“I exited bankruptcy in July 2016 and was questioned on RTE news about what would now change. ‘Nothing’ I said and it was true at the time. If anything I was in a harder place than when the banks repossessed my home and my business collapsed six years ago. I was heart-broken and good for nothing. I wrote an article about homelessness in the Irish Times and the next day a friend offered me a cottage to rent. One year later it feels like home. My tiny cottage sits snugly in the hills overlooking the pretty village of Shillelagh. I have work in PR and as a freelance journalist. I pay my bills. I even go out to dinner on occasion. I have never been happier. My children live nearby and they are amazing young women. I get up each morning with gratitude in my heart. I have put the survival mode behind me and I am shining now. Every human being deserves to shine and this time is mine.”
Dear Management of Bray Wanderers,
I write to you today with genuine sadness, some bewilderment and above all deep embarrassment at your recent statements, press releases and actions.
The final straw was discovering that I had been personally blocked from the official Bray Wanderers Twitter Account. That action has directly forced me into responding publicly today.
Let me explain firstly who I am. I was taken on last year, in August 2016, as media liaisons officer for the club. Three years ago I had met with a Bray club think-tank headed up by prior chairman Philip Hannigan, and had submitted a proposal as a public relations consultant. Nothing came of that and so I was surprised to be approached last summer by the then chairman Denis O’Connor. We had many talks over the following weeks and finally I submitted a detailed brief of work and my services were retained.
It was a steep learning curve. I was unfamiliar with the world of soccer in general and of League of Ireland in particular. However, I found myself falling head over heels in love with the club. I became a defacto Seagulls Supporter. I met fans, old and new. I worked with sponsors. I grew to know and respect the sports media. I worked with the nominated charities to promote them. I laughed and joked with the hard working and good natured stewards on match day. I found great friendship with the grounds man and general factotum, the mascot and his children, the DJ, the tea ladies, the head of security, the FAS workers, volunteers and most people attached to the club. I met with the previous chairmen to learn from their experiences. I also discovered the gentleman that is Harry Kenny – as well as his brothers who were active in both running the U19s and supporting the club. And I really, really enjoyed meeting and interviewing the players who were polite and mannerly to a fault with all my requests.
However, some four months ago the then chairman and I had a major disagreement. I stuck to my guns – it was on a point of principle, humanity and also corporate sensitivity. As a result he swore never to speak with me again, an order repeated in person the following week by his brother, the general manager. Accordingly I worked closely with the wonderful, unsung hero Mick Duffy to continue my work which included producing weekly media briefings, weekly digital newsletters, ongoing media relations and match day programmes. It was a strange time but I persevered.
More recently in June I attended official FAI training along with the other media officers from the Premier Division. I learnt vast amounts and enjoyed meeting my fellow media officers. As the workshop emphasised – we may all be competitors on the field but we can cooperate and help each other off the field.
Then the week of the Dundalk match (June 30th) I received communications from the chairman again, after a three month period of silence. I was asked to report back from the FAI workshop and there followed a barrage of nearly 20 emails in less than 24 hours badgering me as to what I personally was going to do about the gate. These aggressive emails were copied to all management in the club. I replied (repeatedly) that my role was media relations and not commercial, however I said that I would research the matter further.
Moreover, the final order from the chairman in this upsetting email chain was that I was not on any account to go near the press box at the Dundalk match on Friday night nor was I to speak with any member of the press.
I confess I did not follow that order. Every home match I meet with a local journalist in a personal capacity and assist him by carrying his laptop to the press box. I did this at the Dundalk match as normal. However, seconds after my returning to my usual match viewing position outside the club shop I was accosted by the general manager. In front of witnesses he shouted at me, inches from my face, that on no account was I to visit the press box again as ‘things were happening’, ‘things that were nothing to do with me.’ The following week my services were no longer required.
We all know the ‘things’ that happened afterwards. The half time press release, the recorded RTE interview, the players being told to go, the players being told they could not go, the investment promised, the investment not appearing, the FAI not getting involved, the PFAI getting involved, the players attempting to be available for transfer and the resignation of the chairman.
Then the two last press releases were issued that captured the attention of not only League of Ireland fans, but people across the country and indeed has garnered interest on an international scale – and not in a good way.
Although I must say there was some very fine humour on social media as a result, overall the response was one of astonishment, ridicule, hurt and upset.
