychological problems.
    • The DPP sought a review of this sentence on grounds of undue lenience, and on 15 March 2016 Hustveit was senentced to 15 months imprisonment by Mr Justice George Birmingham. Birmingham said in his judgement that it was not in dispute that this was an unusual case, and “indeed an exceptional one”. A combination of a number of factors, he said, including Hustveit’s cooperation, voluntary return to Ireland from his native Norway to be charged, his previous good character, the positive life he was now leading in Norway “justified and required” a lesser sentence than would normally apply in cases of multiple rapes. 

Judge Patrick McCartan

  • On 6th March 2015,  McCartan handed down a three-year suspended sentence to Liudas Vaisvilas after he sexually assaulted a young woman in Eddie Rocket’s diner on  O’Connell Street. The assault took place shortly after he had been released from garda custody following the assault of another 19-year-old woman in Dublin Airport late at night. In the previous incident, the woman was waiting for a flight when he approached her, verbally harassed her and grabbed her between her legs. When she tried to get away, he followed her and rugby -tackled her, pinning her to the ground and putting his hand between her legs. McCartan had previously directed that Vaisvilas undergo a psychiatric assessment which concluded he had been in “a temporary state of mind” following a spate of bereavements and extreme tiredness.

Justice Paul Carney (1943-2015)

  • In what was one of the most high-profile sentencing stories of 2012, Patrick O’Brien, father of Wicklow woman Fiona Doyle, who had subjected her to a ten-year ordeal of sexual abuse starting when she was just four years old, was released on bail by the late Justice Paul Carney after being found guilty of 16 charges of rape and indecent assault. After a public outcry, during which Fiona waived her right to anonymity and met with Taoiseach Enda Kenny to discuss her 20 year struggle for justice and her personal experience of the treatment of survivors of assault in the court system, the decision was reversed, and bail was revoked. O’Brien was jailed for 12 years – with nine of those suspended. Fiona called the original decision “utterly heartbreaking”, and backed the Law Reform Commission’s recommendation that mandatory minimum sentences be applied for rape. One might argue that even the sentence itself was unduly lenient.
  • In February 2013, a 49 year-old Tipperary man convicted of sexually assaulting a 15 year-old girl after supplying her with alcohol was handed a three-year prison sentence by Carney – with the final year suspended. Carney noted the man’s “previous good character” and his “strong work ethic”.
  • Indeed, Justice Carney had long-standing form in this regard, having back in 2007 handed convicted rapist Adam Keane a three-year suspended sentence for rape, citing the rapist’s previous good record and the fact that he came from a good home. Keane flicked a cigarette at his victim when leaving the court in what was described as a “triumphalist gesture”. She waived her right to anonymity, and after an appeal from the DPP, Keane’s sentence was subsequently increased to ten years by the Court of Criminal Appeal (with the last three suspended).
  • Carney was again involved in the case of John Daly, when in 2000, he was sentenced to three years in prison with one year suspended for attempted rape and aggravated sexual assault charges. The sentence was successfully appealed by the DPP on the grounds of undue leniency and increased to six years. Daly, had previously pleaded guilty to attempted rape and indecent assault  on two young girls in the early 80s, and aggravated sexual assault on a 62 year-old woman in the 90s. In October 2011, Daly boarded a Luas bound for a Rihanna concert, with the intention of molesting young girls for his sexual satisfaction. In April 2014, Judge Mary Ellen Ring sentenced Daly to four years in prison for this crime, but suspended the last two years. One of his victims said that as a result of the assault she felt uncomfortable meeting strangers on public transport, and is generally more afraid.
  • Carney was once again involved when on 1st December 2014, the Court of Appeal maintained that an eight-year sentence imposed by the judge upon a man for repeatedly raping a neighbour’s young daughter for over three years was too lenient. The abuse began when the child was just five years of age and involved violent acts of depravity “amounting to torture”. The child’s parents had also been abusing her and have since been charged. Carney had sentenced the man to eight years’ imprisonment for each of the 15 counts of rape, and five years for each of the five counts of sexual assault – to run concurrently. Justice Seamus Ryan deemed the sentencing unduly lenient, and a new sentence hearing was due to take place early in 2015.

Judge Rory McCabe

  •  Despite referring to a series of incidents where a 48-year old man sexually assaulted a 17 year-old girl as “frightening, deliberate, sustained, unsolicited and uninvited”, Judge McCabe saw fit to adjourn his case for a year so that the conduct of the perpetrator could be assessed in the meantime. John Ring, of Castlebar, Co. Mayo targeted the girl, who was working alone at her workplace and was assaulting her until another customer interrupted them. He later followed her in his van, handing her his number on a piece of paper telling her to give him a call. Later that day, he returned to the store, winked at her and stuck out his tongue. After the incident, the court heard, the girl was nervous around strangers and afraid to walk down her road alone. Jim Ring arrived to court with €2,000 in compensation for his victim.

Suicide first-aid – a useful life skill? HSE ASIST training …

Following my last post over on Facebook, I’ve just registered with the HSE to complete their ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) course. Though not highly publicised, it’s a free, two-day interactive workshop in suicide first-aid which trains participants to reduce the immediate risk of suicide and increases the support for a person at risk.

ASIST

The issue of  our high suicide rates is always simmering away in the background, but it feels like recently, frustration with our mental health services, and increasingly, the difficulty in accessing treatment is starting to reach boiling point, as more and more people tell their story. There was the horrific death of Caoilte O’Broin, whose family had so desperately tried to get him the help he needed, only to meet frustration and closed doors at every turn, the tragic death of Stephen Byrne, and of course the dreadful loss a while back of Sharon Grace and her little girls, not to mention the loss of Una Butler‘s family. And of course Bressie’s impassioned appeal to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children to address the “epidemic of our generation”. I could go on; these are just a handful of examples.

Dealing with service issues can be fraught, frustrating and there are many problems to be navigated, not least the question of the involvement of families in mental health treatment, and the terrifying barriers to treatment that exists when a person, such as Caoilte, has a dual diagnosis.

I therefore feel, that for as long as we live in a country where equity of access to well-resourced, timely, affordable, holistic, compassionate, recovery-led mental health treatments is at present, a distant aspiration, we need to start equipping ourselves to better deal with the reality around us. That reality is that approximately 500 people annually in this country lose their lives to suicide. While our government has an obligation to step up to the plate, I can’t – won’t – accept that there is nothing we ourselves can do as a society to try and change this.

Prevention strategies have their place when it comes to addressing suicide; however, we can all sit at any point on the mental health spectrum at any time, and sometimes, it’s emergency intervention that’s needed. While we have become very, very good at telling people in distress that they should “seek help” or “talk to someone”, if someone did exactly that and told you they were considering killing themselves, would you know what to do? Would you feel confident you could help?

I know I wouldn’t.

According to the HSE, the ASIST workshop encourages honest, open and direct talk about suicide as part of preparing people to provide suicide first aid, and helps participants understand what help and support people in crisis might need. But it aims to instil a confidence in dealing with crisis situations that may just save a life. ASIST workshop places are limited, they say, therefore preference must be given to participants who are likely to come into contact with someone who is at risk of suicide in their daily lives. Given our current suicide rates, that could be any of us.

See how I got on.

Further Information

  • Training dates: Regular trainings are scheduled around the country – you can find more information on these by contacting your Regional Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention at the following link. http://www.hse.ie/…/resour…/officers_suicide_prevention.html
  • Cost: ASIST training is free. You just need to register in advance.
  • Who can take part? Anyone can partake in ASIST training, but it is particularly suitable for all kinds of caregivers – health workers, teachers, community workers, Gardai, youth workers, volunteers, people responding to family, friends and co-workers. he course can be intense, and it’s not recommended for people who may have lost someone to suicide or have been recently bereaved.

Download the ASIST leaflet 

Other mental health training resourses from the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention

Our broken health system

This article was first published in The Mayo News on 19th January 2016.

Raising your voice to an overworked nurse in the middle of the A&E department, teeming with patients, crammed with beds and trolleys; that sounds like a pretty obnoxious thing to do. Yelling at her as she tries to do her job sounds like the height of ignorance. But when you’re sitting in the waiting room and a relative calls you from inside the emergency department to tell you they urgently need your help, it means something’s not quite right.

Everyone knows A&E is a busy spot. But in our visit over Christmas, a result of a respiratory illness, my relation was seen surprisingly quickly. In the midst of their assessment, they suffered a severe asthma attack. They were helped to a small room at the back of the department and sat in a chair, with the promise of relief to come via a nebuliser, a device that uses oxygen to break up a liquid medical solution to deliver relieving medicine directly to the lungs. They were left alone. As the minutes passed, they started to feel faint, as they struggled to get air into their lungs. And no-one returned.

So when my phone rang, I knew something was amiss. Confused, by the time I made my way into the department – where I wasn’t technically meant to be – and located them, their distress was evident. Although I tried to appear calm, it was obvious that help was urgently needed.

I ran to seek assistance from someone – anyone. I hijacked a nurse, already occupied, and begged her to help. And when she started asking perfectly reasonable questions like the patient’s name, the location of their file, the identity of the original nurse, panic got the better of me. And I raised my voice to that nurse. That tired, overworked nurse near the end of a long shift, trying to do her job in what can only be described as horrendous conditions – to yell at her to forget the files and to please, just help, right now.

And she did, without batting an eyelid. And within seconds the oxygen was flowing, and with it, a tiny bit of relief amidst the chaos. The blood returned to all our cheeks. We thanked her profusely.

As we waited in the room for a doctor to arrive, both trying to calm ourselves, I got my bearings. I went to find water, and the corridors strewn with people on trolleys. One man was starving, he said. No food for hours. In the waiting room, the coffee machine was broken, the snack machine was broken and the toilets were out of order. There was nowhere to get a bite to eat.

 Across the way lay an elderly gentleman in a gown. “When will the doctor see him, do you think?” asked his wife. “I’m afraid there are eight other people ahead of him,” said the nurse apologetically, “that need attention more urgently.”

patients on trolleys

When the doctor arrived, he was young and gentle and tired. Sensing our distress, he spoke in soft and reassuring tones, explaining what he was going to do and why. And we started to feel safe again.

And the mystery of why the original nurse didn’t return, or administer oxygen when all the equipment was right there in the room, was never solved, because it didn’t matter, and because I didn’t trust myself not to raise my voice again. Maybe someone else needed attention more urgently. Perhaps, with a hundred other things on her plate in the midst of that madness, she just forgot. Nurses are human too.

I chatted with the porter as he wheeled the trolley down to the deserted X-ray department. “I love coming down here for a bit of a peace and quiet,” he said. “That place”, he gestured, “is like a zoo.” A doctor had been assaulted in a row earlier in the day, he said.

We were lucky. After treatment, we escaped in a matter of hours. I drove back down the road feeling fortunate to have a passenger. I wondered what would have happened had I not been there. Perhaps it would have been fine. But perhaps not, and that’s the thing.

They say this is a country in recovery. But its health system is very ill.

Patients deserve – at the very least – to feel safe in A&E. To know they are getting the best possible care, not to feel at the mercy of an overcrowded system. Medical professionals – among them many unsung heroes – deserve to feel safe and have sufficient resources to work to the best of their ability.

And none of them deserve to be yelled at while doing their jobs.

Ballycastle’s Giro de Baile – a novice’s account of a first sportive

It was some trepidation that I loaded the bike into the boot of the car for the Giro de Baile on a rainy Sunday morning in August. Having never taken part in a cycling event before, and having done no serious training, I don’t mind admitting I was panicking a little at the prospect of what lay ahead. 60km along the exposed north west Atlantic coast in the wind and the rain? Sure, you’d have to be mad.

