A little note on #littlethings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#100HappyDays Day 5 – a new venture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cliffs at Ballycastle, Co. Mayo

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:

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From the Irish Independent Facebook page:

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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.

 

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.

#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.