The reason therefore for my writing this open letter was fostered in my treatment up to my being let go and my subsequent blocking from Bray on social media. I understand, although this has not been officially communicated to me, that complaints have also been made to the FAI about my sharing the subsequent social media. #WeAreNorthKorea
The reason for my writing this letter is that, as a PR professional retained by the club, had I been allowed to do my job, this painful month of communications would not have got past the thought stage. We would not have become the laughing stock of the League of Ireland and beyond.
The reason for writing this letter is for the many fans who have been let down.
The reason for writing this letter is for Harry, his management team and the players. They had no choice in the content of the press releases. They had no part in the games being played off the field. They had no choice even in being able to confirm that their jobs were safe. How could they play football in such horrible conditions?
The reason for writing this letter is to express the opinion that just because the management of Bray Wanderers could release such statements, does not mean that they should.
Without social media these ridiculous and rambling notions would not have seen the light of day. No journalist worth his or her salt would have reprinted them in their news outlet. Without social media, this would not have happened.
Just because Donald Trump chooses to tweet fake news and incendiary comments via Twitter does not mean League of Ireland clubs should follow suit.
Where is the dignity? Where is the respect for the Fans? Where is the respect for the Manager? Where is the respect for the Players?
For the love of League of Ireland would such statements be abolished and forbidden in future club communication or clubs risk having their licences revoked for untrustworthy, hate-speak and irresponsible communications.
All clubs should sign up to publish only truthful and accurate reporting. We should not condone ‘trash talk’ in the League. In fact, we should not tolerate what looks like the drunken rants of an unhinged and vindictive person or persons unknown.
We can all learn from mistakes. Let the lessons learnt from this catalogue of fiascos be that clubs should not have the right to publish anything they want. Let there be a code of ethics, a filter if you will, on what clubs may report on.
Today, the target has been the fans, the local councillors, the general naysayers. Tomorrow the target may be minorities, the vulnerable and even individuals. Cyber bullying is well documented. This should not be condoned in the League of Ireland.
I ask Bray Management to desist from any further intemperate, crazed and hate-filled rhetoric
I call upon the FAI to enshrine in its licence a code of ethics on club communication – with appropriate sanctions when clubs step out of line.
A Seagulls Fan
Please find enclosed my detailed job description. It was unfortunate I was not allowed to fulfil the final skill set. The irony is not lost on me.
- Media Liaison Officer
Point of contact for key media relations in particular East Coast FM and local papers. Meetings with local media to confirm content and frequency of updates. Ensuring content is provided on a timely basis such as schedules, changes to same, regular radio appearances, news and other information. Contact with wider media as a backup to current Club contacts.
- Content Generator
Content and news generator for all non-mainstream sports updates. Content includes player news, family days, mascot updates and any activities. Generation of content to final signoff from the club. Provision of photography where appropriate also.
- Community Liaison PR Officer
Linking with Community to provide promotion of local events, including activities such as Halloween, family days and other local promotions.
- Team Promotion
Working with key players / management to build awareness of players and their personalities. Developing content for use in the programme, on the Facebook, website and with the media.
- Schools Programme PR
Working with Dermot and the schools’ programme to ensure promotion of educational activities.
Once lists are managed and divided then I can set up newsletters for the different stakeholders. Currently these are season ticket holders, general fans and junior supporters. Once we look at the different target audiences we can decide if the newsletters need to be separate or can be combined – either way content can be shared across audiences.
- Crisis Management
Advice on managing difficult or tricky situations – providing clean media statements where required and handling media resolutions
First published in the Irish Independent on March 31
Earlier this month I attended a theatrical performance in the Courthouse Art Centre in Tinahely in County Wicklow. There were two short monologues, both performed by Cora Fenton, co founder of Call Back Theatre. The second piece was called Bonfire Night. It was narrated by a middle aged woman with a history of disappointments and left to care for her elderly father. It was bonfire night and she was heading out. Oh, and she had a gun. The monologue riffed backwards and forwards through her life but always seemed to come back to the gun.
It was very much Chekhov’s gun and we all knew it was going to be used. However, when the moment came it was totally unexpected and the audience reacted with a collective intake of breath.
The Courthouse is a tiny centre and sadly, due to clash with another drama festival in Wicklow, there were only ten people in the entire audience. So as to show solidarity with the actor I insisted to my friend and fellow writer that we sit in the front row. We were two feet from the actor.
That level of intimacy is very powerful. It is hard to know where the actor finished and I began. I noticed she directed a lot of her dialogue to my male friend. And every so often she would make eye contact with me – but it was still as though we were separated by Perspex with her on stage and me on my front row chair.
