Putting Fashion Journalism on the Irish Map: Deirdre McQuillan

‘’..you must be allowed to fail, as well as to succeed, in every area of the Arts. ‘Fail better’, as Beckett would say”.

Deirdre McQuillan

I remember the buzz of excitement in the foyer, at a fashion show in Limerick, sometime around 2005. Deirdre McQuillan, Fashion Editor for The Irish Times was attending and we spoke briefly. I recall her telling me about her connections to Tipperary and I always wanted to follow up with her about that.

We spoke again in 2009 when she wrote about me in her column ‘My Style’ in The Irish Times.  

Several years later we are sitting together in Il Café Di Napoli, a wonderful Italian cafe in Dublin, a place I have frequented every week, for the past two months. I love the ambiance there. Don, Joss and I are doing a wonderful drawing course at The Drawing School on Merrion Square, and we pop into the café after class each week. Hence I suggested to Deirdre to meet there.

Inevitably before we delve into the story of Deirdre’s fascinating career, as an editor, activist, fashion journalist, author, food writer, PRO for the Abbey Theatre, – we go back to Tipperary, and to the time she spent there as a child, visiting with her great Aunts.

Borrisokane  

I have brought along her lovely book The Irish Country House Table to the interview for her to sign and I quote here a section from the introduction. : ‘My earliest memories of good food come from the country. As a child, I was sent to stay with my grand- aunts in Tipperary during the summer holidays and I vividly remember that my shy, gentle aunt, a brilliant cook, was never more at ease than when she was bustling around the kitchen preparing good things to eat’.  Irish Country House Table (Gill & Macmillan 1994)

I tell Deirdre I am loving the recipes in this book, and so the conversation starts here.

Denise: So tell me about your memories of spending time in Borrisokane as a child.

Deirdre: My two great aunts Madge and Kit, sisters of my grandmother Mary owned The Central Hotel, shop and pub in the middle of Borrisokane. Aunty Kit did all the buying and handled the financial affairs while Auntie Madge’s fiefdom was the kitchen. And it was a huge kitchen, as I remember as a child. She taught me how to bake and was never happier than when she was in there fussing around the place. The book is dedicated to her. I would have been sent for a couple of weeks every summer to visit. So, I spent a lot of time there. One of the things I had to do when I arrived in Borrisokane was to go and visit all the other local shopkeepers in the town for a chat. Gather the eggs from the yard.

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Denise : And it’s a beautiful town, with some lovely buildings.

Deirdre: The Central Hotel was a fine three storey building and I remember it very well, every little detail. One of my memories was of the market day when all the animals would be penned up along the footpaths of the street and you’d go to the window downstairs and see sheep looking in at you! A lot of money changed hands on those days and I used to pull pints in the pub and take the takings of that day to the bank the following morning. What else do I remember about those summers? I learnt how to cycle at  a lovely house with a long avenue just outside the town called Killavalla owned by the Corcoran family. I remember seeing butter being churned there for the first time.

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Denise: A complete contrast to city life. So you got your culinary education in Tipperary.

Deirdre: Well certainly in baking yes. Auntie Madge made patty cakes, sponge cakes and bread and when my parents came down to collect me, we would have the most wonderful meals in the dining room but have to sit on these awful horse hair seated chairs! She was shy and modest, but the food she served was incredible.

When Kit died and the place was sold, I am told that Madge got into that car and never looked back at the place in which she had been born and lived all her life. She spent the last years of her life with another sister, Eileen Slater. Eileen was great fun, had married an Englishman called Slater and after he died lived in a lovely apartment in Northumberland Road in Dublin and that’s where Madge spent her last days. I was reminded of her when I first saw ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ by Brian Friel at the Abbey.

Travel Journalism

Denise: So tell me about how you got involved in journalism.

Deirdre: I got involved in journalism because I always wanted to write. I kept a diary when I was a teenager and always kept notes when I went to some new place. (In fact I have also had a career as a travel journalist and have traveled widely in Asia, South America and Africa and of course various parts of Europe. I’ve always been curious and love learning about other places!) My first trip was in 1970 when I spent a month in Morocco and kept a daily diary. I can still tell what I did every day there in the month of March.

Denise: Morocco is beautiful. I have been there. We have friends in Casablanca. I also associate the country with all the famous artists who spent time there, like Sir John Lavery.

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Deirdre: Four of us, friends from London spent a whole month travelling there right down to the south to Goulimine and back up through the Atlas mountains, camping. It was like another world to me. In TCD I spent a year studying Arabic in the School of Divinity because I had ambitions to be a foreign correspondent given that it was the most widely spoken language in the world. I am left handed so it was beautiful to learn because of its calligraphy and because you write from right to left. I could only do a year because Professor Weingreen was a Hebraist and couldn’t take us any further. Besides, it was starting to take up so much time that I had to concentrate on General Studies in which I eventually graduated in 1968. When I went to Morocco in 1970 I could floor people with the little bit of Arabic I had at the time. But there are so many dialects and what I was studying was classical Arabic. So it didn’t develop in the way it should have….it would have been a very different career.

Denise: Fascinating – so how did things unfold from there?

Editing ‘Women’s Choice’

Deirdre: After graduation, I got a job working in London for Penguin Books. Brendan Kennelly had been my tutor in Trinity and they were working on his Penguin Book of Irish Verse.  My job was to clear the permissions for all the poetry, and I spent a year there doing that and working as a secretary for two brilliant editors, Robert Hutchinson and later Neil Middleton. The thing about Penguin was you couldn’t go any further there, there were no prospects – you couldn’t hope to become  a commissioning editor. So I came back to work on a magazine called ‘Woman’s Choice’, in Dublin and ended up editing that magazine.

Denise: And what stand’s out in your mind from your time as editor of ‘Women’s Choice’.

Deirdre:  I was editor of the magazine for several years. I have given you a picture of one issue, because it was incredibly important, containing a guide to contraception (image below) . At the time it was against the law to publish any information about what was termed family planning – that issue sold out and there were many requests for more as well as vociferous criticism from right wing Catholics in the media for publishing it.

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Denise: It had a huge circulation?

Deirdre:  Yes it had a circulation of about 55,000 a week. So it was not inconsiderable.  It was a very exciting time in the early 70s.  We had done a survey beforehand asking readers for their views on contraception and got a huge response.  I remember the sheer desperation of women at the time, most of whom were married with several children and struggling to cope. We had a column called ‘Talk it Over’, an agony aunt, who established connections with a whole underground network of sympathetic doctors and who could help a woman in need of contraception along with pharmacists who would honour the prescriptions.  So the work that we were doing that year was incredibly important and valuable. And it’s kind of forgotten a bit… the contraceptive train and burning bras and all that is remembered but really what we were doing was vital – providing women with the information they needed. And you had to be very careful obviously.  The book that really influenced me at the time was ‘The Female Eunuch’ by Germaine Greer. I remember closing that book and thinking: ‘everything is going to change now’ .

Denise: We tend to forget just how difficult it all was.

Deirdre: Well you had all these right wing commentators in the media, the Catholic church’s power was enormous. So what we provided was the only information that was available to women at the time.

Denise: I remember in the ‘70s my mother bought ‘Woman’s Way’ magazine every week.  I used to cut the front pictures out of the magazine and keep them. I had hundreds of them because the front pages had these glamorous women wearing wonderful clothes. I am very regretful that I didn’t manage to retain those, as I generally keep everything.

Deirdre: Well I kept all the ‘Women’s Choice’ ones, actually –  I have a file of them. As editor, I would have written a leader every week. It was a time when a lot of women’s organisations began and we wrote about issues like domestic violence, equal pay, the status of women etc. My deputy was a woman called Darina McCluskey whose family were doctors and  started the Civil Rights movement in the north. So there was all that as well going on.

The Abbey Years

Denise: It was a time of great change and think of all the writers that were influenced by the events of that time – the emerging Northern Irish crisis, that phase of the Irish feminist movement etc. I am thinking of the late Seamus Deane who we only lost recently, Friel, Heaney, Nuala O Faolain, well there were so many…

Deirdre:  Well I would have known many of them when I went to the Abbey, because that was the next phase of my life: the Abbey Theatre. I was ten years in the Abbey as its PRO. I left ‘Women’s Choice’, because they wanted to launch the magazine in the UK reusing features from Australian magazines leaving only the letters page as local interest. I could not stand over that and see everything that meant anything to me destroyed. I had serialised ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’ and other important Irish novels, I had commissioned people like Mary Maher of The Irish Times to write a column on motherhood, Dr. Moira Woods on medical matters (she went on to establish the Sexual Assault Unit in the Rotunda).  I had published many interesting writers and to stand over something like this – I just couldn’t. So when the job in the Abbey came up, Gemma Hussey was on its Board and would have known of my work and campaigning and her influence obviously helped me secure that job.

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Denise: Some wonderful plays produced in that period.

Deirdre:  Yes because the policy of Joe Dowling, as Artistic Director was to nourish and promote Irish writers.  Touring was a highlight: I particularly remember ‘Faith Healer’ and Donal McCann’s brilliant performance in that Friel play and the many plays of Tom Murphy, who became a good friend. And of course the first US tour since the 1930s, to New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington was thrilling. I worked at the theatre from 1972 to 1982 when I was headhunted by Vincent Browne who was re-establishing The Sunday Tribune. May 1983 was a month I will not forget;  I got married, changed jobs, became pregnant and joined the Sunday Tribune. It was a big decision, but ten years at the Abbey was ten years. So I decided to make the leap and go to the Tribune

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The Sunday Tribune

Denise:  A decade can change a lot – I always think decades mark periods of huge change, not just historically but personally in one’s own life.

Deirdre: Yes everyone changes and I totally believe that in life you make choices at critical times and from that point of view I’m an existentialist and believe that you are a result of the choices that you make. So yes, it was a big step in March 1983. I joined others in the venture, many of whom came from or went on to very successful careers – Emily O’Reilly, Maggie O Kane, Deirdre Purcell, Fintan O’Toole, Michael Dwyer, Lynn Geldof, Eamonn Dunphy, David Walsh, Paul Tansey, Brian Trench.  Coming from the theatre Browne suggested I cover that area, but I preferred to write about other things. So I started writing features, like one on sex education in schools and another on domestic violence and incest, a topic not much written about then along with interviews with interesting people and other stuff.

