The unravelling of Irish exceptionalism: It’s time Ireland finally owns up to its racism

When I finished writing this piece last year, I thought it was finished. It sat in a folder with other unpublished articles I had written, a digital purgatory until I finally got round to paying my WordPress subscription. In its original version this essay was (and still is) intended as a commentary on the ways Irish people minimize the so-called ‘casual’ racism that happens in our country by using the brutality witnessed against black people in the U.S. as a benchmark. A distinction was between the violence associated with police in the U.S. and the harmless, almost docile reputation of Gardai.

Since then, a young black Irish man George Nkencho was tragically killed by the Irish Gardai.

I sincerely wish I were reworking this essay to say I had been proven wrong, that George Nkencho’s death served as a wake-up call for Irish people to the racism that plays out on their doorstep. Unfortunately, I will instead write about the staggering absence of understanding and empathy shown by vocal sections of Irish society, and their dogged unwillingness to acknowledge that racism may have played a role in the actions of the Gardai that day.

George Nkencho, who died aged 27 on 30th December 2020

The perception of racism in Ireland

I’ve heard the phrase ‘Ireland is not a racist country’ bandied about quite a bit. It is not altogether clear how bad things need to get for us to earn that title or indeed who decides when that threshold has been met, but it is widely accepted that the first step in fixing a problem is to name it.

Ireland is a racist country. Let us start there.I cannot speak to the experiences of those who have suffered racism in Ireland. I do, however, have some authority on white people and how we talk about race.

I’ve been wondering a lot about this knee-jerk reaction to excuse Ireland from a racist label. After much thought, I realise it has a lot to do with the story we tell about ourselves as a society. This goes further than just how we see ourselves; it is a way of remembering our collective history and gives shape to our present and future.

The storyline we’ve settled on has all the plot devices of an epic: a heroine oppressed at the hands of her enemy overcomes centuries of hardship and submission to emerge emancipated from the wreckage, and blossom into a modern nation of peace, prosperity, and progressive values.

Our cabinets heave with accolades to support this branding as a liberal, Western nation on an inexorable march forward towards self-actualisation – first nation to vote in favour of gay marriage by popular demand, the decriminalisation of abortion two years later, and a gay Taoiseach whose father came to Ireland as an immigrant – changes which, as little as thirty years ago, would have been unimaginable. As character development goes, it’s the stuff of Hollywood movies.

Our new-fangled, outward-looking Wokedom beginning in the 1990s was rewarded with the favour of rich, multinational tech corporations, allowing us to consign to the scrapyard of history our reputation as a quaint, farming nation piggybacking on Europe’s success.

In light of these achievements there has been much self-congratulating and back-patting by successive governments, and indeed by Irish people themselves. We bask in the warm glow of fresh, radical transformation, invigorated by change and its many possibilities.

Meanwhile, as Ireland finally finds itself on the right side of history (and the ‘left’ side of politics), we observe with smugness as the rest of the world slips into a state of regression. We tut tut at the alt-right movement sweeping the rest of Europe and set ourselves apart from the shambolic political leadership of our UK and the U.S. neighbours.  

A key component of this tall tale of exceptionalism is our underdog status. As well as being an island geographically isolated from continental Europe and the U.S., we often felt culturally, politically, and economically ostracised by both international strongholds. In spite recent success on the world stage relative to our small size, we have never shed this outsider mentality, which has transmuted into fierce pride now that we reached the status of a wealthy, respected nation.

This rags-to-riches narrative is central to Irish national identity. Even a millennial like myself with a privileged upbringing and no living memory of Ireland as a poor country cannot help but partake in the ‘started from the bottom now we here’ mentality.

For a long time, I bought into the idea that Ireland’s nominal role in Europe’s imperialist history gave us a moral get-out-of-jail-free card. We didn’t cause or partake in either of the world wars, we were victim to, rather than perpetrators of colonisation, and we’ve never invaded another nation (apart from, apparently, that time we invaded Canada).

There is something distinctly Catholic in the way Irish people remember our collective historical trauma, which suggests the sufferer is redeemed of all sins through having borne oppression. I took comfort in knowing Ireland did not have a disturbing history of atrocities committed against another people. It made my perception of my country’s wealth, my privilege as a white Westerner, and my position as an Irish citizen vis-a-vis the rest of the world feel less complicated. My forefathers did not fill our nation’s coffers with the spoils of pillaging and pilfering another land. On the contrary my predecessors had done more than their share of suffering. From famines, abject poverty, to being stripped of our native tongue, the Irish were well versed in the art of misery and repression.

While on a walking tour of Brussels a few years ago, our hitherto jovial guide darkened the mood by concluding his tour under the statue of King Leopold II. Having impressed us with the capital’s many prestigious political institutions and the grandeur of Place Royale, he was careful to address the infamous King’s abominable legacy in the D.R. Congo, whose people and natural resources he squeezed dry to bankroll an era of Dutch prosperity. I was viscerally repulsed by the descriptions of barbarity and found it difficult to comprehend that such needless violence could be committed by one human against another.

Yet beneath my disgust, I experienced a perverse sense relief. ‘Thank god we weren’t as bad as them’, I found myself thinking. Although a lapsed Catholic, I still carried with me the Church’s obsession with suffering as a form of redemption. I believed Ireland’s legacy of suffering absolved me from being party to the shame etched across the face of my Belgian tour guide and spared me from asking difficult questions such as where my country’s wealth originated, and whether it should be given back.

As I recall this memory, I am visited by the shame I was spared all those years ago. I see my position for it for what it was: inaccurate, self-indulgent, and ignorant to the point of causing harm.

Averting our gaze

A Guardian article by Gary Younge went a long way in putting words to my feelings of unease about my own problematic beliefs. In the article ‘What Black America Means to Europe’ Younge describes how many Europeans are more knowledgeable about racism in the U.S. than the experience of black communities in their own country. “Well into my 30s, I was far more knowledgeable about the literature and history of black America than I was about that of black Britain, where I was born and raised, or indeed of the Caribbean, where my parents are from.” In Younge’s opinion, Europe’s affiliation with the civil rights movement and BLM has a dark side: “But this tradition of political identification with black America also leaves significant space for the European continent’s inferiority complex, as it seeks to shroud its relative military and economic weakness in comparison to America with a moral confidence that conveniently ignores both its colonial past and its own racist present.”

Ireland, with our own special blend inferiority complex, is uniquely positioned to diminish our domestic racism through favourable comparison with both Europe and the United States. We frequently correlate our servitude and the prejudice we suffered under British rule and in the U.S. with the discrimination of black communities, meanwhile failing to notice its correlation with the treatment of asylum seekers trapped within our direct provision system.

The widely circulated ‘Irish slave’ meme

One of the most egregious examples of this is the ‘Irish slave’ myth, a confabulation which became popularized through a viral meme claiming that the first slaves brought to the U.S. were white and Irish. Besides erring in historical fact by conflating indentured servitude with chattel slavery, the true insidiousness of this myth is its revival by alt-right white Americans as a counterargument against black lives matter protests. Similarly, in Ireland, this untruth is relied on by white nationalist groups to negate the existence of systemic racism and displace legitimate claims of racism with tales of our own victimhood. ‘If the Irish can lift themselves out of poverty, the blacks have only themselves to blame for not doing the same’, or so their racist version of the story goes.

Although the ‘Irish slave’ meme failed to capture the imagination of the Irish mainstream, the lingering perception of Ireland as a country hard done by during historical shifts in power is used to justify our identification with Black America. As lamented by Jimmy Rabbitte in the Commitments, “The Irish are the blacks of Europe”.

‘More blacks, more dogs, more Irish’, a reworking of the original ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’, is another heavily circulated slogan that resurfaced during the BLM protests following the death of George Floyd. Its unifying quality speaks to the Zeitgeist of a younger generation whose affiliations extend beyond their own kin, and yet I wonder if this urge to overlook difference is always helpful. Although catchy, these well-intentioned but glib comparisons obscure the oceans of difference between how Irish Americans and black Americans are perceived today and promotes the idea that historically we shared the same struggle.

This victim-mentality obfuscates the myriad of ways in which Ireland has directly and indirectly been an eager beneficiary of the white supremacist power structure these shifts created, particularly in the past fifty decades. The dizzying rise of the Irish diaspora in the U.S. is a case in point.

It is quintessentially Irish to portray ourselves in a self-deprecatory fashion, but more often than not it is disingenuous. This well-developed instinct to belittle our own power is far from harmless, and gives rise to the widely held belief that the racism in Ireland is of a ‘casual’ nature, a friendly slagging if you will. By placing racial victimhood at the centre of our national identity we exclude the possibility that we ourselves can act as oppressors, thereby putting meaningful accountability out of reach for those who are subject to racism in Ireland.

George Nkencho

An investigation by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) into the death of George Nkencho is currently underway. Groups such as Black and Irish have asked people to reserve judgment until the full facts of the events are known, and while we wait I will put that question of whether the Gardai’s actions were prejudicial temporarily to one side.

In the absence of an official report two versions of the events that took place on December 30th have emerged. While many condemned the police for racially motivated excessive use force, others deemed their actions justified as George had a knife and bristled that race was brought into the conversation.

False rumours claiming George Nkencho had criminal convictions

Regardless of the investigation’s conclusions, the reaction amongst media and the public speaks to the reality that the fatal shooting of a young black man at the hands of white law enforcement in a majority white country has political implications beyond the scope of the actors involved.

Nkencho’s death trigged an outpouring of grief and anger amongst black communities in Ireland, and the protest marches by friends and family of Nkencho in their local suburb. The response by certain sections of Irish society, instead of listening, has been to double down with fastidious detail on the sequence of events which they believe justified Nkencho being shot by the Gardai.

As part of the online pile-on fabricated accounts circulated purporting Nkencho had 32 criminal convictions including the assault of an ex-girlfriend. Photos of a separate incidence concerning an Everton Football Fan who had been attacked with a knife in January 2019 were attributed to Nkencho. All were later disproven by media outlets.

An image of an Everton football fan inaccurately reported to be the shopkeeper assaulted by George Nkencho

Tarnishing the reputation of a mentally ill person by playing on black stereotypes is particularly heinous and shows just how far Irish people are willing to stoop to keep race out of the conversation, while at the same time illustrating the chronic need for these discussions to take place. 

