Monday, March 20, 2017

Joyous faces in the Galway rain

So what does it mean to be Irish?

And what’s the best way to celebrate on our national holiday?        

Awaiting the parade in the Galway wind and rain

Those questions hit me on a strange St Patrick’s Day this year, when I took in my city’s rain-swept parade, attended the funeral of an old friend’s sister, and somehow managed to survive a night as possibly the only sober person in a crowded Galway pub.

Is the best way to celebrate being Irish to get absolutely hammered, as so many did on our national holiday?

Friends in the service industries tell me they hate to work on this particular day.

The stereotype of the "drunken Irish" has become such a cliche that Amazon even tried to sell an offensive green 'Drunk Lives Matter' t-shirt this year.

In one fell swoop, they managed to insult the entire Irish race and the black people in the United States who have genuine grievances with the racist elements of their country's police.

I've long since given up on hard drinking on March 17, as it can be alarming to walk through Galway city centre in the evening and to see so many drunken "zombies" milling about the place.

And, normally, I'd give the parade a miss if the weather was foul.

But this year there were lessons to be learned from the way thousands of people made the most of atrocious conditions to celebrate our national holiday.

To be honest, like many people, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my native land. For most of my adult life, I have fantasised about leaving the cold and wet island behind in order to live in a place with a warmer, more welcoming climate.

As a young man in London in the late 1980s, I revelled the experience of leaving the confines and constraints of home behind. London offered freedom, wildness, and a multi-cultural environment which seemed alien compared to the confines of ‘Catholic’ Ireland.

Try telling people now that it was impossible to buy a condom or to get a divorce in the Ireland of my youth. That repressive country felt like a different planet from the one that voted for Marriage Equality in May 2015.

A view of the parade
by Turlough Moore
I experienced long breaks in places like Australia, Egypt, Spain and Thailand, and loved the experience of holidaying or scuba diving in hot climates.

I fantasised so much about moving to hot countries, I almost wished my life away.

If you decide in November that you are going to hate the next five months of your life then - guess what! - that invariably becomes your truth.

You don't make any room for joy on a winter's afternoon down by the Salthill prom.

Wanderlust, of course, is part of who we are. I have friends from Galway who are scattered all over the world.

They have made new lives in the US, UK, Australia, Norway, and Thailand, because they never saw their futures back home on the wet and windy rock.

In 2010, during a gap year, I lived out my ‘Bucket List’. A full year away from Ireland brought me unbrldled joy, the chance to live and work in Thailand and Nicaragua, and left me with a real sense of doom and gloom upon my return.

So I have to admit I had one of those dark days of the soul when I opened the curtains on Friday morning. I cursed the dark, grey sky and found myself wishing I hadn’t agreed to cover the Galway St Patrick’s Day Parade for a national newspaper.

It was with dread that I made my way to Eyre Square, wishing I could just close the curtains, put on a fire, and spend the day at home. But work is work, especially for a freelancer!

And there was a valuable lesson to be learned.

All around me were smiling people, making the most of the driving wind and miserable rain. Tourists and locals alike were determined to enjoy themselves, even though the rational side of any human being would say it was no day for an outdoor parade.

It was amazing to see such good humour among the 1,000 poor participants who were soaked to the skin as they approached the end of the parade route.

I didn’t see a single person cry or complain, although a politician joked to me that the Town Crier “must be crying now” with the kind irreverence and good humour us Irish can take for granted at times.

Could you imagine a British MP joking with an English journalist with such informal ‘craic’ in his voice as he sat outside in the cold and rain?

Given our country’s terrible relationship with alcohol – and how downright messy St Patrick’s Night can become – it felt so fitting to me that a young man who has battled alcoholism and addiction was the guest of honour at the Galway parade.

The weather was simply awful, but it was great for me to meet Gavan Hennigan for the first time.

This young man from Knocknacarra rowed solo across the Atlantic earlier this year and showed plenty of good humour as he surveyed the one hour parade from the viewing stand.

“If you can put up with conditions like this, that’s the best training you can get!” joked the extreme athlete in the relentless rain.

“The conditions are pretty tough. It’s as bad as it is out in the middle of the Atlantic, nearly. I think it’s incredible that so many people came out to enjoy the parade today, given the conditions.”

Gavan has been overwhelmed by the welcome he has received in his native Galway since completing his solo row.

