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Forget his Resignation – Arrest Sean Brady

What has amazed and infuriated me most about the ‘should he/should he not resign’ debate in the media  regarding Sean Brady is that it stops there. It stops with many clamouring for his resignation and many braying to leave him alone, that he’s ‘a good man’.

Whether or not he resigns or is sacked – what I want to know is why no one has called for the man’s arrest? Indeed, regardless of whether or not it has been called for, why have the Gardai not appeared at his door and effected an arrest?

This man is surely guilty of perverting the course of justice (swearing children to secrecy in 1975); concealing a felony (which is a crime – and the sexual abuse of these children was a felony); gross intimidation (intimidating children with the threat of eternal damnation resulting from the excommunication which was threatened in the event that they disclosed they had been abused by clergy). Anyone with a legal qualification could probably count a few more crimes of which Sean Brady is guilty. Yet this man is still free to walk our streets.

What does this say about how we treat sexual abuse in Ireland? In my opinion, it speaks volumes. The national psyche has made obvious strides away from viewing the church as completely untouchable. It has also made strides away from from viewing child abuse as something we ignore, at best, and condone at worst. That’s not enough, though. We need to realise that every child in the nation has a right to be safe and protected inside and outside of their homes. We need to actively protect those rights and bring to justice every person who violates them. Without exception.

Mythbuster #2: The Irish Educational System is the ‘Best in the World’

Yesterday brought news of a drop in the standards of Irish education. There is concern in industry – as expressed by John Herlihy of Google that Irish graduates are showing up with impressive qualifications – and spelling and grammatical errors in their CVs.

There has been a huge rise in the number of firsts being awarded at third level and also an upsurge in the amount of  people achieving ‘perfect’ leaving certificate results.

While it is not amusing that the Irish educational qualifications are slipping in terms of their perceived worth, I could not help but be amused at the horror expressed by Batt O’Keeffe, the Irish Minister for Education.

I grew up hearing that the Irish education system was the best in the world and I was privileged to be able to benefit from  it. Then, I just believed what I was told by my parents and my teachers and the nuns. Later, I questioned this assertion. I was fortunate enough to live and work abroad and had the opportunity to examine other educational systems. It didn’t take me long to realise that ours is sorely lacking.

For example, Irish people leave school having studied the Irish language for a minimum of 14 years – yet most would be hard pressed to hold a conversation in that tongue. Irish people also leave school having studied other European languages – French, German, Spanish and Italian – without being in any way fluent in those languages either. At best, they can tell you about their family backgrounds, their favourite foods and hobbies and where they went on holiday last summer. They could probably also book a hotel, ask directions and tell the time in those languages. After that – they would be more than a bit stuck. Certainly, Irish school-leavers do not have the competence in languages their European counter-parts have. This is nothing short of disgraceful.

With regard to science and technology, Irish school leavers lag far behind school leavers in Asian countries. Part of the reason for this is the ridiculous notion, much held in Ireland, that people can’t be good at both languages and sciences. This nonsense is trotted out by parents and teachers alike and subject choices are split along lines which reinforce this myth in many schools. This crazy myth is not promulgated in any Asian school I have visited.

If you empty your wallet into your head, no man can rob you, yet our government chose to shave millions off the budget of the Department of Education and Science this year and class sizes increased. Bigger class sizes mean that each child in those classes does not get the help and attention they need. I know – I’ve taught classes of every size from 15 children (in a private school in Bangkok)  up to 44 children (in a government school in Singapore) –  and believe me, when the numbers go over 22, all you’re doing is crowd control.

Instead of the Irish Leaving Certificate, I would dearly love my children to complete the International Baccalaureate (IB). It’s a far more rounded approach to education and I love the continuous assessment element. In order to have my children sit the IB, however, I’m going to have to move. Either to an area on the other side of the city I couldn’t afford to live in, or to another country. We’ll probably take the latter option – but will avoid Lybia because that’s the only other country on the planet that also uses the Irish Leaving Certificate as the final school examination.

A poor educational system does not mean that Irish people are thick, however. Quite the opposite. They are very clever. Clever enough to figure out the system and how to, if not quite beat it, then to work it. This means learning how to write exams and learning how to write them well enough to score highly on their leaving certificate examinations.  No critical thinking or problem solving skills required.

That, in itself, is a critical problem that needs solving.

Does Why Matter?

There is no good news regarding my data. The book is still on the hard drive (we hope), but has not yet been recovered. My brother could not recover the data, even with the help of a Mac expert at work.

They have one or two other ideas, but I’m not holding my breath. Chances are that Enda won’t be able to do much, either. So I am bracing myself for an expedition to Ontrack Data Recovery – and the attendant expense such a trip would cost.

While that’s the practical side of things, I have taken the loss of my work very hard on another level. I wondered if it might be a sign from God that I’m not meant to write. That, while I might think I’m pretty good at stringing a sentence together, really I’m no great shakes. This was compounded by the fact that, yesterday, I wrote a post for my other blog and, somehow, lost 300 words. I rewrote them. I wasn’t as happy with the re-rewrite as I had been with the original. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d already posted the shortlink to the blog update on Twitter, I wouldn’t have bothered to rewrite at all.

I thought about just giving up writing. I thought that if God is against me and I lose years of work in a flash (literally), then what is the point in continuing to write? I mean, I can’t do it on my own. At some point – after the hard work is done – the stars need to be aligned. The agent you contact needs to be in a good mood and like what you’ve written. The publisher they approach needs to love your work and you need to be bringing it to market at just the right time. While so much of writing is exactly that – writing – in some ways, that’s the easy bit. The hard work – the blood, sweat and tears – will only result in publication if other things which are outside your control happen. In other words, you need a certain amount of luck.

Seeing as how Lady Luck and I have never been the best of friends, I thought this latest happening – losing my book – was a huge sign from God that I should just give up. So I did. I didn’t write for about a week. That is to say, I didn’t put any words down on paper. But I couldn’t stop the words dancing and tumbling around in my head. I couldn’t stop my opinions forming in my head. I couldn’t stop creating and crafting properly-constructed paragraphs in my head. I couldn’t stop.

Maybe I couldn’t stop because I’m not meant to stop. Maybe the whole book losing episode was just a way to tell me to back up rather than a way to tell me that I shouldn’t write. Maybe now is not the right time for my book to go to market. Maybe later will be a better time. Maybe the lesson is not in what happened, but in my reaction to it.

Maybe this has happened so that I could find out how I felt about my book and about publishing it. Maybe this has happened so that, on the bumpy road to publication, I will remember this and remember how much it meant to me and keep going.

The only other time I felt like this was when my ex-husband was threatening to kidnap my daughter. I found out by accident and I was terrified. At the same time, it brought sharply into focus for me what was important to me – my children. Everything else was gravy. I remember lying in bed with an arm around each sleeping child and thinking ‘this is what matters’. Money, work, a nice house, a decent job – none of that mattered. Only my babies did.

There are hundreds of files on my hard drive – short stories, my thesis, pictures of my children, about ten thousand words of a novel, notes made for future work, letters, emails etc. etc. etc. – yet, not one of those items is causing me grief. I would like to get them back, but if I don’t, I don’t, it’s no big deal. My memoir is a big deal. It’s a very big deal. When I think of the hard drive and what’s on it, the only thing that I think of is my book.

As you can tell, I am still living with the conviction that I will see my work again. I cannot bear the thought that it is gone. I cannot bear the thought of all that work having been for nothing. I cannot bear the thought of sitting down and re-writing it. In fact, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t.

I am trying to be philosophical about this experience, but it’s not always easy. The only thing that will make it all right is the recovery of my work. I’m holding out for that.

Woah! Back Up There!

