Wednesday, April 23, 2014

THE MAGIC OF A GOOD TEACHER

So the teachers of Ireland are having their annual get-togethers as I write this and there seem to be two things that are engaging the nation as a result....well those who are on Twitter anyway. 

Firstly there is the idea that Ruairi Quinn floated about ‘defeminising’ primary teaching by introducing a requirement for candidates to have honours maths.   Leaving the ‘defeminising’ element aside because that would be an entire column in itself, the idea that potential teachers of four to 12 year olds should have honours maths to me shows a worrying lack of what it is that makes a good teacher of  very young children.  Some individuals more cynical than I assumed that this daft idea was merely to deflect the debate away from the Junior Cert mess and other issues. 

Twitter was also consumed with lecturing the badly behaved teachers who showed no respect for their Minister by their heckling, use of a megaphone and slow clapping.  If I saw one I saw ten tweets to the effect that teachers should be providing better example to their students by behaving better.  Mmmmm...  I have a sneaking regard for rebels and strongly believe in the need to make our voices heard when we passionately disagree with something that is being implemented.  I still believe that most teachers have the welfare of our children at heart so I can understand their anger.

Let us not underestimate the power of teachers on our lives and on the lives of our children.  On receiving her Fellowship Award at the last BAFTAs earlier in the year Dame Helen Mirren talked about teachers.  “My journey to this place, right here and right now, began with a great teacher”, she said.  She went on to reference Alice Welding who taught her the power of literature and who alone encouraged her to become an actor.  Ms Mirren asked her audience how many of them remembered a great teacher who had “opened the gate that led to the path that led you here”?  She asked for a show of hands.  “That’s a lot of teachers”, she remarked.

We are lucky if we have had one great teacher in our lives. We are truly blessed to have had two or more.   And these great teachers may or may not have been actual teachers.  My first great teacher was a teacher.  Her name was Mrs Nellie McGloughlin and she taught my class in Oliver Plunkett National School in Monkstown.  When I was 7, I thought Mrs McGloughlin was old.  She had grey hair and wore comfortable shoes which she kicked off one at a time as she warmed her foot on the heating pipe in the classroom on chilly days.  She was one of those brilliant teachers who didn’t force us to learn but rather opened our young minds to endless possibilities, endless stories, and endless interesting facts. 

Mrs McGloughlin also seamlessly shifted from Irish to English and back again, right throughout the day.  She read us poetry – in both languages – not so that we could understand the concepts being articulated but rather so that we could develop an appreciation of the beauty of language.  She encouraged us in ‘creative writing’.  She even gave us advice on how to find a good partner in life. 

We were incredibly lucky in that Mrs McGloughlin taught us from second to sixth class.  When myself and my classmates made the transition to the local convent secondary school our oral Irish marked us out as the girls from Oliver Plunkett.

My second teacher came into my life shortly after I had turned 30 years of age.  I was not in a happy place for lots of reasons, the lack of a job I liked being one of them.  I was ‘temping’ at The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and the Chairman was an amazing man called Michael Coote.  Michael had just turned 80 years of age but was one of the most creative, positive, energetic people I have ever met.  But more than all that, just as Helen Mirren said, he saw something in me and he gave me an opportunity. 

He offered me the newly created role of PRO for the fledgling charity.  For the next couple of years he mentored and guided me.  He taught me so much; about selling, about motivating volunteers, about ensuring your message was heard.  He was simply inspirational.  Just like a good teacher should be.


I hope the cynics are right about Minister Quinn’s motives for introducing the mad idea of primary teachers needing Honours Maths.  Because the teaching of young children is as much about magic and endless possibility as it is about reading and writing and adding.  If teachers should require an honour in anything it should be in magic and perhaps another in creativity.  And thankfully some are born with just that.   


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Ni Neart Go Cur Le Cheile



When I watched the first of TV3’s new format People’s Debates with Vincent Browne I admired the courage of the station in attempting to give equal voice to ‘ordinary’ people as to elected politicians and aspiring politicians.  However I did feel that there was a lot of shouting and not a lot of coherence.  So when the second one was announced as being a women only debate on the subject as to whether or not we had yet achieved ‘liberation’ I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. 

