A Bleak Choice

Empty cradle by dannysoar

Saturday should have been a good day. It was a chance to meet up with friends, so many of whom were busy being inspiring as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations in Dublin. It was mild out and not raining, the beginnings of spring, a pleasant Saturday to spend doing not very much. But the day started with an article written by a good friend of mine. I’ve known Rosita Boland for a good few years now. I count myself fortunate to have her as a friend. I’ve known for most of our friendship that we shared an unfortunate situation that has caused both of us a lot of heartache over the years. Yesterday Rosita wrote about that unhealing wound and I hope that by sharing something so deeply personal her piece will start a dialogue that has been absent for far too long. But reading her piece coloured my day with grey. It will always be a painful subject.

If you find yourself having to look at alternative routes to starting a family here in Ireland you will quickly find that this is a silent, lonely place to be. It’s a subject that’s still not widely talked about, apart from with friends in the same boat. People who haven’t dealt with it tend not to bring it up. It feels like a shameful little secret, some retribution being visited for some unknown mistake. Then there’s the fear that you will be judged wanting, that this desperate last ditch attempt will be in vain. I really wouldn’t wish this position on anyone.

I’ve written here before about being childless. It’s something I have very complex feelings about. When I was first married I assumed children would be in the mix at some point. I looked forward to the eventuality. When the reality dawned that it was not going to be that simple I went through so many emotions. There was grief, anger, eventually resignation. At first it felt like a physical punch whenever another friend told me they were pregnant. Later I learnt to value my independence especially as it seemed a slimmer and slimmer possibility that we would ever be able to adopt in Ireland. A couple of years ago, after my mother died, we decided to step out of the adoption process as there didn’t seem to be any point of adding to the stress with something that seemed hopeless anyway. Lately we’ve started to talk about it again but only in the light of the realisation that for us ever to hope of being parents we’re going to have to move to another country. Friends in England applied to adopt a little over a year ago. They received their declaration in under a year. It’s often only when you see how things are done elsewhere that you realise just how chaotic things can be here in Ireland.

I know there are reasons why adoption is still something of a taboo subject here. The dark spectre of the babies forcibly taken from “undeserving” single mothers by religious orders still looms large and it’s a scandal that simply isn’t going away. It’s one reason given on an anecdotal basis for the scarcity of domestic adoptions outside the family. Add to that the various scandals in recent years concerning intercountry adoptions and it’s hardly surprising that some appear to think that adoption bodies in Ireland, not to mention prospective adoptive parents, are somewhere between Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Childcatcher and Cruella Devil.

There’s also a longstanding institutional blindness towards those who don’t fit into an extremely narrow definition of family. There is a violently vocal minority who think that the only family that should be recognised by the Irish State is one that conforms to a strictly Catholic ethos. According to these idiots my marriage isn’t valid because it didn’t take place in a church but that’s a whole other story. We’re used to the rabid prolifers and the anti gay marriage mob but surely it’s the exact same ethos that looks down on any couple who can’t have children within a properly sanctified union. It’s surely no coincidence that the Irish State has long ignored regulating the fertility treatment industry and that the ratification of the Hague Convention was allowed to go through without finalised bilateral agreements with compliant countries. You only have to look at the length of time it took the government to legislate on abortion (the laws only came into effect at the start of this year) to see how much of a stranglehold the Catholic church still has on all areas of reproductive policy. This is a situation that simply cannot be allowed to drag on for as long.

But there’s a bigger problem here in Ireland, one that means these issues aren’t even raised most of the time. It’s another reason why trying to remedy your childlessness in Ireland can be an excruciatingly isolating experience and one that’s fundamentally unfair. Ireland might be ostensibly a classless country but it’s one that is brutally divided into the Haves and the Have Nots. All too often the Haves, who are all prosperous enough to be able to throw money at the inconveniences of Irish life, control policy and populate the media. Those who Have Not are left voiceless. They’re not even recognised by the Haves who won’t even look beyond their front door. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start singing The Red Flag, but the fact that expensive solutions exist for so many problems here, including in the area of reproductive healthcare, and the fact that so many of the people who have the power to change things have the money for these solutions means that no change happens. There seems to be an assumption in a lot of quarters that money in some way equates virtue. When it comes to adoption and fertility treatment it can often feel that if you baulk at the cost you are showing yourself to be unfit parent material.

Researching this post I came across this article for the Mayo News by Michael Commins that absolutely underlines my point. The article describes a public meeting last year, so since the ratification of Hague, with representatives from the only country left open for adoption, Bulgaria, and ARC, at the time the only accredited Irish adoption agency under the new laws. It describes how the meeting descended into chaos after ARC announced a tripling of the cost – with fees at their end of over €16,000. Now I know that the adoption process is a complicated one but that’s a hell of a lot for administrative fees. The change in fees, according to the article, had been agreed with the regulatory board, the Adoption Authority shortly before the meeting. Maybe I’m being naive but how could fees jump by that much? I was shocked by the fees when we first investigated adoption.  We heard many stories of unscrupulous agencies hiking fees at the last minute, leaving couples with an extra bill of tens of thousands of euro. One name in particular kept coming up, I’m not going to share it here without proof but I’ve no reason to doubt the people who told me this. The changes in the law were expected to change all the cowboy behaviour but one has to wonder if they have.

It’s not good enough to just shrug and say well you shouldn’t consider adoption if you can’t afford to raise a child (as someone once said to me). I’d genuinely like to know many parents could afford to have a child if the upfront costs were up to €50,000 – and that’s before you even get to the costs of raising a child. How can placing this burden on new parents be in the best interests of the child? Why have no questions been asked about the costs of adoptions? It really isn’t good enough to say “that’s just what it costs” when those costs are surely causing a major problem to all but the most affluent section of this society.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m completely in favour of what Hague was set up to ensure. Of course adoption should be carried out in the best interests of the child. We are talking about the most vulnerable children across the world. Of course they should be protected. But that’s what adoptive parents want to do – provide a loving, safe home for a child that desperately needs one. We’re not looking for a fashion accessory, something to go with the new living room curtains. Surely those who cannot conceive naturally deserve the right to try for a family just as anyone else does? It will be more difficult, it does touch on a myriad of sensitive issues but it shouldn’t be something that’s restricted on the grounds of affluence. Here in Ireland we’re in danger of assuming that a happy home can’t exist without affluence and that is a dangerous road to go down. We need to start talking about the problems with adoption. The current situation simply does not reflect well on Ireland as a civilised country.

I’m resigned to the fact that if I want to be a mother I will have to leave. I know the clock is ticking on that. It saddens me greatly that the country that I love is forcing me to make this decision but in matters like this Ireland can be a harsh place to live.

In Search of Heroines

Last weekend I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the new Ingenious Ireland walking tour. A specially commissioned tour to mark International Women’s Day and the opening of the new Rosie Hackett bridge across the Liffey, Obstreperous Lassies tells the story of just some of the incredible women who came to prominence in the period between 1913 and 1916 here in Ireland.

