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Archive for December, 2010

The ECHR judgement that Anthea McTiernan wrote about so eloquently yesterday has highlighted the journeys made every year by Irish women seeking abortions in the UK. Here one of those women, Molly McCarthy, tells her story.

It’s with great joy I hear of the ECHR finding that the courts were not the appropriate place to determine the course of a woman’s life. I’m sure as I type various groups are scrambling to decry the imposition of Europe in our ‘private’ Irish affairs, for abortion is something we cant talk about, for fear of judgment, judgment of those who never had to look at that option.

I made friends with a neigbour in an apartment complex when both our children were very young, at some stage she fell pregnant by her partner and decided that she couldn’t cope with another kid. She made the decision to terminate the pregnancy and to my current shame I let the friendship drift, I couldn’t reconcile the act with my supposed morals.

Less than 12 months later I was pregnant from a one night stand, she had moved away and I had to take stock and decided that two  children under four on my own would not only destroy me, it would hurt my child, my family and any prospects I had of rebuilding my life to provide for my son.

I had been pregnant already in less than perfect circumstances. I had intended to give the baby up for adoption, the guilt at the prospect of not being able to provide everything for my child was so great I was willing to part with him. As time progressed I felt different, I had to come clean and tell my parents, albeit at 8 months the shock of revelation is still a sore point to this day. His father was a lovely guy that slept on the floor of the hospital for 3 days as we couldn’t afford anything else, hardly the luxurious welcome I wanted for a new baby, but we survived. I nursed him and held him and was more in love with this child than I thought possible. I still am. His dad died suddenly when he was 18 months old, I fell apart, the boy was the only source of happiness, my rock, I lived for him, for I did not feel like I was worth living for any more.

Deciding to have an abortion less than a year after my partner’s death was the only logical step, I could not mentally, financially or physically take the strain of another baby. My G.P. counseled me against it, would not support my decision or help me get information. My stubborn streak kicked in and all of my Catholic school brainwashing was abandoned. Because an abortion is a personal decision, it’s something you can only truly understand and know about if you are in that situation. I’m not a ‘hard’ person, I don’t hate life, I love it, but I needed to look after MY life there and then.

Less than a week later I dropped the boy at a friend’s house, drove to Dublin, got a flight to Liverpool and had a procedure. I was 9 weeks pregnant that morning, that night I returned home happy. Happy seems an odd word to use here, but I was, walking out of the clinic, staffed by Irish nurses, full of Irish girls in similar situations, I felt that I had started to do things for myself, that I had looked after myself instead of somebody else for the first time in a long time. I do not now nor have I ever regretted what I did that day. I would help and support any woman to do the same.

I begged and borrowed to travel quickly, my sympathies are now firmly aligned with girls who cannot afford such a luxury. I could not imagine the pain of having to continue a pregnancy any longer than necessary for anyone who is sure they can’t continue it, the additive costs of flights, transport, fees as well as accommodation for some people is not within reach. We have abortion in Ireland, we just happen to do it next door. Abortion is something you can only understand when you are faced with a pregnancy and have no other choices, I had been there and bought the t-shirt as far as ‘other options’ go. My abortion is not something I talk about, which seems to be the code amongst women who do not regret it. All one hears is the horror stories, full of regret and pain and morality warnings, I have none of those, I skipped into John Lennon Airport that evening.

Perhaps if everyone could recount their abortion tales we would have a little more balance to the pro/anti choice debates, perhaps a bit more compassion and understanding, and I’d probably have another friend.

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The Irish Times published a number of adoption related stories in recent months, one about how new legislation has affected current domestic adoptions followed by a more personal piece regarding three women who gave their children up for adoption. But it was a letter from one Father Con McGillicuddy which has caused me to brood a little on the subject. Father Con thought it ‘sad’ that women who did not want to be mothers chose abortion when there are – as he put it:

“There are many pro-life agencies such as Cura available to help women with unwanted pregnancies, providing guidance and facilities towards bringing their children to birth; children who could then be adopted by couples who would give them a happy life.”