Last week we were all given a glimpse into theatrical nature of reality on BBC World News when Korean expert Robert E Kelly was live broadcasting a segment. Just as he began his report first one child opened the door behind him to gatecrash his broadcast, swiftly followed by another, amusingly twirling around in a baby walker like a lost car from a carnival waltzer. The two children were then quickly followed by a woman who scooped both up, but from a crouching position apparently to avoid the camera, but in fact making the spectacle look even weirder. Kelly glanced back once but continued talking, putting out his hand to push his toddler out of view.
The internet, that other arbitrator of what is real, went a bit mad. Who was the woman? A nanny or wife? It turned out to be his wife. A number of copycat memes appeared next, the funniest being that of a woman in Kelly’s place but when interrupted by her children she manages to bounce them on her lap, check the Sunday roast, find odd socks and even detonate a bomb without missing a beat. The interest ended up with Kelly giving a press conference with his family. He acknowledged sadly that this video will probably be the opening line in his obituary and yes, he was wearing pants (the most asked question after if the woman was his wife or nanny).
This is not new of course, except in the way the internet pounces on its soft prey. Back in 1977 Angela Rippon, one of the first female BBC newscasters, caused a sensation when she joined Morecambe and Wise in a show. The scene began harmlessly enough, with Angela reading the news, before she pushed aside the desk, flashing her dancer legs and embarking on a routine that gave her enough credit to present Strictly Come Dancing.
Even the American Eagle from The Muppets knows news is an illusion. He gave a serious news broadcast in which he bemoaned that animals, and even birds, were shockingly naked under their fur and feathers. The scene closes with the Eagle realising it applied to him also and he slinks out of camera clutching his wings on the bits that might be exposed.
We all know the broadcasting is a form of entertainment, even when news is the diet, but we suspend belief when it is presenting in a formal setting. Kelly is a dad and husband working abroad and using Skype to present his reports. We don’t want to know he has a young family and we all hope he is wearing pants.
Maybe that is why Trump’s tweets are so disconcerting. It is not just the juxtaposition of serious policy with pure Hollywood entertainment, it is the timing. Trump often posts some of his more outrageous claims and taunts at silly o’clock in the morning. It is hard to see him at a desk making those tweets. It is much more likely he is standing in the kitchen, perhaps at the open fridge, perhaps in his non-existent dressing gown. But if Spicer is right then at 5am he may only be wearing a teeshirt or just his underwear. Or perhaps nothing at all. We don’t like to get our information from naked people, especially not the President of the United States of America. Put some clothes on for goodness sake, Sir.
The lines blur all the time but should we cross them? Prior to attending the theatre on March 10th I prepared a dish of what mostly consisted of garlic. To my ruination the fact was forcibly making itself clear during the performance. During the delivery of Bonfire Night and leading, had I but known it, to the black humorous denouement of the play, I reached forward and picked up my handbag. I slowly and quietly opened the zip and searched blindly for some chewing gum. Successfully I found my prize, extracted a pellet and stopped fouling the air with my garlic. I was still two foot from my actor and my gaze never left her face.
Afterwards in the pub the actor stopped to speak with us. She looked at me and remarked that I was in the front row. I confirmed that I was. Then she looked at me harshly.
She had been convinced, by my lifting my bag onto my lap, that I was about to leave the theatre. Operating as we were on a ten man audience my supposed departure would have been tragic. Even as she acted her role in front of me, inside she was screaming at me not leave, to wait for the killer line.
When reality punctures the mask of self-projection, the best we can ask for is to be wearing pants. I just hope the President is. Or at least he has read Tweet Naked by Scott Levy https://www.amazon.com/Tweet-Naked-Bare-All-Strategy-Boosting/dp/1599185156/
First published in the Irish Independent 09/10/2016
I am now the proud possessor of a hammer. A proper hammer, and I have used it a goodly number of times. About 20 times so far. To hang pictures. On the walls of the house where I rent.
A little over a month ago, I did not have walls to rent. I had exited my old house, rented for the past 10 years, where I had lived with my two daughters and our animals.
I had exited our house as the lease had been terminated. There was no trouble, just the owner wanted her house back. I searched Wicklow high and low for alternative rental accommodation but nothing was to hand.
As the months rushed together, I found myself getting more and more frantic. I looked at caravans, thinking I might buy one at the end of the summer. But like time shares, caravans should never be bought in warm months. Fortunately, the ones I viewed were so shabby as to be unattractive even in the heat, which was one positive consequence of a modest budget.
I planted my daughters in a cottage, found at the eleventh hour. A friend offered to rent me a bedroom and at the grand old age of 51, I went couch surfing. I had tried to embrace the new me, the new rental-continental me, and now the trendy couch-surfing me. But I was failing miserably.
