Declan Henry lives in Kent, England and was born in County Sligo, Ireland. He was educated at Goldsmiths’ College and King’s College, London. Declan holds a Master of Science Degree in Mental Health Social Work and a BA (Hons) in Education and Community Studies. He has dual vocational qualifications in Social Work and Community and Youth Work. He is a registered social worker and has worked in the profession since 1993.
To date, Declan has written five books:
Voices of Modern Islam (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018) explores key issues such as women and Islam, extremism and radicalisation, Sharia Law, homosexuality and Islamophobia – and looks deep into what it means to be Muslim today.
Trans Voices (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017) sensitively examines what life is like for transgender people in today’s world. (First published by Squirrel Publishing, 2016).
Why Bipolar? (Squirrel Publishing, 2013) dispels the myths surrounding this serious mental illness and investigates the misuse of psychotropic medication.
Buried Deep in my Heart (The London Press, 2010) is the author’s enchanting childhood story about growing up on a farm in the west of Ireland.
Glimpses (The London Press, 2007) is a collection of true-to-life stories about disaffected teenagers and is set in the UK and Ireland.
In addition to his books, Declan has also been published in the media, both in Ireland and the UK, including articles in: The Kent Journal of Mental Health, Kent Messenger, Kent on Sunday, The Irish News, The Irish Post, The Irish World, The Harp and Ireland’s Eye.
The Writer Within
I love being a writer. It’s what drives me in life. And as a naturally curious person, I’m fascinated by what makes people tick. I like discovering how people conquer their adversaries and love human interest stories. My books are essentially about people – their characters, emotions, thoughts and reactions – and mainly which qualities and attributes make them such unique individuals.
As a writer, I try to incorporate both sides of humanity into my writing, having learned that life is far from grim and that there is enough kindness, compassion, love and humour to overcome life’s obstacles, regardless of how much misery, abuse, or injustice exists. I try to compensate the darkness by highlighting the kinder side of nature, because otherwise I risk painting the world as a dull and bleak place. I am currently considering a number of options in the lead-up to my next writing venture – because writing is simply in my blood.
The Mystery and Tranquillity of The Burren
Last summer, I spent a splendid weekend in the Burren, an area of breathtaking beauty. The Burren is tucked away in north County Clare, thirty miles from Galway city and seventy miles from Limerick. The Burren consists of great grey limestone slabs and boulders rooted firmly in the ground and surrounded by fertile land. You can drive for hours with this great wonder all around you, in the flat land as well as in its mountains and valleys. Covering an area of 150 square miles, it is the largest area in Western Europe with such a landscape. This mesmerising phenomenon of nature is a product of the Ice Age, stretching back three and a half million years to when Ireland was first formed.
Writers and artists have been coming to the Burren for decades; sensitive minds and hearts drawn to its rich history. The author JRR Tolkien visited frequently during the 1950s. Many suspect that it was these visits that inspired his idea for Middle-earth in his book The Lord of the Rings. Was I about to walk in his footsteps and be in awe at the sights that caught his imagination? I stayed in the village of Ballyvaughan where a mild winter climate in this region means less frost and snow than the remainder of the country and this is one of the reasons why the land is so rich in calcium. These mineral rich grasslands are perfect for rearing cattle, horses and goats.
There is something so calming about the landscape that it automatically brings a sense of calmness. Here I found peace amongst the roughcast beauty, peace amongst a corner of nature that has refused to be tamed. Perhaps, it is a thank-you from God to Ireland because it appears that nature has protected this part of Ireland and has rewarded it with great goodness. The Burren contains 70% of Ireland's natural species of flowers, plants and fauna. I was intrigued to learn that there are thirty different kinds of butterfly in Ireland and that twenty-eight are found in the Burren. Pine martens are extinct in most other parts of Ireland but in the Burren these wild animals have made their home with relative ease.
Another advantage of the Burren is its closeness to the sea. A trip to Blackhead opens up before you scenes of the Atlantic Ocean with the closeness of the three Aran Islands almost inviting you to swim over to them. Seals are often to be seen around these parts. I saw several bunches of gentians, their blue colour shining radiantly in the evening light. This rare wild flower has settled alongside better known Irish flowers which include purple orchids, buttercups, mountain avens, primroses, yellow pimpernels and sea asters, all of them growing in abundance. Little wonder that they have tugged at the heartstrings of writers and poets for many years.
The tranquillity of staring at the sea and the silence was contrasted by a visit to Gleninagh Castle. The castle, also overlooking the sea, was built in the late 1500s for the O'Lochlain family - a chieftain clan from Munster. I stood before it and dreamt about what it would be like to have been a dinner guest of the O'Lochlain's. What would have been on the menu? Possibly a fine hog-roast, perhaps washed down by Poitín or wine. But whilst the O'Lochlain's may have lived in luxury, the rest of Ireland lay in starvation. The potato crop, the main harvest of the land began to fail badly with blight year after year until failing completely in 1847. By this time the O'Lochlain’s had long since abandoned the castle. But whilst the castle had been splendour in its heyday, it held its own dark secrets - a cold, damp windowless cellar which housed unfortunate prisoners, a reminder of Ireland's long historical conflicts and invasions dating back to the days of Cromwell.
I was reminded of the deep sense of spirituality our pre-Christian ancestors had when I visited the dolmen stone at Poulnabrone. Here people gathered in secret to worship Mother Earth, their paganism making them closer to nature. Our ancestors’ minds were devoid of Catholicism and organized religion and their ceremonies would have been conducted in Gaelic. I imagined them to have been sincere in their thanks to the gods of their universe for having provided them their sustenance or in their requests for help to alleviate their suffering. The dolmen stone was a formal burial place. Excavations of its ground in the late 1980s found over forty bodies buried in the Bronze Age. Its occupants had been buried with their most valued possessions, including a polished stone axe, a decorated bone pendant, stone beads and quartz crystals.
My final trip was to Corcomroe Abbey. Here I encountered well preserved 12th century ruins that were once inhabited by The Cistercian Order. The monks were well-known in the area for farming, bee-keeping and fruit growing. The area around Corcomroe is known as Santa Maria de Petra Fertilis (Our Lady of the Fertile Rock). Women who have trouble conceiving come here to pray for a baby. The grounds of the abbey are still in use for the burial of local people in its parish. Silence prevailed around the ruins only interrupted by crows nesting in the upper gables.
There are only Seven Wonders of the World but I cannot help feeling that if the explorer who drew up this list had visited the Burren, there might have been an eighth. I will return one day. I have little option because the Burren is now in my veins and there it will stay forever.Published in the Clare People and The Harp newspaper.
Peter was tired after the long delay to his flight but pleased that he was now seated and ready for take-off. He fiddled constantly with his book, picking it up, reading a few pages, putting it aside and then opening it again. His thoughts, although tinged with brief moments of excitement, were overshadowed by sorrow. He was returning to a place that had ceased to exist as he had known it. From the letters Josephine had written to him over the past twenty years, he imagined it to be like a face that had been replaced with a mask. Change after change, death after death, had resulted in the demise of the village he loved and cherished. And then there was Emily. He had wondered so many times what had gone through this young girl’s mind in the moments before she died. He was left haunted by the terror and hysteria she must have felt as she entered the cold and icy river.
Nothing was ever the same after Emily’s death. At first people believed it was an accident but village gossip prevailed. Miss Driscoll was the ringleader - although there were traces of tears when she spoke. But mostly she just shook her head when she met with a neighbour or friend. People wondered how a young girl could have drowned so easily in the river at the back of their neighbour’s house.
‘I don’t think we’ll ever know the real truth of what happened,’ Miss Driscoll said, after hearing that Josephine - Emily’s eldest sister - had been taken away to a special hospital.
Peter suspected the truth because he was Josephine’s friend. They held few secrets from each other. And although he never got the opportunity to say goodbye before he left for America, they had maintained letter contact over the years; twice monthly in unbroken precision.
After dinner, Peter closed his eyes and pictured the boreen as he had last seen it.
He could see himself walking down its slope as he drifted off to sleep. He saw a multitude of different species, varied according to the season. Early spring brought clumps of gorse bushes with their distinctive yellow colour and coconut scent. The paler primroses, which complemented them, grew in profusion everywhere. The ever-visible thistles, dandelions, buttercups, and daisies were growing wild at the foot of hedgerows and ditches, and amongst all of these were white berries. A myth surrounded these berries. Some people believed that cows wouldn’t eat them because they were poisonous. Josephine picked a handful of berries and gave one to Emily first. She was smiling as she did so. Nothing seemed to happen for a while. Then she turned to Peter and motioned for him to open his mouth as she placed one on his tongue. He could see the frown on his face as the foul smelling berry entered the sanctuary of his mouth. He tried to remain still, afraid to swallow, just like he used to when his mother placed a spoonful of cod liver oil in his mouth and uttered the expected words, ‘Open wide’.
Peter roused from his sleep with a jerk, as if he had slept through the alarm and would now be late for work. He suddenly remembered the berry and reached for a handkerchief to place over his mouth. He immersed his tongue into the handkerchief, pulled it away and was relieved there was no berry in it. He rested his head back onto his seat and closed his eyes.
As the cabin lights came on, Peter woke fully, and the immaculately coiffured air hostesses bustled around him with the breakfast service. After the few hours sleep, he felt wide awake and no longer fidgeted with his book - only another hour to go before touch down. The fresh morning light shone through the little window behind him, blinding his vision as he tried to look down on the clouds. It reminded him of his first time in a Boston nightclub - how fascinated he had become with the beaming lights and how his confidence had grown. It was so different to the awkwardness of his first teenage village barn dance, where the ladies stood on one side waiting for a streaming flow of men to pass by and invite them to dance. The atmosphere consisted mainly of dread and fear, but occasionally a little romance emerged for the brave-hearted.
A strong wind greeted Peter as he left the airport terminal to collect the keys to his rented car. It was only the beginning of October, which made this onslaught of high winds early and unexpected. Moreover, hailstones picked at his face, whilst dust from the pavement blew unmercifully in his eyes. In the midst of this gale he pondered on how he would be able to pick up the pieces of his life. But, as he drove the thirty miles to Josephine’s house, he gradually blanked out these thoughts by recalling scenes from his childhood. As Peter drew nearer to his destination he passed the boarded-up house that once belonged to Mrs Jarvis. The garden now played host to nettles and thistles which replaced the masses of yellow and red roses that were once her pride and joy; her children almost, by the amount of time and care she bestowed on them. He fondly remembered Mrs Jarvis from his altar boy days. He could still see himself listening to the sermon, too scared to look at the congregation as he waited for the priest to finish so he could take centre stage. A young actor ready to perform in front of his audience, but his eyes were always lowered onto well-polished shoes. He was about twelve then and had no doubts that his life would be the best ever. He thought that serving Mass was comparable to a president serving in office, although placing the silver platter under chins during communion was a downside to his imagined presidency. All those unappetising mouths of bad breath open wide. Mrs Jarvis would eagerly make her way to the altar rails long before it was time and would also be the last to leave. Once the priest had served her communion she would just stand there with her eyes closed whilst people made their way either side of her. Over time, they just accepted it as part of the Mass, as if the Pope had given explicit permission for this to happen every week.
Peter knocked gently on the door, then quickly dried the perspiration from his hands and replaced the hankie in his pocket before the door opened.
‘Are you the Peter O’Connor that used to be?’ Josephine asked.
‘Still am, I hope,’ replied Peter.
They hugged and Peter kissed Josephine’s forehead.
‘Come in, I have prepared something to eat,’ Josephine said.
The smell of fresh baking oozed from the kitchen. The conversation flowed over homemade vegetable soup and white soda bread with caraway seeds. Smiles and laughter were exchanged as they talked about school days, rural endeavours and other childhood memories. There was no mention of Emily though. After lunch Josephine invited Peter to retreat to a seat near the glowing turf fire and poured them both a whiskey.
‘Welcome home, Peter,’ Josephine toasted.
They raised and clinked their glasses.
In the ensuing conversation, Josephine mentioned that there was going to be a fundraising dance in the local parish hall the following week, for the starving children of Africa.
Would you like to go?’ asked Peter.
‘Oh Peter, I haven’t been to a dance since I was at school,’ Josephine replied.
After another couple of hours had passed, Peter decided the time had come to lay another ghost to rest. He walked over the road to his parents’ house and pushed open the door. The last time he closed that door was a couple of days after his mother’s funeral. The smell of damp greeted him instantly. The interior looked liked an updated version of Miss Haversham’s living room from Great Expectations with its dusty decaying furniture. His mother’s rocking chair was still there. He pictured her sitting on it with a heavy woollen rug draped over her shoulders, as she sang:
‘Come over the hills my bonny Irish lad Come over the hills to your darling.’