All of which is laudable, except for one thing. For those women who travelled to the UK it is not just about what to do with a baby at the end of the pregnancy, but that they travel because they do not wish to be pregnant in the first place. They do not wish to be pregnant for 40 weeks, or go through an unwanted labour or deliver a child  and hand it over to strangers.

While I have nothing but sympathy for any woman or man longing yet unable to have a biological child, it is extremely questionable to suggest that women in a crisis pregnancy automatically become incubators for the childless. And while I take no umbrage with the sentiment behind what he wrote and agree that we ought to be supportive of women in crisis pregnancies, I feel we ought to be supportive of ALL of their decisions. I certainly think it is shameful that we as a nation are so eager to stick our heads in the sand while we export our problem to the UK. Five thousand women. Five thousand.

Father Con is right, it is sad commentary, but I doubt we feel that for the same reasons.

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Living overseas, as I did for most of this decade, has all sorts of random benefits.  My favourite? From time to time, you get to experience the kind of thing that seems like it must have been made up for tourists, except that no tourists are within a 15-mile radius. At a trade fair in Anchorage one February (ever want to see the Pacific frozen over? Alaska in February’s a decent bet for that), I became entranced by an old man in a coat made from a bear he’d shot and killed himself. The man wasn’t that entrancing, nor is the fact that he’d shot the bear, per se. It was more that, you know, how often in your life are you ever going to meet a bear hunter, let alone one dressed for the sub-zero temperatures in a little number he’d skinned himself? I couldn’t stop stroking it (the COAT, you filthy people), much to the appalled amusement of my beloved colleague.

Last December, our final one in Dublin I had a similar moment. It didn’t involve culturally-appropriate clothing – no cloaks of finest peat for the Irish – but it was one of those things that had extra significance for happening in Ireland. I discovered that the *true* Irish national anthem is, in fact, this song:

I was in a cheesy club with some of my favourite people on the island. It was the early hours and, as they say here in a gloriously euphemistic manner, there had been drink taken. In other words, the entire place was full of rat-arsed Irishfolk holding each other up as they brought the place down. Right towards the end of the night, on came the Pogues (not literally, though that would have been an even better story). Every. Single. Person. in the room suddenly pulled themselves together, stood upright as if at Mass, and burst into pitch-perfect, declamatory, Shane-McGowan-style-swaying song. It made me beam, and beam, and beam some more. OK, so most people know some part of this song, but to be in an entire room of locals all belting it out as though Christmas depended on it; that was something I had no idea would happen.

It gives me goosebumps and makes me giggle every time I think about it. A year on, back in stiff-upper-lip England, we’ve got the song on permanent repeat this Christmas. Need to make sure our Irish-born three-year-old is word-perfect before his passport’s revoked, after all…

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The figures aren’t in yet for 2010, but in 2009 we welcomed a whole heap of little girls to Ireland. Sophie, Ava, Emma, Sarah, Grace, Emily, Katie, Lucy, Aoife and Chloe – welcome! You are the proud owners of the top 10 girls’ names in the State.
They are beautiful names. We hope you get to keep them.
We hope you get to grow up in a State that vindicates your human rights, Sophie. We hope you keep your good name, Ava. We hope your name is respected, Emma. We hope that it isn’t taken from you, Grace, as we manhandle you, small and scared and 14, through a legal system that strips you of your privacy and dignity. A system that replaces your beautiful name with a single letter.

