The abortion referendum is an empathy test for Ireland

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Something vitally important to the lives and health of Irish women is happening this month in Ireland. On May 25th, voters will finally have the chance to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that has allowed the country to deny essential healthcare to generations of women.

I will be in Ireland for the vote and I hope to witness the end of a deep-rooted tradition of silencing and shaming women. This tradition has always been dependent on indifference to female suffering.

Well it’s harder to be indifferent when people start speaking their truth openly. One of the positive outcomes of the referendum debate is that so many Irish women and couples are coming forward to speak out about how the amendment has affected them. The referendum has become an empathy test for the nation.

Just like women in every country in the world, Irish women need abortion, preferably provided with compassion as early as possible in the pregnancy. But unlike women in most Western countries, Irish women are criminalised if they seek abortion. The same applies to women in Northern Ireland. So they have to travel in secret to Britain, if they can afford it, or they buy pills online and go through the termination without medical supervision, afraid to seek help if anything goes wrong.

The Irish abortion ban means fear and danger for Irish women, it means additional stress, delay and expense at a time of crisis. This is nothing less than punishment and it has worked for this long because it fits neatly with the cultural legacy of strict social control of women’s fertility.  

The Eighth Amendment of 1983 acknowledges the right to life of “the unborn” without any definition. It says that the state guarantees in its laws to respect, defend and vindicate that right, with “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”.

This wording does not just mean that no regular abortion services can be made available in Ireland, it also enforces callous and dangerous restrictions in prenatal and maternity care when patients are at their most vulnerable.  

Currently, a pregnant woman or child with a physical illness or experiencing a medical emergency may only have a termination in Ireland if there is a “real and substantial risk” to her life if she does not have a termination. The same applies to suicidal women and girls. This law dictates everything from the management of miscarrying patients and cases of fatal foetal abnormality to the management of labour in mothers about to deliver full term healthy babies.

In the case of a miscarriage that drags on for days, doctors do not intervene as long as there is a heartbeat, no matter how unwell the patient is. They can only perform a D&C if the woman reaches the point where her life is in danger. Unless, as in the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar in Galway in 2012, they miss that window between extreme suffering and impending death and the woman dies of sepsis.

Suffering is fine. The woman may suffer any degree of physical or mental anguish but as long as her life is not in imminent danger, it doesn’t count. The woman’s health or wellbeing during or after pregnancy does not count. The unborn’s right to life trumps her right to safety or peace of mind from day one.  

The same rules apply to everyone, from a child of 12 in care to a 45-year-old mother of four, regardless of whether she is a rape victim, a cancer patient whose treatment must be suspended or someone with a serious illness made worse by pregnancy. Legally, nothing in the woman’s circumstances matters while she is pregnant. That this injustice has been tolerated for so long is simply staggering.

Switzerland, where I live, allows unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and has one of the lowest rates of abortion in the world. The Irish abortion rate cannot even be accurately measured because it is shrouded in secrecy and illegality, even more so since abortion pills became available. You cannot help people if you criminalise them.

The Eighth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1983 in a context where abortion was already illegal and there was no discernible movement to change that. At that time, up to 4,000 Irish women were travelling to England per year to avail of terminations. Those lonely journeys have continued and are still happening this month and every month.  

The amendment was a pre-emptive strike and a highly effective one too. The complicated realities of unwanted pregnancy, pregnancy loss, fatal foetal abnormality, pregnancy by rape, pregnancy with serious illness, child pregnancy – all of it disregarded in one stroke.

I was 11 years old when this happened. My parents campaigned against the Eighth then and my mother and sister carry on the fight now in the Together4Yes campaign. As a non-resident I can no longer vote in Ireland. But I am counting on my fellow countrywomen and countrymen to show they care and strike back for all our women and girls.

Repeal the 8th

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Morges, a festival to remember

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Hurrying in the rain, listening, learning, signing books, cool evenings, coffee vouchers, wet umbrellas, smiling crowds, dogs in arms, queues at the till, drinks at the bar, boats, sunshine, big names, kind words, new ideas and free white wine.

What more could you ask for?

When I knew I would be spending the weekend at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival in Morges, I decided I wouldn’t take any notes. I would just enjoy the moment and soak it all in. Now, one week later, I am left with a colourful miscellany of impressions and memories. There was so much going on, my quiet writer brain had to shift into a completely new gear.

I was invited to the festival to promote my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths. I would have been thrilled enough at this honour alone but the festival was also hosting Ireland as guest country of honour, which meant I was sharing space with some of Ireland’s most accomplished contemporary authors.

