Does anyone remember the Milk Essays? Or the Milk Short Story Competition, I can’t remember the exact term and I’m showing my age

The things I was good at and the things I was bad at were crystal clear by the time I was 12. In Mrs O’S’s class, you were lucky if you were good at Art or Maths. Outside of that she probably wouldn’t remember you. I was good at Art. I was chronic at Maths. It made me memorable in both cases. Every day she would give us a Maths problem to solve from her dreaded Big Blue Book. My God, I despised that book. I hated it like only a pubescent pre-teenage girl can hate. I hated the reverence with which Mrs O’S would take it down off the shelf and smile, while the sound of forty reactions bounced around the classroom. It was as if, every day, I was being handed a page of text, written in Cuneiform and expected to translate it into English. I knew it was an impossible task, a futile exercise that I would grapple with for the rest of the afternoon, while girl after girl finished her work and went up to get it corrected. If she got it right, she stood in the corner, a place of pride in our classroom, not shame. From this dominant position, she (it was always the same girl) stood, wallowing in pride – and why not? For the next hour at least, she’d have to stand there, doing feck all, while the rest of us painfully pulled ourselves through to a solution. May I just get out of the way right now, that I was always second last, the long line of triumphant girls snaking their way across the blackboard and beyond, watching me with varying degrees of pity. There was no one more surprised than me when I finally worked it out. I hated that exercise. I hated that we were put through that ordeal every day of sixth class. It didn’t help me to be better at Maths; it only highlighted for me on a daily basis, that thing I was woefully bad at. I felt judged and I felt stupid. I was a happy child and had plenty of friends, so it didn’t damage my social standing as far as I know, but it’s a mark I still feel, and very deeply.

I had missed a key year and a half of learning, when my family emigrated to Spain. It was unheard of at that time – Ireland of the 1970s, for such a thing. To the Spaniards, just crawling out from under the dictatorship of a recently deceased Franco, it was beyond exotic, and we were wildly popular when we attended school – which wasn’t very often, as we travelled around quite a bit with my father’s work. Most of the time I sat with my sisters at the dining room table of whatever house/villa/apartment/hotel we ended up in, going through our school books, which were posted over to us by our Irish school teachers. We self taught. I liked to fill in the workbooks with whatever nonsense came into my head; I doubt I even read the questions. It was a time for drawing, scribbling, bickering and whispering, while my mother made dinner in the kitchen. Maybe I missed out on my education, but between early 1976 and late 1977, I had the best childhood an Irish girl could ask for. I had a mindful moment one day, as I walked home across the strand with my sisters, having spent the day swimming and making sandcastles, wearing the sunflower beach dress my mother made for me, my bare feet delighting me as they made their way across the wet sand; everything about my life and my own self delighted me in fact, and I remember singing a little made up dreamy melody, the word ‘Sunshine’ the only lyric. I thought of my self as sunshine in that moment – my dress, my mood, my life. It was a very pure moment and I’m so happy my father captured it in a photo, or it would have flitted out of my head like so many other things.

A year after Spain, in Mrs O’S’s class, I won the Milk Essay. It was important to me to win it, although as far as everything else in my life went, I hadn’t a competitive bone in my body. My story of milk production in Ireland was told by Marigold the cow, who lived on Farmer McGillicuddy’s farm and marvelled that milk could float ‘past your eyes’. I won a camera for my trouble. I knew I deserved it. It took six years in a secondary school that was the round hole to my square peg and a line of teachers who missed my ability to finally assure me that I wasn’t really all that good; creative? Me? Deep down, sure – but not great; not something that would appeal to many. And so, let off the hook of academia and with nothing else to fill the gap, I began my collision course of wild weekends and late night boozing. I let myself get lost. I remember consciously doing it. I spiralled until one day I got pregnant and that put a stop to my gallop. My son was many things to me, including the catalyst that brought me back to myself. Immediately I began to write; to him, to my diary, to my future self. And I remembered Marigold the Cow, and my fiery painting of Napoleon that Mrs O’S hung in pride of place on our classroom wall. I remembered singing about sunshine and long dreamy days on the beach and away from school. For so long I wondered if my free-spirited childhood in Spain had hindered me. Finally, I came to understand that I was learning vital lessons from a Teacher who saw the sunshine in me.


International Women’s Day

ForagingWhen I was a teenager my mother used to despair of me ‘always fighting with the nuns.’ Square cog, round hole, mad hair.  You get the picture. I couldn’t be tamed. Years later, I’d smile at that, wondering what she would have made of the fact that I have at least four nuns in my phone’s contact list. One, in particular, is the woman I’d like to write about for International Women’s Day.

Sister Rachel was known around here as The Healing Nun. When I talked about her people said she sounded more like a White Witch. I made it a habit to get to her every few months, like others might go for a massage or a facial. She never once asked me what was wrong, although sometimes I would talk about this or that issue; either way, she would see me fixed and send me on my way. When our session ended, I always got a kick out of her in all of her eighty something years, stooping down and rising up with the energy of an angel to build up my aura. A Dublin woman, she was down to earth as well as very much of the earth. She’d often struggle to find the correct term for something, although it was endearing; how she’d describe what she meant instead in words that were handier, and always she was fascinated by the power of the body, the mind, the spirit, the generosity of the earth. At her funeral, her niece spoke so eloquently about her, and described her so exactly that I wished I had recorded it, the last whispers of the woman who spent her life giving because that was the truth of her. “It’s incredible!” She would say, in awe of everything. She was a joy to behold because so many things pleased her. One day a few years ago we discussed herbal medicine. I had begun studying it years before and had to give it up which I resented. But she just worked with the earth in the simple way that matters; she picked nettles and cooked them up with some garlic and butter on a Friday night, spreading the mix on toast and giving it to whoever was around, watching the Late Late Show and absentmindedly enjoying the snack, not realizing what they were eating. She told me about Maria Treben, the Austrian Herbalist; she loaned me her book, Health Through God’s Pharmacy. And I was back in love with the earth; with the Yarrow and the Horsetail and the Dandelions. Now everywhere I look I see the fruits of the earth; the gifts on offer, right there in front of me, free and freely available. I often thought I’d love to walk through the woods with Sister Rachel, softly pointing out certain plants to each other and what ailments they would cure.

I’m not alone in my admiration of this beautiful earth-woman, and I remember her fondly today as we celebrate what it is to be a woman. She quietly found a way to balance her life as a nun and as a healer; it’s not just the mothers among us who are givers. Ramsons


In honour of Mothers

ANu Goddess


“Someone is coming ashore inside her…”

Where do you turn when you’re in need of some inspiration?

I have a couple of fail safes that are guaranteed to reboot my creative juices; one is my well worn DVD (and before it, VHS) copy of the Seventies film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Call me odd (and blame my background in musical theatre) but it just jigs everything up. I can’t watch it without crying and daydreaming my way into or out of some scenario or other, but it always inspires me when I’m creatively stuck.

The second is a photo by David Cleary that my husband gifted me a few years ago, called The Sun and The Moon – check it out, it’s stunning. It hangs in my sitting room and every time I look at it, I am, quite simply, inspired to go write, paint, draw…anything that makes me create.

Finally (although, a finite list is impossible for a creative) I am always moved by the words of the Irish poet John O’Donohue (he called Anu the earth goddess and mother of fecundity in his book Anam Cara) His understanding of Celtic spiritual wisdom was profound and I always find comfort in the way he wrote:

“We are always on a journey from darkness into light. At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother’s womb. You lived the first nine months there. Your birth was a first journey from darkness into light.”