I went each day to Lawless Hotel in Aughrim and plugged myself into the net. I pestered those patient staff with gentle requests to reset the modem when the internet went down. I drank endless cups of tea and sometimes, when budget allowed, bought lunch as well. I hid myself in a corner and did my best to ignore the busy rural trade plied in front of me.
I resigned myself to several months of stealing internet while I tried to set up my business again. It stuck me forcibly that having no fixed abode made it very hard to be upbeat and win business. I chatted on the phone and joked about my incipient alcoholism should I continue to have to work out of bars with internet. It was tough going.
But back to the hammer. In the middle of all this angst, I got a message from a friend. He had heard about my latest predicament (and there have been quite a few) and got in touch to say he had a cottage to rent. I saw the cottage the next day and moved in the following weekend.
Since that time, I have thrown all notions of minimalism out the window. I have rejected the clean interior designs beloved by the very cool. Instead, I have embraced my inner clutter goddess and have been nesting with an enthusiasm that is religious in its zealotry.
I realise that I had not bought one thing for the house I rented for the previous 10 years. After losing my original home to the banks, I had been coasting. I lived in the house but it was not a home, not in the material sense. I thought I was ‘over’ possessions. I had them all taken from me, or I had sold them or I had lost them – and I no longer cared.
Now, in my little unexpected dreamboat of a house I can only see my possessions, which are growing daily. I have raided all the charity shops in a 50-mile radius. I buy things, small things, clutter, knick- knacks, bric-a-brac, and bring them home to my little house. I place them on small tables, on window sills, and I hang pictures on the walls. With my little hammer.
I have never been so given over to materialism. It matters not one whit that my budget is modest and my target shops are charitable ones. Last week, I was trying on a skirt in a Saint Vincent de Paul shop in Tinahely. In the make-shift dressing room, I spotted a tangle of coloured glass. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a pendant lamp shade.
It was intended for use in the shop but the kind attendant sold it to me for a fiver. I brought it home and hung it in my bedroom. And then I turned on the light. The bling is terrific. The ceiling and walls of my bedroom are littered with shards of coloured light.
I, who once had crystal chandeliers, am riveted by my coloured glass. I rush guests up to my bedroom and turn on the display. I am prouder than a circus master of my precious find.
I am the same for every stick of furniture in the house, every trinket I purchase and every plant I buy. I walk around my home and talk to the contents. I thank them for their use or their beauty and sometimes both. It is like a veneer of pixie dust is covering the entire house. I never knew that I had missed feeling at home so much and having now arrived at home, I am so happy.
Facing homelessness for the second time, Jillian Godsil explores how this social issue has become a middle-class problem
I’m trying to think of a word to sum up how I feel. I think there must be one out there but I can’t put my finger on it. I know what it feels like, a funny ache that lives mostly in the pit of my belly but sometimes it crawls up to lodge in the back of my throat.
I am homeless, for the second time in my adult life, and – though each person’s situation is unique and many are worse than mine – I am part of the great sickening statistic that haunts this land.
The first time I became homeless, the banks repossessed my fine home and sold it for a pittance. There were so many wrongs I hardly know where to start.
But I was stoic then. Gracious almost. Leavetaking suited me, liberated me or so I told myself. I embraced the continental way of living. Let us rent instead. I threw the words out carelessly as if they cost me nothing. I was a new woman to whom possessions were as naught. It is easy to be flippant about possessions when none are left.
I swaggered around as if being divested of things was easy. But this was a façade, and I was dreadfully hurt by the absence of things – notably my security. And more notably still, my children’s security.
Here you may want to stop me, to rail against me and deliver a lecture. Like a pregnant woman who gathers advice thick and fast from well-meaning, if censorious, others, a woman re-entering the state of homelessness tends to get lectured.
The first time I lost my home it happened in a flurry of newspaper clippings. I was among the first to have a home repossessed by the banks. Not the first but a public first (I was in the already in the public eye after I had tried to sell the house on YouTube). As the eviction unfolded, I felt the weight of injustice push down on me from all sides, and I welcomed the media spotlight upon my situation.
Now I am facing into the maelstrom of homelessness again. I am not alone. There are hundreds of families being evicted every month and moving into emergency accommodation. Tens of thousands more sit on the social housing list. For every vocal Erica Fleming, who told her story of homelessness and single motherhood through RTÉ and other media, there are hundreds of silent witnesses.
This time I am lacking any of the securities I felt before. There’s no sense of karma. I smile in all the right places, laugh as loud as the next person and perform daily tasks with astonishing ease. There, look, I am dressed and functioning. Offering words and busily attending to matters.