Morges is known for its authors’ tent, a huge marquee filled with rows of authors sitting behind tables. The English language section was like an island in the middle. I sat there with the Swiss-based authors, the visiting Irish authors and a number of other English-language authors, like Douglas Kennedy, Hisham Matar and Rachel Joyce. They were all gracious and welcoming.

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Most people who approached the table to talk were friendly, pleased to put a face to the name. A few were not so pleased about the book. You can’t win ‘em all.

On the first afternoon, I did a stint in the tent and attended two talks about Irish literature, the first with John Boyne and Donal Ryan, and the second with Donal on duty again along with Anne Enright and Paul McVeigh. The next day presented a different mix, Anne Enright, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume, this time talking about families in Irish fiction. I cannot tell you everything they said, just that I appreciated listening to Irish voices analysing Irish questions, and the feeling it gave me of being closer to home.

I went on a literary cruise (!) on Sunday. Five minutes before the cruise started, I was at the wrong end of the lakefront eating a hot dog. Running under those circumstances is not something I’d advise anyone else to do, especially right before a boat trip. In the queue to board, a man asked me to hold his crepe so he could search for his ticket. I was not the only one squeezing in food around much more exciting things.

The cruise talk featured debut authors Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal, two interesting and talented writers who clearly like each other. If any chat show hosts are looking for the perfect duo, ask these guys. Both of them come from difficult backgrounds and write about those times in their fiction.

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Spending time with the three other authors based in Switzerland – Padraig Rooney, Diccon Bewes and Jason Donald – was great fun, like having work colleagues again. I also took part in a panel discussion with Padraig and Diccon about Switzerland, Brexit and the European Union. It was a lively debate, the first time I’ve had an event in that particular format. Very enjoyable.

In a weekend of many interesting conversations, one chat about a potential nonfiction project was particularly illuminating. Maybe Morges will be indirectly responsible for my next book. All I know is that I need to send out a proposal before the leaves start to turn. And that means back to quiet time for a while.

Irish literary greats come to Lake Geneva

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Ireland is the guest country of honour at Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges this weekend, which means appearances by Anne Enright, Donal Ryan, Sara Baume, Kevin Barry, John Boyne, Paul McVeigh, and the winner of the 2017 Irish novel of the year award, Kit de Waal.

From what I know of other festival programmes, this gathering of Irish literary talent is unprecedented. The festival, which hosts 280 international writers, mainly from the French-speaking world, is free and open to the general public. It is one of the prettiest towns on Lake Geneva. Don’t let the rain keep you away.

Apart from being thrilled at the golden opportunity to meet some of my literary heroes and to hear them speak, the other reason I am harping on about Le livre sur les quais is that it is the first literary festival I will be taking part in as an author.

I’ll be joining Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney to discuss ‘Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality’ at 4.30pm on Sunday in the Cave du Couvaloup. The debate will be hosted by Ed Girardet.

Bern-based Diccon Bewes, a household name in Switzerland, is British and a best-selling author of books about Switzerland. Padraig Rooney, author of The Gilded Chalet, is from the border region of Northern Ireland and has lived in Basel for many years. An interesting mix of perspectives on Europe!

Morges is known for its giant author tent on the lake shore, where writers sign their books and meet readers. More than one hundred and fifty events including panel discussions, conversations, talks, readings and films are taking place in various venues around the town as well as on board cruise ships.

Below is the full English programme. Hope to see you in Morges!

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Friday, 1st September

18.00-19.00 – What Next in Irish Fiction? /Ou va la literature irlandaise? With Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Anne Enright . Moderated by Matthew Wake – In English with the translation into French by Lesley Viet- Jacobsen. Venue: St Jeanne.   English/French

Saturday, 2nd September

11h – 12h15 – Exile, Memory and Refugee Experience with Jason Donald, Hisham Matar, Melissa Fleming.  Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

13h – 14h45 – Dystopias, Utopias and Places of Escape with Rachel Joyce, Claire Vaye Watkins and Emmanuel Bergmann.  Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15h – 16h15- Irish Encounters: turbulent families with Anne Enright, Sara Baume, Donal Ryan.  Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15h – 16h15 – After Arab Revolutions/Apres la revolution arabe:  Hisham Matar in conversation with Thierry Meyer – with translation into French by Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue: Sainte-Jeanne.  English/French

16.30-18.00Writing History with John Boyne and Emmanuel Bergmann.  Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

16.30 – Thriller sans Frontiers : Denise Mina et Bernard Minier en conversation – Moderation: Nine Simon et la traduction Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue Sainte Jeanne.          English/French