Now being an unrepentant liberal lefty feminist type the mere idea of the tour was enough to make me smile. I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour or so on a sunny morning but traipsing around Dublin hearing about women who refused to sit down and shut up, who refused to do what was expected on them and who refused to accept the status quo. It was wonderful to hear about Maud Gonne as the woman who had championed free school meals rather than the aloof romantic figure who used to make W.B. Yeats dissolve into sighs every time she wafted past him. Or Ann Jellico, the Quaker mill owner’s daughter who decided that women needed skills to earn themselves a living and set up schools to teach them. Or Kathleen Lynn, often known as “the rebel doctor”, who helped to set up St Ultan’s clinic on Charleville Street and was instrumental in the introduction of the BCG vaccine. The tour is a wonderful catalogue of women judges and politicians, doctors and fighters, women who were suffragists and pacifists and who played their part in the formation of this country.

After the first hour of being pleasantly inspired though something else started to nag at me. While many of the names I was hearing were familiar, it was striking how many of the details weren’t. I was used to hearing the names as footnotes in the sacred history of the land, women who had stood bravely beside fighting men but were largely remembered as the helpmeets, there to tend the sick and take down a note of history as it passed. The honourable exception of course is Constance Markievicz, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish that I’ll get to in a moment. The point that kept coming home during the tour was that the stories of these women, who were all formidable, magnificent, inspiring examples of their sex, the kind of stories I used to latch onto with fangirl adoration as a teenager, much of that stuff was absolute news to me. It felt almost shockingly fresh to be looking at historical events from a woman’s perspective. It was only by focusing on that angle that you realise how unusual it is to hear.

As a child in the 70s and 80s I knew I was lucky to be born into a time when as a girl I no longer had to fight for my education. Growing up in a middle class area I was expected to go on to university, I was expected to have the freedom to follow whatever career path I chose. It never occurred to me that as a girl I was any less able than a boy. I knew women had already fought for the right to vote, the right to an education, the right  to own property and to not pass into the ownership of the man they married. I saw all of these as battles that had been won, as rights I now had. Like any child I couldn’t see limitations until they appeared right in front of me. Back then it never occurred to me that the world was anything but equal. I wasn’t short of role models. I saw strong women all around me, in my family, in popular culture and in the books I read. It wasn’t until much later that I began to see that the world was a far from equal place. That’s when you really need your heroines.

The one thing that I really remember about my stint doing the @ireland Twitter account last year was a conversation that took place on my last day. That week there had been a lot of media coverage of the suffragettes. It was the centenary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and all the columnists were in a retrospective mood. At the end of a conversation about the various memorials to the suffragettes in the UK I had asked the 15,000 or so followers of the @ireland account to recommend similar Irish memorials to inspirational women down through the years. Several hours later we were still struggling to come up with anyone who wasn’t Constance Markievicz. And that’s my problem with the good countess. While she was undoubtedly a formidable force to be reckoned with and surely a fine role model for any trailblazing young Irish woman (or any other woman – or man for that matter – she really was a hell of a woman), it does appear that Constance has been venerated to the exclusion of almost all other women. When you look at the number of women who have been equally extraordinary and who have been all but wiped out of the history books it almost smacks of tokenism.

It’s taken until 2013 to have a bridge named after a woman. Calls to rename Merrion Square after Oscar Wilde’s extraordinary mother have fallen on deaf ears. Apart from Constance Markievicz there are very few memorials to prominent women in Dublin or anywhere else in Ireland. If you go by public monuments Ireland is a country that was built and maintained purely by men. That’s the thing that get’s me more than anything else with all of this – because Irish women are and have always been ballbreakingly strong. From the Celtic archetypes of the Morrigan or Queen Meabh, to the pirate queen Grace O’Malley who faced down Elizabeth 1, to any of the women who fought for Irish freedom right through to the indomitable Irish Mammy there’s no shortage of Irish heroines – many of whom were actually real people and aren’t simply mythological constructs.

In a world where inequality is rife, where violence against women is endemic, it might seem superficial to talk about statues and wallplaques but it’s all part of the same thing. Public statues are things we walk past on a daily basis, they are part of the fabric of our lives. We might ignore them most of the time but one day we’ll probably ask their story. Their mere existence tells us that there is a story to be told. Women’s history so often slips by, it’s harder find their stories because for so long they didn’t have a voice, they weren’t in a position to make a difference. So when they were we should celebrate them all the more. So to get the ball rolling I’d like to propose a statue Winifred Carney in the GPO.  She was there with James Connolly during the 1916 Rising, known as the typist with the Webley. I could see her as a little figure with a typewriter standing in the main hall on the edge of the crowds. They’d bump into her as they queued, especially at Christmas. People would stub their toe against her, apologise absently as they brushed past. They’d ignore her most of the time but every now and then someone would look to see who she was. It doesn’t have to be Winifred Carney, I just like the idea of the statue.

I’m fed up of feeling that jolt of surprise when I hear a woman hosting primetime radio, or when a walking tour for International Women’s Day feels like a novelty, or feeling that it’s something to be applauded when a bridge or a banknote bears a woman’s name or a woman’s face. This stuff shouldn’t matter. I’m fed up of feeling I should be happy that a woman is being represented regardless of whether I have a reason to applaud their achievement. This isn’t a big, earth shaking change though it’s a canary in a coalmine issue. When it’s no big deal if a woman is on the bank notes or even when there are complaints because all the bridges are named after women, or all the voices on prime time are female or all the banknotes have women on them then we’ll have actually got some kind of equality. At the moment that still feels like science fiction and it’s utterly wrong that it should feel that way.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Lovely Girls, 20 Years On…

You’re the state broadcaster of a small country. You’ve secured the first European interview with two of the recently released Russian punk feminist activists Pussy Riot. Do you arrange an interview with one of your most experienced interviewers, a woman possibly, known herself for her championing of women’s rights in Ireland? Do you plan a wide ranging issue that will cover the context of these courageous young women’s stand, their subsequent incarceration and their points about the Russia they’ve grown up in? Do you draw sensitive comparisons with tensions in Irish society to produce a hard hitting interview that will be shown as a stand alone broadcast with quotes trailed across news coverage and circulated to other news outlets both in Ireland and abroad to generate as much coverage of what is undoubtedly an important and notable coup for the station?

Or do you instead put the interview on a light entertainment show on a Saturday night, giving the host the brief to approach his guests with all the sensitivity of the famous Lovely Girls episode of Father Ted? The state broadcaster is RTE. The country is Ireland. The interview takes place on the Saturday Night Show. It’s the car crash you would expect – and you don’t have to take my word for it. Here it is.

  

I mean, where do you start with that? Host Brendan O’Connor stays true to Father Ted by repeatedly referring to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina as “girls”. O’Connor, fresh from the previous week’s Iona-gate, or should that be Panti-gate,  transcript here, feels the need to have an explanation of why he was caught kissing a bloke on the telly. He asks them whether they think Madonna is an activist like them. He tells Nadezhda and her husband Pytor Verzilov to stop having a “domestic” (although I would dearly love to know exactly what the two women were actually saying in Russian. I have a feeling Pytor was delivering some of the most tactful translation we’ve seen on Irish television in years. My respect for them all actually went up by a couple of notches when they lasted to the end of the interview, even if they made a pointed exit at the earliest opportunity.

