Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A scandal of our own era

How strangely fitting it was that in the week in which our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was lobbying on behalf of the undocumented Irish in America an exhibition quietly came to a close in Galway which should put most of our generation to shame. 

As the Irish and the Americans toasted the shamrock, and Taoiseach Kenny made impassioned pleas for the ‘illegals' who are trapped in the USA, it felt strange to witness the last day of an exhibition which challenged the narrative of the Irish as endless victims.

The exhibition, Asylum Archive, ran at the Galway Arts Centre for five weeks. While I don’t know how many people visited over that period, it felt like a stark contrast from the St Patrick’s Day festivities to explore it in the presence of less than half a dozen attendees on Friday afternoon.

Artist Ukase Nedeljkovic examined the direct provision system which has condemned many people in Ireland to years of virtual imprisonment.

He didn't show their faces, but he captured their despair.
As I walked around the exhibition, it got me to thinking that direct provision is a scandal of our own time.

When I was younger, I used to wonder how my parents’ generation could go about their business while women were locked up in Magdalene Laundries and children imprisoned in loathsome industrial schools in towns and cities across Ireland.

Ah, but sure that was a different Ireland, and nobody dared to question the Catholic Church in those days.
Well, in the 21st century it is awful to think that a form of Apartheid exists in this country, even if for most people it’s “out of sight, out of mind”.

Not in the part of Galway I grew up in, though. In recent months, as I’ve recovered from surgery, I have spent a lot of time in the street where I grew up.

Day after day, I have seen a group of about 15 children and two adults make their way along the road. Lucky them, you might think, walking to and from school with such a large group of friends.

Until you learn that they are walking together for a reason. They are all residents of the direct provision centre in Salthill and their daily walk takes them right past a school in a more affluent part of the city. It’s a form of segregation.

The exhibition was heart-breaking. It captured the frustrations of people who cannot work, who live off a tiny allowance, who are stuck in a ‘limbo’ for months and years, cut off from the rest of Irish society.

Many of these asylum seekers suffer from depression, as they wait anxiously to see if they will be deported or allowed to stay.

It doesn't tell us much about the lives and families they left behind. But it makes it clear that they don't fit in with any cozy depiction of 21st century Ireland.

The Taoiseach apologised for the wrongs caused to the victims of the Magdalene Laundries, and rightly so, but his Government has condemned almost 5,000 people to a system which virtually imprisons them for months and even years.

People who left awful lives in their native countries behind don’t have any rights because they don’t have Irish citizenship, just as the undocumented Irish who stayed on ‘illegally’ in America have no rights and are afraid to come home.

They spend day after day in hostels, unable to work, unable to plan for any kind of future in this country.

A harrowing audio told the story of a woman who was deported via Dublin Airport while she was ill.
In another audio clip, Fiona from South Africa said she found the whole system “quite disturbing”. But the system felt familiar, she said, because she grew up under Apartheid.

The system has been described as a form of racism, amid claims that nobody would tolerate it if Irish people were treated the same way as some of the asylum seekers.

The exhibition told a story of a hidden Ireland many of us never get to see, a long way from the leprechaun hats at the parades in town centres or the bowls of shamrock being handed out to the great and the good in the White House on St Patrick’s Day. 

It got me thinking. 

In years to come, will we look back on the direct provision system as a great scandal of our time? Just as young people today cannot believe that single mothers were locked up for years in the Magdalene Laundries.

And nobody did anything about it, because that's just the way things were done.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

All about the attitude

Meditating and doing mindfulness courses over the past half a decade have taught me one very important lesson in life . . . it’s not what happens to you that counts, it’s how you react to the highs and lows which come your way.

It’s safe to say that my life has not gone to plan since I took voluntary redundancy late last year. A job I was offered did not materialise, leading to a bit of a panic almost as soon as I left the newspaper, and my hopes of qualifying as an English teacher were dashed when I ended up in hospital for four days.

I thought I was in dreamland at one stage, about to work for a cause I deeply believed in straight after leaving my job of 22 years. Then I thought I would finally do a course which would allow me to teach anywhere in the world or improve my skills if I was to return to volunteering in Central America.

My shoulder injury put paid to those plans. 
Walking along the Salthill promenade

As a person who always runs away for winter sun, the past few months have been challenging.

If you asked me a year ago what my worst nightmare would be, I’d say it would be to be sick, unemployed, and stuck at home in the middle of winter in Galway.

Yet moving to the other side of the world is no guarantee of happiness and old friends have inspired me through some of the most challenging months of my life.