At a time when it would have served the public well to take a back seat and listen to the grievances of our black population, they escalated racial tensions by missing the point completely.

Even when the last moments of Nkencho’s short life mimicked, blow-for-fatal-blow, those all-too-familiar scenes from the U.S., online commentators refused to acknowledge the similarities and deflected comparisons by fixating on the shopkeeper assaulted by Nkencho at the earlier stages of the incidence.

In adopting a victim mentality they conveniently evade questions of racism, allowing them to, returning to Younge’s point, distinguish the event’s racial undertones from the ‘real’ racism that happens in the U.S.

Regardless of the outcome of the Gsoc investigation, the communitarianism that emerged in the wake of Nkechno’s passing shatters any illusions that Ireland is not a racist country. George Nkencho, a vibrant young man experiencing a mental illness episode, was utterly dehumanised to the degree that hate mail was sent to his family as they mourned his loss.

It is little wonder black activists have spoken of feeling disillusioned given the fallout of Nkencho’s death.

Media outlets were quick to refute false rumours of Nkencho’s criminal convictions

While the majority of Irish population might not behave or think in an overtly racist manner, our passivity misguided perception about the contours of racism in Ireland prevents the masses from making the necessary shift from being non-racist to anti-racist, and further still, tackling our own internalized racism.

The vitriol that emerged following Nkencho’s death held a mirror to the thinly concealed racism bubbling under the surface.

There are no longer good excuses for claiming ignorance of the racism that exists in Ireland. From organisations such as Origins Eile, to Black Pride Ireland, Akidwa, MASI, Abolish Direct Provision, the Black & Irish podcast & Instagram account, MERJ, to vocal activists such Emma Dabiri, Elaine Cruz, Tobi Lawal and Amanda Adé, to name but a few, there are countless individuals and organisations chronicling the racist abuse that occur daily in Ireland, not to mention the well-documented institutionalized racism experienced by asylum seekers in Direct Provision. The attitude that our racism is casual does an immense disservice to their work by undermining the level of reform that needs to take place if everyone is to feel comfortable in their own skin.

As a society, we would do well to listen carefully to Younge’s retort in response to claims that racism is the UK is less problematic than in the U.S.: “racism’s bad everywhere, there really is no ‘better’ kind”.

Hate Crime Law

One need look no further than Ireland’s total absence of hate crime laws to see the damaging effects of our beliefs in action. In the place of robust, targeted legislation to counter the prevalence of hate crimes is the shoddy protection afforded by the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. A revealing quote spoken by the responsible Minister of Justice in 1988, Gerry Collins, downplays the necessity for the act itself and in doing so portends its inefficacy: “We do not have the type of multi-racial society that some of our partners in Europe have. Nevertheless, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that the occasional problem of racial incitement does arise here”.

Thirty years later in the Irish Council for Civil Liberties report, ‘Lifecycle of a Hate Crime: Country Report for Ireland’, published thirty years after the 1989 Act came into force, Dr. Amanda Haynes criticised its inability to record instances of hate crime: “From the moment of reporting a hate crime, to the moment where the judge sentences an offender, the hate element of a crime is progressively filtered out of the criminal justice system in Ireland. While Collins may argue he is vindicated by the mere five convictions since its inception, viewed in light of Haynes’ indictment his comments illustrate how a system who chooses not to see something, effectively erases it.

This erasure of hate crimes in Ireland’s legal sphere has created the conditions for racism to flourish and it should hardly be surprising that Ireland is now the among the worst-ranked in Europe for racial violence based on skin colour and racism in the workplace. Last year a UN Committee found that Ireland was not doing enough to tackle increased rates of hate crime and hate speech against minorities.  

A step has been taken in the right direction following An Garda Síochána’s introduction of a working definition for hate crime and hate incident which was introduced last year in its diversity and integration strategy, however, a legislative equivalent is still sorely lacking.

In November Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu called out a racist tweet sent by National Party politician Rebecca Barrett. The Mayor’s light-hearted response was widely commented on and the original Tweet ultimately deleted by Twitter, but it is no laughing matter that the first citizen of Dublin is victim to online racial abuse from a fellow politician. In recent weeks the abuse has become even more violent, with Chu stating she fears for her daughters’ safety following messages received from far-right groups. Tell me again, Ireland isn’t racist?

Ireland’s corporate tax policies

As a young child, I have strong memories of learning about the Irish famine in school. I was particularly horrified by accounts that the Irish resorted to eating grass meanwhile British farmers increased their export of livestock. I pictured their skeletal on their hands and knees, reduced to eating side by side with animals just to stay alive.

My juvenile concept of morality recognised the wrongness of swiping food from under the noses of the hungry, but not all bad behaviour is so blatant.

Apple logo

Ireland’s corporate tax policies have, not undeservedly, earned us the reputation of a tax haven. The Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich was a tax avoidance strategy used by international corporations such as Google to put their profits out of reach of the taxman until the loophole was finally closed following pressure by the European Union. Although the 0.005% effective tax rate paid by Apple for earnings spanning 2004-2014 is technically legal, as found by the general court of the European Union last year, the Irish government’s cosying up to multinational corporations is ethically dubious.

The United Nations recently announced that it would be examining its impact on the rights of children due to profits created in ‘developing countries’ being moved to Ireland, behaviour which whiffs of colonial undertones. According to Christian Aid Ireland’s head of policy and advocacy, “This has a real impact on children’s rights and is morally indefensible.”

Despite being a signatory to a whole rake of human rights treaties and earning a seat on the UN Security Council, Ireland’s prosperity comes at a human cost which is barely given a second thought.

Considered in this light, it makes sense why I experienced a cheapened sense of relief, as opposed to pride or some other more assured emotion while standing beneath the statue of King Leopold II. Although only fully grasping it as I write this, something in me then suspected that it was only chance, a lack of opportunity rather intrinsic goodness, that kept Ireland from pillaging other poorer nations.

Right-Wing Extremism

The recent anti-lockdown and anti-mask marches have shown us we are not immune to the siren song of right-wing extremism, as we once thought.

Speaking to The Journal in 2017 Shane O’Curry, director of the Anti-Racism Network Ireland, said there are several reasons why far-right ideologies have never taken off in Ireland, as we have seen them do in the US or Britain. In his experience, Irish people are “instinctively anti-racist”, a quality which he attributes to our colonial past: “Historically, we had colonialism. [Irish people] were subject to penal law which was formerly apartheid law. Irish people in Britain were allies of other minorities in struggling for dignity and human rights. So, we understand these things instinctively.”

Three years on alt-right marches are a recurring offshoot of the pandemic, which led to a violent hate crime against Izzy Kamikaze whose injuries were later celebrated on the social media platform Telegram.

This necessitated yet another painful revision of my view of Ireland. I had also bought into the idea that the ‘Far-right burns elsewhere, fizzles in Ireland’, and yet here it is flourishing in Ireland, incandescent, pyrogenic, feeding off oxygen pumped by Covid-19 restrictions.

George Nkencho as a teenager

A prophetic article written in the Irish Times in 1997 titled, ‘No racism here please, we’re Irish’, touches on the inferiority complex of the Irish and the subtle and not so subtle ways in which our racism manifests. The article anticipates the increase in migration to Ireland and warns of an increase in racist incidences if more is not done to reform our lax anti-racist laws.

The heroic tales of Irish exceptionalism are beginning to ring hollow and I cannot help but wonder where we would be now had we heeded that warning twenty years back. As State-issued apologies for mother and baby homes do the rounds many of us find ourselves wondering whether the same sentiments will be applied to direct provision, whose institutionalised setting draws uncanny parallels. The incumbent government has pledged to dismantle direct provision in its 2020 Programme for Government, and those who campaigned for its abolition will be watching closely to ensure it isn’t replaced with a facsimile.   

Plenty of mistakes have been made along the way, but if the State is sincere in its contriteness there is no time like the present to implement its lesson-learning. Let George Nkencho’s death be the first and the last, instead of repeating the same mistakes over and over as witnessed in the United States. Ireland is a racist country, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

My first Christmas alone: lessons in solitude

My relationship with solitude was indeterminate. Christmas Day alone, I figured, would be a good test.

With the year that’s in it, I found myself alone for Christmas. It wasn’t my first Christmas away from home but given the annual mass exodus from Berlin, unstymied by Covid-19 travel restrictions, I found myself bereft of friends and plans for Christmas day.

I travelled to Berlin in full knowledge that by doing so I was sacrificing Christmas. Before leaving Ireland in late October to make the most of remote working, I warned my family I would not be coming home during Christmas break: self-isolation and testing either side morphed a five-day trip into a costly, fortnight expedition, and the Irish government had made their views on the issue as clear as day.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

It also helped that I am not overly sentimental about the holiday season. I wasn’t always this grouchy; as an imaginative child who read a lot of fantasy, I was thrilled to see the magic and mystery of storybooks playing out in real life. But once my younger brothers outgrew Santa, despite gallant efforts and fervent denial on my mother’s part, the Christmas traditions of my childhood were gradually dismantled.

Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, I was mourning an intangible loss far bigger than Santa, or even Christmas: the loss of my childhood innocence and its sincere belief that anything and everything is possible. Adulthood beckoned, and sensibility, realism and cynicism took its place.

Afterwards, particularly as a teenager, I struggled to find my footing at Christmas. By its very nature – the advent calendar countdown, the month-long hype – Christmas conditions us to have high expectations, but my inevitable disappointment made it feel like I kept falling for the same cruel trick year after year.

While I enjoyed the season’s conviviality Santa had big shoes to fill, and what remained in his absence was rather…lacklustre. The dinner was bland, the dessert inedible (anything riddled with raisins is not dessert in my book), and as a vegan, aspiring minimalist, renounced Christian, I was ethically opposed to most of the traditions that Christmas is built on. It was, I summed up, little more than a glorified Sunday roast which took a huge amount of labour to pull off. Was there some hidden meaning I was missing?

Berlin, Christmas 2020

Unsurprisingly given my feelings about the holiday, I made little effort to organize plans for Christmas Day. Once it became apparent everyone would be travelling home, I registered the news I would spend the day alone with relevant indifference. I was more concerned about how my family would receive the news, given they had been asking after my plans in every recent phone call.

The plus side of being alone at Christmas is that you are truly alone, a luxury rarely enjoyed unless you live by yourself and even more out of reach with everyone confined to their homes. I wasn’t so much counting down the days to Christmas as I was counting down the dates till my flatmates’ departure.

