Clueless in Paris, London or New York

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I am eighteen years old and living alone in Paris. It is my first time away from home. The cash I brought with me covered one month’s rent but only a fortnight of living expenses. Pay day is two weeks away and my first credit card is eight years in the future.

For now, the Irish pub that promised to hire me full time is only able to give me three shifts per week – working from 5pm to 2am. My French is not good enough to look for another job. No, that’s just an excuse. I could work as a chambermaid but I am not brave enough to go knocking on hotel doors. Next year I will have the courage, but I don’t know that yet.

There is an older man who comes to the bar every night and has taken a rather unsettling interest in me. He wears a loose-fitting white linen shirt and his beard is patchy. One afternoon, walking through Les Halles on my way to work, he appears from nowhere, hands me a poem written on white card, and scurries away. The handwritten poem mentions swans and breasts. I am mortified but I sense that he is harmless. In this instance my judgment is right.

The bar manager gives me money for a taxi at the end of each shift. Grubby and tired, I walk out of the side street and turn right towards the rue de Rivoli. Later I will adopt the habit of stopping for a blackcurrant sorbet in one of the late-night cafes, but for now I need the money for proper food. So I walk home through the streets of Paris in the small hours, still amazed at the fact that it can be warm at night.

This flash memoir is inspired by Áine Greaney, a transatlantic Irish author living on Boston’s North Shore. Last week I came across an extract from Greaney’s compelling memoir, where she describes her experience as a young emigrant leaving Ireland for the United States in the 1980s. That’s what got me thinking about my first shaky steps towards (short-lived) independence in a foreign land. Greaney’s account, published in the online journal Numéro Cinq and taken from her book What Brought You Here?, takes us to Dublin in 1986 on the day when the young Mayo woman is on her way to the American embassy for her visa interview. After thirty years in the United States, the homepage image on the author’s website is an airport departure lounge.

Pass the lawnmower

I have read numerous articles about helicopter parenting, but I was surprised to discover that there is a new mutation of this syndrome – lawnmower parenting. These are the parents who clear all obstacles from their children’s path, the ones who drive university admissions teams to drink.

It’s easy to laugh but the more I think about it, the more I understand how difficult it must be let young people stand on their own two feet. When you could save them so much trouble! I was singularly unprepared for my stay in Paris and I can’t imagine ever letting a daughter of mine take off like that into the unknown.

When I was young it was normal for our generation to conceal our private lives from our parents, fill out our own forms and make our own plans. We neither expected nor wanted them to be involved in everything we did, let alone make decisions for us. The time for being close could come later. This independence meant facing risks and problems, and it was how we learned resourcefulness.

But in the new family, bound together by open communication and the sharing of feelings, we now have parents who cultivate a close and equal relationship with their kids. This has to be a good thing, until it becomes too much of a good thing. Like good servants, parents anticipate their children’s needs, helping them to negotiate their way through puberty (now celebrated, when it used to be dreaded), providing practical support and advice when the youngsters become sexually active (as opposed to never EVER mentioning the word sex), and taking on the project of finding the best studies and career path. There is no divide between your world and their world; everyone is on the same team. But where in this osmosis-type relationship is there an opportunity to cut the apron strings?

I’ve interviewed people who were sent away from their family home, or children’s institution, at the age of twelve to work. This was not uncommon in Switzerland and Ireland in the bad old days, when fostering, especially in rural communities, was based on paying your way with hard work.

Young Swiss people between 16 and 18 years of age are now likely to be sent away on all-expenses-paid language-learning trips, staying with host families. From the moment they set foot on foreign soil they are in the care of parents just like their own.

I was talking to a cousin of mine about this recently. After completing a one-year secretarial course in Dublin (we’re back in the 1980s), she moved to London with a friend to start her working life at the age of 18. She told her parents she had somewhere to stay but the two girls had no fixed plans and just enough money to pay for a few weeks of cheap accommodation. Proper preparation would have meant more time saving and making arrangements but they were young and impatient for a new life to begin. Luckily they found jobs quickly, overcame the challenges of the new city, and their parents were never the wiser about what a precarious start they’d had. The whole adventure would never have happened if the parents hadn’t trusted in the girls’ abilities in the first place.

