Category Archives: Ireland

The Power of One

I am outing myself as an Only Child. Not only an Only, but also dual nationality and on the easy end of the autistic spectrum with synaesthesia thrown in for good measure. Good grief, I am even professionally interested in myself.


There are tensions and delights to be had from all the above. I am Irish/English, and until I started school at a convent where I lived in London I had thought I lived in Wexford with trips to Dublin. I only ever met Irish people and they only ever talked about Irish things. My streets were Irish streets filled with Irish people and Irish papers. We visited Ireland many times and it was where Family was and where Family happened. Good stuff was there. So………slowly realising we lived in London and I was a little bit English was a bit of a moment. And the accent! Well, that was finally knocked out of me once I hit Grammar School in the Shires. As a bright pupil I was lucky enough to have earned a proper education for which I am grateful, but no room for diversity back then! Conform or suffer, the stuff of Grammar and Boarding Schools throughout the  Counties back in the day, and I am not sure it has changed much.  I chose not to suffer. Well, not too much……….

That flaccid grip on national identity has an upside. As an Only I am not a natural joiner, I stand back and evaluate, I overthink, buying into something is not an easy gig for an Only and that apartness, the sense of being outside, brings strength as well as missed opportunities: strength to say no, to weigh up friendships ruthlessly, to maintain integrity and authenticity even at the expense of relationships or career choices – to maintain rightness. Juggling the Irish English that is deep inside is made easier by the lack of joinership – without that need to be within, to join, there is less of a sense of loss of identity as the roots are not firm but swim and sway back and forth under the connecting Sea. The downside is the crushing disappointment that can be had if what one has bought into is revealed to be corrupt or decayed. Childish disappointment in an adult can be corrosive. And that smug integrity can mean an intolerance for others who disappoint, personally and professionally. But, topically, this background makes it easier to understand current cultural issues: amidst the multitude of “communities” that take root around the UK many individuals claim to be ignorant of some of the dreadful things some people within those communities plan and commit. Nonsense. An entire community that can maintain its identity so precisely within another host community does so only by knowing what is happening within and either supporting it or allowing it and by controlling its members. I do not believe those protestations of innocence that are paraded on the tellybox when an atrocity happens. They are not credible. I was on the verge of radicalisation myself – although of course we didn’t know what that meant then –  as a young girl with family members in Sinn Fein when the IRA was casually sold to us as a romantic and necessary part of our culture. My apartness saved me then, and I am grateful for it.

I was “home” recently in Enniscorthy. Travelling alone allowed me to reflect as much as I needed to: I went to see family and friends, spent time simply watching and hearing the Slaney and listening to the birds and the horses, soaked up the familiarity of the places and enjoyed the simaltaneous detachment that is in the DNA of an Only. I watched and listened – something Onlys do a lot. My synaesthesia means that listening is an often joyful and often inadvertent experience, as well as sometimes complex and distracting. The sound of the horses hooves on the turf became a very visual experience for me, the birdsong I enjoy every morning provides a colourful backdrop to activity. I can be surprised by a visual experience from an unexpected sound or some music that I had not expected to hear – delightful, if a little unnerving at times! And Ireland has the best beach on the planet in Curracloe, and I spent time there too. My children all had their first experience of sand there as babies, deliberately.  Saving Private Ryan was filmed there. The fine pale sandy beach is in surroundsound and stretches away right and left fringed by the magnificent dunes and rushes, and the ocean, with its mauves and greens and blues rolls away to the horizon where everything surely falls off and magically glides back home………It fills the vision and the senses and recalibrates everything within a few short breaths.

I also spent some time at my parents grave. No comfort there, I thought, just pain and grief. I was on the verge of an internal meltdown as I sat on the edge of the grave and ran my fingers through the pebbles and stones covering what remains of my parents. And then, a tiny dog appeared from nowhere. Genuinely, I was sitting in the centre of the graveyard and the dog had not been visible, and then he was, and he made a fuss of me and insisted on sitting on my lap and I had no option but to fuss him and talk to him. And slowly the world righted itself again and things came back into focus. Job done, he ambled off, only to return magically just as I was about to leave, insisting on a final fuss and chat. Small wonders make ones day. And as a wise friend said, The universe can be a calm and comforting place , the gentleness of its messengers can heal and support in the most unexpected ways.

