Writer and Author

Category: Ireland (Page 3 of 13)

Thoughts on Being a Country for a Week…

Backyard Battles by Michael Stamp metaphor for @ireland

Photograph by Michael Stamp. All rights reserved.

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.

Dublin Stories 1: The Haunted Dustpan

Today I’m trying something a little bit different. Since I’ve stopped writing from the courts the blog has been in need of an injection of alternate subject matter. Since I’ve been spending most of my time up to my eyes in history books for the years pop culture didn’t really seem like a good fit. So instead, you lucky, lucky people, I give you this…

This is the first post in a series. Well, as you can tell that from the title. You can probably also tell that I’m not planning an exhaustive account of the social history of Dublin Town. This local history is going to be much more relaxed. Since I moved to Dublin over twenty years, I’ve loved living in a city with such a rich history. I want to tell some of my favourite Dublin stories. This isn’t a history of checks and balances, of historical facts and figures. I’m interested in the stories that have lived, that find their way into the fabric of the city itself, that have bent and flexed into the collective consciousness – in other words, the nitty gritty history of them might have gone lost in the telling. The Ireland’s Eye murder is one of these that but I’m not starting there.  I’m starting my stories with a ghost in a castle. It’s one I know particularly well.

Drymnagh_castle_Dublin_1820

Back in the early 90s I was working as a tour guide in Drimnagh Castle. If you don’t know the area Drimnagh is a suburb in the south west of Dublin. The modern streets have crept right around the 12th century castle that stands on the Long Mile Road. It’s still got its moat and until the 50s it was the longest inhabited castle in Ireland. When the last family to own it, dairy farmers by the name of Hatch, died out the castle passed to the Christian brothers. They turned it into a school but as the school grew the pupils were moved into new buildings next door and the brothers moved out. Slowly but surely, over the next few decades, the castle began to decay. By the 70s it was a shell. Somewhere where local kids would sneak in to go drinking.

In the 80s, conservationist Peter Pearson started up the Drimnagh Castle Restoration project and FÁS were brought in to provide manpower for the restoration work. The work was all done using traditional methods. I used to draw visitors’ attention to the wooden pegs used to hold the roofing joists together and the fact that the figures of medieval workmen carved at the bottom of those joists had the faces of those involved in the restoration, some of whom still worked on the site. We were very proud of the work that had been done so far. The foreman Godfrey, in pride of place at the end of the hall, had been carved wearing a digital watch. Just to make the point. Legend had it that even our resident ghost knew Godfrey’s name. A few years later, when I’d started working in radio, I met someone who’d recorded a show out there, talking about ghosts for Halloween. I even heard the master. It could have been a woman’s voice. But then, standing next to Godfrey’s wooden form, you’d also be rather close to the window, and the chimney. They can be draughty places, medieval castles.

We all believed in the castle ghost, Eleanora. Supposedly one of the Norman Barnevale family who had built the place, Eleanora was reputed to slope around the castle sighing, as she looked at the mess her love life had ended up. She had been supposed to marry her cousin Edmund, we used to tell the tourists, but as is often the case in these kinds of tragic love stories her heart belonged to another. Unfortunately for all concerned the particular other in this case was Sean O’Byrne, the younger son of the Irish clan that had been making it their mission to make the Barnevale’s feel less than welcome in their chosen domain. The wedding day arrived and the wedding party made their way by carriage to St Patrick’s Cathedral. They never made it. After a savage battle both Sean and Edmund lay dead and Eleanora was somewhat persona non grata. Her uncle, you see, had an inkling of her fondness for the O’Byrne lad and blamed her for the whole fiasco. Eleanora was brought back to Drimnagh Castle and locked away but she made her escape and pined herself to death on her lover’s grave. We all knew the story of Eleanora off by heart – it was one of the chief selling points of the place after all. None of us ever heard any heartbroken sobs but our younger cleaner swore blind that one day as she was cleaning the Great Hall her dustpan stood up on its handle all by itself. Who knows, it might have.

The rest of us were more worried about the Man in Black who was supposed to haunt the 17th century tower. Back then the tower hadn’t been restored and was kept locked as it was still a building site. According to the story the Man in Black had been an alchemist who made a deal with the devil. Before I sat down to write this post I went looking for the notes I had kept from my tours. Unfortunately they’ve been lost somewhere across the intervening years so my remembrance of this particular story is a little hazy. I remember I used to have fun telling it. There was a crow involved and a mysterious disappearance. It used to scare young school children, that story, and that was the simplified version. Of course those of us working there had other details that were completely unverified so had never made it into the tour. We heard the local story that a tramp, finding the derelict tower in the 60s or 70s, had been found dead with an expression of abject fear on his face. One of the other tour guide claimed he had seen a dark figure there one night when he had been closing up after an event. Personally I never liked turning my back on that locked door whenever I was turning out the lights after a late night gig (the castle hosted TV shows and concerts even in those days).

Drimnagh Castle was a wonderful place to work on hot summers’ days. Sitting in the courtyard waiting for tours to arrive you could hear the bees in the herbs growing near the sun dial. There was a very irascible, balding peacock there too who would wander over to you and peck your ankles. He’d outlived three hens at this stage. We wondered if he was depressed at his habitual single status. I remember one Saturday in the old church on Andrews Street in the city centre helping to tear up the floor. The church was being turned into the tourist office it is today and they had donated the tiles to the castle. I have a tile from that floor and a couple left surplus from the Great Hall. They’ve come with me to various flats and houses over the years. A physical reminder of a memorable time. That year the sun always seemed to be shining although this being Ireland that simply can’t be true. I had wanted to write a proper account of the ghost stories to sell to visitors and one of the other other tour guides was an artist who was going to illustrate it. On the slow, hot days we spent more time sitting on benches avoiding the peacock. The artist sketched me, the only long haired female present and years later I visited and saw the Eleanora mural that now decorates the yard. Something in the eyes still looks like me, I think. I’d like to think I’d left a little something there.

