Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy New Year - in Ireland it's Oíche na Coda Móire.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here at the westernmost end of the Dingle Peninsula it's still Oíche na Coda Móire, a name which means The Night of The Big Portion and is pronounced Eee-heh Nah Cud-ah Moir-eh. Well, not quite like that but something like it.

The idea is that you eat the largest meal you can manage to ensure plenty of food and prosperity in the coming year.

So, even though I've written a book called Enough Is Plenty this seems the proper occasion for a post focusing on the pleasures of the large portion. Enjoy!

Fógraím iarsma oraibh uilig. Good luck to you all in the new year.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

A (Virtually) Traditional Irish Christmas

It began at The Charles Dickens Museum in London which happens to be down the road from my agent's office and serves seriously good lemon drizzle poppy seed cake in its café. Which makes it the perfect place for a meeting.

My agent and I discussed the novel I was writing and talked about sales figures on another book. And then we got down to the coffee and cake stage which is when seeds of new ideas quite often emerge, apparently from nowhere. 

That day, prompted by the fact that we were sitting in what once would have been Charles Dickens' back kitchen, we chatted about his little Christmas books.


Just the right size to be stocking fillers, they'd been mood setters for Christmas each year in my childhood home in Dublin. I still have two worn copies, 1886 and 1903 editions, bought for sixpence each by my father from a bookstall on the quays in 1947.

I was describing my annual ritual of curling up with those books at Christmastime and remembering how I'd  heard that they'd produced the same fizz of festivity round Victorian firesides when Dickens first published them.

And then, between one sip of coffee and the next, an idea emerged. I'd write my own little Christmas book.

Christmas at the end of Ireland's Dingle peninsula has its own particular traditions, some of which are very different to the Dickensian images of jolly innkeepers welcoming rattling stage coaches, bustling city streets, and overworked clerks wearing woolen mufflers struggling with Scrooge-like employers.

Here we walk long beaches on frosty mornings, and at nighttime single candles flicker in the windows of high mountain farmhouses. Holly and ivy are traditional decorations but, until recently, Christmas trees weren't. A salted fish dish of ling with onion sauce is eaten on Christmas Eve. And December 26th,  known as The Wran's Day, is celebrated with rituals that reach back to the ancient Celts' midwinter festival. 

So, Christmas at the end of the westernmost peninsula in Europe has resonances that are very different to those I absorbed in my Dublin childhood from Dickens' little Christmas books.

Yet some things about the feative season are universal and timeless.

Hot, comforting food after chilly winter walks. Time to relax by the fire.

And the urge to reach out to neighbours, friends and family, to share music, stories, food and good fellowship.

These days Skype and Facebook draw Irish emigrant families together at Christmas time, and my neighbours here on the peninsula send texts to arrange their music sessions and festive gatherings. 

And as I sit here at my desk in a stone house on the side of the mountain, there on my computer screen are people I've never met and who've never met each other, sending me messages and sharing stories sparked by my photos on The House on an Irish Hillside's Facebook page. 

That day, sitting with my agent in what used to be Dickens' back kitchen, we talked about that warmth and conviviality engendered by the internet. I said that I reckon that if Dickens were alive and writing today he'd be the king of social media. And, between one forkful of cake and the next, the idea for my own Christmas book suddenly crystallized.  

Here it is, a Kindle Short, available exclusively for download. 

I see it as a virtual stocking-filler, to be read with with a large piece of cake to hand and a pot of tea at your elbow.   Available worldwide on Amazon, you'll find the US link HERE and the UK one HERE 

Monday, 27 October 2014

Ireland as a crucible

Nearly forty years ago I was in a production of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials in the seventeenth century. It's a forensic exploration of individual and communal disaster, set in  a community riven by unspoken jealousies, resentment and sexual tensions, which is eventually destroyed from within by the morbid effect of mass hysteria. This weekend I've been thinking about it a lot.

