The President, My Father and Me

As I write, Michael D Higgins has been voted in for a second term as President of Ireland. I have encountered Michael D Higgins twice in my life. Once was on his first campaign trail, in a library during a book festival. And the other occasion was years before that, in a community hall deep in the Connemara countryside.

Higgins was invited to speak at a training weekend for people involved in community radio, as I was at the time. I spent most of that weekend indulging in debauchery, but carved out time to hear him speak at a debate about racism. And I was emboldened to ask him a question.

Black vs White

As a teenager, I watched the film Ben-Hur. As I watched the final chariot rate, I noticed that the horses drawing the chariot of Ben-Hur, the hero, were white. The horses drawing the chariot of Messala, Ben-Hur’s enemy were black. At a discussion around the dinner table, my father remarked on the symbolism of the colour choice. He observed that often, the word black was used to symbolise evil or disaster, while the word white symbolised purity and goodness. I was struck by this. It hadn’t occurred to me before that words could be used in this way.

 

Ben Hur Chariot Race
Black=bad and white=good in the film Ben-Hur. From Google Images

Now, in that room crowded with broadcasters wielding microphones, I asked Michael D Higgins why the words black and white were used in this way. I no longer remember his answer, but I remember his aura of serious thought, the weight he gave to the question. This was a question he considered worthy of his attention. Afterwards, my radio colleagues remarked on the intelligence of my question.

Acting as Ventriloquist

But it wasn’t my question. It was my father’s question. I took the credit for it at the time, then tucked the memory into a dusty corner of my mind. But the recent presidential election unlocked the memory. I told the story to some siblings, and as I recounted it, it hit me with force that this hadn’t been my question. I had just been acting as my father’s ventriloquist. He had been dead for just over a year when I asked the question. Since then, I have not been able to hear his voice, in that hall in Galway, his voice was loud and clear. And he would be tickled to know that he had put a question to the future President of Ireland.

 

The Naming of a Child

I’m back with my blog after a few weeks’ hiatus while I was gathering ideas, much as a squirrel gathers nuts for the winter.

When the latest Royal pregnancy was announced last week, bookies started taking bets on the name that would be bestowed upon the baby. Why such feverish interest in such a trivial matter as a baby name.

Naming a child is no trivial matter. A name brings a child into being. It gives them a shape, an identity, a history. Little wonder then that naming ceremonies form part of many of the world’s major religions. And in recent years, people with no fixed religion have begun to create their own rituals, with secular naming ceremonies.

Creating Naming Rituals

I was given the honour of presiding over the naming ceremony of a family member, the younger member of my own extended family. This ritual is often presided over by a secular celebrant, but as the ritual is so new, people are free to make their own rules. I was delighted to don druid’s garb and officially welcome this new and much treasured arrival into our clan.

Naming Ceremony
Me in druid garb at the naming ceremony

 

A secular naming ceremony is not so different from a christening, the naming ritual most of the gathering would have been familiar with. There were readings and a speech. Solemn promises were made. And two names were bestowed on the new arrival, names full of history and significance to both sides of the family. Old family names now brought back to life.

As I officially welcomed the child into the world and pronounced the names he had been given, the child made a sound, of delight, of recognition that a profound event had taken place, a ritual bordering on the sacred. A ritual that allowed the child to take his place in the world, with names that open the doorway to who he is.

 

The Words We Choose

At the moment, I’m doing a series of creative workshops with a group of people. We’re working on a writing project which will lead to the publication of a small book of poems. It’s an enjoyable experience, and the people are enthusiastic and attentive. Many words are used to describe the people I’m working with, and these words have evolved over time. The choice of words used to describe them is the cause of much debate. The organisation they attend for services is referred to as an intellectual disability association.

Disability Pic
What words should be used to describe people with disabilities?

When it comes to defining things that are delicate or that are hard to define, there are three approaches that people take.

Minimising the Impact

Some people like to name things in a way that reduces the emotional impact this may cause. These people would refer to my budding writers as having special needs. Their intention is to spare people’s feelings, but there is a danger that you could be seen to fudge the issue. What is so wrong with naming a thing for what it is? Also, some terms that seem kind are actually quite vague. What special needs do these people have? And doesn’t everyone have special needs?

