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.


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!

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.


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


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.

Is ‘Dry January’ worth the hype?

Let me come clean from the get go before I flaunt my New Year’s abstinence – I did not make it through January without drinking alcohol. Not even close. Even before January began I knew I wouldn’t last the duration. I had planned a much-anticipated trip to London towards the end of the month, and withholding alcohol was not part of the plan. It was an absence of intention as opposed to a lapse of will, which perhaps in hindsight is a degree worse.

I relinquished my teetotaller vow an additional two times before the trip. My mother of all people was the first person who enticed me to break my pledge, a reversal of roles my younger self would never have dared to imagine. She had opened a bottle ofgood’ prosecco, which she had been saving for me to open on a special occasion. A multitude of celebratory events in my life worthy of ‘good’ prosecco had come and gone yet the bottle always remained unopened. Instead, the birthday of a family friend, which coincided with the only time in my life I had sworn off alcohol, was deemed the idea occasion. I initially demurred the offerings of a glass, resolving to stick to my pledge, but given my mother’s affrontation I played the role of dutiful daughter and acquiesced. Admittedly, it didn’t take much coaxing. I drank one glass and it tasted divine.

My second moment of weakness occurred a few days later. I was at a friend’s birthday in a swanky bar in town and glasses of champagne were being handed out for free. Amid proclamations of how good the champagne tasted, and one particular friend accenting her enjoyment with audible lip-smacking, I couldn’t stand the feeling that I was the only one missing out. Ameliorating my guilt with the flawed logic, ‘Its basically the same alcohol so it doesn’t really count’, I sipped my free glass of champagne and savoured every drop.

Alcohol is to be Enjoyed
Both lapses imparted wisdom that was as valuable as the month long prohibition itself: it is possible to really enjoy alcohol and in small quantities too. Along the trajectory of my career as a seasoned drinker, beginning with my teenage days drinking whichever brand of cider was most inexpensive, I had come to regard alcohol almost entirely as a stimulant, forgetting that it is a luxury product to be tasted, savoured and appreciated. If I had to classify my relationship with alcohol over the years I would describe as complicated, but in an Irish context, entirely normal. Getting to the truth of the matter, a lot of the time when I drink, I binge drink.

If I had to classify my relationship with alcohol over the years I would describe as complicated, but in an Irish context, entirely normal.

Like most people my alcohol consumption rotates around my social life so the bulk my drinking is done between Friday and Sunday. If I avoid alcoholic social events, it is entirely plausible that I could go stretches of weeks without drinking at all. However once I’m geared up for a night out, I’d lash the stuff back like its going out of fashion. I had known for a long time that my alcohol consumption and the surrounding patterns of behaviour were unhealthy, and it was this dissatisfaction that prompted me to join in on the ‘Dry January’ hype.

Dry January
There is one particular night in Dry January that sticks out in my mind, the night I played the role of ‘sober friend’. A group of friends and I had gone to a bar followed by a bar/club, the kind of place where you can have a dance and actually talk to people. While everyone was drunk and merry, I experimented with different kinds of fruit juice, starting with orange and boldly working myself up to pineapple. Not the least perturbed by my sobriety, I enjoyed my friend’s drunken antics and all in all had a great night. I talked to lots of different people, spent less money, and felt great the next day. It actually surpassed similar alcohol fuelled nights in the same venue.

Looking back, two things stuck with me:

  1. If I enjoyed someone’s company, the following day, I knew I actually liked them
  2. Being sober is far more stress free.

Number one is pretty self-explanatory but number two requires some elucidation. Don’t get my wrong, I’m not saying drinking alcohol is stressful per se, but the very lack of control we hope to attain by drinking foments the inherent risk that things can go wrong. This can range from minor incidences, like losing your phone or purse, or potentially finding yourself in a compromising situation. Every time I drink beyond a cautious few drinks, in the back of my mind there is always the fear that something regrettable will happen, either due to my own stupidity or my inability to resists someone else’s. This of course is liable to happen with or without alcohol, but restricting one’s alcohol intake very much undermines the chances.

The very lack of control we hope to attain by drinking foments the inherent risk that things can go wrong.

Reminding myself that I can have fun without alcohol, or that I can simply enjoy a few drinks, Dry January served its purpose. The hype was equally as valuable, providing the necessary impetus and a legitimate excuse not to drink (a decision which I doubt would have been met with as little resistance on an ordinary occasion).