How can you not smile when he puts it that way? Sadly, this wonderful man left the earth in 2008. Given the approach of Mother’s Day, I’d like to leave you with this poem of his, which I first heard him recite on RTE radio one morning not long after the birth of my own daughter Aisling, and which left me weeping at the joy of being a woman:

The Nativity by John O’Donohue (From the Collection Conamara Blues)

No man reaches where the moon touches a woman.

Even the moon leaves her when she opens

Deeper into the ripple in her womb

That encircles dark to become flesh and bone.


Someone is coming ashore inside her.

A face deciphers itself from water

And she curves around the gathering wave,

Opening to offer the life it craves.


In a corner stall of pilgrim strangers,

She falls and heaves, holding a tide of tears.

A red wire of pain feeds through every vein

Until night unweaves and the child reaches dawn.


Outside each other now, she sees him first.

Fresh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth. 

Headcase – Part 1


I’ve been a week in this hospital bed and Tao is holding my hand. Or Toa. None of us are sure; it’s not much to ask, to remember the man’s name, but we’re the ‘Head Cases’; the Neurology Ward. Some of us have trouble remembering our own names. What we do know is that we adore him. Every day when his shift starts, he enters our ward with a cheerful disposition and it puts us on a higher plane. Where are you from Tao? Tuo?


He wasn’t a nurse, he was a care worker. He lit up our hours while he was there. What was special about him? He cared. Genuine. Pure. And he brought much needed energy.

“Ladies! I’m here! How are you today?”

It turned out Tao/Tuo/Toa was short for something with seventeen syllables.

“Every good man should be called Joseph.” Said Alice.

There was a short silence while we all weighed that up. We never called him anything other than Joseph after that.  Alice wept every evening when his shift ended. He spent time with her, assuring her he’d see her tomorrow and that she’d have a good night. She never did though.

Alice was the first person I clapped eyes on when I was wheeled into the ward, and I thought I had never in my life seen anyone so ill.

“Hello my darling,” she called across to me. Everyone was ‘my darling’. Alice: My grandmother’s name; my mother’s age. Our ward was special. Beyond special. Alice centre, Lisa and Patricia either side of her; me opposite Alice, Pat and Mary either side of me. I’d watch Pat and Mary praying in the morning. Both of them would close their eyes. Pat’s lips moved. Mary used rosary beads.

“What are you saying?” I’d ask.

“I say my prayers.” Said Pat.

“Like, recite them?”

“Yes, the Our Father, the Hail Mary. I say them all. I say them for people.”

I looked at Mary. She was also 67, like Pat and a countrywoman.

“I do it that way too.” She said.

“And do you think about who is listening?” I asked them. “Do you think of God as a man, sitting on a chair, like, and listening to you, like a priest listening to confession?”

“I know God hears me,” said Pat. “I have no doubt in my mind. And He answers my prayers. I have no worries and no concerns because I know that. I believe it.”

Mary looked at me.

“Same here.”

When Pat was being wheeled to her operation, she was praying, her eyes closed and her lips pressed into an easy smile.

“I’ll pray for you Pat!” I called out.

She waved.

“I’ll be fine. I have no doubt.” She said. But we didn’t see her again. That happened; she was moved into step down, then another ward for recovery, then home. The woman who took her bed was not that much younger than her, but blonde and worldly wise, where as Pat had been a farmer’s wife, a simple unadorned woman who knew her truth. This new woman was vain and troubled. I resented her because she changed the dynamic of our ward. But all things must come to an end.

Before that, I thought Patricia, across the way, would change our lovely vibe. She was younger, perhaps forty-five. She was wheeled in during the night. In the morning I greeted her chirpily; she should know she’s entered the most delightful of spaces.

“I’m not fucking delighted to be here.” She said, anger seething through her, choking her. “My nine year old son has a brain tumour that blinded him when he was six. He was cycling his bike one minute and on death’s door the next. He’s in remission. Now I have a brain tumour. So forgive me if I don’t give a flying fuck about your lovely ward.”

Alice kept the energy of our ward pulsing normally. The tiniest kindness to her was rewarded with words of genuine gratitude, words that were designed to make you think differently about yourself.

“You’re pure gold.” She’d tell me if I fixed her pillows. I was the only one who could walk for a while, so I was the pillow flufferer. And I was the one who would march, angry on behalf of us all, down to the night nurses’ station to tell them for the tenth time that Alice was desperately uncomfortable; that she wouldn’t ever ring the bell herself and that she needed the hoist to make sleep bearable.

About a week into my stay, Joseph came on his shift and I was crying. His face reflected our pain; it was almost him you’d feel sorry for. I missed my children. He sat with me and held my hand. I had told Geoff not to come and visit every day; Beaumont Hospital was a schlep and our girls were tiny; two and four. He was grateful for the release from this added stress. Geoff was always the better parent; if either of us was going to be left to fend with the kids on their own, much better it was he. It has always been this way; he has known the right temperature they should be, what they need to include in their diets, how best to handle the awkward situation with that teacher, how to fill in the CAO form. But I was their mother and I missed them; the noise and the laughter and the worried little face of Aisling when I showed her our address, written in pen on the wall where we planned to wall-paper some day; how to read the characters to remind her of the learned off address. How to dial 999 if she found mommy asleep and couldn’t wake her. I had to ask that of my four year old. I can see her now, her concerned face coming into focus as I woke up from dozing, checking to see if mommy was finally not going to wake up. Feeling guilty I had put that burden on her. “I’m OK.” I’d tell her and she’d smile, accept it and go back to playing.

Two months earlier, I’d become worn down with the consistent headache I was having. I began to complain that I’d had a permanent headache for five or six weeks now. Everyone said it was probably sinus.

“It’s pretty bad.” I’d say.

“Yeah. Sinus can be bad.” They’d say.

Then at some point, I said it to Geoff.

“You’ve had a headache for six weeks and you’re only saying it now?”

I was sent to the GP. We have the best GP in Ireland but she was away that day and the locum said,

“Sounds like sinus.”

The next morning, a violent pain hurtled me out of sleep. If you’ve ever seen a slasher movie, with multiple unnecessary stabbings – this is what I felt was happening to my head. It was bad pain. Evil pain. Something is seriously wrong with me pain.

My own GP had returned and she sent me for a CT scan. The doctor that conducted the scan asked me questions. When did the pain start? How bad was it on a scale of 1-10? Did it actually wake me up? He and the nurse nodded. I waited in the waiting room until he walked out, gestured with his head that I should follow him and we stood together on the sidewalk outside the door of his unit in the private clinic complex. He explained that I had an AVM, an Arteriovenous Malformation on my brain. Think of it as a lesion; a bad lesion. It could bleed. I would need to go to my GP within the hour.

I looked around; it was a surreal moment, one of those ‘this isn’t supposed to be happening’ moments. I needed some familiar connection, someone to roll their eyes and say, ‘bullshit.’

“Well…should I be worried?” I asked. Now he looked around, as if there was a danger of us being overheard.

“Well…it’s your brain.” He said.

I cried all the way home on the Luas. Thinking about what the people on the Luas must be thinking about me: maybe she’s just heard she’s got cancer, she’s just come from the clinic, right? Man, how the tears flowed. Then I thought,

I can’t do this to Geoff. He’s at home with the kids, waiting to hear how much sinus medication is going to cost us.

I pulled myself together and walked home from the station. He opened the door. I burst out crying.


It took two months to get a bed in the hospital. The Hospital Registrar sent me home saying:

“Don’t exert yourself; don’t lift anything, not even your children. Don’t get stressed.”

