An Image of America

A woman perched atop a ladder is attaching a plastic bat onto the roof of a porch. Across the street from her, just in front of a park, a man in a wheelchair is rolling over to a haggard lady, who is doubled-over at the entrance to a tiny tent. I watch them speaking. He rolls his eyes, shakes his head slowly and says “Man, he’s worse than Bush. I’m sorry he ever got my vote”. He turns his head to a squirrel at his feet: “I’m sorry I’ve no nuts for you, buddy”.

The lady has been holding a vigil against America’s nuclear policy for over twenty years. She lost her husband two years ago. He spent twenty-seven years in the same tent. Today her home-made signs promoting peace are sopping wet and the squirrels sheltering inside her tent keep her company.

The woman descends the ladder. A plastic bat flaps its wings in the breeze: black against the gleaming White House.

#Occupydamestreet exposes what’s good about Ireland

I admire the Occupy Dame Street protesters. On a night like this, as the wind pounds on my window panes and the rain pours down, I imagine them huddled together discussing the agenda for the day ahead. They are a peaceful bunch, who have spent their days postering trees with quotes from Fight Club rather than hurling abuse at the workers whose premises they occupy.

In spite of my self-confessed lack of understanding of the economy, I don’t share their belief that bankers represent the evil 1% of the population and that 99% (the “rest of us”) are their unequivocal victims. It can’t be as simple as that. I’m also not sure whether the protest has any concrete aim but it is certainly drawing attention to the displeasure of many as a result of the actions of few.

What really interests me about this protest is how it exposes the Good in our society.

Here are a group of people occupying a central location and plastering around it slogans determined to undermine the country’s main financial institution.

And yet, it’s peaceful. No aggressive guard has entered the scene, and yelled “Hey, you angry hippy, move it or I’ll shoot”. No protester has screamed abuse at the passing bankers to which they attribute a decline in society’s moral code.

Instead, the public casts a glance, takes a look around, enjoys a talk with a protester about the meaning of life and ambles on, equipped to make its own mind up.

The Occupydamestreet movement tells me a lot about what’s right with this country; the assurances that we take for granted are those for which so many of the Arab Spring protesters have died for.

So inspired have I been by #occupydamestreet that I’m off to #occupywallstreet in the morning. I’m visiting my sister in Philadelphia. She emigrated there two years ago, but not before hosting an “emigrate-like-its-a-recession-party”. When I ask her about her job she tells me that she analyses butt samples but I have a funny feeling there might be a little more to the job of geneticist than that. I’m gutted to be missing the election. If there’s anybody apathetic enough to vote for my first choice I’d be most obliged. Mail me privately for my politics.

I intend to update you on my travels in the Free World but should that not be possible, I will record my thoughts in my little blue copy book and transcribe them at a later date. See you on the other side of the Atlantic!

A Eurovision Song Contest winner, a former gunman, a poet and a James Joyce impersonator… It can only be an Irish presidential election!

A Eurovision Song Contest winner, a former gunman, a poet and a James Joyce impersonator are among the seven presidential candidates who are gathered together in a television studio in the west of Ireland. The poet is speaking fluently in the national language while his companions shift uncomfortably in their chairs, silently rehearsing the few words of Irish which they have prepared and will produce promptly when their turn comes before they can revert to the safety of English. While the poet speaks, English subtitles appear on the bottom of the screen and he voices his concern about appearing “bad-mannered” to the other candidates by using the native tongue.

It’s the fourth televised debate which the candidates have participated in as part of a presidential race that can be described as anything but dull. The debate is taking place in the studios of the only Irish-language broadcaster, TG4 and has been advertised as “bilingual” as a concession to the six candidates who – in spite of having been obliged to learn Irish for their entire school-life cannot claim fluency in the language.

Ireland, having ousted the long-dominant Republican party Fianna Fáil in the general election last March, is in the throes of a shift in political power. If the opinion polls are to believed, when the Irish go to the polls again next Friday, this time to elect a president to replace Mary McAllese, who has served two full terms amounting to fourteen years, they will demonstrate that they have not lost their appetite for change.

The historic, large-scale demise of the party which ruled during the years of Ireland’s economic boom has had an unprecedented effect on the course of this presidential campaign. The Fianna Fáil party, which was has been more or less dominant for the last twenty years lost a record number of seats in the March election, giving way to their centre right rivals Fine Gael and the centre left Labour party to form a coalition government in their wake.

In order to build up its party from the roots and to avoid another humiliation at the polls, Fianna Fáíl decided not to run a candidate in the election. This gave way for the republican party, Sinn Féin- which has an historic association with the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist organisation responsible for scores of deaths in the height of the conflict in northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics – to offer the electorate a candidate of their own.