Denise: What a wonderfully talented group of people. And of course you were again trying to get information out to the public that was otherwise being swept under the carpet.

Deirdre: Yes exactly – I mean there was no sex education in the schools at the time and a very forceful right wing movement against it. There was an American priest called Fr. Paul Marx, a leader of the pro life movement who came to Ireland at the time with a 14 week old foetus in a bottle and went around the schools with this foetus to show teenagers as an introduction to sex education. Shocking.

Putting Fashion of the Irish Map

Denise: And when did you start writing about fashion?

Deirdre: Well Vincent (Browne) couldn’t bear the idea of fashion and kept calling it ‘clothes’! We tried to get various people to do it. But having worked on ‘Women’s Choice’ and published fashion features – I suppose you could have called me a stylist at the time – I knew how it worked and was interested in a general way in fashion though I had never nourished any ambitions to be a fashion journalist. And I thought, well, if I have to do it, I’m going to do it properly. So I read every single thing, everything I could read on the subject. And I realised it was more than just about the clothes. It was about textiles, it was about design, about aesthetics, about social history. So it opened a whole new world to me. And then when my second son was born I went freelance, but with a contract to do fashion features for the Tribune. And I continued to do that for quite some years.

Denise: That was pretty groundbreaking.

Deirdre: It was ground breaking at the time, because there was a gifted production manager at the paper called Andy Barclay (who only died recently) and he loved fashion and style and would give my features huge spreads. So as Kavanagh says, : ‘Gods make their own importance’, and the Tribune made fashion important.  I was the first Irish journalist to cover the British Designer Show, for instance, which eventually became London Fashion Week.

Another first was photographing the ancient gold lunulas and torcs from the National Museum on a live model – I doubt if this will ever be allowed again! During this time I also started doing features for Town & Country, Elle, the Washington Times and The Financial Times and wrote various books as well. It was also the start of another career as a travel writer.

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Denise: Your first book was the ‘The Aran Sweater,’ I think?.  Then ‘A Style Guide to Dublin’ which you worked on with Seamus Heaney’s wife Marie Heaney I think?. And there was the one on Fish….

Deirdre: Yes: ‘Perfectly Simple Fish’. There was the book about Mary Robinson. And then the book on Roly’s Bistro. I spent weeks doing that as we had every single recipe tested in a domestic kitchen. It sold 20,000 copies. The Aran Sweater book took nearly a year’s research but it was so rewarding to do.

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Denise: So you were freelancing when you were offered a position with The Irish Times?

Deirdre: Geraldine Kennedy had been appointed editor of The Irish Times.

Denise: Another Tipperary woman whom I interviewed some years ago.

Deirdre:  Another great Tipperary woman indeed. I was approached by her to become Fashion Editor of The Irish Times. And it was wonderful because suddenly there were resources I had never had previously, I had support and enthusiasm and was made to feel so welcome. That was in 2003 and I had to jump straight into it.

Denise: Fashion has changed a great deal in those eighteen years.

Deirdre:  It certainly has in many ways.

Denise: And the politics surrounding it have changed quite dramatically too. Who would have been at the pinnacle of their careers then when you started at The Irish Times:  John Rocha, Louise Kennedy, Quin and Donnelly.

Deirdre: Indeed and others like Mariad Whisker, Michael Mortell and Lainey Keogh were also beginning their successful careers and there was still Sybil Connolly, the most successful Irish designer internationally and one of the first Irish female entrepreneurs. I did the last interview with Sybil before she died.

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Denise: And over those eighteen years reporting on fashion Deirdre – are there key moments that stand out to you in that period?

Deirdre:  Andy Barclay’s insistence on my going to London to the British Designer Show was the kind of encouragement I needed and that really changed everything for me. I remember seeing  John Galliano, Jasper Conran, Vivienne Westwood and other emerging British designers on the London catwalk in Olympia where the event was then held. I can still remember Galliano’s first show, the colours, the silhouettes, the sheer energy. I followed his career right to the day he was dropped from Dior and his last show in Paris.

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Other unforgettable collections were those of McQueen in London and Paris.

Denise: ..McQueen was so gifted and unbelievably talented. So tragic.

Deirdre: Yes, he was a trained Savile Row tailor but knew how to break the rules and push boundaries and was so ahead of everyone else in every way particularly in experimenting with new technology. The one collection I’ll never forget was in the sports stadium at Bercy in Paris where he regularly used to stage his shows.  It was called The Widows of Culloden for autumn/winter 2006 when he returned to his Scottish roots and the Highland Rape collection of 1995 which made his name. At the end of the show, a hologram of Kate Moss appeared like a genie in a bottle, an otherworldly apparition arising from a glass pyramid in the middle of the stage – and then disappeared.  I’ll never forget it.

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Denise: That show was unforgettable – and then to have a good seat as a fashion journalist! You were so fortunate.

Deirdre: Yes. But the big change now of course is that these kind of elaborate live shows are probably not going to happen anymore except occasionally by big international brands who can afford to do them…everything changed with Covid.  And it needed to change.

Denise: In what respect?

Deirdre: In that we are consuming too much, too much is happening and fashion had become a treadmill that no one seemed to be able to get off or stop with pre collections, cruise collections, whatever.  I mean John Galliano was having to do thirty three collections a year. How does your creativity let alone your sanity manage that?

Denise : Design was bought by the corporate sector.

Deirdre: Yes. When the corporate sector moved into fashion, designers surrendered their independence and became pawns in big business. Big business changed fashion – particularly when Bernard Arnault bought Dior, then Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy and started to dominate the world of luxury. That changed everything globally.

Denise: In the sense that standards dropped?

Deirdre: No, it wasn’t that standards dropped, it’s just that design was bought by the corporate sector. And so as a designer you had to deliver, to sell. So  creatively you were not allowed to fail and you must be allowed to fail, as well as succeed, in every area of the arts. “Fail Better” as Beckett would say.

Denise: Yes. Well it was pressure that was a big factor in Alexander McQueen’s demise….he was overworked.

Deirdre: Yes and the same with Galliano. There’s a lot that’s wrong with the industry. That is being revealed in a whole new genre of books on the subject, the most recent one called ‘Unraveled’ by Maxine Bedat, about the life and death of a garment – the scale of production and consumption and how so much clothing ends up in landfill in Africa. I recently did a feature on summer fashion reading in The Irish Times Saturday magazine selecting six fashion books and ‘Unraveled’ was top of the list that included ‘What Artists Wear’ by Charlie Porter, ‘Patch Work’ by Claire Wilcox and ‘Dandy Style’ by Shaun Cole and Miles Lambert.

Denise: I will look some of those books up. The landfill situation is serious.

Deirdre: Yes, I saw the scale of the situation in one of the biggest slums in Africa, Kibera in Nairobi a few years ago – mountains of clothing as far as the eye could see and so shocking. Yet people have made fortunes from fashion. Arnault is the richest man in France, Amancio Ortega, now in his 80s owns Zara and is the richest man in Spain. The richest man in Japan is Tadashi Yanai owner of Uniqlo. The owner of H&M, the biggest global fashion company in the world is Steffan Persson who bought an entire village in Hampshire, England. You have fashion tycoon Michael Lewis head of a clothing empire that includes 3000 stores and brands like Phase Eight and Whistles who recently married Lady Kitty Spencer. Her ring was estimated at €300,000!

Denise:  There is so much wastage and so many people working behind the scenes in underpaid jobs.

Deirdre: Yes, I mean Boohoo have a lot to answer for in terms of labour abuse and scandalous disregard for workers’ rights. So there’s a lot that is wrong: we are consuming far too much. Influencers are persuading us to buy more and more so these days I think it’s important when considering a purchase to ask am I going to wear this more than thirty times? And if not, don’t buy.

Sustainable Fashion

Denise: I read your recent article in The Irish Times on Sustainable Fashion and you are raising very important points there about the industry and about greenwashing (11). 

Deirdre: Sustainability is one of the biggest issues in the fashion industry, but unlike food labels such as ‘free range’ or ‘organic’, sustainability in clothing is not regulated, consequently, yes, there is a lot of greenwashing. It is estimated that 40% of environmental claims could be misleading customers. The industry churns 80 billion garments out annually. Zara for instance produced more than 450 million items in 2018! We throw away 1.2 billion tons of clothing to land fill….I mean that can’t continue.

Denise: Yes – it is a really critical situation, like Climate Change. It is one that needs to be taken more seriously by us all.

Deirdre: Carrie Symonds rented her wedding dress for £45 and drew attention to My Wardrobe HQ . That set an example to others.

Collins Barracks

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Denise: Deirdre I could chat for hours but it does strike me you are a type of institution in Ireland, given all the years of fashion commentary and analysis you have provided. You must have an amazing collection of books, magazines and key beautiful pieces?

Deirdre: Oh, yes lots and lots of books! And I have a few pieces that I treasure, not necessarily expensive designer items.

Denise: And would you ever think of doing an exhibition of these pieces and the books and articles you have archived?

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Deirdre: Well I mean the thing is I have an extensive fashion library which I would ideally like to sell not being in a position to donate. And I have a whole box of invitations from years of attending shows in London and Paris, some of which are very elaborate, innovative and interesting in their own right.

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Denise: But shouldn’t they be looked at maybe by the National Museum of Ireland? Think about what the V&A have done for fashion history?.

Deirdre: Oriole Cullen, who is Irish, and a senior curator at the V & A was behind the big recent Dior exhibition in London.  She would be an interesting person for you to talk to and has had wide experience and knowledge of fashion.

Denise: But you should think about that Deirdre. Collins Barracks (pictured above) would surely be interested in the amazing collection you have – documenting several critical decades in Irish life.

Deirdre: I would love to see Collins Barracks put on more Irish fashion exhibitions as there is certainly great interest out there – when they put on When Philip met Isabella – with Philip Treacy’s hats in the Riding School, it attracted a record attendance. But that was years ago.

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Maybe there are plans in progress? One of the aspects of being a fashion journalist that I have really enjoyed in my career is witnessing and reporting on the scale of Irish creativity in the industry both at home and abroad. I have been covering the graduation shows in Dublin and Limerick and seeing the development and growth of so many talented designers and following their progression – like Simone Rocha, for example. So there are rich resources out there from which to draw…

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Image References:

(1): Left: Deirdre’s Grandmother Mary Cleary from Borrisokane with her husband Stephen Murtagh. Right: Deirdre’s Mother Joan McQuillan nee Murtagh.

