Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Smell of September

It's a kind of a cold smell with mist in it.

When you cut back the rattling fennel the spicy scent of pollen tickles the back of your throat.

The rich smell of garlic mixes with the smell of damp earth when your spade nicks a bulb as you're digging spuds in the garden
Blackberries ripen on briars


bringing the fruity, sugary smell of jam, and the warm smell of soda bread rising in the oven.                     


Scented flowers give way to huge, dusky hydrangea heads waiting to be picked and dried.
And once again you open the door to the dark smell of turfsmoke.  

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

If You Live Long Enough You'll See Everything

In times of general astonishment my mother used to announce that if you live long enough you'll see everything. I'm beginning to think that she was right. If I make it through to the coming weekend I'll be sixty. That's nearly forty years spent as a working writer and, looking back, what I see most clearly is what I didn't do to become one. 

I didn't take a writing course, join a book group,  enter a competition, apply for an internship or do a degree in Creative Writing. Instead I read an awful lot of books, skipped a lot of lectures on Beowulf and The Lake Poets, and set out for the Atlantic seaboard at every possible opportunity to do fit-up theatre in Irish. 

Very little of my reading happened in my university's state of the art library. The place scared the hell out of me and anyway I'd missed the induction day on the Dewey Decimal system. I imagine I was out on the Naas Dual Carriageway at the time, hitching a lift down to Corca Dhuibhne with a couple of prop spears, a plywood shield covered in Letraset spirals and a rucksack bought from Hector Grey's in Mary Street. Now there's a couple of statements that date me; I remember the days when you found books in libraries by flipping your way through printed cards on steel rods, when dual carriageways were so new that they merited capital letters, and when graphics inevitably involved Letraset.

I can't remember when I started to use a computer but I'm pretty sure I began on an Amstrad. There was certainly a point at which it ate an entire radio play and I nearly went back to the biro. My first scripts were written on a chrome yellow portable typewriter and delivered by Royal Mail. I corrected typos with Tippex and turned my carbon paper upside down to make it last longer. When applying for jobs in regional rep, I hand-pasted my cv on the backs of black and white 8x10 photographs. And I got my first offer from BBC television by telegram because there wasn't a phone in our West Ealing flat.

How did we manage without computers, scanners, printers, sat nav, smart phones, or the ability to access the entire catalogue of The Library of Congress from the side of the Naas dual carriageway? How did my mother cope when I set off for London on the mail boat to be an actress, knowing that I'd be making a choice between the cost of food and the cost of a phonecall each time I rang her up? The obvious answer is that you live with what you've got and never question it. I don't suppose that the monks who created medieval manuscripts squinted through the mists of time sighing for the birth of Gutenberg. I know that my mother read and re-read the letters I sent her from London. And that she valued them far more than our stilted phone conversations, constantly interrupted by the sound of another shilling in the slot.

Looking back now, what interests me most is the freedom I had when I started. My motivation as a writer was simple. I needed to make money. I didn't struggle to find a voice. Instead, having got used to a weekly pay packet during a summer season at The Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, I panicked with the coming of autumn. So I wrote a script for BBC Schools Radio peppered with Irish language phrases. In those days you could blag your way into a producer's office by writing an arresting postcard and the producer, if she wanted to, could offer you a commission. Which is what happened. She gave me tea, we talked for ten minutes and she asked if I could deliver by next Thursday. And then, as I'd cunningly planned, she hired me to read it.

Now, after forty years of radio, plays, television, journalism, spin-off publications, multimedia and music theatre, I'm about to deliver another book to a publisher. And here I am, writing this on my combined blog and website - do check out the other pages if you find you've enjoyed this post. My Twitter handle is @fhayesmccoy and my new book will have its own board on Pinterest. And you can follow my Author page on Facebook HERE, where if you scroll down far enough you'll find a question about dirty eggs in a basket. 

There's a sentence I never thought I'd live to see myself write.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Tuam Babies

I’m almost afraid to write this post. Which means that I must write it.