I wish that this thing was a one off but sadly it’s not. The list of mind boggling clangers from the national broadcaster is far too long to go into here – those moments when you do a double take because you can’t believe you’ve just heard or seen what you have just heard or seen. The moments when you take to Facebook or Twitter because if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. The moments when you find yourself referencing Alan Partridge or Ricky Gervais, when you ruefully say “I hope this doesn’t go viral”. We’re used to it here. Ireland is a small country and sometimes the inevitable tinge of parochialism lends itself to rather jawdropping lapses of judgement.

The Irish tend to be a kind nation. You won’t get the character assassinations here that accompany a high profile slip elsewhere. It might be hard to  believe in the cut and thrust of the social networks but there’s still a very strong sense of the old adage, if you can’t say something nice, say nothing. But this one humane characteristic can also be one of the most dangerous. It can mean that the bar isn’t raised high enough because the constructive criticism wasn’t there. It can mean that complacency flourishes and egos go unchecked. At it’s worst it can lead to a blind eye being turned on a golden child.

We cringe at the Pussy Riot interview, as we should, but that’s not enough.  We should also be angry at a wasted opportunity. Pussy Riot protested against an oppressive, intertwined church and state. That’s something that should ring a few bells over here. We live in a country where the state broadcaster will buckle at the first hint of a threat from the Catholic right. We live in a country where there is no legislation governing fertility treatment, where we have abortion law for less than a month. We live in a country where men are routinely allowed to escape jail time for sex crimes if they have a large enough wallet – there’s even another one today. But we cringe and we let it go, until the next time. We vent on Twitter, maybe go on a march, but what ever really changes?

Nadezhda and Maria are obviously highly intelligent young women. I wouldn’t be surprised if they chose to accept an Irish pitch for their first European chat show interview because they were aware of at least some of the issues we have in Ireland. I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt a degree of kinship with feminists here. Perhaps they saw Ireland as a country that had come further than Russia but that knew how hard the road was to travel. What they found though was how little has changed. How few women have a voice on primetime broadcasts and how little the status quo has been rocked. The gaffs O’Connor made were those of a man who’s used to referring to his female friends and colleagues as “girls”, who would still make sexist jokes without really thinking about it, who hasn’t really put much thought into the whole sexual equality thing. To be fair, he may well think he’s a fully reconstructed new man who could easily navigate the interview. Someone really ought to tell him otherwise.

What is crushingly depressing about the Pussy Riot interview is the whole inevitability of it. It would have been more surprising to have seen them interviewed by someone like Miriam O’Callaghan in a serious, wide ranging interview that sat proudly in the Prime Time strand or out on its own. That’s what should have happened, but it was never going to. Over the years as a journalist I’ve worked with so many talented, intelligent women, many of whom have gone a long way. But when you step back and take a long look, it’s not enough. I was watching the last part of The Bridge last night and it struck me just how many strong female characters there were. But the really extraordinary thing was that this wasn’t a thing. It’s not a madly feminist series. These were just women. Some of them were cops, some of them were stay at home mothers, some were CEOs or scientists. It really wasn’t a thing. That’s equality. I don’t think we’re even ready to begin that discussion here yet.

Methinks They do Protest Too Much

I’ve been having a bit of a contentious time on Twitter lately. It can be like that sometimes and mostly lately I’ve been steering clear. I’m tired of having the same argument. It’s the argument that pops up with depressing regularity whenever someone raises the issue of violence against women. It usually comes when someone has said that this violence is a serious societal problem that we all need to do something about. Yesterday it came up because of this piece in the Irish Times. In it Una Mullally made the point that perhaps we shouldn’t be telling women not to get themselves raped and murdered, perhaps we should be telling men not to be harming women.

Well it didn’t take long for the howling and gnashing of teeth to begin. First they started in the comments below the article, then the row took to Twitter, as these things tend to do. One after another men came forward with their chests puffed out, declaiming that this was a gross generalisation. All men were not rapists and murderers. Sexism! Misandry! What about the Menz!

It’s about the third time this week something like this has kicked off. As I said, on Twitter things kick off which the regularity of an explosions in a fireworks factory made of sawdust. Take your eye off the ball for a moment and Whoosh! I’m tired of hearing the same arguments, receiving the same barrage of hectoring points from some bloke who wants to show me the error of my ways for believing in this divisive nonsense. I’ve had enough.

It’s getting increasingly hard to avoid that hectoring response. If ,as a woman, you identify yourself online as a feminist or are definite in your views there will be invariably be someone waiting in the wings who wants to tell you how wrong you are. While I’m all in favour of freedom of speech and while I’ve no problem with lively debate I am sick and tired of trying to make my point to someone who is only interested in getting the last word. This is why I usually lurk Twitter late at night talking about 70s TV. The discussions can get heated there as well but no one tries to shout you down. 

There’s a particular type of arguing here that really sets my teeth on edge. It’s not restricted to gender politics either, I’ve encountered the same response when talking about other types of discrimination. The attitude that will invariably be shouted loudest is the one telling me to shut up, telling me that I’m exaggerating the problem, telling me I’ve got it wrong.

Normally I try to calmly reason with them. I try to make them see my point and to demonstrate that their argument is built on a principal of denial. I’m all right Jack. But we come back to the beginning again and again and I really don’t think anyone learns anything.

No if you’re reading this and your fingers are already itching to jump in there to tell me I’m generalising wildly, all men are not like that and I’m just another one of those ranty feminists, let me stop you right here. Chances are we’re not going to agree. Here’s why.

We all look at the world through the lens of our experience. If you go through life and don’t see any of the sharp edges then well done, congratulations, you are charmed. But I’ll tell you now, we’re not looking at the same world. The very glass that makes up the lenses through which we see is fused from different elements. I can’t not see the corners. But I can point them out.

Firstly let’s start with the very, very basics. I’m not a feminist because I hate men. I’m not a feminist because I just want to be argumentative. I’m a feminist because when I look at the world we live in today and see women like me denied education, denied freedom, denied a voice, it makes me very, very angry. Sure, as a white, middle class woman living in Western Europe I’ve got it easy. I come from a culture where I can choose the man I marry, where I can continue my education and where I can vote for a say in how my country is run. I am not forced to sell my body and by and large I’m not marginalised. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see how much easier it is for men to get on in this fine country of ours.

When I worked in radio I often heard that my female voice was just going to irritate listeners. On Irish radio in general two thirds of the voices you will hear belong to men. Women, who lets not forget make up around 50% of the global population, make up only 13% of our elected representative. As a writer I know that my work is likely to be under reviewed and that my book will be more likely to get a softly feminine cover regardless of it’s subject matter because of my gender. I know that while education was never an issue for me it’s not that long since a third level degree was an impossible dream for women. I worked in the criminal courts for over six years and when you’re there on a daily basis you realise that the majority of crimes that pass through the Central Criminal Court are crimes against women. So many sex crimes pass through the courts in Dublin that the papers cover only a fraction. Those crimes, I’m sad to say, tend to be picked for their sensationalism, a pretty victim, a particularly brutal accused. I’ve written about so many of them on this blog. Click on any of the women’s names in the tag cloud and chances are you will find a woman killed by the man who was supposed to love her.

