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.

Some losses stay with you forever; etched on your mind to be replayed in the finest of detail, decades later. Sounds and smells and flashes of memory like stills from a movie. Others linger restfully in the back of your mind as memories fade to warm tones, like an old photograph. The details become blurred, the memories less vivid, as time separates you. Only the sense of affection remains, as solid as ever.

Looking back is important. Reflecting on what we’ve had and what we now miss, and what we gained in the first place. And remembering the lives of our loved ones departed also carries with it the gentle reminder that we are ourselves only here for a brief visit.

In the day-to-day, it’s easy to get bogged down in routine. It’s simple to get sucked into a rut, to succumb to job or personal pressures, and find yourself feeling stressed, drained and exhausted. In the pursuit of the pound, the pressure to put food on the table and pay the bills, life can sometimes become a vicious circle. Get up in the morning, go to work. Skip lunch. Stay late at your desk. Feel a bit like you’re drowning. It’s also easy to start believing that you’re indispensable. But no-one is, and that’s a fact.

Make no mistake, if any of us were run over by a bus (heaven forbid!) in the morning, the world would keep turning without us. Life would go on. The most that might happen is that those following us might be mildly inconvenienced by the mess in which we’ve left our desks and our affairs, but that’s it. In time, we too will become a memory in someone’s mind, fading to sepia as the years go by.

And that’s why, on days like these when the sun is shining, while the scent of the flowers fills the air that you sometimes have to just say, right; that’s it. No work today. Instead, it’s a day to turn off the laptop, divert the calls, pack up the car and drive to the beach or the mountains and breathe and soak in the beauty of it all. And really, what’s the worst that could happen?

For when all is said and done, when you’re lying on your death bed, if you’re lucky enough to have a chance to reflect, it’s not the days sitting at your desk or behind the wheel of your car that you’ll look back on with joy in your heart. It’ll be the rare days you broke the mould, the hours you spent making memories with your dear ones. The days you kicked caution into touch, ditched the mundanity of routine and embarked on an adventure somewhere new and unknown. The time you threw yourself off the pier into a freezing cold sea, the time you climbed a mountain at night, marvelling at the moonlit lakes, the night you camped beside a lake gazing at a star-filled sky. The time you decided that going on an almighty session on a Sunday night was a fine idea, or that just staying in bed with the curtains closed on a Monday morning was the best thing you could possibly do.

The best tribute we can pay to those who have gone before us is to live life well, to the best of our ability. Milk it for all it’s worth. Don’t sweat the small stuff; but keep sight of the little things that make it worthwhile. And most of all, every once in a while, take some time out to smell the roses.

This column first appeared in The Mayo News on 9th May 2017.

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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).

Now 15 years old, this valuable document pre-dates some seismic changes in Irish society, and groups working in the area of domestic and sexual violence have been calling for an updated SAVI to be produced, at a cost of approximately €1m. Minister Fitzgerald had committed to the report, after telling civil servants that she believed that such work was important, due to questions raised about the validity of Garda statistics.

The government is now insisting that the research is unnecessary, and that data collected by bodies such as Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) and Rape Crisis Centres suffices. They conveniently neglect, however to mention that until 2015, Rape Crisis Network Ireland managed a “best-in-class” data collection system, which gathered data from services users in most rape crisis centres in Ireland. Consistently falling between the remit of two government departments, responsibility for RCNI was delegated to TUSLA, who promptly withdrew funding for the data collection system, insisting they could do it themselves.

RCNI and other bodies have consistently raised concerns about TUSLA’s system, on grounds that it cannot guarantee anonymity and therefore compromises survivor safety – a further deterrent to reporting. The last SAVI report revealed that crimes of sexual crimes against men and women are significantly under-reported, in many cases due to fear of the consequences of reporting.   Only last year, TUSLA were forced to remove such a report from their website amidst privacy concerns. Meanwhile, in a statement released on 23rd October – which makes for incredibly grim reading – RCNI have confirmed that they cannot now afford to publish their own 2016 report – this being data upon which the government will apparently be relying to formulate policy. You couldn’t make it up.

