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

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

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

1.     Ulster bank’s Henry the hippo

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

2.     Fancy paper

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

3.     Red lemonade

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


4.     The projected stories that taught me Irish

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

 5.     Mála 

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

6.     Token collecting

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

7.     Anne & Barry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are both Dubliners, and want a city wedding.

The One Bad Thing About Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes – it’s a trial run.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ink so far

The ink so far

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think, ink or not?

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

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

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

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

All together now...

(image c/o scripting.com)

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

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

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It seems like a positively antediluvian method of keeping in touch with people these days, but when I was 10 or 11, pen pals were all the rage. Of course they were the rage for a long, long time before that, too – but it saddens me that the old-fashioned pen-pal, where you actually wrote and received letters on ink and paper, is a dying art.

I’ve always loved receiving letters. There’s a magic about receiving your very own letters in the post as a kid – a magic that vaporises as an adult, when you begin avoiding the letterbox for fear of another dread-inducing bill. I suppose in a way, it’s one of the first times you can assert a sort of grown-up privacy as a child, although I’m sure that my nosey siblings rooted out my ‘private’ correspondence, as I did theirs. (For the same reason, I avoided keeping a diary of any sort!).

I was your typical bookworm nerd as a kid – the sort of child who’d ask for extra homework when she was off sick from school and who raced ahead in workbooks at home on the weekends. That behaviour was shaken out of me by my second year of secondary school (‘rough’ is understating it), but a love of writing and especially receiving personal letters is something that has never left me. Acquiring a pen-pal was the logical step, so I swiped my Dad’s copy of Buy & Sell and got applying to the least strange-sounding people in the dedicated ‘Pen-Pals’ section.

I exchanged many letters with random people from the UK, New Zealand and America, but only three managed to stick. The first was a girl of my age from Kent; England seemed so ridiculously far away at the time that I didn’t even bother looking it up. The other two were from even further afield in Canada; one from rural Alberta, one from Ontario. We exchanged letters, inane facts about our families and very different lives and cultures, and tat and fancy papers bought from the pound shop and the dollar store for a couple of years, until school, and life, and the important business of being teenagers took over. Our letters grew further and further apart, until finally, they stopped.

There is a happy ending, though. The other week, though, I got an email from someone with the same first name as one of my Canadian pen-pals, wondering if I was the same person she’d exchanged letters dotted with glitter and stickers over fifteen years ago. She’d found some of those letters recently, googled my name, found my blog and recalled that I mentioned that I wanted to be a journalist “when I grew up” (it must have been after my dreams of being a vet were dashed, after someone pointed out that vets occasionally have to put their hands up animals’ bums). Our lives are still as different as they were back then – she’s now married, with two gorgeous young kids and a photography business in the same town that she grew up in – but it’s strange and wonderful to be back in touch with someone who knew you, back when you barely knew yourself. And sure, email doesn’t quite have the same effect as the drop of a letter onto the doormat, but, well, it’s still better than nothing.

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The Guys Next Door

Judgments prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.  ~Wayne W. Dyer

I’ve always thought of myself as open-minded, especially when it comes to matters of race. As someone who is of mixed race (half-Japanese, half-Caucasian), I am the product of two people who come from very different countries and backgrounds yet managed to create a life together.

The high school I attended in California was predominately Latino and African-American; in fact, Asians and Caucasians were the minority there. I went to college in San Francisco, a city that prides itself on its political correctness and my classmates represented all races and cultures. The point is I grew up in a diverse community. So it was a surprise when I recently had to face my own racist views.

My boyfriend lives in an apartment block in Dublin and his neighbors are from Pakistan. There are four guys, all in their mid-20s, all living in a one-bedroom apartment. My partner’s bedroom wall is on the other side of their sitting room, and about 3-4 times a week we are awoken by loud shouting emanating from their side of the wall. It usually starts around 2 a.m. and goes for an hour or two or three. We can’t understand what they are saying as they speak in their native language and it’s hard to tell if they are angry or jubilant. We both sleep with ear plugs but it still keeps us from getting a decent night’s sleep.

When I first asked my partner about the guys next door, he just said they were four Pakistani guys and that he’d never spoken to them but that he was quite suspicious of them. They go in and out all hours of the night and they have a constant stream of guests who seem to crash there for long periods of time. This is incredibly difficult to admit – especially publicly – but in my mind I created several scenarios of what they were up to and why. Were they part of some underground extreme Muslim sect infiltrating Dublin? Did their late-night arguments stem from disagreements over who was the leader of the group? Maybe one of the guys was getting too “westernized” and there was dissension among the ranks.

How can a 30-something, well-traveled, educated woman come to such narrow conclusions about people she’s never even spoken to? I’m struggling with an answer to that question. I remember how hurt and angry I felt when a kid at school once called me a “chink” and asked me if I knew how to use a fork and knife, because he knew I was part Japanese. But at least that kid put his racism right in my face – it was out there for all to see. It would seem subtle forms of racism are what pose a real threat to the forward movement and progress of humanity as a whole.

With the Pakistani neighbours I’m basing my views on what I’ve picked up from the media; most of what I see in the news about Pakistan or any Middle Eastern country is negative. If the media reports are to be believed, young Arab males are all busy plotting uprisings of some form or another and are all Islamic extremists who want to take over the world. Even the recent spate of “Arab Spring” related stories and images are tinged with pessimism.