Last August we were told we must leave. Plenty of time to find a little cottage and a few acres you’d think. But then perhaps you have not been listening to the news or reading the papers.
The freight train of our own personal eviction notice has paid no attention to months, weeks and days in its relentless pursuit of its deadline. It has slammed through all time, steel wheels slicing through our emotive pleas for clemency.
God’s grace descended on us at the final hour but it separated us too. I managed to find my children, now young adults, lodgings in a pretty cottage with just three rooms. There they have sequestered themselves with their belongings and dog and cat. They are creating a new home and I am proud of their independence while all the time there is a tearing in my belly at our forced, untimely separation.
I am residing in a friend’s house. I call it “couch surfing” to sound modern. I am surrounded on all sides by boxes and rails and the sad paraphernalia of a rented life; nothing more sturdy than a chair or lamp. This is temporary: even friendship has an expiry date when accompanied by suitcases.
I wake up this morning, my first morning in my current lodging and look around at my life. To cheer myself up, I am calling it an adventure. This morning I have a new, if temporary, view outside my bedroom window. I am surrounded by fields in turn populated by horses, cows and sheep. It is very peaceful and pastoral.
I’m sure homeless people all over Ireland are trying to convince themselves or their chlidren that their situation is not as awful as it feels. But I do it anyway.
First published in the Irish Independent on May 18, 2016
We are a nation of lost souls. We have swapped the security blanket of religion for the cold harsh light of truth. We wander like bewildered two-year-olds lost in a grocery store. What began like a moment of freedom has swiftly translated into a terrifying ordeal. We have three choices: stay out in the cold, embrace it even; return to our mother’s arms and the refuge that lies within. Or we can seek new truths, new comforts.
In February I was invited to speak at my alma mater in a competition debate. This was a bolt from the blue.
Thirty years ago I was an undergraduate in Trinity College Dublin. I read History and English, joint honours, and majored in the former. I joined various societies and clubs, but the one that possessed me the most was the College Historical Society, or the oldest college debating society in the world.
I joined the HIST as it is called and sat through many nights of debates, where the cut and thrust of speakers was thrilling. Parliamentary procedure was followed, with rules and bells and points of information from the floor. Imagine my subsequent disappointment when I first watched televised debates in the real parliamentary chamber in Dail Eireann – the speeches were nothing like the wonderful robust displays I remembered from my college days. Politicians can disappoint is so many ways.
I became a committee member and from there an officer. I debated a little but preferred to witness rather than contribute directly, so I was very surprised to be invited back to speak in a competition last week.
It was the occasion of the honorary members’ debate. I was indeed an honorary member, or hon mems as we are termed, but I had not set foot back in the chamber since I graduated. Even as an HIST officer I had never debated in an actual competition and now I could barely remember the correct way to open my paper. A quick run through the names speaking did nothing to allay my fears. Everyone else held a medal for debating, most of them were now professors or barristers and there was even a Supreme Court judge part of the adjudicators.
To make matters worse I was a TBC on the speaking order until the week of the debate.
I was allotted a debating partner, a former auditor, medallist and winner of several debating championships. I wondered what he had done to vex the committee to be paired with me. He did not know the answer to this either but was gracious enough to advise me on what to expect.
I had three days to figure out my speech. As part of my preparation, I had my hair cut and took extra care with my makeup. It was a black tie affair and I thought at least if I looked the part…such are the desperate stratagems of a middle-aged hon mem.
I was up second, presenting the opposition motion. I rose, I spoke and I died. I sadly did not debate. I finished too soon. I quietly gave up my arguments with all the vigour of a retired Sunday school teacher. When I finished there was polite applause. Then I had to sit through the next ten debaters, blushing as I compared my offering to the subsequent polished contributions.
Afterwards I considered my attempt. I knew I could do better. While not a debater, I was also not such a wall flower. I put my request to the Record Secretary, the person responsible for inviting me in the first place. There was a another debate planned before term was over, this time on women’s role in fiction, and as I had written erotica, he felt I might something worthwhile to say.
I wrote to the Auditor and expressed my interest in returning to the scene of the crime. Her reply was classic – She thought my contribution would be most interesting as I was an INTERSEX.
This stumped me. This threw me. I puzzled over her email for hours.
My first thought was my desperate stratagem of looking good had been too good and somehow I had managed to slip into drag queen territory.
My second thought was that I had a good friend who is indeed Intersex (and probably unique in Europe)and maybe they had confused us.
