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My daughter and her all-female class made their First Communions recently. The massed ranks in the church were quite a sight to see. Immaculately coiffed hairdos, amazingly stylish frocks, even a few fake tans.

Yes, the mothers looked stunning. Of course all the little Communicants were beautiful, and they could never be overshadowed by their Mums on their special day. But it has to be said, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Once I had my gúna purchased, I had thought my own preparations were more or less complete. But in the weeks leading up to the big day, sartorial and cosmetic arrangements were the talk of the playground. Who was wearing what, were the blowdry appointments booked, would the few pounds be shed and had the right shoes and jacket been located?

In spite of myself, I gradually found myself being swept along by all this.

A life-long hater of fake tan, I cautiously purchased a bottle of moisturiser which promised a hint of built-in tint. I slapped it on for a few days and fretted about smelling like a biscuit or ending up with orange palms and elbows. As it turned out, I’d been too cautious; the light shade I had chosen made no discernible difference to my skin colour. I did emit a slight biscuitty fragrance though.

I also bought slightly higher-than-normal-for-me shoes (with wedge heel to enable me to walk) even though I’m not that fussed about shoes. I had the eyebrows threaded. I booked a professional blowdry for my very easy to maintain hair.

I realised I was losing it when, seized by a last-minute anxiety about being out-glammed in the church, I began desperately experimenting with different make-up the day before the Communion. Confronted by the slightly scary results in the bathroom mirror, I told myself to get a grip. After all, it wasn’t about me.

Well, we all love dressing up, don't we?

The maternal glamour quotient was extremely high the next morning –  noticeably higher than at my son’s Communion four years ago – and I was glad I’d made the extra effort. Though I did wonder who we were all trying to impress. Each other? The viewers of the family photos in years to come? Was it significant that it was our daughters making their Communions – were we subconsciously trying to compete with them? Surely not.

Of course, on the day our daughters were the stars of the show. Every parent’s heart was full of pride as the girls sang their well rehearsed hymns, brought up gifts and did readings. Whatever your feelings about the First Communion ritual (and stepping back from it a little, the white dresses and the cash gifts are a bit odd really) it was difficult not to be moved by the innocent seriousness with which they took it all.

A wonderful day – and the photos turned out well. Phew.

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Naked in Berlin

Display on nudism in the former East Germany. DDR Museum Berlin, by Karl Gunnarsson

It’s ladies day at the sauna in my local gym in East Berlin and I’m almost mesmerized by the amount of flesh on show. I’ve found myself sharing the small wooden enclosure with three elderly East German ladies all of whom are blessed with ham-like thighs and the most impressively enormous pendulous breasts.

The women are nattering away as I slink in and soon draw me into their conversation. They tell me about growing up in the area and how much it has changed. They all worked as nurses and in their day they had no time for hanging out in cafes with their strollers like all the current trendy mums in the hood. I nod and smile and sweat, all the time slightly mortified because I am Irish and NAKED IN FRONT OF STRANGERS.

It’s something I’ve had get used to in a city where people whip off their clothes willy-nilly. In saunas, at the gym, badminton courts, the parks, a friend even reported seeing someone wearing just a purse and flip-flops in a shop, the Germans are happy to let it all hang out, no matter what the size or shape. In the summer you can barely go a week without encountering a bronzed-to- within-an inch- of-leather figure coming at you.

Coming from a nation that should get a prize for the ability to put on swimsuits with one hand while clinging for dear life to the corners of a towel with the other, this can be a traumatic encounter. And eventually there is little choice but to join in. Never mind the bratwurst and the biergartens, the sign of true integration is being able to get naked with the Germans.

And far from being some kind of army of extras in a Leni Riefenstahl film, they are not really that dissimilar from us. A bit taller, a bit less pear-shaped, not quite so pasty, but they have scar tissue, purple veins and knobbly knees too and the weight of gravity works as much on their breasts and buttocks as on the rest of us.

It’s just something they have no absolutely no self-consciousness about. Nudism has been something of a cause in Germany since the 19th century and in the 20s became associated with all kinds of utopian ideals. FKK, Freiekörperkulutur (free body culture) is as ingrained as having mayonnaise with your chips or a strange obsession with white asparagus.  In the former East it was particularly popular, a sort of escape from the preponderance of uniforms, pins and badges that declared one’s loyalty to the communist regime. In nudity everyone truly was equal.