She had sung the same song everyday without fail. In fact she seldom uttered anything else after Peter’s father died. She would just sit on the rocking chair and gaze straight ahead as if she was seeing and hearing a world around her that was invisible to everyone else. He felt peace after she died. He reassured himself that she would no longer be confused, and that she would be having long conversations with his father again. They might even discuss Emily. After all, there are no secrets in heaven where everything is known and understood.
The house had once been a fine two-storey building, crafted in stone with a large white front door and ivy that crept over its well-whitewashed exterior. His mother, in her more lucid moments, always claimed that it had been the finest house in the area and the envy of many. Its roof was still intact. He was taken aback by how calm it was inside the house, despite the gale outside. It felt surreal to be back in his old homestead. Its serenity coaxed him into thinking if the place were repaired and rejuvenated, could new life, new happiness, grow inside the interior again. Could that be its destiny, he pondered?
Peter looked up and saw Josephine standing at the front door. Without hesitation she walked past him, made her way to the back door and quietly began walking down towards the field. Peter followed silently. It suddenly occurred to him that the wind had lessened and that the sky was clearer and more settled. They remained silent as they walked though the field of brown rushes, and land that had been long neglected. Suddenly, a large red and brown pheasant flew with an almighty roar from an underground just ahead of them, and flapped its wings with force as it soared into the sky. Josephine must have sensed his alarm because she looked around and said,
‘Don’t worry we’re almost there.’
They sat quietly by a tree and watched the swift flow of the river for several minutes.
‘Mother never forgave me, you know,’ Josephine said before adding, ‘and she constantly reminded me that I was the least pretty. I was only twelve, and for years afterwards I blamed myself, thought myself to be evil almost.’
‘You were nothing of the kind. It was an accident. She slipped. You know how silly and clumsy Emily was,’ Peter replied.
‘And that’s what I’d like to believe too,’ said Josephine.
Peter clasped Josephine’s hand in his. The sense of touch is remarkable. Words are secondary to its power. It can heal, it can cure and it can bring peace. Its tenderness can awaken feelings that are dead and buried. It can revitalize and breathe new life into veins.
After the storm, the evening air started to turn cold and eventually they recognised that the moment was right to get up and leave.
‘I will need a new dress for the dance,’ Josephine announced.
‘We can go shopping tomorrow, if you like,’ replied Peter.
After the excitement of the previous day, Peter slept until late morning and didn’t leave the hotel to collect Josephine until after midday. After a lunch of fish and salad, they began the task of finding Josephine a new dress. Rails and rails of different colours and designs awaited them in Nancy’s drapery shop. Josephine was in and out of the changing booth like a restless bee, trying on different dresses but being completely indecisive about her selection. Then she picked a pin-striped one from the rail.
‘Red really suits you,’ Peter said.
‘Oh, I feel like Little Red Riding Hood,’ Josephine replied before bursting into laughter.
Later that afternoon, Peter busied himself whilst Josephine was making tea in the kitchen. The earthy smell of the peat was like a drug that made him light-headed as he laid the turf in the fireplace. He remained on his knees on the rug by the fireplace and became mesmerised by the quickness and the crackles of the new flames as they gathered speed.
Josephine came in and left the tea tray, containing fruitcake, on the hearth before saying, ‘I must go and try on my new dress.’
She returned and gave a little twirl before kneeling down beside Peter to pour the tea.
The quickness of a moment can never be underestimated. Peter placed his hand on Josephine’s cheek and then let his other hand move slowly down the middle of her back before he leaned forward and kissed her on the lips. Josephine’s body froze as if a catapult had struck it unexpectedly. Her pupils enlarged like she had seen an apparition. She’d never been kissed by a man before, but the tenderness of the occasion relaxed her and brought tears of joy to her eyes. Her embarrassment, though, resembled that of a sinner in a confessional box, fearful that people in the queue might be listening.
The fire had now kindled and gave out heat that was comforting and pleasant. Peter and Josephine lay on the rug in front of the fire, completely at ease with each other. The silence between them was so comfortable, it was almost as if they had been married for a long time. They say an artist is prompted to paint by the beauty he sees, but once he has painted the goddess; her beauty is transferred onto the canvas. Peter felt renewed in his thoughts. They became fresher as vivid images of his future lay before him, like a banquet of exquisite food presented on silver platters. He allowed himself to wander to a distant place he had never before visited. It was like flying, unaided by wings. He could see tall mountains. The mountains grew higher over the cliff tops, looking down on a clear blue ocean. Emily stood at the top of the peak with outstretched arms and a facial expression which showed she was alive, happy and free. A mild breeze covered the mountain range. He knew at that point that Josephine had told him the truth about Emily. He felt soothed by this reassuring thought and placed his arm around her shoulder before giving it a gentle squeeze.
A Time to Die
Most of you will be aware of the Ecclesiastes reading often chosen at funerals: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. One of the big questions in this is do we have we a right to choose a time to die if we become terminally ill and seek to do so by means of voluntary euthanasia, otherwise known as ‘assisted suicide’?
The concept of euthanasia has been around since the 17th century when medicine first looked at ways at alleviating pain and suffering through death in the elderly ill. Religion has always opposed euthanasia with the Catholic Church declaring it a serious mortal sin. The author Martin Amis caused controversy when he called for euthanasia ‘booths’ to be placed on all street corners where elderly people could end their lives with ‘’a martini and a medal’’. His comments were considered deeply offensive by anti-euthanasia supporters but Amis hit back by stating there are over 700,000 people with dementia living in the UK and his experience of seeing people he loved and admired with the illness had taught him there are no reasons for prolonging life once the mind and dignity goes.
It is only in the last fifteen years that assisted suicide became legal in Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and some USA states. The only Catholic country to legalalise it is Colombia. Two previous attempts to legalize in the UK were rejected but a Bill is currently before the Scottish Parliament to permit it.
Most people have heard of Dignitas, an assisted suicide Swiss organisation set up in 1998 that has so far helped over a thousand people with terminal cancer, motor neuron disease and multiple scorlesis by means of lethal overdoses of Nembutal resulting in a painless death within minutes. The cost is £4,000 and over a hundred people from Britain and Ireland have so far travelled to Dignitas clinics in Switzerland. An interesting statistics from Dignitas states that 20% of their clients do not have a terminal illness, but choose to end their lives because of a debilitating disability or a general ‘weariness of life’.
Daniel James, 23, became the youngest Briton to die at the Dignitas clinic after travelling to Zurich with his parents. He was paralysed from the chest down after a major spine injury incurred whilst playing rugby. David couldn't walk, had no hand function and had constant pain in his fingers, was incontinent and suffered uncontrollable spasms in his legs and upper body, thus needing 24-hour care. He considered his life had become ‘’a second-class existence’’. It is hard to judge someone like David because most people will never have to endure pain and suffering on this scale in their lives. Besides, he might have made his peace with God before making the decision to travel to Switzerland, and God, or at least the God I believe in, was probably incredibly loving and understanding in return.
The hardest aspect of assisted suicide that I find difficult to understand is when I see pictures in the media of people who have died at a Dignitas clinic ‘enjoying’ a final meal before their death with close family members. I would find this incredibly hard to do and if I’m honest I would probably do my best to talk the family member or friend from not going ahead with it, based simply on the premise that I would find it heart-wrenchingly hard to say goodbye to them. But from articles I have read, one family described their final hours and moments with their loved one as a ‘’beautiful and remarkable thing’’ before the death took place.
The Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors swearing to practice medicine ethically is changing in its direction. The sanctity of preserving life at all costs falls outside the remit of the oath when morphine is given in excessive doses to hasten death to patients in a lot of pain or sometimes because they are simply elderly with little chance of getting better. It happens in Irish hospitals far more often than we like to think. Undoubtedly, a broad debate into euthanasia needs to continue. We may one see it one day become legal in Ireland and England. I remember writing an essay on it when I did my Leaving Certificate in the early eighties condemning it strictly on religious grounds. England is in a progressive state of secularism and Ireland is following along in a similar pathway. That leaves me to wonder what students in the year 2040 will write about euthanasia in their copybooks. But for that only time will see.
Published in The Irish Community News magazine
Climbing Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo
If you have never climbed Croagh Patrick then you must set yourself a goal to do so. The annual pilgrimage takes place on the last Sunday of July. It is a spiritual experience. It is also a magical happening. We are fortunate having this great ‘peak’ on our doorstep in the West of Ireland, steeped in such great historical substance attached to Saint Patrick – our patron Saint.
It is estimated that 30,000 complete the annual pilgrimage. Interestingly, the media have reported in recent years that men are holier than women because they made up two thirds of the pilgrims. Another interesting statistic is that only two percent of people climb barefooted each year.
It is immensely difficult to determine a static definition of what it means to be Irish these days. Every generation brings its own perceptions and values – and with these changing parameters comes multi-faceted identities. It is no longer a case of there just being the obvious differences of opinion between old and young in our society. I think if any person looks at someone 10 years older and 10 years younger they will see differences beyond the generation gap in Ireland.
The days of widespread abuse, poverty and oppression have long since become history. People are terrifically well educated these days and we now have a prominent position on the world stage and a thriving economy. Our intelligence as a nation and our contribution to the world of literature and the arts are better recognised now than ever before.
One of the great delights of the Nostalgia Column in The Sligo Weekend is that it reminisces on the best of the past. It goes without saying that there are many past qualities in our culture worth remembering and celebrating. They illustrate great strengths of character alongside the integrity of our people, our cultural richness and our legendary good sense of humour.
Amongst all the changes, I personally cannot think of a better example of Old Ireland meeting New Ireland than the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, which takes place this Sunday 30th July. Well known simply as ‘The Reek’ because of its shape, the holy mountain has stood firm and resolute through the changes that have taken place in our homeland whilst it, too, has adapted to a few changes of its own along the way.
The following is an extract from an article I wrote last year about religion in Ireland during my youth. The piece is written in past tense and makes reference to Croagh Patrick and the six times that I climbed it during my youth. ‘’Our home in Derrykinlough was about fifty five miles from Croagh Patrick – the holy mountain situated in County Mayo, where in the year 441 AD St. Patrick is believed to have spent forty days and nights alone in the bitter cold at the top of the mountain, fasting and contemplating in prayer.
An annual pilgrimage involved climbing three miles up to the top of the mountain and attending Mass. This took place on the last Sunday of July. The climb was quite difficult and took over two hours, the last half a mile mainly consisted of scrambling over rocks and stones making the ascent to the summit quite treacherous. A stick was essential for support and my father always cut one especially for me. But the Order of Malta Ambulance Corps were always on standby, with volunteers ready to administer first aid to anyone who had fallen or to take pilgrims with more serious injuries to hospital. On reaching the top, it was generally considered obligatory to attend confessions and Mass in the tiny chapel there. Several other rituals, however, had to be maintained during the climb including doing a Station of the Cross mid way.
When I was a very young child climbs rarely commenced in daylight and were mainly at night-time. I remember my mother and brothers being collected by neighbours at around 10pm, as I was getting ready for bed. I envied them going on what seemed a mysterious voyage to me. My father stayed at home to mind me. In fact, he only climbed the Reek once. He had found it difficult and never felt the need to make a second pilgrimage. With having the ‘young one’ as I was referred to at home to baby-sit, I provided him with the perfect excuse to stay behind.
I listened with fascination to the stories my mother and brothers brought back. They included tales about people climbing by flashlight and some without any light; itinerant women carrying young children on their backs, some in bare feet – others falling and getting cut. Stories of good humour and camaraderie, with strangers keeping an eye out for each other - everyone united in his or her faith, determined to serve God by undertaking the climb as an act of penance.
The summit of the Reek was always bitterly cold. Thick fog and mist as well as a sharp breeze greeted people as they walked around the church whilst saying a decade of the rosary. When I first climbed the Reek I expected the church to be similar in size and design of other catholic churches but I discovered it was only small and had no altar or pews inside. It was used for confessions and sections were partitioned off for this purpose. Mass was celebrated every half hour from 8am onwards in a little kiosk attached to one of the church gables where people gathered in a large circle to participate. The church was built in the early 1900s. What a remarkable achievement it was to build a church on top of a mountain three miles above ground level. Donkeys would have been used to carry every stone up there because in those days there would have been no other method.