No Names Needed

Other people go a step further and prefer to use no terminology at all. A well-known journalist was recently interviewed about his daughter, who has Down Syndrome. He was asked what words the family used to describe her condition. He said, ‘We just call her by her name.’

As a parent, he has more than earned the right to use whatever words he wants, or no words at all. But the reality is that his daughter has a condition and at some point, words need to be used to describe it. Besides, having Down Syndrome isn’t something that needs to be hidden. It’s just another aspect of a person, like their allegiance to a football team or their love of cheesy pop music.

Finding Comfort in Names

And then there are people who like things to be named, to be defined. They find comfort in having things named in a way that accurately describes them. They feel that words give shape to complex feelings, thoughts and concepts. But there is a danger that in seeking this comfort, they can define a person too rigidly by their condition.

For example, these are the people who are inclined to use a phrase like mentally retarded. It’s true that in its original sense, this phrase conveys the concept of a brain that is delayed in its function, so that it takes longer for the affected person to reach life’s milestones. But the connotations of this phrase now, of inferiority, of damage, means that its use is frowned upon.

Intellectual disability is the term that has come to replace it. The organisation I’m working for clearly deems it suitable as a way to describe people whose brains work differently. But ultimately, if we want to know which words are the right ones to describe the people I’m working with, we must let ourselves be guided by them, and by their loved ones.

As I said, this is a subject that attracts lively debate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you approach the naming of delicate things, whether it relates to disability or to other sensitive situations.

 

Pictures of Post-Catholic Ireland

Last weekend, Ireland received a visitor whom some regarded as extra special and others regarded as controversial – the Pope. Much has been written about his visit, so there isn’t a great deal more I can say about it. But I do carry two pictures in my mind which I think neatly represent this country’s relationship with Catholicism.

In one picture, thousands of people stand before the Pope at a shrine in Knock, in the windblown West of Ireland. They clutch rosary beads and wave yellow and white papal flags. In unison, they chant responses while the pope leads them in the Angelus. Soft rain falls on them, but they are oblivious, their rapt faces focused on the small white figure standing in front of them.

Pope Visit to Knock
Crowds gather to see the Pope in Knock. Photo credit: The Irish Times

In the second picture, another crowd gathers at a garden in Dublin, singing and swaying to the strains of a popular band. In their hands, they hold coloured placards which proclaim truth and justice. They are standing in solidarity with people who have suffered abuse at the hands of the clergy.

Stand for Truth Protest
Stand for Truth Protest. Photo Credit: The Journal.ie

Creating a New Picture

These are the pictures of post-Catholic Ireland, a country with a strong kernel of faith, but a country which is also kicking down the walls of the institution that it clung to for so long. Seeing these two pictures, I was faced with the uncomfortable realisation that none of them quite fits me. I admire the faith and devotion of the people in the first picture and the integrity and compassion of the people in the second.

I don’t go to Mass anymore, and for many reasons, I think it would be hypocritical to go on calling myself a Catholic. But nor do I want to kick down the walls of the institution. What will be left for us when those walls are gone?

Those of us who fall into the uncomfortable vacuum between belief and disbelief, what I call the floundering faithful, may have to create a new picture for ourselves. It will be interesting to see what picture emerges in the coming years. I would like to think of it as a collage of different beliefs, resting

 

Quenching the Light

On a Saturday morning, I was making my usual journey up the main street of the town where I live, to run some errands. As it’s a tourist town, the streets were a little busier than usual, and I found myself trapped behind a family of four who were streeling along the footpath, at tourist pace.

I thought I’d shake them off when we reached a road crossing, as there is a shop on that crossing that’s crammed with delights for children. But they carried on up the path. I passed out the father, but the mother and her two little girls formed a chain on the footpath. I resigned myself to tucking in behind them. After all, I wasn’t in that much of a hurry.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

The middle girl in the chain turned to her mother and said, ‘Mum, when we’re bigger, this will be the olden days, won’t it?’ She was a shrimp of a child, around five or six, a small seven at most. How did her mother greet this wonderful display of abstract thought, of creativity, of imagination? With a muttered yes.