But being me and afraid I might miss something, a character trait (flaw?) that has kept me on Twitter for six years, I rocked along to the magnificent HD studios in Ballymount last Wednesday. 

As someone who is a member of the National Women’s Council and also involved with the Women on Air group, I was immediately surprised that I didn’t know more than a handful of the women present.  As I took my seat in the studio I wondered if there was some kind of snobbery at work here.  There weren’t many (if any) TDs at the first People’s Debate and there was not a sign of a woman TD last Wednesday either.  I know we don’t exactly have a lot of female TDs but I was disappointed that not one had shown up.


I enjoyed the evening very much.  There is something very .... I am slow to say special...but it is special when a group of women come together.  Perhaps it’s the very different energy, the different dynamic. 

I was struck by the humour of the evening and also by the very articulate contributions from almost every woman who spoke.  There was passion too.  And believe me there were all points of view in the studio... from very Catholic women to women who were very vocal campaigners for liberal abortion. 

I am aware from the commentary on Twitter afterwards that some women felt their voices weren’t heard and that is a shame but I guess an inevitable fact at any event. 

But I felt that there was a tangible willingness in the studio for women to listen to each other.  It was said time and time again that true equality is about choice.  And this is something I have written about many times.  But more than choice I also think that in order for the cause of feminism to move forward we women must be tolerant of views that run completely to our own.

Abortion is possibly the most divisive of these issues but there are others too. It is vital that as women we realise that to move forward we must all stand together.  We must park our differences and our battles over issues such as abortion.  I understand that abortion is something many feminists will say is fundamental to our freedom as women... but if we continue to insist on all women signing up to that agenda we are doomed to failure.  There are also very feminist women who do not support liberal abortion laws.  That does not make them less of a feminist.

Equality is indeed about choice but it is also about tolerance.  We are not a homogenous group – we are as different as we are the same. 

As the debate wound to its conclusion two things were clear to me.   The new Irish women – many of whom on the night were African had so much to add to our conversation about equality.  Their voices were such a welcome addition and they brought wonderful insights to the debate.  The other thing that came up time and time again was the ‘work of caring’.  Until we as a nation value the work of caring and until it is subsidised by our taxes we will never be fully liberated.

Exactly 100 years before we gathered in a TV studio in Ballymount, a group of women met in Wynne’s Hotel in Dublin and founded Cumann na mBan.   I have no doubt that these women were equally full of passion and enthusiasm for their cause and the cause of national freedom.  But in the end they were divided, like the rest of the country on the issue of partition and the Treaty.  And so the cause of Irish women’s liberation ground to a halt.

There is a lesson there for women of 2014.  Some issues will remain divisive for years to come.  Don’t let that force us apart and therefore delay our full liberation for another century. 

Ni neart go cur le cheile


Thursday, March 13, 2014

LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE BOSSY GIRLS...


Big, glossy and expensive media campaigns that seem to spring out of nowhere make me slightly defensive and wary.  They make me wonder if they are real or something dreamed up in a plush office somewhere by individuals or a group of individuals who want to up their profile, change the public perception of them or are just publicity hungry for one reason or another.  I am naturally suspicious of campaigns that seem to emanate from the wealthy elite who seem to be happy to give the rest of us the benefit of their gold plated wisdom.

The latest such campaign is the ‘Ban Bossy’ one.  Apparently girls who are natural leaders and organisers are often called bossy... yep, I thought, I’ve been there and done that.  But apparently that is not a good thing.  Girls who are told they’re bossy can feel unlike and unpopular and as a result calling girls bossy can result in them not putting themselves forward to take these leadership roles.

My first reaction was – what a load of old nonsense.  I have been called bossy since I could talk and I have always taken pride in that fact.  I took bossy to be a bit of a back handed compliment.  Have I been wrong all these years?

I am also the mother of three daughters, none of whom are backwards about coming forward in varying degrees.  I have always encouraged them to be the leader not the follower. “If something needs to be organised and no-one else is doing it – well do it yourself” I tell them.  I am sure they are called bossy occasionally but it has never been something that has upset them at all.  And I value the fact that they usually, (not always - I’m not that great a parent) are happy to lead and don’t (generally) follow unquestioningly. (As a mother of teenagers I have fingers and toes crossed at having written than.)

