When I was researching and writing The Naked Irish in 2018 and 2019, I spent every spare minute feverishly gathering information, reading books and articles, listening to the radio, interviewing people, collecting notes and quotes left, right and centre.
This process came after 15 years of living outside the country. Nobody asked me to do it. Finding a publisher was a nail-biting challenge and I’ll always be grateful to Mentor Books (Red Stag) for saying yes.
Now that the book has been out for a year, I have enough distance to look back and wonder what the quest was all about. Why was it so important for me to write that particular book? It has a lot to do with being an emigrant.
When I left Ireland in 2003 to move to Switzerland, I stopped writing about Ireland but I never stopped caring. But if Ireland is a mother figure, she’s a mother who is indifferent to her absent children. She has enough mouths to feed at home!
And yet, I wanted to reclaim and rediscover Ireland, force her to take notice. I think I managed to do that through The Naked Irish, but in the process, I have become less sentimental about the people and the place. Close up, the hills are a bit muddy.
Before I wrote this book, I used to wonder how different my life might have been if I’d stayed in Ireland. At least The Naked Irish answered one aspect of that question. This is the work I would have covered as a journalist. I finally got my chance to write about the Irish economy, politics, social issues and literature.
I got to hold Ireland close and now I feel it drifting away again. The country is not really mine to keep any more. And that’s OK. It will be partly mine from now on, not fully mine, and that makes my life easier.
My next book is completely different. It’s a historical novel set in Switzerland and it could only be written by a Swiss person, the Swiss me. It has shown me how much this country means to me now. I’ll be sharing more news about this project with lots of razzmatazz very soon.
Final note: I took the picture above during a visit to the laténium museum and park on Lake Neuchâtel in June (highly recommended!). These reconstructed lake dwellings are based on a 6,000-year-old village that was discovered on the site. Amazing to see.
Final final note: I might as well stick in a picture from the book launch in Dublin last year because it was such a happy day. Credit, Ger Holland (@GHollandPhoto on Twitter), who did a wonderful job.
I didn’t write a round-up of 2018. Looking back, this was probably because not much went according to plan. It was a year of near misses professionally. The only big project I managed to salvage was the book that became The Naked Irish. I signed with Mentor Books / Red Stag in November 2018 and the book was published in September 2019.
Other plans that went by the wayside last year after a lot of work and anticipation included a book translation project, an application to do a Master’s, a possible job in Basel, submission of a middle grade novel and a memoir writing business. But just when I was beginning to think everything I touched turned to ashes, I got that much-needed yes from Mentor Books.
So there was a point in time when all I wanted was for a publisher to accept the book about Ireland and publish it. But as soon as that became a reality, the goalposts shifted. It wasn’t enough just for the book to be published any more, I wanted it to be a critical success. I wanted reviews to confirm that I had done a good job.
From my point of view, the book has been a critical success, with positive reviews appearing in the Irish Independent, the Business Post and The Irish Times. It is on sale all over Ireland and was hopefully under many Christmas trees this year.
Now, I notice that my greedy writer goalposts have shifted again. Suddenly, Ireland is not enough. I want the book to be a commercial success and that means looking beyond the small Irish market. After all, The Irish Times review said the book would appeal to readers outside Ireland who have reasons for peering in. People like Irish Americans. They should obviously read The Naked Irish too, ideally in great numbers. God, it’s exhausting.
No, instead of obsessing about US publishers, I would like to savour the moment. That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? I want to be thankful for everything I’ve achieved so far and all the good things that have happened in 2019. I already have more than I could have hoped for a year ago. It is enough, as these photos remind me.
In January, I went to Ireland on a short research trip for the book. I had so much work ahead of me but this was the best part, the last bit of real-life research. I had meetings set up in Belfast and Ballyjamesduff and I interviewed the veteran women’s rights campaigner, Ailbhe Smyth, in Dublin. I also recorded two radio essays for RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, and enjoyed time with family and friends.