It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a writer. You write and you write and you write. Then you edit. You put shape on what you’ve written. You re-write parts. Re-jig parts. Excise parts. Add bits in. You save everything carefully. It is your habit to save at the end of every sentence.

One day, you have over 105,000 ‘clean’ words written. More than one hundred and five thousand words that have been written and edited and scrutinised and re-worked until you are happy with those words. You are pleased with what you have written and you are keen for others to read your words. You start a marketing exercise. You start ‘admitting’ that you have written a book. Then, you realise that you are proud of the fact that you have written a book and need very little encouragement to talk about it. People – even people in the media – are interested in reading your book. You have started to approach agents with a view to getting published. You even have a celebrity lined up to launch your book when that fateful day comes around.

Then the unthinkable happens. You lose it all.

That is exactly what happened to me three weeks ago last Tuesday. My Mac exploded. I turned it on that Tuesday, read a few emails and sent a few emails. Then I dropped the kids to school. By the time I got back in front of the Mac, about two hours had elapsed. I was surprised to see that the screen was black and the power was off. Similar to what happens when there is a power cut. Except there hadn’t been a  power cut.

Puzzled, I turned the computer back on. There was a smell of burning and a glowing in the back of the machine. Even I – with my limited technical knowledge – knew this was not good.

I made a few calls and found The PC Guys. They took my machine in and a day later it was ready to pick up. Jas had taken the hard-drive out of my Mac and put it in a caddy. Delighted, I took it home and plugged it in (a friend had generously loaned me her spare desk-top). Of course, I plugged it into a PC, so it didn’t work. It took a few days and a few phone calls, but I tracked down another Mac to run it through.

An hour’s drive away, my friend Dee had a Mac that she generously allowed me to run my hard-drive through. My idea was to find my book and email it to myself. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.

Unwilling to give up on a work I had started three years ago, I got in touch with another friend whom I knew also had a Mac. Very kindly, she called into me on Saturday last. I plugged the external drive in again and crossed my fingers. No joy.

Fortunately, my brother – who is a bit of an IT wizard – was staying with me that weekend. He made a clone of my hard drive and took it home to the Netherlands with him. He offered to try and recover data from it when he had a moment.

In the meantime, Jas at The PC Guys, offered to take another look at the hard drive for me. It showed up on his laptop (a Mac), but with an error message. He held on to it for a few days, but was unable to recover any data. His advice was to approach Ontrack Data Recovery. They are the absolute finest when it comes to data recovery, apparently, and their prices reflect that. To get the hard drive looked at in the first place would cost €95. Thereafter, recover of data would cost me anywhere from €589 to €1,200.

Yet another friend has a friend who also does data recovery. This wonderful man – Enda from Arona – offered to take a look at the hard drive for me. He doesn’t normally work on a Saturday, but he met me yesterday and took the caddy from me, with the caveat that he doesn’t normally work on Macs, so he wasn’t promising to recover anything for me. He did promise, however, to do his best and that if he didn’t think he could help, he wouldn’t  ‘go fiddling’ and that he certainly wouldn’t do any more damage than was already done.

I am seriously crossing my fingers that either Enda or my brother can recover my data. In case they can’t there is always Ontrack as a last resort. As soon as I figure out which of my kidneys to sell.

The biggest torment for me is that not that I have  lost nearly every word I have written, and nearly every picture I have taken of my kids in the past four years. No. The biggest torment for me is that the whole thing was completely avoidable. Back up. That’s all I needed to do. And I didn’t do it. You don’t need to be technically savvy to effectively back up your work. Emailing yourself to a gmail or hotmail or yahoo account will do it for you. Then, your work is on their server and accessible from anywhere.

Thumb-drives are an effective way of backing data up as well. Then, there are other, more sophisticated ways – burning stuff to DVDs, for example. Or converting everything to a Google doc. You see? It’s not hard and I do know how. I just never did. I thought my hard drive was invincible – not least because it was a Mac – and I was wrong. Boy! Was I wrong.

I would like my tale of woe to be a tale of caution for you. Back up your work. Please. Constantly. At the end of every chunk or session or paragraph – whatever works best for you. Just do it. Save yourself the angst and the trauma and the expense. Save yourself from the terrible fate of losing years of work. Save yourself from the writer’s worse nightmare.

The F Word

A few weeks ago, my nineteen year-old niece asked me if I was a feminist. I wasn’t able to give her a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. It’s a question I have asked myself once or twice over the past number of years, and I’m still not sure.

Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, ‘feminism’ was derisively referred to as ‘Women’s Lib’. Those who pioneered it – such as Nuala O’Faolain, Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny and June Levine were branded by many as nothing more than trouble-makers. And it wasn’t just men who were scathing in their references to these women who were pushing for equal status. Many women, too, were uncomfortable with the changes and struggled to maintain the status quo.

In the house where I grew up ‘Feminism’ was synonymous with disgruntled bra burners who wanted more than they were entitled to. Women who hated men. Women who were malcontent and keen to stir up trouble for trouble’s sake. Women who were not content to be women.

I was always uncomfortable identifying myself as a ‘feminist’. Mostly, when I was asked if I was one, I would cautiously assert myself as someone who was keen on the idea of equality for all; regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, cultural background, religious persuasion etc. I had no desire to relinquish my femininity for the good of any cause.

With regard to male-female relations, I have a desire for equality – which is not sameness.  I would like men and women to be treated equally, by governments, industries, employers and each other. ‘Equal’ does not mean ‘identical’. Equal means ‘same in status’.

I would dearly like to see women and men same in status to each other. If that makes me a feminist, then I guess, reluctantly, that that is what I am.

Pedigree

The note came home yesterday that the GAA was starting back training for hurling this morning at 10am. The Littlest Little One got all excited. Then,
‘What’s hurling?’ she asked.

I could feel the ground under me shake as my grandfather spun in his grave. A Kilkenny hurler himself, when he moved to Kildare, he took his passion for the world’s fastest field game with him. He loved everything about it – the speed and the skill and the camaraderie. For years, he was an integral part of his local GAA club. I have an abiding memory of him, in his workshop fashioning hurlies from ash. I remember watching with awe his fluid skill in reaching in and extracting the hurl from the pale wood. It was pure sorcery.

Both my girls arrived at the pitch today to give it a bash (literally!). In conversation, I mentioned to the coach that my late grandfather had been a Kilkenny hurler, and that my uncle led his own team to county victory on more than one occasion.
‘Pedigree!’ the coach shouted. ‘Lock the gates!’
I’m pretty sure he was just kidding,

The girls had great fun, and can’t wait to play again next week.  I think the Biggest Little One, in particular, has found her sport. She seems to have a greater instinct for hurling than for (Gaelic) football.  When she heard that my eldest brother had also hurled in his day, her anticipation of his February visit doubled.
‘Great!’ she said. ‘I can play with him when he gets here.’

I smiled. There was something that just warmed the cockles of my heart seeing my half-Indian baby, with her plait swishing around her bottom, wielding a hurley and getting excited about displaying her skills to her uncle in a few weeks.

There was a tremendous sense of connectedness as I watched both my children clashing ash in pursuit of a sliotar. It was like there was a fine thread connecting them to the generations before them.  I remembered something Bishop Eamonn Walsh had said at my late grandfather’s funeral. Specifically addressing the grandchildren he told us:
“Remember this, in each of you there is a part of him.”
As I watched my children play my grandfather’s sport, I realised that there is a part of him in them, too.

Pedigree? Tradition? Culture? Just a bit of fun? Or a mix of all four? Whatever it is, I’m glad the note came home and I’m glad my girls can’t wait to get their helmets on and their hurlies back in their hands next week.

The Food Issue

A listener to Tom Dunne’s morning show yesterday got in touch to detail a problem. Her nine year old has decided to stop eating meat because meat comes from animals – which are God’s creatures.