17.00-18.00 – Claire Vaye Watkins – lecture bilingue – Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Nouvelle Couronne Cave.                                                               English/French

Also a fiction writing workshop:

15.30-17.30 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Perfectly flawed characters – Teacher: Jason Donald (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group), venue: Grenier Bernois, Bibliothèque Adulte. With prior registrations to gwg.workshops@gmail.com

Sunday, 3rd September

11-12.15 – Irish Encounters:  Place and Landscape in Irish fiction with Kevin Barry, Kit de Waal, Sara Baume.  Moderated by Matthew Wake. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise – Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing with Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal.  Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – tickets to buy online or from the ticket office. Boat – Le Lausanne, boarding on the quay.

13.30-14.45 – Writing Crime with Denise Mina, Ruth Ware, Sophie Hannah. Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15.00-16.15– Writing on the Borders with Rachel Joyce, Ruth Ware, Kevin Barry.  Moderated by Michelle Bailat-Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15.00 – 16.15 – Fictive ou reele – heros pour toujours:  Sophie Hannah, Vivianne Perret – Anime par Elise Lepine et traduit par Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue : Sainte Jeanne.                                                                                                                                       English/French

16h30 – 17h45 – Switzerland, Brexit and the New European reality with Clare O’Dea, Padraig Rooney, Diccon Bewes.  Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

Cruise:

12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise – Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing  with Paul Mc Veigh and Kit de Waal.  Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – boat: Le Lausanne. Tickets to book online or from the ticket office.

GWG Creative Writing Workshops –Grenier Bernois – bibliotheque adulte. To pre-register at gwg.workshops@gmail.com

10.30-12.00 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Showing not telling – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)

15.30-17.00 – Non-fiction Writing Workshop: Writing effective memoir – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)

Writing news and summer days

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Quite a lot has happened over the past few months so I thought I’d share some of my writing news before I lose track. I’m borrowing the Irish calendar summer here, which is May, June and July. In Switzerland, summer officially starts on midsummer’s day, June 21st. This way I get the best of both worlds.

May was the month of reviews. An Irish academic in Germany, Fergal Lenehan, wrote a long, thoughtful essay about The Naked Swiss for the Dublin Review of Books. It is the best, most comprehensive analysis of the book so far. A great reward in itself. Lenehan is the author of a book about German images of Ireland which is based on a study of news coverage of Ireland in two German weekly publications, Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, over a 60-year period. On average, the two outlets together ran one article about Ireland per month from 1946 to 2010, indicating a surprising level of interest.

At the end of the month, I got an unexpected message from the Swiss correspondent of the Financial Times, Ralph Atkins, to let me know that his review of The Naked Swiss was online. Needless to say, I was delighted, but also taken aback by the tone of the debate in the comments at the end of the article. Who would have thought FT readers were so emotional?

In June, I got the good news that a short story of mine had been placed second in the fiction category of the Geneva Literary Prize. The story hasn’t been published yet but I will let you know as soon as it’s available to read. A member of my tiny writers’ group, Tara McLoughlin Giroud, won the non-fiction prize so it was a double celebration.

Then came the most exciting news of the summer. I received an invitation to take part in Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges, an event I referred to last year in a blog post as ‘book heaven’ on Lake Geneva. Here’s a photo from the 2016 festival.

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The festival takes place from September 1 to 3, and what makes it really special is that the guest country of honour this year is Ireland. To be appearing under the same roof as some of the most respected names in contemporary Irish literature is almost too good to be true. My panel event is scheduled for Sunday afternoon but the rest of the time I will be hopping from one talk to the next, soaking up the literary atmosphere. As soon as the English programme is published, I’ll share it here. The Irish and international authors on the bill include John Boyne, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Kit de Waal and Douglas Kennedy.

I’ll leave you with some images of these summer days in Switzerland. The photo at the top is of Limmatquai in Zurich. Highlights so far: Swims in the Aare river (Bern) and the Limmat. A hike along Lake Brienz. A night spent “sleeping on the straw”. Meeting scary cows on an alp. Crossing Lake Geneva at dawn. Sunset at Muntelier.

Wishing you all lots of freedom and fun this summer.

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Axalp in the Bernese Oberland
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Morning in Lausanne

 

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Charmey, Fribourg

 

A Christmas warning

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I am telling you this in good time. Producing a big Christmas feast for a group of people is a lot of work, and if all that work is left to one person, something is not right. Anne Enright’s latest book, The Green Road, tells the story of four siblings and their widowed mother in the lead up to a long overdue Christmas reunion.

