Now that the razamatazz of the Oscars is over for another year, it’s good to look back and reflect on what was achieved.  The fact that many of the films nominated had gay content shows how advanced we have become when it comes to gender difference. Of the eight films nominated  four of them had gay themes ‘The Favourite,’ ‘Green Book’  ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Vice’ while ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me,’ Lee Israel’s ‘Memoirs of a Literary Forger’ saw Melissa McCarty nominated for Best Actor for her role as the lesbian writer who turns to forging the letters of the famous when her own books are rejected. Taken individually,  the five films nominated are interesting for what they have to say about society as it presently stands. ‘The Favourite’ is a role reversal film. Instead of a powerful man and two women in a ‘menage a tois’ it has two women – one high born and calling the shots but constantly having to watch her back. The other aristocratic but living in reduced circumstances – both vyiing for the favors of  Queen Anne (too ill and too dumb to realize her power). In ‘Green Book’ a black homosexual with a high IQ forms a friendship with a male heterosexual who can barely read or write. The pertinent point comes when the gay man has to make a phone call to his friend Bobbie Kennedy in the White House to get him out of jail. In ‘Vice’ Dick Cheney’s daughter is in a gay relationship and the fear is that if the truth comes out this will harm the father’s political ambitions. Rami Malek won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Freddie Mercury in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Mercury who came out as a gay man in the 1970s was fueled by sex, drugs and rock n roll before dying of Aids in the 1990s. Due to  the wonderful music legacy that he left behind Mercury has become an inspiration for many whose experience of the gay life may not be quite as glamorous as it is portrayed on film. Oscars 2019 was a revelation in that not only did it produce films of  great entertainment value, scripts and acting, it proved that films with gay themes can also produce great box office success. ‘Different from the Others’ – the world’s first gay film – was released in 1919.  This film with a homosexual theme relates how a music teacher is blackmailed when his relationship with a student becomes known. If we contrast the anti-homosexual atmosphere of 1919 with the attitude towards same sex couples today we have come a long way when it comes to recognizing difference. In many ways though  we are still stuck with the same century old mindset. Witness the reaction to ‘The Outsider’ program in England where children were removed  from school because the parents objected to them being taught about same sex relationships. At the same time we have gay factions running ‘outing’ campaigns’ against those they regard as being in denial about their sexual identity.  Many of these campaigns often have agendas that are far from transparent and not open to public scrutiny. Indeed, blackmail looms large in homosexual relationships – a hundred years later the sexual act between gays is still considered shocking by many. If one looks at it objectively, however, it soon becomes clear that it’s not the gay aspect that bothers people but the sexual aspect. In the short story ‘Pillow’ by Anne Enright, when a child asks the narrator what homosexuals do, the narrator tells her they ‘stick their things up one another’. That’s what many people find objectionable; and that’s because much of what humans do sexually is bad –  pornography, prostitution, child sex abuse. Children around the world are exploited for sex so before we say that everyone can do whatever they like we need to take on board what this means in reality – perpetrators of child sexual abuse have been publicly shamed by the baying mob. This is how people react to those who commit what the Catholic Church used to refer to as ‘improper acts’ before it was hoisted by its own petard. Wouldn’t it be better if we tried to understand why certain individuals behave as they do before we revile them? And isn’t that what Oscars 2019 did for us – they showed us another side to life we may not have known about, and surely we are better of because of it. Many well-known people are gay. The actor Stephen Fry did much to expose the abuse that LGBT people are subjected to in Russia and India, while the writer and broadcaster Graham Norton has interviewed many gay actors and writers on his television show. Ireland’s Taochigh Leo Varadkar encouraged debate when he and his partner were invited to lunch in the US by Vice President Mike Pence – well known for his anti-gay stance –  during the St. Patricks Day celebrations. In a recent television interview Leo Varadkar said ‘Instead of aligning ourselves with any one particular party, we should try to work with them all.’ I think that’s a good premise on which to go forward and I look forward with anticipation to the Oscars of the future for further enlightenment.