What a role model he has become for the children of his native city. Gavan hit rock bottom in his late teens and early 20s, but he has shown us all what can be done with determination and the will to turn his life around.

“I was kind of worried that a lot of people wouldn’t know who I was, but a lot of kids were shouting out my name as I made my way through the city today. Overall, the reception has just been incredible since I got back,” he said.

Following Gavan at the head of the parade were the Galway 2020 activists who secured European Capital of Culture status for the city and the Let’s Get Galway Growing network, whose community-based projects played a key role in securing the prestigious Green Leaf 2017 designation.

There's no rain like Galway rain .... !
The awful weather failed to dampen the spirits of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, the oldest military company in the United States and one of three visiting groups from overseas.

Some of the more colourful floats were provided by representatives of the city’s ethnic communities, including a fantastic red and yellow dragon from the Irish Chinese Society.

The Galway Traveller Movement celebrated their recent designation as a minority ethnic group, while That’s Life Gamelan Players highlighted the wonders of performance theatre for people with special needs.

The most magical moment of the day came when a young man with special needs brought a giant love heart up to the politicians in the viewing platform, and then decided not to share his love with them.

That simple, wild, irreverent gesture prompted a huge ironic cheer.

Representatives of the city’s Filipino, Polish, South African, and Indian communities underlined just how multicultural my city has become, and every one of them seemed to be genuinely thrilled to be representing their communities in the driving rain and near gale-force winds.

I was amazed by the salsa dancers. They revelled in showing off their slick dance moves on the street in conditions which must have been totally off-putting for most of them. And they went through their dance moves with huge, beaming smiles.

There was a special round of applause for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association, who marched behind a banner which proclaimed ‘Love for All, Hatred for None’.

“I haven’t seen the parade in years, because I’ve been away gallivanting on adventures, but the first thing that jumped out at me today was the diversity of the communities here in Galway. It’s great to see it,” Gavan told me afterwards.

It was a relief when the parade ended, I have to admit, and a joy to get home to put on a hot drink and change my clothes.

But it was still so uplifting to see the joy on so many faces on a horrible day in my native Galway, the kind of day which would normally make me fantasise about moving to sunnier climes.

The drunken steretype: one of the more offensive t-shirts
on sale in the USA to mark St Patrick's Day
Each and every one of the 1,000 participants in the parade, and the thousands watching them pass by, taught me a lesson about acceptance.

You can wish your life away, dreaming of beaches and sunnier climes, or you can leave the house with a smile on your face and celebrate the joy each new day can bring.

Attitude is so important and the people in Galway city centre on Friday could teach a cynic a thing or two about making the most of life in horrible conditions.

And that’s how I will remember a joyful St Patrick’s Day, 2017.

The true spirit of the Irish is in the beaming faces who embraced a  communal event despite in the rain, not in the scenes of drunkenness in the crowded pubs hours after the parade had ended.


Earlier blog post: Banned from the land that made us refugees ....

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Monday, March 6, 2017

Remembering the 'Maggies'

It is hard for people of my generation, or those younger than us, to imagine the terrible stigma which was attached to single motherhood in 20th century Ireland.

A beautiful ceremony in Bohermore yesterd
It’s only now we are waking up to what a terrible institution the Roman Catholic Church was and the awful, disgusting, inhumane ways in which some religious orders and individuals treated some of the most vulnerable members in our society.

There was no joy, no sense of fun or adventure, in post-colonisation Ireland. Beautiful people were locked up for decades because the most natural thing imaginable, having sex, was turned into a dirty, rotten crime.

The children of single mothers were branded as “illegitimate” and “bastards”, leading to the kind of terrible attitudes which allowed 796 of them to be buried in a septic tank in a so-called ‘mother and baby’ home in Tuam.

They were seen as less than human, the devil’s spawn, and harsh treatment of them was seen as the norm.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, during my University days, I had quite a few friends who were single mums. I don’t think I – or even they – realised what amazing ground-breakers they were in terms of social change in Ireland. Had they been born a decade earlier, they might have been incarcerated for life by nuns.

How guilty were Irish families – and all of Irish society in general – for allowing young women to be stolen from them, locked up for life while their children somehow ‘disappeared’?

Well, we remembered those women in Galway yesterday.