Public disrobing has become easier over time. It is simply quicker and easier to perform a clean strip at the swimming pool or sauna than all that rigmarole of hiding the bits that everyone else is displaying so nonchalantly. And the city is also full of great Turkish baths where you hang about semi naked for hours, popping in and out of the saunas and steam rooms and sipping mint tea. No one is batting an eyelid so in the end you don’t too much yourself, at least not too much. Somewhere the Catholic schoolgirl within is still uncomfortable with so much brazenness.

My first real plunge was back in the mid 90s. I shared a ramshackle flat with two other Irish lasses in the former East. The toilet was out on the landing and there was no bathroom but for a few blessed months the contraption of a shower that had been erected in our kitchen worked fine. It took half an hour to heat up the water in the tank per shower, and we often had another 3 or 4 people sleeping on our floor, but that was what mornings were for, to sit around drinking tea and coffee and talking about maybe looking for a job as a cleaner that afternoon… or tomorrow… or next week.

Then the shower broke and our neighbour downstairs came to the rescue. Martin, an East Berliner, had the luxury of a bachelor pad all to himself, though this consisted of one room, with open plan kitchen and shower. I didn’t know Martin that well, I had arrived to the city later than the other two and had managed to avoid this exhibitionist cleansing ritual by having a boyfriend not too far away with a tremendously fabulous bathroom. Then me and the fella sort of split up and it was perhaps the white tiles, the gleaming taps and the shower nozzle that I missed the most.

So off I trudged to Martins with my towel and shampoo and not a little trepidation. He flung back the door, wearing his tie-dyed t-shirt and a bleary-eyed look from too much of something, and pottered back to his armchair to listen to dub music; Martin only ever listened to dub music. Here goes, I thought. I quickly shed my clothes on the floor, hopped into the shower unit and had the fastest soap and scrub known to womanhood, before shoving on my clothes again, grunting Danke and running back upstairs.

A few hours later my flatmate came back from her own shower hooting with laughter. “You stripped in front of bloody Martin!”  “Er, yes isn’t that what you guys have been doing?” She snorted in disbelief. Oh no, like the demure well-brought up ladies they were, they always brought an extra towel to hang over the side of the shower, shielding them from their host’s gaze

From then on Martin was a lot friendlier to me, not in a creepy way, just in a way that implied acceptance and respect. That said: Hey, Mädel, you are one of us now.

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Fresh from having to buy his own Guinness in Moneygall (didn’t we learn from Primary Colours that elected officials never carry their money?), the Obamas have now been subjected to the Great British Barbecue. The name in itself is bothersome because to an American, a ‘barbecue’ is a deep South tradition involving whole chickens, racks of ribs bigger than the average Corgi, and heaps of ‘special recipe’ barbecue sauce with lashings of Jack Daniels.  It’s a very different meal from the array of charred processed meats that we Europeans might indulge in; that’s ‘grilling’, a softy Yankee art form.

Now *that’s* what I call a barbie

(image c/o Wikipedia’s ‘Southern Barbecue’ entry)

Still, semantics aside, the men were  jockeying for position over the burgers (cue much giggling about Nick Clegg being relegated to coal-prodding duty) whilst Michelle Obama and Sam Cam served the salads.

The obvious political photo-ops aside, this was bound to provoke yelps of ‘but why can’t the women be on sausage duty?’ (perhaps more tastefully put than that, and ignoring the obvious point that the real work will be done by a bunch of Secret Service guys dressed up as caterers).

The whole idea of the barbecue as the last bastion of testosterone makes me giggle. In my ‘mixed marriage’, my vegetarian husband is firmly in charge of any kind of ‘green shit’, whereas the position of Meat Mistress is equally firmly mine. Every year, when the weather gets good, my thoughts turn to firestarting in the proximity of gas canisters, to finding the best short ribs known to (wo)man and to experimenting with the marinades to see which bring the best flames (what’s a barbie without a blaze atop it?).  After ten years with my husband, I’ve learned to love the green stuff, and all winter long, we generally eat the same veggie food. But at the first glimpse of sunshine, the carnivore in me rises up from the core and my thoughts turn to juicy steak, to salmon with soy sauce, to prawns with roasted garlic. OK, so we’re pretty good at figs and balsamic, at grilled asparagus, at Portobello mushrooms in Hawaiian spices. But there’s nothing masculine about THIS grill queen. If I were the President’s wife (one can dream), I’d be barging in there, apron akimbo, desperate to get at the good stuff.

