Archive for the ‘Anti Room Group Post’ Category

To celebrate our 500th post, we Anti-Roomers share how the internet has changed our lives for the better – and the worse. We’d love to hear your early internet stories, life-changing online experiences and whether you love or loathe the interweb…

Anna Carey

The first time I went online was in 1994. I had read in the NME that Courtney Love had been rambling wildly but entertainingly on something called a newsgroup, which as far as my innocent little arts student brain could gather was a way of writing stuff on a computer that could be read by lots of people on different computers all over the world. I knew about e-mail, though I didn’t have an account – at the time, only computer science and maths students at Trinity, where I was in first year, automatically had college e-mail accounts, and I was doing German and History of Art. But this public discussion thing was new to me. So I nagged one of my best friends, who happened to be studying computer science, to show me how to read Courtney’s ravings on a Sun computer in the Hamilton science building. I was unimpressed by Courtney, but mildly intrigued by the whole internet thing – not that I could do much about my interest down in my Arts Block home.

When I started my third year of college in October 1995, arts students finally got Eudora e-mail accounts (though there wasn’t enough server space to accommodate us, so we had to save our mails onto individual floppy discs), and I haven’t looked back since. By 1996, I had discovered the possibilities of hugely entertaining webzines (I miss you, Blair); by 1998, I was engaging in discussions on Hissyfit.com with people who, as I discovered when I met up with some of them while visiting the US a year later, were just as they seemed online: smart, funny and good company. Soon after that I became involved in the forums at a women-centric literature site called Chicklit.com (named before the term took off as a description of popular fiction). Through the Chicklit forums, I was introduced to dozens of authors who have since become my firm favourites and, more importantly, many people who have since become dear and close real-life friends. When I joined Livejournal back in 2002, many of my friends there were from Chicklit, and these days loads of us are on Twitter. We’ve all been talking on the internet, and sometimes meeting in real life, for more than a decade, and my life is definitely better for it.

Since I first read Courtney’s ravings in the Hamilton, the internet has changed my life in many ways. It’s allowed me to keep in touch easily with friends who have moved away. It’s allowed me to make genuine, real friendships with people from Canada to Edinburgh to Dublin, people who were once just words on a screen. In Twitter and indeed the Anti-Room, it’s given me the equivalent of an office full of smart, funny, thought-provoking people, some of whom have also become real-life friends, while I work alone at home. It’s made my job so much easier  – when I started my first job at the Sunday Tribune back in 1998, there was only one computer in the entire building with internet access, and the amount of information available online was much, much smaller. It’s educated and entertained me. It’s given me countless books and music that I would never have had access to before – I got my first credit card purely to buy American stuff from Amazon, back in 1999. It’s enraged me and upset me – there ain’t no drama like internet drama, and over the years I’ve typed a few comments and posts with hands that were almost shaking with rage. It’s made me temporarily lose my faith in humanity – just a few minutes looking at the comments over at Comment is Free robs me of the will to live. It’s distracted me not just from work – entire evenings at home, evenings I should have spent hanging out with my husband or reading a book or playing the piano or working on some art, have been sucked into the maw of Twitter and Google Reader. It’s tapped into my worst qualities – my innate desire for distraction and novelty, my procrastination, my need to have the last word. And it’s put pointless pressure on me – while I do love my iPhone, sometimes I genuinely hate the expectation that we should all be constantly contactable and online at all times.

But it’s also entertained me, made me laugh, given me good friends, and shown me how incredibly nice and kind people can be. And for that, I can only be grateful.

Sinéad Gleeson
Sometime in early 1996, I remember getting up very early one morning to queue in UCD for an email account. Not an internet one – the two were distinctly separate – but one solely for email, with no other web access. The idea now seems positively antediluvian. The only reason I wanted said account, was because my brother had just moved to Australia. Email was a far more affordable way of talking about records and gigs than 3am phonecalls when I’d wandered home from a club. The clunky, minutes-to-load account was life-changing, and a bazillion gigabytes away from today’s smart phones with their Sci-fi apps. My consumption of online life has intrinsically increased. It’s invaluable for my job, for music, for contact with distant friends, for rewatching TV shows, laughing at viral nonsense… But it’s also the biggest time sponge I know, and the reason why I have umpteen unfinished short stories sitting on my laptop. It’s a leveller and a curse; indispensable and completely disposable. You learn to live with the duality of something that is both an enormous help and a hindrance. I’ve killed my Facebook account four times, but Twitter is the most instantaneous news ticker I know. I’ve made lots of friends, from my early days as Editor of an online magazine (Sigla) to Arts & Culture blogging and now among the wonderful women of the Anti Room. The key is balance. To embrace it, but to also plug out more and remember that when you’re not online – like those Saturday nights in your early 20s when you were broke and had to stay in – that you’re not missing very much anyway.

Sarah Franklin
I thought this topic was an utter no-brainer for me. Gorgeous Twitter, which some days feels like my own personal version of Sliding Doors. Where else can I chat to people I probably sat next to in college French lectures, people I unknowingly drank alongside in Soho dive bars, people like, well, the ladies of the Anti Room, who I should have known years ago? All at once? Without even leaving my desk? (although, as Keith Ridgeway put it so mesmerically, beware the false sense of company).  Yep; Twitter’s changed my life more than any other section of the internet, I thought.

But then I thought back a bit, to the prehistoric times of 2005. Twitter was but a gleam in Jack Dorsey’s eye and both Skype and my elder son had both entered their infancy. We were living in Seattle, a good place for knowing about emergent technologies and a TERRIBLE place to be if you want to show your newborn child to your extended family, and they’re all 5,000 miles away. Skype honestly changed my life at that point. Post-natal blues were so much easier to handle with the baby and the laptop both wedged on my lap, my son’s head given a ReadyBrek glow from the screen as he slept and my grandmother gazed at him, rapt.

It’s a funny old thing, the internet. Sure, it means we can shop without leaving our sofa, that we’re never more than a mouse click away from knowing who wrote the song lyrics you can’t stop trilling, but that’s not really the power of it. Seeing people, real people, people you love, from thousands of miles away; watching that family bond come down the interpipes; that’s amazing.

Lisa McInerney

I can’t really say the internet has changed my life. It’s made my life; there wasn’t a time, from my teens on, when there wasn’t an internet to teach, and entertain, and distress, and provoke me. I embraced an online life from the beginning – chat rooms, message boards, amateur web design … blogging. Most obviously blogging. The fact that we’re living in The Information Age is something I find endlessly fascinating, and I think it’s shaping the world we live so radically it’s practically … biblical. No, honestly. I waffle on about this a lot. The Book of Genesis, in which ignorance was equated with beauty and innocence, to the Information Age, in which there are absolutely no limits to personal pursuit of knowledge; we’ve come 360 and that’s thrilling and kind of disconcerting, if you’re a superstitious type. Who knows what effect all this info will have on us? But that’s a subject for another day, possibly one spent in a cafe in Amsterdam. Personally, the internet has been good to me. It allowed me a platform to write, an instant audience to make me improve, the knowledge that shaped me as an adult. And gosh, have I met some really amazing people. Some of my closest friends were originally “internet people”. I can’t imagine my life without them. And as for those who moan about the “evils” of Facebook – learn to streamline your experience, read up on the privacy options, and make the bloody thing work for you. I have whole legions of far-away relatives whose faces I’d have forgotten if we didn’t have Facebook to weld us together. Play me off, keyboard cat!

Rosita Boland
The A-Z of my internet life…

@ the new 27th letter of the alphabet. Antiroom blog – a must-read, everyone!
Bewildered to know how I would live without the internet now.
Couldn’t live without the internet now – did I mention that?
Dial up – took forever and sounded like a freight train.
E-mail – it changed everything about the way I communicated with people.
Floppy disk – never really understood them. Facebook – never did that.
Galway – where I went to my first ever internet café, in Cornmarket Lane, about 15 years ago.
Help! – Sound I emitted many a time when I thought I’d broken the internet.
Information superhighway – remember that?
Journalism – I hope it never dies, no matter what the future of digital media holds.
Kansas – what I would rename the internet.
Letters – sadly, I no longer write them, although I used to write six a week for years.
Macs – been through two laptops so far.
Netbook – my latest on-the-hoof bit of gear.
Online. Online. Online – are we ever offline these days?
Paywall – we put them up at the Irish Times, we took them down; as busy as the construction industry in Ireland this last decade.
Questions – are there any the internet considers it cannot answer?
Real Player – more new language I now take for granted.
Skype – talking and waving to my faraway friends for free.
Tibet – the very first word I ever keyed into a search engine. Twitter – where I’ve found so many new friends.
Unknown – there are always so many new places the internet takes me.
Virtual – a dazzling experience the internet allows; it has let me see video clips from literally all over the world, and almost feel like I’m there.
Web – a word I’ve already discarded.
X – internet, I heart you!
YouTube – my favourite clip ever is the mad music video, Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.
Z – often difficult to get any when engrossed with The Twitter or any of the many joys of the internet.

Jude Leavy
Picture the scene; the romantic incomer – beguiling, charming and undeniably fascinating, with a metaphorical sweep of opera cape, a suggestive bit of eyebrow play and a mutter of sweet sentiments it snares me into its loving embrace where I swoon…

I am a fan of the internet.

Years ago it successfully courted and seduced me implanting itself into almost every aspect of my life. Work, leisure time, friendships, I saw the world with the tickets I’d booked online, attended plays and enjoyed concerts through it, reconnected with old acquaintances and kept in touch with new ones.

I made friends through the internet, true friendships sometimes with people from other ends of the globe; some I went on to meet up face to face, others I know I never will. It even played a role in introducing me to my fiancé (which I wrote about here) thereby changing my life in the biggest way possible.

I also have to it to thank for being here, writing with this amazing group of extraordinary women; the people I wished I’d known when I was becoming the adult I am.

Of late I’ve found my beloved internet to be a demanding lover, I’ve allowed it to muscle in other potential love interests in its quest to dominate. So have been forced to be strong and cut back on the hours we spend together, to recover more of my off-line life. I had expected it to cause me many a pang on leaving it, but strangely this hasn’t really been the case. Perhaps my red hot love is not the real passion of my life, but just a passing fancy?

I do hope not.

Eleanor Fitzsimons
Despite living a good portion of my life in the real rather than the virtual world I simply can’t imagine life offline at this stage. I remember the day we first connected, way back in 1996. Sneering in the face of a potentially skyrocketing phone bill the husband & I hooked up a laptop to our phone socket via a labyrinthine tangle of trailing wires that snaked across the living room and caused us to temporarily lose telephone contact with the outside world. I looked on sceptically as he typed in the long numerical string that he assured me was our IP address, no user-friendly front-end back in the day. I can’t remember what we looked up, something utterly innocuous I’d imagine, but I was hooked.

Several years later, while living in London, I was booking tickets to must-see shows and iconic sporting events, not to mention flights and train journeys all over a world that had become my oyster. I had serious RPS and my credit card was on fire. Before I knew it (and yes I am cringing as I type) I had signed up for daily internet updates on my first pregnancy.

Nowadays I simply can’t imagine life without the internet. You might as well ask me to live in a cave and forage for bush tucker. I use it for work and for connecting with friends, old and new. I tweet and blog and file copy and mess about and still book holidays and shows and sporting events. I’ve shaken off the shackles of the desktop and shed the weight of the laptop by getting an iPhone. Next step is undoubtedly an implant in my brain. There must be a website offering that…

Jennie Ridyard

Hail, hail the new religion, for is that not what the Holy Trinity of Internet, Facebook and Twitter are? Lo, on Sunday mornings we gather in the light of a screen, or sit alone in silent contemplation, picking out like a mantra our online prayer, “OMG”. We bow before the Gospel according to Google and Wikipedia, and confess everything to the all-knowing, all-embracing Status Update. Then we mutter endless Hail Mary Byrnes – is she really singing the next Bond theme tune? Some merely dip a toe in, checking church times online and googling their own names. Others are found in the pews morning, noon and night, tweeting each passing thought, blogging their sermons, and singing the praises of lolcats and failblog, while damning 13-year-old Rebecca Black to hell.

Like a religion, the plugged-in world offers an answer to everything and a friend to everyone. You can be reborn on Avatar, you can embrace kibbutzim on Farmville. Equally, you can cure diseases on WebMD, make your offerings via Paypal, and wage war on the sinners, the Muslims, the Bible-thumpers, the atheists, the smokers, the non-smokers, the obese, the anorexic, the ugly, the beautiful, and Justin Bieber. Oh, and you can wage actual war in Libya too, wielding the sword of eternal truth that is Twitter. Indeed, through the miracle of YouTube the scales fall from our eyes as we bear witness to modern miracles like Monkey Rapes Frog and Fire Fart Goes Wrong.

