Life in Direct Provision Centres

Ireland’s system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers was only ever meant to be temporary in the lives of the people who are housed within it but many people find themselves trapped there for years. Twenty years after its inception, the Irish Times is running an informative series of articles about Direct Provision. The series comes against a backdrop of recent arson attacks on hotels that were scheduled to house asylum seekers in Donegal and Roscommon and protests against DP centres being set up in Oughterard and on Achill Island.  Some of those protests are against the system itself, which is seen as inhumane, damaging and counterproductive but some are simply against asylum seekers moving into new areas.  Meanwhile, other parts of the country have welcomed the new arrivals. While the debates rage on, I interviewed Donnah Vuma, who is originally from Zimbabwe.  Donnah won the Clare Woman of the Year award in 2017 for her work in raising awareness of the effects of living in DP for extended periods of time and reaching out to local groups for friendship.  A member of MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, she has been involved with Now We’re Cooking (with Rev. Vicki Lynch) and set up the Every Child is Your Child community group in Limerick.

Donnah is currently studying for a joint honours degree in Politics and International Relations with Sociology, having won a scholarship on the University of Limerick Place of Sanctuary programme (UL is a University of Sanctuary).  She took part in a recent “Writing Human Rights” panel at the Red Line Book Festival run by South Dublin County Council in October,  which also featured contributors to the Front Line Defenders and Fighting Words’ book Yes, We Still Drink Coffee! available from Fighting Words.

How does living in DP affect family life?

 Living in direct provision has a huge impact on family life. Families are often forced to share a single room meaning that there is no privacy between children and parents, this can easily affect the mental health of all individuals and causes a lot of frustration. Because most centres are not self-catering, it means that families are not able to prepare their own meals, or actually sit down and have a meal together. Families are not able to observe or practice family traditions or elements of their culture due to limitations such as space. Parents don’t have the opportunity to transfer important life skills to their children, simple tasks such as being able to clean home, cook or do laundry.

Could you talk about the reality of living on €38.80 per week?

It is an almost impossible task. Every single task, need and want has to be set out on a list in order of priority. It’s very difficult as new items are constantly popping up. You have to try and save up for emergencies that may arise from that €38.80. You can’t afford to even take the kids out to something like a movie or dinner. It’s especially difficult during the holiday seasons when there is so much going on, the children have an expectation that they will be getting the same things or similar to their peers, it’s so hard to often have to explain to them that you cannot afford it or why you cannot afford it. At times holidays just go by and you do your best to ignore them and not even expose the children to them by keeping them in the centre and not visiting town for example. Having daughters adds extra pressure, there are items you cannot compromise on, sanitary products, laundry products, toiletry items, that all has to come out of that allowance. You still have to consider getting lunch pack items for the week – if you have school going aged children (I have 3), the bills just pile up.

In September, Leo Varadkar was widely quoted as saying that Direct Provision is not compulsory. Has that been your experience?

I feel that it is very irresponsible for them to keep referring to DP as voluntary. When you arrive in Ireland seeking refugee there are certain things that happen that have to be kept in mind:

  1. You have to give up all identity documents upon entry into the country.
  2. You probably have no friends or relatives in the country
  3. You do not have the right to work
  4. You have no entitlement to any social welfare payment, Housing assistance payments, rental allowance etc, you only get the €38.80 per week allowance.

Therefore, it is actually impossible to be able to live independently. Once you get the work permit, it is only valid for 6 months at a time, renewable depending on the progress of your protection application. It would not make any sense for a person to move out of DP for the duration of employment (which is usually 6 months because of the permit) only to apply to go back into the system once employment ceases.

You have succeeded in making a life outside the Direct Provision system or maybe I should say in parallel with it – you are a student at UL, you’re an active member of MASI, you set up your own community group, Every Child is Your Child. How did you achieve so much? Was it difficult?