A flurry of texts ensued, with many people giving their suggestions on how to cope. A problem is a problem if it is perceived as such, so I am not about to dismiss this parent’s situation as not being problematic – because it obviously is for her.

Most of the world is vegetarian and it’s not that hard. In Ireland, there is a perception of vegetarians as being ‘picky’, ‘difficult’ and ‘awkward’. There is also a misperception that a vegetarian diet is somehow lacking. Honestly, this is just ignorance, with a bit of laziness thrown in.

It is not my intention to convert anyone to vegetarianism, nor am I about to expound on my own reasons for being vegetarian. I have done my research and believe that a vegetarian diet is the healthiest option – and research is key. It is the only way to make an informed decision; indeed, it is the only way one can claim to have made a decision at all.

Choosing a vegetarian diet means learning about food. It means looking at the food purchases you make. It means reading the back of packets of food you buy. It means educating yourself and engaging with food. But wait a second! Shouldn’t you being doing that anyway? Shouldn’t you be aware of what goes into your body no matter what diet you choose?

A notion abounds in Ireland that only meat provides adequate protein. This is incorrect. How much protein do people think they need anyway? What makes  people think they can only get it from meat? There are many sources of protein. Apart from what my kids call ‘pretendy meat’ – like Quorn and other substitutes – lentils, tofu, dairy products (we’re not vegan) nuts, legumes, rice, wholegrain cereals and vegetables all provide protein. Eating more protein than you need is not ‘better’ for you than eating an adequate amount. Unlike fat, the body does not store excess protein – it excretes it.

It is actually very easy to be vegetarian and it’s very easy to raise vegetarian children – you just have to make an effort and educate yourself about food, so you’re aware of what you’re putting into your mouth. Balance is key in any diet and is easily achieved on a vegetarian diet (our diet was reviewed six months ago by a dietician at Crumlin Children’s Hospital, who couldn’t find fault with it).

Feeding my kids well on a vegetarian diet is not hard. What is proving tricky is the learning curve I’m on since last Monday – when I learnt that my youngest is allergic to gluten and dairy and has other food intolerances. Excuse me while I go off now and educate myself some more.

Water and Kiasu-ism

In the estate where I live, we are into our third day of a waterless existence. That is to say, we have no mains water. Apparently, the water has not been shut down, but the pressure is so low that no water is coming into tanks – and, therefore, no water is coming out of our taps or into our showers or our toilet cisterns.

To my mind, this is an inconvenience, not a crisis.  For our household, it means that we are not able to shower, turn on the dishwasher, the washing machine or flush our toilets too frequently.  We have plenty of water to drink – courtesy of the supermarkets – and we can use bottled water to wash our hands and dishes when necessary. For certain tasks – like cleaning faces – there are baby wipes. For certain other tasks – like cleaning surfaces – there are household wipes.  For showers, we have gym membership and for washing clothes, we have friends who have water and washing machines.

Don’t get me wrong – I would not like this to be a permanent situation, but we have been told that we will have our water mains back to normal by the weekend. Today, to ease the discomfort of residents, the local council sent out a large water-tanker. This tanker came into the estate and stopped at the junction of the spine road and each cul-de-sac. Initially, we thought the truck would come into the cul-de-sacs, but it soon became clear that this was not going to happen.

After nearly 45 minutes of standing, waiting politely for the tanker to make its way to our junction, some of my neighbours decided to take matters into their own hands and make their way to the tanker instead. For some, it was a matter of practicality – they were wives and mothers who needed to get the dinner on, or they were shift workers who needed to hurry up in order to be at work on time. Others were motivated by the fear that the tanker would be empty by the time it got to our junction.

Looking at my watch, I decided that if I were to get the dinner made and make it to my 6.45pm meeting on time, I, too, needed to get a move on. So I picked up my assortment of bottles and lidded saucepans, and made my way to the tanker.

I was astonished to see the amount of people who had brought their wheelie bins to the tanker to be filled with water. Why? Why on earth would any sane person bring their rubbish bin to be filled with water? I mean, what can you do with water that has been in your bin? Even if it was filtered and boiled (twice!), I wouldn’t drink it, would you? Come to think of it, how would you get water out of a bin that deep? Wouldn’t you be at a serious risk of drowning leaning over trying to scoop it out? And what would you do with your rubbish while your bin was full of water?!  It’s not as if we’ll be without water forever – it’s not even as if the tanker won’t be around again in a day or two to fill our pots and pans and bottles and buckets again.

‘Kiasu’ was the word that came to mind. That’s Hokkien for the concept of  ‘being afraid to lose’. Now, ‘being afraid to lose’ is very different, linguistically and conceptually to ‘wanting to win’.  Kiasuism refers specifically wanting to have something so that you don’t have more than I do – not necessarily because I need it or want it, but because I don’t want to have less than you do.
Kiasuism is a national sport among Chinese Singaporeans. It’s one of their least attractive characteristics.  I really hope it’s not spreading. Kiasuism  would be harder to live with than no water.

Well Schooled

Ivana Bacik was on the radio yesterday. She feels that there should be more secular schools in Ireland and I have to say that I agree with her.

As I’ve mentioned here before, my children and I are not Christian. We’re what’s referred to as Hindu and, when the time came to put their names down for school, I was torn. I wanted to send them to an Irish-language school (a Gaelscoil), but I didn’t want to send them to a Christian school.

In the end, it wasn’t my decision. When my eldest was 4, there were no places available at any of the seven schools that accept girls in any of the three towns nearby.  Finally, when she was five years and two months old, the principal of the nearest Gaelscoil contacted me.  She told me that there was a place for my daughter at her school.  My relief was palpable – trying to ensure my daughter’s education had become almost a full-time job and I was starting to worry that she would never see the inside of a school building. (I had thought about homeschooling, but was in the middle of a degree myself, so that wasn’t a practical option).

In September of 2007, my Big One started school – a year after I had wanted her to.

Interestingly, the local Educate Together has always told me that they have no places for my children. This school is walking distance from our home – while the Gaelscoil is 5 miles away. I put my youngest daughter’s name down on their waiting list in 2004, before she was even six months old. Yet, in April of last year (2009), they wrote to tell me that there was still no place for her in Junior Infants. I have often wondered how this could be. There is no sibling rule in operation at that school; also, I know mothers of white, baptised Catholic children whose names were put on the list after my daughters’. Yet there was room for their children, but not mine. I’m just saying.

As it happens, the Gaelscoil my girls attend embraces diversity. Diwali is celebrated in my kids’ classes every year and, despite the school being run under the auspices of the Catholic bishop, they are not compelled to learn Catholic prayers or to be schooled in that faith. My Big One is in First Class and they have a religion book. When the rest of the class pulls their religion books out – she does, too. The only difference is that hers is for Hindu kids.

I don’t entirely think, however, that religion has no place in school.  If there were a Hindu school I could send my children to, believe me, I would. The nearest one is in London, so that’s not going to happen any time soon.  In the absence of that, however, I would like to see the Catholic Church bowing out of the majority of Irish schools. I wouldn’t advocate banning them altogether, but I do think that the amount of Catholic schools should be reflective of the percentage of people who are regular church-goers. Perhaps the best option is a school system which gives students an overview of a number of faiths, but doesn’t get mired in specific doctrine.  That, I know, was the idea of the Educate Together schools, but that isn’t the way they have turned out. Certainly not round my way, anyhow.

What Will Matter…

Tidying up my desk-top this morning, I came across the following poem. For some reason, I felt impelled to share it with you:

WHAT WILL MATTER
by Michael Josephson
Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations and jealousies will finally disappear.
So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought but what you built,
not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched,
empowered or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew,
but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories but the memories of those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.

Singapore – The Bad….