For the last week there’s been growing outrage at the discovery of the bodies of children and babies who died between 1925 and 1961 in a mother and baby home in Tuam, Ireland, under the care of the Bon Secours nuns, and are said to have been disposed of in a septic tank. This is the latest in a series of disclosures about the appalling treatment of women and children committed to the care of religious orders with the sanction of the Irish state. In a generation shaken by current recession and contemporary financial and political corruption stories, fury about this new evidence of past depravity is increasingly being directed at the apparent hypocrisy and inhumanity of the parents and grandparents in previous generations who ‘must have known’.

Because there were, of course, people who knew. The families of the women and girls who were consigned to virtual prisons to hide the perceived shame of their pregnancies and illegitimate children. The individual nuns, priests and brothers who abused those in their care. The politicians and civil servants who allowed and supported the system.The members of the police force who assisted in tracking down escapees from institutions where effectively they were used as slave labour. The medical professionals who attended the inmates. Those who allegedly failed to register deaths lawfully. And whoever it was that carried those dead bodies to their graves in Tuam, and to all the other graves up and down the country where adults, children and infants were buried without decency or respect.

In a statement on the revelations about the Bon Secours Home in Tuam, Fr. Fintan Monaghan, secretary of the Tuam archdiocese, has said that he supposes “we can't really judge the past from our point of view” Because that statement’s emanated from a church source, it’s easy to dismiss it as a despicable attempt to justify a culture of abuse. And perhaps it is. But it’s also true. And despite the fact that we’ve heard it from the spokesman of a Church that’s forfeited all right to moral authority on this matter, it mustn’t be excluded from the informed, compassionate debate about the setting up and development of the Irish state which, in my view, Ireland is desperately in need of. 

Whoever the statement’s made by, the fact remains that we can’t judge the past from our own point of view if our own point of view is uninformed. Nor can we understand or learn from it. To do that – and we have a responsibility to do that – we must study what happened in the past in its context. Otherwise we’ll simply add more layers to the lies and misinformation that we need to strip away.

I see little difference between the old myth that portrayed Ireland as an island of saints and scholars and the new myth that portrays our parents and grandparents as hypocritical, priest-ridden snivellers. Each myth is as dangerous as the other because neither expresses the whole truth and both are rooted in complacency. I don’t know if the whole truth about anything can ever really be revealed. But I do know that to achieve any kind of justice for those abused victims and survivors, we’ve got to sweep away all lies, question all soundbite assumptions that masquerade as history, and engage in something far more dynamic than blame. 

Of course people knew about the Magdalene Laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes and the Industrial Schools. And, just as there were different levels of active cruelty or criminality, there were different levels of knowledge. The task of understanding those different levels, and what each meant in terms of responsibility and culpability, begs so many questions that it’s hard to find a starting point. Maybe when a society’s been poleaxed by communal shame and blame the best way forward is for its members to seek individual starting points of their own. 

Here’s mine. I knew about the Magdalene Laundries. There were two near where I grew up in Dublin in the 1950s and 60s. And another – or perhaps a Mother and Baby Home like the one in Tuam – round the corner from my granny’s house in Wexford. I doubt if I ever made many enquiries about them but I do remember being told as a child that they were refuges for poor girls who were in trouble and needed help. I was told that by my mother. I believe that she believed it to be true. I know that when she was desperately seeking home care for my elderly granny, who’d otherwise have had to be institutionalised, she went to the nuns down in Wexford for advice and two gentle, friendly girls were sent round each day to help granny with the housework and the shopping. I know that they were paid by the hour because I remember tensions about the strain it put on the family budget. Looking back now, I doubt if they ever saw a penny of their wages. I don’t know if my mother knew that then but I suspect that if she did she might have said it was fair enough, since the nuns were feeding and clothing the girls, finding them work and giving them shelter.

If my mother did think that I don’t blame her. She lived at a time when jobs were prized and food, clothes and shelter weren’t easy to come by. Nor do I think she should have checked up on where the wages went, or asked to see the girls’ accommodation. She’d had no negative experience of nuns in her own life; she had five children at home, a husband whose work took him to the other side of the country, and no way of making arrangements for her ageing mother except physically to get on a train and travel from Dublin to Wexford. Life in Ireland was like that then. People were grateful to turn to the Church for help in practical as well as spiritual matters, largely because they had few other safety nets. We need to understand why that was so. Otherwise we’re in danger of wallowing in recriminations till the point when we tire of the story and sweep it back under the carpet.