I’m off to see Brooklyn tomorrow. I enjoyed the book, although I found it a little quiet. Academy Street, another story of Irish female emigration in the 1950s, had a much more powerful current to it. So many novels, for both children and adults, deal with the arrival of a young person in a new place. I don’t think that story ever gets old. When was the first time you had to manage alone away from home? Was it ultimately a positive experience? I hope so.

A short history of money (and sweets)

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The corner shop close to where I grew up was called Hawker’s. Really. There was a Mrs. Hawker and a Mr. Hawker, and one of the great pleasures of the week was to walk down to Hawker’s on a Saturday morning with a ten pence piece keeping warm in my fist.

No coin was ever more carefully spent. The five minutes’ walking time was used to plan the exact menu of sweets so that my order was crystal clear by the time I got to the small separate counter at the side of the shop used for these important transactions.

I would allow myself two or three of the more expensive sweets – a toffee log, a flying saucer and a white mouse perhaps – and use the rest of the money to buy penny sweets such as cola bottles and fizzy lizzies. The odd time I might splash out on a fizzy cola lolly at four pence, or on a hot day spend the whole lot on a Mr Freeze.

As time went on, I started babysitting, a lucrative activity which brought in one pound an hour. This financed my broken Kit Kit habit. At this stage I liked to buy sweets from big jars by the quarter ounce, usually apple drops and pear drops, but you could also get loose bits of Kit Kat measured from a jar for 40p a quarter (or 20p for an eighth on a lean week).

Along the way I had become aware of the existence of other currencies, through my mother’s coin collection and my father’s special interest in sterling. He was always watching the exchange rate between the Irish pound (punt) and the other, rather more famous, pound sterling. The reason was that he was paid commission for the toys and stationary that he sold for an English company in Ireland. The products were priced in sterling. When sterling was strong, his customers might buy less but his commission was worth more. With the right fluctuations he could theoretically sell well when the punt was having a good couple of months and receive the some strong sterling cheques when the tide turned and the commission came in. I doubt this happened very often.

Through your first encounters with money and prices you build up a sense of the real value of things. How many penny sweets in a loaf of bread? How many loaves of bread in a bale of briquettes (compressed peat bricks for the fire)? How many bales of briquettes in pair of shoes? Eventually you have a well-developed internal price barometer and you know whether something is worth the price.

My first part-time job was as a lounge girl (waitress) in a local pub. I got paid cash in a brown envelope on Thurdays – two pounds an hour plus tips. It was more than enough to cover my expenses as a teenager. Later in college, I knew without calculating exactly what I could afford each week – the bus and train tickets, glasses of beer, visits to the places where you could get lunch for two or three pounds.

Rent on the first place I moved into when I left home was 150 pounds per month for a small room in a small house. As the nineties speeded up towards the long-awaited new millennium, life got more expensive in Dublin but I was perfectly tuned in to the value of everything, and my earning power was going up too.

A few years later, after a lot of hopping around, I was sharing a house with a colleague also in her twenties, paying rent of 300 pounds per month for a bigger room in a ‘better’ area.

And then someone had the bright idea to change the currency. The Irish pound disappeared from one day to the next on January 1st 2002 and we all had to embrace the euro. What used to cost one pound was suddenly €1.27; five pounds was worth €6.35. Retailers were accused of rounding up and hiding price increases in the confusion. Odd prices remained in place for years afterwards, especially for state services.

But we got paid in euro and we got used to it. Pretty soon I stopped trying to convert everything into old money and with one big effort, converted my entire inbuilt price barometer into euro. But it wasn’t to last. I only lived for 20 months in the Eurozone before coming to Switzerland.

At that time the Swiss franc was worth about 1.5 against the euro. It later lost a smidgen of value reaching above 1.6 in 2008 before the euro started to weaken in a steady decline that has continued (with some interludes) until today. Last year the franc was briefly worth more than one euro and it is now resting at around 1.09.

But this is happening in a country with a higher cost of living than Ireland. I am constantly surprised at the cost of things. The upshot of all this shifting about of currencies and countries is that I have lost my sense of price. The strong connection between price tags and banknotes that used to exist in my mind is gone.

We’re a long way from the toffee logs in Hawker’s and you would think that twelve years of earning and spending the Swiss franc would be ample time to adapt to its real value,  screen out the relatively changing value of the euro and completely bury all memories of the fabled Irish pound.