So with such positive experiences of abstinence in January, how did I fare in February?
My first night out in February started with good intentions. I was actually going to count my drink intake, or so I told myself. This proved slightly harder because I was drinking a punch mixture made by a friend; vodka, peach schnapps and juice mixed in a steel pot, because we’re classy like that. Without even realising it, getting to the end of that pot became my challenge. It was after all free alcohol, and drinks in the club are expensive. As is always the case in Ireland, time and speed were of the essence and my drinking was driven by urgency rather than caution. I was drinking for the future as much as the present. Although I didn’t end up in too bad a state, on reflection, my motives for drinking were questionable. There is something about a club environment, current or impending, that incites me to drink beyond what is reasonable, a desire to shake off my sober state.

And if I go a little deeper, it’s more complicated again. In recent years I’ve realised that when it comes to alcohol and tolerance, my own bodily limits are somewhat of an enigma. I usually start out with a vague, unarticulated (even to myself) goal in mind; drink to loosen my inhibitions, while preserving my memory and not totally surrendering control. The sweet spot between sobriety and getting plastered. Sometimes I get it just right but veering towards drunkenness is far too easy; once I get to a certain level of inebriation a little voice inside my head starts egging me on – ‘go hard or go home.’ Mostly its fine, but I will wake up the next day wishing I had drunk less.

Sober Parent and the Drunken Child
My second night out in February, I took a different tac by starting out the night purposefully, measured my drink. Dare I say it, achieved that sweet spot. Despite its effectiveness I can’t say it’s a role I am pleased to undertake, playing both the sensible, sober parent, keeping alcohol out of arm’s reach of my later drunken, child-like self, but perhaps it is an unavoidable by-product of alcohol and one that I just have to accept.

Growing up, but especially leaving Ireland, has transformed my drinking habits. When you quickly realise that the behaviour normalised here is totally shocking abroad, it forces you to examine the Irish drinking culture with a critical gaze, while allowing the necessary distance to do so.

As generalisations go, the reputation that Irish people drink too much is fairly accurate. In the country responsible for the phenomenon ‘pint baby’, it is too easy to brush away drunken affairs with humour, forgetting to take any lessons on board. I have absolutely zero judgment for anyone that has a messy, drunken night, it would be the epitome of the pot calling the kettle black, but taking some wisdom from past mistakes wouldn’t go amiss either. The advice I am giving myself at least is, drink with awareness and intention, veer on the side of caution rather than recklessness. And don’t forget to savour the taste too!

Taoiseach Entreats Irish Families to Talk about Porn

While making an appearance at the launch of a new helpline for the victims of crime, Taoiseach Enda Kenny called for there to be a discussion about the ‘corruption’ of young people of Ireland due to their exposure to porn. In a country where open discussions of sex are limited to sex-ed classes and tend to follow the strain of thinking that abstinence is the best, his move is a bold one.

With the burgeoning adulthood of those who grew up with unlimited access to the internet, the corrupting effects of porn on young people has emerged as a contentious social issue in recent years. Describing pornography as ‘ubiquitous and damaging’, Kenny called for a national conversation on the issue and said it would form part of the government’s up-coming agenda.

It pains me to say that the internet and porn are practically synonymous, but porn has consistently been the most searched word since, well, the conception of the internet itself. The ubiquity of porn is undeniable. In fact, my very first experience of the internet involved porn when, as a naive eight-year-old I typed “girls” into the Google search bar and was greeted with an onslaught of naked female pictures. While I managed to recover from the trauma, the hyper-sexualisation of men and women in porn has left an indelible mark on young people today due to its influence on what is considered normative sexual practise. The Taoiseach himself made reference to the contorted depiction of sexual behaviour in porn, which risks becoming normalised in the minds of impressionable youths.

Bringing the topic of sexual education so unabashedly into the public consciousness is an unprecedented move amongst high-ranking political figures in Ireland. I applaud the Taoiseach for his outspokenness, he raises a valid point, and his sentiment for a ‘more caring’ Ireland is touching. I am curious to see what, if anything, will happen on the back of his instigation. Banning pornography is certainly not the answer and is almost one hundred percent not possible either. As long as teachers and parents continue to talk about sex like it is not something to be enjoyed, the internet will continue to be a fountain of misinformed knowledge for the Irish youth.

Will the Taoiseach share his own refined and less deviant ‘lad magazines’ that he mentioned from back in the day? Will the topic of pornography be elevated to the status legitimate dinner-conversation? Or will the country go down the well-tread road it usually does whenever we encounter something we don’t like…absolute prohibition.