This is a photo from the drive to Co. Cavan. I chose Ballyjamesduff as a case-study because it perfectly represents the two sides of the Irish emigration story. On the one hand, the town is associated with emigration thanks to Percy French’s 1912 song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. On the other hand, it has the fourth highest immigrant population of all Irish towns with 30 per cent non-national residents. I got a warm welcome at the local school, St Clare’s College. My mother came with me as co-driver and she visited the local emigration museum (coincidence!) while I was at the school. We had a lovely lunch on the way back in this village, Virginia, and plenty of time to chat on the journey.
In March, I finally got to visit James Joyce’s grave in Zurich at the instigation of my cousin Jennifer, who was visiting from Ireland. We spent a wonderful day together in the city with time to talk and had a memorable conversation about life and death at the graveyard. There were murmurings this year about moving Joyce’s body back to Dublin. Such nonsense, he’s fine where he is, really.
Also in March, I had a writing weekend away in Wilderswil in the Berner Oberland. It’s the second time I’ve gone away with this small group of writers. The village is quiet off-season and we stay in a nice little hotel and meet for meals in between writing sessions. The perfect mix of solitude and good company. This was the view from my room.
The big event in June was the Women’s Strike in Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over Switzerland on the 14th. I went along to my local demonstration in Fribourg with two friends. We wanted to draw attention to all the unresolved equality issues in Switzerland and elsewhere. The energy and feeling of unity in the crowd was amazing. As the white sign here says: ‘If you’re here it means you get it’. I don’t always feel like I’m fully connected to Swiss society. This was one of the good days.
In July, one day that stands out is when I took a hike with my daughter and the dog. She had a few days home alone while the other two were at camps. It was a very hot day and we took the train to the neighbouring town of Düdingen to walk back home. I know the area well but I’d never walked it so it was a journey of discovery and we had a lovely relaxing, fun time together.
We had a family version of this adventure when we took the train to Grenchen with our bikes one day in the summer and cycled along the Aare river to Solothurn. A week spent in Portugal with the extended family was another delightful escape from normal life.
September brought the launch of The Naked Irish in Dublin, a very happy occasion. Both my godparents were there, three generations of my family, my husband, friends from school, college, writing and work. It was a reunion really, a great reason to get together and celebrate. I had the pleasure of seeing my book on Irish shelves at last (photo by Ger Holland).
A Swiss launch of The Naked Irish followed in November in Book Books Books in Lausanne, and, in December, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion on Brexit in the University of St. Gallen, organised by swissinfo.ch. It was my third time moderating this year – the first two were literary events: the Bibliotopia festival in May and Le Livre sur les quais in September. This is something I definitely want to do more of.
It seems like most of my highlights this year involved spending time connecting with people and doing interesting work. There were plenty of humdrum days too but the year was also made richer by the books I read. Thanks to Goodreads, I know I read 50 books this year. You can view the list on that link, including some reviews. My favourite novels were Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, and Hidden Latitudes by Alison Anderson.
I really enjoyed answering questions about my favourite non-fiction books for the website Smartthinkingbooks. You can read the interview here. Actually, I think a separate blog post is needed to talk about the books of 2019.
I hope you are fortunate enough, like me, to have a few more quiet days of freedom left before returning to the normal routine. If you scroll back through your photos of the year, may you find many good times to recall with a smile. Wishing everyone good health, harmony and goodwill in 2020.
The biggest challenge when writing non-fiction on a serious subject is to keep the reader engaged. You have mountains of information but how to package it? My approach is to give the reader enough entertaining breadcrumbs to follow so that they don’t get bogged down in the statistics and analysis.
While researching the book I was constantly on the look-out for these breadcrumbs/nuggets. This quote, for example, from the Archbishop of Dublin talking about his diocese: “there are more members of the current cabinet under the age of 45 than there are priests of that age in the diocese.”
Apart from killer quotes, I also used photographs, anecdotes, memoir, reportage and, in one chapter of The Naked Irish, a piece of micro fiction. I also tried to keep a conversational style to avoid straying into textbook territory.