Yea, I tell thee, this is the way, the truth, and the light. It’s also how to lose your way, spread untruths and spend days alone in the dark.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Internet -The good: new friends (real & virtual); reconnecting with old friends; access to a world of information; being able to send things (manuscripts, photos) without the palaver of Post Office visits with kids in tow; online banking; online shopping (very important when you live in the sticks); literary blogs; freely available music; new audience for my books; cheap PR for cash-poor writers; speed of access to Important People in publishing etc.

Internet -The bad: e-mail pile-up; obsessing about being able to be online and/or feeling bereft if the internet connection is down; stalkers; reconnecting with old friends; people picking fights with you over innocuous/innocent statements; people being nasty in general; going online when drunk and being over-chatty; people knowing far too much about your life; time-wasting; isolation; Facebook competitiveness and boasting.

Antonia Hart

In about 1988, in the school computer room, in order to draw a green box on the black screen we had to type the following commands in LOGO:

It was more fun than double R.E. but not much. I’m not a techno-refusenik. My credentials: at college I rescued a ditched black and white screened Apple Mac Classic (the nicest computer in the world, ever) from a skip outside the Physics Building and fooled around with HyperCard, running off a floppy disk. I met the World Wide Web proper in about 1996, and it seemed, as a series of pages linked to and fro by embedded directions, to be based on Hypercard. I discovered Telnet and FTP and wrote stories for the Sunday Business Post using Borland Sprint, an MS DOS based word processor. I did an MSc in Multimedia Systems at Trinity in 1997, the first year it ran, and it felt then as if we were part of the breaking news of the internet. I worked in web design, and online advertising. Got that? I practically invented the internet.
Of course it’s changed my life. Without it I wouldn’t be able to work from home, so would either have no children or no job. I wouldn’t be contemplating a summer house exchange. I wouldn’t be writing this post. My music would have ground to a halt at about fifty CDs. It’s changed my life for the better, but I want less of it, not more. I’ve read about six emails since I started typing this post. Getting to a point of concentration is like climbing down steps into a well, deeper and deeper until you can sense the water. You finally get a toe in. You’re aiming for submersion. With the internet, and the ways of working it makes possible, I find myself constantly climbing up again, down, up, down, up, and never reaching the water. Have I exhausted my metaphor yet? I don’t like the way it fractures my thinking, the shortness of its texts, the virtue it makes of hopping about. I don’t tweet, because I am guarding my time and I cannot afford to donate any more chunks of it to online conversations, no matter how relevant or witty they are. I think Facebook – despite its usefulness as a place to promote events and small businesses – is just vacuous, endless pages of self-promotion and self-portraits and all that information being sold to the highest advertising bidder.
I need time to do things for longer, to do them more slowly, to think about them in greater depth. I want more reflection time, more reaction time, more satisfying contemplation. I want to read slowly and with care, I want to take days to think about what I’ve read and what I think about it. I want to be in the world, not experiencing it through an online prism.
I also want an iPad 2.

June Caldwell

I can’t remember my first email in the same way I can’t remember my first roast potato, but I do recall getting addicted to random chatrooms very early on. Rubbish chatyack where you simply logged on and saw streams of absurd irrational messages dropping in real-time like plunging neon, before wasting eight hours of my working life, missing deadlines. Immediacy and anonymity were overwhelming features of my unspecified shadowy self on de web. Of course this would get me into trouble very early on. In the mid 1990s I mistakenly sent an email to my boss instead of the man I was having a fling with in the office, to disastrous consequences (especially as I was, er, mentioning what a prick the boss was at the time).

It was also the year I sat through a rather trite PgDip in Journalism, where I realised how easy it was to sift through cyber offscourings for feature ideas to sell. A tiny ancillary fact about an increase in unmarried fathers phoning Parentline about child access problems, turned into my first published article: ‘Clowning Around With Fatherhood’, published in the Big Issues in 1997. An article I wrote on narcolepsy a month later was picked up by a health supplement in the New York Times. I could barely fathom how any of this ‘global village’ stuff could happen! The ‘world wide web’ very quickly became a de rigueur necessity of both my working day and my off-duty life.

Flurry and melodrama surrounding this newfound instant access to info still manages to fool me, and I often fail to see the danger in mouthing off without reserve. A few weeks ago a 14-year-old girl hacked into my partner’s Facebook account, printing off all our private messages [some of which were unsuitably sexual, others which were raw and noxious drunken arguments dating back to a horrendous few years in Belfast) and is now claiming to be Pandora’s box disturbed by what she read. Her mother had ‘encouraged’ her to excavate this material, without any care in the world for how it might damage her. This is the kind of horrific payoff that seems tout de suite worth it in the midst of relationship breakup. The experience has made me feel sad and sick to the core. Likewise, the existence of trolls (even on this blog) upsets me immensely when they dig in claws for little or no reason. Or the flagrant paedo who keeps looking me up on Linkedin and any other website I’m registered to/with due to his lack of life, or the knowledge that I wrote things online very early on that I had no idea would linger everlastingly (rubbish poems, half-finished stories, crap ideas).

However, it’s not all bedlam and mobocracy, I have met some incredible new friends (antiroom peeps more recently), sourced much-needed work, shared opinions through Facebook updates, splashed about different demeanours and ‘frames of mind’ [especially on Twitter] I’d never get a chance to in the humdrum of ordinary daily life. A piece I wrote on depression won ‘Best Blog Post’ at the recent Irish Blog Awards – only a few short months into my newfound blogging life – and a poem I wrote was picked up and published by a UK magazine. As a writer, it’s becoming increasingly clear how vital an online presence is, not just for freedom of expression or the ability to rant, but to stay in touch with people who might want to hear what you have to say.

Digital stratosphere is also great for following other writers in the same genre I’m interested in. As a shy gobshite all my life, this type of connectedness is nothing short of love. Then there was the time I was being bullied by a paramilitary landlord in Carrickfergus and having got so totally bored with his daily intrusions, I lost my mind and contacted a local sex addict who took me to an abandoned salt mine where he did some ‘stuff’ that took my mind right off my ills for more than a day. But who wants to hear a glut of unsavoury details of how my cyber life led me astray when there’s so much goodwill and kindheartedness to mull over instead?

Claire Hennessy
I grew up with the internet, so I’ve never known what it’s like to be a grown-up without it. But a lot of the complaints I hear people make – the obligations to present a public persona, to update their various social media outlets, the busyness of it all – just sound to me like the sort of things adulthood seemed to be about. Being capable of making one’s own choices, but still having obligations and commitments, whether it was attending some work event or chatting to someone at the supermarket. Many of these things often sounded suspiciously close to fun, and if they were really that dreadful then why didn’t grown-ups just, well, not do them?

That little child-voice in my head that wonders why grown-ups talk about the things they ‘have’ to do when they don’t really have to speaks up a lot when I think about the internet and how time-consuming it can be, how we can feel under pressure to respond immediately to emails or represent ourselves in an interesting way on Twitter or whatever it might be. It’s the same voice that reminds me that despite all the complaining we can do, the truth is that for most of us, the internet, like growing-up, is infinitely better than the alternative.

Catherine Crichton

My contribution is all about Twitter. So, what have I got out of it?

  • A bottle of wine from @grapesofsloth, just for posting him a useful link
  • Two free theatre tickets from @darraghdoyle for entering a competition
  • A copy of Mary Poppins from @patomahony1, which I passed on in turn to @snastablasta

But those are just the added extras. Twitter is a source of news, information, fun, great conversations and recommendations for films, books, restaurants and music. It’s all out there if you follow the right people. TV becomes communal; many programmes just aren’t the same without a simultaneous Twitter stream of comments and observations.

I often work from home, and while Twitter can be a terrible distraction, it also helps to make tedious work bearable and lessens the feelings of isolation. During a recent hospital stay I was really touched by all the good wishes I received from my Twitter friends. And, sad though this may sound, I do regard some of my Twitter contacts as friends. I have met a few of them in the real world, and hope to meet more.

As @nickmcgivney wrote in this recent blog post, Twitter can help people to virtually meet their heroes. I have had a tragic middle-aged crush on actor David Morrissey (@davemorrissey64) since once briefly meeting him. Lo and behold, he joined Twitter and posts interesting tweets and an excellent daily music track of the day. Not only that, but he also engages with his followers including, occasionally and thrillingly, me. I have also had a few exchanges with the highly amusing @hughbon. Oh yes Downton Abbey fans, only Lord Grantham himself!

But the best thing about Twitter is that it inspired me to move beyond 140 characters and to start writing, on a (recently neglected) blog of my own, and here at the Anti Room. Nothing beats the feeling of someone commenting that they enjoyed something I have written. So I want to raise a glass to Sinead, Anna and all the other Anti Room women. Here’s to the next 500 posts.

Amanda Brown

Answering people’s social media problems in the Irish Times for the past year has taught me a thing or two.

Stuff I knew already: Irish people are intensely private, mostly because if it gets out their grandmother will know within five seconds, problems on the Internet feel as all-encompassing as problems off the Internet – they are real problems – and everyone’s compartmentalised social spheres are becoming  melded together.

Things that have impressed on me include; just how intensely personal problems on the Internet are, how little most people who use it know about how to protect themselves on it, how unwilling most people are to be rude on the Internet – except the copious amounts of people who become incredibly rude when they are on the Internet.

The ramifications of the move of large parts of our social lives online are profound and currently little known.

What we do know is society has always had technology and technology has always been a part of society. There are negative books  about the Internet being spat out as if the printed word were going out of fashion (snark), the most recent being a tome called Alone Together by Sherry Turkle. These types of books claim the revolution of social media on the Internet is making us socially poorer by creating an illusion of being surrounded by friends when the essential elements of real friendship (regular real world meetings, face to face communication etc) are not there.

There are other, more positive books, notably The Cognitive Surplas by Clay Shirky, which recognises the enormous power of good that has occurred from millions of people democratically connecting in order to entertain, inform and even encourage each other to give charitably and improve the real world.

The arguments against the Internet continue to rumble on ploughing the exact same ground as all those spouted against television.

My bottom line, having dealt primarily for the last year with people’s problems online, is that the Internet and more specifically Social Media, widens our lives out in a mostly positive way by making connection and meaningful, as well as meaningless, communication possible at the touch of a fingertip

As Adam Gopnik wrote in his superb New Yorker article on the subject, “Thoughts are bigger than the things that deliver them.”

Social media delivers far more people’s thoughts far more effectively than any previous media revolution.

That will take us where we decide to take ourselves.

Aoife Barry

My first forays onto the internet took place when I was in secondary school. I’d go online with a friend, using her creaky dial-up connection. We’d sit chomping on Pringles while patiently waiting for the beep-beep-brriing-buzz noises to signal that we were on our way to the super cyber highway. Though the internet seemed a huge and somewhat unfathomable beast, with an infinite amount of information at my fingertips, I always ended up doing exact the same thing – going to Alta Vista and searching for very basic items like song lyrics, or information on TV shows. Wild days, to be sure.

That said, at one stage, unsure of what else to do online, I’d just search for ‘chatrooms’. Not my finest moment, it has to be said – up there with when I used to think LOL meant ‘lots of love’. That naivety makes me laugh now, but back then the internet really was unchartered territory. Today, I’m wholeheartedly pro-internet. Just last night, I caught the end of a documentary on Robert Moog, the creator of the Moog synthesiser, on TV. That led me online, searching for Youtube videos about early electronic music; watching old Delia Derbyshire videos and marvelling, as always, at her perfect ear for beat-matching; and then discovering legendary Theremin players.

I believe the net has enhanced women’s lives immeasurably. Online, we can join communities, connect with people with similar ideals to us; find out more about feminism; and read about women’s rights in other countries. We can blog about our experiences, in private, using a pseudonym. We can talk about sex, contraception, relationships, in the ‘open’, perhaps for the first time in our individual lives.

Have a problem? Google it. It’s perhaps no surprise that type in the words ‘Am I…’ into Google and the first suggestion is ‘Am I pregnant?’

But just as the internet offers freedom, it offers constraints too. It’s not free of the prejudices which can plague life off-line – sexism, racism, homophobia. There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people online, and women are exposed to the same abuse on the net as they may be in real life situations, albeit in a non-physical manner. Though the internet offers anonymity, and that includes the ability to hide your sex, if you ‘out’ yourself as female, or male, or transgender, you leave yourself open to being judged on that.

I find the internet can also impinge on my real life – sucking up precious minutes and hours when I should be working, playing on my innate ability to procrastinate and sitting like the proverbial shoulder-devil, tempting me with just ‘one more’ look at a new site or Twitter feed.

