#100HappyDays Day Four – Tea’s still better

The thunder and rain woke me this morning at 5.50am, but I didn’t mind too much, because there are few things I enjoy as much as a good cleansing thunderstorm and a tropical shower. And today was Friday, a fact which in itself usually suffices to make it a happy day. Despite being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at stupid o’clock, though, I still managed to be late for work. Go figure.

Because it was lashing so hard, at lunchtime I wrote off the prospect of any outdoor activity, booked cinema tickets and was secretly happy. Naturally, that ensured that the rain stopped instantly, the sun re-emerged and it became one of the nicest, sunniest evenings of the year. (You’re welcome. Anyway, I stuck to my plans. We went to see Boyhood, which is a really lovely piece of work and well worth seeing.

On my way to the IFI, this made me smile.

coffee

Tea’s still better, though. 🙂

Until next time …

#100HappyDays Day 3 – Pavement Pounding

Today was a normal, run of the mill day, if there is such a thing. Nothing remarkable happened in my world, and I didn’t leave my desk until 8pm.

But the day wasn’t over.  These days I find myself craving the countryside more and more, but you can’t go out for a four-mile walk by the river at 10pm in the country, even on a gorgeous summer’s night like this, and feel safe. So I guess you win this one, Dublin.

walk by dusk

 

#100HappyDays – Day Two

Day 2 of 100. A bit daunting looking 98 days ahead, but I have just proved that I have two days’ staying power which for me, is not bad.

So, full of enthusiasm for this new undertaking I spent today looking for things that might make me feel happy. By 2pm I was starting to get a bit worried that I might be dead inside.

I’m not sure that this is how it’s meant to work but by 4pm, I figured if happiness wasn’t going to me, I would have to go to it. So I picked up the phone and booked a yoga class.

When I first moved to Dublin and was finding my feet in a new city, with a new job, new housemates (three lovely, handsome but hopelessly and worryingly undomesticated guys), a new social life, a rather unstable relationship, an equally unstable car complete with two L-plates, yoga was what kept me between the hedges. (Metaphorically speaking, that is. Behind the wheel was another story.) Two hours, two nights a week to shut out everything and simply concentrate on not dislocating something, not falling on my face, not falling asleep during Shavasana and not farting during child’s pose  (it has happened to someone, in nearly every class I have ever attended, but never me) was enough to distract me from all the pressures of the outside world. Total bliss.

In a world that’s getting increasingly frantic, where it’s hard to “disconnect” or get time away from computer and phone screens, there is something very healing about shutting out the noise, concentrating only on your own breathing, using your body, and appreciating how remarkable it is. And for ten minutes at the end, you lie flat on your back with your eyes closed, slow your breathing and relax all of your muscles and take some time out to spend inside your own mind. It’s precious downtime for your brain and for your body, something we don’t always make time to give ourselves. When done, you thank yourself for that time. Which is nice.

I’d fallen out of the yoga habit over the past couple of years. Last week I tried to touch my toes, only to discover that my hamstrings have apparently shrunk by about a foot and I could barely reach my knees.

So tonight I took myself off , right back to the start to a beginner’s class. To my delight I managed conduct myself with relative dignity throughout and emerged relatively unscathed, having only injured myself mildly by dropping a cork block on my toe.

I think that’s a success, and therefore qualifies as today’s moment of happiness.

To illustrated this momentous milestone, here’s a photo of my feet on my yoga mat.

Yoga feet

I told you I was a rubbish photographer.

And I apologise for making you look at my feet.

Tomorrow’s photo will be nicer, I promise. Until then …

#100HappyDays

Happiness is a funny thing, isn’t it? Sometimes it feels like you have to work so much harder for it than other feelings. Like being worried, upset, sad or hungover. They all seem to happen pretty effortlessly. But happiness requires a whole lot of hard work sometimes.

When I think about happiness, I often think about Oscar Wilde and the story of the Nightingale and the Rose:

“Ah, on what little things does happiness depend! I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine, yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched.”

Poor old Oscar – and the poor old nightingale. It’s a great story. And there’s a certain truth in it about never being quite satisfied with what you have (or where you are), and always seeking something else in the name of happiness.

I’ve been feeling a bit on the blue side lately. Nothing serious, but a sustained run of feeling a bit less happy and infinitely less enthusiastic than I’d like. And I’m bored of it. When I go through a grey patch I find that I get to a stage where frankly, I get a bit sick of myself , and it’s at that stage I decide I have to make changes, in order to avoid actually breaking up with myself.  (That’s a whole other post that I won’t bore you with, but suffice to say, there are lists being written and plans being hatched in the background. Which is good.)

Anyway, in an effort to remind myself that Things Are Not All That Bad, and that I have  lots of things to be happy about, I figured that keeping a note of the good things would be a good start.  I’ve seen people all over social media taking part in 100 Happy Days and while my first reaction, if I’m honest was to roll my eyes a bit, I did find that reading them made me smile. So maybe there’s something to it.

It’s been said that taking a few minutes every day to just appreciate what you have is a good habit to get into, and I know that there is evidence that doing so, in turn, makes you happier. The problem is, I’m extremely good at lamenting what I don’t have. However,  looking at the 100 Happy Days website I am extremely excited to see that partaking in this challenge can pretty much produce miracles. From the site:

“People successfully completing the challenge claimed to:

 – Start noticing what makes them happy every day;
 – Be in a better mood every day;
 – Start receiving more compliments from other people;
 – Realize how lucky they are to have the life they have;
 – Become more optimistic;
 – Fall in love during the challenge.”
Well, I never. Why isn’t everyone doing this?!
But, wait. The website also warns against using the challenge to piss other people off:

“It is not a happiness competition or a showing off contest. If you try to please / make others jealous via your pictures – you lose without even starting. Same goes for cheating.”

Well, that’s a bit of a pain, isn’t it? I’d already planned on making you all sick with jealousy with photos of myself standing in the lashing rain at GAA games or covered in muck half way up a mountain in Mayo, but I guess I’ll just have to rein that in, won’t I? And incidentally, if it’s not a competition, how can you cheat in it?  Hmm.

Anyway, skepticism and semantics aside, I’m going to give it a shot. If nothing else, it will be a good exercise in discipline. I’m a crap photographer though, so if you’re expecting anything visually spectacular, you’re in for a disappointment.

 

Here’s my first shot. (Not one of my own, but it doesn’t say you have to take a picture, just that you have to submit it. So thanks to Mick for this one!)
From last Sunday, inMacHale Park,Castlebar, after the Mayo senior football team had just won their fourth Connacht title in a row.There’s a lovely sense of togetherness that comes with being a GAA supporter. While I adore the sport itself, it’s the joy of the shared experience that gets me every time, even when the result doesn’t go your way. But Sunday was one of those days when it did – the sun was shining, the flags were flying and everyone was smiling. In Mayo, we so desperately want to win the big one, that it’s easy to take lovely days like this for granted. And there’s another lesson right there.
10393858_659806970775629_5967054180186378585_n (1)
We’ll all be hoping for a few of these days over the coming months, but this one will keep us smiling for a week at least.
Til next time!

Beyond Satire

Yesterday, 1st July 2014 saw an incident occur in Dublin city centre.

An incident that, in the way it played out, spoke volumes about our relationship with mental health in Ireland. Faced with the reality of  a potential emergency, the Irish public and media reacted in a way that painted a stark, grim and dare I say it, depressing picture of our real attitudes towards those who behave in a way that suggests mental distress.

At approximately 10.30pm yesterday morning, a shirtless man was spotted on the roof of the Abercrombie and Fitch building on College Green, where he was seen climbing back and forth between the “peak” of the building, to the roof just behind it. He then moved to the adjacent, taller Ulster Bank building where he continued to move around the roof, and for a time balanced precariously on top of a statue on top of one of the buildings. Gardai were called to the scene, where they talked to the man for a number of hours (while the crowd looked on) and eventually, to their credit (and I’m sure, great relief) saw that he alighted safely from the roof.

I wasn’t there. But I know this, because within minutes of the man being spotted, a crowd of hundreds of people gathered on College Green. They stood, and they watched. I know, because they started posting photos on social media. I know, because a number of national news outlets and “entertainment sites” – too many to name, in fact – under the guise of reporting ensuing traffic disruptions, decided to post photos of the man on their webpages. Photos that in some cases, would arguable render the man identifiable, particularly to friends or family. Some even went as far as posting video.

Because it’s “news”. Because we “live in a digital age”. Because news is now “real time reporting”.

Conveniently, every news outlet that went ahead, published images of this man and told the nation what was happening on Dame Street chose to ignore the Samaritans’ responsible reporting guidelines. Guidelines, which were issued because, according to the Chairman of the Press Council of Ireland:

“The media … has a heavy responsibility in the manner in which it reports incidents of suicide and self-harm. I know that they are anxious to meet that responsibility.”

Really?

That must be why they ignored the following advice, then, from page 9 of the guidelines:

“Avoid dramatic or emotional images and footage, such as a person standing on a ledge.Try not to illustrate a report with specific locations, such as a bridge or cliff, especially if this is a place where people frequently take their own lives.”

and did exactly the opposite.

It’s not like the media just forgot, or that they weren’t aware of the guidelines. Within seconds of posting the images, amidst the ensuing comments, callous jokes and bitter dismissals of a man “wasting taxpayers’ money”, numerous members of the public objected to the images, and posted links to the page on the Samaritans’ website. All objections were ignored. Apart from Broadsheet.ie, who, to their credit, removed the image. TheJournal.ie closed the comments on their article – the same article that included a number of photos and videos.

Those guidelines are there for a reason. They’re there to protect other people, and in particular, people who may be at risk of suicide or self-harm themselves. So basically, some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

(Incidentally, other guidelines on that list advise not providing detail on how a person died by suicide, and not reading out the contents of a suicide note. But of course, certain factions of the media have form in ignoring them.)

Of course, it can be argued that this wasn’t a suicide, so these guidelines didn’t apply. That none of us knew why the man was on the roof.

Sure, we didn’t. We didn’t even know whether it was related to a mental health issue. True.

Was it any of our business? No.

But did we know for sure that we weren’t looking at a man in serious distress? No.

Was there a concern for his safety? Yes.

Clearly, in the eyes of the Irish media, that concern for a man’s safety was superseded by the need to get the scoop. Everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t they?

That, unfortunately, is  how certain elements of our media (not all – there are some wonderful, conscientious individual exceptions) view people who behave in an “abnormal” manner.  They encourage people to turn voyeur. To watch, to point, to laugh and joke. Much like a circus freak of the 19th century. Very few are willing to take a stand, while there are clicks to be gained. How far we’ve come.

Then – then! –  because that wasn’t enough, the news outlets decided they’d turn the images over to social media. Just to make sure that as many people as possible all over Ireland knew that someone in Dublin was in trouble (and that there were traffic disruptions) so that they could all watch him, and the situation play out. Just like a TV programme, for our entertainment.

And we all know how social media works, on a good day. Complete with the usual crimes against spelling and grammar, the comments came flooding in.

From the Irish Times Facebook page:

blo

 

 

 

 

From the Irish Independent Facebook page:

Irish Indo FB

 

 

 

And from Twitter.

I could go on. I could post hundreds more, all screen shot from yesterday’s news stories (though many of the crueller ones have since been deleted).

Can you sense the sympathy? The  compassion? The empathy?

So it appears, for all the mental health awareness campaigns, all the suicide awareness discussions, all the reminders for people to watch out for the signs,  for each other, to show a bit of compassion and kindness, to talk and listen, when faced with a person who looked like he was in crisis, Ireland dismissed him without even attempting to understand, and reverted to cold, hard type. Some online expressed their disgust with what was happening – about the cruelty, and about the images. Which is encouraging, to some extent. But those objections were roundly ignored. The snide comments kept coming, and the images stayed.

In Dame Street, 300 people stayed in the area for the duration of the incident, watching and waiting. Waiting for what? Who knows. After four hours, the man alighted, and everyone went home. A day of entertainment over.

And what now of our friend on the roof?

Who knows? And who really cares?

The below image links to an article worth reading, from the consistently excellent satirical site, Waterford Whispers News. Not for the first time, it holds a mirror up to Ireland – to us –  and the way we behave when faced with vulnerable people in our society. Time and time again, it’s been demonstrated that we either ignore them, we dismiss them or we simply ridicule them.

How far we’ve come, indeed.

 

Time to Talk

Today is National Time to Talk Day, and as such, it’s a good day to reflect on what it means to talk, but also what it means to listen. It’s important.

Time to talk

The national conversation around mental health often focuses on the message “Talk to someone”. But to talk, you need to have someone to listen, right?

It can be hard to know what to do if someone decides to talk to you about a mental health issue. They might just feel a bit down, or they might be more worried about themselves. And if they’ve chosen you to talk to, that responsibility can feel a bit daunting, or it may feel like too big a problem for you to take on.

That’s fine. We’re all human.

But if someone decides to talk to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve chosen you in the hope that you’ll solve all their problems. They may simply need to put how their feelings into words, or share them with someone. Sometimes doing that alone can make all the difference, so having someone to sit and listen and empathise with how they feel can make all the difference.

If you do feel you need some tips on how to say something back, the Green Ribbon website has some really useful advice. And it’s just normal, everyday stuff, not out of anyone’s reach.

This poem by Robert Frost sums it right up.

“When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.”

So today on Time To Talk day, in your conversations , make a point of really listening to what the other person has to say, without distractions. Give them your full attention – give them five minutes or half an hour of your time.  When you ask “how are you?” be aware that the answer may not be “I’m grand”.

And that’s grand.

One for the GAA fans – “New York, we’re on our way”

Firstly, a short apology to you and a self-adminstered rap on the knuckles for me, for the shocking state of neglect in which I’ve left the blog lately. I’ve half a dozen semi-structured posts in drafts, but a busy schedule of commitments over the past few months (most notably, helping to get the new Mayo supporter’s group, Club ’51 off the ground) has ensured that most of my writings lately have had a distinctly sports-flavoured theme.

Anyway, here’s a piece I wrote for the lovely folks in the Mayo News during the week, about looking forward to the 2014 GAA Championship, and our upcoming trip to the Big Apple to play New York GAA in the first round. Enjoy, and normal service will return soon.

Now that the long evenings are kicking in, the dark days of winter are starting to feel like a distant memory and with them, the deflation of last September’s All-Ireland defeat. I don’t know about you, but that winter felt like a hell of a long one.

The last time I had the pleasure of writing for this fine publication, I was scribbling in feverish anticipation from exile in Dublin just before the final. The spirits were high, the dream was alive and I was harbouring gleeful fantasies of watching the next-door neighbours whipping down the blue flags in disgust (SIX of them, no less) while we painted the street green and red.

We all know how that turned out.

Thankfully, we’re emerging from hibernation. The neighbours have finally taken down the blasted bunting and washed the blue paint off the cat. After a roller-coaster of a league, the Green and Red Army are cranking up the engine for another shot at the big one. And what a beginning we have in store. Mayo’s Championship adventure begins, not in the salubrious surroundings of Hyde Park or Pearse Stadium, but smack bang in the middle of the Big Apple. As away games go, it’s a bit of a stretch, and a long way from McHale Road, but the Mayo faithful are taking it in their stride and are decamping in their droves to NYC for the May bank holiday weekend.

And in their hundreds they are going. Down west for Easter, I ran into a few familiar faces from the schooldays around Ballina. Nearly everyone I met had the bag packed for the Bronx. Some, I suspect, might have difficulty telling their free-ins from their free-outs, but they’re coming along for the party regardless. It’s curious, for a county that still feels the effects of the downturn more than most, but where Mayo football is concerned, being sensible is scoffed at. The New York fixture has been on the cards for a while, and for many, this is the holiday of a lifetime combined with the love of a lifetime. So you can bet your bottom dollar (see what I did there?) that the piggy banks have seen serious action over the past few months in order to make this trip a reality. And given GAA President Liam O’Neill’s recent remarks on the future of New York in the Connacht Championship, it’s possible that this could be one of the last opportunities we get to see Mayo play in Gaelic Park. So there’s a sense of Carpe Diem around this one.

This trip is about more than just the football, however. The football is only an excuse. Rather, this is a chance for Mayo people to reconnect with family and loved ones in the US and beyond. It’s a chance for emigrants all over the US to reconnect with home. And that goes far beyond Mayo – you can bet that a significant number attending will have no Mayo connections, but will relish the chance of a taste of home and of the Championship that would otherwise be off limits, for whatever reason. I’m told of a family with members in Ireland, France and Chicago, who haven’t stood in the same room in over 25 years, convening in New York. Many others making the trip will be meeting new family members for the very first time. This goes far, far beyond football. It’s the trip of a lifetime to the City That Never Sleeps. (It’s fair to suggest that much of the Mayo support heading over there won’t be sleeping much either.)

For New York GAA, meanwhile, this is the culmination a year’s worth of hard training. Unlike others in the Championship, they don’t have access to the back door. It’s do or die for them on May 4th. This is as good as it gets, and you can be sure they will pull out all the stops to greet Mayo, both on and off the pitch.

Behind the scenes, in the dark days of winter, encouraged by the defiant determination of James Horan’s camp, the faithful were galvanising themselves for another year. One of the results of this was Club ’51, a supporter’s club set up by the fans for the fans, to get behind the team. The club quickly grew legs, and as well as providing practical information on where to park your car at an away game, it has proved a lifeline (some might say a support network) for those of us suffering the hangover of a disappointing September. Being involved in the club has demonstrated to me beyond all doubt the resilience, the optimism, the sense of fun but mostly the proud, infallible spirit of the Mayo people when it comes to football. Club ’51 is embarking on a mission to demonstrate just how far-reaching the Mayo support is, and planning to send a flag on tour around the world to be photographed with fans in all sorts of far-flung places. The first stop on that journey is New York.The authorities have been alerted, the hatches have been battened and the Naked Cowboy will be naked no more, but clad in Mayo’s finest cloth. We’ll be painting the town red … and green.

May the 4th be with you. New York, we’re on our way.

Photo: Bryan Sweeney (via Joe.ie)

Photo: Bryan Sweeney (via Joe.ie)

This post was originally published in the Mayo News on Tuesday 29th May, 2014. 

Guest Post – The damage of the ‘temporary depression’ campaign

In light of the last post, and the phenomenal reaction it received, I’ve decided to continue the conversation about mental health on the blog. Over the course of the last week I’ve been contacted by a lot of people, sharing their own experiences, or those of people close to them. It’s been serious food for thought, and served to hammer home just how different each and every person’s mental health experience is and how different their needs are. One of the mails that really stood out was from Sinead Fallon, and with her kind permission I have reproduced it below. 

Recent attempts by the media to highlight mental illness have left me feeling more isolated from society than ever. Am I alone? With journalists and commentators jumping over themselves to find the most ‘normal’ cases of mental ill health, we have been regaled with images and stories of average young, middle-class men, suffering from temporary depressive episodes. Throw in the odd celebrity and the most recent charity attempt to raise money to solve the problem.

The problem presented by the ‘temporary depression’ approach is this. As a person with a long term mental illness – Biploar Affective Disorder, I find the campaign disingenuous and dangerous. The stories inevitably involve an episode in which the young male feels down, has no energy, wants to stay in bed all day, and loses interest in life. These are all symptoms of a depressive episode. Depressive episodes are very serious. Depression can ruin your life. These are both true.

The problem is this: all the stories then presented a series of events in which support was received from family, friends, GPs, medication and counselling and the person became ‘normal’ again. The End.

For 1 in 10 people living with a serious mental illness, this is not the case. But we are not heard. Our mental illnesses are life long, we do NOT ‘get over it’ – we learn to accept our fate and live with our illnesses. The presentation of the story in which someone is depressed and gets over it is dangerous, because so many of the people who experience these kind of depressive episodes don’t return to their lives as they knew them, which isn’t always a bad thing by the way. Their illnesses grow and change over the years. They receive new diagnoses of bipolar, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, eating disorders etc.  They continue to suffer periodic episodes of psychosis or depression. Their lives never return to how they were before. Relationships are seriously affected. Employment is a serious challenge. Poor physical health is common. The damage of the lifelong mental illness is immeasurable.

The media, like society in general find it difficult to understand us. They want to fix us, find that magic formula to get us back to normal. We have learned the hard way that there is no getting back to normal. There is just acceptance of this new life as the normal. Societal attitudes around mental health in Ireland can lead to stigmatisation, discrimination and social exclusion for those with mental health issues.  These attitudes are influenced by messages and opinions coming from politicians, public commentators and the media. When we are seen to refuse to present ourselves as normal and when we refuse to recover as these others have, how does society treat us?

Listening to Bressie tell us all he didn’t ever feel suicidal because he had a good support network was particularly nauseating. Does this mean then that those of us who do feel suicidal or those who have died by suicide did not have a good support network?

Equally the presentation of the ‘mother’ saving the son from depression may leave mothers feeling useless for not being able to solve their son’s mental illnesses. I do not blame in anyway Bressie or the others who shared their stories and I do wish them all the best. I just wish there was more balance in the presentation of the stories. When will a schizophrenic middle aged woman from a working class background sit on Brendan O’ Connors couch? Soon, I hope.

For those who watched and read the stories and who are feeling something similar, please do not give up when you don’t start to experience the recovery spoken of. You are most probably one of the majority of those who need to accept a more difficult fate.

Donal Walsh and Suicide: What’s missing from the debate, and where do we go from here?

Donal Walsh

There has been lots said and written on the subject of the late Donal Walsh over the past 48 hours. Rarely has the passing of a young man evoked so much emotion and passion among the public, but then, Donal was without a doubt an exceptional young man, who displayed remarkable courage, dignity and bravery as he faced his future knowing he was dying from cancer.

On Wednesday night, RTE 1 showed a documentary entitled “Donal Walsh: My Story”, which followed Donal and his family throughout his last few months as he came to terms with the fact that he was dying. Knowing that he had very little time left, Donal, his friends and family spoke eloquently and earnestly about his treatment, his feelings, his aspirations, and his frustration that he would never get to achieve many of his dreams and goals. The public was already familiar with Donal’s story, having witnessed his candid interview with Brendan O’Connor on the Saturday Night Show in May 2013, where he implored teenagers to think twice before they considered suicide.

RTÉ tends to excel in the genre of documentary making, and as a human interest story, this was an exceptional, evocative and heart-breaking piece of film-making. Donal’s courage, and that of his and his family – mother Elma, father Fionnbar and sister Jema –  and his loyal bunch of friends is one of the most inspiring stories of our generation, and a story worth telling. There are lessons to be taken from the way in which Donal faced his illness, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone watching it could fail to be moved.

A central focus of the documentary was Donal’s opinion on teen suicide, as broadcast on the O’Connor interview in May. Statistics had shown a consistent upward trend in recorded suicides in Kerry in previous years, many of those deaths occurring among young people.

“I just didn’t want them to see suicide as a solution to any of life’s problems. It hurts me to see them think about it… to see it among their friends. But it kills me because I’m here fighting for my life for the third time … I’ve no say in anything, and I’m still here waking up every day. And they think that they have a problem, and this might be a solution. That does make me angry, and I’m not going to lie about it. I’ve nothing against people with mental illness. But these people have to realise that there is help.”

His words triggered a nationwide conversation on suicide, and widespread media coverage. Young people claimed that his message had touched them, had changed their outlook, and had resonated in a way that the voices of adults – parents, teachers – had not.

During the documentary, his father, Fionnbar, read from a letter received from a student in Waterford.

“Your story was so powerful and moving. I’m 16 myself, and the thought of going through what you have gone through at the same age is just hard to believe. Many people would have been afraid to say what you’ve said about suicide. It wouldn’t have been politically correct, and all that bullshit. You tell it how it is, and I respect that”.

The words of another student:

“Young people shouldn’t be thinking of dying so soon. They should be just growing up, thinking about what they want to be, what jobs they want to have … that kind of stuff.”

Donal himself said:

“If I’m meant to be a symbol for people to appreciate life more in general, he said, then I’ll be happy to die, if that’s what I’m dying for.”

His father put it in starker terms.

“There is no comeback after death”.

The HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) adopted Donal’s message, rolling it out to schools, and embarking on a programme to educate young people on appreciating life before they considered dying by suicide.  It’s a good video. But as a strategy to tackle youth suicide, it is lacking. And it is here that the discussion becomes problematic.

There has been much debate raging online since the documentary was aired on the merit of Donal’s message. There is little doubt that it had resonance. It spoke to young people at their level, it moved people of generations older than himself and it made probably anyone who encountered it stop and think. It potentially saved lives. Was it worth saying? Yes, I think so. The phenomenon of suicide clusters and copycat suicides is well documented, and the theory that some suicides are decisions made, not after months of depression, but on the spur of the moment or as a knee-jerk reaction to a traumatic occurrence cannot be discounted. I can’t quote the prevalence of such happenings, nor am I sure what statistical evidence is there to back it up, given the difficulty of collecting such information on suicide. But I do think there was an audience for and a merit to Donal’s message. I’m not convinced we can argue that there was not.

But there are a number of things that are deeply alarming, both within the documentary, and in the way that Donal’s message has been perpetuated by adults almost as a universal truth. What is not acknowledged  is the fact that that this fails  – and fails utterly – to address the fact the suicidality is just not that simple, and that the factors contributing to any one person’s suicidal intent can differ greatly to the next. Suicidality is also strongly linked with depression. At no point in either the documentary or in the wider campaign has depression been acknowledged as an illness, has its nature been explored, nor has the fact that suicide is very rarely a decision made with a clear and rational mind.

No professionals working in the field of mental health were interviewed during the course of the documentary. No account has been taken, either within or outside of the documentary of the fact that a one-size-fits-all message is not an appropriate way in which to go about formulating a suicide prevention strategy – even a youth suicide prevention strategy.

There have been a number of pieces written in the past 48 hours on depression and suicidality from the point of view from those who have themselves been there , and I urge you to find them, read them, absorb them and think about them. The point has been made that we are now at a stage where people feel supported enough to be able to disclose their experiences, and this alone is evidence of the strides that have been made in this debate.