This latest, scandalous incident is just further proof of the contempt with which the State views our most vulnerable, and those who are often least equipped to defend themselves. Bear also in mind also the consistent and undeniable recurring theme of unduly lenient sentences for crimes of sexual violence and violence against women. Rape survivor Niamh Ní Dhomhaill hit the nail squarely on the head when she suggested that the government was wilfully ignoring the scale of sexual violence, as to quantify it would necessitate taking action to address it. There can be no other explanation.

It was confirmed over the weekend by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, that the funding SAVI was dropped on the advice of the Department of Justice in favour of “providing free legal aid for people who are victims of domestic violence”.  This pathetic excuse would be almost amusing in its lack of ambition and proactivity if the consequences were not so dreadfully serious, and if lives were not being damaged every day, but it is truly heartening to know that the €5m (the equivalent of five SAVI’s, you know) spent on the Department of the Taoiseach’s new spin doctor service (“The Strategic Communications Department”) is being put to good use already. Good old Ireland, eh?

****

It would be terribly remiss of me to conclude this column without paying tribute to the late Neill O’Neill. Two weeks on, I am still struggling to process the fact that he is no longer with us. My last contact with Neill was on the Monday afternoon hours before his death, and it seems so wrong and unnatural that someone brimming with life and drive, so full of plans should not be here. I will be forever grateful for Neill for giving me the opportunity to write with the Mayo News, and my deepest sympathies go to his partner Emma, and to his family, colleagues and friends, and I wish them strength and courage to face the difficult times ahead and hope it has been of comfort to them to hear just how loved and respected he was by his community, and by those of us from further afield.  Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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. Happily, it’s not because of workday drudgery – I’m lucky enough to have a job I adore, even though it takes up more time than is ideal – or time spent on a soulless commute. Rather, it appears it’s down to my rather worrying inability to say no. But life’s short, right? And when there are fun things to be done, there’s no time like the present to jump in and take part.

These days, when I write, it’s mostly for work, either in the day job, or for The Mayo News. Speaking of which, here’s (a slightly edited version) of the latest column, on just one of the things that’s filling my time.


 

Back in January, you may remember me sharing my new year’s resolutions in this column. As usual, mere weeks later I can barely remember these virtuous aspirations. The road to hell, and all that.

One thing I do remember however, is resolving to become a better runner.

Now, we must bear in mind that the bar was pretty low, given that I’d only run three times in the previous six months. One of those times was from car to house to escape a shower. Any progress on this front, therefore, was a guaranteed win. At the time, I think I may have harboured ambitious notions of running five kilometres every day for the month of January. That wasn’t at all delusional, was it? Looking back, I can’t help wondering whether I was still under the influence of the Christmas cheer when I signed up for that challenge, but needless to say, it didn’t happen.

Before you scoff, however, it wasn’t a total disaster. While I didn’t run every day (I mean, really, who was I kidding?) I did manage (mostly out of shame) to pull on my runners at least every two or three days. And something unexpected happened. Over the course of the weeks, I started to feel fitter. Now, this of course may to a normal person seem like a natural progression, but remember, we are not dealing with a typical athlete here. By the end of January, I found I could run those five kilometres without needing an ambulance on standby. I even started to enjoy it.  Somehow, in failing to achieve what I set out to do, I discovered my running mojo. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Of course, having reached these dizzy heights of achievement, the thrill started to wear off. I was craving a bigger hit, a stronger high. So I went and did what any notoriously flaky runner would do. I signed up for a half-marathon, obviously.

Look, I can only conclude that I’m in the midst of a mid-life crisis. For thirty-odd years I have regarded long-distance running with suspicion, much like the way a dog will look at a curled-up hedgehog or a child will look at an electric fence – with the assumption that by going there, there will inevitably be pain. I’ve always thought those people who ran distances for fun were a bit mad. Now, I suddenly want to be one of them? Anyway, seduced by the prospect of actually achieving something worth bragging about in 2017, I signed on the dotted line, victory speech already in mind.