Painting of Eleanora at Drimnagh Castle

Painting of Eleanora at Drimnagh Castle

The castle’s still open for tours though the restoration work’s stopped now. You can even hire it out for weddings or filming – even book launches. You can find them here. Though I presume the peacock’s long dead by now.

Do let me know in the comments if you like the piece. I’ve lots more in the pipeline

In Praise of Women

 

Photo property of Abigail Rieley all rights reserved

When I was a child I never doubted I could fly. I never saw any reason why I couldn’t rule the world one day. I could be a doctor, or a spaceman, or a time traveller. I could be a famous artist or an explorer or have my very own book shop. I never saw being a girl as a help or a hindrance, it was just the thing that occasionally meant I had to wear rather uncomfortable woollen tights. When I was a child I was surrounded by women, women who showed me a world that was waiting to be discovered, women who were the best role models I could ever ask for, women who made me the woman I am today.

After my dad died it was just me and my mum. Despite her own loss my mum was the heart of my childhood. It was she who taught me to love books and music  and who, when she discovered the contraband lipgloss and black eyeliner hidden in my schoolbag, sat me down with a drawer full of makeup with names like Biba and Miners and taught me how to apply it like a pro. My mum was the one who, when I was in the school production of Hiawatha she stayed up all night stitching together scraps of leather to make a costume on a budget. My mum taught me how to make an entrance. She taught me how to be strong in a crisis. She taught me how to create magic out of nothing. I knew she wasn’t happy when I was a child but I knew that she would always be there when I needed her.

My mum was strong but I don’t think she could have coped without the friends and family who surrounded us in those early years. I remember Alison, who’s lifting me up in the picture that accompanies this piece, who came to help after my father’s death and stayed for my early years. Alison was one of the first people I talked to about writing and was the person who told me, after I joined Mensa to vanquish an ex boyfriend’s taunts, that I didn’t have to prove myself in the face of other people’s insecurity.

There was Dee, my mum’s cousin, who was always her rock. Dee was a second mother. I remember having my tea at her house while a malevolent tortoiseshell cat eyed me from the top of a cupboard. Dee taught me not to be afraid. She taught me to face things head on and not to be afraid of speaking up. Her house was always full of life and noise, so different from our solitary quiet. She brought calm practicality into our sometimes chaotic existence and a normality that couldn’t be washed away by moments of panic.

There was Branny, my mum’s best friend, who told me,when I needed to hear it, that my mum was human. Sitting up the night before my audition for the drama school I didn’t really want to go to we sipped tea laced with left over Christmas brandy and I laughed myself some perspective over stories of my mum’s less edifying exploits. Branny confirmed that my mum and I were very different people and much as I loved her I would never be her. Drama school was the dream she had attained. My dreams were somewhere else.

There was Anna my godmother. An actress and broadcaster, she would fly in from visiting  the flat she kept in Paris with fresh-baked croissants and lie in our garden soaking up the paler English rays of sun to top up her French tan. Anna was always impossibly glamorous but still ours. I grew up wanting to have a flat in Paris, to work for the BBC. I grew up wanting her independence and freedom.

When I was about eight my Gran came to live with us. Like her daughter, my grandmother could be an impossible woman but she had the trait that a great many women seem to have in my family – bloody mindedness. When my Gran broke her back in her 60s the doctors told her she would never walk again. She proved them wrong. She would never break any speed records but when she lived with us a year or two later, if the bus was late she would walk home. My Gran told me stories about her life. How she had run a record shop and a hair salon. How she had been offered a scholarship to the Slade school of Art on the recommendation of her art teacher Archibald Knox. My Gran still said her Us the old fashioned way with a hidden i and taught me phrases like “too, too bay window” and “all fur coat and no knickers” – goodness knows what kind of conversations we were having!

Then there was my aunt, my wonderful extraordinary aunt Jill. Jill has always been there for people. She’s been a teacher, a social worker, a missionary and a vicar. My earliest memories of Jill are of her warmth and her quick affection. I’ve always been a little in awe of her but Jill was particularly amazing when my mum died. She made family seem immediate again instead of distant.

These are just a handful of the women who shaped me into the  woman I am today. There are many, many more.  I count myself fortunate to have been surrounded most of my life by a multitude of wise, funny, generous, warm, wonderful women who have enriched my life and given it colour. In previous years I’ve marked International Women’s Day by writing about how much further there is to go. I’ve talked about violence against women, about the pitiful sentences for rapes, but this year I want to celebrate. I want to raise a glass to extraordinary women in my life, in yours, everywhere.

As I sit at my computer and type this post I’m looking into the faces of three more extraordinary women, subjects of my current book. I’ve been privileged to look into their lives, lived so long ago, and get to know their strength. I wouldn’t have found them, might not have listened, if I hadn’t been taught to look.  I stand here at this point in my life because of all the women who’ve known and shaped me. Thank you ladies! Here’s to you!

A Point that Really Shouldn’t Need to be Made

Late yesterday afternoon, at around the time thoughts were turning towards what to have for dinner, my phone rang. It was a wonderfully geeky friend who knows of my own (not so closet) geeky tendencies. Had we talked about Much Ado About Nothing she asked excitedly.

“Um no, not recently.”

I knew that Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most hotly anticipated screenings at this year’s Jameson Dublin Film Festival. In attendance would be the director of this new production, none other but Joss Whedon. I knew about the screening all right. I also knew it was sold out.

But my wonderful friend had a tip. A small number of tickets were being released in the final hours before the screening. Would I like to go with her.

“Hell yes!”

So at 6 o’ clock yesterday four of us, all women, excitedly met outside the Savoy Cinema. We weren’t the only women there. Why would we be? This is the man responsible for Buffy the vampire slayer, for the formidable Zoe Washburne in Firefly, I could go off into a long list of amazing female characters but I’m trying to keep the fangirlness to an absolute minimum. Let’s just agree that Joss Whedon is known for his strong female characters. It’s a fact so mind bogglingly obvious it really doesn’t need saying. You would think. There were a lot of women at last night’s screening, a substantial percentage of the enthusiastic crowd.