Legend has it that to get to Heaven pilgrims have to climb the Reek three consecutive years to earn the privilege. I duly climbed it three times in a row. It was during one of these last climbs of my childhood that I discovered ‘the third station’.
I accompanied Beatrice, a family friend, on many occasions. During one of these climbs someone gave me a prayer leaflet at the bottom before we began the climb. It was from this that I discovered an additional part of the pilgrimage once you reached the summit. It was optional but Beatrice and I decided to do this extra act of penance consisting of climbing down the opposite side of the mountain for a mile or so. Few pilgrims were doing the third station. Not many knew about it, whilst others who did decided not to take the risk.
The task entailed finding the way through thick fog down to three separate boulders of stones where one had to recite seven Hail Mary’s and seven Our Fathers around each clump. The next year, just before setting out for the climb, I can remember hearing my father say ‘’God Ye’ll end up in the sea if ye’re not careful’’ fearful that we would go off track in the heavy fog and get lost. Apart from being an arduous task, it was doubly hazardous, especially if there were an accident as there was no Order of Malta on standby to whisk one away on a stretcher. It was indeed the ‘survival of the fittest’.
I found the descent from Croagh Patrick to be delightful and easy. Not everyone would agree with me that this was the case. Many people considered it more difficult coming down than going up, not only as it took longer but because of the danger of slipping on the rocks.
During the descent the majestic scenery of Clew Bay across in the distance made the physical challenge all worthwhile. The lake, hills and multitude of greenery made a delightful picture. The fog and mist had usually disappeared by the time one had reached half way down making the views even more breathtaking. It was a relief to reach ground level once again because by that stage, I usually felt physically exhausted, yet mentally refreshed. Stallholders at the bottom of the mountain sold religious memorabilia. Purchasing a medal or picture of St. Patrick ended the pilgrimage appropriately. It was then time to sit down and enjoy the sandwiches and to be smugly satisfied that people at the bottom of the mountain were just starting out on their climb. At this stage after my strenuous efforts, I believed that their task ahead was unenviable to say the least’’.
So if you are game for something a little different this Sunday – get your stick and walking boots out and head for Murrisk – a tiny little village a few miles from Westport where you gain access to the Reek. This will provide a real opportunity to witness a piece of Ireland that expands to all generations. You may even catch sight of a few strong willed pilgrims making the climb in their bare feet. Alas, other commitments prevent me from being present this year. However, I was speaking a few weeks ago to Beatrice who I mentioned in this piece. She is climbing it this year for the 32nd time. This is undoubtedly a remarkable achievement that I imagine very few can equal. I wish all the climbers the very best for Sunday and hope that you all have a safe and enjoyable climb.
Published in The Sligo Weekend
Jamie’s Story with Declan Henry
Custody is quite simply a horrible place for young people. I know because I worked in a Secure Training Centre for a number of years as a social work manager. It’s not that custodial settings set out to inflict hardship or suffering on its detainees. Quite the opposite in fact, with many attempts being made to assist young people with their problems. However, custody often fails because whilst the enclosed environment is strictly managed, it can often become chaotic and will consist of young people who invariably display anger, hostility and resentment for being imprisoned.
Did you know that an estimated 90% of young detainees have a conduct disorder which is a personality trait that renders them hostile to rules? – or that over a half of young people in any custodial setting will suffer from a serious mental health issue? These issues range from ADHD, aspergers syndrome, attachment disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety as well as serious self-harm issues. Besides all this over 50% of detainees will have had a drug addiction which would have sometimes resulted in hallucinations possibly leading to flashbacks whilst in custody.
It is not surprising from a professional viewpoint that young people have such serious mental health problems when taking into account the level of suffering that they have had to endure in their short lives. A large majority will come from broken and unsupportive families and will have experienced neglect, abuse, violence and rejection almost on a daily basis. These young people will not have been able to develop coping skills to withstand the brutality that has been inflicted upon them. Therefore, some will have turned their feelings inwardly and fallen into depression; others will use self-harming as a method of releasing their mental anguish, whilst more will have turned to drugs for comfort.
I am currently working with Jamie (not his real name). He is a young boy (15) who has recently come out of custody. He was sentenced to a six month Detention and Training Order for assault and robbery, the first three months of which were spent in a Secure Training Centre. He is now released and serving the remaining three months under my supervision in the community. I see him twice weekly as part of his DTO licence.
Overall, Jamie is quite a well adjusted young man, academically gifted, plays football, doesn’t drink or take drugs but has witnessed regular domestic violence which results in him having occasional unprovoked tantrums. Anyhow, I helped Jamie to pen some of his feelings of being in custody which consisted of episodes of anxiety and stress.
’’When I was in the dock I was scared and worried because I got a hint of what was happening and when the judge said ‘’six month DTO’’, I felt like going mad. When I was sent down I thought ‘What have I got myself into’. I was handcuffed and put in a van. I felt like crying because I didn’t know what to expect or where I was going or what it was going to be like. I told myself to be calm.
During my time in custody I felt angry because I couldn’t be in control of anything. You start being quiet because you are not being yourself as you are not in a normal environment. You start remembering stuff you forgot about – deep stuff. What you could have changed or stopped. A lot of stuff preying on your mind. I felt I had changed so much during the first month that I felt like going up to staff and saying to them ’If you let me out now – I won’t offend again, I have changed’. But I had to be careful of what I said to staff and how I behaved. I didn’t want to appear too quiet because I thought they would put me on a SASH (Suicide and Self Harm Watch). There was another boy on my unit who was on a SASH. It’s not that I was feeling like harming myself. When you are banged up inside you are faced with constant stressful situations. The staff are stressed, other young people are stressed and then you have to cope yourself. The rules stresses everyone out. You aren’t allowed to look out of the windows in your room. Your bedroom door is locked and you hear the constant noise of keys and have the feeling you can’t get out. My mum couldn’t visit me on my birthday. This made me feel awful.
But you get used of the environment inside seeing the same people every day. You know what is happening and you get used to the schedule. But then when you get out you suddenly have a much bigger schedule. When inside you know what your limits are with people but getting out is a different story. It took me ages to get back to normal life. The day I got out I had to do a bus journey from home to the YOT office. When I got on the bus I got a sickly feeling in my stomach as there were loads of people around me and I didn’t expect this. I had been so excited about getting out but the excitement was replaced with anxiety.’’
There were three points in Jamie’s story which stood out for me. Note how he said he became reflective and spent a lot of time remembering things he had previously forgotten about. ‘Deep stuff...... what you could have changed or stopped..... a lot of stuff preying on your mind’. This made me think about the anguish of young people in custody who have experienced physical and sexual abuse. What must they be thinking at night during their lone moments when they lie there listening to the background noise of keys rattling.
Another point in Jamie’s account leads me to consider counter-transference. Jamie talks about the stressed environment of custody when he says ’You are faced with constant stressful situations. The staff are stressed, other young people are stressed and then you have to cope yourself. The rules stresses everyone out’. Counter-transference in laymans’ terms is when you are surrounded by someone who for example is feeling stressed or unable to cope – and you begin to feel almost exactly how they are feeling. In other words a young person may transfer their negative feelings onto another young person or staff member - or visa versa. Let us therefore muster up a picture of custody. An environment that consists of young people with serious mental health problems including suicidal ideation – others who are feeling anxious or struggling to cope with rules– mixed in with other young people who like to bully and antagonise – alongside staff who are overworked, tired and stressed. The result will undoubtedly entail individual transference of feelings getting passed on to each other, thus creating an emotionally charged atmosphere, which will test even the most resilient teenager imaginable.
The final point I would like to refer to is institutionalisation. Jamie was only in custody for three months but already he had settled into a routine that he found hard to break free from once released back into the community. ‘You know what is happening and you get used to the schedule....but then when you get out you suddenly have a much bigger schedule. It took me ages to get back to normal life. Routines for young people are in one respect excellent because they teach discipline which young people in custody need to get used to. But in Jamie’s case nobody had explained to him how difficult he would find leaving a confined and restricted environment - and the need to readapt to daily life again upon release. Can you imagine how terrifying it would for a young person getting released from custody, after been imprisoned for a year or longer, and then having to go on a bus journey by themselves, like Jamie described in his story. This is definitely an area that requires professionals to put much more thought into. I strongly suggest that Detention Centres include in their ‘Leavers’ programme sessions which enable young people to consider how captivity will have affected their lives and to somehow prepare them for re-integration back into the community. Devising these programmes could be a joint venture with the custodial setting and the Youth Offending Team with a plan of action being devised at the final review meeting prior to release.
Jamie is now back in full time education. I am currently working with him on his anger management issues, exploring skills he will be able to use to avoid losing his temper that will hopefully prevent him from re-offending. The youth offending team use a specific programme entitled Pathways – which contain exercises that teach young people the skills involved in developing social skills that are essential for good interpersonal interactions with others. Jamie’s problem solving techniques have much improved as a result of these sessions. He recently commented that the exercises, which cover a wide range of social dilemmas involving peers ‘have made me look at problems in a different way that I never thought about before’.
I cannot answer how much Jamie has been affected by his time in custody but I suspect that he will, like so many other young people, retain unpleasant memories of this experience for the rest of his life.
Published by the National Children's Bureau magazine
Gerry Adams: An Iconic Political Figure of our Time
For three decades, from the late 1960’s to the 1990’s, Northern Ireland saw violent political conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities, resulting in three and a half thousand deaths. Catholics considered the British government dictatorial and biased towards the Protestants in areas such as housing, employment, education and policing. Normal interaction and friendship with people from the opposite side of the religious divide was near impossible because of the fear and mistrust the Troubles generated.
Gerry Adams was one person who fought against the oppression of the British government. He was born in 1948 in Ballymurphy, the Catholic working-class area of Belfast that witnessed one of the first massacres of the Troubles in 1971, when eleven innocent civilians were murdered by the British Army. His parents and both sets of grandparents came from strong republican backgrounds. During the 1970’s Gerry spent long periods in prison during the internment era, when civil rights’ activists were falsely accused of IRA membership and held without charge. It was this background that led Gerry into the political arena. In 1983 he was elected an MP and the following year, after four years as vice-president, became the president of Sinn Féin. Under his leadership he has made Sinn Féin the largest Northern Ireland Catholic political party and the second largest political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. But Gerry paid the price of war on a personal level. His father and a brother were shot and injured. Several of his uncles and one of his brothers-in-law were shot dead. Gerry’s home was bombed, his wife and one of his children only narrowly escaping death. In 1984 Gerry was badly injured but survived an assassination attempt by loyalist extremists.
Many consider him a man of mystery and intrigue. This is partly because of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act which stopped his voice being heard on TV and radio broadcasts, but more significantly, there was the difficulty people had in differentiating between his association with Sinn Féin and the IRA.
Not everyone likes Gerry Adams, but few would doubt his commitment and determination to bringing peace to Northern Ireland. In fact some political commentators single him out as one of the most influential politicians (apart from John Hume) in brokering the pathway to the peace process and the IRA ceasefire, which led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, with joint power sharing between unionists and republicans.
In addition to a lifetime in politics, Gerry is an accomplished writer. He is a member of PEN, the international guild of writers, having written fourteen books, including autobiographical works and texts on Irish politics and history.
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gerry Adams for the Irish Community News at his constituency office on the Falls Road in Belfast. I was surprised to find him very different from his perceived stern presence on television. Instead, I found him to be a friendly, likeable and down-to-earth man who projected a calm aura. We spoke about the Good Friday Agreement, dissent groups and his work as an MP.The following are the answers Gerry Adams gave to my questions.
DH: With regards to the Good Friday Agreement, where does it go from here? What is the next step?
GA: The Good Friday Agreement is not a political settlement. It is an accommodation and a basis for political advancement. It also introduced fundamental political change into Northern Ireland from what had been the status quo.
If you want to get some sense of the depth of the problems arising from British government involvement in Ireland and the partition of the island then look at the breadth of the Agreement. It had to deal with constitutional and institutional equality, justice, and policing matters. It established power-sharing institutions rooted in an all-island structure.
Sinn Féin is an Irish republican party. We believe in the right of the Irish people to freedom and independence and Irish reunification. Our strategy is to achieve a united Ireland. That is our goal. The Good Friday Agreement is a means through which, democratically and peacefully, that goal and all of these matters can be discussed, agreed and can progress.
DH: Do you think that Republicanism and a united Ireland must be relevant to modern day life – and if so can you expand a little on this?
GA: Fine rhetoric won’t bring about change in the lives of citizens. We have to make republican politics relevant to people in their daily lives. We have to demonstrate through the work of our activists, the policies we advocate, and those we pursue in government, that Sinn Féin can deliver real and progressive change for people.