Giro de Baile sign

Giro time

Having recently moved back to North Mayo, I was on the lookout for a new hobby. Cycling is something I’ve always enjoyed but never pursued regularly, apart from the odd commute or jaunt around Dublin or Mayo. Having been aware of the success of the inaugural Giro de Baile in 2014, and smitten by the stunning route, I’d been keeping an eye on their Facebook page, and had it pencilled it into the diary. As the day drew closer, the nerves multiplied, but there’s nothing like a challenge to make or break an intention, right? Having been chatting with the organisers on Twitter, they very gently cajoled me into giving it a shot. And when a group gets together and puts in a shedload of work to organise and promote an event to benefit and promote their community and locality, I do feel it’s important to support that effort where possible.

Arriving in Ballycastle, the festivities were in full swing, with a DJ pumping out motivational beats, an impressive inflatable start line and of course a healthy lashing of green and red flags. Football is at the heart of everything down here. Inside the Community Hall, there was a palpable air of anticipation as 320 cyclists, experienced and novice alike availed of the spread of food and refreshments provided, and prepared for launch.

Giro de Baile volunteers

Volunteers, you rock.

With a cheer, we were off. Pikemen, reminiscent of the 1798 rebellion which forms a huge part of the county’s historical narrative cheered the procession of cyclists at the first corner. Motivational messages on the challenging (this is a euphemism) Flagbrooke Hill gave an extra push (“It’s only a hill, get over it”), though I will admit that it eventually got the better of me and I had to get off and walk. Which I have absolutely no regrets about doing, as it meant I could stop for a second and look back at what is probably the most magnificent view in North Mayo. (If you’re doing this event next year, remember to look around you as you go – on a challenging route, it’s easy to keep the head down, but it means you’re missing out.) A samba band greeted participants at the crest of the hill. Throughout, stewards and marshals were helpful and encouraging. The roads were quiet and felt safe. Even the oncoming traffic was friendly with plenty one-fingered salutes (not that kind, the country kind!) and beeps from motorists.

Flagbrooke Hill

The never-ending Flagbrooke Hill. Yes, there was a “Mayo for Sam” message

I’d tackled the event with a friend who is (thankfully!) of similar ability, and while at times, we found ourselves a little isolated on the route, we were never too far from a race marshal. After the third stop in Moygownagh, we realised we had only 14km to go, and we spent the last 10km telling each other how great we were. Then we turned the last corner into Ballycastle to be met with that last hill! It was probably the most challenging moment of the day and needless to say getting over the finish line was a memorable moment. Our time might not have broken any records (or if it did, it was of the Wooden Spoon variety), but we made it. For two first timers, we couldn’t ask for more than that.

A shot from the 130km route. A good incentive to go further next year

A shot from the 130km route. A good incentive to go further next year

Two things really struck me from the outset about this event.

Firstly, when starting out in anything new, encouragement is important. For novices, taking part in an event like this can be daunting. In the week leading up to the event, the Giro team posted updates on their social media account aimed at participants taking part in their first sportive, such as including practical advice about cycling. In addition, they were hugely reassuring to anyone who might have doubted their abilities to keep up with the pack (i.e. people like me!) If you can do 20k, they said, you can do 60k. There is no pressure to compete. The atmosphere carries you. Plus for every uphill climb there’s a downhill freewheel! Such information might seem trivial to the experienced cyclist but means a great deal to the novice.

Secondly, what stood out was the obvious determination of the wider community of Ballycastle to make this a success. There was a strong and cheerful volunteer presence along the route, plenty of opportunities to refuel and refresh, lots of cheering spectators, and veritable feast of food at the end. The Ballycastle community is a small but proud one, and cycling along the breathtaking route, even in the rain, it’s very clear to see why.

Giro de Baile

Probably one of the happiest moments of my life – seeing the barbecue at the finish line after 60k. Thanks to my buddy Martina for keeping me going!

If any of you are considering doing the Giro next year, and are looking for a new route, I’d recommend checking this out. And if you’re a local wondering whether you’re up to the challenge, my unequivocal advice would be to go for it.  The Giro website says: “The ride is not a race, it’s a chance to enjoy a challenge with like-minded people with spectacular views throughout the routes”. What they don’t say is just how well the event is organised and just what a great sense of achievement you get from taking part and crossing that finish line. It’s kickstarted my cycling hobby and I know I’m looking forward to next year’s event already where hopefully I can tackle the longer 130km route. And let’s hope the sun shines!

Only another two hours to wait for us to finish, Bernard!!

The next Giro de Baile cycle takes place on 31st July 2016, and all information on this North Mayo Sportive can be found at girodebaile.com. Proceeds from this year’s events were split between three local organisations: Cancer Care West, Kiddies Korner Playschool, Ballycastle and Moy River Rescue.

Pic credit; Giro de Baile on Facebook.

The great name-changing debate

Recently there’s been some talk in the national media about the practice of women taking their husbands’ surnames when they marry. A few days ago, two similar and thought-provoking articles in the Irish Independent by writers Barbara Scully and Dearbhail McDonald – both self-declared feminists – examined the merits of the custom, with each expressing some surprise that in this enlightened age of feminism, women should be taking their husbands’ names at all.

For women in Ireland, historically the practice of changing name after marriage has almost been a foregone conclusion. However, the sands as ever are shifting, and there has been a quiet, but growing resistance to the custom. The aforementioned articles generated much debate on social media – including Twitter, where people just love a good argument – and the exchanges threw up some interesting perspectives on the tradition.

Many women who had kept their names said they did so to retain their own identity. For some, it amounted to a political statement; a public rejection of traditional patriarchal structures and notions of submission and subordination. Professional women argued – many from experience – that name-changing can negate years of work put into building a strong reputation or personal brand. Some, rather less optimistically, maintained that they wouldn’t want to be still called by their ex-husband’s names when – when! – they got divorced.

On the other hand, there were women who for various personal reasons embraced the chance to rid themselves of their old name and make a fresh start with a new one. More enjoyed the unity symbolised by their family all having the same surname, while others had happily adopted the double-barrelled system. Some declared that they just liked the novelty, or simply the old-fashioned romance of it all.

Bride And Groom Enjoying Meal At Wedding Reception

Men also contributed to the debate, many of whom declared it wouldn’t bother them either way. However, as McDonald herself mentioned, once the subject of children was broached that perspective tended to change. A small minority had taken their wives’ surnames after marriage, while others visibly balked at the notion. (The very idea!) Men and women alike wondered how the process would work within same-sex marriages. All in all, the exchanges demonstrated once again that nothing is ever black or white; the beauty of it being the freedom that exists for people to make the choice for themselves. Indeed most women were adamant that the decision should be theirs; not dictated by husbands, families or interfering in-laws, and that their preference should not be assumed by others, either – something to bear in mind when addressing your Christmas cards!

On that note, such was the interest in the topic that following McDonald’s article, the Irish Independent even ran a poll on the topic, asking “Should a woman take her husband’s surname?” And therein lies the rub. Women are constantly dictated to – how they should behave, how they should dress, the body shape they should  behave. As feminists, surely we should be asking why on earth should a woman have to do anything? Why would anyone assume they have the right to dictate to women what they should – or should not – be doing with their own names? Why are we not asking why more men don’t offer to make the change? But ultimately, whose business is it, anyway?

Scully’s article suggested that we follow the leads of jurisdictions such as Quebec and Greece (you won’t hear that too often these days) in actually outlawing the practice of wives taking their husbands’ names. This restriction also applies in countries like Netherlands, Belgium and France.  Japan, on the other hand, legally requires couples to adopt either one of the spouses’ surnames when married – but unsurprisingly and somewhat disappointingly, this means that 96% of women make the change.

What seems ludicrous in all of this is the idea of the State having any say either way in what is a private matter.

Implying that women who change their name are somehow damaging the feminist cause is a contradiction in terms. While the feminist argument appears in the main to be that women who take their husband’s names are complicit in preserving a patriarchal structure, surely true feminism means promoting  the freedom of women to make their own choices – including taking their husbands’ names if they wish – and supporting and respecting that freedom, even if the outcome contradicts your own philosophy? Judging women for making this choice is unnecessarily divisive, and  . once again assigns women with sole responsibility for changing societal norms.

There are plenty of battles yet to be fought by women in the quest for equality. This should not be one of them.

This column first appeared in the print version of The Mayo News on Tuesday 4th August 2015

Seven things I’ve learned since returning West

At the end of May, after sixteen years living away from my Mayo hometown, in search of a different pace of life and a greater sense of community, I decided to make the move back West. I wrote about it here in The Mayo News at the time.

I’m now seven weeks back on home soil, and can safely say that I haven’t (yet) questioned the decision. I feel consistently more happier, more relaxed and at ease and I treasure being close to my family again, and reconnecting with friends; spending real, unhurried time with them. Because I am in equal measures a firm believer that life is short and there to be lived, and a deluded optimist, I decided not to seek full-time employment for now and have remained  freelance in order to make the most of the west of Ireland summer. So far, that decision has ensured that I have spent lots of time outdoors on my own in the lashing rain.

But all in all, it’s been a surprisingly easy transition, though the adjustment process is ongoing.  Here are just seven things I’ve learned since returning west.

You can get around quickly

Getting around in the West of Ireland takes no time at all. This has been one of the unanticipated delights of the return west. One of the reasons I moved was because commuting cross-city every day was (literally) driving me out of my mind. Living in a small town means that I no longer view traffic lights as a target, and even taking into account the curiously high proportion of very slow drivers, I don’t behave like a deranged fishwife behind the wheel any more. (Much.) I am constantly marvelling about just how little time it takes to get anywhere. In my new blissed out state of mind, I have even found myself coasting along at 50km an hour on occasion, much to the chagrin of visiting D-reg Audi drivers. I also still sometimes manage to be late.

Weather envy does you no good at all

Moving west always came with the caveat of ‘more rain’, and the best way of dealing with it is just to bring a brolly and get on with it. However, in bygone days we didn’t have to cope with being reminded of this all the time on social media by our smug easterly counterparts. There is little so maddening as reading about the rest of the country’s woes as they collectively sweat in a heatwave, having to watch them Instagramming their 99s/pasty legs in surfing shorts while meanwhile, you are donning full waterproofs just to sprint to the car. However jealousy gets you nowhere, and I have consoled myself with the fact that I am saving a small fortune on Factor 40 while maintaining a pale and youthful visage. In your faces, you sunburned suckers.

View of Clew Bay from Ben Gorm in the rain

Clew Bay, taken from Ben Gorm in the Nephin Beg range. In the rain, of course

 Freelancing is fun … but challenging

While there are the obvious advantages of being your own boss such as calling the shots and managing your own time, there is also the uncertainty of not knowing whether you’ll be able to pay the rent in two or three months’ time. But freelancing involves (a) deciding what exactly you’re freelancing in (am I writing, researching, copywriting, social media managing, PR-ing or doing a combination of some or all of these?), and (b) packaging and promoting it; this is something I haven’t managed to do very well just yet, mainly both because I haven’t needed to and I’m still figuring it out. Just today two projects I had in the diary for August fell through for various reasons, so while it does mean I can now go on my holidays without a looming deadline, it also makes the prospect of further holidays look a bit bleaker. But them’s the breaks – and there’s nothing like the prospect of an overdraft to inspire some enterprising creativity.

