Rejected by music colleges and TV talent shows, Scottish tenor, John Craig Innes, sings on the streets for years to make a living selling his home made CDs. Aged 47, without a record contract and fearing his time to succeed is running out, he desperately spends his life savings to hire The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the creative team behind British diva Katherine Jenkins to record his debut album. When sales of his professional album come no easier, he self produces a UK concert tour to promote it! After all this, Britain’s Got Talent invite John to audition…
When we began shooting THE PEOPLE’S TENOR it was simply a story of perserverance and self reliance, the story of an inspiring character for our current times. John Innes is an outsider trying to break into the music industry on his own terms, but his story is for outsiders from every walk of life.
John’s remarkable journey may make us think about how we identify real star qualities, perhaps even how we define success? If John’s improbable climb from street to stage is at times painful viewing, it certainly makes his triumphs all the more rewarding.
“A PARTICULARLY IMPRESSIVE FILM AND A VERY THOUGHT PROVOKING EXPERIENCE”
Rt. Hon. Tom Clarke, MP, CBE, fmr. Minister of Film
HOW THE FILM WAS MADE
At the start of production we didn’t know how the story would end, nor when, so conventional broadcaster funding was never an option. Inspired by the example of our subject, we made it anyway, on a shoe string budget with borrowed equipment and every favor we could beg. While this fact may leave a few rough edges, we feel this is a small price to pay for an uncontrived story that is allowed to happen naturally.
WHY ITS DIFFERENT
John had always declared that he intended to use all his savings to record his debut professional album. This much we knew from the start, but nothing more, the rest of the story just evolved. So we left him at it, sometimes for months, to street perform and save money for the recording, and occasionally we picked up the camera at short notice to follow him around.
In a media savvy culture it’s difficult to prevent people consciously or sub-consciously refining the ‘character’ they wish to appear. The filming on THE PEOPLE’S TENOR was done so infrequently over such a long period of time that John never really focused on his role as the ‘subject of a film’ – a film he probably didn’t think would ever be made.
THE PEOPLES TENOR was shot in full HD on location in 3 countries between 2009-2011. A street performer is a traveler, so the film is almost a travelogue of every region of Britain with footage of John either performing or working in Glasgow, Edinburgh, York, Cambridge, London, Essex, Brighton and Plymouth, and outside Britain in Prague (Czech Republic).
The Mystery and Tranquillity of The Burren
Last summer, I spent a splendid weekend in the Burren, an area of breathtaking beauty. The Burren is tucked away in north County Clare, thirty miles from Galway city and seventy miles from Limerick. The Burren consists of great grey limestone slabs and boulders rooted firmly in the ground and surrounded by fertile land. You can drive for hours with this great wonder all around you, in the flat land as well as in its mountains and valleys. Covering an area of 150 square miles, it is the largest area in Western Europe with such a landscape. This mesmerising phenomenon of nature is a product of the Ice Age, stretching back three and a half million years to when Ireland was first formed.
Writers and artists have been coming to the Burren for decades; sensitive minds and hearts drawn to its rich history. The author JRR Tolkien visited frequently during the 1950s. Many suspect that it was these visits that inspired his idea for Middle-earth in his book The Lord of the Rings. Was I about to walk in his footsteps and be in awe at the sights that caught his imagination? I stayed in the village of Ballyvaughan where a mild winter climate in this region means less frost and snow than the remainder of the country and this is one of the reasons why the land is so rich in calcium. These mineral rich grasslands are perfect for rearing cattle, horses and goats.
There is something so calming about the landscape that it automatically brings a sense of calmness. Here I found peace amongst the roughcast beauty, peace amongst a corner of nature that has refused to be tamed. Perhaps, it is a thank-you from God to Ireland because it appears that nature has protected this part of Ireland and has rewarded it with great goodness. The Burren contains 70% of Ireland’s natural species of flowers, plants and fauna. I was intrigued to learn that there are thirty different kinds of butterfly in Ireland and that twenty-eight are found in the Burren. Pine martens are extinct in most other parts of Ireland but in the Burren these wild animals have made their home with relative ease.
Another advantage of the Burren is its closeness to the sea. A trip to Blackhead opens up before you scenes of the Atlantic Ocean with the closeness of the three Aran Islands almost inviting you to swim over to them. Seals are often to be seen around these parts. I saw several bunches of gentians, their blue colour shining radiantly in the evening light. This rare wild flower has settled alongside better known Irish flowers which include purple orchids, buttercups, mountain avens, primroses, yellow pimpernels and sea asters, all of them growing in abundance. Little wonder that they have tugged at the heartstrings of writers and poets for many years.
The tranquillity of staring at the sea and the silence was contrasted by a visit to Gleninagh Castle. The castle, also overlooking the sea, was built in the late 1500s for the O’Lochlain family – a chieftain clan from Munster. I stood before it and dreamt about what it would be like to have been a dinner guest of the O’Lochlain’s. What would have been on the menu? Possibly a fine hog-roast, perhaps washed down by Poitín or wine. But whilst the O’Lochlain’s may have lived in luxury, the rest of Ireland lay in starvation. The potato crop, the main harvest of the land began to fail badly with blight year after year until failing completely in 1847. By this time the O’Lochlain’s had long since abandoned the castle. But whilst the castle had been splendour in its heyday, it held its own dark secrets – a cold, damp windowless cellar which housed unfortunate prisoners, a reminder of Ireland’s long historical conflicts and invasions dating back to the days of Cromwell.
I was reminded of the deep sense of spirituality our pre-Christian ancestors had when I visited the dolmen stone at Poulnabrone. Here people gathered in secret to worship Mother Earth, their paganism making them closer to nature. Our ancestors’ minds were devoid of Catholicism and organized religion and their ceremonies would have been conducted in Gaelic. I imagined them to have been sincere in their thanks to the gods of their universe for having provided them their sustenance or in their requests for help to alleviate their suffering. The dolmen stone was a formal burial place. Excavations of its ground in the late 1980s found over forty bodies buried in the Bronze Age. Its occupants had been buried with their most valued possessions, including a polished stone axe, a decorated bone pendant, stone beads and quartz crystals.
My final trip was to Corcomroe Abbey. Here I encountered well preserved 12th century ruins that were once inhabited by The Cistercian Order. The monks were well-known in the area for farming, bee-keeping and fruit growing. The area around Corcomroe is known as Santa Maria de Petra Fertilis (Our Lady of the Fertile Rock). Women who have trouble conceiving come here to pray for a baby. The grounds of the abbey are still in use for the burial of local people in its parish. Silence prevailed around the ruins only interrupted by crows nesting in the upper gables.
There are only Seven Wonders of the World but I cannot help feeling that if the explorer who drew up this list had visited the Burren, there might have been an eighth. I will return one day. I have little option because the Burren is now in my veins and there it will stay forever.
Published in the Clare People and The Harp newspaper.
Peter was tired after the long delay to his flight but pleased that he was now seated and ready for take-off. He fiddled constantly with his book, picking it up, reading a few pages, putting it aside and then opening it again. His thoughts, although tinged with brief moments of excitement, were overshadowed by sorrow. He was returning to a place that had ceased to exist as he had known it. From the letters Josephine had written to him over the past twenty years, he imagined it to be like a face that had been replaced with a mask. Change after change, death after death, had resulted in the demise of the village he loved and cherished. And then there was Emily. He had wondered so many times what had gone through this young girl’s mind in the moments before she died. He was left haunted by the terror and hysteria she must have felt as she entered the cold and icy river.
Nothing was ever the same after Emily’s death. At first people believed it was an accident but village gossip prevailed. Miss Driscoll was the ringleader – although there were traces of tears when she spoke. But mostly she just shook her head when she met with a neighbour or friend. People wondered how a young girl could have drowned so easily in the river at the back of their neighbour’s house.
‘I don’t think we’ll ever know the real truth of what happened,’ Miss Driscoll said, after hearing that Josephine – Emily’s eldest sister – had been taken away to a special hospital.
Peter suspected the truth because he was Josephine’s friend. They held few secrets from each other. And although he never got the opportunity to say goodbye before he left for America, they had maintained letter contact over the years; twice monthly in unbroken precision.
After dinner, Peter closed his eyes and pictured the boreen as he had last seen it.
He could see himself walking down its slope as he drifted off to sleep. He saw a multitude of different species, varied according to the season. Early spring brought clumps of gorse bushes with their distinctive yellow colour and coconut scent. The paler primroses, which complemented them, grew in profusion everywhere. The ever-visible thistles, dandelions, buttercups, and daisies were growing wild at the foot of hedgerows and ditches, and amongst all of these were white berries. A myth surrounded these berries. Some people believed that cows wouldn’t eat them because they were poisonous. Josephine picked a handful of berries and gave one to Emily first. She was smiling as she did so. Nothing seemed to happen for a while. Then she turned to Peter and motioned for him to open his mouth as she placed one on his tongue. He could see the frown on his face as the foul smelling berry entered the sanctuary of his mouth. He tried to remain still, afraid to swallow, just like he used to when his mother placed a spoonful of cod liver oil in his mouth and uttered the expected words, ‘Open wide’.