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For anyone interested in the lives of quiet desperation that certain writers lead before having their work accepted for publication, the town of Hayes in Middlesex, England, has something to offer.  In a quiet corner of Hayes village, not far from the town centre, stands an old Edwardian-style building that was once the home of a private school.  Today, that  building operates as a  hotel, but, eighty-five years ago, it was known as the Hawthorns High School for Boys, and it was into this establishment in April 1932 that  Eric Arthur Blair arrived to take up the position of Headmaster.  Although Blair had no formal teaching experience, he had been a King’s scholar at Eton and had served for five years with the Imperial Indian Police in Burma.  What he witnessed in Burmain however in terms of the systematic oppression of the Burmese people left Blair thoroughly disillusioned with imperialism so, in 1927, he resigned his post and set out on what was to become his personal odyssey in his search for his voice as a writer.  For the next five years, he drifted between Paris and London living rough amongst the destitute and the down and out in both of these cities while at the same time recording his impressions in a book to which he later gave the working title ‘Days in Paris and London.’  By the time he arrived at the Hawthorns in 1932, Blair was literally on his uppers.  In February of that year he had received the final letter of rejection for his manuscript from the publishers Fabers and with no money, and no prospects, the teaching post at Hayes was a last resort. ‘Hayes,’ he wrote in a letter to a friend at the time ‘is the most godforsaken place I have ever struck.’ Godforsaken or not, he made the best of a bad job.  By all accounts he was an attentive if somewhat aloof Headmaster, prepared to give a good deal of his time both in and out of class to his pupils – boys from lower  middle class families whose parents could not afford to send them to public school – taking them on field trips, teaching them the rudiments of gliding and oil-painting and even writing an end-of-term play for them to perform.  His nights he kept for himself, sitting for long periods in front of his typewriter typing away into the early hours.  Despite having his work rejected, Blair continued to prune and polish his material in the hope of having it accepted elsewhere.  By June, his perseverance had paid off.  The publisher Victor Gollancz, agreed to publish ‘Days in Paris and London’ provided certain cuts were made and expletives removed.  Blair set to work making the emendments. Concern that the contents of the book when published might cause his family some embarassment, Blair looked about for a suitable pseudonym.  Writing to Gollancz he suggested three: Kenneth James, George Orwell and H. Lewis Allways, adding the fateful rider: ‘I rather favour George Orwell.’  Thus, the ‘Orwellian’ legend was born and the book bearing its new title ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ was launched on January 9th, 1933.  The reviews were good and the book was generally well-received – it’s relevance as an important social document did not go unrecognised.  Yet, over a two year period Orwell’s royalty payments would amount to no more than two hundred pounds.  Published he may have been, but poverty  decreed that he carry on teaching. He had been at the Hawthorns some sixteen months when the school ran into financial difficulties and the building had to be sold.  Forced to look elsewhere for employment, Blair took up another teaching post, this time at Uxbridge – four miles west of Hayes.  His stay there was to be short-lived however, for in December of that year while out riding on his motorbike he caught pneumonia and ended up having to be hospitalised.  When he recovered he came to a decision.  He would give up teaching and take his chances as a writer.  Now that his book had been published, regular work as a reviewer was coming in and finally, it seemed, the wheel was beginning to turn in his favour.  Orwell, who would go on to put all of  his prophetic predictions of the world to come into his novels ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ – whose name would become forever synonomous with the term ‘Big Brother’ and the ‘Thought Police’ – died in England on January 21st, 1950, at the age of forty-six, having finally surcumbed to the tuberculosis which had haunted him for most of his adult life.

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Some writers stay with us forever.  The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn is one such. Whenever I read his prose poem ‘Freedom to Breathe’ I find myself renewed both in mind and spirit.

And since I cannot do justice to it in my own words I will let Solzhenitsyn speak for himself:

Freedom to Breathe

A shower fell in the night and now dark clouds drift across the sky, occasionally sprinkling a fine film of rain.

I stand under an apple-tree in blossom and I breathe.  Not only the apple-tree but the grass round it glistens with moisture; words cannot describe the sweet fragrance that prevades the air. Inhaling as deeply as I can, the aroma invades my whole being; I breathe with my eyes open, I breathe with my eyes closed – I cannot say which gives me the greater pleasure.

This, I believe is the single most precious freedom that prison takes away from us: the freedom to breathe freely, as I now can.  No food on earth, no wine, not even a woman’s kiss is sweeter to me than this air steeped in the fragrance of flowers, of moisture and freshness.

No matter that this is only a tiny garden, hemmed in by five-storey houses like cages in a zoo. I cease to hear the motorcycles backfiring, the radios whining, the burble of loudspeakers. As long as there is fresh air to breathe under an apple-tree after a shower, we may survive a little longer.

(From: Solzhenitsyn: Stories and Prose Poems: Penguin 1973).

Isn’t that just splendid?  Doesn’t it speak volumes in terms of the quality of life that the former Nobel winner describes?  Only someone who had undergone the kind of hardship and suffering Solzhenitsyn underwent could describe the freedom to breathe so accurately.