Throughout the last week Ireland's news coverage and social media have been dominated by allegations made by a young woman called Maíria Cahill who says that in 1997, as a sixteen year old in Northern Ireland, she was repeatedly raped by a senior member of the IRA and subsequently, in 1999, forced to go through a 'second nightmare' at the hands of an IRA 'kangaroo court' which, over an extended period of time, summoned her for interrogations and eventually confronted her with the man whom she'd claimed had raped her.

The story broke eleven days ago with screamer headlines about child abuse and in the past week the question of what did or didn't happen to Maíria Cahill has been complicated by farther allegations about the involvement of Gerry Adams, president of Ireland's Sinn Féin political party and a TD (member of the Irish parliament) since the 2011 general election. Maíria Cahill claims that at the time of the alleged kangaroo court Adams was aware of its proceedings and that, after its investigation was concluded, he spoke to her about it. Adams claims that he wasn't and he didn't.

The claims and counter claims continue. Cahill has been accused of consensual sex with the man whom she claims to have raped her. Adams' political career is said to be in jeopardy. Senior figures in the Irish government have been accused of turning the alleged rape of a teenager into an opportunity for party political point-scoring. And Maíria Cahill is currently coping with unspeakable levels of cyberabuse, in what she's referred to as an 'online campaign of vilification'. On Saturday she tweeted a link to an interview in which she claims that she's had to move home four times and  fears for her safety.

I hope the next investigation of Maíria Cahill's case will be be advised by professionals who recognise and can deal with the fact that she's already been subjected to two nightmares. I'd like to add my voice to all those raised in outrage at the cruel abuse she's currently being subjected to online. I don't think I've anything useful to add to the current speculation about her allegations of a crime and cover up which has implications that extend beyond the experience of one individual into the political and moral heart of the nation. But what I do think, having read and listened to a rising tide of commentary in online fora and on radio phone-ins, is that Arthur Miller's play contains a significant warning which has direct relevance to Ireland in the coming weeks.

Miller's dramatisation of the dynamics of the Salem witch hunt charts the social and physical destruction of a community which comes to believe in the possibility of impossible levels of evil in its midst. It seems to me that - encouraged by rising levels of political and social frustration and exacerbated by the unfolding story of Maíria Cahill - a particularly vocal element in Irish public opinion is heading the same way. Over the last few days I've seen and heard repeated dismissals of the Irish police force, social services, politicians and religious institutions as intrinsically and irredeemably corrupt. Logically, it's simply not possible that every politician and public servant in each of Ireland's institutions is, and has a for a long time, been part of an institutional abuse of power of which every citizen has been aware. The assertion ought to be laughable.Yet the combination of an atavistic horror of paedophilia, the perception that corrupt bankers and politicians have gone unpunished, and widespread resentment of increased taxation appears to have produced a willingness to accept it as the truth.

What's asserted is that Maíria Cahill's allegations are unsurprising. Ireland, we're told, is riddled with rapists and paedophiles, always has been. And the same rapists and paedophiles are hand in glove with the guards and the politicians and the social workers and the priests and the whole pack of devious shysters in high places who cover up for them. And haven't we all known the truth of it all along?

It's deeply disturbing to think that there may be criminal collusion, inefficiency and cowardice in high places. But what frightens me more is the morbid mental laziness of a mind that's prepared to assume that everyone is evil. It frightens me because, ultimately, it's a doomsday scenario. Who can benefit from this passive aggressive dismissal of all possibility of worth? What hope is there for justice if the next sixteen year old rape victim believes it's pointless to report the crime? What hope have we for a better society if the next generation of potential police officers and social workers are too cynical, or scared of  ridicule, to apply for the job? What chance is there for inspiration, aspiration or improved moral standards in Irish politics if decent individuals who want to serve their communities have to run the gauntlet of an electorate that smears their motives before they've had a chance to prove their worth?