And it does beg the question; what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic primaries? Would she have been allowed her time with the tongs whilst Bubba, a Southern-barbecue aficionado, tossed salads and discussed Erdem with Sam? Perish the thought.

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A week ago it was my grandmother’s birthday.

Nanna lives all by herself in a little council flat in central London, a flat with a tiny paved square in front which is filled with carefully tended pot plants, like a leafy bubble in a grey, concrete world. I phoned her, as you do, and my timing was spot on, because she’d just put her birthday lunch in the oven – a pork chop with stuffing, roast potatoes and veg followed by her homemade banana custard, which she’s dished up since I can remember - and so I caught her sitting down, which must have been a first. Perhaps she’s slowing down, but then I guess that’s allowed at 93.

My grandmother, Florence Heathcote, during her military days.

Everyone marvelled at Queen Elizabeth, but she’s a mere sprightly, well-cared-for 85.

Let me tell you a little about this remarkable woman, my grandmother, born Florence Alice Rose in 1918, now Florence Heathcote. She looks like all grandmothers should in her pastel polo shirts, with a halo of soft curls - washed and set at the local salon on Thursdays – and spectacles permanently on her nose. But her eyesight isn’t failing at all. No, she already had glasses in the picture I have of her  during World War Two. In it she’s wearing a tie, a uniform and a military-style peaked cap set at a jaunty angle – “ooh, that was very naughty of me,” she chuckled when she gave me the photo – but then this portrait was an official identity photo, taken when she was serving in the Royal Air Force in Bombay in 1943.

Her ration card shows that she bought a surprising number of cigarettes. I’ve never known her to smoke but maybe she did back then, or maybe she had a thriving micro-business selling on fags to the troops. I like to imagine she had a naughty side like that, something to match her non-regulation hat angle. Oh, and she bought a lipstick on her ration card too. Good woman.

She remained in active service until 1951, rising to the rank of Sergeant, then went back to Britain and worked, quietly, stoically, for the telephone company until she retired. She married my granddad several years after his first wife – my mother’s mother – died too early, and never had children of her own. She happily took on all of us though, crocheting us dresses, hoarding Dolly Mixtures for my mum, and arguing with my dad about politics. We went to visit her once and couldn’t get up her street because some mad IRA chap was waving weapons about. We went around the back way and had to crawl under the windows in the stairwell so he wouldn’t see us.
Well, that’s when she wasn’t visiting us in South Africa bearing gifts of Smarties (in tubes!) and ever-more pastel crocheted jerkins, before patiently potty-training my sister, or cheering on Manchester City or gardening or making lemon curd or shouting at the cricket on telly or striding about the lakes and parks of the world, reminding children not to talk with their mouths full. She threatened to tie my legs to the chair for swinging them at the table.

One of Nanna's newspaper cuttings. (Yes, that's her in the background, but don't tell.)

I went to see her last year, and she met me at the door holding a walking stick, but her grip on it was so light she could have been Liza Minnelli interrupted during a (gentle) tap-dance to New York, New York. Her legs “aren’t what they used to be” she said, although when I left she walked me all the way to the canal, and didn’t seem to notice that she’d left her stick at home.

I turned to shout goodbye from the banks and she stood on the bridge, firm and unswerving, waving until we rounded the bend, and I felt tearful, knowing she was 92 and wondering if I’d see her again.

But still, now 93, she continues to walk everywhere, taking her wheelie shopping bag for her groceries and wool. The wool is very important, because she keeps her fingers nimble knitting hats for premature babies. She makes baby blankets for charity too. Sometimes stillborns get buried in her warm hats, she told me, clearly a bittersweet point of pride to a lady who has lived for so long.

The day previous to her birthday she made herself a pile of her favourite lemon biscuits as a treat, and her beloved Manchester City winning the FA Cup was her own personal birthday present. Not that she watched the match though. “I couldn’t,” she said, “The stress would have killed me.”