Maybe the only solution is to start again from the beginning. These days my kids get one franc pocket money per week and the ‘penny sweets’ here cost ten cent. How many sweets in a loaf of bread? How many loaves of bread in a pair of skis?

Does anyone else suffer from this problem? Have you ever thought about your money history? And most importantly, what did you spend your pocket money on?

A tall start to the year

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If you’re ever looking for flowers in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway …

Fact: I am beginning 2016 four centimetres taller than I was last year. It turns out that I have been selling myself short for a very long time. All because I never thought of measuring my height again since I filled out my first passport application form at the age of fifteen.

What else has changed over the past year? One big thing is that I have made the transition to being self-employed. It’s been a positive move in terms of the variety and quantity of work I’ve done. Most of the time I relish the freedom of working for myself. My work pattern alternates between semi-idle periods and Stakhanovite bursts of productivity. This is easier to manage alone at home.

The more challenging aspect of not being away at the office is the pressure of family duties intruding on work time. Housework I can ignore, but the children’s various appointments eat into my time, not to mention the fact that the children return home during the two-hour school lunch break. It is an ongoing challenge to fence off the time.

2015 was the year that I secured a book deal, finally signing the contract in November, five months after I first made contact with the publisher, Bergli Books. Because non-fiction books are sold on proposal, I have landed myself with a huge writing task that will dominate the beginning of this year. The deadline to deliver the manuscript is April but there will be more detailed edits to do after that. I expect to have the final word on the title soon.

Last January in my first blogpost of 2015, I mentioned a few New Year’s resolutions, and shared some photographs from the previous year. It’s time to revisit the wishlist:

Spend more time in Ireland: This I managed to do, making a six-week trip to Ireland in the summer. It was the first time I had made the journey by car and ferry and I can report that France goes on forever. Crossing that central plain, I really started to lose hope that I would ever reach the sea. One holiday highlight: cycling around the island of Inishbofin off the coast of Galway, stopping for dip in the Atlantic five minutes from where this photograph was taken.

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Become a Swiss citizen: My approval came through in May, after a six-month procedure and I now have a Swiss ID card and the right to vote. Although the experience wasn’t completely positive, I’m glad to have done it at last. That story is for another day. Here’s a post I wrote about taking the decision to apply for naturalisation.

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Find inspiration for writing, write more and write better! My first novel was longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize on January 1st last year but, apart from one longlisting for a short story, there are no accolades to show for the fiction I wrote in 2015. Despite the lack of results, I had a productive and satisfying writing year and learned a lot about submitting. I am happy to say that I will have a small but notable success to announce soon. Although it is a natural progression from journalism, I wasn’t expecting to have a breakthrough in non-fiction and I am thrilled to have this opportunity to develop and showcase my writing skills.

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Art installation at the APCd Foundation

Finish the first draft of my second novel: Not quite there. Can you believe it? I set myself the challenge in October to finish the first draft of this novel, got as far as the second-last chapter and stopped dead. No more excuses, I know how the story ends, I just have to turn it into words.

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Stop and smell the roses (or whatever nature has on special offer): I’m lucky to live on the edge of beautiful countryside and having a dog means I have to go out in all weathers. Highlights of the year were the deer I saw one morning and the cross-country hike I did in May.

As for my 2016 writing goals, I’m looking forward to a successful launch of the Swiss book, and hoping to learn a lot about book marketing along the way. Ideally, I’d like to find an agent and a home for my novels, and keep writing short stories, which has been one of the great writing pleasures of the past year.

What about you? Has the year got off to a good start? Do you believe in making New Year’s resolutions?

There but for the grace of God

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As the year draws to a close, all the talk in Ireland is of storms and fatal traffic accidents. Every time tragedy strikes, as it has this week and every other week of the year, a family’s story is rewritten. They stop being the family with the trampoline in their garden, or whose mother who jogs every morning, and become the family that have experienced a terrible loss. And all the awful irreversible steps that led to the moment of the accident remain engraved in memory to torment them.