And what of the honest, hard-working individuals in public service today? They're there. We've all encountered them. They're not perfect but they haven't made a pact with the devil. What they may do, however, if we're not careful, is throw their hands up in despair and leave us to our smug determination to believe the worst of ourselves and everyone around us.

I remember a conversation after a rehearsal of The Crucible when the cast sat round in a coffeeshop trying to imagine a contemporary community buying into a mindset which inevitably would destroy it from within. Being young, we concluded that the psychology of the Salem witch hunt belonged to the seventeenth century and that people knew better now. In doing so, we sidestepped the fact that Miller wrote the play in the 1950s as an allegory of McCarthyism in the US. I think it also has resonance in Ireland in 2014.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Smell of September

It's a kind of a cold smell with mist in it.

When you cut back the rattling fennel the spicy scent of pollen tickles the back of your throat.

The rich smell of garlic mixes with the smell of damp earth when your spade nicks a bulb as you're digging spuds in the garden
Blackberries ripen on briars


bringing the fruity, sugary smell of jam, and the warm smell of soda bread rising in the oven.                     


Scented flowers give way to huge, dusky hydrangea heads waiting to be picked and dried.
And once again you open the door to the dark smell of turfsmoke.  

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

If You Live Long Enough You'll See Everything

In times of general astonishment my mother used to announce that if you live long enough you'll see everything. I'm beginning to think that she was right. If I make it through to the coming weekend I'll be sixty. That's nearly forty years spent as a working writer and, looking back, what I see most clearly is what I didn't do to become one. 

I didn't take a writing course, join a book group,  enter a competition, apply for an internship or do a degree in Creative Writing. Instead I read an awful lot of books, skipped a lot of lectures on Beowulf and The Lake Poets, and set out for the Atlantic seaboard at every possible opportunity to do fit-up theatre in Irish. 

Very little of my reading happened in my university's state of the art library. The place scared the hell out of me and anyway I'd missed the induction day on the Dewey Decimal system. I imagine I was out on the Naas Dual Carriageway at the time, hitching a lift down to Corca Dhuibhne with a couple of prop spears, a plywood shield covered in Letraset spirals and a rucksack bought from Hector Grey's in Mary Street. Now there's a couple of statements that date me; I remember the days when you found books in libraries by flipping your way through printed cards on steel rods, when dual carriageways were so new that they merited capital letters, and when graphics inevitably involved Letraset.

I can't remember when I started to use a computer but I'm pretty sure I began on an Amstrad. There was certainly a point at which it ate an entire radio play and I nearly went back to the biro. My first scripts were written on a chrome yellow portable typewriter and delivered by Royal Mail. I corrected typos with Tippex and turned my carbon paper upside down to make it last longer. When applying for jobs in regional rep, I hand-pasted my cv on the backs of black and white 8x10 photographs. And I got my first offer from BBC television by telegram because there wasn't a phone in our West Ealing flat.

How did we manage without computers, scanners, printers, sat nav, smart phones, or the ability to access the entire catalogue of The Library of Congress from the side of the Naas dual carriageway? How did my mother cope when I set off for London on the mail boat to be an actress, knowing that I'd be making a choice between the cost of food and the cost of a phonecall each time I rang her up? The obvious answer is that you live with what you've got and never question it. I don't suppose that the monks who created medieval manuscripts squinted through the mists of time sighing for the birth of Gutenberg. I know that my mother read and re-read the letters I sent her from London. And that she valued them far more than our stilted phone conversations, constantly interrupted by the sound of another shilling in the slot.

Looking back now, what interests me most is the freedom I had when I started. My motivation as a writer was simple. I needed to make money. I didn't struggle to find a voice. Instead, having got used to a weekly pay packet during a summer season at The Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, I panicked with the coming of autumn. So I wrote a script for BBC Schools Radio peppered with Irish language phrases. In those days you could blag your way into a producer's office by writing an arresting postcard and the producer, if she wanted to, could offer you a commission. Which is what happened. She gave me tea, we talked for ten minutes and she asked if I could deliver by next Thursday. And then, as I'd cunningly planned, she hired me to read it.