Another way the reader keeps his or her sense of direction is from the structure of the book. If it is strong enough, the reader should never wonder what a particular passage is doing there. It should always make sense.
When I was writing the chapter about whether the Irish want a united Ireland, I wanted to come up with a suitable allegory for the three-way relationship between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. It was no easy task.
At first I was leaning towards the broken home comparison, which works up to a point. The UK is the somewhat reluctant father who has custody of the troublesome child, and Ireland is the mother who lost custody but has been trying for years to get her baby back.
There was also the option of bringing romance into it. Ireland is the rejected suitor who is still holding a candle for the North, an incurable optimist who cannot and will not move on. Meanwhile the North is smitten with the dashing prince next door who is staring at the ceiling, wishing he was somewhere else instead. A double dose of unrequited love.
For an unreconstructed Irish nationalist interpretation, you cannot beat Tommy Makem’s best-known folk song, Four Green Fields, written in 1967. Ireland is the field-owning old woman lamenting that one of her four ‘jewels’ is ‘in bondage in stranger’s hands’, despite her sons’ best efforts.
‘But my sons had sons, as brave as were their fathers
My fourth green field will bloom once again said she.’
This old lady wouldn’t be into any new-fangled ideas such as agreed solutions, or the principle of consent or respecting different identities. A battle is what she is envisaging, one she expects her sons to win.
What none of these set pieces takes into account is that Northern Ireland is not a single entity that can be represented by a single role.
In the end I imagined something that combined economics and identity: Northern Ireland as a company. This is an excerpt from the opening of the chapter:
Imagine a small company that makes plastic forks. It has always lost money but has survived because it belongs to a big company that produces stainless steel forks. The big company has said more than once that it has no strategic or economic interest in holding onto the plastic fork company.
A few miles away, a medium-sized company that makes plastic knives is keeping a close eye. This company is looking to grow and believes a merger with the plastic fork company would be the best way forward. It hires a plane to fly over the plastic fork company pulling a banner that reads, ‘YOU COMPLETE ME’.
But the staff and management of the plastic fork company are split. A narrow majority of the board are firm believers in the fork business. Their fathers and grandfathers made forks and were part of a great fork tradition best represented by the big fork company. They don’t like change and they don’t trust knife-makers. The rest of the board, well disposed towards plastic knives, argue in vain for a brighter future of plastic forks and knives together under one roof. We’re all plastic at the end of the day, they say. No surrender, say the forkmen.
The plastic knife company settles down for a long wait.
The Naked Irish is two months old today! As good a time as any to give an update on the book and other work I’ve been doing.
There have been several highlights since I last wrote about the book. The first is the review that was published by the Irish Independent newspaper on November 16. I had no idea who had been commissioned to read the book or what they would make of it so of course I imagined the worst. But the review, by Darragh McManus, was very favourable, and fair in my opinion. Here’s a taste:
O’Dea is ideally placed to cast an eye – not cold, as per Yeats, but with the necessary coolness of the investigative journalist and/or social scientist – over our foibles and delusions. She brings the perspective of an outsider, leavened with a genuine grá [love] for, and understanding of, her homeland: a potent mix.
Another big day was October 28 when I went into the Radio Centre in RTE to be interviewed by Ella McSweeney on the Tubridy Show. The podcast of the 20-minute interview is available here.
Back in Switzerland, I was invited to Lausanne-based Books Books Books to have an author event at the shop. It became a sort of Swiss launch and there was a great atmosphere on the day. This was the first time my children got to see me in my public role as an author. Makes a nice change from seeing me hunched over the laptop, scowling at the screen.
On the journalism side, I’ve had two articles published on swissinfo.ch recently that might be of interest. One is about a group of tenants in Zurich who are being evicted from their apartments – owned by Credit Suisse Pension Fund. This is a story with lots of layers which reveals the tension between tenants’ needs and the investor’s prerogative, which is to make money.
