An egg is not a bird. A seed is not a tree.

This blog was originally posted in 2013.  As we get closer to the referendum I am increasingly worried about the misinformation and distortion of facts I hear on the radio as reputable programmes try to present both sides of the argument. I worry when I hear about people who pretend to be qualified in medical areas in order to lend authenticity to the propaganda and lies they disseminate. There shouldn’t be ‘sides’ here; this is not an abstract question with a right or wrong answer. Every crisis pregnancy is different, and the only people who have any right to make decisions are the ones whose entire lives – and wider families – will be affected by the decision they make. So I thought this might be worth re-posting.


An egg is not a bird. A seed is not a tree.

One of many things that enrage me about what passes for rational debate about abortion in Ireland is the way language is being corrupted and debased – mostly, I’d argue, on the anti-choice side. Politicians, bishops, academics and lawyers – all of whom understand absolutely what they are doing – don’t flicker so much as an eyelid when they substitute highly charged words for truth.  They’ve been getting away with this for far too long.

As soon as particular terms are introduced to any discussion, we know which side the speaker is on and scurry to take up our positions, so far apart we have to yell to be heard. And we’re all yelling in code, which makes no sense to anyone, not really. Pithy one-word insults and slogans make handy weapons in that sort of battle. ‘Baby-killer’, is one such term.  ‘Bigot’ is another.  When these poisoned darts appear on the horizon, everyone dives for cover in their own thicket, which may be confused, brambly, and uncomfortable, but is, at least, familiar. We’re not likely to get disturbed too much in there.

Maybe that’s why we do the name-calling and the yelling; maybe we don’t want to hear each other. We’re so hell-bent on steamrolling our own argument over the line to victory that we forget what language is for: communication, understanding, enlarging our perception of the world. Instead it’s being turned against itself.  Loud scary people turn sentences inside out, then apply a bit of heat and a lot of volume to make a big loud scary bang that will cause the rest of us to cover our ears, shut our eyes, and hum the mantra England, to calm ourselves down.  Because, if England wasn’t there, or wasn’t quite so accessible, how different would this conversation have to be?  Might we actually have to face the complexities of the question and deal with it, like actual, rational adults?

On one side of the argument, we have people who believe that all forms of human life are sacred and have absolute claims on our protection from the moment of conception.  [It’s worth saying that even the Catholic Church didn’t always hold this view.  There was a time when the penance for having an abortion was less than that for an unmarried woman having a baby.] On the other side, we have people who believe that a zygote is not a person, an embryo is not a person, and even a foetus is not yet a person, although as a pregnancy progresses these waters get murkier and murkier.  To be pro-choice is to believe that the needs of individuals who already inhabit the world have a prior claim on our concern.  There’s a painful, difficult conversation to be had about late-term abortion, but that conversation won’t even begin so long as we’re all clinging to our absolutes.  As the placard says, the range of pro-choice views are too nuanced, complex and delicate to fit on a placard (or even in a blog).

There’s a tyranny in the anti-choice position that rarely gets articulated. An individual can recognize the ethical complexities of abortion – she might even believe that she herself would never have one (and hope she never finds herself in a situation where she has to) – and still allow other women the right to make their own moral choices in keeping with their own highly personal (and no-one else’s business) dilemmas.  In other words, the pro-choice position allows other people the right to make up their own minds.  The anti-choice position doesn’t. (See Martina Devlin:  “For the Record: It’s possible to be pro-choice and in favour of life”  in the Independent 9th May 2013) There’s a peculiarly Irish irony in TDs bleating for a free vote on the legislation. They want to be allowed to obey the dictates of their consciences in order to stop women being able to exercise theirs.

As for the interventions of the bishops – please. Do we really have to listen to the all-male, celibate, Catholic hierarchy, with their track-record, lecturing us on sexual morality or child protection?

repeal badges


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DAPHNE CARUANA GALIZIA – International PEN Call to Action

Leading international writers join PEN International in calling on Europe to protect press freedom in Malta

Leading writers from Europe and around the world have written to the European Commission today, on the six-month anniversary of the brutal assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s foremost investigative journalist, expressing their grave concern regarding developments in the investigation into her assassination and ongoing reprisals against her family and sources.

Over 250 influential writers, publishers and PEN members including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Anne Enright, Ian McEwan, Kamila Shamsie, Neil Gaiman, Eva Bonnier, Elif Shafak and Colm Tóibín are calling on the European Commission to ensure justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia, and for the protection of journalists and whistleblowers in Malta.