They chose Martin McGuinness, former IRA chief and deputy first minister of the northern Irish Assembly (formed as part of the Good Friday Agreement between unionists and nationalists). Though he has chosen to run as an independent candidate, in the minds of the Irish people, he is inextricably linked to Sinn Féin.

In stark contrast to the party’s strong performance in the general election last March, the Fine Gael candidate, Gay Mitchell, who is the most pro-Europe of all the contestants is performing extremely poorly in the opinion polls. At last count, he had only 8% support, not significantly ahead of Dana, with the least support at 2%. Eurovision star of 1970 , former member of the European parliamant and ultra Catholic, Dana firmly believes that Ireland’s sovereignty is under threat from Europe. In more than one debate she has arrived armed with the small and humble-looking Irish Constitution in one hand and the larger European one in the other and repeated her mantra that as president, she would refuse to allow one book to smother the other. While this appears to be Dana’s only rallying call to the presidency, she produces it with wide-eyed, evangelical fervour, which is compelling to watch. Her own campaign has been marred in controversy after members of her family in America alleged that her brother and campaign manager had sexually abused a relative. She’s also been called up on “renouncing” her Irish citizenship in order to gain dual citizenship in America, particularly in the context of her campaign to maintain Irish sovereignty.

Another Independent candidate, gay-rights campaigner and James Joyce impersonator, David Norris has also been the subject of intense media controversy since it emerged that he wrote – in his capacity as Senator and on Senate-headed notepaper- to the Israeli authorities to seek clemency for his lover, who had been convicted of statutory rape of a 15 year-old boy. He pulled out of the race, waited for things to calm down, then re-entered it.

During the televised debates, Norris has claimed to be the only “independent” candidate in the race, much to the consternation of fellow Independent, Mary Davis, who is running for office predominately on the strength of having established the Special Olympics – a large-scale and extremely successful sporting event for those with intellectual disabilities. She has also had to fight off strong criticism- in her case for sitting on a number of government boards, some of which left her in receipt of six-figure sums of money. Among her assets is undoubtedly her first name which she shares with the last two Irish presidents. Were she to win and serve at least one term, Ireland would have been subject to a ‘Mary’ for a total of twenty-eight years.

The whole crew

The two front runners are currently Labour party candidate, Michael D Higgins and entrepreneur and former Fianna Fáíl affiliate Seán Gallagher. The former –a wizened poet whose work can be seen on the Dublin commuter trains accuses the latter of espousing the values of pre-recession Ireland, while the latter- the youngest of the candidates- promises to support Ireland abroad and to get the country moving again. Currently the leader at 39%, the electorate seems ready to forgive Gallagher his association with the party which they slaughtered at the polls last March.

The vision of all seven candidates has been continuously challenged by interviewers, who remind them that the role of Irish president is essentially nominal, and that the position affords no real political power, other than the extremely rarely exercised right to refuse to sign a bill into law.

In response, the candidates hark back to the achievements of outgoing president, Mary McAleese, who has been lauded for fulfilling her mission of ‘building bridges’ across divided communities. Her most remarkable accomplishment and the event that will no doubt dominate her legacy, was the orchestration of the visit of Queen Elizabeth of England last May. In the same week that saw the visit of President Obama, the Irish people watched with incredulity as Ireland welcomed a British Head of State for the first time in its history since becoming a republic. Most didn’t believe that they would see it in their lifetime.

The visit was an enormous success for Anglo-Irish relations. Dressed in an emerald green suit, the Queen bowed her head at a memorial to the Irish rebels that died in the 1916 Rising against British rule. But it was at the state dinner in Dublin castle, that the really remarkable thing happened: Queen Elizabeth II of England, in an Irish-designed dress laced with delicate shamrocks, rose from her chair and solemnly addressed her audience as “A Cháirde”, the Irish expression for “my friends”.

The sound of the English Queen paying homage to the Irish language and culture moved some, if not many to tears.

The struggle for the presidential candidates to find many more words than the Queen of England herself during the “Irish Language” debate revealed the incongruities that are still gripping this little nation, which – desperate for an export-driven recovery from economic ruin- continues to struggle with its own identity.

Katekatharina’s Blog is one year old today!

Today Katekatharina’s Blog is one year old. To celebrate I am working late and going to my Arabic class. In my head though, I’m in a hammock clutching a yellow balloon with “Happy First Birthday” written on it in Comic Sans.

Blogging is terribly fun and at first it was terribly hard to keep up. I set up at least three different blogs on various sites before sticking with this one. WordPress’ format is foolproof. Believe me, I have tested it. It’s easy to use and it makes the things you write look quite pretty. The photographs you upload know intuitively where they should land and in what size they should appear. Critics say all our sites look the same: I say: “but look at the selection of themes we can choose from!”