I was thinking this today while I was out working in the garden. Here in Dublin in Ireland the weather is splendid at present – 20 degrees in the shade – hot, but not hot unpleasant, but enough to make one grateful to be alive.  While I work I hear the neighbors’ children laugh  and I think how precious freedom is. Yet millions of children around the world never get to laugh, never  know what it is to breathe freely in the way  that children in the West take for granted.  Every day we see images of children who have to scour rubbish dumps for items that they can sell in order to buy food. Every day we see children who are abused and forced to live like rats in order to survive. And somehow the West seems powerless to prevent the  plight of these children. All this despite the millions of pounds/dollars/Euro spent in aid.

And so I turn to Solzhenitsyn to remind myself how precious the ‘Freedom to Breathe’ actually is.

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I’ve always loved Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Fish not just because it’s so technically well-crafted, but also because in the poem Bishop supplies us with a totally different perspective on what it means to go fishing.

In Bishop’s poem, the initial reaction of the poet (fisherman) to catching the fish is one of surprise.  The fish is a ‘tremendous’ fish, so extraordinary in fact that the poet holds him ‘beside the boat, half out of water’.  She notices that ‘he didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all’ – most unusual for a fish not to struggle or, at least, try to get away.

The poet begins to examine the fish more closely and discovers that his skin looks like ‘ancient wallpaper’ with a pattern of ‘shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through age’; he is ‘speckled with barnacles’ and ‘lime’ and ‘infested with sea lice.’  He has ‘frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood that can cut so badly’.  The sight of this blood makes the poet imagine ‘the dramatic reds and blacks of his shiny entrails’. 

At this point the poet becomes aware of her power over the fish, realising she is the arbiter of its fate.  She tells us that she ‘held him with my hook fast in the corner of his mouth’ until gradually he earns her respect because ‘he hung like a grunting weight, battered and venerable and homely’ – in other words, like an old prize-fighter who has had one fight too many, a war veteran who has fought long and hard for survival with ‘five old pieces of fish line hanging from his lip’ like ‘medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering’. 

When she looks into the fish’s eyes ‘larger than mine but shallower’ she notes the way in which they resemble ‘old scratched isinglass’ (isinglass is a semi-transparent gelatine substance used for windows).  The eyes being the windows of the soul, when the poet looks deeper she finds ‘they shifted a little… like the tipping of an object towards the light’, as if the fish sensed that he might be looking at the light for the last time.

The more the poet examines the fish the more she sees, until by the end she tells us ‘I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat’ and then, suddenly, ‘everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!  And I let the fish go!’  Bishop’s final line strikes at the very heart of the reader – not in a sentimental way – more because the reader realises along with the poet that letting the fish go transcends the very notion of fishing as a sport, or simply as a means of passing the time.

Elizabeth Bishop described her poem The Fish as ‘a trifle’ – ‘if not like Robert Frost perhaps like Ernest Hemingway’. Ernest Hemingway was renowned for his macho image as a deep sea fisherman.  We find numerous photographs of Hemingway smiling out as he sports his prize catch, usually an enormous shark or some  giant cuttlefish.  It is this image of Hemingway most readers remember when they read his fiction.  Today we know that image to be entirely false, one that was generated to promote sales of Hemingway’s books.

Many of the summer months of my childhood were spent fishing on the Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry in Ireland.  When I was aged about ten years or so I went to stay with a family who lived at the top of Killarney town.  During that time I spent many a tranquil summer evening fishing for trout on the lakes. The father and four sons were all avid fisherman.  The fish were not caught for sport but caught to sell and make a living.  Each evening after work father and sons would head for the lakeshore where they had a boat moored and I was allowed to straggle along behind.

It was, in fact, on the Lower Lakes of Killarney that I first learned to fish.  I learned how to spin and reel in tackle, how to send a line spinning out into a loop above the lake and watch it hang momentarily suspended in air before landing into the lake. The water would ripple and bubble up as the fly skimmed the surface before landing into the depths below.

No worms or bait was used, only flies with coloured feathers and sharp angular hooks that sank like anchors into the mouths of fish and would not let go nomatter how hard the fish struggled or pulled at the end of the line.  All that was needed then was to sit back and wait for the fish to bite which they inevitably did and which they inevitably will continue to do until the end of time – just so long as the fish stocks last of course.

Fishing for trout I quickly learned how to reel in my catch, dislodge the wriggling specimen from the hook, then leave it to hop and skip about at the bottom of the boat.  There the fish would flip and flop for a time before exhausting itself in the effort before finally giving  up the ghost.  There were a number of methods available to ensure instant despatch.  One was to hold the fish firmly in the hand then give a short swift tap to its head against the side of the boat which would, hopefully, render the fish instantly lifeless.  Another method was to place the forefinger into the fish’s mouth and snap the filament formed at the base of its gullet.

After a time I became something of an expert.  Indeed, the more successful I became, the more I was congratulated on my prowess as a fisherwoman. It wasn’t long before the desire grew to show off in this regard – which is probably one of the reasons Ernest Hemingway struggled so hard to maintain his image all those years ago.  The moment you show you can’t do it anymore that’s the moment you’re done for!