After last night’s screening there was a Q&A conducted by John Maguire of the Sunday Business Post. Eventually questions were thrown open to the floor. You can imagine the number of hands went up for those microphones. The first question went to a guy in the first row. What it was is unimportant. The second went to a guy in the row behind him. Then another bloke, and another. Eventually Joss Whedon had to point out that there were women in the room. Wasn’t it time to let one answer a question?

The next question went to another man. Much to the annoyance of the woman sitting next to him who had also had her hand up.

Now I’m not saying that the guys who got the mic didn’t have a right to ask their question. Everyone in that audience was there for the same reason. Tickets sold out so quickly because Mr Whedon has a hell of a lot of fans of both sexes.

But he is known for his strong female characters.

Afterwards in the crowd outside the cinema people were smiley and happy and chatty. Our little group of four got talking to other audience members. All of them women. Nothing surprising in that. It was just the way it worked out. But we all commented on the fact that so few women had got to answer questions.

Of the two women who did get to ask one of them identified herself as a theatre director and producer. She wanted to adapt the famous musical episode of Buffy for the stage she explained. She had written a letter. To the audience’s, and I’m sure her, delight, Whedon crossed to her seat and took the letter from her, tucking it in his jacket pocket.

That took balls, everyone outside was saying. How appropriate.

That failure to give the mic to the women in the audience was the only gripe in an otherwise great evening. I don’t think it was done maliciously, probably not even intentionally, but it was done and it was noticed and it was remarked upon by the guest of honour himself.

The truly depressing thing about the fact that it wasn’t malicious and it was probably wasn’t intentional is that that this kind of stuff happens all the time. It happens with such mind numbing regularity I frequently want to scream. It’s like the time in college when a big journalistic name came to speak to our class. There was a lively discussion that went right up to the end of the day. Afterwards this big journalistic name, who was an old friend of our lecturer, agreed to go for a pint. Invitations were carelessly given but somehow the only people who got them were they lads in the class. Once again it wasn’t intentional, once again I found myself outside with the women noticing the omission.

It’s like fact that you can turn on Irish radio station between breakfast at dinner time and only hear a male host. The fantastic advocacy group Women on Air was set up to combat this. Despite a long list of qualified female contributors out there, Irish journalists (and those elsewhere, this isn’t solely an Irish problem by a long chalk) will go for the same old male reliable. I could go on giving examples forever. I’m sure you could add them yourself.

It’s frustrating as a women to feel even now, in Western Europe in the 21st Century, that you don’t have the same voice as the other half of the population. Even though my generation of women are the first who can look on our freedom as a birthright there is so much still to do. The fact that this freedom, this equality, is so easily forgotten shows just how fragile it is. The worst thing is that sometimes the offenders really should know better. Members of the so called “liberal meeja” really should know better.

When you’re interviewing someone who is known particularly for writing strong female characters then the issue should surely be at the front of your mind.

I’ll leave the final word to Joss Whedon himself. My miraculous ticket fairy also pointed me towards this clip of him accepting an award from the Equality Now movement. Says it all really.

The Importance of Remembering

This weekend past I visited the graves of forgotten women. It’s something see I do now and again when I can. It started when I was in the early days of researching this current book. There’s a gravesite in Glasnevin Cemetery, unmarked and unnoticed among the more haphazard stones of a century ago that belongs to one of the women I’m writing about. I know that Maria Kirwan bought the plot DX39 and the one beside it a couple of years before she died. I know that in September 1852 she was laid to rest there, only to be dug up a month later when the police investigation into her death got going.

I know that the grave was waterlogged that grim October day, that the new O’Connell tower was under construction, that the part of the graveyard she inhabits is known as the Dublin section, not quite as posh as the Garden section but classy enough for the good burghers of Dublin town who paid handsomely for headstones for their dearly beloved that left the reader in no doubt about the wealth of the mourners and the success of their businesses on such and such a street. Maria doesn’t have a stone. After her untimely death there was no one to buy one. Her husband didn’t care, too busy with the family he had built behind her back, her mother was too in thrall to the husband that had killed her, taking his money and speaking in his defence. Her brother had left for a new life in America and her doting father was dead. The victim often disappears in a murder case but that bare patch of ground is such a stark reminder of the anonymity of death. I know she’s down there but you can only find her if you know where to look.

I look at Maria’s face every time I sit down at my desk, she’s the subject of one of her husband’s sketches that I’ve copied and pinned at eye level to keep me focused on the task at hand. But every now and then I pay her a visit too. Sometimes I take flowers but every time I stop for a moment to think of her, or at least the version of her that now lives in my book. It started as a focusing exercise, a way of grounding myself to the characters I’m writing but now I pop in if I’m passing Glasnevin cemetery. Her grave reminds me that I’m writing about real women, that even though I’m imagining their story their pain was real, their lives and deaths were real. This is the hinterland of fiction, with its ghosts and phantoms. I have to keep one foot in the real world and be respectful of the historical fact.

This weekend I brought two bunches of flowers. There was another grave I wanted to visit. Actually in Glasnevin there are a number of graves I’d like to place flowers on, just a gentle nod to say I’ve noticed, just an acknowledgement of their story, their passing, a nod of solidarity as one human being to another, a nod to say they are not forgotten. There’s the Millennium Plot, in the somewhat grim mass grave section, this is where they bury those who died alone. Who had no one to mark their passing, on the street, in a bedsit wherever. It’s all too easy to slip through the cracks in this world we live in now, just look at poor Joyce Vincent, subject of the 2011 film Dreams of a Life, who wasn’t discovered for three years after her death, the television still playing for her skeleton when she was found. It’s a very modern fear, that lonely forgotten death, even if it is nothing new.  We should all pay more attention to those around us. Maybe stopping at the Millennium Plot would remind us that.