My parents’ generation was born before the 1916 Rising and grew up during the War of Independence and the Civil War, bloody conflicts which cast long, traumatic shadows. As young adults they lived through the maelstrom of possibilities attendant on the setting up of the state, one of which was potential descent into social chaos. An economic war with England crippled Ireland’s emerging economy until 1938.My parents' married life began in a battered, exhausted, impoverished society which was protected from the worst horrors of the Second World War by Ireland’s neutrality – a policy which also condemned Irish society to both isolation and isolationism. The combination of political isolationism at home and authoritarianism in the Vatican resulted in widespread censorship in Irish arts and journalism. Ireland’s rural poverty was extreme and its urban slums were notorious. TB and Polio were rife. Infant mortality was high. The country’s infrastructure was underdeveloped and underfunded. Both education and medicine continued to be underpinned by Church schools and hospitals. Jobs were scarce and, from the setting up of the state to the 1960s, spiralling levels of emigration and economic migrancy were steadily undermining both community and family life.

This was the climate in which the Catholic Church gained what we now know to be a deeply unhealthy influence on the working of the state. And it was a climate in which society’s perception of both the Church and its functions in society were very different from what they are today. The support of the Church of Rome had made a huge difference in the fight for Irish independence. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries religious orders provided healthcare, education, and, therefore, opportunities for advancement for thousands of men and women who would otherwise have lived and died in poverty. In the early years of Ireland’s independence, religious societies like the St. Vincent de Paul provided financial and social services which the state couldn’t afford. None of this justifies the arrogance, cruelty, ignorance, and perversion of Christian values which led to the horrors of places like the Bon Secours Home in Tuam. None of it changes the ghastliness of the Church’s continued arrogance, insensitivity and apparent contempt for the rule of law. But nor does that ghastliness cancel out facts. If the majority of Irish people had an exaggerated regard for the Church, at least some of that regard was rooted in a justifiable sense that the religious orders had supported them, practically and spiritually, across centuries of colonial neglect.

When I sat down at my computer I was almost afraid to write this. I wanted to join the wave of outrage, not to swim against it. I was afraid that anything positive I said about Fr. Monaghan‘s statement would read as an endorsement of a Church whose continued claims to moral authority I despise. I still fear that. But there’s more. I’m ashamed to say that on my walk to school I looked through iron railings at girls and women in lumpy overalls and never thought to ask myself why their gate was always locked. And I’m wrenched by the thought that Lizzie, one of my granny’s gentle helpers, took my teddy bear ‘home’ one night to make a new frock for him out of scraps of yellow brocade. 

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Thinking about Ireland in Maytime.

I remember the May altars of my Dublin childhood, smothered in flowers and decked in starched linen. They were great fun to create and produced annual entertainment in the low rivalry between a girl in the Middle Back who had access to apple blossom and someone else in the Top Front whose granny hoarded tray cloths made of white crochet lace. (Our school was in a Georgian terrace and the classrooms were named accordingly; two on each  floor, with the loo and stationary cupboard on the first landing and a 1950s drill hall at the bottom of the garden.)

I don't think I was ever a Child of Mary. Perhaps that's a memory I've suppressed. Which is pretty likely when you consider the horror of a white veil, blue cape and silver medal worn over a shiny-arsed gymfrock, and  Clarke's sandals. But I do remember being one of four girls elected in May each year to carry the statue of the Virgin. She was swathed in lace and anchored in some discreet way to a small table, and we grasped a leg apiece as the whole school bounced smugly across Baggot Street, chanting hymns and holding up the traffic. 'MOHther of Christ, STAR of the Seeee, pray-eh FOR the WA-HONd'rer, PRAY for mee...'

Years later, in Wexford, I first saw a white-veiled, beribboned Brídeóg carried in procession on St. Bridget's Day. At some point I read about the May Boughs and  Bushes that can still be seen, decked out with white flowers and streamers, outside Irish houses today. Here in Corca Dhuibhne, on a promontory above the Atlantic, I've found flowers and feathers tucked between the stones of a well dedicated to St. Gobnait.