Peter roused from his sleep with a jerk, as if he had slept through the alarm and would now be late for work. He suddenly remembered the berry and reached for a handkerchief to place over his mouth. He immersed his tongue into the handkerchief, pulled it away and was relieved there was no berry in it. He rested his head back onto his seat and closed his eyes.
As the cabin lights came on, Peter woke fully, and the immaculately coiffured air hostesses bustled around him with the breakfast service. After the few hours sleep, he felt wide awake and no longer fidgeted with his book – only another hour to go before touch down. The fresh morning light shone through the little window behind him, blinding his vision as he tried to look down on the clouds. It reminded him of his first time in a Boston nightclub – how fascinated he had become with the beaming lights and how his confidence had grown. It was so different to the awkwardness of his first teenage village barn dance, where the ladies stood on one side waiting for a streaming flow of men to pass by and invite them to dance. The atmosphere consisted mainly of dread and fear, but occasionally a little romance emerged for the brave-hearted.
A strong wind greeted Peter as he left the airport terminal to collect the keys to his rented car. It was only the beginning of October, which made this onslaught of high winds early and unexpected. Moreover, hailstones picked at his face, whilst dust from the pavement blew unmercifully in his eyes. In the midst of this gale he pondered on how he would be able to pick up the pieces of his life. But, as he drove the thirty miles to Josephine’s house, he gradually blanked out these thoughts by recalling scenes from his childhood. As Peter drew nearer to his destination he passed the boarded-up house that once belonged to Mrs Jarvis. The garden now played host to nettles and thistles which replaced the masses of yellow and red roses that were once her pride and joy; her children almost, by the amount of time and care she bestowed on them. He fondly remembered Mrs Jarvis from his altar boy days. He could still see himself listening to the sermon, too scared to look at the congregation as he waited for the priest to finish so he could take centre stage. A young actor ready to perform in front of his audience, but his eyes were always lowered onto well-polished shoes. He was about twelve then and had no doubts that his life would be the best ever. He thought that serving Mass was comparable to a president serving in office, although placing the silver platter under chins during communion was a downside to his imagined presidency. All those unappetising mouths of bad breath open wide. Mrs Jarvis would eagerly make her way to the altar rails long before it was time and would also be the last to leave. Once the priest had served her communion she would just stand there with her eyes closed whilst people made their way either side of her. Over time, they just accepted it as part of the Mass, as if the Pope had given explicit permission for this to happen every week.
Peter knocked gently on the door, then quickly dried the perspiration from his hands and replaced the hankie in his pocket before the door opened.
‘Are you the Peter O’Connor that used to be?’ Josephine asked.
‘Still am, I hope,’ replied Peter.
They hugged and Peter kissed Josephine’s forehead.
‘Come in, I have prepared something to eat,’ Josephine said.
The smell of fresh baking oozed from the kitchen. The conversation flowed over homemade vegetable soup and white soda bread with caraway seeds. Smiles and laughter were exchanged as they talked about school days, rural endeavours and other childhood memories. There was no mention of Emily though. After lunch Josephine invited Peter to retreat to a seat near the glowing turf fire and poured them both a whiskey.
‘Welcome home, Peter,’ Josephine toasted.
They raised and clinked their glasses.
In the ensuing conversation, Josephine mentioned that there was going to be a fundraising dance in the local parish hall the following week, for the starving children of Africa.
‘Would you like to go?’ asked Peter.
‘Oh Peter, I haven’t been to a dance since I was at school,’ Josephine replied.
After another couple of hours had passed, Peter decided the time had come to lay another ghost to rest. He walked over the road to his parents’ house and pushed open the door. The last time he closed that door was a couple of days after his mother’s funeral. The smell of damp greeted him instantly. The interior looked liked an updated version of Miss Haversham’s living room from Great Expectations with its dusty decaying furniture. His mother’s rocking chair was still there. He pictured her sitting on it with a heavy woollen rug draped over her shoulders, as she sang:
‘Come over the hills my bonny Irish lad
Come over the hills to your darling.’
She had sung the same song everyday without fail. In fact she seldom uttered anything else after Peter’s father died. She would just sit on the rocking chair and gaze straight ahead as if she was seeing and hearing a world around her that was invisible to everyone else. He felt peace after she died. He reassured himself that she would no longer be confused, and that she would be having long conversations with his father again. They might even discuss Emily. After all, there are no secrets in heaven where everything is known and understood.
The house had once been a fine two-storey building, crafted in stone with a large white front door and ivy that crept over its well-whitewashed exterior. His mother, in her more lucid moments, always claimed that it had been the finest house in the area and the envy of many. Its roof was still intact. He was taken aback by how calm it was inside the house, despite the gale outside. It felt surreal to be back in his old homestead. Its serenity coaxed him into thinking if the place were repaired and rejuvenated, could new life, new happiness, grow inside the interior again. Could that be its destiny, he pondered?
Peter looked up and saw Josephine standing at the front door. Without hesitation she walked past him, made her way to the back door and quietly began walking down towards the field. Peter followed silently. It suddenly occurred to him that the wind had lessened and that the sky was clearer and more settled. They remained silent as they walked though the field of brown rushes, and land that had been long neglected. Suddenly, a large red and brown pheasant flew with an almighty roar from an underground just ahead of them, and flapped its wings with force as it soared into the sky. Josephine must have sensed his alarm because she looked around and said,
‘Don’t worry we’re almost there.’
They sat quietly by a tree and watched the swift flow of the river for several minutes.
‘Mother never forgave me, you know,’ Josephine said before adding, ‘and she constantly reminded me that I was the least pretty. I was only twelve, and for years afterwards I blamed myself, thought myself to be evil almost.’
‘You were nothing of the kind. It was an accident. She slipped. You know how silly and clumsy Emily was,’ Peter replied.
‘And that’s what I’d like to believe too,’ said Josephine.
Peter clasped Josephine’s hand in his. The sense of touch is remarkable. Words are secondary to its power. It can heal, it can cure and it can bring peace. Its tenderness can awaken feelings that are dead and buried. It can revitalize and breathe new life into veins.
After the storm, the evening air started to turn cold and eventually they recognised that the moment was right to get up and leave.
‘I will need a new dress for the dance,’ Josephine announced.
‘We can go shopping tomorrow, if you like,’ replied Peter.
After the excitement of the previous day, Peter slept until late morning and didn’t leave the hotel to collect Josephine until after midday. After a lunch of fish and salad, they began the task of finding Josephine a new dress. Rails and rails of different colours and designs awaited them in Nancy’s drapery shop. Josephine was in and out of the changing booth like a restless bee, trying on different dresses but being completely indecisive about her selection. Then she picked a pin-striped one from the rail.
‘Red really suits you,’ Peter said.
‘Oh, I feel like Little Red Riding Hood,’ Josephine replied before bursting into laughter.
Later that afternoon, Peter busied himself whilst Josephine was making tea in the kitchen. The earthy smell of the peat was like a drug that made him light-headed as he laid the turf in the fireplace. He remained on his knees on the rug by the fireplace and became mesmerised by the quickness and the crackles of the new flames as they gathered speed.
Josephine came in and left the tea tray, containing fruitcake, on the hearth before saying, ‘I must go and try on my new dress.’
She returned and gave a little twirl before kneeling down beside Peter to pour the tea.
The quickness of a moment can never be underestimated. Peter placed his hand on Josephine’s cheek and then let his other hand move slowly down the middle of her back before he leaned forward and kissed her on the lips. Josephine’s body froze as if a catapult had struck it unexpectedly. Her pupils enlarged like she had seen an apparition. She’d never been kissed by a man before, but the tenderness of the occasion relaxed her and brought tears of joy to her eyes. Her embarrassment, though, resembled that of a sinner in a confessional box, fearful that people in the queue might be listening.
The fire had now kindled and gave out heat that was comforting and pleasant. Peter and Josephine lay on the rug in front of the fire, completely at ease with each other. The silence between them was so comfortable, it was almost as if they had been married for a long time. They say an artist is prompted to paint by the beauty he sees, but once he has painted the goddess; her beauty is transferred onto the canvas. Peter felt renewed in his thoughts. They became fresher as vivid images of his future lay before him, like a banquet of exquisite food presented on silver platters. He allowed himself to wander to a distant place he had never before visited. It was like flying, unaided by wings. He could see tall mountains. The mountains grew higher over the cliff tops, looking down on a clear blue ocean. Emily stood at the top of the peak with outstretched arms and a facial expression which showed she was alive, happy and free. A mild breeze covered the mountain range. He knew at that point that Josephine had told him the truth about Emily. He felt soothed by this reassuring thought and placed his arm around her shoulder before giving it a gentle squeeze.
A Time to Die
Most of you will be aware of the Ecclesiastes reading often chosen at funerals: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. One of the big questions in this is do we have we a right to choose a time to die if we become terminally ill and seek to do so by means of voluntary euthanasia, otherwise known as ‘assisted suicide’?
The concept of euthanasia has been around since the 17th century when medicine first looked at ways at alleviating pain and suffering through death in the elderly ill. Religion has always opposed euthanasia with the Catholic Church declaring it a serious mortal sin. The author Martin Amis caused controversy when he called for euthanasia ‘booths’ to be placed on all street corners where elderly people could end their lives with ‘’a martini and a medal’’. His comments were considered deeply offensive by anti-euthanasia supporters but Amis hit back by stating there are over 700,000 people with dementia living in the UK and his experience of seeing people he loved and admired with the illness had taught him there are no reasons for prolonging life once the mind and dignity goes.