This time a year ago, I was in the same bed I’m typing from now but in a different place. Then an indefinite void lay ahead of me whereas now I have an -albeit dangerously short-term- plan worked out.

Birthday Rainbow from Dublin Contemporary

The best bit about blogging is when someone reads what you’ve written. That’s why people write on the internet. It’s not like a diary, where you reveal your innermost thoughts but it’s confessional all the same and looking back over a year’s worth of entries, I guess I can see some characteristic themes emerging.

I seem to write a lot about things I see. For me, images form an easier structure than the course of events. I think that’s why I favour feature writing over news reporting. I seem to like write a lot about language and quite a bit about LSB too. These are two of my favourite things I guess. My tone has become less formal in the last year too. My aspirations of maintaining a crisp and detached tone were tempered by the realisation that even very serious journalists enjoy copious use of the personal pronoun.

The most popular blog posts are not the ones that I have sweated over. They are the ones which were fastest to write and which were “tagged” with terms that searchengines were a fan of that day. I get a lot of referrals to a post I wrote about the closure of Waterstone’s Bookshop last February, a piece about brain plasticity, LSB’s Valentine Day surprise and my Confessions of a teacher. It is a great pleasure to skim the search terms upon which people are referred to my site. As I told you last week, a disproportionate amount of my hits come from people googling images of snails and phrases like “inappropriate teacher-pupil relationship”

I have a wonderful friend who lives in Bayreuth in Germany. Really, she’s my mum’s friend but I have applied for joint custody because I like her very much. She sent me an e-mail last week to let me know that she occasionally reads my blog. And on the same day, a boy I’ve never met dropped me a line from where he was too. We’d connected over our blogs a year ago only to discover we graduated from the same college in the same year and both wanted to get into writing. Things that like can transform your day.

Ironically, my first blog post was titled “A last resort” and was in fact taken from a column I had in Trinity College’s The University Times (then The Record). You can check it out here.

Happy Birthday to my wonderful readers, especially to you that has googled ‘snail’ again. Thank you so much for all your comments! Have a slice of cake sometime today for me. And please, let me know what you’d like to see on Katekatharina’s blog before she turns two. Got a challenge for me? Something you think I should investigate? Try out? Get over? Let me know.

Dundrum shoppers stunned by voices of Messiah

Shoppers in Dundrum Town Centre in south Dublin were surprised this morning by a large-scale and apparently spontaneous choral performance of the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The twenty choirs which took part were positioned on three levels around the shopping centre with the conductor stationed on the top floor outside Frangos foodstore. The flashmob-style event occured at 12.40 pm and marked the culmination of RTE’s Big Music week. Aproximately 400 singers took part and were applauded by customers keen to join in the fun.

Are schooldays the best days of your life?

I wrote this piece 10 months ago, when I was still unemployed and feeling rather nostalgic about the time I spent at school. Luckily I’m now working fulltime and the prospect of writing “The Toilet Wall” for a living is that little bit closer than ever before.

The Fruits of Literature

“Imagine that you have found the most delicious-looking plums on your kitchen table”, Niall Mac Monagle began, in media res on the occasion of my very first English class. “You gobbled them up” he continued, “and now you must write a note to the rest of your family apologising for what you have done”. Luminous sheets of card fluttered onto our desks and twenty -six young fountain pens began to scrawl lines of contrition. “Time up”, yelled MacMonagle. “What have you, Ms Flaherty?” A scoff. “Erm.. Sorry I ate the plums”. MacMonagle beamed. “Excellent!” Then silence, then a poem. I have been hooked on language ever since, and were it not for the brilliance of this man, I would have neither studied English literature at university nor considered writing for life. I am imagining his humble cheeks turn rose petal pink upon reading this, and it gives me pleasure.

Emancipation or “On Covering the Calves”

The fight for girls to wear trousers was won in the summer of 2001, when I was thirteen and about to enter my second year at Wesley College. Clutching the uniform list triumphantly, I dragged my mother to Rita’s uniform shop in the ‘old’ Dundrum shopping centre, and we purchased a pair of over-sized, shapeless navy slacks, which I am waiting patiently to grow into, ten years and several hundred cupcakes later. The design was so ghastly that I was the only girl in the year to condescend to wear the garment and even at that, my resolve faded with the advent of spring.

A Changing World

I have the young and kindly music teacher, Mr Gifford to thank for my introduction to google. One afternoon in the computer room in the library, while my friend and I were typing up our entirely fabricated research project on Simon and Garfunkel, he bent his head tentatively between us and whispered, “There is a great new way to find information. It is called Google”. A rather silly name, I thought. Hardly one that will catch on.