But when I was a child noone told me where the whole Virgin Mother thing comes from. It's a fragment of something ancient that's been diminished and reduced.

Long before Ireland's holy wells were rededicated to Christian saints like St. Bridget, they were sacred to a goddess who was worshipped in water because without water there can be no life on earth. The flowers and rags left at her wells, the decorated dolls and branches carried in procession, the sky-blue, blossom-white and flame-yellow colours associated with her rituals, all speak of the return of life and light after winter. As in many other cultures, she was the Earth Mother; her consort was the Sky Father, a sun god whose power penetrated and impregnated the dark womb of the world; it was a powerful and dynamic image, a personification of life.

All over the world, for millennia, communities have imagined the earth as a goddess and hailed the return of their annual growing season with rituals intended to promote and celebrate her fertility. Here in Ireland, she was the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, a triple-aspect deity encompassing potential, fulfilment and withering. And each aspect is equally and crucially important, because the Crone's symbolism of withering implies a cyclical worldview which promises rebirth.

In this worldview, male and female qualities complement each other and the qualities of each are recognised as equally vital, both for the health and survival of the community and the continuation of life itself.

Central to this ancient worldview is a joyous celebration of human sexuality and female fertility expressed in powerful creative imagery. The Catholic Church in Ireland's sorry history of perversion, mysogyny and brutality suggests to me that supressing and reworking that imagery can only lead to grief.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Mother's Day.

I love spring. I love its sense of expectation and anticipation, the gleam of celandines among green leaves and the way that primroses unfurl on the roadside ditches behind the curling tendrils of the briars.
When I was a child my favourite season was autumn. Spring was my mother's. I asked her why once and she told me that she loved its promise of renewal, its sense of potential, and that same gleam of expectation and anticipation it fires in me each year.
That conversation with my mother took place when she was in her seventies and the memory of it still astonishes me. Because she was one of a generation of Irishwomen whose own sense of expectation and anticipation was wounded by the tragedy of the Civil War she lived through as an adolescent, and betrayed by the post-revolutionary Ireland in which she married and lived out her adult life.

My mother's name was Mary O'Connor. She was about five years old when, as a member of Cumann na mBan, her cousin Marion Stokes was one of the garrison in Enniscorthy’s Athenaeum during the 1916 Rising. The cultural and social legacy which Marion Stokes and companions had imagined and were willing to die for was to have been Mary O'Connor's legacy - and mine as well. Yet I grew up in a society in which, according to the Constitution of 1937, the proper sphere of women was declared to be the home. I was born into an Ireland in which the aspirations of women like Hannah Sheehy Skeffinton and Constance Markievicz had been crushed by the steady State erosion of women’s rights, and where a combination of revisionism and isolationism had left many women of my mother's generation, and my own, ignorant of the legacy we'd been denied. 
The Ireland of my childhood and teens was the product of repressive legislation supported by the extraordinary level of influence held by the Catholic Church. Contrary to the position only forty years or so earlier, female representation in affairs of state was almost unknown; women had presided over republican courts during the War of Independence, for example, yet by 1927 a law had been passed refusing us the right even to sit on juries. That law remained on the statute book until 1976. The marriage bar, which required female public servants and women who worked in banking to give up their jobs when they married, was enforced in 1933. It was still in place in 1973, and we had to wait until 1977 for The Employment Equality Act, which prohibited discrimination on the grounds of gender or marital status in almost all areas of employment. 
There was little career advice and definitely no sex education when I was at school. During my eldest sister’s time at UCD, female students were forbidden to wear trousers and were policed by a fearsome Dean of Women Students whose main function appeared to be to confine them to their own common room, segregated from the men. 
But by the time I reached university, the winds of change were blowing, and what’s now known as the second wave of Irish feminism had begun. 
Those were the days of bad-ass women like Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny and Nuala O’Faolain. I remember the euphoria of my peers when, early in 1971, Mary Robinson tried to introduce a bill on liberalising the law on contraception into the Seanad, and our fury when, because it wasn’t allowed a reading, it couldn’t be discussed. Then came more euphoria – and outrage on the news and in the pulpits – when a group of feminist activists travelled from Dublin to Belfast by train and came back waving banners and armfuls of contraceptives. In that instance, it wasn’t just the repression of the law that outraged us, it was the illogicality. And the hypocricy. Because along with the institutional discrimination against Ireland's female citizens went a sickly elevation to near saintly status of the role of the Irish Mother. 
For me, women on pedestals were always suspect. I’d seen too much of the sentimental worship of the Irish mother, and the elevation of “purity” to cult status, alongside the bland acceptance of wife-beaters, rapists and abusers as divils without a bit of harm in them, or as put-upon victims tempted beyond their strength. At home, my parents had no time for such ideas; yet the fact remained that my mother, who'd bought herself a typewriter with savings from her earnings as a shop assistant, had been pressured into giving up her job as soon as she'd married, and settled for the role of a housewife instead of being the writer she'd longed to become. Those mixed messages I grew up with were part of the reason I left Ireland in the 1970s in search of an identity of my own. 
It was years afterwards, when my father was dead and I was living in England, that my mother and I had our conversation about springtime. We were walking by the Thames at Richmond, admiring the pale fuzz of green buds on the willow trees. I asked her if she grieved for the books and plays she'd fashioned in her mind and never written. I really wanted to know; but, looking back now, I realise she didn't answer. Instead she talked about her pleasure in having children and the satisfaction she'd found in reading and typing out books and articles writtten by my father. She was a shrewd editor and a meticulous assistant, and a steadfast support to him throughout his distinguished career. 
I believe she had a happy life with my father and, though no saint, she was a generous, supportive, creative  mother. But I grieve for her stillborn books and plays. 