There is no excuse for boredom

Even if you’re on a budget, I’ve found that here, there are shedloads of things to see and do. Before moving, I was advised by well-meaning friends to think carefully about returning due to the lack of “things” going on. While there’s no Camden Street nightlife and pulled pork eateries are fewer, I’m still a bit baffled; I’ve barely spent an evening sitting in since I got back. It’s festival season down here (and summer of course), so there are lots of local jollies, but apart from pursuing actual hobbies like running, hillwalking and cycling (there are over 40 sporting clubs of various types in this area alone) there are plenty of volunteer-led projects into which to throw yourself. Unless you’re actually sitting in your house watching paint dry, I can’t understand how anyone can ever be bored. And there is always something new and fascinating to learn about your home town if you’re interested in looking. Failing that, you can always take up knitting.

There is a “local” mindset … and it can be a sensitive one

While there’s lots of evidence of a strong community spirit – something I missed for a long time, away from home – local involvement also comes with its own politics, sensitivities and dare I say it, egos. It’s been interesting to remember just how easily offended people can be if you don’t explicitly acknowledge their individual contributions, or if you question their established ways of doing things, and sometimes bearing this in mind from the outset can help to keep the waters smooth. Likewise, easing your way gently into a new group is the way to go – tenure can result in territorial tensions. Diplomacy  – treading carefully but confidently – is a skill in itself.  What can I say? I’m always learning.

 Football is a religion

Yeah, we all knew that already. Now I just get to worship inside the church all the time. Watch out Sam, we’re comin’ to get you. Yes, this is our year.

It’s bloody gorgeous here.

Of course, I am completely, unashamedly biased, and this is not a learning, rather a reminder. I wake most mornings feeling lucky to live in such a gorgeous part of the world.  I’m torn between wanting to tell the world about it and share its stunning secrets, and keep it all to ourselves. But sharing is caring, right? Even in the rain I think it’s beautiful (though I may be in a minority there) and a walk on a deserted beach in the wind and the rain oddly never fails to make me feel alive. And at this rate, we might even get another sunny day before September.

Lacken in summer, on 14th July 2015. Yes, that one day.

IMG_3344

Legend has it that a pagan chieftain, Crom Dubh attempted to burn St. Patrick to death, but our Paddy was having none of it. Crom Dubh, seeing that he had met his match hid in his fort, but Patrick hit the ground with his crozier breaking it and leaving the fort – known as Dun Briste – isolated from the mainland. Crom Dubh was eaten to death by midges, something that will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent a day working in the bog in Mayo.

Service with a smile … it works both ways

With a month of country living under my belt after the move back west (God, it’s great to be home), the boxes are finally unpacked and I’m readjusting to the easier pace of life in the homeland. There’s plenty to love, but a constant source of joy is just how little time it takes to get from A to B. Because Dublin has approximately 94 sets of traffic lights per kilometre, sometimes the drive to pick up a litre of milk and a few spuds entails more braking than driving. Here, you just turn the key in the ignition and you’re there. Dorothy and her red slippers ain’t got nothing on life in Mayo.

It also strikes me daily how much friendlier people are. That’s part of our charm, but importantly, in a region depending so heavily on tourism, it’s also an essential business attribute. Hand in hand with that comes good customer service, which, it’s fair to say, is probably the norm. That’s why, when confronted with a bad experience, it jars all the more. But while the majority of encounters are positive, if truth be told, we could still sometimes do better.

As a customer, when you go to the shop to buy a litre of milk, or to buy a stamp in the post office, what are your expectations of that experience? Do you like to be greeted with a hello, some eye contact, a chat? Do you prefer to be handed your change, rather than it being slapped on the counter? Entering a clothes shop, do you expect a friendly greeting and an offer of help? On your weekly shop, do you prefer it when the cashier talks to you, not their colleagues? Most of all, is a smile important? Most of us would probably agree that these are the most basic tenets of customer service. Having someone go the extra mile thereafter is just the icing on the cake.

When the basics aren’t met, there is a knock-on effect. Chances are, if your experience in a shop is an unfriendly, unhelpful one, you’ll bring your money elsewhere next time. As a local, if you experience poor service in a restaurant or café, you’ll probably tell ten people about it. As a tourist, add TripAdvisor into the mix and tack on a few zeros. Poor service and lack of warmth in a business make for a poor tourist experience, and colour their entire impression of an area. Meanwhile, among locals it discourages loyalty. And whoever deals with customers is the face of that business, regardless of the name over the door. If that face is a scowling one, you’re onto a loser from the start. Little things, big implications.

There are, of course, two sides to every argument. Working in the service industry and dealing with the public can be no picnic, and years of retail management in a past life taught me that contrary to popular belief, the customer is most definitely not always right. On the contrary, they can be rude, confrontational and frequently downright mad. Working in fashion exposed me to all sorts, from the “I know my rights” brigade (they generally don’t) to those who think it appropriate to use your fitting rooms for their bodily functions (yes, even that one). Once, I went home with a black eye, the result of a shoe thrown at me by a gentleman I can only describe as being overexcited. So there is little doubt that facing the public on a daily basis can bring its challenges. If you’ve just been eaten alive by an irate customer, it can be hard to plaster on a smile to greet the next one.

High angle view of cashier with a line of people at the check-out counter

But good service is essential for business to thrive and survive. Taking pride in your business will garner respect from your customers, and not just in the hospitality industry. Visiting tourists become part of our landscape for a while, using our supermarkets, our filling stations, our corner shops. Their experiences help to build their impressions of our county, as well as building our economy. And for those of us at home, service with a smile can brighten the day. But remember, it works both ways!

This was originally printed in The Mayo News on 15th July 2015.

‘Yes, I said, yes I will yes’ – why ‘Yes’ x 2 is the way to go this Friday

With a mere few days to polling day, you’d be forgiven for being under the impression that we were voting on just one issue on May 22nd. Coverage of the marriage referendum has been so comprehensive, relentless and so repetitive, that it’s all the more surprising that media haven’t been focusing on the other choice being presented to voters – the proposal to lower the age of presidential candidates to 21 – if for no other reason than to just give us all a bit of light relief. But it’s highly likely a significant proportion of the population aren’t even aware they’ll be handed two ballot papers on Friday week. A fine example of democracy in action.

As fatigue begins to set in though, it’s likely we’ll see some half-hearted efforts in the next few days to publicly debate why we should allow 21 year-olds – people who may not even yet have started their first job – to run for President of Ireland.

The reactions to the proposal to date have tended to be predictably dismissive and a bit disparaging, which is disappointing. Granted, this isn’t the most pressing change that needs making in Ireland, but at a time when politics is crying out for an injection of youthful enthusiasm, the scorn that’s been instantly heaped on the suggestion without any detailed consideration subtly demonstrates how we really regard our young people. Surprisingly, even youth organisations have been relatively quiet on the matter, instead preferring to focus on the marriage referendum – which ironically, is a campaign with which young people have thus far engaged on levels rarely seen before. But perhaps they’re just being smart by not channelling their energy and resources into flogging a dead horse when there’s a far more pressing issue on the table.

Why is this amendment even being put to the people? Well, the issue arose during the Constitutional Convention, a forum of 100 citizens established in 2012 to discuss amendments to the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention had also sought amendments on housing rights, social security and healthcare services, but this was somehow deemed more appropriate. It’s a funny one; but it’s likely that the government felt backing a contentious, divisive and ground-breaking Constitutional amendment such as allowing two people in love to officially declare their commitment to each other a risky enough manoeuvre without creating further havoc. Best to play it safe on this one, because let’s face it, this government is already all too familiar with the sensation of egg drying into their whiskers.

So, what discussion have we heard to date in #PresRef, as it’s known in the online sphere? Well, the main assertion is that no-one aged under the age of 35 could possibly have the life experience, capability or maturity expected to carry themselves with dignity in this position of great importance. The majority seems to concur. Apart from perhaps the fact that allowing someone to become President in their twenties means you might get landed with paying the Presidential Pension for a few extra years, that, incredibly appears to be the sum total of the debate. Pretty incredible for something as important as a Constitutional Amendment.

The debate has failed on any level to counteract this argument by pointing out the inherent ageism, laziness and unfairness of it.  We are not voting on whether or not we will have a 21 year-old President, though given the level of opposition to it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a Yes vote would automatically propel one of Jedward into Michael D’s still-warm seat in the Áras come 2019. I can tell you, however, I’d far sooner see either one  – or both of them in there – than the likes of Dana.

The key argument for voting YES to the Presidential amendment is that the current system is anti-democratic, because young people don’t even get the opportunity to present themselves to the electorate. They are currently automatically excluded based on an arbitrary number, rather than getting the chance to be elected or rejected on their merit, or lack of. There is no good reason for this, but plenty of good reasons for our young people – many of them perfectly talented, hardworking, intelligent and capable – to be given the opportunity to put themselves out there. They deserve, at the very least, not to be excluded from this process. And in fact, the key objection to this referendum should be that it proposes to continue excluding adults aged 18-21 from running for Presidential office – the only justification apparently being that it will then mirror the age at which you can become a TD.

So it’ll be two emphatic Yeses for me, because I want to see Ireland becoming a place that’s fairer and kinder, and it strikes me as more than  a little hypocritical to be voting for inclusiveness in one referendum while simultaneously opposing it in the other. But the joy of democracy is that we all have our say, so on Friday week, wherever you stand, be sure to have yours too.

jedward

An abridged version of this post appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday 12th May 2015.

Gender Quotas – a necessary evil?

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th April 2015.

Spring is in the air, bringing with it longer days and glorious sunshine. But mixed with the scent of fresh cut grass and cherry blossom, there’s the distinct whiff of a general election, and while in theory, we’re nearly a year away from returning to the polls, politicians are already in full-on electioneering mode. One intriguing element of the next election will be the influence of gender quotas. All political parties will face losing half their funding unless at least 30% of candidates put forward are women.

A drastic measure? Consider this. 566 candidates ran in the 2011 General Election. 86 were women.  25 won seats, meaning that under 14% of our TDs are women – abysmal by international standards. Women’s skills and experience are therefore not proportionally represented in decision-making that affects everyone. This, despite acknowledgement that balanced political participation by both sexes means fairer, more effective democracies – something, surely to which we should all aspire?

So why aren’t women running for election? Commonly cited as barriers to proportional female representation in Ireland are the Five Cs: Cash, Culture, Childcare, Confidence and Candidate Selection. These five factors are interlinked, each impacting the other to create barriers to female participation.

Take cash, to start. Running for election is expensive. Women are economically less well-off then men (this is a fact!). Employments rates drop significantly when children arrive, and many women – who generally still bear primary responsibility for family life – balance this by working part-time, restricting public involvement. Last year, Mayor of Tralee, Pat Hussey resigned from Fine Gael, citing gender quotas. Women, he claimed were being “pushed in” by his party, excluding more experienced members. Mr Hussey, incidentally, claimed to have no problem with women joining councils, but felt factors like babysitting would make it prohibitively expensive for them – an attitude which sharply undermines the role of men in childcare. Which in turn, leads me to culture – the core of it all.

Women battle culture all the time. They’re expected to do more. We have higher expectations of them. Female politicians aren’t just judged on performance, they’re also critiqued on image, appearance, even their voices. When are male politicians subjected to such scrutiny? You can see why confidence, the fourth C is a factor. A key objection to quotas is that women will be selected purely to “make up numbers”; not because they are the best possible candidate. Essentially, a fear that quotas will elect incompetent women at the expense of good men. The economic crash doesn’t say much about the competency of those running the country at the time. Where was accountability and meritocracy then? Why are we now suggesting that women need to prove competency, where men never had to?