“European culture and values are our best protection against hatred and oppression. And Daphne fought for these values until she no longer could. Her death has left hundreds of thousands voiceless, while the state-appointed leader of a European cultural event in Malta slanders Daphne’s legacy and ridicules people’s calls for justice. We hope—and it’s clear this is a hope shared by many in Europe—that the European Commission will help fill the vacuum Daphne left and remind the Maltese government that there are lines such as this that must never be crossed,” said Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family.

In particular, the letter raises profound concerns regarding allegations of shameful behavior of the management of Valletta 2018, the European Capital of Culture, in relation to her case. This programme is overseen by the European Commission’s Creative Europe.

 “The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was ordered in direct response to her journalistic work in exposing rampant government corruption at the heart of the EU. Since her death, the Maltese authorities have not attempted to investigate the crimes she uncovered and appear deeply reluctant to seek justice for her killing,” said Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International.

The open letter also restates PEN’s broader fears relating to the ongoing investigation by the Maltese authorities into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, which we believe does not meet the standards of independence, impartiality and effectiveness required under international human rights law.

Even after her assassination, senior government officials, including the Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, are insisting on trying thirty-four libel cases against her, which have now been assumed by her family. In addition to these cases, the Prime Minister is taking a further libel case against Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew Caruana Galizia, himself a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist. PEN believes that these proceedings are in direct reprisal for his mother’s work in investigating corruption within the current Maltese government. The Prime Minister is currently compelling Matthew to return to Malta to stand trial, despite independent security experts advising him to remain outside Malta due to substantial threats to his life there.

PEN has a long history of supporting writers at risk and campaigning for the protection of freedom of expression and recently submitted a joint report to the United Nations on the situation of freedom of expression in Malta. PEN calls on the Maltese authorities to respect and protect freedom of expression, journalists and whistleblowers in line with international standards.

Web Links

To read PEN’s recent joint report to the United Nations on the situation of freedom of expression in Malta, please click here.

For more information/press/interviews contact:

Sarah Clarke, Policy and Advocacy Manager, PEN International: +44 7575 030028.

Ebony Riddell Bamber, Director of Advocacy and Communications, PEN International:, +44 (0)20 7405 0338.

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TYPHOID MARY at the Viking Theatre, Clontarf

If you haven’t seen Charlotte Bradley & Bairbre Ní Chaoimh’s production of the late, great Eithne McGuinness’s TYPHOID MARY at the Viking Theatre at The Sheds, there are four performances left. Do yourself a favour and book your ticket now.

This absorbing, provocative play brings Eithne’s distinctive voice back to us & reminds us of how much we lost when she died so young.


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In Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: Suffragette and Sinn Féiner, Margaret Ward has undertaken the vast and painstaking task of compiling Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s own writing (journalism, speeches, memoir), so that we can now get to know her in her own words. UCD Press hosted an event at the RIA on 4th October, consisting of a panel discussion followed by a launch.

Orla Feely (UCD VP for Research, Innovation and Impact) opened the event and introduced Martina Devlin, who would chair the panel discussion. The speakers were Margaret Ward, Ivana Bacik and Caitríona Crowe.

Martina Devlin told us that we were there to explore the differences between the Ireland that Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and her generation envisaged and the Ireland that came about. Are there gaps? she asked, somewhat incautiously – we could have been there for the rest of the year, except that she was an effective chair and kept the discussion flowing.

Ever since her Unmanageable Revolutionaries was published (1983) Margaret Ward has been a champion for the women of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s generation (she’s also published biographies of Hanna and of Maud Gonne). She has a measured way of speaking about her subject that lets you know how assured her knowledge is but leaves you in no doubt as to her commitment to,  belief in and feelings about these women. She spoke eloquently about the life and work of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who was writing her memoir in her final illness. She was also a meticulous record-keeper, preserving many boxes of precious documents and memorabilia which she donated to the State. As Caitríona Crowe pointed out later in her launch speech, she didn’t ask for money and there was no question, in those days, of tax credits or exemptions. Hanna’s husband Frank  and their egalitarian views on marriage were talked about, as well as his murder and Hanna’s subsequent lecture tour of the USA.

Martina Devlin asked Caitríona Crowe if today’s Ireland realises Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s dream.  Caitríona Crowe said no, but it never could have, given Irish politics. She reminded us that the socialist feminist vision of the time was a minority view.