That means tackling poverty and injustice and defending public services and promoting economic justice and equality in society.
DH: Do you think a united Ireland is achievable in your lifetime?
GA: Yes. But it is not inevitable. It won’t happen because it is right. It will happen because Irish republicans are focussed and determined and have a strategy that can make it happen.
DH: Sinn Fein did badly in the last 2007 General Election in the Republic (blamed on the increased prosperity of the Celtic Tiger, resulting in fewer people, particularly young people, interested in a united Ireland) How do you feel about this – and what plans do you have to make Sinn Fein more electable in the Republic and would you consider going into coalition with another political party?
GA: People voted in the belief that the prosperity they had enjoyed as a result of the Celtic Tiger would continue. All of the parties on the left were hurt in that election, including the Labour Party, which failed to take an expected and sizeable number of new seats and in fact lost one of its existing TDs.
At that time Sinn Féin warned that the government was wasting public money. That it was squandering the prosperity that was being created by the Celtic Tiger. We argued for investment in public services. In hindsight, and with the collapse of the southern economy, many people now accept that our analysis and proposals were accurate.
We have also brought forward thoughtful costed and effective alternative economic proposals that can take the state out of recession.
We are also underdeveloped organisationally in the south and that has to be addressed
So, there is a lot of work ahead for the party.
In the north Sinn Féin has emerged after two elections as the largest party – in terms of votes – that is a considerable achievement. But we have to keep building the party in the north and attracting more votes and new members in the south.
DH: Are you pleased with the results of the Bloody Sunday enquiry? Do you think there should be an enquiry in the Ballymurphy massacre? How helpful are these enquires in speeding up the healing process?
GA: The decision by Tony Blair to hold the Bloody Sunday inquiry was a courageous decision, which was clearly taken by him as part of the evolving peace process and the negotiations that were then taking place in early 1998 prior to the Good Friday Agreement. But the length of time it took to conclude and the enormous cost are down directly to the machinations of the British Ministry of Defence and others within the British system who worked hard to subvert and prevent the Inquiry from getting to the whole truth. They sought to do this in a number of ways, including failing to provide essential materials and destroying other evidence. These same elements will continue to seek to prevent further inquiries or the creation of any serious effort to uncover the truth.
The Ballymurphy families are campaigning for a full, international investigation into the events of August 1971. Many victims and victims’ groups want the truth. Sinn Féin supports the establishment of an international truth recovery mechanism which examines the causes and consequences of the conflict and which is independent of the state, combatant groups, political parties, civic society and economic interests. That is the only way to ensure maximum confidence and maximum participation.
DH: Are dissident republican groups a headache for you? What percentage of republicans do you think are ‘dissident’ and against the Good Friday agreement and have you ever had any talks with them – is your door open?
GA: There are a number of so-called dissident groups. They are small and unrepresentative and have no popular support. Their actions are opposed by the vast majority of citizens. And while they have the ability to carry out occasional actions they are not the IRA and do not have the popular support or organisational or resource capacity to engage in the sort of armed struggle that went on for almost three decades.
Recently Sinn Féin has sought to engage with these groups in order to put very directly to them our view that ongoing armed actions have no place in the struggle for Irish unity.
I accept that other republicans have the right to disagree with the Sinn Féin strategy. They also have every right to oppose us politically and in elections. Indeed they have done so in the past and the republican community has delivered their verdict – they received a derisory vote.
However, they do not have the right to engage in armed actions. There is now a peaceful and democratic path available to a united Ireland – the vast majority of republicans are on it.
We want these groups to reflect on the political realities of Ireland in 2010. That is the purpose of our efforts to meet and talk to them.
DH: Please tell me a little about your work as a Sinn Fein MP – what sort of social problems do your constituents bring to you? Have you seen any differences in the social problems since the peace process? If so – what are the changes?
GA: Sinn Féin has a strategic plan for west Belfast, which brings together our councillors, MLAs and me as MP. It is about ensuring maximum investment in infrastructure and employment and housing while seeking to tackle the many difficulties that beset citizens; unemployment; poverty; suicide; anti-social crime; drug and alcohol abuse and so on.
The problems confronting citizens in west Belfast are similar to those faced by urban working class communities in many other countries. However our difficulties are made more difficult by generational discrimination and decades of war.
One change that it now quite stark is the number of people from the Shankill part of the constituency who are coming to Sinn Féin seeking help.
DH: You speak Irish fluently? Would you like to see more investment put into the language in the Northern Ireland educational system?
GA: I have a good working knowledge of it now and I strive to improve it each day. Under Martin McGuinness in his time as Education Minister and now Caitriona Ruane, the Irish language is receiving as of right significant investment but the DUP are in breach of their obligations to introduce an Irish Language Act to give legal rights to Irish speakers.
DH: If you were to recommend just one of your favourite books by an Irish author – what would this be and why?
GA: Call my Brother Back by Michael McLaverty. Because it captures Belfast and County Antrim and tells a story vividly and with wonderful under stated skill.
Gerry has since left politics in Northern Ireland and moved across the border where he because TD for the constituency of Louth in 2011. He was lovely to interview and came across as a genuinely warm man.
>Published in The Irish Community News magazine
The Missing Ring
There are some presents in life we treasure. Mine was a gold signet ring that my mother bought me for my twenty-first birthday. It was a July day in Sydney when I took it off and put it into my shirt pocket, forgetting I had done so before taking my clothes to the laundry. Panic set in when I realised my mistake and this only intensified as I frantically searched the returned laundry bag but to no avail. I sped back with great haste to the launderette, close to Bondi Beach – oblivious to the nearby surfers and people strolling along the sands.
The man in the launderette had an unforgettable appearance. He was in his fifties with a face very under-used for smiling. Apart from his surly countenance he had a hunched posture wouldn’t look out of place in a Dickens novel. But his most pertinent feature was his overgrown eyebrows, coupled with wisps of hair growing from his ears. How I wanted him to tell me that he had found my ring. His honesty would have made amends for his appearance. I may even like him. It wouldn’t matter if he never smiled. And I wouldn’t have to sadden my mother by telling her I had lost it.
My mother had accompanied me to the jewellers in Ballaghadereen in County Roscommon to select the ring the previous December. It had been a bitterly cold day with heavy sleet showers but this hadn’t deterred us from driving the ten miles through the rugged countryside, passing barren fields and bog land with withered heather presenting itself as scenery en-route. After choosing the ring, the jeweller inscribed it with my initials. I loved that ring. It was perfect and came complete with a little pink box.
The fresh smell of laundry lingered in the air as I opened the door, but its soothing smell was quickly replaced with disappointment. `No, I didn’t find any ring,’ the man said, but I was instantly struck with a gut feeling that he was lying. There was something in his voice and in the way he looked at me that made me disbelieve him. It is strange when we are sometimes faced by a lie that we skirt around it, excusing liars by shielding them from our embarrassment but end up colluding with them. In my case I asked him to take another look, but the search of the washing machines proved worthless.
I didn’t tell my mother I had lost the ring until I returned to Ireland the following year. She said we would have to go and get a replacement but we never got around to doing this. I kept the pink box for ten years before discarding it as it reminded me of the ring every time I saw it. Irish people are very philosophical about loss. We frequently say, ‘Ah sure let all our all bad luck go with it,’ when we lose something. With this in mind, I hope that at least some of my bad luck went with the ring when we parted company in Sydney all those years ago.
Published in Our Voices - Our Words and Ireland's Eye
The Face of AIDS
The death of Hollywood legend Rock Hudson in 1985 highlighted the true horror of AIDS unfolding across the world. Although it had claimed victims before, this was the first public acknowledgement of the destructive force being unleashed upon mankind. The television ‘tombstone’ health warnings of the late eighties – ‘don’t die of ignorance’ – were educational, but also served to spread fear and stigma. Since the early 1990’s I have been on the front line of AIDS. I have seen friends die. I have visited AIDS wards in London hospitals where harrowing scenes of illness played out before me. As a social-work student, I did a placement in a day centre for people living with HIV/AIDS. These experiences have led me to believe that AIDS is the most appalling and crippling disease known to the modern world, allowing the immune system to be continuously attacked by serious illnesses ranging from pneumonia to cancer, until its victim is left with a ravaged skeletal body.
As we commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1st, I would like to explore how close medicine is to finding the cure for one of history’s great killers, and remember the Irish men and women amongst the 25 million lives it has claimed worldwide so far.
The most up-to-date HIV statistics indicate that there are 39 million people worldwide living with the virus. Of these 80,000 live in the UK, and this according to the NHS is the UK’s fastest-growing serious health condition; 6,000 live in Ireland where on average 100 AIDS-related deaths are recorded annually. Once it was seen as a risk to all populations, but is now recognised that outside sub-Saharan Africa, it is confined to high-risk groups including men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and sex workers and their clients. Here in the UK those most affected fall into two main groups. Firstly, African people living and diagnosed here, but probably infected in their home country and secondly, gay men where it’s estimated that one in nine gay men in London are HIV positive. Medical experts believe at least a third of these are not yet aware they have the virus and continue to spread it unknowingly.
There was little effective treatment to slow down the progression of the disease until the introduction of anti-retroviral drugs in 1997. These inhibit the growth and replication of HIV in the body. This welcome medical breakthrough has led to an unprecedented 80% drop in Aids-related deaths in the UK over the last decade, however scientists predict they are still a century away from discovering a vaccine and cure for HIV.
Whilst in Hong Kong recently, I read in the South China Morning Post how scientists discovered evidence to suggest HIV has been present in monkeys and apes for at least 32,000 years and not just a few hundred years as previously thought, indicating the enormous time span and ignorance existing about the disease. However, for now, anti-retroviral drugs are helping prolong life and more essentially giving victims hope. It’s a far cry from the days when an HIV diagnosis often came with the advice to give up your job, sell your home, and go and live a little while you could. In simple terms someone diagnosed with HIV today can carry on with a relatively normal life with a life expectancy of another 25-30 years.
There are personal costs to those on anti-retroviral drugs, as they need regular blood tests to monitor their CD4 counts (measures the state of the immune system) and their HIV viral load (the strength of the virus in the blood), along with heart and liver function tests. The complex anti-retroviral drugs come with harsh toxic side effects from diarrhoea, nausea, rash and fat redistribution to nerve damage and cholesterol deficiencies. Once started, anti-retroviral treatment must be taken every day for life. Every missed dose increases the risk that the drugs will stop working.
AIDS has hit Africa the hardest. Although the continent is inhabited by just over 14% of the world’s population, it is estimated that 80% of people who have HIV in the world live in Africa. The main cause of AIDS there is unprotected sex. A lack of contraception and condoms along with unsafe medical injection practices add to the death toll. The United Nations and the World Health Organisation have set up the ‘World AIDS Campaign’, which is endeavouring to enable everyone in Africa to have non-discriminatory and non-judgemental access to adequate HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. But with dictatorial presidents in several of the worst hit African countries (e.g. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe), it is an uphill struggle. Whilst anti-retroviral drugs are freely available in the UK, only around 30% of victims in Africa receive them. The human cost of this life-saving treatment not being universally available results in 4,000 daily deaths across the African continent.
Sex is great but having safe sex is even better. People need to hear the message promoting safe sex time and time again. Charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust and Crusaid do sterling work in the promotion of HIV prevention. But with the recent ‘hurricane’ of coalition spending cuts, the future of such charities will come under great pressure. It is encouraging that the pop group JLS have set up a charity aimed at raising safe sex awareness in young people along with the release of their own branded condoms. They are helping deliver a strong message without frightening or alienating certain groups. It is this kind of work that will increase the ability for people to make an informed choice about their sexual health – and most importantly, it will lead to increased responsible behaviour which in turn will result in decreased numbers of the newly infected each year. And that is what is really needed as we wait for the cure of this horrendous disease to be found.
Published in The Irish Community News magazine
Christmas in Derrykinlough
My parents always put great effort and time into preparing for Christmas each year, and they were very special times in my home in Derrykinlough. When the season was near, we put up big and gaudy decorations, and we loved them. Nothing compared to the excitement of seeing our house transformed with Christmas cheer. The sitting room always received special treatment. Its timber ceiling easily accepted our drawing pins so we went particularly overboard with criss-crossing streamers with balloons added to each corner.
Nature made its contribution with the holly, which we raided from a neighbour’s tree, a bicycle journey away. We cut it into small branches and placed it over pictures and high-rise furniture. We did not care whether they had berries or not. Berries were generally rare except for the occasional year when a full bloom would surprise us all.