(2) A photograph of the Central Hotel, Borrisokane, from the 1970s, after Deirdre’s relatives had sold the building. Image: Sincere thanks to Eamon Slevin for sourcing this image.

(3): ‘My Studio Door, Tangier’ by Sir John Lavery RHA Image: The Belfast Telegraph

(4): ‘The Abbey Theater Dublin : A Commemorative Record 1966-1976’ by Deirdre McQuillan

(5): Image: Donal McCann in ‘Faith Healer’ by Brian Friel . Image: The Irish Times

(6): Torc : National Museum of Ireland. Image: Archeology.ie

(7): ‘The Irish Sweater’, Deirdre McQuillan (Appletree 1993) ; Mary Robinson: A President in Progress, Deirdre McQuillan (Gill & Macmillan 1994)

(8): Sybil Connolly . Image:Limerick.ie/Hunt Museum

(9): John Galliano while at Dior – the image gives some sense of his theatrical and vibrant designs. Image: WWD

(10): Alexander McQueen and Kate Moss. Image: Mail: On Line

(11): ‘Sustainable Fashion: 10 Irish Brands for The Mindful Shopper’, The Irish Times , Sat, July 24th 2021

(12): Part of Deirdre’s extensive library.

(13) : Louis Vuitton Invitation.

( 14) : Isabella Blow. Image: ‘Philip Treacy: When Philip Met Isabella’, by Philip Treacy, Isabella Blow and Hamish Bowles. Assouline, 2003.

An Irish Voice: My Zoom chat in Lockdown with Niall O’Dowd

In an article entitled ‘Tipperary Stars Line Out for a Celebration of their Homeland’ , published on Tuesday August 15th 2000, in the Irish Examiner , Anne Marie O’Brien writes ‘Natives of the Premier County are to the fore in business, sporting, academic and cultural life at home and abroad – and a major conference next month will bring some of these important figures together for the first time.  Organised and hosted by the newly-opened Tipperary Rural and Business Development Institute (TRBDI) Ceiliúradh Thiobraíd Árainn, A Celebration of Tipperary, from August 31st to September 3rd marks the start of the millennium and Tipperary’s extended Diaspora. People with Tipperary roots such as Niall O’Dowd, who had a significant role in the Northern Irish peace process and is publisher of the Irish Voice Newspaper in the US; Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien ; TJ Maher; and John Lonergan will share stories from  their youth and their careers in a festival centered at TRBDI in Thurles’.

In another article, on Aug 29th (she wrote several about the event, including the one copied below – ‘An Irish Voice of Our Country’s Diaspora is Keynote Speaker’ ) she goes on to mention all those participating in the event but rather than list everyone, I include below the conference programme, which gives some idea of the magnitude and importance of the event. Several key participants are sadly no longer with us, but it remains a great achievement that so many high profile and influential Tipperary people gathered together in Thurles in 2000.

Ceiliúradh Thiobraíd Árann Conference Programme.

I was one of the main organizers and I remember vividly the buzz of excitement on Friday evening September 1st, waiting for Niall O’Dowd to give his key note address:  ‘The Role of the Diaspora in the Peace Process’. The Tipperary Star also did extensive coverage of the event, the snap below from Saturday September 9th (apologies as my files with paper clippings are twenty years old and I had to take them out of scrap books to scan them causing some damage).

Zoom Forward Twenty One Years

Push the clock forward twenty one years, and I am sitting in my dining room, on a cold February evening in 2021, in Covid Lockdown,  waiting to talk on zoom to Niall in New York.  Is 6pm Irish time, 1 pm NY time. But once the meeting begins, it is like sitting down at the table together, in Killough, for a chat.

I tell Niall I had a difficult time trying to decide the focus of our conversation – Niall has had such an amazing career,  some of which we discuss in the interview below. Apart from his many business achievements, his role in the Northern Irish Peace process, his journalistic and academic writing career, and the many prestigious acknowledgements he has received, such as being awarded in 2004 by UCD ,his  Alma Mater, an Honorary Doctorate and in  2014 The Government of Ireland ‘President’s Distinguished Services Award’, Niall remains a very humble and humane person, and deeply knowledgeable about Irish American relations.

Thurles Years

Denise: There are so many things I could ask you about, I had a hard time narrowing things down. But I think I have hit on a couple of key questions that will interest people who read my blog. It is a visual, cultural and a biographical blog Niall, as I was explaining to you. So, when you are ready, we can launch in.

Niall: I’m all set, go right ahead.

Denise : So obviously I want to ask you about your early years, you grew up in Tipperary, indeed my brother-in-law Michael Quinn remembers your dad quite vividly, Donal, and often mentions him when your name comes up. So, what are your first memories that come back to you about those formative years, but also what Tipperary means to you as an Irish-American. Is it something that you think about in terms of your identity now that you have lived away for so long?. I’m interested in regionality and things like that. So, I thought I’d begin with that.

Niall: Sure, I’ll tell you where it is most important to me – is the Tipp hurling team. I was brought up in Thurles, as you know, and hurling was in my blood from a very early age. I know I left Thurles when I was 10, but I was deeply indoctrinated at that point into the great Tipperary teams of the early 1960s and Jimmy Doyle and John Doyle, Tony Wall and all those, Liam Devaney, I think I could probably name the team. And something that really kind of grabbed me at the time, like a young kid, fixates on a particular sport. So, what Tipperary means to me? I get as excited about Tipperary playing in a hurling All Ireland as I would about any team playing anywhere. So, that’s one memory and one sort of connection that I have kept all my life.

Denise : Well that’s a very strong memory  and one that a lot of people from Tipperary would identify with. So, you moved then with your family when you were about 10, I think to Drogheda and you completed your primary and secondary education there before moving on to UCD. So I’ll go to UCD. It was English and History you chose as your subjects, am I right in that?

Career Decisions

Niall: Actually, English and Irish.

Denise: English and Irish ok. With a view perhaps to becoming a teacher?

Niall: Yes, you know it was a time you are talking about the seventies, where you didn’t have any great ambition other than a certain level – what did your Father do? My Father was a teacher all his life. So, I basically wanted to become a teacher. You didn’t think back then of any great sort of career changing moves, but you tended to go along with the flow, which was teacher’s sons tended to become teachers. The legal world was I suppose controlled by certain families, the medical business was controlled by certain doctors. I think to some extent it’s still the same. But you didn’t have any greater horizon other than what your Father had done and what your family history was.

Irish Community in America

Denise: Yes, I can fully understand that. But during that time you did go on a trip to America, which was probably something a lot of students may not have had the opportunity to do at that stage in the 70s. So that was formative for you to go on a working visa when you were in college?

Niall: Yes, I was always fascinated by America, my Father loved Cowboy and Indian movies and the old movies. And I remember going to see John Wayne and all that stuff and just growing up with the kind of mythology of America. And then I remember very specifically John F. Kennedy coming to Ireland and what an inspirational figure, it seemed that overnight the country went from black and white to colour. Because you had this spectacular young president who a very backward country, like Ireland was at the time, could lay claim to and it was something very trilling. So, America was in my imagination. I often think about that these days of what the kids today think when they see Trump, as against what we saw, which was a great American president called John F. Kennedy.  So, I went to America in 1976 for the first time, I was in college in UCD and I went to Chicago for the summer to play football, Gaelic football. I was a reasonably good footballer and hurler I must say. But mainly played football with the Connemara Gaels and hurling with the Limerick hurling team. So that was a great way to go because I had no relatives in America as such. And it was a great way to get started. I think one thing about the GAA that people forget is just how much socialisation and good will there is when you arrive into a new town and you don’t know anyone, you can go to the GAA club, you can get to know people. In my case they got me a job, they got me a place to live, and I made an immediate group of friends. And I just found America everything I was looking for as a young man.

Denise : And of course you had a strong sense immediately there then of community and an Irish American community, even at that stage. It seems to have been something that really nurtured you on your first trip there?

Niall: ‘Nurtured’ is a good word, because I can’t imagine what I would have done if I didn’t have the GAA, if I didn’t have that immediate connection with people to give me a job and get me started. Because it’s a pretty intimidating country otherwise. And I found it very helpful to be able to hang out with a group of people right from the beginning. And it was just a great experience, because my mind was expanding at that point, to what was I going to do after college and all that. I remember thinking this is a magnificent country, I’m really enjoying myself here, I love the climate, although I wasn’t crazy about the heat at the height of summer. But I love the people, I love the whole sense of adventure basically…like so many Irish before me.

Californian Years

Denise : Yes indeed, it’s such an incredible history and incredible bond. So you came back home to Ireland and taught for a while. You moved to California then a couple of years later. Had you a vision Niall as to what you were going to do then? Was the world of journalism beckoning to you or was that something that came about when you got to California. Can you tell me a little bit about that please?

Niall: Well it’s interesting, I often talk to young journalism students and people like that, and I always say ‘don’t plan your life because it won’t work out as you expect anyway’. And I never sort of said in my head, well I’m leaving Ireland and I’m never coming back. I just went to America in 1978, I went to California which was a fabulous experience for a young Irish man at the time. Again, using the Gaelic football and hurling connection I played out there with teams and got in with a crowd of lads. And I remember at the end of the summer thinking, you know I’m not really that interested in school teaching and I’d like to really see if I could do something out here…not making a complete decision, but just saying I’m going to stay, I’m going to stay for a year, I’m going to stay for two years and suddenly it’s 40 years! and you look around and think: ‘how did that happen’.

Denise: I know, but you launched the first successful newspaper in 50 years when you had settled a little bit in California, the Irishman newspaper. So you were beginning to see a need to reach out to the Irish-Americans Niall I think?