My relationship with solitude was indeterminate. I enjoy my own company and am not deterred by the prospect of embarking on solo adventures. Having said that, each move to a new city has been punctuated by bouts of loneliness. Christmas Day spent alone, I figured, would be a good test.

Empty streets in Berlin

 A Covid Christmas

My Christmas began with a lazy morning reading while eating one of four vegan donuts I had gifted myself. Around 10am I dragged myself out of bed and dressed to go running. I had planned to depart from my usual park route and go for a long run from Prenzlauer Berg to Mitte.

The streets were deserted save for families and the odd couple. Observing them as I ran past, I felt a momentary twinge.

Everyone appeared content, unrushed, taking simple pleasure in their morning stroll. It was the first time since Covid struck that the emptiness felt normal, the silence soothing rather than eerie. The only thing out of the ordinary was me, the interloper.   

And yet, I felt entirely at peace. My chest bloomed with the conviction that I was exactly where I should be.

In a year of ceaseless oddities, this aberration was the silver lining.  

My effervescent gratitude made me hungry to consume, to name the things for which I was grateful. Sprinting through the Museuminsel I marvelled at the elaborate, superfluous beauty of its architecture. I looked at the faces of the people I passed. I said hello to food delivery drivers and policemen, for whom it was just another day at the office.

As I pointed myself back in the direction of Prenzlauer Berg my phone rang. It was a video call from my mother, who had generously driven two hours to spend an allotted half hour visiting my grandaunt in a nursing home in the west of Ireland. Exercising her maternal clout, she successfully cajoled me into performing a breathless rendition of ‘I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus’ in the middle of the Berlin streets. Not waiting around for the reviews, I continued my run home.

Her call was the first of many and between fielding calls from friends and family, I just about managed to cook and eat Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. By 10pm I was all talked out of it, ready to wind down and watch a film.

I’ll admit that seeing my family together celebrating and saying they missed me melted my icy façade ever so slightly. It was, I realised, important to know I was invited, wanted, and missed by family, even if I couldn’t be there. It made my decision to be alone a choice, rather than a lack thereof. And just like that, the hidden meaning of Christmas revealed itself.

Solitude

My two weeks spent in solitude was a welcome retreat. Never in my life have I had so much free time coupled with space of my own. I had dinner with the occasional friend, but I was mostly alone, and happily so, a significant departure from my usual Christmas chock full of social obligations. If I felt my mood dip, I knew it was time to leave the house.

The experience made me think back to the times I had felt lonely in the past, both at home and abroad, under a roof shared with almost-strangers or the over-familiar.

Revisiting those periods, I realise that social isolation was only a half, and maybe even the lesser part, of my discontentment. While I used to think I felt sad because I craved the company of others, I am beginning to think its inverse was the case, that I craved solitude and the emotional space it affords.

Most societal maladies in one form or another stem from the negotiation of finite resources, with space being amongst the most coveted. This logic is implicit in the bargaining that makes up day-to-day living in shared accommodation, whose terms have becoming increasingly limited as Covid restrictions tightened.

Solitude, that is, being truly on one’s own, has been scarce for most, while those who live alone are drowning in it.

Many of our needs ordinarily met through the normal course of living in the Before Times – social interaction, time spent outdoors, emotional space – have become neglected during the pandemic. This leaves us with the difficult tasks of parsing through our muddled emotions to recognise, identify and tend to our unmet multifaceted human needs.  

Knowing the difference between these distinct yet overlapping needs is an important skill, particularly amongst younger generations who are uber-connected but also report the highest rates of loneliness.

As Berlin begins to fill up once again, my days of solitude are numbered. I’m excited to re-join society but having grown protective of my time alone, I intend to find creative ways to safeguard it.  

My grandad taught me to appreciate a smaller world

Our world may have gotten smaller, but you should see it as an invitation to look more closely.

In the years before he died my grandad’s world shrunk. It wasn’t all that big to begin with; he wasn’t one for travelling, never understanding my incessant desire to leave Ireland each time I revealed to him the latest country that I would call home. A creature of habit, he found meaning in the known. Every morning before breakfast he would cycle to the 40 Foot diving point for a swim. He retired early at fifty-five, allowing him the luxury of a morning dip. Before long he was a regular, becoming close friends with his fellow swimmers in the seamless years that followed. During the summers he and my granny would sojourn in Wexford for weeks at a time. The sea was even closer to the chalet than their house in Dublin, and could easily be reached on foot. Even with a change in scenery, my grandad’s precious morning routine remained untouched.

My grandad lived a healthy lifestyle by most benchmarks. He was physically active, ate well, never smoked, and rarely drank. But old age takes no prisoners; eventually, his body began to let him down.

It is amazing how quickly change can arrive, stunning us momentarily and then, with a dawning realisation, alter our lives inexorably. A single visit to a cardiologist was swiftly followed by triple by-pass surgery. Although the operation was medically successful, my grandad never returned to his former health or even close to it.

His body had become a source of mystery. Like a house of horrors at a carnival, it aggravated him in unexpected and perplexing ways. Right up until his death he was plagued by an incessant and stubborn pain in his back that rendered even the slightest movement painful. As the pain progressed, he would find himself overcome by spells of shaking. Endless appointments with a host of specialist consultants yielded no clear medical cause, nor any particularly effective treatments. From painkillers, to patches and lasers, nothing made the slightest dent in the armour of his pain.  

With each new affliction my grandad’s mobility decreased. The world in which he moved became smaller and smaller until all that remained were the four walls of his home and his garden. All his energies became concentrated on his lawn, his vegetable patch and his greenhouse, besides his children and grand-children who were his pride and joy, and his ever loving wife. The rest of the outside world concerned him less and less; it might as well have not existed.

My grandad always tended to his garden with great care, but this duty took on a vocational quality as the outside world became increasingly off limits. He was extremely protective over his small plot of land and guarded it fiercely against intruders, waging battle against slugs, snails, and the next-door neighbour cats. Although outnumbered by the army of garden variety Mollusca who feasted on his leafy greens, they were no match for his dedication. But he would never kill them. Like a loving yet stern father he made daily rounds of his vegetable patch, picking them up with forceps, dropping them in a plastic tray and dispensing them on the green down the road. I like to think the same slugs and snails came back each time, slipping and sliding doggedly down the path under the cloak of night to return to the same patch from which he plucked them, the toing and froing all part of an elaborate, unspoken game between its players.  

Me aged four, posing next to my grandad’s sunflowers

Although only a foursome, the next-door neighbour cats with their wily cunning and nimbleness proved formidable enemies. Undeterred by his seething anger in their presence they would leap over the partitioning wall and defecate on his immaculate lawn. My grandad’s acts of reprisal were contained and peaceful, to begin with. His first defensive strategy was to lay out bottles of water, whose shimmering in the sunlight, according to an old wives’ tale, is said to perturb cats. If caught mid-act the cats would be hosed off the lawn, doubling down on the humiliation of public defecation. Although for all I know, they may not have been embarrassed at all. Perhaps their acts of defecation were intended as the anthropomorphic equivalent of the ‘flaming bag of poop’ prank, and their only regret was getting caught. After all, there was nothing unspoken about this battle; it was all-out war between its adversaries.

When water proved an ineffective deterrent my grandad turned to a more resistant material – steel – and attached a tall wire fencing around the perimeter of his garden, giving the impression from within of being contained inside a fortress. It’s likely my grandad’s efforts only emboldened the furtive felines, for they always returned. Eventually he resorted to installing a device which emitted sound at a frequency only perceptible to cats. Of all his offences it was most successful, but by this stage my grandad was spending increasingly more time indoors due to ill health.

Recalling these memories I find myself marvelling at my grandad’s unparalleled tenacity and focus. Never in my life have I dedicated my energies so fiercely to a single corner of this world, instead preferring to flatten myself like a pancake across the earth’s globe, spreading myself wide and thin as far my resources would allow.

Recently, however, everyone’s world has gotten smaller. Like my grandad, we found ourselves unwillingly confined to our homes and gardens, if we are lucky enough to have them, confronted, perhaps for the first time in a real and substantial way, with the vulnerability of our corporeal selves.

Once I let go of the frustration that mired the opening days of lockdown, my attention shifted to the details of my newly magnified surroundings. On one of my countless, looping walks around my estate I noticed for the first time a solitary bench on a nearby green. Had it always been there? I delighted in the colourful and verdant foliage of my neighbours’ gardens, warmed by my appreciation for their green fingers. I became interested in the people that came in and out of nearby houses. Who were they? How were they?

Like my grandad, I now endeavour to spend as much time in my garden as my pinky, Irish complexion and the temperamental Irish weather will allow, setting up a makeshift office in the back garden on sunny days. A wooden chair serves as my desk and like a mystic I squat on a mound of cushions while tapping away at my laptop. During my outdoor yoga sessions I share my mat with crawling ants, taking care to avoid them as I shift from one pose to another with the grace of an elephant. To close a session I lie down and stare at them intently. I observe them carrying the dead bodies of members of their colony, a sanitary measure to stop the spread of infection and disease. It reminds me of the horrific scenes I had seen on the news, depicting countries overwhealmed by dead bodies in the wake of Coronavirus.

A single ant bears the weight of a deceased brethren. One for one. I watch it struggle, pause, and continue on for the good of the colony.

Life under lockdown: my affinity towards darker genres is harder to accommodate

At the beginning of isolation the bad days came once a week. They were tinged with a melancholy that, beholden in the right light, had the romantic quality of a Shakespearian play. On one or two particularly melodramatic occasions I even shed a few tears, luxuriating in its cathartic after-effect while shamelessly pity-texting a friend pining for sympathy.

“I hope this email finds you well during these strange and challenging times.”

When I first began using this email greeting, which has replaced standard emailing etiquette across the board, I meant each word wholeheartedly. I truly did hope the email found them well. But like many of the recent changes and upheavals in our daily lives, the things that once felt significant can lose their meaning quickly.

In recent weeks my intermittent sadness has given way to numbness and fatigue. The daily doomsday announcement, which I once tracked religiously, is barely afforded a passing glance. Like many of us I was a fervent amateur epidemiologist at the outset of the pandemic, but the endless debates about lockdown exit strategies that weasel their way into every single conversation are beginning to grate.