You get a glimpse of this in the feelings of shock and wonder that come after a near miss. Tragedy has been averted but it has shown its colours, its capacity to devastate. These are potentially life-changing moments, when the ground opens up beneath your feet and suddenly you are teetering on the edge of a deep ravine of grief and regret from which there is no escape. Most of the time, the gap closes as quickly as it has opened and you take your next step on firm blessed ground.

I had one such day this year, where a tortured alternative future revealed itself to me so sharply and clearly that I almost lived it.

Going anywhere with young children means having your accident radar switched on at all times. You have to anticipate, warn, and take precautions – constantly. But unfamiliar places, travel stress and too many distractions can interfere with this vigilance.

This particular morning we were in the middle of France, on our way back to Switzerland after taking the ferry from Ireland. To break the journey we had stayed the night in a depressed-looking village off the motorway near Orléans. To get to the hotel car park, we needed to wait on the narrow path in front of the hotel and cross a busy road where the cars were completely ignoring the speed limit.

I nearly lost my five-year-old daughter on that road. And I know for certain that I would have blamed myself for the accident forever. Why? Because of the dog. Because of the canal at the end of the lane. Because I was carrying too many things. Because of the choice of hotel. Because for just this once I did not anticipate, did not warn and did not take the right precautions.

Around the corner from the hotel, as I had discovered earlier that morning while walking the dog, was a lane that ran alongside the ruins of an old castle. I walked along that lane, not realising that I was setting in motion a chain of events that might leave my own life in ruins.

At the end of the lane I came across an old canal dock and overgrown waterway. Curious, I thought. The village, with its grand old indoor market hall, many derelict buildings and shuttered businesses, must have seen better days. Maybe the canal once brought life and trade to this place.

An hour later when we were crowded into the small lobby with our too many bags, dog on a lead and three children, the canal was on my mind. When I should have been warning the children about the road and seeking out the hand of my youngest child, I was foolishly asking the owner about the canal she seemed to know nothing about.

End the pointless conversation, say goodbye, transfer the dog’s lead to the other hand, gather up the last stray plastic bags, walk out the door, and see my little girl step straight out onto the road. I shout. She turns, looks at me and says oops, and I believe that is the last time I will hear her voice, that I have already lost her and she is now not six feet away from me on a provincial French street but on the other side where I can never reach her again.

But there was no car, and I got her back, and we are still just the family with the Irish mother and the dog. It is frightening to think how destiny can turn on the slightest sliver of detail. The best book I read in 2015 takes the concept of alternative destinies and uses it to build a fascinating story of the many possible lives of one person.  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, highly recommended. This is my first ever blog post written and posted on my phone. Excuse any formatting errors. I wanted to write a round-up of the books I read this year but that’s not really possible away from base. I’ve had a lovely Christmas here in stormy, rainy Ireland, counting my blessings.

Wishing everyone a peaceful, pleasant and safe New Year.

Honest words from Donal Ryan in Zurich

Honest words from Donal Ryan in Zurich

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Imagine a struggling writer standing over his kitchen sink burning page after page of handwritten manuscripts because he doesn’t want any record of “these travesties” to remain on earth.

That’s what’s Donal Ryan did with seven or eight (!) novels and one hundred (!) short stories before he became Ireland’s most successful debut author with the release of The Spinning Heart in 2012. I heard this account from Ryan yesterday evening at a reading in Zurich Literaturhaus. His honesty and Tipperary accent were a tonic.

In fact some of the early work that Ryan destroyed was festering in the hard drives of old computers and it was a case of delete and empty trash rather than burning. But what made him trash the old material and believe in his first published novel so much he submitted it “to every publisher in the English-speaking world”?

Ryan discarded the work he wrote in his twenties because it didn’t ring true. “The voices were too forced and contrived and I had a weird low-level nausea in my stomach when I was writing.”

Then, with The Thing About December, Ryan tuned in to the right station, as he put it, and found his voice. The book, written before The Spinning Heart, was published last year and tells the story of Johnsey, a vulnerable young man in rural Ireland, hopelessly ill equipped to deal with the changes life thrusts upon him after his parents die. The story is written in the close third person and Johnsey’s predicament is told in his own deceptively simple language. The writing is moving and eloquent, and funny when it’s not devastating.

The story is well described in this Irish Times review.