But despite all of its pitfalls, I will forever be grateful for the internet – and do not take the fact I live in a country where I have uncensored access to it for granted. It gives me knowledge, it gives me space to vent, and has even been beneficial to my career.  And now that I’ve learned not to spend time arguing with people on forums (that’s a top tip there if you want to stay sane on the internet!), ‘surfing the net’ is a rather pleasant experience indeed, even if it does have its ups and downs.

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We girls loved St Patrick’s day when we were little. We always went to the parade, green rosettes pinned to our best coats, our hair tied with green ribbons. The parade was fairly harmless in those days, mostly consisting of bands, majorettes and people waving unenthusiastically from the backs of flatbed trucks. But we never missed it. It was Dad’s job to take us along, our mother always stayed home, probably glad of a break from childcare.

In 1975 Mam was even more glad than usual to see us off for the day, as she was heavily pregnant with her fifth child. Dad had arranged to meet a long-lost American cousin of his in town, who was here ‘doing’ Ireland and the St Patrick’s festivities. The look on my mother’s face when he dragged this cousin home for tea, unannounced, was memorable.

Dad, a traditional Irish man, brought the honoured guest into the ‘good’ room to entertain her while tea was prepared by his nine-months-pregnant Mrs. But unbeknownst to them, the Mrs was already in labour. Not wanting to make a fuss in front of the guest – God forbid that we wouldn’t show her some Irish hospitality! –  Mam called me into the kitchen where I found her grimacing in pain. Womanfully making the tea between contractions, she instructed me to run to a neighbour up the road and ask her to mind us while she went to the hospital. This I did, tea was served, and it was explained to our American relative that Mam and Dad were unfortunately required to absent themselves.

Off they went to Holles Street, arriving barely ten minutes before our only brother made his appearance. Everyone said they’d have to call him Patrick, for the day that was in it. But having waited so long for a boy, they had two other names in mind.

So, Raymond Xavier Patrick Boyle it was. Catherine Crichton


There are advantages to living in a small town in East Galway; one of them is the Paddy’s Day Parade. I grew up in Dublin and quickly learnt that watching the parade on the telly was better than going to it: you weren’t jostled by tall people; you could actually see what was going on; you weren’t wet from the rain.

Where I live now, the local parade may not have fantastical floats or twirling, exotic American bands, but it’s real and sweet and half the people marching in it are your own kids, friends and/or neighbours. There is watching-room for everyone and it’s a genuinely happy and positive event in what can often be a dull market town. Last year the parade of vintage tractors was outstanding, as was the sight of a hundred kids tap dancing down the main street.

I grew out of the need to get drunk on Paddy’s Day years ago but I do love the party atmosphere that the day encourages and I always wear green clothes and a bunch of shamrock. I even forego my usual rice and pasta for a plate of spuds.

I like that Paddy’s Day endures and that mostly it hasn’t gone all glossy on us. It’s a great day to put ordinary concerns aside and just wallow in some of the positive things about being Irish, one of which is that we like a celebration and are happy to invite the whole world to the party. Nuala Ní Chonchúir


I don’t go to the St Patrick’s Day parade much these days, having slightly overdosed as a child. But this year, for the third time, we (two adults, two children) are taking part in the St Patrick’s Festival Treasure Hunt. This is a brilliant event which has you crisscrossing Dublin city on foot to various museums and historical sites. At each spot you have to answer a question and get a card stamped – once you’ve all of them completed, it’s a race back to City Hall. We were shattered last year and the year before, struggling back from maybe ten locations after a good three hours, stunned and disappointed to find we were nowhere near the winning time.

A bedraggled bit of Thomas Street, on the way up to Guinness's for the first clue.

One of the things I’ve liked about the treasure hunt is that it’s a great way for children – or someone unfamiliar with Dublin – to get a feel for the geography of the city. Though my children live in the suburbs, I want them to grow up knowing the city, feeling part of it and at  home in it. They’re going to have to walk it, and often, to get that.

Anyone else thinking of doing the treasure hunt? This year’s has a literary theme, so we can probably have a good stab at what the destinations will be. And I’m also thinking that Dublin Bikes would be a good way of getting around – though not, alas, for us, with a two-year-old who needs a seat.

Oh – but if I see your team out on Saturday, I may have to trip you up.

PS Have a look in the RTE archive footage of St Patrick’s Days past if you want to try and spot an eight-year-old you lining the streets or twirling a baton, spot the Abel Alarm floats of the eighties, or remind yourself of the 1999 parade of 25 yards in Dripsey, Cork. Antonia Hart


A rough guide to Paddy's for tourists

My enduring memory of being on the streets of central Dublin on Paddy’s Day is the curious mix of American and European tourists, and gaggles of heroin addicts sluicing along on a kaleidoscope of green & purple sick. Searching for a parade that’s long since passed them by. Down by the Four Courts, shocked and disappointed Americans in chequered trousers with neck hanging cameras bulging off their paunches, trying to take in the sight of Dublin’s invitro zombies drowning their Shamrock with a concoction of opiates and arguments. They must’ve kicked themselves [and Aer Lingus, along with the ham sandwich] for the cost of getting here. Diddly iddly melded with Carroll’s Gift Shop rebel songs blasting out of Liffey-side pubs, red-haired kids crying, sharp rain and wet dogs pissing on slashed tyres of crooked parked cars. By 5pm the junkies were gone until the Christmas shoplifting season, replaced by GAA foghorns, screaming police sirens and radio soundbytes of stabbings. You’d steer clear of the city centre for a few days afterwards, unless you were a civil servant who’d no choice but the brave the pastry lumps outside the Revenue building. I never really got it and never will. No-one I’ve ever spoken to knows the lowdown on the real St. Patrick (a Romano Briton who lived in Wales), if there were ever snakes in Ireland or why there’s so much emphasis on bottle green icing and orange fur.  It’s as odd to me as Marian devotion on gable walls in recession, but have a good one all the same! June Caldwell

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To celebrate World Book Night (when over a million books are being given away), we asked some AntiRoomers what book their favourite book to give someone else is…What would you give away?

Jude Leavy: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

There are a host of reasons for buying this book for anyone. Its charms have been written about for over a hundred years; adventurous, sensual, funny and personable, every reader has a favourite character, a favourite chapter.

For me it is the ideal gift to give to someone leaving home with travel in mind. While bursting with audacious stories of bizarre barge thefts and the open road escapades, there’s just enough domesticity in it to cure any homesickness. But it is the descriptive passages really cause me to swoon, including one the most perfect accounts of Venice I’ve ever read, possibly only rivalled by Jan Morris’ book on the same city.

Like many people I’m a huge fan of good travel writing and the Sea Rat’s shanty-filled speech to the Water Rat actually gives me goosebumps.

So sit back and just let the words wash over you, prepare for the call of the South and beware the Sea Rat’s refrain: ‘Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!’

‘And the talk, the wonderful talk flowed on–or was it speech entirely, or did it pass at times into song–chanty of the sailors weighing the dripping anchor, sonorous hum of the shrouds in a tearing North-Easter, ballad of the fisherman hauling his nets at sundown against an apricot sky, chords of guitar and mandolin from gondola or caique? Did it change into the cry of the wind, plaintive at first, angrily shrill as it freshened, rising to a tearing whistle, sinking to a musical trickle of air from the leech of the bellying sail? All these sounds the spell-bound listener seemed to hear, and with them the hungry complaint of the gulls and the sea-mews, the soft thunder of the breaking wave, the cry of the protesting shingle. Back into speech again it passed, and with beating heart he was following the adventures of a dozen seaports, the fights, the escapes, the rallies, the comradeships, the gallant undertakings; or he searched islands for treasure, fished in still lagoons and dozed day-long on warm white sand. Of deep-sea fishings he heard tell, and mighty silver gatherings of the mile-long net; of sudden perils, noise of breakers on a moonless night, or the tall bows of the great liner taking shape overhead through the fog; of the merry home-coming, the headland rounded, the harbour lights opened out; the groups seen dimly on the quay, the cheery hail, the splash of the hawser; the trudge up the steep little street towards the comforting glow of red-curtained windows.’ The Wind in the Willows. Chapter 9; ‘Wayfarers All’

Lauren Murphy: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

There are three or four books that I’ve regularly bought as gifts over the years – mostly tailored to the individual’s taste – but there’s one in particular that I’ve thrust into the hands of friends more than any other. From the very first time I closed the final page of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I knew I’d be describing it to people as one of the best books I’ve ever read. It chronicles the adventure that prodigious nine-year-old Oskar Schell undertakes when he finds a key that belonged to his late father, who died in the Twin Towers collapse of 9/11. Oskar (one of most loveable literary characters of the last decade, by the way – he’s a vegan pacifist inventor/tambourine player) is determined to find out what lock the key belongs to, and his curiosity takes him on an escapade across New York’s five boroughs without the knowledge of his unsuspecting mum.

The story also intermittently flashes back to the life story of his Jewish immigrant grandparents and is replete with illustrations, maps and various other pictures that act as scaffolding for the narrative . The whole book is charming, laugh-out-loud funny, horribly sad in parts, and simply un-put-down-able. If you’ve read this book and didn’t like it, we probably couldn’t be friends. Read it before they inevitably ruin its sentiment with a film version starring the awful Sandra Bullock. I wish I was joking.

Sinéad Gleeson:

In terms of difficulty to answer, this question is similar to the ‘what-kind-of-music-do-you-like? Pick one? Just one? It simply can’t be done. So after trawling my brain, I’ll settle on three. First up is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I can still remember the gobsmacked feeling at its brilliance when I read the last page and closed this book. Rushdie, at the time was more famous for the fatwa than fiction, so I was little put off by the idea of reading him. I don’t think I’ve finished a book since, that made me sit quietly afterwards and pick my awestruck jaw off the ground. Its epic, funny, descriptive, oozing characters and colour. And that’s without the magic realism and post-colonialism. I also adore Zora Kneale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Apart from loving the world-weary story of the thrice-married Janie, it’s a landmark book for women and for African-American literature. It also contains my favourite opening line and first paragraphs:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

Hurston was much maligned for the book, particularly for her representation of African-American dialect. Her work fell out of favour, but was later revived and cited as an influence by writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. Finally, a charming read by the ascerbic, funny Lorrie Moore. Better known for her short story collections, my introduction to Moore was through the novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? It’s one of the most intriguing and spot-on representations of teen female friendships and I’ve bought it for several friends.

Claire Hennessy: Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

I get cranky about Donoghue post-Room the way teenagers get about bands once they’ve had a chart single and suddenly all their friends are claiming to be really big fans. Yeah, but where were you for those early albums, huh? Or in this case an early book…

Kissing the Witch, published in 1997, does what most of Donoghue’s books do – takes reasonably familiar things and invites you to look at them in a completely different way. In this case it’s fairytales, which are re-imagined and reshaped into stories which prioritise female experience – which sometimes means Cinderella running off with her fairy godmother, and sometimes simply a reconciliation of sorts between the heroine and traditionally villainous old hag. Published for teens in the US and adults on this side of the Atlantic, they are in part coming-of-age stories and in part transformation tales. Most of them are retellings of familiar stories, until the narrative baton is handed to the witch – a figure who tends to turn up in many folktales but is never given a voice of her own, and whose tale closes the book. The stories are feminist but not preachy – most of all, they’re stories that keep you reading and guessing. It’s a gift I’ve given several times as well as a book I’ve recommended frequently – and it always seems a slightly less obvious set of fairytale retellings than Angela Carter’s, which is a bonus when you’re thinking of books for people who are already well read!

Lisa McInerney: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Like jogging more than 50 yards, or alternating alcoholic drinks with mineral water, I have lofty but unrealised ambitions regarding gifting books to loved ones. I do it. I put loads of thought into it. It just never quite works out.

I was so taken with Life of Pi that I immediately bought it for my most bookish friend. “It’s deep and thoughtful, like you!” I told her. “It’s the maybe-allegorical tale of a boy who is stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger, a hyena, a zebra and an orangutan.” She screwed up her face and said, “Do the animals talk?” “No!” I stressed, worried she’d think I was forcing fairytales on her. “Oh. Well, I have no interest if they don’t talk,” she said, and back into my box I went.

I always try to give books to the younger members of the family, even though I suspect they use them as bulky dominos, or kindling. I recently bought my 11-year-old nephew the kids’ version of Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything, an irresistible book that makes you feel both small AND significant. I hoped he wouldn’t find it too wordy – he didn’t seem the hipster-nerd type. “Don’t worry, he loves science!” his grandmother told me. A few days later, his mam thanked me for the book. “Thank God he reads,” I breathed. “Who told you that?” replied his mother. “He doesn’t read at all.” Bummer.