Since Singapore is such a small country – and much of it is reclaimed from the sea – there is not much in the way of natural attractions, but the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is well worth a visit as a 164 hectare example of pristine rainforest. Singapore’s Botanic Gardens – at the top of Orchard Road, the main shopping drag – are spectacular and there are often free music recitals held there.

Apart from that, Singapore boasts one of the best zoos in the world – second only to the one in San Diego, apparently. I’m not a zoo person, but I really enjoyed Singapore Zoo – and the Night Safari there is a real treat.

Unfortunately, there is not much old architecture in Singapore. When Singapore got independence from Britain in the 1960s, many of the old buildings were torn down. Thankfully, many of them around Boon Tat and Amoy streets were not destroyed and have been lovingly restored. The famous Raffles Hotel, of course, is still standing as stately as ever. It provides the visitor with a lovely glimpse at the opulence enjoyed by the privileged of yesteryear who sojourned in Singapore. About six years ago, there was talk of tearing down the old Ford factory; where the Japanese surrendered to Lord Mountbatten. Thankfully, good sense prevailed, and the building is now a national monument and a World War II exhibition gallery.

There is no concept of free press or free speech in Singapore, either, but if you’re only going for a visit, that won’t bother you too much. I had to laugh when, years ago, the government gave into public clamouring for an area similar to ‘Speakers’ Corner’ in London’s Hyde Park. A small patch of a park was conceded to people wishing to air their views. There were, however, a few catches; Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner is beside a police station, a script of the proposed speech must be submitted to the police at least a week before it is due to be delivered and if the authorities don’t like what you’re planning to say, they will not allow you to say it. Further, if you deviate from your ‘approved’ script, you will be arrested.

More than any country I’ve been to – and I’ve been to a few – Singapore is concerned with image. So, there are no beggars on the streets of Singapore, either. They’re in Woodbridge – the mental asylum – to keep them off the streets and away from tourists and those going about their daily business.

A final word of warning, though, before you pack your bags to visit Singapore – be sure that you don’t break the law. “I’m foreign,” or “I didn’t know” are not acceptable responses.  You will be dealt with just as severely as someone who has been living there all their life.  No, you won’t be caned if you don’t flush a loo, but you will be fined. Obey the authorities, regard the rules live by the laws and you’ll have a wonderful time in the ‘Land of the Lion’.

Singapore – The Good….

A friend of a friend is off to Singapore soon and I thought I’d share some of my observations about that city-state:

“It’ll be lovely when it’s finished,” a friend of mine commented.  She was talking about Singapore. Not a particular building in Singapore – but the whole, entire city-state. Singapore feels like a building site. Apparently, it’s part of their economic strategy – tear down perfectly good structures and erect other, perfectly good structures in their place. It seems to be working – Singapore has avoided the brunt of the global recession that is enveloping the rest of us.

That aside, Singapore is probably the best place to start your Asian tour. It is familiar enough – everyone speaks a sort of English – that you don’t feel totally overwhelmed. Yet foreign enough to make you feel like you have travelled half-way around the world – which you have.

Its an excellent springboard to countries such as Malaysia – which is just a hop skip and a jump down the road (Bukit Timah Road) and over the Causeway.  The Indonesian islands of Bintan and Batam are just short boat rides away.

Singapore is a city that is constantly celebrating. The mix of cultures and religions means that there is always an excuse to get dressed up and overeat! All the major festivals of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam are celebrated with great joy and enthusiasm. Lunar New Year (known as ‘Chinese’ New Year in Singapore) falls in January or February, which is followed shortly afterwards by Valentine’s Day.  Since the early years of this century, St. Patrick’s Day, in March, has joined the calendar of events in Singapore.

Given that eating is a national past-time – with every cuisine in the world available in the city-state – it will come as no surprise that there is a ‘Food Festival’ in Singapore in July.  So no matter what time of the year you go, you can be sure that you will bear witness to a cultural celebration which will remain with you forever.

The climate of Singapore is tropical and humid – the country is just one degree north of the equator – so there will be no huge difference in the weather no matter what time of the year you visit. If the heat and being permanently damp from the humidity gets to you, it’s easy to nip into an air-conditioned shopping mall to cool down. Shopping is the other national past-time in Singapore, so there are malls littered all over. Conveniently, most MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) stations have shopping malls built over them.

Speaking of the MRT, it is a fantastic mode of transport.  Clean, efficient and ultra-modern, the MRT criss-crosses the island and is a very cheap way to get around.

Unlike most countries that have a predominately Chinese population, Singapore has a designated Chinatown. It is well worth a visit as a one-stop area for all things Chinese – including Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is fully regulated in Singapore.

My favourite place in Singapore, however, is Little India. Turning the corner from Jalan Besar (literally ‘Big Road’ in Malay), is like being instantly transported to India. The sights, sounds, smells (and driving!) are just like you’d find in any town in Tamil Nadu! The Indians in Singapore are predominately Tamilian, which is why Tamil is one of the country’s four national languages.

The other ethnic enclave of Singapore is ‘Kampong Glam’ – where the Malay culture is on colourful display – while Holland Village was, historically, where the Europeans shopped. The best bakery in Singapore can be found here, just behind Cold Storage Jelita. It is called ‘Petit Provence’ and has the most amazing cinnamon rolls you will ever eat. In Singapore, such an item is called a ‘die, die, must try’ piece. So don’t be alarmed when you hear that phrase during your visit.

So that’s the good (or some of it). Watch out for my next post, when I’ll tell you a bit about some of the bad.

From The Desk of Florence Nightingale…..

I’ve been MIA here for a while. The girls have been sick. The Little One ended up in hospital on Friday. She’s been sick for three whole weeks and, on Friday, our wonderful GP suggested bringing her into Crumlin to have her checked out. We were only there for three hours, which is a short while to spend in A&E of a Friday afternoon/early evening.

The good news is that there’s nothing discernibly wrong with her. The doctor we saw seemed to think that she had picked up a virus, which left her immune system compromised slightly, then she got tonsillitis, now that’s gone and her immune system is still a bit low. So, all I can do is mind her until she picks up.

The Big One was grand. She got off the school bus and was taken home by a friend of mine who has a child in her class. At a quarter to midnight on Saturday, she sat bolt upright in bed and said something.
“Sorry, Sweetheart?” I asked, none too perturbed, because this child often speaks in her sleep.
“I’m going to….blehhhhhhh”
Oh great. Who thought so much vomit could come out of one so small? Thank God we’re vegetarian so there wasn’t rotting meat to contend with.

I cleaned her up, changed the bed and put her back into it. We both went back to sleep and slept peacefully. Until 2.22am. When there was a repeat performance. Lovely.

The Big One has hair down past her bottom and it hadn’t escaped unscathed. I had no option but to stick her in the shower. It was 3am by the time we got back to bed. Thank God, it seems to have just been a 24 hour thing.  I had a touch of it myself yesterday, but Solpadine took care of it.

As I spent the weekend with my Florence Nightingale hat on, I was profoundly grateful. Grateful that there is nothing terribly wrong with my girls, and grateful that I can fix all that is wrong or uncomfortable in their lives.

They’re five and seven and, to a huge extent, I control their universe. My grip will slip as the years advance, and I am acutely aware of that.  There is so much outside of my control – paedophiles, abusive boyfriends, bullies, drunk drivers, to name a few.  It is tempting to home-school them, forbid boyfriends, refuse them permission to leave the house, and disallow access to the Internet. But I can’t. I cannot protect my girls from life. The best I can do is give them the tools to cope with it.

The Parenting Privilege

In 2007, The Grand Jury of the European Court made a ruling that devastated Natallie Evans, a young British woman. Six years previously, Ms. Evans was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. At the time, she was engaged to Howard Johnston and they underwent a rapid round of IVF, which resulted in six embryos. These were frozen for use once Ms. Evans was well enough to contemplate pregnancy.