It is only in the last fifteen years that assisted suicide became legal in Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and some USA states. The only Catholic country to legalalise it is Colombia. Two previous attempts to legalize in the UK were rejected but a Bill is currently before the Scottish Parliament to permit it.
Most people have heard of Dignitas, an assisted suicide Swiss organisation set up in 1998 that has so far helped over a thousand people with terminal cancer, motor neuron disease and multiple scorlesis by means of lethal overdoses of Nembutal resulting in a painless death within minutes. The cost is £4,000 and over a hundred people from Britain and Ireland have so far travelled to Dignitas clinics in Switzerland. An interesting statistics from Dignitas states that 20% of their clients do not have a terminal illness, but choose to end their lives because of a debilitating disability or a general ‘weariness of life’.
Daniel James, 23, became the youngest Briton to die at the Dignitas clinic after travelling to Zurich with his parents. He was paralysed from the chest down after a major spine injury incurred whilst playing rugby. David couldn’t walk, had no hand function and had constant pain in his fingers, was incontinent and suffered uncontrollable spasms in his legs and upper body, thus needing 24-hour care. He considered his life had become ‘’a second-class existence’’. It is hard to judge someone like David because most people will never have to endure pain and suffering on this scale in their lives. Besides, he might have made his peace with God before making the decision to travel to Switzerland, and God, or at least the God I believe in, was probably incredibly loving and understanding in return.
The hardest aspect of assisted suicide that I find difficult to understand is when I see pictures in the media of people who have died at a Dignitas clinic ‘enjoying’ a final meal before their death with close family members. I would find this incredibly hard to do and if I’m honest I would probably do my best to talk the family member or friend from not going ahead with it, based simply on the premise that I would find it heart-wrenchingly hard to say goodbye to them. But from articles I have read, one family described their final hours and moments with their loved one as a ‘’beautiful and remarkable thing’’ before the death took place.
The Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors swearing to practice medicine ethically is changing in its direction. The sanctity of preserving life at all costs falls outside the remit of the oath when morphine is given in excessive doses to hasten death to patients in a lot of pain or sometimes because they are simply elderly with little chance of getting better. It happens in Irish hospitals far more often than we like to think. Undoubtedly, a broad debate into euthanasia needs to continue. We may one see it one day become legal in Ireland and England. I remember writing an essay on it when I did my Leaving Certificate in the early eighties condemning it strictly on religious grounds. England is in a progressive state of secularism and Ireland is following along in a similar pathway. That leaves me to wonder what students in the year 2040 will write about euthanasia in their copybooks. But for that only time will see.
Published in The Irish Community News magazine
Climbing Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo
If you have never climbed Croagh Patrick then you must set yourself a goal to do so. The annual pilgrimage takes place on the last Sunday of July. It is a spiritual experience. It is also a magical happening. We are fortunate having this great ‘peak’ on our doorstep in the West of Ireland, steeped in such great historical substance attached to Saint Patrick – our patron Saint.
It is estimated that 30,000 complete the annual pilgrimage. Interestingly, the media have reported in recent years that men are holier than women because they made up two thirds of the pilgrims. Another interesting statistic is that only two percent of people climb barefooted each year.
It is immensely difficult to determine a static definition of what it means to be Irish these days. Every generation brings its own perceptions and values – and with these changing parameters comes multi-faceted identities. It is no longer a case of there just being the obvious differences of opinion between old and young in our society. I think if any person looks at someone 10 years older and 10 years younger they will see differences beyond the generation gap in Ireland.
The days of widespread abuse, poverty and oppression have long since become history. People are terrifically well educated these days and we now have a prominent position on the world stage and a thriving economy. Our intelligence as a nation and our contribution to the world of literature and the arts are better recognised now than ever before.
One of the great delights of the Nostalgia Column in The Sligo Weekend is that it reminisces on the best of the past. It goes without saying that there are many past qualities in our culture worth remembering and celebrating. They illustrate great strengths of character alongside the integrity of our people, our cultural richness and our legendary good sense of humour.
Amongst all the changes, I personally cannot think of a better example of Old Ireland meeting New Ireland than the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, which takes place this Sunday 30th July. Well known simply as ‘The Reek’ because of its shape, the holy mountain has stood firm and resolute through the changes that have taken place in our homeland whilst it, too, has adapted to a few changes of its own along the way.
The following is an extract from an article I wrote last year about religion in Ireland during my youth. The piece is written in past tense and makes reference to Croagh Patrick and the six times that I climbed it during my youth.
‘’Our home in Derrykinlough was about fifty five miles from Croagh Patrick – the holy mountain situated in County Mayo, where in the year 441 AD St. Patrick is believed to have spent forty days and nights alone in the bitter cold at the top of the mountain, fasting and contemplating in prayer.
An annual pilgrimage involved climbing three miles up to the top of the mountain and attending Mass. This took place on the last Sunday of July. The climb was quite difficult and took over two hours, the last half a mile mainly consisted of scrambling over rocks and stones making the ascent to the summit quite treacherous. A stick was essential for support and my father always cut one especially for me. But the Order of Malta Ambulance Corps were always on standby, with volunteers ready to administer first aid to anyone who had fallen or to take pilgrims with more serious injuries to hospital. On reaching the top, it was generally considered obligatory to attend confessions and Mass in the tiny chapel there. Several other rituals, however, had to be maintained during the climb including doing a Station of the Cross mid way.
When I was a very young child climbs rarely commenced in daylight and were mainly at night-time. I remember my mother and brothers being collected by neighbours at around 10pm, as I was getting ready for bed. I envied them going on what seemed a mysterious voyage to me. My father stayed at home to mind me. In fact, he only climbed the Reek once. He had found it difficult and never felt the need to make a second pilgrimage. With having the ‘young one’ as I was referred to at home to baby-sit, I provided him with the perfect excuse to stay behind.
I listened with fascination to the stories my mother and brothers brought back. They included tales about people climbing by flashlight and some without any light; itinerant women carrying young children on their backs, some in bare feet – others falling and getting cut. Stories of good humour and camaraderie, with strangers keeping an eye out for each other – everyone united in his or her faith, determined to serve God by undertaking the climb as an act of penance.
The summit of the Reek was always bitterly cold. Thick fog and mist as well as a sharp breeze greeted people as they walked around the church whilst saying a decade of the rosary. When I first climbed the Reek I expected the church to be similar in size and design of other catholic churches but I discovered it was only small and had no altar or pews inside. It was used for confessions and sections were partitioned off for this purpose. Mass was celebrated every half hour from 8am onwards in a little kiosk attached to one of the church gables where people gathered in a large circle to participate. The church was built in the early 1900s. What a remarkable achievement it was to build a church on top of a mountain three miles above ground level. Donkeys would have been used to carry every stone up there because in those days there would have been no other method.
Legend has it that to get to Heaven pilgrims have to climb the Reek three consecutive years to earn the privilege. I duly climbed it three times in a row. It was during one of these last climbs of my childhood that I discovered ‘the third station’.
I accompanied Beatrice, a family friend, on many occasions. During one of these climbs someone gave me a prayer leaflet at the bottom before we began the climb. It was from this that I discovered an additional part of the pilgrimage once you reached the summit. It was optional but Beatrice and I decided to do this extra act of penance consisting of climbing down the opposite side of the mountain for a mile or so. Few pilgrims were doing the third station. Not many knew about it, whilst others who did decided not to take the risk.
The task entailed finding the way through thick fog down to three separate boulders of stones where one had to recite seven Hail Mary’s and seven Our Fathers around each clump. The next year, just before setting out for the climb, I can remember hearing my father say ‘’God Ye’ll end up in the sea if ye’re not careful’’ fearful that we would go off track in the heavy fog and get lost. Apart from being an arduous task, it was doubly hazardous, especially if there were an accident as there was no Order of Malta on standby to whisk one away on a stretcher. It was indeed the ‘survival of the fittest’.
I found the descent from Croagh Patrick to be delightful and easy. Not everyone would agree with me that this was the case. Many people considered it more difficult coming down than going up, not only as it took longer but because of the danger of slipping on the rocks.
During the descent the majestic scenery of Clew Bay across in the distance made the physical challenge all worthwhile. The lake, hills and multitude of greenery made a delightful picture. The fog and mist had usually disappeared by the time one had reached half way down making the views even more breathtaking. It was a relief to reach ground level once again because by that stage, I usually felt physically exhausted, yet mentally refreshed. Stallholders at the bottom of the mountain sold religious memorabilia. Purchasing a medal or picture of St. Patrick ended the pilgrimage appropriately. It was then time to sit down and enjoy the sandwiches and to be smugly satisfied that people at the bottom of the mountain were just starting out on their climb. At this stage after my strenuous efforts, I believed that their task ahead was unenviable to say the least’’.