So, in a circular way, we are back at Integrity and Rightness. A part of grief grows directly out of regrets: regrets for things done and not done, for mistakes that can never, now, be put right, conversations that can never, now, be had, and love that can no longer be shared or spoken.  However we treasure our integrity – my integrity – it will always fail somehow. And that is because we are all flawed and broken to some extent and we will forget to do things, or will choose activity that we later regret. And sitting there next to the place my parents now share as they shared so many years together before that, I started to understand it better. In the end we are all alone with our grief and our regrets as well as with our triumphs and achievements.

I feel grateful that things conspired to make me aware very early on of the Power of One. It made me a better leader and a worse follower, oddly both non-judgemental but also intolerant of hypocrisy, created in me an over-thinker but thoughtfully balanced that with a resilience and drive that has led me along a fabulously interesting and rewarding pathway. Not an easy companion but I hope a rewarding one for those who choose to be close to me, and I cherish those who choose to be so. Celebrating your own Power of One and connecting with that solitude that nourishes, you will discover the strength within. Trust me, I am an Only!






Beauty often stems from a degree of breakage…….

Freedom fighters and terrorists

I was brought up in an Irish “community” which yo-yoed between London and Wexford – I didn’t even know I lived in London until I started school – I thought, if I thought about it at all, that we lived in Dublin. And the Convent did nothing to reduce that view populated as it was with weatherbeaten old Irish nuns and a few young and timid Irish nuns all of whom appeared to think Galway was the centre of the Universe, priests were Supermen, and who spent a lot of their time blushing. And using their ebony crucifix as a weapon of mass destruction in the classroom – I still have the migraines to prove it – but that is another blog entirely. Most of the Irish in that community had integrated well with the Brits, worked hard, played hard, were charming and funny, generous in the boozer, and made no trouble. Making no trouble was important: if you made trouble you were visible and if you were visible you were a target. I am old enough – just –  to remember the No Dogs No Blacks No Irish signs. I am young enough for that not to have hurt me as much as it must have hurt my Dad. Making no trouble also lost me most of my Irish identity at my Shires Grammar School where it was clear that British – or even better English – was the only way to be so that is how I sound. And then in the ’70s when some Irish people were committing appalling violence on the mainland sounding English was another good way of being invisible.  It is what it is.

We have heard a great deal in the past few months about “communities” responding to news of terrible crimes, the dreadful murder of a young man in Woolwich for example, a crime to which many of us, including myself, responded with anger, rage and a profound desire to show support and to evidence our own corporate abhorrence, a complete refusal to tolerate that kind of offence. For most of us the complexity of the West’s involvement with the Middle East was not relevant – one of our own had been violated and that was enough. It always will be. I was never asked, at any time, for my communities response. “Muslim communities”, “religious communities”, “local communities” were all asked for and gave their responses. Which was my “community”?

There is so much accepted wisdom about “communities” and the need to belong. Belonging to a community implies a committment, a shared identity, a shared purpose and some shared experiences. If those shared experiences, which are often deliberately re-told to include and sometimes encourage a shared sense of being wronged or misjudged by another “community” in order to consolidate the brethren nature of the group, are used by people with their own agenda, then we have “radicals”. Or, people with strong political beliefs. If these communities really do exist – and I remember with love my own splinter community in Kilburn where I felt safe and warm – then they will inevitably harbour dissent.

