The Wild Geese – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Poet

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There Will Be Sequins…

My hometown, like most economically stunted border towns in Northern Ireland, isn’t much to talk of. We’ve got an ASDA, a dozen or so pubs struggling through the recession, and the historical accolade of being the most bombed town outside of mainland Europe.

In 2005, Strabane was named the 8th worst town to live in within the UK according to the experts at Channel 4, fortunately since then the recession has dragged the rest of the UK down to our level, and I believe we are now floating somewhere outside the top 20.

We may not have much economic success to boast about but there is one area where we really shine. And that is on the Eurovision stage.

This Saturday, one of our local sons, Ryan Dolan, will represent Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö with (the actually quite good) ‘Only Love Survives‘. A great achievement for our humble little town, but this is not the first time the Eurovision spotlight has shone on our corner of the emerald isle. Twenty-one years ago, Linda Martin, from our neighbouring Omagh, took the Eurovision crown in the very same city with ‘Why Me’ and ten years ago, our very own Mickey-Joe Harte made a brave effort at Riga with ‘We’ve Got The World’, a song that quickly became the anthem of my sixth form year group.

Two local Eurovision stars in the space of a decade, there must be something in the water. Something distinctly cheesy, tacky and riddled with sequins.

Where it hasn’t infected residents with the same pop star elixir, it has unleashed Eurovision fever. But then, we relish every opportunity to drink, wave flags and dress up in brutally tacky outfits. A penchant we’ve brought with us across the Irish Sea to Liverpool, where we make the annual pilgrimage to St. John’s Market for something suitably outrageous to wear and end up pounding out a very enthusiastic but entirely amateur performance of Riverdance at 2am, much to the annoyance of the downstairs neighbours.

After a few years playing the Eurovision fool with piss-take entries from Dustin the Turkey and Jedward, Ireland finally seem to be taking this shit seriously. A real person, a real song, damn the European politics and back-rubbing votes that’s tainted the competition’s purity over the last decade, we’re in this to win it!

Personally I was relieved when Ireland put Jedward into Eurovision retirement, mercifully deciding not to tempt fate with third time lucky, I’m not sure my hair could have taken the back-brushing again.

Backbrushed to within an inch of its life.

Backbrushed to within an inch of its life.

Bad Catholic

Yesterday afternoon, while lounging in front of the telly enjoying a double bill of religiously satirical films, and digesting a late breakfast, my mother interrupted the blissful first day of my little sister’s school break by asking whether we would prefer to have dinner before or after mass that evening.

“We have to go to mass today?” my little sister asked, frowning as all plans of a day in her pyjamas disappeared before her eyes.

“I love being a heathen” I said, smiling.

I am a self-professed bad catholic.

After being dragged through the rigmarole of the catholic school system, learning by heart their prayers and responses, singing at their masses and playing a shepherd in their nativities, I had confessed my sins, taken communion and been confirmed, but I never considered myself particularly religious. I received a very good education, felt part of a very loving community, and became romantically fond of all their storytelling and hymn singing, but in truth, I found more divine inspiration watching Father Ted than I ever did at any mass. I am a catholic in that typically Irish way – I don’t practise my religion – I stopped going to mass around the same time that I started being hungover on Sunday mornings, but it forms a very great part of my emotional education, it is stitched through all my childhood memories, I treasure the rosary beads and mass cards I’ve been given over the years because the people I love believe in them, whether I do or not.

By the time I entered secondary school, another institute drenched in catholic rhetoric, the dark secrets of the catholic church and the sectarian hatred which had divided my homeland had tainted any romantic attachment I felt for the church as an institution. Having to study the Gospel for six months of GCSE Religion also had something to do with it.

But I still thought the buildings and the hymns they sang in them were very beautiful, and the stories they told were pleasant little fables not to be taken too seriously, I had the utmost respect for the devout good Catholics who surrounded me, but I wasn’t one of them.