Ryan spoke about love a lot on Monday night and reading between the lines he appears to care deeply about Johnsey and what the character represents. Even his mother became fiercely protective of Johnsey and spoke of him as if he were a real person (rather endearingly, Ryan mentions his family a lot).

Ryan’s compassion is evident when he is talking about his characters. “Johnsey is a distillation of all the men I know who don’t speak. And I know lots. These are men who live alone in totally isolated farmhouses. I wanted to know what the inside of their heads would sound like.”

“All stories are about love, or the absence of love. All stories are based on declensions between those two states.” Ryan repeated this idea, which seems to be his motto.

I’m in the submission doldrums at the moment, that point when a writer begins to doubt their worthiness and the wisdom of committing so much time and passion to the whole enterprise. So of course I asked Ryan how he struck submission gold. He mentioned sheer luck and a scatter-gun approach but perseverance seems to have been the key.

Interestingly Ryan wrote The Spinning Heart (also set in Johnsey’s village but about a decade later, and written in 21 chapters of different first person narratives) swiftly and without a struggle while he was submitting The Thing About December, to take his mind off the rejections.

When he moved on to the submitting stage with The Spinning Heart he clocked up dozens of rejections. He kept print-outs of his email rejections in a folder and once, when asked by a journalist, made a rough count of forty seven, but there were more that didn’t make it into the folder, he said.

Ryan has been described as the best literary chronicler of the Celtic Tiger but in typical unassuming style, he says the fact that his two novels provided bookends for the Irish economic boom was accidental. “It was fortunate for me because it got me published. It was my hook.”

Donal Ryan has a collection of short stories coming out in December, also set in the same fictional village as the novels. He describes it as the best work he’s ever done. Meanwhile, work on his third novel is progressing painfully, he admits.

I left the Literaturhaus with a smile and with the feeling I was fortunate to have spent time listening to a great ambassador for Irish writing. It’s a reminder that whenever things get tough, it’s good to connect with other writers (if only from a distance) for inspiration and encouragement.

I’ll be back in Zurich next month to attend a talk by Siri Hustvedt. Can’t wait!

Irish nobles, a lost fortune and the Swiss connection

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Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo

Irish history teachers are a mournful bunch. Their job is to tell children a series of sad stories, filling their heads with tales of dashed hopes and doomed endeavors. When the teachers come into the classroom, the children look up with baleful eyes, wondering what misery is in store.

The Flight of the Earls is one such epic saga of shattered dreams but little is known of the Swiss chapter in this story.

Short version: In 1607, a group of increasingly marginalised Irish nobles, their families and followers set sail for mainland Europe, looking for Spanish support to challenge English rule. On their way to Spanish-controlled Milan, they passed through Switzerland.

Do I need to add that things didn’t work out so well? The nobles died in exile, after being diverted to Rome by the Spanish, who had in the meantime switched to being friendly to the English. The loss of these great Ulster families marked the end of the old Gaelic order.

And what about the Swiss connection? Travelling with the group was a scribe, Tadhg Ó Cianáin, whose job it was to record the fateful events of the day. His account of the journey has survived and been translated into English.

Ó Cianáin said of the Swiss people that they were “the most just, honest, and untreacherous in the world, and the most faithful to their promises”.

A smaller group of 30 Irish men and women arrived in Basel in March 1608 and travelled from there to Lucerne. They then crossed Lake Lucerne heading for the Gotthard Pass. On St Patrick’s Day 1608 the party crossed the Devil’s Bridge near Andermatt in the lower reaches of the Gotthard Pass.

This was the toughest part of the journey at the end of a legendary cold winter, as Ó Cianáin describes.

“The next day, Saint Patrick’s day precisely, the seventeenth of March, they went to another small town named Silenen. From that they advanced through the Alps. Now the mountains were laden and filled with snow and ice, and the roads and paths were narrow and rugged. They reached a high bridge in a very deep glen called the Devil’s Bridge. One of Ó Néill’s horses, which was carrying some of his money, about one hundred and twenty pounds, fell down the face of the high, frozen, snowy cliff which was in front of the bridge. Great labour was experienced in bringing up the horse alone, but the money decided to remain blocking the violent, deep, destructive torrent which flows under the bridge through the middle of the glen. They stayed that night in a little town named Piedimonte. Their journey that day was six leagues.