The relationship between the couple, however, broke down and they separated. Ms. Evans still wanted to use the embryos that she and Mr. Johnston had produced together. He refused and so the legal wrangle began. Ms. Evans lost her final appeal and the embryos were destroyed.

We have a similar case before the courts in Ireland today.  A separated couple has frozen embryos that the woman wants implanted and her estranged husband doesn’t. This couple already has two children and the woman wants to grow her family against her husband’s wishes.

Central to this case is the view of the Irish High Court that frozen embryos are not ‘unborn’ within the view of the constitution.  An embryo is only deemed ‘unborn’ and entitled to the full protection of Irish law when that child is implanted in a human womb.
A child born of one of those embryos would be a child born of bitterness. Is that really an ideal start for any child? Perhaps, the woman in this case, should focus on the children she already has, rather than trying her best to bring another child into the world and struggling to bring them up in a single-parent household?
If the woman in this case gets the result that she wants and the embryos are implanted, her estranged husband will be responsible for the resulting babies.  He will be required by law to provide for the child/ren financially, and to bear responsibility for the lives that ensue.

For whatever reason(s) this man has made the decision that he does not want to have any more children with a woman with whom he is no longer in partnership.  We cannot have it both ways – insisting that men should be responsible with their sperm, and then over-ruling the desires of a man who is doing his best to be.

A Santa-Less Christmas

It’s a funny thing; a child could walk into nearly any primary school in Ireland and declare that God does not exist. There would be no hue and cry. If, however, that same child walked into school and declared that Santa does not exist, there would be uproar.

With Christmas nearly upon us, we need to acknowledge that not everyone celebrates Christmas the way it has traditionally been celebrated in Ireland. Not every child in Ireland will expect a visit from Santa this year. My own two daughters are among them.

There are a number of reasons why this is so. For a start, we’re not Christian. In Ireland, though, any declaration of non-participation is generally greeted with remarks about how much my children are missing out on.  Oddly enough, my Muslim friends never berate me for my non-celebration of Eid, nor have I ever been chastised by a Jew on account of my non-observance of Hanukkah.

Another reason why I refuse to ‘do’ the Santa thing is that I have a policy of not lying to my children. Whenever they ask me a question, I do my best to answer them as honestly as I possibly can.  I have this policy because I want my children to trust me.

Another problem I have with Santa that he only comes to ‘good’ children – and that if you are ‘good’ Santa will bring you your heart’s desire. What about the child who could not be better, but whose parent/s simply can’t afford to give the child what they want? What message does that give such a child – that they simply aren’t good enough? That Santa doesn’t care? And what of the child who keeps what they want a secret – believing the lies that Santa knows what children want? How disappointed will that child be on Christmas morning when they don’t get what they most coveted?

As children get older and more aware of the world around them, they learn about children who live in poverty, children who have little or nothing, and children who are starving. Why do those children not receive gifts from Santa? Are they ‘bad’ as well as poor?

In Ireland, if you don’t invite Santa into your home, you are viewed as odd – if you are white, you are considered even odder. People have accused me of ‘depriving’ my children. All children need something to look forward to, I am told. Well, mine have plenty to look forward to. Apart from their birthdays, we mark the coming of spring and a number of Hindu festivals. In fact, the school my girls attend celebrates Diwali with them every year.

My awareness of what other people tell their children has led me to be sensitive about what I tell mine about Santa. So don’t worry – your secret is safe. Just don’t call me mean-spirited or try to tell me that my kids are deprived because I don’t lie to them – okay?

Why Do Women Hate Their Bodies?

Des Bishop stood (sat?) in for Sean Moncrieff yesterday on Newstalk, and he had an item called ‘Why Do Women Hate Their Bodies?’ It immediately started me thinking about the part(s) of my body I’d like to change. Rather than bore you with that, though, I’d much rather concentrate on what I like about my body. Why on earth would I want to share that with you? In the hope that you would take another look at yourself – literally and metaphorically – and realise that there is so much about your own body that is fabulous.

I’m not very tall, and it used to bother me a lot. All my siblings are 6’ and over – including my sister. But I inhabit my space and I’m not afraid to stand up for what matters to me.

I have big feet. It makes getting shoes difficult (not as difficult here as it was when I lived in Asia, though!) and I’ve always bemoaned the size of them. Yesterday, though, I thought about how lucky I am that I have feet that are not deformed or arthritic. I’m also lucky that I always have shoes.

I don’t have perfect legs, but they work perfectly.

‘Buxom’ is not a word that could ever be accurately applied to me – but my breasts are ‘working breasts’ not just there for decoration. For over seven years straight, they provided nourishment, comfort and immunological protection to my children. The children of strangers also benefitted from my milk, as I donated my spare milk (and there was a lot of it!) to the milk bank.  Without my milk, my eldest would not have survived her first few months. I wouldn’t trade any of that for a bigger cup size. My cup runneth over.

No one will ever write poetry about my eyes, but I’d be lost without them. And they are never afraid to look you in yours.

My stomach is not as flat as it could be, but – newsflash! – I’m a woman, not a stick-insect.

Sure, my smile may not light up a room, but I smile a lot – and I smile from the heart. I’m lucky to have so much to smile about.

I don’t have a dinky little nose like Nicole Kidman, but I am still overwhelmed by the smell of jasmine, baking bread, coffee, spices and babies.

When I sit down and think about it like this, I don’t hate my body. Even if I did, it wouldn’t get me anywhere. To a large extent, our bodies are genetically pre-determined. There are certain things that we absolutely cannot change about the way we look. I have other things to battle – other fights to fight. I don’t need to fight myself.

All I Want For Christmas…..

I’m a writer. And I’m a Virgo. This instantly gives you a few vital (!) pieces of information about me:

1.    I love to write.
2.    I love to be organised, part of which means that
3.    I love lists.

In keeping with the festive spirit, I have decided to blog about the things I would like for Christmas. So, here – in no particular order –  is my writerly Xmas wishlist:

  1. A laptop The four year-old i-Mac is sooooo sllllloooowwwww. Keeping multiple applications running and multiple tabs open is draining its life force.  A laptop (I’m so desperate it doesn’t even have to be a Mac) would mean I could take it with me, too! I know I can write on the back of bus tickets if I have to, but I find that I can’t work on current stuff unless I have it with me. I only get new ideas when I’m out. Which is great, but I have work I need to finish!
  2. An iPod Touch Like many writers, I love to have music on when I write. An iPod allows me to take my music with me everywhere. An iPod Touch would allow me to read everywhere, too!
  3. Pretty Stationery. I love stationery because I love writing. I love writing on good, attractive stationery when I send letters and cards.
  4. A lovely pen. I’m picky about what I write with. I like a nice fountain pen, but the one I have is going a bit leaky. A nice one would go with well  my lovely stationery. 🙂
  5. A Ladder to my Attic. You know, like a Stira. That way, I could disappear into the attic when I needed to write completely undisturbed. They’d never think of looking for me there.
  6. A Kettle. I’d like a kettle in the room where I write, so I don’t have to disappear downstairs and risk distraction every time I want a cuppa.
  7. An Anti-Guilt Pill. This would be fabulous for those times when I feel guilty for neglecting the kids when I write and guilty for neglecting writing when I’m with the kids.
  8. Media Directory. Handy to have when you get an idea and would like to know who best to pitch it to. A Media Directory has the answers to all your media questions.
  9. An Agent. I know, I know, but it’s a wish list, right? I’d love to have a kick-ass agent who loves my work and would help me land
  10. A Publishing Contract. There’s nothing more to say about that, is there?