When I was thinking about all this before putting pen to paper, one fact leapt out at me.  Like me, they have all gone to all girl schools.  Is the problem here that it is boys that are uncomfortable with girls being leaders?  Is it the boys who seem to have this power to make bossy a bad word and make the girls feel ‘unlikeable’?  This would chime with my experience.  My bossiness (or assertiveness as I generally call it now that I am grown up) has occasionally caused problems with male bosses!  Oh – and are we going to change the name Boss while we are at it?  Or can men be bosses but girls not be bossy?  Sorry I am totally lost with the logic of that.

I am very unconvinced by this campaign.  I think it risks being misinterpreted by our girls; teaching them not to be bossy but to be leaders.  Instead of trying to ‘Ban Bossy’ why not ‘Own Bossy’?  Be bossy and be proud, because when our ‘bossy’ girls get out into the big world of work will be called all kinds of other not flattering names.  Let me see – ‘over-bearing’, ‘shrill’, ‘bloody feminist’, ‘trouble-maker’ – oh the list is endless.  I’ve been called them all.  I have also been told that I wouldn’t succeed unless I toned myself down.   While I admit that my success is questionable I have no intention of toning down.  Hell no.   

Once again are we accepting men’s view of things?  Who say’s bossy is bad.  Beyonce, one of the campaign’s figureheads, says “I am not bossy, I am the Boss.”  That sounds more like the attitude I want our girls to have.


So I will continue to tell me girls – be bossy and own it.  Bossy means that you are willing to give leadership. Oh and I also tell them that if they are going to live their lives trying to be liked by all and sundry they are on a hiding to nothing.  Be kind, treat people like you would like to be treated... but all groups need a bossy boots.  So grab them boots... wear ‘em, own ‘em.  And feck the begrudgers.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

ROARING FOR EQUALITY


International Women's Day and I was invited by the National Women's Council of Ireland to take part in their SOAPBOX event which took place in the middle of O Connell Street - just opposite the GPO.  A place famous for oration... some more glorious than others.  It's also around the corner from some of Dublin's most formidable women - the fruit sellers and traders of Moore Street, whose powers of making themselves heard over the din of the city is legendary.  I didn't sell any bananas but I was honoured to take my few minutes on the soapbox.  Here is the text of what I roared!


Michael Harding wrote one of the most lyrical and beautiful columns I have ever read in the Irish Times last Tuesday.  It was called What I Love Most About Women Is Their Voices.  He began by saying that while his father was in the dining room talking about God, his mother was in the kitchen talking to another woman.  His father called it gossip – “what are you women gossiping about now?”  But Harding says “my father was full of ideas – but mother – full of stories – was always more real.”  He went on to say of women “They share a ‘knowing’ beyond words. .... They know things men don’t know.  They shelter men in the fabric of their knowing and they intuit a deeper universe when a man’s world is falling apart.”

It certainly is time that this world of man’s design fell apart.  It certainly is time for women to demand much more than just equality with men.  It is time for us to demand a new world; a world in which we can participate fully and as equals but a world which acknowledges that we are not men; a world where we can express our womanhood without fear that it will be perceived as weakness.

All women are heroes in my opinion.  We bleed every month which can often make us feel like crap but we carry on with our jobs, paid and unpaid, pretending all is fine as we pop another nurofen and dream of reaching home where we can fling ourselves on the sofa with a hot water bottle and a bar of chocolate.  I know menopausal women who suffer horrendous periods which are challenging in a practical as well as physical way – and they carry on working wearing black a lot and praying a lot that their super plus extra sanitary protection doesn’t let them down.  Would men be so silent if roles were reversed?  Would they hell? 

How many women are afraid to display photos of their kids on their desks in case it gives the game away.  How many women miss their new baby so much when they return to work after maternity leave that it causes physical pain?  How many women wish they could take a couple of years of reduced hour working  in order not to miss their children’s early years?  How many women hate that their children are in crèche from too early in the morning till too late in the evening?  And why do so few women articulate these feelings openly?

I know some men feel all these emotions too.. but today is about women.