As of late I’ve noticed that the bad days are coming fast and steady, their recovery periods longer. One bad day spills into two, then three. The novelty of the early days helped absorb the sting of overwhealming loss, but as time crawls on, the sacrifices demanded of us have become harder rather than easier to bear.

My threshold to tolerate human suffering, real or fictionalised, indigenous or exogenous, is diminishing, making it harder to accommodate my affinity towards darker genres of music and films. I had to watch ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ in two sittings to get through the whole thing, which is unlike me, and there have been days where my staple diet of heavy techno has felt too crushing, as though my body, feeling waif-like had to physically receive the impact of the pummelling beats.

I’m not the only one feeling too raw to enjoy dystopian commentary on the fuckuppery that has defined the 20th century. Black Mirror series creator Charlie Brooker has returned to writing comic scripts “aimed at making myself laugh”, claiming he doesn’t think there is much appetite for a new series at the moment.

Like Brooker, I am revisiting artefacts from happier times to help me get through the present tense.

I have found myself gravitating towards uplifting and over-produced pop classics reminiscent of more innocent periods in my life; their plastic, shiny texture feels safe and sanitised, the banality of the lyrics a welcome respite from the all the doom and gloom. Prince, Kyle Minogue, and Britney have all had a look in, but Robyn is the Swedish goddess whose syrupy lyrics and bubbly synths have been my saving grace. At my lowest ebb I played Rebecca Black’s infamous song ‘Friday’, which also served as a handy reminder of which order the days of the fall (and also mostly because Vice made a mini-doc about her infamous rise to fame).

This retroaction of music appreciation has proved a tried and tested coping mechanism during periods of distress throughout my life. I select a song, usually a girlhood pop favourite, and play it obsessively on loop, its repetition simulating a synthetic predictability that counters the loss of control defining reality. I have recently complied these songs into a Spotify playlist, which I have labelled ‘Guilty Pleasures’ in case it should one day be discovered.

For those of us who have been lucky enough to escape loss of employment, illness or the death of a loved one, although we may be growing stagnant through sensory-deprivation, at times it can feel difficult to rationalise that we are in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis. Confined to the familiar domestic setting of our own homes inventing endless chores to distract ourselves, the carnage and devastation typically associated with a crisis is happening elsewhere, quite literally out there.  I imagine what it will be like recounting my personal experience to future generations: ‘It was awful, a huge tragedy. I worked from home, couldn’t see my friends or get laid, and basked in the sunshine reading books.’

When the low points do come, (as one friend aptly put it, “Most days are grand, but some days you wake up and feel like you’re in the middle of a pandemic”), I try to remember the frontline healthcare workers. They have borne the brunt of the suffering while tirelessly performing their duties; the first-person stories they tell their grandchildren will be harrowing.  

Save each other, touch yourself!

When staying safe means staying apart, a lot of us are missing out on human touch. Non-sexual intimate self-touch can help.

On a Friday night five weeks ago I was seated at the only empty chair I could find in a crowded Dublin bar, scrolling through the news headlines while I waited for my friends. Ireland  was one day out from its first official confirmation of Coronavirus, but already the media were heeding warnings of how the public should behave. One headline caught my eye: ‘Coronavirus advice: Wash your hands and avoid hugging, kissing and hand shaking.’ I scanned the room, observing the crowds of people sat in small groups, leaning close together to hear one another speak over the jovial hum of voices.

The advice was at odds with the scene before me making it easy to make light of as one tends to do at the penumbra of a crisis, when you know the worst is yet to come but the present hasn’t altered enough for real worry to set in. I joked that it was my civic duty to patrol the bar and break up any kissing couples. Back then it seemed comical that the State concerned itself with the intimate Friday night activities of its citizens, offering well-intentioned warnings usually delivered by parents to the turned-backs of teenagers as they head out.

62 days, 20,612 confirmed cases and 1,232 deaths later the government’s intrusion in our personal lives has been welcomed, demanded even. With the entire country in lockdown my in-person social interactions are limited to three family members, and my movements restricted to a 2km radius. When I do leave the house, strangers wait behind a corner or cross the road to avoid me. No one has touched me in over four weeks.

This isn’t the first time in my life that the absence of touch has registered itself as a physical deprivation. Over the last four years I’ve moved to a new city six times, each time finding myself alone amongst strangers. The experience is not the same as self-isolation or social distancing, but when you know no one and no one knows you, it can feel like everyone is crossing the road to avoid you. You don’t find yourself being touched very often.

It wasn’t until I left Ireland that I came to appreciate how much Irish people like to hug one other. We are a nation of huggers, embracing friends old and new with equal enthusiasm (often to the bewilderment of visitors).

Each time I found myself in a new city trying to imitate the local greeting customs I found that I sorely missed being hugged. There is no greater feeling of intimacy than when someone wraps their arms around you and pulls you close, squeezing the distance between you to almost nothing. The weight of their bodies tells you, ‘I am here for you, I am present’, far better than words ever could. It is the opposite of feeling alone.

What better life-giving affirmation is there than the fission of skin-to-skin contact? To be seen, desired, acknowledged, to experience the warm glow of human connection. We spend so much time communicating through our devices or living in our own heads that we have become oblivious to subtle bodily sensations. Touching and being touched offers us an escape from the incessant chatter in our head; guided by instinct and desire the cognitive side of our brain disengages as we become both the giver and receiver of pleasure.

Although I recognised my internal restlessness during periods of yearning, I always looked outside of myself when I craved touch, operating under an implicit belief that this need could only be satisfied in the hands of another.

It wasn’t until I came across renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel’s ‘Where Should We Begin’ podcast series, which allows the listener to ‘sit in’ on an hour-long couple’s therapy session, that I began to think about this differently. In one of the episodes she helps a client overcome his physical discomfort by coaching him in masturbatory touch, which she defines broadly as touching one’s entire body for pleasure (in contrast to its common usage referring to genital stimulation for sexual pleasure). She encourages him to stroke himself, to caress himself, and to pay attention to the pleasurable sensation it arouses.

I had never considered touching myself in that way and realised that I am not nearly as good a lover to myself as I am to others. Although we touch ourselves constantly (our face especially, as we’ve realised as of late), we are rarely conscious of these absentminded movements nor the sensations they evoke.

Even my daily beauty routine is be performed with a heavy hand, moisturiser slapped on, rubbed in, washed off aggressively.

I compared this to a recent afternoon spent getting a facial and a massage. Over the course of two hours the beauty therapist blended oils, creams and lotions into my skin. Her movements were tender and gentle, and I lay there like a baby submitting myself to her healing touch. The experience was utterly relaxing, devoid of the pressure to respond a certain way or perform the receiving of pleasure often expected of lovers (women in particular).

I realised that I had been neglectful towards myself and needed to be more conscious of how I handled my body, that I should be gentler, more loving, more affectionate in my actions. I also realised that I needed to value the power my own touch if I wanted to unlock its potential to bring myself comfort.

I felt my loneliness most keenly lying alone in my double bed at night. I decided to put Esther Perel’s advice into practise. Applying delicate pressure, I traced my fingertips along my collarbone and across my chest in a sweeping back and forth motion, tuning my attention to the faint tingling sensation left in its wake. The effect was incredibly soothing and slowly the ball of tension in the pit of my stomach began to unravel.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic we find ourselves experiencing unprecedented levels of collective distress, while simultaneously being closed off from our regular stress-relieving outlets. With the virus having weaponised our social instinct, the panacea found in the company of others is the very thing we must avoid at all costs. The absence of a clearly defined exit-plan from our current phase of state-sanctioned celibacy is immensely frustrating, but on the bright side, it has created the ideal conditions for us to spend time alone and give more attention our relationship with our own body. In  a capitalistic and social media driven wellness era the affection we give ourselves is often undervalued. Now is the perfect time to change that. Save each other, touch yourself!


Annals of Medicine – ‘Are you married?’

I must have struck an odd figure, a flat-bellied, white girl sitting alone amongst the pregnant Indian ladies and their husbands. Their bellies came in all shapes and sizes, some modest bumps, others round like melons. The woman sitting to my left had a belly swollen to the size of a beach ball. I thought about the little human she had growing inside of her, extending itself, taking up space in this world but insulated from the worst of its suffering.

I wondered what it must feel like to grow a person inside you. I wondered if this was something I would experience in my life time. I wondered how men felt, missing out on this miracle of life. A man might have been the first person on the moon, floating up in space, but he would never experience the wonder of a person growing inside him. I thought about my own mother. I spent the first nine months of my life under the taught skin of her belly but now I live on the other side of the world.

I wondered what it must feel like to grow a person inside you. I wondered if this was something I would experience in my life time. I wondered how men felt, missing out on this miracle of life. A man might have been the first person on the moon, floating up in space, but he would never experience the wonder of a person growing inside him. I thought about my own mother. I spent the first nine months of my life under the taught skin of her belly but now I live on the other side of the world.

Like these women I was waiting for a sonograph. Unlike these women I was (to the best of my knowledge) without child. It was precisely this decision, to remain childless, that brought me here. A year and a half previously I had an IUD inserted. This T-shaped, hormone laden piece of plastic shoved up my cervix was my ticket to pregnancy-free sex for five years, by which time I would be thirty. It was my golden ticket to sexual liberation. No more fumbling with daily alarms. No more pill popping. No more anxious waiting for periods. In fact, no more periods at all.

But even this miraculous invention came with baggage and irregular bleeding brought me to the hospital.

Quizzing me about my medical history, the junior gynecologist asked me why I had gotten the IUD inserted. She was young, just a few years older than me I guessed. Contraception I answered, although I thought the answer was obvious. Nothing to do with periods, she probed, visibly dissatisfied with my answer. Nope, I replied, resolutely.

An ovarian cyst is a fluid-filled sac that develops on a woman’s ovary.

Was I married? Also, no.

She repeated her earlier question, What was the purpose of my IUD? Contraception, I answered again, knowing full well it was not the answer she wanted to hear.

Her lips pursed.

Are you sexually active?

Obvious questions would receive obvious answers.

I took my underwear off and lay down on the examination table, knees bent, legs spread, and for the first time that day a foreign object entered me, opening me up. The sensation of a foreign object entering me not for the purpose of my own pleasure is one that I decidedly do not enjoy. I tensed involuntarily, making things worse. The doctor told me to relax so I decided to go to my happy place. I closed my eyes and imagined myself floating in the sea surrounded by mountains. The world was blurry, refracted through the shimmering layers of water. I was the foetus, insulated, enveloped, suspended, protected by Mother Earth.