So if you are game for something a little different this Sunday – get your stick and walking boots out and head for Murrisk – a tiny little village a few miles from Westport where you gain access to the Reek. This will provide a real opportunity to witness a piece of Ireland that expands to all generations. You may even catch sight of a few strong willed pilgrims making the climb in their bare feet. Alas, other commitments prevent me from being present this year. However, I was speaking a few weeks ago to Beatrice who I mentioned in this piece. She is climbing it this year for the 32nd time. This is undoubtedly a remarkable achievement that I imagine very few can equal. I wish all the climbers the very best for Sunday and hope that you all have a safe and enjoyable climb.
Published in The Sligo Weekend
Jamie’s Story with Declan Henry
Custody is quite simply a horrible place for young people. I know because I worked in a Secure Training Centre for a number of years as a social work manager. It’s not that custodial settings set out to inflict hardship or suffering on its detainees. Quite the opposite in fact, with many attempts being made to assist young people with their problems. However, custody often fails because whilst the enclosed environment is strictly managed, it can often become chaotic and will consist of young people who invariably display anger, hostility and resentment for being imprisoned.
Did you know that an estimated 90% of young detainees have a conduct disorder which is a personality trait that renders them hostile to rules? – or that over a half of young people in any custodial setting will suffer from a serious mental health issue? These issues range from ADHD, aspergers syndrome, attachment disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety as well as serious self-harm issues. Besides all this over 50% of detainees will have had a drug addiction which would have sometimes resulted in hallucinations possibly leading to flashbacks whilst in custody.
It is not surprising from a professional viewpoint that young people have such serious mental health problems when taking into account the level of suffering that they have had to endure in their short lives. A large majority will come from broken and unsupportive families and will have experienced neglect, abuse, violence and rejection almost on a daily basis. These young people will not have been able to develop coping skills to withstand the brutality that has been inflicted upon them. Therefore, some will have turned their feelings inwardly and fallen into depression; others will use self-harming as a method of releasing their mental anguish, whilst more will have turned to drugs for comfort.
I am currently working with Jamie (not his real name). He is a young boy (15) who has recently come out of custody. He was sentenced to a six month Detention and Training Order for assault and robbery, the first three months of which were spent in a Secure Training Centre. He is now released and serving the remaining three months under my supervision in the community. I see him twice weekly as part of his DTO licence.
Overall, Jamie is quite a well adjusted young man, academically gifted, plays football, doesn’t drink or take drugs but has witnessed regular domestic violence which results in him having occasional unprovoked tantrums. Anyhow, I helped Jamie to pen some of his feelings of being in custody which consisted of episodes of anxiety and stress.
’’When I was in the dock I was scared and worried because I got a hint of what was happening and when the judge said ‘’six month DTO’’, I felt like going mad. When I was sent down I thought ‘What have I got myself into’. I was handcuffed and put in a van. I felt like crying because I didn’t know what to expect or where I was going or what it was going to be like. I told myself to be calm.
During my time in custody I felt angry because I couldn’t be in control of anything. You start being quiet because you are not being yourself as you are not in a normal environment. You start remembering stuff you forgot about – deep stuff. What you could have changed or stopped. A lot of stuff preying on your mind. I felt I had changed so much during the first month that I felt like going up to staff and saying to them ’If you let me out now – I won’t offend again, I have changed’. But I had to be careful of what I said to staff and how I behaved. I didn’t want to appear too quiet because I thought they would put me on a SASH (Suicide and Self Harm Watch). There was another boy on my unit who was on a SASH. It’s not that I was feeling like harming myself. When you are banged up inside you are faced with constant stressful situations. The staff are stressed, other young people are stressed and then you have to cope yourself. The rules stresses everyone out. You aren’t allowed to look out of the windows in your room. Your bedroom door is locked and you hear the constant noise of keys and have the feeling you can’t get out. My mum couldn’t visit me on my birthday. This made me feel awful.
But you get used of the environment inside seeing the same people every day. You know what is happening and you get used to the schedule. But then when you get out you suddenly have a much bigger schedule. When inside you know what your limits are with people but getting out is a different story. It took me ages to get back to normal life. The day I got out I had to do a bus journey from home to the YOT office. When I got on the bus I got a sickly feeling in my stomach as there were loads of people around me and I didn’t expect this. I had been so excited about getting out but the excitement was replaced with anxiety.’’
There were three points in Jamie’s story which stood out for me. Note how he said he became reflective and spent a lot of time remembering things he had previously forgotten about. ‘Deep stuff…… what you could have changed or stopped….. a lot of stuff preying on your mind’. This made me think about the anguish of young people in custody who have experienced physical and sexual abuse. What must they be thinking at night during their lone moments when they lie there listening to the background noise of keys rattling.
Another point in Jamie’s account leads me to consider counter-transference. Jamie talks about the stressed environment of custody when he says ’You are faced with constant stressful situations. The staff are stressed, other young people are stressed and then you have to cope yourself. The rules stresses everyone out’. Counter-transference in laymans’ terms is when you are surrounded by someone who for example is feeling stressed or unable to cope – and you begin to feel almost exactly how they are feeling. In other words a young person may transfer their negative feelings onto another young person or staff member – or visa versa. Let us therefore muster up a picture of custody. An environment that consists of young people with serious mental health problems including suicidal ideation – others who are feeling anxious or struggling to cope with rules– mixed in with other young people who like to bully and antagonise – alongside staff who are overworked, tired and stressed. The result will undoubtedly entail individual transference of feelings getting passed on to each other, thus creating an emotionally charged atmosphere, which will test even the most resilient teenager imaginable.
The final point I would like to refer to is institutionalisation. Jamie was only in custody for three months but already he had settled into a routine that he found hard to break free from once released back into the community. ‘You know what is happening and you get used to the schedule….but then when you get out you suddenly have a much bigger schedule. It took me ages to get back to normal life. Routines for young people are in one respect excellent because they teach discipline which young people in custody need to get used to. But in Jamie’s case nobody had explained to him how difficult he would find leaving a confined and restricted environment – and the need to readapt to daily life again upon release. Can you imagine how terrifying it would for a young person getting released from custody, after been imprisoned for a year or longer, and then having to go on a bus journey by themselves, like Jamie described in his story. This is definitely an area that requires professionals to put much more thought into. I strongly suggest that Detention Centres include in their ‘Leavers’ programme sessions which enable young people to consider how captivity will have affected their lives and to somehow prepare them for re-integration back into the community. Devising these programmes could be a joint venture with the custodial setting and the Youth Offending Team with a plan of action being devised at the final review meeting prior to release.
Jamie is now back in full time education. I am currently working with him on his anger management issues, exploring skills he will be able to use to avoid losing his temper that will hopefully prevent him from re-offending. The youth offending team use a specific programme entitled Pathways – which contain exercises that teach young people the skills involved in developing social skills that are essential for good interpersonal interactions with others. Jamie’s problem solving techniques have much improved as a result of these sessions. He recently commented that the exercises, which cover a wide range of social dilemmas involving peers ‘have made me look at problems in a different way that I never thought about before’.
I cannot answer how much Jamie has been affected by his time in custody but I suspect that he will, like so many other young people, retain unpleasant memories of this experience for the rest of his life.
Published by the National Children’s Bureau magazine
Gerry Adams: An Iconic Political Figure of our Time
For three decades, from the late 1960’s to the 1990’s, Northern Ireland saw violent political conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities, resulting in three and a half thousand deaths. Catholics considered the British government dictatorial and biased towards the Protestants in areas such as housing, employment, education and policing. Normal interaction and friendship with people from the opposite side of the religious divide was near impossible because of the fear and mistrust the Troubles generated.
Gerry Adams was one person who fought against the oppression of the British government. He was born in 1948 in Ballymurphy, the Catholic working-class area of Belfast that witnessed one of the first massacres of the Troubles in 1971, when eleven innocent civilians were murdered by the British Army. His parents and both sets of grandparents came from strong republican backgrounds. During the 1970’s Gerry spent long periods in prison during the internment era, when civil rights’ activists were falsely accused of IRA membership and held without charge. It was this background that led Gerry into the political arena. In 1983 he was elected an MP and the following year, after four years as vice-president, became the president of Sinn Féin. Under his leadership he has made Sinn Féin the largest Northern Ireland Catholic political party and the second largest political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. But Gerry paid the price of war on a personal level. His father and a brother were shot and injured. Several of his uncles and one of his brothers-in-law were shot dead. Gerry’s home was bombed, his wife and one of his children only narrowly escaping death. In 1984 Gerry was badly injured but survived an assassination attempt by loyalist extremists.
Many consider him a man of mystery and intrigue. This is partly because of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act which stopped his voice being heard on TV and radio broadcasts, but more significantly, there was the difficulty people had in differentiating between his association with Sinn Féin and the IRA.
Not everyone likes Gerry Adams, but few would doubt his commitment and determination to bringing peace to Northern Ireland. In fact some political commentators single him out as one of the most influential politicians (apart from John Hume) in brokering the pathway to the peace process and the IRA ceasefire, which led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, with joint power sharing between unionists and republicans.
In addition to a lifetime in politics, Gerry is an accomplished writer. He is a member of PEN, the international guild of writers, having written fourteen books, including autobiographical works and texts on Irish politics and history.