I was a catholic in the sense that I had been raised by Catholics  my grandparents and at least half of my parents are good Catholics  they taught me to be good, honest, kind, not to lie or cheat or speak with your mouth full. Isn’t that enough?

Because, honestly, I do believe that everyone should have some kind of faith, its good for the soul. But I don’t understand why that faith ever needs to interfere with what I eat and when.

I made a good effort at Lent, fasting from takeaways and chips almost entirely throughout the six weeks, only caving in circumstances of extreme hangover, however I only managed to go off crisps for approximately 36 hours.

My faith is built on the foundations of Christianity  I believe there is a higher power, I believe that force has some divine purpose for us all, but it is much more Mother Nature than Father Almighty.

I won’t try and compete with two million years of Christian faith, and I don’t expect them to argue with my beliefs, faith is far too personal a thing to be questioned by anyone else. Except Creationalists – those guys are nuts.

So while my mother and sister and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and the rest of the community in which I have grown up are attending the Good Friday service, I’m going to walk the dog and take in some of Mother Nature’s beauty. I might not be in a designated church building, listening to a designated leader of church, praying designated words of the church, but I’m going to go enjoy my own personal kind of divine inspiration.

A Very Irish Year.

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

It’s safe to say that 2012 was a very British year. Between celebrating the Queen’s jubilee and show boating British achievements at the London Olympics, the Union Jack bunting wasn’t taken down until the Christmas decorations went up. And all hell broke loose in Belfast.
But Loyalist riots aside, in the interest of balance, 2013 seems set to be a very Irish year.

North of the border, Derry/Londonderry is celebrating its title as the first UK Capital of Culture – a city with such a rich history and diverse culture that it still can’t settle on a single name by which the rest of the world might get to know it. Perhaps the city council should consider adopting the celebration’s hash tag as a more permanent fixture on road signs, after all with a name like LegenDerry it would easily become the UK capital for stag and hen parties in no time. Jokes aside, it is wonderful to see the city of Derry being rightly celebrated by the occupying force who choked the economic life out of it for so long. And the goodwill doesn’t stop there. David Cameron is delighted to showcase the natural, rugged beauty of Fermanagh to the world when it plays host to the G8 summit later in the year, a place so unappreciated, almost prehistoric in its unspoiled (or underdeveloped) isolation, you might say, a world away from London or any other grand city where protests might cause inconvenient disruption to traffic and policing levels. Cynical maybe, but it will make a grand worldwide stage for the fleg protesters should they stick it out until May.

The Republic have also been doing their best to put our little troubled isle back on the map, dedicating the whole year to the tourist board’s latest initiative to attract big spending Americans, The Gathering. I really don’t mean to sound cynical about this, because its an idea that truly warms the cockles of my heart. In a series of events and celebrations throughout 2013, Ireland will “open its arms to friends and family from all over the world, inviting them home”. All its scattered sons and daughters are to be welcomed back to the emerald isle and shown a good time to remind them of the ‘town they loved so well’. Doesn’t it just tug on the old romantic heartstrings? Of course, its convenient that they are coming to visit now when Ireland has so many empty beds since the young’uns all took for Australia, America, and Canada. In fact, the visitors will probably pass them in the airport, waving to each other across the Arrivals and Departures lounges. They will be welcomed home, but best not get too comfortable, when the party’s over, there still doesn’t seem to be much worth hanging around for.
And while the tourist board might be rolling out the welcome wagon for the ex pats  its appears that others won’t be offering their céad míle fáiltes so easily. This week a Facebook page titled “Irish Abandoners” caused outrage among Irish emigrant workers when they were accused by little more than 50 Facebook fans of deserting Éire in her hour of need. According to this, frankly ludicrous, Facebook page, those who had fled Ireland on the promise of work elsewhere until the economic climate improved would not be welcomed home to “reap the benefits of the crops we are sowing now” when the country begins to enjoy more prosperity in the future (touch wood, fingers crossed, God willing, etc.)