Then came my turn for the ultrasound. I hiked my dress up to above my waist and the assistant fitted a sheet over my bottom half. The gesture was disarmingly tender and I felt safe and taken care of, like a young child being tucked into bed by a parent. The radiographer squeezed lukewarm gel on my belly and rocked the probe back and forth over my stomach. This was a scene I watched on tv countless times. I imagined how exciting yet anxiety ridden this moment must be for expectant mothers. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel, given the circumstances. The radiographer stared at my empty womb on the screen and I stared at her face, examining her facial movements for clues.

Another more senior radiographer arrived and together they peered at the screen, muttering between themselves. A swirl of uninvited thoughts and emotions filled my head. I knew it was probably nothing, but in the no man’s land of ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes’ my mind likes to tease out the worst possible scenarios. Just that week I had heard about a girl had continuous periods and then it turned out she had cancer. Then words I recognized were directed towards me: ‘ovarian cyst’. I latched onto them, pulling myself back onto safe, familiar territory.

A vaginal probe was the next step but first I had to pass urine. I went to the bathroom and sitting on the edge of the toilet seat and typed ‘ovarian cyst’ into google: “Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs or pockets in an ovary or on its surface.” An image showed a pink ovary with a bulbous, bloated mass pushing angrily from its top.

“Very common”, was printed underneath.

I returned to the sonography room and resumed the now accustomed position. Sensing my tension the radiographer told me to relax as she held the long, thin probe next to her head. “Easy for you to say”, I laughed in reply. For the second time that day a foreign object was inserted between my legs. Holding my breath and then breathing deeply, I thought about immersing myself in deep water bodies surrounded by tall mountains as it pushed its way further and further inside me. I was more relaxed and unclenching this time was easier. The probe was wriggled around inside me, left, right, up, down, the radiographer’s arm between my legs, her eyes staring unblinking at the screen ahead of her.

The senior radiographer’s turn was next. More wiggling, more prodding; more peering, more deep breathing. And like that it was over. With a practised flourish the probe was slid out and I was handed a stack of tissues to wipe myself off. Once clean, I put my underwear back on, a black thong from Penny’s that has seen better days. My report would be ready that afternoon the senior radiographer informed me and without so much of a goodbye she was gone.

The next day I returned to collect my results, which were handed to me in a big white envelope bearing my name. Inside it was a piece of card, with seven black and white pictures affixed by a sheet of sticky plastic. I turned it over in my hands examining the images carefully, not able to make much sense of what I was looking at. Looking at your ultrasound images for the first time is usually a pertinent moment in a woman’s life, one which I had expected to encounter under different circumstances. There was a family waiting beside me, which I guessed to be made up of grandmother, mother, sister and baby. I realised that anyone watching me would assume I was staring at my future baby, and not at a 3.7 cm clear cyst on my right overy as the accompanying report had indicated. I wondered what it must be like to stare at the image of your baby inside you, within you, yet still out of reach. I wondered what it must be like to lose a baby after seeing it alive like that.

The mother and her baby and I were left alone on the bench. It was time for me to leave so I stood up and started packing, returning the images to their abnormally large envelope. As I started off the woman said something to me in Hindi or Marathi, I wasn’t sure which. I didn’t understand and stared helplessly while she repeated the sentence. I couldn’t tell if she was communicating something profound or mundane. Was this a gesture of tenderness on her behalf, having sensed a loneliness in my stolen glances? I felt a discomfort which bordered on guilt, as though I had been caught out doing something I shouldn’t in a place I shouldn’t be, my incomprehension of her words proving my culpability. All I could do was return her gaze with an apologetic shrug, half-smiling, half-wincing, and walk away.

Failure to Launch Part III: The Follow-Up

Karen and Geraldine during Geraldine’s visit to India

Last week’s series of ‘Failure to Launch’ showcased Karen and her mother Geraldine, who shared their experiences living together in South Dublin while Karen worked in a law firm. Since then Karen has been living in India for a year and a half, completing a fellowship at Ashoka University and training as a meditation coach while living in an Ashram. With the passing of distance and time this week’s follow-up interview is one of reflection and recognition between mother and daughter, and a rumination of the quality of life for Ireland’s younger generations.

Karen:

1. Looking back at the answers you gave last year, has much changed? Would you answer the questions differently today?

I couldn’t remember reading the answers what the questions were and what my responses had been. But in general I can hear my own voice running through them and my answers stay the same mainly because I think my answers are very reflective of the Dublin housing market at that time and I don’t think that the Dublin housing market has changed. If I’m to believe the news it looks like it has worsened. So I stand by my answers so far. 

2. What do you think about your mother’s answers? Did any of them surprise you?

Well obviously I think my mother’s answers were very prophetic. I think especially the line where she says that she’s going to India and India will hopefully be an awakening for her, and maybe a change in mindset and a change in career direction – that all has happened. I probably didn’t give my mum enough credit for how in tune she was with how I was feeling at the time because I think she managed to put into words the deep distraction or discomfort that I was feeling in myself. I wasn’t entirely aware of those forces at work or how I was feeling but she’s managed to really grab hold of that and articulate it. 

3. Before you went to India your mother said that you seemed troubled and unsettled and that she hoped the experience would be an awakening. Did her wish come true?

The wish has come true. She saw into a crystal ball! [laughing]. The wish has come true, as in, again she was spot on about me feeling troubled in Ireland but I don’t think I really understood how much so until I started meditating in India and that has really lead to a whole evolution of consciousness. And obviously the experience in India has given me a lot more exposure to different fields so I started to question whether I really wanted to go into law. Even that questioning itself has just been so beneficial. Because a lot of us don’t really have that space or the time to question, we’re just fed into what we think is the path post college. So I’m grateful for that. So overall, yeah, I do think it was pretty prophetic. 

4. How did it affect your relationship with your mother, the fact that you lived on the other side of the world for a whole year?

I’m quite bad at keeping in touch with family so I work mostly off sending WhatsApp messages every so often. Even because we’re four and a half hours ahead here and my schedule is so packed, I do find it quite difficult to take phone calls. I’ll voice record for friends; I won’t necessarily do it for my mother, but she’s quite insistent with her WhatsApp messages. She sends me probably a message every day if not every second day, saying ‘Hello India xx’. So she makes me feel like I’m the spokesperson of India, which is kind of cute. So we’ll keep in contact that way and she’s coming next week to visit, so that will be really nice. It will be her first time to India. I’ve managed to convince her that she can come and it will be ok, and that she’ll have a nice time here. And this will be the first time she’ll have come so far away from the European continent. 

5. Rent prices in Ireland have reached an all-time high at an average of €1,304 a month* which is 26% higher than the peak during the Celtic Tiger. Can you see yourself living in Ireland again and how do you think you’ll afford it?

I have no idea how I’ll afford it. It is something that plays on my mind a lot. If I was to go back to Ireland I would need a buffer period for at least six months where I worked and saved up enough to be able to put the deposit on an apartment or something, plus one month’s rent. At the moment I just don’t see how my life would be sustainable in Ireland because for me to live anywhere, you’d have to be on such a high salary for you to be able to live anywhere central in Dublin. I still stand by my word that I’m not going near the outskirts to the likes of Meath and I’m not commuting. So it does narrow down your options. I know that with my mum she said to Stan**, whose just come back from Canada, multiple times, that he need to consider moving out soon. Stan owes my mum some money from Canada and only once he pays that back, then can he move out. But even him and his friends are looking at places and the rent is just astronomical. So it is something I’m bearing in mind, it is something I will have to consider when making future decisions about what country I will be employed in.

*According to figures at the time of the interview

**Karen’s brother

6. Like much of our generation you have spent a considerable amount of time living abroad since graduating. What were your motivations for leaving each time and how has this changed your relationship with Ireland?

Probably while my initial reason in third year of college was because it was part of my university degree to move to Paris, my motivation to come back to Paris after I completed my degree is primarily because my partner lived there and I wanted to work for a year before pursuing further education. My reason to move to India was again to pursue further education. I do think that travel really broadens your horizons. I think it’s really important to interact with difference societies and cultures and all of this. So my reason for going to India was also to experience the culture there. And my reason for staying in India was because I found another programme that I wanted to pursue. None of the experiences that I am having here are available in Ireland. The quality of education isn’t there. Certain areas that I’m pursuing wouldn’t be as strong or developed as they are here.

I do miss Ireland in many respects and I do think Ireland is a great place. Especially if we take about our freedoms that we have in Ireland as opposed to India – that does play on my mind a lot. In Ireland women are a lot more free to wear what they want, to marry or not marry when they want. Although gender equality isn’t there yet, it is maybe more of a conversation than it is here. But similarly I do feel a disillusionment with Ireland. I see my generation of people, I hear so much about the housing crisis. It dominates the news and there are several protests where it was college students coming out on the streets and middle class people who were coming out on the street saying that we can’t afford accommodation and leaving. It is something that Ireland really needs to address. That and also healthcare. I was away when all the cervical smear scandals hit the news and the cover-ups. But similarly I was away when repeal the 8th happened. I was in a hospital bed and I was just so proud of my country, so immensely proud. There’s always a dichotomy there, between feelings of love and feelings of, ‘get your shit together’, you’re better than this. 

7. Just looking back over what you said, what your mother said – what are your general thoughts about the interview?

My general thoughts are that I didn’t realise how much my mum is a deep feeler, and how much empathy she must have to be able to read her children with that much detail. And also I just think its really funny. I always knew that she is liberal but there are some things that she wouldn’t really accept that much. I think that really comes through in her interview where she says, ‘everyone is welcome, partners are welcome and I have to adjust to these new morals.’ I think her comment about the fact we live in a disposable culture where people change partners quite rapidly, I think that’s actually a very concise observation about the era that we live in. We do like in a consumerist culture where people just chop and change, people think other people are disposable and you can treat them as such. She had these interesting inter-generational insights. With mine, I think it was just very matter of fact.

Karen and Geraldine together in India

Geraldine:

1.  Looking back at the answers you gave this time last year, would you answer the questions differently than you did today?

Well that’s a very hard question to answer now because she moved to India in July 2017, so I haven’t had the one-on-one experience with her coming since other than her coming home for one week in July of this year. I found a completely different person came home than who went to India. I definitely noticed a big change in Karen, huge.

