Saturday, November 22, 2014

TIM & NIALL

We said goodbye to a good friend today.
Tim was my husband’s best mate and drinking buddy and was a year younger than me. As a wry writer friend of mine recently observed it seems like we are all just baby antelope meeting at the watering hole each night at sunset when – WHAM – an alligator just leaps up and picks another one of us off.
Tim was a good bloke and eerily like my husband. Both slim, follically challenged Clash fans – they were doppelgängers as well as mates. I don’t remember the first time I met him, but I remember the first time my husband met him. I had ‘discovered’ this great community of friends in Killala – blow-ins like ourselves. One of them was a family who were also new to the area. A blonde bombshell Sabine and her English husband, a wry ‘computer-head’ called Tim. They had a pretty young daughter called Gemma, and a lively toddler called Fin who was the same age as our Leo. The minute I met Tim I knew he and my husband would get on so I decided to use him as leverage to persuade my husband to leave Dublin and see that Mayo was a cool place to live. Sabine and I managed to manouvere both men into her kitchen one Saturday but our plans backfired as they failed to ‘connect’. It was my first time observing what I can only describe as Extreme Testoterone Socialising. Sabine gave Niall a can from Tim’s beer cache in the scullery then Niall stood silently drinking it as Tim entered the room. Our host looked my husband up and down, picked up a beer himself then walked out of the room to continue whatever it was he had been doing before we came in. Niall held his nerve, continued drinking the beer then boldly helped himself to another just as Tim re-entered the room. Cans in hand, the two men circled each other silently then, unable to bear the tension any longer, I dragged my husband away.
Niall said nothing one way or another on the way home. I rang Sabine and said, ‘Was that a disaster or is it just me?’
‘They will be fine,’ she said, ‘they are just checking each other out.’
The following weekend Niall went into The Village Inn and Tim was standing in his spot on the left hand side of the bar.
‘Pint?’ he said to Niall.
‘Pint,’ Niall said in reply.
Over ten years later they had the same opening gambit.
When my husband put his coat and cap on after a hard day’s work I’d know he’d just received the ‘pint’ text from Tim. I knew where both of them would be standing at the bar (the far end near the back door) and that they would order their drinks with barely a nod to their landlord and friend Aidan. Sometimes  they would sit in unwinding silence then after an hour go home to their respective families. Other nights they would ‘get going’ and talk and argue late into the night. Other pub regulars would join them, and sometimes they would be parted by conversation with other company but no matter who else was there, was a thread of understanding between Tim and my husband, a deep friendship connecting them. They were so similar, both had an old fashioned quietude about them. Sometimes their silence was serene, although sometimes I read it as masculine buried anger that was holding its tongue. However, the two men could always read each other. 
 ‘Tim gets me,’ my husband once said about his friend. I know he meant the world to him.
The whole of Killala and its hinterland came to pay their respects to Tim. He was the man who bought broadband connection to our internet-challenged outpost so was well known in the area. He and his wife Sabine were not Catholic but our priest Father Paddy loaned them the church for a civil service which included the playing of a Clash record – a first – as was my reading the lyrics of his favorite pop song, Sit Down by James. It was an uplifting celebration of his life.

The cremation in Dublin yesterday was Tim’s final goodbye. Although nice things were said and more music was played I could not help but feel desperately sad all through the short service and even afterwards as we toasted our friend in a pub in Harold’s Cross. Another young man, a good man has died, leaving a wife and two young children bereft. Another seemingly pointless act of God that has left me feeling empty inside. On the way home on the train I put my hand on my husband’s arm hoping he would understand that sometimes, I ‘get’ him too.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Two Years


After I read this piece on RTE Radio's Sunday Miscellany, a lot of people e-mailed and asked for the transcript - so here it is.


The London Metropolitan police rang at 2pm on 6th February 2009.
I had been looking out of my drawing room window across Killala bay and thinking what a beautiful, calm day it was. The sea was a sheet of light grey-pink glass. Bartra, the uninhabited island that separates our small bay from the Atlantic glowed white along its edges, the tall rushes of grass on its dunes like soft, creamy mohair in the distance. I was feeling lucky when I picked up the receiver.
“Your brother Tom is dead.”
Tom was troubled and we had a difficult relationship. There was less than a year between us in age and he was the first person I remember loving. We knew each other side out – we adored each other yet -  we were not speaking when he died.
I was devastated by his death; flattened, depressed.