She’s of another era entirely, and we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but perhaps that was my fault, my unyielding temper, because she’s still mentally flexible. When I called she was delighted to hear from me and chatted brightly about everything, from her much-loved new HD satellite telly (she’s a demon with technology) to her great-nephew, who’s “unf… gay”. “Oh dear, I nearly said he’s unfortunately gay, but we don’t say things like that anymore,” said Nanna. “He lives in Manchester with his partner, and they’re happy, which is all that matters.”

Yes, she’s still completely mentally flexible, able to oust her prejudices and bend to changing times, even graciously accepting that her favourite great-niece has moved in with a chap. “Her father was a bit upset,” she said, “But I told him that people do things differently nowadays, and it’s their world.”

There won’t be a big obituary in all the papers or a state funeral when my grandmother eventually dies – possibly years after me at the rate she’s going -  and nothing will be said of her in the history books, even though she’s surely quite remarkable in this age of gimme and impatience and fame. So, while she still lives, I feel the need to shout that she’s an inspiration and a marvel, both her and the others that remain of her generation, the formidable, useful, capable, polite, principled, quietly noble generation, the generation that did what had to be done, that Just Got On With It, the generation that “looked after number one” very last of all.

We should treasure them now, and learn from them while we still can.

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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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Four weeks ago today, as a sunny Sunday came to a close, I sat in the restaurant of a hotel in Clare. Perched on a clifftop, the view was of huge Atlantic waves crashing on the beach, the surfers long gone as the last light drained from the sky. My husband was putting our children to bed in a family room two floors up. Our two-day break was nearly over. I say break, but as any parent with small children will tell you, ‘break’ is the most ill-conceived description of a holiday with young kids. Tons of fun, yes. A relaxing rest, no. After adventure parks and bouncy castles, beach strolls and round towers (where I managed to convince my son that Rapunzel lived), we decided to grab an hour or two to ourselves for dinner. The babysitter was booked, I ordered our main courses and although the view bordered on romantic cliché, it was insanely pretty. The minutes ticked by, other diners looked at me sympathetically. My wedding ring and the book of short stories I was reading did nothing to dispel she’s-been-stood-up glances of pity. I texted my husband. My normally well-behaved children, bitten by the holiday hyperactivity bug, were having none of it. After milk, umpteen stories and back-rubs, there was outright mutiny. Sleep? No way!

Kate and Gerry McCann

I mentally cancelled the crème brûlée I had seen on another diner’s table. After nearly an hour of wrangling, my husband gave up and sent the babysitter away. The kindly restaurant manager offered to send our food up to our room. My heart sank. I adore my children, and I thought of their impish faces as I wearily pushed the button for the lift – but everyone needs time out. At the time, I didn’t think of Kate and Gerry McCann. A harried doctor couple with three kids under four (including daughter Madeleine) attempting a family holiday, while stealing time for themselves; for the couple they were before they had children. I didn’t think of them, because at no point did my husband or I – as good as the view looked and the steak smelled – suggest to each other that we leave our children in the room alone. The McCanns stayed in an apartment a short distance (but completely separate from) the Tapas bar  where they spent that fateful night. Our room was two floors up in the same building, with key card access, 30 seconds from the restaurant, but still the thought was not there. It wasn’t even that it was unuttered – it never entered our collective brains to begin with. Watching the McCanns being interviewed on The Late Late Show recently, I had a flashback to that Clare hotel. How could they have left their children alone?

It’s a question that every armchair critic and news corporation has been demanding of Kate and Gerry McCann. It’s probably the one they ask themselves every night as they go to bed without their daughter.  On the last night of their stay in Portugal, they did what they had done every other night. They gambled. They made what they thought (must have thought, as I still don’t understand their rationale) what seemed like an innocuous choice. Food and drinks with friends versus leaving their young children untended. Not only was their decision as catastrophic as it gets, it has made them parental pariahs accused of everything from wife-swapping to sedating their child and much worse. They told Ryan Tubridy the story they’ve told a thousand times to Spanish police, to newspapers, to everyone they know. Clearly, it never gets easier. Kate’s face, as she talked of the horrific moment of realising her daughter was gone, was taut with pain. Online reactions to the interview were harsh. Too harsh. Because they have paid the ultimate price, and will have to live with unquantifiable levels of regret and guilt. I understand their lives were stressful, that they were tired parents, that they were eking out some downtime together in the evenings. That’s where I understand Kate and Gerry McCann. But that’s where my comprehension ends, because of the unfathomable decision they made that night.