Maybe this child was a relentless talker, and the mother was simply weary from a morning of listening to constant chatter. Also, at that moment, the father turned abruptly and opened the door of a chip shop. ‘I’m getting something to eat,’ he announced. I imagined this behaviour also fed into the mother’s weariness. Either way, I wondered how many of these in different responses it would take before that child’s light was quenched.

light switched off
How long does it take for a child’s light to be quenched?

 

The Café That Was Slightly Too Pleased With Itself

I really wanted to like this café. It had a beautiful riverside location and the décor was very pleasing, with lots of wood and stone. The menu ticked all the hipster boxes, with signature sandwiches and a selection of ales. And it had featured on a television programme, which in our fickle age matters far more than it should.

Young Staff

We placed our order with a dewy-cheeked waitress who tapped the order onto a tablet, and settled down with some of the café’s many newspapers. As we read, we could see the owner wandering around, full of bonhomie as he chatted to customers. He had quite a lengthy conversation with a lady at the table next to ours, who was clearly known to him.

A moment later, the lady’s food arrived. I looked down at our empty table and realised fifteen minutes had passed since we placed our order of two drinks and two slices of cake. I better do something about this, I thought. But just as I was forming this thought, the food arrived. It was served my another dewy-cheeked youngster. His tentative movements and timid voice gave the impression of someone new to the job.

We ate our slices of cake. The lemon drizzle cake tasted of lemon, which is rarer than you might think. The problems didn’t really start until we went to pay. The till was situated at the entrance to the cafe, a narrow walkway. It was behind a high counter, and there were people clustered at the counter. This meant we had to press ourselves against the wall opposite the counter, to keep out of people’s way.

Wrestling with the Till

And we had to wait a while. The till was being manned by a teenager with the same kind of fade haircut (long on top, shaved underneath) as my nephew. And he looked to be little older than my nephew. He was wrestling with the till, which was refusing to process a card payment from a woman in the queue ahead of us. Eventually, the owner was summoned. He pressed a few buttons, then said, ‘Happy?’ to the boy and disappeared.

young waiter
A café populated by very young staff.

Meanwhile, we were still trying to keep out of the way of the stream of people passing in and out. We thought that the girl standing next to the woman at the counter was accompanying the woman, but in fact she had been sent to pay for her table’s food. And there was a problem with that as well – a soup that had never arrived. Which again required decision-making powers that were a little beyond the boy’s scope, as to whether to strike off the missing soup or offer to serve it after all. All this meant meant further waiting. Our own payment was straightforward, but by then the damage was done.

We didn’t complain. When you see the face of your nephew in the people serving you, it’s hard to be mad. But I felt the owner needed to spend less time wandering blithely around the café, coasting on its reputation, and more time on those small details that separate the good cafes from the great ones. The most important of these details is care: care of your customers and care of your staff. And because of this lack of care, I was leaving an otherwise pleasant café with a sour taste in my mouth.

 

The Seven Ages of Clothes Drying

You never think the day will come when you’ll see clothes-drying as an adventure sport. For most of your life, the drying of clothes was consigned to an outpost in the corner of the garden. Neat squares of clothes appeared at the foot of your bed and you’d bury your face in them, breathing in the smell of mother.

The only time you had to worry about drying was when spatters of rain came and you were called upon to dash out and bring in the clothes. You scooped up the plastic clothes basket and put it on your head, enjoying the novelty of a world divided into segments. Then with deft hands, your mother would convert the clothes into those sweet-smelling squares.

Then the time came for you to take care of your own drying, to create your own neat squares. The washing machine stared at you as you ate your dinner and the clothes horse stood guard over your living room, its plastic boughs laden with clothes. But the business of drying could carry on without interference from you, leaving you free to get on with the business of living.

Battling the Elements

It was only when you came to the house by the sea that the clothes-drying Olympics began. Now you battle against air laden with moisture, a changeable sky and a clothes line that shuns light and heat, a Bermuda Triangle of damp. You watch yourself in horror as you ask that existential question: Will I ever get those clothes dry?’ You ask it of everyone you meet, of the neighbourhood women, of business colleagues, of former booze buddies.  