2. What did you think of Karen’s answers? Did any of them surprise you?

No none of them surprise me because interestingly enough, although we may have had, I wouldn’t have called it fights, we were able to have open dialogue together. So anything that she has said in her answers she has said to my face. And anything I said in my answers, I had also said to her face. I think when she looks back on mature reflection as you could call it on some of her answers, I think she’ll realise that they were coming from a more selfish and indulgent side of it. I’d say she’d have a completely different attitude now.

Of course I wouldn’t want her bringing home strangers to my home and having them there in my house, and not knowing any of their history or anything like that. And that is where the dilemma always arose as to living under the roof with your mother and not having your own place to live. But its dangerous out there. I just think you generation just have so many more multiple relationships, jump into sexual relationships very quickly, and exposing yourself to an awful lot of danger. 

3. Before Karen went to India you said she seemed troubled and unsettled, and you hoped the experienced would be an awakening. Do you think her wish came true?

Absolutely, in its entirety it has come true. She has lived in India for a year with students whose parents have pushed themselves to the Nth degree to make it affordable for their children to get the experiences of Ashoka University. She has stripped back all the layers of materialism that we take for granted over here, and she can now live a much more humble and frugal life and find that far more fulfilling than the life she ever lived over here. 

4. How did it affect your relationship with Karen, the fact that you lived on the other side of the world for a whole year?

We’ve kept in touch regularly, Whatsapped daily, if not certainly every second day, third day. We try and touch base on the phone once a fortnight, once every three weeks. I’m not usually hung up on that, we don’t do Skype, we just ring on Whatsapp and have a good long chat. When she’s have a period where maybe she’s travelled or she’s done something, she’ll ring back, she’ll tell me all of what she has done and I’ll tell her what’s happened on this side. I think this bond has strengthened because with a lot of this meditation and heartfulness of what Karen is doing comes a lot of reflection. And therefore she has a lot of time to reflect on her own life. I think she has tapered her anger and tapered things that were bothering her, she’s managing to unravel. She’s certainly reached the level of contentment that I don’t even think she expected to reach. 

5. Rent prices in Ireland have reached an all-time high at an average of €1,304 a month*, 26% times higher than it was during the Celtic Tiger. Do you think Karen will live in Ireland again and how do you think she’ll be able to afford it?

I don’t think Karen will live in Ireland again. I don’t think she’ll settle in Ireland. She may have to come back for a transition period, but with the studying that she’s done over in India and the meditation that she is doing currently, she has also had a lot of time to reflect on a career plan and is trying to bring that into fruition with further study in China with a view to going down the international relations, diplomatic core, foreign affairs, which I think will be right up her street. I’m so happy to see her out of the field of law, solicitors and barrister, where its just dog eat dog. I don’t think it was ever going to float her boat, it would just have frustrated her. I think she’s probably on a trajectory now that she’s happy with and she’s doing all the right things to make that come to fruition. 

*According to figures at the time of the interview

6. How do you feel about the fact that Karen, like many of her generation, have to leave Ireland in search of better opportunities and economic security amongst other reasons. 

I personally think its fantastic. I have been a traveller myself all my life, from the age of nineteen I was heading off to the continent and we didn’t have any money. We were in a generation where it was safer. You took ferries, got lifts from truck drivers to your destination – that is unheard of in this day and age. If you got into financial trouble we couldn’t ring our parents, there’d be absolutely no question of them sending us money or anything. You found a job no matter how menial until you got your couple of ha’penny together and you got by. It’s amazing how you got by. And therefore when it came to earning money and saving money, we were probably very good at it because from the age of nineteen, twenty, when I was in college I got a strict budget. I got a budget that I had to live on. If that budget was gone, that was tough. Ireland has definitely become prohibitive for any youngster whose trying to climb on the property ladder now.

I don’t think it’s such a great country to live in at the moment. There isn’t an awful lot of prospects out there for youngsters. I haven’t met any of your generation whose happy and content with their lot and kind of going, gosh yeah my life is great. Everybody seems to be looking towards the next step of what he or she is going to do and how they’re going to move on a little bit. The big concern here is how they’re going to afford to buy. You’d get a mortgage for what people are paying in rent at the moment, and yet there’s such a shortage of property. It’s such a Catch-22. I wouldn’t be signing up for that if I were you. I’m not a needy mother where I have to have my children here. I’ve always said to them, and I think they’ll agree, ‘Go. Go and do. Enjoy the world. It’s a big place out there.’ There’s nothing like travel to broaden the mind.

7. Overall, what are your impressions of the interviews having read them back?

Obviously they’re very though provoking. I think Karen and I both answered them very honestly. I think when she reads back over her answers, she’ll laugh. I laughed! Her responses were so, oh how would I describe it, they’re just so juvenile in many ways. Don’t take offence Karen about that. [laughing] They were just silly. ‘Oh I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ Her standard of hygiene. I would be the least clean person. My house is certainly far from pristine. If you’re having friends in and they’re spilling drink all over the floor, I’m not cleaning it up. I think she would be exactly the same. It’s a very funny thing to look back on, the two of us when we were both living in the house together, and now that we’ve been apart. When she came home for the week in July, and I said it to her, a completely different person came back. Much calmer, more reflective. I just find she listens so much more. She wasn’t jumping in with her opinion all the time, telling me it was like this. She was far more at peace with herself and able to listen to a conversation and here what you’re saying and take it on board. Not always being the aggressor and trying to get one up or anything. She was so calm and so happy in herself. It was fantastic to see her like that. 

Karen and Geraldine during Geraldine’s visit 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Failure to Launch Part II: Living at Home

Karen and Geraldine on holidays in Romania in 2017

In part two of ‘Failure to Launch’ I chatted with Karen and her mother Geraldine, who spent six months living together in their family home in South County Dublin when Karen was twenty three. The conversations took place a year and a half ago, when Karen was preparing to move to India for a fellowship and contemplating a career as a barrister. In this revealing and insightful interview we talk money, fears of the future, and the difficulties having sex when you still live at home. Karen continues to live in India, where she is living in an Ashram and training as a meditation coach. Next week’s piece will see Karen and Geraldine reflect on their own and each others answers one year on, having spent twelve months living on other sides of the world.

Karen:

1. How do you find living with you mum in your family home at the age of 24? 

Living with my mum can be very difficult. I think that she had a newfound independence post the separation with my father. She has really reclaimed her home and reclaimed her life, and doesn’t really want adult children hanging out of her hair. That said, she has been incredibly accommodating for me moving back after living in Paris. We do clash on occasion as we have very strong characters. Just in terms of the general set up, I pay €200 rent a month to my mother and that’s just a kind of general contribution towards food and stuff. I don’t but any groceries – she buys them all, she fills the fridge. The trade off would be that I try to do some chores, although she tells me that I don’t do enough. Generally it’s reasonably harmonious, well, in recent months it has been. The only thing I find is there is an expectation with my mother to spend time with her and contribute towards the general family atmosphere and I find that I am too busy to do so.  

2. Do you worry about money?

Yes I do still worry about money, even though I know I’m only making a slight contribution. €200 is minimal compared to what I would be paying if I was paying Dublin rent elsewhere. I do worry about money because obviously I’m saving up towards a masters and I do have to make payments towards that. Living costs can be quite high, and if you’re having any kind of social life that can really rack up. That said, if my money stopped tomorrow all my basic amenities are covered. I’ll always have food and there will always be food on the table. I cycle most places. I generally just need money towards my masters and going out and other necessities. 

3. When you think you’ll own your own home?

Never, never [laughing]. Realistically, considering the line of work I’ll be going into, unless I have a partner I will not be able to afford my own home, not in Dublin. If a mortgage saw [my line of work] they might think I am a risk and I don’t think I would be getting a mortgage on sole income. So I would have to be on a dual income with a partner, and then again I don’t think I would be earning enough to live in central Dublin or even suburban Dublin. I don’t want to commute, I don’t think that’s a quality of life, so I’m not willing to go to the outskirts of Dublin or to stay somewhere like Meath. So that only leaves me with one option, that’s to buy elsewhere and live in a different country. And not until I’m probably at least 33. 

How do you feel about that prospect? Are you scared?

I guess because I feel like everyone is in the same boat I don’t there are many people who have that steady pensionable income jobs. A lot of people are living in jobs that are transitional or transient and are looking at the prospect of maybe having several jobs. There’s not really that same road to success or even progression through the hierarchy that there was historically. So it doesn’t really bother me now, but I’d say it might when I hit late twenties and really start to access the situation it, especially in terms of putting a deposit on a house. There are a lot of people’s parents who will help them out with that but if you’re not helped out where does that leave you? You’re looking at a shitty first home to buy, and I’m not willing to do that. If I’m buying a home I want it to be a home that I really love. I don’t really have the skills to buy a shitty home, do it up, and then resell and then buy a nice home. I don’t have the skills for that and I don’t have the energy.

4. Do you feel like your sex life, dating life and social life is affected by your living situation? 

Absolutely, absolutely. In dating life, if you’re dating someone initially it’s not usually a big issue that you’re living at home. But once you cross that boundary and want to go into a sexual relationship, if both of you are living at home, especially in my home, it is out of the question for me to bring somebody home. It’s not even that my mum is not liberal. She is liberal and she would not mind that I’m having a sex life, I think she understands that it’s just a natural part of the age and stage at which I’m at. Its more the fact that she hasn’t verified this person, and she is so worried that I could bring someone home that could potentially rob something from the house. That’s her main concern. She doesn’t care about the sex life but she doesn’t want me bringing strays off the street and then them robbing her. It’s her home as well. There has to be a little bit of respect in terms of the people you bring here.

In terms of social life as well, equally so. She doesn’t mind me having a couple of friends over for drinks or whatever, so long as I tidy the place afterwards. And by tidy I mean spick and span. It is something that I find I have to raise quite early in terms of dating relationship. You’re looking at the person, and if the other person says “I also live at home”, both of you are like, “Fuck”. You wonder, “God, what are we going to do?” Realistically people are going to have sex regardless of whether they live at home or not, so you have to find other avenues of having sex. And the only other avenues really is to be that horny teenage couple in the park, or to rent a hotel. You miss out on nice things like making dinner together, or “Netflix and chill”, and general hangout time. It becomes very like a courtship, and then very seedy if you have to go the hotel route as well. 