But this weekend the extra flowers weren’t for them. Last week former presidential spouse Senator Martin McAleese’s report into the Magdalen Laundries was published. It got a rather mixed reception. While it did find beyond doubt was that the Irish State had indeed routinely sent women into the infamous Magdalen Laundries, it also took the word of the religious orders about the word of the women who had come forward to describe their experiences. Lets not forget that these laundries were the sweat shops that provided the grand hotels with nice starched linen, the crisp white tablecloths of State banquets, that kept wayward girls and women off the streets in the days when the female sex were viewed as dangerous and crushable. These were places where the courts sent female convicts, where families sent their rebellious women folk, the receptacle where the destitute and the desperate ended up, in some occasions sent there by those they had approached to help including, staggeringly, the Red Cross, The Simon Community and the Samaritans. Over the past seven days we have watched the Taoiseach stumble his way round a non-apology, the religious orders who ran the homes try to tell the women who had suffered under their care that they just hadn’t fully appreciated the experience in the spirit it was intended and the women who were there still waiting for proper recognition of what they’ve been through.

These workhouses were no different from the grim places of terror that haunted the Famine weakened. They were run with the same pious ruthlessness that calmly discussed in the 1840s how they could make a handy buck from the sale of the bodies piling up within their walls if they sold them to the anatomists. We think of workhouses as fossils, relics from an unrecognisably brutal time when life was cheap and brutal. But the Magdalen Laundries continued into the 20th Century. They continued past the formation of a new State, they continued until the last one closed it’s doors in the 1990s. You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats it’s weakest. What do these stories, and these, say about Ireland?

It’s not good enough to say that times were different. Times are always different from what passed before. This was a brutal thing done by religious orders who should have shown more compassion, a State that should have shown more concern for it’s citizens and a people that should have cared more about their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. Sadly the Magdalens aren’t an isolated tale of a section of society ill-treated by those who had a duty of care. We’ve already heard of the Industrial Schools, the Orphanages, the Asylums. modern Irish history is littered with the weak and vulnerable being treated like inconvenient rubbish by those who should have done better. We should at least have the honesty to say that if you didn’t decry the system you allowed it, you condoned it, you are just as liable. It’s easy to feel that it’s just all too much, that the constant revelations over the past couple of decades are threatening to overwhelm you in a wave of intolerable injustice. But you can’t turn away, not this time. When the decision was made to deal with the vulnerable by pushing them out of sight out of mind and turning a blind eye no one came out well. It’s a shame the whole country has to take their part in. It should never have happened, but it did. It should never happen again, but it will.

So that’s where I brought my bunch of flowers.

Flowers in front of the Magdalene memorial in Glasnevin Cemetary

 

This stone stands in the car park of Glasnevin Cemetery, commemorating nameless women whose sins went with them to the grave. It’s not the only Magdalen stone in the Graveyard. There are others and still more in graveyards around the country. Then there are the buildings were we locked away those that couldn’t look after themselves, or that didn’t fit in. None of it should be forgotten. This is a part of Ireland’s history that is still a part of our present. We need to remember the truth, the reality of what happened and why it happened and watch for that brutality and nip it in the bud. Maria’s grave helps keep my fiction rooted in fact. I’d like the other flowers to do something similar. I’ll keep leaving flowers and you never know it might catch on, perhaps one day it’ll be as big a trend as the padlocks that hang from the Ha’penny Bridge to honour teenage love. Something that will get people talking, asking questions and will keep the memory of all this stuff alive. It’s our duty to remember or it will keep happening because no lessons will ever be learnt.

New Year, Same Old Codswallop

So today I’m tentatively sticking my nose into the real world – after making absolutely sure that the dispiriting mess that was 2012 has definitely left the building. I’ve been taking a break from all things internet related for most of the festive period…well apart from standing on the shore with a megaphone trumpeting Christmas wishes to anyone who’d listen and occasionally checking IMDB while on our annual compendium horror movie marathon…but for the most part it’s been drawbridge up, hatches well and truly battened down and it’s been lovely.

Much as I love the sprawling badlands that are the Interwebs they do hold an awful lot of silliness within their ragged borders. While the Net holds the kind of boundless possibilities Captain James T. Kirk was chasing (and still does apparently) it also gets snagged with all the pettiness of mankind. It opens up the world and you get the good with the bad. I’ve spent much of the past two years researching my new book. Thanks to a truly connected global Internet I was able to access the collections of libraries across the planet without ever leaving my desk. Thanks to the Google Books Project I was able to access printed sources that haven’t even survived in the collection of the National Library of Ireland.  I’d go so far as to say that I wouldn’t even have been able to find this story if it wasn’t for that interconnectedness. It’s a small story, an intimate and subtle one that was scattered far and wide in the intervening years. Without digital copies and the ability to conduct keyword searches I wouldn’t have been able to pull the strands of the story together. I’d be left with a thin sliver of purely linear narrative running through a haystack bristling with needles I would have had no hope of finding.

Technology has utterly revolutionised the way I research – my smartphone has become as essential a bit of kit as the ubiquitous tricorder, to return to that StarTrek analogy for a second. As a journalist and writer my work suddenly reaches a global audience. When I’m between freelance gigs I can still reach out to that audience through this blog. If I want to find something out I have access to a vast source of information, bigger than the greatest libraries in the world, connected to any reference work, any expert with a few strokes of the keyboard. It really is extraordinary. In less than 10 years we’ve wandered into science fiction.

I think that’s part of the problem.

The Internet, just by being it’s enormous sprawling self, tends to magnify both good and bad. Moving from our analogue pre digital existence to one connected to the Net all day every day is like moving from a small village to a city. There might be better shops, theatres and sporting stadiums but you can bet there’ll also be higher crime and higher prices. The bright lights just cast darker shadows and those shadows tend to be very busy places indeed. What else would you expect when moving to a community that isn’t bound by city limits or country borders? This is totally global. That’s big.