Clothes-drying has become a race against the elements. There are days when the sun peeps out and dares you to dry the clothes. Your heart soaring with hope, you take the bait and pin them out on the clothesline. As soon as you decide you’ll leave them out just a little longer, a vengeful deity chucks a bucket of water down from the sky, forcing you to stage a rescue mission. On other days, the air is grey and still, and you decide to put out the clothes because at least it’s dry. Several hours later, you bring them in and they sag in your arms, dampness still clinging to them.

On other days, the clouds refuse to break and the rain falls in a relentless stream, but the clothes are reproaching you, so you unleash a seldom-deployed weapon: the tumble drier. You shovel the clothes into the drum, smug because you’ve managed to thwart the elements. When you take them out, the lingering smell of damp hits your nostrils. The elements have thwarted you.

The Drying Challenge

Hanging the clothes is a triathlon, with various punishing stages to endure, Bed sheets and towels take up great swathes of the clothesline, and finding room for the rest of the clothes becomes a test of spatial awareness. You pin the underwear on the spinning umbrella, playing Go Fish with the socks, wondering why there’s always one sock that refuses to find a mate. You bob up and down as you pin out the underwear: sock, knickers, sock, knickers.

Socks make a break for the border. No matter how hard you try to keep them in line, a few rebels always escape, and you find them strewn along the path. Pegs migrate indoors, buried in the folds of the clothes, and have to be deported back to the clothesline. Then there’s the high-wire act, as you start to run out of space. You balance on tiptoe, your head swimming, as you place clothes on the upper reaches of the line.

Mastering the Drying

At last, you learn to coax the clothes dry. You form a partnership with the elements, letting the air start the drying process and the wood finish it, as the clothes nestle cheek by jowl on a clotheshorse in front of the fire. You start to read the sky and heed the weatherman’s warnings. You view fabric softener as a luxury akin to vintage wine.

A line of clothes drying is now a sweet sight rather than a dreaded one. You and your husband sometimes pin them up together and meet in the middle. As you pin up the last sock, you feel his arms circle your waist. With quiet pride, you survey the line of clothes, flying the flag for the home you have created together.

Clothesline

The Coffee Biscuit

A group of women pours into a café. They make for their usual table and sit at their usual seats, a whirl of bags and coats, marking their territory. Within seconds, there is a fierce hum of conversation.

A waiter bustles up to them, young, hair slicked back. He has to clear his throat several times to break through the wall of words. The women look startled. The waiter begins to hand them menus, but Teresa held up a hand. ‘No need to worry yourself about that,’ she says, ‘We know what we want.’

Temptation

The women place coffee orders. Visions of scones oozing cream and jam dance through Mary’s mind. ‘Can I tempt you into some cake?’ says the waiter, with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Go on, be good to yourselves.’ ‘Ah, no, you’re grand,’ says Teresa. ‘I think I’m good enough to myself already.’ Laughs from the other women.

The drinks arrive. Herbal tea, regular tea, black coffee. Mary has managed to resist the urge to order a cappuccino. Perched on the edge of each cup is a coffee biscuit. The biscuits remain in their packaging while the women talk. Mary sees them winking at her The conversational current carries Mary along, but in a corner of her brain, a food channel flickers, showing images of cakes, of a dirty, lardy fry. And the coffee biscuits keep calling to her, glowing brighter and brighter.

Coffee Biscuit

After the Coffee

At last, the women’s watches jolt them back to reality, and they begin the slow gathering of bags, of coats, of thoughts. ‘Oh, look, we never ate the coffee biscuits,’ says Teresa. ‘I’ll take those,’ says Mary. The women stare at her. ‘For the grandchildren,’ she says. ‘They’re coming home later.’ The women smile and hand the biscuits to Mary, who puts them in the front compartment of her handbag.

In the car, Mary opens the compartment, takes out the biscuits and lays them on her lap. Four of them. She rips off the packaging and puts them into her mouth all at once, layering them on the tip of her tongue like communion wafers. She lets them melt on her tongue, in an ecstasy of sugar and butter. When she is finished, she brushes the crumbs off her lap. Then she drives away, a smile on her face.

 

The Greenway Moral Code

Two years ago, a disused railway line in Waterford, South-East Ireland, came to life. With much fanfare, it was launched as the Waterford Greenway, a walking and cycling route that followed the route of the old railway line. The Greenway would take people through lush green countryside, under tunnels and bridges and small, pretty towns.

