10 more things I’ve learned since returning west

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

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

Being brave (or foolhardy) pays off. Phew!

So yes, it’s all worked out so far. I moved back west jobless, on a wing and a prayer, to a town which despite not having benefited as much from the boom as other places, was nevertheless hit hard. My fortnightly column for the Mayo News and some news reporting was one of my only – and very welcome – sources of income. That, and a few quid I’d put aside for a rainy day. As it happened, it lashed rain for most of the summer. But by the end of it I’d managed to secure enough freelance work to keep me fed and watered, and by September I was about to start an exciting full-time role in a new and challenging environment.

It wasn’t easy – I had to put myself out there, something that doesn’t come naturally, but it has come together relatively well so far, and I feel very lucky that it has.

Taking time out is good for the soul

When I first moved, I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could take a little bit of time out and not work full time (which is quite convenient when you don’t have any work anyway). I used that time to rest, relax and reconnect with my area again. I behaved like a tourist, walked the streets of my town and the surrounding towns and got to know them again, while rekindling old friendships and acquaintances that had fallen a little by the wayside. Sometimes I got up before 11am. And I visited places in the county I’d never visited before.

Like returning to an old love, it felt familiar and exciting all at once, and the relationship remains solid to this day. And it meant I could take on a fresh start with a bit of energy.

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Taking time out and gatecrashing this guy’s party on Clare Island

Trying to get stuff done? Forget about email

The single biggest source of frustration in my daily life is the reluctance of people to reply to emails. First world problems ahoy! I don’t understand it, but then, writing is my thing and it’s not everyone else’s. However, memo to the people of Mayo, email was designed as a two-way communication tool, y’know?

Here, if you want to talk to someone, you just have to pick up the phone or doorstep them – it might take seven times longer, but it’s the only way to get stuff done. But I suppose personal interaction isn’t all bad either and maybe I should just be a bit less odd.

Positivity breeds positivity

In a mid-sized town, particularly one that has been ravaged by the recession, there will always be a certain amount of negativity. Whether grievances are genuine, or whether it’s hearing criticism of the efforts of other groups or individuals from those who have never volunteering their own time or knowledge, or whether it’s an unwillingness to move past old or perceived slights to collaborate and co-operate for the greater good, there is plenty of it about and it can be frustrating. But that’s life and you’ll never please everyone.

However, there is also a heap of really good stuff and fresh thinking happening – be it in enterprise, tourism, agriculture, hospitality, or festivals and events, people are recognising the need to work together and be creative. Volunteerism is strong. People love dressing up in mad costumes for stuff. And the more people give up their time to make their area a better place, the more it inspires enthusiasm and pride in others.

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Volunteers at Samhain Abhainn Scary Woods Walk – one of my favourite events in Ballina

Returning to the city is a shock to the system

Perhaps it’s the country girl in me, and I’m a bit mortified to admit this but on the rare occasions I need to return to Dublin, the frantic pace of city life comes as a jolt. Drivers drive harder and faster, walkers don’t dawdle, there’s more stress in the air. It’s actually  embarrassing, but I quickly feel claustrophobic, and getting back out is a relief.

But that said, when you’re in the mood for a nice meal somewhere new or a lively gig or a late bar or an excellent Thai takeaway  –  that’s when you realise that Supermac’s doesn’t quite cut it and you start to miss city life. Pros and cons, eh?

Everyone knows your business, but it’s not all bad

One of the downsides of moving back to a small town and trying to participate in the community is that you will be talked about. Now, not being talked about is much worse, but I have at various stages been mildly alarmed by people I barely know being able to tell me my (exact) address, where I work, who I have had a quiet drink with the week before, and what political party I am apparently about to join (spoiler: I am not joining any political party).

That said, you will always have people – like your neighbours – looking out for you and in the event that you die, it is unlikely you will be left alone long enough for your cats to eat you, so on balance I think I will take that.