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gerry Adams for the Irish Community News at his constituency office on the Falls Road in Belfast. I was surprised to find him very different from his perceived stern presence on television. Instead, I found him to be a friendly, likeable and down-to-earth man who projected a calm aura. We spoke about the Good Friday Agreement, dissent groups and his work as an MP.
The following are the answers Gerry Adams gave to my questions.
DH: With regards to the Good Friday Agreement, where does it go from here? What is the next step?
GA: The Good Friday Agreement is not a political settlement. It is an accommodation and a basis for political advancement. It also introduced fundamental political change into Northern Ireland from what had been the status quo.
If you want to get some sense of the depth of the problems arising from British government involvement in Ireland and the partition of the island then look at the breadth of the Agreement. It had to deal with constitutional and institutional equality, justice, and policing matters. It established power-sharing institutions rooted in an all-island structure.
Sinn Féin is an Irish republican party. We believe in the right of the Irish people to freedom and independence and Irish reunification. Our strategy is to achieve a united Ireland. That is our goal. The Good Friday Agreement is a means through which, democratically and peacefully, that goal and all of these matters can be discussed, agreed and can progress.
DH: Do you think that Republicanism and a united Ireland must be relevant to modern day life – and if so can you expand a little on this?
GA: Fine rhetoric won’t bring about change in the lives of citizens. We have to make republican politics relevant to people in their daily lives. We have to demonstrate through the work of our activists, the policies we advocate, and those we pursue in government, that Sinn Féin can deliver real and progressive change for people.
That means tackling poverty and injustice and defending public services and promoting economic justice and equality in society.
DH: Do you think a united Ireland is achievable in your lifetime?
GA: Yes. But it is not inevitable. It won’t happen because it is right. It will happen because Irish republicans are focussed and determined and have a strategy that can make it happen.
DH: Sinn Fein did badly in the last 2007 General Election in the Republic (blamed on the increased prosperity of the Celtic Tiger, resulting in fewer people, particularly young people, interested in a united Ireland) How do you feel about this – and what plans do you have to make Sinn Fein more electable in the Republic and would you consider going into coalition with another political party?
GA: People voted in the belief that the prosperity they had enjoyed as a result of the Celtic Tiger would continue. All of the parties on the left were hurt in that election, including the Labour Party, which failed to take an expected and sizeable number of new seats and in fact lost one of its existing TDs.
At that time Sinn Féin warned that the government was wasting public money. That it was squandering the prosperity that was being created by the Celtic Tiger. We argued for investment in public services. In hindsight, and with the collapse of the southern economy, many people now accept that our analysis and proposals were accurate.
We have also brought forward thoughtful costed and effective alternative economic proposals that can take the state out of recession.
We are also underdeveloped organisationally in the south and that has to be addressed
So, there is a lot of work ahead for the party.
In the north Sinn Féin has emerged after two elections as the largest party – in terms of votes – that is a considerable achievement. But we have to keep building the party in the north and attracting more votes and new members in the south.
DH: Are you pleased with the results of the Bloody Sunday enquiry? Do you think there should be an enquiry in the Ballymurphy massacre? How helpful are these enquires in speeding up the healing process?
GA: The decision by Tony Blair to hold the Bloody Sunday inquiry was a courageous decision, which was clearly taken by him as part of the evolving peace process and the negotiations that were then taking place in early 1998 prior to the Good Friday Agreement. But the length of time it took to conclude and the enormous cost are down directly to the machinations of the British Ministry of Defence and others within the British system who worked hard to subvert and prevent the Inquiry from getting to the whole truth. They sought to do this in a number of ways, including failing to provide essential materials and destroying other evidence. These same elements will continue to seek to prevent further inquiries or the creation of any serious effort to uncover the truth.
The Ballymurphy families are campaigning for a full, international investigation into the events of August 1971. Many victims and victims’ groups want the truth. Sinn Féin supports the establishment of an international truth recovery mechanism which examines the causes and consequences of the conflict and which is independent of the state, combatant groups, political parties, civic society and economic interests. That is the only way to ensure maximum confidence and maximum participation.
DH: Are dissident republican groups a headache for you? What percentage of republicans do you think are ‘dissident’ and against the Good Friday agreement and have you ever had any talks with them – is your door open?
GA: There are a number of so-called dissident groups. They are small and unrepresentative and have no popular support. Their actions are opposed by the vast majority of citizens. And while they have the ability to carry out occasional actions they are not the IRA and do not have the popular support or organisational or resource capacity to engage in the sort of armed struggle that went on for almost three decades.
Recently Sinn Féin has sought to engage with these groups in order to put very directly to them our view that ongoing armed actions have no place in the struggle for Irish unity.
I accept that other republicans have the right to disagree with the Sinn Féin strategy. They also have every right to oppose us politically and in elections. Indeed they have done so in the past and the republican community has delivered their verdict – they received a derisory vote.
However, they do not have the right to engage in armed actions. There is now a peaceful and democratic path available to a united Ireland – the vast majority of republicans are on it.
We want these groups to reflect on the political realities of Ireland in 2010. That is the purpose of our efforts to meet and talk to them.
DH: Please tell me a little about your work as a Sinn Fein MP – what sort of social problems do your constituents bring to you? Have you seen any differences in the social problems since the peace process? If so – what are the changes?
GA: Sinn Féin has a strategic plan for west Belfast, which brings together our councillors, MLAs and me as MP. It is about ensuring maximum investment in infrastructure and employment and housing while seeking to tackle the many difficulties that beset citizens; unemployment; poverty; suicide; anti-social crime; drug and alcohol abuse and so on.
The problems confronting citizens in west Belfast are similar to those faced by urban working class communities in many other countries. However our difficulties are made more difficult by generational discrimination and decades of war.
One change that it now quite stark is the number of people from the Shankill part of the constituency who are coming to Sinn Féin seeking help.
DH: You speak Irish fluently? Would you like to see more investment put into the language in the Northern Ireland educational system?
GA: I have a good working knowledge of it now and I strive to improve it each day. Under Martin McGuinness in his time as Education Minister and now Caitriona Ruane, the Irish language is receiving as of right significant investment but the DUP are in breach of their obligations to introduce an Irish Language Act to give legal rights to Irish speakers.
DH: If you were to recommend just one of your favourite books by an Irish author – what would this be and why?
GA: Call my Brother Back by Michael McLaverty. Because it captures Belfast and County Antrim and tells a story vividly and with wonderful under stated skill.
Gerry has since left politics in Northern Ireland and moved across the border where he because TD for the constituency of Louth in 2011. He was lovely to interview and came across as a genuinely warm man.
Published in The Irish Community News magazine
The Missing Ring
There are some presents in life we treasure. Mine was a gold signet ring that my mother bought me for my twenty-first birthday. It was a July day in Sydney when I took it off and put it into my shirt pocket, forgetting I had done so before taking my clothes to the laundry. Panic set in when I realised my mistake and this only intensified as I frantically searched the returned laundry bag but to no avail. I sped back with great haste to the launderette, close to Bondi Beach – oblivious to the nearby surfers and people strolling along the sands.
The man in the launderette had an unforgettable appearance. He was in his fifties with a face very under-used for smiling. Apart from his surly countenance he had a hunched posture wouldn’t look out of place in a Dickens novel. But his most pertinent feature was his overgrown eyebrows, coupled with wisps of hair growing from his ears. How I wanted him to tell me that he had found my ring. His honesty would have made amends for his appearance. I may even like him. It wouldn’t matter if he never smiled. And I wouldn’t have to sadden my mother by telling her I had lost it.
My mother had accompanied me to the jewellers in Ballaghadereen in County Roscommon to select the ring the previous December. It had been a bitterly cold day with heavy sleet showers but this hadn’t deterred us from driving the ten miles through the rugged countryside, passing barren fields and bog land with withered heather presenting itself as scenery en-route. After choosing the ring, the jeweller inscribed it with my initials. I loved that ring. It was perfect and came complete with a little pink box.
The fresh smell of laundry lingered in the air as I opened the door, but its soothing smell was quickly replaced with disappointment. `No, I didn’t find any ring,’ the man said, but I was instantly struck with a gut feeling that he was lying. There was something in his voice and in the way he looked at me that made me disbelieve him. It is strange when we are sometimes faced by a lie that we skirt around it, excusing liars by shielding them from our embarrassment but end up colluding with them. In my case I asked him to take another look, but the search of the washing machines proved worthless.
I didn’t tell my mother I had lost the ring until I returned to Ireland the following year. She said we would have to go and get a replacement but we never got around to doing this. I kept the pink box for ten years before discarding it as it reminded me of the ring every time I saw it. Irish people are very philosophical about loss. We frequently say, ‘Ah sure let all our all bad luck go with it,’ when we lose something. With this in mind, I hope that at least some of my bad luck went with the ring when we parted company in Sydney all those years ago.
Published in Our Voices – Our Words and Ireland’s Eye
The Face of AIDS
The death of Hollywood legend Rock Hudson in 1985 highlighted the true horror of AIDS unfolding across the world. Although it had claimed victims before, this was the first public acknowledgement of the destructive force being unleashed upon mankind. The television ‘tombstone’ health warnings of the late eighties – ‘don’t die of ignorance’ – were educational, but also served to spread fear and stigma. Since the early 1990’s I have been on the front line of AIDS. I have seen friends die. I have visited AIDS wards in London hospitals where harrowing scenes of illness played out before me. As a social-work student, I did a placement in a day centre for people living with HIV/AIDS. These experiences have led me to believe that AIDS is the most appalling and crippling disease known to the modern world, allowing the immune system to be continuously attacked by serious illnesses ranging from pneumonia to cancer, until its victim is left with a ravaged skeletal body.