The biggest disaster I’ve had with gifting books was when I got my very glam, very girlie friend one of those pretty hardbacks full of tips for modern ladies. How To Be The Best At Everything, or something along those lines. As well as ticklish guides to throwing charming dinner parties and making Earl Grey over campfires, it featured how-tos for striptease, intimate waxing and erotic whip play. “How’d you get on with the book?” I joked, over coffee. “Yes. Well, it wasn’t really for my age-group,” she said. “All those bits about darning and such. I gave it to my 12-year-old daughter.” Major fail. Not only had I inadvertently made a mini-Jordan out of an innocent lass, but I’d completely misread (forgive the pun) my friend’s taste in books. I had presumed her able to get past the back-cover blurb. I was wrong.

Hazel Katherine Larkin: Selected Poems by Seamus Heaney

This year, I am privileged to have been chosen as a book giver on the inaugural World Book Night. I have 48 copies of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems to give away.

I’m very excited about the opportunity to share Heaney’s amazing word wizardry with people who mightn’t otherwise read his work. I am planning on giving some of the books to the local psychiatric hospital for their lounge; people suffering with depression, anxiety and/or other mental disorders often have difficulty concentrating. So, I thought a book of fabulous poetry might just hit the spot – a poem doesn’t require much time-investment, but can still stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. Poetry books are ideal for dipping in to and out of.

I’m also going to give some books to the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland . My reasoning is that often people who require the services of the MRCI have been wounded, in some way or another, by Irish people or the Irish system(s). I think that this book of poetry can go some way to creating a bridge; showing new members of our society that we are all connected and that we are more alike than we are un-alike.

My final bundle of books will go to one of the homeless shelters in Dublin city. Again, I think that poetry can reach parts of us – offering comfort, succor and insight – that nothing else can. Heaney’s poetry does this spectacularly well.

John Carey put it best when he said of Heaney ‘More than any other poet since Wordsworth he can make us understand that the outside world is not outside, but what we are made of.’

Susan Daly:

I always worry about giving other people books as presents. If they don’t love it as much as I did, I feel some sort of personal rejection. Ridiculous but true. I once gave a boyfriend a collection of Raymond Chandler’s short stories, Where I’m Calling From, and when he declared he was bored by “the minutiae”, the gorgeous stark stripped-bare heartbreak of Chandler’s prose, I knew we were doomed.

So I keep my reading card close to my chest. And yet, and yet… the only book that I have knowingly given more than twice to other women is a book with the unedifying title of Live Alone and Like It.

I know. If someone gave ME a self-help book, I would be deeply insulted.

But give me one spinster-tootin’ second to explain. This book, written by a very sensible woman by the name of Marjorie Hillis, is less a self-help tome than a guide to get you get past the Self and into the Real World. It was written in 1936 by Vogue writer Marjorie and aimed at the floods of young women working their way out of the Depression, landing in Manhattan with all the structures of family and community and hand-me-down morality left behind them in Palookaville.

Marjorie, clearly a lady about town and a woman of her own substance, lays out guidelines on how to survive the concrete jungle and the exotic animals that roam it. There is a section on keeping busy, on taking lovers (although she is never so crass as to describe it so), on keeping up appearances on a limited budget, on making friends, on pretty much every scenario a young woman might find herself puzzling through.

It is archly written, but never patronising; helpful, but never condescending; sympathetic, but never self-pitying. In short, it’s the finest damn instruction manual I have ever read.

It also makes me desire to own two bed jackets, one for casual lounging and one delicate lace one for when Company comes round. One can’t go wrong with the right bed jacket.

Aoife McLysaght: Ask the Dust by John Fante

Book cover

I don’t remember why I picked Ask the Dust off the shelf the first time. I had never heard of this novel nor of John Fante.  Perhaps it was the beautifully plain cover which refused to tell me what to expect within, or the satisfying, heavy quality of the paper. I just don’t remember. However it started, this unassuming book became a small obsession of mine and from there so did the author himself.

Ask the Dust is the story of Arturo Bandini and his somewhat bleak life as a struggling writer in L.A.. But the story isn’t so much the story as the feeling of his life. It was this, or something like it, that gripped Charles Bukowski when he picked this book up in his local library and couldn’t put it back down – he credits this book with inspiring his own writing career.

It’s surprising then that so few people seem to have heard of John Fante. You can’t even find him in bookshops in Ireland. The New York Times wrote “Either the work of John Fante is unknown to you, or it is unforgettable. He was not the kind of writer to leave room in between”.

I’m doing my little bit, one friend at a time, to ensure that fewer people haven’t heard of him, and more can’t forget him.

Eleanor Fitzsimons on David Mitchell

Imagine tasting the most wonderful meal you’d ever had, food so exquisite that it transported you to some higher plane with every mouthful. You’d want to savour the experience and make it last as long as possible, licking your plate and burping with satisfaction at the very end if this were at all acceptable. I feel just like that when I stumble across an author whose work I love. I try to eke out their books over as long a period as possible, rationing them and denying myself the pleasure of diving in for as long as I can. I managed to walk past David Mitchell’s number9dream for two whole years even though I longed to grab it from the shelf and get stuck in. It was the last of his that I had left and although rumours of a new one exploring the Dutch trading relationship with Japan in the late 18th century was rumoured to be underway (The meticulously well researched The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet took four years to write) I could not bear the thought of leaving too long a gap without a Mitchell to read.

It all started when my sister gave me a copy of Cloud Atlas, saying “I think you might enjoy this”. Yep, I certainly did! Mitchell’s third novel, a matchless blending of six nested stories narrated in distinct voices and spanning  a time period that encompasses the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to some imagined dystopian, post-apocalyptic future is like nothing I ever encountered before. Each tale links seamlessly to the next until the reader reaches the middle page and retraces their steps right back to Adam Ewing in the Pacific Ocean, circa 1850 as he narrates his voyage home from the remote Chatham Islands.

It is mind expanding and soaringly experimental yet never contrived or ostentatious in any way. It is compelling and never disjointed and at times prompted me to pause and gasp at the sheer audacity of a young author with the self-possession to conceive of and carry off something so playful and original and simply brilliant without making it inaccessible or pretentious at all. I raved about it to all who would listen, becoming evangelical in my praise for it, proselytising at every opportunity. I bought a copy for everyone I could.

I rushed out and bought Ghostwritten, Mitchell’s stunning debut, and Black Swan Green, his semi-autobiographical novel set in 1980s Britain. I devoured them both and, as mentioned, hung on to number9dream, a stark and at times sadistic cyberdetective jaunt through the bleak world of Japanese gangland turf wars, until I could bear it no longer and was sure that the new one was imminent.

Last year, I and dozens of nerdy groupies like me sat in the Project Arts centre clutching freshly read copies of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and waited for an audience with the master. It was something akin to an Elvis convention in the 1970s and we were all suffering from the literary equivalent of Bieber Fever. David Mitchell, a very contented honorary Corkonian and an utterly charming and unassuming man read brilliantly from his latest book, spoke of his hope of one day writing something that would do justice to the uniquely and torturously complex relationship between Britain and Ireland and was endearingly self-deprecating and generous with his advice.

I’ve read the lot now and am fervently hoping that it won’t be another four years before I get my hands on more of Mr. Mitchell’s wonderful work. Incidentally he is also someone with a stammer and recently wrote this fascinating piece on the accuracy of the film, The Kings Speech.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir: Silk by Alessandro Baricco

Silk by Alessandro Baricco is a novella I really love; I’ve read it about four times and always recommended it to customers when I was a bookseller; I’ve also bought it for several people. It is ostensibly the story of a silk merchant who travels to the Far East and falls in love, but really it is a comment on the strength, resourcefulness and patience of women. The last time I read it was a few months ago and I found even more things to enjoy in it. It is told like a fairytale or parable and, because of that, there is repetition of certain passages and phrases and motifs which is very effective. It is beautifully written and translated (I read the Guido Waldman translation last time and I thought he did an excellent job.) I do sometimes want to shake the main character, Hervé Joncour, for trying to find elsewhere what he has at home, but at least the book gets me feeling something, right? I love the way the story travels from France to Japan and all the rich and interesting detail that that throws up. There are a lot of things left unsaid in the narrative, the reader has to make the connections, and that works very well, I think. All in all, a poignant and beautiful read.

Jennie Ridyard

Please don’t give me a book. Yes, even your favourite book ever, the book that you just KNOW I’m going to adore.

I can tell you right now I’ll throw it against a wall.
Give me a book and you give me a burden of expectation, you give me a sick feeling in my stomach, the sense of “what if I loathe this?”, the knowledge that your gloss might be my dross and then what will remain of the friendship?
Every time we meet from the moment I receive your gift until I finally tell you that, yes, I finished the damned thing, yes, I devoted my precious, hoarded, jealously-guarded leisure hours to reading something YOU chose for me, something that wasn’t even on my reading list, every one of those days we’ll have that book you want me to read hanging between us.
And what if I don’t understand it? Supposing your choice of book for me proves I’m dull-witted, preferring to cosy up with some fluffy chick-lit tart than go one-to-one with Donna Tartt, to spend half an hour with Bunny Suicides over The Virgin Suicides, all the while highlighting the suspicion that I’m not smart enough to be your friend.
Please don’t give me a book. Recommend a book by all means. Give me a voucher, a book token, a wad of cash, and I’ll spend a happy hour browsing before I buy what I fancy.

And then I’ll even lend it to you when I’m done, because it’s my favourite book ever, the book that I just KNOW you’re going to adore.

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Lisa McInerney: I remember well the February 14th I realised Valentine’s Day was not for me. I was eighteen, lurching through drizzle to get to a lecture, when a friend stopped me and asked excitedly what I had gotten for my boyfriend.

“Nothing,” I said. “Am I supposed to?”

For I had thought Valentine’s Day was about single people, which I realise sounds perverse, but it makes sense when you think about it. When you’re a kid, you use Valentine’s Day as an excuse to send lovelorn, barely anonymous cards to stodgy idiots too stupid to play detective. When you’re a slightly bigger kid, it becomes an excuse to go on the lash wearing a suggestive grin and a Traffic Lights Disco sticker on your cheeky chest (amber, of course – no one ever wore a green sticker coz that was, like, desperate). When you get to the stage where you’ve sealed the deal with your desired one, Valentine’s Day becomes trashy, tragic… a day for drunken boors, and weeping chicklit weirdoes. Doesn’t it?

“You have to get him something!” mouthed my friend, so close to dumbstruck was she.

“Nah. Sure he’s not going to get me anything either,” says I.

Naturally, he arrived at my flat a couple of hours later with a self-penned, TERRIBLE poem and a teddy-bear clutching a satin heart. I had nothing to give him but a sheepish hug. I figured that as he was a boy, he’d only have been embarrassed by any cuddly-wuddly gifts I would have proffered, so that I’d get away with it. But he stood there, looking sad and unloved.

He broke up with me a week later. Just as well; it never would have worked. He was far too big a sap.

Still have the teddy, though.

Sinéad Gleeson: I have had numerous heart-in-mouth Valentine’s Days. Teen ones where you pretend not to care and then ambush the postman at the front door. One year, five pink and red envelopes fanned the hall floor and I wondered if a portion of them were pity missives, as I was on crutches. Another year, 12 red roses arrived anonymously. The mystery! The romance! The idiot! Who spends a small fortune on 12 red roses and doesn’t sign the card?

Then there were my own delivery efforts. The memory of rushing up someone’s driveway in the dead of night, Ninja-style to drop a card in the letterbox. Or elaborately disguising your handwriting so that a guy you’d never spoken to would – gasp!  – not suspect it was you. When I was 15, I had a planet-sized crush on a guy in my school. He possessed creamy skin, cow brown eyes, an aquiline nose and floppy hair beloved of 1990s indie boys. He was incomparably gorgeous. About 50 other girls felt similarly, so I lingered in this imaginary, adoring queue and admired from a distance. I would see him approaching on the school corridor, hiding behind his fringe and my heart would totter from one side of my chest to the other. We liked the same bands, and one day his friend stopped me. I turned and standing beside him – and about three feet from me – there HE was. He – let’s call him John – nodded to my scratchy, canvas schoolbag and asked if I really did like The House of Love. The handwritten logo had taken hours of painstaking copying. I nearly keeled over. But not before noting his striking resemblance to the band’s guitarist Terry Bickers.

When Valentine’s Day came around, I decided I would send a card under cover of  ruthless anonymity. Or so I thought. I bought a calligraphy pen and copied the text from a House of Love 12” – “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”. I procured his address and posted it off.

Apparently John got EIGHT cards that year, a nugget casually passed along by our mutual friend some weeks later.

Me: “Really? Wow. That’s a lot of cards”.

Friend: “Yes. But he got this one card that he that was so cool.”

Me: “Oh yeah?” (being as nonchalant as a loved-up 15-year-old in pre-OMG days can be).

Friend: “Yeah. One with the exact same font as a House of Love song. Any ideas who, er, would have sent that?”