Ten years have passed since I last went out fishing on the Lakes of Killarney.  On that occasion it was once again a fishing trip rather than a pleasure cruise.  I didn’t catch any fish – instead, I watched others cast lines out over the lake while the water lapped against the side of the boat.  The men I went fishing with that day were hauling in rainbow trout.  I still like to eat trout whenever the opportunity presents itself and somewhere at the back of my mind I still like to savour the memory of how I once caught fresh trout in order to eat them later.

I don’t recall exactly when or at what stage my attitude to fishing changed.  I have never objected to fish being caught for  food.  Indeed, nothing  tastes sweeter to the palate than eating a trout smothered in good Irish dairy butter and cooked in a hot pan over a hot stove and garnished with a leaf or two of crispy lettuce.  And we all know the parable of the loaves and fishes which illustrates perfectly the difference between a feast and a famine.  I also think that if tomorrow I were presented with the necessity of needing to catch  a fish for the purposes of food I have no doubt the lessons once learned would again rise again to the surface.  So why then should I mourn for the loss of a single fish?

Recently I read the writer Sean O’Faolain’s Introduction to his book on the Irish short story.  In it O’Faolain recalled those who participated in the Civil War in Ireland. ‘It’s a terrible and lovely thing to look at the face of Death when you are young, but it unfits a man for the long humiliations of life.’  Immediately I realised the reason that lay behind my sudden change of heart on the subject of fishing – it wasn’t the fish I mourned for so much as the loss of life.  To see any creature alive is far more inspiring than to look at it dead.  Once you have looked into the jaws of death you never again want to see anything die.  Indeed, there is something altogether distasteful in the killing of any creature, whatever the species, and yet mankind seems to be able to kill with very little thought given over to what the act of killing actually means.

Of course we know that life is hard and that we must harden ourselves in order to survive – too much sentiment and we leave ourselves open to the accusation of not facing up to the realities of life – too little, and we are in danger of regressing to acts of barbarism.  It is a fine line of course and one always has to ask oneself where one draws the line.

But perhaps the best way to illustrate the feeling I am trying to come to terms with is to return once again to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem which is what led me to begin this fishy tale in the first place!

Thursday, 16th September 2010.

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Je suis Charlie, je suis heterosexual, je suis homosexual, je suis bisexual, je suis transexual

The above are labels invented by society to describe the sexual identity of the various groups within that society.  It’s society’s way of differentiating between the sexes – heterosexuality  being seen as the ‘norm’ because it brings together a man and a woman in a conjugal relationship that leads to the propagation of the species.  The present debate over the marriage referendum in Ireland, where voters will go to the polls on May 22nd, 2015 to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on the issue of same sex marriage, that ‘marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex’ has in recent weeks developed into an argument on surrogacy rather than same sex relationships – the argument being that a child is entitled to woman and a man as parents, not two men or two women.  In other words, the  ‘norms’  are  being challenged.  And isn’t it  time that the norms were challenged, for, as  norms go, it’s obvious that society has failed and failed miserably when it comes to  sexual orientation. The image of the family put forward by the Catholic Church as the reason why same sex unions don’t work isn’t convincing.  A child should have a Mother and a Father they say, so that the child can lead ‘a normal life.’  This is a fallacy.  A great number of children raised by heterosexual couples lead anything but normal lives, many of them being subjected to mental and physical abuse not just by parents, but also relatives, teachers and church leaders and all those who prey on the more vulnerable members of society.    we continue to propagate this ‘myth’ of the family as being a Mother and Father,  without ever investigating the reality that lies at the heart of that myth.  The fact is, many individuals  from so-called normal families lead anything but normal lives, many of them suffering from depression or suicidal tendencies, not to mention all the other mental and physical ailments forced on them as a result of having to suppress their sexual identity. I knew from an early age that I was bisexual, that I was attracted to men and women as individuals rather than by reason of their sex. Coming from a theatre background, over the years, I have worked with many ‘so-called’ gay individuals. As far as I was concerned, they were the same as I was, except they were not seen as the same by heterosexuals.  When I think back now to the kinds of abuse these individuals were subjected to, being called ‘queer’ or ‘camp’;   being laughed at for a  ‘mincy’ way of walking or talking;  women referred to as a  ‘a bit of a collar and tie job’ and men called ‘poofs’ or ‘faggots’;  or men and women who were viciously attacked for being gay and all of this accepted by society with a snigger so that so-called normal types could think themselves superior.   Now here we are fifty years later and the debate still rages on with this ‘holier than thou’ attitude not just from the Church but from heterosexuals who regard themselves as better.  Who told them they were better, or gave them the right to look down on others?  It seems to be acceptable  for heterosexuals to engage in the most obscene sexual practices (witness Fifty Shades Of Grey) with women being abused fore and aft whereas two men or two women in a loving relationship is seen as some kind of a sexually aberrant condition or disorder. The disorder, I would suggest, lies within society as it stands in that it is unable to accept that men and women come in all shapes and sizes, gendered or otherwise,  a fact that’s  been with us  since the beginning of time.  So I, for one, will be voting ‘Yes’  in the referendum on same sex marriage this coming Friday, May 22nd 2015, because I want society to change the way it thinks.  I want everyone to be made equal in the eyes of the law, regardless of their sexual orientation.