Since the end of October I have had surgery three times on my troublesome left shoulder and spent almost every day getting my wound dressed by a team of Public Health Nurses.

The nurses have been superb, but I can’t say the same for the public health system. I picked up a couple of infections, the MRSA bug and klebsiella, which not only stalled the healing process but posed a serious threat to my health if they got into my bloodstream.

It was frustrating to be rushed to the Emergency Department (ED) at UHG to have a leaking wound drained, when I was supposed to be on the mend. And then to find six days later that my specialist had no knowledge of the fact that I had surgery on the shoulder for a third time – in the same hospital.

It was even more frustrating to see old people lying on trolleys, sometimes being given devastating diagnosis within earshot of a dozen people, when I spent 26 hours in the ED.

That experience awoke the rebel in me. In my mind, I raged against the injustice of a country which pays off unsecured bondholders while forcing ordinary people to spend night after night on a hospital trolley.

If a nation’s health is reflected in how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, then Ireland is a pretty sick country right now.

I have gone through, I think, seven courses of antibiotics, including a powerful pill which is the “antibiotic of last resort” for the MRSA bug. Just over a week ago, with no sign of the infection disappearing, I thought I would be re-admitted to hospital and put on a drip. 

It seemed there was no end in sight to a problem which surfaced when an abscess on my shoulder became swollen way back at the end of October.

The whole experience has shown me the importance of taking one day at a time. There is absolutely no point in worrying about what life will be like in three or six months. None of us has any control over the distant future. All we can do is make the most of the here and now.

Instead of whisking myself across the world to Nicaragua, China, or Thailand, I have been able to spend quality time with my family and friends. I have learned to calm down and control my wild thoughts as the wind howled and the rain poured down outside.

In January, I experienced absolute despair. Drained of energy by so many antibiotics, I spent New Year’s Eve on my own rather than attending either of the two house parties I’d been invited to. It felt like the darkest hour. Even at that stage, I thought I would be well on the road to recovery by mid-March.

Today, though, the nurse had good news. There was no sign of infection for the eighth day in a row. My daily visits to the clinic would be reduced to three days per week. A real sign of progress.

I met a former colleague to walk the prom in the sunshine and neither of us were bothered that we no longer had “9 to 5” jobs to go to. His enthusiasm about leaving work after so many years and going back to education has inspired me. 

We had our health and the sun was shining, the sea was flat calm. No matter how scary it has been, we have both got out of our “comfort zones”.

This afternoon it felt as though the darkest hour had passed and I had just seen the dawn.

During our walk, I met one of the most inspirational people in my life. Old schoolfriend Liam, who has battled meningitis for over 20 years, was walking along the seafront with his customary determination.

He told me he’s about to become a paralympian, representing Ireland, in cycling. Given how that man has battled for good health – and how much he has defied medical opinion over the past two decades – I was in no position to doubt him for a second. 

If Liam says he will be cycling for Ireland next summer, I know for a fact that he will be. I have never met anyone who has faced such obstacles and yet shown such determination to live a full and healthy life as Liam.

Last week I spoke to another good friend, Karl, whose life was almost destroyed in a motorcycle accident 12 years ago. Like Liam, he has learned to face adversity head-on. 

Neither of them sits around thinking about how unfair life has been. 

Today Liam and I chatted in the sun and I realised that my self-pity had evaporated. I remembered how good it is just to bump into people I hold dearly in my heart, by chance, during a walk in my home town.
On a glorious, sunny day in Galway, I felt like I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.

I’m already looking forward to my first swim in five months, my first visit to the gym, and my first trip abroad since having surgery three times. I am beginning to see how pointless all the panic was as I mulled over voluntary redundancy last year.

I am half way through an excellent 12 week Build Your Own Digital Business course in which I have met some great people. I would never have done the course if it wasn’t for my shoulder troubles. The infections clipped my wings in terms of global travel, but they gave me time to take stock and realise what's important in life.

In recent days I have also been invited to get involved in two exciting new projects in Galway. The financial rewards might be minimal, but it’s great to experience the energy involved in getting new ventures off the ground.

I would not wish the last five months of my life on anyone, the scares, the frustrations, the countless medical appointments, and yet they have taught me very valuable lessons about my life.

It’s only when you experience ill health that you really appreciate all your blessings. As long as you are breathing, everything else can be worked on.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Mad about Mark

If ever a person inspired me to live life to the fullest, it was the late Mark Logan.

Between family commitments, his love of music, following Chelsea FC, and especially his work in suicide prevention, Mark put as much as he could into each and every day. 