Veteren grievers told me of their two year deadline.
“It was two years before I could pick out a gravestone.”
“ - two years before I could say their name out loud.”
“- two years before I cried a tear.”
“- two years before I could walk into a church .”
“- two years before I was able to laugh again.”
I didn’t believe them and yet - two years after that February morning, the universal truth about death revealed itself to me: life goes on.
It was spring in Killala after the worst winter I could remember. Much of workaday hedging at the side of our house was killed by frost, but the most beautiful flowers and shrubs survived. The frost thinned out the crowded daffodils on my front lawn, and rewarded me with a yellow band of colour and the bluebells had turned the ignored wasteland of trees and scrub at the back of our garden into a magical woodland. The lilac and hawthorn interrupted my daily trips to the composter with a sweetness that made me stop and smell the air.  My peony roses were budding by March and the gooseberries seemed almost big enough to harvest – a full month earlier than previous years. The worst winter, in my lifetime at least, cleansed and transformed my garden.

If I think back to the day Tom died and the weeks after his death, I am carried back to the moment and tears begin streaming down my face. I wish he had never died, I wish he would come back – sometimes – in my darkest moments, I still wish I could join him.
Most of the time, however, I am Kate again – writer, mother, wife, and the woman I was before it happened. I am a person who knows what it is to lose a brother but I am no longer solely defined by it. The trauma, the drama, the terrible pain of losing my brother has become absorbed into who I am.  I have accommodated it. I have gone from somebody who did not know what it was to lose a loved one, into someone who does. In that sense, his death has added to my live, his loss has given an extra dimension to who I am.

I don’t know what I believe any more in the way of heaven and spirits and God, but I do know that it doesn’t really matter what I believe.
All that matters is the universal truth; alive or dead, people live in our hearts. When they die they are alive only in how much we love them and honour them and remember them. 
They can be spirits, floating about waving their invisible hands in front of our faces, sending us messages from beyond the grave but if we don’t look, we won’t see them.
They can be simply gone, flesh and bone under the ground, grey dust - ashes on the wind, but human love is consistent whether we believe in spirits or not.
A photograph, a recollection, a family resemblance in a small child’s face can keep our dead alive through memory and the feeling of loving them.
Time heals and then it asks us to believe that if love is all there is – what does it matter if those we love are actually dead?  If the love stays alive, surely that is the most important thing. Because nothing is more tragic than the death of love and one thing I have learned is that death makes good love stronger.



Thursday, January 2, 2014



FACING A TOUGH NEW YEAR IN IRELAND AGAIN

The start of a New Year is always an optimistic time for me. I’m one of nature’s well-intentioned list makers. “Lose 10lbs by end March!” “Give up smoking!”  “Go to the gym twice a week!” “Colour co-ordinate wardrobe!” Most of my New Year Resolutions don’t come to fruition but despite this, I keep making the lists believing that this will be the year it all comes right. That is what makes me an optimist. I like that about myself – the innocent drive to believe that everything will be great. You get out what you put into life, and a positive attitude has always reaped its rewards for me.
This year, however, we Irish are facing into 2014 with a feeling of dread knowing that it isn’t over yet – we have another year of fiscal pain. 2012 was the year it started – when we Irish knew we were going to be taxed out of it as punishment for having the temerity to think that we’d finally  “made it”.  Two years later – we’re back there. Slash and burn the middle classes – make us pay until we’re poor . 
Yes we all went mad during the Celtic Tiger years. Yes, house prices were inflated, no family needs a flat-screen TV in every room and far too many of us had swanky second houses in golf-resorts in Portugal. Did I enjoy the time of plenty? Yes I did but you know what? Like most people, I think I earned it. I am not a banker or a hedge-fund gambler or a property developer.
My last novel – City of Hope - is set during The Great Depression in America. It’s an uplifting story of community and how human resourcefulness can help people overcome terrible circumstances.  I am all too aware of the idea that in being plunged into dire economic circumstances it can be construed that we are going back in time to the way things were “before”.
Those good old days when we had nothing, but we were neighbourly and kind - we brought in the hay for each other and we had “values”. There was no such thing as Versace or golf or BMW’s or panini’s; we had our meat and spuds in the middle of the day, at home, and hitched lifts into town for late pints with those of our neighbours who were lucky enough to have cars.
When many bemoaned the financial decline – some of us tried to put a positive spin on it. We used higher fuel prices as motivation to become more eco-friendly – retro insulating our houses, and growing our own vegetables. We cheered at the fall of the designer handbag and talked about a return to some of the more traditional values of the past like community and dignity.   
This year though feels different.
Those of us who are lucky enough to have paid employment find we are working twice as hard for less money. “I am working like a twenty-five year old intern who has something to prove,” a friend of mine complained to me. We are both successful women in our forties, who had our last babies late in life. I am lucky because I can work from home  – but she leaves the house at six thirty for her commute each day, and doesn’t get back until seven most evenings. At pushing fifty, we are both exhausted.  Where she works in the corporate sector there are hungry graduates snapping at her heels; in the hand-to-mouth life of a writer there is no security. I cannot imagine what it must be like facing into Christmas unemployed. 
Our forefathers worked the land to eat and survived on very little. Sheepswool insulation in the attic and a few organic vegetables in the back garden is not the same thing. We are not our forefathers. We are a pampered generation – convenience foods and two cars and hand-held entertainment are the staples of our life. We can’t afford them any more – and choosing to divest oneself of the trappings to be middle-class “eco” and the reality of not being able to afford to fill the tank twice this season or replace the ten year olds beloved Nintendo DS are two very different things.
However, even in the face of such misery, there really is no point in being negative. If there is one thing worth taking from our forefathers it is the stoic belief that we must keep ploughing on regardless.  So I am going to come up with one resolution and that is to make as much room for family and friends as I can in 2012. Time is money, and instead of spending it I am going to book myself in for some cheap treats.  Saturday nights in each other’s houses with good friends playing board games and drinking cheap wine; family sleepovers in each other’s houses.
It’s not a spa-weekend or the week in the sun I was hoping for – but in these difficult days, it’s imperative we all make sure we have something to look forward to in 2014.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013