One Christmas in the early seventies artificial trees were on display for purchase in Jim Grady’s shop in Gurteen. We were all amazed at how real they looked, so my mother decided to buy one during one of her trips to the village. There was great excitement in our house when she arrived home with the parcel, and when it was unwrapped we thought it was the nicest tree we had ever seen. It was tall, broad and very convincing in its realism. At that time, it was unthinkable that anyone would assume it was anything but real, especially after we decorated it with tinsel and an assortment of differently shaped and coloured baubles.
Christmas heralded more frequent visits by the postman, who came daily with Christmas cards. We would line them up on the mantelpiece, and then the overflow would go on a specially constructed line of thread across one of the walls. We always counted how many we received to see if they outnumbered those of the preceding year. They usually did, but some years when the count seemed low we cheated a little by adding a few of the cards stored away with the Christmas decorations from previous years. It was tempting to delude people into thinking we had received more cards than we actually did, and I think it was my brother Kevin who started this trend, but I soon caught on to the idea too. However, one year we were over the moon when the real number amounted to over thirty cards. We thought our popularity was at an all-time high.
Something else stands out in my memory of earlier Christmases: the big market fairs in Tubbercurry. This annual event on December the 8th attracted large crowds since it was the place to go for Christmas gifts and, not least, to buy a turkey. Buying a turkey was no easy task, and my father would cast an experienced eye over all the birds until he spotted one he judged to be healthy and well fed. In the meantime many jokes were exchanged and plenty of bartering took place. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a reply to a trader asking for too high a price like, “Aarrah… What are you talking about? I wouldn’t give the butt of a fag for that,” when negotiations took a turn for the worse.E
ventually, a live turkey would be purchased and taken home, where its health and happiness would continue to be watched over until a few days before Christmas. Then it would be slaughtered, plucked and cleaned in time for dinner on the day itself.
Christmas time also meant an extended story about Fella, the office dog, in the December edition of St Martin’s Magazine. I would eagerly await and read the story longing to see what the twist would be at the end. Here is one of the stories:
Hello, Boys and Girls,
Oh, what an awful fright we got as Jock Bruce Spider put his hand in his pocket and took out the letters that were to be posted two weeks ago telling Santa what we wanted. Freddy Fly sarcastically said that if we woke up on Christmas morning and found nothing, Jock would be the first to call Santa names and say how mean he was.
Jock and I rushed downstairs to listen to what Freddy Fly and Mr. Fairy would say and to see if anything could be done for us. Freddy handed the letter to the Fairy and said: ‘That stupid Spider is going to ruin our Christmas’. Jock said to me: ‘Fella! I think Freddy Fly might sometimes be right, I think I am stupid.’ All I did was to give a big growl and make a bite at him. I said that besides being stupid he was unreliable, and I made another bite at him.
All this time the Fairy kept looking at the letters and turning them over in his hand, saying: ‘Mr. Fly, you are asking an awful lot. Do you know you are asking me to break the first law of Toyland, which is that all letters must be posted so that they will be received at least three days before Christmas? You beg me to bring your letter by hand just hours before Santa leaves! Oh! Mr. Fly, you are asking a lot, but put on the kettle and we will have a chat and see if anything can be done’.
Jock looked at me and said: ‘Fella, Santa will be leaving in a few hours and all that Fairy wants to do is sit there drinking tea. I know we are going to have a very sad and lonely Christmas.’ All I did was to give another growl and make another bite at him reminding him once again that it was all his fault. Boys and Girls, it was just awful listening to Mr. Fairy talking about football, and where he was when he was small, and all the time drinking cup after cup of tea but still there was no sign of him going. From where we were hiding we could see our three letters sticking out of his pocket and once again Jock said: ‘I hope he does not forget to deliver them’.
At last Freddy Fly said: ‘Mr. Fairy, I hope you remember the letters you have in your pocket, for in a few hours Santa will be leaving’. With that the Fairy jumped up and said: ‘I nearly forgot about the letters! Please let me out. Freddy Fly why didn’t you remind me? I’m late already and by the look of things I can’t see myself being in time for Santa before he leaves. Perhaps he will not even take delivery of them.’ With that he finished his tenth cup of tea and dashed for the door shouting: ‘Happy Christmas’.
When Mr. Fairy left, Jock Bruce Spider and I rushed over to Freddy Fly who said: ‘Men! Things are looking bad. I cannot see that Fairy getting those letters to Toyland in time. If he is late it should be a lesson to every little boy and girl all over the world to post their letters in time and not expect Santa to bring the toys if he doesn’t get the letters’. Then Freddy said that the best thing for us to do was to go to bed and hope that, maybe, Mr. Fairy would be back in time and we would not have to go back to play with our last year’s toys.
Jock and I went to bed and I felt sorry for poor Jock as he wept and said: ‘It is all my fault! As Freddy said I’m stupid, I’m stupid!’ Well, Boys and Girls, I do remember getting into my basket, but I don’t remember going asleep for all of a sudden I woke and there was Jock Bruce Spider dressed up like an Indian and screaming: ‘Fella, Fella, Santa came after all! A Happy Christmas Freddy Fly and Fella’.
Oh, Boys and Girls, I jumped out of my box and there stood a lovely, gleaming three-wheel tricycle with the words ‘For a good Dog. Happy Christmas from Santa’. Well, I could hardly believe my eyes to see such a lovely present. So Mr. Fairy got back in time to Santa in Toyland and we all had a Happy Christmas with all our lovely presents. We hope you have the same. Until next month, three barks and a wag of my tail! Woof! Woof! Woof! Fella.
The idea of Santa Claus was very much alive in my house when I was very young. I recall waking before dawn on Christmas morning and looking at the gap at the bottom of my bedroom door to see if I could see a light on in the sitting room. If I did, I knew my mother was up, and without further thought I would leap out of bed and race to the sitting room to see if Santa had indeed come. And there on the table would be a wrapped brown parcel waiting for me. The thrill and excitement of getting the string off added to the agonising suspense of the moment. Many coveted gifts would be revealed: train sets, colouring books, pens and Plasticine – Christmas had well and truly arrived.
What never seemed to arrive though was snow. I recall Christmas Eve as having a distinctive peacefulness about it. Snow certainly wouldn’t have been out of place then, and I remember often longing for a white Christmas. I think that Christmas cards picturing a pristine all-white world fostered the anticipation of snow, and maybe it was just as well we kept the nicer cards for redisplay because no snow made its appearance in the Christmases of my youth. The weather unfortunately always remained mild.
My mother switched on all the lights in our house on Christmas Eve, and a candle was placed on the kitchen windowsill. This was symbolic to show that our Lady and St Joseph were welcome in our house. This touching simplicity reminded us of the Christmas story, and that it was the beginning of a joyous time to be cherished and enjoyed.
Christmas Day was usually very relaxing in our house. After Mass, my brothers and I helped our father with the necessary farm jobs, but we did them as quickly as possible. The essential turf for mother’s fire was brought in while she had the very serious task of cooking the Christmas dinner. “Keep that fire well stoked,” was a remark often to be heard coming from her lips. The table was always meticulously laid with mother’s best table linen and crockery.
Films on television were limited, but anything with dinosaurs or something that would frighten or thrill would add another few hours’ enjoyment to an already perfect day. A few neighbours or my godfather, who lived nearby, would come to visit in the latter part of the evening, with my parents usually doing the chatting and entertaining.
St Stephen’s Day was special too – everybody in Ireland calls it St Stephen’s Day as opposed to Boxing Day. Ireland has a long tradition involving something called ‘Wrenboys’. This focuses around the wren – a little brown bird similar in appearance and size to a robin but without a red breast. Stories about the wren come from mythology dating back to the Middle Ages. The Irish word for wren is dreán or draoi éan, which translates as ‘druid bird’, and according to ancient folklore the wren is quite a mischievous little bird. Allegedly, when the Irish forces were about to catch Cromwell’s troops by surprise, a wren perched on one of the soldier’s drums and made a loud noise. This noise woke the rival troops in time to fight the Irish soldiers, resulting in many casualties. Another tale blames the wren for betraying St Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr. Apparently, St Stephen was hiding from his attackers, but a nearby wren flapped its wings, alerting the pursuers to his hiding place. Evidently, because of these misdemeanours a folklore king dictated that all wrens should be hunted down and killed. Thankfully, a less harsh interpretation of this command was in place several centuries on and all that was required was to sing or play a musical instrument on December the 26th. Perhaps this was punishment enough for the wrens, having to listen to croaky voices and musical malfunctions when they could otherwise be perched peacefully on tree branches. A financial reward was usually given at the end of each wren entertainment. This is a little verse which explains the process a little more:The wren, the wren,
the king of all birds
On Stephen’s Day
was caught in the furze
Up with the kettle
Down with the pan
Give us a penny
to bury the wren.
If you haven’t a penny
A ha’penny will do
If you haven’t a ha’penny
God Bless You.
I personally went out on the ‘wren’ for four years in a row; the first two with an older friend, and after he had outgrown the experience a different friend accompanied me for another two years. I can’t remember what I sang with the first friend, it could well have been a rendition of either Silent Night or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, which are still sung by wren boys to this day. However, during the final two years my act became more refined in the sense that I chose a song by Brendan Shine, an Irish country and western singer, entitled Where the Three Counties Meet.
Throughout my wren career, I always cycled from house to house with my partner. We travelled around for at least eight hours, covering a dozen or so of the local rural villages with our act. Our trips took us through muddy boreens and over fences; we were often attacked by dogs, and knocked on dozens of doors before singing our song. But there was a tremendous excitement about travelling around and singing in public. Some households gave generously, whilst others only a little. But some people were kind enough to give us chocolates and biscuits as well as money. I left the task of ‘cashier’ to my partners. They collected the money throughout the day and at the end we went to one of our houses and split our earnings equally.
I will always remember Brendan Shine’s song with its jovial lyrics:Oh how lovely to be on the shores of Lough Ree
On a beautiful mid summer’s morning
Looking over the lake where the waters do break
By the hills in the County Roscommon
I left my home, in the town of Athlone
On the way to the Three Jolly Pigeons
It was near Glasson town, on the road I sat down
And looked over the beautiful Shannon
Lough Ree, oh Lough Ree, where the three counties meet
Longford, Westmeath and Roscommon
As I stroll round her banks, by the heather and peat
They’re the memories I’ve never forgotten
Oh sad was the day, that I went away
To work among timbers and concrete
For now as a man, I must follow life’s plan
I forsook the dear place of my homeland
If God grants me grace, I’ll return to the place
When the sunset of life has come o’er me
Once again on these shores, like a bird my heart soars
As I gaze on the beauty around me.
I would arrive home at the end of the day, just before dusk, exhausted and dirty, although I was richer than at the beginning of it. My mother would have something lovely and warm ready for me to eat, and I would go to bed afterwards feeling very happy. The exuberance of innocence and youth was in full flow. Christmas time was simply brilliant!
Published in The Ireland’s Own and the Sligo Weekend
A Summer Long Ago
It is indeed strange to think back on how one person could have had such a huge effect on my life. How unrequited love had left me feeling so low and inept. I was in Hong Kong on my way to Australia - a land I imagined to be full of mystery and continuous sunshine, unlike the cold and damp climate of the west of Ireland where I grew up. I was only in my early twenties and should have had the world at my feet. It didn’t feel that way though. It seemed as if I was running away from my problems. But they wouldn’t let me escape, they just crept secretly into my suitcase.
Hong Kong was hot and balmy, yet full of life in the midst of its vast wealth and contradictory poverty, massive skyscrapers and legendary backstreet markets. It is strange how in moments of emotional turmoil, we stop and stare at people and places, as if we believe they will provide reprieve from what is going on in our heads. I looked with fascination at rows of children lining up in a school playground preparing to go back into class at the end of lunchtime. They all looked the same height, dressed in their immaculate blue uniforms and not a word emanating from their lips as they yielded to the teacher’s discipline. I thought about the notion that there is something safe and carefree about being a child that eludes adults. They don’t have our problems, nor do they have any realisation of the apathy and misery we create for ourselves. I desired to be free from my troubles and yearned for a philosophy that would lead me to a better understanding of human nature and relationships. And as I left Hong Kong on the last rung of my journey to Sydney, I was determined to find ways of filling the hole in my life.