That was hilarious. If he’d known my life situation at that time, he wouldn’t – couldn’t’ have said that.

“Don’t,” he said, with an entirely straight face, “get constipated.”

I thought about making some sort of joke, then thought, better not.

“Is there anything else you feel is relevant?” He asked.

“Well, I’ve been diagnosed with M.E.; Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.”

Without skipping a beat he said,

“We feel that’s over diagnosed in this country.”

I nodded. Put in my place. But I wanted to scream,

“Are you fucking kidding me? Do you think I have wanted to go to bed for two weeks at a time? Lying on the flat of my back and still not feel rested?”

The Professor in Vincent’s Hospital had diagnosed it.

“You’ve got stress induced chronic fatigue syndrome.” He’d said. “M.E.”

The Professor walked everywhere with a posse of doctors that looked adoringly at him. He was The Man.

“What…what will I do?” I asked him.

“Learn to live with it.” And off he went, flapping the bedside curtain out of his way with a practiced flourish; his posse looking back at me as if to remind me what a lucky bitch I was that he sat on my bed, took my hand, looked me in the eye.

When I look back – retrospect, you know – I believe it was a dreadful Winter Vomiting Bug that started all the trouble. One late afternoon, in the middle of a class, a wave of nausea that scared me. I sent the kids away and drove home quick as I could, and just in time. I was so violently ill that we needed to call a locum doctor out to give me some kind of injection to stop the vomiting and the rest. It was horrendous. I look back on that and I believe that it did untold damage; it stripped my immune system in one fell swoop, I’m sure of it. Every health problem I’ve had since has stemmed from that day – and anyone who spends time around me knows if I’m allergic or intolerant to many things, and I’ve had health issues of soap opera standing. That’s another story and a boring one to be honest; I hope I never write about it. But coincidentally, my brain lesion decided it was time to shine.

I was probably born with it. Giving birth to my third child probably brought it on, but no one knows for sure. But alongside all that, I had the remains of what Glandular Fever had done to me (I never knew I had it; it showed up in blood tests – but it made sense as to why I went from work to bed to work to bed for so long). I was so fucking tired I didn’t even realize I’d had a miscarriage. I told my friends when we were out one night, that my last period had been so heavy, I’d had to go to bed for two days, just to manage the bleeding. They looked at each other and then gently told me.

Of course I had. It fell into place. I’d even had morning sickness but I was in no fit state to recognize that. A miscarriage that I managed to miss. What did that do to me? I didn’t mourn the baby; I never knew it was there. And I was so tired; I couldn’t have coped with another child so soon after Ciara. I’ll be honest; I was relieved. I was working all the hours. I wasn’t eating properly; I was vegetarian and not looking after myself.

So glandular fever had impacted on my liver and the whole thing had culminated in giving me stress induced chronic fatigue syndrome.

“Why am I so tired, all the time?” I asked the Professor.

I remember thinking sometimes, if I get sick I can rest. Then I started thinking,

“If I get really sick, I can have a really long rest.”

Be careful what you ask for.

In July I was sweeping the floor after summer camp, bending down to pick up glitter and bright paper cut offs, noticing bad pain in my head. By September I was talking to my neurologist about brain surgery. And I wanted it; I wanted the damn thing out of my head. In between my warning not to get constipated and being admitted to hospital, I’d had some odd happenings. One day, I couldn’t read; I simply couldn’t get my head around the words. I knew I recognized them – I can even remember looking at the word ‘and’; thinking, ‘I know those symbols, I know what they mean, but right now, they’re just symbols.”

There is an exceptional TED talk called ‘Stroke of Insight’ which I urge you to watch because it is the most inspiring and comforting talk I have ever listened to; but also, when I watched the speaker, a brain scientist called Jill Bolte Taylor, I understood completely what she was saying as she described in scientist step by step terms what was going on in her brain as she was having a stroke. I know that; I thought. I have had that sensation.

I have had a few strange happenings with my brain. Geoff says it’s good to know that at least I do have a brain but I know he worried. The day they told us they wouldn’t operate, his relief was so palpable I was shocked. I had been rooting for it; I wanted the whole thing over. He, ever the realist, was relived beyond words. Pre hospital, during the waiting hours, when he’d come home late from a gig, he would check on me first thing, make sure I was breathing. Going to bed was – I won’t lie, a bit of a fear factor for me.

What if I have the haemorrhage while I’m asleep? What if I wake up dead?

And so began the habit of the glorious glasses of wine, pre sleep, to numb my senses. Geoff would hear me snoring soundly. Funny times.

Eventually, my treatment began. The operation wasn’t an option because my AVM was too close to my optic nerve, so blindness was a risk. And I was happy to start treatment; for too long I’d been the only one with ‘nothing’ wrong with me in our lovely ward. There was a night (none of us slept) when I broke down, embarrassed that I was in this ward; I didn’t have a brain tumour or spinal injury; what right did I have to be here?

“Emer,” said Patricia, “you are as much of a headcase as we are. And we all laughed. But it was true. Patricia’s tumour was benign but she still needed an operation. She was no longer the woman wound up in pain.

“What do you think of Colin Farrell?” She asked me once.

“I like him.” I said. He was in the hay day of his hooring days, so some people frowned at his name.

“I won’t have a bad word said against him.” She said. He’d visit the kids in hospital, at night, with no media and no posse. Quietly and respectfully. He sat with them and listened to them and did his best to make them laugh.

Patricia’s son had an entire room in their house, floor to ceiling, full of gifts that people had donated to him. People don’t like little children to have cancer. One day I met him. Patricia’s older sons – all in their twenties, were in the family room, and she called me, her three year old daughter in her arms. Come and meet her son, the boy who was nine, the boy in remission.

He had auburn hair and brown eyes and the gentlest soul I’ve ever encountered. Previous operations on the tumour that still lived in his head had not only blinded him, but left his head in a permanent tilt, so that he looked like he was always questioning what you’d said. The child took my hands when we were introduced and I understood that I was in the presence of pure raw goodness; I may have gasped, looked at Patricia, and she nodded, Yes, he really is that special. Folks, I held the hands of an angel, perhaps. I have never forgotten it. The woman that looked on at us and the woman who told me to fuck off the night she was admitted, were one and the same. She knew. And she knew.

The day before my treatment started, I was allowed out. My family came, took me to a restaurant, where I drank wine and sat my girls on my knee, and later, I went home for a short hour where I walked in my garden. I had a huge and giving lavender plant back then, since dead. The flowers were in full bloom. I had read a book about Alzheimer’s patients when my mother began to go down that road. It said they had done tests and lavender helped patients sleep; stopped the night terrors. I thought of Alice. Of all of us headcases. And I picked bunches of lavender for each bed. When I returned, I tied a bunch on the headboard of each bed.

“Emer, you’re pure gold.” Said Alice.

The nurses, sometimes grumpy from tiredness, walked in and stopped, noses in the air.

“What am I smelling?”

The lavender put everyone in a good mood. We were the ward that other patients visited because we smelled good. Everyone loves lavender. I was happy I did that. My treatment began the next day and my time in the ward was over.

What’s Really Important

What's Really Important

I’m pretty sure it’s the only time I’ve bought a naggin of whiskey, intending it for my own sole consumption. (Of course, I disregard my wild teenage years when God knows what I bought and how much of it I drank; we did whatever we could get away with whenever we could manage it back in those days.) No, I’m talking about as a mature adult. Sure, I’ve bought naggins before – heck, entire bottles of whiskey, when around this time of year, the cold gets into me bones and I might arrive home from work of a Thursday evening and suggest to Geoff that an auld hot whiskey is in order. I’m not talking about any of that; I went into a shop, bought a naggin of whiskey, threw it into my handbag and pegged it off to a certain Wicklow beach, hoping against hope that the liquor would give me the bravado to take off all my clothes and run into the sea, naked as the day I was born.