Finally, while all of the above contribute to candidate selection difficulties, there is a supply and demand problem. Parties select election candidates, so selector attitudes can contribute – if male candidates have been the norm, breaking the mould can be hard. However, a lack of supply of female candidates putting themselves forward (for the reasons above) restricts those who do want to run women. The vicious circle continues!

So is imposing gender quotas the means of breaking this cycle?

I’m not fully convinced. Quotas are a crude measure, which ignore the issues underpinning the problem. Rather, we need to address barriers that dissuade women in the first place. Childcare, for example, should be viewed not as a female issue, but as a family one. Family-friendly policies may help, but however – and here lies the critical argument! – unless women are adequately represented in the first place, who will drive the change necessary to attract more women into politics?

Evidence also suggests that increased visibility of females in politics can mobilise women, resulting in greater involvement. So while gender quotas aren’t in themselves the answer, I can’t help feeling that – as a temporary measure – they’ll help fast-track some reform necessary to encourage involvement, and so are worth a shot. I therefore reluctantly find myself in favour. Recognising and addressing the issue is a vital first step, so here’s hoping that the outcome of quotas can prove that this is more than just tokenism, and will result in solid, positives outcomes for society as a whole.

Media still too quick and willing to stigmatise depression

This column was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 31st March 2015.

It was difficult last week to miss coverage of the Germanwings plane crash that claimed 150 lives in the French Alps. A catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, it embodied every private fear we’ve all tried to bury when getting on a plane. The horror experienced by the 150 passengers on board as it dawned on them what was about to happen is the stuff of our worst nightmares, and the proximity of the tragedy undoubtedly cast a chill over us all.

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz is now, sadly, a household name. Remarkable by his ordinariness, his Facebook page depicted him as a smiling, leather jacket-clad sportsman interested in travel, music, and clubs. Apparently popular, he appeared well-known and respected in his community. By all accounts, a perfectly normal young man who happened to fly planes for a living.

So what made Lubitz decide to commit, apparently out of the blue, such an abhorrent act of violence in such a calm and calculated manner?

The simple answer is that we don’t know. No-one could, at this point, claim to know with certainty. But at the time of writing, on Friday morning, the majority of the tabloid newspapers claimed to have the answer.

It was depression, they screamed. It emerged that Andreas Lubitz is said to have sought psychiatric help for “a bout of heavy depression” six years ago, which necessitated a break from his flight training. After he was cleared to resume he passed all subsequent tests – including psychological tests – with flying colours, and was subject to regular medical checks.

These last details appear to have been overlooked by many of the tabloids, who, high on outrage, published screaming headlines such as: “German who deliberately crashed Airbus had a long history of depression – so why was he let anywhere near a plane?”, “Why on earth was he allowed to fly?”, ”Depressed pilot crashed jet” and charmingly, “Cockpit maniac”.

While the families of the deceased should be prioritised and respected in the analysis of this disaster, responsible media reporting should not be overlooked, and the messages emanating from those headlines demonstrate that while we might think we have progressed when it comes to normalising mental health, ultimately, the willingness to stigmatise those with problems is never far away.

If depression is being touted as the primary reason for Lubitz’s actions, it any wonder there is still a reluctance to talk about mental health? In particular, is it any wonder that there is a particular reluctance to disclose mental health problems in the workplace? Nearly 6 in 10 people believe that being open about a mental health problem at work would negatively affect their career prospects. Reading headlines like this, is it any wonder?

Discourse like this perpetuates the damaging myth that those with mental illness are more likely to be violent. Should no-one who has suffered depression in their lifetime be permitted to hold positions with responsibility for the safety of other people? If that were the case, we’d have a lot of people sitting at home. As someone who has, should I be forbidden to get behind the wheel of a car, lest I get a murderous urge to plough it into someone? While everyone’s experience is different, many will understand that when depression strikes, it’s often about as much as you can do to get out of bed in the morning, let alone murder 150 people.

We can speculate endlessly on what drove Lubitz to do what he did. Mental health issues may have been a contributory factor, but it is impossible to attribute them as a cause.  Too frequently, when a violent act is committed, the tendency is to point to mental ill-health as the primary reason. And when the media presents it in such a way, it’s not just hurtful to those of us who have experienced problems, it’s damaging and it’s irresponsible. It’s also downright lazy.

At the time of writing, investigators claimed they had found a ‘clue’ in Lubitz’s home that might shed some light on why he did what he did. For the families and friends of the deceased, we can only hope that such answers are forthcoming. But they will be cold comfort.

 

Germanwings plane crash Alps memorial

Are you really entitled to your opinion?

This column was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 3rd February 2014.

“It’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it.”

How often have you heard that conversation-killer trotted out during an argument? If you’re like me, hearing it will have the same effect as nails on a blackboard. It makes me wince, but then, I do love a good argument.

However, I have some news for you, opinionators. You’re more than entitled to your opinion – if you can defend it.

No longer confined to boring long-suffering friends or family in the pub or at the dinner table, modern communication channels ensure that the argumentative among us have soapboxes from which to orate all we like. (Whether anyone’s listening is another matter.) We’re accustomed to a variety of rants, whether about the government, sport, or the horror that is inadvertently biting into one of the coffee-flavoured Roses. No matter what our expertise, everyone has an opinion, and sure, we’re all entitled to them. But having them one thing. Considering the effects that stating them might have is another. That’s where we also have a responsibility.

Words are powerful. We should never underestimate them. We should also be aware of our audiences when using them. Sounding off about a local politician, for example on Facebook, sounds innocuous. After all, it’s your page, right? You’re entitled to your opinion, yes? But consider the effect your words might have on that politician’s family.

You don’t believe gay couples should be allowed to get married? That’s your opinion, of course. But can you explain why not? Because you think it will harm society? Have you evidence to support that? No? Well, my friend, perhaps you should examine your opinion in more detail. You might learn something about yourself.

An openness to having our opinions challenged is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democratic society. Unless you can provide an argument, saying “I’m entitled to my opinion” really implies “There’s no depth to my argument, and I can’t be bothered justifying it.” It’s self-entitlement to assume we can just say whatever we want, consequences be damned, regardless of whether or not we know what we’re talking about. It also suggests that we’re either too lazy or too closed-minded to contemplate the possibility that we might actually be wrong.

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“I’m entitled to my opinion” is frequently used to justify attitudes that should have been abandoned long ago like racism, sexism and homophobia. Without censoring – which may just drive these dangerous beliefs underground – we should instead calmly challenge them with facts and evidence.

In the context of public debate, scrutiny of ‘opinion’ helps to prevent the blurring of the line between it and ‘evidence’. For example, if someone argues for banning fluoridation in our water, despite a lack of scientific evidence that it’s harmful, it is in the public interest to challenge this opinion and debunk myths. The same applies to social and health issues. The media has responsibilities in this regard to ensure that evidence presented in debates is robustly interrogated, and in turn to ensure that when opinion is challenged, when necessary, it’s challenged by people qualified to do so. And we need to be sure that equivalence is not being granted as a rule between experts and non-experts in public policy debates.

Having our opinions challenged can be uncomfortable. Often, our views are so tied up with our self-identify that having them challenged can feel like personal criticism. But wouldn’t the world be a very dull and indeed dangerous place if we agreed on everything? And surely our opinions should evolve as we grow as human beings in age and maturity? If flaws in our thinking are pointed out, in an ideal world we really should try not to get immediately offended or angry (or in my case, sulk), and instead embrace the opportunity to learn. To that end, including subjects like philosophy on the curriculum is worthwhile, in order to foster thoughtfulness and an eagerness to construct, interrogate and defend arguments from a young age. And of course, to help us be comfortable with being wrong once in a while.

Changing your mind is not weakness. Refusing to open it is.

But there’s one thing on which I’ll never entertain a challenge. Those blasted coffee-flavoured Roses have got to go.

New Year, New Me? Let’s be realistic …

My New Year intentions, as published in The Mayo News last Tuesday 6th January. (I won’t comment on how I’m progressing …)

2015 goals in metal type

Every New Year’s Eve I get out the notepad and pen and sit with furrowed brow to try and come up with some realistic New Year’s resolutions. Every New Year’s Eve, I also look back 12 months to see how I’ve fared previously. The latter exercise usually serves as an annual reminder of what a failure I am and demonstrates that the former is nothing more a waste of a good hour of my life.

So for 2015, in order to avoid this painful and disappointing process I have thrown off the shackles of convention, liberated myself from the inevitable cycle of self-flagellation and decided not to make any resolutions for the next 12 months. The year, therefore already looks like one lacking in any ambition whatsover. But on the bright side, the December 31st review already looks promising by default.

New Years’ resolutions are an interesting exercise, though. It’s good to start with a heart and mind full of virtuous intentions, but it can be demoralising when you flounder mere days into the process, and the more you struggle, the more tempting it can be to throw in the towel early on. That said, it’s still good to have things to aim for, right? With this in mind, I’ve decided to cheat and set myself some aspirations for the year ahead. Aspirations are softer and more forgiving than resolutions, being as they are, little more than good intentions. They are also, of course, an absolute cop-out. But if there’s one thing I’m determined to do this year, it’s to not set myself up for further failures. So without further ado, I have below outlined some of my 2015 aspirations, so they may inspire you too.

For 2015, I aspire to …

… Take time out. At least 30 minutes daily, to walk/run outdoors, without music, screens or conversation. Going outdoors is of course fraught with such terrors as rain, low-flying pigeons and potential alien abductions but I’m told taking such time out works wonders for your physical and mental health, so on balance this is probably worth a try.

… Reach out more to others. We all have good intentions, but having personally felt a bit low heading into the Christmas festivities, it made a big difference when someone reached out to me. In the daily grind it’s easy to forget that those around us might have their own struggles, and a kind word might make all the difference. (The exception being if you’re a Meath or a Chelsea supporter on the bad side of a result, in which case I shall unashamedly take joy in your misery.)

… Be a better-behaved driver. This will essentially mean refraining from behaving like a deranged fishwife when someone else is a being bad driver in my vicinity. This is mostly for my own selfish benefit, to ultimately avoid expensive coronary interventional procedures, but also, charitably, for the benefit of innocent passengers who may unwittingly find themselves privy to such outbursts. (This aspiration would of course be unnecessary if you people would just USE YOUR INDICATORS.)

… Try more new things. In 2014 I tried Spanish, kickboxing and writing a newspaper column, with varying degrees of success, but each taught me something new, and some resulted in unintentional hilarity for others, so everyone’s a winner. (On that note, do keep an eye out for my new Morris Dancing column, coming soon.)

… Be a Better Loser. This means not sinking into bitterness and despair (again) for the winter when Mayo don’t win the All-Ireland. I’m obviously writing this in a shameless effort to reverse-psychology the hell out of the 2015 season. Having had lots of practice, I can cope with being wrong, so feel free to throw this in my face on 20th September. I’ll be too busy doing the congo around Croker to care.

I’ll keep you posted on my modest endeavours, but jesting aside, dear readers, all that remains is to wish you and yours a happy and healthy 2015. Be safe and be kind to each other, and – just as importantly – to yourselves. Here’s hoping it’s a good one for us all.

“Today is tough … but I also know that I have much to give”

“I believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that there’s a stereotypical definition of someone who suffers from depression … That stereotype is completely inaccurate.”

Somebody I know got in touch and asked me to share the below piece they wrote, with the hope that it might resonate with someone; that it might just help someone. It’s candid, and it’s courageous, and it can’t have been easy to write. I’d ask that if it strikes a chord with you, you might share it. And try to remember that no matter how low you feel, how despairing, that chances are, you too have more to give.

Thanks to the writer for entrusting me with his words, which I have reproduced in full below.

