The festival that won my heart

There is something in the air in Listowel. For me, it was the smell of wild garlic and the way the leaves hanging over the River Feale caught the light.

The tiny town located in Ireland’s South-West has a population of under 5000. But it has produced John B Keane, Brendan Kennelly, Bryan MacMahon and a host of other women and men of literary as well as musical note. The writers’ festival was a glorious excuse for a reunion with two schoolfriends.

On the first morning, we took a walking tour. Our guide – a spirited and brilliant man of advanced age (the son, incidentally of the late Bryan MacMahon) – brought us to the Garden of Europe. The grounds, dating back to 1995, feature a monument to John B Keane, as well as Ireland’s only Holocaust memorial.

sdr

Morning’s walk in Listowel

Gesturing to the impeccably-kept lawns behind him, the guide said: “This used to be a dump. A place you’d come to shoot rats.”

It didn’t matter if it was true or not. It was about the twinkle in his eye and the implication that the town had stayed humble.

The line between fact and fiction is appropriately slippery in Listowel, where the truth lies between the lines. Perhaps this is the reason that so many of the writers who came said it was their favorite literary festival, by far.

Or perhaps they like it so much because it is a place where they are allowed to exalt the ordinary. During a tea party hosted by none other than Colm Tóibín, he described a conversation he had recently overheard between an older person and a staff member in a Vodafone store.

“Now, I don’t want to send texts. But I want to receive them. Now, if I just turn it off, it can’t do anything, can it?  It won’t ring, will it?”  The utter terror of technology, Tóibín said. He wants to put it in a story.

For me, the days in Listowel were characterized not by terror but by awe. There was the surreal moment at a panel discussion when I recognized the shape of Margaret Drabble’s head in front of me. Later she turned around, and the man beside her (my former English teacher, who would be interviewing her later) introduced us. “I taught them very little,” he said, typically self-effacing. “Well you instilled a love of reading if they’re here,” she said, not missing a beat.

I sat beside the extraordinary artist Pauline Bewick during another event. She had a notebook open on her lap, full of striking, colorful sketches. Beside her was her daughter Poppy, herself an artist who, unlike her mother, works slowly and produces work that is startlingly life-like. They were a beautiful pair, gazelle-like, other-worldly and unassuming despite their huge success. I told Pauline about how our English teacher had inspired us to love literature. “You know that leaves me with a lump in my throat,” she said. “It really does.”

Another highlight was the poet Colette Bryce, who – to my shame – I’d never heard of. A Derry-born wordsmith, there was something about the gentle strength with which she read that lured me in. I bought her selected poems and was giddily excited when she looked up after signing it and said in a Northern lilt: “Thanks for coming, Kate.”

Edna O’Brien, of course packed the room out. I couldn’t even see her from where I was sitting. But I could hear her distinctive voice, and felt its warmth. “Enchantment is the novel’s most important quality,” she said. “It’s what matters most.” A literary titan whose work Ireland once banned, she would know.

On our last night, we went to see Forgotten, a one-man show written and sublimely performed by Pat Kinevane. It took place in St Johns, a church on the town’s main square converted into a theatre.

My friend, himself a playwright, was seeing it for the second time. It was an intense, exhausting, brilliant performance. When it was over and we filed out of the church, the sun had gone down and the last of the light stretched across the sky.

I noticed my friend had a certain glow about him; a kind of exaltation was written across his face. “This is what good theatre can do,” he said as we waited for the 11 o’clock bus back to Killarney. “It’s what Edna O’Brien was taking about,” he said. “A piece of art can enchant.”

 

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My eureka moment among a herd of Kerry bulls

“Everyone here is so nice!” I said to LSB.

We were in Kerry for a friend’s wedding and I was rekindling my love for the island.

“That cashier was lovely!” I exclaimed after buying éclairs in a newsagent in Killarney.

“I can’t believe they made us pancakes!” I said after the staff in our B&B allowed us to customize our breakfast order.

“Oh, and the milk is excellent too!” I added after taking a gulp to wash my pancake down.

It wasn’t just the food and people I was waxing lyrical about either.

“Just look at this Landschaft!” I said, as we strolled through Killarney National Park.20160514_135004

It was breathtakingly beautiful, with the mountains looming ahead of us and swathes of green all around.