New Years Eve



There are lots of reasons to stay at home for New Years Eve. Triple time babysitters, unreliable taxi services, not being able to get into that slinky dress after the chocolates bender and not finding oneself ringing in the New Year with a kiss from a stranger are all reasons to eschew the glitzy party. “Staying in” on the biggest ‘night-out’ of the year need not necessarily be the poor-mans option.  Once your children are old enough to understand that seeing in the New Year is a celebration, they will want to stay up and be part of the action. This weekend marks the passing of time - one year into another – as a significant event in our lives and so it is only fitting that we spend it in the company of our significant loved ones, including our children. Our eldest is ten, and for the first time this year, it seems truly bizarre that we would think of leaving him in the care of his grandmother so we can party with other people. Perhaps it is the year that is in it, but the Auld Lang Syne sentiment of garnering strength from the shared experiences of friends and family has never seemed more significant. New Years Eve and Day give us a second opportunity to do the Christmas entertaining thing but without the pressure of cooking sprouts and buying presents. A week into the holidays, most of us feel a bit sick. Certainly due to over-indulgence, but also a bit sick of our nearest and dearest and of slinging about the house and – for many of us too – sick with the thought of what lies ahead next year. The temptation is to just skim over the whole thing, either by going on one last  bender or putting our heads under the covers and forgetting about it altogether. But it is worth remembering that the grind of “real-life” will be back on in a few days and the loved ones gone again for long enough. So surely it’s appropriate to treat this time as a celebration of having loved ones to love, and homes to love them in – a reminder of all we have got in our lives that we’ll be carrying through to 2012.  Later today, I am going to look through my photo diary and drag a few photos across from my laptop to download onto a CD and share with everyone before midnight. I am always astonished looking back at how much our family have done in the past twelve months. School concerts, achievements at work, holidays – as the next year approaches it’s important to focus on how much life has happened since we last underwent this ritual. Time flies, but as well as the worry and the stress, family life is rich with love and laughter and it’s important to remind ourselves of that too.  Even though I’ve got half a ham glowering at me in the fridge and am exhausted from Dealing With The Leftover Turkey - I’ve made a New Year menu. I’m splashing out on the expensive exotic frozen party nibbles I normally reserve for “visitors” and have called in the rib-eye order from my favourite butcher, Charlie in Killala, for New Years Day. I’m going to make everyone get dressed-up and play party games and be a proper family for one last time – on this last day – of 2014. 


