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All the talk of Obama’s visit to Ireland today, brings me back to the evening of his inauguration, January 20th 2009, when Himself came home to find me on the kitchen floor.

On my knees.

Surrounded by the usual mish-mash of baby changing paraphernalia – sudocreme, wipes, tiny nappies and – ahem – masking tape. SKY News was blaring on the TV, the spuds were boiling over on the hob and there was the distinct smell of overcooked fish emanating from the oven.

‘Eh – hi honey I’m home!’ he ventured, the tentative tone to his voice giving away his unease at the sight of his obviously grumpy, pregnant wife on her knees, immersed in chaos.

‘Don’t even start’, I spat.

‘Oh, right. Where is she?’
‘Where is she? Where is she? Well I’ll tell you where she isn’t! She isn’t here tending to her responsibilities like she should be.’ I brandished a half-dressed baby doll by one leg, nappy half masking-taped to her bottom.

He nodded a pathetic attempt at understanding and turned away, but I could see his shoulders start to shake with poorly disguised mirth.  He’d seen this coming and he was right.

It was all my own fault. As a mother of a two-year old with another on the way, I had decided it would be a great idea if Santa brought a baby doll, complete with nappies, bottles and a soother. All in the way of preparation for the new arrival. And in my defence, it had been a huge success. To be really honest, the exact level of success far exceeded both my expectations and my wishes.  Baby Millie was changed and fed to a routine that would put the most militant of nannies to shame. And to be fair, for those first three hours on Christmas morning, my enthusiasm surprised even myself. I supplied cheap wipes, an empty tub of sudocreme, an empty tub of talc, all in the name of education and preparation. I may even have shed a hormone induced tear as the brand new Mammy rocked her plastic newborn with the words, ‘Go to sleep my liddle baby.’

I was thrilled of course at her dedication to the project and thought it boded very well for the prospective welcome of the new sibling. Then, things started to slide slowly out of control. Due to my over exuberance on the paraphernalia front, baby Millie needed a changing bag. No problem. Mammy had a spare one. Great. Then empty tubs no longer sufficed. ‘She needs reeeal cream!’ was the wail. Then every time Baby Millie left the house over the course of the Christmas holidays, her little pink nappy bag had to be packed. Bottles, wipes, nappies… Her buggy had to go in the car; her car seat had to be strapped in…

‘But it’s a doll!’ He groaned one day as I ran back into the house to grab Baby Millie’s soother.

‘Not to her,’ I hissed.

By New Year, reality had sunk in. It seemed that not only was Daughter No. 1 being groomed for the new arrival, but so was Mammy. Instead of enjoying my last few tiny-baby-free months, I had given birth ‘prematurely’ to a plastic nightmare. Sweet, pink, innocent Baby Millie had shot me squarely in the foot. And it hurt. Not only could I now remember only too well the chaos a new baby brings, I was also starting to feel the exhausted pain and weariness of a modern ‘granny-before-her-time’, left holding the baby of her teenage daughter, at a time when she should be ‘finished with all that palaver’. Only this daughter wasn’t heading out to party with her friends. No, this one was abandoning nappy changes mid way through to resume a jigsaw, the words ‘You do it’ carelessly thrown over one shoulder being the only, ominous, similarity.

Of course Himself thinks it’s hilarious.

Well, the laugh will be on the other side of his face when I tell him Baby Millie needs a new buggy. After all, you can’t expect the child to push that flimsy plastic-rubbish down our potholed driveway. Yes change was coming to our house. As for Barack, I just loved that man. I know I supported Hilary in the early days, but even I know now, that she wouldn’t have brought the same wave of hope, of revolution, of thanks. It helps that he’s easy on the eye. It even helps that he smokes – ah sure you’d need him to have some bit of boldness about him. Oh, Mister President

So back to the evening of his inauguration. I know she was only two, but I decided that the day was too historic to let slide. Dragging her onto my knee I explained that the man on the screen was going to save us all, that he was a great man, that he was the first black American President. And then it suddenly occurred to me that his colour would mean nothing to her. That she was possibly belonging to the first generation for whom colour actually made no difference. After all, several of Barney’s little gang of friends were of various races and no comment had been passed yet.