How strangely appropriate – and deeply poignant – that an event had been organized to honour the women of the Magdalen Laundry in Galway yesterday of all Sundays.

The event took on a whole new significance following the shock revelations about the discovery of the bodies of 796 babies in a decommissioned septic tank less than an hour up the road, in Tuam.

About 100 people took part in the moving ceremony in which the names of each of the women buried in Bohermore Cemetery were called out before flowers were placed on their shared graves.

The Flowers for Magdalenes event was planned weeks in advance to give a dignity in death which had been denied in life to the Galway women who had been imprisoned in the city centre laundry.

Until the closure of the laundry in 1984, ‘fallen’ women who became pregnant outside marriage were locked up and forced to work in the premises in the heart of Galway City.

The Magdalen Asylum, as it was known, was run by the Sisters of Mercy from 1845 until its closure. There were 41 such institutions across Ireland in the late 1800s.

Placing flowers on the shared graves of the Magdalene women
Women who became pregnant outside marriage were taken away from their families and placed in the laundries, along with their “illegitimate” children.

They were separated from the children, many of whom were moved to another institution across the city, called St Anne’s. If they were not given up for adoption, they were allowed to see their children once a year.

The inmates, known as ‘Maggies’, had to wear ‘penitence caps’, large boots, and heavy skirts down to their ankles. They worked in the laundry and slept in dormitories. They were never allowed out of the Forster Street premises.

The last resident died in the laundry in 1995, just one year prior to its closure, and Sunday’s remembrance ceremony was attended by women and adult children who had been confined to the home.

It was really moving to hear graveside testimonials from a former Magdalene Laundry resident, a woman who worked there as a teenager, and a man who had been sent there with his single mother.

The sixth annual 'Flowers for Magdalenes' event
took place at a Galway graveyard yesterday

One 70-year old lady, who left a comment on my Facebook page, summed up the heartbreak we experienced as we listened to the stories being shared by former residents and their adult children.

“I cried today for those women. I thought about the time after your baby is born,” wrote Mary Lyons.

“I thought about how you wanted to be treated as the most precious woman in the world as you had carried and produced this other little human being.

“You wanted warm baths, comfortable clothes, plenty of sanitary stuff and loads of praise.

“But not in the Magdalene Laundry. No, you had to swelter in the heat of a laundry where you washed and ironed the clothes of the rich and the linen from the local hotels.

“Why? Because the Catholic Church had such a hold on everyone, they fostered the idea that sex outside marriage was worse than if you committed murder.”

As Mary pointed out, there was a huge irony in young women being locked up and made to feel guilty by religious people who participated in, or covered up, the terrible abuse of Irish children.

Yesterday, former resident Peter Mulryan broke down in tears as he recalled his difficult childhood in a home and how he used to look up at the stars and dream of another life as a youngster.                                                          

Mr Mulryan has taken a High Court action in order to obtain information about a baby sister he never knew from Tusla, the Irish child and family agency.

"It's an insult the way these women are buried in on top of each other,” he said, as he surveyed the shared graves at Bohermore.

Mr Mulryan said he had never been able to trace his little sister. For years, he didn’t know if she had been buried in the mass grave in Tuam, as he believed she had been confined there, or whether she had managed to escape and make a new life in the United States. 

He has since found out the truth.

“My sister was buried in that so-called grave, that septic tank, in Tuam," he said. “She was only nine months old."

He was given a huge round of applause for his bravery, as was a former Magdalene Laundry resident who described how harsh life was for the women in the Galway facility.

“I knew many of these women here,” she said, with tears in her eyes, looking out over the graves.                                                                            
It was the biggest attendance yet at this annual event

Another lady, who worked there as a 13-year old, said she wanted to re-assure family members present that the lay staff who worked there – apart from the nuns – had treated the women well.

Flowers were laid on each of the graves and afterwards poet Sarah Clancy and singer Caroline Stanley dedicated a poem and a song to the Magdalenes.

Sarah read an angry poem, ‘A Prayer to St Bridget’. You can view Sarah's poem here.

One of the organisers, Ann Irwin, said she was taken aback by the numbers who attended the sixth annual Flowers for Magdalenes event at the graveyard. Only three women attended in the first year.

“What happened on Friday was totally coincidental, but it was important that we provided an opportunity for people to congregate and to tell their incredibly poignant stories,” she said.