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I called him Omar. The first time I saw him, he looked as if he had  stepped out of the Arabian Nights. Tall and tanned with a neat beard and wearing a bobble hat on his head, when he smiled his mouth opened to reveal two rows of shining white teeth.  He looked absolutely beautiful and, of course, I instantly thought of Omar Sharif when he suddenly appears like a mirage in the middle of the desert in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and my heart stopped as it does whenever it is confronted by something  that is beautiful or unusual. But this was no Prince of Arabia. This was an Arab emigre who had landed in Ireland and was now begging on the streets of Dublin.

The first time I saw him he was standing on the corner with his hand out. I gave him five Euro, even though I needed the money myself at the time.  I saw him every day after that,  moving back and forth between the cars as the drivers waited for the lights to change. Some their windows down and handed him money, others wound their windows up  and couldn’t wait to get away.  It was a learning curve seeing the way humanity works and an exercise in survival watching Omar work the road.

When the cup was full, he would go to the side  and transfer the coins into his pocket and then go back to the road and start all over again. He started early in the morning and went back and forth for three hours.  When lunchtime came he would go to the  mini market and purchase a coffee and a roll. He would eat and drink these on the side of the road, and then resume his begging.

Whenever I looked out of the window and saw him standing there I experienced a certain delight.  He was a  character and he looked and dressed like one.  I was guilty of seeing him  in the worst possible light because as Edward Said points out, I thought Omar was exotic. I didn’t know it then, but I do now. Now I think of the way we regard people like Omar has a lot to do with the way we regard Arabs/Muslims or, rather,  the way that some of us do, seeing them as ‘different.’ They are different, but no different to you or I or anyone else, in that they are human beings.  Many would  disagree, particularly in view of the atrocities carried out by Isis in recent times, but the fact that my friend looked like Omar Sharif –  except  he was not Omar Sharif – has a great deal to do with the way we treat people like him and the way we treat people like Omar has a lot to do with their circumstances.

Because Omar’s circumstances were poor, he was seen as a threat to society. The rich are not seen as a threat to society  because the rich make up society and the poor are dependent on them for that reason. The poor own nothing, therefore the rich regard them as a drain on society. What we have in Isis, therefore, is a new phenomenon. Because Isis is  rich –  so rich  it makes them as threatening as the poor, the West has suddenly been presented with something that it has no influence over,  something it cannot control.

But back to Omar. He was out in all weathers, walking back and forth gathering coins.  Sometimes the guards would move him on.  Once they took him away in a squad car.  I thought that was the end of his begging ways.  But days later he was back again, bold as ever. I can’t remember now when things began to change.  Maybe it was the day I saw him on the corner with a couple of what we used to refer to as ‘winos’. There they were, all three, drinking from cans of lager and laughing.

On another occasion there was a row and one of the winos threatened Omar and chased him up the street – who knows what he was accused of,  but after that I used to see him searching behind the railings for something in the bushes and if he was lucky, he would find a bottle. I think that was the beginning of it – first it was coffee, then lager, then spirits;  and, finally, the drugs took hold. He used to sway as he went amongst the cars, a glazed look in his eye, as if the real Omar wasn’t there anymore.

Then one day he disappeared, moved on or was told to move on. Then years later, as I was crossing Dame Street one day I happened to look up and there was Omar, thin and haggard , drifting along in what looked like a coma, his face crumpled like one of those  rubber masks that one buys in a trick or treat store – my once beautiful Omar – a mere shadow of his once beautiful self.

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‘All day I’ve faced the barren waste without a taste of water, cool, clear water.’