In a Clare hotel, the food arrived to our room and we drank a glass of wine. My son and daughter wanted to taste the potatoes, in between bouncing on the beds and giggling. My heart nearly burst looking at them. Half an hour earlier, I could have screamed at them. Tired, I lay down and my daughter cuddled up beside me, her curls tickling my cheek. Her gorgeous face, all big-eyed and cheeky staring at me. Of all the memories we made that weekend, that was the one etched in my mind during the McCann’s interview, thankful that I can feel my daughter’s skin and smell her hair every day of my lucky life. And I feel nothing but pity for the McCanns because they cannot do the same thing.

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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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My pride in being Irish has taken a beating over the past few years. Government corruption and clerical child abuse shook me to the core. When the recruitment ban on public sector jobs left me unemployed almost two years ago, I emigrated to the UK like so many of my peers. But while there I missed the good parts of being Irish – the people, the sense of humour, the music and literature. Our unique worldview. It wasn’t long before I returned – wary this time, but with my eyes wide open.

Although I was lucky and managed to find work, again I was tested – again by the government.  The lies in the lead up to the IMF takeover and the spectacularly unfair subsequent budget made me wonder why I’d returned at all.

However, a wonderful Christmas at home with my family and friends made up for a lot. One of the many highlights was receiving the re-issued Soundings anthology. It reminded me of the fun I had while growing up in Ireland. A memory of happier times proved to be a great antidote to negativity. So I decided to compile a list of the quintessentially Irish aspects of my childhood to anchor myself in what being Irish truly means to me.

1.     Ulster bank’s Henry the hippo

I’ll never forget the joy I experienced when I went into the Ulster bank in the Main Street in Castlebar and exchanged five pounds of my Communion money for a hippo-shaped money-box, a notebook, a folder, a pen, a pencil, a key ring, a ruler and stickers. Turns out it was the only good deal I was to receive at the hands of an Irish bank so needless to say it left a lasting impression.

2.     Fancy paper

From a very young age I was keenly aware that I was never going to be the prettiest, brightest or sportiest girl in my class. But I had one thing no one else did: a bumper set of stationary my aunt sent me from Birmingham, just before fancy paper collections became the Next Big Thing. Fancy paper the only form of currency worth anything in the playground so my set of duplicate pages and envelopes enabled me to strike the canniest of deals, and before long I became the Don Corleone of St. Angela’s National School. Good times.

3.     Red lemonade

Last I heard, the powers-that-be were very keen to get the red stuff taken off the market due to its carcinogenic ingredients. Just as well I made the most of its availability when I was a kid by drinking gallons of the stuff then.


4.     The projected stories that taught me Irish

I loved learning Irish at primary school. It started with Mrs Waldron sticking cardboard cut-out words on a velcro background in junior babies and then progressed to the awesome ‘projector’, a word that I thought meant the cartoon-like stories that our new vocabulary was based on, not the apparatus itself. Like I said, I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

 5.     Mála 

Sure, plasticine is fun, but even more fun is the fact that we have our own word for it.

6.     Token collecting

My childhood version of being taken to Hamley’s in Dundrum was perusing the catalogue of products you could get if you collected tokens from empty Kellogg’s / Monaghan milk packaging. But the king of them all was the Maxol catalogue. From my first Casio watch to the sewing machine that my mother used to make my clothes, it was the Maxol catalogue that facilitated all the landmarks of my early consumer history. However, my budding materialism soon corrupted me; I became devious, inventing reasons to go on long car journeys so my Dad would buy more petrol and get more stamps. I soon realised that no matter how many I had, they were never enough. Taught me a lot, those Maxol stamps did.