It is all in the words. Semantics rule. One mans radical is another mans believer; Freedom Fighter or Terrorist depends on where you stand when the landmine goes off.  If your community tacitly agrees that there is another community that oppresses yours, that there is a valid reason for dissent, then the people who resist perceived oppression will be Freedom Fighters, people to be if not feted then supported and protected. Our Own. The other community calls them terrorists. Whatever we call them they still kill and hurt people. The name does not mitigate the behaviour. There are many people today in the “communities” who are being asked for their views who make it clear that they do not know of anyone who is “radicalised” or a threat. Nonsense. I may not have known names or specifics as a youngster but I knew that there were people being hidden, supported, funded and fed by people who were good people, but who were supporting bad things because they were Ours. It is not possible to be even a small part of the group and not be aware of something. And that implicates the whole community. I remember my Dad and indeed our family being viewed with suspicion just for being Irish despite the fact that he was the least likely person ever to be a radical. Ever. The community was tainted.

Cards on the table: I support British troops to the max. My wonderful son in law is in the British Army and I don’t think I even have to add anything to that sentence. This piece isn’t about me, or him, or the British Army, or any communities. It isn’t even about politics. It is about perception. Perhaps because of my experiences I do not feel a need to belong to any particular group or community. That feels good. It means I am free to like anyone, or dislike anyone, based not on their community or group, their culture or their colour, their beliefs or their appearance, their criminal record, politics, height, weight, dis/ability, status or wealth but on their behaviour and their charm. That means I have a lovely eclectic collection of friends and acquaintances who give my life colour and depth. It also means that I would not shelter any one of them if I thought they had behaved oppressively or had hurt anyone. I don’t have to. I am free. I am free to love and support them whatever they do, but also free to disagree and not to feel obliged to shelter them if they do wrong.  That liberates both parties.

One of the first things that will support Radicalised people – people passionate about a cause –  to stop doing bad things to other people is for them to see those other people as people and not part of a group or community. Oppressing people will never relieve the oppression of another group, it will just complete the circular journey of hatred. But those groups will resist – why would they give up the power they have? It is in individuals that the answer lies. That means you and it means me.

Real Lives for Real People

I love eating and drinking………actually what I was going to say was “I love eating and drinking in different places” but I could just have left it at those first five words!!

Anyhoo……I like trying out new and very different places to eat and drink. I enjoy a sophisticated restaurant as much as I enjoy a greasy spoon, depending on how I feel and where I am, and I guess also on with whom who I am eating. Being veggie makes it a bit of a hit and miss affair sometimes, but that says as much about the restaurant as it does about my dietary habits. Eating out isn’t just about the food though – it’s nice to go out for a meal with friends or the Old Man or alone, and one of the best evenings I have had in a while was when my three daughters and I went out for a pub dinner in Ireland one evening recently, simple fun, talk, hugs, food and some good beer and a bit of an unplanned but very necessary private wake for my Mother.

Just like the meal in Ireland when my daughters and I relaxed into an informal evening oiled by a few beers and some traditional food, some of the best and most rewarding meals out have been in simple surroundings with basic food. On that occasion we  had good company which didn’t intrude but kept us happy, was amusing and warm with a charming smile, and made us feel happy. Where I live now in the UK there is a simple eating house called Aminas. It serves basic but well cooked food in a simple environment and with a smile, and when my Mother and I used to go in there they always accommodated her wheelchair without a fuss, no big deal, just one of those things. That felt nice. And very different to places like some coffeehouse chains (not Cafe Nero which is always a pleasure) where there is hardly room to walk never mind place a wheelchair, the staff generally grump around and behave as if they are doing you a favour, and bring out the vacuum around 16.30 so that you don’t outstay your welcome and hold up these young things pretending to work there from their evenings merriment spending their wages to which you have contributed for the pleasure of being grumped at.  And the punters in the coffeehouse in question are often a little, well, homogenised and dull.

In Aminas it is possible to sit for hours watching people and not get bored. All human life passes through the doors and gets a welcome and a smile. I sit and read the paper or scribble bits of dialogue overheard from other tables and find endless interest and fun, and there is a communal feel to the place, the feeling that whoever you are you will be welcomed and the tea will always be hot and strong, the eggs perfect and the toast just right. People smile and greet one another and the odd bit of behaviour that might attract attention elsewhere simply doesn’t. It is, in short, a place of comfort and good tea and a fab people watching venue. The meals are always the sort of meals that people actually want rather than what they say they want and they hit the spot perfectly.