Beautiful blonde woman running along the riverside

What I do not look like when running. 

Three weeks in, and I won’t lie – it’s daunting. I’ve entered a whole new world of jargon and terminology I never knew existed. Aerobic pace and anaerobic pace and lactate threshold and marathon heart rate and high intensity training zones. Luddite-like, I don’t even own a sports watch and the thought of learning how to use one stresses me out more than the thought of running thirteen miles. (THIRTEEN MILES. Mother of God.) The soles are about to fall out of my year-old running shoes and I can’t seem to dress for the weather, no matter what I wear. I’ve committed to training four times a week, and the sessions are already ominously long. I’m afraid of getting injured, getting bored, or just becoming a bore. But, barring disaster, I am seeing this out if it kills me. (God, I really hope it doesn’t kill me.)

 

Already though, the bug is biting. Last weekend, I ran an unprecedented (for me) 14 kilometres, and I swear, I felt like an Olympian. A very slow, very sweaty Olympian with old lady feet. But I’ve started to believe I might be able to do this.

D-day is the River Moy Half Marathon on 13th May. It’s on home ground, so should be special. I’ve decided not to set any timing targets, so there’s no pressure. Frankly, I don’t care how long it takes – I just want to cross the line. I also want to be one of those people who nonchalantly wears the souvenir top that subtly, smugly tells people I ran 13 miles (13 whole miles!) without dying.

I’ve learned a few things along the way; I’ve learned that if you run slowly, you’ll always get there eventually. I’ve learned that motivation comes in very different forms for different people. I’ve learned that encouraging oneself aloud on tougher runs may earn some funny looks, but is well worth the ridicule – whatever gets you through. I’ve learned that I feel happier in my head when I’m running regularly. I’ve learned that the support and encouragement of a group is invaluable. And I’ve learned that a long run in good company is the very definition of time well spent.

It’ll be an interesting journey. Here’s hoping it’s not the road to hell, in every sense of the word.

I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

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.

Volunteerism is what makes the world go round in rural Ireland. From festivals to football games, funerals to fun runs, the success of community initiatives depends on people giving up their time, their energy and often their money, to work for free. They give up their time with their kids to go to meetings; they leave the fireside on dark, rainy winter nights to sit in community centres. They dream and aspire and plan and toil to make their communities better places to live. And it’s damn hard work.

Sometimes they don’t get it right. But you know what? At least they’re trying.

Volunteering is a double-edged sword. If you put yourself out there and put your neck above the parapet, you will be recognised and thanked for it. At the same time, you’ll probably be criticised if something goes wrong – usually by the perennial hurlers on the ditch who never lift a finger to contribute themselves. And volunteerism isn’t sunshine, lollipops and rainbows either. Working with a committee with people of differing opinions can be really challenging. There are times when you’ll have blazing rows, you’ll run out of patience and you’ll feel like throwing in the towel. Sometimes you will. But the sense of achievement you’ll get from being part of a successful event, and giving something back to your homeplace will generally far outweigh that – it’s a feel-good factor like no other.

I’ve heard it suggested that sometimes volunteers are only “in it for the glory”, for the ego boost, to make themselves look or feel good. And to that I say – if they are, fair play to them. There are far easier ways to get your ego boosted. And if contributing to your community makes you feel good, I can think of worse drugs to be taking.

Volunteering is a masterclass in compromising, listening and learning. The boss in the day job reminds me occasionally: “Being right is nothing – getting it right is everything”.  He’s good with the lines, but there’s truth in it. You might disagree with someone nine times out of ten, but if you can find that 10 per cent of common ground, everyone benefits. Learning to put aside the ego when you’re not getting paid isn’t easy, but speaking for myself, I’ve found it’s good to be reminded now and again that I don’t in fact, know everything and am occasionally wrong about stuff.