The next day the Earl proceeded over the Alps. Ó Néill remained in the town we have mentioned. He sent some of his people to search again for the money. Though they endured much labour, their efforts were in vain.”

A little slice of Irish and Swiss history for you there. The photo above is a view of Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, a famous mountain associated with the man himself. Incidentally, traces of gold have been found there which indicate significant gold deposits but that’s another lost fortune which will never be mined because of the cultural value of the site.

 

Children behind the gates – writing about historical abuse

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We know what children need – love, protection, guidance, understanding – and we know what a travesty it is when they are deprived of those basic needs. But is this a recent discovery? Looking back at the treatment of children in the care system in the middle of the last century, you might think so.

The 1990s was the decade of revelations about failings and injustice the Irish system. More recently Switzerland has been going through its decade of revelations of historical abuse. It’s a process that is being repeated all around the world and it’s heart-breaking because there is nothing you can do to help those children. It’s too late.

Did the authorities and caregivers in those times have no concept of children’s welfare and emotional needs? I would argue that they did, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their own experience of home life. But there were limits to their ability or willingness to provide for those needs. And these factors have to be taken into account when writing about this period. If we turn those involved into evil caricatures, we are incapable of gaining any insight into our own failings as a society today.

So why was it that some children mattered less? What was stopping the authorities and religious orders from doing right by the children in their care? Some of the limits stemmed from prejudice – in particular the prevailing prejudice against ‘illegitimacy’ and against the ‘bad poor’.

The stigma attached to children born outside marriage was so strong, so well enforced by the church and its followers, that people could hardly see the child behind the stigma, if at all. The shame and secrecy let the fathers of these children off the hook and also made it possible for families to reject their ‘sinning’ daughters, even to the point of having them locked up for years.

As for poverty, widespread to an extent that we have so quickly forgotten, there were prejudices at work here too. On the one hand you had the ‘good poor’, hard-working, honest people, scraping by somehow, tipping their caps and not making any trouble. And then there were the ‘bad poor’, parents overwhelmed by the daily struggle to feed and clothe their children, families whose mothers lived on the verge of a nervous breakdown, whose fathers turned to drink or crime, whose children appeared neglected. Sympathy for these families was not forthcoming.

That’s to speak of the willingness to care for children who were unwanted or rejected by society in one way or another. I also mentioned the ability to care for these children.

A well-run children’s home should have enough money to provide a good diet for the children, as well as clothes and play materials. In a cold climate it should be well heated. The staff should be well trained and recruited for their aptitude to provide loving care to children. There should be a compassionate discipline policy in place, with good oversight so that there is no room for abuse of any kind. But what if none of these requirements is met?

Let’s put the cruel sadists aside. They are in a category of their own and nothing excuses their actions. What about the ordinary inadequate carers? Two years ago I attended the presentation of a report into allegations of historical abuse at children’s institutions run by the Swiss Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy. The worst allegations could not be verified but the authors of the report did find “excessive punishment” doled out by some sisters.

It also described the systemic misery for both adults and children living in the homes – long working hours without free time or holidays, large groups of children to look after with insufficient financial means in crowded living conditions and with insufficient infrastructure.

But the ill-treatment didn’t end at the gates. For my story I spoke to a remarkable man, Roland Begert, the son of a Swiss gypsy (Jenisch) woman who was deserted by her husband. He was given up by his mother as a baby and grew up in the system, first with the nuns and afterwards living with a farming family as an unofficial child labourer.

Roland Begert is forgiving of the tough discipline and lack of affection shown by the nuns in the children’s home where he spend the first twelve years of his life. What hurts him most, looking back, was the attitude of the people in the town to the ‘home children’.

The townspeople warned their children not to have anything to do with the ‘home children’ and the local children obliged by throwing stones at them. Roland’s excitement at being sent out to the town school quickly ended when the teacher started bullying him mercilessly.

So while the townspeople loved and protected their own children and did their best to give them a good start in life, they participated in a horrible double standard. Society was complicit in banishing the ‘home children’ from the mainstream in the first place and the community actively kept that exclusion in place.

Writing about failings in a system that happened fifty years ago does not serve any purpose if it stays in the realm of storytelling, with a cast of wicked witches. We have to try to understand the broader mechanisms of society that caused so much suffering if we have any chance of avoiding the same mistakes.