5. Do you feel like your generation comes under fire for you lifestyle choices and spending habits?

I feel there’s a general perception of our generation that we’re selfish, that we’re very much in pursuit of our own happiness. That we are unwilling to put our heads down and do the hard work to actually get those jobs and stay in them, to do the graft and then get the home. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. To a degree the employment life or the work life has shifted. I don’t think those jobs are really in effect anymore, they’re not out there for us anymore. I do find that maybe just looking at our generation, we went through the recession, we saw the hard times, and we went through the boom. I do think to a degree that curbed how frivolous and how out-there we were previously. But there aren’t many of my friends that I would think are good with their money, spend their money well, and know how to save. I would say that I don’t know how to save whereas I think my parents are very good savers. I don’t know where they went wrong on that, or where I didn’t pick that up, but maybe when you see to a degree the amount of work that has to go in behind getting a house, owning a house, paying off a mortgage, sometimes you just look at the outcome and think, “That’s not something I want, that’s not something I’m willing to do.” And I think that’s ok as well. 

6. What is the best and worst part of living with your mum?

The best thing I’d say is to always have a backup there at home. When you live abroad or out of home, you do feel like everything falls on your shoulders and you have to be very independent. Whereas it is nice, especially if you have a mind-block or if you’re anxious about something, to go home and discuss with someone like my mother in person, to get her life experience and her opinion on something. Sometimes she talks absolute shite and doesn’t help me at all, but oftentimes even having that conversation will make you reflect differently on the issue and then you can move forward with it. The worst thing is definitely not having that space to invite people over, or make people dinner without having that anxiety of having to clean up. Or, are we using the correct glasses, or if something smashes WWIII is going to break out. Having that element of clean up directly after to her standard, I think that’s the worst thing.

Karen and Geraldine in 2015 celebrating the end of her law exams

Geraldine

  1. How do you find sharing the family home with your adult child?

Karen has only moved back home in the last six months and it has been a challenging time. She has lived outside of the home for the best part of three years. Two assertive women, two opinionated women, two strong women; it required an adjustment period and a lot of negotiation on both our parts. I find it challenging because I’m separated, her father and I don’t live together and that brings its own challenges. She sometimes feels that she needs to go to him if things aren’t going her way in the house, which I don’t agree with. It’s now my house; she lives here under my terms and conditions. Karen is very independent and likes to come and go when she pleases and having lived away, finds it very hard to adjust to living in a family home and “my house, my regulations.”. She has come onboard to an extent but I have said to her on occasion, “A twenty-four year old girl vs her mother living together in a house is very difficult”. It is difficult to find common ground and negotiate a communal living that we can both agree on. But in general, it works! 

2. How old were you when you first moved out of your family home?

My experience is probably a lot different to what my children have experienced. I went to boarding school at twelve years of age. My mother had remarried the year I went to boarding school, therefore we were moving to a new place to live and it was only a place we went to on the school holidays, a new place completely. We had stepbrothers, stepsisters and stepfather. Fortunately for me I was only twelve so I adopted tremendously, integrated really well, loved my stepfather, went to live on a farm, loved the farming life. It worked very well for me! Having said that, I moved to boarding school at the age of twelve and I never went home. At eighteen I was in college. As we moved to Tipperary I was living in Dublin for school days, college days, so I never actually went back home to live with family, with my mother or stepfather. So it was a completely different lifestyle for me. I’ve always lived more or less independently. We had our allowance, we had our budget, we rented our accommodation. We went to college, we got a job and then we got married. That’s how long I’ve been out of the family home. 

3. When did you buy your own home?

I got married in 1990 and we bought our first house in 1993, so I’ve been living here twenty-three years. 

4. How do you feel about Karen bringing home friends or sexual partners?

The house has always been open to Karen, and any of my kids, bringing home anybody. I firmly believe their generation is completely different to how we grew up. I firmly believe that friends are very welcome, partners are welcome. I mostly prefer to think if they’re in a relationship, no matter how temporary, that they are able to bring home that person to the house then going out somewhere, having to rent a room, or whatever one does when one is that age. It’s completely different to the way that I was brought up but I am completely on board with that. 

5. What is the biggest difference between your generation and Karen’s generation?

We never had an open relationship with our parents. We had left the family home from a very young age. We would never discuss anything personal, sexual, or anything else with our parents. We went home to their house and we obeyed their rules. If we brought someone home we slept in separate rooms. We just adhered to their rules. There were very decent people but they lived a very conservative life, and we respected their lifestyle. This generation, we have had to go with the flow and accept their new nuances, their new morals. I would like to think the house is open. I don’t agree going through various partners or umpteen people. I’d like to think that that they would meet and settle, but I think they’re of a very disposable generation where its very much based upon self-gratification. You need to be very careful and you need to realise what you’re doing. I think it’s going to be very hard for Karen’s generation, or any of my kids, to meet the person who’s going to fulfill all their criteria. They’ve had it all and now I’m not sure they know what they really want. 

6. What do you think of Karen’s lifestyle and spending habits?

Well Karen has a very unique lifestyle. I think she is a woman who definitely hasn’t found what she’s looking for. She comes from a family, particularly on her father’s side, of serious intelligence and with that intelligence comes serious challenges. She seems to be in pursuit of something that I’m not quite sure is out there. She has to follow her dream. She’s off to India now in a few weeks time. She’s going with her heart, having done a French law degree. I’m hoping it will find her some peace of mind and some direction of where she wants to go. To me, at the moment she’s very unsettled, very troubled in many ways, and as a mother probably won’t discuss it with me but with her friends. She’ll get there; she’ll definitely get there. India may well be an awakening for her, an opening of her mind and a complete change of career and direction. 

Expenditure, again, she probably doesn’t fully realise the value of money. Again, she will get there. She’s living at home, virtually rent free as she’s paying only a nominal rent. I’ve given her money to survive in India, which she’s going to pay back. But life is tough. Earning money in Ireland is tough. She’s going to have to come back and she’s going to have to realise how she’s going to afford to live and divvy up the expenses. At the moment she probably isn’t fully aware of the cost of living, as are many of her generation. 

7. What is the best and worst thing about living with Karen. 

It’s lovely having a female living at home. I had only one other son living at home, one daughter living in Paris. We probably don’t get enough time to bounce off each other because she lives a very full life and she likes to socialise. She’s not here much. But we did go on holiday together which was fantastic for both of us, just to have that one on one time. I find her fascinating and interesting and do love having a female presence at home, but, at twenty-four years of age its time to move on Karen. Go live your own life! [Laughs] 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Failure to Launch Part I: Rising Rent Prices

Suitcases

Part one of a three-part series about the impact of Ireland’s rising rent and house prices for Irish millienials. Next week’s piece will include an interview with a mother and her adult child about their experiences living together.

Within the space of a single generation Ireland has gone from a nation of independent homeowners, to renters and hangers-on living in the childhood bedroom of their parent’s abode. A confluence of factors brought us here, from the global economic downturn and nefarious banking practises, to lack of new properties and soaring prices in the rental and housing markets. For the millennials and baby-boomers that have found themselves elbowed off Ireland’s property ladder, it is of cold comfort to know that their shared ill fate is not through a fault of their own. Itching to vacate the family home, their dreams of freedom either had to be postponed, or the more favoured option, realised beyond Irish shores. Those that stayed behind were forced to stay with their parents or fork over half their salary on rent, a hefty price tag for the taste of independence.

Irish parents have graciously played a huge (and often overlooked) role shouldering the burden of the government’s ineptitude to curb errant landlords or increase the housing supply. As shown by the rise in homelessness those who have a place to stay are still the lucky ones, but living with your parents in your early to mid twenties is far from an ideal situation. To begin with there’s the unnatural pairing of a couple in their fifties co-habiting with housemates half their age. Familial ties aside, the lifestyle choices and unsociable hours of a person straight out of college is going to rub any parent the wrong way. Manoeuvring these obstacles demands compromise on both sides, but this compromise implies sacrifices that neither party should be forced to make. As you enter into the full bloom of adulthood it becomes increasingly important to have a physical space of your own; a space to organise as you please, for inviting lovers and friends, a space for experimenting, being completely yourself, and stepping out of your parents’ shadow.

Child-parents relationships are perpetually reductive in the sense that we are always bound to our childhood and our role as children in the company of our parents. While they may shower us with endless love and hot meals, at some very basic level it is unhealthy to live with your parents past a certain age. Living under your parent’s roof means adhering to their rules (‘My roof, my rules’, is a refrain every child has had retorted to them at least once during a family argument), a completely fair expectation considering it is their home first and foremost. However these limitations inhibit us from forging our own path and closes us off from parts of ourselves. It is only when we leave the parental sphere that we gain the necessary space to stir up latent pools of our personality, revealing internal avenues unbeknownst even to ourselves.

While for some the noise made by millennials may seem like much ado about nothing, the dawning realisation that buying our own home or even renting an apartment would be immensely challenging registered itself as a deep loss for most of our generation. We watched with a mixture of bitterness and resentment as the carefree, youthful interlude of salaried jobs, minimum responsibilities and a place of our own before the onslaught of mortgages and babies, shrank into nothingness, meanwhile the return of our parents’ investments, the houses we occupied but did not own, multiplied in value under our very feet.

No one could have anticipated that the housing crisis would get as out of hand as it did, nor the pain it would inflict on our small island. Admittedly there is a distinctly bourgeois tone to this article considering the 9,968 people who are homeless, 3,811 of whom are children according to the latest figures by Focus Ireland. Still there is a growing discontentment amongst the Irish youths, who are voting with their feet and streaming out of the country in their hoards. Making Ireland feel like home is harder than ever.

Ireland’s Abortion Referendum and Its Inconvenient Truths

Nothing in life is black and white. No one is ever completely wrong or completely right. So when we choose between people, between sides, always and inevitably, a loss is incurred.

The Irish referendum to repeal the 8th amendment and remove the legal barrier against abortion takes an issue of immense complexity and reduces it to a yes or no answer. It has taken place within the public forum, pitting one grass-roots movement against the other. Battle lines were drawn. Adversaries were marked. The voting decisions of the Irish public were the spoils of war. Persuading others to also pick your side is a always a tricky business, one that requires certainty and conviction to keep the facts afloat. But matters of public morality elicit the resolute stubbornness of a crusade, a vertiginous unassailability that elevates its ideological underpinnings to biblical heights.