My first Skinny Dip. Year two of Deirdre Featherstone’s event in aid of children’s cancer charity Aoibheann’s Pink Tie. She had expected me to do it the first year, but alas and alack I was in the States at the time. Year two, and she wasn’t hearing of my absence. These pushy warrior women, with their strength of spirit – I had no choice. Alright, I agreed. I’ll do the fecking thing. But the day had arrived, and for some reason I hadn’t a soul to travel with; I had decided to do this all on my own and so I set off, hoping that I was suitably adorned (I plaited my hair and wore a dress with a split up the centre and a couple of stick on tattoos.) I bought the whiskey and set off. So far so okay. I arrived at the scene: women everywhere, every shape, every size, every age, every personality type – and they were all in high spirits. The Preamble to the Event, in the grassy car park: prosecco, chocolate, full on body art and a complete lack of modesty. These were women of experience; year two for most of them and they intended to slay. I searched around for another newbie like me. I spotted her; that girl I sort of knew, the friend of a friend. I immediately recognized the look of terror on her face; it was like looking into a mirror. She looked like I felt. We connected.

“First time?” I said.

She nodded, her eyes distracted by every new group of women, wheedling into the car park, honking horns and spilling out of wagons with scarcely a shred of decent clothing on them. My modest stick on tattoos seemed ridiculous beside their full on body art: ‘Swipe your credit card here’ and a massive arrow pointing to a bare arse; ‘Park your bike here’ – there was worse, believe me. Everyone screaming with laughter. Flowers painted around one surviving boob. A woman posed for a photo with a wig jammed down a flesh coloured pair of nickers: the spell was broken and I laughed till I cried. I opened my whiskey and accepted a chocolate. Suddenly a loud horn sounded and Deirdre announced we would make our way down to the beach. Throw a dressing gown over your naked self and let’s go. I looked at my first time sister, silently saying: “Are you going to go through with it?”

She looked at me, silently saying back: “I don’t see that we have any choice.”

Alone, at the door of my car, stepping out of my knickers, with my Doctor Who dressing gown secure around my shoulders, I honestly seriously considered hopping into the car and wheel spinning the heck out of there. This, I told myself, is the worst moment of my recent life. How can I expose myself in this way?

I had the most appalling sense of worth; my idea of my own body was that I was huge, and that it was a bad thing. My arse was the size of a small country and regardless of how many women that were bigger than me, nothing could convince me that I was not the ugliest one there. And that it actually mattered. Scars of my life glared at me for having the cheek to expose them. Stretch marks from my first pregnancy; my twenty-year-old body punished for the rest of my lifetime. A threatening varicose vein; the trials of carrying three children and nursing two. It takes its toll. How many women stand in front of their naked selves and lament?

I was grateful for the whiskey. Apart from giving me the courage to go down to the beach, it was brutally cold that day; we even had icy rain mixed in with the cold Atlantic wind that whipped at us from the seashore. Brilliantly, Deirdre had massive posters, each with a single letter. Like everyone around me, I dropped out of my dressing gown and hid behind a letter. We lined up on the shore, buck naked, save for the posters, while our female photographer did her best to get shots of us: the giddiness was rife; the energy was beyond electric; we were gagging to run into the sea, and yet we had to be photographed: push the message home – “Cancer, you haven’t a hope.” “Don’t be a mug, check those jugs.” We were united by our genitalia, by our breasts – some women didn’t even have breasts any more. There were battle wounds but no more war cries; the screams that came from the beach that day were ones of jubilant defiance – come and fucking get me, but don’t stop me having fun! You can only hold back a hundred elated women for so long; politeness snapped and we were off, flying into the sea, screaming, singing, laughing; the shock of the ice cold sea really making an impact as it hit our fannies: a hundred curses rising into the winter-like May sky. A moment: the sound of a hundred women laughing; a hundred female souls, released from giving a flying fuck. The Wise Woman within in me, who reveals herself on the rarest of occasions, said:

“Do you see now? It is only skin; it houses something far more important. Here are a hundred sublime souls, exposed and shining. The scars and blemishes, the size and the shapes mean nothing. I am dancing with my sisters and we are all glorious.”

Deirdre and I walked out of the sea together. I hugged her, thanking her for making me do it. We walked slowly back up the beach, and chatted next to the discarded dressing gowns and towels; it was only the cold that prompted me to eventually cover up. Beyond, were women, well into their fifties, doing naked cartwheels and everywhere were women hugging and laughing. The mad ones stayed in the sea for a while and the rest of us sat on the soft cold sand, retrieved our prosecco or our whiskey and sat within the best of ourselves, smiling at life and feeling the cogs of perspective slide back into place in our lives.

That is the truth of my first strip and dip. Some of the women stayed over in a hotel and partied through the night. I had a party to attend back in Dublin. A beautiful friend was turning fifty. I burst into that party full of joie de vivre in the purest sense of the word. I took selfies with every group of people there, honestly, because I was delighted with myself and was getting a kick out of my own pure smile. That’s what the strip and dip did for me. For almost the next year, I got up in the morning and just got dressed, without the drama of tearing my hair out because something made me look fat. It released me from the pain of that daily trauma. As we got closer to the date, I recognized the need for this, what would become my annual balancer; something to help me remember what I really am and what my connection is to everyone around me.

Not everyone gets this from the Skinny Dip. Some people take it in their stride. They’ll do it once, but maybe never again. For some people, body image is not an issue. Some people will never do it because body image is beyond managing. I was lucky. I had this pushy girl prodding and prodding me to do it and because of her, I found my soul on the beach that day. I mean I really connected with myself. I didn’t get to do the dip last year, and I am emptier because of it. This coming year is going to be the biggest ever, because that relentlessly brave woman Deirdre is going for the Guinness Book of Records. A thousand women will scream into the sea: A thousand warriors will release their scars to the skies and we will laugh and we will dance and we will sing.

These are amongst the things that help to heal me. They are important.

Join us this year: June 9th and sign up for the Guinness Book of Records’s Largest Skinny Dip

Crowd Control

Crowd Control

It’s been difficult to write; all this talk of #metoo – of course I wrote a blog on that. Then deleted the whole thing. I wrote another one about different ways I’ve lost weight over the years. That’s hanging on my desktop to be revamped for when it’s appropriate. (In other words, for the next time I actually lose weight.) The one I wanted to write was the #metoo one. There are so many reasons for hanging back, for not suddenly coming out with it years later – as many reasons as there are for speaking about it. I’ve been asked about this blog in the same vein: why now? Didn’t you get it all out of your system when you did the TV programme? Here’s my answer: I’ve done my time. I’ve spent 30 years in the prison of my own secrecy. I’m fifty goddamn years old. I’ll talk about whatever the fuck I want.

I can remember my mind when I was a little girl. I floated through my life with an automatic filter on the bad stuff. It was like I had been pre-programmed to see only the good. I thought the best of you until the bad parts of you revealed themselves. And you had to work really hard to get it through to me that you didn’t like me, if that was what you felt. Most of the time – and this is still true – the signals went over my head.