The European Court of Human Rights

In 1992 we took another 14-year-old girl’s name from her and replaced it with a single letter, X. She had a beautiful name too. She had been raped. She had been made pregnant. She had decided to terminate her unwanted pregnancy.
She couldn’t do it here, of course. We have no truck with girls with letters for names whose experiences cause us to shudder. We are not comfortable with such discomfort. It is not for us.
X went to England.
Her parents supported her decision, but we did not. The Attorney General, who upholds the laws of our land, sought and got an order from the High Court stopping the nameless Ms X from leaving Ireland for nine months. She came back from England with her mum and her dad to contest the order. More time passed. We piled more pressure on the head of the 14-year-old we had stripped of a name. She had been raped. We had no shame.
She could take no more, the nameless 14-year-old. She wanted it all to stop. She was suicidal.
On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that “if it is established that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy, such termination is permissible”.
She remains Ms X to this day, but she is part of a chain of amazing women with letters for their names whose bravery and dignity will make a difference.
In 1997, we supplied another link in the chain of suffering. Another 13-year-old girl was raped and impregnated. She was in the care of the Eastern Health Board. She was in the care of the State. She was all our responsibility. She had no need for a name, so we called her C.
The EHB goes to the District Court to apply to take C abroad for an abortion. C’s parents challenge these orders in the High Court. The High Court rules that as C is liable to take her own life if forced to continue with the pregnancy, she is entitled to an abortion in Ireland by virtue of the Supreme Court judgment in the 1992 X case.
C still has to go to England.
Five years later, in 2002 Irish voters reject the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, 2002, which would have removed the threat of suicide as a ground for abortion and increased the penalties for helping a woman to have an abortion.
In 2006, another Irish woman loses her name.
Pregnant with twins, one of whom has died in her womb, the other with fatal fetal abnormalities, she has to travel to England to have a termination. Her name is now D.
She has been forced to leave her country to go to England. Now she must travel further, this Irish woman with no name, to whom the saddest thing has happened.
She tells the European Court of Human Rights that Ireland’s ban on abortion in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities violates Articles 1, 3, 8, 20, 13 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Irish Government argues that the woman should have applied to the Irish courts to have an abortion. She could have been legally entitled to an abortion in Ireland, they argue. They don’t say where in Ireland. Europe agrees that domestic legal remedies had not been exhausted.
The alphabet is being exhausted too – the alphabet we use to protect ourselves from looking into the eyes of the real girls and women we are hurting.
In 2007 a 17-year-old woman in the care of the State finds herself with an anencaphelic pregnancy. HSE social workers challenge the right of a second Miss D to travel to England for a termination. Let her go, the High Court says. Miss D has a right to travel abroad for an abortion.
Two years before D was put in this position that thumped us in the solar plexus of our national shame, three more women were dealing with their own challenges and tragedies. It was back to the beginning of the alphabet.
And so we come to this Thursday, December 16th, 2010, when the European Court of Human Rights will issue a ruling on whether Ireland’s restrictions on abortion violate women’s human rights.
Since 1980 more than 143,479 women and girls have left Ireland to have an abortion abroad. The figure is not final – it rises every day. We have exhausted tens of thousands of alphabets. Now we have three more letters – A, B, and C. Three more women whose bravery, whose resilience, whose selflessness has carried us to the door of another decision on Ireland’s stance on abortion.
Listen to their stories, because every woman has a story. She is not a letter, not a statistic, not a footnote.
On Thursday the ECHR will rule whether the cases of A, B and C involved a transgression of their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Applicant A was living in poverty. She was getting her life together after facing personal problems and was hopeful of being reunited with her four children, who were in care. She got pregnant. It was not planned. Another child was not what she wanted. It was the wrong time and might damage her chances of getting her existing family back together. She went to England for an abortion.
Applicant B had taken emergency contraception after unprotected sex. It didn’t work and she was told she also could be at risk of an ectopic pregnancy. She didn’t want to go ahead with the pregnancy at this time or run the risks associated with an ectopic pregnancy. She travelled to England and had an abortion.
Applicant C had battled cancer for three years. She had become pregnant unintentionally after the cancer had gone into remission, but had undergone a series of tests contra-indicated during pregnancy, while she was unaware that she was pregnant. C had not been able to find a doctor in Ireland who would tell her whether her life would be endangered by the pregnancy or if the foetus would be affected by the tests she had undergone. Given the uncertainty and the risks involved, she travelled to England to have an abortion.
These are the bare bones of these women’s cases. They do not do justice to the women or what they have suffered at the hands of a State that chooses to look the other way, as long as the other way involves a plane or a ferry to somewhere else.
The ECHR must decide whether Ireland has failed to vindicate the human rights of these three women.
If they decide this is the case, then we will no longer have need of the alphabet to save us from ourselves. Sophie, Ava, Emma, Sarah, Grace, Emily, Katie, Lucy, Aoife and Chloe can keep their good names. And we will have grown up.