“The stories that people told this year were nothing but heart-breaking, really. People have told their stories before, but not to such an extent. They were so beautiful and so brave to tell their tragic stories.”

She said it was important to call out the names of each of the women out loud, to give them a dignity which had been denied them in life.                 

It was a poignant, emotional ceremony in Galway
“It was important that everybody said their names together. It was important to hear the testimonials of survivors and that these things are said,” she added.

Ms Irwin said it was important not to forget how women and children had been treated when they were confined to the Magdalene laundries all across Ireland.

“It’s a very, very recent history, but it’s a history we have swept under the carpet to such an extent. If it wasn’t for events such as today, people would turn a blind eye. It’s so important to keep it on the agenda and not to forget these women.”

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can check out his Facebook page here

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

A letter to Donnie O'Trump

Dear Donald,

(Or Donnie ... as we might call ya out here in the wild wesht of Ireland).

Just a quick note to say I’d only be too delighted to join you at the White House, or the Teach Ban if you’d like to learn a bit of Irish, on St Patrick’s Day.              
With President Obama in the good ole' days

Meself and Fionnuala have the bowl of shamrock ready since November and we’re really thrilled by the chance to meet yourself and Melania on March 16.                        

To be honest with ya, I could do with the break. I’ve had a rough few weeks since a feckin’ do-gooder Garda, a policeman to yourself Donnie, almost brought down the entire Government over a few feckin’ penalty points and nearly cost me my job.

It means even more to me to visit this year than it used to when the O’Bamas were in the White House, because there’s a lot of feckers tryin’ their best to retire me at the moment.

But I won’t give up without a fight. I didn’t become the longest serving TD in Ireland, or make Ireland great again, by pure chance.

It’ll be great to have an oul’ chat, maybe pop up to Trump Tower in the Big Apple, or fly down to Florida for a round of golf.

We’ve a good deal to talk about.

Like the feckin’ fake news media. I’m sick to the teeth of them and I can see they’re giving you a hard time across the water too.

They once accused me of being a racist here in Ireland, because I used the feckin’ ‘n-----‘ word at a private function a few years back.

Imagine, you can’t even tell a joke these days with all the political correctness flying about.

Ireland is like America, it’s gone far too feckin’ PC for my liking. So I have to say I admire your straight talkin’.

They’re always accusing me of making up stuff here in Ireland too, especially when I meet this fella with two pints who always tells me just what I want to hear at functions.

They’re like rats, some of them meejia types. Try  as I might, I could never convince them that I often met this fella with two pints on nights out in Dublin or Castlebar.

I see you are planning to build a big wall, and now they’re even sayin’ you are a racist for trying to keep the oul’ Mexicans and Muslims out.

For putting your own people first?

Well, they’ve been accusing my people, the Blueshirts, of being racists ever since we sided with poor oul’ Franco down in Spain in the 1930s.

You can never do anything right to please these people.  
President Trump's ban on refugees has led to calls
for Enda Kenny to boycott the White House this year

We can’t build a wall here around Ireland, although I believe those feckin’ Europeans stopped you from building one around your golf course down in Co Clare.

Feckin’ eejits.

I know you were like a vulture fund when you bought Doonbeg and Ireland was in crisis at the time. But we rolled out the red carpet for you when you visited, remember.

Like you, I only back winners and I knew you’d be a winner even then. I'd like to invite you to Ireland for an official visit as long as all the oul' whingers won't kick up a fuss like they are now in Britian.

We could invent an oul' Irish great-grandfather for ya. I'll tell the world from the Oval Office that there were plenty of O'Trumps about the place when I was growing up in Islandeeeeeedy, outside Castlebar. I'm sure your connections in Russia Today and Fox News would be delighted to spread the mighty story of your hidden Irish roots!

Wouldn't it be a great legacy for me to be remembered as the Taoiseach who brought you - the man who's making America great - to Ireland? Sure, I'd nearly die happy, although I've too good a pension set up to be going anywhere too soon!

Anyway, I might have a few tips for ya for dealing with those troublesome Muslims. We have a mighty system here called Direct Provision.

We can’t keep them out, but we can put them up in oul’ cheap hotels owned by our friends for ten to 15 years. We pay these refugees €19.10 a week to stay out of trouble and the beauty of it is we can then provide plenty of money for our buddies to put them up for years on end. Saves us from actually having to build houses for the buggers!