“I’ll miss Doggy when I die”….The first words I heard this morning when I walked into my daughter’s bedroom. She was in floods of tears. I comforted her as best I could telling her that she has many many years ahead of her and that Mammy and Daddy love her lots. I don’t know what upset her, possibly a bad dream, but it’s fair to say that 5 minutes later she was her usual chatty, good humoured self and eating her Weetabix. Doggy isn’t actually a dog, but a cuddly toy that could even be a lamb, and she’s had it since she was born, which, incidentally is 5 years ago next week.

The incident got me thinking as to how resilient children are, but also, how incidents in childhood, while quickly forgotten on the surface, can dwell in the subconscious and lead to issues in later years. I’m far from being a psychologist, but suffering in later life as a result of a childhood incident is certainly true of me. I have suffered from depression for 24 years, since I was 17 years old, and I can pinpoint exactly what lead to it, and like my daughter is now, I was 4 years old at the time, nearly 5, and for a short period of time was not in my parents direct care. The whats and whys will remain with me to the grave – neither of my parents are, or ever were aware of what happened. My Dad has passed away since, and were my mother to become aware of the details, I think it would kill her too.

I’ve kept my depression to myself for every single day of the last 24 years. My wife knows what happened when I was a child, she’s the only one I’ve ever opened up to about it, but I’ve never told her of the darkness that consumes me almost daily. Maybe that’s selfish, or maybe it’s selfless, I really don’t know, but it’s the way I deal with it. My close friends would say I’m moody, or “thick’ as they put it, but again, none of them would have any idea as to how difficult every day is. I don’t know how best to explain that – probably because I’m quite extroverted, and put myself in situations through music and drama, where I’m in the public eye. Because people see me as having the confidence to sing or act in front of hundreds, I couldn’t therefore possibly suffer from depression? I’ve recently completed a musical, in which, my role was that of a depressed, angry, loner, a role that I feel I did justice to. Why do I feel I did it justice? Because it was easy for me to portray the real me. It’s ironic, how many people, many strangers included, who have approached me on the street since to congratulate me, and asking how I was able to deliver such a difficult role……if only they knew just how easy it was for me on this occasion.

To watch a football match, musical, or a play, or even to watch a band play a gig on stage, is to see a snapshot in time of that player, actor or musician. The audience sees what the eye allows them. I believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that there’s a stereotypical definition of someone who suffers from depression, one of someone introverted, unable to engage, sitting in a dark room popping anti depressants, suicidal, and certainly not someone who would be able to take to a football pitch or a musical stage. That stereotype is completely inaccurate. My depression, and I can only speak for myself, manifests itself in a completely different manner.

Depression for me has meant that the primary issue I have difficulty controlling, is my anger. I’m highly prone to becoming angry at the drop of a hat – not in violent terms, but in terms of opposing someone or something, or becoming irritable over the most mundane of issues. This is where I feel sorry for my family, because as the closest people to me, they endure it most. I can only imagine that I’m difficult to be around at times, and damn close to impossible when I’m finding things most difficult. I’m also highly critical of myself, and have found myself being too hard on, and too critical of my daughter as a result. She’s only a child for God’s sake!! This is the one thing that I find upsets me most. I’ve also found myself to be prone to particular “triggers” that turn things dark for me very, very quickly. The reason for me taking to the keyboard today, (the first time I’ve done such a thing), is as a result of such an occasion yesterday which has left me feeling so worthless that I could crawl into a corner and die. My wife, who is normally my rock, was quite irritable herself yesterday. During a conversation between me, her, and her immediate family, I badgered her on a non issue, which led to her telling me to “Fuck Off”. This in itself I wouldn’t tend to take to heart, but it was the manner in which it was delivered, and the venom in her voice that knocked me completely, leading me to start questioning whether or not she has any respect for me any more, or whether indeed there may even be someone else, someone better in her life.

I’m probably in as lonely a place today as I’ve been in years. It’s just been my daughter and I at home today, which is normally a bit of a lift for me because we have such fun together, but today, I’ve found myself becoming the stereotype – wanting to sleep, I’ve barely eaten, and yes, if it wasn’t for my daughter, I don’t honestly know what scene my wife would return from work tonight to find.

I’ve lost 2 close friends to suicide in the last 3 years. There have been times when I’ve been at my lowest, that I’ve considered the same. Today is one of those days. However, I’ve seen first hand, the devastation of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, a wife and a girlfriend as a result of those 2 deaths, not to mention the questions of close friends that have been left unanswered. The main reason that even though it may cross my mind, I don’t think I’m capable of taking my own life, is the sound that I can hear coming from the next room, the sound of my daughter singing “Let It Go”, from “Frozen” for the 100th time today!!! It’s one of the few things today that has brought a smile to my face. She’s dancing round the room with glitter falling from her “Anna dress”, all over the floor. I’m glad she’s in there and I’m in here, so that she can’t see the only thing falling in this room – my tears on the keyboard.

Frozen Elsa costume

That aside, while I’m finding today to be difficult, I know that even though some days are tough, I also know that I have much to give. I have another musical in a few weeks to prepare for, I have a gig tonight, but most of all, I have a daughter that needs me and while there are times that she might wonder, she has a father who loves her more than she’ll ever know. I have a wife who, despite what happened yesterday, I would walk across hot coals for. The shortest day of the year is 5 days past, so things can only get brighter, plus the football starts in less than 2 weeks.

I’m not 100% sure what made me write this, but it’s been therapeutic of sorts. Having written it, I’m going to ask someone I trust to make it public so that maybe someone reading it in a similar situation will also feel that they have more to give.

Bishops’ arguments against same-sex marriage don’t stack up

This article appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th December. 

Last weekend, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland distributed a 16-page document to all 1,300 parishes in the country, outlining their opposition to same sex-marriage, in light of the imminent referendum on same-sex marriage due to take place in Spring 2015. In this lengthy tome, the bishops suggested that same-sex marriage is contradiction in terms, because marriage, by its nature is a “committed relationship between and man and a woman which is open to the transmission of life.”

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Photo: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

The debate on same-sex marriage has been rumbling away in the background on social media and the airwaves over the past year and is set to ramp up after Christmas, when campaigning from both “sides” will begin in earnest. Let’s call a spade a spade; it hasn’t been pleasant to date, nor will it continue without causing considerate, disproportionate hurt to many. I can’t cover the entire discussion here, but some of the arguments are questionable, so within the constraints of this column let’s lay some facts on the table.

First things first – the same-sex marriage referendum is concerned with granting civil marriage to same-sex couples, not Catholic marriage. That’s an important distinction. While many wedding ceremonies take place in churches, those that don’t hold exactly the same legal footing – it’s all about that little piece of paper you sign at the end. (And of course, the small fee.) So while Catholic bishops are perfectly entitled to express their opinion on same sex-marriage, the passing of the referendum will – reasonably – not oblige the church to facilitate it.

Secondly, who defines marriage? It doesn’t fall within the Catholic Church’s remit to do so – in fact, claiming it is a little cheeky given its existence outside Catholicism, and given that the first recorded marriage contracts pre-date Jesus himself by about 600 years. Marriage can mean different things to different people – for some it’s about love, other about taxes (both equally troublesome, if you ask me). For more, it’s about children, for others it’s not. To suggest that procreation is central to marriage doesn’t reflect the reality of many marriages today, and is unfair, even hurtful to those married couples who don’t want children and those would love to have children, but can’t.

Children – the big one. One of the central tenets of the Catholic argument against same-sex marriage claims it could effectively “deprive children of the right to a mother and a father”. Now, let’s get this straight (no pun intended). This Referendum is not about parental rights. Many children currently don’t have a mother or father, or either. Others live in unsafe homes with both. Gay people routinely have children, gay couples in Ireland can foster children, and gay individuals can adopt children. The imminent Children and Family Relationships Bill provides for allowing same-sex couples in civil partnerships to jointly adopt, thus protecting those children should something happen to one parent, and is likely to be passed before the referendum takes place. And the obviously, unmarried people – gay, straight, whatever – have children all the time. So this argument simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny on any level, I’m afraid.

Finally, for those who would suggest that civil partnership in its current form is sufficient protection for gay couples, there are over 160 statutory differences between it and civil marriage, many centering around finance, taxation, even the home.

The fact is, allowing lesbian and gay couples – our own families, friends and colleagues – to pledge their love and commitment, secure their futures and those of their children won’t change or affect any existing or future marriage of a man and a woman. Other people’s finances, family lives and bedroom activities are their own business – nothing to do with a Church that with all its own problems, can surely find something more constructive and Christian to do with its time. Ultimately, if you don’t like gay marriage, no-one is forcing you to have one. But if you believe in equality, it surely stands to reason that everyone should have the same opportunity to be miserable.

I’ll be voting ‘yes’. Will you?

Bastards, gays and respectable people…

It’s an old post but nevertheless holds true – a really worthwhile and powerful read by Claire McGettrick on why homophobia has no place in the discussion of children’s rights.

Feck sake...

I am not – by any stretch of the imagination – a regular blogger, but there are times when you simply have to speak up, and this is one of them. The following is written in a personal capacity.

The bastard, like the prostitute, thief, and beggar, belongs to that motley crowd of disreputable social types which society has generally resented, always endured. He is a living symbol of social irregularity, an undeniable evidence of contramoral forces; in short, a problem – a problem as old and unsolved as human existence itself.

Davis, K. (1939) ‘Illegitimacy and the Social Structure’.

American Journal of Sociology, 45(2): 215-233.

I have always thought of bastards (and I will explain my use of the term below) and lesbians/gay men as compatible brethren. Both have been despised and considered a ‘problem’ (often by the same groups of people), both are misunderstood, both experience discrimination and…

View original post 1,212 more words

Connected – but are we connecting?

As published in the European Newspaper of the Year, The Mayo News on Tuesday 11th November 2014 🙂

In recent weeks, Fr. Brendan Hoban, a prominent member of the Association of Catholic Priests, appealed to Irish Bishops to ignore a Vatican directive instructing priests to remain at the altar during the Sign of Peace ritual during Mass. Because of its position in the ceremony, right before Communion, it is suggested that the hustle and bustle of the handshake disrupts the spiritual preparation of those preparing to receive the Sacrament, and one assumes, those administering it. However, the directive, according to Fr. Hoban, could do “untold damage” to the church, by destroying a custom that is part and parcel of pastoral care. If implemented, it would mean that priests should desist from offering the sign of peace to newlywed couples and their loved ones and to grieving families during funeral ceremonies. We are told that the Church and the church community are one and the same, but this unfortunate directive would essentially serve to create another barrier between the clergy and the community. And that’s a shame – for both.

Plenty could be written about the coldness, the heavy-handedness of the Vatican, and the chasm that exists between its reality and the lived reality of the lives of ordinary church members (and many of the clergy, human beings themselves), but – you can breathe a sigh of relief – I’ll save that for another day. Rather, what struck me about the directive was the way it aims to create distance and establish barriers where really, the need to demolish them appears far more prudent and necessary.

Once upon another lifetime, an old friend elbowed me and whispered during the Sign of Peace at a wedding. “Look around you”, he said. “Everyone in the place is smiling.” Now, it should be said that the same fella had a tendency to prank you during the Sign of Peace by holding onto your hand like a vice grips and not releasing it until either it turned blue or you made an undignified show of yourself trying to shake him off, whichever happened first, but unnerving habits aside, he had a point. Just reaching out, looking someone else in the eye and shaking their hand had lifted the room and filled it with a new light. The simple act of connecting, wishing someone else well. Surely that’s something that should be encouraged, not dissuaded?