As we continued along the path, we passed some bulls.

They were grazing lethargically, indifferent to their paradisal surroundings.

“Don’t you know how lucky you are?” I asked them. “Don’t you realise that you counterparts in factory farms would kill  for this kind of outdoor, paleo lifestyle?”20160513_194023

But there was no reasoning with them.

They looked up briefly, before returning to their edible vegan carpet. One bull even rolled his eyes at me.

I recognized the display of disdain immediately. The kind reserved for outsiders with excessive enthusiasm for your native land.

I was taken aback.

After four years in Germany, had I really developed the unbridled exuberance of a foreigner? Had I become an Ausländer in my own country?

Desperate to stop the resurgence of an  identity crisis, I decided to fight back.

“You’re the ones with notions!” I said to the offending animals. “You’ve no idea what the real world is like. When was the last time you filled out a tax return? Or worried about your pension? Or wondered about your heritage?”

They shuffled awkwardly. Then one by one, they turned away to face the mountains, their tails lolling easily in the breeze.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Daoibh!

A chairde,

I’m sorry.

I’m going to resume a much more regular posting schedule soon. Expect some half-baked musings for the “Big ideas” section,an update on preparations for Frau B’s 96th birthday and hopefully some anecdotes about an upcoming trip to the island of Rügen. pat

In the meantime though, I’d like to wish you all a wonderful St Patrick’s Day. I was lucky enough to attend not one but two  events here in Berlin to mark the occasion. One took place at the top of the television tower on Alexander Platz, the other in a Kreuzberg club which defied its dingy exterior to reveal a glorious Irish haven inside. With tea and biscuits on sale, bowls of potatoes on display and a spectacular performance by Jigs and Reels, an Irish dancing school in Berlin (run by a friend of mine) I felt as if I’d been transported right back to the homeland.

As you can see from the picture, LSB and I are fully embracing our Irishness for the day that’s in it.

Slán go fóill,

KK

Why Ireland needs a national paedophile treatment programme

In November of last year, I exchanged some e-mails with a paedophile living in the UK. I wanted to know how he felt about his sexual attraction to children. “I wish it would go away,” he wrote. “Sometimes I wish I could just take a blow-torch to my own mind.”

I’m calling him a paedophile which, despite common misconceptions, doesn’t make him an offender. In fact, this guy avoids children at all costs; he doesn’t want to be an abuser. But he does need help. He told me that the two therapists he’d approached said they weren’t equipped to treat him. So he gets most of his support from on-line forums populated by people with similar issues.

I come from Ireland, where I grew up hearing about horrific cases of child sexual abuse, mostly perpetrated by Catholic priests. As many as one in four Irish people may have experienced sexual abuse as children.

Perhaps it’s this backdrop of horror that makes talking about paedophilia such a particular taboo in Ireland. In popular discourse, paedophilia – defined medically as a persistent sexual attraction to children – is almost indistinguishable from the crime of acting on that desire.

Photo:Tommy Kavanagh Wiki Commons

But the truth is that the relationship between paedophilia and child sexual abuse is far from straightforward. Recently, I spoke to a man called Jens Wagner. He represents Germany’s national paedophile treatment programme. He told me that 80% of cases of child sexual abuse are not carried out by paedophiles. Canadian psychologist Hubert Van Gijseghem mentioned the same figure in an address to a parliamentary committee back in 2011.

At first I was surprised by the figure. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Paedophilia is an orientation; it has nothing to do with a person’s character or their likelihood of committing a criminal offence. Consider paedophiles as ordinary people and you realise that their aberrant desires are likely to be a source of considerable anguish.

In Ireland, if you are in prison for sexually abusing a child, you are entitled to counselling. However, I’m yet to find a single treatment centre for paedophiles who haven’t offended. While researching this, I stumbled upon a transcript of a debate in the Irish parliament that took place in 2001. Fine Gael TD Dan Neville was asking then Minister of Health Micheál Martin his views on the lack of services available for paedophiles seeking help controlling their urges.

After an unsatisfactory interchange, Martin concluded that “the idea of setting up a specially designated service is not one that has found favour so far with those in the health boards or the relevant professions on the grounds that it could lead to stigmatisation and, perhaps, a reluctance to participate as a result.”