I did, at age ten or eleven, however, find my first nemesis. We were too alike in our sense of our own importance, although in my defense, that didn’t necessarily mean that I considered anyone else less important. We were confident sassy girls and the clash was bound to happen. The energy between us had been dirty for some time and we tolerated each other only because of our mutual friends. One day, I decided to press all her buttons. It was fun, I won’t lie; she was brilliant in ways I could never hope to be, but I wasn’t jealous. Jesus, I didn’t want to be LIKE her; I couldn’t stand her. We were in her house. Every time she told me not to do something, I did it. If she told me not to pick up an ornament, I’d pick it up and look at her and say,
“What, this?”
I stayed calm. She went crazy. And eventually she screamed at me until her mother suggested she ask me nicely to leave her home. I left, smirking, and waited in the laneway nearby for my friends to join me. I waited long enough to realize they weren’t coming.
Life lesson: loyalty is complicated.
Soon after, we clashed again. I can’t remember how or why; it happened regularly. This time, we were in school. This time, she pressed all my buttons. She went to the bathroom and left me fuming. There was a song out at the time called ‘Gordon is a Moron’ (we may have grown up in the 70’s and 80’s, an unfortunate era for fashion and hair, but that was when Punk evolved, so yah.) I was so mad with this girl, I started singing ‘(Her Name) is a Moron’ and jumping up and down in the fashionable way of the punk rockers of our time. Some girls joined in. Within seconds, the entire class was jumping up and down singing ‘(Her Name) is a Moron’ gleefully, while I was in one part of my mind concerned that the prefab would collapse, such was the pounding and shaking of 40 pre pubescent girls acting like punks, and in the other part I was thinking,
“What have I created? I didn’t mean for this to happen. I didn’t ask anyone to join in and now the entire class is in on this. (This Girl) will be back from the loo any second and how the fuck am I going to get this monster back into its cage?”
Except I didn’t say ‘fuck’ because I was eleven. I don’t know if she did come back. I don’t know if she stood outside the door and cried. I can’t remember. No one in the class hated her. They had no reason to join me, other than the fact that they knew the song and it didn’t matter that I had changed the words to include her name. It didn’t occur to anyone (I think) other than me that this was an awful situation.
That story has bothered me for years. Right from the moment it happened it has bothered me. I didn’t want it and I didn’t mean to instigate it. I reacted and the mob went along with me. I didn’t know how to control it.
Life Lesson: Mob mentality isn’t just about the French Revolution; it’s here and now and far too easy to stoke.

I work with the energy of people; as a drama teacher I read it in order to adjust the class I’ve prepared. The energy of one person can affect the whole group, doesn’t matter if it’s giddiness or depression. It’s my job to get everyone on the same level; bring some up, bring some down. It’s not my business what’s going on in your head, it’s my business to bring you back into the moment of the lesson and keep you there, focused and connected with your group. That’s what warm ups are all about; shake off the trials of your day – don’t bring your problems in here and smudge everyone else with them: get over it now for the sake of the group. That said, drama class is a very comfortable place to share your worries and your woes, but later on in the session, and not from an un-tethered mind. I love that drama disciplines people so. I love that we become unselfish, that we understand inherently that we are held by the group, that there is support, but that we can’t come in all crumbly and messy; we must first bring the best of us to the circle we stand in: we spend time centering ourselves physically and mentally for a reason. Improvisational exercises force us to step outside of our comfort zones and sets us on the edge, all the better to give and take whatever occurs during our time together. I love that studying a character puts you in the mind of another life in another situation; a new and heretofore unconsidered perspective.

I was asked yesterday if I like people. I love people. If you plopped me into a room full of strangers I’d have no issue working my way through them, fascinated by their ways – endearing or odd, it wouldn’t matter, and I’d make friends. I might come out of a room of a hundred people with just one new friend but the value I’d put on that would be huge. I’d still miss it if you were genuinely dissing me – my own theory is that I simply wouldn’t want to see it – things still go over my head. I still have filters but I am perceptive: I can read a room in a nanosecond and I’ll spot my future friend in the next moment.

I can do all these things but I can’t tell you about my #metoo stories. Why? It’s complicated. Do you need to know them? Haven’t you got enough of your own? I will say this: it takes years to read people, to understand a situation and how say something without words. My God, if I knew then what I know now, I’d slay! But then there would be no evolvement of mind, or spirit or even body. However, here’s the rub: I believe we can use our stories – told or untold – to help our society to evolve. Some will be swayed without even thinking about it. It’s up to us, as thinkers, to help the majority to sway in the right direction. It may go over your head, but if you decide, one day, to focus and tune in, it’s very easy to find support and control the crowd.

The visions are mostly beautiful

The visions are mostly beautiful

At some point, about half way through my happy pregnancy; the one where I carried my daughter, four and a half years after my wedding, I knew something wasn’t quite right. I wasn’t me: it was as if some imposter had taken over my personality. I still resided within the recesses of my own mind, but I had taken up an observatory role; the tasks I carried out, the way I spoke, these were not driven by me. I remember trying to explain it to my sister, as I sat there in my dungarees (who, please; WHO said it was ok to wear dungarees when one is eight months pregnant?)
“I feel like I’m trapped inside a cage, and I can’t speak and I can’t let anyone know I’m actually in here.”
She nodded like she understood. Maybe she did. She knew I wasn’t myself but like me, she didn’t know why.
My energy was at a chronic low; I had been told it would be this way, but I had nothing to measure it off; I didn’t know what too low was. Geoff took care of me, fed me, ensured I ate well and all I had to do was heave my bulk off the sofa to bring the empty plate to the dishwasher, but I couldn’t even manage that. It occurred to me at the time that this couldn’t be normal; how do people keep going if they have zero energy?
She was born on a foggy day in January. It wasn’t an easy birth and Geoff saved her life by cutting the cord that threatened to strangle her.
“It’s a girl,” someone said. A team of perhaps ten attended my birth; it might have been any one of them.
“Aisling, so.” Said Geoff.
The name I had chosen if he had been a girl. Before. I fell in love with Aisling, the name; the baby that might some day be her. The Irish word for a dream, a vision of Ireland. It was romantic, tribal; it gave me joy when times were dark. We hadn’t discussed it, not really, but Geoff knew what the name meant to me.
“Aisling.” I said. And that was that.
The light of my child was the only thing that kept me going; it had been a difficult birth, I couldn’t feed her, everything was sore. My ward was like a war zone; too many women cramped into too small a space; nurses over worked and unavailable to just sit and listen. My last time in this hospital had been in a private room, just me and the baby. This time it was too loud and too bright. I couldn’t feed and she was understandably upset. I kept the curtains around my bed for the full horrible five days. I didn’t sleep at all. I could not get out of there fast enough. There was though, the day she was born, a moment of sheer brilliant joy, when Geoff came back with clothes and food and our clunky old fashioned video camera; he showed me some footage he took of the snowdrops that were growing in the park beside our home. They were and still are my favourite flower, their lives so short and so delicate that it would be a sin to pick them. He knew that but he wanted me to see them. That memory smells sweeter still than any flowers he could have brought me.
Snowdrops in the fog; that is Aisling’s birth. Her sister brought a wild wind. And my first born; he showed me my first sunrise.
There was another moment of joy leaving the Coombe; the knowing beyond all knowing that as we passed out the door, the three of us, that I was exorcising the ghost of the lonely heartbroken girl, the me of twelve years earlier, waiting in the foyer to go home, alone.
“She’s free now.” I thought.
And we went home, where I sat and cried and cried; irrational thoughts that I would never be able to protect my daughter from the world; what if she pulled a pot of hot water all over her two years from now? What if she got knocked down? The dangers of the world were psychedelic and I didn’t think I could manage to keep her safe. It went on like this for six months. It was early summer and my friend had invited us to her house for a barbecue. By this time, I was two stone overweight, ugly in the extreme and just repulsive to look at. Or so I thought. Walking down the road was torturous; I could feel the silent catcalls of every driver going past me. I was worthless – I couldn’t even reach my own self – that vague idea of me, so suppressed and worn down. We got to the house and I couldn’t get out of the car. I was frozen, a bizarre feeling of helplessness. I was cajoled somehow and we went in. I was happy to see my friend but it was immensely difficult for me; there were wasps everywhere and what if one of them stung Aisling? And then, the most awful thing happened: neighbours called in. I was thrown into silent turmoil; they would have to look at my awful face and it would disgust them. I tried to hide behind Aisling as she sat on my lap but the wasps! I literally broke down. Came inside. We all decided it was best if I went home. I said to Geoff,
“I think I have post natal depression.”
I thought he would laugh and say nonsense.
He nodded. He agreed.
I had been grasping at straws; I didn’t really think I was depressed – I mean, I was living happily ever after, right? This was a joyous pregnancy and birth. This was the baby I got to keep. Why in the name of God would I be depressed?
And yet.
I was.
I had been, I realized, depressed the whole way through my pregnancy; ante natal depression as well as post natal. It’s a thing. It’s real. I told my sister. She also nodded and said it made sense. When I look back now, it’s as clear as day, but back then, it was murky and sticky. But naming it helped. I went to my doctor. We talked. She asked if I wanted to take anything. I said I didn’t think so. Now that I knew what my monster was, I could deal with it.
Fucking monsters.
It helps to visualize them.
When I finally gave up smoking a couple of years earlier, I imagined my addiction as a long tentacled alien type monster. Every time I had a craving and I didn’t give in, half a tentacle would disappear, just like that. I carried the knowledge of that monster all through the two weeks of weaning myself off nicotine, knowing he was there, but reveling in the power I had over him, every time I stood up to a craving.
Depression was another monster.
I knew his name. I could see him now. I walked my way out of his life.
Every day, I put Aisling in her buggy and I walked, fast as I could, pushing into my pain. I walked and walked. One day, I stopped mid walk. I literally couldn’t go on: I wasn’t tired, I was just…well the fucking monster had a grip on me. It’s all visuals with me: I was at the bottom of a pit. There was only one thing I could do, and that was crawl my way out. I had to. The only way was up. That was what taking a step forward was like that day. But I took it. And another and another. I walked and I walked until the weight fell off me and I left the monster behind.
It always amazes me. I should have been happier than I ever was. I should have been powerful. But depression doesn’t need a reason. We need to remember that; there might be nothing wrong, but everything can be wrong. I was living happily ever after but the monster came anyway. He came, but he didn’t stay. Monsters come, but I’m less afraid of them the older I get. They don’t scare me so much anymore, as piss me off. I try to tell my children that if something goes wrong; don’t worry about me, I have the hide of a hippo. Thick skinned, tough, a warrior woman with fifty years of shit I no longer take. But I won’t stop dreaming; the visions are mostly beautiful.