However, it is absolutely crucial to remember that there are two levels of understanding of suicidality. The understanding of those who have been there, and who have felt that despair, and those who have not. The latter, if they are serious about wanting to help to address this problem, need to take responsibility for learning about the state of mind in which a fellow human being  finds themselves to not want to exist anymore. From my own experience, it is born out of a desperation to escape a hellish existence in one’s own mind, where nothing exists but self-loathing, darkness and a sense of being trapped. When I felt suicidal, and contemplated dying, it wasn’t because I wanted to die. I just wanted to escape. I didn’t want to live like that any more, and the only way in which to achieve that was to stop living. To a healthy mind, that’s almost incomprehensible. There is no rationality involved in that particular state of mind. None. But I urge you, try to contemplate it.

Now picture someone telling you “Sure you’ve loads to be thankful for. There are people dying through no fault of their own and you want to kill yourself.” Consider how, in a mind full of despair, hearing those words would make you feel. Would you feel any better about yourself? Already, you can’t find anything to make you feel grateful for living (as illogical as it may be, but remember, there is no logic left). Now, the implication is that you’re selfish, too. Which, in turn, reinforces every negative thought you’ve already had about yourself, and increases that sense of self-loathing. How is that helpful? How?

Above, we had a student dismissing public discourse on suicide as “politically correct” and “bullshit”. This assertion remained unchallenged within the documentary. Suicidality is so complex. It IS delicate. We are still learning how to talk about it in a responsible way. Treating it with sensitivity is not politically correct bullshit. I have no issue with this young man saying it as he sees it, from the point of view of a teenager who has in all likelihood experienced suicide by peers. But I do have an issue with this viewpoint not being challenged by adults, or those who deemed the documentary an appropriate commentary on suicide. Again – it’s just not that simple.

So why, at no stage, has no-one in the public eye, the media, the health professions,  while this campaign has been running, and documentary been airing, strongly and explicitly acknowledged that this message, while extremely laudable in one sense, is absolutely not applicable to everyone out there who is contemplating suicide? Why has the negative impact that this message may have had on those in a depressed and suicidal frame of mind not been acknowledged?  Why are we consistently fed a strategy of soundbites that may resonate with some, but may alienate others? While NOSP claim that they had the input of a number of professionals in producing the Donal Walsh video on their website to ensure it was appropriate for young people, why did they not acknowledge the complexity of suicidality, the fact that each sufferer is dealing with their own individual struggle? They tell young people about the “value life” message, yet do not acknowledge the difficulties involved in doing so when struggling with a mental illness like depression.  This “scratching the surface”, one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t cut it anymore, and if anyone should be acknowledging that, it is one of the few – if not the only – public bodies currently tasked with suicide prevention.

The issues I raise in this post aren’t with brave, dignified Donal Walsh. They are not with his tremendously courageous and generous family and friends. I hope that is absolutely clear. They have lost a son, a brother, a close friend. They have given magnanimously of their time, their privacy and shared their grief with a nation, in order to spread the message of Donal’s courage and dignity. There is hardly a person watching RTÉ 1 on Wednesday night who didn’t want to put their arms around them and take their grief away, or could fail to be inspired by their appetite to inspire massive societal change, as evidenced in the setting up of Donal Walsh Live Life. Donal’s words – which his family explicitly acknowledge were said in anger, by a dying child who never claimed to be an expert on mental health – inspired a wave of emotion, and injected impetus into a conversation we are only starting to have at a national level. And for that, I am certainly grateful.

But they should not be perpetuated as an all-encompassing strategy, nor do they speak to everyone. It is now the responsibility of public policymakers, mental health bodies and organisations (starting with the Minister for Mental Health), medical professionals and indeed, ourselves as a mature, responsible society to continue that conversation, while striving to educate ourselves and others on the nature of suicidality, mental ill-health and depression in a meaningful way.

Soundbites aren’t enough. Platitudes aren’t enough. We’ve all heard messages at this stage like “talk to someone”, “get help”, “there’s always someone out there willing to listen”. They are just not sufficient anymore. We can’t just dump them out there and expect people in distress to find their own way.

Let’s look at this in real, practical terms.

If you were desperate, in the frame of mind where the only relief you could contemplate was not living any more, where would you turn? Who would you talk to? If you make the (difficult and brave) decision to “talk to someone” and seek help, where would you go first? Would you get the support you needed from your family? Friends?  Would your employer support you if you need to take time off? Would you even feel comfortable telling your employer? Would you receive the best advice on embarking on the path of medical support such as taking anti-depressants?  Would you be able to access the right therapy for you, with a therapist you felt comfortable with? Would your health insurer pay for you to get all the therapy you need? If you don’t have health insurance, how would you go about accessing that therapy? How long would you have to wait to access that therapy? Bear in mind here that you are desperate, and need help quickly. And not just any old help. The right help and treatment for you, as an individual, with individual needs.  If you dial 999 in the middle of the night, or contact an out-of-hours GP service, will you get the help you need?  We need these assurances.

What if someone came to you in desperation, telling you that they couldn’t cope with living any more, and didn’t know where to turn, would YOU know what to do? Would you know where to go to get help? Would you know what to say, what not to say, how to listen?

Make no mistake, this conversation is merely in its infancy. Donal Walsh and his family have played a huge part in building that conversation. This is not a battle for them to fight alone. What is the HSE doing to address the above questions? What is the Minister for Mental Health doing? What are you and I doing, as members of a mature society with a collective responsibility to each other other than repeating platitudes that make us feel better about ourselves? Are we educating ourselves on how to recognise the signs, how to react?

It’s time to stop paying lip service to suicide prevention, and start coming up with real solutions, fast.

Happy New Year – and thank you

Just a quick note to everyone who visited the blog during 2013.

As we launch into another year, I wanted to say a sincere thank you to those of you who stopped by, commented, shared, retweeted or liked the posts. It’s been a busy year on An Cailín Rua, with lots to talk about. I did have great intentions of writing a minimum of one post a month during the year, but fell a bit short in the latter part of the year – but that’s what new year’s resolutions are for, right?

As regular readers will know, it’s been a year of great change for me personally; having  in 2012 made the decision to leave a steady job to face an uncertain future.  2013 saw me starting the year with no income and no idea where I’d end up. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, I know, but stepping away from security and out of the comfort zone felt like a bit of a risk.

I’m happy, however to report that the gamble paid off handsomely. And while the past year has been challenging at times, and laced with a level of uncertainty throughout,  it has paid dividends in terms of new experiences and achievements, both personal and professional, and more time doing the things that I deem the most important, with the people I care about most. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a number of different and challenging roles with some fantastic people, both on a paid and voluntary basis, and feel challenged and motivated in a way I haven’t for a long time. I even managed to get some writing published, which was a  high point for me personally.

While the journey is nowhere near over, and I still have some big decisions to make on a professional level, I feel lucky and privileged to find myself in a position where I have real and exciting choices.

To those of you who supported me in the early days, the wobbly days, the days of crippling self-doubt and the days I felt utterly lost, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your encouragement. Some of you are family, some of you friends, and some of you I’ve never even met, but at no stage during the journey did I feel alone, thanks to you. Thanks for reading the blog, and encouraging me to keep writing, for challenging my opinions, and educating me and helping me to develop my own thinking.

Wishing you all the very best for 2014, dear readers and I look forward to your company for the year ahead.

A Mayowoman’s Lament

Another piece I wrote for Balls.ie in the aftermath of Mayo’s heartbreaking defeat to Dublin last weekend – you can read the original here.

It’s Tuesday, and the dust has finally settled after another All-Ireland final weekend.

It’s funny. You spend so long in the weeks leading up to the big day fervently wishing the hours away, only for the day itself to pass you by in a whirlwind of colour, noise and crowds. Before you know it, the final whistle has gone, and – if you’re from Mayo – you’re left reeling once again with the bitter, stinging slap of loss.

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Mayo team ready to do battle. Photo by Michael Maye

It’s hard to write this. It’s not what I anticipated writing in the aftermath of Sunday’s game, and it’s difficult not to resort to tired old clichés in an effort to describe once again the pain of losing. After all, it’s not the first time we’ve been here. There’s nothing really new to say. Apart, of course, to heartily congratulate our Dublin friends on their deserved win. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t as stylish as it could have been (despite valiant efforts by Aidan’s Fringe), but once you have Sam in your possession, none of that really matters. Winning is everything, and our opposition proved that, once again, they had just a little more in the tank than we had to finish the job. While there is plenty of controversy to debate in the aftermath, no right-minded sports fan would begrudge this excellent Dublin team their victory.

I was right about one thing, though. This year was different. In terms of the belief Mayo brought with us to the final, our approach and our defiance, throughout the year, Mayo held their heads high and fought to the end. From Friday evening, the colours started appearing around the city. Saturday, we grew in stature and early on Sunday morning, the city was ours. This was a build up like nothing I have ever experienced, full of promise and anticipation. The welcoming home of friends and family from across the miles. The meeting and greeting old friends and new. That belief carried us into Croke Park from 12.30pm on Sunday, through the ecstasy of a superb victory for the Mayo minor team, who brought the Tommy Markham cup home for the first time in 28 years, right through to the end of the senior final, where we just failed to cross the line. So near, and yet so far. While the hurt and frustration of knowing that this was a final we could have won but left behind us, will linger for a long time,  the sense of pride and belief we feel in that panel of players and management will not waver. They’re our own, and they are hurting far more.

So yet again, in Mayo we turn our thoughts to Next Year. We’re getting closer, all the time.

It’s suggested that there are five stages of grief after a terrible event. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  From what I’m reading and hearing, it’s probably fair to suggest many Mayo fans have incredibly, already raced through these stages and are dusting themselves down and steeling themselves for next year’s battle. The pace of recovery is rapid, but then, we’ve had plenty of practice.

After the game, a few of us took ourselves away from the madness of Drumcondra to seek some solace and escapism on the south side of the city. As we sat in a burger joint trying to come to terms with the loss, black humour won out. We debated storming the pubs and clubs in a conga line of celebration. Pretend we’d won the damn thing anyway, ignore the dissenters and party like it was 1951. If we were going to lose our minds following Mayo GAA, we may as well do it properly and get a decent night out of it. (We didn’t.) Sam Maguire, we also concluded after an in-depth analysis, is like that certain someone you’re really into, but who’s blind to your existence. Instead, he’s blinded by the glamour of the more … forward counties. The Kerrys and Corks and Tyrones and Donegals and Dublins with their flashy tans and flashy forwards. Oblivious to the charm of the quieter, more reticent but infinitely classier Mayo. Sam’s loss, we concluded. Anyway, if we finally got him, would we really want him in the end, after all that, we wondered? He strikes me as a bit high-maintenance, if I’m honest. All that polishing, and stuff.

Anything to raise a smile.  As with a real-life tragedy, humour is a healing balm.

I said before that football is more than just football in Mayo. It’s about far more than sport. For many in the West, these days form part of our very identity and when we lose, our own self-belief is rattled. While the sneering of some of the victors’ supporters on Sunday – a very small minority of what was an overall very decent, warm and generous bunch, I hasten to clarify – was hard to take, the patronising platitudes are far harder to swallow. We don’t want words of sympathy or pity. We just want a bloody win, so we never have to hear them again. But we have had two glorious years of celebration and hope and dreams, and we have had September football that many would kill for. And so the words of Samuel Beckett come to mind. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” So do those of Elbert Hubbard. “A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success. There is no failure except in no longer trying.”

We’ll keep trying. And one glorious day, we won’t fail.

Car Accidents, Ticket Scrums And The Long Wait

In what’s proving to be an interminable few weeks for Mayo GAA supporters, here’s a piece I wrote for the folks over at Balls.ie during the week about the build-up to the big match. Original link: http://balls.ie/gaa/mayo-dublin-preview/  Enjoy! 

Ten days and counting.  Ten interminable nights of feverish tossing and turning and dreaming. Dreaming of Sam.

So many questions.

Will James start Andy? Will Cillian’s shoulder be match fit? Will Ger Caff’s defence put manners on Bernard Brogan’s attack? Can Al Freezer replicate his magnificent performance of August 25th? Will the man in black, Joe McQuillan lend the Dubs a helping hand? Most importantly, will Aido’s Fringe once again defy gravity and last the pace?

These are just some of the many questions occupying the minds of Mayo GAA supporters in the lead-up to the All-Ireland Football Final on September 22nd.

We’ve been here before. Oh yes. For the uninitiated, this will be Mayo’s eighth appearance in an All-Ireland senior final since 1989 (infamous ’96 replay included). We’ve gone home empty-handed seven times. We’re no strangers to the pre-match build-up. We know how to decorate a town, make a decent round of sandwiches (that will last us ‘til the breakfast in Feerick’s) and paint a car or sheep or two. But despite some decent efforts, we’ve not seen Sam Maguire since 1951. And we’ve fallen down disappointed, and picked ourselves back up, year after year.

This year feels different, somehow.

There’s a new air of confidence in Mayo. Instead of apprehension, there’s expectation. That this is our time; that we can do it this year.  It’s hard to explain. For a long time – probably since 1996 – there’s been a certain fear associated with Croke Park on All-Ireland day. Lots of talk of the so-called “Curse of ’51” (a tale which is tenuous at best, but eternally tedious).This year, it’s different. We have a team that’s proved itself ruthless, creative and mentally strong. A team to believe in. And for the first time in a while, there’s a tangible sense of belief in the county that this is finally our year. Now or never.

There’s probably no senior football team in the country that has ever carried this weight of expectation in to a final. It’s a huge burden to place on the shoulders of a young team. But that’s Mayo for you. Always demanding, never losing faith.

Mayo, for all its rugged beauty, has its problems. It’s been hit hard by the economic crash, and emigration and unemployment remains high. It has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. But there’s an extraordinary, fierce sense of pride in the county. Football is more than just football in Mayo. It’s in the blood. It’s transcends the bad stuff, and brings people together. It’s all-consuming; this week, if you’re not talking football in Mayo, you’re not talking. And Mayo badly wants the win. So once again the flags are flying high, the cars have been spray painted, the Mayo songs are peppering the airwaves fourteen of them at last count) and the sheep are green and red. There’s a sense that this time, it will be different.

And there’s the ticket hunt. It’s an eye for an eye and every man, woman and child for themselves. Grannies for sale all over the shop. “Any tickets?” is the current refrain on all Mayo lips, regardless of whether you’ve gone to buy a loaf of bread, open a bank account or get a tooth out. No-one wants to miss this one. Desperation is growing by the second. Begrudgery reaches new levels in the ticket hunt. “Sure that wan will have no bother getting her hands on a rake of tickets. Wasn’t her husband’s aunt-in-law’s brother on the county board for years?” Rumour has it the queue for the ticket draw outside Ballina Stephenites started back in late August, with some of the returning semi-final support only stopping off at home for a flask of tea and the sleeping bag before setting up camp in the stand. Willy Wonka’s ticket hunt had nothing on Mayo’s. Expect bloodshed.

And what of the opposition? Well, they’re fierce quiet altogether. A Dublin team within a sniff of a final usually guarantees a minimum three tabloid pages daily, with a souvenir poster every Wednesday and enough car stickers to wallpaper the SUV with. This year, the Dubs are conspicuous by their silence. One suspects they’re happy to watch the Mayo hype machine march on, while they do their own thing in the background. Living in Dublin, I’m onto their plan. The only flags in south Dublin suburbia are green and red, and there are no round bales or sheep painted blue in the immediate vicinity. Only stickerless SUVs. One would think South Dublin didn’t even know there was a final coming up. Very odd, altogether.

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Photo by Michael Maye, (or @Mayo_Mick, as we know him)

Out and about in Dublin, however, there’s a bit more happening. Car flags are an instant source of solidarity on the roads. A lady I met almost drove over a dog (and its owner) last week in the SuperValu car park, such was her eagerness for a car flag high-five. Dublin taxi drivers in particular love the old car flags. The day Dublin played Kerry, I was stopped at the lights at O’Connell Bridge, the red and green on display, when a blue-jerseyed taxi driver across from me motioned for to roll down the window. “Who d’ya think will win today?” he bellowed across two lanes. “Who do YOU think will win?” I shouted back, deflecting the question, Mayo defence-style. “Jaysus”, he said. “I hope Kerry do. Better for business later!” And with that, he sped off, with a friendly beep of the horn and flutter of the flags. Top fella.

So with ten days to go, there’s nothing to do but wait. Wait, and dream, and analyse, and debate, and argue, give out about the county board hiding the tickets and dream some more. Anything to quell the nerves and make the day arrive faster. Maybe light a few candles and say a few novenas that a ticket will appear. And say a few more that this time we’ll finish the job. It’s now or never. Maigh Eo Abú!

On World Suicide Prevention Day, what can YOU do to prevent suicide?

It’s World Suicide Prevention Day today, Tuesday 10th September. The day, is an awareness day observed annually in order to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides.

It’s unlikely many of us here in Ireland lack awareness of what is one of the largest killers of our young people. Recent CSO statistics indicate that 507 people took their own lives in Ireland in 2012 – however, as per any suicide reportage, this figure forms only a very small part of the picture. Not all suicides are recorded as such; there are many unreported accepted suicides, and the overall figure masks the occurrence of severe suicide blackspots in certain parts of the country, like Limerick, Wexford, Mayo, Leitrim and Cork, with Limerick numbers the most alarming at 26 in every 100,000. The statistics, though they are only a snapshot, speak for themselves. However, a lack of proper recording and accurate data to work with, particularly to use to spot clusters and trends, is one of the key challenges facing those who fight every day to try and turn the tide of suicide

Regular visitors to the blog will know that I touch on the topic of mental health here the odd time, sometimes in relation to my own experiences, sometimes at a more general level, and occasionally referencing the influence of things like alcohol on our collective mental health. It’s great to see frank, open discussion of mental illness on social media and in the newspapers today; however in the course of the debate, we’re constantly hearing about “breaking down the stigma” as if it’s some big mystery. Stigma is born of ignorance and breeds fear, yet the reality is, each and every one of us has the key to breaking down that stigma, by just learning a little more about the nature of mental ill-health, and by taking small but meaningful steps to challenge it. Yes, you too. It’s not rocket science, and we can all do it. Some thoughts below.

  • The key message we’re hearing is “If you’re in difficulty, talk to someone”. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just reach out, and everything will be okay. Well, you know what? It’s not that bloody easy. Firstly, when you’re in a place where you’re struggling, or convinced that no-one gives a damn about you, and that you might be better off dead, it’s incredibly difficult, nigh impossible, to reach out and talk to somebody. If you do reach out and talk to someone, you may not get the response you hope for, or need. What then? We need to stop placing the onus on people who are suffering to make that first move. This is a collective, worldwide responsibility. It starts with you and me, showing real human kindness to the people around us. Look around you, at your family and friends. If you think that someone is struggling, talk to them. Pick up the phone. Let them know you care. Even if they’re not visibly struggling, tell them anyway. It can be that simple.
  • Telling people to “just talk about it” is all well and good. But in a country where we’ve been bred for generations not to talk about things, talking is something not something we’re all very good at. And if you’re the person chosen to talk to, you might have no idea how to handle it. If you do see someone struggling, and you’re not sure what to do or how to talk to them, that’s totally fine. It’s natural. We’re all human; we’re not all counsellors. Sometimes indicating that you’re willing to listen is all that’s needed. And if you need some help, the folks over at See Change have some very practical tips on how to talk and listen. And there are services available to help both you and the person in difficulty – you can call them yourself, pass the details on, or offer to accompany them while they seek help.
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Some practical tips on talking about mental health

  • We all have mental health, and we all have a responsibility to look after our own mental health. We are not victims of our minds. Prevention is better than cure, and there are countless things we can do to mind our minds.  Exercise, fresh air, spending time with friends, eating well, taking a break from online activity, are all small steps that can have an incrementally positive effect  on our own mental – and physical –  health.
  • Just like most physical ill-health, mental ill-health is not a permanent, unevolving state. Sometimes we’re in good mental health, sometimes, less so. That’s normal. For various reasons, people can go through difficult times where they struggle to cope. Depression can be all-consuming, and for the person experiencing it, it’s hard to believe that this feeling will every pass or that things will get better – but things can and do get better. Depression may be something that will always be part of your life – but it can be managed, in many different ways. Equally, if someone you know is experiencing depression now, with the correct help, there’s every chance they can and will recover.
  • It’s heartening to see so many people sharing their experiences online. Sometimes writing things down is therapeutic, and reading those stories from people you might know is oddly reassuring. Let’s start taking the next step, and talking about it face-to-face, with our friends and family. It doesn’t always have to be a big deal. Experiencing mental health difficulties during life’s journey is perfectly normal, and a simple acknowledgement can go a long way. This was the thing I found hardest to do, but was the one helped me the most.

I experienced my worst depressive experience in my 20s, and at the time felt in despair that things would never get better. They did.  I learned some valuable things over the course of that time that I carry with me every day,

  1. While depression might always be a feature of my life, it doesn’t define me. I am far more than that.
  2. Depression can be managed. Proactively and reactively, there are things I can do to combat it. It’s not always easy to react, which is why I try to be proactive.
  3. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, the very act of doing something about it made me feel stronger.
  4. “This too shall pass” became my motto For me, accepting that I wasn’t well was important, and sometimes I just needed to put my head down and let it pass, rather than fighting against it. Pass it did, and pass it will, if and when it happens again.

These are lessons I learned on my own journey, but maybe they’re things than can help non-sufferers understand the nature of the illness and remove some of the mystery about it.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Preventing suicide isn’t something for “other people” to do. It’s up to you, and you, and you, and me. So do something. Pick up the phone, knock on that door, send that message. Speaking as one who knows, it could make all the difference.

#DatesWithDublin #7 – Croke Park

As previously indicated, this post, number 7 in the Dates with Dublin series is a piece of pure self-indulgence, being as it is a sort of homage to one of my favourite places in the world, let alone Dublin, to visit. It’s a slight deviation also from the purpose of this project, which was to uncover a few lesser-known gems.

But it’s my blog, so I’m allowed to make the odd executive decision; and to be fair, if you’re a tourist to the fair city, it’s well worth a visit, even you’re not gaga for the GAA like I am. I’ll try to keep it professional, and give you some information about the place, as well as spilling my own emotions and guts all over the floor in as dignified a manner as possible. No, I’m not actually talking about the crisp aisle in Tesco. Rather, that Theatre of Hope, that Mecca of Magic, that Field of Dreams (okay, that’s enough….) that is Dublin 3’s finest, Croke Park.

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Croke Park from the Hogan Stand; Artane Band in situ. Mayo won the match

 

For those of you who may not be familiar with Croke Park, it is the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland, housing a stadium with a capacity of 82,300 (making it the fourth largest in Europe), a museum, a ‘skyline’ tour, and a conference centre among other things. For those of you who may not be not familiar with the Gaelic Athletic Association, it is an Irish – and international – amateur sporting and cultural organisation, focused primarily on promoting Gaelic games – hurling, camogie, Gaelic football, handball and rounders. For those of you who may not be familiar with any of the aforementioned sports, frankly, you’re missing out.

Croke Park, or Croker, as it is often affectionately referred to by GAA fans, dates from the late 1800s, although it has undergone significant development within the last 30 years, and has been used primarily by the GAA to host the above games, with the highlight of the sporting year occurring in September with the annual All-Ireland finals in hurling and football. All games are amateur, meaning that players, who represent their local clubs and their counties, do not get paid for their participation.

Within the confines of this post I can only offer a narrow glimpse into the world of GAA and indeed all that Croke Park has to offer. For those of you on the tourist trail, who might be interested in finding out a bit more about Gaelic Games, the Croke Park Museum is open daily all year round, and traces the history of the games and the biggest amateur sporting organisation and its roots in Irish identity from the very beginning to present day. The exhibition is highly interactive and all-round good fun, and if you’re interested in the history of your own county, there’s plenty of information to chew on. You can even get busy with a hurl or football and try your hand at it yourself, if you didn’t grow up with a sliotar in your hand or football at your feet. It’s just as easy as it looks…. Ahem.

You can combine your visit to the museum with a stroll on the Etihad Skyline tour – a walk around the roof of Croke Park. Despite all the steps you need to climb to get there, the walk is really well executed, feels safe and secure, even for those who are a bit wobbly at a height. (You’re effectively tied to the barrier, so you really can’t do anything silly like fall off, no matter how clumsy you are, Take it from me, I tested this in full.)  The tour guides and fun and engaging and the walk offers a pretty impressive view over the stadium. Being honest, the view over North Dublin is a little less impressive, but that said, you’ll have some fun picking out local landmarks. Sadly, there is no access to the Skyline on match days, for those of you who are hunting for those elusive all-Ireland final tickets and thinking of pulling a fast one. If you’re going up there, do what I didn’t and bring a warm jacket – it’s bloody baltic.

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Taken from the Skywalk as Croke Park was preparing to host the Eucharistic Congress in 2012. On the screen is a notice warning the gluten intolerant to take the wine instead of bread at Holy Communion. Thanks Mark @yearoffestivals for the photo – and the jacket!

Some interesting facts and figures about Croke Park:

There are seven levels within the stadium, and it covers 16 acres of ground. Within its confines there are over 3km of seating, and 10 km of piping has been used in the plumbing (Importantly, the toilets are consistently probably the cleanest and most well-stocked of any sporting or music venue I’ve ever been to. But then, I usually frequent mucky festivals and Junior B games, so that’s hardly surprising). The environmentalists among you may be interested to know that Croke Park claims to be a carbon neutral venue. There are over 400 beer taps in the Davin Bar, the largest bar in Ireland. The big screen on the Hill 16 side of the stadium is the biggest outdoor screen of its kind in Europe and there are 463 floodlights around the stadium, each emitting light equivalent to 2,000 candles.

Outside the museum- and I like this a lot –  stands a wall featuring the crest of every single GAA club, both in Ireland and overseas – symbolising the fact that local clubs lie at the very heart of the organisation.

The real draw of Croke Park however, is the action on the field. While the stadium is a busy hub of activity all year round, with events and activities constantly happening, for sports fans it’s from July and August onwards that activity reaches fever pitch when county teams exit the provincial championships – either by winning or losing their provincial final – and move to the next level of the competition, where all games are played in Croke Park. The GAA is not perfect, nor are the traditional competition structures equitable or entirely fair, but they are deeply rooted in a convention that spans over a century, and as such, they are what they are. Once you reach the last eight, it’s then you allow yourself to dream.