This hasn’t come easy at all. It has been a result of unnecessary resilience and resistance. My biggest motivation for making it to this point has been my children. I have not had the opportunity to “not do anything” because I feel like I have to be a positive role model for them. I have always engaged in voluntary work and education, through that involvement I have made many friends and connections that I have been able to call on in times of need or in search of opportunities. ECIYC was set up through experiencing financial challenges, specifically school-associated costs. I had seen other parents going through the same challenges and felt that we needed to find a way to come up with temporary solutions, hence ECIYC was born. I was one of the 1st students awarded the University of Sanctuary scholarship when it was set up in UL, really great moment in my life as I had tried to enrol into third level education before. I was expected to pay non EU fees which would have been impossible for me. I think all these achievements have been results of building good relationships within the community and proving that one can be an asset if and when given the opportunity. It was also a way to show that although most people come here seeking refuge, they don’t leave their skills, hopes and dreams and aspirations behind. We bring the expertise and knowledge with us, all we really need is the platform to be able to showcase those skills and be able to make positive contributions to the community.

If you could change only one thing about Direct Provision, what would it be?

I wouldn’t reform DP at all, I would want to see the system totally abolished. Reception centres, which are absolutely necessary, should be run on a not-for-profit basis, should respect the rights of the individual and most importantly have vulnerability assessment mechanisms in place.

Given current crisis levels of homelessness in Ireland, can you see a workable alternative to Direct Provision?

Very easy, give people a meaningful right to work with no restrictions. Once people are allowed to access the labour market fully, they will be able to provide adequately for their needs and for those of their families. No one would prefer to live in Direct Provision if they could afford to sustain themselves.

It makes better financial/economic sense to give people access to rent-allowance schemes or HAP than paying for people to live in DP, it is much cheaper. The millions being used to house people in DP can be invested in providing affordable housing in communities, it can be invested in reviving and repopulating rural towns for example.

Are there supports in place for people when they leave Direct Provision?

No, from the time you are granted your status you are on your own; it would be up to you to try and find NGO’s that could be of assistance to you and your specific needs.

If people want to help, what would you advise them to do?

I would advise people to get involved in the campaigns, support grassroots organisations like MASI and ECIYC. Challenge the rise of the far right rhetoric, dispel the myths and rumours associated with refugees and asylum seekers. It Is important for people to ask their politicians what they are doing about Direct Provision, what humane solutions they are proposing etc. its is important to remember that at the end of the day, we are all human, people living in DP are just ordinary people seeking asylum, fleeing persecution from wherever they came from, this is a natural survival instinct of any human being. No one’s safety should come at the price of their freedom.

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Imprisoned Voices: A Hearing

Today is PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

Last night, the Freedom to Write Campaign held a poetry reading in the brilliant Parnell Square premises of Poetry Ireland, who were supporting the event, as was Irish PEN.

The format of the event was that a member of FTW (June Considine, Catherine Dunne, Kate Ennals, Tony Glavin, Liz McManus, Maria McManus, Lia Mills, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne) introduced a writer or writers in prison, and then a poet read work by that writer, work that relates to the theme and work of their own. The event was organised by June Considine, who had arranged photographs of the featured imprisoned writers in frames on the mantelpiece, like family photos: Nedim Turfent (Turkey), Dawit Isaac (Eritrea), Chimengul Awut (China) and Galal El-Behairy. Kate Ennals produced a pamphlet for the occasion. About 60 people gathered to listen, generating an attentive, moving atmosphere. (Kate has posted a blog about the event here)

Chris Murray read the work of poet, lyricist and activist Galal El-Behairy, who is serving a three year sentence in Egypt for ‘insulting the military’ and ‘spreading false news’; Chris also spoke movingly about the plight of Syrian schoolgirl Tal Al-Mallouhi, poet and blogger, who was arrested in 2009. Her current location in detention is unknown.  (See Chris Murray’s blog for one of Tal Al-Mallouhi’s poems.)

Colm Keegan read for Chimengul Awut, a well-known Uyghur poet and editor, who is in a re-education camp in China for her role in editing a book. As well as work of his own, Colm’s ‘theme’ poem was an inspired choice: Derek Mahon’s  “A Disused Shed in County Wexford”.

Maria McManus read for Dawit Isaac, an award winning Swedish-Eritrean journalist and poet, who has been held in prison, incommunicado, for 17 years. She read an extract from Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling before reading work of her own  and an extract from Isaac’s Hope and other Texts. She rounded off her reading with a quote from Toni Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech, reminding us of Isaac’s dual nationality.