And when I get angry about all this, when I say this is ridiculous and must stop if we are ever going to move forward as a people there will always be those who tell me I am wrong. They will be men. I’ve never had this reaction from a woman.

The problem is that it’s all getting worse. When I was a child in the 70s it was fashionable to give little girls tool sets and little boys dolls. Granted this might have been a vogue in our own leafy suburb but back then I never questioned it. I used to laugh at the boys I played with when they told me I couldn’t play Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. It never for a moment occured to me they had a point. That would be utterly bonkers. No if you go to a toy shop you can tell the aisle that’s meant for girls. While the boys are presented with a kaleidoscope of colours the girls have one option. Pink. Let me get this straight. All little girls do not want to be princesses. I always wanted to be the Prince. He got a horse and a sword and got to do stuff. All the Princess did was lounge around and look pretty.

I could go on and on and on with the examples of how this world is still trying to tell women to stay in the background, to shut up, to look pretty. It might seem like I’m off the point here but it’s all part of the same thing. Good girls are still pretty and mute and passive. Good girls need to be protected. Good girls need to be told when they have worried their pretty little heads about something unnecessary.

Because that’s the crux of it. These men who bristle when a point is made, who are so secure in the fact that they are nice men so we shouldn’t be telling them not to rape, who think that we just misunderstand or didn’t do our research, these men need to stop and listen. It doesn’t matter that you are a nice guy and would never harm a woman. That doesn’t mean that others of your sex would. For time immemorial, women have been told to beware, to watch out for the big bad wolf. We’ve been told to watch what we wear, watch how we speak, watch where we look. We are have the population of the planet but we hold a fraction of the power. It’s not an equal playing field. If your fingers are still itching to butt in just ask yourself why? Is it because you are so unsure of your own position that you can’t see the difference between yourself and the bad men? Is it because you started getting irritated by my words because they were written by a woman who really shouldn’t be this forthright? Is it because you need to look at your own attitudes before getting at mine?

I’ve been fighting my corner for a very long time. I’ll continue to do so for as long as it takes. I do not believe that I am any less capable, any less wise, any less worthy of respect because I was born a particular sex. But most of all I don’t see why as a woman I should have to take all the responsibility. Culturally we persist in assuming that men are at the mercy of animal urges. Surely it’s time they shared a little bit of responsibility and showed a bit of respect and a bit of empathy? I’m also confident that any of the lovely blokes that I’ve met, known and loved over the years will read this and not feel victimised. Because those men know that there is a problem and it’s one that we all need to do something about. I can rant until I’m blue in the face but even if every woman on the planet agreed with me we’d only be 50% and an underrepresented 50% at that. We all need to decide that this crap is unacceptable. We need to stop arguing about the bloody details.

The Power of a Good Story

Typewriter image by fiddleoak on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

When Michael Dobbs wrote the novel House of Cards he had a definite ending in mind for the wonderfully Machiavellian Frances Urquhart. When the BBC adaptation came along, mindful of building on it’s success with a sequel, that ending had changed quite dramatically. Dobbs found himself writing two more books around his villain but always said that he insisted he should find his just desserts at the end of the trilogy. For the audience as much as a writer there are only so many ways a character like Urquhart can end up. With someone that gleefully amoral we want to see them finally meet their match, no matter how much we love their machinations. It’s like finding the right note at the end of a peace of music. Get it wrong and it’ll sound horrible.

Stories are part of who we are. They’re in our bones, in the air we breath. We know their rhythm and are pulled along to the conclusion as if we are caught in a river’s flow. We can only follow the route that’s laid down for us. Writing fiction again I’m conscious that I’m digging out the river bed in a way I don’t normally do. With true crime it’s a question of waiting until a case comes up that will happily run along a pre-existing river. That fits with our innate idea of story. It’s the same finding a news story. It has to be something that chimes with narrative points that are embedded so deeply in us that anything else sounds discordant. Sometimes that discord can work on it’s own but the story that’s pinned to our expectations has to be there as well. Killers have to have an extra degree of sadism to make them into the Big Bad Wolf. Victims have to take on a mantle of purity to sit comfortably in the the Victorian melodrama role that’s still common currency. Bankers and rogue solicitors must enjoy the lavish lifestyle of a despotic Roman emperor to make their betrayal complete. If real life is a little messier, a little blander, a little realer than the stories we expect then we don’t want to know. They don’t merit the ink, even if they are the norm.

I knew the story that underpins this novel was one I could work with precisely because it ticks the right journalistic boxes. Stretching it into fiction I’m struck by the places I can go with the story and even more so by the places I can’t. Technically I can take the story anywhere I want where the history’s lacking but there’s still that narrative river keeping me on a certain course. There’s a real sense of what’s right for the characters, the plot points that just fall into place as if they were always there. Even though what I’m writing is my own invention I’m playing with the historical facts and all the stories that have come before. It’s all about finding the harmonies, creating something that sounds real, that sounds right.

This narrative current tugs at us even when we’re not actually being told a story. How often have you felt, after a run of bad luck, that you deserve a break? You know the way your own story should go and it feels wrong, discordant, when life refuses to comply. We are immersed in stories from birth. How can we possibly hope to swim against that current? The good get rewarded, the bad get punished. Those simple truths are at the bottom of every fairytale, every major religion, every book, every film, every TV show, newspaper story, even advertisements. We no longer question what’s constantly repeated.  How can it not be true? We conveniently ignore the fact that life very often doesn’t work that way. Or perhaps we see it as anathema and feel bitter outrage rising in our throats. That narrative current is a very strong pull indeed.

As a writer I’m governed by these rules. I can riff on them, syncopate them maybe but I can’t throw them out the window or ignore their very existence any more than you can ignore the basic rules of physics. What has always fascinated me though is how the narrative current pulls at us as we go about our daily lives. It’s there in the presumptions we make about strangers on the street, making a whole soap opera out of a snapshot of someone’s existence. We all do it, judging what kind of person they are on such arbitrary evidence. The trick is usually not allowing these initial broad strokes to cloud any more fact-based analysis of each other, but that one can be a little trickier. I’ve commented before that when the time comes to write up verdict copy in a trial, usually alternate forms for each possible verdict, one version will always be easier to write. Of course that’s the version that the evidence backs but it’s more than that. There’s always one version that flows, where the elements of the story fit together comfortably. It works as a story. That’s usually the version the jury goes with. Usually.

Most of the time we bob along quite happily on the narrative river. It’s comforting to have a time honoured route to navigate and usually we don’t question. Why would we? It’s only when you find yourself unexpectedly beached. Where the river feels like it’s spat you out and all the harmony of fitting in with the story that’s always being told disappears. We’re stranded, discordant. It shouldn’t be like this. The love story that would have worked out in a movie, the glittering career that never really took off but that should have followed the path we can still see fading in the evening sun like an airplane trail. There are certain things that, when they don’t work out it hurts more, because in the story of our lives, they should have followed the long established rules. We all tend to cast ourselves in comedies but not every story has a happy ending. It just has to stick to the rules we expect.