Niall: Yes it was just at the time, it was right at the time that emigration was becoming an issue from Ireland again. And the early eighties saw a flood of young Irish come into California, New York, Boston, Chicago. And what I remember noticing (because I was working in construction myself and a friend from Connemara and I started a small construction business) but just how little knowledge people had about Ireland and the New Ireland and what was happening. Because there was no internet obviously, there was very little media that you could get from Ireland. Occasionally there would be an Irish radio show on the radio, but that was about it. So, I thought, you know, because there was so many young Irish coming in, that this was an opportunity for me to start a newspaper because I was always very interested in writing and I had written for a local paper in Drogheda for a couple of years. So, I thought to myself – I’m going to give this a shot. And with the sheer madness of youth and the sheer irresponsibility, just starting a newspaper with $1,200 dollars when I think of it now and making it work, was just a great growing experience and something that told me a lot about myself and also a lot about America. The main thing about America I noticed was the good will that people had towards you, if you were Irish – it  was phenomenal. And when we started the newspaper the amount of support we got from very good people. I remember after a week we went broke and I had to go and ask this guy for a loan, and not only did he give me a loan, but he got five other people to help!. And it was that kind of initial stage where you were all in it together, you were an emigrant community, you helped people and it was all informal. But I look back on it with great pride and great sense of achievement that you know, 95% of new publications never get off the ground – but we did.

East Coast

Denise: Yes – fantastic. And in deciding the move to the East Coast, you had obviously at this stage found your vocation, found a passion in translating, as such, what was happening back in Ireland, to the community in the States. That would have appeared, from what you just said, as one of your objectives and that’s what you wanted to do.  Or was it more to liase and bring together the Irish community in America? Probably a bit of both?

Niall: Well, there were two levels to it, one was that the Irish-American history, not just the Irish form, but the Irish American history was so incredibly fascinating. In a place like San Francisco, where the Irish had come in their droves for the Gold Rush in the 1840s and they had put together much of the downtown infrastructure – you went downtown and the streets were called after Irish people. And there was this whole history, extraordinary history of the Irish in California. And I became very very interested in, and that was one part of it. 

And the other part of it was the young Irish coming in who didn’t have any access to information other than through my paper. But I realised what I wanted to do was start a magazine. I had been to New York a couple of times and just in terms of the numbers of young Irish, there were far more in New York. Also I remember  going by a newsstand one day and picking up an Italian-American magazine called the ‘Attensioniand thinking you know, something like this could work for the Irish and that was the determination for the Irish-American magazine. And another Tipperary person, Patricia Harty was working on that as well. So, we decided that New York and Irish-American magazine was really going to be the future.

Denise: The rest is history.

Niall: Rest is history , good or bad! But I mean when I came to New York again it was like starting all over. And somebody said to me instead of going west young man, I went east. But again, a great welcome, a great sense of involvement by the community and what people understanding and being proud of what I was trying to do, which was create a whole new Irish sensibility out of the fact that so many new young Irish were coming in, and they were changing the whole situation there. So Irish America was mainly aimed at the Irish-Americans, the history, the heritage. And like John F. Kennedy was obviously Irish-American, but there was so many other great figures in American history who were Irish-American. And writing a magazine for them, the 40 million people of Irish extraction was great task. And then in 1987, that was in 1985, in 1987 starting the Irish Voice, because there was a massive influx of young Irish into New York at the time.

Democrats and Republicans

Denise: Yes, and indeed the Irish Voice was the first successful newspaper since 1928 I think and had a huge circulation – so I mean, what a fantastic achievement. But what I was thinking about, I’m jumping ahead a little but something that struck me when I was thinking about that and I suppose this is inevitable after Trump’s time in office as well..but when I look at social media in Ireland and when I think about politics in the States, I see this incredibly polarised society. I see the Democrats on one side, the Republicans on the other and the Democrats are progressive economically, pro-immigration, pro-choice, pro-same sex marriage. And one could say almost directly the opposite then: Republicans are conservative, anti immigration, anti choice, anti same sex marriage. I mean is it as bad as that there Niall? I think the election really brought that home to me. I used to have to close social media some days, because I would see these pejorative terms being thrown by Republicans at Democrats calling them ‘communists’ and ‘socialist’. I wonder did you find a problem in reaching out to the Irish American community, in bridging that divide, or is it that pronounced among the Irish American community?

Niall: Well, the Irish American community reflects America at large. I mean think of it this way, if you look at the Irish American political history, we had the great liberal Kennedy family, the great liberal icons of the 20th Century.  You had the on the other side Joe McCarthy who was also Irish American, who was a rabidly anti-communist, rabidly right wing. So, you had this differentiation. Then you had Eugene McCarthy who was a very liberal American senator who played a huge role in forcing President Johnson out of office. So, you had this divide right through which reflected to some extent the greater American culture. But also the level of peoples experience. I mean in terms of the liberal Irish, they made huge contributions to the United States. I mean I think John F. Kennedy was probably the key figure in terms of the Irish Americans. But there were thousands of other politicians across the country who created the democratic party really. The Democratic party arose out of Tammany Hall fundamentally and the rules and regulations of Tammany Hall about how to get elected in local politics and how to take care of the local individual, how to go, block by block, and that was all from Irish American political experience. And you look at how Roosevelt handled the depression. A tremendous amount of the donations and charitable and then the kind of work programmes and all that that was done were based on Irish models. So, I think from that point of view there was a very identifiable Irish strain in American politics. And then on the other side you had Ronald Reagan and people like that of Irish American heritage, who thought very differently. And in fairness it didn’t look that bad during the Reagan era really when you think back on it now. But with Trump it has just become completely and disastrously divided, to the point where there is a story today in the New York Times, that 71% of Republicans don’t look on Democrats as their opponents, they look on them as their enemies and that’s a sad day for politics. And it’s totally created by the Trump era.

Denise: Yes absolutely very sad to see things having, I suppose, ‘regressed’ so far – that’s probably the best word to use in that context. But anyway, we have good days ahead – we have a different Administration.

Niall: And I want to put that in context, I was on 125th Street in Harlem in 2008 when Barack Obama, a black man was elected president, I never thought I’d see that in America or anywhere actually. And then if you look at the result from the senate race, two Senate races in Georgia, you had a Jewish and a black guy elected in the deep south. I mean there is a lot of tremendous amount of change going on in American politics and it’s not all about Trump. It’s about states like Arizona, states like Georgia understanding suddenly that the Republicans are going completely off the wall and there are more and more people like in Colorado which used to be a red state, now it’s a blue state. So, I think there is an underground political movement of a shift to the left, which is probably disguised at the moment because everyone is talking about Trump. But long term I think that is happening…I mean if you look at the last elections, since 1998, I think, the Republicans have only won the popular vote one time. So, they are not necessarily as popular, or as dominant, as people might think.

Denise: Yes and again it’s what we are being fed and how the media can present these things: it can become skewed when you are not on the ground in a certain place, however vast the American society is.

Patten Report

Denise: So, I’ll bring you back a little bit and I’ll come back to Biden in a few minutes but obviously you played such a pivotal role in the progress that was made between the American administration and relations with Northern Ireland in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement. Now that was largely through your friendship and your collaborations with Bill Clinton and his time in office, when you acted as a key negotiator there.

So, the questions that came to my mind about that and it is bringing you back a couple of years now to ask you this – but when you were over in Tipperary in 2000 at Tipperary Institute, we had seen the establishment of the Good Friday Agreement. And you were concerned at that stage about the Patten Report, because that was clearly still a worry at the time as to whether the British administration were taking the policing side of things seriously enough in Northern Ireland. Now happily that all seems to have panned out ok with the establishment of the Northern Irish Policing Board. 

So I wondered and I’m jumping over time spaces here, but in light of what happened on 25th May 2020 with George Floyd’s tragic death, I wonder have you ever thought about something like that working in the States? Because you are so knowledgeable about that particular process in the Northern Irish context do you think a reform of policing might happen under this new administration, in light of the upset that man’s death created?

Niall: You know I wish I could say yes. But I actually think what I have become acutely aware of, something I should have known for a long time, but I never really thought enough about it ..but the depth of racism in American is unbelievable and that’s the very sad part of it and that’s what’s blocking a lot of progress, in an awful lot of places. Because it’s almost so prevalent that you don’t notice it, I know that sounds strange. But the entire society is set up in such a way because of slavery that black Americans are second class:  in terms of the number of people dying from Covid; in terms of general health issues; in terms of employment; in terms of all these factors. And there is a very good question to be asked, why is that the case? And I think a tremendous amount of it is, I’m not even sure people mean to be racist, but it’s like they inherited this society where blacks were thought of a second class and third class people. And that flows over into policing. I mean the secret to policing, as everyone knows, is that the police man at the top of the road in the Ardoyne Road should be a Catholic police man, because he understands the community and he’s from them and he’s understood by them and he’s accepted. Now in American unfortunately the chances are in most of these black neighborhoods, that the policeman is a white guy. And like what happened with George Floyd where you had this tug as a policeman who put his weight on his neck for nine minutes…and for the life of me, to this day, I cannot understand why he did that for any reason. I mean it made absolutely no sense, other than to torture the poor man who was obviously not well to begin with.

Denise: Well to assert his authority of course and his power in the dynamic.

Niall: Yes …but to spend nine minutes killing somebody.

Denise: It was horrific, I couldn’t watch it to be honest, I found it too distressing.

Niall: It really made me think an awful lot. And I think that’s where Black Lives Matter came in very prominently. And you know what I’m delighted about, more than anything, you know people attack the young generation that they are into their computers and they are into Facebook and all that. But they came out on the streets in huge numbers, massive numbers when that happened. And that is something very pertinent in a democracy – that people can protest peacefully and make the point over and over: this is not good enough. And I was very proud of the fact that so many young people did that, because they really had quite a bad reputation as a generation that wouldn’t go outside the door other than to socialise or exchange texts or whatever. So, I think from that point of view there is a lot of good things happening, at a younger level.

But if you ask what’s really going on in America: unfortunately, I think racism is so deeply engrained and it’s very hard to deal with it.

Denise: Yes and even after Obama’s Presidency – it is hard to believe that these things could be happening, to the extent that they are. But from what you are saying it is deeply ingrained and it’s not going to resolve easily: it would take really a complete reenvisaging.

Niall: I mean you look at the faces of the mob that stormed Capitol Hill, just look at the hate, look at the horrible things they did. They gouged out a guy’s eye; they killed somebody; they threw a fire extinguisher at someone else; they attacked somebody with an American flag. I mean these are bad people. And what Trump did, quite deliberately, is to wake up that slumbering giant of racism and promote it and push it for his own reasons to ensure his re-election. And it was a dreadful political thing to do and it was a dreadful outcome that happened. But I think people now see that that’s what Trump was doing. And I do believe that what has happened to the Republican party is very tragic, because they are a party that apparently does not believe in democracy and you can’t survive as a party like that, because they are not accepting the results of the election. They tried to overturn it. To this day there are forty four Senators who don’t want Trump to face trial on the issue of creating an insurrection which was no doubt what he did. So they are in a very bad way in my opinion.