There was some discussion of the many waves of feminism – which wave are we in now? If Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s generation were the first, and Betty Friedan’s was the second, then, the panel agreed,  we are probably in the third. (I disagree. I think the third wave began with an intellectual movement represented by Margaret Ward’s own work – the retrieval of women’s history, the rediscovery and re-issuing of women’s writing through the work of e.g. Arlen House in Ireland and Virago in Britain – that started in the eighties;  we had campaigns in the nineties related to sexual violence, divorce and abortion rights led by activists like Ailbhe Smyth. That would put us in the fourth wave now. But what about going back to  Susan B Anthony? Sojourner Truth? How quickly we lose sight of ourselves …)

Caitríona Crowe recalled events and campaigners of the seventies  including Eileen Proctor’s campaign for the Widow’s Pension, campaigns for changes in the contraceptive laws, for divorce etc. The Contraceptive Train was fondly recalled, along with the appearance of those brilliant women on the Late Late Show (June Levine was a producer) which resulted in the then Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald leaving his sitting room and driving to RTÉ to march straight in to the studio to confront them. ‘No one stopped him’. (Well, of course they didn’t: it made great television). Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was fearless. So is Nell McCafferty.

Consciousness Raising was big in those days, a ‘fetish of Second Wave feminism’ – she mentioned Our Bodies Ourselves – a cult favourite and sourcebook for young women at the time. Lifting the marriage bar so that married women could continue in paid employment and the right to equal pay were important issues but those rights were won for us by Europe. (Please, let’s not ever forget how much we owe the European courts in questions of civil liberties and equality legislation.)

Asking Ivana Bacik what she considers to be the most outstanding issue Irish women face today got a laugh from the audience.  Ivana Bacik said, ‘that’s what we lawyers would call a leading question.’ Because of course she is – and always has been – a committed campaigner for reproductive rights; she’s prominent in the campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment now. She reminded us that the Second Wave was followed by a strong pushback from the forces of the right.

She pointed to the lack of female representation in politics, on boards and so on as a problem. She’s (rightly) proud of the 2012 Equal Opportunities for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill and of other cross-party work to pursue equality objectives.

Where does she stand on quotas? She agrees with the concept at the level of opportunity – e.g. putting women forward as candidates and then allowing voters to decide.  She reminded us of a great quote from Kathleen Lynch, who said that all her life she has voted for mediocre men; she would like the opportunity to vote for a mediocre woman. She reminded us to look at the mechanisms that work against it (lack of cash, confidence, child care …)

There was a lot of talk about historical elections – how Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was not elected when she stood for the Dáil in 1946 and how she was offered an impossible seat (North Antrim, Ian Paisley’s constituency) in 1918 and turned it down.  Ivana Bacik pointed out that Sinn Féin had no problem instituting quotas for ex-prisoners in 1918 but wouldn’t do the same for women.

How do we break down deeply ingrained attitudes? Is a big question.  Martina Devlin pointed out that Women For Election are doing excellent work, which led to discussion of the Women’s Coalition in the North, how they were treated with derision when they first appeared on the scene but how other parties subsequently ran women candidates in their constituencies, so there was a positive outcome for women in the end.  Margaret Ward lamented the fact that young women in the North don’t know anything about the Women’s Coalition. Should we have a Women’s Party now? Martina Devlin asked.

Caitríona Crowe doesn’t think there’s an appetite for it.  Ivana Bacik would rather see some sort of coalescing around issues of social democracy

Ivana Bacik also told us of activities planned for next year’s centenary of women getting the vote in Ireland and Britain.  Details are available on the Oireachtas website.

The Q & A was lively. Some people were shocked to learn that history is no longer a core subject in the school curriculum.  (Some of us have been shocked about this for quite a while. We wonder if it’s too late to oppose it?) Caitríona Crowe pointed out that Geography has suffered the same fate. It’s ridiculous, she said. Time and place. They’re so important.

Someone else suggested that Home Economics should be compulsory for boys. For everyone, the panel agreed. The number of elephants in the room was noted, the most obvious being that while we were all for quotas, there was an all-woman panel. Margaret Ward referred to a story in today’s Guardian  about a panel on feminism held in Mexico, which featured eleven speakers, all men.

We adjourned to the reception, where Caitríona Crowe gave a great speech about Margaret Ward, about Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in general and about this book  (Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: Suffragette and Sinn Féiner) in particular. She called for the reissue of Margaret Ward’s biography of Hanna so the two books can be read together. Publishers take note.

Incidentally, Noelle Moran of UCD Press told us that she took Unmanageable Revolutionaries as the basis for her Leaving Cert history project and she met Margaret Ward at that time. She was so inspired she got an A and went on to study history and work in publishing historical books. (See above, about the school curriculum.)