Abandoning the history lesson lest I create an issue where none existed, I instead spent a half an hour teaching her to chant with her little fist in the air ‘Yes We Can!’ and sure she loved that.

Great Stuff.

And then it was time to change Baby Millie again and that was when Daddy walked in.

Finally getting off the floor, Baby Millie, changed and safely hidden behind the sofa for the evening, I called the child prodigy to come and show Daddy her new trick.

‘Who was the man on the TV, Belle?’
‘Ehmmm,’ she thought for a minute.
‘Come on Isabelle, What was the nice man’s name,’ I asked sweetly, whilst silently sending the telepathetic-message-of-a-pushy-parent We’ve practiced this, don’t let me down!

‘Obaba!’ she cried gleefully, the strange scary look in Mammy’s eyes having the desired effect.

‘And what does Obama say?’ I encouraged with relief.
And with that, she raised her little index finger in the air and exhibiting all the strength, belief and determination demonstrated by the great man himself she pointed straight at Daddy;

‘Yes You Will!!’

And now, two years later, she’s four. And she has a little sister and they knock lumps out of each other over Baby Millie and the three-wheeled-all-terrain buggy that Daddy was eventually forced to buy. Today, President Obama is coming to Ireland, and this time I’m going to have another go at the history lesson. I’m going to sit them both down, and let them see him on the screen, and hope that they’ll take at least some of it in.

Because Change is Coming.  I can feel it. I felt it with the Eurovision last week and I felt it again, even stronger, when the Queen of England walked on Irish soil for the first time.  And even though I don’t even claim to understand rugby, I felt it again when Leinster staged one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time, to win the Heineken Cup on Saturday.

Can Ireland stage it’s own comeback? Not to the heady heights of the Celtic Tiger, but to dignity, pride and the feeling that all will never be lost.  Can we combine the energy of Jedward, the determination of Leinster and the beauty, grace and acceptance of the Ireland we showcased so flawlessly last week? Can we stop trying to be something we’re not, and instead relish all that we are?

All together now, girls…

‘Of course we can!’

Margaret Scott-Darcy lives in Kildare with her husband, daughters and a variety of animals. A full time accountant, she is also currently working on her first novel. Her blog MotherWorkerWriter can be found at www.mscottdarcy.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mgtscott. 

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I can now confirm from personal experience that Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl, but she didn’t have a lot to say.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. She didn’t say a lot to me individually, but the fact that she took time to stop to talk at all was remarkable.  I was lucky enough to be among approximately 200 academics from Irish universities who were invited to meet the Queen of England in the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin.  We were told to expect that she would be briefly introduced to each of us but would continue on without stopping. In fact, she stopped to shake hands and exchange a few words with most of us.

The Queen of England and the Provost of Trinity College Dublin

We were lined up along the sides of the beautiful old library, and when the queen entered there was a genuine sense of her presence.  The time she was taking to interact with the different guests present meant that it was almost half an hour before she arrived at the group of biologists that I was standing with. As I felt my legs tiring, I was already feeling impressed by the stamina and energy of this 85-year-old lady.

The Queen in the Long Room, Trinity College Dublin

I wasn’t one of those who was in awe of the queen.  I would consider myself to have been rather neutral.  However, when she got close I was struck by her genuine smile, the life in her eyes, and the fresh glow of her skin.  However, this was nothing compared to how impressed I was by her sharp mind.  As she chatted to each of us in turn it was clear that she was doing more than nodding and smiling.  When Dr. Emmeline Hill, who was standing beside me, told the queen of her research into the genetics of thoroughbred horses and how it relates to racing performance, she was clearly interested and quickly replied that the work was very useful considering how up until now they have only had pedigrees to go on.  [Spoiler: she was spot on.]  Frankly, I would have forgiven her if she had zoned-out after half an hour of introductions, but she was listening attentively, with her eyes focused on the person she was talking to.  I liked her.