And once you reach those stages, nothing beats waking up on the morning of a match, bedecking yourself in your county colours and embarking on that trip to Dublin (or in my case, the spin across to the Northside on the 16), and meeting similarly bedecked friends and family along Dorset Street for the pre-match analysis.

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Camaraderie on All-Ireland Final day, 2012. Remarkably, we are still friends

Nothing beats the pre-match beer, and the hurried flick through the papers to see who the pundits are tipping, and their instant dismissal (“sure what would that eejit know?” Applicable to most pundits if they plump for the opposition). The walk down long Clonliffe Road, the majesty of the stadium looming in front of you… Very little beats that first breathtaking glimpse of the beautifully manicured ground, bathed in late summer sun; nothing beats the warmth and camaraderie among supporters, even if they’re on the opposite side.

Not much beats the deafening, spine-tingling roar that welcomes your team as they enter the field of play; nothing beats the ecstasy of a sweetly placed goal at a crucial moment, and nothing, but nothing, beats being on the winning side at the final whistle.

I’m from Mayo. Those of you who are familiar with Gaelic Games will understand instantly what that means. For those of you who are not, allow me to briefly explain. Mayo has a fine, proud tradition in Gaelic football. Despite this fine tradition, we have won the ultimate prize – the Sam Maguire trophy, awarded to the All-Ireland senior football champions – just three times, and not since 1951 (before my parents were even born, though of course Mammy and Daddy Flynn were both blessed with youthful good looks). Compare that to the likes of Kerry, for example, who have won it no fewer than 36 times. Greedy feckers.

Since 1989, we have appeared in seven senior all-Ireland finals in Croke Park, and we have failed to win any of them. You may wonder why anyone from Mayo holds the place in any sort of affection at all. We are, quite simply, suckers for punishment loyal and optimistic to the last.

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What Croke Park looks like when Mayo don’t win a final. #7.

This year, on September 22nd, 2013 we will enter our eighth all-Ireland final 24 years, facing Dublin, the mighty Boys in Blue, once again dreaming of bringing Sam west over the Shannon. Despite all that’s happening in the harsh reality that is Ireland at the minute, I can assure you that many with Mayo roots are thinking of little else this fortnight. As I write, the dream is very much alive. It remains to be seen whether this time, it can become a reality.

But one thing is for sure. Nothing beats being there.

Update: We lost.

#DatesWithDublin #6 – St. Audoen’s Church

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Religion and Rowan Trees

In a rather alarming development, I’ve noticed a bit of a religious theme emerging in the Dates with Dublin adventure. While I’ve always been a bit of a nerd when it comes to history and old things, religion and the church tend to make my hackles rise. I’ve found of late, however that I’m being oddly drawn to cathedrals, chapels and cemeteries, even when going about my regular business. Despite the variety of stuff to see on my list, my head now turns when I pass a particularly interesting-looking church, and I sometimes have to forcibly stop myself from sneaking off into graveyards while nipping out to fetch a litre of milk. To date, I’ve managed to refrain from spontaneously breaking into hymns (bar a very devout and heartfelt rendition of ‘The Green and Red of Mayo’ in Another sacred ground at 5pm last Sunday – more about that later), but this unexpected religious draw certainly got me wondering.

Last Thursday afternoon I cracked it, as I parked up the bike and tiptoed into John’s Lane Church on Thomas Street for a quick nosey. (Incidentally, The nerd in me was fascinated to learn on my way in that Padraig Pearse’s dad James was responsible for the sculpting of the statues on the bell tower.) As I sat gazing around at the ornate altars, the stunning stained glass windows and the marvellous mosaics, with only one other for company, the noise of the traffic chaos outside melted into the background and I started to relax and feel a welcome sense of quiet and calm. It struck me that in our everyday lives, we rarely take time out to do nothing; to have a quiet moment of peace and reflection – to just be with ourselves for a few minutes. An old friend of mine, though not particularly religious or indeed at all saintly, is a regular mass attendee. I asked him why. “It’s like this,” he said. “I don’t give a monkeys about the prayers or the preaching, but it’s the one hour in a week where I’m forced to sit down away from the phone and the laptop and the TV and all the distractions I have around me. If nothing else, it gives me time to think and have a good daydream.” Food for thought indeed and maybe it’s something worth making a bit of time for.

Anyway, enough of the deep stuff. Before I got sidetracked by John’s Lane (which, incidentally is the proud owner of the tallest non-stainless steel spire in Dublin), I set my sights on St. Audoen’s Church on High Street. St. Audoen’s is a curious place. It’s actually two churches – there’s the original building, which is the oldest Anglican parish church in Dublin, dating from 1190, and the new Roman Catholic church of the same name, built a mere 10 inches away in the 1840s after the Catholic Emancipation. (The latter is now home to the Polish Chaplaincy in Ireland.) I visited the newer church first, and while it’s very nice as churches go and has its own story to tell, the real star is the old church. (Please excuse the particularly rubbish photography – this time I only had the iPhone for pics and while not even a decent camera can save me, it usually at least makes the usual shooting shambles look half presentable.)

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Wonderfully weedy

I wandered down the path, which is beautifully surrounded by weeds (I’m not being sarcastic here, honestly) to the door, and arrived just as the guided tour was beginning. Nice one. Entry to the church is free. Even nicer. I was welcomed by a cheery chap dressed in full Norman-style chain mail regalia who was clearly getting into the spirit of Heritage Week. I hope he has no metal allergies.

St. Audoen’s is the only remaining medieval parish church in the entire city, and is named after St. Ouen (or Audoen) of Rouen in Normandy, a bishop the Anglo-Normans must have been fond of, I suppose. The church, remarkably is still in use for parish services today. Though built in 1190, it was reportedly built on the site of an older church dedicted to St. Colmcille, dating from the seventh century, which really is a rather long time ago. And when I walked into the building it felt, unsurprisingly … old. Very old indeed.

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A view of St Audoen’s from the altar. In reality, it’s not leaning to the right

The building is home to a few items of note. Firstly, when you enter beside the simple altar, you’re faced with the large, ornate 17th century monument to the Sparke and Duff families, two wealthy Dublin merchant families, who lost their fortunes in the Dublin Gunpowder disaster of 1597. Unusually for its time, it is made from plaster, not stone, and features symbols of the families’ wealth (like pineapples) and images of death (skulls).

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Surprisingly, this is not my photo, but that of a very good photographer named Andreas F. Borchert.

Continuing down the church towards the main entrance, on the left sits an impressive church organ, which is also used to this day. It’s unusual you see one up so close and personal and as always when I spot an organ, I had to drag myself away lest I be tempted to sit down and bang out a tune – Chopsticks probably wouldn’t have been quite appropriate. The hard wooden pews are lined with soft coverings which I’m sure are infinitely more comfortable than the stone floors the medieval pilgrims had to endure. I’m told they got straw mats for special occasions, but unlike today, the religious ceremonies of the time were cold and draughty experiences with no hot air at all. Ahem.

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Tempting … and oddly orange-tinted. Not the organ. My photo.

Near the back of the church sits a 12th century baptismal font, which, hidden from Cromwell and his mates in the 1600s and forgotten, was unearthed during restoration work in the 19th century. The font dates from the 12th century and bears the shell or scallop symbol of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James, a journey undertaken by many medieval pilgrims ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. Having walked a 250km section of the Camino a couple of years back, I was intrigued to learn that poorer pilgrims received their initial blessing at the start of the journey at St. Audoen’s (which is based near James’ Gate, a traditional Camino starting point) before travelling via Bristol by Sea to France, where they walked the full 800+km. Meanwhile the rich folks just paid other people to do the pilgrimage for them. Lazy sods. The font was locked in the olden days, as it contained two items of great value at the time – a lead lining and holy water. Tragically, the two treasures mixed a little too well and it’s said that contamination of the holy water with the lead resulted in the untimely deaths of more than one unfortunate child after baptism.

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Lead-lined and lethal. One of the day’s better photos. (Yeah, I know.)

Out in the porch, there’s a “lucky stone”; probably a gravestone that may have originated in St. Patrick’s Cathedral nearby – there are similar stones there. Merchants and traders used to rub it for luck, after it was erected in the 1300s beside a marble water cistern in Cornmarket, so that all who drank of the waters may have luck. It is said that the reverend who placed the stone in St. Audoen’s centuries ago still pops back now and again, probably to give it the odd rub. You can never have too much luck, even when you’ve been dead for a few centuries. The stone has been stolen on a number of occasions, but mysteriously, has always found its way back. Spooky!

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Lucky stone.
Whaddya mean, he’s behind me?

The bell tower in the main entrance area houses three of the oldest bells in Dublin city, dating from 1423, and they are still rung every Sunday. The bell tower stone staircase is gated off but is tantalisingly tempting – I really wanted to sneak back in when everyone had and make a break for the bells. As part of Heritage week St. Audoen’s opened the bell tower to the public, a rare event indeed and I was sorry to have missed it, being as I was on a pilgrimage elsewhere – again, more about that later.

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More temptation … the gated bell tower

The main entrance area also hosts a 15th century effigial tomb to Lord Portlester and his wife Marguerite. Lord Portlester had an impressive CV, firstly holding the position of Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, then Lord Chancellor of Ireland and finally Lord High Treasurer of Ireland. Overachiever. The effigy shows Lord Portlester lying with his feet resting on a dog. The dog’s mouth is closed, meaning in the symbolism of the time that its owner died a peaceful death. Lord Portlester was clearly an optimist and possibly a psychic, given that he built the tomb 14 years before his death. Of course, “effigial” means that they’re not buried there at all, so technically it’s not a tomb. But I suppose it’s the next best thing. Anyway, there are lots of dead folk lying around underfoot which, as regular readers will know, always makes me happy.

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Pretendy tomb. I went for a close-up view to capture the detail… oh.

There’s a wealth of medieval history associated with the building, and the mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture tells stories of its own, particularly when you go outside to the private chapel, which was built to accommodate swelling congregation numbers in the 1400s. What I really liked about St Audoen’s is that the story of the church and the guilds that frequented it is told really well, both by the guides and the visuals in the exhibition area. For me, it was clear, interesting and engaging, and in this, it stood in contrast with other museums. For instance last week I also visited the Story of the Capital in City Hall, and for a museum in such a stunning location, and with such a fascinating story to tell, the visuals left me confused, cold and if I’m honest, a bit bored. St. Audoen’s on the other hand, managed to draw me in and transport me to a world of medieval merchantry and religious ruaille buaille, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. If you haven’t been, I’d recommend popping in if you’re wandering past – it’s like a little trip into the Dublin of old and I doubt you’ll regret it. You might even take better photos than I did, though it’s probably unlikely.

Speaking of religion, the next post on Dates with Dublin will be an entirely self-indulgent and emotional account of my most recent glorious pilgrimage to the ultimate temple of worship – Croke Park, where the highlight of my summer to date saw the Green and Red of Mayo overcome the Farney Boys of Monaghan and the Red Hand of Tyrone to see us into not one, but two All-Ireland finals on September 22nd. To keep it on topic, I’ll also tell you a bit about the other stuff you can do in Croker, even if you never looked sideways at a sliotar or football in your life. Stay tuned!

#DatesWithDublin #5 – Casino Marino

Last Tuesday, while out on de Nortsoide on a little excursion, I decided to swing by Marino to visit the Casino, a place on my Dates with Dublin list that no fewer than 43 people have recommended I visit. 43! With enthusiastic endorsement like that, who am I to argue? So on my way back to town I pulled off to the right down the Malahide Road before Fairview, and there, practically in the middle of a housing estate, lies the entrance to Casino Marino.

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Casino

On my way in the gate, I met an elderly but very sprightly gentleman who’d just been in for a tour of the building. “Isn’t this something else?” he beamed, his eyes shining with delight. “50 years I’ve been in Marino, and I only discovered this place five years ago. Can you believe that?” Dublin’s best-kept secret? Could well be. Or perhaps he was just rather unobservant in his younger days.

Still, though, the Casino doesn’t exactly stand out – until you go through the gates and get your first glimpse. First impressions of the building? It’s tiny, but imposing. Or imposing, but tiny. If that makes sense. It’s small, but perfectly formed. And it’s probably the most unusual building of its time in Dublin.

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Little Big House ….

Some history: The Casino (from the Italian ‘casa’ meaning house, so “little house”, not house of gambling) was built in the late 1700’s, by Scottish architect Sir William Chambers in the grounds of the now-disappeared Marino House. The building, apparently one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in Europe, was commissioned by the filthy rich first Earl of Charlemont, James Caulfield after he returned from a nine-year jaunt around the world with his pals. (Nine years of partying. The Celtic Tiger had nothing on these guys.)  It was basically designed as a “pleasure house” – a garden temple of sorts – with no practical purpose, apart from giving Jimmy and his moneyed mates somewhere to play. Designed  to remind the Earl of the good times he enjoyed while hanging out in Italy, it takes its inspiration from Greek and Roman architecture. Quite the souvenir! As playhouses go, this is pretty impressive, and once I learned about the clever design concealed within, I was even more impressed.

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Hear me roar … or just watch me smile

Guarded by some of the friendliest lions you’ll ever see, from the exterior the house looks like one large room, with four very large windows, and one very large door, with two giant urns on the roof. Inside, however, the pint-sized building cleverly conceals no fewer than sixteen smaller chambers, spread over three floors. In keeping with the style of the day, everything is balanced and symmetrical, and if false walls were needed to maintain the symmetry, they were added in.

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All about the symmetry

Despite the scarcity of space such measures, as well as the clever use of light combined with curved walls and vaulted ceilings manage to make the rooms look bigger than they are. To streamline the building, Chambers cleverly concealed such tiresome practicalities as drainpipes inside the building, within hollow columns with water chains inside.

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Fancy drainage

The two giant urns on the roof are actually chimneys. See that large window on the outside? The subtly curved panes of glass conceal the fact that inside, it traverses a number of walls to provide light to more than one room. There are many other clever design quirks in the Casino, but you’ll have to go and seem them for yourself. Unlike Chambers, who remarkably never got to travel to Ireland to see the beautiful building he had designed.

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Clever windowing

Intriguingly, there are eight tunnels leading off in four directions from the Casino. None have been excavated to date. One, now filled in, is said to have led to the main house on the estate. Another leads to an underground spring, probably used to supply the house with fresh water. The others are a bit of a mystery, but were in all likelihood used for storage. That’s not the most exciting explanation however, and everyone knows rumours are far more fun. There are suggestions of secret Masonic meetings taking place underground (indeed the pointed star laid into the ornate wooden floor in the main hall would lend some credence to this theory; however there is no documented evidence of Freemasonry in the house, so they are probably just that – rumours).

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A ceiling of symbols

Indeed, symbolism is evident everywhere you look in the Casino, particularly in the walls and ceilings and anyone with a fertile imagination could come up with a few far-fetched tales. It’s even been suggested that Michael Collins took shelter from the British in one of the tunnels, but again, this has never been verified.

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Authentic 18th century Apple TV

What is known is that the poet Lord Byron was a regular visitor the Casino – in the years after James Caulfield’s death when his son Francis had inherited the house, Bryon befriended his wife, Anne Bermingham, a lady rumoured to be one of the most beautiful in the land (with the added bonus of wealth – she brought a large dowry to the family). On one of Byron’s visits, Anne’s beloved pet hound Neptune passed away. Byron, perhaps in an effort to console the lady of the house, wrote a touching poem, devoted not to Anne, but to the deceased dog. The ode is visible on what’s said to be Nep’s gravestone, seen outside the Casino to this day.

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Alas poor Nep

The view from the Marino and the big house originally gave Lord Caulfield an unfettered and undoubtedly stunning view across Dublin Bay, however in the late 18th century, he became engaged in a war of words with a man called Ffolliot from Aungier Street.  We don’t know the particulars, but Ffolliot must have been pretty peeved (and pretty loaded), as he promptly proceeded to acquire all the land in front of Marino House and build a huge crescent-shaped row of houses to block Jimmy’s view of the Bay. (They didn’t do revenge by halves in those days). No. 15 Marino Crescent went on to become the birthplace of one Bram Stoker, so the outcome wasn’t all bad.

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Fireplace in the master bedroom

Caulfield spent a small fortune on the house while he was alive, and unfortunately, many of the baubles and treasures he collected during his lifetime had to be sold after his death. The building gradually fell into disrepair over the 19th century, and was on the verge of collapse until the passing of the National Monuments Act of 1930, lobbied for by architect Dr. Harold Leask, and the casino was taken into state care and painstakingly restored by the Office of Public Works.

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Our tour guide Michael in the big oak doorway

It’s a gorgeous little building, well worth a visit and there always appears to be something happening there – check out their Facebook page for details. This week, being Heritage Week, the Casino is hosting a number of events for adults and children alike including talks, workshops and costume tours. You can follow Casino Marino on twitter too (they’re super-friendly, helpful and engaging) and visit it from 10.00-18.00 daily (access by guided tour only).  A lovely little gem to lose yourself in for an hour – go see.

#DatesWithDublin #4 – Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum

As part of my ever more enjoyable Dates With Dublin series, I’d planned to take a trip out to Glasnevin Cemetery last Saturday for a wander through the mausoleums and a mooch around the museum. I’d heard that the Glasnevin Trust have been doing some pretty amazing work developing the museum, as well as repairing and maintaining the vast cemetery in Dublin 11 – Ireland’s largest, by far and was looking forward to an afternoon hanging out with a bunch of the least argumentative people you could possibly encounter.

As chance, coincidence and plain old good luck would have it, I received an email from the lovely Darragh Doyle on Friday afternoon, inviting me along on a blogger’s tour of… you’ve guessed it, Glasnevin Cemetery, courtesy of the folks at Slattery Communications. I didn’t need to be asked twice, and at 12pm on Saturday, I found myself ensconced in the boardroom at Glasnevin Cemetery Museum, chowing down on sambos with the crème de la crème of Dublin’s bloggers, tweeters, and PR people learning the story of Glasnevin. From a personal point of view (and I know this is weird), death and funerals fascinate me. I find the traditions and the rituals around death interesting, particularly in Ireland, and I was looking forward to finding out a bit more about them from the experts.

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I know I won’t do justice to the national treasure that is Glasnevin Cemetery in this short blog post. I couldn’t.  You need to go and see it for yourself.  If you haven’t been, organise a trip, or hop on a bus and just go.  But I will tell you that while it’s not your regular tourist attraction, it’s a fascinating way of passing a half a day. Even if you’re not as big a fan of dead people as I am.

Our day started with a bit of background from Tipperary-born Mervyn Colville, who filled us in on the history of the cemetery, and about the work the Trust does. Mervyn was riveting – the story of Glasnevin is fascinating, and his passion for the job shone through with every word. Mervyn was ably assisted by resident historian and mine of information Shane MacThomáis (who later brought us on a tour of the treasures), and social media guru Luke Portess, who’s responsible for creative marketing and communications. Luke is doing excellent job of engaging with the public via contemporary media (you can follow the cemetery and museum on twitter and Instagram) and is one of the team responsible for the cemetery’s quirky new marketing campaign which, in a theme that consistently emerged throughout the day, is all about the people. Watch out for it

Glasnevin Cemetery

What it says on the tin

Some of the more fascinating facts about Glasnevin, in a nutshell:

  • There are 1.5 million people buried in the cemetery. That, my friends, is more people underground in Glasnevin than are over ground in the whole of Dublin City. Impressive, huh? And it’s still filling up rapidly, necessitating the formulation of contingency plans, before the cemetery runs out of space.
  • The first funeral in Glasnevin was that of eleven year-old Michael Carey, on 22 February, 1832. He wasn’t alone for very long.
  • There are approximately 200,000 gravestones in the cemetery. Many, before restoration began, were in a state of disrepair – cracked, sinking etc. About 60% of them have now been restored.
Repaired gravestones in Glasnevin Cemetery

Repaired gravestones in Glasnevin Cemetery

  • Glasnevin was the first cemetery in Ireland to blaze a trail (sorry) and open a crematorium. There are still only four in Ireland, though the number of people opting for cremations is steadily growing year on year. Pacemakers and artificial hips are not suitable for cremation – the former can explode, and the latter, well, nothing happens to them. Just so you know.
  •  Interestingly, there is no regulation governing cremation in Ireland at present. None.
  • There are, however, regulations in place in Glasnevin now regarding the type and size of headstone you can add to a grave, and the message you can write on it. This is to avoid political and overly personal messages. You can, however, use whatever font you like. No-one’s opted for Comic Sans … yet.
  • The cemetery is non-denominational – basically no matter what your religion, you’re welcome here. A cemetery “for all religions and none”.
  • There are watchtowers located around the cemetery, built to deter bodysnatchers. (Rumour has it that back in the day, Prime Minister Robet Peel, upon the subject of the body-snatchers, was heard to proclaim that it was “indeed, a grave matter”.)
  • There are many, many famous people buried in Glasnevin. Writers, politicians, characters from Ulysses – you name it, Glasnevin is home to them. On our short tour we “met” Michael Collins (and Kitty Kiernan, buried within a respectable distance), Eamon de Valera, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jim Larkin, Maude Gonne, Brendan Behan and Sir Roger Casement among others. And of course, Daniel O’Connell.
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Shane Mac Thomáis emulating Big Jim Larkin

  • Daniel O’Connell’s family tomb is located under a huge round tower monument that took 8 years to build, but was bombed by Loyalists in 1972, destroying the staircase and with it a spectacular view of the city. The plan is to rebuild the staircase in time and restore this unique and historic vantage point. O’Connell’s enormous coffin is placed within a tomb, through which you can see it, and reach in and touch it. Wow. In a separate room is the “family stack” where the lead-lined coffins of O’Connell’s family are piled up, almost carelessly, close to the great man himself.

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The great man’s great big coffin

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The O’Connell Family Stack

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Tantalising view of the top

There are at least a million more things to tell you about Glasnevin (probably 1.5 million, given that every body has its own story). You might say death is a great equaliser, but from the mass pauper graves homing the thousands of people who could not afford decent burials or died during epidemics, to the Angels plot, to the extravagant, ornate carvings which adorn the resting places of Dublin’s wealthy, all human life is here. The museum in particular is a poignant, yet powerful monument to the people within Glasnevin (who at all times remain the focus), telling as it does the stories of many who lie within the plots. The glass wall displaying symbols of the lives of a select few serve as a striking reminder of the purpose this place serves.

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Just one of the many stories of Glasnevin Cemetery

What struck me throughout our day with the team was the respect and sensitivity with which they spoke and with which they treat their surroundings – all are evidently keenly aware that the position they hold is one that brings with it great responsibility in terms of  maintaining, repairing, developing and marketing the cemetery, particularly given the need for greater commercialisation in order to generate funds for maintenance. I got the sense that every decision is debated, dissected and considered carefully, which is reassuring given the amount of stakeholders – dead and alive – who are potentially affected. Shane, in particular, you feel, has walked every inch of this ground hundreds of times and knows it intimately, and this very charismatic, warm and witty man’s affection for the place shone through in every word.  In what is becoming one of Ireland’s busiest tourist attractions, there is, oddly, a wonderful sense of calm and beauty, particularly in the older, green areas among the cemetery’s oldest residents.

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Tranquility for Taphophiles

The Glasnevin Trust has many more plans for the future. As well as restoring the O’Connell monument, there are still thousands of graves to be repaired and a memorial wall containing the names of all the dead from 1914-22 is being mooted. The cemetery lies a little bit away from the tourist trail, on the northside but is very easily accessible via public transport or you can drive and park. Hop on a bus or your bike and go! There’s a shop, café, all the information you can possibly consume, a genealogy centre and a myriad of guided tours and events in the pipeline. I really can’t encourage you enough to go see this piece of our history.

And go visit the Gravediggers afterwards. The hype is indeed true, and the pint I had there afterwards with my new blogging buddies was indeed one of the finest I have tasted above ground in Dublin. A fine end to a fine day.

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Thirsty tourists

Thanks to all at Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum, and the good people at Slattery Communications for the invitation – it was a pleasure to partake.

A Woman’s Worth Part I – the reporting of violent crimes against women

Update: January 2016

This post was originally intended to deal with the way society quietly contributes to and colludes with a culture of violence against women in ways that are often so subtle, we don’t even notice. Be it “casual sexism”, the acceptability of men catcalling or abusing women on the street, the common tendency to imply that survivors of sexual assault somehow are partially to blame, the frequent disdain towards feminism, the objectifying and abuse of women in the media, as well as workplace cultures and media cultures that continue to quietly reinforce the myth that somehow women have less to contribute. All of the above elements are intertwined, and all play their own role in the way women are treated in society. 

I also wanted to look at the low reporting levels and the frequently sentencing of crimes of violence against women, to examine the way the courts contribute to this culture. I have looked at reporting below; but the list of unduly lenient sentences became so long and unwieldy that I have now removed it, and it is available here. 

Reporting of crimes of violence against women.

There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that violent crimes against women are significantly under-reported. It’s difficult to obtain exact statistics, but it’s estimated that, as few as one in five incidences of domestic assault are reported to Gardai. The Sexual Abuse Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report (2002) published by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre found that disclosure of sexual crimes was startlingly low  – just 7.8% of women experiencing adult sexual assault had reported to Gardai. Bear in mind that prosecutions and convictions for reported crime are very low also – according to the Garda Recorded Crime Statistics report 2007-2011, published by the CSO, there were 1,992 sexual offences recorded in Ireland in 2011. Court proceedings were taken for 318 (16%) of the offences recorded (with 244 pending at the time of publication), and convictions were returned in 54 cases. 54 convictions. That’s a conviction rate of 16%. Out of all offences reported, that’s a 3% conviction rate.

Why is this the case? There are a myriad of reasons. Firstly, identifying an assault in the first instance can be an issue – sometimes women aren’t aware that what they have experienced is actually an assault. Many don’t know where to go for support (over a quarter, according to SAVI, would not know where to turn). The reporting process itself can be traumatic. A victim of crime may have enough on their plate just dealing with the fact that they have been assaulted, without embarking on process they may not feel able to cope with. The burden of proof usually lies with the person who has been attacked, survivors are often afraid that they will not be believed, or that they will in some way be blamed for encouraging or provoking the attack. And if someone who’s been affected by a crime does decide to go down this road, conviction rates are low. The ordeal of reliving their experience on the witness stand under cross-examination can prove too much of a deterrent. If the perpetrator is convicted, sentencing is inconsistent at best.