A Source of Passion

People took to the Greenway straight away. Since it was launched, hordes of people have walked and cycled along its paths. Much praise has been heaped upon it, for its undulating pathways, the soothing views, the ease of access. The Greenway gives people a chance to do many of the things that make us happy as humans: being in nature, exercise, a chance to do a an enjoyable activity with family and friends.

Waterford Greenway
Waterford Greenway: a beautiful route that is the subject of much debate.

But what I’ve also noticed when the topic of the Greenway comes up is how passionate people are about the correct way to use it. People fulminate about the cyclists who whiz along the route as if it were a stage in the Tour de France. They rage against the people who drop litter on the paths, or let their dogs roam free. One woman i know talks incessantly about cyclists who don’t ring their bells when they’re approaching pedestrians.

Walking on the Wrong Side

What’s more, people are not shy about letting these transgressors know that they are flouting the conventions of the Greenway, which are printed on signs dotted along the route. I know, because I was one of those transgressors. Yes, I confess that am a sinner.

I have been on the Greenway twice, once with my husband, once with family. On both occasions, we walked on the right-hand side of the path. The signs recommend walking on the left, but we felt that this would prevent us from spotting cyclists coming up noisily from behind. On a normal road, it is correct to walk on the right-hand side. And some would say it is correct to walk on the right-hand side of God.

On both occasions, passersby told us we should be walking on the left. One group was polite; the other was more forceful. And on both occasions, my hackles rose. Why were they taking it upon themselves to tell us which way to walk. After all, we weren’t blocking their route.

Why People Are Fierce About the Greenway

There are many other amenities in Co. Waterford which offer just as much richness of experience, but none of these inspire such strong devotion as the Greenway. Why do people have such a fiercely protective attitude to the Greenway? One reason that springs to mind is space. The Greenway has been successful beyond people’s wildest dreams and that means more people are sharing that space than anyone ever imagined. And people can be very territorial about the space they occupy.

A book I’ve been reading lately has revealed another possible reason for this fervour. In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis talks about a universal moral code that humans instinctively understand and know they must follow. The use of the Greenway feeds into people’s sense of right and wrong. There are no rangers on the route to enforce the conventions, as there would be in other countries. But people are regulating the Greenway themselves, because they believe it is vital to follow rules that will help preserve a resource they see as unique.

A Conflict of Codes

CS Lewis also helped me to understand my own strong reaction to the passersby who told us to walk on the left. The Greenway’s moral code is in conflict with my own moral code. I believe it is wrong to tell other people how to behave, or to judge how other people conduct themselves. And I believe people deserve the freedom to figure out for themselves what is right and wrong. The passersby felt I was flouting the Greenway moral code, and I felt their interference was unnecessary. I believe I would probably have come to my own conclusion about the right way to walk, just from watching how others used it.

But CS Lewis’s book has given me food for thought. Some things are bigger than we are, and I do want to continue enjoying the Greenway and its delights. So I’ve come up with a compromise. When I next go on the Greenway, I will walk on the left. But if I see anyone else walking on the right, I won’t tell them off.

 

Small Wonders of Bantry

This week, I was gallivanting again, to Bantry, in a corner of Ireland where fingers of rock point to the sea. I could wax lyrical about the beauties of Bantry and the West Cork countryside surrounding it, or about the brilliance of the authors who at the literary festival we were attending. But as I did with Sneem and with Iceland earlier in the year, I prefer to concentrate on the little random wonders that often remain unseen.

Here’s a selection of ten small, sparkling moments from my stay in Bantry.

Eloquent rants about montbretia, those flame flowers.

The ship’s sail that cried, ‘Enough.’

The mountain filled with light and rain.

Mountain of Light and Rain
A mountain of light and rain in West Cork.

The man who let his Viking-style boat rot on a beach for seven years because he went to South America and nearly got married.

A cup of tea at the edge of the world.

The author who bathed us in warmth, humour and perfectly crafted words.

The author who drove the men away.

The barman who had never heard of Pernod.

The cable car with a psalm tacked onto the wall.

And the family who flung open the doors of their eighteenth-century farmhouse and fed us with fresh leaves, morsels of culture and tales of the Levant.