The second article is a profile of Irish right-to-die campaigner Tom Curran, who comes to Switzerland often in the course of his work. Tom Curran is well known in Ireland as the partner of Marie Fleming whose 2013 case seeking the right to assisted suicide ended up in the Supreme Court in Ireland.
The last bit of work-related news is that I will be moderating a panel discussion on Brexit and direct democracy on Monday 2 December in St. Gallen University. More information on the event here. It’s free and open to the public but you do have to register.
Just one more thing. If you have read and enjoyed The Naked Irish, don’t forget to rate and review the book online. The book is listed on amazon.co.uk and on Goodreads. The more reviews, the merrier!
Even though The Naked Irish is my second book, it feels a bit like a debut because it’s the first book of mine to be published in Ireland. It has been a very happy experience launching the book in Dublin and getting the word out about it.
There was a great turnout for the launch in Hodges Figgis book shop in Dublin, a lovely reminder that I still have an Irish community. I’m very grateful to friends and family who came along and to other supporters who were curious to hear about the book. Ger Holland took some fantastic photos on the night and I can’t resist sharing a few of them here.
One highlight of the launch day was having an extract from the book published in The Irish Times online edition. Also that week I took part in interviews with various local radio stations. This interview with Deirdre Walsh of Radio Kerry will give you an idea of the reaction to the book. In this piece, I explain why I wrote The Naked Irish.
After such a long time spent in solitary concentration it is wonderful to be out in the world with my book and to be able to talk about it. The subjects that are attracting the most interest are drink, Irish writers, religion and the prospect of a united Ireland.
Before I left Dublin I did an in-depth interview on the Motherfoclóir podcast with Darach ó Séaghdha. An author and Irish language activist, Darach is a relaxed and skilful interviewer and the time flew by as we discussed everything from the dubious origins of our national stereotypes to language learning to Swiss referendum fatigue.
I have a big interview coming up on national radio at the end of month. I’ll reveal more about that as soon as I can.
One of my pet hates is the stereotype of the foolish old Irish Mammy and I touch on this in the chapter about women. I decided to expand on the issue in an article for the Irish Independent Weekend Review and you can read that for free after a straightforward log in. The trope is more popular than ever and I see it as an erasure of the achievements of a generation of women who went through so much to give us a better life.
It’s been pleasure working with the friendly team at Mentor Books / Red Stag. Early Christmas shoppers take note, The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés is available directly from their website or from book shops all over Ireland. The book is also available for international delivery from bookdepository.com and amazon.co.uk.
With so many books coming out every week, even in a small market like Ireland, The Naked Irish needs as much support as possible to get some momentum going. Online customer reviews are hugely important. If you do read the book and enjoy it, don’t forget to rate it somewhere and write a review, even if it’s just one line. You’ll find the book listed on these links on Goodreads and Amazon.
I think that’s everything, apart from one more photo from Ger Holland. Have a great weekend and I’ll be back soon with more news and links to some interesting features I’ve been working on about Switzerland.
I recently received an invitation to attend an event in Zurich to discuss the concept of Heimat, among other things. Heimat is a German word that doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. It can mean home, homeland, native land and more.
When Swiss citizens fill in official forms, they are routinely asked to give their Heimatort (literally ‘native place’), the commune of origin of their family. This is passed down through the paternal line so that my husband’s Heimatort (and by extension mine) is the village where his grandfather was born, even though his grandfather left there as a small boy when he was sent to live with relatives after his mother’s death. This grandfather, who ended up working as a saddler in another village, never lived in his native village again and may not have felt any emotional attachment to the place but many Swiss are proud of their Heimatort.
The old function of Heimatort was that the commune (municipality) would provide for you in case of destitution. In the past, this was more about social control than charity. Somebody caught begging or drunk in public could be picked up and returned to his or her Heimat to be dealt with. Not a cheery prospect at a time when people who were classed as ‘work shy’ could be interned under the ‘administrative care’ legal provision (common up to the 1970s). Children who were taken into care were referred to their Heimat for a foster home placement – in practice to work as labourers or servants for farming families – which often meant a new life of drudgery miles away from where they grew up.