One thing that’s struck me since moving back west is the age profile of community volunteers. At every community meeting or event I attend, with a few notable exceptions, the people giving up their time to help out seem to be the people that have been doing so for the past 25 years. Where’s the new blood? Where are the twentysomethings and the thirtysomethings? Many of those who have been active in their community for years are getting tired and jaded, and want to pass the baton on, but are often left standing on the line for the want of a replacement. And that needs to change.

But maybe sometimes, it’s just a simple matter of picking up the phone and asking someone to help, or telling them what you need. Joining a committee or putting yourself out there can be daunting; sometimes a bit of encouragement is all it takes. And at the end of the day, we all like to feel wanted.

The concept of community is continuing to evolve, but increasingly, it feels like we are becoming less integrated and more isolated. But if you live in a community and avail of its facilities, its public spaces, its amenities, you have a responsibility to contribute to that community.

And who knows? You might even enjoy it.

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on 16th August 2016. 

 

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.

“Consent” with regard to sexual relations seems like a pretty obvious concept; it implies that both or all parties have given their permission or are partaking willingly in sexual activity. It also means that ‘no’ means exactly that – no.

23 years ago, in another seismic moment for Irish women, Lavinia Kerwick became the first rape victim in Ireland to waive her anonymity when her rapist was given a suspended sentence. The 18 year-old was raped by her then boyfriend, William Conry after attending a disco in Kilkenny. The couple walked to the grounds of Kilkenny Castle grounds and lay down together, where they talked for a while, then, despite her protests, Conry started getting rough and raped Kerwick.

In court, Mr Justice Fergus Flood said there had been “a high degree of intimacy” between the two, and that Conry was now contrite. In description of evidence given by a sergeant, he said that “things got out of hand and just went too far”. This language suggests that the judge felt the events were beyond Conry’s control. An attitude – highly unflattering towards men, it must be said – that persists to a certain degree to this day.

I distinctly remember being in a room of adults where a heated discussion took place about the case. I recall a majority of the people – men and women – protesting that it wasn’t Conry’s fault. By wearing what she wore – a black top, black velvet mini and a red jacket – and by going alone with her boyfriend to this dark place, Lavinia Kerwick was “asking for it”.

These Neanderthal attitudes are what shaped many a generation’s attitude to sex and consent. Popular culture for years has espoused the notion that when women say no, it doesn’t really mean no – look at any James Bond movie or Indiana Jones movie for examples. In fact, men were legally permitted to rape their wives in Ireland until 1990. Combine this with the traditional Catholic shame associated with sex and the lack of basic sex education available to young people, and you have the makings of a sick society.

The question of consent doesn’t just apply to interactions between individuals, however. The State itself routinely shows contempt for consent when it comes to women. Tusla for example, funds a number of rape crisis centres in Ireland. According to Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the funding contracts between Tusla and the RCCs explicitly require access to information gathered from survivors by the centres. Outrageously, the State contracts specify that if the consent of the survivor to any such disclosure is needed, RCCs will have to obtain it – or breach the funding agreement. Such an outrageous stipulation makes a mockery of the notion of consent and in doing so, further violates survivors.

Add to this the fact that the State can also legally compel women to give birth against our wills by preventing us from accessing abortion services, or from travelling to obtain one (in the case of migrants). It has also subsequently forced women to involuntarily undergo Caesarean sections. Just this week, the HSE sought an order to force a pregnant woman at risk of uterine rupture to have a Caesarean section against her will, to vindicate the right to life of her unborn child – who was legally represented in court – a situation that arose as a direct result of the 8th amendment. Thankfully, the court ruled it would be a step too far to order a forced C-section, regardless of the risk to both.

The screening of “Asking For It” on a national channel brings the conversation on consent into the mainstream like never before. But is it any wonder Ireland has a problem with the concept, when women are reminded repeatedly from all sides that their bodies are not their own?

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

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.