Now, after forty years of radio, plays, television, journalism, spin-off publications, multimedia and music theatre, I'm about to deliver another book to a publisher. And here I am, writing this on my combined blog and website - do check out the other pages if you find you've enjoyed this post. My Twitter handle is @fhayesmccoy and my new book will have its own board on Pinterest. And you can follow my Author page on Facebook HERE, where if you scroll down far enough you'll find a question about dirty eggs in a basket. 

There's a sentence I never thought I'd live to see myself write.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Tuam Babies

UPDATE: March 6 2017. I wrote this piece in 2014. More evidence has emerged, and more will, and I find my response has not changed. 
I’m almost afraid to write this post. Which means that I must write it.

For the last week there’s been growing outrage at the discovery of the bodies of children and babies who died between 1925 and 1961 in a mother and baby home in Tuam, Ireland, under the care of the Bon Secours nuns, and are said to have been disposed of in a septic tank. This is the latest in a series of disclosures about the appalling treatment of women and children committed to the care of religious orders with the sanction of the Irish state. In a generation shaken by current recession and contemporary financial and political corruption stories, fury about this new evidence of past depravity is increasingly being directed at the apparent hypocrisy and inhumanity of the parents and grandparents in previous generations who ‘must have known’.

Because there were, of course, people who knew. The families of the women and girls who were consigned to virtual prisons to hide the perceived shame of their pregnancies and illegitimate children. The individual nuns, priests and brothers who abused those in their care. The politicians and civil servants who allowed and supported the system.The members of the police force who assisted in tracking down escapees from institutions where effectively they were used as slave labour. The medical professionals who attended the inmates. Those who allegedly failed to register deaths lawfully. And whoever it was that dispatched those dead bodies to their graves in Tuam, and to all the other graves up and down the country where adults, children and infants were buried without decency or respect.

In a statement on the revelations about the Bon Secours Home in Tuam, Fr. Fintan Monaghan, secretary of the Tuam archdiocese, has said that he supposes “we can't really judge the past from our point of view” Because that statement’s emanated from a church source, it’s easy to dismiss it as a despicable attempt to justify a culture of abuse. And perhaps it is. But it’s also true. And despite the fact that we’ve heard it from the spokesman of a Church that’s forfeited all right to moral authority on this matter, it mustn’t be excluded from the informed, compassionate debate about the setting up and development of the Irish state which, in my view, Ireland is desperately in need of. 

Whoever the statement’s made by, the fact remains that we can’t judge the past from our own point of view if our own point of view is uninformed. Nor can we understand or learn from it. To do that – and we have a responsibility to do that – we must study what happened in the past in its context. Otherwise we’ll simply add more layers to the lies and misinformation that we need to strip away.

I see little difference between the old myth that portrayed Ireland as an island of saints and scholars and the new myth that portrays our parents and grandparents as hypocritical, priest-ridden snivellers. Each myth is as dangerous as the other because neither expresses the whole truth, and both are rooted in complacency. I don’t know if the whole truth about anything can ever really be revealed. But I do know that, as well as seeking facts through rigorous investigation, if we're to achieve any kind of justice for those abused victims and survivors, we’ve got to sweep away all lies, question all soundbite assumptions that masquerade as history, and engage in something far more dynamic than blame. 

Of course people knew about the Magdalene Laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes and the Industrial Schools. And, just as there were different levels of active cruelty or criminality, there were different levels of knowledge. The task of understanding those different levels, and what each meant in terms of responsibility and culpability, begs so many questions that it’s hard to find a starting point. Maybe when a society’s been poleaxed by communal shame and blame the best way forward is for its members to seek individual starting points of their own. 