Now city living doesn’t suit everyone. With the bricks and mortar variety we can choose to leave, to turn our backs on the bright lights and frenetic life of the city for something a little less intense. So it is with the Internet. At the moment there seems to be a settlement sprouting up at the edge of our Internet City, a forest of lean-to shelters for the most part, although there are signs that some of the residents have actually started laying down foundations to stake a more permanent claim. They refuse to accept that the land they have built on is still part of the city and gather outside their dwellings several times a day to shout and throw stones. Sometimes they even travel into the city centre to better tell the city inhabitants what a sinful life they’re leading. They say that the city is destroying the countryside they would have chosen to live in and they have no choice but to sit outside their shanty town at night and throw stones and the occasional bucket of excrement at the outer fringes of the city. It’s the city’s fault for being too close.

Over the past weeks and months in Ireland a lot of shit has been slung. The Internet is blamed for for all the ills of mankind it seems. It’s denizens are cast as an unruly mob waiting in the bushes to jump out at unsuspecting innocents. Whether it’s the amount of confusing facts and non facts floating around online that can lure unsuspecting journalists into making career-ending mistakes (the first of which would surely have been the old one of checking ones sources), or anonymous bullying from so called trolls (a genuine problem but not one that should be hidden behind by politicians and public figures who put themselves up for scrutiny and then decide they don’t like criticism) these are problems that revolve around responsibility. Yes perhaps their should be more civic mindedness online and yes perhaps there need to be consequences for some of the irresponsible acts but surely there’s also a responsibility to those on the other end to be aware of what they are dealing with. I’m often reminded these days of the advice I got from friends before moving from Sligo to Dublin in my late teens.  They would have had me afraid to leave my flat if I’d listened to all the stories of rapes and murders in broad daylight on Grafton Street. When I’d moved to Sligo from London I was more freaked out by the way everyone said hello to everyone else and houses and cars were left unlocked. But if you weren’t looking out for it, sure Dublin was a wee bit dodgy but then, it is a city.

The latest missile is that old chestnut copyright. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of copyright – I’m a writer. My words are my trade. But the body representing the bulk of Irish newspapers has taken a stance on linking that is, to my mind, plain daft. Here’s the initial post from the solicitors representing charity Woman’s Aid, who received a bill for linking to coverage of their own fundraising efforts and here’s the National Newspaper of Ireland response.  As any regular reader of this blog will know I use links a lot. I use them to explain the background of stories I’m writing about and choose sources I respect. I’ve always linked rather than quoted because I wouldn’t want to steal the work of another journalist (although I’ve often linked to my own coverage of stories in old media sources). As far as I’m concerned it’s the most ethical way of doing things, it drives traffic to the source (though not much from here) and I’m not taking credit for something I’ve not done. I’ve been dealing with copyright a lot over the past few years as I’ve gathered together copies of all my research. I’ve lost count of the number of copyright release forms I’ve signed before taking my camera out and before using the composite image in this post I had to get permission from the National Library who hold the images I wanted to use. I was using the images on my blog though. I wasn’t linking to the library website to show the images (though actually I don’t think those three are up there yet). If I had linked through I wouldn’t have asked for permission. All I was doing was pointing the way after all.

In fairness the NNI aren’t the only ones to come up with this kind of lunacy. President Hollande of France is having a scrap with Google over much the same thing (and yes I know I could be incurring the wrath of the NNI by linking to a piece from one of their members to illustrate that point). I can understand the NNI point and even more the French point but I think they’re both going about it the wrong way. Anyone who makes their living producing unique content should have an issue with copyright. It’s one of the biggest issues of our time and if it’s not watched carefully then people like me will and any other writer, journalist, artist or photographer will find themselves unable to make a living. Once again we’re back to finding a balance between that “civic” responsibility and a sense of reality on the other side. Surely it’s about time people stopped acting like rubes up in the big smoke for the first time and took responsibility for their new home.

Like any community it’s up to the inhabitants what shape it takes. You can watch it from down the road, occasionally shouting warning at it’s wayward ways and throwing buckets of shit; you can live in it passively, allowing a monarchy, a church or big business to run it for you; or you can take responsibility and mould something really worthwhile. Lets hope the Internet lives up to its own possibilities and doesn’t get swamped by the mass of humanity that inhabits it.

Time to Say Enough

So here I am throwing open my window and shouting out into the night – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”. Something has to change and it has to change now. The past week has been a bad week to be a woman in Ireland. Actually not just a woman, it’s been a bad week to be in Ireland.

On Saturday, 70% of the voters in this country were too confused or too apathetic to go to their local polling station and vote on the rights of children. In a country that has seen countless children abused and ignored over the history of the State, you’d think this would be a subject that people might have feelings on. There were strong feelings on both sides but they did not translate to votes. Of the 30% who voted on an amendment that was supported by every major political party, not to mention the majority of advocates for and protectors of children, 40% of that 30% voted No.

On Wednesday the country awoke to the news that a healthy 31-year-old woman, expecting her first child, had died needlessly and avoidably while doctors stood by staring at a foetal heart monitor while the mother died of septicaemia. As the world now knows, last month Savita Halappanavar arrived at University College Hospital, Galway complaining of back pains. She was miscarrying at 17 weeks and her amniotic fluid was leaking. Instead of bringing her in and helping her through this traumatic event safely and speedily, doctors waited until there was no foetal heartbeat before acting. She died in agony a week later after repeatedly asking doctors to terminate her pregnancy. They failed to act. Savita’s husband has said that on at least one of the occasions his wife asked for an abortion she was told that option was not available as Ireland is a Catholic country. There will be an inquiry into what happened in Galway but it’s no surprise to anyone familiar with Irish abortion law that the legal situation is a mess. There’s been a lot written about Savita all over the world over the past two days and there will be a lot more but here in Ireland we’re good at talking and not so good at acting.