Even the 2014 Garda Inspectorate Report recently demonstrated just how flawed process are within the force in terms of recording, classifying and following up on domestic violence, and also demonstrated that within the force, “some members displayed negative attitudes towards domestic violence by referring to calls as problematic, time-consuming and a waste of resources.”) So it’s clear that there is a massive problem.

Take the following scenario. To report a sexual assault women need to contact the gardai, and probagly get to a garda station. Depending on who they deal with, they might be given detailed, sympathetic information about the process ahead. SAVI indicates that lack of information from gardai and medical personnel was the main source of dissatisfaction with services – with gardai in particular providing inadequate explanations of procedures being undertaken, and medical personnel needing to provide more comprehensive information regarding services and options. Upon arriving, they’d be advised not to wash, remove their clothing, or brush their teeth. They might be injured – missing teeth, for example, or bleeding heavily. They’d need to be medically examined, but because facilities are under-resourced, they may need to wait for hours to be examined. They may even need to travel to a certain unit to be examined (there are just seven specialist Sexual Assault Treatment Units in Ireland). This is all in the immediate aftermath of an assault.

In terms of reporting, journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy gave an excellent and detailed account of the reporting process, pointing out that it is often a fraught one for survivors, who can frequently feel like they are peripheral to the process. Deirdre has included two case studies on the reality of the reporting process which are well worth a read. (Notably, Deirdre also explains that legislation on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse, while designed to prevent re-offending, can place the onus on survivors of assault who are already struggling to deal with the abuse, to ‘save’ others. This legislation will also introduce mandatory reporting for social services, agencies and public sector organisations dealing with abuse victims, a move that may potentially dissuade them from seeking assistance or counselling for fear they may be inadvertently starting a legal process that they don’t feel ready or able for.)

Sentencing

We’ve already seen that once crimes are reported, it’s a long road to prosecution and conviction, and the process can sometimes take years. Over the past few months a trend has become apparent in the way crimes against women are treated in Ireland by the courts. Lenient and inconsistent sentencing in particular is a concern, and I’ve detailed in this separate post just some of the more unacceptable examples of sentencing reported in the past few years. There are undoubtedly more, and the number of judges referenced indicates that this problem is ingrained in the judicial system.

Sentencing is not the only problem. Take the case of Danny Foley, a bouncer from Listowel, who in 2009 was jailed for five years for sexually assaulting a 22 year-old woman. Before he was jailed, approximately 50 people in the courthouse lined up to embrace him and shake his hand – in front of his victim – before he was jailed. Foley later lost a bid to overturn the conviction.

Where is the incentive for survivors to report, and sometimes be forced to relive their ordeal face-to-face with their attacker on the witness stand, when rapists and violent criminals, receive what appear to be minimal custodial sentences, sometimes none at all? When victim-blaming is rife, what does that say to a woman? What does the commercialisation of crimes say to potential rapists – giving them an option to pay a “token” of compensation in lieu of a spell in jail? That they can pay a price for their victim’s consent? The consistent theme of judges commenting on offenders’ previously “good characters” indicates that such assaults are viewed as a mere slip-up, an indiscretion, a minor mistake. Nowhere is there evidence to show that any of the members of the judiciary referenced above demonstrated an appreciation of the impact a sexual crime can have on a woman.

So what’s to do be done?

There’s a lot to do, and less than ever to do it with. But we owe it to those women who have had to endure the physical and psychological trauma of a violent assault, to ensure that we start sending a strong message to them (we are on your side, not your abuser’s) and to abusers (this is not acceptable and you will be severely punished).

Stop victim-blaming

When violent or sexual crimes are committed, we need to immediately stop victim-blaming, or implying that women attacked violently were in any way responsible for their assault be that in how they might have dressed, where they were or what they might have been wearing. They were not. The only people ever responsible for violent crimes are those who commit them. This is indisputable – yet we still see fit to imply that women who have been assaulted Jane Ruffino, mentioned above, has written this piece, entitled 10 things you should do when confronted with violence against women, and it’s worth a read.

Female survivors of violent abuse need support, and somewhere they can go for practical advice or counselling in a non-threatening and confidential environment. Organisations like Women’s Aid, the Rape Crisis Network and the Rape Crisis Centres as well as many smaller organisations do excellent work, but in the current environment are fighting harder for a smaller slice of the funding pie. Wexford Women’s Shelter and the Midwest Rape Crisis Centre have both had to close for periods of time due to lack of funding.

Sentencing guidelines

The need for sentencing guidelines, particularly in the area of sex crimes is being examined. As already mentioned, the Law Reform Commission is calling for a re-examination of mandatory sentencing however it would also surely be prudent for the judiciary, who undoubtedly have a difficult job to do, to be versed in the very real effects of sexual crimes against women, and to bear in mind the message their sentencing sends to both perpetrators and victims of crime. It is worth noting, however,  that in a 2013 report, the Irish Sentencing Information System (ISIS) conducted research which suggested that sexual assault sentences in Ireland are not in fact too lenient, and that rapists who have either pleaded not guilty, failed to show insight into the nature and consequences of rape, or those who inflicted violence, were typically given a sentence of at least nine years in jail. Relatively few sentences were seen as lenient, according to the report, and those that were tended to be highlighted in the media.

Training

There have been a number of calls for training of judges with regard to rape sentencing, particulary from within the Rape Crisis movement; however these have proved fruitless to date. In a 2014 interview on RTE Radion 1 with Seán O’Rourke, retired High Court Barry White rejected the idea of judges requiring training, saying: “I don’t believe that judges need training in relation to sentencing, in cases of a sexual nature. There may be judges who are inexperienced in dealing with crime, who find themselves sitting in the Central Criminal Court, from time to time, but most judges who sit in the Central Criminal Court have had long criminal experience, have had substantial criminal practices over protracted period of time. And they are fully aware, as to the parameters within which a sentence should be imposed.”

The mounting evidence would suggest that they are less aware of the implications of their decisions.

Taking responsibility

Aside from this, we need to take control ourselves and start creating a culture change. A change in perspective from ‘punishment’ to ‘prevention’, and educating our children, especially our boys, about consent. That means thinking about the way we treat, regard, discuss and behave towards women. All of us, men and women alike. We need education. We need to think about how we speak to our children, how we speak  to each other in front of them and instil in them a different mentality than that which exists in society towards women presently.

If our judiciary don’t take it seriously, if our police force don’t do it seriously, if our government doesn’t take it seriously, if a significant proportion of the population at large doesn’t take it seriously, it’s time that those of us who do stepped up to the mark and started making Ireland a safer, better, more just country for everyone living here.

Dates with Dublin #3 – The Irish Blood Transfusion Clinic

It’s probably a bit of a stretch including this in the Dates With Dublin series, but in keeping with the current theme of “doing things I’ve always meant to do but never quite got around to”, last week in a fit of impulse I booked an appointment to donate blood. Over on The Twitter, the bould @FintanToolbox had tweeted about paying  the nice folks in the clinic one of his regular visits, and as, reassuringly, he doesn’t appear to have suffered any visible ill-effects down the years, it served as a timely reminder to get the finger out. So into D’Olier Street I toddled today, and while this doesn’t particularly fall under the categories of exploration, or tourism, it’s something you can do all over Ireland. Bloody marvellous!

First up, a few blood-related facts.

  • 3,000 blood donors are needed each week in Ireland
  • Only 3% of the Irish population give blood
  • 1 in 4 Irish people will need a blood transfusion at some point in their lives – be that as the result of an accident, illness, giving birth etc, In fact 1,000 people receive transfusions every week.
  • One car accident victim may require up to 30 units of blood, a bleeding ulcer could require anything between 3-30 units of blood, and a coronary artery bypass may use between 1-5 units of blood. That’s a lot of blood.
  • Get this: human blood travels 60,000 miles per day on its journey through the arteries, arterioles and capillaries and back through the venules and veins. How awesome is that?

Now the science bit is over, what’s the first-timer experience like?

The offices on D’Olier Street are bright, reassuringly clean, modern and lively. Everyone’s very friendly. There’s music playing in the background, so it doesn’t feel like a clinical environment. There is FREE CHOCOLATE. And FREE CRISPS. The positives were quickly racking up before I even got down to business.

When you arrive, you’re asked some questions, and given a questionnaire to fill out. You’re then given some information to read in your own time. (If you wish, you can have some free chocolate and crisps while you’re doing so.) As a first-timer, I was brought to the interview room to go through the questionnaire in a little more detail, and to be sure I understood everything. You’re told all about the process, and you’re asked whether you’ve eaten and consumed plenty of liquids, all of which help prevent potential fainting. Any questions? Just ask. It’s a thorough process, and it’s reassuring to see the attention to detail.

Then, there’s a fingertip test, to make sure that your haemoglobin levels are sufficiently high. Last night’s spinach gorge-fest did the job, obviously, so I was declared good to go. Iron-heavy fist-pump!

I was pretty damn nervous before being brought into the donation area. It’s been a while since I had any shots and I’m as yet untattooed, so needles and I are not close acquaintances (which is probably not a bad complaint to have), and I’m squeamish at the best of times. But like the brave little soldier I am, I sat down and pretended I was Kool and the Gang as the doc with the big needle approached.  You’re given a little squeezy bone to hold, a tourniquet is applied and the inside of your elbow is cleaned. While you’re wondering what on earth possessed you to spend an afternoon being punctured like a roast chicken, the lovely warm staff deploy revolutionary diversionary tactics to distract you, such as talking to you, and asking you questions, and suddenly, before you know it, you’re plugged in.  Then you just lie back and relax, and deploy the odd fist clench to keep things moving along.  The blood bag is out of sight, so unless you want to have a look, you can’t see it.  If you’re feeling brave, you can take a peek at the needle (it’s bigger than you think, but hurts not even slightly as much as you’d expect). I promise, you’ll feel like a hero, especially when you learn that the average body has 10-12 pints of blood, and you typically donate a pint at a time. That’s up to a tenth of your blood. Huzzah!

Within eight minutes, I was done and the needle was whipped out, I was patched up and escorted to a bed to keep pressure on the wound. I felt oddly fine. No dizziness, lightheadedness or hallucinations (I don’t think the latter is a recognised side-effect). Off I went to the canteen where you’re greeted with the most wonderful view of O’Connell Street and given MORE FREE CRISPS AND CHOCOLATE. Honestly, this is the best place ever. Though it’s not recommended that you do any strenuous exercise afterwards, I cycled home at a leisurely pace and at the time of writing, am none the worse for it.

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O’Connell Street, as seen from the canteen in the Irish Blood Transfusion offices on D’Olier Street

So if like me, you’ve thinking of doing this, I’d highly recommend going for it. The thing that struck me throughout the experience, from once I went in the door to when I left, was that everyone was smiling. Even the people with needles in their arms. I think I even cracked a smile myself. I couldn’t speak highly enough the staff – they were so welcoming, reassuring and there’s a lovely atmosphere in the building. I was thanked more than once for taking the time to go in, which I really appreciated. (And there are free crisps. Did I mention that?) Once you’ve donated, you can do so again with 90 days, and I know I won’t hesitate to return in November.

For more info on blood donation, check out the Irish Blood Transfusion Service website, where they give you all the information you’ll need about the blood donation process.

You can follow the IBTS on Twitter and Facebook where they’ll let you know if supplies are running low. You can even check the current Irish blood supply.

But most of all, if you’ve been thinking of doing it – just go for it.

Dates with Dublin is getting more romantic by the moment, isn’t it? Til next time …

#DatesWithDublin #2 – St. Patrick’s Cathedral

I’m easing myself into this project of mine.

So far, I haven’t gone out of my way to seek out treasures – they’ve just been on my route, but of course, it’s early days.  As I left work today I decided on a whim to park up the bike outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, having spent the past six months cycling past it twice a day and vowing that one day I’d actually go inside. So began Date #2 of Dates with Dublin.

I went for a wander in the adjacent park to take a couple of photos:

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Grabbing a bite

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Steps to Bride Street

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral, from St. Patrick’s Park

Pretty, isn’t it? I should warn you right now; my photography skills are non-existent. A left-handed blind goat would probably do better with a point-and-click.  I really wish I had more of an eye for photos, or even the slightest idea of how to work my camera. Either one of those would be helpful, but you get the picture anyway (ho ho). The park is a little oasis of calm off the busy thoroughfare of Patrick Street, and, hidden at the back, there’s a homage to Dublin’s many esteemed authors on the Literary Parade.

Inside I ventured, to be greeted by two lovely ladies at the desk. Admission is typically €5.50. “Where are you from?” they asked. “Mayo”, said I, and they waved me on in. “It’s a national Cathedral, so it’s yours to visit as you please”, they said. Evern Mayo, eh? Who knew. So far, so nice. I put my money back in my pocket and plodded on in.

Inside, it looks like … well, a typical Cathedral really. The building dates from 1191, so is over 800 years old. There are more monuments and plaques inside than you can shake a stick or camera at, so I busied myself wandering around to see if I recognised anyone from my days of Junior Cert history. My memory’s not very good. I spotted St Patrick (oddly enough), Douglas Hyde and Jonathan Swift, and after that, your guess was as good as mine.

There are some highlights. Firstly, the building itself is really impressive – tall, imposing, elegant. The stained glass windows, while relatively new, dating from the 1800s, are stunning, and while the cathedral is busy with the hum of tourists, it’s a relaxed and welcoming space; almost informal. If you’re looking for solemnity and hushed tones, you won’t find it here, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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Stained glass window telling St. Patrick’s story

While I’m all for a bit of a history, what intrigues me the most is people and what they got up to back in the day. I wasn’t disappointed with some of the stories from St. Patrick’s. It’s probably best known for its most famous Dean, author Jonathan Swift,  who, despite yearning for a post in England was greatly admired for the passion with which he fought what he felt were unjust impositions on the Irish people. The man himself is buried within the cathedral, alongside his lifelong friend and companion, Stella. Swift met Stella through a former employer when he was a young man and she was just eight years old,  and the two remained close until her death in her mid 40s, though despite much speculation, nobody knows the exact nature of their relationship . And so the mystery and ambiguity remain t this day, and whether or not they ever wed remains the subject of debate. Their secrets remain forever between them in what must be one of Dublin’s more intriguing love stories.  

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Stella’s epitaph

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Swift’s epitaph translated from Latin. Like a proper boy scout, he wrote it himself

Mooching around in the glass cases close to the graves, I discovered a cast made of Swift’s skull. Relishing the macabre as I do, I was intrigued to read that the skulls of Jonathan and Stella had been exhumed some 90 years after their death, so that they could be examined by a team of phrenologists. Phrenology, now long discredited, was a rather fashionable science in the 1830s, and consisted of examining the shape of human skulls to reveal character traits and intelligence levels. If nothing else, it allowed us to see what shape Jonathan Swift’s head was. The inside of Swift’s head was another matter; in his later years he was troubled with dizziness and noises in his ears, and this, combined with a stroke he suffered led many to dismiss him as mad before his death. It was only during his exhumation that the physician Dr. William Wilde (father of that literary rascal, Oscar) went poking around and discovered that Swift had been suffering with a loose bone in his inner ear, and that Meniére’s Disease, not madness, was at the root of his problems. This in itself was ironic, given that Swift had left a substantial sum of money to St. Patrick’s Hospital for the Mentally Ill; which is today still in operation.  There’s lots more information on this incident over at Come Here To Me! which is well worth a read.

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Swift’s Skull

Another story I liked was that of the origin of the phrase “Chancing Your Arm”.  In the  late 15th century, two famous Irish families, the Butlers of Ormonde and the FitzGeralds of Kildare, had a bit of a falling out about a high-paying job – Ireland hasn’t changed that much – and the situation escalated into some a kerfuffle and some waving of handbags outside the Dublin city walls. (I may be exercising some artistic licence here.) The Butlers fled and hid out in the Cathedral, with the Fitzgeralds in hot angry pursuit. However, the calming atmosphere of the place clearly had an effect on the latter, and upon arrival, they knocked on the door of the Chapter house where the Butlers were holed up, and asked that the two families make peace. The Butlers were terrified, and assuming it was a trap, refused to exit lest they be butchered on the spot. Gerald Fitzgerald, (with, one would suspect, rapidly evaporating patience), ordered that a hole be cut in the door, and thrust his arm through to offer his hand in peace to the Butlers.  The Butlers, realising that Fitzgerald was willing to “chance his arm”, relented and shook hands (with, one would suspect, no small degree of embarrassment) and the two clans kissed and made up. The “Door of Reconciliation” is still on display in the Cathedral. 

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The Door of Reconciliation

There’s lots more to see in the Cathedral, including the beautiful carved stone staircase, the gorgeous Ladies Chapel and the rather bamboozling looking organ which, I believe is one of the largest in Europe. (They didn’t let me play it.) There are numerous tombs dotted around the place also, as well as many references to our history and colourful relationship history with the British . Our tour guide was at pains to point out that because the building is protected, they weren’t allowed to “get rid” of anything, so the Union Flags and royal seals remain intact. But we’ve moved on, so that’s okay, right? There is a large area in the North Nave dedicated to all our War dead, with laurel and poppy wreaths.

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Spiral Staircase

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I wouldn’t know where to put my fingers first….

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Ladies Chapel … not just for Ladies. The Huguenots hung out here too

There is so much more I could tell you about this place, even after a whistle-stop tour, but this is just a taster. I strongly suggest that if you have time, you pop in and see for yourself, but if you’re curious to learn more, have a look at the Cathedral Tales page here. One thing I did notice on my visit was just how much information is available on the cathedral if you’re thirsty for hard facts. There are QR codes dotted everywhere, leading to video, audio and text content (they even have free wifi).  They have an fantastic website, and maintain an active and responsive social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. There’s also more to see – the Marsh Library, Ireland’s oldest public library is on the grounds, but wasn’t open today. It’s a lovely way to pass a couple of hours – go see.

Finally, I was delighted to spot, among the myriad of stitched kneeling pads that adorned the backs of most of the seats, a small tribute to the homeland:

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Mayo for Sam!

That’ll do nicely for a difficult second date – I left wanting more, and feeling just a little bit more knowledgeable, which was the aim of this whole exercise.

Until the next day out, thanks for reading!

Dates with Dublin #1- Churchtown Bottle Tower

So today, to kick off my Dates With Dublin project,  I went on my first “date”. Not unlike other dates I have previously embarked on, it proved to be shorter than expected and not very interesting, with minimal conversation and a bit of head-scratching. I think this one might have been a record, though, clocking in at about three minutes. But it’s a start, right?

On the way to do the grocery shop (oh, the glamour of a bank holiday weekend!) I swung by the Bottle Tower near Churchtown. It’s a place that’s caught my eye before, but thanks to a suggestion from Julia over on Facebook, today I decided to pull up outside and go in for a nose.

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The Bottle Tower (also known as Hall’s Barn) appears to be located on the grounds of a private residence, but nobody came running out with a pitchfork when I stepped through the gate, so I took that as an open invitation. I had a good nose around, as I’m wont to do, but there’s really not a lot more to see than what you can see above, as you can’t access the back of the structure. But it’s kinda cool, isn’t it? There’s no information at all visible around it, so I came home and turned to my trusty friend, Google. There’s not much information online either, but from what I can glean, the structure was built in the 1740s, when Ireland was in the grip of a famine, under the direction of the wife of William Conolly of Castletown House, Leixlip as a means of giving local people a way to earn a living.

The barn was built on the grounds of the now-disappeared Whitehall House, after which the road it stands on is named. Apparently its purpose was to act as a granary, though there is evidence of a living area inside too, with a couple of fireplaces. The staircase you can see around the side isn’t safe to climb anymore, but leads to a small platform where you could look out over the surrounding areas – this was potentially used for shooting game, back in the day. More than likely, the building is based on the design of the Wonderful Barn in Castletown House, which is in much better nick – these are the only two buildings of their type in Ireland. They’re pretty distinctive. And that’s about as much information as I can lay my hands on for now – if anyone local is reading this, I’d love to know more.

So there you have it – today’s Date was short, but was a nice little sweetener for the adventures ahead. It’s also made me think about just how much we rely on the internet for information, and how, if information about an interesting place is not documented already, is it too late? It also reminds me of my own locality at home where there is an absolute myriad of ruins – castles, abbeys, wells, kilns, cemeteries – with very little information online any of them. A project for another time? Who knows.  Anyway, there are lots more adventures to come, with a little more excitement in store, I hope :_)

Til next time …

Dates with Dublin – Places to See

When I came up with the idea of Dates with Dublin, my plan to get to really know the treasures of the city I live in, a couple of folk asked me to make a list of the suggestions I received, so they could check them out too.

Your wish is my command *takes deep breath*

I’ve received so many suggestions since I started this blog, thanks to everyone who left a comment or sent me a tweet with a suggestion. I’ve tried to add as many in as I can, with the result that the list is now out of control and needs to be categorised – a job for another day!  If you have any suggestions, remember I’m looking for more places that are a little off the beaten tourist track. Foodie recommendations welcome too! 

  • The Chester Beatty Library – this was suggested numerous times, and hadn’t really been on my radar. Described as “a nice contemplative space” and as a relaxing venue to pass a couple of hours, it sounds right up my street. And it has books. Well, at least I think it has. And a pretty decent café, if the rumours are to be believed.
  • Phoenix Park – it might sound obvious, but I’ve spent relatively little time in the Phoenix Park in my time here, and haven’t visited the Áras since I was 12. There are free tours of the Aras on Saturdays, incidentally, so I might stick my name down and re-aquaint myself with my old college buddy, Sabine. The Phoenix Park Visitor Centre is meant to be worth a nose too. And an afternoon on the bike hunting deer sounds like fun. (What do you mean, you’re not allowed to do that? )
  • The Blessington Basin – I had no idea this ever existed. At first glance, it looks like a reservoir. I can do reservoirs. On the list. And it has ducks. I like ducks. Can you hunt ducks? No…? Oh.
  • The Douglas Hyde Gallery – again, somewhere that hadn’t been on my radar. (I’m beginning to think that I’m vastly uncultured.)  It has paintings. I like paintings.
  • Tour of Leinster House. This had been on my radar. Ohh yes. In fact, I think I may just leave this one until I can be sure there are some TDs knocking around. You can definitely hunt TDs. Right?
  • The Pearse Museum, Rathfarnham – I live near this, but naturally, I didn’t know it existed either. It’s like I walk around all day with a blindfold on. Anyway, it sounds interesting – it’s the school Padraig Pearse used to run,  and it has lovely grounds so I’ll be paying it a visit too.
  • The Cake Café – this is a secret, magical, oasis-like place in the city centre that sells cake. Except it’s not so secret now that I’ve told you lot. Still, nobody reads this blog, so I don’t expect it’ll be overrun with new secret cake-oasis-seekers any time soon.
  • St Michan’s Church. Now this sounds DEADLY. It has over 1,000 years of history, it had stocks (which I am all for bringing back into use, preferably outside Leinster House during tour times) and there are crypts. With dead people. I like dead people. They don’t answer back or make false economic promises.
  • Glasnevin Cemetery. I’m aware that this list has taken a rather macabre turn, but I’m okay with that. Lots of really, really cool dead people hang out in Glasnevin Cemetery. It’s Ireland’s largest non-denominational cemetery with 1.5 million burials, and is officially known as Prospect Cemetery. You can touch Daniel O’Connell’s coffin while you’re there, and if that’s not the coolest thing to do in Dublin on a Thursday afternoon, I don’t know what is. Kavanagh’s Gravediggers pub nearby (if you can find it) apparently serves a top-notch pint. And good food. Anderson’s off Griffith Avenue is also apparently a good spot for nosh, I’m told by someone In The Know.
  • The National Botanic Gardens – a gorgeous free attraction which, incidentally, backs onto Glasnevin Cemetery, and as luck would have it, they’re after many years of debate, installing a path between the two. Immaculately kept all year, the beauty of the Gardens is that you can visit in every season and be assured of a different view. Be sure to check out the huge glasshouses – you’ll feel like you’re in the rainforest. And the cafe is lovely too.
  • Malahide Castle and Gardens – I’ve been here before, but never in the castle itself. The grounds are great though, with lots of woods and walks. Sadly, the Fry model railway museum has closed (if anyone has any update on this, that would be great. I like trains too). On the list to revisit.
  • The Hugh Lane Gallery. It houses works by  Louis le Brocquy, Jack B Yeats, Francis Bacon and Harry Clarke, among others. There’s nothing I love more than losing myself in an art gallery for an afternoon, so this is one I’m really looking forward to.
  • The National Archaeology Museum. The only thing more interesting than hanging out with dead people is hanging out with stuff dead people used to use. And there’s some super old-looking stuff here. A nice way to pass an afternoon. And it’s FREE, as are all the National Museums of Ireland – Collins Barracks in particular being worth a trip.
  • The National Library of Ireland. I want to visit here purely because I follow these guys on twitter and they sound like the nicest people in the universe. And as well as having lots of interesting stuff they have a cafe with food and talks and wine. I love it already.
  • The Science Gallery – “a venue where today’s white-hot scientific issues are thrashed out and you can have your say. A place where ideas meet and opinions collide” – don’t neutrons also collide, and stuff? (Or perhaps I’m in urgent need of a visit to educate myself.) This place sounds very exciting altogether and it’s also FREE to visit. Exhibitions change quite often though, so checking in advance is a must before travelling.
  • IMMA, or the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Having worked pretty much beside this for the last three months, the building and the gardens have been tantalisingly tempting me from the window.  I went to see Blur in the garden this week, and figure it’d be rude not the pay the amazing building a visit. This will be one of the first places on my list.
  • Somewhere I never knew existed, but somewhere I now can’t wait to see, is Casino Marino. I’m told it’s an architectural delight, and they’re another crew who seem to know how to work the social media thing, which always endears me, so this is somewhere I’ll be visiting sooner rather than later.
  • Since we’ve been lucky enough to live in relatively peaceful times, I’m not sure I know or appreciate nearly enough about the Irish people who fought in wars down the years, so I figure the Irish National War Memorial Gardens  is a good spot to learn a bit. Edywn Lutyens who designed it considered it a “glorious site”, so I’m sure I shall too.
  • The Gallery of Photography. While I’m pretty useless at taking photos myself, other people’s mesmerise me. I love seeing real life moments captured in one fleeting flash of immortality. Plus there’s an intriguing exhibition on called Uncertain State, which looks at how photographic artists are representing this austere, uncertain time in Ireland’s history. Nearby are the National Photographic Archives, also worth a look.
  • Speaking of Archives, the National Archives on Bishop Street, off Kevin Street sound intriguing – they hold the records of the modern Irish State “which document its historical evolution and the creation of our national identity”. History there on paper in front of your eyes. There’s also a genealogy service.
  • If print is your thing, you might enjoy the National Print Museum. Particularly if you’re a heavy user of digital, like myself. I love the look of the building too. And I like fonts.
  • For a rainy afternoon, there are two great cinema experiences in the city centre. The Irish Film Institute (IFI) provides audiences with access to the finest independent, Irish and international cinema. And – bonus – they serve food, and it’s great. And they serve beer. The Lighthouse Cinema  is a specialist, art house cinema committed to programming the best Irish and international films, and it too is a great space, with its own bar.
  • Living the Lockout – the Dublin Tenement Experience was recommended by a friend. An event to commemorate the centenary of the 1913 Lockout, it  aims to give you “a rare opportunity to see inside an undisturbed tenement property and get a taste of life 100 years ago in Dublin”. It’s not suitable for children, which suggests it could pack a punch or two. It’s also very reasonably priced, and is finishing its run on 31st August.
  • Outdoorsy stuff – I’ve been told I need to head out to Howth for a day and climb to Howth Head, and afterwards stuff my face in one (or more) of the great seafood restaurants out there. Fortunately I’ve already done this numerous times, but if you haven’t, you should. The Bloody Stream is a great spot for pub grub and I believe if you’re on a budget, the Doghouse Café opposite is BYO.
  • More outdoorsy stuff – the Irish Canoe Union do lessons during the summer months, in the Strawberry Beds, Lucan and on the Liffey. If you like to paddle your own canoe and discover you have an aptitude, The Liffey Descent may even lie in your future.
  • One place I do intend to take a trip out to Howth for is the Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio (what a great name!). Based in Howth’s Martello Tower (North #2!), they museum exhibits radios and gramophones from the early 1900’s to present day, They’re also on twitter where they form a great double act with the James Joyce Tower in Sandycove, another place on my list. Tower rivalry FTW!
  • I didn’t include Kilmainham Gaol on my list originally, purely because I’ve been there twice myself, but if you haven’t been it’s a truly memorable experience that won’t leave you in a hurry. Access by guided tour only – get there early; it’s worth it and it will leave its mark.
  •  For over 1,000 years of history, go visit Christ Church Cathedral and environs. Say hello to Strongbow, and learn about the Vikings in nearby Dublinia. Christ Church is really awesome – and if you can get in there for one of the recitals, do.
  • Rathfarnham Castle, the Dublin Mountains, especially the Hellfire Club and Massey’s Forest, and the bottle tower near Nutgrove.
  • St. Anne’s Park over in Raheny has been mentioned to me, by virtue of its award-winning rose garden.
  • The Sunday Market in the People’s Park in Dun Laoghaire is a gem, and having tried the falafel, I can vouch for this.