How come we live in a modern and relatively wealthy country where we have unsafe maternity services and where we have so little choice in those services?  And how come we are not raising a holy racket about it?

But most of all how come we live in a country where the work of caring is so undervalued.  Our children are our most precious asset – both individually and nationally.  So how is it that the people who care for them are in general working for a minimum wage?   And of course this is equally true for those working in nursing homes – caring for our most vulnerable elderly. 

Care, that most traditional of women’s work, should not be left to either charities or the private sector.  Caring should be heavily subsidised by Government in the same way education is and should be run by professionals on a not for profit basis.

Michael Harding spoke of women’s voices.  And yet the day after his beautiful column appeared in the Irish Times, we heard that 1 in 3 women in the EU have suffered physical or sexual abuse.  The figure is 1 in 4 in Ireland.  That means women in our neighbourhoods, perhaps in our families, in our circle of friends have or perhaps still are, experiencing violence.  And yet they are largely silent.  There still exists a shame and stigma to admitting that our vulnerability, that which is part of being a woman has been cruelly and viciously exploited. 

But before we can change the world we must change ourselves.  As a women’s movement we must recognise that we women are as different as we are the same.  We don’t all necessarily want the same things.  Equality is essentially about choice.  The choice to be yourself.  It is vital that we recognise the right of each woman to make the choices that are right for her. And we need to support each other regardless of how we personally view those choices.  Ni neart go cur le cheile

We are 51% of the population and here we are marking an International Womens Day at an event organised by the National Women’s Council of Ireland.  I hope that some day our  grand daughters and great grand daughters can laugh at the madness of such a concept.

Michael Harding finished by saying that “women have been my compass, my anchor, the ground and the completness of my universe.  As I grow older they are the warp and weft of all my spiritual hope, because it was women’s eyes that saw Christ resurrected and it was women’s voices who sang the song of it – until they were silenced. 


It is time to break our silence.  It is time for us to sing our songs, to tell our stories, to support each other and demand the changes we need to fulfil our destiny to change the world.  Our men need us as women and our grand daughters are depending on us.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

WOMEN & THEIR STORIES IN THE MOVIES

Aren’t The Oscars just gas all the same?  I watched the ‘Live on the Red Carpet’ last night until my head was literally melting from the vacuous conversation which went round and round and round.  The presenters all sing their questions, in voices that all go up at the end of the sentence.  “How are YOU?”  And most of the questions began with ‘so’.  A drawn out so.  “Soooo, who are you WEARING?”  Gas but grand for very late at night.  I had dreams of floating about in a sea of nicety and designer gowns and sparkling jewels... and pizza?  They ate pizza?  In the theatre?  What?

Anyway each year at this time we hear, once again about how there are so few meaty roles for women.  Cate Blanchette, winner of Best Female Actress in a Lead Role referenced it in her acceptance speech.  She stated that films where women are the centre are not niche.  They are movies people want to see and they make money.

Now I am not much of a movie buff.  And probably one of the reasons that I seldom go to see films is that so few interest me.  What interests me, in life, in books and in movies are the stories of people’s lives; ordinary people who may lead extraordinary lives or do extraordinary things or just ordinary people’s ordinary lives.  And in particular I love to hear the stories of other women’s lives – real or imagined.  It is this fascination with women’s lives that drives my radio show, The Hen House on Dublin South FM. 

So Cate’s comments got me thinking about my favourite movies ever and guess what?  Yep, they were all movies about women’s lives.  So – for your delectation may I present my list of some of the very best movies.... ever!

Steel Magnolias (1989). 

A bit shmaltzy but wonderful cast led by Shirley McLaine and Julia Roberts.

Fried Green Tomatoes (at the Whistle Stop Cafe) 1991

Based on the wonderful book by Fannie Flagg... a tale of intergenerational women’s friendship.  A treat.

Thelma and Louise 1991. 

Ultimate girl power, Brad Pitt as a young fella and the best ending ever.

The Help (2011)

Powerful and moving tale from the 60s in the American deep south.

Beaches (1988)

Bette Midler and Barbara Hersey combine to bring this wonderful tale of female friendship through the decades.  I cried for weeks when I first saw this movie.