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I’m sitting in a large auditorium with my husband. We, along with the hundreds of other parents present, are thinking of applying for a place for our son in the school which houses this impressive theatre. We listen to various speakers describe the amazing facilities on offer; the state-of-the-art science and computer labs, the 25 metre pool, extensive sports grounds, the opportunities to take part in plays, musicals, debating, choir or orchestra. Not to mention the foreign trips, the charitable and cultural programmes, the rigorous academic standards. A sixth year pupil can’t speak highly enough of the school and the incredible experience he has had there.

At the end of the evening, we feel like losing contestants on ‘Bullseye’, the cult darts-themed quiz show hosted by Jim Bowen. Just before the show’s closing credits there was a slightly cruel twist; crestfallen punters were forced to watch as the curtains opened to reveal the ‘Star Prize’. At this moment Jim would deliver his catchphrase ‘Look what you could have won’ in his trademark jovial, yet regretful, tone.

We’ve had a glimpse behind the curtain, but we know there’s little chance we’ll win the star prize. Look what we could have won – if only dad had attended the school.

School access can be limited for those without connections

This particular school is fee-paying and massively oversubscribed. Its admission policy states that places are offered first to those in ‘priority groups’ which include brothers of past or current pupils, sons, grandsons or nephews of past pupils, sons of staff members and close relatives of members of the religious order which runs the school.

This year, over two thirds of the places in the school were offered to those in priority groups before anyone else was considered. Our son, with no brothers and a non-Irish dad, only ever stood an outside chance of being offered a place. Sure enough, we recently received a ‘thanks for your interest’ letter.

We also applied to two non fee-paying local schools but we have had no success there either. Their admission policies also favour sons and/or brothers of past pupils. Our boy is near the bottom of the waiting list in one of these schools. Things were looking more hopeful in the other, where he is higher on the list. But alas, they received more than the usual number of applications from siblings this year, and have told us they will only be offering ‘one or two’ places to those on the waiting list.

Last week the Equality Tribunal ruled that a Clonmel school’s admission policy, which gives priority to sons or brothers of past pupils, is discriminatory. Details are here: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/frontpage/2010/1210/1224285195609.html

This ruling may force schools to review their admission policies, though I have a feeling it will be strongly resisted. In the meantime, we have made late applications to three more schools and are keeping everything crossed.

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FICTION

Damon Galgut – In a Strange Room (Bloomsbury)

Originally published as three short pieces in The Paris Review, this exceptional work blurs the line between fiction and memoir, novel and short story. It follows its protagonist through three different stories, which are titled as roles that Damon sees himself in – The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian. There is huge restraint in the characters Galgut creates and a sense of repression does battle with emotions. This peripatetic tale is hugely affecting and written with a sparseness that belies the emotional punch it packs. Also recommended: Philip Roth – Nemesis. Sinéad Gleeson

Paul Murray – Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton)

I didn’t read much new fiction this year, but I did read a few excellent new novels, including Paul Murray’s fantastic second novel Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton). I should add, before anyone who knows me points it out, that the author is an old friend of mine. But if I didn’t honestly think that Skippy Dies was such an outstanding book, I wouldn’t mention it at all. It’s funny and rude and sad and ambitious and imaginative and, to my great relief, I loved it. Anna Carey