Something to Love: Pro-Choice Art Exhibition Fundraiser

It was a full house at last week’s “Someone You Love” pro-choice art exhibition. The fundraising event, which took place on October 11th at the Copper House Gallery on Synge street, was a fundraising event in support of the Abortion Support Network, a UK based charity that supports women from Ireland and Northern Ireland travelling to the UK in order to access abortion services.

Organised and curated by Aifric Ni Chriodain, the pro-choice artworks on display were specially created by an array of Irish artists for the event, with many incorporating the theme of the Repeal Movement into their works. All works of art were on sale to the public in print form with the money raised going to Abortion Support Network.

imag2209Graphic and uncompromising in their depiction of the pro-choice theme, the 20 contributing artists were not afraid of raising eyebrows with their work. Their candidness paid off and the collection captured the absurdity of Ireland’s anti-abortion laws, cutting to the core of the political issue with a bluntness  only be achieved by art.

One of such pieces was submitted by Larry Dunne and showed a drawing of the female uterus under lock and chain and circled by rosary beads. No doubt it was inspired by the “keep your rosaries off our ovaries” slogan made famous by the pro-choice campaign.

Another controversial piece by Dolce Merda X One Strong Arm was of a silver hanger against a plain black background. Powerful in its simplicity and austerity, it is a remembrance of the gruesome and unsafe procedures carried out by desperate Irish women in the last century.

My favourite piece of the evening was by Bronwyn Andrews. The photo showed everyday items laid out on a bed, the contents of a bag for an overnight stay in England.

imag2212Stark in their ordinariness, one visitor noted, they were all items that she herself had at home. It captured the message of the exhibition: abortion could be a necessary option for anyone, even “someone you love.”

Despite the solemnity of the works on display, people were in high-spirits. Rallying speeches given on the night invigorated the crowd, acknowledging the tremendous support in favour of the Repeal Movement, but with a cautionary reminder that there is still a lot more work to go. Proselytizing was completely dispensed with by all speakers. It was, after all, not a protest, nor an attack on the government but an evening shared between people on the same team and a celebration of that fact.

In his speech Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International, touched on some of the challenges and criticisms facing the repeal campaign. Most notable was his contempt towards ‘tone fleecing’, a suggestion that asks women to curb their anger when campaigning, the implication being that their anger would undermine that cogency and efficacy of their argument. He swiftly dismissed this as misogynistic “bullshit” claiming that “Women can be angry and respectful and coherent” and that “Angry women are not the problem…but the absence of anger [is]”. His words evidently touched a nerve and raised a spontaneous applaud from the crowd.

imag2211Another of the evening’s speakers was Julie O’Donnell, who bravely told the audience of her own experience travelling to Liverpool to access abortion services upon learning at 26 weeks pregnant that her baby had zero chance of survival.

Although I have heard and read numerous stories of Irish women in such a position this was my first time hearing it first hand. My hairs were standing on end as I listened to Judy recount the horror of her ordeal, her voice trembling as she described the feelings of loneliness, anger and helplessness that she suffered. Six years on, the turmoil she experienced was still evident.

The exhibition attracted a dynamic crowd, with the majority of the audience comprised of women as well members of the gay community. Given the demography of the crowd it could easily have been a rally for last year’s same-sex marriage referendum.

Just as women were the largest group of supporters in favour of same-sex marriage, it was evident on the night that the gay community have allied themselves alongside the women of Ireland. Both groups have been prejudiced and silenced by Irish law in the course of the country’s history, and it is heart-warming to see them continuously stand in solidarity with one another. Although women as a class make up half the population, we are divided on the issue of abortion and so the support of the gay community in the Repeal Campaign is as vital as ever.

Striking was the overwhelming presence of people aged under 25, a rarity at political events in Ireland. This newfound penchant for political-activism amongst the Irish youth is no coincidence.

imag2210Invigorated by the positive result of last year’s same-sex referendum, particularly here in Dublin, young people appear to have restored faith in one of democracy’s central theses: political power ultimately flows from the people and it is incumbent on the people to participate actively in the political arena. With the previously politically inert youth on its side, the pro-choice campaign is a force to be reckoned with.

The fundraiser was undoubtedly a success, with some prints so well received on the night they sold out. The buzzing crowd streamed out of the gallery ignited and rejuvenated, aware of the uphill battle yet to go but knowing at least that they had strength in numbers.

Prints from the night are available to purchase online at