My third thought was that I really only going to be invited back if I was very different and I had struck out again.
I wrote sadly to the Auditor saying I was boringly female, mother to two children and not even lesbian. I waited for her reply.
When it came I laughed out loud for a long time. Predictive text was responsible and far from thinking I was an Intersex, she thought I was interesting. So now my only question is should I go for the drag queen look or au natural.
The jury is still out!
— Jillian Godsil (@jilliangodsil) March 11, 2016
— The Hist (@TheHist) March 11, 2016
— Jean Callanan (@JeanCallanan) March 11, 2016
You can decide if I improved or not…
Don Mullan, author, humanitarian and Christmas Truce ambassador, stood in front of two graves in Messines, Belgium. On the left was Private T Delaney of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who died on Christmas Eve 1914 and on the right, was Private M Murphy of the same division who died on December 30th. It was a charged and emotional moment as he spoke of the 1914 Christmas Truce. That first Christmas in the war that was to end all wars and had already broken another promise of being over by Christmas. The gap in the dates on the two gravestones indicated that the truce, or at least the death toll, had temporarily stretched for five days. In a war that killed 13,000 men a day, this was a significant easement. Mullan said if the dead solders could talk, they would exhort the living to live, live, live. We, the Waterford Omagh Peace Choir, sang Red is the Rose with difficulty. Everyone was obviously and visibly upset, especially the very youngest members, and we struggled through the verses. This moment had been four years in the planning and the choir carried its emotion in the song.
The 1914 Christmas Truce is well documented at this stage. It is said a young German tenor sang Silent Night or Stille Nacht, prompting the Allies soliders to sing carols in return. Tentatively, solders from each side emerged from the trenches and exchanged cigarettes and brandy. They showed the ‘enemy’ pictures of their loved ones. They played a game of football with the Germans winning 3-2. It is one of the more extraordinary and poignant stories to emerge from the senseless slaughter of millions, 18million to be more accurate, before the carnage finished.
It had been intended that Jeffrey Donaldson and Martin McGuiness would accompany the choir but the talks breaking down in Stormont had put paid to that plan. Instead, Brenda Hale, MLA, joined the 40-strong choir on our trip. Her story moved us deeply. Her husband had been an officer in the British Army, but had been killed fighting in Afghanistan five years ago. Her profound dignity and sorrow touched us on a very personal level. She spoke movingly of the sacrifice her family had paid for the price of democracy. In Brenda we could see the human cost to war, any war.
The choir itself had been founded out of war and the Omagh bombing in 1998 when Phil Brennan, musician and writer based in Waterford, reached across the divide to use music to heal. Over the years the choir had grown to encompass singers from Tullow, Wicklow, Gorey, and even Clare when renowned tenor Jerry Lynch brought his haunting version of A Silent Night to the mix. The choir had been singing this concert for the past four years and finally had arrived in Messines to give the ultimate Christmas Truce concert.
Messines is the smallest city in Belgium and suffered horrendously during World War 1. The entire city was raised to the ground, with only the crypt of St Niklaas church remaining. During the war, the crypt was used as a medical space and a young Bavarian officer was treated for gas inhalation there. He felt it was dishonourable to greet the enemy that Christmas day. His name? Adolf Hitler. The choir visited the crypt and its cold felt even more oppressive with this story. We sang Silent Night in the chill air as if to stem the horror of the memory.
Messines is significant for Ireland as two Irish Divisions fought side by side in the battle of Messines Ridge in 1917. Catholic and Protestant from the 36 Ulster Division and the 16 Irish Division fought together and suffered terrible losses. Indeed, three old boys from my Dublin school, The High School, perished on that very battle field: Corporal William Francis, Captain George Porter and Captain Charles Alexander. There are links everywhere that cannot be severed or ignored. In 1998, ironically the same year as the Omagh Bombing, The Island of Ireland Peace Park was unveiled. The park was built by young people from Ireland to commemorate the Irish soldiers, north and south, who perished during World War I. We visited this beautiful and simple park with its stunning round tower – the slit windows that only light the interior on the date of the Armistice – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. There we formally changed the name of our choir from Waterford Omagh Peace Choir to the Island of Ireland Peace Choir in the presence of the Mayor of Messines.
Afterwards we travelled to St Matthew’s church to give our concert. We sang from our hearts, the memory of the graves of the solders still in our thoughts and none more so that the tragically engraved stones for unknown solders bearing the inscription – A Soldier of the Great War – known onto God.