Unmentionables

Today’s blog was inspired by the wonderful Alex Barclay. In her book, Blood runs Cold, Ms Barclay refers to a multi-pack of pastel-coloured cotton panties as  ‘Darkroom panties; things would only develop in the dark’.  She further proclaims that ‘every woman has a couple’. Well, for the record, I would like to put my hand up and declare ‘not this woman’!  It’s a fantastic image, though, and I’m sure we all know immediately what she means.

In my teens, I decided that underwear should only be worn in one of two colours – black or white. Occasionally, I throw caution to the wind and wear something in purple, but that is only on rare occasions.  When I was a teenager, leggings were invented and they were de rigeur for Drama students in the early nineties. Back then, the idea of a VPL (visible panty line) caused my blood to run cold and I adopted the habit of wearing only thongs. Or g-strings, as they were called in those days.

Not long after, I moved to Singapore, where such items of underwear were impossible to find. Even M&S didn’t carry a selection. I had mine sent out to me in what I referred to as ‘Red Cross Packages’, which also contained Sinutab and Neurofen, which were similarly unavailable in the Land of The Lion back then.

When I worked (here) in Bangkok, one of my colleagues bemoaned the fact that her boyfriend didn’t get the notion of period underwear. He couldn’t understand why, for those few days when she had her period, she wore grubbier, less sexy underwear than she did the rest of the time. This woman was Canadian – though her parents came from Korea – and he was a Brit, and she wondered if it was a cultural thing. I could shed no light, but figured it was probably more personal than cultural.

Obviously, my former colleague’s boyfriend thought that women should be sexily-dressed all the time, no matter how comfortable or otherwise their pants might make them feel.

Personally, I feel that regardless of what’s on display, whatever is next to my skin must be feminine. Even though no one else will see it, I make sure that my underwear is matching and comfortable. Even though a one-time flatmate of mine contended that g-strings couldn’t possibly be comfortable!

When it comes to children, however, I am distinctly unnerved by some of the products on the market. Large department stores have bra-tops for 4 year olds. Why? They also carry ranges of knickers that have things like ‘cute’, ‘lovely’ and even ‘sexy’ on them. Now, call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to children I really think that underwear should be of the type Alex Barclay refers to – plain cotton pastels. The odd flower here and there is also perfectly acceptable.

My eldest daughter wears bloomers (like these), which we pick up in India. She loves them – not least because we have to go to India to buy them – but her sister wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair! Even so young, they have definite ideas about what kind of underwear they like and will wear.

So what I’m wondering is, does our underwear say something about us? I’d guess it probably does, though I’ve not come across any research on the subject.  So why don’t you ‘fess up and share with the rest of us what your knicker-drawer contains?

I Hate Meeces To Pieces…….

There’s a mouse in the house. It’s a dead mouse. Or, at least, I think it’s dead. I haven’t been able to screw up the courage to open the press and verify the life-status of said animal.

On Monday, I went to make some bread. I opened the cereal cupboard. Uh-oh. Mouse droppings, oats and bits of shredded Flahavan’s Organic Oats packet were visible. I shut the press as quickly as I’d opened it. And I haven’t opened it since.

On Wednesday, my friend, Seán called around. I persuaded him to set the trap that I’d had since a vermin visitation a few weeks ago. (That time, I called Rentokill but baulked at paying €260 to get rid of a mouse. My youngest daughter set the trap. My sister got rid of it.) Anyway, Seán set the trap on Wednesday and I can only assume that it worked. I haven’t gathered up the courage to check.

I have a phobia when it comes to rodents. It’s not merely a dainty, girly squeal and a screwing up of my nose. It’s a constriction in my throat,  shaking, difficulty breathing, horrific visual images and whimpering like I’m facing down the barrel of a loaded gun. In short, a full-blown panic attack. The man from Rentokil recommended hypnotherapy. Bless him.

So I’m sitting here, fully aware that there is probably a decomposing mouse in the press in my kitchen. I am aware that decomposing mice smell and that sooner or later, the decomposing mouse in the press in my kitchen will start to smell as well. I have no option but to enlist the help of some friend or relative.  I’ll have to put up with their feigned (at least I hope it’s feigned) martyrdom at my girlyness and their retelling of the episode – complete with embellishments – for some time to come.

Still, it’s not as if I can do it myself. It’s one of the things a husband could be useful for. I’d happily trade a few hours of sex for rotting rodent removal. I’d even throw in a good meal and a few laundered shirts to sweeten the deal.

 

Now that I think about it, there are a number of ways in which a (new) husband could be useful. I’ll blog about them later in the  week.

The Murphy Report

The Murphy Report was released the day before yesterday.  Since then, the government, clergy, gardaí and other concerned bodies and individuals have been howling in indignation.
People are being condemned left, right and centre for allowing Irish children to be sexually abused; for abusing the children, for hushing it up and for doing nothing when they were informed.

But here’s a newsflash – this report is not an indictment of the Irish Catholic Clergy – it is an indictment of the Irish as a people.  We stand by as our children are abused. We turn away from them and then, when faced with an incontrovertible truth, rend our garments and cry ‘Why didn’t they say something?’

The questions, instead, should be ‘Why didn’t we listen when they told us’ (even non-verbal communication is disclosure) and ‘Why didn’t we do something?’

As someone whose earliest memory – before I was even three years old – is of being sexually abused, I feel I know a thing or two about this subject.  I’m not afraid to speak out. The only thing that stops me naming those who abused me is that there has been no prosecution. The DPP – despite confessions – decided against prosecution because ‘there wasn’t enough evidence’.

But it’s not just now that I refuse to hold my tongue.  As a young teenager – when I finally found out that what was happening to me on a nearly daily basis was not ‘normal’ – I spoke out. I looked for help. I was desperate to be rescued from hell.

I told ‘responsible adults’ who told me that ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘men are like that’. I told a respected psychiatrist in Crumlin Childrens’ Hospital. Her response? She called – no, not the Gardaí, or social services don’t be silly! – but one of the people who was abusing me and told him, in very coded language that she knew what he was doing. Did he stop? Not on your nelly! He ‘taught me a lesson’ so I’d learn to keep my mouth shut and ‘stop spreading my filth’.  (As you can see, I’m a slow learner!)

My friends, out of concern, told their parents, who said ‘Shhh! That’s private family business. We can’t interfere.’

In the past year, I have learnt that, at one stage, a delegation of my teenaged friends went to the headmistress of our school (a nun) and told her of their very real concerns that I was going to kill myself. Her response?  ‘You’re all good girls – don’t worry about Hazel and her problems. Don’t let that distract you from your studies.’  I heard that and felt almost defiant for still being alive, 20 years later.

So my point is that ‘the church’ did not abuse these children – ‘the country’ did, because it permitted the abuse in so many ways and on so many levels. And what you permit, you promote.

Inter Country Adoption

An article in yesterday’s Irish Independent caught my eye and brought to the surface feelings of discomfort that I have around inter-country adoptions.  Or, more precisely, inter-racial  (although I hate that term!) adoptions.

You see, I am not entirely sure that adopting children from other cultures and bringing them up in another culture is really in that child’s best interests. I am not naïve – I have been to India, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam and I have seen for myself the abject poverty and atrocious circumstances these children are born into.  And of course I am not suggesting that if they could be given a better life, it should be denied them – but I question whether or not that better life can only be provided outside their country of birth.

My intention is not to be glib – I understand the pain of childlessness and considered adoption – but was married to a man who wouldn’t countenance it. I was lucky that I eventually (after 13 years of trying) did conceive.  My children are half-Indian and there is no dad in their lives, so it is up to me to provide their Irish-ness and their Indian-ness. This I do as best I can. The deep awareness and understanding of their cultural and religious background makes this easier for me. We go back to India as often as my purse will allow and we have friends who are Indian Hindus both here and in India. Still, I find integration can sometimes be difficult.