Tours and guides

  • I’m told that Ingenious Ireland go great guides – I haven’t checked them out but they claim on their website to celebrate Irish inventions & discoveries, with really interesting Dublin guided tours, talks, downloads & e-book.

This is just a short list of things that have been suggested to me to see, but of course there are many more and I’m trying to update this weekly.  Again, if you have suggestions, please pop them in the comments below and I’ll add them in – this is a work in progress!

Dates with Dublin

So, as I wrote in my last post, life is pretty good these days.

But it’s still a life in transition career-wise as both of my short-term contracts come to an end – one this week and one in a month’s time, and I face a potential return to the dole queue which worries me more than I care to admit.  Anyway, I’m hoping it won’t come to that (anyone, if you’re reading, please employ me. I can count, add, make excellent tea and I write good and stuff) but in the meantime, I have one month of part-time employment ahead which means one month of work-less afternoons. I don’t like having too much free time on my hands, so I’ve come up with a project to make use of that time.

I’ve lived in Dublin for six years now, and while it’s been reasonably good to me, it’s just somewhere I live, not somewhere I love.  I’m a west of Ireland girl, and I’m passionate about that part of the country – it’s where my heart and soul lie, but lately I’ve wondered whether I’ve been a bit unfair on Dublin. Like a nice lad you go on a date with but aren’t really too bothered about, I can’t help feeling that maybe I haven’t scratched the surface, and given Dublin enough of a chance to grow on me. I might just be missing out.

So for the month of August I’m going to explore the city, spend a bit of time with it and get to know it a little better. It’ll be on a budget, but they say money can’t buy happiness. We won’t be going to the best restaurants, nor drinking the finest wine, but perhaps a clear head will mean clearer vision. Nor will we be transported in style – it’ll be a two-wheel system mostly, but fresh air is good for the soul and the waistline.

Starting from next Tuesday, I’ll be visiting places that have either been on my own list of things to do for a while, or places I didn’t know existed, that have been recommended to me by friends or by the wonderfully helpful folk over on twitter. I’m looking for the places that help me learn about Dublin’s past, and tell me about the people who live and have lived here. I’m also quite enthusiastic about eating lovely food on a budget, so hoping to unearth a couple of thrifty treasure troves. I’m going to be a tourist in my own city. I don’t count photography as one of my skills, but I’ll take the odd photo, and may even write a line or three if somewhere really tickles my fancy.

If you have any suggestions for places I could go that you think I’ll like, please leave them in the comments below.

Dublin, I look forward to our first date.

Here’s a list of suggestions I’ve come up with and received. It’s been no means comprehensive, but it’s a great start and enough to keep me busy for a while. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to add them in! 

Six months on – a quick update

Regular readers of this blog will know that I encountered a(n early) mid-life crisis in September last year, when I decided to stop living to work, and start working to live. You can see the original and subsequent posts here.

So I jacked in my steady, pensionable job with good promotion prospects, cast myself adrift to carve a different life for myself. One with far less stress and far more happiness. Why? Because life is too damn short to be unhappy. Lots of my lovely followers over on the Tweet Machine have been enquired how life is now, so here’s a quick update.

Has it been easy? No. It’s been stressful, worrying, financially draining and I’ve wobbled. Has it been worth it? Yes. Did I do the right thing? Definitely.

So, after Christmas, I took some time out – nearly 11 weeks in total, as it turned out. I was just starting to panic – really  panic, when I was lucky enough to secure two part-time roles in wildly different industries, but both interesting and rewarding in their own way. So in the intervening months I’ve gained some experience working “client-side”, as we agency staff used to call it (we also called it the Holy Grail) and I’ve also managed to gain some experience in the non-profit sector working with brilliant people in  a brilliant charity, which has provided me with insight and an understanding of the sector I didn’t have before. I want to do more.

There are pros and cons. Cons being that I currently have short-term contracts, both coming to an end within weeks, which means it’s decision time and job-hunt time again. There’s no security, and I’m still flat broke. But – and this is a big but – on the plus side, for now I’m working, and I’m incredibly grateful. I know how lucky I am, and how lucky I was to be in a position to be able to do this in the first place. My personal life has also changed quite dramatically. I have free time now. I’m not constantly stressed or exhausted, I get to see friends, talk, write, travel, cook, watch TV, exercise, – all the things that make life worth living. I’ve had some writing published, and people seem to like it, which thrills me more than it’s cool to admit. I’m quite liking the nature of short-term work. It’s good and interesting to explore options.

Most of all, I’m happy. I wake up nearly every day looking forward to the day ahead. I feel lighter, more carefree. It’s remarkable how many people have commented on the fact that I look happy. (I really must have looked like a big bag of misery before.) I can’t describe how much I value this, having been through some darker times. It’s something I will never take for granted. I’m very lucky.

I didn’t think I was brave enough to throw the cards up in the air, but it’s worked out well. If you’re considering it, know that it can be done, and it may take time to work out, but it will.

So I look ahead, and the future’s not certain, but it looks bright, and exciting, and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead. The world’s still my oyster.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

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Violence against women, how society fuels it and what we can do about it

I wrote this post a couple of months back, about a friend.  Someone to whom I owe more than I could put into words here.  The reaction I received was astounding, heartening and saddening all at once.  Too often, we hear tales of domestic violence, abuse, murder in the media, and they’re just that. Stories. I wanted this post to be about a real person. Not just a photo in the paper, to be forgotten next week. I wanted it to remember someone I knew for a small time, but who made a big impact. Someone who had a family and friends, people who cared about her, and were devastated at her loss. For the sake of sensitivity, however I’ve changed some details and disabled comments (something I never do) so as to make her less personally identifiable. 

I’ve mentioned her before in this blog, but she was a colleague and a friend. Compassionate and clever, she had studied hard and was looking forward to a career helping others. I can’t do justice to her personality here, but she was the type of person you’d want by your side in a time of crisis. Gentle and softly spoken, she projected an air of quiet confidence and empathy that you knew would make her an excellent carer. She was weeks away from her formal graduation when she was murdered by her partner, seven years ago this month. She was in her early 20s.

I’d met her partner a handful of times. It had struck me what a strange combination they were. I’d heard her justifying what seemed to me like his bad behaviour more than once, and it had arisen in conversation among friends. In personality, he appeared her very opposite – everything she wasn’t. She didn’t speak much about him, but we sensed an ill-ease and a tendency to placate. We saw less of her socially. In hindsight, the warning signs were there.

But we never expected things to end up like they did.

Seven years on, I still feel angry. So angry with him, for doing what he did, to her family and friends. For thinking he could prevent her from living the life she wanted. I feel sad. Because undoubtedly, the world lost a truly wonderful person – someone who would undoubtedly  make the world a better place, which is all she wanted to do. (Though I’d argue that in her short time, she did just that.)

And I feel guilty, even now. For not doing more. Even though we weren’t particularly close, it had occurred to me that she might have been in an unhappy relationship. I didn’t make the effort I could have. To stay in touch. To talk. It happens all the time, though. People meet people; relationships begin. Things change. Who, in their right minds, could ever have contemplated the outcome?

Violence towards women is in the news every day. Every single day.

Recent statistics, particular pertaining to Ireland, are scarce, but research indicates that one in five women in Ireland, who have been in a relationship, have been abused by either a current or former partner. One in five. Picture yourself, with four of your friends. Statistically, that’s one of you. Since 1996,  190 women have been murdered in Ireland, and of these,  116 women were killed in their own homes. In those resolved cases, over half were murdered by a partner. According the WHO, most violence globally  against women is perpetrated by an intimate male partner, and women who have been physically or sexually abused have higher rates of mental ill-health, unintended pregnancies, abortions and miscarriages than non-abused women. One in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

So many things contribute to the culture of violence against women. Far more than I could squeeze into one blog post, but allow me to touch on some of them below.

  • Victim-blaming. It’s amazing how often we hear about the amount of alcohol that might have been consumed by the victim, how well she knew her attacker, what she might have been wearing. The ONLY person that bears responsibility for a violent attack is the attacker. No-one else. Ever. This can’t be said often enough.
  • Focus on the victim – especially if the victim is physically attractive. Reeva Steenkamp, anyone? We need start focusing on the perpetrators of crimes, and condemning their despicable actions, in the strongest possible way.
  • Public forgiveness of male instigators – Stan Collymore, Chris Brown are two prize examples. How these two have wormed their way back into public affection is beyond me, but there they are, being rewarded with media roles and record company support. As what they did can be forgotten, like it had only temporary consequences. It didn’t.
  • Jokes about domestic violence. “You can beat your wife, but you can’t beat the craic” – really? Language and discourse is so very important. Jokes about domestic violence are everywhere, yet many of us are nervous about calling them out, for fear of being labelled dry. I can’t take a joke? Yeah, cos getting your face smashed in is priceless. Women partake in this humour too. You need to stop and think. It’s not funny.
  • Social media responsibility – or lack of: Sites like Facebook deem it acceptable to allow pages glorifying and joking about domestic violence, as detailed here (warning – graphic images) under the guise of freedom of speech. Incidentally, Facebook also recently removed Jane Ruffino’s excellent post about domestic violence, stating that it contravened their terms of service. Go figure. An excellent campaign instigated by Women, Action & the Media is currently pointing out to advertisers that their ads are appearing on such pages and calling on them to pull ads until Facebook revises its policies and guidelines. And it’s working. There is such a thing as bad publicity, it seems.
  • Consequences. Sentencing for sexual crimes in Ireland is inconsistent at best. with some worrying trends emerging in terms of inexplicably lenient sentencing for perpetrators. There have been no fewer than three cases in the last few months of attackers escaping prison sentences if they paid a financial penalty. See HERE, HERE and HERE for examples. I can’t articulate how angry I am about this, and about the message it sends to both attackers and victims. Essentially, it’s putting a price on women’s safety. The legal position, where the onus of proof is on the victim, and they, not the perpetrator are cross-examined, is a deterrent to prosecuting perpetrators, and essentially ends up re-traumatising the victim. Fewer than 5% of sex attackers in Ireland are convicted.

Like many other injustices, every single one of us has the power to make change. How?

  • By calling out unacceptable behaviour, be that a tasteless joke, or a sexist remark or misogynistic comment. Language is so powerful. Domestic violence jokes just aren’t acceptable. And let’s face it, there are plenty other things to laugh about.
  • By looking out for your friends. If you suspect something’s not right, keep an eye. You don’t need to interfere, but let her know you’re there. Do not judge. You might lose patience with someone who’s constantly justifying bad behaviour, but you never know when she might need a friend who won’t judge her. Just be there, and be ready to listen.
  • By not being afraid to intervene and call the police when you hear your neighbour screaming because her partner is beating her. It IS your businesss.
  • Noting that psychological abuse can also be extremely damaging, and can happen along with, or without physical violence. It erodes self-esteem and the scars, just because they’re internal, are no less deep. It’s abuse, and it’s just as appalling.

It’s also important to note that violence against men, perpetrated by women or other men, is an issue that is very real, and is rarely ever acknowledged or addressed with any degree of seriousness. It should be. And no-one should feel unsafe in a relationship.

What happened taught me two very valuable lessons. Look out for your friends, and look out for yourself. I try to look out for my friends. I often fail dismally, but I’m more aware. I fervently hope that if any of them ever felt they needed to talk, they know they could turn to me. I really, really hope so. And when I found myself in a situation a while back that saw a partner I adored starting to become both obsessive and possessive – checking my messages, monitoring my online activity, questioning me about who I was talking to and spending time with, I knew, despite how strongly I felt about him that I had to get out. I’m not suggesting it would have had a similar outcome, nor that he was capable of being violent, but his behaviour scared me and my instinct screamed at me to leave. Maybe I panicked, but I was scared. I caught a glimpse of the life that potentially lay ahead, and I fled.

Violence against women does not discriminate. It can happen to any of us, regardless of age, wealth, class, outlook. My friend was beaten and murdered in her own home, where she should have been safe. Since she died, over 70 other women have been murdered in Ireland – roughly half of those at the hands of their partners.

If you’re reading this, and you need help, it’s there. People care. Check out Women’s Aid, or the Rape Crisis Centre, and know that it doesn’t have to be like this. If you’re reading this and don’t need help, be vigilant. And know that even you, through your words and actions can make an impact, good or bad.

A response to a response to a response on marriage equality

You may remember I wrote a response  in reply to Breda O’Brien’s piece on marriage equality a few weeks back.

My piece sparked a discussion on twitter with David, an old friend of mine, and a far greater thinker than I could ever hope to be. While himself an endorser of marriage equality, David wondered, with sound reason whether there were a better way of making the argument Breda was trying to make, and indeed, if there were any merit to the arguments being made against marriage equality.

What David says:

“I’m curious whether there is a distinctively conservative, non-question-begging argument against marriage equality that should trouble those of us who endorse marriage equality. It might seem odd that I’d be interested in that question. If I think that we ought to have marriage equality, shouldn’t I be happy that opponents of marriage equality use such terrible arguments?

Here is my answer to that question. I doubt that many people believe that the reason we ought to prohibit same-sex marriage is the arbitrary dictate of a god (though I’m sure some do). And I think many people, even if they have reactions of disgust to homosexual sex, do not think that their reaction of disgust is a good reason to prohibit same-sex marriage (though again, I’m sure some do). But many of those people, I suspect, still think there’s a good underlying reason to prohibit same-sex marriage, even if they can’t quite express that reason.

If that’s right, then if we proponents of marriage equality only respond to the terrible arguments that Breda O’Brien illustrates, our responses might still leave many people uncomfortable. Those people might have the lingering feeling that there was some truth in those arguments, terrible as they were, and that our objections to the arguments missed that kernel of truth. If, however, the argument against marriage equality is set out at its strongest, I hope those lingering feelings can be lessened, and that people can more wholeheartedly embrace marriage equality.

At the very least, we will more clearly understand what separates us from our opponents. That doesn’t mean I think it’s any less important to respond to Breda O’Brien’s, and others’, terrible arguments; I think it’s really important to do that. But I think we ought to undertake, too, this different task.”

David teases out the arguments in great detail here and here , and I’d strongly recommend you have a read.

You’ll find David at @_d_o_b_ on twitter.

Mental Health, Mixed Messages and the Green Ribbon

It’s May, a new summer season is upon us (apparently), and around us a new conversation is finding its feet. Discussion of mental health issues and suicide, in particular, has never been more prominent than in recent times, yet rarely has the conversation been so intense and the messages been more mixed.

We’ve had weeks of robust debate around abortion, where the term ‘suicide’ has been bandied around frequently, carelessly. Public discussion is hugely important in shaping perceptions of mental health, and regardless of the abortion issue, suggestions of large teams of professionals having to ‘verify’ the state of mind of a suicidal pregnant woman arguably sent a subtle, but potentially very damaging message.

We’ve witnessed also the late Donal Walsh’s impassioned campaign against suicide. At 16, Donal knew he was dying, and spoke eloquently of his anger that some of his peers were choosing to end their lives, when he so badly wanted to live. There is little doubt that Donal’s brave handling of his illness earned him respect and admiration. While he may not have fully acknowledged the mindset that drives someone to take their own life, nevertheless if his sentiment, ‘suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’ resonated with just one young person and made them think twice, then it hit the mark.

Another to add his voice to the discussion has been musician Niall Breslin, who’s spoken candidly about the crippling panic attacks he suffered for years. The significance of someone like Bressie – likeable and popular among the younger, more vulnerable demographic – talking openly  about his own mental health simply cannot be underestimated.  He is also an active campaigner who insists that suicide should just not be an option; it “should not even be part of the conversation”.  Instead, he focuses on the practical, and is adamant that young people need to know exactly where to turn. While there are many options, he says, quite correctly that they are not always clear or obvious, and they need to be so. Bressie has also highlighted the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption – something that for various reasons is routinely ignored in mental health discussions but undoubtedly contributes in no small way to the problem.

What’s great about Bressie’s input is not just the way he normalises mental health, but his reassurance that mental ill-health is treatable, and that we have the power to make positive changes. Too often these conversations focus on negative outcomes like suicide, but it’s vital to show that frequently outcomes are positive, people do recover and that we can and should take steps to mind our minds like we do our bodies.

Last Saturday, the spectacularly poignant Pieta House Darkness into Light walk saw 40,000 people in parks nationwide rising before dawn, donning yellow t-shirts and walking together towards the sunrise in a powerful show of solidarity, remembrance, and hope. The emotion was palpable – unsurprising considering that pretty much every participant had in some way been touched by suicide. All were walking to send a powerful message that change is needed, and quickly.

May is Green Ribbon month. Like pink ribbons are synonymous with breast cancer, the green ribbon is an international symbol – of challenging the stigma of mental health problems. See Change, the National Stigma Reduction Partnership has launched a month-long campaign to get people talking openly.

We are however, already doing that, and often the advice given to those who are struggling is to “talk”. What we don’t acknowledge is that often, starting conversations is the hardest part, and that many of us simply don’t know how. Even harder is knowing how to listen, without necessarily offering solutions which may not be helpful. The Green Ribbon campaign offers helpful, practical tips. Simple things. Ask someone how they are. Don’t feel the need to jump in with a solution – just listen. Be patient. Sometimes, tiny things like a text message make the biggest difference.

Above all, we must realise that collectively we all have responsibility. An act of kindness costs nothing, while simply looking out for those around you can be priceless. This is the season of hope. Let’s make it a mission to spread some light this May. And get talking.

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Published on Newstalk.ie on Friday 17th May 2013

Bigotry, intolerance and marriage equality – a reply to Breda O’Brien

So much has been said and written on the marriage equality debate of late that I was reluctant to add my voice to the melee. Mostly because those who have written and spoken have done so regularly and in far more articulate and comprehensive terms than I could possibly hope to do within the confines of a single blog post. Colm O’Gorman, for example, every time he speaks on the issue does sterling work in debunking myths. And this piece by Carol Hunt in today’s Sunday Independent says it so much better than I ever could. With biscuits. However, reading Breda O’Brien’s defence of the status quo in yesterday’s Irish Times left me so bewildered that I felt compelled to reply.

It’s fair to say that Breda’s ideology and my own beliefs do not normally correspond. However, no matter how disagreeable her beliefs to me, I can acknowledge that O’Brien is occasionally capable of making a sensible argument.  In fact, I roundly applauded her piece on suicide and alcohol, published in January this year. Which makes it all the more remarkable that such a meandering piece could possibly, in O’Brien’s mind, advance her own cause.

O’Brien writes in reply to a piece published by the same newspaper by Fintan O’Toole, which suggested that the arguments against marriage equality were so flimsy that they essentially amounted to bigotry. O’Brien’s response was to argue that these arguments were not bigotry; rather that liberals like O’Toole were blind to the merits of conservative values and arguments, which in essence suggest that appeals to the greater good (“even, in this case, a child-centred good”) trump those “liberal” values of equality, choice and fairness.

At least O’Brien is admitting that, at the very least, opposing marriage equality is unfair.

I don’t know where to begin in terms of pulling apart her arguments. Many of them speak for themselves. But while they have already been addressed comprehensively, point by point elsewhere, I’ll reply to a couple that jumped out at me.

Firstly, there’s the lazy invocation of the tired old “liberalism vs. conservatism” argument. As well as being patronising and reeking of moral superiority (the essence being that conservatives make deeper, more rational considerations and that the former does not understand the rationale of the latter’s arguments) it takes no cognisance of the fact that 75% of the population, who support legislating for marriage equality, are rather unlikely to all classify themselves as liberal. This is not – or should not – be an argument based on political ideology, and on why conservatism apparently trumps liberalism when it comes to the greater good. Rather, the essence of the pro-equality debate is to show that we, as a society, value all members equally, regardless of their sexual orientation. To reduce it to a mere ideological argument exposes the detachment of those at the heart of the opposing debate from why this is actually important. It’s one-dimensional and, I would go so far as to say, irrelevant.

“Thoughtful conservatives are not bigoted, or intellectually inferior, or vile: they just see the balance of values differently”, says O’Brien. Indeed. In fact, if I were a thoughtful conservative, I would be deeply embarrassed by the fact that O’Brien claims to represent conservatives on this issue. Indeed, You need only look to New Zealand to see that some conservatives are capable and willing to embrace positive change.

O’Brien also says she believes marriage is a solemn covenant. So do I. So, I would wager do many of those gay couples who take the massive step of standing in front of their family and friends, publicly declaring their love for each other, and indicating their intention to commit to each other in a partnership for the rest of their lives. Based on love, that commitment to me is a sacred one (though crucially, there is nothing saying it has to be either sacred or based on love).

O’Brien states, however, that “society has a major stake because it provides the most stable environment for bringing up children, a physical and spiritual expression of the couple’s love.” This is incorrect. Obviously – and this has been effectively addressed a thousand times – this definition glaringly excludes those marriages that do not have children. It also, with no justification, calls into question those families who successfully bring up children without being wed. Rather, I see society’s stake in marriage as essentially ensuring that the contract I enter into, of my own free will protects me and my partner  and my home – and any children we may have – should anything happen to either of us. This, in addition to how I personally view marriage. The fact remains that civil partnership does not extend the same protection to same-sex couples. And it should. So yes, marriage is a personal relationship, but this is precisely why the state should take an interest.

It’s also churlish and petty of the Catholic Church to try to blackmail the state by implying they will refuse to carry out civil ceremonies in tandem with Catholic ones, as they have always done. Sadly, it’s also disenfranchising no-one but their own practising members.

O’Brien insists, once again that a “child needs both a mother and a father”,  despite there not being a shred of citable evidence available in the public domain that suggests that children do not fare just as well with same-sex parents. She suggests that in times when these ideals are not met, people “usually do their very best, and most times, the child turns out fine”. What a thinly-veiled, patronising insult to one-parent families, for example, to suggest that their family unit is less valid or desirable or even potentially damning to a child than the two-parent mother and father ideal. How judgemental. Legislating for marriage equality does not, as O’Brien suggests in a further challenge to the credibility of her own argument, declare that having both a mother and a father has no intrinsic value. And anyone who would suggest so is guilty of some rather poor spin.

(Interestingly, no argument either for or against marriage equality I have seen takes cognisance of the fact that children are not solely raised within the home. Rather, many influencers of children during their formative years are outsiders – be this extended family, teachers, youth group leaders, or indeed those further afield like say, media figures. So, just like those who confirm to the “ideal” family unit, parents in same-sex partnerships are not entirely responsible for how their children turn out.)

O’Brien’s piece then descends into further farce as she ties herself up in knots over the use of language and makes bizarre references to fictional characters like Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Wonderland in an attempt to legitimise her argument. Language is powerful, she says. Yes indeed, Breda. Language is very, very powerful. And language that says clearly to members of our society that they are not – or indeed, should not be equal or entitled to the same legal rights as others is powerful AND damning.