Me: (panicked now) “Um. No. Er, great. Well, seeya. ”

He looked at me and smiled, as he had probably smiled at the other seven girls who had sent his friend a card. For the next two years, John and the Leaving Cert did equal battle for my headspace. We spoke occasionally and I never said a word about how I felt. Years later, on a casual night out, someone revealed that John had actually liked me back. I laughed, of course. Then I thought about it. And then I wished I was gymnastic enough to kick myself.  But it was a good lesson. Life is too short. If you like someone, tell them. And bypass the calligraphy. It’s an almighty pain in the ass. And it’s so 1990s.

Catherine Crichton: As a skinny, speccy, swotty teenager, Valentine’s Day was a form of torture for me. Other girls, infinitely cooler and more popular than I, would swan into class brandishing their haul of cards for all to see. The ones who had actual boyfriends got gigantic garish padded cards and cuddly toys, others received mystery greetings from unknown admirers, covered in amusing and romantic verses. I could only gaze on in silent envy. My experience of boys was limited to the odd wordless slow dance at the school disco; I had never had a real conversation with one.

After several years of this, my luck changed and a card addressed to me hit the mat on the big day. It featured hearts and teddy bears, and had the requisite ‘roses are red’ verses scrawled all over it. It was perfect. I had no clue who it could be from, but of course that only added to the thrill.

I shyly showed it to my mother.  “What’s this?” she cried, unable to hide her surprise. “Ah sure, that’s only some of your friends messing”.

My Valentine balloon was well and truly burst.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir: Valentine’s Day. All I hear is people complaining about it. ‘It’s too commercial.’ ‘It’s a made-up celebration.’ Blah, blah. I love it, I have to say.

I haven’t always loved it – as a young teenager I longed for a secret admirer to send me a card, but it never happened. And one boyfriend sent his 9-year-old brother to buy my card (he was the type to tell you that, in case you got above yourself.) I think he was also the boyfriend who got me a Thin Lizzy LP, though I had zero interest in them at the time and no record player either…

Nowadays, I relish the day. Any excuse to be gooey and romantic, and crack open a bottle of Prosecco and a box of dark chocolates with my husband. The card is the big thing for me – I love cards for every occasion – and I usually end up getting two for my man: something arty and something cute.

I always send my sons anonymous Valentine’s cards. They know they are from me but I’ve been doing it so long now it would be a shame to stop. And seeing that my husband proposed beside the relics of Saint Valentine in Dublin, I feel morally obliged to have fun on his special day. Roll on Monday!

June Caldwell: I was snared rapid at age 12 sending a card to myself because my friends recognised the obscure verse as being only possible by my neurotic hand (yes, I was headmashed even then): ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, a car is yellow and a gate is green.’ Signed by a ubiquitous ‘Edgar’. Boy did they laugh and boy did I cry. At least I knew from then on I’d make a lousy fraudster. In later years Valentines’ Day (VD day for short) came to symbolise something a bit more sinister: my first boyfriend very kindly gave me genital warts which were diagnosed on February 14th at an NHS clinic in Hounslow/London – though I waited till he went down that evening to break the news -and of course he didn’t take it well. Cheers Garry!

Many moons later a man I was in love with decided to get his demented, derailed girlfriend knocked up and took me out for a meal to announce his imminent and certain exit from my life. This on top of the fact that I’ve *never* received a poxy Valentine’s Card (not even from my mother, who would normally be prepared to adopt any hideous gesture to help make us ‘feel better’) means that I abhor, despise, dislike, hate, loathe the very idea that one day could be more superior a show of bravura and love towards a humped one that the other 364 days in the homosapien calendar… that we are somehow meant to sit in a shabby restaurant somewhere, sharing a plate of deep fried garlic mushrooms (times are tough and the gourmet food is gone) to celebrate a bucketload of saints & martyrs who were all called Valentine?

Preposterous, the entire thing. A National Day of Farting would be far more contempo and cutting edge. Who is St. Valentine anyway?

Hazel Larkin: It’s a Hallmark holiday. The one day of the year when a single red rose will cost you about five times the amount it would cost on any other day of the year. The one night when, if you haven’t booked a table for two, you’ll be lucky to be fed in your local chipper.

St. Valentine’s Day is an outrageous affront to love and lovers everywhere. Yet, millions of people across the world buy into it, and feel pressurised to make a display of how much they love their other halves. Surely, if you love someone, you should remember to tell them – and not need a day set aside to remind you? Surely, there is supposed to be a degree of spontaneity in love and its expression? Having a day set aside specifically dedicated to looking after the emotional well-being of the person you’re supposed to love seems almost as silly –and outrageously affronting – as having a ‘feed your children day’.

Of course, I might just be jealous. I’ve never received a V-day card in my entire life – never mind a red rose or the offer of a night out on the 14th. Neither one of my ex-husbands made the effort for my birthday or our anniversaries; so expecting them to do something romantic for V-day would have been expecting too much. Boyfriends before and since my husbands (and I include the father of one of my children in that mix) have displayed a similar attitude to this particular Hallmark Holiday. Maybe if I get a card this year, I’ll revise my attitude to Valentine’s Day – watch this space!

Jennie Ridyard: At my high school there was an annual V-Day fundraiser, when carnations could be purchased anonymously and delivered to the dreamboat who’d stolen your heart, the dreamboat who dragged it through the hallways, the dreamboat who never knew you existed.

I was 13, and breathlessly I sent a carnation to Jacques — tall, dark, athletic, the greenest eyes in the whole world, a full four years older than me and (possibly) four-foot taller. I’d first loved him at the age of eight when he asked me to dance at the primary school disco. Yes, now I realise it was a Big Boy joke and, yes, his friends sniggered as I boogied, yet as I did my rhythmic sidestep all I saw was him and I thought I’d explode with happiness, especially when he smiled so kindly at the end of the song, touching my shoulder as he said thank-you.

So on this first high school Valentine’s Day I glowed, waiting for break, waiting to see my carnation pinned to his glorious chest, and there it was. Well, I presume it was there, somewhere amongst the veritable bouquet on his blazer, the great field of flowers that he’d sweetly crafted into a big L: L for Lisa, Lisa his girlfriend.

Eventually the flower sellers arrived in my classroom, and I feigned nonchalance just like everyone else did, pretending not to notice as Jane got flowers, and Tai, and Cheryl and Sheryl, and then the sellers were gone, my lapel was empty, and I wanted to die.

I wasn’t alone though. The only truth I know about Valentine’s Day is that if you’re alone, if you’re unloved and undesired, you certainly have company.

But come each new Valentine’s Day it’s the hope that gets you every time…

Claire Hennessy: Valentine’s Day bothers me. It’s not a Being Single versus Being Coupled thing – in fact, I think it bothers me more when coupled. Gentlemen I have been entangled with have had to put up with my ‘let’s not do Valentine’s Day, okay?’ speech – and I’ve had to curb my eye-rolling at flowers (flowers! For flip’s sake!), teddy bears with hearts embedded in their tummies, chocolates, and other officially-sanctioned emblems of romance. All right, to be fair, chocolates are always welcome.

The thought of being someone who genuinely expects certain things (roses, chocolates, jewellery, fine wines, romantic getaways) on Valentine’s Day is repulsive – as is the idea of being someone who despairs, aloud, at how unromantic her ‘other half’ is. I hate the thought of having to be on your best behaviour because it’s a romantic holiday, one that’s commercial rather than personal. I hate the thought of expectations, implicit or explicit, that money needs to be spent in order to demonstrate one’s love. I hate the focus on romantic relationships at the exclusion of all else – the notion that there is one person in your life who fulfils all of your emotional needs.

I’m a cynic. But I do think cynicism and romance are two sides of the same coin, and the truth is, I love the idea of a day when people consciously check in and remind themselves why they are with someone, and why that particular someone instead of just Being Coupled for the sake of it. When they appreciate that person instead of getting caught up in the day-to-day rushing about. I just don’t think Valentine’s Day quite does the trick.

Eleanor Fitzsimons: Nowadays my Valentine cards tend to be handmade, not shop bought. Delightfully crayoned, heart-studded wonders sweated over in the classroom and triumphantly handed over to thirty teary mums at going home time. This year’s offering, addressed to “Dad & Mum” made me realise that I might have drifted slightly off-centre in my son’s universe. Could the two tickets that “Dad” scored for Ireland v France in the Aviva Stadium have something to do with that?

It’s quite some time since I received a card from a boy my own age. Recently number-one-son allowed us a glimpse of the future when he handed over his latest masterpiece to a girl in his class and hung around shyly to watch her giggle and whisper with her friends. My lovely husband is very generous with his affection but more likely to fill the dishwasher and put a wash on than buy a cheesy Hallmark token….and I’m all for that.

I was never one who overburdened the postman in mid-February but I do treasure the memory of the few cards I received. So, where did it all start? In Anglo-Saxon England it would appear. Once ‘twere customary for a young lad to hand over a token of his esteem, usually a pair of gloves (‘twas nippy back in those pre-central heating days), to his lady; But before we sigh a collective “Awww” be aware that gloves were a symbol of authority and benevolence, often given by landlords to their peasant tenants. Inhabitants of Norwich, the second largest city in England, after London, in the eleventh century, would leave a small package on the doorstep of the object of their desire on Valentine’s eve containing a terse “a Good-morrow to you Valentine”. They would then ring the bell and run away, no doubt to peep out from behind a nearby wall and gauge the reaction.

This innocent practice was bound to be commercialised eventually. In the seventeenth century a book of verse entitled A Valentine Writer put in an appearance and at this time Samuel Pepys records the practice of delivering “substantial” gifts (boys take note). The invention of the envelope helped with anonymity and the penny post removed the necessity for knocking on doors and running away. Victorian Valentine cards were complex and intricate concoctions of lace and ribbon (similar to the doily-adorned delight that Sinéad Gleeson received this year) containing messages hidden carefully from the keen eyes of a prying Victorian Daddy.

Before the pre-printed card a love struck lad or lass had to resort to one of the many books of suitable verse doing the rounds back in the day or, if really dedicated, invent something suitable themselves. Those whose intentions were less serious might turn to The New Quizzical Valentine Writer, which contained a “most excellent collection of all the humorous, droll, and merry valentines ever published.” As the century turned to the 1900s paper Valentines became so popular that factories were established to manufacture them and that’s where we are today. You can buy just about anything with a Valentine theme these days but I wouldn’t part with my half-share of a slightly scruffy handmade card, even if the accompanying chocolate heart was scoffed by its donor before we even got beyond the school gates.

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Darren Aronovsky’s Black Swan is probably the most hyped film of the year. Natalie Portman is tipped for an Oscar, having won the Golden Globe for best actress. This is a gothic fairy tale based on the ballet Swan Lake, telling the story of Nina, who gets her dream role as the swan queen. Her white swan is second nature – fragile, retiring, virtuous – but locating her inner black swan is somewhat trickier. Vincent Cassell’s manipulative and exacting artistic director will sacrifice anything, even his prima ballerina’s sanity, for the sake of his art. And then there is Lily (Mila Kunis) who seems to effortlessly be able to find all the danger and edge required for the black swan, that Nina so lacks.The film whips itself into a frenzy of psychological disintegration, sexual awakening and personal discovery, that reaches a tense and emotional crescendo, at which point you realise you’ve spent the last 90 minutes inside Nina’s head and become attached to her, very much emotionally invested in her, without being aware of it. This ‘portrait’ style of film, where the viewer is in the character’s mind, makes it a very unsettling film. Nina is not sure what is real and what is imagined, and so neither are we.