It’s an extraordinary reply, when you think about it. The implication is that the possibility of paedophiles being stigmatized for getting help outweighs the potential benefit of providing it. Apply that way of thinking to any other area of medical treatment and you will realise how ludicrous it sounds.

Public policy-makers play a significant role in shaping social attitudes. They have a responsibility to provide help to vulnerable people.

And here is a sentence that might make some of you squirm. Paedophiles are vulnerable members of society. For the most part, they are ordinary people who know that to act on their urges would be to commit a horrible crime. They are people who want help to make sure they never hurt a child. Unfortunately, they have to do just that in order to be entitled to treatment.

They are, in effect, forced into a culture of silence.

Let’s take a look at the alternative. In Germany, the “Kein Täter werden” (Don’t become an offender) programme offers free counselling to non-offending paedophiles. It deals with potential stigma by guaranteeing patient confidentiality. Therapists in breach of it could even end up in jail. When I spoke to Jens Wagner for a related story, I asked him if the societal taboo on paedophilia was good or bad. “Bad,” he answered without skipping a beat. “Hysteria helps nobody, nor does the myth that every paedophile becomes a molester.”

Ireland needs to face up to the fact that paedophilia is a sexual orientation, not a crime. It needs to provide therapists with the tools to treat people looking for a way to manage their desires. It should not take a child to be abused for that help to be offered. Sweeping sexuality under the carpet should be a thing of the past.

The place that out-Catholics Ireland

As soon as the “Berlin-Warsaw Express” chugged across the border, the Virgin Marys began to appear. Some of them stood scarecrow-like and alone in their shrines at the edge of wheat fields, while others guarded the entrances to farm houses. Rosy-cheeked and smiling demurely beneath their blue shawls, they reminded me of home.

It was the first indication that I was on my way to a country with the potential to out-Catholic Ireland.

While the Virgin Mary may be rural Poland’s icon of choice, the late Pope John II reigns supreme in Warsaw. The former pontiff is carved into statues, pasted onto posters and a favourite among street artists, who sell paintings of his face alongside still-lifes of fruit bowls and flowers.priest

The adulation isn’t limited to the capital either. Last year, the Daily Mail reported that a businessman in the southern city of Czestochowa had erected a 45-foot statue of John Paul II, whom he believes intervened to save his son from drowning.

LSB and I soon got used to meeting some version of John Paul II at every street corner. We even began greeting him with a “Howeyeah JPII.” But it didn’t take long for us to realise that he’s not the only Roman Catholic actively revered in Warsaw.

In hindsight, I should have known better than to meander towards a park bench occupied by a life-size bronze statue reading a book. In my defence though, it reminded me of the Patrick Kavanagh statue by the canal in Dublin, a place where I have never been accosted.

LSB and I were basking in the sunshine beside the statue when we were approached by an elderly lady, who stood before us, staring. I smiled at her and she began speaking in Polish.

Warsaw skyline -- view from the Palace of Science and Culture

Warsaw skyline — view from the Palace of Science and Culture

“Erm… No… Polski,” I responded apologetically.

She gestured excitedly at the statue. I shrugged my shoulders as politely as I could.

She talked some more, then motioned at us to stay put while she went away.

A few moments later, she came back with an elderly man.

He had a pleasant tanned and wrinkled face and was wearing a Nike sweatshirt.

“English?” he said and we nodded enthusiastically. “I have… um. little English,” he said, laughing.

“This man,” he said, pointing at the statue. “Jan Twardowski. He… um…” he cupped his hands around his neck to indicate a collar and the word came to him. “Priest. Yes. Priest!”

“Oh!” I said. “Thank you! I didn’t know who he was.”
“Yes!” he said, delighted. “Priest… important priest… and also poet!”
“Priest,” the lady repeated, delighted. “Yes, priest!”
“Ah,” I said. “What a beautiful place for him!”
“Yes, yes, beautiful!” they agreed.

They left happily.

A few moments later, another party comprising two women and a man in a wheelchair arrived and stopped in front of us. They stayed there for quite some time and I began to shift uncomfortably in my seat.

Though there were several vacant benches elsewhere, I thought they were perhaps trying to covet our spot. “Would you like to…?” I said, motioning to get up.