Celia de Fréine read for journalist and poet Nedim Turfent, who is in prison in Turkey for covering Turkish military operations in southeast Turkey. Celia chose extracts from Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language for her themed text and  read her translation of the poem “June” by Shi Tao which was part of the 2008 PEN International Poem Relay, following the progress of the Olympic Torch to London.

 

Nedim Turfent sent us a letter for the occasion, wishing us well, hoping that our future in Ireland is bright and that our ink won’t run out. This is an incredibly generous sentiment to come from a young man who is facing 105 months in prison – of which, he tells us, 1240 days have already been served. “If only the mountains could speak of what they have witnessed,” he wrote. But they can’t – which is why journalists like him and Erol Zavar risk their freedom to bear witness for them.

Like Nedim Turfent, Erol Zavar was arrested when he was 29 years old, in January 2000 – almost 20 years ago. He will pass his 49th birthday in prison. Imagine. From being aged 29 to 49. In prison. Little is known about his current whereabouts or his health, which has not been good during his imprisonment. He has written two collections of poetry but they are not, to my knowledge, available in English.

I couldn’t let the occasion pass without mentioning Ahmet Altan, Turkish journalist and novelist, author of I Will Never See the World Again.  Ahmet Altan was sentenced to life imprisonment for alleged links to the failed coup of 2016, charges which he denies. He was released on 4th November and wrote a powerful, moving article in the Guardian about the courageous spirit of his fellow-prisoners, and his sense of having become somehow an accomplice to their continued detention, through his release. Two days ago, in a cynical, cruel move, he was re-arrested, after 8 days of freedom.

The final section of the evening was introduced by Catherine Dunne, who spoke about Daphne Caruana Galizia, Maltese anti-corruption campaigner and journalist, who was assassinated by a car bomb two years ago.  PEN International have set up a Poetry Memorial for Daphne, whose actual memorial is repeatedly destroyed by Maltese officials. Two of the Memorial’s poems were the final readings of the night, read by their authors Chris Murray and Celia de Fréine.

 

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No Small Talk (Brexit: the Use and Abuse of Language)

Are you concerned about the divisive rhetoric used during prolonged Brexit debates?  Irish people living in Britain report noticing a change in atmosphere and attitudes when the Backstop was a live issue. Friends in the North are understandably sickened by all that’s been said – and left unsaid. Many of us mourn the casually inclusive ‘We’re all in Europe Now’ attitude that made such a difference to the dynamics between all of us who live on our two islands, Ireland and Britain. So what can we do to remind ourselves and each other of all the things that connect us, and what better way to do it than through writing, the arts, and conversation?

NO SMALL TALK is a group of writers who have come together out of concern for the level of division and increasing hostility that has crept into the rhetoric around Brexit. We want to generate links between writers and artists in both Ireland and Britain to challenge this debasing of language and the perversions of truth which are now regular features of public discourse. Our aim is to restore positive links and connections between us all.

To this end, we will hold an introductory meeting on Tuesday, 12th November at 7:00 pm in The Teachers’ Club.

EVENT: Brexit: the Use and Abuse of Language

SPEAKERS:

Bobby Mc Donagh, former Ambassador to the UK

Jo Burns, award-winning poet

Evelyn Conlon, novelist and short-story writer

Carlo Gebler, writer and teacher

CHAIR: Martina Devlin, writer and journalist

WHEN: Tuesday 12th November at 7:00 pm

WHERE: The Teachers’ Club, 36 Parnell Square West, Dublin 1

Following the speakers’ presentations, we hope to see genuine audience engagement in a discussion which will lead to future events and an evolving network of interested writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers. Please spread the word among people who might be interested in joining us in this endeavour.

Admission is free but you must reserve tickets through Eventbrite:

WHO WE ARE: No Small Talk is a sub-group of WORD, a professional writers’ association based in the Irish Writers Centre. (Celia de Fréine, Martina Devlin, Catherine Dunne, Margo Gorman, Sophia Hillan, Liz McSkeane, Lia Mills)

MISSION STATEMENT:  “The aim of this group is to initiate and facilitate a conversation among writers and artists of Ireland & Great Britain in order to strengthen the existing links between us, to recognise the various languages spoken on these islands and we will challenge the current public discourse that creates division and conflict.”