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Nicole Krauss in dlr LexIcon with Nadine O’Regan (28.08.2017)

Nicole Krauss was in Dun Laoghaire this week to promote her new novel, Forest Dark. 

Nadine O’Regan (NOR) opened the conversation by remarking on how young Nicole Krauss (NK) was when she began to publish fiction and how quickly success came to her. NK said that she had started out wanting to write poems. She started when she was around 15 and wrote poetry for ten years. ‘Then I found myself trapped in my poems. Great poets can get infinity into a poem. Even short ones have that. Mine were getting tighter … so I thought I’d try a novel, they are so much bigger and looser … and discovered that I loved the form.’

NOR asked about the received wisdom that writers are somehow outside society.

NK: ‘Society now is all about reduction, simplification … in a novel you complicate things …. everything now is about ease and convenience. I ask readers to sit for a while in a position of relative uncertainty (Keats’ Negative Capability). If we stay in that place of uncertainty long enough we can arrive at something we didn’t know before. (Information) is almost a religion with us now:  facts,  Google etc.,  but beneath it all there’s an anxiety: what about the unknown? What about wonder? It’s as necessary to us as hard knowledge.’

She went on to suggest that a novel makes sense of things that are not necessarily coherent to start with. Chaos, she said, is the truth that narrative must betray. She said that we’re all fiction writers in the sense that we’re constantly telling ourselves stories about our lives, creating ourselves through narrative.

NOR said that the characters in Forest Dark reach a point in their lives where they create new selves, throw their old selves away. NK disagreed. That’s not what they’re doing, exactly. ‘Change seems like that  but …  at some point in our lives the narrative we’re in no longer fits; this brings us to a moment where we ask, How do I change?  Do I give up the forms I’ve inhabited all my life? – I’m not just interested in the chaos of things but in staying in it long enough to figure out what it is, how it changes.’

They had an interesting chat about the title. NK originally wanted Gilgul, a Hebrew word suggesting a mystical idea of transformation. She was talked out of it by people who said the term was too obscure, although she pointed out that everyone knows what a golem is since Isaac Bashevis Singer published his story. Since the novel came out, she’s heard the word Gilgul used in different contexts; it’s a word that wants to get into the language. But she’s happy with the title Forest Dark, a reference to Dante’s Inferno.  The forest is a mystical place, she saysIn Shakespeare the forest is where characters go to find their magic. It’s a place of danger & possibility.

NOR asked about Nicole the character, who has obvious similarities with Nicole the writer – was that inhibiting? NK said that she’s used to that already, any writer is. People think things about other people all the time; this happens to all of us – you’re aware of those ‘public realities’. There are other versions of you out there in the world, different to what you think is your reality.

She said that freedom and authority are important to her. ‘As a woman you have to fight for authority. You don’t easily come to writing in your own voice. Writing anger, violence   etc. is easier in a male character.’ But if you don’t use your own voice,  you risk losing empathy and ’empathy is critical in literature. It  allows us to enter another character, to become them. My authority is my own now; I didn’t need to make myself an old man or set a story a century ago, which is what many writers do.’

‘A lot begins with one’s emotional origins  I had four grandparents, all deeply affected by the Holocaust  … I grew up hearing those stories. I went with my grandfather to a small village in Hungary where nothing he remembered was left. This nothing is where x was;  this nothing is where y was …  I knew that a reality can be cancelled.  Europe, the United States, Israel, are always changing  There is no commitment to any one geography. So, what is home?

NOR asked what it’s like to live in Trump’s America.

NK: ‘Obama is so recent, yet he seems like a distant dream of grace – intelligent and wise … so much has changed so quickly.’

NOR asked if it’s fair to compare America now with the rise of the Third Reich in 1940s Germany?

NK: The world has changed.  We live in a different moment. The US as a global power is in decline and there’s a backlash against that. There’s an over-simplification of the language of politics.’ In urgent situations, she said, something breaks. She spoke about the psychology of dictators and how because of social media, the psychology of Trump is so available, accessible to everyone, it’s in the palm of our hands in this intimate way, on our phones, all the time. She talked about the importance of being precise in how we use language, not to incite a violent response. We need to turn ourselves around, to say: hang on, we need to consider more, we need to think more, take more responsibility.

They talked a lot about Kafka. NK said a great thing, about how Kafka leads us out on a sentence and next thing we’re on a precipice, but there’s a view of infinity. That’s why we go to art, she said, for a view towards the infinite. It’s more important than ever in a time like ours.