We are all immersed in stories. Whether you get your stories from religion or more secular mythologies it has surrounded you for all of your life. We can’t just step away from the narrative river, we are of it and we ride it from beginning to end. These stories can give us the satisfaction of finding a good story or they can be the root of our discontent but they are as important as the air we breath. Personally I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Slut Shaming and a Twisted Morality

Twitter can often be rather in your face. There are often views on there that you’d rather not engage with. That’s the nature of the place, when you have a forum for anyone and everyone to speak their mind, often under the convenient cloak of anonymity, sometimes you come up against assholes. But this morning Twitter outdid itself. Of course it’s not the first time a young, vulnerable woman has been pilloried on social media and it sure as hell won’t be the last but for me personally it’s a step too far and I’m left wondering if it is finally the last straw.

I’m talking of course about the world-wide trending #slanegirl tag. For once, I’m not going to link. The pictures that started all of this are all over the hashtag and I won’t be part of sharing them. If you’re not on Twitter and even more, if you’re not Irish let me take a moment to explain. Over the weekend, Eminem played Slane Castle in County Meath. The castle’s been used as a concert venue for years and Eminem is only one of many huge names to play there. In the lead up to the concert there were all kinds of warnings to concert goers about alcohol and safety. There’ve been problems with behaviour at some outdoor concerts in the past couple of years so the gardai were on edge.

This morning pictures surfaced of a young girl performing oral sex on a guy who appears to be giving a celebratory gesture at his good fortune to a number of other young men looking on. The girl looks very young and she’s noticeably the only female figure in a rather crowded scene. The pictures were trending worldwide well before lunchtime and the jokes were running fast and free. In fairness a lot of the tweets under the slanegirl tag were condemning the jokes and offering sympathy to the girl but that wasn’t the overwhelming tone of the tag by any means.

As I said, it’s not the first time this kind of thing has happened. Social media is rife with misogyny and I’m not going to detail all the instances here. If you’re a digital native or even enthusiastic adopter you’ll be well familiar with what I’m talking about and if you’re not,well, you’re probably not going to thank me for enlightening you. Let’s just say there’s a lot of it and it’s a depressing sign that sexual equality is still a very long way off. It’s frustrating when you’ve always been told the sky’s the limit. Walking down the aisles of girl’s toys in any toy shop and you’ll be forgiven for thinking the only way a girl can reach for the stars these days is as a (pink) fairy. It could be simply that the equality was never really there but for a few brief decades we were told otherwise and we can really see the bars now.

What’s noticeable in the slanegirl frenzy is that the initial focus was all on the girl. The eager jokers who merrily shared the picture over breakfast were happy to finger point at the slight figure on her knees in the mud. Very few condemned the skinny, crowing guy with his jeans around his ankles, despite the fact he was making an equal show of himself. Human beings will always make a show of themselves at some point. Our judgement doesn’t always work out and what might have seemed like a good idea at the time can quickly become a mortifying memory you’ll remember for years. It was one thing before the advent of social media when you only had to worry about witnesses on the ground. If you’d really done something dumb then you might feel the urge to find a new social set or if the worst came to the worst, move, but now social networking means that your stupidity can be broadcast to a global audience in seconds. There’s no shadows to hide in, there’s no hope that memories will fade because even when the hungry mob have moved onto a new victim the evidence will be preserved in the aspic of the cached world. We all live in a goldfish bowl now. There’s no knowing when your actions will be caught by a random camera phone.

My heart bleeds for today’s teens who have to negotiate the adolescent minefield with an ever present danger of appearing on a future youtube clip show. The world we live in now seems to be a harsher place than the one I grew up in, though maybe that’s just a product of growing up and seeing more clearly how things work. I look back on my own days of hedonism, at my own mistakes, but there really does seem to be a difference. Mind you I was always happier in jeans (though I’ve worn my share of short skirts). I’ve often sat on the bus into town of an evening and fought the urge to hand some young one sitting across from me, all bare white legs and strappy sandals even on the harshest January night, something to cover her up. I’m well aware of the fact that even writing that down makes me sound like an old fart and I can imagine the reaction if I ever said anything but a few hours later, seeing them upended in the gutter, mascara running down the cheeks and hair tangled and those pale legs scuffed and bloodied I feel afraid for them. I’d feel a lot happier if the guys with them wore as little. Why no fashion for leather hot pants for men? No, the guys will all be wearing jeans with a shirt or t-shirt. Their collapse at the end of the night is just as frequent but a lot less anatomical.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these young women should cover up for any prudish reason. Fashion is fashion and I completely understand them wanting to show off that supple, rounded slimness that you don’t really miss until it’s gone. But it seems to me that some of these fashions are more to do with satisfying a porn-obsessed male gaze rather than any feminine confidence boosting. The thing is that at that point in your life, when you’re young free and single and consequences don’t exist until they land on you with a crash, there will always be sex. Sometimes it’ll be life affirming, mind blowing, confidence sky rocketing sex. Sometimes it’ll be awkward, painful, pit-of-the-stomach-embarrassing, never-should-have-happened sex. And that’s staying within the legal, broadly-safe boundaries of normal human interaction. Social networking has twisted some of that interaction, giving it a spiteful edge that can destroy lives and stunt these ordinary explorations. It’s ridiculous that at this stage in the game the onus is still on the woman to behave a certain way. Men and boys should take responsibility for their actions just as much as girls and women are expected to and it’s so depressing that this still needs to be said.

I’ve been thinking about taking a holiday from social networking a lot lately. I’ve had enough of the mob mentality and the constant outrage. I’ve limited space for either at the moment and five minutes on Twitter can fill that space for a week. We live in a brave new world and I know I’m not going to be able to escape social networking for ever but just now I need to tune out the incessant roar for a bit. While this isn’t the post to discuss that it’s worth noting simply because poor little slanegirl has made up my mind. I hope this experience doesn’t break her but she’s going to learn some of life’s sharper edges in the next while. Those who share the pictures and who think her predicament is amusing should look to their own life and hope the same never happens to them. The lack of compassion online is worrying and scary and I don’t want to look at it any more. I know it’s still going to be there whenever I come back but right now I just can’t do it. I’m leaving the party for a while.

The Sound of Silence

I’ve been thinking a lot about silence lately. I think a lot of people have, if Twitter is a barometer of anything at all. This past Sunday the hashtag #twittersilence was impossible to ignore. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on whether the protest which led many prominent and not so prominent tweeters, led by feminist writer and commentator Caitlin Moran, to boycott the site for the day, was a good or bad idea. The debate is still raging as you’ll see from the link to the hashtag above.

I took part in the protest, even though I’ve reservations about silent protests in general. I’ve taken part in several similar protests in the real world but there’s a huge difference between showing your silent condemnation for something in person and absenting yourself from the roar that is Twitter even on a quiet day. In this case #twittersilence certainly provoked it’s desired reaction. Even just talking about whether it was right or wrong meant that the issue that had spurred it, that of the aggressive trolling that blights so many online forums, was and still is being talked about. I’d say most Twitter users have had their own spontaneous twittersilence from time to time. There are times when the frank exchange of views can get a little too full on. I know that I’ve often retreated into lurking on the sidelines on the site. It’s not that I’m afraid to put my views out there, it’s just that sometimes the constant ranting becomes too much.