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Wearing of The Green

It's that time of year again. 

Time to go green.


Green shoots force their way through the debris of winter storms.

Sunlight freckles on green growth in the ditches.

And here in the westernmost mainland parish in Ireland, the St Patrick's Day celebrations crackle with energy and excitement, amalgamating the triumph of the Christian saint over the druids with the triumph of the Good Goddess over darkness, and the joyous return of life to the land.

However, St. Patrick's personal association with the colour green and the dear little shamrock isn't altogether straightforward. In fact, wearing red, not green, for St. Patrick's day has a time-honoured heritage in Ireland. It was recorded in 1681 that 'the poorer people' in Ireland wore shamrock on St. Patrick's Day. But others, we're told, wore crosses - and the first reference, in 1628, describes Irish soldiers wearing St. Patrick's Day crosses made of red ribbon 'after their country manner'. As soon as the Irish state was set up, it became fashionable to insist that the diagonal red cross on a white ground, known as St. Patrick's cross, was a despised colonial invention of the 1800s. But the arms of Trinity College, Dublin, known to have been used at least as early as 1612, include St. Patrick's diagonal red cross on a white ground, representing Ireland.

So, although it's easy to see why the world now goes green on St. Patrick's Day...

... it's worth remembering how recently green became Ireland's national colour.

It wasn't till the eighteenth century that waving a green flag - with or without a gold harp - became a recognised way to define yourself as Irish.  As late as 1798, contemporary commentators were writing about the revolutionaries' green flags 'adopted ... in imitation of the shamrock' as if the colour choice was unexpected. In fact, a flag with a harp on a green field  had been flown at the masthead of his frigate by Owen Roe O'Neill more than a century before that, in 1642. But the idea that the the wearing of the green embodies the essence of Irishness is essentially Victorian, and the story that St. Patrick himself carried a green banner is a romantic nineteenth century invention. 