7.     Anne & Barry

My mother was a hippy who never took a parental hard-line until it came to teaching me to read. I was a lazy little fecker so the poor woman had her work cut out. My salvation came in the form of my first English reader school book, Anne and Barry. I delighted in the adventures of those crazy kids and didn’t want the books to end. When I was introduced to their Irish language equivalent Áine agus Barra, my life felt complete. My bibliomania has been steadily hurtling out of control since then.  Thanks, Mum and Anne and Barry! [link: http://en-gb.facebook.com/pages/Anne-and-Barry-books-Remember/%5D

These are the things I shall remember the next time a Government announcement has me reaching for my passport. It may be hard to believe at times, but there are still some things that can’t be taxed or devalued. And never can be.

Regina de Búrca hails from the West of Ireland. She has been a Liverpool FC fan since the age of four. She writes books for teenagers and has a MA in writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She currently lives in Dublin. Twitter: @Regina_dB

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We decide, over Christmas, that we will get married. We both want to. But there’s a big difference between getting married and having a wedding. We agree instantly on the ceremony aspect of things, and agree, after arguing (because being engaged is not all about necking fizz) that we want to have some sort of celebration, to mark the day and have our families and friends celebrating with us. A small party, we both say. Tiny, in fact. Restrained. No ice sculptures. No owls bearing rings. But we are still unsure. Neither of us feels it is natural to celebrate ourselves.Disney bride

We set a date, the minimum three months from the date of our licence. People seem chuffed for us, and express themselves with such sincerity we know we’ve been right to include them. “You must be so excited,” they grin, uncorking with abandon (because being engaged is partly about necking fizz).

In the face of their chuffedness and sincerity, I am graceless and awkward, and perhaps inappropriately honest: “Actually I think I’m dreading it.” The grins drop. I don’t think any of my mates have been expecting to have the Are You Sure About This chat with me. “Not the being married bit, the getting married bit. Getting trussed up in a frock. People staring at me. Listening to us doing something private. Seeing how much weight I’ve lost, or whether I’ve managed to make my hair look tidy.”

It takes my sister to be appropriately brisk. “What do you mean, people looking at you like that? Who the hell are you asking to this wedding?” She is right. I realise we have not actually invited anyone who works for  the Daily Mail. “Just do what you want,” she says, and friends echo her.

We are both Dubliners, and want a city wedding.

The One Bad Thing About Father

We keep numbers small, but when it is announced that the Obamas will be in Dublin (and Moneygall) in late May, I send them an invitation, along with a gift for their daughters, a secondhand book I think may amuse them. They do not reply. How am I to know whether to include them in the vegetarian option? Perhaps they have been offended by the mention of Teddy Roosevelt.

There will be no big white dress. I have been married before, and am pushing forty, or brushing lightly against it, anyway. I decide against bridesmaids. I will not be given away. Can I be given away a second time anyway? We decide against a first dance, a cake, speeches. We change our minds. And back. We are like willows in the wind.

Despite the simplicity we intend, I have to go shopping. I realise there will have to be some sort of dress, or at least that I will have to be clothed. I listen to other people and pay for a dress that doesn’t suit me; my patient sister mops my tears over the wasted money, the foolishness, and takes time off work for a mercy shopping dash. I enter younger sister mode, plodding behind muttering sulkily how pointless it is, but she ignores me and marches around Brown Thomas collecting armfuls of dresses for me to try on.

“Just try it for shape. Just try it for colour. Just try it for length. Just try it for the beading.” We find two dresses, and when I buy one for the wedding, she buys me the other “because you always need a party dress”.

I try a spray tan. I cannot stand the look of fake tan. I know this as I make the appointment. I do not want to be brown but I want to see if my skin tone will be evened out. I stand like a starfish in front of a beauty therapist who mists a chemical all over me. “This one has no smell,” she says, gesturing for me to turn my thighs out like a ballerina. It reeks. It makes me bright brown and does not give an even skin tone.

“Are you wearing fake tan?” asks the man I am about to marry, partly amused and partly horrified.

“Yes – it’s a trial run.”

“Please don’t wear it for the wedding,” he says kindly. He rarely sees anything negative in the way I look; when it comes to me, these words from his lips are as harsh as they come. My shins are patchy, my wrists and heels grubby. My brown hands on the steering wheel look old and stained. Pippa Middleton and I would struggle to find common ground. I will have to spend a week exfoliating. Down the plughole with thirty euros in the shape of scrubbed-off bits of dyed epidermis. At least I will be married in my own skin, though.