It comes with the territory with most social networking sites of course. No matter how social we tell ourselves it is our engagement is normally a solitary practise alone at our computer or hunched over our phone. No matter how much you engage, from the beginning you’re standing on your soapbox shouting out into the darkness. The fact that those on nearby soapboxes can hear you and respond or the fact that familiar faces from the real world pop up on your timeline, doesn’t change the fact that what you are doing is a solitary thing. It’s particularly true of Twitter where everyone has something to sell, even if it’s just themselves. That’s what you sign up for and that’s what you get.

But this post isn’t really about Twitter. I’ve been thinking about silence because sometimes my own is deafening. That might seem an odd thing to say when I’m writing this at a domain name that is my own name and I’ll be broadcasting these words on all the networks I subscribe to, with my photo as an avatar and the whole thing in part to maintain a public image that I’ve worked hard to build. That’s part of the job of being a writer these days and thank god for the Internet because it allows us introverts to shout just as loudly as everyone else without actually having to get out there and mingle. I’ve written about difficult subjects here and there, I’ve written about personal stuff, I’ve flaunted myself as outspoken, blunt, unafraid to say what needs to be said. That’s the shtick and that’s what I’ll always keep on doing. But that’s not the whole truth. There are subjects that I skirt around, that I never write about and seldom talk about because when I look towards them to drag them out the silence roars. Some things I don’t talk about because they’re private and no one’s business but some things I can’t talk about even though I want to.

Not writing about these things kills me. Writing is what I do and in a huge way it’s how I deal with things. When something big has affected me I know it’s contained and beyond hurt when I can dissect it and cannibalise it to inform what I write. I approach writing the way my mum used to tell me to approach acting, using past experience to provide an emotional truth in what I’m describing. I can understand a subject from an intellectual point of view but if I can’t feel it I feel I can’t write it. This, of course, is why writers research and why so many will never say no to a new experience. It’s why they say “write what you know” even if it sounds a bit out there when I describe it like that. You’re probably thinking I’m stating the bleeding obvious but it’s my name at the top of the page so I’ll say it anyway.

It’s the nature of being a writer that everything is fair game in one way or another, so when something comes surrounded with a barbed wire fence it’s unsettling to say the least. The prohibition is caustic, it eats away at consciousness and the silence of avoiding a subject that should be talked about is loudest of all. In my case that barbed wire fence was erected by someone else. It was put down so long ago that I’ve absorbed it into my system and it’s going to take a long time to dismantle it. That’s one thing that bugged me particularly about the twitter silence campaign. The trolls that triggered it want nothing more than to shut up all the outspoken women that offend them so. They are standard issue bullies, nothing new, nothing special and nothing remarkable but what they are trying to do is what abusers have done to their victims for time immemorial. Abuse exists within a silence. It’s dependent on the silence of the victim to continue. The moment the victim calls it out and takes steps to bring it into the bright light of day in many cases the abuser will retreat back into the shadows. They might not go quietly and they might not retreat without a fight but abuse doesn’t survive very well in the sun. It’s something that roars in the shadows behind closed doors.

I learnt this from the person who put up the barbed wire. I learnt to be quiet in public, to smile when people were looking. I might have eventually learnt to stay out of the shadows but I never shone a light in there. I let the silence grow inside me until it felt like it was squeezing my heart and stopping me breath. Like avoiding a cobweb because you’re afraid of a spider that’s never going to solve the problem. The spider will just get fatter and hairier and the cobweb will grow. In the end you’ll have to move house or at the very least put a curtain over the manky corner that you wouldn’t go within six feet of now. Well I’m not the type to run and I’m in the mood for a spring clean. I’ve got a long handled brush and a scarf to cover my hair (even in this analogy my scalp is itching thinking of eight-legged, dive-bombing assassins lying in wait). In fairness this is probably going to be a job for professional exterminators so we’ll be sticking with the spider metaphor for the time being.

I know that because of that arachnid freak I’m left with a roaring silence that threatens to swamp me from time to time. I know that years of lying and pretending everything was fine have made grappling that silence all the harder. I know that once it’s broken I’ve no control over what noise takes its place. I know that I’m left with the relics of it’s construction to deal with on a daily basis – the belief that friends and family are not to be trusted, the belief that people laugh at me behind my back, the belief that the barbed wire is somehow there because of me, the paradoxical lure of the dark. I recognise these for what they are now, just crap left over that has nothing to do with anything, but every now and then I forget they’re there and I trip.

I’m skirting round the edges now, making half hearted feints with my long handled broom, but Spider’s days are numbered. I’m coming for it. I’ve had enough of silence. It’s too damned loud. I’m all for speaking out, for dragging the darkness out into the light. Silence can be powerful but it’s too easy for it to envelop you. The ground around me is crisscrossed with lines in the sand but I’m drawing another one and I’m writing about it because that’s where I need it to end up. Just another thing that I can dismember and use. That’s all it’s good for after all.

On Fishes and Bicycles and Other Hard Concepts

When I was very small I was taught that it was important to know right from wrong. I was told that I was a lucky girl who got to live in a civilised country, in a comfortable house, who got to go to a good school and who didn’t know anything about war or famine other than what the pictures on the little cardboard money boxes I brought home from school showed. I was taught that because I was a lucky girl in all these ways I understood there were those who weren’t as fortunate and who didn’t have what I had. It was important I stood up for what was right, what was fair.

It was a fairly standard liberal middle class indoctrination. But it stuck. Even now the one thing that reduces me to red-faced, fist-clenched, speechless rage is unfairness. I’m not talking sulky, pouty, “but I want it” unfairness here, by the way. Oh no. This is the kind of jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, bone-crunching unfairness that’s like a slap in the face with the sharp edge of a damp smelly towel. It doesn’t compute. It can’t, it’s wrong, spelled out in capital letters that are probably red and flashing.

When I was about five and the world was a far simpler, softer place that fundamental instability was locked in a milk carton. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t open the side of the carton myself to get at the last drops and instead had to wait with my arm raised, the puddle of milk in the corner of the carton getting warmer and sharper by the second. I couldn’t understand why I got into trouble when I opened it myself and showed my friends how to open theirs. It didn’t compute. It just wasn’t right.

When I was a little older I learnt there were bigger things that weren’t fair too. I remember well the burning cheeks and stinging eyes at being denied Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. I’ve felt them often. Once that stuff starts happening it doesn’t stop. You can’t get lost in a knot of rage every time it happens though. You grow up. You learn to stand your ground.

But this isn’t a trip down memory lane. I’m trying to make a point.  I wouldn’t consider myself madly political but I do believe that I have no right to judge my fellow human beings, that empathy and compassion are evolutionary traits and that everyone deserves dignity and freedom. Every so often, when I’m blunt about the things that matter to me, when I tweet about racism or blog about abortion or atheism, someone will tell me I’m brave for speaking out. What I’m trying to explain is that bravery has absolutely nothing to do with it. I was raised with a particular moral framework, a “sense of fair play”. Why wouldn’t you stand up for that?