It’s a thought that’s stayed with me down the years, and particularly so as we evolve into more technology-dependent beings. We’re privileged enough to have multiple means of connecting and communicating, yet sometimes it feels like we’re retreating further and further from each other. Where once we might have written a note, picked up the phone or knocked on the neighbour’s door, we now communicate using SMS, email, Facebook. Instead of looking someone in the eye, we stare at a screen. Sure, technology makes the world so much smaller, it’s a godsend for those with loved ones far away, and it facilitates business interactions in a manner light years away from fax machines and hand-delivered memos.  The likes of Twitter also enables us to connect with people that would have been previously out of reach – people that might previously have only featured on CD covers, posters on our walls and our dreams –  but how meaningful are those connections?

It’s hard not to wonder if we’re becoming more reclusive – and dare I say, lazy – when it comes to those in closer proximity. When I was growing up, in true country childhood style, no-one called ahead to ask if they could visit. The very idea was scoffed at; they just turned up on the doorstep, often in substantial numbers. It was the norm, and it was actually quite nice, unless the host had no biscuits in the house. Now, we make appointments for face-to-face contact and book ourselves in like we would to the dentist’s chair. Running through my neighbourhood in Dublin recently, I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of iron security gates outside houses. A safeguard, or a barrier? To me, I must admit, they say one thing loud and clear – “Keep your distance”.  The traditional Irish welcome now comes with a raft of terms and conditions, if you ever get to cross the threshold of your neighbour’s home. Indeed, how many of us living in suburbia can claim to even know their neighbours?  It’s not just in the home, though, it’s at work too – those of us working in open-plan offices will be no stranger to communicating via email with the person sitting next to us – to my embarrassment I’m frequently guilty of this crime against civility and common sense.

I can’t help wondering how this trend will continue into the future and to what extent communication technologies will develop, but one thing’s for certain. No matter how technologically advanced we become, no matter how independent, no matter how futuristic our communication tools, none of them will ever trump the power of a smile, a hug, a handshake at Mass or elsewhere, or a simple chat over a cup of tea. And biscuits only make it better.

Driving Me Round The Bend

Some useful tips to help you become a good driver, as published in the Mayo News on Tuesday 14th October.

I often wonder whose idea it was to start designating certain days and weeks as National Awareness ones. Whoever it was, I am truly grateful to them, because otherwise, I’d have nothing to write about. Last week was National Road Safety Awareness Week, so it feels timely to talk a little bit about driving.

Driving to me is a necessary evil; to be endured, not enjoyed. I do a lot of it, and because I am some kind of sadist who likes to make life as difficult as possible for myself, my commute takes me across Dublin city every morning, from Rathfarnham to Clontarf. This daily penance has made me wonder at times whether I am in fact actually Super Mario, trying to navigate a course with threats and obstacles appearing unexpectedly from all directions.

We all know bad driving, and sometimes we even drive badly ourselves, but I can confidently say that eight years of driving around Dublin has made me the best driver in the country, unlike everyone else around me. With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you some useful lessons I have learned over the course of my driving career. Only when you have successfully mastered all of the below are you considered a competent driver on the country’s roads.

ONE: Headlights are installed on your car as a means of decoration, and occasionally, they can help you to see when driving at night. They are not, of course, in any way meant to help you be seen by other motorists. This is why, under no circumstances, should you use them on a wet day while travelling on a three-lane motorway at 100kmph. This might mean that other motorists attempting to change lanes actually  have a chance of seeing you. The key thing to remember about using your headlights is that as long as YOU can see where you are going, nothing else matters.

TWO: Indicators have a similarly decorative purpose, and are to be used at your own discretion. Times to consider using them could include: changing lanes on a motorway, exiting a roundabout (in this case, it doesn’t really matter which indicator you choose) when overtaking, and pulling out of a car parking space into moving traffic, but these are all optional. Most Irish drivers are telepathic and already know your intentions, so don’t feel under any obligation to help them out. (I often marvel at the fact that there is as yet, no universal hand signal for “USE YOUR BLASTED INDICATORS! I think I might invent one.)

THREE: It is a prudent and efficient use of your time to continue your grooming routine behind the wheel of your car on your morning commute. This can include, but is not limited to, applying a full face of makeup, plucking your eyebrows, squeezing your spots, shaving, or brushing your teeth. Paying attention to surrounding traffic is optional while you embark on this crucial process to ensure that the sight of your 8am face does not scare the living bejaysus out of your colleagues.

FOUR: Good news, cyclists! You are completely exempt from adhering to any of the Rules of the Road. In fact, just do the opposite of everything the rules say and you’ll be grand. In particular, be sure to treat red lights as drivers treat green ones, and in what is a growing trend, cycle to the right of traffic so that you have double the chance to be indignant when they fail to spot you where they would normally expect to see you.  Apply the logic behind tips 1 and 2 above to the use of bicycle lights and hand signals. And treat drivers as The Enemy. (I cycle myself, so this of course gives me the authority to be judgemental of and self-righteous about other cyclists.)

FIVE: When you occasionally break free of the city and head west, ensure to bring the exemplary driving habits you have learned with you to the streets of Ballina and Westport. What Mayo needs more than anything is an influx of angry, impatient drivers, rolling their eyes and giving out about hesitant tourists and elderly pedestrians. In particular (and this is tried and tested), when driving around the dual lane system that blights the bridges of Ballina, be sure to use your horn liberally at anyone who does not understand the term “lane discipline”. This will surely result in a positive outcome and endear you to your fellow drivers.

So now that you have absorbed all of the above, you should now in theory be one of the best and safest drivers in the country. Off you go, do the opposite of everything I have written above and remember, once you are behind the wheel, you are never, ever wrong.

Happy motoring!

driving and shaving

F*m*n*sm – a dirty word?

Some light-hearted thoughts on feminsim I wrote for the Mayo News a few weeks back.

Readers of my online rantings will know that on my twitter biography, I describe myself as follows: “Trying to figure it all out, secretly hoping I never succeed. Researcher, feminist, dreamer, Mayo GAA nut, Mayo Club admin team, Mayo News columnist.” That pretty much sums up most of my existence in less than 140 characters, which is actually a bit alarming when you think about it.

But regardless of my Mayo and GAA allegiances, it’s the “feminist” part of my bio that seems to provoke the most reactions. Recently, before a game in Croke Park, the real world collided with the virtual and I was approached in by a beaming jersey-clad gentleman with an outstretched hand. “Howya Anne-Marie”, he said. “You probably don’t know me, but I follow you on twitter. I’m @MayoMan5000.” I’m always a bit embarrassed when I meet people from the internet in real life, because I give out so much on there, but sure enough, I recognised MayoMan5000 from his photo and we exchanged some niceties. (Incidentally, MayoMan5000 is not his real virtual name, and fortunately not his real name either.) We had the usual GAA pre-match chat. He predicted a 15 point win, I went with a more conservative two points; we were both sadly mistaken. Then the conversation veered wildly into the unexpected. “I hope you don’t mind me saying” says he, (proceeding regardless), “but I see on twitter you call yourself a feminist. Now, I must say, you don’t strike me as much of a feminist at all!” Surprised, and, I’ll admit, a little put out, I asked why on earth not. “Well look at you here”, he says. “Above in Croke Park, cheering on the men. Sure I thought all feminists hated men!” And with a loud guffaw, he was on his way back to the middle of the Cusack Stand to rejoin his companions, leaving me more than a little bewildered.

Feminism is one of those words that’s grown itself a bit of a bad reputation over the years, and has somehow managed associate itself with all sorts of ludicrous activities such as bra-burning and man-hating. Now let’s face it, anyone who has ever shopped for women’s underwear will know full well that bras are far too expensive to be setting alight at will, and frankly, man-hating is too impractical, given the amount of men hanging around the place. Feminism also tends to be labelled as “whiny”, “stereotyping”, “unglamorous”, “unfeminine” and “aggressive” to name but some. Really, being a feminist sounds deeply unpleasant. Why would anyone want to be one?

In reality, feminism can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it. Call me old-fashioned, but in my eyes, ultimately it boils down to this: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”. Now, that’s not so outlandish, is it? It’s hardly radical, and doesn’t merit the fear and contempt associated with the word, among men and women alike. It’s true that feminist debate can be contradictory and complex, sometimes even aggressive, and is intrinsically linked with all sorts of other issues such as gender, race, age, class, religion. Ultimately though, it’s about simple equality.

The fact remains that women are still not equally represented in either industry or politics. We are systematically paid less than men, and our childbearing potential is a barrier to career progression. Objectification of women is more common than ever, yet we are routinely prevented from making decisions about our own bodies. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t object to these facts, yet there is a real reluctance among us to identify as feminists. But the discussion must also acknowledge the tendency among women ourselves to judge each other – our bodies, our clothes, our life choices – we don’t make it easy for ourselves, either

There’s a very simple test you can take that determines whether or not you’re a feminist. You might preface it with, “I’m not a feminist, but …”, but if you’re asked the question “Do you believe that all human beings are equal?” and you answer “yes”, well then, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but I’m afraid you too are a feminist.

Welcome aboard, there’s nothing to be scared of – but do leave the matches at home.

A little note on #littlethings

Today sees the launch of the HSE’s new mental health promotion campaign, Little Things. The campaign is a new, positive wellbeing campaign, designed not quite as a suicide prevention measure, but rather, in order to help us to help ourselves and others through the normal, everyday dips in mood that most of us experience at some point in our lives. It’s about educating, empowering and equipping us to deal with tough times, and just as importantly, reminding us to reach out to others, who may be going through their own difficulties. Ultimately, the aim is early intervention, protection and prevention – stopping normal ‘dips’ from becoming more serious or long-term problems.

littlethings2

Disclaimer from the outset – I was involved in certain elements of the development of this campaign on a professional level. I found it a compelling and educational process, and speaking to members of the public about the new messaging and about mental health in general demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that people really want to make their own difference when it comes to mental health issues in Ireland, but that they’re not always comfortable with doing so. Males in particular freely admit that this is an area they sometimes struggle with, and would like to see conversation around it becoming more normal and acceptable – and less of a big deal.

What was really striking was just how difficult the terms “mental wellbeing” or “emotional wellbeing” were to grasp. Any discussion of mental health invariably reverts to the traditional mental ILL-health narrative, and the concept of looking after your mind, as you would your body, and taking a preventative approach as you would with your physical health, is still alien to many. As a matter of urgency therefore, we need to change that, start educating ourselves and being more proactive in this regard.

Secondly, and this is evident from looking at the #littlethings stream on twitter last night, particularly after Enda Kenny broke a twitter hiatus of almost four years to lend his support to the campaign, there is real anger out there. Fury that the government can be seen to get behind this campaign, yet fail the country so utterly when it comes to the provision of services to those in difficulty who urgently need them. The government, in this year’s “giveaway” budget had a golden opportunity to reinstate the €15million in funding that they whipped away from the “ringfenced” budget last year, yet chose not to do so. €15million is a relatively small sum in the grand scheme of things, especially when you bear in mind that €68m was allocated to the Horse and Greyhound fund (wait for it) “in recognition of the significant shortfall in funding going into the horse and greyhound sectors in recent years as a result of the downturn in the economy”. Public anger is therefore completely and utterly justified, and not for a second should this campaign be deemed a solution to the problems of severe mental ill-health and high suicide rates.