Now, thankfully, we have prosperity, social welfare payments and a professionalised child welfare system. The Heimatort is only relevant in a few minor, archaic ways, such as the right to graze animals on commonly held land. (Admittedly this is not minor if you can’t access the land your neighbours are using for free.) I don’t know of any other residual rights Heimatort grants but I’d be curious to know if anyone can enlighten me.
I have some Heimat issues myself in that I still feel the loss of my Irish homeland very keenly. Ideally, after fifteen years in a different country I should have transferred my allegiance and affections to my new location. But this has not happened, at least not to a convincing degree. Despite the fact that I have built a decent life for myself in Switzerland, a process that involved great effort, I still feel the inner tension of being pulled back to my place of origin. Meanwhile, my family is deeply rooted and happy here. It’s a conundrum.
A three-month stay in Ireland this year went some way to alleviating that tension. Apart from all the external trappings of life in Dublin that I enjoy (the sea, the sea!), there are two interlinked things the place offers me that I haven’t been able to replicate in Switzerland. One is a sense of community and the other is the ability to be myself. My German and French are good but I don’t feel truly myself when I speak those languages. I cannot be as genuine when I am working to communicate with a reduced vocabulary (and I seem to have hit a ceiling in both languages). But it’s not only about language; I have good relations with lots of people on an individual basis but it’s in a group that solidarity and shared experiences come into play. In this environment you can express a bigger range of your personality and find meaningful acceptance. I already have some ideas on how to respond to this problem and I’ll be giving it more thought over the coming months.
The interview was hosted by Patrick Vallélian of the in-depth Swiss news magazine Sept.Info, which is running an excerpt from La Suisse mise à nu in their latest edition and organising various joint events at bookshops in French-speaking Switzerland. More updates about these events on my Facebook page.
I was delighted to see the French translation reviewed in the Tribune de Genève newspaper and I’m looking forward to reading the write-up of the interview I gave 24 Heures newspaper later this month.
This time last year I was preparing for Le livre sur les quais festival in Morges at the beginning of September. This year the pressure is off as I will be attending as a visitor rather than a guest author. I have my ticket to see Maggie O’Farrell on September 2nd and will book more as soon as the full English programme is online. Especially looking forward to hearing Lisa McInerney speak. I loved her first book, The Glorious Heresies.
The photo above is the view from the top of the Kaiseregg mountain in Fribourg at sunrise a fortnight ago. The actual sunrise pics didn’t come out too well on my old phone but this one captures the dreamy beauty of the place. We had to get up at half past three in the morning to complete the climb in time before the sun came up. Tough going but well worth the effort, this was the best experience of my Swiss summer so far. I wish you all good times and safe travels this summer too.
Integration is a long road, with many twists and turns along the way. There’s always going to be some conflict in the mind of an immigrant; after all, this is a complex relationship with a lot of psychological wheels turning behind the scenes. For some people, a new country is like a step parent. They will never forgive the newcomer simply for being who they are. Bearing in mind that it’s not the same for everyone, here is my guide to the six stages of the immigrant experience, based on my 13 years in Switzerland.
Stage 1, Honeymoon: This will only happen if you have come to live the country under positive circumstances. If not, skip to Stage 2. This new start may be daunting but it is fundamentally an adventure for you. You waltz through the early weeks and possibly months (days if you are unlucky) in a state of hyper observation, mostly noticing the charming things and the positive differences – the street markets, the architecture, the trams, the cleanliness, the landscape. You will be discovering new tastes, sights and sounds, picking up phrases of the local language. It’s the perfect time to sign up for a language course. Enthusiasm is the order of the day. You’ve had no time to miss people at home. You may in fact be busy with a steady stream of visitors, keen to share the excitement of the new start.