Of course, I’m well aware that there will be some reading this who don’t think what I’m saying is reasonable or obvious in the slightest. They will have got as far as the title of this piece and dismissed me as a mouthy feminist, a dissolute member of the liberal meeja, a purveyor of happy clappy bullshit. It’s because of this dismissal of values that I consider fundamental and absolutely bleeding obvious that I have, in the past hesitated about tackling a range of subjects head on – and that’s at the heart of the problem.

In tackling these subjects I’m aware that perhaps I may be painting myself in a less than favourable light. It’s been suggested to me more than once that by being honest about my liberal opinions I could offend people, even jeopardise my career prospects. In my head there’s still a treacherous little voice warning me I could come across as “strident” and no boy will ever want me (well, perhaps not quite). Yup, it’s still there. I live in a Western European country, I’m middle-class, educated. As a woman I’ve benefitted from the ground gained by former generations, by the hard won right to a third level, even second level education, to vote, to have autonomy.  Looking back over my family tree I can watch as they joined the middle classes and benefitted from greater opportunities and wider choices. Over the past century or so the world has changed beyond recognition because people saw that progress lay in these fundamental rights. The right to work for a fair wage, in decent conditions. The right to an education. The right to own property.

These changes have given us the world we live in today. They’ve benefitted the right as much as the left (although the former land owning men who once held all the power must be feeling a wee bit hard done by). Many of the social and religious conservatives seeking to shape the world we live in today wouldn’t have a voice if it wasn’t for these waves of progress. So why does it so often feel that we haven’t moved forward at all?

Last night during the late night sitting over the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill Fine Gael TD Tom Barry pulled his colleague Áine Collins TD onto his lap. He’s since apologised but it’s a stark reminder of why that treacherous little voice is still telling me to be quiet. Mr Barry has since apologised and the whole thing is being brushed away and that again is the problem. I know that if a male friend did the same in the pub I’d take exception. I also know that if I did so at least some of the company would tell me not to over react. I know this because over the years this kind of stuff has happened many, many times. I know it’s wrong but in the past I’ve laughed it off myself to play the game.

As I’ve grown older I’ve seen it so many times. I’m out of patience. I fail to see why speaking up should make me mouthy, or militant, or strident. I could be fairly sure that Mr Tom Barry TD would not have grabbed one of his male colleagues and wrestled with him on the benches of the Dáil Chamber. That kind of horse play just wouldn’t have been proper in such solemn circumstances. The fact that he and his colleagues think this is a minor, if insulting, lapse in judgement says it all. It’s not right, it’s not fair and it shouldn’t be an issue to say so.

This isn’t a call to arms, or an incitement to anything. I’m really not that dogmatic. But it’s always important to stick up for what’s right. That will never change.

Every Sperm is Sacred (with apologies to Monty Python)

Pro Life marchers

I’ve written a lot on this blog about issues that affect women but there’s one subject I’ve always steered clear of. Abortion is a contentious subject the world over but here it’s a subject that tears the country apart. It’s the wedge driven between two Irelands, a poison seeped into the heart of the Irish family. Any public debate that strays near that hallowed ground will get infected with a contagion that threatens to swamp any liberalising call – it’s a wonder any progress has been made at all.

As any regular reader of this blog knows my upbringing was not an Irish catholic one. I was born in London and raised C of E. I was wired by that schematic and even though I’ve lived in Ireland since my teens that schematic never really changes. I have never been particularly religious, although at one point I did end up teaching Sunday School (actually not half as long or interesting a story as you’d perhaps think) and these days I tend to describe myself as an atheist just to forestall any confusion. I’m not of the dogmatic atheistic persuasion though. If you want to believe in something knock yourself out, just let me believe or disbelieve what I choose. I won’t try to rattle your cage if you don’t try to rattle mine. My approach to abortion would be along the same lines. It’s all a matter of choice. Those who want, or more usually need to have one should be supported through a difficult period of their lives. Those who don’t agree with it should be free not to have one. I really wouldn’t have thought it was all that difficult. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to approach this any other way.

That’s why I don’t write about abortion. It feels as if it’s not my argument. I’m pro choice. I’ll fight for the right for women faced with that difficult decision to have all the options open to them. It is barbaric to expect them to travel outside the country. It always was. It always will be. The fact that it has taken this long to get to the point where the Irish Government is on the brink of legislating to clarify the mire of case law that’s built up since the so-called 8th Amendment is insane. But that’s Ireland. That’s the hornet’s nest I don’t particularly want to kick.

The Government are due to vote on the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill on Wednesday. For the past weeks and months the pro life movement have been ramping up the hysteria. Once again it’s getting deafening, the roaring of old Catholic Ireland in it’s pain.

It was absolutely deafening, as I watched the “Rally for Life” make it’s triumphal way down O’Connell Street in the blazing sun last Saturday afternoon. Watching faces grimacing in smug malice as they shook Youth Defence-provided posters at the pro-choice protesters lining their route, it was clear that here were two utterly incompatible Irelands, suspended over a chasm. Marching down the road, jeering at the counter protest, occasionally throwing salt and holy water to cast out the demons inhabiting their fellow country men and women, these people saw an Ireland tinted with the sugary washes of an old postcard. This is the Ireland that wanted Monty Python banned. This is the Ireland that keeps seeing the Virgin Mary in inanimate objects. This Ireland is the poster child for ultra-conservative Catholicism. The question will always be, does that Ireland actually exist?

We all know that there was a time when that Ireland was real enough. This country has been dealing with the legacy of that Ireland for many years, learning the sombre lesson that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely again, and again and again.  Certainly the people on that march on Saturday believe that Ireland still exists – but it’s not the country I know and love. That Ireland is the one that has flourished despite the poison leeching into it from it’s toxic twin. I’m not saying that Catholicism per se is bad, but when dogmatism creeps into any religion, when it becomes a single-minded fervour that stamps out compassion and empathy and rationality, well, that’s never good.

The subject of abortion in Ireland is sadly a very powerful magnet that very dogmatism and several thousand people proudly paraded their lack of compassion on Saturday. They called female protestors “sluts” and  “murderers”, they made their own children cry for political ends, they laughed at the passion of the opposing view (all widely reported on Twitter and Facebook and all seen personally by me as I watched). This was the grinning face of Old Ireland standing defiant on the battle field.  They’re looking for a fight. They will not back down. But the Ireland they think is all around them is gone. It’s frozen on old postcards, it’s discussed from the psychiatrist’s couch.

Sadly I don’t think there’s any easy solution to any of this. The poison will keep eating away. But hopefully compassion and empathy and rationality will rule the day and the country will move forward, even if it must drag the panting body of Old Ireland along with it. Some things will never be easy. But we must do them anyway.

Thoughts on Being a Country for a Week…

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Over one week at the end of May I got the opportunity to discover what it’s like to be a country, nominally at least. The @ireland Twitter account was set up by WorldIrish.com in March last year. It’s modelled on the @sweden account which has a different Swedish person curating the account each week, sharing their lives and their views to give a kaleidoscopic view of the people and ideas that go to make up a country.  There are quite a few of these accounts now. Towns and cities all over the world have cottoned onto the fact that this format plays very well with public and commentators alike. It’s a low cost way to get the word out there about how cosmopolitan a place you are, how gorgeous the scenery is and how achingly cool your people are and lets face it, stuff like this is what Twitter was made for.