I met a new friend last year. He once had a good job in the private sector but fell into trouble, lost his job and put his home in jeopardy. His new found interest in debt propelled him into a filmic project to talk about the impact of financial ruin on individuals. He asked me, as the then poster girl for debt, to talk about my experiences. And he said something that had a huge impact on me. His words went as follows – I used to be an asshole but I’m okay now. I didn’t have to ask him to explain. As someone who had crossed over to the other side of the debt fence, I knew exactly what he meant. Applying the pejorative noun to myself, it wasn’t that I had literally been such an insensitive person, but I little knew the privations of everyday poverty while still gainfully employed. And that is the kind of privation that wears you down. It’s not the big things, although God knows that can be tough too, but the financial destitution that leaves you with no money in your wallet at the end of the week, or even worse, nearer the start, is the kind of soul destroying existence that breaks you down. And it is not until you cross that line that you can even begin to comprehend the fragility of your soul. An extra egg for your tea may not have added a gloss to your soul, but staring at the empty cup can pare it away, sliver by tiny sliver.
To be honest, I am good without possessions. I have to be since I have either lost them, was dispossessed of them or in happier moments, managed to flog them. I am, however, in possession of a very fine collection of shoes, all costing in the range of €10, in the size of 8 and with tottering high heels. I may never wear the half of them as they gather dust on my book shelves (where else would rogue shoes retire to) but they served a purpose over the recent years as my buying powers diminished to the point of necessity. Shoes are never a necessity, not matter what the infamous Mrs Marcos may have argued. My dust laden bargains sing to me still. It was my own swan song of commercialism.
So having established my impecunious state, let me try and tell you what it feels like to be the part of the new class, the genteel poor. This is where the coping classes meet the severely downtrodden and out-of-all-luck classes. It is akin to ironing the front of your shirt, but leaving the remaining, and unseen cloth, creased. I thought it was only a passing phase, one to be shaken off with a new job offer and reinstatement of financial comfort. They say it is better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all, but I might argue it is easier never to have to have loved. It’s the losing that is the trouble, the chink too wide that fosters the loss of self.
The first I knew of my new genteel state was the change in grocery shopping. Not only was the weekly filled-to-the-brim basket a distant memory, my choice of shops and what I bought altered fundamentally. Once, at the start of my slide into genteel poverty, I arrived at a till with insufficient cash to pay for my food. I had to leave the trolley, grunting ‘I’d be back’ in a poor Arnie imitation. I was, once I recovered my rainy-day notes hidden down the back of the sofa, but not without embarrassing my teenage daughter to the point of mortification. I didn’t like to tell her, but it was to get worse. I began shopping in the different discount stores to create a full shop. I stopped buying anything in bulk, including obvious items such as toilet rolls. I literally didn’t have the money to purchase more than a week’s supply. So any possible bargains that I might have availed of, as a broke person, were beyond my means. The irony was not lost on me. They say that people waste as much as a quarter of the food they buy, having to dump it uneaten. I would argue that mostly happens in households where food is bought in bulk. When you buy vegetables for the week, they are unlikely to be chucked out. Our portion size goes down too. When I purchase those popular ‘three for a tenner’ deals in one of our homegrown multiples and where the fish portions are calculated on the basis of leprechaun appetites, we manage to divide the two tiny fillets between three. It can be very tasty but I did not expect nouveau cuisine to be so popular in Ireland in 2014.
Then there is the discount shelf in the more expensive multiples. There is a technique to purchasing off the discount shelf as the actual shelf is tiny – a bare two feet wide and two unrelated shoppers would find it difficult to stand shoulder to shoulder and view the items. A gradual crawl around the aisle is first needed to make sure no one else is looking at the food on offer. If someone is already there, then a detour to another aisle is necessary until you can get in line. Once there, you can view the very mixed range of food stuffs – from meat to fish to funny cast-offs – which are labelled with their mark down.
On one occasion, my daughters and I saw steak on the shelf but it was not marked down. We hesitated. Then I decided to be a grownup about the situation. I grabbed the package and marched over to the butcher’s counter. A sign said that Mike was on duty, but he wasn’t. It was Tony or something similar. He looked at me and then at the steak before informing me that particular steak didn’t get marked down until 4pm – which was about forty minutes from that time. I wanted to remonstrate with him about responsible and accurate price marking and what would have happened had I tried to pay for it before 4pm. Even as I felt the familiar indignation wind up in my brain about such poor labelling, I deflated it immediately. It would have been hard to take the high moral ground when looking for discounted foods. I thanked him, returned the meat to the shelf and left without buying it. Outside in the car, I started to cry but my girls just laughed, not unkindly, at me. They loved getting a bargain, they said. I loved getting a bargain, they reminded me. But all I could think was while I loved getting a bargain, I hated being reliant on one.