When she started her speech on Wednesday night in the Irish language there was palpable surprise and admiration in the audience. She then went on to give a carefully and well crafted speech which delicately acknowledged the past yet looked to the future.  I was surprised by how powerful and moving the speech was. This visit has been so masterfully done. What could have been at worst a flash point for violent protest, or, more blandly, a tourist trip, has, I believe, become a significant political and public event. I believe she went much further in her speech than anyone had reasonably expected.

I acknowledge that I’m a chronic optimist, but it does feel like the simple gesture of this lady coming to visit has actually caused us to achieve something, and to (hopefully) finally leave the past behind. I’m surprised even by my own reaction. I never had a problem with her visit, but I was mostly indifferent. It has actually been wonderful, and she has genuinely gone up in my estimation.

I think that in some ways this visit was a test of the maturity and self-confidence of this country. Could we welcome the Queen of England as a respected guest and head of state? or would we wallow in the past? Most people I have spoken to seemed genuinely pleased at her visit and the symbolism for the relationship between the two countries (which in political terms, is already incredibly close). Overall the response I have witnessed has been warm and mature.

I see her now as an impressive and professional stateswoman, even if I’m not in favour of the system by which she was granted her position. I am very happy that I got the chance to shake her hand.

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Quick: where were you when the Pope came to Ireland? Me, I’ve got no idea. Before I’m excommunicated, I should point out that’s because I’m not Irish, and wasn’t living in Ireland at the time of the papal visit.

Ask me, though, where I was for the Queen’s Silver Jublilee (two years before all Irish babies started being called John Paul) or where I was for Charles and Diana’s wedding, and I’m sorted. I can describe the bunting, my dress (no, I wasn’t invited, but that didn’t stop me dressing up), our village street party, the works.

Here’s the thing. I’m not Royalist, but I’m hugely pro big, communal events. It’s a relatively unfashionable stance, but I ADORE those nation-binding moments.  The non-demonstrative English most often break down the reserve (and break down) at sporting events. Jonny Wilkinson’s last-ditch drop kick in the Rugby World Cup. Tiny Michael Owen’s mazy run against Argentina in 1998 (if only I’d had to Google that date; but alas, no).  These are times when we drop our polite ‘each wo/man is an island’ masks and stand together, roaring our heads off. For me, nothing can beat that sort of collective emotion.

It’s something I’ve always liked about weddings, too. Whenever I’m on my way to a wedding, I think about all the other people who’ve woken up that morning and thought, ‘today I’m going to see X&X get married’. There’s something incredibly rousing about the collective spirit, the joint goodwill. I have no idea why it moves me so much, but it always has.

All together now...

(image c/o scripting.com)

God, even at the London marathon a couple of weeks ago, 24 miles in and feeling as if I was encased in a steel tube, I looked around at the crowds yelling encouragement at hordes of random strangers, heard the band playing (yes, really) and beamed a Cheshire cat grin of ‘I’m bloody DOING this’. Running long distances is the world’s dullest thing, usually. Running long distances with 40,000 other people and a crowd of probably double that is incredibly uplifting (though not so uplifting that I’d ever want to do it again).

It’s in that same vein that I’m looking forward to the Big Day today. I’m hardly going to be in my wedding finery, and I’m certainly not going to be down at Trafalgar Square, but it’s an Occasion, one that nobody is escaping, cynical or not. In this day and age, there’s a lot to be said for that.

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A heady mix of errrr, stuff

There is one question regarding the Libyan crisis that the Irish media so far fails to ask: what will the downfall of the Gaddafi regime imply for De Shinners? Barring the Evening Herald during the election campaign virtually none of the news organisations in Ireland (electronic and print) have raised the issue of Sinn Fein − the IRA and the strangely moss-coloured man that is Colonel Gaddafi − during the current uprising against his dictatorship.