When my turn came up, to be honest, the gloss had gone off Twitter a little. I joined around the same time I set up this blog, and set up my Facebook page, back when my first book needed selling. I stayed when I stopped seeing it as a pressurised shop floor and simply as very, very large room full of people talking, rather like a massive party with no beginning and no end. After a while I realised that scattered through the crowds were the kind of people you end up having very interesting conversations with in the kitchen at a party like that. Like the song says, you really will always find me in the kitchen at parties. Lately though I’ve started looking around for my coat. I’ve already swapped phone numbers with the people I was talking to in the kitchen and a bus load of noisy new people have arrived just as the beer’s running low. Or something. Party analogies aside, it’s been a long time since I’ve been my normal, chatty, opinionated self on Twitter. Until I got to be a country.

I started bright and early on the Monday morning. I think the first thing I talked about was actually the weather. Within minutes I realised the difference between tweeting to a couple of thousand followers and tweeting to over 15 thousand.

There’s a lot more people.

I use Twitter mainly through my phone and it wasn’t long before the bloody thing was chirruping and vibrating as if it was trying to hatch. Conversations rattled by at breakneck speed and I soon realised that with this audience you couldn’t get away with casual throw away comments. People actually wanted to know what you had to say, then often contradict it. On my second morning I glibly mentioned that it was a grey day in Dublin and within seconds had half a dozen replies telling me they were looking at the sun right now.

I’ve been doing this author thing for almost five years now. I’ve done live appearances – those wonderful events when you look out into the audience and realise you’ve got the phone numbers of half the people there in your phone contacts and the other half have come to see the other people on the panel.  Having that many people actually looking straight at you and waiting to see what you do next (even if they are online) is a bit of a culture shock!

I knew when I started my week that I didn’t want to pull my punches. I’ve grown more political as I’ve got older and less inclined to keep my opinions to myself. I’m frustrated on a daily basis by the conservatism in this little country and I didn’t want to shy away from that if it came up. To be fair I didn’t always wait to see if it came up. Equality matters to me and there’s far too much stuff in the news at the moment not to come back to the subject again and again.

So we ended up talking about religion, or rather my lack of it, feminism (no surprise there), racism, abortion and spirituality. The two subjects that kept coming back were the way society views women and the way Irish society can sometimes be a little less than the land of a thousand welcomes if you’re different. With both these subjects the thing that really hit home was the number of responses I got from people telling me it wasn’t a problem. I’m a reasonable woman. I’d much rather spend my time talking about books or old films and TV. It these things weren’t a problem, believe me, I wouldn’t keep banging on about them. As a woman in today’s society I think there’s still a long way to go before we gain a real, lasting form of equality. Too many women are treated purely as sexual objects or worse, lesser human beings, across the world not to be worried and angry about the fact that this persists even though, as a species we should surely have copped on by now.

It’s the same with the racism issue. When I started tweeting about the subject under the @ireland account it was in response to the racial attack on journalist Una Kavanagh. Una works of WorldIrish.com and manages the @ireland account so naturally I shared her initial tweets and commented. While the bulk of the response was the generous, warm, outraged response I’d expect from the Ireland I know and love there were a significant number of people who took exception with me tweeting about the incident from the account, since “Ireland doesn’t have a problem with racism”. This is a myth I’ve heard many times over the years and yet when I spoke to my non Irish friends during the week, everyone had their own story. A problem doesn’t have to be all engulfing to be a problem. It just has to be persistent and widespread, and like it or not racism is a form of bigotry that’s persistent and widespread in this country. When someone’s attacking you because of the colour of your skin or your accent you don’t stop to reassure yourself that this person is the exception. You might think that later but not immediately. Coming out of this conversation I found myself sharing my own experiences of xenophobia in Ireland for the first time online. A fair few people responded with similar stories, enough that it really brought home to me how important it is that this issue is talked about as often as possible. It needs to be stamped out, not ignored.

As important as it might have been to talk about racism the conversation I think I enjoyed most was on the Sunday, my last day. I’d been watching a documentary about Emily Wilding Davison to mark the centenary of her death after falling under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. I asked where were the monuments to the many extraordinary Irish women who’ve inspired over the years? Where were the heroine’s for young Irish feminists. Throwing that out there started a stream of suggestions. The conversation rumbled on for much of the day, throwing up many very inspiration names and stories. What did become clear though was that, in terms of public memorials, either statues or plaques, women are vastly under represented here. By the end of the day it was difficult not to see Constance Markievicz as almost an example of tokenism, being celebrated almost to the exclusion of all others. It was notable how hard everyone was racking their brains and how few names it was throwing up. It was a fact remarked upon by several Tweeters that the majority of women who appear in statues around Ireland are fictitious or mythological. This is something else that I’ve taken away. We need to do something to change that status quo, these things send powerful messages.

Of course it wasn’t all contentious. I talked to a lot of people about Sci-Fi – and even tweeted about my beloved dystopias, although I didn’t get to be a geeky as I’d like. I also had a great chat about nail polish, which involved my first ever picture of a manicure. I’ll be doing “selfies” next! I also got to be severely nerdy about the Four Courts and criminal Dublin. Right down my alley.

What I can take away from the week is a renewed appreciation of Twitter. I hadn’t realised how unique one of these country accounts is. At the risk of coming over all philosophical, they put you in an unusual position. You deal with the expectations of the world about a country that’s an expert at mythologizing itself. You deal with the nostalgia and protective homesickness of the Diaspora who are watching for a taste from home. You deal with the manic salesmanship of some of the country and the sharp-tongued cynicism  of the rest. It’s an intense experience. A previous @ireland tweeter described it to me as like being plugged into the Matrix. I know exactly what he means. It can feel quite profound, if it’s late enough and you’re tired enough and it’s been a very long day. It’s addictive and it’s illuminating. Talking about racism, which eventually developed into a conversation about national identity, I thought about my own national identity. I’ve known for a long time that that while I can’t ignore my Englishness, I’ll always be a Londoner, I’m as Irish as they come now too. I can’t remember the point where I stopped feeling like a visitor. My nationality was remarked on to such an extent it was constantly underling the fact I didn’t belong. But at some point I accepted my place here. I don’t know if I’ll stay for ever, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop giving out about all the things that make me hop up onto my soap box, but I know that Ireland is in my heart and I’ve now got two homes rather than none, as I might have thought a long time ago.

Quite a few people asked me was I mad, when I told them I was going to curate the @ireland account. They worried it would be too intrusive, that I’d be too exposed and yes, I see that. You learn very quickly with an account like that you can’t steer every conversation and they will take you where they will – which can be a little disquieting at times.  But here on the other side, it was an extraordinary experience and one that I count myself lucky to have had. It’s renewed my affection for Twitter and once again confirmed a lot of the things I love about this country. I’ve met a lot of very interesting people, many of whom have stuck around to continue those kitchen party chats. If I needed reminding that this social interaction 2.0 works better with total immersion I’ve got it now. You’ll be hearing a lot more from me. I’m glad to be back in my own little universe but I enjoyed the holiday and I’ve come back refreshed. If you’re curious to see exactly what happened you can see the tweets on my profile page on WorldIrish.com here.