Juno (2007)

Wonderful comedy about an unplanned teenage pregnancy, poignant and clever.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

I didn’t watch this when it was first released – you may be surprised to know.. But this is a charming movie.  Maggie Smith plays a revolutionary teacher in an all girls school.  It’s like Mallory Towers for grownups.   Worth a watch. If you don’t know what Mallory Towers is – ask your Ma.

Shirley Valentine (1989)

I will never tire of watching Pauline Collins play every woman I have ever known... and who doesn’t dream of how life could be way more fulfilling if you lived in the sun, near a beach.

Chocolat (2000)

Sublime, magical and with added Johnny Depp playing an Irish gypsy.  Is this my favourite.... maybe.

So gather your girlfriends and grab some wine and fall into one of these beautiful movies. 

INTERNATIONAL WOMAN’S DAY IS THIS SATURDAY, MARCH 8TH

I will be taking part in theNational Women’s Council Soap Box Event... come along if you are in Dublin City.




Thursday, February 20, 2014

MY GOOD NAME WAS DEMOLISHED TOO...

A reply to Breda O Brien’s column in The Irish Catholic 20th February 2014


I really do have some sympathy for Breda O Brien, particularly after reading her column in The Irish Catholic (published 20 February) entitled ‘My Good Name Was Demolished’.   Like Panti, I think that “the woman writing in the newspaper” is probably a very nice woman.  And I do believe Breda when she says “I have never written anything designed to hurt or harm anyone”.  I particularly feel sorry when she says that all of the publicity around the so called ‘Panti-gate’ episode has led her 15 year old daughter to ask whether they were in danger from all the vitriol.  It is sad that anyone is left feeling so vilified and vulnerable.

Breda’s latest column in The Irish Catholic outlines all of this and then goes on to explain why she is against what she calls ‘gay marriage’ and yes, it revolves around children. 

Breda says “No gay couple can bring children into their relationship without the assistance of at least one person of the opposite gender. This fundamental difference, with all the profound implications for children of being raised either without their mother, or their father, is supposed to be politely ignored so that adults can receive their ‘rights’”  She goes on to mention about online forums where those who were conceived “through gamete donation” are desperately seeking their biological identities (actually Breda refers to them seeking their siblings and parents which I am sure is offensive to many, if not all, of those who are seeking this information).

These are two completely separate debates.  I agree that all children, whether they are conceived naturally and adopted or via donated eggs and or sperm have a right to their biological information.  I believe that to be a human right.  But Breda – you admit that most parents who use donor assistance are heterosexual.  So why is this relevant to marriage equality?

And what are the ‘profound implications’ for children raised without mother or father?  Breda you must know that for decades children have been raised without two parents, usually by a lone mother who conceived the ‘natural’ way – no gametes required at all.  These women, who decided to parent alone while the biological father resumed his life with little or no interest or support for his child, had to endure the same nonsense about children needing to be parented by a mother and father.  And the tragedy Breda is that for many of us, although educated and reasonably smart, the baloney that was peddled during endless debates in the 80s and 90s about ‘unmarried mothers’ sank in.  Like you Breda – my good name was demolished and demolished regularly.  It resulted in the fact that somewhere in my subconscious there was always the feeling that I was not a good enough.  In fact, like thousands of other single mothers not only was I good enough, I was actually as good as many couples.

My eldest daughter is now a wonderful woman of 26 and I have two more daughters – teenagers, who were conceived within marriage.  I can tell you there is no difference Breda.  Children need security, love and protection and yes it is easier if there are two sets of shoulders to bear the responsibility, particularly financially.  But if there aren’t – one set can  do just fine.  But as to the gender of those shoulders – it matters not one bit. 

I am still angry that it took my daughter reaching 21 years of age for me to really believe that I had done a good job.  But the experience has given me the empathy to know how it feels to be ‘oppressed’ as Panti described it in her Nobel Call at the Abbey Theatre.  I know how it feels to be on the outside; in the minority and having my life choices questioned and my child’s future maligned.  I know where you are Breda and it’s not nice. 