And what should we expect if and when we return, the prodigal sons and daughters of Ireland, for our fathers to slaughter the fattened calf and bring out the best wines? …I mean, it would be nice…
Because I suppose I am an ex pat. I have been living in Liverpool now for almost six years, a quarter of my young life. I came here to study and never returned, much to the disgust of some family and friends, and to add insult to injury I am still only working in a bar, a job I could easily do in my home town, granted for a lower wage and fewer perks, and the distinct disadvantage of cohabiting with my parents.
And after all, I am happy in Liverpool. I have a good job, a comfortable home where I can lay my head, a variety of pubs and clubs where I can let down my hair, and a kind of patchwork family I’ve stitched together from friends old and new. They come from all over, England, Scotland, Wales, and yes, a lot of fellow ex pats, friends from ‘the old country’. People like us, the Irish abroad, make up the Fifth Province, the Irish Diaspora. And most of us, welcome or not, still intend on returning home someday. We see the men in the Irish bars who came here in the last wave of emigration, who always thought they would go back home when the tide turned, but they settled, they married English wives, had children with English accents, and they’re still here.
As students we could always give our home addresses, make it known that we were only visiting, hanging our tricolours in student halls, filling the Irish bars for the All Ireland, leading the celebrations on St Patrick’s Day. But what now? We still lead the St Paddy’s Day celebrations, laugh soccer fans out of the Irish bars on All Ireland Day, hang our tricolours up in our flats and apartments. But we have English addresses, how harsh Hardy Street sounds compared to the dear old Rouskey Road. We open English bank accounts, work in English offices, fall in love with Englishmen and become evermore terrified that someday in the future our children will speak with English accents.

The idea of The Gathering really does warm the cockles of my heart, but it brings heartache as well because as long as people continue to leave Ireland in droves it’s difficult to imagine returning home any time soon. For 2013 at least, there will be little need to slaughter the fattened calf for us.

Guilty Pleasures.

A while ago I posted a list of life’s simple pleasures. The little things that put a smile on your face. Since then I’ve been contemplating life’s more guilty pleasures… Bless me father for I have sinned…

  1. The Script – pop rock at its most indulgent. They are perhaps the only band that I would willingly accompany my little sister and twelve of her teenybopper friends to go and see live, in the same way I have used her to go and watch kids films in the cinema without looking like a weirdo. I love The Script. There I said it. But surely everyone finds themselves singing along with ‘For the First Time’ and drooling gracelessly at the sight of Danny O’Donoghue in a knee length coat… no? Just me?
  2. Matt Cardle – I know, I know, I should hang up my gig-reviewing hat immediately and go write for Smash Hits (does Smash Hits still exist? Am I that out of touch?) But I should point out I’m not particularly familiar with his music, I just like looking at him, a lot. There is just something about the X Factor winner… I’m entirely convinced that he should be my husband. He plays guitar and writes god’s honest pop songs, and wears a hat, he’s wholesome. You could bring him home to meet your mother.
  3. Grey’s Anatomy – to be honest I hold little guilt in this pleasure. I love Grey’s Anatomy unhealthily so. Thursday nights are like Christmas Eve on a weekly basis. I know I am an intellectual, educated young woman, a feminist no less, I should be spending my Friday mornings with affairs much more highbrow and self-developing, but instead I prance around my room excitedly as the latest episode downloads, and spend the next 45 minutes brain turned off, jaw-dropped, often on the verge of tears. I’m not kidding, during the infamous Shooting episode I spent an hour and half with one hand over my open mouth, the other clutching on occasions the duvet, my teddy, and my very pissed off ex-boyfriend who was trying to sleep next to me. And don’t even get me started on 007…
  4. Downton Abbey – on a similar vein, ITV’s hit period drama is a guiltless pleasure which I know I shouldn’t be quite as in love with as I am. It’s a programme I have conflicting emotions about, it’s entirely ridiculous, the plot is often absurd and historically questionable but if my mother, a history teacher, can roll with it, so can I. So again, often on the verge of tears, I tune in every Sunday night, turn the better half of my brain off and giggle inconsolably at the Dowager Countess’ fantastic one liners (she has obviously inherited the scriptwriter who put Coronation Street’s Blanche in our hearts). Also, I have been in love with Allan Leech since Man About Dog, so seeing him as a heartbroken Irish Revolutionary upsetting the landed gentry is practically porn for me.
  5. And finally, perhaps the most guilt-ridden of all… Popworld – Unlike the aforementioned guilty pleasures which I indulge on a daily basis, this little gratification only ever rears its ugly, disco ball head after at least three pints, and usually at someone else’s suggestion. I can’t resist the dated dance floors and  sugary pop music, I need to put my face in the Spice Girls cut out and drink toxic orange alcopops that double as nuclear weapons, I just need to dance to Cotton Eyed Joe once in a while, is that so wrong?? Is it?? …yes, I know it is. I’m seeking help. I promise.

