Tuesday, December 30, 2014


I’m not in the mood for Christmas this year. It just seems like an awful lot of fuss and work to go through again. A big Christmas holiday every other year seems like a more reasonable option to me. I usually love Christmas; the lights, the presents, Santa, the way it turns Quality Street in a legitimate household food-item. It’s just that this year it just feels like an awful lot of work for what is essentially, one day bookmarked by consumer excess and a roast dinner. O.M.G! Did I really just say that? Have I really turned into Bah Humbug Christmas killjoy? This holiday exhaustion is down to the fact that I have been working really, really hard since September. I was hoping nay expecting to get the edits done on my new book, The Dress, before the holidays, but now it looks like it is going to drag on into the New Year. This means that I don’t have that wonderful sense of completion I usually enjoy at the years end and it is making me really grumpy.  As the lights have gone up in Killala and reminders to order my Christmas Turkey from Noelly the butcher come through on Facebook, I am watching my book deadline move further away. I want to lock myself in my shed and get this book to bed, but instead I have to organize buying gifts and worry about how to cook my brussel-sprouts.  Christmas, frankly, is getting in the way of my life. I was not able to get parking in Ballina this week and there was a queue at the Bank link a mile long. In my stressed state I have decided to half-do the whole thing. Usually I turn my home into a veritable forest grotto. This year I have stuck some fairy lights on the banisters. I told my husband to grab the first four bags from the top of the attic stairs (the attic is filled to bursting with festive decorations) and I would pot luck whatever was in them around the house provided it didn’t take more than an hour.  Other time and energy saving measures include sending no cards, (not even e-mail ones), joint mother/mother-in-law gifts and, most shockingly, ready made desserts from Lidl. Christmas is far from cancelled, we still have a tree and Santa will be coming but Mummy is not driving the whole business as full-throttle as she usually does. Mummy is too busy working.
Christmas has been hanging over me like the Sword old Damocles since early November and this week it slammed down on my head when searching online for a pair of Stompeez (branded, expensive, slippers that are this years Xmas ‘it’ thing for the under tens) and discovered, to our horror that its too late to order online.
Most definitely not on my list of ‘things-to-do’ is attend ‘events’. However my favorite young woman, Caoimhe Reilly was doing a solo at the Gortnor Abbey Carol Concert in Crossmolina. It being her leaving cert year and with her not being my actual daughter (sadly – a mere family friend/stunt-daughter who comes on loan courtesy of her real mother, Fiona), I decided it might be the last time I’d get to see her over the holidays. So, I braved it. 
Infuriatingly, I arrived almost an hour early, so found myself sitting in the car fidgeting restlessly listening to Newstalk when I could have been in my den moving words around a page.
Eventually, I followed the crowd in and got a good seat, near the front. The convent chapel was glittering with fairy lights and candles, with a silhouette scene of the three wise men projected behind the altar. 
As the students started to sing, I could feel myself gradually let go and get into the spirit of the music. Oh Come All Ye Faithful etc. It’s Christmas. Get over it.
Then my young friend got up on the altar to sing Oh Holy Night. It’s a tough one at the best of times and her mum had told me she’d had a sore throat all week.  Suddenly, I felt nervous for her. Lovely, tall, pretty Caoimhe, her huge eyes pleading up to the choir balcony behind me watching for her cues.  She seemed so vulnerable in that moment to me, to so personify the beauty and spirit and hope of Christ’s both that I closed my eyes and listened to every note, willing her to make them. She hit each one and then, at the very end went for the achingly high slammer and nailed it. I let out a sob and only then realized that I had been crying since she started singing.
With my heart open, I finally allowed Christmas to make its entrance.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


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


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.