You’ve kind of got to make your own…

You make your own

For a start, I was still afraid of the dark. And of myself. And of being on my own. I’d suffered from anxiety since I was seventeen or eighteen and I understood completely what it was to be left alone with your own mind. I’m not sure how it began; I know I was anemic, underweight, over tired, uninspired and no doubt aware on some deep level that I was wasting my life away. Being dramatic, and with no creative outlet, I assumed I would die young, like Keats, and I often visualized my own funeral which would reach a crescendo with, of all things, the opening choral number from Carmina Burana. Could you imagine?

There were events that tethered me to the life I was supposed to be living; my parents were in a choir. I went to hear them sing in the National Concert Hall, which was a fairly new building back in those days. Have you heard the opening of Carmina Burana? It blew my tiny unexploring mind and elicited tears that appalled me, because I was cool. Add to that the emotion of seeing my actual parents up there on the stage, contributing to that sound. I can say, honestly, it was one of the moments that changed me forever; right there, right then; from the performance to the foyer to the chit chat and energy afterward. I hadn’t explored the theatre during my school years – which was bizarre and a reflection of the massive distance I had travelled from my true path. I adore any opportunity to be back in the Concert Hall; I feel like I’m one of the founding members because I know the best time to order interval drinks or where to sit depending on what’s on.

Back on an ordinary school night, things were very different. Invariably, I’d find that I was the last to go to bed and so the only awake person in the house. I think I know what happened the first time; I was lying there in my bed, thinking God knows what – the worst possible scenario in whatever drama I was playing out in my head. I was wearing a white nylon nightie – because (sigh) it was the eighties folks and Penneys hadn’t got with the groove; we wore what our mothers bought us. In my case, a spinster’s nightdress. It was the first time I ever got palpitations – a truly awful sensation – and then, suddenly – sparks flew out of me. It was as if there was a faulty light bulb under my nightdress and it was flashing on and off. I was terrified. I thought,
“I’m being abducted by aliens!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Emer.’
“It’s a fucking poltergeist.”
It made sense. I was the right age, and wasn’t it something to do with hormones?  Whatever it was, it was a horror story; I was alone. My family was asleep. I was being possessed and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I sat, in the top bunk, crying, terrified, and believing that I was being slowly fried to death. Either that or that I would come to in a room with bright lights and probes. I had a wild imagination, but the sparks did happen. I still don’t know to this day what they were, but I imagine, hormones, nylon and fear mixed together in a cocktail of energy. No monster appeared and I suppose I fell asleep eventually. But I was left with ANXIETY and FEAR OF BEING ALONE. It developed, quite frankly, into a phobia of some kind. I never got professional help so it never got a label, but I did once speak to a friend who’d had agoraphobia and it seemed so very similar. Except my fear didn’t come from open spaces or going outside; it blew up when I was truly alone – in the house during the day or at night, when everyone was asleep. My sister would wake up in the middle of the night to find me tucked in beside her in her small bed, and bless her; she’d let me be. At three in the morning my mother would get up with me and make hot milk. I wouldn’t even go into my own head for fear I’d find a monster there. I wanted distraction in any form.

When I got pregnant I told myself to continue this way would be bad for the baby. It stopped. Almost just like that. Of course anxiety will rear its ugly head every now and then, but I had the measure of it, I discovered, without counseling; I simply knew I must get on top of it. And so I did. I took to drawing again; I’d a talent for drawing. I was and still am, good at faces and hands; it’s my handiwork on the life drawing compositions of quite a few of my fellow students’ exam pieces. Supervisors of art exams are dreamy, stare out the window types you know. Cheating was exceptionally easy and I liked that I could help my friends, just by drawing a hand. Drawing calmed me. Brought me back into my own mind in a serene sort of way. I remember thinking: I quite like being with myself. It helped me and settled me and the baby was safe.

These were the difficulties; the things I worried about when I was working out if I could keep my baby, you see. It wasn’t a simple case of, could I afford to support the two of us? Where would we live, how would I manage? It was also: will I be scared? Who will I climb in to bed beside when I’m beside myself with fear? Who will make me hot milk? I worked it out of course, and as I travelled the road of my pregnancy and as I matured and calmed and settled, I knew I could do these things. I knew I could manage. None of these matters had any bearing on my decision in the end. None; not me, not the child, our lives, or that of my parents or my sisters. Not my job, not my plans; not even the vague idea that the father might ever be interested; nor his family nor any part of my life, past, present or future.