(As a Liverpool fan, I wasn’t too enamoured by the Chelsea part of his life ... but sure nobody’s perfect!)

We knew each other for almost 20 years, since his desire for a new life saw him swap the bright lights of London for a more laid-back way of living in the West of Ireland.

The ninth child of a Leitrim mother and Donegal father, he had dreamed of moving across the Irish Sea for years. It was our mutual love of music that sparked off our friendship. It was his mother’s funeral, and the gentle nature of the rural people at the removal in her home village, which inspired him to come “home”.

When I got to know Mark first, in the late 1990s, he seemed to play percussion in half-a-dozen Galway bands. He had previously played in the city with a touring band from London. Not only did he fit right in within months of moving to a much smaller city, he seemed to know everyone on the thriving Galway music scene.

Unusually, Mark did not seem to have any enemies. He seemed to be friendly with everyone I knew at gigs or in clubs at a time when I was lucky enough to write my own weekly music column. His quirky sense of humour, his desire to wear sharp suits in a town full of scruffy hippies, and his ability to tell absorbing tales seemed to endear him to virtually everyone I knew.

In Galway, full of ‘raggle taggle’ hippies in the 1990s, Mark stood out from the crowd.

We would enjoy absorbing conversations over a pint in places like the Blue Note or Massimo and I was struck by the sheer joy which music, and musicians, brought to his life.
The late, great Mark Logan

As the years progressed, I began to realise that there was a lot more to Mark than football banter or playing percussion with the likes of the Disconauts. 

While his nocturnal adventures brought him to gigs up and down the land, his day job with Rehab opened Mark up to a whole different world.

He was instrumental in ensuring that suicide prevention, and guidance for young people, became top of the agenda in the city.

The likes of Heads Up and Jigsaw were opening up at a time of great demand and much tragedy across the West of Ireland.

Over time, I began to admire Mark for a lot more than his music. I once heard that he saved the life of a young friend in Australia, via Facebook. Noticing that she had posted a couple of troubling messages, he managed to track down a couple of her friends and got them to call around to her house. A simple thing, perhaps, but a measure of the man that he showed such concern for a young woman half-way around the world.

His work with mental health promotion project Heads Up saw Mark deliver initiatives which allowed young people to recognise the warning signs for suicidal behaviour. He also provided two day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshops to community groups all across the West of Ireland.
For years, when we would meet at gigs, Mark and I would joke about doing a long interview. But we never got around to it.

Then his 50th birthday turned up in January of last year and he organised  two nights of top class music at the city’s best music venue, the Roisin Dubh. It seemed like the perfect time to sit down with Mark and talk about his life, work, and passions.

He told me that people needed to reconsider what they meant by mental health, because it applied to everyone. All of us get “the blues” at some stage.

“If you are down, rotten or anxious on a particular day, your mental health is not good. Of 100 people who present in front of a GP with a mental health issue, only 16 would be referred to a specialist psychiatric service. People talk about one in four, but it’s really four in four. It’s all of us,” he told me.

He was Mental Health and Recovery Development Manager with the Rehab group for 14 years. After interviewing him for two hours, I found it remarkable that someone so jolly, so full of fun, could be so caring for people in distress.

There was so much compassion to this man I had witnessed banging on the bongos on Galway stages far too many times over the years.

Sadly, within just over a month of that riveting newspaper interview, I was attending Mark’s funeral out in Oranmore. A hugely poignant occasion was made even more so when I heard that his beloved wife, Shona, was pregnant with their second child. I knew from our lengthy conversation that becoming a father in his 40s had been the highlight of his life and how much his young daughter meant to him.

As the lone piper played along the shores of Galway Bay, quite a few of us were left to ponder how cruel fate can be in March of last year.

Here was a man who had so much to offer, who made such a huge difference to people’s lives, taken from us, suddenly, in his prime. The only consolation was that he had brought so many friends and family members together for an amazing 50th birthday just four weeks before he passed away, with people flying in from London and Germany for the occasion.

Mark Logan was one of the most inspiring people I interviewed during more than 22 years working as a reporter for the Connacht Tribune.

His friends and family will gather to celebrate his life during a night called ‘Mad about Mark’ later this month.

The gig at the Roisin Dubh on Friday, March 27, will feature sets by The Disconauts, Fish Go Deep, Get Down Edits, Together Disco, and Anthony Collins, among others. No doubt a few ‘star’ performers will also fly in for the occasion.

All of the money raised will go to Jigsaw, Hand In Hand West, and the Galway Simon Community.
Tickets are available from the Roisin Dubh.

If the night is anything like the man himself, it should be unmissable.