Also on Wednesday 39-year-old graphic designer Mark Jordan, with an address at Donabate, North County Dublin, who beat journalist Jane Ruffino and left her scarred for life, walked away from court with a suspended sentence and the price of her suffering was put at €5000. Sadly, as the linked article points out, this sentence was not unique. The judge, former garda Martin Nolan has considerable form but here in Ireland this kind of story might cause outrage but it’s a weary outrage dampened by overuse for as long as anyone can remember. Those who attack women or children here are rarely sentenced to more than a couple of years in jail. Sentences of more than eight years are rare. It’s a subject that has angered me since I started working in the courts and one that I’ve written about often on this blog.

So that’s one week, seven days, that have shown the dark side of Ireland. The side that would prefer to stay in the shadow of the Church, ears closed against the cries of the vulnerable, in pursuit of a life of piety and obedience. This is the holy Catholic Ireland of legend where dissent is quashed, the Church reigns supreme, men are men and women and children shut up and do what they are told. It’s hard to see this Ireland in 21st Century Dublin on a day to day basis but there are certain things that make it show it’s face. Any time the Family is mentioned you will see it. It’s the reason why successive Irish governments have taken more than 20 years to act on the X case. It’s the reason why there’s also no legislation on Assisted Human Reproduction here and why the country’s fertility clinics are unregulated. Make no mistake, holy Catholic Ireland is very much alive.

There are plenty here who’d like to go back to that Ireland. They feel safer there, wrapped in so much moral certainty, but what about those who don’t want to go back? What about those who are happy with the more secular, more liberal country we have now? Who have been ashamed of their country as the world watches the story of Savita’s tragic death unfold? What about those who didn’t come from that tradition in the first place, plentiful in our increasingly multi cultural society? Savita and her husband are Hindu but they were bound by the laws of old holy Ireland. There are plenty of couples who aren’t religious who go through fertility treatment every year but have to endure the the taboo that still exists around it because of these attitudes. But they are vocal, these inhabitants of holy Ireland. They try to shout down voices raised against them, just as they always did. So governments fail to act. The people fail to speak up, to shout stop. But it’s time we all stood up and said we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. It’s not ok that men can attack women with little consequence. It’s not ok that women in desperate need of medical care are forced to travel outside the State if they have any hope of receiving it. It’s not ok that people don’t stand up, don’t speak out, don’t demand change. It’s not ok that couples are judged because they have IVF.

I want to live in a country I can be proud of but after the week that’s in it, that country isn’t Ireland. There might be a chance to change things though, even after this horrible week. There are demonstrations and vigils all over the country and beyond in the wake of Savita’s death. Let this be a catalyst for change. One that both the politicians and holy Ireland will have to listen to.

Extracting the Michael

I’ve had a lot of fairly random jobs over the years. I’ve done the bar work, the secretarial, worked on market stalls and, of course, have plied my trade as a freelance journalist. Most of these jobs were the kind you do for the money, rather than in any hope of a lasting, fulfilling career. In my younger days I firmly subscribed to the philosophy that a job was something to pay the rent but it would never take the place of what I saw as a vocation – the pursuit of art. This pursuit, I told myself should be kept pure, unsullied by pecuniary concerns (I must have been pretty insufferable in my teens and twenties).

Back then – this would have been in the days before tiger economies, back when most people probably thought that prosecco was some kind of weird fungus – my friends and I would joke about the wage slaves we saw droning away around us. We were living la belle vie bohemiene. To take a job that would tie you to an office for the next forty years was anathema. When someone started talking about sitting the civil service exam we would shake our heads sadly. It could only ever be selling out.

One by one we grew up. The guys cut their hair, the girls started to wear high heels and skirt suits. A few did sit that exam. Some were accepted. The rest of us discovered that a vocation really needs to earn its way in the real world. We made compromises, discovered that coffee could be served many different ways and that prosecco was cheap enough to celebrate life’s smaller victories. Those of us who never sat those exams grumbled about not getting time off when we needed it, the cost of work clothes and pensions, how being on your feet all day was ruinously hard on shoes. At one stage or another we lost jobs suddenly, without warning, or had to hold down two or three different gigs to see all the bills paid. We lamented toothless or nonexistent unions. Looked on mortgages as an impossible dream.

Back in my temping days I worked in both the public and the private sector. I’ve seen how it works in banks and stockbrokers and I’ve seen how it works in government committees, semi states and hospitals. It was very illuminating. It was common knowledge that if you wanted the cushy life you held out for a public sector job. It was worth it for the holidays and the allowances alone. As the years went by I stopped looking at those who’d sat the exams as sell outs but as cute hoors who’d jumped onto the gravy train before the door was slammed.

Over the past week or so there’s been a lot of talk about public service allowances. When Brendan Howlin, the minister with responsibility for public service reform, announced that he had been unable to make the necessary cuts in these allowances people started looking at exactly what was being talked about. If you’re interested the full list is here. I’ve worked in private companies that have won awards for how they treat their staff but none of them offered to buy me lingerie. There might have been massages laid on on a Friday (at €5 for 15 minutes) but you didn’t get paid any extra for answering the phone. In fact, reception gigs were ones I used to pass on since the hourly rate was usually less than I’d earn standing in for a PA. I’ve spent days binding, photocopying and filing and no one upped my wages – it was what I was being paid for in the first place.

Whenever there’s a discussion about the Croke Park agreement or public sector pay, someone will wave the flag of the poor put-upon gardai, or teachers or nurses. This means there’s never a proper discussion about the culture of entitlement that exists across the board in the public service. I had the dubious fortune of starting to work in a hospital while the private clerical staff were on a go-slow over some problem with benchmarking. It was hard to tell they were on a go slow though because there were so many of us temps covering lengthy holidays that things were stuck at a pretty slow pace anyway. But every coffee break  there would be talk of unions and hard line tactics if the government didn’t play ball. I pointed out one day that the pay we were on was above anything I’d got working at a similar level in the corporate world. I got looked at with blank incomprehension and was told to shut up.