However, that is not to say there isn’t a place for a campaign like this – in fact, quite the opposite. Fixing our problems with mental ill-health in Ireland shouldn’t just consist of implementing suicide prevention measures. Rather, we should be speaking to people who sit on all points of the mental health spectrum – i.e., every one of us, at any given time. As Alan says in one of the TV ads (below) “Thoughts can become feelings if you let them” – a line that succinctly sums up how mental health issues can develop over time, and a decline in mental health can be gradual. You don’t normally just wake up one morning in severe difficulty – it typically happens over time. This campaign is therefore designed to interrupt, to educate, to empower, and to make us aware that there are things we can do for ourselves and others – things that are scientifically proven to have a positive effect – at an earlier stage that can turn the tide before we reach crisis point.

And critically, it should serve as a reminder that every single one of us has a role to play by reaching out to others who may be experiencing their own tough times. And even if they’re not, a little kindness can make an immeasurable difference to someone else’s wellbeing without you ever knowing. Take it from someone who knows.

little things

The campaign is launching today, so you’ll probably see it on your screens at some point this week.  On social media, follow @littlethingshub,  like yourmentalhealth.ie on Facebook, and feel free to share the little things that help you to mind your mind – they may well help others. Check out the newly designed website yourmentalhealth.ie – a “one stop shop” for information on mental health, wellbeing, and also, importantly a directory of support services of all types available throughout the country.

We all need to help each other to prevent suicide

Wednesday 10th September was World Suicide Prevention Day. There are now lots of days and weeks designated for mental health awareness, so much so that it’s starting to become a bit confusing, but I reckon there’s probably never a bad time to be reminded to mind your mind. Next Friday October 10th is World Mental Health Day. With these two dates in mind,  I wrote this column for the Mayo News on Tuesday 16th September.

Last Wednesday was World Suicide Prevention Day, a global day designated for raising awareness of suicide and suicide prevention. Traditionally shrouded in silence and shame, the stigma with which suicide was traditionally regarded in Ireland is being slowly cast aside. But as welcome as that is, it makes the consequences no less devastating, and indeed it is an occurrence with which many of us are all too painfully familiar. Recent statistics from the World Health Organisation suggest that at a global level, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate in Europe, and 475 people died this way last year. Over one a day. That’s a lot of grieving families, partners and friends.

Suicide is complex, as are the reasons behind it. There is, however an established link between suicide and mental ill-health, and we are finally starting to talk about it. The conversation has developed significantly in recent years, and we are slowly but surely moving towards a point where it is just as normal and acceptable to talk about your mental health (or ill-health – there is an important distinction) as it is your physical wellbeing. However, it truly is a case of a lot done, a lot more to do.

Crucially, the question people are starting to ask is “What can we do?” This is a welcome development, given the countless campaigns to raise awareness of suicide and depression. At this point, I think it’s fair to say we’re all well aware of the problem. Now what we need are solutions, and the truth is, every single one of us can make a difference. To put it bluntly, it’s high time we all looked in the mirror, and stepped up and took some responsibility for suicide prevention.

It’s all very well advising people struggling with their mental wellbeing to “reach out”, “get help” and “talk to someone”. That’s the overriding message, and yes, it’s good advice – more often than not, it will help. But as someone who has suffered in the past with mental ill-health, the fundamental problem with telling people who are struggling to “get help” is that it places all the onus on someone who is unwell to take that first step. What if, for a change, those who are well started doing some of the reaching out? When you’re in that dark place, when you’re so unwell that you’re starting to believe that not being alive at all would be preferable to living with unrelenting darkness, it’s common to withdraw and isolate yourself. “Just talking” to someone can seem like a mammoth task. When I experienced my first bout of depression over fourteen years ago, I didn’t leave my house for nearly two weeks. I needed someone to reach out to me, and I was one of the lucky ones – somebody did. I will forever be grateful to that person, because I owe them my life.

If we are serious about tackling suicide, we all need step up to the plate, and start being kinder to each other. We need to be cognisant of the fact that 1 in 4 of the people around us will be suffering from a mental health issue (mild or major) at any one time. Every single one of us at some point will experience emotional difficulties. We don’t know what others are dealing with in their day-to-day lives, and there may not be any signs. But there are lots of little things we can all do. A phone call, an email to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while; even a kind word to a stranger can make the world of difference. When you ask someone how they are, listen to their reply. Remind your loved ones that you love them.

If someone comes to you for help, it can be daunting, but don’t panic – you don’t need to be a professional to help; neither do you need to solve the problem. Just listen. For as little or as long as it takes. Hang in there; don’t give up on them. Believe me when I say that simply being there can be enough. [Update: If you do wish to equip yourself, the HSE ASIST course is an excellent free resource – read my account of it here.]

Let’s look in the mirror and take some responsibility here. Let’s as a community educate ourselves and be more thoughtful, supportive and kinder to each other. And let’s end this scourge on our society for once and for all.

270209_reachingout

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

My latest Mayo News column, published on Tuesday 2nd September.

Many years ago, as a newbie, I made a bit of a boo-boo at work. Now, it wasn’t a major catastrophe, but it was enough to cause me a sleepless night, and render a few days’ hard grind worthless. Crucially, it also meant that someone else had to intervene and help me clear up my mess. Only months into the probationary period of my new role, I decided that the obvious, clever thing to do was to absolve myself of as much responsibility as possible and just deny everything. Unfortunately, doing so meant that the problem took longer to fix, inconvenienced my colleagues and ultimately, earned me a bigger slap on the wrist.
It took me about 10 years to be able to laugh about it, but the biggest lesson I learned that day was that honesty is, in the long run, probably the best policy, and that admitting you’ve made a mistake can sometimes solve the problem faster.

liam O'neill
That incident sprang to mind last week amidst the furious reaction to the GAA’s decision to stage the All-Ireland Semi-Final replay in Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds. Because a lucrative American Football game had been scheduled for Croke Park, Mayo and Kerry footballers found themselves booted out of their national stadium and dispatched off west to replay the drawn game, like the inconveniences they apparently are. As the storm raged, the reaction of GAA HQ, and in particular President Liam O’Neill struck me. “It would be in Mayo’s best interests”, O’Neill proclaimed, “to get on with it and play the game and qualify for the final and hopefully, for them, end their barren spell.” This dismissive, incendiary statement added more fuel to the fire, and suddenly, all eyes were on O’Neill’s stewardship. On the back of the SKY deal and the Garth Brooks fiasco, the GAA – an organisation that prides itself on the fairness of which it distributes its funds – was suddenly looking like it was embracing its unofficial moniker, the Grab All Association, with O’Neill the Mr. Burns of the narrative. And the controversy raged on.

Imagine the alternative. Just think for a second, an imagine if O’Neill had come out, held his hands up and said “You know what? We messed up here. We’re sorry.” Two little words, too difficult to utter. Two little words, that might have quickly poured oil on troubled waters, placated two angry sets of supporters, absolved O’Neill and reassured players that contrary to what they might reasonably think, they are not at the bottom of the food chain. But “sorry” was a bridge too far.

As we know, however, the GAA are not alone in being sorry-shy. Government after Irish government has had to be shamed into apologising for past wrongs. (We’re still waiting for a heartfelt apology from the last one for derailing the country.) Indeed, in 2008, when they tried to whip medical cards off senior citizens in an effort to clean up their mess, the only person whose apology felt genuine was the Green Party’s Ciaran Cuffe (for all the good that did). More recently, it took James Reilly a year and a local election to apologise for the hardship inflicted on thousands of families in the wake of this medical card debacle. Ex-Justice Minister Alan Shatter was particularly resistant to the word. Both men are no longer in their roles – coincidence? Luis Suarez apologised for ‘BiteGate’ No. 3 only when he had exhausted all his other ridiculous excuses. RTE Radio 1 were recently forced into a half-baked apology when a tweet painted them in a homophobic light. (Incidentally, “We apologise if you were offended” is not an apology. “We are sorry, we made a mistake, and this will not happen again” – now that’s an apology.)

It often feels that as a society, while we teach our children that “owning up” and saying sorry is better in the long run, as adults, we ourselves are conditioned to avoid apologising.

It seems that sorry really is the hardest word.

Women – still the poor relation when it comes to sport?

My second column for the Mayo News, published on 19th August 2014

Two weeks ago, prior to the Mayo vs. Cork All-Ireland quarter final, I took part in a pre-recorded interview on a local radio sports show. The conversation covered a lot – the game, our prospects of victory and the role supporters might play on the day. After the interview was aired, a panellist on the show expressed his delight at a woman offering a strong, constructive opinion on sport. It was good to hear, he said, because for too long we’ve been in the background, making the tea and sandwiches. It was time we were heard. I’m paraphrasing here, and it made me smile as I’ve no doubt it was said with the best of intentions, but it got me thinking. In a supposedly equal society, have we really only come this far?

Discussion of women in sport has come to the fore recently, due in no small part to the Republic of Ireland reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA U19 Championships, and the heroic passage of the Irish Women’s Rugby team to the World Cup semi-final, beating New Zealand en route. Ticking a box the Irish men yet haven’t, you’d have anticipated that the achievement would merit serious coverage. Indeed, there were features, interviews; they even made some front pages. But what garnered the most publicity for female rugby during this period was a breathtakingly puerile article published in the Sunday Independent, laced with the same stereotypes and tired sexual innuendo that women in sport have endured for decades. Dispatched to a club training session to report, the writer started with some infantile titillation, and enlightened us by insisting that her teammates for the evening were “not butch, masculine, beer-swilling, men-hating women” (a cliché most of us thought had died sometime in the 1980s) who would never dream of gracing the field without make-up. No reference to training schedules, dietary requirements, competitions – anything that might have given the public an insight into the world of women playing competitive sport. Another opportunity missed.

The status of women in the sports world is depressingly predictable. Like in so many other spheres, the primary focus is typically appearance. Women are expected to look well while excelling on the field; and this focus on women’s bodies as opposed to athletic prowess is representative of a damaging societal norm outside sport, where women are constantly objectified. Even as supporters, you’d think women existed purely to enhance the scenery, as the relentless pick-a-pretty-face-in-the-crowd shots during Wimbledon and the World Cup demonstrated. (PervCam, I called it.) It’s actually a miracle there were women at the World Cup at all, given the plethora of advertising aimed at “World Cup Widows” in June. You’d be forgiven for thinking that football was an oestrogen-free zone, despite the fact that global viewership of the last World Cup was over 40% female.

Speaking of which, media coverage of “women’s sport” is tiny, relative to “men’s sport”. (Incidentally, isn’t all just … sport?) It’s a chicken and egg argument. Some will maintain that without media coverage, it’s hard to attract people to the games and build an audience.  The counter-argument insists you can cover as many women’s games as you like, but you can’t force people to care. Part of the attraction of sport is the shared experience – being part of a crowd or community. Therefore until crowds and interest grow, women in sport will be battling for coverage. How do we find out what actually works, unless we try? Though, when so much coverage centres on aesthetics over sport, is there even any point? Indeed, perhaps it’s not even up to the media to promote.  Should sporting bodies themselves not be marketing their own games? Then we’re back to a funding and resourcing argument, and we all know how that goes.

It’s not always easy to put your money where your mouth is, either – take the GAA for example. As a an eternal optimist, I’ve had the men’s semi-final weekend in my diary for six months, so barring a disaster, I’ll be in the Cusack Stand on Sunday supporting Mayo. Last Saturday, when the Mayo Ladies played Cork in the All-Ireland quarter final in Tullamore, the time and venue were announced on Monday, just five days prior to the game. Not ideal.

But times are changing. More female voices are talking sport on our airwaves. Respect and regard is among the public is growing.  It was heartening to see the furious backlash against that Sunday Independent article, when a mere five years ago, it would barely have raised an eyebrow. Even more heartening was that many of the objections came from men.