The event is sponsored by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature.

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Writers Under Threat: Nurcan Baysal, Daphne Caruana Galizia

 

Daphne vigil 16 October 2019 Photo: Simon Robinson

Last Wednesday I was at a moving, powerful vigil for murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Many people spoke about Daphne’s life and read from her work. She had been a consistent campaigner against corruption and collusion throughout her working life, decades in which she and her family withstood a sustained campaign of villification, isolation, intimidation, and blatant threat (both legal and physical), before she was killed by a car bomb in October 2017. Her lawyers say that her death was entirely predictable and preventable, having followed persistent and escalating intimidation. Many Freedom of Expression organisations, including PEN International, Article 19 and Reporters Without Borders, are campaigning for justice for Daphne; they have called for a fully independent, thorough investigation into her murder since it happened.

Nurcan Baysal

At that vigil, I stood beside Nurcan Baysal, who was named Global Laureate of the 2018 Front Line Defenders award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk and is currently on a residency with English PEN. She is at risk because of her work as a writer and journalist, documenting human rights abuses in Turkey. She has been accused of supporting terrorism because she reports instances of abuse against the Kurdish population in Turkey and in Syria, but she also reports PKK transgressions: she is against violence and war, tout court.  Listening to what people said about Daphne Caruana Galizia at her vigil, I was struck by the extraordinary commitment and dedication shown by people like her, people like Nurcan Baysal, who has been arrested and imprisoned more than once, but who has so far been acquitted of all charges against her. Like Daphne, she experiences official harassment and all kinds of more random abuse on social media. Her friends are either in prison or in exile. What gives such courageous, principled people the strength to carry on in the face of so much antagonism, hostility, isolation and danger?

Three days after that vigil, Nurcan’s home in Diyarbakir was raided early in the morning by, she says, 30-40 armed police. She is safe because she is not there at the moment but expects to be arrested on her return. And, she says, her kids were terrified by the scale of the raid. She goes on to say: Those who demand peace and human rights are silenced and brutally oppressed in Turkey. I am just one of them, thousands of others are currently in prison. Your indifference is killing us. Please do raise your voice and stand in solidarity with our struggle before it’s too late.

A statement by Daniel Gorman, Director of English PEN says that English PEN condemns the raid on the house of courageous journalist Nurcan Baysal by Turkish Security Forces. This raid comes as part of an ongoing assault by the authorities on a free media in Turkey, still the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. We call on the Turkish government to respect international conventions on freedom of expression and to support a free and independent media. [Here]

Please read Nurcan’s own powerful article, “I have a debt to Uncle Adnan’s children and all other Kurdish orphans” on Ahval 

She also has an essay in the recent publication by Front Line Defenders and Fighting Words of Yes, We Still Drink Coffee!, an anthology of essays and artwork by and about Human Rights Defenders, curated and edited by Orla Lehane, which will have its Dublin launch in November at the Dublin Book Festival.

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POETRY MEMORIAL FOR DAPHNE CARUANA GALIZIA – Call for poems

PEN Vigil for Daphne, London, 16th October 1917

It’s hard to believe that almost two years have passed since the Maltese anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, but 16th October will mark the second anniversary of her death.  A fierce critic of the political establishment in Malta, she had received many death threats; she knew she was in danger but she kept writing. On 16th October, 2017 she posted an entry on her blog, ending with the line “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.”

It’s such an ordinary thing for most of us, to post a blog – as I am doing now – then get up from the desk and go out, already thinking about other things. But within minutes, the car Daphne was driving blew up.

Three men charged with her murder have yet to be put on trial. According to PressGazette, a public inquiry is about to start in Malta. But Daphne’s family and other campaigners have called for a fully independent international inquiry into her murder.

PEN International is still campaigning for justice for Daphne and her family. This year they are creating a poetry memorial, because the actual memorial in Valetta has been repeatedly destroyed.

If you are interested in submitting a poem, please observe the following criteria. Poems should be:

  • Under 100 words
  • Three stanzas maximum
  • The poem should make some reference to Daphne Caruana Galizia, the destruction of her memorial,  or the case itself
  • There is no deadline as this is an on-going project and poems will be added to the PEN website as they are submitted.