It is melodramatic in many ways but so is ballet and the stories it portrays. This film delves deep into warped mother-daughter relationships, repressed sexuality and what happens when we try to force women to remain virginal little girls and the cruel reality of being a woman in a profession that prizes beauty and youth above all else (Winona Ryder’s ageing ballerina becomes almost a Phantom-of-the-Opera character). This is definitely over-hyped but also one of the few films you’ll see this year to dare to look inside the murky mind of a sad, sad girl.  4/5 Edel Coffey

Go home, touch yourself, live a little, says sleaze-bucket Thomas Leroy, an abusive for the sake of art ballet boss to his could-be magnificent dancer, Nina. As it stands she’s too innocent & blanched for the lead part in Leroy’s semi-libidinous, risqué adaptation of Swan Lake. A bit like the proverbial beetle on its back being prodded by a spiteful school-kid, there comes a point in this film not too far in where even the audience can’t take the torture rack much longer, willing a shipload of diabolism into Nina’s heart so she can get to where she needs to in order to be a star. It’s extremely fast paced, compelling, horribly spooky as well as horny, overly dramatic and a bit silly, but nonetheless beautifully shot and packaged to keep you saucer-eyed to the end. Reviews have described it as a ‘psychological thriller’ but I’d say it’s really too predictable for that: more a textbook exploration of split psyche. As we do repression and the whole doppelgänger thing very well here in Ireland, there’s an uncomfortable familiarity to the mother’s character, played by Barbara Hershey. She desperately wants her daughter to live a successful re-run of her own life that she halted in order to have her daughter, while at the same time resenting any progress in getting there. Jealousy and megalomania spits and clappers all over this film, a bunny hop of meanness, mischief, misery and malevolence, even a touch of evil Sesame Street at times. A great lesbian sex scene as well, where for just a brief moment, Swan Lake turns into Swan Lick, cued with some erratic helpings of Tchaikovsky and The Chemical Brothers. I’d be nuts to say I didn’t love it though afterwards it made me feel deranged. 4/5 June Caldwell

Black Swan rehabilitates pop culture’s traditional use of pink in film.  Normally the hue is used to connote an ultra-feminine innocent allure, a non-threatening go-get-‘em-girl  moxie, or an excess of frivolity and consumption, as imagined in cinema fare such as Pretty in Pink, Legally Blonde or Marie Antoinette.  Aronofsky’s film gives audiences a fresh interpretation of the colour pink by illustrating its potential to marginalise women from themselves.  Nina (played by Natalie Portman) clad in a shell pink coat seems vulnerable on the subway to rehearsal, as well as among the roseate overtones in her bedroom, which magnify an arrested development, a woman trapped in a teenager’s world.  Nina’s desire for perfection is hampered by a struggle to cast off the thwarted pink existence.  There’s also how pink turns up in food to highlight the battle for Nina’s growth as an artist.  She can marvel and coo over her ‘pretty’ breakfast of half a pink grapefruit, a meagre start to a gruelling day en pointe.   But later, she can’t partake in the pink ballerina cake without either a blow up with her controlling mother, or else a guilty shame spiral over the calorie count involved.   Whether fruit or pastry, pink comestibles underscore the rigid policing at hand for any ballerina with her eye on centre stage. For once at the cinema, pink was made sinister, unmoored from the limp, simpering value it has historically carried.  When Nina embraces black and red, the Pink Swan of her girlhood has been conquered. 5/5 Megan McGurk

For those of us that merely watch from the wings, the world of professional ballet seems extraordinarily anomalous. Punishing self-sacrifice, the honing of a merciless stamina and the apparent eschewing of all else in pursuit of the perfect pas de deux or pirouette couldn’t be more alien to the powder-puff pinkness of little girls pointing their pretty toes, a gender appropriate after school activity that many of us may have experienced at one time.

Tales of bleeding, deformed feet and hideous, debilitating spinal injuries abound and the requirement for female dancers to be whippet thin has led to serious concern about the possible prevalence of eating disorders amongst young dancers. Irishwoman Monica Loughman, at age 14 the first Westerner to dance for the State Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Perm, describes her years of struggle in Russia’s Perm Ballet School in her book, The Irish Ballerina. Darcy Bussell, formerly the youngest ever principal dancer for the Royal Ballet, describes how she got an early insight into the damage that ballet can do when she met a clearly ailing and crippled Rudolf Nureyev who was struggling with hip problems. She did not take proper note of this “Instead, I danced when I was feverish and when I was so badly injured that I was in searing pain.” When she retired in 2007, aged 37 she was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying “Ten years ago, an orthopaedic surgeon told me that my hips were only 50 per cent as good as they should be for someone my age and that I would probably need hip replacement operations.”

It is this darker side of the ballet world that is so powerfully put under the microscope in Darren Aranofsky’s Black Swan, leading it to be hailed as a companion piece to his acclaimed 2008 film The Wrestler, as both examine the demands imposed by a driven individual on themselves as they pursue their overriding passion. Nina, a young, obsessive and frigidly uptight member of a ballet company lives with her overbearing, neurotic mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a former dancer who frequently reminds Nina that she ruined her career. She obsessively pursues perfection in her dancing and flashes of her disturbed state of mind are evident early as we learn of instances of self abuse and observe her unhealthy relationship with food and her frequent bouts of vomiting. When ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) dumps his “ageing” prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (played by a hysterical Winona Ryder) Nina is given the chance to audition for the lead role of Odette/Odile in a new production of Swan Lake. Leroy, a sinister Svengali who preys upon his young ballerinas, tells her she is perfect to play the virginal Odette but lacks the passion needed in a convincing Odile, the evil Black Swan. Determined to prove him wrong and see off the competition, in the sensual form of sexy dancer Lily, played by Mila Kunis, Nina taps into her dark side and plumbs frightening depths in the process.

The use of shocking, Gothic imagery and intense, jerky, close-ups allows the audience to follow Nina’s inevitable breakdown from her own unreliable perspective as she increasingly fails to differentiate fantasy from reality. The shocking denouement seems inevitable from early on.  Dark, intense and with themes of Gothic horror throughout Black Swan is utterly compelling and explores the fragility of adolescent mental health in the face of intense, overbearing pressure; the dangers of living vicariously through your children; and the nasty outcomes when powerful, manipulative men prey on young vulnerable girls. All this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking cinema experience, albeit one spent watching through splayed fingers, but may make you reconsider those ballet lessons for your tiny tot.  4/5 Eleanor Fitzsimons




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Some of our Anti Room writers share their New Year’s resolutions – what are yours, if any?

Nuala Ní Chonchúir

I am a firm believer in New Year’s resolutions. I know January is not the jolliest month for many but I like it because it’s my birth month. I also love the freshness of the turning year, the way it stretches out in front of you like clean paper, and that chance it gives to be new and improved.

My resolutions are practically identical every year, which, I guess shows that a) I don’t really succeed in keeping them for the whole year, and b) people don’t change much. I believe in simple resolutions – ones that may be semi-achievable. I always start off the year on a health kick, so the first one is generally ‘Eat less, walk more.’ The second is ‘Worry less’, because I can worry about pretty much everything and I drive myself mad with it. And the third is usually along the lines of ‘Be nicer. To everyone.’

This year I am adding ‘Buy less stuff’, which won’t be hard now that we are all so much poorer. And – one I’m less keen on – try to understand Twitter. Ath-bhliain faoi mhaise to all the readers of the Anti-Room.

Arlene Hunt

New year’s resolutions.- Easy. Deadlift 115kilos by June,  squat body weight by same period. Press 30k, push press 50k. Do strict pull ups without band SOMETIME this year, run 10k in under 50 minutes, stretch stretch and stretch some more. Oh, and stop pretending Meanies are a food group.

Antonia Hart


In Listowel some years ago the novelist leading the writing workshop I was at asked us how much we read. How many books? One a month? Two a week?

I answered, ooh, about one a week, usually five a month, knowing the answer because for four or five years I kept a note of what I read. Not the kind of note that comes with star ratings and possible reread dates, just a page for each month, with titles and authors. Not enough, the novelist said, you must read and read and read. But just to get those five books a month read, i had to read in the interstices of my life: stirring the chili, walking to the DART, waiting for the loo, at the school gate. For two or three years, during a miserable patch, I slept with the light on and my thumb in a book, so that if I woke at night I could plunge into some fictional life and not have to lie there in a spiralling fret about my own. Soap operas, alcohol, dope, mashed potato – most people have something to bury themselves in. My book-gobbling is an escapism with a veneer of civilisation. 

Last summer I went to another workshop, led this time by Claire Keegan. I was thirty before I learned to read, she said. Before I learned to read slowly. To take in what I was reading. Read slowly, she said. And when you think you’re reading slowly enough, slow down again.
That’s one of my resolutions for 2011 – to stop gobbling. To read slowly, and take it all in.

Sinéad Gleeson

I have the same resolutions every year, and barely a fortnight into January, they’re a myopic blur. As well as the old perennial “write more, dammit”, which I swear I’ll do on pain of eye-gouging every year, I have yet to see this through. This year, in some shape or form I’m going to get more involved in music, after being coaxed into some vocals for Strands. Given that I’m now partly bionic, I have no excuse for being as unfit as I am. Cue lots of repetitive exercise to 1980s’ Power Ballads. And finally, I plan to seek out more positivity and be less tolerant of moaners, me-feiners, takers and people whose only problems are First World ones.

Aoife Barry

I always look on the dawning of a new year as a chance to wipe the slate clean; to make better anything I may have stupidly done or neglected in the year past; to improve the bad habits of mine that even I loathe; to start afresh, anew. It’s a time to begin new things, to get back in touch with old friends, to finish projects and start learning Japanese or do that singing class I’ve always wanted to do.

Life being what it is, however, things don’t always go to plan, and each new year I’m faced with some eerily similar thoughts to the pervious year. “This year I will be more organised, I promise…I won’t waste money and I’ll stop watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians instead of tidying the house. I’ll look into night classes and start yoga again. I’ll read all those books piled up next to my bed and I’ll bring lunch to work every day. I’ll wake up with a smile instead of a grimace and keep a positive attitude. I’ll even bring out the bins instead of waiting for my boyfriend to do it. Yes, a new me!”

This year, as usual, I do hope to do the above things. But one thing I really hope sticks is that positive attitude that sometimes seems so elusive. Maybe it’ll help me when I spot the bin ready to be brought downstairs…or even prevent me from turning on E! when I should be doing something else.

So if all my resolutions fall to bits, I’ll still have a smile on my face. And I won’t let anyone tell me it’s an upside-down frown.

Eleanor Fitzsimons

I don’t generally make New year resolutions on the basis that I can thus avoid the crushing and early disappointment of inevitably breaking them. However, this year I’m planning to take the kids on weekend day trips in and around Dublin. I’m also going to try to find a couple of decent candidates to vote for in the general election. As good things come in threes I’m going to try to highlight some of the issues and causes that I feel passionately about via Antiroom and anyone else that will have me.

June Caldwell

I resolve to feck the fat and melt the critics in their entirety. A paedophile told me recently, in the snide nasty way that only a paedophile can when faced with evidence of the abuse resurfacing, that I was ‘morbidly obese’. This person, who has been grotesquely overweight [and medieval ugly] all their adult life – with a spouse who fits the ‘two seats in a plane’ category – made me realise that my post-hip replacement fat stores have gone on multiplying like lab bacteria for way too long. I‘ve written plenty about this syndrome before https://www.tribune.ie/archive/article/2008/nov/09/bodymatters-waist-disposal how family members, friends and random gobshites somehow assume power over your BMI when it heads cloudwards. A counsellor woman a few months ago pointed at my knockers and spluttered: “What are you going to do about them?” Unprompted. I wasn’t even talking about my weight at the time. There’s nothing quite like being fat/slim/fat/slim no less than eight times in adulthood to fully cognise how the world treats you differently from a Size 10 to a Size 18. Though this time around it is true that my knockers have enjoyed a record-breaking Double F fat finale, which if I was thick as farm mud and lanky and owned a jeep, I’d probably end up with a reality TV deal where people all over the world could watch me eating toast in the mornings and picking up pedigree turds from the lawn. Eight years ago, while living in the inner-city (back when I was an employed house-owner) I lost four stone in eight months, half-starving myself on only half Weight Watchers points, zero alcohol and exercising so manically that I wore down the remainder of my right hip and had to have it replaced, I was truly astounded at the reaction from the locals. People, mainly men: it’s true, who had utterly ignored my blobby self sitting at the bar supping Guinness for nigh on two years, were practically riding my leg the minute I sat down. I had all kinds of offers of romance – even one from the local lithium-laced schizophrenic who was known to talk to street signs when he drank too much – to a local bank robber who suddenly wanted to cocaine-confess all his fiscal crimes, because I looked good in the general rankings. I had a rake of one night stands and partied like a loon before I allowed myself to get angry at teeming hypocrisy of it all: that men can look like pure shit but women have to be wank-fodder to get on in our feeble-minded world. This time I want to get slim and stay slim, for me, for health, for the sneaky life event I have planned in a year’s time and moreover so the sub-humans can look elsewhere for their ‘no life’ snipes: paedophiles, gobshites, non-thinking counsellors and all other brand of pass-remarkables that populate the bus-stop poles, shopping centres, parks, post offices and coffee shops of our green and rotten land…I wish you all a Happy Mind Your Own Poxy Business New Year! Roll on 2011!