It was ironic that my arrival in Sydney was met with rain; how Australia decided to greet me with weather reminiscent of my homeland. Maybe it wanted to be in tune with my deflated mood. I need not have worried about feeling melancholy for long though, because as soon as I set eyes upon Sydney Opera House and the spectacular Harbour Bridge, my spirits lifted. Something clicked within my brain that almost told me everything was going to be all right. In fact, I had only been in Sydney for a few days before I stumbled upon something that was going to change my life. I was invited by a man on the street, named Scott, to enter a nearby building and undertake a free personality evaluation. This consisted of a series of scientometric tests used to measure personality and aptitude. I cannot remember the exact results but they showed both positive and negative traits in my personality. I then discovered the good thing about the negatives - I could do something about them. Scott explained that I was a ‘thetan’ – a spirit, an immortal being that had lived many past lives.
Something in his words prompted me to wonder about how many places in the world I had been buried and what it would be like to be in a cemetery and pass one of my graves Scott also made me aware that I had capabilities beyond description, unbelievable mental strength and endurance trapped inside of me – in short, I had the potential to do just about anything I yearned to do. The creativity inside of me was bursting to get out, but would never see the light of day unless I set about freeing it. It wasn’t the mistakes I had made in life, nor was it the moments of regret, rejection or guilt I had experienced that were holding me back. It was me who was stopping my progress to a happy and successful life and I was the only person who was the master presiding over this decision.
Scott then suggested taking me on a tour of the building. My attention was drawn to an unusually shaped cross on the wall opposite us. It looked like a normal cross but had four additional diagonal rays between the usual horizontal and vertical arms.
‘Is this a church?’ I was prompted to enquire. ‘Yes, it is,’ replied Scott. ‘It’s the Church of Scientology.’I had never heard of Scientology or its founder L. Ron Hubbard (affectionately referred to as LRH) before. Scott told me that LRH was a famous American pulp fiction writer who had created a religion that was totally different to Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. It was a religion that matched no other religion known to mankind. It held the answers to every human and world problem and had a specially designed pathway that would lead to total spiritual enlightenment. I was in total awe of what Scott was telling me. My ears were doing overtime taking in this new information, my eyes bulging with wonderment as it slowly began to dawn on me that Scientology could lead me to the mental contentment I had yearned for during my soul-searching moments in Hong Kong.
I embraced my new-found discovery with outstretched arms and delved straight into taking courses in the church’s academy. One of the first courses I studied in the academy was the Suppressive Person course. Here I learned much revealing information. Scientology believes that the world contains suppressive people (SP) and that a percentage of antisocial personalities form part of society to the detriment of mankind. History is sprinkled with iconic figures that everyone is familiar with; the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. I was surprised when I was asked if I knew any SP. Surely not, I thought to myself. But then I discovered that SPs are found in every domain of life, not just in personalities like tyrants and dictators. They can be your neighbour, employer or even a close relative. They come in all shapes and sizes and will not necessarily emit their venom with a surly face, but opt instead for a churning wry smile. Many times they will have surrounded you. They probably still do. And you will recognise the words, ‘I’m only doing what I think is best,’ when your gut instinct tells you that nothing is further from the truth. These nasty individuals will thrill in squashing, belittling and stopping the enhancement of those around them. People in their midst end up stressed, ill and will doubt their capabilities and potential. I made up my mind there and then on the course that I would avoid, challenge or disconnect from anyone who I perceived had SP traits in their character, and to this day have remained true to my pledge.
I particularly liked ‘auditing’ which was a form of spiritual rehabilitation counselling. The auditing procedure consisted of an e-meter, which a trained counsellor operated. The e-meter was not unlike a lie detector, but generally considered by the church to be much more accurate. It could detect the slightest murmur of mental charge through holding two metal cans, one in each hand. A core belief of Scientology is that humans have two parts to their mind – analytical and reactive. The latter is very dangerous and it is here where reminders of painful and traumatic events are stored. Auditing gets rid of the reactive mind, thus paving the way for the individuals to free themselves of these limiting effects. Every problem, every aberration, every phobia is tackled and blown to smithereens. Surrender is not an option in the process.
‘I repeat the auditing command,’ the auditor’s voice would instruct.You get audited and audited until all the mental charge related to the topic in the session has been dissolved. But the relief was immense every time the auditor delivered the magic words at the end of each session, ‘Declan, your needle is floating’; meaning all mental charge in this instance was dissolved. Auditing is ecstasy. It boosts the ego. It puts you on a high elevation. Imagine the happiness you would experience upon hearing that you had passed an interview for that ideal job you had always wanted. This joy would remain in your mind for a long time afterwards. Auditing was like that. Like a picture of a rainbow that begins to unfold on a mid-summer’s evening, but only better.
In addition to getting rid of abnormal thoughts in my head, I was also getting rid of toxins in my body through the purification rundown programme. This consisted of a strict regime of exercise and sauna sessions to remove and help eliminate these poisons from the body, coupled with a special diet and vitamins to feed the body with healthy nutrients, bringing about a state of optimum good health. The principle was simple, a healthy body leads to a healthy mind, and in turn this feeds into the enhancement of the soul. So with this I received a thorough spring clean in both mind and body. It was a great sense of relief to think those grubby little toxins that had squatted in my body had been evicted. As a result I felt good. I felt bright. I was more articulate than I had ever been before in my life.
I loved my time in the academy. It was like being back at school but a whole lot nicer. No bossy teachers, bullies or jam sandwiches for lunch. No pressure of feeling competitive towards other students. Everyone was developing as individuals with new knowledge and skills being unwrapped daily. It was here that I fell in love with a dictionary. Yes, you have read correctly. A dictionary. LRH believed that people constantly either bypass words they don’t understand whilst reading, or misinterpret their sometimes different meanings. This leads to confusion and disinterest, which in turn results in ignorance and disaffection. The only way to prevent this is to know the correct definition of each word. Take for instance the Oxford English Dictionary. It contains 59 million words. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone in it knew the meaning of every one of those words? It is hard to imagine a world of tyranny or war because education is the best power of all.
One of my favourite books in Scientology was called A New Slant on Life. Here in this book, LRH tells how we change as people throughout our lives but mistakenly think it is the physical world that changes and not us. I thought a lot about this concept in the academy and concluded that it made sense. My thoughts led me back to Ireland and my childhood. I grew up in Derrykinlough, a rural village in southern Ireland where good weather in summertime was rare, but when the sun shone nothing was more relished. Waking up in the warm breeze, I would observe from my bed the lace curtains of the large bay window billowing in the early morning air, and rising to look through the windowpane, I would be greeted by Mother’s lupins that graced the front garden in their yellow, pink and purple shades. The sycamore, palm and fir trees that my great-grandfather had planted across the pathway, stood tall and strong. They had been home to the early morning birds that sung the daily dawn chorus for a very long time. A magical sight to young eyes. Why did it have to change or why did I think it had changed? A New Slant on Life made me realise it was I who had changed.
The scene through the large bay window of my family home remained the same. It was I who lost the sense of wonderment from appreciating this delightful scene. I had grown up and my perspective on life became such that I thought the environment around me had changed. Reflecting on this deeper meaning of life made me aware that people change faster and far greater than the physical environment ever does.
The world becomes a marvellous place when you are happy. The sun seems brighter, people appear friendlier and every problem fades away. I had become a magnet that attracted nice friends, had an interesting social life, spent spare time holidaying across Australia and had a lifestyle that entailed dining in good restaurants and drinking my other new-found delight – champagne. This was mainly due to Diana, a fellow Scientologist. She was slightly younger than me and lived with her wealthy parents. I became a regular visitor to their mountain cliff home overlooking Cronulla Harbour. One evening Diana baked pecan pie for dessert but miss-set the timer. Eating it was like eating spoonfuls of glue. It stuck everywhere and refused to move. We usually sat and watched the sun set by the large swimming pool whilst drinking Dom Perignon or fine claret from the extensive wine cellar. But on this evening we just rocked with laughter at Diana’s thwarted attempts of being a master chef. The fact that my days were often long, studying during the daytime in the church academy, and weekends spent working in a hotel, did not deter me in the slightest. I was living a dream. I was learning new skills and strategies every day and was earnest in my determination to work towards reaching total spiritual enlightenment. But perhaps most important of all, I had found happiness.
Did anyone see Halley’s Comet when it paid a visit to planet earth in 1986? I was excited as I set off to Bondi Beach to join hundreds of others in a pursuit to see this rare visitor. Apparently it is the only comet that is visible to the naked eye and it only crosses earth every 75 years. I was twenty-three years old and correctly calculated that I would be ninety-eight by the time of its next visit! I’d be an old man then, probably humped and walking with the aid of a stick. But I wouldn’t be any ordinary old man. I’d be a very wise one – satisfied of a lifetime well spent, abundant in knowledge and grace. This would be an old man who would be holding his own personal key to eternal freedom. I would be a free spirit capable of choosing whatever pathway into mortality that I desired. I’d also be free from the pain and misery that often blights old age. I didn’t see Halley’s Comet that night, but as I sat and observed the powerful waves of the sea on that moonlit April night, it did not matter. I reckoned I had probably seen it many times before in previous lives and if I hadn’t, well, then I would book a private sighting at some time in the future; such was the power I’d hold when I had worked my way up to the higher echelons of Scientology.
My time in Sydney was drawing to a close with my twelve-month holiday visa due to expire. It was time to return to Ireland and leave behind what, in many ways, had been a surreal year. Just before I left Sydney I remember Diana and I going to the cinema to see Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox. In many ways the name of this film summarised what was happening in my life. I was returning to my future. Of course I promised to return to Australia. I’ve holidayed there a few times since, but not to resume my studies in Scientology. It was lovely being back in Ireland. I had missed my parents and our beautiful black and white collie dog. We had some lovely weather that summer. I filled my time on the farm, sleeping, eating and cycling on the quiet lanes around the neighbourhood and became engrossed in the national debate of divorce as the country went to vote in the referendum.
How futile this all seemed in face of the massive pool of knowledge I had learned whilst in Scientology. How lucky I was to have discovered it, felt its power, relished its truth and perhaps met some of the most sincere and nicest people that I am ever likely to meet. I will never forget my journey to Australia; how that lonely, unhappy young man within me walked around Hong Kong, wishing for a better life, not realising then that what you wish for in life sometimes comes true. I went to live in London shortly afterwards and have, in the main, lived happily ever since.
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A collection of interviews with over 100 British Muslims to provide insight into what it means to be a Muslim in today's culture, and to inform any misguided opinions about Islam. Explores the Holy Texts, the essence of the religion, the different types of Islam and addresses controversial topics such as extremism and Islamophobia.Read More BUY
TRANS VOICES - Becoming Who You Are
Trans Voices contains interviews from over one hundred transgender and non-binary people, highlighting the diverse experiences and challenges they face before, during and after transition. This comprehensive book explores a range of topics such as hormone treatments, reassignment surgeries, sex and sexuality, mental health and transphobia whilst detailing the social, physical and emotional struggles involved.Read More BUY
We live in a world filled with beauty, wonderment and equilibrium – but equally one that is filled with evil, suffering and injustice. People with emotional and mental health problems have endured profound ignorance and bigotry from society for centuries.Society is frightened by The Different, and it always has been. The Different have been persecuted for centuries – ethnic minorities, non-majority sexualities, people with disabilities…‘The Mad’.Read More BUY
Buried Deep In My Heart
This coming of age story from Declan Henry captures life growing up on a farm in Derrykinlough, a rural village on the Sligo/Mayo border in the Irish Republic during the 1970s and early 1980s. This is an evocative account of an Irish childhood and tells of a now vanished world – settled, highly traditional and moulded at every point by Catholicism. It’s an account of self-discovery while encapsulating the hopes and ideals reminiscent of the time.Read More BUY
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The Bipolar Story
We live in a world filled with beauty, wonderment and equilibrium – but equally one that is filled with evil, suffering and injustice. People with emotional and mental health problems have endured profound ignorance and bigotry from society for centuries.Society is frightened by The Different, and it always has been. The Different have been persecuted for centuries – ethnic minorities, non-majority sexualities, people with disabilities…‘The Mad’.
‘The Mad’ have suffered for their difference more than most. Shunned and beaten as ‘possessed by demons’ in one age. Locked up and laughed at by crowds of tormenters in another. Subjected to barbarism beyond words in the name of quackery and science, and still today, in our bright and shiny, wonderful world, turned into living experiments, zombies and untouchables by poisons administered with smiles and gothic ‘treatments’ that leave them hardly sure of who they are. They are ‘The Mad.’
Except of course we do not call them mad any more. In the bright and shiny 20th and 21st centuries, we feel we must have explanations, diagnoses, labels. And so we slice up our society, and we give conditions names.