Please submit the poems to sahar.halaimzai@pen-international.org

In addition, to commemorate Daphne’s life, her bravery and her legacy and to continue their call for justice in her case, PEN will hold a vigil in London on 16 October near the Maltese High Commission. (Please check PEN International website for firm details closer to the actual date). Some memorial poems may be read on that occasion.

More info here

And here

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Suspension of UK Parliament, August 2019 (1)

Yesterday (28th August) Boris Johnson asked the Queen to suspend Parliament and she agreed. Jeremy Corbyn (Labour) and Jo Swinson (Lib-Dem) sent letters to the Queen asking her to refuse BJ’s request but they were too late; she had already given her consent. Very, very few people knew this was going to happen; the day before, Nicky Morgan had said it wouldn’t. She must be furious – but will she resign?

 

The extraordinary circumstance of Brexit, its extensions and its travails, mean that the current Parliamentary session has lasted 400 days. It is tradition for an incoming Prime Minister to set a date with the Queen for Parliament to resume, initiated by a Queen’s Speech which sets out what we would call the Programme for Government, followed by a couple of days of debate on same.

Boris Johnson, as incoming Prime Minister, seems to be within his rights to do this now, even though he was barely confirmed as PM before Parliament broke up for the summer. But what he has done is ensured that Parliament will be suspended in the lead up to the third date set for Brexit, a date which he has consistently said is fixed: Oct 31st. Parliament will sit for one week (starting next Tuesday, 3rd September) followed by the suspension. MPs will return for the Queen’s speech on 14th October. There is a crucial European summit on 17th, after which there will be little room – and even less time –  for manoeuvre.

The day before the suspension, there was an all-party meeting to discuss Opposition strategy for blocking a No-Deal Brexit. They have overcome their differences and shifted their focus from a No Confidence vote to a legislative approach, they were pleased to inform us on the evening news. No rebel Tories showed up at this meeting, although we are assured that there are several and that they will tip the balance against Boris Johnson,  his Cabinet, and the enabling support of the DUP.

Meanwhile, the Privy council was moving secretly towards Balmoral and the delivery of Johnson’s request to the Queen to set the mid-October date for her speech.  The news broke on Wednesday morning with a letter BJ sent to MPs informing them of the new Parliamentary timetable.

Cue: outrage all round. People are furious at what they see as a fundamentally anti-democratic manoeuvre, preventing Parliament from exercising its role and duty of holding the Government to account and doing so at a time of national crisis. Critics include the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, who called it a constitutional outrage. As did Philip Hammond, senior Tory and, under Theresa May’s government, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Arlene Foster welcomed the move. Well, why wouldn’t she, when her own Legislative Assembly has been suspended for so long it looks as though Direct Rule could return to the North?

Even on the streets (in London) people are talking about this suspension (“prorogation”) of Parliament. They talk about a constitutional crisis, and wonder what it means.  The UK doesn’t have a written Constitution as such but it does have a legal framework and long tradition underpinning its legislative and political systems. It’s confusing when politicians talk about ripping up the constitution when there is no such document; but when they refer to a constitutional crisis, this is what they mean: tradition and law find themselves, like the rest of us, in uncharted waters when it comes to Brexit. The limitations of the referendum versus its result; the significance of the outcome; the lies that were told beforehand; questionable sources of – and mechanisms for distributing – funding; Theresa May’s approach to negotiating a deal and all the sorry failures that followed; extension after extension.

But whatever anyone thinks about TM’s approach, it has to be said that she showed up in the Commons, day after punishing day, and faced her critics and her accusers, standing sometimes for 2  or 3 hours through gruelling, marathon sessions of question and insult. In Europe, she cut a lonely figure among all those jocular, backslapping handshaking leaders but she went back, over and over again. She made me think of Michael Collins, sent by DeValera on his futile, fatal errand. Boris Johnson has been called a coward: his approach to criticism appears to be to choke it off at source.

On the other hand, many Leave supporters think he has taken a bold, decisive step and simply outsmarted his opponents. And it has to be said that many people don’t care. They’re either indifferent to politics or they want whoever is in charge to get on with it and bring the uncertainty to an end.