As we commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1st, I would like to explore how close medicine is to finding the cure for one of history’s great killers, and remember the Irish men and women amongst the 25 million lives it has claimed worldwide so far.
The most up-to-date HIV statistics indicate that there are 39 million people worldwide living with the virus. Of these 80,000 live in the UK, and this according to the NHS is the UK’s fastest-growing serious health condition; 6,000 live in Ireland where on average 100 AIDS-related deaths are recorded annually. Once it was seen as a risk to all populations, but is now recognised that outside sub-Saharan Africa, it is confined to high-risk groups including men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and sex workers and their clients. Here in the UK those most affected fall into two main groups. Firstly, African people living and diagnosed here, but probably infected in their home country and secondly, gay men where it’s estimated that one in nine gay men in London are HIV positive. Medical experts believe at least a third of these are not yet aware they have the virus and continue to spread it unknowingly.
There was little effective treatment to slow down the progression of the disease until the introduction of anti-retroviral drugs in 1997. These inhibit the growth and replication of HIV in the body. This welcome medical breakthrough has led to an unprecedented 80% drop in Aids-related deaths in the UK over the last decade, however scientists predict they are still a century away from discovering a vaccine and cure for HIV.
Whilst in Hong Kong recently, I read in the South China Morning Post how scientists discovered evidence to suggest HIV has been present in monkeys and apes for at least 32,000 years and not just a few hundred years as previously thought, indicating the enormous time span and ignorance existing about the disease. However, for now, anti-retroviral drugs are helping prolong life and more essentially giving victims hope. It’s a far cry from the days when an HIV diagnosis often came with the advice to give up your job, sell your home, and go and live a little while you could. In simple terms someone diagnosed with HIV today can carry on with a relatively normal life with a life expectancy of another 25-30 years.
There are personal costs to those on anti-retroviral drugs, as they need regular blood tests to monitor their CD4 counts (measures the state of the immune system) and their HIV viral load (the strength of the virus in the blood), along with heart and liver function tests. The complex anti-retroviral drugs come with harsh toxic side effects from diarrhoea, nausea, rash and fat redistribution to nerve damage and cholesterol deficiencies. Once started, anti-retroviral treatment must be taken every day for life. Every missed dose increases the risk that the drugs will stop working.
AIDS has hit Africa the hardest. Although the continent is inhabited by just over 14% of the world’s population, it is estimated that 80% of people who have HIV in the world live in Africa. The main cause of AIDS there is unprotected sex. A lack of contraception and condoms along with unsafe medical injection practices add to the death toll. The United Nations and the World Health Organisation have set up the ‘World AIDS Campaign’, which is endeavouring to enable everyone in Africa to have non-discriminatory and non-judgemental access to adequate HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. But with dictatorial presidents in several of the worst hit African countries (e.g. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe), it is an uphill struggle. Whilst anti-retroviral drugs are freely available in the UK, only around 30% of victims in Africa receive them. The human cost of this life-saving treatment not being universally available results in 4,000 daily deaths across the African continent.
Sex is great but having safe sex is even better. People need to hear the message promoting safe sex time and time again. Charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust and Crusaid do sterling work in the promotion of HIV prevention. But with the recent ‘hurricane’ of coalition spending cuts, the future of such charities will come under great pressure. It is encouraging that the pop group JLS have set up a charity aimed at raising safe sex awareness in young people along with the release of their own branded condoms. They are helping deliver a strong message without frightening or alienating certain groups. It is this kind of work that will increase the ability for people to make an informed choice about their sexual health – and most importantly, it will lead to increased responsible behaviour which in turn will result in decreased numbers of the newly infected each year. And that is what is really needed as we wait for the cure of this horrendous disease to be found.
Published in The Irish Community News magazine
Christmas in Derrykinlough
My parents always put great effort and time into preparing for Christmas each year, and they were very special times in my home in Derrykinlough. When the season was near, we put up big and gaudy decorations, and we loved them. Nothing compared to the excitement of seeing our house transformed with Christmas cheer. The sitting room always received special treatment. Its timber ceiling easily accepted our drawing pins so we went particularly overboard with criss-crossing streamers with balloons added to each corner.
Nature made its contribution with the holly, which we raided from a neighbour’s tree, a bicycle journey away. We cut it into small branches and placed it over pictures and high-rise furniture. We did not care whether they had berries or not. Berries were generally rare except for the occasional year when a full bloom would surprise us all.
One Christmas in the early seventies artificial trees were on display for purchase in Jim Grady’s shop in Gurteen. We were all amazed at how real they looked, so my mother decided to buy one during one of her trips to the village. There was great excitement in our house when she arrived home with the parcel, and when it was unwrapped we thought it was the nicest tree we had ever seen. It was tall, broad and very convincing in its realism. At that time, it was unthinkable that anyone would assume it was anything but real, especially after we decorated it with tinsel and an assortment of differently shaped and coloured baubles.
Christmas heralded more frequent visits by the postman, who came daily with Christmas cards. We would line them up on the mantelpiece, and then the overflow would go on a specially constructed line of thread across one of the walls. We always counted how many we received to see if they outnumbered those of the preceding year. They usually did, but some years when the count seemed low we cheated a little by adding a few of the cards stored away with the Christmas decorations from previous years. It was tempting to delude people into thinking we had received more cards than we actually did, and I think it was my brother Kevin who started this trend, but I soon caught on to the idea too. However, one year we were over the moon when the real number amounted to over thirty cards. We thought our popularity was at an all-time high.
Something else stands out in my memory of earlier Christmases: the big market fairs in Tubbercurry. This annual event on December the 8th attracted large crowds since it was the place to go for Christmas gifts and, not least, to buy a turkey. Buying a turkey was no easy task, and my father would cast an experienced eye over all the birds until he spotted one he judged to be healthy and well fed. In the meantime many jokes were exchanged and plenty of bartering took place. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a reply to a trader asking for too high a price like, “Aarrah… What are you talking about? I wouldn’t give the butt of a fag for that,” when negotiations took a turn for the worse.
Eventually, a live turkey would be purchased and taken home, where its health and happiness would continue to be watched over until a few days before Christmas. Then it would be slaughtered, plucked and cleaned in time for dinner on the day itself.
Christmas time also meant an extended story about Fella, the office dog, in the December edition of St Martin’s Magazine. I would eagerly await and read the story longing to see what the twist would be at the end. Here is one of the stories:
Hello, Boys and Girls,
Oh, what an awful fright we got as Jock Bruce Spider put his hand in his pocket and took out the letters that were to be posted two weeks ago telling Santa what we wanted. Freddy Fly sarcastically said that if we woke up on Christmas morning and found nothing, Jock would be the first to call Santa names and say how mean he was.
Jock and I rushed downstairs to listen to what Freddy Fly and Mr. Fairy would say and to see if anything could be done for us. Freddy handed the letter to the Fairy and said: ‘That stupid Spider is going to ruin our Christmas’. Jock said to me: ‘Fella! I think Freddy Fly might sometimes be right, I think I am stupid.’ All I did was to give a big growl and make a bite at him. I said that besides being stupid he was unreliable, and I made another bite at him.
All this time the Fairy kept looking at the letters and turning them over in his hand, saying: ‘Mr. Fly, you are asking an awful lot. Do you know you are asking me to break the first law of Toyland, which is that all letters must be posted so that they will be received at least three days before Christmas? You beg me to bring your letter by hand just hours before Santa leaves! Oh! Mr. Fly, you are asking a lot, but put on the kettle and we will have a chat and see if anything can be done’.
Jock looked at me and said: ‘Fella, Santa will be leaving in a few hours and all that Fairy wants to do is sit there drinking tea. I know we are going to have a very sad and lonely Christmas.’ All I did was to give another growl and make another bite at him reminding him once again that it was all his fault. Boys and Girls, it was just awful listening to Mr. Fairy talking about football, and where he was when he was small, and all the time drinking cup after cup of tea but still there was no sign of him going. From where we were hiding we could see our three letters sticking out of his pocket and once again Jock said: ‘I hope he does not forget to deliver them’.
At last Freddy Fly said: ‘Mr. Fairy, I hope you remember the letters you have in your pocket, for in a few hours Santa will be leaving’. With that the Fairy jumped up and said: ‘I nearly forgot about the letters! Please let me out. Freddy Fly why didn’t you remind me? I’m late already and by the look of things I can’t see myself being in time for Santa before he leaves. Perhaps he will not even take delivery of them.’ With that he finished his tenth cup of tea and dashed for the door shouting: ‘Happy Christmas’.