Here’s mine. I knew about the Magdalene Laundries. There were two near where I grew up in Dublin in the 1950s and 60s. And another – or perhaps a Mother and Baby Home like the one in Tuam – round the corner from my granny’s house in Wexford. I doubt if I asked many questions about them but I do remember being told as a child that they were refuges for poor girls who were in trouble and needed help. I was told that by my mother. I believe that she believed it to be true. I know that when she was desperately seeking home care for my elderly granny, who’d otherwise have had to be institutionalised, she went to the nuns down in Wexford for advice, and that two gentle, friendly girls were sent round each day to help granny with the housework and the shopping. I know, because I remember tensions about the strain it put on the family budget, that they were paid by the hour. Looking back now, I doubt if they ever saw a penny of their wages. I don’t know if my mother knew that then, but I suspect that if she did she might have said it was fair enough, since the nuns were feeding and clothing the girls, finding them work and giving them shelter.

If my mother did think that I don’t blame her. She lived at a time when jobs were prized and food, clothes and shelter weren’t easy to come by. Nor do I think she should have checked up on where the wages went, or asked to see the girls’ accommodation. She’d had no negative experience of nuns in her own life; she had five children at home, a husband whose work took him to the other side of the country, and no way of making arrangements for her ageing mother except physically to get on a train and travel from Dublin to Wexford. Life in Ireland was like that then. People were grateful to turn to the Church for help in practical as well as spiritual matters, largely because they had few other safety nets. We need to understand why that was so. Otherwise we’re in danger of wallowing in recriminations till the point when we tire of the story and sweep it back under the carpet.

My parents’ generation was born before the 1916 Rising and grew up during the War of Independence and the Civil War, bloody conflicts which cast long, traumatic shadows. As young adults they lived through the maelstrom of possibilities attendant on the setting up of the state, one of which was potential descent into social chaos. An economic war with England crippled Ireland’s emerging economy until 1938.My parents' married life began in a battered, exhausted, impoverished society which was protected from the worst horrors of the Second World War by Ireland’s neutrality – a policy which also condemned Irish society to both isolation and isolationism. The combination of political isolationism at home and authoritarianism in the Vatican resulted in widespread censorship in Irish arts and journalism. Ireland’s rural poverty was extreme and its urban slums were notorious. TB and Polio were rife. Infant mortality was high. The country’s infrastructure was underdeveloped and underfunded. Both education and medicine continued to be underpinned by Church schools and hospitals. Jobs were scarce and, from the setting up of the state to the 1960s, spiralling levels of emigration and economic migrancy were steadily undermining both community and family life.

This was the climate in which the Catholic Church gained what we now know to be a deeply unhealthy influence on the working of the state. And it was a climate in which society’s perception of both the Church and its functions in society were very different from what they are today. The support of the Church of Rome had made a huge difference in the fight for Irish independence. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries religious orders provided healthcare, education, and, therefore, opportunities for advancement for thousands of men and women who would otherwise have lived and died in poverty. In the early years of Ireland’s independence, religious societies like the St. Vincent de Paul provided financial and social services which the state couldn’t afford. 

None of this justifies the arrogance, cruelty, ignorance, and perversion of Christian values which led to the horrors of places like the Bon Secours Home in Tuam. None of it changes the ghastliness of the Church’s continued arrogance, insensitivity and apparent contempt for the rule of law. But nor does that ghastliness cancel out facts. If the majority of Irish people had an exaggerated regard for the Church, at least some of that regard was rooted in a justifiable sense that the religious orders had supported them, practically and spiritually, across centuries of colonial neglect.

When I sat down at my computer I was almost afraid to write this. I wanted to join the wave of outrage, not to swim against it. I was afraid that anything positive I said about Fr. Monaghan's statement would read as an endorsement of a Church whose continued claims to moral authority I despise. I still fear that. And like everyone else today, I feel complicit and ashamed. But fear and shame are the very emotions that were bred in us by the systems that created this hidden poison. And silence is what permitted it to grow.