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We won’t be posting much over Christmas, so while we’re off eating our own weight in Cadbury’s Roses, watching Doctor Who and Upstairs Downstairs, and trying to stop children and pets climbing the Christmas tree, we’ll leave you with these memories of Christmas past from several of the Anti-Roomers…


There is no other point in the calendar year that has a mythology quite like Christmas. It’s essentially the trophy cabinet of memories and, if you’re lucky, a place that is home to lots of our happiest moments. Settling on a definitive Christmas to write about proved tricky. There are multiple childhood ones, including the year we all got bikes. My brother’s Santa belief was shattered after hearing my poor dad, sweaty and swearing,  trying to wrestle a Raleigh racer through the porch doors at 3am. Then there are the adult ones: trying to explain to my parents the expensive underwear bought for me by my first boyfriend; the much-anticipated visits home from my older brother who lived in Australia; the American man I spent three days with the previous summer who wrote twice a week and flew to Dublin to ask me to marry him; the year I felt off-colour, not realising a clot the size of a tennis ball was forming in my lung (hello, leukemia!); the Christmas week I lost my job and my husband proposed on the same day; my sixth month old son in a Santa babygro. The latter ones have their own significance, but one momentous Nollaig has become lore in my family. It was the early 80s and is burned into the collective Gleeson memory as “The Year of the Millennium Falcon”.

Few kids born in the 1970s were immune from the intergalactic lure of Star Wars. As an only girl with two brothers, I was no different. We watched the films and cried when Yodo died (I also did when Luke Skywalker got his hand chopped off, but mainly because I had accidentally locked myself in a toilet in the Ambassador cinema). Like all good devotees, there was merchandise binging. We had an X-wing Fighter, Darth Vader’s TIE-fighter, an AT-AT walker and a cardboard Death Star, complete with moveable wall for recreating the garbage crushing scene. We had figures with brilliant names (Hammerhead, Boba Fett) and challenging faces (Admiral Ackbar, Greedo) and I owned three different Princess Leias. It never occurred to me that a) there were no other significant female characters in the films or b) that I was as entitled to own Lando Calrissian as Leia. Regardless, hours were spent making up our own games, using various parts of the house as locations (a hollowed out beanbag made an ideal pit of Sarlacc).

That fateful Christmas, we asked for Han Solo’s ship, the Millennium Falcon. It was the ultimate in Star Wars memorabilia – there was nothing better. Three letters were duly dispatched to the North Pole, hoping that the triple request would be as powerful as crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. On Christmas morning, we raced downstairs with our bleary-eyed parents in tow. Santa had arrived and been good to us. Three sets of eyes swept the room in panic – where was it? Not wanting to seem ungrateful, we didn’t say a word and happily opened our other gifts. My brothers smiled cheerily but could barely hide their heart-dropping disappointment. In our kitchen, there was a second Christmas tree and my dad, in one of his unsubtlest moments, feigned curiosity: “I wonder if Santa left anything in the kitchen?”. Sure enough, under a fake silver tree, there she was: the “ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs”. There was collective screeching. One brother leapt on my dad with a hug. The other one started crying. It was the childhood equivalent of winning the Lotto or bagging an Oscar. Such crazy joy over a lump of grey plastic. A few minutes later when we had all held it – awestruck, examining its fake floorboards (for Han Solo’s smuggler runs), the chessboard and the cockpit – clarity kicked in. My younger brother asked my Dad what we were all thinking: how he knew it was in the kitchen? Coughing to buy time, his brain conjuring a response, he stared at the ship. “Oh, I, er, came down in the middle of the night to get a drink of water and spotted it”. We all nodded understandingly. It didn’t matter whether we believed him or not. The Millennium Falcon was HERE.


Christmas morning 1981 at some ridiculous hour: I’m padding about half dressed amid a jungle of wrapping paper, Lego kits and stray Sindy shoes. Santa’s bounty unwrapped; my siblings and I dabble in the delights of selection boxes while appraising new treasures with chocolate-smeared fingers. My mother is feigning surprise at the existence of some Star Wars figure or other while drinking tea anad my father is behind a camera recording it all for the years to come.

These dated images now act as a kind of festive barometer of living, of how life was and how life is.

Mam, at 32 in green cord dressing gown and sleep-tousled hair smiling at the chaos and wincing at the high-pitched shrieking of her four young children. She looks utterly content.

Christmas 2010, I’m 32 and my Christmas morning will no doubt be further removed from hers at this age than either of us could ever have imagined.

Apart from the happiness.


Stay away from this device during the work Christmas party…

My work Christmas party has been postponed because of the snowpocalypse. I am disappointed, not because I won’t get the opportunity to drink my body weight in free plonk, but because I now won’t get a chance to have a recce at my new colleagues when they are at their most vulnerable. (Insert evil cackle here).

I had planned to stay on the sidelines for this, my first viewing of the office folks with their prosecco goggles on. If I remember work Christmas parties – and I do, patchily – they reveal more about Ted from Accounts in one shot-slamming night than an entire year of nods over the watercooler. Ted doesn’t in fact live with his mother and have a room dedicated to Star Wars toys, all still in their original boxes. Ted plays in a heavy metal band at the weekend and has groupies who have tattooed his stage name – Profane Master of Slaughter – with an ink-stained safety pen on their forearm.

So Christmas parties can be educational. They can also be evil. I agree with the thrust of this article in The Irish Times which suggests that there is not always veritas in vino. Overdoing it on the alcohol can make you do and say things that don’t necessarily reflect how you feel about a person or situation.

True, I’ve been there when someone told the boss that they are a pompous ass and it was clearly an explosion of the frustration they were feeling from having been recently passed over for a promotion. But one year I made a holy show of myself by drinking too much of the free Sexy Santa cocktail on offer and telling a colleague how much they irritated me. I believe it went along the lines of, “Everyone thinks you’re funny, but you earn cheap laughs by making someone else the butt of the joke.” I don’t know where that came from, I didn’t feel that way about the person when I was sober and I spent the next week apologising to them for the outburst.

It taught me a valuable lesson (don’t mix gin with brandy) but it also made me a bit more forgiving to the idiotic stuff I’ve seen others do at Christmas parties. I now feel deeply for the intern who unzipped himself beside the MD of the company at a urinal, looked him up and down appraisingly, and asked, ‘So what do you do?’ Or the girl who vomited on the editor’s wife’s jacket one year and didn’t appear to notice.

I’m still not sure about the guy who kicked me up the backside on the dancefloor another year. It was incredibly humiliating but his work bros told me later that he fancied me. In which case, I wish he had resorted to pulling my pigtails or twanging the strap of my training bra. It would have been no more mature but much less aggressive.

We could probably all benefit from looking at the Christmas work do as if it is akin to Christmas Day with the family. Acknowledge in advance that alcohol and the novelty of informality will lead to tension, sexual or otherwise. And don’t beat yourself up too much if you end up snogging a member of the work family – it might be inadvisable, but at least it’s not illegal.


The Rules of Christmas

Santa always left presents at the end of the bed, and they were never wrapped. Different rules applied in other households but we didn’t question this.

We all had to attend 10 o’clock mass together.

After mass, dad had to spend an agonisingly long time having coffee. Only after he had drained his cup could the non-Santa present opening begin.

No opening until after Dad’s coffee!

All presents had to be put into a gigantic Santa sack and doled out by Dad, wearing a Santa hat – this continued well into the teens and twenties of his offspring.

Nobody could open any presents until everybody had ALL their presents.

We always had turkey soup for lunch, followed by trifle.

Christmas dinner was eaten in the rarely-used dining room.

It was always about an hour later than its originally scheduled time and was accompanied by much maternal fretting about the hotness or otherwise of the food.

Dad delivered his annual speech, always ending with the words ‘Go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís’.

We never once strayed from the turkey and ham formula. Cranberry sauce never put in an appearance.

Crackers could not be pulled until dessert was served – too messy. Pudding was always accompanied by brandy butter. The cake always had the same tiny snow-covered house and giant plastic robin stuck into the icing snow.

Dinner was followed by TV, dozing, possibly a card game and always Roses, never Quality Street.

They were the rules of our childhood Christmas in my parents’ house. We’re all grown up now, and the family is too big to recreate it. We all loved its familiarity, and wouldn’t have changed anything.


My Mum’s one of seven, and throughout my childhood and into adulthood, Christmas was the time when the clan gathered, squealed, argued over who ate the green triangles in the Quality Street, who got the best seat for the Corrie special, whose turn it was to open the next bottle of wine. Christmas, for me, is all about noise, chaos, and family.When I had my own family, I assumed, it’d be just like that.

No fighting over the green ones, now…

Huh. My first Yuletide as a mother found me thousands of miles from extended family, hallucinating with sleep deprivation, walking the floors with a tiny baby who had no concept of sleeping for Santa. Our relatives, eight hours ahead and desperate to see the new baby, had left eighteen voicemail messages by the time we dragged ourselves out of bed. Bowing to the requests to switch on the webcam before anyone became too half-cut to operate a computer, we literally tore through the unwrapping of presents then dialed into Christmas.  There they all were; crammed around the PC in my parents’ spare room, party hats askew, beaming with season’s delights and the slightly surreal experience of watching a baby through a computer (this was 2005, before we all took Skypeing utterly for granted). The webcam panned shakily from one of them to the next, accents and gestures as familiar to me as my own, warmth beaming through cyberspace. It was Christmas.

Then we said goodbye and switched off the camera, and Christmas evaporated. Instead of crackers and daft, generations-old jokes, and someone cooking the world’s biggest roast, we were once again two exhausted foreigners with a bit of tinsel and a magical but non-sleeping infant. It was too much for even my natural optimism. I looked at my husband and burst into tears.  He sent me back to bed, and heroically cooked an enormous roast whilst juggling the baby.

Five years and two countries later, we’re home for Christmas. We’re going nowhere, but we’ve invited everyone we care about to spend it with us. There will be arguing over the Quality Street, and endless cooking, and endless laughter. Our two boys, five and three now, are beside themselves with excitement. Me too. Nobody’s switching off Christmas this year.


I love Christmas. We didn’t have Santa Claus in our house – he didn’t give us presents, our parents did. I’m not sure why that was but I presume it was to do with my parents being very Catholic. Anyway, our Christmases were magical – I loved the ritual of the candle in the window on Christmas Eve; the baby Jesus going into the crib on the morning of the 25th; the enormous dinner; all the goodies; and, best of all, Coca Cola in glass bottles – the glamour! We also had (still have) a tradition that I haven’t seen in other’s homes of having a baby doll in a basket under the tree as Jesus in the manger.

Once baby Jesus is in the crib, you know it’s Christmas…

For years our presents weren’t wrapped then my eldest sister took on the work of Christmas and made it even more magical – beautifully wrapped pressies that went under the tree (tantalisingly) on Christmas Eve. With everyone home (9 of us), boxes of Lemon’s Santy sweets being passed around and Willy Wonka on the TV, life didn’t get any better.

My second eldest sister died on 23rd December nine years ago. That has made Christmas very bitter-sweet for our family but we are still a gang of Christmas nuts. Hearing carols she liked, particularly the old-fashioned ones like Gaudete or Silent Night in Irish, makes me well up in the days leading to Christmas. But once the day itself has arrived, I feel fine. I like nothing more than spending the day at home with my own kids and my husband, staying nicely tipsy for the day and eating half a ton of Roses. Bliss.

Nollaig shona to all the Anti-Room readers.


It is Christmas Eve in Baggot Street, and my mother packs three of her five grown-up children, with our clothes and books and presents, into her car, with the dog draped over our knees having her ears untangled. For the first time I can remember, we are leaving Dublin at Christmas. Darkness has fallen, and the car creeps along the Rock Road with the last of the shoppers taking their wrapping paper and perishable luxuries home to Blackrock and Monkstown and Dun Laoghaire. We have shaken the worst of the traffic by the time we turn onto the dual carriageway, and once we’re on the little road through Glenealy and Rathdrum, the drive is a black and quiet one, interrupted occasionally by a flash of headlights pointing to Dublin.

Fresh from the (hotel’s) oven….

I don’t know how to celebrate Christmas in any way other than the way we always have, with pillowcases and morning Mass in University Church, or Clarendon Street if we’re late, which is not unheard of, and then the aunts arriving for turkey and vodka and tonic, bringing unnecessary extra puddings and tins of Quality Street and boxes of chocolates. Christmas is about ritual and tradition, the deserted, Sunday feeling of town, hot baths with crumbled bath cubes, and lying on the carpet watching television in the peaceful certainty that on this day of the year no unexpected visitor will ring the doorbell. My father doesn’t care for unexpected visitors. Christmas is not about a rural laneway whose apparently dead end leads to a half-restored house which is not yet properly wired, nor plumbed. The only electricity available is from a single temporary flex and power point into the kitchen, into which we plug a gangboard and as many appliances as we dare.

Christmas is not about stepping into the pitch dark garden to go to the loo in a bush before bed – or worse, waking in the middle of the night, and finding yourself unable to put off a torchlit garden wee. But my parents have given up their city life for Wicklow, and Christmas will be where they are.