“And deliver us from evil”

It may not come as a surprise to most of us, but an international report published earlier this month has provided the cold hard facts to confirm it – religion has lost its stronghold in Ireland, registering the steepest decline in faith worldwide according to the WIN-Gallup International Religiosity and Atheism Index.

In 2005, the study found 69% of Irish people considered themselves religious, but that number has dropped to less than half of the national population, just 49%.

We don’t need the experts to try and explain these results. There is a steady decline in faith worldwide, but with the Republic’s brief flirtation with the Celtic Tiger, a deep-seeded history of sectarian violence north of the border, and the apparently ceaseless revelations of sexual abuse and corrupt cover-ups in the Catholic Church, it’s not surprising that we are leading the pack in this demise.

For me, the church-going stopped when the hangovers started, around the mid-teens, when it became less embarrassing for my family to have one less body in their regular pew on a Sunday morning, than suffering the humiliation of a mid-liturgy regurgitation.

But even before then, when I was a good Catholic child, I don’t know if I was ever particularly religious. I knew the stories, understood the general ideas, sang all the lovely songs, but it was always just a story, an idea or a song, much like the teachings of Walt Disney, it never manifested as anything real for me.

With an atheist father and a mother who I still suspect enjoys the peace and quiet of Sunday morning mass more than the spiritual enlightenment, I was never embedded with the Catholic mantra that previous generations were instilled with. I didn’t even receive the typical religious guidance offered by the education system until I was eight years old when the move to a small, rural primary school left me very suddenly in the Catholic stronghold. I recall being vaguely embarrassed that everyone else my age had already made their First Holy Communion, and like a baptism of fire, I was thrown into preparations to receive the sacrament with the class below (…all five of them). Slowly but surely my primary school teachers and the local parish priest integrated me into the flock, mindlessly rattling off the morning prayers, singing in the school choir, making collages of the Ascension for the Easter display and donning a tea-towel headdress for the annual nativity play.

I don’t know if I ever really believed in the words that passed my lips, or if I ever felt passionately about them, one way or the other. Growing up in Northern Ireland a question of your religion is such a loaded one that many people throw off all affiliations and declare themselves atheist. I’ve never gone so far as that, but the term Catholic is something that sits on my birth cert rather than in my soul. I would never be so obnoxious as to call others’ faith into question, but similarly, I’d happily confiscate the microphones of those God-fearing Jesus freaks who infest Church Street of a weekend and stick it where even the Lord’s light don’t shine.

But was I ever really religious?

Can you even consider yourself religious at the age of eleven?

I remember being distinctly unreligious in my protests to sleep in on Sundays, condemning our need to learn off the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in their entirety for GCSE Religion, and opting to revise for my final A-Level exam in the Sixth Form rather than attending my Form Class’s Leaving Mass. But then, I also sang solo at our Primary School’s Christmas celebrations, and in the folk choir at our GCSE leavers mass, I packed my St Bridget’s Cross and rosary beads when I left for university and they still hold precedent in my bedroom now. I carry a religious card in my purse.