The most worrying aspect of the fact that O’Brien and the Iona Institute are allowed apparently unfettered access to our national airwaves on an almost constant basis, despite, in this case a lack of any relevant qualification, raises questions about the media’s difficulty in attempting to find qualified dissenting voices. While I for one am perfectly happy to see the Iona Institute rolled out as frequently as possible, because no-one does a better job of undermining their own arguments than they do themselves, ultimately the loser is society. Arguments not rooted in fact only serve to disarm the legislative process and the poor quality of opposition debate contributes to a corresponding decline in quality of legislation.

Ultimately, and happily, we all know that change is on the way. Even old conservative Ireland is gradually recognising that legislating for marriage equality won’t stop the world from turning, and will not impact on them in any meaningful way unless they choose to avail of it. But they are realising that it will make a positive difference to the rights of others, in addition to telling them that we respect and value them and their love equally. And that day is not far away.

I’ll leave you with this – a humorous and emotional celebration of marriage equality and what it really means by –  you guessed it –  a conservative.

Irish blogs

Looking for new reading material? Or curious to see what other Irish bloggers write about?

Fellow Irish blogger Limmster has created a new Pinterest Board for Irish blogs, over here.  Sorted by category, it’s well worth a follow if you’re a Pinterest user (I confess I’m not the best, but I’m told it’s quite intuitive).

I’ll let her tell you all about it here.

 

Welcome to my new home

I’ve moved house. Kinda.

Currently straddling two platforms (ooh-err), An Cailín Rua will soon be a WordPress only site with its very own domain.

I’ve even set up a Facebook page, so give it a like if you’d like to be kept up to date with all the goings on over here. 

Thanks for reading, and please bear with me while I iron out teething problems (i.e. figure out how all this works).

#Savita, abortion, and why no-one is ever right

The findings from the inquest of Savita Halappanavar in Galway this week make for grim reading. As the days pass, and snippets of information are fed through on TV, radio and social media, with each sorry revelation we are slowly piecing together a tragic chain events. We are hearing of failures – both human and systemic – of frustrations, of fears and of the story of the very avoidable death of a young woman. What struck me most when that story came to light on 14th November 2012 was that happened to Savita could easily have happened to any one of us, our sisters, friends, daughters. And amidst the many, many elements of this complex tale – the reporting, the laws, the healthcare, what ensures this makes headlines day after day is not just the politics, but the very human face of the story.
Photo: IrishTimes.com

The discussion and debate around Savita’s inquest this week has been criticised for the level to which it has been hijacked and politicised by the two sides of the debate – the “pro-life” and the “pro-choice”. (Terms, incidentally, I detest.) Indeed, the crassness and closed-mindedness of some of the commentary has been nothing short of disrespectful in its militant determination to push its own agendas. Many of the pro-life side blatantly and robotically ignoring the fact that Savita was refused a medical termination was a key factor in the outcome. Many in the pro-choice camp ignoring the fact that in turn, medical negligence has clearly also played a large role. The complexity of the inquest means that both the abortion issue and the standard of the medical care received by Savita are relevant, and to deny either amounts to a deliberate obfuscation of the story in order to pursue a personal agenda. Which in itself is disingenuous and counter-productive, even disrespectful. This is not to mention the glee with which certain elements are attacking Catholics en masse, in what amounts to another form of thinly disguised bigotry. Not that certain members of the church can claim any degree of critical thinking in the debate, such is their adherence to tired Catholic dogma at the expense of the more Christian values of compassion and care.

However, we do need to have this discussion. And happily, we are hearing a little more from those who occupy the middle ground. Listening to and watching coverage of the debate on abortion in the Irish media over the past 20-odd years, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no middle ground. That everyone is either pro-life or pro-abortion. I have even heard arguments rubbishing the use of the term “pro-choice”, suggesting that those who use it are simply, “pro-abortion”, and why dress it up? This does a great disservice to the large proportion of people who may or may not personally agree with abortion, but fervently hope that they are never faced with that decision, and would not seek to deny others the choice of making it. I think of all the discourse I have read around abortion since November, Johnny Fallon summed up my own feelings best in this piece published in the Irish Independent. The issue is far from clear-cut, and despite what political commentators insist, I would hazard a guess that most reasonable, compassionate Irish people feel like this and above all, hope it is a decision they are never faced with.

What irks me most, I think within this debate, is that, within the pro-life lobby – apart from the frankly ludicrous women-queuing-up-to-have-abortions scenario they appear to envisage –  there is little recognition of the fact that even if abortion were readily available in Ireland, it is a path that many women, even those facing an unplanned or unviable pregnancy would not choose. Even among those who advocate for choice, it’s a safe to suggest that for some, it would not be a choice they would make personally.  Equally, what irritates me about certain elements of the pro-choice campaign is the inherent assumption that all pro-lifers are driven by a religious agenda.

Meanwhile, what scares me the most reading Savita’s story, is that as a woman of childbearing age, under current Irish law, I can present to a hospital, in physical and emotional pain, be told that my baby is going to die, and be forced, against all my wishes and instincts, to comply with a standard procedure – natural delivery – that prolongs that pain. Under Irish law, in this situation, I don’t have a say in my treatment. Whatever your views on abortion, forcing a pregnant woman who is miscarrying to carry through with a natural delivery (and placing her at a higher risk of infection) when there are medical options available to hasten the procedure is, in my mind, wrong. The thought of it terrifies me – Praveen and Savita are described as “begging” for a termination. How needlessly traumatic.  I’m not medical expert, but I can see no moral or ethical reason why she should not have had the choice of a medical termination in that situation. And I see no reason either why a middle-aged midwife should feel she has to apologise for explaining the cultural basis of our laws to a distressed woman why it is that her wishes had to be ignored.

Incidentally, neither do I, as a citizen of a supposed democracy, should I feel I should have to consider before attending a doctor whether their own personal beliefs will prevent me from accessing all the information I need to decide what course of action is best for me. While it’s natural that doctors hold personal beliefs, based on their own ethical and moral code, at the very least they should be obliged to provide information and contacts on all options, including abortion, should a woman seek them.

Using Savita’s death to call for “Action on X” makes me feel uncomfortable, however. In fact,  I have serious reservations about leglisating for X in its current form, but that’s a discussion for another time. My understanding and belief is that even had it been already enshrined in legislation, it would have done little to prevent Savita’s death, as it was not believed her life was in danger when the termination was requested. Had Savita been granted a termination when she sought one, however, and not been left vulnerable to infection for so long, it is likely and arguable that the sepsis which killed her would never have set in. (It is also likely, that had it been a surgical termination, she would have monitored more closely). That she did not, and was not is a direct consequence of our abortion laws. And who is to say that Savita is the first, or will be the last?

Ultimately, I am in favour of full choice for women when it comes to abortion. Yes, abortion “on demand” (what a dreadful, dreadful term) should be available, if a woman decides it is the option she wants to pursue.  I believe that any woman who honestly thinks an abortion is the best option for her should receive the necessary physical – and more importantly, psychological care, firstly to make that decision and secondly, to deal with the implications if she does. While I may hold my own beliefs, I cannot in good conscience say why they should prevent others from making a decision that involves their own body, based on their own instincts, conscience and beliefs. I would greatly welcome a referendum on full abortion; however I cannot imagine that happening in Ireland even within my lifetime.

I’ve been accused, perhaps justifiably, of passing the buck on this before. How I can advocate giving people the choice to “kill an unborn child”? Do my beliefs extend to giving women the option of third trimester abortions? Where I would draw the line and at what stage does an “embryo” or “fetus” become a “life”? Again, I have my own beliefs, but I still maintain it’s not for me to say. In the absence of proof, I’m not the one who should draw those lines definitively for others. All I can ever do is try, in as much as is possible, to control my own situation, and live by my own conscience and moral code when it comes to such matters, and importantly, allow others the freedom to do the same. And certainly where others are not in a situation to control their situations (e.g in the case of a pregnancy as a result of rape, or  where a pregnant woman has been told her fetus is incompatible with life) who on earth am I to deny them the means of dealing with it in the way they feel is right?

The bottom line is that with abortion,  no-one can ever claim to be really right.

Whatever your opinions on abortion, or indeed on religion or healthcare in Ireland, it is important and respectful to remember that at the heart of the evidence we are hearing this week lies a tragic story of a beautiful, healthy young woman, two bereaved parents living half a world away and a heartbroken husband who has lost his wife needlessly. With her, he lost the promise of a family, and whilst dealing with his own grief he has had to fight to have his story heard and believed. In doing so, he has done this country a huge service by making us confront an issue we have conveniently ignored for far too long. That should not be forgotten.

 Photo: D.B. Patil (www.thehindu.com)

Booze-free Lent comes to an end

I was asked to write this piece for Newstalk.ie on my experience of giving up alcohol for Lent.

The piece was published on the Newstalk site on Thursday 28th March 2013.

As an average thirtysomething woman, I’d classify my relationship with alcohol as relatively healthy.Like most, I enjoy partaking of a glass of wine or three of a Friday, or sinking a pint of the black stuff over a chat with friends. I may have suffered an occasional hangover, yes. The end of an odd night out may have been a little hazy. I might have missed a few Sunday mornings, buried in the Horrors under my pillow. But “big nights” nowadays are few and far between, and the idea of bypassing the booze for Lent wasn’t high on my agenda.

So what prompted the decision? I bit the bullet for a number of reasons (none of them religious).I was unemployed, having left my job to embark on the uncertainty of a career change. I’d beenfeeling the effects of an unhealthy holiday season. And crucially, I was stony broke. The stage was set.

Around the same time, I’d written a piece on my blog about attitudes to alcohol in Ireland called“The Elephant in the Room”, questioning why, with suicide levels so high, no-one really questions the effect our relationship with alcohol has on mental wellbeing. The piece was published on a national news site and the reaction on social media was astonishing. I was inundated with replies relating the pressure people felt to drink. Some reported concealing non-drinking, or avoiding social occasions altogether to avoid the hassle of justifying their choice. Non-drinkers disliked the messiness of drunken nights out, and being met with suspicion and mistrust. It appears that “peer pressure” is not solely the preserve of children or adolescents.

On the back of this, I saw the Lenten endeavour as a timely personal experiment. I’d never gone “ off the booze” for a deliberate, sustained period since I came of drinking age, and wanted to see how I’d cope with cold sobriety in social situations, and the reactions I would encounter. I also wanted to do my own bit to challenge attitudes.

I embarked with a sense of trepidation. I didn’t want to avoid social occasions, but neither did I relish the thought of feeling socially stunted without a drink or two. The first couple of weeks were difficult, and I often, rather worryingly, found myself craving a glass of wine, particularly at weekends. However, with the exception of the odd “Why are you doing this to yourself?”, and“Jesus, I could never do that – in March, are you mad?!”, friends were largely encouraging.

How did I cope? Ultimately – and this may appear obvious – I found company was key. I enjoyed some great nights with friends as the sole non-drinker, without it being an issue for either party. In contrast, I attended a wedding at which I knew barely anyone, and struggled. I felt my personality had fled, hand-in-hand with my alcohol crutch, leaving my confidence legless and my dancing even more uncoordinated than usual. I settled into sobriety, though and while I missed being able to have“just the one”, not drinking began to feel normal.

So, six weeks on, was it worthwhile? Yes, absolutely. Admittedly, it’s a relatively short period of time, but what they say is true – I feel healthier, happier and clearer of mind. The convenience of hopping into the car after a night out, and waking hangover-free were definite positives. I certainly didn’t miss the Monday beer blues. The time out has helped me to recalibrate my attitude towards alcohol, and I have a feeling I’m likely in future to indulge a little less, and enjoy it a little more.

Ultimately, however, I don’t see myself as a non-drinker, and rather than moving towards the divisiveness of non-drinkers having their own social spaces and activities, what I’d like is a happy medium where drinkers and non-drinkers can feel more comfortable socialising together. I’d also like to see social occasions focusing less on alcohol consumption, and I’d love to see less pressure placed on those drink moderately to consume more.

Would I do it again? Probably.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just looking forward to some chocolate this Easter.

 

Hello Sunday Morning … or good afternoon, sobriety

So, as a follow-on from my last post, a quick update on my alcohol abstinence resolution. I deliberately haven’t started another blog with Hello Sunday Morning as I find it difficult enough to update this one regularly. Three weeks in, how’s it going?

Well, it’s like this. It’s bloody HARD.

Firstly, I had no idea I was quite so fond of red wine. But for the last three weeks, I find it occupying more of my thoughts than is probably healthy. It doesn’t help that we are major fans of it here and the wine rack is consequently a constant reminder.. As I predicted, what I really miss the most is that lovely single glass of wine of an odd evening, but I suppose that’s just shown me how much it’s become a habit, unbeknownst to myself.

What’s come as more of a surprise however, having never abstained from alcohol for any meaningful period before, is the realisation of how much I have come to rely on it over the past 15-odd years as a social lubricant. On certain occasions, at least. Take the following example. I attended a wedding last week, at which I knew barely anyone. From start to finish, I tried hard to get stuck in and enjoy it, but wow, despite the happiness in the air, the beauty of the bride, the deliciousness of the food, it was a  struggle. To the extent that it actually felt like an ordeal. The company was decent, but I felt like I’d become socially stunted overnight – like I’d lost my personality. I stood at the bar ordering soft drinks a few times, and on each occasion had to stop myself from ordering a (very strong) alcoholic beverage. There were other factors at play, admittedly, including feeling lethargic and unwell, but it was downright painful, and ultimately a bit pointless. I felt bad about myself and my apparent inability to relax without alcohol. It was undoubtedly the single biggest test I’m likely to face during this period, but it served a purpose as part of this “reflective” journey, so not entirely in vain.

On the other hand, I’ve spent a few evenings in the company of good friends lately, surrounded by food and alcohol. On one occasion, dinner with a group of girlfriends I wasn’t alone in abstaining, but others had the usual reasons like pregnancy and cars. That was grand – no hardship involved. The second, an evening gathering in a friend’s house where I was the only one abstaining. I expected that to be difficult, particularly as I arrived a little late to the party. On the contrary, I had one of the best evenings I’ve had in months. Laughed til there were tears in my eyes, didn’t feel in any way out of place and I even managed to stay out til 5am. No difficulty at all (apart from the lemonade-induced sugar high).  It felt really refreshing to be part of a group who didn’t question me or force the issue when I wasn’t drinking. I didn’t feel in any way that my not partaking set me apart from the conversation and neither did I feel that my being sober made them feel ill at ease. (At least I hope not!)

The drawback to staying out til 5am on a Saturday night is that Sunday morning slips away from you. I woke up at 8.30am with the beginnings of a migraine I’d staved off the day before, so I put my head under the pillow and the day didn’t see me until noon had passed. Then there was GAA on d’telly.  So I kinda failed at being wonderfully active and reclaiming my Sunday morning (armchair sports don’t count, apparently). Still, you can’t win ’em all.

So. Do I feel any better for not drinking? Em, honestly, no. Not in the slightest.

I’m a bit disappointed – I thought I’d feel happier, healthier, clearer of mind, but to be fair, I have to look hard at myself and admit that other aspects of my lifestyle at the moment are probably counter-productive. I’m still not working, so my routine has started to slip recently, my sleep pattern is all over the place, my motivation levels are low, and not having had an income since Christmas has imposed its own restrictions and pressures. This year so far has been full of emotional upheaval and uncertainty, but to my great excitement, I’m starting a new role this week with an organisation I’m thrilled to be working with. I’m looking forward to the challenge and to feeling a little less at sea once I bed in. Not to mention, feeling a bit more useful to society.
 
So, three weeks in, what have I learned? Well, I’ve discovered that I really like red wine, that you think about things like red wine a lot more when you know you can’t have them, and that being at ease in social situations probably depends a lot more on the people you’re with than the amount of alcohol you’re consuming. All in all, not exactly groundbreaking revelations, but part of a personal journey that so far I’m ultimately glad I’ve undertaken.

 Also, having the willpower of an amnesiac squirrel on a regular basis, I’ve surprised myself by discovering some reserves of stubbornness, and I know I will see this through. In what is probably the more surprising of progress updates, I have also managed to stay away from crisps. (Even when no-one can see me.) And there is also the bonus of feeling infinitely superior to an undisclosed number of our elected political representatives, in that I managed to stay sober on Prom Night.

 (Image by Sethness on DeviantArt)

So here’s to the next month. I’d love to know how feel HSMers are getting on, or how anyone who’s been through this process before deals with those difficult social situations – so feel free to leave a comment below with some wise words. I’ll repay you in 2007 Marquis de Rascale (my housemate’s).

Til next time!

The Great Lenten Challenge, or How I Will Cope With Six Weeks Of No Alcohol

On the back of my last blog post, I’ve been doing some thinking.(A little thinking time is a dangerous thing, and I happen to have a lot of that on my hands recently).

I’ve been toying for a while with the idea of giving up alcohol. Not permanently, just for a spell.  Not a big deal, I’m sure. Lots of people go ‘on the dry’ for January, or while they are training for an event, or while they’re pregnant. But while I’ve thought about it before, I’ve never managed to cut out alcohol completely, while carrying on with life and social engagements in the normal way. I think that’s the most difficult part – not shying away from social engagements on the basis of not drinking.

I met up for a chat last week with the lovely John Buckley of SpunOut, and among other things we talked about alcohol, and our attitudes towards it. John has given up alcohol for six months, and is blogging about it over here.

John also told me about the Irish launch of Hello Sunday Morning, which is being timed to coincide with the last episode of Des Bishop’s TV show, “Under the Influence”. HSM is an initiative originating in Australia, which involves giving up alcohol for a while, in order to reflect on your drinking behaviour, and see what impact it has on your life. You share your story, in order to contribute to a better drinking culture. In particular, it encourages you to reclaim Sunday mornings, which are often written off due to heavy Saturday nights. So for the month of March, I’ll be blogging about that either here or elsewhere.

I’m starting a little early though. I’m not sure sure what it is about Lent that encourages me to attempt something new every year (with varying degrees of success). But it seems to me to be a nice round period of time to try and do something new – not long enough to be excessively difficult and not short enough to be too little a challenge. So as well as the booze, I’ll be giving up crisps. Those of you who know me will know that this will not come easily….

With regards to my previous blog post, I know excessive alcohol consumption is not good for me. I know that when I drink to excess, I feel rubbish for about three days afterwards. My motivation disappears, I feel tired, I don’t want to leave my bed and the ‘beer blues’ hit me like a ton of bricks. Add to this days of self-beration and it all gets a bit much. I doubt this is unusual, either. So I for one and looking forward to eliminating those feelings for a while.

The difficult part will be the numerous social occasions that are cropping up in March. Be that football/rugby matches, St. Patrick’s Day, the couple of birthday celebrations, the hen night… the list goes on. So it’ll be a challenge. But hey, no point in doing something easy. I already know that more than anything I’ll miss that first glorious glass of red on a Friday night, or the creaminess of a single, leisurely pint of Guinness more than I’ll miss the big sessions. But they all count!

Anyone else with me? I’ll be posting occasional updates over on Twitter using the hashtag #boozefreelent – if you’re embarking on something similar do give me a shout.

In the meantime, I’ll be bidding a fond farewell to these and looking forward to a healthier happier me!

 

Mental Health and Alcohol – the elephant in the room

This post was published on thejournal.ie on the 6th March 2013.

At a time when mental health is finally well and truly a ‘hot topic’, firmly embedded in the public consciousness, I can’t help feeling that we’re quietly omitting a vital part of the discussion – our relationship as a nation with alcohol, and how it affects our mental wellbeing.

The term “mental health” is a wide-ranging one, and it can be argued that at the moment it has somewhat negative connotations and is almost synonymous, in public discourse, with mental ill-health and suicide – something that needs to quickly change. Slowly but surely, however, we are witnessing a realisation that preventative measures and positive mental health promotion, particularly among young people, are ultimately excellent and necessary long-term strategies on which we need to focus as a matter of urgency to tackle the current suicide epidemic.

In the wake of an abrupt economic crash, attitudes have changed rapidly in an adjusting Ireland. While it can be argued that a return to more prudent values is to be welcomed, there is an ongoing struggle to adapt. We have not adequately dealt with the practical reality of the economic fall-out that has decimated employment, household income and consumer confidence. There is evidence to suggest that pressure resulting from economic difficulties is a contributory factor to the increase in the number of suicides we have seen in recent years. To attribute the rise purely to this, however is to simplify the issue greatly. There are biological, sociological and psychological factors at play, and these are often intertwined – just as everyone is different, the individual causes of suicide vary greatly.

But let’s pull back from suicide for a moment, as that’s just one element of mental health we need to look at. Mental “wellbeing” is a term I’d prefer to focus on for now. And while most of us at this stage know that there are steps we can take to look after our emotional health, it’s apparent that our alcohol consumption behaviour and attitudes often directly contradict this. While it’s been touched on by aspects of the media in recent weeks, notably by Breda O’Brien in the Irish Times on Saturday January 26th and also as part of the Frontline discussion on mental health on Monday January 28th, it remains the elephant in the room when it comes to the national conversation we are attempting to have about mental wellbeing.

Our drinking habits and our attitudes towards alcohol in Ireland are what can probably fairly be classified as “extreme”. A recent study conducted by Millward Brown Lansdowne on behalf of Drinkaware.ie, indicated that while Irish people drink less frequently than our EU counterparts, our consumption is three times higher than the EU average. (Drinkaware.ie, interestingly, is an initiative developed by MEAS, a group comprised of various players in the alcohol industry, under the guise of social responsibility. The site contains lots of eye-opening information about the effects of alcohol, including its impact on relationships and mental health.)

In particular, attitudes among our young people are telling. The cross-border survey, “Alcohol Consumption and Alcohol Related Harm in Ireland” published by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD) last year found that a third of drinkers aged between 18 and 24 consumed the equivalent of nine standard drinks on a typical night out, and regard having at least five standard drinks on a night out as the “norm”. The Department of Health’s recommended weekly low risk drinking limits are 17 standard drinks for a man and 11 for a woman. So right there, that’s half your weekly intake, in one night.

So it’s clear that our attitudes to alcohol and alcohol consumption are somewhat skewed. The vast majority of our social occasions centre around the consumption of alcohol. Take,for example the prevalance of holding nearly every celebration in a licenced establishment, or if it is held in the home, accompanying it with carry-out alcohol. While there is a marked growth in outdoor, health-based activities, it’s not uncommon to celebrate a physical achievement such as a marathon or a triathlon in the pub. Even childhood occasions like christenings and first communions are commonly hosted in pubs.

There’s nothing wrong with this (I’m not writing this to judge) but why not ask why this is? Why the inherent dependence on alcohol to have a good time? Are we lacking so much in confidence in ourselves and our own personalities that we need use of alcohol as a social lubricant in order to let our hair down and truly enjoy ourselves? Alcohol consumption is pervasive. It’s everywhere. It’s practically impossible to avoid it. And the evidence indicates that we actively depend on it. Why, more importantly, are we so uncomfortable admitting this? And why are people who call it out and suggest that it might not always be healthy, dismissed as killjoys?

Minister Roisin Shorthall, during her time in government prioritised a strategy to tackle alcohol intake and abuse, including placing restrictions on alcohol sponsorship of and advertising at sports events, yet met with resistance both from within government and the alcohol industry. Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar expressed concern that banning sponsorship would impact negatively on sports performance across the country – and incredibly, in this he is correct, as we now find ourselves in the questionable situation where our sporting bodies have become heavily reliant on the alcohol industry for funding. It can be argued that this is something of a double-edged sword, given that evidence demonstrates that young people are more likely to be influenced by the advertising of alcohol.

The bottom line in the debate around alcohol and mental health is that alcohol is, beyond a doubt, a recognised depressant. Research has demonstrated that it can have an adverse effect on our mental health, affecting our ability to cope with everyday challenges and bigger traumas. Critically, the connection between alcohol and suicide has been highlighted, and the fact that suicide victims are frequently found to have alcohol in their bloodstream points to a concern that alcohol can lower inhibitions enough for a person to act on suicidal thoughts that they may not have, otherwise. In one of the most damning statistics on alcohol you will ever read, the World Health Organisation estimates that the risk of suicide increases EIGHTFOLD when a person is abusing alcohol, compared to a person who is not.

Yet we continue to blithely ignore this enormous elephant in the room, because, the truth it, it’s easier to blame other factors than it is to look inwards and examine our own attitudes and behaviour. In continuing to place alcohol at the centre of our social interactions, we are all, each and every one of us, complicit in the problem. Harsh? Perhaps, but it’s an uncomfortable truth. We may not all drink to excess; neither might we all abuse alcohol but in failing to question the status quo or actively engage in alternatives to alcohol-reliant social occasions, we are all contributing to this problem. Every time you question someone who is not having a drink, or try to persuade them to “leave the car” when they choose to drive on a night out, or indeed, accept without question the behaviour of a friend who is clearly consistently drinking too much, we are contributing. And crucially, we are propagating and reinforcing these attitudes, because this is what our young people witness as they grow up. Not to mention perpetuating the “drunken Paddy” stereotype abroad, in countries where people mange to live with licensed premises that remain open through the night without turning into rabid binge-drinkers and functioning alcoholics.

So what can we do to change this culture? (Because this is what it is – a culture.) I don’t personally believe that measures such as restricting sales of alcohol, either at pubs and off-licences ultimately tackle the issue. And why should you or I not have the choice to buy a bottle of wine to enjoy at 10.30pm on a Friday night if we want? Or why should I have to leave the pub at 12.30pm on a Saturday night, because the law dictates that at this stage, I’ve had enough to drink? Rather, this change is an attitudinal one and needs to come from within – from within ourselves and our society. I’ve come up with a few suggestions – feel free to add your own in the comments below.

Firstly, let’s think about our reactions. Don’t judge a friend or acquaintance for not consuming alcohol. Don’t make them feel they have to invent an excuse for not drinking, once they make that choice. Don’t ridicule them, or make them feel that they ‘re not actively partaking in the occasion, just because they’re not drinking alcohol. Language is powerful.