On a recent visit to the theatre, in the middle of watching a performance onstage, I was reminded of the words of the above song when I found myself longing for a drink of water.  I was on an aisle seat, so it would have been easy enough  to drop out to the foyer without disturbing anyone.  However, once I reached the foyer, I would then have needed to negotiate the stairs up to the bar and then pay between 2.5o and 2.80 Euro for a bottle of water. I could have asked for tap water but  that is no longer as easy as it seems. When dining out with friends not  long ago, I remember the slight pause and the unenthusiastic expression on the waiter’s face when we requested tap water. These experiences got me thinking about how easy it once was to access water in public places in this country. All of the parks, hotels and hospitals had water fonts for anyone who wished to use them. I thought of all those pretty green troughs that at one time used to grace every town in Ireland. God be with the days, I thought, when someone passing along the highways and the byways of Ireland could stop to quench their thirst.  The last time that I saw a green trough in this country it was in Mohill in Leitrim. That’s twenty years ago, and to this day I wonder if it’s  still there. There’s a trough out in Deansgrange cemetery also.  Not in use , of course,  most of these green troughs are now classed as ornaments and stand there like relics of old decency – a  reminder  of the days when Ireland was a free country and when Irish water came free along with it. Our water is still free, but not for much longer and one wonders why the  public water  facilities  thoughout the length and breadth of Ireland are cut off?  Thinking of the present debacle over the imposition of water charges, I began to think about when the notion of water charges was first introduced. Like many another, I filled in the forms and returned them and now  await the arrival of my first bill. I returned the forms because I agree in principle with the idea of charging for water – so much is wasted either through leaks that need to be repaired or too many people watering their lawns (there’s plenty of rain in this country  – so why do our gardens really need constant hosing?) But also now I am having  second thoughts about paying. I realize that the next time I go to my sink and turn on my tap and  fill my glass to quench my thirst, I’ll be charged for it, and there’s  something fundamentally objectionable about the idea of paying for something that’s a fundamental right. Water isn’t called the eau of life for nothing – it’s essential if we wish to continue living on this earth. But, now, if we find ourselves stuck somewhere with no money in our pocket  it means we’ll just have to go without – in other words, we’ll need to faint in the street first and pay before we can be revived. That might sound extreme, but think about about it – once we agree to pay it means we can never again enjoy the luxury of  a free  drink of water – something that we depend on for our very existence.I am thinking back to when the idea of bottled water first came into our consciousness, when spring water in the shape of Ballygowan was first introduced in Ireland.  Walking into a bar you were  asked ‘What will you have?’ and back would come the reply: ‘I’ll have a Ballygowan with ice.’ It was a nine-day wonder at the time but like everything else it’s now taken for granted. We still buy Ballygowan in bars and  shops and supermarkets even though  other brands  havecome along to topple it from the top of the market. Nevertheless, the fact is that Ballygowan is  presently worth upwards of 2 Billion,  so you can see where the Government is coming from in terms of water charges – money in large amounts like that would go an awfully long way to fill the  coffers and relieve this country of its present fiscal difficulties. As I say, I don’t object in princple to the idea of charging for water –  no, that’s not what I object to – what I object to is that in order to quench my thirst I will now have to pay for it. It should be possible for everyone to access fresh drinking water when they need it and the day that I find myself stranded  with no money in my pocket to pay for a bottle of water is the day that I’m going to feel mighty angry . If the  Government wants to make money from Irish water, then I  suggest they bottle it, call it Arab Spring, and export it to the desert and charge for it there.

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The recent ruling by the Supreme Court in relation to rights of access to Lissadell House highlights the deep-rooted ambiguity that lies at the heart of attitudes to Anglo-Irish relations/heritage.  Lissadell House, former home to Constance Gore-Booth or Constance Markievicz as she later became following her marriage to the Polish Count, Casimir Markievicz, was built in the 1830s and inhabited by the Gore-Booth family until 2003, when the then owner Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth offered the house for sale to the Irish Government for 3M. 

The government of the day showed little enthusiasm for the project however – cost of refurbishment being estimated at between 30 and 40M – and though several expressed interest  in buying the house initially the interest quickly evaporated and the house eventually was purchased by two Dublin barristers, Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy for upwards of 4M.  Walsh and Cassidy  also offered to purchase the contents of the house  but  Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth having struggled with the upkeep for so long opted for the contents to be sold by public auction. The auction which took place on 23rd November 2003 raised 2M.

Harry Keaney, writing in the Sligo Champion on the 26th November 2003 gave details of the 636 Lots auctioned off.  These included seventeen paintings by Constance Markievicz,  paintings by her husband Casimir, her daughter Maeve and her sister Eva Gore-Booth. Other items  sold included a famine painting by Danial McDonald which fetched 9,400 Euro, an ancient Irish harp 11,000 Euro and the children’s doll’s house  27,000 Euro, plus toys, lanterns and music that belonged to the children not to mention furniture and fittings from the house which consists of the hall, billiard room, gallery, bow window, sitting-room where Constance’s signature is etched on the window-pane, a downstairs bedroom, drawing-room, ante room, dining-room, bedrooms, the sale of lace and textiles, object d’art, jewellery, wine from the cellars and many rich and rare books from the library at Lissadell.