If the point is to breed hysteria, it’s worked. And if racism is based on ignorance and fear, I’ve got both covered. When I see a group of Middle Eastern men on a flight, the first emotion I feel is fear. The second is guilt. I feel both when I think of confronting those guys next door.

I actually had an encounter with one of the guys in the elevator a few of weeks back. He spoke first.

“Hi, I’ve seen you around. I’m Aziz,” he said, warmly. He had a kind and gentle smile. We talked for a few minutes. I mentioned the noise – albeit in a somewhat joking manner so that my true annoyance would not become obvious – and he was very apologetic and said he’d mention it to his mates. He said they all worked odd hours and therefore stayed up very late. He mentioned that sometimes they just get carried away in conversation but that he was very sorry it disturbed us.

I left the discussion feeling relieved and stupid. I felt ashamed for letting myself get carried away with all that nonsense before, and surprised at becoming the kind of person I always stood up to in the past – an ignorant, narrow-minded twit. But that relief and change of heart was short-lived; when I heard them shouting loudly the day after our talk, the fear came back. A couple of weeks and several more sleepless nights later, it’s still here. I so want to go next door and have a neighbourly chat with them, but both my boyfriend and I wonder if it’s such a good idea. He tells me to just leave it as he has to live next door to them and doesn’t want any drama. I still wonder if there’s something sinister going on over there and my imagination is running wild with possibilities.

This is not something I’m proud of. If they were white or Asian, would I hesitate to go speak with them? I guess it would depend on how intimidating they looked or behaved. These neighbour guys are not at all physically intimidating, they are average height and weight and dress in nondescript clothing and they don’t really stand out at all. It’s not unusual for a group of 20-somethings to enjoy their freedom and take advantage of being away from their parents for possibly the first time in their lives – they’re probably just having fun and being lads. Maybe they’re just inconsiderate, noisy neighbours and nothing else. Why is it so hard for me to see past their ethnicity and believe this?

Ironically enough, that question is the other thing keeping me up at night.

Clare Kleinedler is an American freelance journalist living in Ireland. She writes the blogs An American in Ireland and The Hollywood Craic.

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I’ve never been a huge fan of travelling. I can’t take people seriously when they talk about going away to ‘find themselves’ – I tend to want to point to them and go “Look, look, you’re right here! You don’t need to spend thousands of euros trekking across the desert or jungle, after all!”

A very large part of it is that travelling itself – actually moving from one place to another – does not agree with me. Boats make me seasick, while airports just depress me. This recent story about a six-year-old girl in the States being selected for an ‘enhanced pat-down’ while going through security dismays me, but honestly, fails to surprise me.

I’ve been on four short flights in the last month or so, to and from the UK. On the plus side, unlike travelling to the US, you don’t have to fill out wacky forms stating that you’ve never been involved with the Nazi Party. On the down side, there’s still the tedium of security to go through.

You can’t complain. No. You can’t complain, because then it looks like you’ve something to hide. I complained in a painfully polite way on one flight, when my contact lens solution was over the 100ml limit. Much in the same way as I wouldn’t bring the doctor’s original prescription with me if I had necessary medication – why on earth would you feel you needed to? – I didn’t have a letter from my optician stating the solution was necessary. I don’t stick things into my eyes on a near-daily basis for the fun of it, after all. But EU regulations are tricky little things – and, somewhat conveniently for those that work in airports, completely out of their hands. You can’t complain.

They’re small moments, but they accumulate. On another flight, a friend of mine had bottles of cosmetics tested. I asked whether they’d been under the limit. “Oh yes, of course they were,” she said calmly. “I think they were just doing a random check.” And then, seeing me getting cross and irritated by it, suggested we go for a cup of tea.

I freely admit that I’m not the most fun person to travel with when airports are involved. I do get annoyed. I do get bothered. I do get grumpy if I ask security folk what’s set off an alarm that necessitates my being patted down and they reply with a sentence that includes the word ‘random’. I do find the fact that you have a choice between the delay and expense of checking in a bag or having strangers scrutinise your hand luggage completely repulsive.

But I’m not apologetic about it. It should annoy us. It should seem invasive and intrusive – as many things in modern life are, of course, but there’s something particularly bothersome about airport security. It’s the way we accept it, grumbling quietly if at all, because we fear not being allowed to travel. Being labelled as disruptive or dangerous. Being troublesome. And we fear, perhaps, what might happen if the regulations weren’t there.

Only… I don’t feel safer travelling on a plane simply because a potential terrorist will have a limited amount of liquid. I don’t feel safer travelling on a plane because I’ve had a stranger (usually unattractive, alas) run their hands over me to ensure I don’t have a concealed weapon. I’m sure some people do. I’m sure that some of those who are nervous flyers find it vaguely reassuring to think that there are some measures in place to prevent certain kinds of disaster. I’m sure those who adore finding new places and, indeed, finding themselves, feel a bit of intrusion at one stage of their journey is nothing compared to the joys that follow. I’m sure that many people just get used to the strange dystopian universe that is airport security.

But I can’t. So I’ll continue to be grumpy, and complain. I’m honestly not sure what I can do about it, and I don’t travel enough to make it a mission of mine to pen endless letters or campaign or whatever might make some kind of a difference. (I suspect the answer involves getting the airlines on board, and lots of time that I don’t have.) I’ll just stay a decidedly un-fun person to be in an airport with. I still haven’t found a good enough reason not to be.

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