Secondly, let’s think outside the box a little. Why the need to celebrate every little event or hold every single get-together in the pub? It’s a little unimaginative, frankly. A friend of mine organises a weekly social run in the Phoenix Park. He extends an open invitation to friends, and it’s well-attended. He doesn’t even go to the pub afterwards. And it’s fun. Imagine! And do occasions that focus on children really need to involve alcohol?

Thirdly, let’s learn to have a little more confidence in ourselves and our personalities. We’re great, we Irish. We have a wit that is rarely equalled, but excessive alcohol consumption doesn’t always make us wittier, or more confident, or more attractive. (Usually the opposite, in fact.) Often, it doesn’t even enhance our enjoyment of a night out. Or the following day, for that matter. I myself can confirm this beyond all shadow of a doubt, having tested the theory more times than I care to recall.

Fourthly – and I say this conscious of the sanctimony it may indicate, but does not intend – let’s embrace moderation. Alcohol consumed in moderation is enjoyable (and sometimes, depending on what you read, pretty good for you). It’s also more inclusive and conducive to drinkers and non-drinkers enjoying a night out in each others’ company.

Let’s look at alcohol a little differently. Rather than a mere inebriant, alcohol’s pretty nice with food. A nice red with a steak being the obvious example, but there are independent brewing companies who are marketing their craft beers as food accompaniments, and it’s another way to enjoy a tipple without making it the focus.

Lead by example. Sure, we’ve no obligation to do so, but our young people are watching, and it’s more important than you think.

Pubs – how about offering some appealing alternatives to alcohol? I’m done with Rock-more-expensive-than-a-pint-Shandy, and there are only so many sparking waters one can drink. How about some decent non-alcoholic beers? Palatable ginger ale? And less of a visible sneer when I ask for a non-alcoholic drink, thank you – smile, be polite and think of the often extortionate mark-up.

If you do want to check out alternatives, check out http://hellosundaymorning.org/ – an international initiative aimed at changing and recreating attitudes to alcohol that has just been launched in Ireland by comedian Des Bishop in conjunction with his RTE TV series, Under the Influence. Hello Sunday Morning is an initiative that says it’s perfectly fine not to drink lots all the time, and while you may not want to give up alcohol, it allows you to take some some “time out” – periods of three or six months are recommended in order to give you time to reflect on your drinking behaviour and reclaim the Sunday mornings that are frequently lost to Saturday night alcohol consumption. Most people return to drinking alcohol afterwards, but ultimately the time out can assist you if you want to change your drinking patterns.

Finally, let’s face up to the truth. If we genuinely do give a damn about the problem that is mental ill-health in this country, and want to be the change, we need to do more than simply call on the government to address the issue. While we urgently need to channel resources towards education and prevention, it’s all too easy to deflect responsibility. Like it or not, most of us are part of the problem, and we need to start taking some ownership – and fast. Examining our own contribution to the problem doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting alcohol, or seeing it as the enemy – merely becoming a little more thoughtful in our attitudes, behaviour and discourse around alcohol consumption. Then, and only then will we start to turn the tide and tackle one of the root causes of the suicide plague that blights our society today.

The career journey – an update



Many of you lovely people who either read this blog or follow me over on the Twitter Machine have been asking how my career change is progressing.

The answer is… slowly. Very, verrrry slowly.

I finished work on December 21st 2012. Contrary to what I’d hoped, my last few weeks weren’t quiet ones, and after a December of overtime I found myself working right up til 5pm on my last day. (I do hate leaving things unfinished.) As the time drew closer, I thought I should have found myself becoming more apprehensive. Rather, I noticed that with every day that passed, I felt a little happier. If I’d harboured any doubts, that told me all I needed to know.

My colleagues gave me a lovely send-off, and I’ll treasure the warm words I received on my last few days. I didn’t expect to feel emotional, but saying goodbye to so many talented, dedicated and genuine people – people with whom I’d spent long hours, sometimes late into the night writing, planning, presenting, debating, arguing, creating, developing and learning left me feeling a little wistful. I was also genuinely touched by some of the well wishes I received from my clients. And I didn’t even have to pay them! All filed in my head to combat days of self-doubt.

It was dark as I left, and I was one of the last.  I sat into the car, started it and promptly burst into tears. Proper sobs and all. I wasn’t really sure why. However, bawling like a professional onion-peeler with conjunctivitis watching the Notebook isn’t exactly conducive to safe driving, and besides, I had a party to get to. So once the initial burst of .. call it what you want, sadness, relief, whatever, had subsided, it was time put my head down, avoid making red-eye contact with the security guard and get home and start the rest of my life.

My original intention, when I bit the bullet was to have a new job in the pipeline by the time I finished working. That didn’t happen, but to be fair, I hadn’t had much time or energy to put real effort into the application process. Neither is just before Christmas an ideal time to go job-hunting. And, it was really only when I finished and decamped west for Christmas that I realised how exhausted I’d been. The moment I slowed down, everything that had been chasing me for weeks caught up. The body’s way of saying “slow down”? There was very little partying and very large portioning over the Christmas period. Highly satisfactory, and ultimately I think the decision to take some extra time out was the right one. Sometimes it’s good when plans don’t work out.

So, fast-forward a month, and I’m officially unemployed for the first time. 

The time out has been pretty wonderful, if I’m honest. It mightn’t have been strictly necessary, but it’s been a revelation to have time to think, to rest, to catch up with friends and family, to sleep, to travel, to volunteer, to research, to walk on the beach, to cook, to read, to write… there is always something to do. I am never, ever bored. (I don’t really understand the concept of boredom, I must admit. How can anyone be bored when there’s so much to do?!) I was wary of being unemployed. Lack of routine doesn’t suit me well, and it did cross my mind that I might find myself … slipping. To date, that hasn’t happened, though there have been a couple of dodgy days. But it’s good to know the signs, so I can address them quickly. I’ve tried to stick to a routine that involves getting up at a decent hour, going out for fresh air and exercise, talking to people, sleeping well and cooking well. (And job hunting, obviously.)  Some days it’s easier than others – the January weather doesn’t help! 

Budgeting is a must. Social engagements have had to be curtailed, and the cost of petrol has led to a new-found appreciation for walking and public transport. I’m constantly mindful of money now; which is probably not a bad habit to get into. But I never forget that I chose to put myself in this position, and I consider myself lucky to have been able to make that choice, especially when so many others haven’t.

There are also days of crippling self-doubt (like yesterday) where I berate myself for making this *stupid* decision and putting myself under this pressure and being a complete *idiot* for walking away from a secure position with decent prospects when no company with an *ounce* of sense would ever consider employing me because I have *nothing* to offer. Dramatic much? Mercifully those days are few and far between, and I find when those days occur it’s best to put aside the job hunt on and focus on other things. 

Now, I’m starting to get cabin fever. I’m a little restless. I’ve found myself listening to Liveline a little more than I’d like. I’m ready to start something new. I’m naturally a worker, and am starting to miss the satisfaction that comes from having put in a good productive day. I think I ultimately want to work in the not-for-profit sector. But roles are thin on the ground in the January of a recession! And the more the days go on, the more I’m drawn to the notion of temp work. I’d like to try working in different environments and see which I can contribute most to, and which I feel most comfortable in. So I think that’s what I’m going to focus on for now.

So if any of you reading this feel I would be a good short-term asset to your business, please feel free to get in touch! More than happy to use my blog to pimp myself to the highest bidder. Hell, any bidder. 😉

Thanks for reading, and also for the kind words of encouragement you’ve given over in the “other” place. (You know who you are). I’m looking forward to a challenging 2013, but in the meantime it would be a crime to waste this view….





The reality of life as a carer – why we need to reverse the respite grant cuts


Protest against Respite Grant cuts outside Dáil Eireann, 11th December


Eighteen months ago, in a professional capacity, I undertook a piece of research that involved speaking to carers, both paid and non-paid.
The aim of the project was straightforward – to evaluate their reactions to some communication material and, based on that, suggest amendments.
But it turned into much, much more.
Over the course of a week, I spoke with almost 40 carers, broken into four groups.  Some were caring for elderly relatives, usually parents, but sometimes uncles, aunts. Others were caring for their children, some with physical disabilities, other with intellectual disabilities, some with both. They spoke openly, passionately, and above all, honestly.
The conversations I had with those people that week floored me. What they told me shocked me, and in sometimes, horrified me.
The group discussions were scheduled to run for 90 minutes each.  But such was the level of engagement, so eager were these people to be heard, that the sessions greatly overran. Timekeeping’s usually quite important when conducting qualitative research.  In the last 30 minutes of a 90 minute group discussion, you can sometimes sense a respondent fatigue. Not so, here. Two hours, two hours and fifteen minutes – two and a half hours. They didn’t want to stop. This was the first time they had ever had an opportunity to air their fears, their frustrations and their exhaustions, and have somebody really listen to them. And I couldn’t stop listening.
In light of the cut to the carers’ annual respite grant announced in the Budget last week, I want to share some of what I heard, and learned in those groups
Caring is a full-time job.
The first thing I learned is that being a carer is a full-time role. There is no downtime. And by full time, I mean for some, they were on alert 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  There is rarely any respite. Family carers spoke of how they shouldered all the burden. Siblings did not contribute fairly, or take any responsibility for the care of their parents. The load typically fell to one family member. They spoke of their exhaustion. How they were on high alert, all the time. “I don’t know how to relax”, one said. “It’s been so long since I relaxed, that I don’t know how to, anymore.” Respite was an essential. “Just a few hours to do your own thing, spend time with your own children, clean your house. Just to have that freedom from each other for a short while.”
Carers don’t always choose to care
The second thing that struck me is that many of those who care for others full-time do not make a conscious decision to do so. Rather, it happens. A parent falls ill, and, needing full-time care, moves into their house. Their child is born needing full-time specialised care. Would these people have chosen caring roles as a career choice? No. Rather, they do it because they have to. Often – and they are willing to admit this – they have no aptitude towards caring, and it does not come naturally. Neither – and this is important – do non-paid carers get any training. Paid carers are trained, but family carers are thrown into the deep end with no support. But they have no choice. They have to do it, and they get on with it.
Isolation is a huge issue
Because being a full-time carer is pretty all-consuming, it’s often impossible to have any kind of a social life. Carers spoke about how gradually, as the caring role subsumed all leisure time, their opportunities for socialising had declined and friendships had waned. Often the sense of isolation was the worst, they said. This is felt particularly in rural areas, where transport can be an issue. Having no-one to talk to is the hardest thing of all. Nobody cares, they felt. The media doesn’t talk about it. “No-one knows what it’s like, and no-one wants to know”. Support from the HSE is non-existent. “Sometimes you can’t even get to speak to a real person.”
Carers are human too – with human reactions
The carers I spoke with were unflinchingly honest. They were willing to admit that sometimes they got angry and frustrated. Sometimes it might be with a parent calling them numerous times during the night. Other times, it may be with a child who had wet the bed for the second or third time that night. Sometimes sheer exhaustion and frustration led them to say things they regretted to those in their care. Sometimes they shouted. Sometimes, they had shocked themselves. “Anything can happen”, one said, “when people are deprived of their sleep”. With no support, no respite, this is exacerbated.
Society ignores those who can’t speak for themselves
Carers felt angry on behalf of those they care for. “What’s missing in our society is dignity and respect for our old people”, one said. “Once they’re past their sell-by date, they’re thrown on the scrapheap. They’re only an inconvenience”.  Unanimously, carers felt invisible. They were shouting into a void, and no-one can hear, nor does anyone want to listen.
What does the annual respite grant really mean to carers?
Remember; however that caring is a full-time job. Carers often work around the clock, and do not have the means to earn an income. In addition, by providing care, they are saving the state the cost of providing this care on a residential basis. This care is provided for an allowance of as little as €200 a week (this can sometimes be the only household income).
So, what does the respite grant mean?
·         Respite means a break. It allows a carer to pay for supervision, either at home, daycare or residential care, so that they have the peace of mind to take a break. Be that a holiday, or just some time free from the responsibility of caring. Reasonable in anyone’s book.
·         Respite grant money is often used to pay for additional therapy for the person in care, to improve their wellbeing, either physically or mentally.
·         The respite grant is not always used for “respite”. Because carers are low-income earners, sometimes it’s used to pay for car insurance, heating oil, or home repairs. Everyday expenses. And yes, often carers depend on it for this.
What can we do?
There are many, many compelling arguments that can be made in favour of reversing this cut. We can express our outrage all we like, but it’s time to stand up and start doing something about it. There is still time to make a difference. Write a letter to your local TD. Or pick up the phone. Come out and protest (there is another protest outside Leinster House on Thursday 13th December at 11am. It’s not easy for carers to come out and protest – so we need to do this on their behalf.) The real mark of a society is how they treat their most vulnerable.
Don’t give up. Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. And let’s tell our government what kind of a society we really want.

Our elderly deserve better. An open letter to our TDs

This is a letter I have today written to my local representatives in government, and have published here, for wider circulation.

Reading Marese McDonagh’s piece in today’s Irish Times has made me so angry. Angrier than I ever recall being over the past five years. Enough is enough.

Because I have had a home, and income, my health and my independence, I selfishly haven’t done enough to protest against injustices over the past five years.  But this is my tipping point. I can’t stand by any longer.
____________________________________________________________________________

Dear ….

I write to you, as my local representative in government, including the link below to an article in today’s Irish Times.

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/health/2012/1204/1224327432416.html

If you have not already read this article, I urge you to take just two minutes to read it in detail. Absorb it. And think about what it really means. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is housebound and dependent on an hour of help a week to maintain just their basic dignity. Really think about it.

I urge you strongly to reconsider the decisions this government has made with regard to the provision of home help cuts in our country.

Enough is enough. What your goverment is doing to the weakest and most vulnerable in our society is wrong, and it has to stop. These cuts must be reversed.

No, providing for the most vulnerable in our society won’t help the economic recovery. But the way we care for our elderly tells, more starkly than any economic indicators ever could, the type of society we really are. 

Is this really the type of society you want to preside over? Really? The type of society that will leave an incontinent woman lying alone in a bed, waiting for her home help to arrive to attempt to restore her some dignity in the space of half an hour? Really? Is this really what we have come to as a country?

Yes, families have responsibilities to older members, but sadly, these responsibilities for whatever reason are not always met. That absolutely does not mean it is acceptable to abandon the people who have called this country home for decades, who have contributed to its economic growth, have raised children and grown their businesses here. To leave them to the mercy of their own physical and mental frailties. Like it or not, we have a duty of care towards these people. They are our parents. Our grandparents.

As a direct consequence of your actions, thousands of our elderly will become directly reliant on the HSE to provide them with care, at the expense of those with chronic illness. Can you not appreciate how short-sighted this is? Remember, this is the same HSE that thinks it is perfectly acceptable to place cystic fibrosis patients, at high risk of infection, in shared wards and in rooms with shared facilities. In a hospital that is suffering with a severe outbreak of the winter vomiting bug. A HSE that has already shown itself, many times over to be inept at bed management. Yet you appear to fail to realise the potential impact of adding more long-term patients to the system, both in terms of bed availability and overall standards of care.

Is this really what you want to leave as your legacy? Really?

We will all be old one day. We may not all be privileged, or have a voice to speak up for ourselves. But we will eventually all succumb to the limitations of our bodies, and possibly even our minds.You cannot in all good conscience argue that this should mean our dignity should also be sacrificed.

This is only one of a number of letters I could have written. I could have written in anger about how your government has not delivered on your promises on mental health. How education aids for those who really, really need them are being cut, quietly, all around the country. I could have written about how your government continues to justify the payment of €30+bn of OUR money to a dead, gambling entity, in order to fulfil the conditions laid out by our European friends. I understand that patience is necessary when dealing with Europe, and that demonstrating prudency and economic discipline can only help in our quest for debt restructuring. But what you are doing to achieve this is wrong. Wrong on so many levels.

I’m a “middle earner”. I’m not well off. By no means. I drive a car that’s 10 years old, can’t afford health insurance and have a certain level of personal debt. But for goodness’ sake, I have a job and an income and I am not reliant on anyone to care for me, and I can stand up for myself when I feel I am being unfairly treated. I’m the person you should be targeting for cuts and levies, if it needs to be done. No, it wouldn’t be popular with voters. I know, and am not dismissing the plight of many middle earners – particularly homeowners – are already under severe pressure. But we are not confined to beds or empty houses with no independence. What you are doing is not right. It is just not right.

I’m tired of being angry. I’m tired of feeling that we are merely postponing the inevitable sinking of our society. But I’m not tired enough to stop fighting for the care of those who need and deserve it the most, and, as representatives paid by us, to represent the interests of EVERY citizen in this country, neither should you.

I want to know what you, as a paid public representative are going to do, to restore this tiny amount of dignity to our elderly by restoring home help hours to their previous (already woefully inadequate) levels. Writing to you is the first step of many. I, like many others have been silent for too long already. I will not stop until I hear evidence that you are taking definitive action to improve the circumstances of those fellow citizens who rely on their home help to provide them with a minimal level of dignity.

I await your reply.

Anne-Marie Flynn.

Seasons

Never mind your festive season, your romantic notions of White Christmases, your open fires and your winter cheer.

In reality, it’s usually just rain. Or slush. And The Grey.

February, anyone? Is there a more miserable month of the year that must be endured? I think not.

No, you can keep that.

Give me glorious Autumn any day, with its crisp, bright golden mornings. Nature’s annual parade of pride when the trees puff out their chests and wear their technicolour coats with aplomb. Harvest smells abound. And the countryside looks so alive and beautiful, it could make your heart burst.

The worst thing about Autumn? It doesn’t last long enough. It’s a few fleeting weeks – a parade, a showtime. Then it’s gone – it’s just a russet-hued, blush-soaked memory of better times,  a distant beacon in your mind when the Grey appears.

I wish it could be Autumn every day.

On shaky ground….

So. We’re a couple of weeks into the adventure, and guess what?

Oh yes. Predictably, I’m beginning to wobble.

The initial euphoria of making the big decision has evaporated, and while outwardly I’m still projecting an air of brash confidence, inwardly, frankly, I’m crapping myself.

Far from the bravado of a couple of weeks ago, and the determination and resolve I had to make this happen, over the course of a mere few days, it feels like every ounce of self-doubt I’ve ever had has congregated in a corner of my mind and is multiplying faster than the worst kind of bacteria you’ll see in any safefood ad. Those pesky little seeds of self-questioning are germinating faster than weeds in a greenhouse and I’m at a loss as to how to kill them off before they strangle me.

I’m questioning myself a bit. My abilities, my motivation, my confidence, my skills. Where I can best apply them to benefit myself and others. I’m panicking because I’ve been scouring the classifieds for new avenues, and – shock –  there really aren’t that many jobs out there. (No shit, Sherlock.) Ridiculously, I’m scared that I’ll actually find a job and be a miserable failure at it. (That luxury is, of course, just a pipe dream at this stage.)  I’m worried that come next year, I won’t be able to pay my rent. I’m afraid I’ll have to pack my bags and move home to my mammy, at the ripe old age of 32. And I imagine she’s twice as terrified at the thought.

All rational enough concerns, I suppose. Mostly.

I’m also struggling a little to maintain focus on my current job. Mainly because, following a really frantic period of juggling lots of interesting and stimulating projects, nothing new or challenging has come my way over the past while, and understandably, such opportunities will be thin on the ground between now and the time I leave. It all feels a little mundane. But I’ve made a commitment to my colleagues and my clients, and I intend to see that through to the best of my ability.

The stress is manifesting itself in funny ways. Odd dreams, tossing and turning at night. Absent-mindedness. I tried to put my seat belt on at my desk, this morning. (Mind you, that’s normal behaviour for a Monday morning.)

My friends have been wonderful, though. I’ve had plenty of encouragement, and offers of food and lodgings should I end up facing destitution. I’ve had physical and verbal hugs. I’ve even been offered a van to live in. So it’s not all bad. I’m very lucky.

In the grand scheme of things, chucking in a job – or potentially a career – isn’t such a big deal. Right?

It’ll work out. It has to. And I’ll keep telling myself that, until it does.

The road less travelled

Recently, I’ve been getting itchy feet.

(Not of the fungal infection kind.)

Change is in the air. I’m restless. I want something different.

The past two years have been … tumultuous. Largely good, but rough, at times. I’ve been shown evidence of the frailty of human existence up very close, no fewer than three times.

There was a different outcome on each occasion.  Each time took its toll, in a very different way.

But I learned a lesson. It’s that life is so, very short. So very fragile.

It’s too short to spend it in a way that means you’re not happy.

I learned another lesson.

It’s that the most precious things in your life are people that surround you. Your family. Your friends – the family you choose for yourself. If you’re lucky enough, the one person you choose to share your journey with, for whatever portion of the way. Nothing, but nothing is more important than those people. Nothing.

After almost six months of constant working almost to the point of exhaustion, I took some time out.

I realised how little I’ve seen my family over that time. I noticed that my friends were busy making plans, and I wasn’t being included. I saw how I’d shut myself off from the world, buried in a laptop, or sitting late in the office. It dawned on me that I’d felt for a long period that the very idea of a relationship simply meant more demands on the time I didn’t have.

To be fair, I’d been working on some great projects. Met some incredibly talented and inspiring colleagues and clients. I’d been learning about things I’d never otherwise have, and uncovering insights that made me feel genuinely excited.  But in a quest to gain experience in the sectors which I felt made my job worth doing, I was sacrificing the time that made my own life worth living.

Such is the nature of agency life, I’m told. Sometimes I drive myself too hard. It’s true. But in a quest to find projects in line with my own values, I ended up sacrificing them.

There’s only so long you can go on like that.

So I went away to the sun. As soon as I stopped, the cold that had been chasing me for weeks caught up with me. I coughed, I sneezed, I sweated and  felt sorry for myself.  When the fever lifted, I slept. Then for days I read. Glorious, glorious books! A joy I’d forgotten. I switched off my phone, ignored emails. I got up at dawn and watched the sun rise over the sea. I took time to breathe, and do nothing at all.

And I thought.

I thought – what is it you want to do with yourself? What do you see yourself doing in five years time? And I couldn’t answer. The only conclusive answer I came to was: Not This.

So I decided – I needed to do something. With no alternative on the horizon, I decided to force myself into a making a change. I decided it was time to leave my job.

I came home. I talked to my family. They stopped just short of telling me I was mad. (I appreciate that they didn’t.) I talked to my friends. They left me in no doubt that they thought I was making the right decision. Some made me feel like anything in the world was possible, and I hope I’ll be grateful to them over the coming months for helping me to believe it. Someone else told me that I “won’t starve”. I hope they’re right.

So, I find myself at the beginning of October, facing into an unknown future. I have just under twelve weeks left to work here, before facing unemployment. It’s daunting.

Scrap that. It’s more than daunting – it’s terrifying.

But … it’s also exhilerating.

I have a blank canvas. Whatever happens from here on in, it’s my decision. I can stay where I am. I can move county. I can move country if I wish. (But I don’t think I will. I like it here.)

I’m scared. Scared that I won’t make this work, and that I’ll have to go back to my employer, cap in hand, and beg them to stay. To be fair, they’ve been incredibly supportive. But to do so in my eyes would be to fail. I feel I have to make this work.

All I do know is that long-term, I want to work in an arena which I know in some small way, helps to make the world a slightly better place. I’m happy to work hard, as long as I know I’m making some small difference. There are things that I’m passionate about. There are things I’m good at. If I can’t find a postion straight away where I make a living working doing things I’m passionate about or good at – fine. I’ll have more time to devote to them outside of my paid employment. And eventually it will come. I want to be able to wake up in the morning and know that I am contributing something to the people around me, to my family and friends, and even to some extent, my country.

And I’ll make it happen. In time, somehow.

Wish me luck. I’ll need it.

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My 10k adventure – and a thank you

Two months ago, I took a mad notion and decided I’d run 10km for charity.

Okay, I lie. I did no such thing. I decided I’d repeat the efforts of previous years, and sign up for the Women’s Mini-Marathon, do some token training – consisting of running 500m down the road and back while feeling faintly ridiculous – for the week preceding the big event. Then I’d turn up on the day, togged out like a pro. I’d jog a little and feel smugly fit and healthy before starting to wheeze, and would happily succumb to a(n albeit brisk) walking pace around the 2k mark. Then I’d finish triumphantly by jogging across the line at a respectable 1 hour 40 minutes and head to the pub to smugly celebrate my achievement.

This year was different, though.

I work for a large multinational corporation. I’ll openly admit that this is not necessarily the career path I’d have chosen as a young idealist, but it’s worked out well for me. While I work hard, and sometimes excessively long hours, I consider myself pretty lucky that I can work with some great clients who do fantastic work in the social arena. I’m glad that as part of my day job that I get to meet people who inspire me, and I’m grateful that I’m able to play a very small part in helping them achieve their aims more effectively and successfully.

One of the single biggest positives of my job is that as part of our corporate social responsibility programme, I with a small team of others have been able to work closely with the wonderful people at LauraLynn House, Ireland’s first – and only – Hospice for terminally ill children. Social responsibility programmes within big multinationals sometimes get a bad rap among cynics, who suggest they smell a little of tokenism and are simply part of an effort to generate positive PR, but I say, if I can contribute to a cause like LauraLynn House, even to a tiny extent, as part of my day job, then that’s good enough for me.

I’m sure by now that most of you have heard Jane and Brendan McKenna’s tragic story, but if not, you can read it here where you can also find out a little more about the work that the Children’s Sunshine Home and LauraLynn House do.

Three weeks ago, I was confronted with an image on the front of the Irish Independent that stopped me in my tracks. Tiny baby Leo McWade, aged 6 months old, gazing up at his dad with his beautiful big eyes, had been born with an inoperable heart defect. Told he would have very little time, his parents, Catherine and John had brought him home to care for him side by side with his twin sister Molly. I won’t deny that I cried when I read of his dad John’s feeling of panic when, on a particularly awful night, he phoned the hospital desperately looking for help and was told not to bring him in, that there was nothing they could do. I don’t have children, but I can only imagine the how horrifying that feeling of helplessness must have been.

John and Catherine subsequently moved into LauraLynn House with Leo and Molly, where Leo has received specialist care. The twins are now six months old. John, during his interview with the Irish Independent marvels at Leo’s resilience. “Now we have gotten to know this little boy. We can hold him and he looks up at me and he smiles”, he says. They can now tell Leo’s little sister that they did everything they could for him.