Perhaps my past involvement in all those many school masses had something more to do with getting out of class, but the religious symbols I still cart around with every house move mean something different.

For my generation in Ireland, being a Catholic means much less than that of our parents’ and certainly our grandparents’, but it still holds a degree of identity for us.

How many of us have endured the monotony of a Sunday mass just to scope the talent going up for Communion? On the day of a big exam or an interview, how many of us have carried some reassurances in the knowledge that Granny has the candle lit at home, or you’re wearing your Immaculate Medal under that crisp white shirt? (Just last month my mother made a series of emergency phone calls around the family when she realised I had an interview half an hour earlier than she’d told everyone to start praying/candle-lighting.)  And the religious symbols that still don my bedroom wall – the St Bridget’s Cross, handmade by my granddad, the rosary beads – blessed in Knock by my granny, and in my purse, the card holding a piece of cloth touched to the relics of Saint Therese – a present from my aunt when I first left home.

For us, religion is, for the most part, a sentimental piece of our childhoods, something that brings our entirely family together for one day of the week to drink tea by the bucketful, eat fresh scones and examine the fashion faux pas and social disgraces aired at morning mass. The religious tokens and medals we treasure offer an irrational reassurance not that God or Mary or the Holy Spirit are providing some higher guidance or enlightenment, but that there are people at home who love and care for us, and will hope and pray for our health, good fortune and safe return.

For the most part, this is the case. But occasionally, as it is for bad Catholics worldwide and across the generations, there comes a point when you really need to believe a decade of the rosary or a heartfelt plea to some higher power will make a difference.

Recently, I’ve found myself increasingly at this point. Witness the suffering of a loved one, even the strictest atheist will fall to their knees and recite “deliver us from evil” until the apocalypse, even when you know in your heart of hearts that there is nothing to be done.

The sexual abuse scandals which have plagued the Catholic Church in Ireland have a lot to answer for in the country’s religious decline, and it’s a topic that brings the most unholy words to my tongue on most occasions. But as in every profession, there are bad people, people who make mistakes, bosses who will cover up their misdemeanours and buy the silence of victims wherever possible, and yes something must be done about it. The truth must come out, the guilty must be punished by law, and the victims should be granted the justice and retribution they deserve.

There are still good men who wear the collar, who spoke up when others tried to bury the scandals, who advise the desperate and give charity to the poor. The men who call in on our grandparents who are too ill or weak to make it to mass, and visit the hospital rooms of the ill to give some comfort or relief to the suffering and their families, who bring communities together in celebration and mourning.

Yes the Catholic Church has been responsible for the sexual and cultural repression of Ireland for decades, it’s most wicked members have caused heartache and destruction for individuals and families for just as long, but we cannot disregard the good of individual people in the church just as we cannot ignore the evil and wrongdoing of others.  Should an entire institute of individuals be condemned and tarred with the same brush?

For future generations, religion will continue to mean much less than has done for us, but I will certainly mourn its loss entirely. How many of us want to see Ireland give up the home comforts of its traditional faith entirely? The milestones of our lives marked only by legal certificates and civil ceremonies? Should we sacrifice the irrational reassurances s and sentiments of our childhood? Give up the hopeless comfort of prayer at the deathbed of a loved one?

I hope we will continue, as we have in recent years, to alter the prominence and importance that faith has in our daily lives? Catholic on our birth certificates if not in our hearts, faithful by nature if not by name. Yes we may give up the doctrine but hopefully not the sentiment.

For me, the Catholic faith was defined best by writer Sean O’Faolain: “Nothing more than a child’s fear of the dark”.

And after all, what’s the harm in a nightlight?

An Old Romantic

I have a confession to make.