The Chairman of the Constance Markievicz Memorial Committee wrote a letter in reply to Harry Keaney’s article stating that he (Keaney) had ‘fallen into the journalistic trap of quoting letters out of context’ and described the auction of items from the house as nothing more than ‘the trappings of decadent wealth from a vulgar and oppressive past’  Mr McGowan castigates Josslyn Gore-Booth for selling off items with any connection to Constance Markievicz, her  sister Eva and her daughter Maeve saying ‘it almost seems to have been done on purpose’.  Ignoring the insult to the Gore-Booth family, Mr McGowan goes on to extend a hearty welcome to the new owners Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, wishing them every success in their new home whilst stating  ‘the real villain of the piece in this instance is not the Irish Government but Josslyn Gore-Booth’. 

Mr McGowan is wrong. The Supreme Court ruling indicates that if the Irish Government had stepped in and purchased Lissadell House from Sir Josslyn at the time  it was offered the present debacle regarding rights of access would not have come about and Sligo County Council would not now be facing a legal bill of 7M Euro – enough, as one commentator stated, to buy two Lissadells.

In 2010  I travelled to Sligo  with some other interested friends to visit the newly refurbished Lissadell House. I have to say my feeling at the time was that the new owners had done a marvellous job having spent over 9M on refurbishment. It was a pleasure to go on a walking tour of the house and to visit the converted stables and view the paintings and other memorabilia associated with Constance Markievicz,  W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory et al and to wander in the beautifully restored walled gardens  and sit in the sun afterwards enjoying a coffee purchased from the newly established cafe/restaurant.

I look back  on that visit to Lissadell with a wonderful sense of nostalgia for times gone by and what Anglo-Irish heritage has given to this country and it makes me sad now to think back to that day and to witness the squabbling that is taking place as a result of the court case.  I am very glad that the court found in favour of Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy. They are to be congratulated on the way  they  managed the restoration of Lissadell House and the grounds but I do not agree with their stance when it comes to rights of access.  The Irish people have a right to walk the land of Ireland  just as they did in generations gone by and no court ruling should be allowed to prohibit this.

Yesterday, Kinsealy, the former home of Charles J. Haughey was sold at auction to someone from outside Ireland for 5.5M Euro.  Whatever one thinks of the Haughey era it too is part of our history and it too should be recognized as such. In times to come the failure of the Irish Government to purchase Kinsealy for the nation will be seen as yet another instance of the scant regard it has for  heritage in this country  – the loss of Lissadell  and of Kinsealy and all of the other great houses of Ireland is a grave error on the part of the Irish Government and the failure of Sligo County Council to win rights of access to Lissadell House can only be seen now as a last ditch attempt to hold onto the pot of gold that it so casually threw away.



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The writer Jean Rhys was born in Roseau in Dominica.  Her father, a doctor, hailed originally from Wales and her mother, a West Indian, was a creole.  Rhys came  to England during World War I when she was sixteen where she met and fell in love with a poet from Holland. They travelled the Continent together, living for long periods in Paris and Vienna.

Jean Rhys first book ‘The Left Bank’ was published in 1927.  Containing sketches of life lived on the Left Bank in Paris the book has a preface by her mentor and possible lover, Ford Maddox Ford.  Ford, author of ‘The Good Soldier’, was quick to spot what he refers to in his preface as Rhys ‘singular instinct for form.’ It’s likely that he was  more than just a patron since in her next book ‘Quartet’, Rhys’ portrait of the dilettante H.J. Heidler would appear to be based on Ford and the novels that Rhys wrote following this publication, ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’, ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ and ‘A Voyage In The Dark’ contain portraits of women caught between circumstances as it were – women who drift into relationships with men and drift out again and then find themselves on the margins dependent on alcohol or prostitution or, worse, abortion.

In Rhys’ novels, women are continually hostages to fortune usually for monetary reasons either because they have no money of their own or because they are dependent on some man or other to keep them.  Usually they fall foul of the law through ignorance and end up drinking too much or prostituting themselves to make the money needed to pay the rent.

In one of Rhys’ best short stories ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’ the protagonist arrives into England and rents a room only to find herself held to ransom by the landlord who asks her for a month’s rent in advance – something that she is only told about after she moves in.  When she tells him she doesn’t have the money, she is told she has to move out again.  Subsequently picked up she finds herself dependent on charity and spending what money she has on alcohol to blot out the reality of her circumstances –  all that she has is a song and even that is taken from her at the end.