The historical facts are already in the public domain regarding the republican movement and the Gaddafi tyranny. In the 1970s, and more crucially the 1980s, the Green Colonel’s government armed and helped finance the IRA’s campaign. Following the United States bombing of Tripoli in the mid-1980s Gaddafi took revenge on the UK (which allowed American planes take off from England to bomb Libya) by supplying the Provisionals. According to security forces on both sides of Ireland’s border the Green Colonel gave the IRA enough AK47 assault rifles to arm two infantry battalions, around 1,200 activists. In addition, Gaddafi passed on tonnes of semtex explosive which was used to [let’s not get sticky about the wording here] kill, maim and wrought physical destruction in Northern Ireland and Britain. The Libyan dictator even provided the IRA with flame throwers and surface to air missiles, although these were used only sparingly during the armed campaign in the north.

But what else will emerge if Libya goes through a DDR-style experience of lustration if and when Gaddafi is finally toppled? After the Berlin Wall fell and the communist regime collapsed the country’s secret police, the Stasi underwent democratic investigation. Thousands upon thousands of files from Stasi archives were released to the public. They included links between the regime and terrorist groups as disparate as the Baader Meinhoff-Red Army Faction gang to various Palestinian armed organisations.

If and when the forty odd year old regime crumbles in Tripoli and the archives of Gaddafi’s murderous secret police are exposed to the light, what will we find there in relation to the connexions between the state organs of his dictatorship and the IRA?  How many leading Sinn Fein figures may be named as regular visitors (secret tourists) to the Colonel’s alleged socialist-paradise-in-the-sand during the Troubles? And how will these revolutionary-tourists explain their presence in the Libyan sun to say their chums in Irish-America particularly on the conservative right of US politics?

These questions are wholly absent from current reportage and commentary in Irish newspapers or on our airwaves. Or am I missing something? Perhaps we have to wait and see if this week’s imposition of a UN no fly zone will impact on the struggle between Gaddafi loyalists and the rebels based in Ben Ghazi. If Gaddafi is unable to bomb the anti-regime forces from the air and the balance tips in the insurgents’ favour the Green Colonel’s government may finally fall after more than four decades. Then, maybe, just maybe, the Irish media will wake up and realise that there’s a massive “Irish angle” to the end of Colonel Gaddafi and his murderous tyranny, and some newly elected members of the 31st Dáil.

June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here:

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Wooden Heart?

We have one of the lowest percentages of forest cover in Europe (and it’s mostly Sitka spruce, though broadleaf trees now make up 20 per cent of new planting) though we’re supposed to be increasing from the current 7 per cent to 17 per cent cover by 2030. What we do have is owned and operated by Coillte. Two summers ago, the McCarthy (An Bord Snip Nua) report suggested a combination of asset disposal and privatisation of Coillte. Coillte was valued at e1.2bn in 2010, and, according to the Woodland League, a Swiss owned forestry company, The International Forestry Fund, has expressed interest in buying the lot. The chairman of the International Forestry Fund is Bertie Ahern, and his involvement, and the proposed sale, were well covered by the good old Sunday Tribune last year. Last month, the eTenders public procurement website carried a notice inviting tenders from economists to evaluate the assets of Coillte, so clearly it’s been decided that the maths have to be right before any further negotiations kick off.

The Woodland League is asking people to sign a petition against the proposed sale. But what would it mean for Irish forests if they were to be managed privately? When will we find out what’s going to happen to Coillte? At the moment, they have an Open Forest Policy, which means mile upon mile of hiking, cycling, dog-walking, orienteering, picnicking, birdwatching, swimming, tree-climbing, kayaking, canoeing, mushroom-spotting, all open to everyone. Could that really be threatened?

Sunday, March 6th, is the start of National Tree Week, so if you fancy willow-weaving, archery, den building and face painting down at Parnell’s house at Avondale in Rathdrum, get out and enjoy yourselves courtesy of Coillte. Leave no trace – as it says at the entrance to Avondale: leave only footprints, take only memories. Fingers crossed you’ll have the chance to be back again.