Sisters may have being doing it for themselves for a long, long time, but it’s good to see we’re finally getting somewhere.

#100HappyDays Day 5 – a new venture

The piece below with a Mayo theme was first published in the newly redesigned Mayo News on 5th August 2014 as an introduction for my new column, titled An Cailín Rua, which will be appearing every two weeks from now on in that fine publication. I’m really delighted to be working alongside such a great team for a paper of which I’ve been a big fan for a long time. 

My name is Anne-Marie, and I am an exile!

It’s been a while since I lived in Mayo. That’s purely by design; sixteen years ago, as soon as I finished school, I packed my bags and hit the road out of Mayo as fast as my legs could carry me. Brighter lights beckoned, the world was waiting and I didn’t look back. Back then, being from a small village in North Mayo felt stifling and restrictive, with nothing to do and nothing to see. Being elsewhere meant freedom and discovery.

It’s been an interesting few years. They’ve brought me around the world, through a couple of colleges, across a spectrum of employment, with a wonderful variety of people. They brought me up the walls and around the bend more than once too. I wouldn’t change much.

For many of those years, Mayo felt distant. Other places started to feel like home. And while I never minded going back, I didn’t mind leaving either. It’s funny, though, as time passes how your perspective changes. (I think it’s called getting old.) After a few years living in the capital, more and more, I find myself craving the slower pace of life of the West. Now, feeling stifled and restricted means traffic jams and long hours at a desk. Freedom and discovery, on the other hand means the mountains and rivers and wide open spaces of home.

Living in the capital isn’t all bad, of course. I’m one of the lucky ones. I have friends here and a decent standard of living and I’m not exactly far from home. The three-hour drive from Dublin to Mayo pales in comparison to the trips home friends working abroad must endure. Friends who, out of necessity, have left their families and are working on the other side of the world to earn a living and build a future for their children. I have a decent job I enjoy with patient, understanding colleagues who tolerate my need to talk relentlessly about GAA for the first hour of every Monday. And I’m a hop, skip and a jump away from Croke Park, which comes in very handy in this glorious era of Mayo football. B&B is in demand, so book early!

Technology, too, makes it so easy now to stay in touch. The internet ensures we can read the local papers, listen to the local radio, and hear the local news. It struck me the other day that I probably now know more about Mayo now than I ever did when I actually lived there. Social media makes it so much easier to be a GAA fan away from home, too – the news, chatter and gossip you’d only have heard on the street or in the pub at home fifteen years ago are now at your fingertips online, and all Mayo exiles scattered around the world, from Sligo to Saudi Arabia can join the conversation. So while you might not be at home to savour the build-up to a big game like last week’s, it’s the next best thing.

Speaking of which, we really are everywhere, we Mayo people. We get around. My work in research takes me all around the country, and last week I found myself driving through Co. Kilkenny. As I rounded the corner into a tiny village called Crettyard, there high outside a house, flying proudly beside the obligatory Kilkenny flag was our very own green and red. I nearly drove into a wall in excitement. I love the comfort of seeing traces of home in unexpected places around the country and further afield, and during the summer I don’t think there’s another county that shows off its colours quite so proudly. And GAA plays such a strong role in Mayo – It’s a part of our identity, our DNA, and it goes far beyond sport, connecting us no matter where we are. (Incidentally, that day I met a Kilkenny person that day that didn’t like hurling. Who knew such a person existed?)

So while one day I know I’ll be back for good, for now I like knowing that no matter where you go, you’re never too far away. Maybe it’s my advancing years; maybe I’m just getting sentimental. Or maybe there’s some truth in the notion that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Either way, I’ve learned over the years that there’s just no place like home.

Cliffs at Ballycastle, Co. Mayo

The short, desperate life of Mariora Rostas

This would break your heart. And it’s a stark reminder of the fact that while we might dismiss certain sectors of our society that they are fighting their own battles, far more than we can ever know.

Philip Boucher-Hayes

Alan Wilson will never again stand trial for the murder of Mariora Rostas. Given the difficulties in getting the case this far it’s doubtful anybody will ever again stand in the dock accused of ending this girls life.

Why this injustice should rankle quite as much as it does is hard to say. Justice denied to the family of any victim, or the memory of that victim diminishes the entire justice system. Perhaps though it is that Mariora was so completely failed by everything in the course of her short life that this last attempt to do right by her is a disappointment that is particularly hard to stomach.

I have reported from Palestinian refugee camps, the squats of migrant Africans in abandoned railroad warehouses, sink estates in Eastern Europe and drug dens in Central America. I have never been as shocked by somebody’s living conditions, though until I went to…

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#100HappyDays Day 5 – Ulster Final Pretender

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a Mayowoman through and through, and that everywhere I go, I dream of green and red. But I have a fondness for Donegal, and have spent many a happy day and night in that little piece of heaven with the best people you will ever meet.

(I also like Donegal people because they were sound when they won the All-Ireland in 2012 and were happy to party the night away with us losers without actually making us feel like losers. I think it’s called being gracious in victory. Or being drunk.)

Anyway, when the opportunity presented itself to hit Clones for last weekend’s Ulster Final, the bandwagon jumper in me was only raring to go. Day 5 of 100 Happy Days was one of those sunny summer Sundays we GAA fans live for.It was a bit of a last-minute decision, but the day started out like they always do.

Up early, get in the good solid breakfast (Superquinn sausages come into their own on match days), pack the bag with gear for all eventualities (sunscreen, poncho, snow shoes), get on the phone to sort out the tickets, get the colours ready, proceed to the meeting point. Sean and Gerry pick us up at 12.30 and away we go. we arrive in Clones through a sea of blue and white flags, after a very thorough analysis of the impending football fare all the way from the M50. Some of us are feeling a bit ropey after last night’s late night. It’s good to get out of the car.

We pay a fiver and park in a field.

“Pull in there in front of that car. Yeah, yeah, there.”

“But there’s a line of cars behind us, we’ll be blocking them in.”

“No, no yer grand there”.

Fine.

We walk a mile, chatting away. and another bit. When we arrive in the town, Clones is heaving. I’ve never seen anything like it.  The streets are thick with people – thousands spilling onto the streets in a sea of green and gold and white and blue, pints in hand, sunglasses on head. Everyone in Ulster must surely be here.

“It’s like the Fleadh Ceoil”, Gerry says.

We don’t hang around, and we fly on through the town towards the ground, because the minors are playing. I run into a Donegal friend, briefly pause for a hug and a quick hello, but I can’t stop, I have to keep moving. I tell him I’ll see him later.

Arrive in St. Tiernagh’s Park. Of course, all four of us are sitting different sides of the ground. That’s what you get when you only sort out your tickets on the morning of the game. I don’t mind, though. I quite like paddling my own canoe at GAA games; invariably, it works out well. And you’re always going to be in good hands with Monaghan and Donegal people.

The minors have just finished when I take my seat – a wooden bench on the half-way line. Nice spot. A handsome win for Donegal. Mayo are playing the losers, Armagh in two weeks, so I’m sorry I didn’t catch some of it. But I hear enough from those around me to make me feel quietly confident.

There’s a teenager with flowing blonde hair and the shortest of denim cut-offs selling Maxi-Twists out of a cardboard box.

“Anyone for ice-cream?” she calls, half-heartedly. “Free spoon!”

It’d be rude not to.

The teams emerge to a crescendo of noise. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Compared to MacHale Park last week, this is a pressure cooker of noise. These supporters know how to make themselves seen and heard and they’re far from shy and retiring. The way it should be. It’s loud. Me, I’m sitting back. I just enjoy being in this special place, watching as an outsider. It’s the most relaxed I’ve been at a football game in months. Today, I can’t lose. I’ve my green and gold headband on for the day, but despite my affinity for the North Westerners, I feel a bit more neutral than I look.

It’s s a scrappy, frustrating, low-scoring first half. Ugly football, but it’s intense and hard fought. There is colour and there is noise and there are hard knocks and tempers fray on the grass and in the stands. The referee, one Maurice Deegan, is not a popular man. The air turns blue more than once.

“Put on the jersey, Deegan why don’t ya? Sure you might just kick a point yerself for them while you’re at it!”

Half time, we stand to stretch the legs, and watch the Tyrone team of ’89 take to the field receive presentations (we beat them in the semi-final that year, I recall). The lady beside me asks where I’m from. I tell her, and she smiles. That smile of pity we’ve come to see and recognise a mile off.

“Ye’ll do it this year, surely. We’re all praying ye’ll do it this year.”

This, from a woman, supporting a Donegal team, who, midway through the second half, are asserting themselves as serious contenders for a second All-Ireland in three years, depending on which pundit you listen to. And she’s praying for us to win. Sometimes I wish we’d win it to hell, just to put every other county out of their misery too.

We’re back. Donegal are pulling away, stamping their authority. Ryan McHugh is sublime. He’s not missing his brother, on the field at least. Big Neil Gallagher is running himself into the ground. Frank McGlynn looks like he’s spent the past month on Copacobana Beach, he’s that brown and energised. But they don’t have it all their own way. Vinnie Corey is keeping manners on Michael Murphy, who unusually hasn’t scored once from play. And Dick Clerkin is not giving up without a fight. Literally.

49 minutes in, and Monaghan get a goal. The stand around me erupts in blue and white and cheers.

But the Donegal fans respond. They shout,  they admonish, they bellow, and St. Tiernach’s reverberates to the sound of “Don-e-gal .. (clap clap clap) Don-e-gal!” They’re the 16th man, without a doubt. The men in green and gold quickly regain composure, and start to turn the screw. Monaghan can’t get close enough to score, and they shoot wide after futile wide. The stewards are called into place, and patrons are implored through the speakers not to enter the field of play once the whistle has gone. You’ll see the presentation from where you’re sitting, we’re told. Grim-faced blue and white clad men stride up the steps, head down, heading for the exits. They’ve seen enough.

It’s all over, and around me, and the roof lifts. (There’s no roof, but I couldn’t think of a better way of putting it.) There are scenes of sheer, unadulterated ecstasy. They’re jumping in the aisles, they’re hugging each other. It’s like they’ve never won a game in their lives and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s super. They swarm down the steps, towards the field. They’re not taking no for an answer It’s not long before the tannoy man is instructing the stewards to open the gate. There’s a roar of approval.

On they flood, onto the field, where they belong. This army of football fanatics. They hang off Michael Murphy’s every word, as he thanks the supporters for playing their part.  And the Anglo-Celt trophy is held aloft to the familiar strains of the “Hills of Donegal”, and Donegal is partying in Monaghan’s back yard. Tír Chonaill abú!  I feel envious that I can only look on from the outside.

We swarm back up towards town. Hordes and hordes of happy and not so happy people stream down the hill towards Creightons. The sun is still shining, and the beer is still flowing. It’ll be a good afternoon regardless. Donegal have won their third Ulster in four years, and Monaghan are not out yet. So it’s not over.

Though my phone is dead, we manage to regroup with ease at the meeting pint. Sarah, Gerry and Sean are smiling. The form is good. We hang around for a pint and to savour the moment, and as we make our way up town and bump into a bigger crew. Everyone’s smiling. We’re in no rush. We’ll let the traffic go.

We make our way back to the field. It’s almost empty. There’s just two cars left. Ours, and the car behind us. Oops.

It’s an easy trip back when you’ve won, and the passengers sit back contentedly. Eyes are closing and heads are dropping in the back as we hit the motorway. (Mine.) We arrive back as the sun is starting to fade, grab some food and it’s home to take it easy, and relive it all on the small screen.

It’s been a great day. And a happy one.

Ulster Final 2014

Until next time …