But it is also an incredibly fascinating time, because America is going through incredible transformations. When I say Trump’s time in office was bad – but then I’m really saying also that electing a black man in Georgia, electing a Jewish guy in Georgia, that’s huge. People would never have thought of it fifteen years ago, in the heart of the south, that a black guy and Jewish guy would get elected to the Senate. 

Denise: Yes well that’s very positive and I’m delighted to hear you say that. I guess we don’t hear enough of that filtering through. …we are hearing more of the negative side than some of that progress you are speaking about.

Niall: Well we can talk about riots and all that, but even the election of Obama, I know it’s two steps forward and three steps back, but it was an incredible thing to do. And unfortunately, Hillary missed out very narrowly that would have been…

Denise: Yes. Very unfortunate….

Niall: Yes…but so I think the country in many ways is innovative, creative, finding new ways, finding new people. But unfortunately, the last four years, frankly I’m serious about this Denise, a lot of people I know and myself included, seriously wondered if we could live through another four years of Trump.

Denise: I can understand that totally.

Niall: Because it would effectively have become a Dictatorship.

From Kennedy to Biden

Denise: Very very scary. And in light of all that you have achieved (and I know we can’t go into this in too much detail, because it’s too vast a topic) but in everything that you did and worked for, in the context of Northern Ireland, Brexit was also a big blow in that respect. And it did appear like it was a dark place the world for a few years and then Covid on top of it. I mean all I can say is at least Biden made it in.

And I loved your piece in the Irish Times recently where you talked about Robert Frost’s advice to John F. Kennedy, about how to direct his presidency: ‘Be more Irish than Harvard’, and I thought that was brilliant advice.  You made the point that Biden is in some respects, more Irish than John F. Kennedy . (1) see ref. below

(2) see ref. below

Do you see him having a hugely positive role for Irish Americans and for Ireland?. I mean he clearly is a person who has selected for his Administration, people across ethnic grounds, across gender grounds. I was delighted to see, obviously, the Vice President Kamala Harris – she is wonderful. And his Interior Secretary is a Native American Indian Deb Haaland (now that probably hasn’t been confirmed yet). And of course we have Samantha Power, an Irish lady,  my own age , who will be heading up USAAid. So I mean these are great things to see happening. Do you see him as being very important for the Irish now Niall?

Niall: I see him as being very important for the world and also the Irish. I think it’s very interesting when you get inside the American mindset. They go and they pick an African American President. And then they go and pick this crazy lunatic television reality star. But then they go as far away from him as they can and they pick this calm, very together, very easy going on the surface conciliatory figure which is what he is. You watch what Joe Biden is doing, he hasn’t said a single thing against Republicans in any kind of inflammatory way. He said,’ I’m trying to deal with them’. But he’s just taken down the whole tone, he’s letting all this sort of stuff go over his head, he’s getting the Covid package together, he’s getting the economic package together. He’s doing exactly what Joe Biden does, he’s a legislator, he’s a guy and this is what people don’t understand, to move the leavers of power within the US government, you have to have such an intimate knowledge which is exactly why he picked people who had been in the cabinets before. Because Trump hadn’t a clue how to use the levers of power, even in terms of the delivery of the vaccine. He just said leave it to the States, which was insane thing to say. And tens of thousands of people died as a result.

But I think Biden knows, it’s like a guy who has been a cop for 50 years, and suddenly he becomes the captain. He knows what he’s doing. And this guy knows exactly what he’s doing and I’m very proud of him. Because I mean if you look at a guy who came from nothing, I mean his Great Great Grandfather left on an emigrant famine ship from Cooley Co. Louth and the other one from Mayo. And three generations later there he is, in the White House. And I think he’s very very aware of his heritage and I think already, in terms of Brexit, where he stepped in and said: ‘now you are not going to mess around with the Irish on this one, we want the position that’s in the Good Friday Agreement’. So, I think, from that point of view, he’s very very keen. I mean I know the guy reasonably well. I first interviewed him in 1987 and the reason I had interviewed him was he had written an article about Wolfe Tone, his political hero.

Denise: And you subsequently wrote about Wolfe Tone then?

Niall: Yes. But I mean he’s exactly what you need in terms of calming down the country which is what the country desperately needs. So, I think from that point of view he’s going to be very successful.

Denise: Yes, I hope so and I agree with you fully on that. My last question would relate again to, I think you have kind of answered it, have you any thoughts of returning home, you still have family here. I know you probably would be on the plane already, if Trump was back in office! But you may be reconsidering that?

Niall: Well, I went home for the Kennedy School September twelve months ago and I haven’t been…I just haven’t been home since. I mean it’s been an extraordinary year without being home. And it’s really upsetting actually because you miss so much with your family. But also, there is a hunger within you just to see Ireland. I know the exile situation is really one that emotionally, every so often, I need to go back and connect with Ireland and I need to talk to people, I need to find out what’s happening, I need to hear it firsthand, I need to look at the country and see where it’s at. But I also just love to be there and to meet my friends and all that. And of course, that’s all been cut off, not just for me but for everyone. So, it will be a great day for me when Covid is finally vanquished and I’m able to get on EI105 and land into Dublin Airport. Because in so many ways it’s still home, my family is there. And it’s something that I miss desperately. I mean even the hurling and the football and all that, the atmosphere around those months are so exciting. And it was all very different last year. It worked out in the end, but you missed the games in the summer which were great.

Denise: Even I did and I’m probably the least knowledgeable person about anything in that arena, as one could imagine!. But I fully understand what you are saying.

Remembering Mutual Friends, My Trip to New York in 2001 and The Power of Education

The formal part of the interview over, we chat for a further few minutes about my trip to New York for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in 2001 where I met some wonderful people including Bill and Hilary Clinton, the late Frank McCourt, among others. I mention Theresa Crowe, also from Thurles, and her kindness to me on that trip in 2001. The picture below of Theresa was taken at the New York Plaza Hotel on March 15th, when she and I met Hilary Clinton.

We recall the day I called to chat with Niall at his New York office before returning home to Ireland.  Incredible to think, all these years later, we chat again, using a medium we all now consider part of our day to day life: zoom.

Thurles, formative years

Niall’s final reflections bring him back to Thurles where he spent those early formative years: ‘Well you know I lived in Castle Avenue in Thurles and somebody one day recited to me where all the people that we grew up with, there was some amazing success stories, like there was a guy called Jimmy Fitzgerald who became a huge horse trainer; there was another guy who became a brain surgeon. I mean just this ordinary little street in Thurles and so many people… like my brother (Fergus) became a TD and a Minister. I mean it’s incredible to think. And you know it speaks to what was very important for people back then and my parents embodied it, which was education and everybody in the house ( they had seven kids), obviously they weren’t rich, but they insisted on the best education for everyone. And you can never forget that when it comes to Ireland, that that is what made Ireland what it is today’.

Niall O’Dowd is certainly an Irish Voice that has made a huge contribution in the States and in relations between Ireland and America over the last forty years. I am proud to say he comes from Tipperary.

And we have another Irish voice, once again, back in the White House. His name is President Joe Biden.

(3) see ref. below

References

(1): ‘Niall O Dowd: Joe Biden’s Debt to the Kennedy’s’ : The Irish Times, Thur Feb 4th 2021

(2): I found this paper cutting in an old album, belonging to my late Mother. She frequently took paper cuttings and put them into albums or her favorite scrapbook. This was obviously from a paper published around the time John F Kennedy’ was inaugurated or from his visit to Ireland . It is nearly 60 years old. Jacqueline Bouvier looks radiant in the picture. She made her own contribution to the western world, in terms of her incredible taste and sense of style and aesthetics.

(3): Photo Credit: Niall O’Dowd inducting then Vice President Joe Biden into the Irish America Hall of Fame. Photo Courtesy: Waterford Crystal / Niall O’Dowd.

Telling our Stories – Visually

The Oxford English Dictionary defines curation as : ‘The action or process of selecting, organizing, and looking after the items in a collection or exhibition’.

Of course the word can be broadened to include the work of, perhaps, curating the content for a conference or music event, or to curate something for an on-line creative presentation. But generally, when we think of the word ‘curation’, we think about going to an exhibition of art and noting who the curator is or going to a museum in some of our international cities and reading who the curators are, working there. Apparently, the etymology is ultimately from the Latin: cūrātor (“one who has care of a thing, a manager, guardian, trustee”), from cūrāre (“to take care of”), from cūra (“care, heed, attention, anxiety, grief”) .

Curators play a really central role in ‘selecting’ what we see in these museums – they have become guardians almost, of our heritage (in their collaboration with Museum Directors and other influential bodies involved in the Arts world).

In fact since the beginnings of modernity, and in particularly in the last two hundred years, much of what we see presented in national museums have been chosen or displayed for political reasons. These institutions were and are part of the process of nation-state building. Selecting and editing what is important (or not) to exhibit is then, when you think about it, a very powerful role to have. And yet so often the Arts and Heritage are neglected in public discussions.

Maybe stop for a moment and think about all the wonderful pieces of work that were never selected and consequently were never displayed in our national museums. Might the ‘un-selected’ pieces not also have been items deeply reflective of our different cultural and local heritage(s)?. An alternative way of seeing our culture?

Erik Schilp

I want to write about a different way of thinking about curation and I want to thank Erik Schilp, based in the Netherlands, for his inspirational lecture from 2015 where he asks for a type of revolution in how we understand the word curation. He tells us we are all curators – or could be.

‘Most of our art and heritage in museums never gets noticed by most of the people’ , he argues. Isn’t that such a sad thing to contemplate? But what does this actually mean? It means that many people just do not visit museums. They may not see their relevance to ‘real’ life; or they may object to having to pay a fee at a desk to go into a building and ‘view’ what they are being told is our united ‘heritage’. Some people may feel no connection to it. Or they may have led careers in the sciences and not have had the chance to explore the world of Arts ,to the same extent as their ‘scientific’ education.