I hope John and Catherine don’t mind me telling their story here. But I don’t mind saying that nothing I have ever read has affected me so much. I hope Catherine and John get some more time with their little boy, and when the time comes, I hope sincerely that they’ll get the support they need at such a terrible time.

LauraLynn House is a wonderful facility. In their recently-opened new hospice building, they’ve thought of everything. It’s full of natural light. The bedrooms are decorated so as to make them feel as homely as possible. While every room houses essential medical equipment such as hoists, they are discreetly housed behind doors so as not to serve as a reminder that this is a medical environment. Large recliners beside beds enable tired parents to rest in comfort. Computer screens where staff can access medical records double as interactive screens for children to play games. There are guest rooms, with small kitchens where families can avail of privacy and retain some dignity at that most terrible of times. And in the most poignant of additions, there is a beautiful room called the Butterfly Suite, where children close to death are brought to die with their families around them. Importantly, LauraLynn House is not a sad place, nor is its sister organisation, the Children’s Sunshine Home. Though the facilities between provide care and respite for hundreds of children and parents, they are places of light and laughter.

LauraLynn House receives NO direct government funding. Not a cent. Apart from some funds diverted from the state contributions towards the Children’s Sunshine home, on whose grounds LauraLynn House sits, the hospice relies solely on the goodwill of fundraisers to pay its staff, and maintain its buildings and equipment. Running costs for the Hospice amount to over €2m annually. That’s a lot of money to raise.

When I read baby Leo’s story, I’d already started fundraising. I’d already raised quite a bit, having beaten my original target of €250, which I’d thought ambitious when I set it. But reading this made me more determined than ever. So I started to make a nuisance of myself, and it paid off. I’ve known from years of getting soaked outside churches while shaking buckets and selling raffle tickets at table quizzes, that we as a nation are an incredibly and unerringly generous people. I’ll always remember the old gentleman with no coat and a jumper that had seen better days who, outside a north Dublin church on a freezing cold, rainy night with a shy nod pressed a €50 note into my collection bucket. Once people are asked, they almost always respond with genuine enthusiasm for a good cause. But when times are that bit harder, and money is tight, I’d have understood if people were more reticent. I was prepared for that. But the opposite proved to be the case. In the end, I’ve managed to raise over €1,200 for LauraLynn House, and to say I’m delighted is an understatement.

One of the most amazing elements of my fundraising effort was the response I got from my efforts to promote the cause using social media. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m  an avid fan of twitter. I’ve been using it for about three years, and during that time (once the initial rite-of-passage novelty of celeb-following wore off), I’ve gathered over 1500 followers, and enjoyed thousands of fascinating, bite-size conversations with people from all walks of life on lots of interesting topics. (And politics.) I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting some people who I can now safely say will be friends for life. But despite my already strong conviction that the people you meet on twitter are among the best you’ll ever find, nothing could have prepared me for the response I got there to my fundraising efforts. In total, nearly half amount came from people who follow me on twitter. Astoundingly, a third came from people I’ve never even met. Some even passed my fundraising page on to friends and colleagues who in turn, also contributed.

Just… wow.

So when I togged out last Monday, I felt I owed it to those who donated to put in a bit of effort, over and above my usual laid-back ambling through the route. Work commitments meant training time was minimal, so I approached the day with some apprehension. (By minimal, I mean non-existent.) An old injury didn’t help, but along with a good (and annoyingly, infinitely fitter) friend of mine, I vowed I’d give it socks. (I even bought special socks for the occasion.) The first kilometre was a breeze. I was starting to wonder what the big deal about running was. By 2k, I was getting a wee bit sweaty. At 3k, I was starting to wheeze and feel a bit dizzy. By 5k, parts of me I didn’t know existed were starting to hurt, and I had to slow down for a bit. (By slow down, I mean stagger to the nearest water station and consider catching a bus.) Around the 7k mark I was definitely starting to hallucinate and reminiscent of the Lenten episode of Father Ted where everything appears to Ted to be a giant cigarette, I was having visions of tantalisingly cold pints of liquid. (Swithwicks.) The firemen cheering us on at Donnybrook at the 8km mark bolstered the spirits somewhat, despite being somewhat of a distraction. By 9k, every single part of me, including my eyeballs hurt (and didn’t stop hurting for four days). But I crossed the 10k mark having managed to run a good 90% of the route, and clocked a time of 1hr 18 minutes. Not exactly impressive, but bearing in mind that I absolutely detest running and avoid it at every opportunity, I was pretty damn chuffed with myself. I was so chuffed that I even contemplated running a victory lap around the Green.

So, this post is a thank you. To anyone who made a donation to the cause, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart. I’m humbled by your generosity towards what is a wonderful cause. LauraLynn House value every cent of the money you donated. But in addition to that, the past few weeks served to remind me that despite all the negativity and cynicism that pervades the news, the papers and our everyday discourse, there is still an intrinsic goodness in us, and a desire within us to help out others less fortunate than ourselves. And it’s for that reminder that I’m even more grateful.

You can read John McWade’s interview with the Irish Independent here.

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot …? (A Little Light Reading)

This post was written as part of the Great Cake Experiment (A Writing Project for the Unmotivated.)

Lots of writers contribute to a common theme on a weekly basis. Do pop over for a look!
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Well, should it?

Depends on what you mean by “acquaintance”, I suppose. Time has this habit of flying by, bringing with it small chunks of your memory. Someone should have told Time that these memories can be useful to hang onto, thank you very much. There are at least two types of acquaintance-forgetting scenarios I think we’ve all played a part in at some stage.

Firstly, you have the Forgotten Face situation. Ever bump someone you’d actually completely forgotten ever existed?

Awkward, that.

Picture this. They instantly recognise you. They’re delighted to see you. They even greet you by *name*. They remember what you studied in uni, and they ask after your dog. Also by name. You, on the other hand, are panicking. You’re mentally treading water. Although in the dim recesses of your mind you have a vague recollection of this person’s face, you have no memory whatsoever of where they feature in your past. Flailing, rewinding at the speed of light over your school, college and working life, desperately seeking clues in the conversation (although they’re giving nothing away), and conspicuously avoiding addressing them by their name – because you haven’t a notion what it is – it finally clicks and – oh, blessed relief! – you remember.

Simultaneously wondering what on earth it is they include in their diet that helps them to remember such a tenuous acquaintance in so much detail, and trying not to make it obvious that you have only this second remembered where it is you ever met them in the first place, you struggle through the last excruciating moments of the conversation until someone makes an excuse to leave. (Usually them, because you feel too guilty about forgetting their very existence to also lie to their face about being late for something.) You wave them off, exchanging lovely-to-see-you-agains and we-must-meet-for-coffees. You breathe a sigh of relief for getting away with it. You still haven’t a bull’s notion what their name is.

Yep, awkward.

Then, you have the opposite of the situation outlined above. You are the Dog-Name-Rememberer, and yours is the Forgotten Face.

You run into them by chance, in the middle of a car park in some god-forsaken part of the midlands. (Yes, I may be recalling a incident from personal experience here. If you’re reading, I’m glad I made a stronger impression second time round.)You haven’t seen them since college days, and memories of days locked up in libraries and reading rooms frantically piecing together project work come flooding back. You had all the craic back then. You really bonded. Such a shame you lost touch, you were *such* good friends – isn’t it great to see each other? Two minutes in, your ego’s reeling from that punch of non-recognition. You know by the panic in their eyes and the whiff of desperation that they actually don’t know you from Adam. In fact, you have a sneaking suspicion that only this minute have they remembered you ever existed. Stunned – how could they possibly forget YOU?!

Immediately, you switch the conversation mode to ‘Vague’. They don’t remember you? Well, you’ll give them no clues, and watch them squirm. Ask after their mother. And – the killer punch – the dog. By name. You haven’t forgotten, oh no. Then, you see the relief wash over them, as they wipe the sweat from their brow and you know they’ve placed you. Or at least remembered where they last saw you, but you know they still haven’t a clue what your name is. Trying to salvage some dignity, you excuse yourself. You’ve somewhere important to be. You ARE important, despite what they clearly think. You call them by their name at least twice as you say your farewells, and swagger off with as much dignity as your wounded pride will allow.

Yep, even more awkward.

There’s a further scenario, where you run into someone you know you recognise, and you know they recognise you. You’ve been acquainted in the past, but neither of you have the foggiest notion how, or when, or where. But the low level of emotional investment there means the awkwardness remains minimal, and crucially, you both have the good sense to mumble a perfunctory greeting and Just Keep Walking.

There are certain other acquaintances I’ve made in the past that I’d bloody love to be able to forget, but that’s a ramble for another day. I’ve even had a couple of occasions to think that Clem and Joel, as inspired by Alexander Pope had the right idea, and that erasing memories of acquaintances past wouldn’t half be a bad plan, but grudgingly I always come around to the realisation that those memories are part of me, as much as my skin, hair and eyes are, and to lose them, and forget what I had and shared, would be to lose a part of me.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

One small tip, though. No matter how forgetful you become, always remember the dog.

Money Talks…

It’s that time of year again. The Great Cake Experiment has kicked off for a second round.

As usual,  I have, at the very last minute, managed to submit this week’s entry.

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Money talks, but, as the words of a famous song attest, it can’t sing or dance, and it don’t walk. (Note: “Famous”, naturally, does not equate to  “decent”, or “credible” or even “listenable”.  But I’ll try not to digress, before I even get past the first paragraph. And Neil did have a point, before the chorus descended into farce).

Residing in Ireland these days is no great picnic, at least not according to the media. As a country, we are flat broke, and have sold our sovereignty/souls to the Germans/Devil, (delete as appropriate). Our houses are worth negative money – the bricks and mortar equivalent of celery (yes, if you eat nothing but celery, all the time, you’ll have a negative calorie intake. Crash dieters, take note.)

And oh, how we love talking about this. In outraged tones, we condemn the FF-‘led government of the time for mismanaging us into this pit of destitution. We blame the banks for lending us the cash to buy what we did not need. We scorn the broadsheets for force-feeding us swollen property magazine supplements we did not want (but feasted on). We decry the economists who gleefully discussed  the best and safest ways of investing in property abroad. How we revile the car dealers who persuaded us that a five year payment plan for the BMW X5 – for on-road activity, natch -was a no-brainer. Lacking, however in this blame game, is the more uncomfortable notion of personal responsibility.

Today, in Ireland, to be blunt we have a society that, to its shame, has collectively failed itself. Our most vulnerable are now at risk. There is every indication that tomorrow’s Budget will signal bad news for children in disadvantaged families as child benefit allowances are cut. Class sizes will, in all probability be increased. Already, the number of Special Needs Assistants for children with learning difficulties has been slashed. Nursing homes are closing, resulting in traumatic moves for elderly patients who, for many years have known no other home. Proposed funding for mental health facilities is now no longer guaranteed. Note that those most affected here are the ones with very little power to defend themselves.

Take a bow, Ireland. To say “we all partied” is wrong and unfair, but frankly, there is no denying that many of us did. Plenty of us sit in debt, because we lived beyond our means when times were good. Nobody ever told us we had to buy that car, or take out that mortgage, but we went ahead and did it anyway because everyone else was doing it and we didn’t want to be left behind. Now, in our grim fiscal situation, all we can do is talk about it, and continue to place money at the centre of our lives, and forgetting that the loveliest things we own cost nothing. (The irony is, that despite the fact that €120 billion is held in this country’s banks in hard currency and cash deposits, we collectively cry poverty, but of course, I’m digressing again.)

Times are hard. For many, they’re immeasurably shit, and they have my sympathy, they really do. But for many of us, they’re not as bad as we’d like to pretend.

I can’t understand why we continue to talk ourselves into this negative, defeatist frame of mind. Think of the happiest memory you have. The person you love the most. The things you treasure most dearly. What you would cry hardest over losing. I’m willing to bet that the things that matter most to you don’t didn’t originate in your wallet. Why not place them at the centre of your world, and while you’re at it, make a difference to the people around you by doing something small, something almost immeasurably tiny, in fact, like sharing a smile, holding a door, or just telling someone how much they mean to you? Why not devote your time and energy to what feeds the heart and soul, and worry a little less about what you can’t bring with you where you’re going?

Money talks, but no-one ever said we had to listen.

Two Thoughts on Conforming

“Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent.”
~ Virginia Woolf

“Nonconformists travel as a rule in bunches. You rarely find a nonconformist who goes it alone. And woe to him inside a nonconformist clique who does not conform with nonconformity”
~Eric Hoffer

El Camino de Santiago

I promised quite a few people I would write a piece on my journey on the Camino when I came back. And I will.

But for now, I’ll leave you with a couple of photos as a taster and say emphatically that it was the best 250km I have ever walked. (Out of all the 250kms I’ve ever walked – I do it all the time.) It was a retreat for mind and soul – even if it did punish the rest of the body – and I couldn’t recommend taking this time out enough.

The beginning – leaving Astorga. A long road ahead, with scallops and yellow arrows as waymarks.

We were lucky enough to get to watch this sunrise from one of the highest points on the Camino – after a 5.30am start. 6am starts and 10pm curfews became the norm. Quite a departure for a night owl, but I loved it.

These kind of traffic jams, I can live with.

Letting sleeping dogs lie…

Love on the Camino…
(Mind you, if he’d written on the wall of my house like that, he’d be adding a few more blisters to his collection.)

Boy, were we glad to see this place.

The infamous Botafumeira. This giant incense burner was traditionally used to fumigate the Cathedral at the daily 12pm Mass. (Pilgrims are smelly). It’s now been redeployed in a new starring role as end-of-Mass entertainment (just when you think the fun parts are over) as it swings through the nave of the church, accompanied by super-dramatic organ music. Just Google it – I ain’t no fan of mass, but this was quite the spectacle.

The sun goes down in Santiago de Compostela, on a rather perfect day.

More to follow.

Dark Nights of the Soul

Ireland. The land of a thousand welcomes. Where the grass is green, the sun is rare, the Guinness is black (or ruby red, if you’re a purist) and the craic is mighty. Sure it’s a great little country altogether we have. Isn’t it?

Well, it is. For the most part. Unless you’re suffering from mental ill-health, that is.

Ireland, for all its warmth and revelry, its friendliness and humour, struggles to deal with mental health issues. As a population, we don’t really like the thought of anyone being “not right in the head”. We regard those who are “a bit touched” with pity, suspicion and even fear. We exude patronising pity for those who “suffer with their nerves”. We don’t talk about mental ill-health in the same way as we talk about physical ill-health, and if someone shows signs of mental “frailty” they are labelled, for life.

Come to think of it, talking about feelings on any level, apart from the most superficial, tends to be a challenge, particularly if you’re male. And especially not with other males.

Something I’ve noticed over the past couple of years in Ireland is the big increase in media coverage of mental health – and mental ill-health. Be it blogs, websites, articles, newspaper reports dealing with depression and other mental illnesses, this is an area which is generating more conversation than ever before – and not before time. Organisations like Spunout.ie, Headstrong, Grow, and Shine to name but a few of many, have been working to push these issues into the the public arena and popular discourse, and are slowly but surely building conversation, knocking down walls and very, very gradually reducing the stigma around mental illness. An initiative which has really pushed the boat out in terms of working to reduce stigma around mental health problems is
See Change, an alliance formed by over 40 voluntary organisations, state agencies, universities and youth groups including those named above. Their work has really impressed me so far, particularly their ‘Make a Ripple’ campaign, which comprised of stories by real people who have been affected by these issues, serves to remind us that mental ill-health is not solely the preserve of people we don’t know.

This isn’t a post about my own experiences of depression. I’m one of the luckier ones. In my lifetime, I’ve dealt with two pretty bad bouts of the blues, both severe enough to necessitate time off work and both harsh enough to make me wonder through the darkness of despair if life would ever look any brighter again and if I would be better off dead. I’m not going to write at any great length about how waking up in the morning during a period of depression is almost a disappointment… nor about the way it saps your energy and motivation, how broken sleeps provide no respite, contributing only to sustained exhaustion. I don’t intend to dwell on the guilt you feel for your lack of enthusiasm when nothing moves you. Neither will I write much about how, during a period of depression, you become your own worst enemy, locking yourself away, isolating yourself, distancing yourself from the people around you and focusing helplessly on the negative thoughts, feeding the selfishness of the illness until you are trapped in a spiral of misery so intense that all you want to do is go to sleep and not wake up.

No, for those who want to read about the experience of depression in depth, there are plenty of accounts out there, written by those souls courageous enough to share.Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve learned to deal with it. Every so often, another wave will appear, out of nowhere to wash me under, but as any bad surfer knows, sometimes it’s easier to duck beneath the wave and let it roll over you than standing up and trying to fight it. Acceptance has been half the battle, for me.

It does sometimes feel like a constant, exhausting fight, keeping the darkness at bay. A feeling I’m sure many a sufferer will identify with… but to live in fear is to let it dominate your life and I will absolutely not allow that to happen.

Sometimes though, it’s hard.

Everyone deals with things differently, and for me, I’ve always found the internet a ‘safe’ place to share. (That’s why I think Aware’s online support groups are a fantastic initiative.) As per the bio, I don’t much like talking about myself. I like asking questions more than I like giving answers, and I would struggle,  face-to-face to talk to many of my friend about this. Only a handful know that I ever suffered with depression, and it’s never really mentioned. I feel this is partially because, I think, having never suffered it themselves, they cannot empathise. Harsh? Yeah, probably.  And a bit unfair – given that we just don’t know what anyone else is dealing with in their own head.

But it’s no way meant to be derogatory. In my experience, there is a divide between “them” and “us”. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression will comprehend, and those with no experience simply cannot understand. They can sympathise, but can’t empathise with the despair. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing, for them. I find however, if I say I’m feeling down, it’s awkward. After a while when it doesn’t lift, people become impatient, or bored. I’m not saying it’s their fault. Naturally, it’s frustrating for them too when they’re getting nowhere. But I sense the impatience, and knowing I am the cause stresses me and upsets me even further. Therefore, I just find it’s easier not to talk about it.

And I couldn’t, in a million years, begin to imagine telling my current employers. I don’t think there is any place for mental “weakness” in business, and I have unfortunately seen very real evidence of this.  I have imagined the conversation in my head once or twice, for laughs. A couple of recent initiatives which have approached the issue from the ‘preventative’ side though, like stress management courses and an emphasis on fresh air and exercise, are positive and ones that I hope are not just tokenism, and will contribute in a small meaningful way to the mental health of all employees who participate, whether they realise it or not.

It’s my hope that all the work being done at the minute by the organisations above can somehow bridge the gap between ‘published’ experiences and real life, and that the conversation can become relevant to all of us. That’s where the real challenge lies. And this is a challenge that needs to be taken on – from the top down. Any politician who actively promotes the issue of mental health is worth their weight to this country in gold. It’s all very well to say that it’s good to talk about these things. We can say that til we’re blue in the face. We know it’s good to talk.

It’s translating the rhetoric into reality, and dealing with mental ill-health in a positive manner when it affects you, or me or someone close to us, and actually talking about it when it happens – that’s what will ultimately show that we are winning this battle, and my fear is that it’s easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. These organisations need to position themselves in such a way that they are accessible to those who have very little strength to actively reach out. And let’s encourage those of us who are stronger to look out for others. I fear that the disconnect remains, but only by working together (and looking out for one another) can we erode this “strong, silent” mentality and help make those dark nights of the soul a little less lonely.

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(Image: Morguefile.com)
 

It’s the little things….

Today, we buried my cousin.

23 years old, and until Wednesday morning and the accident, full of life and humour. We’ll miss him more than I can write here.It’s been a rough few days, watching his family grieve. Grieving with them. What’s struck me however through the grief and the sadness and the exhaustion of the past three days is what a big impact the little gestures have.

Firstly, the amount of food that arrived to the house within hours. Trays and trays of sandwiches. Cake mountains. People wanting to do something… anything. Anything at all.

The younger group sitting up all night with him. To watch over him. The stories.

When they carried him out of the house for the last time, nearly thirty cousins, so rarely together, but at that moment together in raw grief, linked to each other for support formed an impromptu guard of honour to see him off. A protective semi-circle wrapping their arms around a broken family. Only wishing so badly we could do anything to take some pain away.

Thousands of people filed through the funeral home. When I say thousands, I mean we sat there for four and a half hours. Four and a half’s worth of people queuing up to offer their condolences. There were queues for miles. Today, those who sat in the front row have swollen, tender hands and wrists. (A tip. When offering condolences at a funeral, don’t squeeze too hard when shaking hands. Work on getting that balance between ‘wet fish’ and ‘vicegrips’ just right. It matters.)

The guard of honour of the local youth group, with which the family is so involved, from the end of the road to the church. They waited nearly two hours for him to arrive, then they walked beside the hearse with him to the church as the ball tolled. Hearing that bell toll…it’s such a lonely sound.

Today, strangers in the cars on the road pulled over as a mark of respect for the funeral. Those little things… Things that you’d never consider worth remarking on, took on a new significance. I never realised until now how touching it is to have a stranger ackowledge your grief. I know I’ll be doing that myself in future.. it may not help, it may make no difference. But it might.

It’s been a long three days. But there are far, far longer days ahead. Sleep well, Spud. We’ll miss you.

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(Photo: Morguefile.com)

While the music lasts…

Like pretty much most people I know, my existence to date has been accompanied by a vast and varied soundtrack.

For each memory, a musical cue, for every tear, a tune. For every heartbursting moment of happiness, a matching chariots-of-fire-esque musical crescendo. Every song, every guitar riff or piano intro capable of transporting me back instantly to a defining – or utterly mundane – moment from my past. I imagine I’m not alone in this.

Recently, I met someone in a social capacity (ahem) who, over a couple of pints announced that he wasn’t “into music”. Astounded, I queried him further. Did he not like certain types of music? Did he not go to gigs? No, he said. He just didn’t like music. He’d never even bought a CD. Ever. In his lifetime. In 34 years. (Sport is his “thing”, apparently.) He switches off the radio when he hears music, because he doesn’t like the noise. He prefers to listen to debates, sports commentary, even the death notices! Anything but music. He’s never been to a gig, nor does he intend to. He couldn’t imagine anything worse, he said.

I was flabbergasted. I don’t mean to be judgemental. Everyone to their own, right? But I’ve met people who claim they’re not into music, but you generally will hear them at some stage humming along to some naff tune on the radio. Or you might meet people who don’t actively seek out music, or don’t have any particular preferences, or just “like the stuff that’s in the charts” (shudder), but this guy was a completely new and different animal. I’d never before met anyone who actively dislikes music, and  I was shocked.

Now this guy seemed like a decent guy, and in other circumstances, I’m sure we would have gotten on well. We’d traded GAA stories around the table – a sure-fire way to get me to like you – and he was quite a wit. But the minute he dropped this bombshell, I instantly stopped trusting him. I just could not comprehend how any living, hearing human being could knowingly dislike music. I still can’t, and to my mind, they are simply not normal. I’m sorry, but that’s just how I feel.

Music is so engrained in everything we do that I wonder how anyone who doesn’t like it can endure life without losing their mind. I mentioned how it holds over me the power to instantly transport me back in time, to a moment where I was utterly consumed in grief, worry, or unadulterated happiness. It can alter my mood in a nanosecond. I hear this song on the radio (not often enough, I might add) and it makes me cry. This reminds me of my formative years when I was just starting to find my tentative way in the world – when hormones ruled and the headiness of newfound freedom had just opened up a world of possibilities. This reminds me of the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. And one day, I hope to again listen to this song without feeling the searing pain in my heart it triggers now. Like a puppet on a string, I am at the mercy of the notes, the air, the melody. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My new acquaintance will never experience the sheer beauty of smiling to himself as he hears “their song”, nor will he drive cross country with the window down, singing at the top of his lungs and terrifying the roadside sheep and/or passing cyclists.  He’ll almost certainly never sing his children a lullaby. I feel dreadfully sad for him.

Music may leave us at its mercy, but while there is music, there is life, and heart and soul. While the music lasts, let us dance. Let us listen and sing and celebrate and squeeze the very life out of our existence before the needle lifts and the silence prevails.

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Fond Friends Forever…. or a friend indeed

Another post written for the group writing competition, The Great Cake Experiment.

Do check it out – there are just two weeks left in this round.
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Once, a long time ago, when Kylie loved Jason, I loved Kylie, Snickers bars were called Marathons and everyone’s biggest ambition was to own a Walkman, I made a friend. We sat beside each other in the back row of first class, feet in white ankle socks swinging a few inches above the ground, sharing confidences. I learned that her dog got sick in the kitchen last night, and her dad shouted at her mum. She learned that at the grand old age of eight, I still sucked my thumb to get to sleep. We were best friends. She had pigtails. I, with my boy’s cropped locks, was jealous and begged to plait her hair, like my dolls. We made each other cards daily – middle pages torn from copybooks, adorned with pink marker pen, tin foil flowers, crayoned hearts and declarations of everlasting devotion. Together, hand in hand, we skipped around the playground, hopscotched and built dens under tree branches, where no-one was permitted to enter. We would be friends for ever and ever.

A rather frail child, I was susceptible to asthma attacks and chest infections. One such bout ensured I was housebound for a week. At lunchtime, between bouts of painful coughing, I could hear the screams and laughter of my friends as they ran and skipped and chased in the playground, from my home just metres from school. The week felt like seven rolled into one. Eventually, I healed and was deemed fit to return to the classroom.

On entering the room, I was met with a state of disarray. Chairs facing the wrong way, teacher’s desk stood at the side of the room instead of the front and there were new pictures I didn’t recognise on the wall, and – oh! there she was! – my dearest friend, my soulmate, deep in conversation at a new desk with someone else. I tapped her on the shoulder, excitedly anticipating a rapturous welcome.

“Oh, you’re back”, she said. “Teacher moved the classroom around. You’re sitting over there. I sit here now. Beside my best friend.”

I froze. The world stood still. Hot tears stung my eyes. With a flourish of her pigtails, she swung away from me, and resumed her conversation. On the desk, I could see the telltale glint of a tin foil heart, a declaration of friendship forever, scripted lovingly pink marker pen.

A friend, indeed.