I cannot find a cream leather shoe or sandal. Friends text me pictures covertly snapped in shoe shops around Ireland. One suggests I go barefoot. “Romantic,” she points out, and it would be, were I eighteen, with daisies woven into my waist-length hair.

My sister phones. “I was thinking about that dress last night. You need a wrap. I can make you one if you like. I have to go now, I’m at work.”

A friend organises a makeup lesson and invites my sister and mother as well as other friends. She provides supper and wine and refuses to let the visiting makeup artist do her face or eyes. “Nope. This is for you,” she says. “Bridie.” I have known her since we were about five. She offers to make me a necklace for the wedding day. We neck fizz.

I have a hen night. We neck fizz. A friend has come over from London. My future sisters-in-law have made me a collage of photographs of my future husband as a child. A friend gives me a bag of luxury beauty treats. Someone who has returned from India brings bindis, and we decorate one another. We have dinner. More people come. Someone fastens a necklace around my throat. Everyone is good company and looks beautiful and I am delighted that they are my friends. I neck more fizz and start to witter softly and tearfully about how much I love them all. I am that sort of drunk. My shoes are killing me and I cannot walk to the nightclub. A friend produces a pair of pumps from a bag and I spring about Dawson Street. I dance in the pumps until three in the morning, when my bindi slides away on a film of sweat. The following day I have barely swallowed a coffee before a friend has emailed around Bracelet of Friends, a commemorative hen night poem she has composed.

After the hen night I know I am looking forward to the wedding, though I still feel traces of awkwardness about being the centre of attention. I have not been a bridezilla, but my reluctance and awkwardness have been another form of self-obsession. When I raise my eyes from my own irregularly tanned navel I am overwhelmed by the generosity, good will and sense of celebration that surround us.

The 30-Day Shred has improved my arms (slightly), but even in the dimmest candlelight they could not be confused with Michelle Obama’s. Perhaps it is for the best that she is not coming. Anyway, a stranger’s face would be out of place among those of everyone we love.

Yes, I am definitely looking forward to it now: our exchange of vows, our bracelet of friends.

Next Saturday, when Leinster wins the Heineken Cup, we will be married.

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The ink so far

The ink so far

I’m getting on, getting sensible, getting worried about what people think… ah, who am I kidding? Even writing that line had me mentally reaching for a pack of Marlboro red and a bottle of Jameson at nine in the morning. Perhaps being young and being bould is one in the same thing to me. Which leads me to the current conundrum. To tattoo or not tattoo.

Tattoos started in my early twenties, a little obsession which had me under the needle for a patchwork of hours closing in on a full day of pain and magic creams. At one stage, my five-year-old son had to administer cream to the parts of my back that no contortion would allow me to access. They marked out times, obstacles overcome, relationships ended. Each tattoo planned, begotten and relished. The colours, the shapes, the delicious look of the fresh paint hiding more of me or perhaps revealing more.

My tattoos are mine, they inhabit my back and  - withstanding a sudden re-awakening as a bikini clad supermodel – will be hidden for the rest of their colourful life. That seems a shame. I look at others brandishing tattoos, names and spotted tribals where the desire to pick was too great to resist and feel the pangs. I can do better, I would never have allowed anyone to do that to me. I was lucky to have a great artist etch away at me, and now I’m lucky enough to know another whose work and outlook I admire. So I face the current dilemma, should I take the plunge and do my forearm?  I’ve looked upon its pitted surface for years, the marks of another time and life on it and wished for the colour, the right image, the beautiful band-aid to lend itself to my flesh.

Having my back done means a fleeting flash of colour getting into the shower, a sometimes reminder in a low backed dress. Having your arm done is a daily viewing. I’ve found an image, a little Holden- inspired fun, that I think I won’t detest immediately. It marks the last four years of sacrifice and hardship, but can I take that plunge? Do I still need to declare myself as anything?

So to tattoo, or not tattoo? I want it. Writing this has made me want it more, but the logistical nightmare of long sleeves around my parents (yes, I’m that whipped) for the rest of my days is a torture I may not endure. That said I’m 35 and should be able to make these decisions as a sentient human being (albeit one who still can’t bear her mothers ‘disappointed’ face).

What do you think, ink or not?

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