Stage 2, The First Wobble: It might be a harsh word from someone in officialdom, a work or parent-teacher meeting where you felt out of your depth, or a bolt of loneliness brought on by an important event missed back home. Something will set you off on the first round of doubts, and the gloss of everything being new and different will suddenly disappear. Constantly learning and adapting is tiring. Is it possible this has all been a terrible mistake? The first wobble may be followed at any time by other wobbles in the future, varying in severity from a cold to a serious dose of flu. I hope you’ve got a good immune system. From here you will transition somewhat unhappily into …
Stage 3, Reality Bites: Just like that, the novelty wears off, you are faced with the realisation that life still has to be lived, in all its tedious repetition, with or without picturesque walks, cobbled streets and Christmas markets. There are days of work to get through, bills to be paid and housework to be done. From a promising start, you hit your first wall with the language learning. Fluency seems more unattainable than ever.
Stage 4, Frustration: All those things you found charming at the beginning start to get on your nerves. You adopt a hypercritical frame of mind: Why are they speaking like that, behaving like that? Oh, how much better [insert the thing(s) you miss] is back home. Linguistically, culturally and socially, you are still (still!) an outsider, and that’s discomfiting and humbling. The effort required to lose your outsider status is so great that it seems easier just to take refuge in negative judgments. Warning! Some people get stuck permanently in this phase. Don’t let this happen to you.
Stage 5, Transition: This is the point where everyone who might come to visit has already been at least once. Most will not come again. You have missed weddings, births and funerals back home. By not being there to share the fun and the tears, you have grown apart from people in your home country. There’s an unavoidable sadness in that, which can overshadow the new life you are trying to build. But it doesn’t have to. Because something unexpected is happening at the same time. Opportunities arise to support other people, or receive support, in the place where you live. New friendships are being tested and getting stronger, as you accompany people through marriage break-ups, illnesses and the challenges of child-rearing. Around this time, the language starts to flow. It might never be perfect but you’re making a decent go of it. Many logistical things that took effort before are now second nature. What’s that you notice around you? Could it be a community? Some days you feel a strong sense of belonging. You start to create your own traditions, favourite places to go and things to do. You are close, very close.
Stage 6, Comfort Zone: How do you know when you’ve reached this stage? You might notice, arriving back from travelling somewhere, that you feel the relief that only comes with returning home. Or, you might throw a party and realise the guest list would probably be shorter in your home country. You will be part of a community – people you can rely on and who can rely on you, from the small things to the major emergencies. Whether it’s through culture, sport, work or chance, you will have found like-minded people who share your values or passions. You will feel a bond with your familiar environment. The streets, the fields, the mountains, the well-worn paths will have become yours through use and experiences lived there. You catch yourself thinking or speaking like the locals. You dare to use the word home again.
We can’t get far in life without community. My experience, once I got over my first few wobbles, was that new communities were waiting with open arms to take me in. Whether it was the other students in German class, my in-laws, my work colleagues or the people in my neighbourhood. Many years later, I am still finding new communities, such as the small writers’ group I joined in Bern this summer.
This is why my book, which aims above all things to be fair, is written from a position of affection for the Swiss. My adopted country is not perfect, and I have highlighted some of those problems in The Naked Swiss. But there is so much here that is positive and admirable.
The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths was a challenge to write, but a good challenge. My hope is that it will spark a conversation and some reflection among the Swiss and foreign residents here. If we can bring out the best in each other, the future is bright.
What stage of the immigrant experience have you reached? Have I left anything out? And, what I am most curious to know, what comes after the comfort zone? I’d love to know what’s around the corner!
Naming is claiming. This was the parting idea for my short story, The Favour, which was published in The Irish Times on Saturday as part of the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition. I was interested in the statement of freedom and ownership first expressed by parents when they choose a name for their child.
It is the first decision an outsider (and everyone is an outsider to new parents) may object to, though usually not openly. Many more life-shaping decisions will follow. But what if the parentage of the child was unconventional? How much more complex and fraught the situation could be if someone else was involved in bringing the child into the world.
Please be my guest and read the story here before I reveal too much.