When my mother finally makes the sequence of gear changes that I have come to recognise as meaning we’re arriving at the gate of the house and descending the rutted drive, I am ready for the moonless night with the big torch that takes a battery as thick as my thigh. I struggle out of the hot car into the shock of freezing Wicklow. The car is parked on a slope, and the door swings shut against me and bangs my hip, so I am already muttering when I rummage in the boot for my rucksack and all the extra plastic shopping bags I’ve brought for this stay. I hear my father’s voice raised in greeting, and turn to the house for the first time. Soft yellow light spills from every window. I have never seen this electricity-free house lit like this. None of us has. Inside, we find that my sister and father have put tealights and candles on every windowsill and table. They have lit two vast fires, and somehow outwitted the chimneys so that hardly any smoke stings my eyes. The dining table is laid with the same pale Italian tablecloth and napkins I’ve seen every Christmas I can remember, and shines with the same polished silver and huge crystal goblets from which we are now judged old enough to drink wine. It looks like some sort of medieval feast, and is by a distance the prettiest start to a Christmas I have ever had.

“Thank God we don’t have electricity,” my father says, when he’s filled the glasses. Despite the fires, it’s so cold in the house we have kept our overcoats on, and I have to push my scarf down from my face to take a sip. “Spoil the effect entirely.”

My mother carries her glass up the steps to the kitchen.

“You might feel differently tomorrow,” she says. “Christmas lunch isn’t going to appear out of nowhere.”

“Quite right,” he says, “it isn’t. It’s going to appear from the Woodenbridge.”

“The hotel?” I ask.

“Yes. I’ve spoken to the head chef, a marvellous fellow, and all we have to do is bring the turkey down ready to go into the oven, and in it’ll go, along with their own turkeys, and out again when the time comes, crisp and golden, and we’ll streel down to collect it.”

This is exactly what happens. We have two-ring electric hob from someone’s bedsit, and a strange electric cooking pot from someone else’s, which we plug into the temporary socket. We put the vegetables on when the call comes from the chef at the  Woodenbridge, and they are ready by the time my mother comes back up the hill with the hotel-cooked turkey, a vast 18-pounder. My father is delighted with the arrangements and says it has taken all the trouble out of Christmas lunch. Later, we peer at the evening Trivial Pursuit dice, trying to make out the numbers in the candlelight. No-one has the heart to tell my father that the chef has said this is the last year they will be open for Christmas. I think we are all wondering whether we’ll have a functioning oven by next year.

Given the choice of lavatory over oven, though, I’ll take a lavatory every time.

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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


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


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


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

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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Every year on a Friday, some weeks before Christmas, RTE’s Late Late Show hosts The Toy Show. Running for over 35 years ago, it’s a rite-of-passage for Irish children growing up. Some Anti Room contributor’s share their memories…

As a child I, along with my many, many sisters and lone brother, was always allowed to stay up for The Late Late Toy Show. It was an occasion observed as faithfully as turkey for Christmas dinner. My memories date exclusively back to the reign of Uncle Gaybo. In fact, although I can’t be absolutely sure of this I seem to remember that all the early ones I saw were broadcast in black & white. We huddled in front of the telly: faces scrubbed clean, teeth hastily done, pyjamas on and wrapped in a variety of hastily gathered quilts and blankets. As the distinctive signature tune rang out mum and dad shouted “hurry up, you’ll miss it” and we scurried down the stairs. Of course we craved the toys and bitterly envied the children invited on to demonstrate them but, despite our excitement, we rarely made it all the way to the end. One by one we dropped off to sleep even as we insisted that we “weren’t tired at all” and were carried upstairs and tucked into bed. Naturally, now that I have my own two little lads, we observe the same ritual. Tonight we’ll be in our PJs in front of a roaring fire with hot chocolate, marshmallows and a tin of Quality Street (I have my instructions) watching Uncle Tubs. It might even be snowing. As for my husband Derek. Well he’s inexplicably turning his back on the occasion and heading into the Button Factory to hear Steve Ignorant belt out a few Crass tunes. Chacun à son goût! Eleanor Fitzsimons

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My Scottish husband is totally baffled by the Late Late Toy Show tradition. The poor man just doesn’t get that it’s practically the law that children be allowed to stay up in their jim-jams to watch a show that goes on till almost midnight. He thinks it’s just crass commercialism – perish the thought! The Toy Show is pure magic, as anyone who grew up in Ireland will tell you. My memories are also from the era of Uncle Gaybo. We were insanely jealous of the children who took part, though my mother, ever the cynic, would always point out that we could never get on the show because we weren’t related to anyone in RTE. I’m sure she was wrong about that… Catherine Crichton

When I think of childhood telly, it’s of the televisual holy trinity, i.e. the three shows we were allowed stay up late for every year: The Rose of Tralee (mostly for girls, even if my younger brother feigned a smidge of interest just to avoid going to bed), the Eurovision (when Ireland used to actually win the thing once in a while) and the ne plus ultra of all three – The Late Late Toy Show. It was bath, jammies, wet hair squeakily combed and no messing allowed, on pain of being frog-marched up the stairs and missing out. Our collective hearts thumped along with the familiar drums of the signature tune and there it was… a lavish, sparkly, tinsel-soaked set looking like Santa’s Grotto on crack. Oodles of toys, from the old skool to the faddish must-haves were heaped around Gay Byrne, who looked avuncular, jumpertastic and, it had to be said, in his element. How we envied the kids who got to demonstrate games and monsters, dolls and gadgets. If any of them fluffed their words or the toys wouldn’t work, myself and my brothers were united in our Schadenfreude glee of how WE would have done it better. The whirling dervish Billie Barrie kids both awed and frightened me, and we shamelessly fast-forwarded their set-pieces on the video when we watched the show back the next day. In this day and age, some might say it’s a gluttonous ode to consumerism. Not me. It’s 100% escapism, fantasy and fun, especially in the context of Ireland’s economic black hole. My own children are a little too young for the Toy Show this year, but it won’t be long before we’re sitting down to it, while squabbling over a bag of Maltesers and guffawing at Ryan Tubridy’s jumper. Sinéad Gleeson

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My memories of the Late Late Toy Show are dominated by a few things: the excitement of staying up late; the glamour of all those unobtainable toys (that often ended up broken – the waste!) and the Billie Barrie Kids. I was horribly jealous of the Billie Barries because I was also in a stage school and we didn’t get to go on the Show (didn’t even audition!). I thought the BB’s were such fakes with their dazzling smiles and superior costumes.

We – there were 7 of us in my family – used to sit on Toy Show night finding fault with everything and everyone on the Show. My Ma would lament ‘You’re sooooooooooooo critical’, every ten minutes to which we would snarl with cynical, childish laughter. And I loved it. Year after year. Even now, with kids of my own from 17 to one-year-old, I feel excited at the prospect of the Toy Show. It’s a time marker, a lead up to the big day. I’m glad it has endured even if the toys are still mostly unobtainable. I think the talent may have improved though. Has it?! Nuala Ní Chonchúir

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The Original Rose of Tralee - Mary O'Donnell

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time when lovely girls from all over the world head to Tralee to sing songs, do a dance, tell stories and exchange awkward small talk with a lovely boy in a tuxedo. Four Anti-Room writers give their thoughts on the Rose of Tralee.


Tonight the “lovely girls” will get their second consecutive annual primetime outing courtesy of our national broadcaster, RTE and to be sure and begorrah there won’t be a dry eye in the land. These tears will be prompted by old fashioned sentimentality, raucous hilarity and, in some cases, sheer bloomin’ frustration.

For me the Rose of Tralee represents something of a conundrum – fascinating and repellent in equal measure. I’m intrigued that such an outwardly archaic and patriarchal event continues to find such universal favour, effortlessly commanding a secure place in the national broadcaster’s schedule when comparable events such as Miss World have quite rightly been denigrated and dropped.

The festival was founded by a group of four Tralee business people, amongst them one woman, as a laudable attempt to boost interest in their town. That worthy ambition has been comprehensively realised. However, it’s the vehicle that I take issue with. Organisers, participants and fans are keen to point out that this is no beauty pageant… in that case what the hell is it?

Fans maintain that the elusive quality sought is something far less superficial than physical beauty. This claim is backed up by the story of the festival’s origins, to be found in the words of a nineteenth century love song penned by one William Mulchinock, a wealthy merchant with the temerity to admire his maid, Mary O’Connor. Mulchinock claimed that his affection was roused by the fact that Mary was not merely “lovely and fair”. In fact “’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning” that prompted his admiration and that is still apparently sought by today’s judges.

So what became of this lovely Mary? Did William do the decent thing and ignore the protestations of his family to pluck her from penury and make a decent woman of her? No, he buggered off and left her to die of TB, only penning his lament posthumously.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the positive attributes of our citizens and indeed widening this to laude the qualities of members of our wider Diaspora. However, aspects of this event really bother me. It clearly discriminates along gender lines as men are precluded. It is ageist as contestants must be aged between 18 and 28 – one distraught Donegal aspirant was disqualified for just exceeding this limit in 2009. Married women are precluded from entering and, in my opinion; the whole event is quite simply sexist. Thankfully organisers recently dropped one of their harshest and most discriminatory criteria when in 2008 they allowed “unmarried mothers” to enter the contest for the first time.

According to the official website “The Rose of Tralee International Festival celebrates modern young women in terms of their aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage”. All very laudable and goodness knows we women could use a bit of positive discrimination and a celebration of qualities that are more than skin deep. However, if this is the case then it does rather beg the questions why the age limit, the marital status requirement, the fancy frocks and derisible “party pieces”, the crowning ceremony and the whole darned pageantry of the thing. I’m assured that the whole occasion is “great craic” and of this I have no doubt but let’s leave the dressing up to the lovely girls and not dress it up to be more than it really is.


God bless the Rose of Tralee and all who sail in her. I don’t know if there is much craic (I’m channelling Daithi O Se here) in this year’s contestants but I don’t have much of a problem with a competition that last year saw a girl wrestle a snake, another lip sync to Bon Jovi and one who managed to fit her entire fist into her mouth.

No doubt someone will read something sexual into that last party trick but I think that says more about the critic than the woman they’re criticising. And I say that as someone whose party trick is to bend my fingers backwards to show how double-jointed I am. If you want to read something extra into how I may apply that skill in other situations, then good for you. Happy dreams.

The naysayers call the Rose of Tralee outdated and insulting to women. They say that it perpetuates the over-rated value of ninny-headed femininity, so brilliantly skewed by Father Ted’s Lovely Girls episode.

Come on. The party pieces said it all: don’t take this too seriously. It’s like the Blarney Stone – a bit of harmless tourist hokey-cokey. Everyone has a bit of a laugh, the contestants included, and the local economy gets a shot in the arm. If we’re going to get excited about this, we might want to start picketing the Ireland’s Bachelor of the Year contest. Down with this sort of thing, etc.


I just flipped the calendar and there it was. August 20th -24th, The Rose of Tralee. No matter how many times I mention it I am met by a wall of blank faces. It’s a beauty pageant, right?

“Oh no!” say shocked young women who complain every day about not getting a fair go of it in the work place because of their gender. “It’s just a “lovely girls” competition, you know, like in Father Ted.”

It’s innocent then. Nothing to do with youth and beauty and a patriarchical feminine ideal. It’s all to do with being a nice person, who is Irish, even if sometimes, somewhat, tenuously. There’s no swimsuit section so it can’t be a beauty pageant.

So if it’s not about who is the prettiest but instead who is the nicest, how does that make it any more palatable than a beauty pageant? And what, please tell me, is the male equivalent? The Thorn of Tralee (the most sullen acting fella in the village)?

And can we have it please?

Mens Hour recently started a 5 week run on BBC Radio 5 Live, to mixed reviews. Perhaps now is the time for Ireland to produce a “lovely boys” show. RTÉ could get a great reality format out of it to boot. When we get our Rose and our Thorn we could send them off to a tropical island with only her clarinet and his silence for company and see how long it takes them to try to swim for it.


The general argument against the Rose Of Tralee is that it’s outdated, sexist, and pointless, a relic that festers in the corner of our sitting rooms every August, like an elderly relative wheeled out for a grandniece’s wedding. The general retort is that the women who take part in the modern competition are thoroughly emancipated in outlook and ambition. Contemporary Roses are University-educated, career-focused gals, gleefully carting with them such a glut of extra-curricular activities that their hobby schedules sound more like a community centre’s Adult Ed. programme. One Rose will be a champion Irish dancer with a degree in astrophysics and a pet anaconda. The next will have climbed Kilimanjaro, come first in her class in marine biology, and designed her own guna for the hooley.

All very capable and wonderful, indeed, but these thoroughly modern goddesses, to me, seem the products of solid opportunity and a helluva lot of parental nagging, women who’ve had every advantage – a pricey education, Saturday activities, medals and ribbons and gloss. The perfect Irish woman, it seems, needs as much shove and moolah behind her as any amount of loveliness, or beauty, or truth-ever-dawning, and the result is as authentic a sampler as a shop-bought apple tart at the parish bring-and-buy.

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