Actually, the earliest references to Irish flags are much more colourful. In a twelfth century manuscript description of a battle fought more than a thousand years earlier - in Cuchulainn's time - the 'variegated banners of all the chieftains of Erin' are 'flowered, white cloth, new-bordered, particoloured ... of streaked satin, streaming, floating, star-bright ..'. Though, to be fair, green does crop up in that story as well. One warrior, called Congal, strides among the heroes under his personal standard of  a leoman buidhe i srol uaine 'a yellow lion on green satin'. Which sounds rather dashing

 I may adopt it myself at this year's parade in Ballyferriter.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Irish Feast of St. Gobnait

This trip to London was literally a case of my whole life passing before my eyes. In three days, working with a brilliant company called Crimson Cats, I’ve just recorded an unabridged audiobook of my memoir The House on an Irish Hillside. I loved it. Loved working with Michael Bartlett and Dee Palmer. Loved the fact that Wilf provided incidental music on concertina. Love the look of the classy design, and the response of readers and booksellers when they hear about it. 

Now I can’t wait to hear the final edit.Tomorrow, February 11th, we fly back to Corca Dhuibhne. The significance of that date only hit me last week as I sat at the microphone in my sound booth. February 11th is Lá ‘le Gobnait – the feast day of St. Gobnait. Which means that as we’re sitting on a plane somewhere over the Irish Sea, high on a western clifftop, whipped by the Atlantic wind, the people of Dún Chaoin will be taking part in an ancient rite that’s survived there for thousands of years.

I don’t know if the realisation of that fact coloured my reading of the following paragraphs. You could hardly blame me if it did, considering what I’ll be missing. 

“On St Gobnait’s day, for as long as anyone can remember, people have gathered at the well on the cliff above the ocean to perform a ritual that has roots older than Christianity.

The parish church in Dún Chaoin is dedicated to St Gobnait. She’s associated with bees, who fertilise trees and plants, and with healing. There are stories here about how she protected the people. In one she drives out invaders by turning her beehive into a bronze helmet and her bees into soldiers. In others she’s one of three sisters, all powerful healers. I remember the sense of recognition I felt the first time I realised that the stories about those three sister saints, and the dates of their feast days, are all echoes of Danú, the Good Goddess. Gobnait’s day is celebrated at the beginning of the Celts’ season of Imbolc. Her sisters’ feast days are in May, the season of Bealtaine, and at the end of July, which is the beginning of Lughnasa. Thousands of years before Christianity came to Corca Dhuibhne people imagined Danú as a goddess of three aspects; she was the maiden, the mother and the crone, images of the three stages of fertility. The maiden represented springtime. The mother was ripeness and harvest. And the crone was an image of withering, before the darkness of winter and the patient wait for the return of light in spring. There are memories of nine boatloads of people rowing from the Great Blasket island on Gobnait’s feast day, and of crowds of people climbing from the landing place to the clifftop. Rituals associated with holy wells all echo each other. People circle the well, usually three, five, seven, nine or nineteen times, praying. They move in the direction of the sun. They kneel and pray. Then they bend lower to reach the water, and drink three, or seven, or nine drinks from their bare hands. Then the circling may begin again, each round marked by touching a stone or throwing a pebble in the water. Before leaving the well, something’s always left behind, a flower, a feather, a pin, a rag or a coin. They’re gifts to the saint to remind her of the people’s prayers. Then the people go home and wait to be answered.” 

In Dún Chaoin tomorrow, our neighbours will pray in St. Gobnait’s church and then climb the path to circle the well that once belonged to the Goddess. There’s a cross cut into a flat slab above it now and. just above the water, is a carved female head with wide eyes looking out towards the ocean. The ancient Celts carved no images of Danú. Instead they imagined her as present in the water in the form of a fish. In their shamanistic world view, the guardian spirits of sacred places often took the form of fish, birds or animals.
I remembered that last week as I read on through the chapter, towards my next coffee break, and came to this final paragraph. 

“When I bent over Gobnait’s well to look at the tribute of wildflowers, I saw something else had been left there. Down at the level of the water, the pointed quill of a seagull’s feather was wedged between two stones. Held by the fixed quill, the feather itself reached out like a bridge. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the shadow under the stones. Then a tiny shrew ran out onto the feather. She had sleek ash-coloured fur, delicate, five-clawed feet, and eyes like black pin heads in her narrow face. Her ears were like translucent pink petals. Balanced in time, her weight balanced on the quill held by the stone, she looked at me. Then the feather trembled, its shadow flickered on the water, and she ran back into the dark.”