When Mr. Fairy left, Jock Bruce Spider and I rushed over to Freddy Fly who said: ‘Men! Things are looking bad. I cannot see that Fairy getting those letters to Toyland in time. If he is late it should be a lesson to every little boy and girl all over the world to post their letters in time and not expect Santa to bring the toys if he doesn’t get the letters’. Then Freddy said that the best thing for us to do was to go to bed and hope that, maybe, Mr. Fairy would be back in time and we would not have to go back to play with our last year’s toys.
Jock and I went to bed and I felt sorry for poor Jock as he wept and said: ‘It is all my fault! As Freddy said I’m stupid, I’m stupid!’ Well, Boys and Girls, I do remember getting into my basket, but I don’t remember going asleep for all of a sudden I woke and there was Jock Bruce Spider dressed up like an Indian and screaming: ‘Fella, Fella, Santa came after all! A Happy Christmas Freddy Fly and Fella’.
Oh, Boys and Girls, I jumped out of my box and there stood a lovely, gleaming three-wheel tricycle with the words ‘For a good Dog. Happy Christmas from Santa’. Well, I could hardly believe my eyes to see such a lovely present. So Mr. Fairy got back in time to Santa in Toyland and we all had a Happy Christmas with all our lovely presents. We hope you have the same. Until next month, three barks and a wag of my tail! Woof! Woof! Woof! Fella.
The idea of Santa Claus was very much alive in my house when I was very young. I recall waking before dawn on Christmas morning and looking at the gap at the bottom of my bedroom door to see if I could see a light on in the sitting room. If I did, I knew my mother was up, and without further thought I would leap out of bed and race to the sitting room to see if Santa had indeed come. And there on the table would be a wrapped brown parcel waiting for me. The thrill and excitement of getting the string off added to the agonising suspense of the moment. Many coveted gifts would be revealed: train sets, colouring books, pens and Plasticine – Christmas had well and truly arrived.
What never seemed to arrive though was snow. I recall Christmas Eve as having a distinctive peacefulness about it. Snow certainly wouldn’t have been out of place then, and I remember often longing for a white Christmas. I think that Christmas cards picturing a pristine all-white world fostered the anticipation of snow, and maybe it was just as well we kept the nicer cards for redisplay because no snow made its appearance in the Christmases of my youth. The weather unfortunately always remained mild.
My mother switched on all the lights in our house on Christmas Eve, and a candle was placed on the kitchen windowsill. This was symbolic to show that our Lady and St Joseph were welcome in our house. This touching simplicity reminded us of the Christmas story, and that it was the beginning of a joyous time to be cherished and enjoyed.
Christmas Day was usually very relaxing in our house. After Mass, my brothers and I helped our father with the necessary farm jobs, but we did them as quickly as possible. The essential turf for mother’s fire was brought in while she had the very serious task of cooking the Christmas dinner. “Keep that fire well stoked,” was a remark often to be heard coming from her lips. The table was always meticulously laid with mother’s best table linen and crockery.
Films on television were limited, but anything with dinosaurs or something that would frighten or thrill would add another few hours’ enjoyment to an already perfect day. A few neighbours or my godfather, who lived nearby, would come to visit in the latter part of the evening, with my parents usually doing the chatting and entertaining.
St Stephen’s Day was special too – everybody in Ireland calls it St Stephen’s Day as opposed to Boxing Day. Ireland has a long tradition involving something called ‘Wrenboys’. This focuses around the wren – a little brown bird similar in appearance and size to a robin but without a red breast. Stories about the wren come from mythology dating back to the Middle Ages. The Irish word for wren is dreán or draoi éan, which translates as ‘druid bird’, and according to ancient folklore the wren is quite a mischievous little bird. Allegedly, when the Irish forces were about to catch Cromwell’s troops by surprise, a wren perched on one of the soldier’s drums and made a loud noise. This noise woke the rival troops in time to fight the Irish soldiers, resulting in many casualties. Another tale blames the wren for betraying St Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr. Apparently, St Stephen was hiding from his attackers, but a nearby wren flapped its wings, alerting the pursuers to his hiding place. Evidently, because of these misdemeanours a folklore king dictated that all wrens should be hunted down and killed. Thankfully, a less harsh interpretation of this command was in place several centuries on and all that was required was to sing or play a musical instrument on December the 26th. Perhaps this was punishment enough for the wrens, having to listen to croaky voices and musical malfunctions when they could otherwise be perched peacefully on tree branches. A financial reward was usually given at the end of each wren entertainment. This is a little verse which explains the process a little more:
The wren, the wren,
the king of all birds
On Stephen’s Day
was caught in the furze
Up with the kettle
Down with the pan
Give us a penny
to bury the wren.
If you haven’t a penny
A ha’penny will do
If you haven’t a ha’penny
God Bless You.
I personally went out on the ‘wren’ for four years in a row; the first two with an older friend, and after he had outgrown the experience a different friend accompanied me for another two years. I can’t remember what I sang with the first friend, it could well have been a rendition of either Silent Night or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, which are still sung by wren boys to this day. However, during the final two years my act became more refined in the sense that I chose a song by Brendan Shine, an Irish country and western singer, entitled Where the Three Counties Meet.
Throughout my wren career, I always cycled from house to house with my partner. We travelled around for at least eight hours, covering a dozen or so of the local rural villages with our act. Our trips took us through muddy boreens and over fences; we were often attacked by dogs, and knocked on dozens of doors before singing our song. But there was a tremendous excitement about travelling around and singing in public. Some households gave generously, whilst others only a little. But some people were kind enough to give us chocolates and biscuits as well as money. I left the task of ‘cashier’ to my partners. They collected the money throughout the day and at the end we went to one of our houses and split our earnings equally.
I will always remember Brendan Shine’s song with its jovial lyrics:
Oh how lovely to be on the shores of Lough Ree
On a beautiful mid summer’s morning
Looking over the lake where the waters do break
By the hills in the County Roscommon
I left my home, in the town of Athlone
On the way to the Three Jolly Pigeons
It was near Glasson town, on the road I sat down
And looked over the beautiful Shannon
Lough Ree, oh Lough Ree, where the three counties meet
Longford, Westmeath and Roscommon
As I stroll round her banks, by the heather and peat
They’re the memories I’ve never forgotten
Oh sad was the day, that I went away
To work among timbers and concrete
For now as a man, I must follow life’s plan
I forsook the dear place of my homeland
If God grants me grace, I’ll return to the place
When the sunset of life has come o’er me
Once again on these shores, like a bird my heart soars
As I gaze on the beauty around me.
I would arrive home at the end of the day, just before dusk, exhausted and dirty, although I was richer than at the beginning of it. My mother would have something lovely and warm ready for me to eat, and I would go to bed afterwards feeling very happy. The exuberance of innocence and youth was in full flow. Christmas time was simply brilliant!
Published in The Ireland’s Own and the Sligo Weekend
A Summer Long Ago
It is indeed strange to think back on how one person could have had such a huge effect on my life. How unrequited love had left me feeling so low and inept. I was in Hong Kong on my way to Australia – a land I imagined to be full of mystery and continuous sunshine, unlike the cold and damp climate of the west of Ireland where I grew up. I was only in my early twenties and should have had the world at my feet. It didn’t feel that way though. It seemed as if I was running away from my problems. But they wouldn’t let me escape, they just crept secretly into my suitcase.
Hong Kong was hot and balmy, yet full of life in the midst of its vast wealth and contradictory poverty, massive skyscrapers and legendary backstreet markets. It is strange how in moments of emotional turmoil, we stop and stare at people and places, as if we believe they will provide reprieve from what is going on in our heads. I looked with fascination at rows of children lining up in a school playground preparing to go back into class at the end of lunchtime. They all looked the same height, dressed in their immaculate blue uniforms and not a word emanating from their lips as they yielded to the teacher’s discipline. I thought about the notion that there is something safe and carefree about being a child that eludes adults. They don’t have our problems, nor do they have any realisation of the apathy and misery we create for ourselves. I desired to be free from my troubles and yearned for a philosophy that would lead me to a better understanding of human nature and relationships. And as I left Hong Kong on the last rung of my journey to Sydney, I was determined to find ways of filling the hole in my life.
It was ironic that my arrival in Sydney was met with rain; how Australia decided to greet me with weather reminiscent of my homeland. Maybe it wanted to be in tune with my deflated mood. I need not have worried about feeling melancholy for long though, because as soon as I set eyes upon Sydney Opera House and the spectacular Harbour Bridge, my spirits lifted. Something clicked within my brain that almost told me everything was going to be all right. In fact, I had only been in Sydney for a few days before I stumbled upon something that was going to change my life. I was invited by a man on the street, named Scott, to enter a nearby building and undertake a free personality evaluation. This consisted of a series of scientometric tests used to measure personality and aptitude. I cannot remember the exact results but they showed both positive and negative traits in my personality. I then discovered the good thing about the negatives – I could do something about them. Scott explained that I was a ‘thetan’ – a spirit, an immortal being that had lived many past lives.
Something in his words prompted me to wonder about how many places in the world I had been buried and what it would be like to be in a cemetery and pass one of my graves Scott also made me aware that I had capabilities beyond description, unbelievable mental strength and endurance trapped inside of me – in short, I had the potential to do just about anything I yearned to do. The creativity inside of me was bursting to get out, but would never see the light of day unless I set about freeing it. It wasn’t the mistakes I had made in life, nor was it the moments of regret, rejection or guilt I had experienced that were holding me back. It was me who was stopping my progress to a happy and successful life and I was the only person who was the master presiding over this decision.