People are doing it for themselves

There is a very real sense in the West of Ireland that they have been left behind over the past few years, and that decision-makers in Dublin are living in a bubble when it comes to acknowledging the reality and the challenges of rural life. In recent times, exasperated at the lack of assistance from on high, locals are just getting on with it and making stuff happen. Working hard, defiantly (but not foolishly) taking risks, rallying their communities and walking the walk themselves with little support from the banks, it is they who will be responsible for preserving rural communities.

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A recent surprise arrival to Belleek Woods. At his size, I won’t argue

Making new friends in your thirties is not as hard as you’d think

One of my biggest reservations about leaving Dublin was the small social circle I would have. Aside from my family, I had a tiny handful of close friends in Ballina, one of whom proved a lifesaver by renting me a room in her house for the summer, instantly making me feel at home all over again (thanks Nic!) and saving both my parents and myself the indignity of dealing with an adult child who was likely to regress to teenage behaviour in the home house.  I learned that the only way to meet new people is to be open to trying new things.

I am an unlikely and uncommitted sportsperson, but I joined the running, cycling and swimming clubs, and while my interest in partaking in sport will never be fanatical or consistent, it worked, and I felt good for it. As a bonus, I now have another small handful of new and delightfully mad people in my life that I feel privileged and proud to call friends. Result!

Romance is like everything else – if you’re looking, you’ll find it eventually

I’m including this because I’ve been asked about it surprisingly often by both male and female friends who are single and considering leaving the city. Before I moved home, I was warned by a dear friend (who shall remain nameless) that whatever chance you have of finding a partner in the city, the chances of it happening in a mid-sized town in your thirties are minimal. And let’s face it, that’s probably correct – the odds, numerically speaking, are not in your favour. But that said, it’s not a dating wasteland either.

I’ve always felt that love and romance can crop up in the most surprising of places, and probably when and where you’re least expecting it, so I’d recommend just going with the flow on that one. Getting off the couch helps, too. Failing that, just go on tour …

Again, this place is bloody gorgeous

I know, I said it last time. And to those of you familiar with the area, it won’t be news. But there’s rarely a week that this place doesn’t cause me to catch my breath and remember how lucky I am. I’m about to start my dream job, marketing, promoting and developing the region, and to say that I am excited is an understatement. And yet, while I want to share the loveliness with the world, there are places I secretly want to keep under wraps such as the below beach (no, I am not telling you where it is.)

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Somewhere secret in North Mayo

So in a nutshell, life is good. It’s cheap to live here, the quality of life is excellent, and while there are certain irritants and disadvantages, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

If you’re thinking of making a similar move, I certainly won’t be the one discouraging you. But don’t get a cat. Just in case.

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ASIST Training – the aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Judge Martin Nolan

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

Justice Garrett Sheehan

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

Judge Desmond Hogan

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

Judge Carroll Moran

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

Justice Patrick McCarthy

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

Judge Patrick McCartan

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

Justice Paul Carney (1943-2015)

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

Judge Rory McCabe

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

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

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

ASIST

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

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

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

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

I know I wouldn’t.

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

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Further Information

  • Training dates: Regular trainings are scheduled around the country – you can find more information on these by contacting your Regional Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention at the following link. http://www.hse.ie/…/resour…/officers_suicide_prevention.html
  • Training in Mayo: There are two scheduled Mayo trainings – the first being on 8th and 9th March in GMIT, the next in Ballina on 31st May and 1st June(venue TBC). Contact me for details and I can put you in touch to register.
  • Cost: ASIST training is free. You just need to register in advance.
  • Who can take part? Anyone can partake in ASIST training, but it is particularly suitable for all kinds of caregivers – health workers, teachers, community workers, Gardai, youth workers, volunteers, people responding to family, friends and co-workers. he course can be intense, and it’s not recommended for people who may have lost someone to suicide or have been recently bereaved.

Download the ASIST leaflet 

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

Our broken health system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

patients on trolleys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giro de Baile sign

Giro time

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

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

Giro de Baile volunteers

Volunteers, you rock.

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

Flagbrooke Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giro de Baile

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

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

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

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

Pic credit; Giro de Baile on Facebook.

The great name-changing debate

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

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

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

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

Bride And Groom Enjoying Meal At Wedding Reception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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