If you can’t ban the Muslims, maybe you could come up with a Direct Provision system of your own. Mind you, I think you have one for the black lads, at any rate, because most of them seem to be in jail.

We could talk about our rogue police officers, too. Maybe you could give me a few tips about those lads who shoot black lads over in the Shtates.

We have troublesome Gardai here in Ireland too, some of them are never satisfied unless they have somethin’ to complain about.

One or two bad apples and they want to discredit the whole force.

Our lads tend not to shoot people, but they cause a fair amount of damage when they go around accusing their own feckin’ colleagues of being corrupt.

We haven’t found the best way of dealing with them yet, although spreading rumours that they might be child abusers seemed to work for a while. It kept them quiet, until it caused all the bother last month.

I’d love to talk to ya about the oul’ health service as well. I see you are getting rid of that Obamacare and I’d like to know how you are getting on.

Our solution here in Ireland is to make the waiting lists so long that patients generally die before we have to treat them. We tend to save a fortune that way, you know, as most of them don’t need treatment by the time they get to the top of the queues!

And, sure, anyone with a bit of money or a bit of sense can avoid the oul' overcrowded public hospitals. My friends with health problems tend to like flying over to Americay, to places like the Mayo Clinic. 'Tis great for you and great for us!

We’ve a bit of a housing problem at the moment here, too. Mind you, it’s not a problem really, because many of us are landlords, so rising rents go down very well with our core voters.

Homelessness doesn’t really bother Fine Gael voters unless a fella has the temerity to die right outside the Dail, but I love the way you attack the media and I’d like to learn more about spreading the word about “fake news”.

I love the way you keep discrediting the news media so much that nobody believes them any more.

Mind you, I wouldn’t mind an oul’ Fox News or Breitbart to spread the Fine Gael gospel here in Ireland. Especially with that hound Micheal Martin breathing down my back.

Then there’s the oul’ corporation tax and your wonderful multinationals. I was pure disgusted when the European dictators (sorry, authorities) told us Apple owed us €13 billion in unpaid taxes last year.

I can assure you we will fight this to the highest level, to ensure Apple will never have to pay a cent in corporation tax to the Irish authorities.

I want to assure you, Donnie, that the Americans will always be welcome here. You are welcome to pay as little tax as you want for as long as you want.

Your soldiers are welcome to stop off here to buy leprechauns and whiskey on their way to and from the bombing missions in Iraq and Syria.

There's mighty hospitality for the US
troops at 'neutral' Shannon Airport
Never mind the ‘loonie lefties’. They say Ireland is a neutral country, but we know who our true friends are here in Ireland.

And I have to say we are honoured to be the only European country to have US pre-clearance on our soil.

Your immigration people are always welcome and I hear they are becoming so friendly that they are now even helping passengers to remember their passwords and open their Facebook and email accounts before they board the planes these days.

Damn right, you shouldn't let anyone into America if you find out they've ever 'friended' a Muslim or a Mexican on that oul' Facebook.

People say you hate immigrants, like the Irish, but sure how could ya? Didn’t you marry an immigrant yourself!

People say you are surrounded by white supremacists, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of supremacy. In Mayo, we’ve been trying to be the best footballers in Ireland since 1951. What we’d give for a bit of supremacy in 2017!

So, like I said, we’ll be delighted to make the trip to Washington on St Patrick’s Day. Fionnuala has the green dress ready and all.

I promise I won’t give you a lecture about your own tax returns or raise any tricky questions about the 50,000 ‘undocumented’ Paddies living in the US.                  
Should Irish people boycott the White House
on St Patrick's Day this year?

We say that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter here in Ireland. Well, I'm sure that one man's undocumented migrant is another's illegal immigrant.

And Paddy's Day is not the day for tough questions.

Irish Taoisigh have been bringing the bowl of shamrock to the White House for over 20 years and I’m not going to let a bit of racism, human rights concerns, Muslims, or cranky Irish Americans spoil a good party.

You’re making America great again, just like I’ve made Ireland the best little country in the world to do business in over the past six years.

See you on the 16th,

Love and best wishes,

Kim Jong Kenny,
Taoiseach of the Republic.

(Please note that this blog actually admits to being Fake News)

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Check out his Facebook page here

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Find Ciaran on Twitter, @ciarantierney