Scott then suggested taking me on a tour of the building. My attention was drawn to an unusually shaped cross on the wall opposite us. It looked like a normal cross but had four additional diagonal rays between the usual horizontal and vertical arms.
‘Is this a church?’ I was prompted to enquire.
‘Yes, it is,’ replied Scott. ‘It’s the Church of Scientology.’
I had never heard of Scientology or its founder L. Ron Hubbard (affectionately referred to as LRH) before. Scott told me that LRH was a famous American pulp fiction writer who had created a religion that was totally different to Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. It was a religion that matched no other religion known to mankind. It held the answers to every human and world problem and had a specially designed pathway that would lead to total spiritual enlightenment. I was in total awe of what Scott was telling me. My ears were doing overtime taking in this new information, my eyes bulging with wonderment as it slowly began to dawn on me that Scientology could lead me to the mental contentment I had yearned for during my soul-searching moments in Hong Kong.
I embraced my new-found discovery with outstretched arms and delved straight into taking courses in the church’s academy. One of the first courses I studied in the academy was the Suppressive Person course. Here I learned much revealing information. Scientology believes that the world contains suppressive people (SP) and that a percentage of antisocial personalities form part of society to the detriment of mankind. History is sprinkled with iconic figures that everyone is familiar with; the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. I was surprised when I was asked if I knew any SP. Surely not, I thought to myself. But then I discovered that SPs are found in every domain of life, not just in personalities like tyrants and dictators. They can be your neighbour, employer or even a close relative. They come in all shapes and sizes and will not necessarily emit their venom with a surly face, but opt instead for a churning wry smile. Many times they will have surrounded you. They probably still do. And you will recognise the words, ‘I’m only doing what I think is best,’ when your gut instinct tells you that nothing is further from the truth. These nasty individuals will thrill in squashing, belittling and stopping the enhancement of those around them. People in their midst end up stressed, ill and will doubt their capabilities and potential. I made up my mind there and then on the course that I would avoid, challenge or disconnect from anyone who I perceived had SP traits in their character, and to this day have remained true to my pledge.
I particularly liked ‘auditing’ which was a form of spiritual rehabilitation counselling. The auditing procedure consisted of an e-meter, which a trained counsellor operated. The e-meter was not unlike a lie detector, but generally considered by the church to be much more accurate. It could detect the slightest murmur of mental charge through holding two metal cans, one in each hand. A core belief of Scientology is that humans have two parts to their mind – analytical and reactive. The latter is very dangerous and it is here where reminders of painful and traumatic events are stored. Auditing gets rid of the reactive mind, thus paving the way for the individuals to free themselves of these limiting effects. Every problem, every aberration, every phobia is tackled and blown to smithereens. Surrender is not an option in the process.
‘I repeat the auditing command,’ the auditor’s voice would instruct.
You get audited and audited until all the mental charge related to the topic in the session has been dissolved. But the relief was immense every time the auditor delivered the magic words at the end of each session, ‘Declan, your needle is floating’; meaning all mental charge in this instance was dissolved. Auditing is ecstasy. It boosts the ego. It puts you on a high elevation. Imagine the happiness you would experience upon hearing that you had passed an interview for that ideal job you had always wanted. This joy would remain in your mind for a long time afterwards. Auditing was like that. Like a picture of a rainbow that begins to unfold on a mid-summer’s evening, but only better.
In addition to getting rid of abnormal thoughts in my head, I was also getting rid of toxins in my body through the purification rundown programme. This consisted of a strict regime of exercise and sauna sessions to remove and help eliminate these poisons from the body, coupled with a special diet and vitamins to feed the body with healthy nutrients, bringing about a state of optimum good health. The principle was simple, a healthy body leads to a healthy mind, and in turn this feeds into the enhancement of the soul. So with this I received a thorough spring clean in both mind and body. It was a great sense of relief to think those grubby little toxins that had squatted in my body had been evicted. As a result I felt good. I felt bright. I was more articulate than I had ever been before in my life.
I loved my time in the academy. It was like being back at school but a whole lot nicer. No bossy teachers, bullies or jam sandwiches for lunch. No pressure of feeling competitive towards other students. Everyone was developing as individuals with new knowledge and skills being unwrapped daily. It was here that I fell in love with a dictionary. Yes, you have read correctly. A dictionary. LRH believed that people constantly either bypass words they don’t understand whilst reading, or misinterpret their sometimes different meanings. This leads to confusion and disinterest, which in turn results in ignorance and disaffection. The only way to prevent this is to know the correct definition of each word. Take for instance the Oxford English Dictionary. It contains 59 million words. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone in it knew the meaning of every one of those words? It is hard to imagine a world of tyranny or war because education is the best power of all.
One of my favourite books in Scientology was called A New Slant on Life. Here in this book, LRH tells how we change as people throughout our lives but mistakenly think it is the physical world that changes and not us. I thought a lot about this concept in the academy and concluded that it made sense. My thoughts led me back to Ireland and my childhood. I grew up in Derrykinlough, a rural village in southern Ireland where good weather in summertime was rare, but when the sun shone nothing was more relished. Waking up in the warm breeze, I would observe from my bed the lace curtains of the large bay window billowing in the early morning air, and rising to look through the windowpane, I would be greeted by Mother’s lupins that graced the front garden in their yellow, pink and purple shades. The sycamore, palm and fir trees that my great-grandfather had planted across the pathway, stood tall and strong. They had been home to the early morning birds that sung the daily dawn chorus for a very long time. A magical sight to young eyes. Why did it have to change or why did I think it had changed? A New Slant on Life made me realise it was I who had changed.
The scene through the large bay window of my family home remained the same. It was I who lost the sense of wonderment from appreciating this delightful scene. I had grown up and my perspective on life became such that I thought the environment around me had changed. Reflecting on this deeper meaning of life made me aware that people change faster and far greater than the physical environment ever does.
The world becomes a marvellous place when you are happy. The sun seems brighter, people appear friendlier and every problem fades away. I had become a magnet that attracted nice friends, had an interesting social life, spent spare time holidaying across Australia and had a lifestyle that entailed dining in good restaurants and drinking my other new-found delight – champagne. This was mainly due to Diana, a fellow Scientologist. She was slightly younger than me and lived with her wealthy parents. I became a regular visitor to their mountain cliff home overlooking Cronulla Harbour. One evening Diana baked pecan pie for dessert but miss-set the timer. Eating it was like eating spoonfuls of glue. It stuck everywhere and refused to move. We usually sat and watched the sun set by the large swimming pool whilst drinking Dom Perignon or fine claret from the extensive wine cellar. But on this evening we just rocked with laughter at Diana’s thwarted attempts of being a master chef. The fact that my days were often long, studying during the daytime in the church academy, and weekends spent working in a hotel, did not deter me in the slightest. I was living a dream. I was learning new skills and strategies every day and was earnest in my determination to work towards reaching total spiritual enlightenment. But perhaps most important of all, I had found happiness.
Did anyone see Halley’s Comet when it paid a visit to planet earth in 1986? I was excited as I set off to Bondi Beach to join hundreds of others in a pursuit to see this rare visitor. Apparently it is the only comet that is visible to the naked eye and it only crosses earth every 75 years. I was twenty-three years old and correctly calculated that I would be ninety-eight by the time of its next visit! I’d be an old man then, probably humped and walking with the aid of a stick. But I wouldn’t be any ordinary old man. I’d be a very wise one – satisfied of a lifetime well spent, abundant in knowledge and grace. This would be an old man who would be holding his own personal key to eternal freedom. I would be a free spirit capable of choosing whatever pathway into mortality that I desired. I’d also be free from the pain and misery that often blights old age. I didn’t see Halley’s Comet that night, but as I sat and observed the powerful waves of the sea on that moonlit April night, it did not matter. I reckoned I had probably seen it many times before in previous lives and if I hadn’t, well, then I would book a private sighting at some time in the future; such was the power I’d hold when I had worked my way up to the higher echelons of Scientology.
My time in Sydney was drawing to a close with my twelve-month holiday visa due to expire. It was time to return to Ireland and leave behind what, in many ways, had been a surreal year. Just before I left Sydney I remember Diana and I going to the cinema to see Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox. In many ways the name of this film summarised what was happening in my life. I was returning to my future. Of course I promised to return to Australia. I’ve holidayed there a few times since, but not to resume my studies in Scientology. It was lovely being back in Ireland. I had missed my parents and our beautiful black and white collie dog. We had some lovely weather that summer. I filled my time on the farm, sleeping, eating and cycling on the quiet lanes around the neighbourhood and became engrossed in the national debate of divorce as the country went to vote in the referendum.
How futile this all seemed in face of the massive pool of knowledge I had learned whilst in Scientology. How lucky I was to have discovered it, felt its power, relished its truth and perhaps met some of the most sincere and nicest people that I am ever likely to meet. I will never forget my journey to Australia; how that lonely, unhappy young man within me walked around Hong Kong, wishing for a better life, not realising then that what you wish for in life sometimes comes true. I went to live in London shortly afterwards and have, in the main, lived happily ever since.