A wonderful gentleman often came to visit us here in Killough in the latter years of his life – Dr. Niall Maher from Cobh. Niall had spent a large chunk of his childhood at Suirside House in Killough. He was a relative of ours. Niall once arrived in the yard at Greenville, a few years before he died, with some old iron pots, which were connected to here, he said, though I am not sure of the context, but he wanted me to have them.

He always told me he regretted he had not been able to explore the creative side of his mind because his career as a GP was so demanding and all consuming. I always remember him telling me that. Because really the two ‘worlds’ , the scientific and the creative, are intrinsic to everything we understand as our culture and heritage.

Niall Maher and his Sister, Avine visiting us in 2007

So what if we think about heritage differently , as being more than just what we see in museums. We all have a collective responsibility to take care of our heritage. It is what happens around us every day: the ‘way’ we work; the way we might lay our tables for dinner or for a ‘special’ occasion; the way we engage in community activities; the way we dress; the way we decorate our homes – these are all mini curatorial acts , and are important in terms of everyday lived heritage.

The Eclipse Gallery

This movement away from Curating with a capital ‘C’ toward what I might call a more democratic understanding of curating, with a small ‘c’, has its origins in the 60s and 70s, and is documented in many places including the ‘The Eclipse Gallery’ forum. They discuss the concept of ‘ alternative spaces’ where our culture, arts and heritage are collected, presented and possibly displayed. On their home page they argue that:

‘The role of the contemporary curator in alternative spaces is highly creative—some would even say the curator’s exhibition becomes artwork itself. Curators are producing exhibitions that explore contemporary issues on social, political, and cultural levels, considering and encouraging audience participation, and challenging viewers to re-think their definitions of exhibitions, curators, artists, and artwork. Contemporary curators are also expanding the horizons of the art world by working in (places) that have little in terms of contemporary art. Here, they can have a bigger impact than over-saturated cities such as New York’.

(https://theeclipsegallery.wordpress.com/about/writing/curating-alternative-spaces/)

This echoes what Eric Schilp talks about in his lecture and I want to bring some of these ideas home now, to Greenville, in a short blog and video installation about some of the humble presses we have here.

Here in Ireland we tend to use the Hiberno – English expression ‘Press’ where the English use the word ‘Cupboard’- thus for example an English “Airing Cupboard” is in Ireland a “Hot Press”. The origin is an Irish word ‘Prios‘ meaning a press, cupboard or shelf as is ‘Prios labhar‘ a bookcase ( see below).

Nana Breen’s Buttons

I am going to begin with a picture of one of my Nana Breen’s buttons as this will put my blog in context .

Many years ago when I was a teenager Mother gave me a coat that belonged to her Mother, my Nana Breen (who died a few months before I was born). I loved the coat but I particularly loved the brass buttons on it.

Nana Breen’s Brass Button takes center stage

So when the coat became too tattered to wear, I took the two remaining buttons off and made them into a set of earrings myself. I had these earrings and wore them, on and off, for almost 35 years.

Only last January I was rushing out one afternoon to take the boys to their guitar class in Carlow, running a little late and it was very windy. One of the button earrings blew off my ear. I only realized when I was en route in the car that one of them was gone. You have no idea how upset I was. I literally cried. We searched everywhere on our return and for several days afterwards, but to no avail. One of the earrings was gone. I now just have the one photographed above.

But all is not lost. The one I still have has pride of place in my jewellery press which I discuss in more detail below and I am going to get this one made into a ring. This is an example of what I mean about curating our heritage – differently – minding or saving something from our personal past, re displaying it, in a unique way. This too is a form of curation.

Thinking Visually

In actual fact I have been doing this type of thing my whole life. I have always had enormous respect for items from the past connected to my family heritage and I keep them and preserve them and try to breathe new life into them. They are not valuable items like a Jack B Yeats painting, to give an example of something we might see if we went to visit our National Gallery, but to me – they are precious, some priceless.

My Kitchen Press

The opening image and the one below is of the press in our kitchen. The press was not originally from here but I saw it in a salvage shop years ago in Limerick and we bought it. I never imagined I would use it in my kitchen, nor that it would one day be filled with jars full of flour and sugar – my baking essentials.

I had a difficult time finding the right size glass jars to put in it but these are by the Danish designer Ib Laursen whom I came across in Copenhagen when at my niece Tara’s wedding last October. The Danish are wonderful designers.

On the top I have some vintage cups and jugs. The coffee set (top left corner) was a gift from Clare and Lilly of Tipperary Mountain Trekking Centre who spent Christmas with us here at Greenville some years ago. The silver Art Deco jug is from my dear friends Liz and Eoin O’Donnell. Liz never visits me without bringing somethings she has in storage, which she no longer uses, and many are pieces from her childhood home, which she knows I adore. The large coffee cups with paintings of African animals were a gift from Seosamh many years back which he got me on a buying trip for my shop in London. I also have some old style milk bottles on the second shelf to the left.

My flour and sugar jars are functional objects, used every day – but this in no way takes from the way I see this press – to me, it is a work of art.

The Wardrobe

My clothes wardrobe is also a very unconventional ‘press’ – and definitely where I do most of my curation!. The entire landing of our home is effectively a wardrobe – I use a rail to hang clothes I might be thinking of putting together in a new way, or putting away in storage for a while as a garment may have lost its appeal.

The Wardrobe

When I lived in Meadow Brook Court in Maynooth I rented a house from the same landlord for over six years. The house could take four tenants and people came and went depending on how long their courses at the University would be.

As I was the longest staying tenant there the landlord gave me a type of caretaker role. I used my bedroom as my study space and because I spent most days there working on my doctorate (and the room was relatively small) I asked my co-tenants if I could leave my clothes rail outside the door of my room on the landing and no one ever objected. In fact it was a constant source of conversation and I often let girls who were renting other rooms borrow items from it – once they returned them in proper order. The guys loved the rail too – they thought it was ..intriguing!!

So the tradition has continued and thirty years later I still use a landing as my wardrobe. I love to spend a Saturday or Sunday morning , when the house is quiet, with a coffee just going through things and looking at how I can put items together in different ways. I will always come up with new ideas.

I use cardboard boxes as ‘drawers’ because if I used clear ones my clothes would get damaged by light. And I like the boxes. They are simple and remind me of the way items were stored in generations gone by – in boxes, with moth balls and sheets of brown paper to protect the items.

Boxes in the Wardrobe

I still have many things belonging to my Mother including some of her scarves. I never wash them because I can smell her unique scent when I wear or hold them. It can make me very emotional and lonely for her, but it still comforts me so much.

All our hats, ‘good’ coats and Seosamh’s suits and ties are stored downstairs but my bags and shoes are in various places in the wardrobe landing . I mind everything so when I wear a pair of shoes I will wash the soles and heels and dry them and polish them before putting them back in their box. Some might consider that madness but I have never claimed to be very sane!

Jewellery Press

The jewelry press, mentioned earlier, was bought for my shop nearly twenty years ago. I have many happy memories of fashion shows and events in ‘The Business’ with this press in the background.

The picture below is of the lovely Aoife Flaherty (Nesbitt) at one of those events, where I invited people to dress up and we picked the best dressed. Aoife won that night. You can see the jewellery press just behind her on the right.

It now showcases my own costume jewellery here at home.

I organise things according to colour mostly. I have several high street inexpensive pieces that are dramatic and different to wear. I never liked gold – I find it lifeless and you needs lots of it to ‘make a statement’ and then it can be over done and look really tacky.

The image below shows a box with purple jewellery in the press – the claw with the purple stone was Mother’s. She loved the color purple. So did my late Aunt Masie. The brooch was hers and given to me by my Godmother Fiona after Aunt Masie died. She visited us here at Greenville, once a month, on a Sunday for lunch, for many years and we loved her visits. She was great fun.

Aunt Maise’s Purple Brooch and Mother’s Claw Brooch

She wore that brooch to Mother’s 90th Birthday party which was held in Tim and Tina’s home in Killough. Precious memories….I have to hold back the tears thinking of it. It was only a few years ago ..and yet we have lost so many dearly loved people who were there, since then.

Aunt Masie and Mother

Natalie Diner

When I was in my late teens I worked as an au pair in Paris for several months minding a little boy called Alexandre. His Mother Natalie Diner worked for Ralph Lauren and she was very kind to me and so beautiful looking.

Natalie Diner

She gave me stunning clothes and costume jewellery she no longer cared for – these earrings were from her.

Natalie’s Earrings

I still cherish them. They look a little like eagles with a blue dangling stone. She was one of a few big influences on me in terms of how I dress and my sense of style.

The Press of Dolls

I have a press in the Guestroom that has a selection of dolls from all over the world. I started to collect these dolls in the 90’s – they were called ‘Dolls of the World’ and each month you could buy a magazine with a porcelain doll and read about the costumes of the country featured but for some reason the newsagents who were getting it in for me were finding it hard to source them. So I managed to collect around 50 and have recently started to pick up, via eBay, the ones I did not get back then.

The Dolls’ Press in the Guest Room

I just love the Japanese doll.

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The Irish doll is also very special. Naturally she has red hair and is wearing…a green dress.

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The Boy’s Room

My three boys have picked this ‘curation’ skill up from me it seems. They are Lego fanatics and they display the items they make in their room. One press that came from my Grandparents home in Shanakill has all their minifigures which they arrange on a stand they also made themselves with Lego.

They also have a press shelf in another part of the room dedicated to Harry Potter Lego and another with Star Wars and Super Hero sets.

The Lego Press in the Boys’ Room

The Anthropologist as Curator

Since I was a student of English and Anthropology in the 80s and 90s, so many things have changed within my discipline. I had no idea until very recently for example that there are now Professorships in ‘Aesthetic Anthropology’ . This is truly fascinating to me as the subject of aesthetics is at the root of so many academic discussions about art, design and curation and has been an interest of mine for years.

Anthropologists are getting more involved in the debate now. The focus on aesthetics has expanded and become more rooted in culture with a small ‘c’ rather than the big C ‘Culture’, reflecting what I mention at the start about democratizing the discussion almost – moving away from a sense of culture as something for the elite or the leisured rather than what we make and create and do each day in our lived lives.