Jon McGregor – Even the Dogs (Bloomsbury)

Many reviews of Jon McGregor’s third novel were quick to label it “bleak”, and while the subject matter is dark and relentless, it has a brutal beauty. Following the haphazard lives of group of drug addicts and alcoholics, McGregor’s language, narrative arcs and characters save it from polemic. It’s an unsentimental portrait of damaged lives and cyclical hopelessness. Thought-provoking, tender and an important chronicle of our times. Also recommended: Pat McCabe – The Stray Sod CountrySinéad Gleeson

Lionel Shriver – So Much For That

I’m not quite sure why this book has been so overlooked in the end of year round-ups, but it’s one that stayed with me more than so many novels I read this year. Blue collar Shep Knacker sold his hardware shop to become an employee. With the $1 million spoils, he planned to ask his wife and son to move to an African island. His wife Glynis is suffering from a rare cancer and the couple’s friends Jackson and Carol have a chronically sick daughter. Illness is central to the book, but Shriver uses it to caustically attack the US Healthcare system, to question the morality of illness and to ultimately ask how much a life is worth. Also recommended: Paul Auster – Sunset Park (Faber) Sinéad Gleeson

NON-FICTION

Bust: How the Courts Have Exposed the Rotten Heart of the Irish Economy – Dearbhail McDonald (Penguin Ireland)

I think it’s fair to say that I would have enjoyed this book a whole lot more had it documented the rotten heart of an economy other than the one in which I live. Nevertheless Dearbhail McDonald’s utterly compelling and clear sighted exposé of the manner in which Ireland’s flimsy house of cards finally came tumbling down within the confines of our courtrooms is as enlightening as it is enraging. As legal editor of the Irish Independent, McDonald has unique access to the high stakes and often shadowy realm of property investment and she renders its complex machinations accessible to us all. Eleanor Fitzsimons

David Shields – Reality Hunger: A Manifesto  (Penguin)

One of the strangest books I read all year. I opened Reality Hunger knowing nothing about it, liked what I read, earnestly made a few notes, murmured “Ooh, yes, well said” a few times. Not the sharpest tool in the box that day, it wasn’t until I got to point 126 (of the 617 that make up the book) that I recognized a quote of Hemingway’s and copped on that the whole thing was a collage of other people’s work sprinkled sparsely with a few insights of Shield’s own. It’s reality, and this kind of collage – sampling, remixing, repurposing –  that he sees as the future of writing, the novel being now dead. After its oddly exciting start, the manifesto, ultimately, is one I can’t really get behind, but I still think Reality Hunger is worth reading because it pokes about in your brain. Think about this, in the context of all the media we so greedily consume: do we still want fiction, or do we only want what is real? Come on – even as a non-fiction junkie, I’d never surrender the novel, nor the short story. Antonia Hart

Afterword: Stieg Larsson: Four Essays and an Exchange of E-mails (Maclehose Press, Quercus)

One of the unexpected, non-fiction treats of my 2010 was Afterword, four beautifully written, thoughtful accounts of Stieg Larsson as a friend and colleague. As with the best crime fiction, the essays also offer intriguing insight into Swedish society past and present and the history of crime fiction there. But the centre of the book is the man himself, via a series of emails to and from Gedin in 2004, mulling over possible cuts to the books, front covers, titles, the Frankfurt Book Fair, in what neither knew was the last six months of his life. Paula Shields

Michael Pollan – Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual

A small, tiny-chaptered book full of absolute sense about healthy eating. Basically: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ Other pithy bits of advice include that sugar is still sugar even if it is organic and/or found in healthy foods. And don’t eat foods that are advertised on TV. You’ll read this in one sitting and it’s packed with good advice.  Nuala Ní Chonchúir

 

Various Authors – The Big Book of Hope (Poolbeg, In Aid of the Hope Foundation)