The necessity continues with that other staple of country life, the car. I am now the proud possessor of a thirteen year old Opel Corsa which is very cheap to run. And the annual car tax is only €180 – so how come I could only afford to tax it for six months? It is the same with my petrol consumption. Do you realise that the optimum speed to run a car of that age and make is at 40 mph? Well, if you are ever stuck behind me on a country road or overtake me on the motorway, you’ll know the reason why.
Welcome to the brave new world!
This article first ran in the Sunday Independent on Sunday 30 November, 2014
It is wonderful to see mental health issues being talked about in the open. Last week on television, footballing brothers, Ian and Gary Kinsela, launched 32countyjerseys in memory of their brother Jonathan and in aid of Pieta House. Another Dublin footballer Paul Flynn said talking about mental health was pivotal to dealing with it. If he had a hamstring injury he would go to the doctor, so why not a mental issue?
This is a huge step forward. The TV3 interviewer Aidan Cooney, being a man of a certain age, said that talking about mental health was very much frowned upon when he was growing up. No one would dare say they felt under the weather or needed a hug. It could be misconstrued in a number of ways, and none of them were welcome.
A couple of years ago, I was involved with a Twitter-based initiative called #Depressionhurts run by the admirable Norah Boran and Alan Lavender and through the programme people shared their stories of mental health issues. It was the first time I came across the term ‘the black dog’ which has since become a keystone in describing depression. I remember vividly one man wrote about the randomness of the black dog, how it might appear and stay for a long time before it went. How no amount of being told ‘to pull himself together’ would have any impact whatsoever on his condition. It was an insight into another world and I am very grateful for the chance to understand. I also believe that as we talk more about mental health issues that the shame and fear associated with identifying them and treating them lessens. It is all about coming out – it is hard for shame to thrive in the daylight.
This week too sees the launch of a very popular, annual men’s rowing calendar in the UK. The Warwick Rowers calendar is a bit of a byword for male eye candy; a male version of the Pirelli bathing suit calendar. Only these rowers don’t wear any clothes at all. They are naked. The first calendar was published in 2009 and the purpose is twofold. The first is to raise awareness of homophobia. This year’s centrefold is quoted as saying through the experience he had met many people of the LGBT community and was honoured to be part of the calendar. The second purpose is to raise money for Sport Allies, a charity aimed at ending discrimination and bullying of homosexuals in the sporting world.
Normalisation of sexual orientation is to be welcomed. If young people can see role models embracing diversity, especially the Warwick rowers, then the accompanying shame and bullying can be overcome. Coming out and overcoming shame, especially if you are not gay, is brilliant.
Shame can be a force for good – if the actions are worthy of shame. Last month an unrepentant Rolf Harris mocked his victims by showing none. But shame applied unjustly can be much more damaging. The shame applied to mental health issues or to homosexuality for example. Or what about the shame applied to debt?
It is estimated some 300,000 households are in mortgage arrears right now. People brave enough to put their head above the parapet and confess their inability to repay their debt are routinely called greedy. Or in more extreme cases accused of not paying their debts on purpose; which is a form of inverted thieving. As a bankrupt I get a lot of reactions to my condition. One woman, a very well-meaning woman, told me that she was brought up to pay her debts. It was only as I travelled home the enormity of what she had said struck me. She was putting me, and the other 300,000 non performing mortgage holders, into the same boat. We were now people who had been brought up not to pay out debts. How had the moral compass moved not only for me, but for the other 300,000 people in arrears? Had we all somehow morphed into artful dodgers?
The answer is of course that our moral convictions had not changed. We had not somehow put aside the tenets of honesty, truthfulness and responsibility. If one person catches a cold, it may be considered unfortunate, if an entire village is laid low, then it can be called a plague. This is a global financial endemic where banks have become too big to fail and where bank debt is socialised but profits still retained internally. The financial system is broken and history will write a very different account than the current peddling in popular journals.
The shame heaped onto people in debt is misapplied. Debt happens. And then sometimes it happens so much that the person cannot repay it. Fact. It is also a fact that ordinary people will lose things if they cannot repay their debt – their homes, possession and income. But they should not also lose their health and their self-esteem. If you are rich and become bankrupt, the unjust system means you hang on to your lifestyle. If you are ordinary and in debt, you can lose it all. But not your self-esteem please. It is only money after all. Let’s shine a light on shame and with whatever money we have left, let’s all buy the 2015 Warwick Rowers Calendar.