Writing  is hard, she said,  but also – what a gift it is to be captain of your own mind and free to think your own thoughts.


The first question from the audience was bizarrely insistent on knowing what hotels NK may have stayed in in Tel Aviv, what synagogue she might attend. It took a while to disentangle ourselves from that one, but the next questioner asked if NK ever becomes overwhelmed with her ideas.

Which is a really good question

Usually before she starts to write, was the answer. They become urgent and then writing is a way of dealing with them.’You have to press this very abstract thing into language. Sense comes in sentences.’

Writing, for Nicole Krauss, is a way to find serenity.



Nicole Krauss was in Dun Laoghaire as part of the dlr Library Voices series curated by Bert Wright. Forest Dark is published by Bloomsbury.

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Vividity (yes, that is a word) 


In 1919 a town in Northern France donated a statue of the Sacred Heart to the Catholic Parish of Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) in memory of the Irishmen who fought and died in Flanders during World War 1.  Because of the politics of the time, the parish priest declined the gift. The Dominican nuns took it instead. They built a small oratory to house the statue, which is remarkable not only for its provenance but for its colour:  statues of the Sacred Heart are usually clothed in strong shades of red, but the fleshy tones of this statue’s garments make the figure more human, the exposed heart more significant.

The statue, however, is absolutely overpowered by its stunning setting.  This tiny oratory was lovingly, painstakingly, beautifully painted over a period of 16 years (1920-1936) by a Dominican nun, Mother Concepta Lynch. She worked four hours a day – after a full working day as a teacher (music and art) in a girls’ school – in a tiny chapel lit by (donated) oil lamps using (donated) hardware paint mixed to a special formula.

Mother Concepta was born Lily Lynch in 1874, the daughter of Thomas and Mary Lynch. Lily’s father was an illuminator, with a particular interest in Celtic symbolism and early Christian art, at the time of the Revival. He had a successful studio in Dublin. Lily never had formal training in art, but must have learned the old fashioned way, living in a studio and directly immersed in the thinking and work of practitioners. When she was six, her mother died. When her father died Lily left school – she was 16 – and took over the business, which she seems to have run successfully until 1896. She was 22 when fire destroyed the Lynch premises and she entered the Dominican order, taking the name Mother Concepta.

When the oratory was built to house the Sacred Heart, Mother Concepta was asked to decorate the wall behind the memorial statue. The effect was so powerful she was asked to keep going, so she did, until every inch of wall was covered with vivid, exuberant Celtic figures and patterns, all drawn from memory. She used her father’s formula for mixing colours, sending directions to a local hardware shop via some of her pupils. She cut up old window blinds to make stencils.  The windows came from Clarke’s studio in North Frederick Street, some of them made entirely by Harry Clarke himself.

We visited the Oratory as part of Heritage Month in Dun Laoghaire. Our (terrific) guide asked us to be quiet for the first few minutes and simply absorb our surroundings. Entering the Oratory, she said, is like walking into the Book of Kells. She’s right, but it also reminded me of the effect of emerging from a gloomy stairwell into the Sainte Chappelle in Paris on a bright day, where colour becomes an element to immerse yourself in.

This was an extraordinary experience. I remember the fuss about saving the Oratory when the Bloomfield Shopping Centre was being built and the diggers were halted within inches of the tiny building while conservationists fought to save it (Michael D Higgins was one of those people). To think this exquisite festival of colour and Celtic form could have been lost.

I grew up in and around Dun Laoghaire but I had never been inside the oratory before. It has to be protected from the elements and from exposure to too many visitors, too much light. The walls haven’t been touched since 1936 when Mother Concepta was taken ill, the ceiling still unfinished. She was working as Michelangelo did, lying on her back on planks supported by step ladders. Four hours a day. Sixteen years. Cramped conditions; full-time teaching work; no formal education or training.

Well, I repeat myself.

The oratory is now itself housed in a building which serves as a protective shell, beside the children’s playground on Library Road (Dun Laoghaire).  Access is limited. It is open at restricted times during the summer.

More info here.

Tours will continue until 3rd September, details here

More images here 

(With apologies for the quality of my own, which do nothing like justice to the original. Go and see it for yourself.)


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Guerrillas in the Mist

The recent Farmleigh House based project Pieces of Mind was inspired by Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. 

Following a conversation about this, fabulous Belfast poet Maria McManus sent me a link to her own exciting work in response to Perec. Do yourself a favour on this rainy Sunday and read her account of correspondence, observation, literary activism and non-violence here.

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