Identity is a huge issue for all of us. We all want to know who we are and where we came from. Is it fair on these children to bring them up in a family that they are obviously adopted into?  It is obvious from first glance that they weren’t born to their parents and there is an immediate sense of dislocation. They are marked as ‘different’ from the start; and all sorts of presumptions are made about them and their parents – both birth and adoptive.  What does this do to their sense of self, their sense of belonging, their sense of security? Of course I understand that a child is better off in a loving home than dead, but I have to question if anyone has the right to remove a child from the country and culture into which they were born and transport them across the globe. There are other solutions – foster parents in their own countries of birth, for example.

The dirty nasty truth is that, for as long as there are foreigners prepared to pay for them – no matter how that payment is dressed up – children will be sold into adoption and women will be coerced into surrendering children they don’t particularly want to surrender. It happened in Ireland not so long ago  – remember?

There are plenty of children  in Ireland who need loving homes. Many children in long-term foster care simply cannot be adopted by their foster parents because our laws prohibit such adoptions. Maybe, rather than decrying the laws of other countries we should lobby our own government to have our laws changed.

Off With Their Hands!

They should be grateful we’re not living in Saudi. If we were, they would probably have their hands cut off and I, for one, would not object. I’m not referring to petty thieves – or even the corporate thieves like our bankers and lawyers – but to people who drive and talk on their mobile phones without using their hands-free kits.

What is wrong with these people? Run a red light, overtake me on a dangerous bend, speed if you absolutely must but for God’s sake, put down your blasted phone when you are driving.

Do they think they have special powers denied the rest of us mere mortals? Do these people think that the laws on driving while using a mobile phone don’t apply to them because they are such fantastic, talented drivers that they can do both?

Because if that is what they think, they should have their licences permanently revoked on the grounds that they are delusional and, therefore, a threat to the rest of the road users.

Yesterday was a typical morning. I took the kids to school, drove around to my sister’s, drove her to work and drove home. In total, it was a round trip of about 20 miles undertaken from 8.40am until 10.30am. On that trip, I counted no fewer than 27 drivers who were on their phones and driving at the same time. Most notably, was a man in a truck who was stopped, waiting to turn right onto the motorway at Maynooth. I had had to stop to allow the person in front of me turn left in order to get on the motorway. So I stayed stopped and motioned to the man in the truck that I was allowing him to turn. He couldn’t complete the manoeuvre immediately, however, because he was on the phone!

Maybe I encountered so many phone-drivers because I live on the Dublin-Kildare border, where people are more likely to use their phones while driving

According to the UK Department for Transport, you are four times more likely to crash while driving and talking on your phone.

Just like drink-driving, there is no excuse for this behaviour – unless you’re calling the fire services, the Gardaí or an ambulance in reaction to a genuine accident (not one you’ve caused because you were driving while on the phone).  This is also not a new law – it was introduced on September 01, 2006.  The penalty for driving and using a phone without a hands-free kit is two points on your licence and a fine not to exceed €2,000.

Obviously, this is not enough of a deterrent when you see the amount of people rabbiting on roundabouts, overtaking while orating, and speeding while speaking on their mobile phones.

Obviously, the penalties currently in place are no disincentive, so I propose something slightly more creative.  Every person caught driving while on their mobiles should be forced to spend a week going about their daily business with one hand tied behind their backs. That should do it.

Lighting Up My Life

Years ago, when I started writing for profit, I read how ‘profit’ doesn’t have to be just cold, hard, cash; and how competitions (this newsletter is full of them) where your literary talent garners you top prize,  even if the competition isn’t ‘literary’, can still be counted as ‘writing successes’. I wasn’t sure I agreed with this – until yesterday.

Last night, my eldest daughter had the honour of turning on the Christmas lights on Dublin’s Grafton Street (with a little bit of help from Westlife).  This came about because I entered a competition in her name (you had to be between 5 &10) for the job of switching on the lights. In order to win, you had to answer three questions and complete the slogan ‘Dublin City Centre is magic at Christmas because….’. My ending was: ‘when the heart of the Capital lights up, the hearts of the Capital light up as well.’

Turning on the lights would have been enough. But there was more – there was so much more. First off, my little one was treated like royalty from the time we arrived at Powerscourt Town Centre (at 4pm!) until we left Bewley’s two hours later. Everyone from the PR ladies, to the Executives of Brown Thomas and Bewley’s, to the Lord Mayor, to the officials from Dublin City Council, to the very gracious David Brennan of Dublin City Business Association to Martin King, Louis Walsh and the members of Westlife treated my daughter – and, indeed, her sister and myself – with utmost courtesy, kindness and consideration.

But there was more. The traders of Grafton Street – most notably HMV, Bewley’s and Brown Thomas – put together a huge hamper for us as well. My daughter, who is seven, would actually fit into this basket, I kid you not.  It contained goods and vouchers worth approximately €1,000.

Best of all, though, was the joy, excitement and sheer pleasure my daughters both experienced as a result of my penning the winning entry – which included a live interview with Tom Dunne on Newstalk this morning. It was a good result for ten minutes’ writing work.

So while, on this occasion, my writing may not have earned me a place in the halls of literary fame, it did enrich my family on a number of levels, and it did give my children memories they will treasure forever – which is surely, the most rewarding profit of all.

A Prayer For Padang

This is a lot longer than my usual posts, please excuse my departure from brevity.

In 1995, I went to Indonesia for the first time.  My (then) husband, a Malay, was working there – and on first landing in Indonesia, I was smitten by the country.
That first time I went – not to Jakarta, the capital – but to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra. The news this week of the devastation that has been wreaked upon the island has brought back so many memories of my first time in the country that I was later to call ‘home’.

It was in Sumatra that I first encountered people who, in meeting me, were meeting the first white person they had ever come across. Children would huddle together and giggle politely behind their hands while staring at me. And calling out the only words of English that they knew:
“Hello Mister!”
I would smile, wave and greet them in my pidgin Bahasa Indonesia
“Selamat Pagi!” Or ”Selamat Siang!”  I would call across, which would tickle them even more than the fact that I was there to begin with.

What of those children now – who would be in their late teens and early twenties – are they still alive? If they are, I’ll bet they have little to smile about.

Eka, one of the men my husband was doing business with, came from a privileged background and had studied in Canada. He spoke flawless English with a soft Canadian accent overlying his native one.  The lines between business and pleasure were blurred, and my husband and I often dined with the people he was there to see professionally.

Eka was one of the few people I encountered there who spoke more than a little English. He took great care to make me feel more included – translating the gist of conversations when I was obviously lost, and explaining cultural nuances. One night, over dinner, he took it upon himself to explain the origin of the word for ‘milk’.
“Actually, susu means breast as well,” he told me, running his hand over that part of his own anatomy to emphasize his point.  He imparted this information without a shred of embarrassment, or a hint that he was trying to embarrass me.  Or titillate the rest of the company. It was important to him that I felt welcome, at ease and comfortable.

Today, I wonder how comfortable he is.  Or if he is dead.

It took a few days before I got used to being stared at. The first few times I was approached by Sumatrans who came up to me and held their faces a mere two or three inches from mine, I was unnerved. Then I realised that all they wanted was to see for themselves how un-brown my green eyes were, and it didn’t bother me anymore.

How many of the eyes that stared into mine are now permanently closed?

The Sumatrans – the Minangkabau – are very proud people. This is reflected in their architecture. The rooves of the area are shaped like buffalo-horns.  The roof of the Ambacan Hotel – where I stayed for my first few weeks in Indonesia – was also shaped like buffalo horns. I have fond memories of that hotel and the staff who were so kind to me during my stay. Today, I learnt that the Ambacan toppled in the earthquake – trapping at least sixty people in the rubble. The rooves in Padang are so constructed to honour a time when, according to legend, the Minangkabau defeated the Javanese in a buffalo fight.  Everyone from Padang assumes you haven’t heard the story before, and proudly relates it you.