I am grateful to Roger Sansi for the inspirational introduction to the publication he recently edited ‘The Anthropologist as Curator’ (Sansi 2019). He writes:

‘The object of study of anthropology is no longer a given singular community, located in a singular space for a particular time, but an assemblage of different parts, people, places, objects, concepts and agencies of different sorts , that constitute contemporary assemblages’. (pp 5.)

So I suppose you could call me ‘an assemblage’ type of girl with a fascination for objects and the meanings and importance we give to them. I seem to spend a large part of my life doing just that – assembling and curating things around me.

I am informed his book will be under our Christmas tree this year so it will therefore soon grace our book shelf – yet another press we all love in our home, a gift to Seosamh from his late Father, James Devine.

An Prios Leabhar” (AKA the Book Press or Bookcase, in the Dining room)

Many humble ‘things’ are owned by ordinary people who may have great respect for their importance and integrity.

They constitute an important part of our local, national and potentially even global heritage in a world made so small and accessible by social media and the internet.

You can choose to curate them.

Aunt Josie’s Table : Memories of a Gentle Soul and her Killea Home.

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Aunt Josie’s Table in Greenville

One of my very first blogs was called ‘Grandmother’s Parlour’ and it was about the house in Shanakill where my late Father grew up. It came about because of a request from Martin Bourke, a local historian, to write a piece for a book ‘Clonmore Through the Ages’ (2018).

When Josephine Coffey, who I worked with for several years when I was Chair of Killea Cultural Group , a Voluntary Community Organization  (along side Joan Egan and later Gerard Coffey), asked me to write a short essay , for her soon to be published book about Killea, I immediately thought of  my Late Aunt Josie’s house in Kilkip, Killea.

Aunt Josie

Josephine Egan (nee Meagher/Maher) was my late Father’s only sister, adored by all four of her brothers. Pictured below at an event at my sister Mae’s home in Thurles in the 80s, this is probably one of the only images of the five siblings together in later life.

My Uncle Liam is on the far left. Liam was a respected teacher at the college attached to  Mount St. Joseph’s Abbey Roscrea for most of his professional life and editor, with Ciaran Brady (former Editor of The Irish Times) of their centenary publication entitled ‘Céad Bliain Faoi Rath: The Story of Cistercian College Roscrea 1905-2005’.

Uncle John was a priest based in Montana in the USA.

Daddy is on the far right back row.

To the front sits my Aunt Josie, beaming, that twinkle in her eye, and beside her my late Uncle Eddie (or ‘Neddie’, as he was also known locally).

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Almost all the immediate family (including her siblings and nieces and nephews) were able to be at this gathering in the late 80s. Those who could not were so disappointed. I love this picture , taken by Mae, after Uncle John had celebrated mass that special evening.

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Family Gathering

 

Egan Family and Killea Neighbours

Aunt Josie married Jim Egan in the late 1940s and moved to Killea, his home place. A fine gentleman,  Jim died young in 1970, the year I was born. My Aunt was blessed with wonderful neighbors all her life – her husband’s family the Egans, the Kenneallys who regularly called to check on her, in particular Lan, and many more, too many good people to name here.

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Visiting Aunt Josie

I frequently visited Aunt Josie’s with my parents as a child. Daddy would park his car at ‘the big gate’ and we would then walk a little up the roadway to the grey gate at the top of the stone steps, that lead into her courtyard.

I would sit quietly and listen to Daddy chat with her. He would call to check in on her regularly – as did Liam and Eddie, who lived in Ireland.

If Mother was with us, on an evening visit or a Sunday afternoon, the chat would go on longer as Aunt Josie would ask about all the family and how they were doing. She was so kind and thoughtful of everyone.

 

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Revisiting the past: July 2020

This gate holds particular special memories for me.  Decorated with wild flowers growing on either side of the wall , on opening the gate and walking down the steps, there was a sense of magic in the air.

There were beautiful buildings all around the yard, some for butter making or domestic use in earlier years, others for animals in winter that needed shelter, and one lead out to the back yard where the hay barn was situated.

Only last weekend myself, Seosamh and the boys, popped up to Killea to visit Tim’s grave, and we called to Aunt Josie’s on the way home. The gate and those steps still evoke memories of peaceful happy childhood days.

 

The Table

On entering the house Aunt Josie was usually sitting by the range and there was always a reserved warmth – a ‘twinkle eye’ hug. In those days a kiss on the cheek was not the usual way of expressing love to family who visited.

Under the stairs there was a press that was overflowing with biscuit and sweet boxes, so it would not be long before tea was made, and the goodies would be brought out for dispersal. At this stage we would move to her kitchen table, that was situated under the front window. The table had wooden legs and  Aunt Josie stored her pots and pans underneath it.

Montana Visit

My late Uncle John could not be there so often,  but when I visited him in 1989 in Montana, he spoke about his care and love for his sister Josie frequently. He was very ill at this time and it meant so much to me to visit him and get to know him a little more.

 

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With my Late Uncle John in Montana 1989

I even found the note Aunt Josie sent me before I went to the States that year , which of course she had put a few pounds into for me. She had lovely hand writing, very similar to her other siblings. And she was so generous and kind.

all good wishes

 

Observing the Details

I liked to look around the room on these visits to her home and observe every little detail. She always covered her black telephone with a silk scarf to avoid dust. The phone sat on a beautifully carved side board that was placed at the back wall of the kitchen.

The stairs was another fascination to me, as the room at the top was rarely used, so I never actually got up to see it. Years after she died when in the house, I decided not to go up, though I had the opportunity – happy to leave the mystery alive as what might or might not be up there!.

Her own bedroom, just off the kitchen to the right, had the most beautiful wooden carved ceiling. These ceilings in old vernacular Irish houses were so unique and one rarely sees them now.

Hay Saving

In the summer time myself and some of my siblings, Tim and Terri in particular, would go up to help Daddy  ‘draw in the hay’ for Aunt Josie. In the later years Tara, my eldest niece, also helped . This was a particularly enjoyable experience, as the load of saved hay was brought up the steep hilly roads of Killea, to her shed, and we were allowed to sit on top of the load,  relishing the views, not a care in the world.

Once the tractor got into some serious difficulty on the steepest hill and started to go backwards, dragged by the weight of the load of hay. I recall everyone on top getting very anxious. But we did get off the load safely. A day not forgotten.  My poor Mother, on the other hand, lived in fear,  forever after, of the hay season and thanked the Lord, when we would finally return home safe and sound in the evenings.

Christmas in Killough

Aunt Josie spent Christmas day with us in Killough every year. Tim would drive her back to Killea in the evening and I always felt a little sad to see her go. I thought she was very brave to live on her own, but she had such tremendous Faith.

Tim is very much on all of our minds this, his birthday week. It is a very emotional time for us all, in particular Tina and Darragh.   The 2nd anniversary of Tim’s death will take place on August 11th at 4pm in St. James’ Graveyard Killea.

Leaving Kilkip

Aunt Josie became ill in the mid 1990s. I drove up to see her one afternoon, around this time, having recently moved back from Maynooth to live with my parents in Templemore. We sat at that table, the sun shining in the window. I remember it vividly. She did not look well and we both knew her days in Kilkip were numbered.  I walked out the door that day and towards the steps and burst into tears as I closed the little grey gate behind me. Somehow, I knew that was the last time I would visit her there.

She soon after went into hospital, and from there to Villa Maria in Roscrea where she died peacefully in 1999.

Little Things Mean so Much

I remember the day Daddy, knowing my love of all things old and a bit battered from wear, arrived down to my Studio at Roscrea Road, after Aunt Josie had left the house, and he brought me her big dark brown hay saving tea pot, which now has pride of place on our dresser here at Greenville.

The Greenville Dresser

Aunt Josie’s Large Brown Teapot – second shelf on Left

Daddy also brought me her iron cast bed – that needed repairs!. I eventually got around to it, many years later.

In the image below we see some of Joss’s friends here at his 12th birthday party, all seated on or around Aunt Josie’s bed, looking at a movie. It is so extraordinary to still see it used and loved in this way.

cast iron bed

Left to right: Jake Bohan Davern, Don, Kevin Bourke, Étienne, Joss, Donnchadh Broderick, Neave Cheshire, Ella Fogarty & Paudie Barrett

Devine Brothers Creative Studio!

I also acquired, from my brother Eamonn, the table that meant so much to me from her kitchen and a big Irish country press from the parlour that needed serious work (thank you Christy Cleary Templetouhy).

In this image below we see Étienne with two of his friends from Killea, Noah and Luke Quinlan, playing lego at the table.

Etienne and friends

Étienne, Noah and Luke

 

Below we see Don and Joss with one of their friends, Kevin, eating pizza at the table. The big old Country press has a powerful presence. The dresser you see at the back wall came from Shanakill, so it was owned by Aunt Josie’s parents, my Grandparents, and it was given to me by my dear cousin and God mother Fiona Maher. Now it is full of lego, made by the boys.

 

Aunt Josie was a humble lady, who must have had lonely moments in her life. Her spirit remains with me to this day . I could even remember the lovely scent from her home, as I wrote this piece.

I so regret I was never able to buy this precious place  and bring it back to life.

Aunt Josie's House early 1990s

The Liminality of Lockdown: Musings from Greenville’s Threshold.

Daily Walk

Daily Walk

I was not sure how or if to write this blog; not sure what title to give it; not even certain I had anything meaningful to say. I am still not sure. Nonetheless I wanted to write something about this time we are all living through, as experienced from our home, here at Greenville. 

Some people have called the Covid 19 pandemic and the resulting closure and lockdowns of so many Economies around the world as historically ‘unprecedented’; others suggest ‘strange’, some think there are similarities to the trauma of a World War.  Others snarl that it was a ‘conspiracy’ conjured up in China.  I don’t think so!

We hear about the ‘new normal’ , of ‘social distancing’, ‘cocooning’ etc. Étienne started to ask in the mornings, how many people had died the day before from Covid 19. I feel for him, in particular, as he struggles to understand it all.

For those who became extremely ill from this disease or lost someone to Covid 19, they probably have not yet found the words to express the trauma they have recently endured. They are still suspended in their shock and grief. The severity of this disease, the rapidity at which it was transmitted across the globe, the enormous numbers of deaths in the space of a few months… this would have appeared unimaginable to contemplate if we had been told in January how the first half of 2020 would transpire.