***

In the late afternoon the crowd at the gates of Downing Street were no bigger than the usual group of tourists with their cameras – the only odd feature was a young woman sitting on the pavement with a notebook, intoning poetry I assumed to be her own, like a biblical message: “Lance the wound …” She was so deeply engrossed in her declamatory trance, it wasn’t in me to interrupt and ask her what she was doing or why, although later I really wished I had.

There was more action up at the Cabinet Office, where a small group of EU standard bearers had gathered, along with a man in a clown suit wearing an unflattering BoJo mask with an inflatable frankfurter-like nose. Occasional shouts erupted.  Occasional jeers were offered by passing Leavers. At one stage, a standard bearer came out to exchange insults with one of these, but the police were there instantly to break it all up, before retreating to their unobtrusive but watchful position. A woman called Sinéad who wears an Irish flag (I’ve seen her before, she tries to come to the protests every day after work) has an EU beret on. I’ve tried to find one before with no luck. She tells me I can get them online but as it happens I buy one later from a People’s Vote person, it’s a fundraiser for the Remain campaign.

The crowds thicken after 5.  Parliament Square fills up. A coalition of left-wing groups have called a protest rally. They’re in Abingdon Green first, but Lib Dem and People’s Vote placards are there too.  Bollocks to Brexit stickers are back, bigger and more vivid than they were before. Dick-tator! Declares one placard.  Stop the madness, pleads another – and: This is Bigger than Brexit.The word fascist is in the air. There’s a cardboard cutout of Mosley at the gate leading into the Commons. There are many shocked-looking people who might never have been around these protests before. The speakers describe their own anger and ask the crowd to share it. It’s time to get angry, they say. It’s time to show it. There are new chants: Stop the Coup! Some passers-by are hostile. “Why do we have to put up with this?”  I heard one young man ask. Fucksake! is in the air too. Those tossers again. The crowd swells and spills over onto the pavement;  people mass at the barriers across the road as well. Parliament Square fills up. The helicopters (police or media?) will be there until late.  Next week, when Parliament returns, will be fiery.

The Welsh Assembly (Wales voted to Leave) has been recalled. In Scotland (which voted to Remain), Nicola Sturgeon called BJ a Tin Pot dicator and said this was a dark day for UK democracy and that BJ’s action has brought Scottish Independence closer.  I wonder about that. Has anyone considered the effect of introducing a European border to the land mass that is Great Britain?

Both sides are adamant:  this is either a cynical manoeuvre to disrupt the democratic process, or it is a perfectly normal application of parliamentary tradition. Tory spokespersons are insisting that they don’t see anything wrong with prorogation now. The opposition have had plenty of time to act before now. This is normal practice, they claim. Perfectly legal.

It may be legal, but is it honest, decent, truthful?

There are legal challenges afoot already. One in Scotland, led by Joanna Cherry and another here in London by Gina Miller.

Walking away from the protest … was that Offred I saw retreating around a corner?

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“Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light” at The National Gallery (London)

The Sorolla exhibition in the National Gallery (London) stunned me. I didn’t know enough to have expectations, and then found myself in front of immense canvasses that spilled light and colour into the gallery. My absolute favourite was this one:

“Mother” by Joaquin Sorolla

The image onscreen doesn’t do justice to the overwhelming effect of the painting,  its power and colour, its radiant peace. I have never seen this subject in a painting before. For all the madonna-and-child images we’ve seen since childhood, this exact idea, the calm-after-birth/storm, was new to me in art.  The paradox is that it is the distance between the mother and her newborn baby that is so evocative: they are separate now, at peace, something new beginning. Photographs of me at similar times testify more to the blotchy, sweaty and usually untidy physical reality that follows birth. This painting is the emotion made physical: we made it and there you are. 

I see you.

A patronising review in The Guardian more or less says that only an idiot could think highly of this artist’s work, but this idiot doesn’t care. Several standout paintings in the exhibition will make you sit and stare, then stare longer. Give yourself plenty of time, you won’t want to rush this.

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light runs until 7 July in the National Gallery; more info here

It will be in the National Gallery of Ireland from 10 August – 3 November; more info here

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