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


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


“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.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How thrilled does 'Bressie' look being photographed with his Middle Aged Lady Novelist Fan? My husband said I look like his ventriloquist dummy and I have to agree. Please note not one - but TWO pairs of identical glasses. Suffice to say I have burned the coat and the beige cardigan and ditched the hat. NOT my finest fashion moment. 

When it comes to teenagers, we adults have very short memories. Teenage culture has always been at a slight remove from society and every one of us has gone through the silent, angry rebellion of wanting to be an adult while still feeling as emotionally needy as a child. 
Being young is a time of transition, of challenging the adult world and it is only made harder by the fact that society is built on the conventions of certainty and security. Even though we were all young once - we fear teenagers for the challenges they present to us – the mirror they hold up to our own failings as parents and society.
In my own twenties, I was editor of the teen magazine Just Seventeen and as such became a public spokesperson for my readers. I loved giving teenage girls a voice and the whole experience of working with them made me realise how harshly society judges its young. However, that was a long time ago, and I am now a crotchety middle-aged woman. From the remove of my quiet family life in a small country town it seems to me that we have produced a teenage generation of spoiled, promiscuous drunks. I really its not true because my eldest son is ten years old and will soon be moving among them so when a local branch of the Irish youth organisation Foróige invited me to their Band On The Strand gig – I decided to go along and see what the teens of today get up to. 
My fourteen-year-old niece refused to join me. It seems my nagging has resulted in my demotion from beloved auntie to judgmental, interfering old cow and no amount of begging would convince her that I would not be following her around for the night trying to persuade her to put on a coat. Even the attendance of Irish popstar ‘Bressie’ who was headlining could not sway her. However, I decided that this was my chance to be a bit of a teenager myself and pursue my mild crush on The Voice hunk.
For the first time in it’s nine-year history the Band on The Strand organisers were providing overnight camping for the kids. Anne-Marie Thompson who runs the Post Office in Lacken said I could park my campervan nearby and join them all for breakfast in the morning. She had clearly lost her mind. Teenagers? Camping? All together in a marquee?
The invite they sent me kept stressing ‘alcohol-free’ but I could just not even begin to imagine how they were going to keep control of the situation. Teenagers drink these days. It’s what they do – everybody knows that. They’d get it in somehow. It would surely be bedlam – a marauding teenage drink/sex fest.
I arrived as the first band Children of The Sun were about halfway through their set. It had been a dry, sunny day and the beautiful stretch of beach - Lacken Strand where the gig was being held was still bright. Across the dunes I could see a massive stage flanked with burger vans and bouncy castles.
I parked the van on a verge next to the long camping marquee – and walked across the shallow grasslands towards the broad beach and a thousand buzzing teenagers. The kids were all cordoned off into a barriered zone in front of the stage, flanked throughout by adults in high-viz vests. The kids had to walk down a security path to get to the stage and entertainment area. Everything was open and everyone visible - no hidden corners for troublemakers or dealers to lurk in. The adult presence didn’t seem to interfere with the kid’s excitement and the atmosphere was electric. I walked down in amongst the fray and felt instantly surrounded by all the energy and excitement of youth. These kids were high on life. They were out, in their hot pants and their hoodies and their Day-Glo socks and they were buzzing – just with the thrill of being alive and being together. Three passionate longhaired young teens were pumping out music from the stage and while the kids at the front were dancing, others further back were just milling about and chatting. The age group was twelve to seventeen and the boys looked way younger than the girls. I saw one or two young boys who reminded me of my ten-year-old son wandering the crowd looking a bit lost and I felt briefly compelled to scoop them up. The music was so great I wanted to dance. The air was so infused with the possibility of youth that I wanted to cry.  The truth is I felt overwhelmed by the intense positive energy around me. We forget how hard it is being young but we also forget how great it can be; the adventure of the world opening up to you – those first exhilarating steps of freedom. Then there was the kissing. All around me teenage boys had their hands nervously planted on the hot-panted bottoms of teenage girls as they kissed in that peculiar way teens do; their lips locked, their heads barely moving. Far from finding it appalling as I thought I would, they looked rather funny and sweet – and very innocent. It seemed very normal to me that these young ‘kissers’ should just being left to get on with it in full view rather than sneaking off to the dangerous corners my generation was more familiar with.
I went over to the volunteer tent to queue for my tea and sandwiches and got chatting to Sean Campbell The CEO of Foróige. No drink – he told me – was a major key in ensuring the success of these events. ‘Even if the volunteers go away for a week with the kids – there is no drink the whole time. We have to set an example - show young people they can enjoy themselves without it.’
His attitude was refreshing. ‘Learn to drink responsibly’ is the best we can do when it comes to a national mantra around alcohol abuse. But what does that actually mean? The implication is that drinking alcohol is such an important and integral part of life that it’s essential you learn to do it ‘properly’. Not doing it at all is rarely presented as an option. As a non-drinker people often express astonishment that I am able to socialise ‘normally’ without the aid of alcohol. If I was a teenager being told by my mother not to drink – yet I knew she needed half-a bottle of wine inside her in order to be able to get up and dance at a wedding would I listen to her line of reasoning? Our drink culture remains juvenile into adulthood. ‘I got hammered last night,’ people complain when they get hangovers, ‘I just can’t do it any more.’  Nobody ever says ‘I don’t want to do this any more because it’s pointless and makes me stupid and boring.’  We continue to aspire to drinking too much into parenthood – sending our kids the message that drinking is fun.
Small wonder they want to go out and drink as soon as they can. It’s do as I say not do as I do.

At half ten I was called away for my audience with Bressie along with a selected group of teens. I tried to work myself up into frenzy of infatuation but while he’s a nice young man who is sometimes on the telly I discovered that the teen gene couldn’t undo the jading of forty-odd years – so I remained underwhelmed.
However watching the kids go crazy when he came on stage picked me up again.
At one am when the gig was over, the sky lit up with a massive firework display. Nearly two thousand kids raised their faces to the sky in sober silence gasping at the show.  The fireworks bought this celebration of life to a dramatic and significant close. The adults had invested hard work (an money) to bring this night together but they did all this because they believe the kids are worth it – and you know what? They really are.

At the end of a long night the teens were still high on energy and excitement. They were hugging and chatting and being so sweet to each other outside the camping marquee. There would be no sleep got and all the adults looked thoroughly knackered already but I could totally understand why they wanted to be there. I had forgotten that being around teenagers is actually really good fun.
I slept in my campervan next to a marquee full of three hundred hyped-up teens. Nobody banged on the roof of my van or rocked it in the middle of the night as has happened at other festivals I’ve been to. In the morning we all feasted, bleary eyed on breakfast rolls and tea in paper cups.
Honestly - I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a night out like it.
It occurred to me then that if a volunteer organisation can organise an event like this for kids – why can’t the rock promoters? The answer, of course, is that the promoter’s motivation is making money and Foróige’s priority is the kids’ welfare.
If only there was some way of combining the two.