If this book consisted of a collection of blank pages I would have bought it anyway, happy in the knowledge that my few euros were heading directly to the street children of Kolkata in India; children living in unimaginable fear and desperate poverty. The fact that it is instead an eclectic, entertaining and thoroughly thought provoking collection of fiction and memoir contributed to by authors of the calibre of  Maeve Binchy, Brian Keenan, Martina Devlin and Joseph O’Connor to name but a very few ensures that this is a book I will dip into frequently and always treasure. A perfect Christmas gift. Eleanor Fitzsimons

Valerie Grove – So Much To Tell (Penguin) I love really good biographies, and they don’t come much better than Valerie Grove’s So Much To Tell, a biography of the legendary Kaye Webb, who was the editor of Puffin Books for several decades. If you have the slightest interest in publishing or children’s literature from the 1950s to the 1980s (which, if you’re over 30, probably includes most of the books you grew up on), you will adore it, and even if you aren’t interested in either topic you’ll find plenty to interest you in this funny, lively, unsentimental and utterly fascinating book. Anna Carey

Greg Baxter – A Preparation for Death (Penguin)

Greg Baxter’s memoir drew mixed reviews, but I loved it, loved its bluntness, its severity and its honesty. It’s a record of experiences around drinking and writing and reading and remembering people, around having to work and choosing to work and telling the story as you see it. As a Dubliner I find portraits of Dublin hard to read – often irritating, sentimentalised or pumped up – but I found Baxter’s readable and recognisable, though hardly attractive. Incidentally, it’s also real enough to attract a lavish puff-quote from the reality hungry David Shields. Antonia Hart

Stephen Fry – The Fry Chronicles (Michael Joseph)

Fry is such an accomplished prose stylist, so readable and funny, that I almost overlooked the fact that the content of this book, a second volume of memoir (preceded by Moab is my Washpot) is a bit of a letdown, with dramatic and personal gems cast around uninspected. Funny stories are piled on lacerations of the self, with Fry rushing to criticise himself before anyone gets there first. I’d have liked more exploration of why and how things happened, of his emotional development, I suppose. In relation to his work, for example, everything seems to just fall into place, slip, slip, slip, but that can hardly be the truth – or if it is, I’d like to touch the hem of his cardigan. Antonia Hart


Trevor White – The Dubliner Diaries (Lilliput Press)
In the summer of 2000, long before the boom rang hollow, Trevor White returned from New York to launch the Dubliner Magazine and kept a diary documenting the triumphs and pitfalls of establishing and running a niche magazine in a small, crowded market. Now his diary entries have been published as a collection. White is an engaging raconteur and delightfully chronicles an extraordinary and transient period in our history. As a cautionary tale describing the sorry trajectory of the tiger, this book, and indeed the often misunderstood but frequently excellent Dubliner Magazine that spawned it, will be difficult to surpass. Eleanor Fitzsimons

Liam Carson – Call Mother a Lonely Field (Hag’s Head Press)

I don’t think it’s going too far to call this short memoir a beautiful book, poetic and emotional. It tells the story of the author’s childhood in his Irish-speaking Belfast home, the contrast between his ties to this place (and the language itself, Irish, is a place) and the lure of the new – the birth of punk, science fiction, life in Dublin, life in London. There’s no trace of sentimentality as he writes of his love for both his parents, particularly his mother, and of how people go from and return to the place that is the Irish language: a form of home, and eventually tearmann, a sanctuary. The book’s studded with poetry, including the gorgeous, bilingual My Father’s Dreams. Antonia Hart

Christopher Hitchens – Hitch 22 (Atlantic Books)

It seems that whenever something truly momentous and world altering was in progress during the last three decades Christopher Hitchens was lurking nearby or, more likely, embroiled in the thick of things. His role as a journalist took him to countless war zones and political nerve centres and his calling as an outspoken activist ensures that he has a forthright opinion to offer in every case. This fascinating memoir illuminates Hitchins’ early life and motivations and chronicles the extraordinary events to which he has borne witness. Hitchins is currently documenting his personal battle with cancer in a series of dazzling Vanity Fair columns. Eleanor Fitzsimons