Rhys’ novels are a learning curve for the women who inhabit them and mostly they learn the hard way that money does indeed matter and that without it women are totally dependent on others for their existence.  Rhys’ renderings of women who drift through life without any foundations are brilliantly realized by a writer who introduces the reader to the complex world of women who have no place in society or who only manage to survive by allowing themselves to be put upon by others who would deny them a status in life.

Despite the fact that most of Rhys’ novels were written in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, they still manage to retain a contemporary feel.  Women who depend on men for a living and women whose only escape from enslavement is through sex, alcohol or drugs.  Jean Rhys’ psychological insight into the turmoil experienced by women is pivotal to the way her stories are told.  In Jean Rhys’ novels when women suffer, they tend to suffer in isolation.

After Jean Rhys wrote these novels she disappeared and was for the most part forgotten. It was not until ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ was broadcast by the BBC in 1958 that she came to the public’s attention once more when she was ‘rediscovered’ living in Cornwall writing a collection of short stories and working on a novel.

Rhys was resurrected in the 1960s after she wrote ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – the Sargasso of the title refers to the weed that grows beneath the Atlantic  where things that pass through become entangled in much the same way as the women in Rhys’ books become entangled. ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is Jean Rhys exploration  of what happened to the first Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s novel ‘Jane Eyre’.  Rhys’ narrative shows a fantastic flight of the imagination when it comes to painting a portrait of a woman who is destroyed by  marriage to the man who seeks to control her. In the novel Rhys brings together all of the powerful imagery that pervades her earlier work.

Jean Rhys’ work makes for a disturbing read for it challenges all of the reader’s sensibilities and confronts him/her with the reality of a woman’s situation where the miseries endured tend for the most part to go unnoticed.

Jean Rhys died in 1979. Her going was not easy.  Old and fueled by alcohol, she became uncertain and suspicious about others at the end but it is that very quality in her work – that uncertainty and suspicion and insight into the human condition that makes Jean Rhys one of the finest women writers of this or any other century.

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Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.  Let’s ask it a few questions instead of ignoring it in the hope that it will go away.  The elephant might well feel that it has as much right to be there as the rest of the elephants – because let’s face it remaining silent doesn’t help.

And that’s the interesting thing about it because there are a lot of people out there who talk about speaking out but who aren’t too keen to speak out themselves and so the elephant gets bigger and bigger until the likelihood is it will explode leaving a lot of detritus behind.

Of course, the thing about life is that people like to pretend – it’s so much easier to evade the issue than to face it head on but behind closed doors you may be sure that people work mighty hard when it comes to keeping things secret.

Mind you, there are times when keeping things secret is important because sometimes it’s another way of protecting people and making sure that their livelihoods are not affected.

So then it’s a good thing.  When it ceases to be a good thing is when people want to cover up something because it means  they won’t benefit in the same way after the elephant is uncovered. That’s why millionaires pay accountants to find ways for them to avoid paying taxes while fraudsters find ways to fiddle the system.  Whatever way you look at it the millionaire and the fraudster are one and the same – both of them want something for nothing.

So that’s a big elephant – particularly if you don’t want someone to know how much you are being paid because then they might begin to question why they are only getting half that amount for doing twice the amount of work.

That’s why we have Socialists and Communists and Liberals and Conservatives – the former want what the latter has, while the latter has what it has by keeping the former uninformed.  You see, once people start to play the elephant card, there’s no easy way out.

The elephant in the room makes everyone on the inside feel uncomfortable – they’d prefer to keep the elephant outside where they can keep an eye on it so that it doesn’t blow its trumpet too loudly and start a riot.

That’s because no-one is willing to confront the beast. That’s the problem – no-one who is prepared to say ‘Now look, elephant, you can’t keep turning up and spoiling the party.’

But the elephant doesn’t know it’s spoiling the party – it thinks it has as much right to be there as the rest and that’s because no-one has taken it aside and told it the honest truth or, better still, no-one has  told it to its face ‘Listen, buddy, you’re not wanted here.’

Which raises the question – why isn’t it wanted?  Well, we don’t know why and that’s the problem. Because nobody is prepared to speak out.

Maybe the elephant said something it wasn’t supposed to say at one time or another but since nobody told it how is it supposed to find out? By noticing the way everyone moves away when it enters the room – well, let’s face it, the elephant is a large mammal and you wouldn’t want to argue with it because it might look you in the eye and tell you to mind your own trumpet!

It’s a funny old world  – nobody wants anyone to speak out because it causes problems.  On the other hand, if nobody speaks out then bad things happen; people get trampled on.

Silence can be golden but silence can also be bad for only a very wise person or a very foolish one would be prepared to stand in an elephant’s way.

Next time let’s ask the elephant – you never know – the answer it gives might surprise us!


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