The idea that I would die young went away. I felt myself grow stronger. The fears and anxieties were gone. It was just me – my mind and my spirit: I had felt the truth of that before when I had been a very young girl, climbing my garden wall to find a quiet space; rare times when I sat with myself. My decision, when it came, came from that deep sacred place of absolute raw truth. You need to sweep away a lot of debris and shit to find it, but when you do, you know that every single thing that stems from that central place is true. Believe me: my decision to give my child up for adoption comes from that true place. I do not look back and say, it is the single biggest regret of my life; when I do look back, I say, it is the single biggest truth of my life.


people-watchingI spend a lot of time in Dundrum Town Centre. I wish I could say I go for lots of nature walks instead, but the truth is, my car will drive itself there if I don’t focus on where I’m going. The powers behind the centre have been clever enough to include stores of necessity there, so that if I have errands to run and groceries to buy, I can do it all from one place and check if there’s another sale on in House of Fraser, with the obligatory ‘nip into’ Penneys, mar dheadh* for socks. My mother used to like to ‘nip into’ Clarendon Street Church whenever we went shopping in town, where we’d light a candle for someone who needed prayers. There is something honorable in that, regardless of your persuasion and when I pass by that church now, I like to nip in and just sit with myself for five minutes. I’m only occasionally in town however; Dundrum, probably every second day. I can’t help it, that’s the way my life rolls these days. I do resent paying for parking though. It’s one of those things I need to fix in myself, like my irritability with other drivers. Whenever I queue up to pay my €3 for parking, I am a-quiver with resentment towards the powers behind the centre. Haven’t you bled us dry enough? I think. Why should I have to pay in order to come in here and spend money? I’m going to have to deal with it, because it’s not good for me. I don’t like feeling resentment towards anyone. I’m a Law of Attraction girl, so I’m also aware that I’m only attracting bad vibes.

One day, whilst waiting to pay for parking, a large Asian family came towards my side of the queue. There were at least twelve of them, possibly four generations, and they were all in high spirits, making a lot of noise and generally ignoring the antics of the children in the party. One of these children, a boy of about ten, was vehemently shaking a two-litre bottle of Fanta Orange. I smirked inwardly, thinking about the violence of the pending explosion when they opened it and how it would serve them right for being so loud and happy. I checked myself then, for my thoughts. It’s where I’m standing, I reminded myself; the queue of resentment, you really must change Emer. I had been in good form after all, it was a lovely summer’s day and I was wearing a white crochet dress that actually fit me. My hair was freshly washed. I decided to smile at the child with the Fanta. He looked at me strangely, almost as if he had a sudden insight to what the immediate future held. Before I had time to register something was wrong, the bottle exploded – violently – all over me. Just me. I was the sole recipient. The elders went into a frenzy of apologies. Not a word of English between them, but I understood a mortified sorry when I heard it. Great Grandmother tried to dry me off with her hanky and there ensued a gentle battle between us, as I tried to fend off whatever might be lurking in it. Everything was orange. My hair, my white crochet dress, the floor around us. Getting the Asian family out of my life and far away was uppermost in my mind and when they finally fled the scene of destruction I was left alone to wallow in mortification. I prepared myself for humiliation – there wasn’t even a facial expression that I could muster up for passers by that would shrug it off. I was as orange as an Oompa Loompa. Defiantly I looked around to face the cringing music; see if anyone would even offer me a pitying smile.

No one had noticed. Not one person, save the man I passed on the way back to the car, and he only looked up because my flip-flops were making a squelchy sticking sound as I careered across the tarmac. No one bothered about me. Everyone was far too busy thinking about themselves. It was a powerful lesson for me. How much of an effort I put in sometimes and for what? People focus mostly on their own story, their own hair and their own set of complaints or achievements. I wish I could transplant the dawning sureness of that one true realization into the minds and hearts of the teenagers I teach: people won’t notice, they’re too busy wrapped up with themselves.
I could have been affected in any number of ways by the trauma of walking around living my life without my child those first few years. But I chose show business darling; you could fail of course, but you had better look dazzling all the while, and bounce back my dear, whatever you do. I think every secondary school in the country should employ one actor to teach students about the true meaning of resilience. To want something so badly your heart aches; to know you’re so right for the part; the way you crumble inside when it goes to someone else but you must smile and show humbleness and even joy for the person who stole the role from you. Hug, darling, kiss and look them sincerely in the eyes and carry the fuck on. When I went back out into the world, I dressed to kill (apparently), I put on my armour and I defied the world to take me on:
“What,” I would mentally say “can you possibly do to me now?”
My cross was heavy but it was an effective master. I learned to be confident simply because I knew I was untouchable. No one could do anything to me that could possibly put me in a worse place than I already was. So I went head first into whatever came along. Bring it.

Time passed and my sharp edges softened, worn down by the unconditional love that I carried constantly in the quietness of my heart. I could be laughing with you over a sandwich and at the same time wondering how this would be if he were with me. Thinking, he’d be two now, running around no doubt, pulling at me for something, begging to sit on my lap. I do that still. Not so much of course, over the years, you couldn’t maintain sanity; but I do think about the conversation I might have with my 29 year old son. I run the best and the worst scenarios. I choose the best, because folks, that’s my bag. I’m a glass full to the brim kind of chick. (Even if I’m a grumpy fecker sometimes.) Time passed and my confidence grew. I directed a show. A local drama teacher saw it and took me under her wing; she was no ordinary drama teacher, she was a legend and she picked me up and firmly placed me on a particular road, patted me off and sent me on my way. I set up my drama school – at first to support my directing career, but gradually, I came to understand that my joy came from watching the children blossom. Child after child came, some, wanting to be stars, many because they needed the confidence. They blended together, the extro and introverts in an awesome display of human balance; I see it every day, have seen it every day, all these years: the quiet teach the noisy, the loud ones need the calmness of the shy and so they find a way to bring them alongside. As the school grew, and I evolved as a teacher, I understood completely what my task was; I could see it and read it and take it apart and put it together again. And all because I had been broken myself, and the Polyfilla I used was stronger than my own blood.

Why do we do what we do? Why do we decide we’re being judged, or that we’re being loved? Why does the opinion of strangers matter, especially to the Under Fifty Year Olds (because, there is a joyous transformation that takes place at 50, a Great Shedding of Giving a Shit – albeit, in my case, with something to balance; a sense of What Have I Actually Done With My Life? But, another day, eh?) No one is watching you that closely. Everyone has their own story; they walk around with an inner dialogue that concerns – not you, stranger, and not you, friend, but their own life and the best and worst scenarios of each part of that. You can fling as much Fanta on yourself as you like, they won’t even look at you.

*Mar dheadh is an Irish expression, meaning ‘supposedly’ or ‘I’m saying this, but you know I don’t mean it.” It is one of the many Irish expressions that meld beautifully into our version of English. Pronounced ‘Marr yah’ or ‘Morr yah’, but I am happy to stand corrected.



On the way home from the hospital I asked my mother would she be disappointed if I started smoking again. We stopped at a shop and went home. I went for a lie down; naturally I hadn’t slept much, if at all over the four days. At one point, one of the nurses talked me into dropping the baby down to the nursery so I could get some sleep. It was a futile exercise, and I ended up padding down the corridor myself to find him. Later I told my mother I’d had a good look at all the other babies in there.

“And do you know what, Mam?”
“Let me guess; he was the best looking baby in the nursery?”
“But it’s true!”
And it was; I still see the beauty of him. I gaze on him now, in a trance-memory and I remember the series of precious moments. And ordinary moments: magnolia shower gel someone gave me; reading the Irish Times for probably the first time in my life; a visit from a bishop.
“I hope he gives you years of happiness.” The Bishop said and the baby began to cry.