Because the mother has opted out of the difficult parts of life, and three of the siblings live away from their native County Clare, and also happen to be completely self-absorbed, the task of preparing the Christmas dinner falls to the most reliable sister with the least glamorous life, Constance. No need to tell you that turns out to be a thankless task. Here she is doing the dreaded Christmas grocery shopping:

The next morning, she went early into Ennis. It was 10 a.m. on Christmas Eve and the supermarket was like the Apocalypse, people grabbing without looking, and things fallen in the aisles. But there was no good time to do this, you just had to get through it. Constance pushed her trolley to the vegetable section: celery, carrots, parsnips for Dessie, who liked them. Sausage and sage for the stuffing, an experimental bag of chestnuts, vacuum packed. Constance bought a case of Prosecco on special offer to wrap and leave on various doorsteps and threw in eight frozen pizzas in case the kids rolled up with friends. Frozen berries. Different ice cream. She got wine, sherry, whiskey, fresh nuts, salted nuts, crisps, bags and bags of apples, two mangoes, a melon, dark cherries for the fruit salad, root ginger, fresh mint, a wooden crate of satsumas, the fruit cold and promising sweet, each one with its own sprig of green, dark leaves. She got wrapping paper, red paper napkins, Sellotape, and – more out of habit, now the children were grown – packs and packs of batteries, triple A, double A, a few Cs. She took five squat candles in cream-coloured beeswax to fill the cracked hearth in the good room at Ardeevin, when no fire was lit this ten years past, and two long rolls of simple red baubles to fill the gaps on her mother’s tree. She went back for more sausages because she had forgotten about breakfast. Tomatoes. Bacon. Eggs. She went back to the dairy section for more cheese. Back to the fruit aisle for seedless grapes. Back to the biscuit aisle for water biscuits. She searched high and low for string to keep the cloth on the pudding, stopped at the delicatessen counter for pesto, chicken liver pate, tubs of olives. She got some ready-cooked drumsticks to keep people going. At every corner, she met a neighbour, an old friend, they rolled their eyes and threw Christmas greetings, and no one thought her rude for not stopping to converse. …

Constance pays, pushes the trolley down to the carpark, unloads the shopping into the boot, and remembers Brussels sprouts. What can she do? Everyone knows Christmas is an all-or-nothing occasion.

‘Oh what the hell,’ said Constance. She slammed the boot shut and turned her sore feet back to the walkway and the horrors of the vegetable section. The over to the spices to get nutmeg, which was the way Rosaleen liked her Brussels, with unsalted butter. And it was a good thing she went back up, because she had no cranberry sauce either – unbelievably – no brandy for the brandy butter, no honey to glaze the ham. It was as though she had thrown the whole shop in the trolley and bought nothing. She had no big foil for the turkey. Constance grabbed some potato salad, coleslaw, smoked salmon, mayonnaise, more tomatoes, litre bottled of fizzy drinks for the kids, kitchen roll, cling film, extra toilet paper, extra bin bags. She didn’t even look at the bill after another 15 minutes in the queue behind some woman who had forgotten flowers – as she announced – and abandoned her groceries to get them, after which Constance did exactly the same thing, fetching two bouquets of strong pink lilies because they had no white left. She was on the way home before she remembered potatoes, thought about pulling over to the side of the road and digging some out of a field, imagined herself with her hands in the earth, scrabbling around for a few spuds.

Lifting her head to howl.

You get the picture. Don’t be Constance this Christmas. The passage is also a commentary on the gluttony and excess that gripped Ireland during the economic boom, probably still the norm for many people.

The Green Road is one of about 25 books I read this year but I’m afraid it was almost too deliberately well-crafted for me. I enjoyed many of the sections as stand-alone pieces, particularly the scenes in Africa and New York. Less so the hammed-up Irish scenes. Ultimately the odd character of the mother at the centre of it all removed all the urgency of the climax as I didn’t care enough what happened to her or her spoilt/neglected kids.

Goodreads puts together a list of the books you’ve read each year, and looking back on my titles, I can give you my favourites. Best memoir: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou Best non-fiction: Sugar in the Blood, Andrea Stuart Best novel: It’s a tie between Transatlantic by Colum McCann, The Uninvited by Liz Jensen (seriously disturbing), Nutshell by Ian McEwan (just finished, wow) and The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson.

If you are based in Switzerland and still looking for Christmas present ideas, don’t forget my non-fiction book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, stocked in all bookshops with English titles.

Happy holidays!

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!