My heart goes out to those who were unable to see a loved one who was very sick or if the worst came to the worst , as it did for thousands of people around the world, unable to hold a funeral. Yet these ‘unimaginable situations’ have now become part of our understanding of the reality of daily life.

Life on a very busy and crowded planet.

Reflection Time

On the positive it has also been a time of reflection for many; a time to stand back from the ‘rat race’ of life and maybe question aspects of it. The obsessive routines that consumed us and which were believed so fundamental to day to day existence – were, suddenly, one day (March 12th to be precise, in Ireland) just simply, called to a halt.

People have more time with their families, are eating more home made food, pollution levels have reduced dramatically and while many have suffered severe economic loss, new business opportunities have emerged.

In Between Times

My sister-in-law Tina sent me a blog written by a friend of hers, Jillian, who lost her brother two years ago http://abroadsthoughtsfromhome.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/idir/

It really resonated with me. Jillian reflects on the Irish word ‘idir’ – meaning ‘between’.  She writes how the Covid 19 lockdown gave her time to reflect on the beauty of that Irish word.  Lockdown is a ‘between’ time where our old world is in the past and our new world has yet to emerge. This has similarities for her to the experience of grief when one wants the world to stop turning so we can come to terms with the enormity of deep loss.

In Anthropology the ‘between phase’ is used in writings in the context of ‘rites of passage’ that ethnographers observed, particularly when studying ‘non western’ cultures.  The word ‘liminal’ or ‘threshold’ is used to explain the mid phase in a rite of passage.  The word ‘liminal’ comes from the Latin word ‘limen’ meaning ‘a threshold’ – so it is the ‘between’ stage in a rite of passage, where a person’s old status ends, and she/he is in transition to a new position or status. The folklorists Arnold van Gennep initially coined the term in the early 20th century and then the Anthropologist Victor Turner, in the 1970s, incorporated it into his ethnographic work.  

Jillian’s words brought back to me a vivid memory of my first experience of losing a loved one when my Father died twenty-one years ago, at Christmas time. Daddy died suddenly, sitting by the fire side, at the home he and Mother retired to on Roscrea Road in Templemore. I was living with them again at that time, finishing the writing of my PhD and I remember my Mother calling me to come quickly , there was something wrong with Daddy. We both stood beside him, helpless, as he took his last breaths.

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Daddy on a trip to the USA in the 1980s

Just days after Daddy died and a few days before Christmas my brother Tim and I went to do some basic grocery shopping in Roscrea. I recall observing all the activity and excitement in the lead up to that Christmas –  people appeared to be almost frantically rushing around. It all seemed absurd.  I remember feeling as if I were looking from inside an invisible cloak at what was happening in the world around me. I could see this world – but that world could not really see, nor reach me.

Suspended in pain and grief, time just didn’t appear to be moving forward anymore for us, like it was for everybody else.  Twenty one years later, having endured miscarriages; lost Mother in 2017 (whom I think I must have believed would live forever!), and only ten months later my brother Tim –  I realise that for me, this sensation of being ‘suspended in time’ is an intrinsic part of the aftermath of deep grief or the experience  of some profound loss or change in life. 

Lockdown can be seen as a type of ‘collective’ version, of that  ‘personal’ experience – when time appears to have been moving too fast and one needs space to mourn and reflect at a remove from ‘normal’ life.

To prepare for ……the ‘next phase’. 

Greenville in the Sunshine

So what has life been like in Greenville during this period of liminal lockdown?

Well we have all had bad days! But we have had many many good days too.

The sun has been shining almost every day and Greenville looks beautiful in the sun. I took this picture from the parlour of the cottage looking out at the yard one afternoon last week. I was struck by how lovely the deep red curtains looked against the backdrop of the blossoming clematis. 

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Parlour Window View to yard

Schooling at Home

The boys situation was probably more challenging as they adjusted to schools closing and doing classes on line from home. Our eldest son Don told me on March 12th ,when he got in from school, that he hugged his friends at the school gate because, he said: ‘we don’t know when we will see each other again’. I was very moved by this, that somehow the enormity of it all had sunk in so quickly to a group of fourteen and fifteen year olds.

In those weeks he appears to have grown up so much and I am proud of the three of them and how good-humouredly they have handled it all.

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Don in the Parlour of the cottage

As we got used to on-line school classes we worked out the best location to get a good internet signal was in the cottage part of the house so that has become our ‘school hub’ , which is great seeing as clearly we have no guests at the moment  – and won’t for the foreseeable future.

Don decided to use the parlour of the cottage to study and take classes on line and that room has a table and set of chairs that Joseph inherited from his late Mother. We are happy to see him work there and know his Devine Grandparents would be too.

Joss uses the Aula in the cottage and is seated at a table and chair that belonged to my late Grandparents from Shanakill. The Teachers at Our Lady’s Secondary School in Templemore  have been very supportive to all their students and exams will also be done on line in the week ahead.

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Joss in the Aula

Étienne in the mean time looks forward every week day morning to the RTE 2 ‘Home School Hub’ programme and as I am usually in the room working when he is watching it, I feel Múinteoir  Ray, Múinteoir  Clíona and  Múinteoir  John are part the family at this stage! He misses all his friends from Killea National School and we are grateful for all the contact from the school Principal Mary Kennedy. 

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Étienne watching Home School hub

Music for the Ancestors

Music classes that used to happen each Friday in Carlow, also take place on a Friday in the cottage, when the boy’s guitar teacher Jack Kennedy, ‘tunes into Greenvillle ‘, and all three boys take their weekly class there with him. I have no doubt the ancestors of the cottage must be loving all this activity. Greenville is always a busy place at this time of year with guests, but somehow it feels good to have the place all to ourselves again – we feel closer to all those ancestral spirits.

Daily Walks

Joseph and I walked most days in our lovely local town park in Templemore before lockdown, but when the 2 km restriction was introduced, we decided instead to walk up and down the main lane at Killough. Every day for the last number of weeks, we all head off for our daily walk, with Mandjar and Venice, our pet dogs  in tow –  a little ritual that has brought us all great joy, the many memories of the lane so important to us all, and deeply personal, especially to me.

Kitchen Exploits and The Pantry Project

Needless to say there has been a great deal of kitchen activity too.

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Rhubarb from Greenville and some flowers for the table

Looking back on photographs this week to include in my blog I was taken aback to think we spent both St. Patrick’s Day and Easter Sunday on our own this year, without family or friends dropping in.

To mark St. Patrick’s day I made a decadent cake with Irish cream Liqueur. The evenings were still getting dark around 6 pm then. Lockdown spanned the end of winter, the joys of Spring and brought us smack into summer!.

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St Patrick’s Day Cake

 

We usually have family join us on Easter Sunday or there might be a cake sale or some activity in Killea connected to the school. But this year we once again spent the day on our own, cooking and baking , just for ourselves.  We were delighted with our Easter cake,  dotted with mini gold Easter eggs.  I wanted the cake to coordinate with the glass wear we were using that day. I am not sure the rest of the family got that particular detail!!.

 

Bread

I decided a few days into lockdown that now was the time to crack the sourdough bread ‘problem’,  so it was with delight that my first ‘proper sourdough loaf’ came from the oven one Sunday back in late March.

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Sourdough Smile

We have also made some delicious Naan breads and some new varieties of scones. Don has taken a more active interest in the kitchen since taking up Home Economics, so he has helped with many of these new recipes and is learning kitchen skills fast.

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Naan!

One of my first blogs was an interview with Brother Oliver, at Mount St. Joseph ‘s Roscrea in 2017. He was one of the Brothers who managed the bakery at the Monastery for decades. I thought a great deal about him in recent weeks . He passed away in November last year. Such a sweet and kind person, may he rest in Peace.

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The late Br Oliver OCSO and I in 2017

A Pantry?

I am still working on developing one side of a small room off the dining room as our Pantry. I have such fond memories of my sister Mae’s late Mother-in-Law ‘Granny Quinn’ and her wonderful organizational skills – her boxes of buttons, her linen press and her packed Pantry off the living room at Rossestown.

Our Pantry will be a more humble space but since lockdown it has become a great resource to have. I am working to gather extra stocks of staples to have in store. I bought some lovely glass jars for storing my flours and pastas and this remains a project in process until we can build in some more shelves to the room.

Another positive aspect to this extraordinary time is that we are all more aware, I hope, of the importance of shopping less often, using left overs more resourcefully and avoiding unnecessary waste.

Frontline Workers

I have tremendous admiration for all those health care workers who have played such a brave role in this crisis, both in Ireland and internationally, for all the shop workers who turned up every day to work and must have had many anxieties about catching the illness or spreading it to one of their loved ones at home.

All frontline workers deserved the many rounds of applause and lights lit to support them. We participated in the “Shine a light” on Holy Saturday night (11th April) when we turned on all the lights around the house at 9pm, as part of a Nationwide mark of respect for the incredible courage, dedication and effort front line workers have shown.

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Shine a Light, Holy Saturday -11th April 2020

As Joseph is under strict instruction to ‘cocoon’ because he is on immunosuppressants, I took over the shopping routine and have been so impressed at how kind and helpful staff in stores like Centra, Spar, Lidl, Supervalu, Aldi, Tesco and Dunne’s Stores have been. And small local shops and chemists who remained open during this time. Covid 19 brought out the best in so many people, with more respect and care being shown by everyone towards each other.

A Liminal conclusion

This remains a really hard time for so many – in particular those who are living alone and can’t see their family as they would wish. We have to hope this liminal phase will soon pass and people can interact again more freely.

So my blog is really a big thank you to all those people who have made it easier for others to survive these past weeks, and to my three sons, for making our days here at Greenville so much brighter by their activities , chatter (occasional rows!) but in general good humour. I love this picture of them taken outside the front of the cottage, our threshold, squinting in the mid afternoon sun.

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Boys enjoy sunshine.

Étienne keeps asking ‘will Covid 19 be over in September Mama?’. The truth is, none of us really know.  I refuse to be exact in responding to him.

The world has come to a threshold, a place ‘inbetween’. And by its very nature that means everything is unclear…inexact.

I hear the lines of the late Eavan Boland from her wonderful poem ‘Quarantine’ in my mind . I invert her meaning of a love story from the Irish Famine, to fit the story of Covid 19….

‘Let no love poem ever come to this threshold

There is no place here for the inexact..’