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

HAVING A HAPPY CHRISTMAS


“Happy Christmas” has to be one of the most over-used, yet under-utilised expressions in the English language. Aside from a few short moments on Christmas morning watching the children open their presents, the day itself is always fraught with stress and heightened emotion. Having thought I was on the home-stretch by ensuring that the turkey fits in my oven, and that I have a baking tray big enough to hold it, I will be frantically searching the house for bits of leftover foil with which to cover it. By mid morning I am topping and tailing sprouts and cursing my husband for insisting we find a way of transforming these fiddly green knobs into something that does not resemble cabbage for the one day of the year that he eats them. Having spent three weeks arranging fronds of fresh holly and candles in our “good room” – I am overcome with fear that one of the kids will smear the Mars Bar from their 7am selection box on my once-a-year sofa. Instead of enjoying the gift giving, I am glowering miserably at the piles of packaging and wrapping paper fretting over the next recycling bin collection date. My husband always buys me some wonderful trinket which makes the novelty mug and socks look even more dreadful than they are, and the stress of the last few weeks trying to make the perfect Christmas – sending cards to all the right people, buying gifts for everyone, finding a dressy red cardigan and gathering advice from Sunday supplements on what to do with those wretched sprouts, has fuelled me with such wild expectation that the day itself somehow always disintegrates into a toxic state of exhaustion and regret. By mid afternoon, I just want everyone to go home so I can settle into the Big Movie (which I have invariably seen already on my one cinema trip this year) and indulge my regretful addiction to Quality Street.
This Christmas is going to be different however because I am sick. I was diagnosed with a chronic disease back in September and, while nobody actually wants a disease, the whole business of my body stopping me in my tracks has caused me to reassess the more neurotic aspects of my personality and get my priorities into line. Where previous Christmases have been dominated by co-ordinating decorating schemes and scoring wild smoked salmon for the starter – this year we’ll eat farmed salmon for a fiver from Lidl and I couldn’t give a damn about the decorations. All I care about is the people I’ll be with.
The truth is all the decorating, and cooking and shopping and glittery table dressing is so often used as a distraction for the main business of being with our family. Not the favourite sister, or the adored children – but the extended family. The mother-in-law who makes better gravy than you, the verbally incontinent uncle, the vegan cousin who has to be especially catered for, the sibling you haven’t seen since last Christmas when he got into a drunken fight with your husband after an argument playing Family Fortunes.
“How to Survive Your Family this Christmas” is in every popular women’s magazine, and people keep saying to me “it’s a difficult time of the year.” But as I look out at the sea, for the first time I can see the snow-settled mountains in Sligo melt into the skyline and I realise that the gift this period of illness has given me is the time to reflect and appreciate the life I have and, crucially the people I have left in it.
Christmas is a time when everyone tries to be the best they can be. From going to their only mass this year, to putting on a glitzy outfit just to sit in their own houses or trying to turn dry, dull turkey meat into something magnificent. Not everyone gets it right, but it’s the time of year when it’s worth remembering that everyone endeavours to be their best selves, even if it is annoying or crass, even if they have to be drunk to get through it. The message of Christmas – “goodwill to all men” – is a challenge to tolerance and acceptance. At best, it’s a call to love. Not just the people it is easy to love, our partners and children - but the old, the difficult, the jaded, and the boorish – the ignorable relations. It’s not an easy time, but then I have learned this year, life is not easy – and the only thing we truly have in this life that is worth holding onto is people.
So instead of tolerating Christmas this year, I am going to treasure it. Because in the holding of this annual Christian tradition, society offers us the opportunity to share, not just the presents and the food and the hospitality, but of ourselves and our human spirit. The ability to be graciously outshined by our mother-in-law’s gravy, watch our husbands guzzle back the sprouts and forget about the bickering and disappointments of the other 364 days of the year because this day, this moment is all we truly have.
Midnight mass, usually an interruption to the stuffing and peeling frenzy that is Christmas Eve, will take on a special significance this year. An opportunity to get dressed up and meet our neighbours in the village at a time when the pub seems overwhelmingly social. While the “A La Carte Catholics” annual token trip can be a cause of irritation for the faithful as they arrive early and hog all the good seats, there is something solid and comforting about a community gathering to celebrate the mystery and magic of Christmas together.
We never know what the next year will hold, but on this one day, although our loved ones aren’t always with us in body, in spirit at least we will gather around the same table and eat the same food – and even if the brussel sprouts recipe has changed, there is always hope in the magical routine of Christmas Day.
Happy Christmas from Killala, County Mayo.