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Feminist Fun Sunday

There’s a whole lot of feminism going on in Dublin today – Choice Ireland’s annual Feminist Walking Tour of Dublin kicks off at the gates of St Stephen’s Green (which gates aren’t specified, but we’d guess the Fusiliers’ Arch one at the top of Grafton Street) at 1 today, if you’d like to explore Irish women’s history. And at 3pm in City Hall on Dame Street our own Anna Carey joins Victoria White, Dr Ann Matthews and Susan McKay for a discussion of the future for Irish women as part of the Dublin Book Festival.

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In for a Penny, In for a Pound

Fifty jobs have just gone in Waterstones, between the Dawson Street and Jervis Street branches, and at the risk of sounding rather E.J. Thribbish, I’d like to mark the passing of the Dawson Street one in particular.

When I were a lass, it was a large Laura Ashley shop which occupied that Dawson Street premises, with a huge and beautiful central staircase and a railed gallery stuffed with bolts of green and white cotton prints and rolls of impossibly smart striped wallpaper (look, it was the early eighties). I’m fairly sure that before Laura Ashley it was the old Dublin furniture firm Anderson, Stanford and Ridgeway – at any rate, in the mid eighties Waterstones opened there, bringing a touch of glamour to Dublin’s bookshop selection, which up to that point had been dominated by Hodges Figgis, Fred Hanna and Easons, and supplemented by a solid lineup of secondhand and antiquarian shops, like Duffy’s, George Webb on the quays, and the dusty wooden stairs of Greene’s where endless Everyman editions of nineteenth century classics rubbed shoulders with geometry sets and rubber dinosaurs.

Waterstones brought a clean, modern shop layout that was unlike anything I knew in the city centre then, its restrained W branding a hymn to the serif typefaces in which its books were set.  And despite its being part of a chain (nul points for romance) and a British one at that (just nul points), Waterstones in Dawson Street always felt like a Dublin shop. The staff, an unfailingly civil bunch of low-voiced smilers, knew their books and made their customers feel that their query was an important one. Even today, I heard one of them giving his full and thoughtful attention  to an elderly lady about buying a book in French for her fifteen-year-old granddaughter, when with only three days of work left he could have been forgiven for drinking blood cocktails under the stairs.

I had fifty-odd euro saved up on my loyalty card, so I went in today to spend it and say goodbye to the shop, which is trading until Sunday, and when I’d paid for my books, the staff member who completed the transaction for me popped a red-foiled chocolate egg (of creamy, luxurious quality) into the paper bag along with the books.

“Just to say thanks for your loyalty,” she said, on behalf of the chain which had just made her redundant.

Someone had brought in scones from Kehoe’s – that cafe in Trinity Street which sells rock-bun sized scones injected with raspberries – and everyone was to get one when it was their turn for a break. The shelves were as well stocked as ever – apart from the cardboard Jo Nesbo stand – and the usual three-for-two selections were on offer, along with the current BOGOF on children’s picture books. It was easy enough to get my spend up to fifty euro.

Jervis Street was a difficult shop to be in, too many funny angles and a downstairs that was hardly there. But I’ll miss Dawson Street’s Irish history and biography section, their ordinary biography section, the children’s area, the substantial fiction selection, even that unappetising little loo in the most awkward corner of the shop. No, now I’m getting sentimental, I won’t miss that. I was reeled in, as intended, by the staff’s handwritten notes of recommendation, stayed loyal with my card, did a good chunk of my Christmas and birthday shopping there over the last twenty-four years. It was a meeting place, too, in the style of Clery’s clock, but with more to do while you wait. I’ve kissed and been kissed in that tiny lift.

I took it for granted, and from Sunday it won’t be there any more. I hope all the staff members find new jobs soon, and that someone interesting takes over the premises.

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