In this story Maeve does a large favour for her sister that turns out to have unexpected dimensions. Maeve came to me as a fully-formed character. She sees herself as strong and free-spirited, capable of great things. And yet she finds her life slipping by with no sign of the great things. When the opportunity comes along to do something noble and momentous, she grabs it. Her grand gesture is a means of securing life tenure of the good sister role. But can she impress her emotionally unavailable mother?
It’s important to say that my story is just an imagined set of circumstances, which are not meant to make a definitive statement about the reality of surrogacy. However, if you are interested in the subject, this fascinating radio documentary, first broadcast in July 2015 on Irish public radio is worth a listen. Seven Years and Nine Months is an unvarnished account of a couple’s quest to have the family of their dreams through surrogacy.
I wrote The Favour a year ago and the story spent many months languishing on various submission piles. I hope this will encourage other writers who believe they are on the right track to keep polishing their work and searching for the right home.
While on the subject of the short story, I have to recommend a wonderful new anthology of Irish women writers. The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island, is a collection of 30 stories spanning four centuries, that showcases all the amazing possibilities of the form (review to follow on the blog).
Finally, a word of thanks to Niall McArdle (fellow Hennessy New Irish Writing finalist) and Cathy Brown for suggesting I include this blogpost in their annual celebration of Irish culture, The Begorrathon.
(Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
At the moment I am writing about women in Switzerland for the book, and trying very hard to be fair. I almost think this chapter needs a disclaimer: I am a woman but the word may not mean the same thing to you as it does to me.
We are all products of our culture and family circumstances, and I have to hold my hands up and say that my background makes it very difficult for me to approach the Swiss situation in a non-judgmental way. I believe that the subjugation of women is the biggest swindle in human history. Nothing in my experience has taught me that women are in any way less important or less capable than men, therefore I cannot and will not accept any arrangement based on this idea.
My family is full of inspiring women, going back more than a century. I grew up in a three-generation household where both my mother and grandmother worked full-time as teachers. My maternal grandmother worked as a cook before she married, and later farmed a smallholding, while bringing up nine children. Her sisters emigrated to America to work. A great-grandmother on the other side was a ‘deserted wife’ who trained as a nurse in England in the 1910s and went on to work as matron of an old people’s home. There’s another great-grandmother who had her own toy shop in Dublin in the 1890s. One thing all these women had in common was that, somewhere along the line, the men in their lives could not be financially relied upon, mostly through no fault of their own. The women learned through experience that having children and doing paid work did not have to be mutually exclusive (disclaimer within a disclaimer: I think looking after children without doing paid work is equally admirable, as long as it’s a choice).
I come from an all-girl family, which meant I never experienced the division of chores on gender lines that happens in some households. I was just as often asked to wash the floor as cut the grass or bring in the coal. The secondary school I attended was also all-girls with a long tradition of fostering female achievement. A woman became president of my country when I was eighteen, not to mention that women got the vote in Ireland at the foundation of the state in 1922 (in Switzerland it was 1971).
By the time I noticed that my version of what it meant to be a woman was not the norm, it was too late. The meaning of the word had set in my mind forever. Forget about ‘Frailty thy name is woman’, I will always believe that women are strong, capable decision-makers. That is why I don’t like the ‘Irish Mammy’ cliché, which portrays Irish mothers as simple-minded old biddies. Funnily enough there is no popular incarnation of the Swiss mother, like the Italian or Jewish mamma or the Irish Mammy. One saving grace at least.
Have you ever thought about what the word woman means to you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Since I arrived back to live temporarily in Dublin I can’t get enough of the sea and its show-stopping other half, the sky. We are all products of our environment no matter where we come from and that makes me a coastal person. There’s a feeling of being on the edge of something vast and mysterious. The sea is an ever-changing story – welcoming one day and threatening the next.
Gazing out over the sparkling waves again, I am struck by how inaccurate the term insular is. On an island you are always looking out, not in. You are confronted with the limits of your existence, exposed to the beauty and cruelty of nature. You cannot help but dream about the world beyond the horizon.
The sea is a powerful presence. It calls us back when we go away. One day maybe we’ll find out what it has to tell us.