“No, no,” the lady pushing the wheelchair said, waving her hand.
Suddenly I noticed a presence to my left. When I turned I discovered a third woman on her knees by my feet, praying.

This, I thought, is one step away from Pope-shaped perogies.

Familienfest 2013 Part 1

The train journey to Familienfest 2013 was hot and sticky. I got a seat in the bicycle carriage opposite a large dog with a sad, deformed paw.

My mother met me at the platform in Regensburg. She was so tanned that earlier, when she was in the health-food store buying vegetable spread, the cashier had asked her where she’d been.

“Ireland,” she’d said.

We ate mini dumplings for dinner and then my mother said, “Kate, we really need to rehearse.”

We darted into the next room and she took out some pages from a plastic pocket.

“These are yours,” she said, handing me three sheets containing typed verses. Beside every second one she’d written K, which stood for me.

We began to recite.

“You must speak slowly and dramatically,” my mother said.

I did.

“Excellent,” she said.

After all, it’s not every day you deliver the gift of Bavarian citizenship to your husband and father through rhyme.

Then we practised singing the Bavarian anthem in harmony.

In just a few hours, Familienfest 2013 would officially open and there would be no excuse for tumbling over words or singing off-key.

My father had been due to arrive any minute. But then I checked my phone to find he had texted to say his plane had failed to take off.

My mother’s faced dropped as the unspeakable possibility sunk in that he might not make it.

But all was well. It was just some technical fault. They changed planes. All going well, he would be in Regensburg by midnight.

We killed time by examining our props.

image:www.katekatharina.com

image:www.katekatharina.com

“Getting an abortion in 1953 wasn’t that easy.”

In 1953 Frau Bienkowski’s friend, who was having an affair with a married man, got pregnant. Though she’d had abortions before, she couldn’t get one this time. She had a baby daughter.

The man left his wife. Frau Bienkowski advised her friend not to marry the man. But she did.

After a few years they moved from Berlin to the south of Germany, where his family was from. Frau Bienkowski didn’t like the man. He wasn’t very nice and he drank a lot. He had other children too. Frau Bienkowski and her friend fell out over him for a while.

A few weeks ago, when it was Frau Bienkowski’s birthday, the woman called her.

She’s 89 now and her husband is dead. But the daughter grew up to be a wonderful woman.

“I said to her,” said Frau Bienkowski, prodding her fork into her kiwi cake, “I said, you went through a terrible few years. But look what you’ve got now. A wonderful daughter.”

It all turned out for the best, Frau Bienkowski said. Now she has a diligent daughter – a medical assistant – to take care of her in old age.

Frau Bienkowski and I talked about abortion. I told her it was illegal in Ireland. She had heard about the case of Savita Halappanavar.

Even though her friend now has a lovely daughter to take care of her in old age and her own beloved son died, Frau Bienkowski, 94, and I, seventy years her junior, agreed that Ireland should legalise abortion, and not just if a woman tells three doctors she’s suicidal.

When Frau Bienkowski was young, the pill wasn’t available. “You had to be really careful,” she said.

I told her that when my mother came to Ireland, people went to Georgian houses where doctors illicitly provided them with condoms.

“Contraception is probably still forbidden in Ireland,” Frau Bienkowski said, laughing.

I assured her that, thankfully, it was not.

But I told her that women go to England to get abortions. “Oh, is it legal there?” Frau Bienkowski asked. For her, England and Ireland are pretty much one.

“I’m surprised there’s such a demand for abortion these days though,” Frau Bienkowski said. “With so much contraception available.”

Frau Bienkowski and I talked about men. She knew several who were serially unfaithful.

I said I didn’t like people who wanted to have an exclusive partner and also lots of secret ones. I said I could understand people wanting to have sex with lots of different people, and liking open relationships. But that deceit drove me up the wall.

Frau Bienkowski agreed.

Then she asked: “So how are things with Andrew? What’s the story with his plans?”

“I have good news,” I said.

She looked intently at me. “Yes?”

“He’s moving to Berlin!” I said.

“That’s to my advantage,” she said.

Here eyes were sparkling. “That means you’re staying!”

“It sure does,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere for a while.”

“That’s to my advantage,” she said again.