I get that the workplace benefits in a lot of these public sector jobs are the result of lengthy wrangling from the unions and those victories were keenly felt and seen as totally justifiable but that’s the view from inside the bubble. The cold hard fact is that those of us in the private sector might dream of those kind of workplace perks but we’d be laughed out of it if we suggested anything similar to bosses. The sad fact is that private sector workers, where the jobs are less certain and the wages are lower, do not even have the protection of strong unions to fight their corner. The unions are strong in the public sector. Hence the wonderful hard-won allowances.

I’m simplifying things a little. There are hard, badly paid public sector jobs and there are very comfortable, well paid private sector ones but there’s a reason why we used to be told to get a public service job if we could. It’s a job for life with damned good perks and that’s what it’s always been about. The workplace might be scruffier and the computers might be older but for time off, work life balance, a job for life that’ll make getting a mortgage a hell of a lot easier than any freelance proposition, the gravy train is still chugging on. I’ll concede that some of those contentious allowances date from a time long before benchmarking when every penny needed to be fought for just as hard as we are familiar with in the private sector but those dark days have come again and it’s time to be realistic.

We still view the world here in Ireland through the tinted lenses of the long dead tiger. Too many people still think that having to get their fizz from Lidl rather than Fallon & Byrnes is the bottom line. The standard of living is still pretty good. If you’re old, enough think back to the 80s or even the early 90s. It was all a lot more seat of the pants. There’s a hell of a lot further we could fall if the going gets tough enough. Many people have already found that out. It simply isn’t fair if one section of society is enjoying a security that no one else can hope for. It’s even worse that they take it so much for granted that they deny it’s the case at all. It’s going to have to change and when it does it won’t be an attack on the poor beleaguered public servants, it’ll be yet another of these horrible cuts we’ve seen so many of. It’ll be a sad thing that future generations won’t have the chance of an exam that can give a lifetime of security even if the job might not be the most fascinating. It’ll be one of those things that get consigned to history and mourned. One of the casualties of this modern messed up world. But denying there needs to be a change, and hanging on for grim death is taking the rest of us for idiots and it’s going to have to stop.

The Devil in the Red Dress is Free at Last

So Sharon Collins is out of jail. She has served almost four years of a six year sentence for soliciting someone to kill her lover PJ Howard, and his two adult sons Niall and Robert. Today’s papers are speculated will she or won’t she reunite with PJ, who stood by her even as the emails detailing exactly what she was considering having done to him were read out in court. He never believed the case against her and was seen visiting her in jail but the camera-shy millionaire has been notable by his absence recently.

That’s all very well and I’ve nothing against a good old-fashioned romance but I’m more interested in the fact she’s out after serving less than four years for trying to have three people killed.

Now, obviously, nothing is as simple as that sentence might have made it appear. Collins was initially convicted on all six counts against her. Three of conspiracy to murder and three of soliciting someone to murder the three Howard men. Her co-accused Essam Eid, who’s currently serving a 33 month sentence for his part in an almost identical scam in resulting from another femme fatale trying to secure the services of phantom Mafioso Tony Luciano through the decidedly dodgy hitmanforhire.net. In the American case Eid was convicted of extortion. Here in Ireland the jury failed to convict him on the conspiracy charges, finding him guilty on two counts of handling stolen goods. Eid himself was surprised with that outcome. But it was that verdict that made the three counts of conspiracy impossible to stick on Sharon Collins, after all, it’s rather hard to conspire on your own. They were quashed on appeal last year.

Eid was released in 2011 and was promptly extradited back to the States to face the other charges relating to the hitmanforhire website (I’ve blogged on the lot if you take a look in the tags at the top of this post – and of course, for further detail there’s always my Devil in the Red Dress but enough plugging). He had been in jail since his arrest at the time of the Ennis debacle back in September 2006. So he would have served a little over four years.

Now Eid was convicted of handling stolen goods. The biggest thing he handled was a laptop and a computer. The laptop he used to check his email and the computer he dumped in the bushes outside his hotel but that’s a whole other story. There was also a map of Irish money that he’d just liked the look of, if memory serves me correctly.

Sharon Collins on the other hand handed over fifteen grand to see the love of her life and the two lads she had been a mother figure to for years, killed. She was quite explicit about how she wanted them killed. There were a LOT of emails between lyingeyes98@yahoo.com and Tony the hitman Luciano. They were very flirty emails and lyingeyes98 had no qualms about speculating how the three men were to die. PJ could be pushed out of a window she suggested, as she sat in the house she shared with him (let’s say). Robert and Niall could be poisoned by a good-looking honey trapper perhaps or their car could be rigged to crash on the winding roads of County Clare. She was never short of possibilities.

The jury believed that lyingeyes98 was none other than Sharon Collins and I agree with them. So that means flirting with someone who you, presumably, truly believe is a hitman and planning precisely how you want the hit carried out on three people who trust you and, also presumably, love you, is the same as handling a dodgy laptop and a poster of Irish bank notes. In fact Sharon Collins served less prison time that Essam Eid. She’ll probably serve less than Marissa Marks, her counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic, who lashed out at an ex’s new girlfriend in true adolescent bunny-boiler fashion but was quick to buckle when she was confronted with what she had done.

Sharon Collins always denied what had happened. She still does. It was all down to a psychopathic creative writing tutor according to her. The mystery woman who teams of private eyes have failed to track down – Maria Marconi.

Sharon Collins benefited for time off for good behaviour, a laudable aspect of the Irish penal system but one that also guarantees a third off the sentence for any-well behaved rapist, murderer or child molester. It makes the frequently low sentences here even lower on a regular basis.

Personally I think Sharon Collins should have served longer. Four years, not even, seems a ridiculously short amount of time for the plot she seemed to take some relish in plotting. It might not have been carried out, but she didn’t know that when she sent the emails, talked on the phone or sent the money. The fact that she ended up a patsy was a cautionary tale but not really a mitigating one.