Then I read the last paragraph of your column where you talk about “dissolving a child-centred institution like marriage which is designed to bond parents with biological children, and replacing it with an adult centred institution designed primarily to act as a state-sanctioned approval of romantic sexual relationships” and I get angry all over again! I get angry on behalf of single parents, of childless married couples, of celibate married couples and gay couples seeking equality. 


I am glad that the priest who married me didn’t seem to share your view Breda, as I walked up the aisle behind my then ten year old daughter.  As for ‘state sanctioned approval of romantic sexual relationships”....em., was I nuts?  I got married for love.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

GENDER DISCOMBOBULATION



I got married in October 1996 and I made a speech.  I had something to say.  And I wanted to say it publicly. 

I began by stating that although I was clearly very happy to be now married to the very nice fella beside me, I was also feeling a bit disappointed with my new title of wife.  Because being a wife meant that I was now respectable.  I had returned to the warmth and security of ‘polite society’ from the draughty corridor where I had lived for the previous ten years.  I felt a bit like a traitor and wondered how I might hold on to a little of my ‘disreputable’ status as I began married life.

My eldest daughter was born in 1987.  Three years after Anne Lovett died with her newborn infant in a freezing graveyard in Longford.  The term ‘illegitimate’ was still very much used to describe children such as my daughter.  I was a working woman of 25 but I was an ‘unmarried mother’.  And while not as scandalous as it would have been decades earlier it was still a status that made the rest of society very nervous. 

I was reminded of my awkward wedding speech last week as I listened to Panti Bliss make her eloquent Noble Call on the Abbey stage.  She spoke about the so called little things that felt oppressive.  Things like listening to TV debates where nice people debate about her and what rights she should and should not be allowed.  Things like reading newspaper columns written by a nice middle class woman arguing reasonably about how you should be treated less than everyone else.

As I listened to her I remembered.  I remember being asked, by people I knew, if I was collecting “the mickey money” for my trouble.  They thought they were making a witty, light remark.  It felt oppressive.  I had ‘friends’ who stopped inviting me to dinner because I had wandered into some kind of no man’s land of being single but not being free.  Or was it because they assumed I had some kind of less moral code than they did.  Yes, Panti, it too felt oppressive.

But as she continued her talk I realised that I was now that middle class woman in the coffee shop that Panti referenced.  The one that Panti thought just may have agreed with the nice newspaper columnist who thought gays were less equal.  Here I am buried in a nice suburb with my husband and my now respectable family.   Panti said we are all homophobic and sure how could we not be having grown up in Ireland?  Oh my God, I thought, have I forgotten what it felt like on the outside?

And yes I had forgotten.  I am now married almost twice as long as I was an ‘unmarried mother’.  But what Panti articulated so gracefully brought back vivid memories.  I also spent years listening to the reasonable middle class commentators debating about me and my likely impact on society.  And the worst part is that after a few years I subconsciously started to believe some of what they said.  Us ‘unmarried mothers’ of the 80s and 90s were told, time and time again, that we were likely to cause society to break down. We heard some of the very same rhetoric that is now being rehashed in the marriage equality debate.  The main point which was always that children need a mother and father in order to grow up right! Our single parent households were bound to produce children who would grow up to be dysfunctional at best and most likely be delinquent.  It was a huge relief and surprise to me when in a stunning moment of clarity at her 21st birthday I realised that I had done a good job and my daughter was OK.  Just like thousands of other single parents in this country.

I have had the pleasure of meeting Panti Bliss last year, when we were both on a panel on TV3’s Midday programme.  I had never met a drag queen before.  Hell, I have never been to a gay bar and until very recently I had never had a gay friend, as far as I knew anyway.  I had to check with the programme’s producer as to whether I refer to Panti as ‘her’ or ‘him’.  I was so way out of my middle class suburban comfort zone. 

This week Panti’s Noble Call has made me take a long honest look into my soul.  Am I homophobic?  More importantly are my children growing up with homophobic attitudes that they are subconsciously picking up in my home.  I certainly hope not.


But it’s not enough to say yes to marriage equality because in my view, that’s easy.  And it's straightforward.  Equality can’t come with conditions or limitations.   But are we sure we are all sitting comfortably with what Panti refers to as “gender discombobulation”?  That, that Bard might have said, is the question.