I think a lot of lessons have been learned. One huge problem was that, until recently, society did not allow for children to be raised by one parent, whether for practical or moral reasons. Marriage breakdown or the death of one parent left children in a precarious position. No access to contraception also made it impossible for parents to limit their family size to a level they could manage.

But there are still children behind the gates in society, for example the children of asylum seekers living in direct provision. Few countries today can claim that they have a best-practice care system in place that guarantees the wellbeing and protection of their most vulnerable children. Even Switzerland, which prides itself on ‘Swiss quality’, still does not have an exemplary system, as I discovered recently when researching an article about foster care.

The stories from the past are important and they have to be told. But they have to be told in a fair way and they should never be used to make us feel complacent about our own problems.

The desolation of domestic life

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It’s ok, I’m not talking about my own domestic woes. I’ve just been reading The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan, a collection of short stories set in Dublin and written between the 1950s and 1970s when Brennan lived in New York.

In between stories I started the wonderful Academy Street by Mary Costello, in which the main character Tess lives in New York through that same period and beyond. I lived under the melancholy spell of that book for three days, snatching it greedily back up at every opportunity. Academy Street gives the illusion of moving slowly without much drama but before you know it you have been through Tess’s entire life, a patchwork of tragedy, transient love and inertia.

For more on Academy Street I would recommend this fabulous review by fellow blogger and author Anne Goodwin, whose first novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last July.

Tess, with her emotionally debilitating upbringing and tragic lack of self-belief, could be a character from one of Brennan’s stories. But while Brennan reproduced on paper the “petty social intricacies of the city she had left”, she was living the high life in New York, working as a columnist for The New Yorker and enjoying the kind of success and freedom most girls of those times only dreamed about.

After a disastrous marriage, Brennan had a breakdown and her illustrious career – and her life – fell apart. She spent the last fifteen years of her life plagued by alcoholism and mental illness, homeless at times, and died forgotten and penniless in 1993.

Some of Brennan’s characters appear in several of her stories and a lot of the action takes place in one particular house in a suburban street on the city’s south side, in Ranelagh to be exact. This is the house where Brennan grew up, where her family went through precarious times while her father was on the run during the Civil War. In the new Free State, he was on the winning side and the family moved to Washington when he was appointed Ireland’s envoy the United States. Maeve Brennan never moved back.

There is a play, Maeve’s House, based on Brennan’s life which I wish I had seen. It was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was also staged in New York in 2013. The play owes its existence to an amazing coincidence: the actor performing the one-man show also lived in the house were Brennan grew up. Eamon Morrissey’s family bought the house in Ranelagh from Brennan’s parents when they moved to the US.

Morrissey was surprised to discover in one of her stories an exact description of his childhood home and he contacted her at the magazine; they arranged to meet in New York.
Here’s a review of the New York show.

To get back to the stories. Some are gently moving while others are steeped in despair, portraits of people trapped in prisons of their own making. The title story The Springs of Affection (1972) is the longest in the book and it features one of the most vividly drawn and unlikable characters I have ever come across.

Her name is Min and she is the last surviving member of her family. A seamstress by trade, Min has lived a life of unrealised dreams, defined by envy and spite, but she finds herself on top in the end, triumphant in her longevity.

“Min sat beside her own gas fire in her own flat in Wexford and considered life and crime and punishment according to the laws of arithmetic. She counted up and down the years, and added and subtracted the questions and answers, and found that she came out with a very tidy balance in her favour.”

Min’s brother Martin and his wife Delia are described with scathing disapproval by Min in her recollections. We meet the couple in several of the other stories, notably in The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary (first published in The New Yorker in 1966), where their domestic misery is writ large. When Martin returns home late after ignoring their anniversary, he finds refuge in his family’s slumber.

“… If this night could only last a week, or two weeks, I might have time to get everything straightened out in my head, and then I would know what to do … If they would only sleep happily like that for a long time, he might find himself able to think again. But the coming of day, a few hours off, rose up in his mind like a towering wave that was all the more awful because it would be succeeded after twenty-four hours by another wave, and then another. There was no end to the days ahead, and the ones furthest off, years from now, were gathering power while he stood waiting on the landing. It was a merciless prospect. There was no way out of this house, which now seemed to contain all of his future as well as a good part of his past.”