A confession some may find hard to believe, particularly if they’ve ever had the pleasure of my Rottweiler-like customer service at work.

But here it is.

I am an old romantic.

I call it a confession because it seems in this day and age ‘Romance’ has become a dirty word.

Romance, in its truest, traditional, black and white sense has, ironically, been wiped off the face of the earth by a change in culture that we threw ourselves in front of horses to achieve.

It’s a clash of interests that tugs on my own inner conflict. I’m an old romantic but I am also, thanks to a matriarchal upbringing, and a very good education in Women’s Literature, a feminist.

I firmly believe that women should receive equality in all aspects of work and life… but then I’m also a sucker for good old-fashioned chivalry, and unfortunately, the two seem to contradict each other. We can’t exactly storm the streets on Slut Marches, burning our bras, just to reach the pub afterwards and complain that some guy didn’t hold the door open for us. By the same standards we would be expected to curtsy, and you certainly shouldn’t go around curtsying without a bra on!

Worse still, any gentlemanly gestures women do receive these days are so sparse and surprising we usually confuse them as sleazy. Granted, they often are, but it’s a sad state of affairs all the same.

It’s not often that I’ll commend any traditional belief or custom that comes out of Texas, but I relish the opportunity to serve our resident Texan at the bar, because when he says “Thank-you Ma’am” in his soft-spoken way, something inside me sings!

Something I inherited from my ancestors along with the womb and utter dependence on Tea and Chocolate, something that has grown tired and dormant through years of seclusion and neglect. All women, and men too, have it in there somewhere among the mess of hormones and internal organs, it is our old romantic, twiddling its thumbs in the faint hope that the Gentlemen and the Dandies will make a revolutionary comeback, wearing buttonholes and helping us in and out of carriages. Ah those were the days of sweet social constraint.

Yes, I know it doesn’t make any sense.

It’s the same reason that some of the world’s finest Feminist activists have a soft spot for Jane Austen and read Cosmo every month. We’re women; we are genetically built to contradict ourselves. And it’s romance’s fault.

But I still love it.

I am in love with love. I am in love with the flowers and chocolates and declarations of love from below the balcony. I adore stories of star-crossed lovers, doomed romances, the Hollywood kisses, and the black and white movies, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  Yes it’s all very old-fashioned and cheesy but it would be nice to indulge in it once in a while.

At the age of 23 I can count my truly romantic experiences on one hand and even they are nothing to write a Rom-Com about. And most of these experiences, like most of any life-experience worth talking about, happened under the influence. It is a very lovely thing to be slow-danced down the middle of the Railway Road on a Saturday night but it’s not something either of us would have attempted in the cold light of day.

Young girls are brought up on a diet of fairytales and Prince Charming. Shrek brought it all to light a few years ago. Fiona grew up dreaming of the gallant knight who would slay the dragon and rescue her from the tower, yes she ends up marrying the ogre, but he still performs all the courageous duties of a hero to win her over.

And what is the modern age equivalent?

At the young and impressionable age of 17 my heart was won over on a tipsy walk home from the pub, when my childhood sweetheart risked life and death to run into the immaculate garden of an evil monster and snatch the perfect, beautiful, and singular Lily that took pride of place in the centre of the floral display.

I’m sure the ‘evil monster’ was in fact a lovely old woman whose garden, and in particular her prize lily, was her pride and joy, but I had to make myself feel mildly better about taking her pride and joy as a token of my young love.

That is the height of my romantic existence. And while the relationship powered on for another few years, the romance, like the lily, didn’t live very long.

Real life doesn’t give us much time for true romance or old-fashioned chivalry but it does exist. And despite all the evidence to the contrary, I endeavour to believe in true romance.

Yes, I am a contradiction. I won’t be anybody’s damsel in distress, let’s be honest, I am more likely to be mistaken for the dragon. I will not be found at the top of a tower sighing longingly at the thoughts of Prince Charming.

But I expect nothing less than a knight in shining armour.