Bipolar is a name. A label. And that is all.
Bipolar is not a disease. You cannot catch it. More than that though – the list of symptoms that ‘could indicate bipolar’ is broad, and wide, and self-contradictory. As such, it is not a diagnosis of anything particular or concrete. It is potentially a catch-all of ‘symptoms’ that are not symptoms, and once ‘diagnosed’ it can be a snake to slide you straight down to the dark side of our world, with little hope offered of escape or parole.
Of course, I do not mean to suggest that people do not get deeply, despairingly depressed, or that these same people, at different times, don’t act in manic and dazzling and damaging ways. What I do claim is that these states are merely extreme manifestations of natural human responses to natural human difficulties with the business of being alive.
Look at our amazing world. In the last fifty years alone, medical science has advanced in awe-inspiring leaps and bounds. Incredible to think, then, that when it comes to bipolar, we’re still treating supposed sufferers with poisonous and life-destroying drugs.
But my purpose here is not to start redefining bipolar. Rather, I want to help make people aware of the myths surrounding this alleged condition. I want to expose the unnecessary suffering inflicted through medication. And I want to develop a willingness in the reader to get the facts about bipolar, and become more accustomed to looking at different methods of improving their emotional health, to which they have not given, or are not currently giving, enough attention.
Psychiatry has butchered its way through society for centuries in search of credibility, and instead of delivering the sanity it loftily promises, has bequeathed a legacy of utter wretchedness to those whose lives it has touched.
Of course, that’s the point about ‘The Mad’. That’s why they’ve been more feared than any other group: they’re the only group that’s open to anyone, and the only group to which you can be consigned, against your will, on someone else’s word. One misdiagnosis, one easy psychiatric solution, and you can find yourself on the chemical treadmill too.
That’s why you need to read this book.
Extract from Mary’s story in Why Bipolar?
Everybody feels the blues. Everybody experiences grief. Everybody cries. So what is bipolar depression really like? In my experience it has a pattern. It is a slow withdrawal from life. A loss of interest in the everydayness of things which progresses to full-scale isolation in one’s mind. You can be in the proverbial crowded room and still feel disconnected to everybody. There is a serious drain of energy, which no amount of sleep seems to redress. One’s inner thought patterns become flooded with negative messages. You feel a failure - no matter what you’ve achieved in life. These thoughts are overwhelming and constant. You lose all self-respect and your self-grooming goes awry too. Otherwise capable people are reduced to shadows of themselves and even minor tasks, like housework, can cause panic in a person. If you are of a spiritual bent, this state may bring terror of hell or feeling too sinful for God ever to forgive you. You battle isolation from stigma and ignorance. Suicidal depression kicks in. You feel useless and worthless. Depression is a response to stress and pressure. To survive, you must switch off and go to a place of refuge. All is bleak.
Flyleaf to the back cover of Why Bipolar?
Declan Henry has been an active social worker for over 20 years, dealing with people with a wide range of social and mental issues, including bipolar. What inspired him to write this book though was witnessing the intense suffering of a personal friend over many years of ‘treatment’ for bipolar.
In Why Bipolar? Henry pushes back against the catch-all mythology of a condition for which there is no scientific evidence. He reveals the convenient collusion between the psychiatric profession and big pharmaceutical companies as they claim to treat an ‘illness’ so poorly and vaguely defined that its list of symptoms is entirely self-contradictory, endorsing and prescribing the suffering of millions while they themselves grow rich and re-write not just history but the bounds of medicine in the process. Henry’s collection of 26 life-stories illuminates the world of the bipolar sufferer, and heartbreakingly show the cavalier treatment deemed acceptable for those with this diagnosis.
But Henry also offers hope to those with a bipolar diagnosis, claiming that by becoming better informed, both about the condition itself and the alternative treatments available, and by practicing self-management, the dream of living drug-free with bipolar is not only a possibility, but an inspiring reality.
“.... I have learned a lot from this well researched book, mainly not to automatically accept what I’m told by medical people who don’t bother to get to know me and my condition, to question their medications and above all, to take charge of my life and make it work as best I can...” Anne Hailes, Irish News journalist.
An extract from Buried Deep in my Heart
My father went to England every autumn for economic reasons to work in a sugar factory in Essex. Thus, he was usually away from September to early February. His annual absence had become part of our family life, and we were used to it. We were sad at his departure but excited when he returned. Father always ensured that affairs on the farm were in order before he left, including getting all the hay and turf home. All that remained was for my brothers and I to help mother run the farm whilst he was away, which mainly meant milking cows, feeding cattle and cleaning out barns. Selling and buying cattle was always done in spring, but my father always returned in time for this task. However, the calving season was mainly in wintertime, and it was at these times that I had to get my hands really dirty. No two births were ever the same. With difficult births, the cows went through immense pain, and plenty of assistance had to be given when big calves were involved. For this, a rope was tied around the front feet of the calf after the water bag had broken, and a strong piece of wood was then attached to the rope to assist with pulling the calf out as quickly as possible. As soon as the calf was born, I used to help clean and dry it off with some hay. It never ceased to amaze me how after the young calf was dried off and had rested a little, it would then rise to its feet. This always happened within minutes and was truly magical to watch.
My mother used to pack my father’s suitcase meticulously before he went to England, and she usually had an audience when carrying out this task, as I liked to watch what she was putting in. Everything put into the suitcase had been washed and meticulously ironed – so it didn’t matter that his work clothes were mixed in with his best finery. A quantity of razor blades, soap and shampoo intended to last him for a couple of months were also included. As a letter was the main means of correspondence in those days, she always included a blue Belvedere Bond notepad and envelopes to match. My mother and I exchanged letters with Father every week with our news, and to this day I vividly remember his address at the sugar factory in Essex.Mr Patrick Henry, The Hostel, Felsted Sugar Factory, Dunmow, Essex, England.
In addition to writing to us, Father regularly posted us newspapers. This was a treat because we all loved reading in our house, and the newspapers he sent were different from the Irish ones with a wider variety of stories which weren’t normally available to us. Indeed, part of my literary diet growing up were Daily Mirror newspapers, which Father carefully rolled up and posted to us. There was nothing better than getting a taste for scandal from an early age. It was all very harmless, though mind-boggling at the time. In the midst of a staunch Catholic environment, reading about an adulterer was shocking! Questions like ‘How could they do such a thing?’ would often be exchanged in conversations. It wasn’t only reading about the sexual antics of people that was intriguing, other stories struck a cord as well.
For me, my Catholic upbringing encouraged a fascination with the afterlife and the supernatural. I was always asking what happened to people after they died. I really wanted to see a ghost, but I never did. Maybe it was just as well because I remember reading in one of the papers a really scary story about a haunted house. Furniture often moved around by itself in this house, noises were often heard in the middle of the night, and a misty, cold presence was sometimes felt in its rooms. Well, nothing moved in our house, wardrobes stayed firmly in their place at all times, and neither were there any strange sightings. I know because I did a daily check after reading this real-life ghost story. Furthermore, if the kitchen or sitting room were cold, it was usually the fault of one of my brothers or me for neglecting to fuel the fire whilst my mother was out working on the farm.
My father always brought us presents when he came home each spring. He hated cheap things because he believed that things that were cheap never lasted very long. I grew up listening to his philosophy that ‘the dearest is the cheapest in the long run’. One year he brought me a lovely Parker pen. I loved it, but my mother gave strict instructions that I shouldn’t take it to school for fear it would be lost or stolen.
The excitement of Father coming home was coupled one year by the arrival of a travelling show to our local area. I have realised over the years that individuals can be rather naïve during many stages in their lives, but none more so than the young and impressionable. It is when you are young that only true wonderment can be experienced. I remember feeling this sense of wonder when the travelling show came to a neighbouring village. The anticipation of what the shows were going to be like was immense. A marquee was erected in a field at the back of the church, but there was only a small entourage with just three or four caravans for the family-run business.
Shows were planned over the course of a week and were mainly scheduled for seven o’clock each evening. I remember entering the marquee on the first evening and being taken aback and fascinated by the lighting as we sat down on one of the rows of benches. The performance was an all-round show for all ages and consisted of a comedy act, magic tricks, singing, and even a trapeze artist. Then to finish things off at the end of what was a lovely and enjoyable evening there was a round of bingo with prizes to be won which consisted of a teddy bear, a crystal bowl or a box of biscuits. However, I wasn’t fortunate enough to win anything and envied those who did.
Each evening there was a horror movie shown at either ten or eleven o’clock, but this was too late for me to be allowed to attend. Padraic went to some of them, as he was the oldest. I remember my curiosity about these movies and would have loved to see the gore that I imagined. Padraic was questioned thoroughly the morning after each performance. He was asked questions like ‘What was it about?’ and ‘Who was in it?’ as well as ‘What did you see?’ I don’t think he was very interested in them because he could never really remember much about them, which I found rather infuriating at the time.
Ireland had begun to reap some benefits of being part of the European Market by this time. Nearly every household now had a car, there were better employment prospects, and women were entering the workforce in much larger numbers. More cars and more money meant that people were able to travel much longer distances in search of entertainment. As a result, people began to develop broader minds and more sophisticated tastes. The tourism industry saw an increase in the number of visitors coming to Ireland, alongside emigrants returning home on vacation, all of which generated ever more income. I missed the travelling show after it left, and it was never to return again. It was the last of its kind; society had changed. It was the end of an era and simplistic shows like these couldn’t survive the new economic boom.
Reviews of Buried Deep in my Heart
The Ireland of 40 years ago is a long way from the country at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Huge changes have taken place within one generation and the country of today with its economic and financial crises is a world removed from the seemingly carefree life of the 1970s. In Buried Deep in my Heart, his engaging memoir of growing up in the village of Derrykinlough in Co. Sligo, Declan Henry conjures up a rural way of life that has largely gone: haymaking, turf-cutting and harvesting the fields of oats may still be carried on in some parts of Ireland but his vivid recollection of it takes us back to an idyllic past. The memory-filled fields that he recalls playing and working in, bring the past alive and whether he is recounting an amusing or a harsh incident from primary school days he is always alert to the past. The author recreates his childhood and teenage years with many, mostly happily-recalled, events. In between his stories he sprinkles a generous helping of poetry, songs and ballads which helps enliven the work invoking the words of Padraic Colum, W. B. Yeats, Longfellow, Johnny Logan, Brendan Shine or Liam O’Reilly from Bagatelle.The music and fun of the days of the legendary travelling showbands and country dancehalls is particularly well described. This chapter provides some amusing anecdotes including the story of the famed song Mursheen Durkin and how Declan’s godfather Johnny Durkin took umbrage at it and loathed anyone making reference to it. A fascinating aspect of this book is to compare the life of a teenager today with that of the 1970s. Today’s teenager lives in a world surrounded by electronic gadgets, computers and the internet. Forty years ago it was simply TV or radio as well as local entertainment and the neighbours who were part of the adolescent years.This book is a reminder that as Patrick Kavanagh once said every field in Ireland has a story to tell. Human and social history is all around us and every pocket of land pulsates with many ears. As you read this memoir you can feel the powerful continuity of history where the past is always at your elbow. It may be found in the grandfather’s limekiln field, the sow’s field or Georgies field. Declan has documented the local and the historical in detail and there is a feel-good factor running through many of the pages. This book is an important work, providing a period-piece snapshot of life for future generations and social historians who will look back on a simpler and perhaps more innocent world.
Paul Clements - Irish writer and journalist - www.paulclementswriting.com
I have read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, dabbled with Maeve Binchy, wept for Frank McCourt and cried tears of laughter at Father Ted, but generally I am unfamiliar with Irish culture. Tragic headlines have left me with the impression that Irish childhood has been blighted by terrorism, poverty or horrific abuse. So, with trepidation, I opened this book and wondered exactly what I would find Declan Henry had buried deep in his heart? It was with relief that I found something I thought could not exist in Ireland; a happy childhood within a loving family, living in a secure community. This is a particularly poignant book if, like Declan, one’s formative years were in the 1970’s. It was such an unsophisticated decade and yet it seemed so ‘cool’ if you were actually there. Declan has recorded his childhood memories in exquisite detail. His school days are recalled with affection and I laughed out loud over his enthusiasm for dancing and several other escapades. It is the details of ‘normal’ life that bring this book alive such as the excitement over Dallasappearing on the television screens. He thought an artificial Christmas tree ‘was the nicest tree we had ever seen’. Me too! If you are younger than Declan (okay, and myself) then this is proof that there was life before mobile phones, 24 hour television and the internet; when your father drove you ten miles on a tractor to your first interview, and recorded music was heard via the radio or spinning vinyl. There is sadness recorded too, but the loss of his brother Padraic is described with dignity, warmth and gentle humour as the whole community comforted the family. The political troubles in the North are touched upon, but Declan always keeps his reflections from a childhood perspective. This is a touching account of what were perhaps simpler days for children, told with Irish wit and compassion. Thank you, Declan for sharing your memories and giving me a different view of Ireland.