Natasha Walter – Living Dolls (Virago)

It’s been a pretty good year for feminist non-fiction. I particularly liked Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls (Virago), a welcome challenge to the constant pressure on women and especially girls to conform to a certain hyper-feminine stereotype. I thought some of her writing on sexuality was a bit simplistic, as her interviewees are split between young girls dreaming of a steady, romantic relationship and other teen girls with a rather bleak view of sexual relationships (they barely seem to see the people they have meaningless sex with as human beings); there are plenty of girls somewhere in the middle who might welcome a steady relationship but might also enjoy the odd pointless, fun one-night stand when they happen to be single. Despite these elements, this is still an important book – the first half of it, which examines the pressure on girls to present themselves in a sexualised way, got more press attention, but it’s the second half that really packs a punch, as Walter examines the way the media embraces even the flimsiest stories and studies that seem to confirm innate gender difference while ignoring all those that don’t. For more on that topic, read Cordelia Fine’s excellent – and extremely entertaining –  Delusions of Gender, an impressive and surprisingly funny debunking of the pseudo-science surrounding gender characteristics. Anna Carey

Deborah Devonshire – Wait for Me! Memories of the Youngest Mitford Sister (John Murray)

I’m a bit of a sucker for the Mitford industry, and Wait for Me! does give a few fresh glimpses of Nancy as a young woman and Decca as a child, as well as some new reasons to be intrigued and terrified by their bonkers, brilliant Farve, but most of this ground has been so well crisscrossed (and with such sparkling writing) by Nancy, Jessica and Diana, that this book seems destined to remain, like Debo, always the little sister. I’d hoped for an interesting read about the huge undertaking of opening and running Chatsworth, the Devonshires’ mammoth family seat, but it felt disappointingly like reading a series of to-do and have-done lists. I was intrigued by the part dealing with the Duchess’s coping with her alcoholic husband, but even this was efficiently boxed off without, I felt, a real exploration of the emotions underneath. Those gripes aside, you do  get some sense of a passion and energy which has powered her into her nineties. Good fun for Mitford fans. Antonia  Hart.


Charlie Connelly – Our Man in Hibernia (Little Brown)

Charlie Connelly may have had to dig deeper than he originally anticipated in order to unearth his Irish roots but it is we lucky readers who benefit from this additional delving. Casting a benevolent outsider’s eye over our turbulent history and  the many ticks and quirks that make us what we are, Connelly characteristically wears his considerable knowledge lightly and packs an impressive amount of social history into a very entertaining ramble around our little island. At a time when we are perhaps losing sight of our  national identity, it is reassuring to read such a clear, insightful and humorous celebration of where we come from and who we  are. Eleanor Fitzsimons

SHORT STORIES

Colm Tóibín – The Empty Family (Penguin Viking)

Colm Tóibín’s latest short story collection is filled with stories of emigration and exile. It’s a familiar theme in his work, but one that seems touchingly prescient at the moment. In these stories, set in Ireland, America and even Barcelona, Tóibín manages to convey the push-pull urges of the emigrant, the coin-flip mentality of trying to make logistical choices and the sense of isolation felt whether you go, or you stay. The ‘empty family’ of several of these stories comprises several familial set-ups, the ones that exist outside the mythology of the Irish, nuclear family – the surrogate families, the ones that provide connection and sustenance when blood ties have disappointed. His Irish characters have an umbilical connection to Ireland. There are multiple references to routes and roads, revealing the cartographic obsession of his characters. Despite these journeys, the unifying concern is with defining the concept of home or family, be it the physical act of leaving/returning and the metaphysical definitions of what home and family actually represent. An exceptional collection; intense, emotional and provocative. Also recommended: Amy Bloom – Where the God of Love Hangs Out Sinéad Gleeson

Tom Vowler – The Method and other stories. 