I remember returning to my locker at 4 o’clock on September 11, 2001 and coming across a geeky classmate in a state of excitement. He was pounding his fists together to describe the trajectory of a plane’s crash into a skyscraper. I thought he was talking about a computer-game. Later, on the 48A bus home a lady spoke into her mobile phone, “who knows what will happen now; that Bush is a maniac”. By the time I got home, the TV was on, and the blown-apart pieces came together.

Breaking news and breaking ground

The very best bit of my time at Wesley College was my involvement with the establishment of a school newspaper, Fullstop. The editorial team consisted of seven people: six of my very best friends and myself. (It’s all about who you know in this country!). Tonight I reminisced over a coffee with David Kearney, then-editor-in-chief about some of the gems that the publication produced. The second issue, released on 26 January, 2004 featured a six-page interview with Graham Norton under the promising headline The Full Norty.

No area of school life was passed over by Fullstop: the controversy about the new swipe card attendance system was neatly summarised by the headline Swipe Strife! and tensions between prefects and non-prefects were explored under the provocative question: Prefects or Defects? My baby was a column on page 3 called The Toilet Wall, which is so full of righteous indignation that it makes me cringe with nostalgia.

Seeing the Woods for the Trees

On Thursday 18 November 2004, Fullstop ran an exclusive interview with the one and only Christopher Woods, after he was announced as the new principal of the college. The headline read Out of the woods and boasted an exclusive “fifteen-minute intensive grilling about Wesley, Africa and the secret to a good education”. Mr Woods mused that “ if I can look back in fifty years time when I’m old and grey and can say that everyone enjoyed their time in school and learned a lot … I’d be a very happy man”. It was a privilege, in my final two years at Wesley College to have a principal so dedicated and so interested in his pupils as individuals. I am sure that Mr Woods, old and grey will be a very happy man.

Now and Then

I studied English literature and Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin and now I spend much of my time at home googling jobs but all I can find are telesales positions requiring proficiency in Dutch. I do a little bit of teaching on the side which I enjoy but if I’m honest, what I really want to do is get paid to write The Toilet Wall. Wesley College inspired me to dream of great things and life since graduation has coupled that entitlement with a dollop of humility. The class of 2006 may have considered themselves the crème de la crème, but many of us are still sorry we ate the plums.

Wesley Women Celebrate 100 years

I spent the period between 2000 and 2006 in secondary school at Wesley College, Dublin. Wesley is a Methodist school, which takes its name from John Wesley who – as we were taught in our first year – at the age of five survived a fire in a rectory and henceforth considered himself to be “a brand plucked from the burning” and therefore destined to serve God.

Wesley was founded on the first of October 1845 on St Stephen’s Green and on that morning “At 9 o’clock the whole company sat down to breakfast joined by three boarders and nine day pupils. The Revd. Robert Masaroon presided.” In the years since, the annual Founders’s Day Service has commerated this day and the story of the college’s inception is recounted to students gathered together in “Assembly”.

An enormous landmark in the college’s history came in 1911 when the decision was made to admit girls. The significance of the move can be understood when compared to some facts relating to the period: Cambridge University didn’t award full degrees to women until 1947 and women in Ireland weren’t allowed to vote until 1922.

This year, a group of dedciated students under the guardianship of their English teacher, set about to collect the memories and stories of the girls who had passed through Wesley’s doors since 1911. They sent letters and e-mails to all corners of the world and made inquiries online and over the phone.

One such e-mail arrived in my inbox around Christmas time last year. It asked me whether I would contribute to a special book to celebrate 100 years of co-education at the school. Of course I was delighted to do so. My only problem was that when faced with the task of recounting my schooldays I didn’t know where to start and I didn’t know where to end. I managed to string a few thoughts together however and sent them back to the editorial team.

Last week, I attended the book launch. It was held in the National Gallery and was a momentous occasion. I couldn’t believe how many people had come. The expansive entrance hall of the Gallery was packed to the brim and as I looked around I saw many, many faces I did not recognise, but dotted between them, the unchanged appearance of my old teachers, whose mannerisms and expressions have remained constant since my departure.

The book, “Wesley Women” is a remarkable achievement. In all, 87 past pupils contributed. It’s full of amusing stories like girls ‘sealing’ holes in their tights with nail polish and filling balloons with hot water in order to survive the cold boarding house dorms. The earliest contributor left Wesley in 1912 and and there are several contributions from the 1920s and 1930s too. These stories are particualrly valuable as documentation of social and cultural history: Wesley did not live isolated from the world wars, the advent of rock and roll and of course the fight for women’s rights.

I’ll post my contribution later but must add that many of my memories are of people with whom many of you won’t be familiar. Still, I’d love to know, if you had to summarise your school days in 500 words, what would you mention and why?