The pro-choice and the pro-life movement carved their memoranda on stone and handed it out to their cheering followers, but in doing so they deprived themselves of the ability to accommodate views that did not mirror their own. Turning a moral issue political leads to such polarization, compounded further by the media-circus documenting the entire affair. The single-mindedness campaigning strategy of both groups conducted their campaign may have been politically astute, but with such rigidity it becomes hard to appraise one’s own actions and ideology honestly. The hostility and vilification that ensued created such a tense atmosphere that empathising with the opposition become a mammoth task.

Moral debates are rarely black and white, but we have made the false binary of the ballot papers our reality.

Language, Images, Numbers and Truth

Since its conception, the Irish abortion debate has inhabited two opposing ends of a spectrum; the mother on one side, unborn on the other. Split and divided, a separation impossible in nature. Together the pro-life and the pro-choice movements have engineered this divide with the many tools at their disposal: stories, emotions, history, rhetoric, words, images, art, facts, statistics, the vast world of science. Those which favour their own agenda are selected and isolated, the rest shed, cast aside, wilfully ignored.

That which is a “baby” or an “unborn child” to one side of the debate is a “zygote”, a “foetus” or an “embryo” to the other. One side employs terms like “beating heart”, “saving lives”, “protecting humanity” while the other side talks about “bodily autonomy”, “self-determination” and “empowering women”. Both wear the mantle of preserving human rights. “Support her, don’t export her”, echoes on both sides of the divide. Amongst the publicly broadcasted vitriol, sparring matches and creative wordplay, one sometimes needs to be reminded that both campaigns are referring to the same physical phenomenon of pregnancy. The pro-choice movement have chosen to co-opt the vernacular of scientists. Pregnancy is viewed through the clinical lens of medicine, a condition with a symptom that can be treated and cured. Pro-lifers talk about the miracle of life. Emotive language hijacks the maternal and paternal tenderness inspired by a new-born. Abortion is equated with murder.

The image of the foetus is the greatest weapon in the artillery of pro-lifers. They point towards its human features to remind us of our own identical beginning, drawing upon non-existent memories. It reminds me of those jelly aliens toys we had as children, embalmed in gloop and enclosed in a plastic egg. But they fail to elicit from this a higher principle of a right to life. What do tiny fingers tell us about personhood? What do tiny fingers tells us about the ability to feel pain or sorrow or less, or even the ability to register and comprehend one’s own death? What do tiny fingers tell us about the right to have one’s life protected above the bodily autonomy of another?

How does this foetal image, plastered across the length and breadth of our country, help us to find answers to the philosophical and ethical questions about the beginning of consciousness? The meaning an images conveys is never limited to its contents alone, which functions symbolically to point us towards something further. This distant and abstracted thing rises silently from the depths of the image, meets the surface of our mind, transacts, transfers, then plunges deep once again. A silent and algorithmic fusing of knowledge and emotion. Caught unawares, we are highly susceptible to manipulation. A constant state of critical hyper-vigilance must be maintained if we are to retain mastery of our own mind, authorship of our own opinion.

On the LoveBoth website, a cartoon strip documents the progression of the unborn from conception right up until the day it is born. The unborn is painted with a smiling face and rosy cheeks, frolicking and cavorting across the screen as it coos goo-eyed at its parents. The unborn is imbued with a voice, self-awareness and a fabricated personal identity as it reports to its mummy and daddy the changes that it is undergoing. “Mark the calendar — I can’t wait to see, Mammy!”, it exclaims.

When the facts are sterile, diffuse them with whimsical fiction to pull at the heartstrings.

Where there is no voice, supplant it with your own and mute the Other.

For the longest time the profusion of Irish abortion stories that accrued over decades were denied the light of day because it made the lies will liked to tell ourselves easier to believe. When the repeal campaign began, for the first time women in Ireland were given permission to speak. Once the floodgates were opened the stories poured out. In these stories the mother was cast as leading role. A developed and intelligent being with the capacity to think, to feel, and to articulate. A voice that speaks for itself.

In Ireland’s public sphere two opposing narratives run side by side; never touching, never interacting, a single protagonist the focus of attention. Choose a side. Choose a perspective. Choose the facts that work in you favour and overlook those that don’t. Shift the emphasis. Tell the truth, but only the useful bits. This is how people are convinced. This is how campaigns are won.

Inconvenient Truths

A crisis pregnancy is an inconvenient truth, the beginning of a chain of inconvenient truths from which many more spring. As much as we may loath these truths they will not disappear on their own, hence the inconvenience. Whether we speak of them or not, they exist and persist, they duplicate and they multiply, they fester if ignored. Both the pro-life and pro-choice groups have been indulging the ignorance of inconvenient truths when it is at odds with their campaign strategy. Here are some truths they have sought to avoid:

Pro-Life

  • It is an inconvenient truth that by choosing to save the unborn, the physical and mental health of Irish woman is jeopardized.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that by prioritizing the life of the unborn over the mother, Irish women are denied their bodily autonomy.
  • It is an inconvenient truth by that the 8th Amendment disproportionately affects the disabled community, migrant women and the lower social strata of Irish society.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that Irish women who travel to England to procure an abortion will not receive adequate health care.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that even though abortion is illegal in Ireland, 12 women in Ireland have an abortion anyway.

Pro-Choice

  • It is an inconvenient truth that by ending an unplanned pregnancy you are ending another human life.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that the provision of abortion services might disproportionately be used against those with disabilities.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that some women regret their abortions.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that some men who want to be a father will have their unborn child aborted.
  • It is an inconvenient truth that abortion services may be used by mother’s who want their child, but can’t afford it.

Unpalatable. Unsavoury. Inconvenient. The solution to a crisis often is. The undecided middle are all too aware of the inconvenient truths that are absent in the Yes and No campaign. They remain undecided, sceptical and unconvinced.

Coming To Terms

When I first started learning about abortion, it was described to me as a procedure that terminated pregnancy and would end the life of my baby.

Baby.

A word with pleasant associations. A salty-sweet smell. A tiny fist grasping one long finger. Pure innocence. Death. Baby. Death. Baby. Words that do not look or sound good together. Words that do not belong together. I was terrified of becoming pregnant long before I lost virginity. This is the legacy of the Catholic Church and Ireland’s education system. The fear of pregnancy, even at a distance, prevented me from ever judging someone for having an abortion. But could I carry out one myself? Could I bring myself to kill a baby? My baby? As long as the conversation involved the word ‘baby’, abortion was going to be a guilt-laden affair.

But that was the point after all, wasn’t it? With England only a ferry or a plane ride away they couldn’t outlaw abortion completely, but they sure as hell could fill us with regret and shame till we rotted from the inside. Until a non-Irish friend of mine had an abortion it never occurred to me that this was a decision that could be made easily. By easy I do not imply that it was a light or casual affair. By easy I mean it was a comfortable decision that was not wrought with guilt or shame, and didn’t require a plane ticket.

A guilt free abortion? This was something new and strange. To an Irish woman, this was something radical. Around the same time the Repeal movement was really kicking off and for the first time in my shortish life I was invited to consider this possibility on Irish soil. The impact the incorporation of abortion services into Ireland’s health services would have should not be understated. Women in Ireland were supposed to travel for abortions. Women in Ireland were supposed to pay for abortions. Women in Ireland were supposed to be denied medical aftercare. Women in Ireland weren’t supposed to have abortions at all, but if they did, it would be the Catholic way, secret and alone, shamed by society. Up until recently this is what abortion meant to me; I may have long since renounced the Catholic Church but I was only beginning to grasp the extent to which its ideologies still coloured my worldview.

Reckoning with abortion’s terminating human life was still an aspect of abortion that tripped me up so I turned to science to fill in the gaps. Embryo. Foetus. Zygote. I said these words and thought of a goo-ey alien in its plastic egg belonging to my childhood. Words without association. Clean. Hard. Rough. Unhuman. Clinical. Medical. These words belonged in the mouths of doctors. Shapeless and faceless in their white coats and surgical masks, always male in my mind’s eye. I could say these words and feel nothing.

Battle on the Homefront

The repeal movement was a contentious topic in my household, particularly between my pro-life mother and me. On the surface we argued about politics, knowing however that one other’s emotion ran deep. We disagreed on every single point there was to discuss. Eventually I vetoed it as a conversation topic for the sake of peace. When friends came over our chats inevitably drifted to abortion and the repeal campaign. They were always firmly on my side and my mum would find herself outnumbered.

One such typical Sunday morning spent moralising abortion, my friend and I left my mum at home while we went to fetch a coffee. An hour later I returned alone to find my mother in the kitchen in the exact same spot we had left her, hunched over an ironing board and visibly upset. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me the conversation we had earlier had upset her. I was filled with remorse. The hurt that pro-life supporters might be feeling was not something I had dwelled on much, prevented by my indignant anger. I said nothing except to offer her a hug and wrap my arms around her.

My belief that appealing the 8th amendment is right and correct course of action is unwavering. As the tragic stories of Irish women poured out, stories which they had held on tightly to for years, my conviction that I was right and she was wrong became evermore steadfast. I had grown righteous. I had a wealth of facts and stories and letters of the alphabet to hand. I had thousands of my peers agreeing me. I had stopped listening to her arguments (if I ever listened to begin with), instead waiting for an interlude and an opportunity to hear my own voice. It was time to start listening again, not to change my mind but to acknowledge my mum’s perspective. Suddenly it was important to me that she felt heard and understood.

There are many troubling ideologies buoying the No campaign, but they do hold one fundamental belief that is untainted: all human life is precious and deserves the right to live, no matter how fleeting or tenuous. Taken on its own, it is a pure intention. Talking to my mother forced me to confront the inconvenient truths of the pro-choice position, and critically examine my decision to push against the natural instinct to preserve human life. This was something I had to admit silently to myself. I understood the nuances between the different stages of life. I had weighed the conflicting interests of mother and unborn. I accepted the loss, without guilt or shame. I will cast my vote to repeal the 8th amendment appreciating all its consequences. Somewhere along the line we forgot to seek the humanity in one another’s arguments, opting to build straw men out of one another’s arguments.

May 26th will bring winners and losers, a victory and loss that will be black and white. But let us not forget we live in a world of grey.