It pains me to think of this pride dashed and dented.

On my second day in the city, a stout police sergeant crossed the road to the side where I was walking. Smiling, and with his hand out-stretched, he approached. Pumping my hand enthusiastically, he loudly proclaimed “My friend! You are my friend.”
Returning his smiles, I assured him that I was.

Now, I wonder how many of his friends he has lost since Wednesday.

Wherever I went in Padang, people touched my skin. They stroked my arm, or the back of my hand out of absolute curiosity to see what it felt like – if it was in any way like their own.

Today, I wonder about those anonymous people – men, women and children – whose curiosity overcame their innate good manners as they touched me, un-invited. I wonder how many of them are still sheathed in their own skins.

The person with whom my husband mainly dealt was a squat, rotund man called Arnolih Boy – or ‘Boy’ for short. Though married and with his sixth child on the way, he was regarded by one and all as a ‘boy’. There was mischief in his smile and it was difficult to believe that someone who looked so childlike could drive a hard bargain and was a local ‘hot-shot’.

What of Arnolih Boy today? Where is he and his wife and all their children? Has the smile been permanently wiped off his face?

Everywhere I went on Sumatra, people took my photograph.  This annoyed my husband so much that one day he rounded on some unfortunate man, telling him to put his camera away, that I was his wife, and ‘not a national monument’.

I can’t help but wonder how many of Sumatra’s monuments are still standing.

During my first fortnight on the island, we passed by a hall where a young couple was getting married. One of the people we were with vaguely knew the family of the groom. He left us for a moment to wish the couple well. Minutes later, the groom’s father came out, ushering us to join in the festivities, to eat and drink our fill and to bless the couple. I remember one of the older aunties there insisted that – moreso than anyone else – I was to have my photograph taken with the newly-weds. They told me they  were honoured to have a foreigner at their wedding (my husband translated). I replied that I was the honoured one.

Where are they today? Are those newly-weds now among the newly-dead?

Fourteen years ago, Sumatra carved a place for itself in my heart. Today, Sumatra itself has been carved apart by a devastating earthquake.  Half a world away, I wonder about all the people I encountered when I first went there. I think about all the people who extended their hospitality and kindness to me. I think about all the people who helped me – translating, taking me shopping, inviting me to break bread with them, putting their cars and drivers at my disposal, showing me the natural beauty of the countryside.  I am helpless to do anything for them but pray.

The Sport of Thugs?

It’s been a bad week for boxing, but then again, boxing is bad for the weak. It’s bad for the weak of heart, bad for the weak of stomach and bad for the weak of corpus. Before I write another word, I need to express my sadness that Irish boxer Darren Sutherland recently felt he had no choice but to take his own life. As someone who clawed her way back from the brink of suicide, I know how bad that choicelessness feels. I also want to express sympathy to Bernard Dunne that he  is no longer a world champion. Losing your title must be crushing.

I really have to question, though, a ‘sport’ where the stated object of the exercise is to render your opponent senseless.

Of course I’ve heard the arguments for boxing; that it channels aggression; that fighting in the ring with rules is much better than fighting on the street without; that it’s a way out of poverty for some; that it teaches discipline and promotes fitness. That’s all grand, but boxing is not the only way – or indeed the best way to achieve these goals. I really cannot find it in me to endorse a ‘sport’  that gives points only to ‘blows with force behind them’.

Is being punched in the head really anything any of us wants our children to excel at? Sure, I know there are those who might suggest that if I had boys I might feel different – that having only girls precludes me from understanding the positives of pugilism. I disagree. I have brothers (four of them) and nephews (six of them) and I would never, ever, ever, like to see any of them fight – either inside or outside a square ring.

On the other hand, I’m more than happy to watch them play tennis, skate, swim, run, jump, play GAA sports and even rugby. Heck! If one of them took up cricket, I’d watch them play that, too.

Every sport has its own inherent dangers – but a sport where danger is the sport, can that be called a sport at all?

Mythbuster#1: The Irish Don’t Love Children

There is  a rumour being promulgated that Irish people love children. It irks me because, like many myths, it simply isn’t true. So let me take this opportunity to set the record straight; as a nation, Irish people do not love children.

I think this myth springs from the fact that Irish people had so many children – due, primarily, to the lack of availability of reliable contraception. Until years after I was born (conveniently) the rhythm method was the only method legally available to generations of Irish mammies and daddies. Let’s face it, using ‘natural’ contraception is a bit like saying that playing Russian roulette with a machine gun is safe once you know what you’re doing.  So Irish mammies and daddies had loads of children that they never touched – except to hurt; and rarely spoke to – except to give them orders, give out to them and give them an idea that they were, generally, worthless.

Irish people don’t love children, they tolerate them. If Irish people truly loved children, then the abuses that were visited upon this nation’s babies by members of the Catholic Church would not have been tolerated and condoned the way they were.

If Irish people loved children, they would not have allowed the Catholic Church to have sold their ‘illegitimate’ babies – which they did until the 1970s.

If Irish people loved children, we would not have heard Michael Murphy on the Late Late Show telling Ryan Tubridy very matter-of-factly and with great dignity about the abuse he suffered as a child.

What made Michael’s story worse was his acceptance and understanding that there was nothing at all unusual in an Irish child being abused physically and sexually by an adult within the home or close by it. It happened. It still happens – and it will continue to happen until we learn to love our children.

Of course, most individual mothers and fathers love their individual children, but our national identity cannot include a love of children because it doesn’t exist. It will not exist until our government does more to uphold the rights of children instead of merely paying lip service to them. It will not exist until children who are being abused are removed from abusive situations and properly cared for – which doesn’t happen. That cannot happen while our social workers struggle under huge caseloads. It will not exist until every child receives a decent education, which cannot happen where there are more than 22 children in the class. It will not exist until we accept that, as a nation, we have been getting it very wrong for a very long time – and we learn how to do it better.

My friend Noelle Harrison, wrote in her new novel (The Adulteress) that to be loved is to be treasured. How many Irish children went to sleep last night feeling treasured? I’ll tell you – not enough. Not nearly enough.

This is my first time……please be gentle with me!

Motherhood is not a career move. Not even for sixteen year old school girls who want a flat and enough money to survive on. Because that’s the thing – Lone Parents’ Allowance is just barely enough to survive on. I have never met a single mother who has had a child in order to ‘earn’ money. I have met women who have had a baby thinking that would ensure them the attention and affection of their beau.  I have met women who had babies because they got drunk and then pregnant, and wouldn’t contemplate having an abortion.  I  have met women who got pregnant in order to escape a dreadful home life. I have met women whose marriages have broken down and they have had no choice but to accept social welfare payments in order to raise their children.

Still, along with the ‘those foreigners stole our jobs’ brigade the ’single mothers should be forced to work’ brigade are clamouring to be heard. Talkshow hosts give them air time and consider their views. There are several ‘interesting’ ideas about how unwed (or no-longer-wed) mothers should contribute to society. How they should have to work for their payments, or how they should not receive as ‘much’ as they do.

What all these opinionists fail to recognise – and what has yet to be pointed out to them by any radio host I have heard – is that Bunracht na hEireann protects a woman’s right to raise her children. Article 41 (2.2) states  that:

‘The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

It would, therefore, be unconstitutional for any legislation to declare that women who have children and no partners must work outside the home.

Some people think this Article is demeaning to women. They interpret it as a reflection of the misogynistic view that “a woman’s place is in the home”. Personally, I see it as recognition of the valuable job that mothering is. A woman’s right to mother her children is upheld by the Irish Constitution. I actually think that’s quite progressive. The Irish Constitution itself recognises that, while motherhood is not a career move, it is the most important job any woman will ever undertake.