I love splendid food in rich surroundings, look forward to experiencing complexity of cuisine and maybe a new taste and a bit of fine dining, but for simple all round daytime pleasure and people it is the coffeehouses like Aminas that get my vote. Like the B&B in my hometown in Ireland where we stayed last month, Killurin Lodge in Castlebridge, Wexford,where the food was terrific (the breakfasts were like the ones I have at home but oh so much better and I didn’t have to wash up or chop the fruit……bliss. And the cooked breakfasts made with the eggs laid that morning by their own hens were pitch-perfect) and the accommodation was so comfortable, the room actually seemed to cuddle me the bed was so soft and clean and warm. But the glue holding the entire experience together was the people: warm and caring, charming and fun, they made it the kind of place you recommend and re-visit, and especially given our own rather sad reason for being there (funeral, estate sorting and other things you prefer not to think of until it is too late) they made it easier and less traumatic simply by being kind and pleasant.

So, however the environment is dressed up, as long as it is hygienic, it is the people that make a meal memorable and comfortable. And the same goes for any business: however well presented the premises and however pretty or clever the advertisements, if the people are not warm, friendly and go the extra mile it is still a second rate business and less likely to attract returns and recommendations. Whatever the surroundings, what the punters will remember are the receptionist who did not smile, the lengthy wait as other appointments run over time and no explanation is offered, the arrogance of the people on the front line, the lack of a handshake or even worse the flip-flop handshake of someone in a hurry who doesn’t care if they impress or not . No amount of pretty wallpaper or plantpots will rectify that. This principle applies whatever the business. The guys who managed my Mothers funeral last month and my Dads three years ago, Brownes in Enniscorthy, were terrific. They were warm and kind without being so kind as to prompt loss of control, charming and gracious, sensitive and surprisingly amusing,  and absolutely perfect in what they had to do, slick and practiced at the graveside as much as they were warm and charming in their offices. I couldn’t have asked for more.

There is a great emphasis on the environment in the delivery and inspection of nursing and residential care services, and quite right – it matters and should be taken seriously. There is no justification for shabby premises or tatty decor and to deliver support services in a poor environment simply sends out the message that the people using the services do not matter enough to smarten it up. Not acceptable.

BUT, some of the warmest and most person centred services I have encountered have been delivered in untidy and less than perfect environments. Not shabby, not neglected, not dirty, just lived in and comfortable. The kind of places that don’t mind if knitting is left lying around or books left open and squashed, where the odd sock on the bedroom floor or a few plates in the sink aren’t a hanging offence and there is evidence of people actually living there rather than inhabiting the space where their “care” is delivered or, worse, getting in the way of the staffs routine and tasks. The people living in the house own the space, and they matter and have lives, and that is shown by the stuff lying around and the “real life” gribble. People don’t, as a rule, live in hotel environments, so why should we expect people who need support to do so?  My house is perhaps more shabby and untidy than most, stuffed with paints and paintings, books and papers, files and guitars. And I love it like that. Maybe a little tidier……perhaps I shouldn’t find, as I did recently, the tin whistle I was looking for weeks ago under the piano along with some coins, two books and a half eaten biscuit. And actually my office area is as organised as can be with filing cabinets and desk clear and easy to manage. But where I live, where I relax and do other stuff, is comfortable and interesting, and we all need that.  Inspectors and commissioners need to bear that in mind when assessing services – look under the surface and into the heart of the place and accept the gribbly every day living stuff that makes a house a home. Hospitals and clinics are not the same, they are workplaces where people visit for treatment and move on. Homes, places where people live and have lives, should always be treated differently with different criteria, so that the people living there can really live there. Real Lives – that’s what we want. It’s what attracts me to Aminas (along with the perfect fried eggs and the wonderful people-window…) and what everyone deserves whether we need support or not. And frankly, if we don’t need support today tomorrow could be a different story. Would you give up your Real Life because you needed help to wash and dress or support to shop?

Real Lives for Real People. Now that’s what I call Living.

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