But this is simply another case of Irish courts not handing sentences that seem the right weight. It’s something we see all the time with rape cases. Whenever I sit down to write about this issue I’m reminded of two particular cases. The first was Eamonn Cooke, the notorious paedophile and one time owner of pirate station Radio Dublin. I covered his one of his trials when I first started working in the courts back in 2006. He was convicted on rather a lot of counts of sexually abusing two little girls in the 70s. The girls in question had been six or seven when the abuse started. Because of the nature of the abuse, when it came to sentencing, the maximum sentence on each count was two years. The judge in that case, whose name unfortunately escapes me, had spent a lot of time working in the European Court of Human Rights. She said at the sentencing that she wanted to make each of these two year sentences consecutive rather than concurrent. This would have meant that Cooke would have been sent to jail for around 100 years. Of course the judge was quickly reminded that such things aren’t possible in Irish courts and the sentences would have to run concurrently after all. The judge was not happy.

The other case was rather better publicised. Gerald Barry, who killed Swiss teenager Manuela Riedo in Galway, was up on rape charges some time after his conviction. The rape was an unconnected case which had happened a short time before the killing. In that case, given the circumstances, Judge Pail Carney, sentenced Barry to life, rare enough in rape cases here, but it was his sentencing speech that was extraordinary. Judge Carney talked about this automatic third reprieve and said that while it was laudable that we should use a carrot rather than a stick to encourage good behaviour, the lack of flexibility meant that even someone like Barry had that carrot before them.

We do not have a system in Ireland where judges can recommend a minimum time served. Sentences are decided according to a strict sliding scale that will be held up to minute examination in the Court of Criminal Appeal. They are balanced by years of case law, fitted onto a complex graph of previous crimes that stipulates the gravity and weight of any individual case. But what happens when a case is extraordinary, unique. It happens more than you might think. Judges do not have the flexibility to “make an example” of someone, whatever if might seem from the press coverage. Sentences that do not fit on the rigid scale will be quickly overturned on appeal. So we’re left with a society where a husband can think it’s worth killing his wife because the sentences are so light (as was the evidence with Anton Mulder) or rape sentences of life imprisonment are so rare that it is always a cause for comment.

It’s good to have a system based on protecting the innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit. We should be wary of hanging judges and justice in name only. But we should also have a system where the victims of crime can feel that justice has been done. I’m not always sure we’ve quite got that one right.

A Rustle of Petticoats

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

One of the glorious things about writing fiction is that I’m not manacled to the facts. Even though many of the people I’m writing about lived and most of the events that I’m writing about happened I’m free to delve into the spaces between and make them my own. As I wrote in my previous post, the current book, while based on a real case, is most definitely a novel. I might have spent most of the past two years in libraries and archives but the details I’ve found there form a framework on which to hang my own story, my own characters.

Even after so long there are still fragments of research that still need doing but now, at last, I’m down to the novelist’s kind of research, the less tangible things, the abstract. This is where I can cast the net wide to capture the fabric of the world my characters move in.

I’ve been through a similar process with both my previous books, visiting locations to find the details you don’t know until you see them, the things that are the difference between a flat description of anywhere and a living, breathing place but for a novel it’s different, there’s a lot more to see and feel.  If my characters experience something that’s alien to me then I’ll try to close the gap in my knowledge. I admit it, I’m a bit method when it comes to getting into my characters’ heads.

It was in the spirit of this less tangible kind of research that I headed to the Merrion Square Open Day at the weekend. I was in search of a location. William Kirwan and his wife Maria lived close to Merrion Square for most of their married life. Unfortunately, both the house they moved into when they first started to climb the social ladder and the grander premises they were leasing at the time of the murder are long gone. The upstairs drawing room where Maria was struck by her husband in one of their many rows – gone. The coach house through which William tried to make his escape the day the police came to call – gone. The bedroom where one of William’s children lay dying, watched over by Theresa his faithful mistress in the days between that fateful day on Ireland’s Eye and the end of their domestic idyll – all gone. Where the grander house once stood Government Buildings now stands with a different scandalous history all of its own but that doesn’t help my preoccupation at all.

I found my approximation in the wonderful building belonging to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Meticulously restored and bursting with architectural detail it was the closest I could get to having a nose around the Kirwans’ house. William and Maria’s house wasn’t as grand perhaps and it certainly didn’t have photocopiers and computers but it was easy to picture it as a bustling home. In the downstairs reception room, now the home to the Society’s impressive library, I could hear the clink of glasses as William sealed a deal with a client. In the corresponding upstairs room, in a lull in the chatter from the constant stream of visitors, there seemed to be a stirring of the dust as if wide skirts had brushed by. Standing in the little yard outside the kitchen looking up at the colourful garden it was easy to imagine yourself with the servants as the master rushed past above, something definitely afoot. Even though it wasn’t these rooms they’d walked through and the faithful hound buried at the bottom of the garden (see the picture at the top of this piece) belonged to somebody else, it felt like stepping into their lives for a moment.

One of the most frustrating things I’m finding about this historical subject matter is the time machine you need to move around the city they knew. I’ve the maps and the plans and the contemporary accounts but over the past few years I’ve been lamenting the loss of their city. I’ve always been aware that Dublin’s past hasn’t always been sensitively tended (Wood Quay anyone?) but researching this book has given me a fresh insight. I’m not a historian or an archaeologist but I love the places where you can feel all of Dublin’s centuries around you, the markets round Smithfield say or the area around Christchurch with its warren of medieval streets. Most of the streets where my characters lived and worked have been obliterated but I’ll always try to get as close as I can. I’ve lived in Dublin for over twenty years, had flats in Georgian terraces, gone to carols in the cathedral, lived and worked in the bustling, ancient-modern mishmash of a city that is Dublin today but this feeling is new. It’s looking to the past beneath the shopping centres where my characters live and breath, like finding Boudicca’s layer in London soil. Frustrating it might be trying to find those traces but it’s one of the most rewarding things about working on this book and a feeling I hope never fades away.

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