There were a few of those unfair moments. They stung and they sting still. Although the worst of these moments has been exorcised since: leaving the hospital without my baby. I stood inside the door, while my mother went to find my father to bring the car over – perhaps it was raining. I stood there alone as a young couple walked out past me, lost in their own world and their brand new bundle of joy.
I began to speak to God differently. Up to this, my internal dialogue was riddled with guilt for not going to mass – or for enjoying the freedom of not having to go, now that I was too old to be told anything. But this moment was unnecessary I told Him (I give Him His capital letter here for clarity only; the day I changed the word ‘God’ to ‘Universe’ expanded my notions of what divinity really is and cynics be-damned.)
“Do You have to be so cruel?” I asked Him as they walked past me.
I once saw a ghost. Well, I more than once saw a ghost and I don’t rightly care what you think about that; see them I did. But one summer, I took a job as a temp in the office of the National Art Gallery. There wasn’t much work to do, I kept novels in my drawer and read them when the coast was clear. But I did enjoy the experience of working in a place like that. There was always someone coming through with a story; the Caravaggio had only recently been discovered and the buzz of that still hung in the air; curators and historians had, I discovered, their own cult following. There were three of us in the office and we all got on; if we’d had Facebook back then, or even email, we’d still be in touch I’m sure of it. Next to our office was the room where paintings by old masters were restored by people of exceptional ability. Every day I marvelled at the wonders of a world heretofore unknown. I loved everything about the place. Except the corridor where the stationery was kept and where the loo was. It was old fashioned in the extreme: a wooden, square seat about fifty paces from a door with no lock. That room was fine, provided nobody burst in on you; it was the corridor that was the problem, especially towards the end, near the stationery room. On my first day, after I returned with envelopes the other girls asked me if I’d sensed a ghost. Without a shadow of a doubt I told them. But she’s not in the loo, and she’s not in the stationery room. She’s very much stuck at the end of the corridor, near the window.
“She?” They asked. “How do you know?”
“I saw her.”
The other girls shivered. They’d sensed something but they had half assumed it was their imagination.
One Friday night, I talked about her with friends. I knew she was young, I sensed she was frightened but I certainly didn’t feel afraid of her. Someone suggested she didn’t know she was dead; apparently, a child had died in a fire in the Shelbourne Hotel years and years ago and she’d haunted a room until some exorcist came along and told her it was ok, she was actually dead and she should move along to a better place. And it worked. The child left and guests no longer complained of ghosts. I resolved to go in on Monday and mentally communicate with her, let her know it was ok to move on. When I got to the corridor, she was gone. Nary a sense of her. Everyone said it. She was gone, for sure.
Where do I go to with these tangents? Only to explain to you the sense of what it meant to me to walk past the ghost of myself twelve years later, To know, that Geoff and I were that couple and Aisling was that bundle of joy and as we passed her, she dissipated into the clear air, a trapped memory, off to a better place.
That lonely day, back home in my own bed, I tossed and turned. A mother without her baby. I heard him cry. I mean I actually heard him inside my head, like an echo. He needed me. I phoned the woman that would foster him for the next few weeks, while I cleared my head and made MY DECISION. Imagine that there are women that will do that? Angels walking around earth, minding the newborn babies of the Great Undecided. Families who fall in love and then say goodbye six weeks on, over and over again. I will never forget this kindness. I am forever bonded to this woman although the last time I saw her was the last time I saw my child. I told her what I knew: he liked to sleep on his tummy; she could expect him to wake up every two hours; that he was smiling already, did she notice that? It’s not wind. She listened and thanked me and told me I could visit if I wanted. I said I would love that. I put the phone down and slept the sleep of the partially relieved.
We had developed our relationship, that baby and me, over the nine months, and now I was alone. No little kicks to remind me he was there; no bump to rest my hand on, no intelligence that might hear my thoughts. It was like the sound suddenly cutting out in the middle of a beautiful film. I knew I had to just sit with it. I was held of course, by my family and I had close friends, but what comfort can you offer a mother without her child? There’s no way of knowing how long before the sound comes back. No point railing against it, there is nothing you can do. Just watch it in silence. Or find something else to do.

My two friends had to practically drag me along, but I did eventually go and sign up to help out in an amateur production of Grease. It was already well into rehearsals so there were no parts left – which, to be honest, was what convinced me in the end to turn up. I was assigned as the Props person, which seemed straightforward enough. I was given a list and I had to ‘beg, borrow or steal’ everything on it. My mother would brace herself for years after, as she sat in the audience, waiting for the curtains to open and see what bits of furniture from her house had made it into the current production.

But what a world I had stumbled into! The thrill of being backstage, play-acting with the rest of the crew, laughing as silently as you could so you didn’t disturb the performers on stage; I realize now that the crew I was working with were very badly behaved as that sort of thing goes, but it was amateur and it was the 80’s. People didn’t care so much and besides, stage crew was made up of people who were roped in at the last minute – perhaps they had even built the set and the entire production was beholden to them. In fact, I believe it was the Stage Manager who at one point lifted me up in the air and threatened to fling me out onto the stage in the middle of ‘Worse Things I Could Do’. For the laugh. I met my future husband in the wings of that very production. I whispered to him that I had planted his microphone in the picnic basket. He thought this was clever of me, and then enquired as to whether he might have a fresh burger the following night; the current three day old one was getting harder to chew on stage and he needed to have finished his mouthful before his song. He was playing Doody and his one solo song was the song ‘Mooning’. Everyone fell in love with Geoff when he sang that song, every gender, every age. Except me: I wasn’t ready to love anyone, although I did set my sights on him one night after the show.
“Geoff.” Was all I said to my friend.
“He’s going out with someone.” She said. And that was that. I looked around for the next best looking guy and so it went on until gradually over the next two years, my armour loosened and I stopped seeing all men as bastards. That’s a proper love story, and one for another day perhaps. Meanwhile, I had found my calling! This crazy world of show business had me in its grip. I threw myself into the joy of it all, but generally only backstage. I did my time on stage however, as some will attest to: I think I can dance, but it’s an illusion that I’m generally left to enjoy. That’s all well and good on the dance floor but on stage, in front of people…quite another. My director couldn’t afford to be fussy that year, it was slim pickings on the performer front, and so I was tolerated. The choreographer did pair me off with Geoff though, which kept me from twirling off stage (remember, I’m a tiny bit accident prone). We may have met backstage but it was while I was dancing with him that we began to find each other interesting.
The following year I was asked to direct the show. That’s such a lie; the following year, our musical society had fallen into disrepair and was being held together with sticky tape and chewing gum by a few dedicated soldiers. The obvious choice for director had burnt herself out, keeping it all going – at least that’s my guess as to why no one came forward to direct what was to be our phoenix from the ashes: The Sound of Music. Build it and they will come – or in our case, put on a show with lots of kids in it and they will come. I tended to plod along and blurt out loud the notions that were in my head at any given time. I’d had an idea for a while now that I might like to direct, and more, that I might be good at it. The chairman had no choice; our group never brought in professionals, we were unashamed of our status as an amateur company, and the whole purpose of our existence was to expose people to theatrical experiences they might otherwise never have. I felt sorry for him; I was flighty, some might say, a flibbertigibbet, a will-o-the-wisp, a clown! I had no experience whatsoever, save what I had picked up from the wings. But he let me do it. I got my chance because of him and the rest of that team. It was a beautiful distraction and it led me down many exciting paths, including my career. You might say, I had climbed every mountain until I found my dream…