Tom Vowler is a writer for the 21st century; his fiction is packed with modern problems: affairs, odd families, abducted children and seriously disaffected, questionably motivated characters. These stories are unpredictable, bold, funny and very well written. Nuala Ní Chonchúir

 

Hanif Kureishi – Collected Stories (Faber)

Seeing Hanif Kureishi’s work collected in one place reminds you what a gifted, challenging writer he is. Kureishi writes from a very dark, immoral place, filling his narratives with unlikely characters – men motivated solely sex, greed or ego – or passive women who are subjugated tropes. Family and race permeate his work and his famous story ‘My Son the Fundamentalist’ is more relevant now than it was on publication.  Fascinating, provocative writing from an uncompromising writer. Also recommended: Maile Meloy – Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. Sinéad Gleeson

MUSIC

Graeme Thomson – Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush (Omnibus Press)

Given Kate Bush’s elusiveness, an in-depth biography was always going to be of interest, even for people who aren’t ardent fans. Apart from the sheer wealth of information – from studio recordings, to childhood trivia, music critic Graeme Thompson has vast knowledge of his subject. His enthusiasm and general interest are part of the reason this is such an engaging read. Media perceptions of Kate as fey or eccentric are challenged and the stories he has gleaned from countless sources shape a more accurate picture of a fascinating creative talent. A must-read for fans and recommended for any fans of biography. Also recommended: Alex Ross – Listen to This (Fourth Estate) Sinéad Gleeson
POETRY

Patrick Chapman – The Darwin Vampires

Chapman’s fifth collection is full of the wry, witty, intellectual poems he has become known for. This is sensuous, honest poetry for the reader who is willing to let poems give up their secrets slowly. Fantastic stuff. Nuala Ní Chonchúir

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Chicken breasts are a great dinner standby, but you have to make a bit of an effort to elevate them from the downright dowdy. This dish of chicken breasts stuffed with cream cheese, wrapped in Parma ham and roasted on a bed of cherry tomatoes, makes a great mid-week dinner. It would also work as a perfectly decent casual dinner party offering, especially if you substitute the cream cheese with some fancier ricotta cheese laced with freshly chopped herbs like basil, tarragon or sage.  I tried it once with mozzarella – it didn’t work. I wrap the chicken in Parma ham, but you could alternatively use Serrano ham or even thinly sliced pancetta or streaky bacon. The dish takes only minutes to assemble and you can prepare it ahead of time, cover it and store it in the fridge. With one chicken breast per person, the quantities below are for four people.

Ingredients:

Four skinless and boneless chicken breasts

Four slices of Parma ham

Cream cheese

A carton of cherry tomatoes

A few springs of fresh thyme and/or rosemary

Four garlic cloves, squashed

Balsamic vinegar

Olive oil

Method:

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Cut a deep slit along one side of each chicken breast, without slicing right through. Place a dessertspoon of cream cheese into the pocket. Close the sides together to enclose the filling and then wrap the breast in a slice of Parma ham, making sure the ham covers the slit.

Repeat with the rest of the chicken and place the breasts on a bed of cherry tomatoes in an earthenware or glass baking dish which is just large enough to hold them. (I would normally use more tomatoes than I have in these pictures – I ran out).

Sprinkle over some balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Tuck in the garlic and herbs amid the tomatoes.

Cook at for about 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove from the oven, cover with foil and let the meat rest for five minutes.  Serve a breast apiece, along with cherry tomatoes and the jus.

This works well served with homemade oven chips, rice or a salad. It is really good served with a ribbon pasta like tagliatelle, which you toss in the roasted tomato and their juices. If you like, you can slice the chicken into three or four discs and serve it fanned out on the plate, but I don’t bother.

Nuala Haughey is a Dublin-based journalist and communications consultant.

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