Oh the unhappiness!

Good things come in twos

My idea of heaven
My idea of heaven

I did say I wouldn’t post again until the novel was finished and I meant it. It’s been a long summer of some discontent, a lot of hard work, and a gradual brightening of the light at the end of the tunnel.

And now I’m here, out the other side. Still reluctant to use the word ‘finished’ in the same sentence as my novel, what I can say is that I have completed the most difficult draft so far. Thanks to wonderful challenging feedback from kind and generous readers, I hope I’ve managed to fix some of the weaknesses that were bogging down this manuscript.

The other good thing I discovered first thing this morning is that my blog has been shortlisted for the Irish Blog Awards, Diaspora category. I’m thrilled to be included in this list and look forward to reading through the other blogs as soon as I finish work today. Thanks again to fellow exile Niall McArdle for nominating me and to the judges for overlooking the fact that I was on a break.

Without the distraction of blogging for the past two months, I have been able to write every day and have harnessed the power of that rhythm.

A three-week holiday in Ireland also helped with the daily time-stealing challenge and the inspiration, as my book is set in Ireland. Anyone who was lucky enough to be in Ireland this summer will tell you that the weather was superb. I wanted the country to be at its best so that my Swiss family would experience the magic of an Irish summer. In fact I wanted them to be enchanted and to develop some of the feelings about the country that I have. For once the weather came up trumps.

The novel is back in the hands of two readers and I’m hoping that only small changes will be required from now on and that I will be able to declare September the month of submitting.

I’ll be posting soon again, about a fascinating meeting in Bern with award-winning Swiss-German writer Pedro Lenz and his Glaswegian translator Donal McLaughlin. Not only is McLaughlin from Glasgow (via Northern Ireland), he also writes in Glaswegian dialect. Can’t wait to review the result of this unique collaboration: Naw Much of a Talker.

Looking forward to connecting with everyone again and catching up with your summer stories.

It’s good to be back.

The smart thing to do

Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!
Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!

Is it generally the same type of person who thrives in society, regardless of the social or economic climate? Or are different qualities useful in different systems? I suspect you need to sell a little of your soul to get by anywhere.

I was listening to an ABC documentary recently about the history of adoption in Australia and it made me think (with a shudder) about the winners and the losers in a conservative society with zero tolerance of pregnancy outside marriage.

It was a time of limited opportunities for women when being a married at least guaranteed respect and opened the door to a celebrated occupation – married motherhood. So if you were smart you conformed.

A bit like joining the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

John McGahern’s memoir of growing up in mid-twentieth century Ireland, apart from being a wonderful book, is an excellent piece of social history. In it he illustrates some of the routes to respectability and a decent living, which required people to cling like limpets to the apparatus of the Church and State.

“The year was 1953. In the 1950s a half-a-million people emigrated from this small country, nearly all of them to Britain, far more than in any other decade in the entire century. These emigrants were young and poorly educated, for the most part, and ill prepared. … The men sold their physical strength, the women their willingness to work long hours.”

And the winners? As McGahern puts it, the State had become a theocracy in all but name.
“The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand.”

McGahern was offered a place at St Patrick’s teacher training college, full board and tuition paid with guaranteed employment at the end. Needless to say, he accepted it at once. His books were later banned in Ireland and he was dismissed from his teaching job but at this early stage in his life, McGahern had to conform and take what was available.

During the economic boom, those hard old days seemed as real and relevant as a dated movie. Post 2008, the Celtic Tiger is looking pretty dated and unreal too. What was normal then seems unbelievable now.

But even the boom had its losers at the time, lest we forget. There were many who just plodded along looking bewildered during those years. Priced out of the areas they grew up in, paying exorbitant rents to live in flatland, they were there. And something was holding them back.

They were unwilling or unable to follow the new rules. Rule 1: Get on the property ladder. Rule 2: Enjoy your disposable income. If you were smart, you conformed.

How people interact with the rules that surround them is great fodder for fiction. When I sat down to write my novel, it was set at just this time in Ireland’s recent past. And the people I feature and favour in the novel are mainly those who did not naturally flourish in the new climate of prosperity.

Do you ever think about what rules operate in society? And if so, have you played by them to get to where you are today?