Jill Petts – Writer
‘’A heart-warming, nostalgic tale which recounts author Declan Henry’s own experiences as a child growing up on a farm in 1970s rural Ireland, Buried Deep in my Heart not only recounts the writer’s own experiences, but serves as a snapshot of an Ireland which, to all intents and purposes, has vanished from view.
Set in the small village of Derrykinlough on the Sligo/Mayo border, this book - told in Henry’s easily accessible, conversational style - is full of the usual sensations, trials and tribulations of a young man in a small town who is coming of age – a tale of self-discovery which also charts the hopes and dreams of young Irish people of that time.
It’s hard not to fall for Henry’s recollections of those early years – the exuberance, high hopes and excitement of youth enliven every page, every anecdote. Of course, it’s an Irish upbringing we’re talking about here too, so it’s also enriched with the wit and the ways that our fellow countrymen are famous for.
Though modernisation has brought much good to the island, Buried Deep in my Heart makes you hanker for a time when everything was a little simpler; when the ties of community and religion and the support and protection these two pillars offered were still a reality and not simply part of our quaint past.
Henry, who has lived in Britain since the late 1980’s, has forged a career as a Social Worker but his flair for writing means that this book is a rewarding tribute to his ability as an author. His account has been warmly welcomed by those in his native parish and old friends and neighbours have responded well to the tributes he has paid to them in the pages of his book.
He wanted, he says, to paint a happier picture of an Irish childhood. It is happiness, he believes that the majority of Irish children experienced, but which is rarely portrayed by modern authors.
“Ireland is often depicted as a miserable place to grow up, but that was not my experience,” he says. “Of course there has been a lot of tragedy and many lives were marred by abuse and poverty but there are also a lot of happy memories.”
Of course, very few families are untouched by grief and the Henry family suffered the loss of Declan’s brother, Padraic. Too many Irish families will be able to empathise with his description of that tragic time. The sadness is tangible but so too is the sense of community as he describes how neighbours came together to offer support.
It is that sense of community, through good times and bad, that many will enjoy in this charming tale.’’
Review by Angela Sammon that appeared in The Irish World.
An extract from Glimpses
Zane and his friend stood on the street corner and watched a young woman moving boxes from a house to a nearby car. They were judging the situation and discussed how best to approach her. The friend suggested just walking up to her and casually asking if she had a spare cigarette. Zane, himself, thought it would be better if they pretended to be lost by asking her for directions. Eventually Zane’s friend grew impatient waiting and said he was going home. Zane nearly did the same but decided to wait and see what would happen.
Unbeknown to him, the woman he had been watching was Elaine Smyth who was clearing things out of her ﬂat. She was soon getting married and was moving into a new house that she and her ﬁancé had just bought. It had been a stressful day for Elaine. She had hurried home from work to do some of the packing. She also felt that she had hundreds of things to do in preparation for her wedding day. She started loading the boxes in the boot of her car, oblivious that a young predator was closely watching her by the name of Zane.
Zane walked up to Elaine as she was coming out of the house with a box and pretended to ask for directions. Zane then asked her if she had a spare cigarette. Elaine told him that she did not smoke and added in a joking manner that she thought he was too young to be smoking. It was at this point that Zane started to grab the box she was holding which contained a new laptop computer.
Elaine put up a struggle and shouted for help. This annoyed Zane. He told her to ‘shut up’ but she continued to scream for help. His anger suddenly intensiﬁed and then he gave her a hard punch in the face. The force of the blow cut her face around her mouth. She put her hand to her face and discovered she was bleeding. However, Elaine was determined not to let him get away with it. She began shouting louder and louder. Unfortunately there was nobody else in the street at the time and her cries for help went unnoticed.
Zane was surprised and none too pleased at what was happening. He had committed several street robberies and usually his victims did not put up any resistance – especially women. Now he feared for his credibility and feared that his father would tease him for this.
‘Ha ha ha, a woman got the better of you Zaneie,’ he could hear his father saying in his mind.
His father always called him Zaneie. Zane liked his father styling his name this way. He lived at home with his father, in a house that was compiled of stolen goods. His father liked to think of himself as a ‘career thief ’. Over the past year a kind of rivalry had developed between him and Zane. This had started out as a joke but Zane took the jest a little bit too seriously and tried his best to outshine his father with the number of stolen goods he could take home, including money.
Elaine managed to tug the box away from Zane but then she tripped on the kerb and fell awkwardly onto the ground. He ﬁnally got hold of the box, but this wasn’t enough for him. He was upset at being challenged and kicked Elaine whilst she lay on the ground, narrowly missing her head. He then asked Elaine if she had any money. He took her car keys and went over and unlocked the boot and started rummaging through her belongings.
Zane thought he had got the upper hand with Elaine. Whilst going through her possessions he failed to notice that she had managed to get up and had run across the road to a nearby pub. It only dawned on him that she had slipped away after he suddenly heard loud voices and saw Elaine coming towards him accompanied by two men. The men gave chase but could not catch up with Zane, as he was a faster runner than them.
Although Zane was winded from running he managed to look round and saw that the two men had stopped chasing him. He gave no thought to Elaine or how she might be feeling. There wasn’t anything unusual about this because Zane rarely thought about his victims after he had robbed them. His mind was always preoccupied with plans for his next robbery, which left no room to worry about any trauma he had caused.
Zane was ﬂushed and out of breath as he boarded the bus home. He remained angry with himself for leaving the laptop and other items behind. He wondered how he had been so stupid for not having noticed the men approaching sooner. He considered it a very unprofitable evening. Nevertheless, he reassured himself ‘Never mind Zaneie, you will have better luck tomorrow’. Zane, of course, could never visualise that his ‘tomorrows’ would eventually run out of luck and that he would be caught. Thoughts of him facing up to the reality of his actions were far from his mind. He sat on the bus and began to make up an impressive story about the evening to tell his father.
The thought of disappointing his father was greater than the anger he held towards himself for the bungled robbery. But the greatest shame for Zane was the prospect of being perceived as a failure in his father’s eyes. He knew he would not be able to cope if his father referred to him as being weak – and decided he would have to conceal what had really happened that evening and invent a story around it.
When he got home his father asked him how proﬁtable his evening had been. Zane responded to the question by giving a dramatised account of the failed robbery, exaggerating parts of it here and there, in an attempt to amuse his father.
‘You’re still not as clever as your old man,’ exclaimed his father holding up a collection of gold chains that he had stolen that evening.
‘Fucking hell, how did you get your hands on them dad?’ Zane asked.
Then they spent the rest of the evening discussing how they would sell the gold chains and how much money they could generate. The whole conversation between Zane and his father contained bravado with each of them pretending to be more courageous than the other. They began to discuss how they would sell the chains. Plans for this were interspersed with ideas for another haul that would supposedly earn them even more capital.
But nothing was fully decided before bedtime. They would resume the discussion next morning. They often did this. There was something about discussing robberies at the breakfast table that added excitement to the rest of the day. Subconsciously, they had discovered that the missing void in their relationship was best ﬁlled in this way.
Reviews for Glimpses
The 26 short stories in Glimpses, which give us a snapshot into the lives of youth discarded by family and friends and classed as social problems, are fictional but the kind of circumstances displayed are true to life.
Teenagers are shaped by experience – what happens when these experiences affect them negatively? Declan Henry uses these stories to show the reader that there are reasons for problematic behaviour and reminds us of untapped potential in the youth of today. It reads like a collection of dark fairy tales, each of them starring a horribly twisted monster. These monsters prey on the weak that cross their path; or they seek to destroy themselves, overcome with grief at their own ugliness. The monsters are human children, and the forests they haunt are all around us.
Henry has drawn on his long experience as a social worker to bring us an unforgettable cast of fictional characters, each of whom would break your heart with fear and pity.
Chenai cuts herself every time her father rapes her; her mother continues to disbelieve her. Fay rather hopes her joyriding will land her in prison, away from her dangerously violent home life. Jake wants to tell his side of the story – it is a long story, covering the 707 days since his mother’s terrible death – but now he has stabbed a man he worries no one will ever listen to him.
There are redemptive tales: Gerry wants to be a criminal like his father and brothers, but decides to grow up when he nearly burns an old man to death. Young teenager Malena believes she is ugly, and therefore believes her baby is ugly too – until she suddenly sees the “magic in her daughter’s eyes” and decides to go back to school.
These stories do not sentimentalise these sad children, nor absolve them from all responsibility for their lives – but they do illustrate with insight and compassion how easy it is to take malleable children and batter them into truly pitiful shapes.
Helen Falconer is an author and journalist – and book reviewer for the Guardian.
Glimpses is a confronting and frank account of what some young people have to deal with when growing up. The author Declan Henry uses his vast social work experience to take twenty six literary snapshots into the chaotic, rejected, down-trod and often hidden circumstances of society's most vulnerable and anti-social youth. The book sometimes makes uncomfortable reading as it takes a straight line on the un-talked about issues that are often evident in a dysfunctional young person's upbringing.
Glimpses shows the distinct relationship between a young person's anti-social behaviour and irresponsible, unethical and deplorable parenting. Although the book focuses on the circumstances of teenagers, many of the short stories illustrate that the parents of many youths involved in criminal behaviour are often the culprits of generating such confused and dreadfully behaved children.
The book challenges the reader's view of the typical misbehaving, anti-social hoodie. It provides understanding, not excuses, as to why some young people behave so anti-socially. Declan Henry's writing style is highly engaging and this insightful book is well worth a read for anyone trying to understand the problems youth are facing in today's social climate.
Review by Jono Wheaton. JP, B Soc Sci, Dip A Edu.
Glimpses, by Declan Henry, is just that; glimpses into the lives of twenty six young people who are all vulnerable, most of them damaged in some way, many by their parents. It is a profoundly depressing series of glimpses, with little hope that things can get better and that the characters involved can achieve any kind of breakthrough from their various prisons and compulsions.
One of the characters, however, does ignite a feeling of hope. Could it be because he is caught up in the experience of love? A real self-forgetful love. The only problem for Todd is that the object of his love is the wrong one according to society. Todd is in love with Mark.
We are not told what happens after Todd gives Mark a quick kiss when they embrace at the end of a football match. This is, after all, only a glimpse. But we are left with our two young heroes sitting and eating ice-cream as they watch 'the majestic river freely flowing downstream', and Todd with a feeling inside him, - 'exhilarating, powerful, and sincere'. We can imagine that Todd's future will not be all roses, especially not with a homophobic father, but can hope that these exhilarating feelings of his will give him the sincerity and power to cope with all that lies in wait in the future.
Review by James Anthony Holt
An extract from Trans Voices - Becoming Who You Are
I decided to write this book because I was ashamed of how little I knew about transgender people. There is still a general lack of knowledge about transgender people and the issues they face on a day-to-day basis. In most Western countries, tolerance of gays and lesbians is greater than transgender people, who are still vilified and far more likely to be ostracised at work, beaten-up, or in some countries even murdered. It is therefore reasonable to question if transgender people are the last group in society that can be ridiculed and judged without any apparent consequence.
How can society change its attitudes towards transgender people? True equality isn’t just about tolerance because to imply that people simply ought to be tolerant towards transgender people would mean that there is something wrong with them that needs temperance. What transgender people need is a broadminded and empathetic attitude but this can’t be achieved without understanding transgenderism and dispelling the myths and fears about it, hence this was another reason for me writing about the subject.
This book takes the reader on a journey that shows them the rich landscape of transgender people – what it’s truly like to be transgender in today’s world – and how the walls of suppression and secretiveness around transgenderism is increasingly and steadily being torn down. It is my hope that after you have finished reading this book, that you will have a greater understanding of transgender people and that irrespective of whether you are part of the LGBT community or not – that you too are willing to be their ally - and embrace their equality on the same level as you value your own. Equality for transgender people can only be achieved when ignorance is challenged and stripped away.
An extract from Voices of Modern Islam - What it Means to be Muslim Today
My parents weren’t born in Britain. They came from Pakistan and moved here when they were teenagers. I don’t speak their language properly, and when I visit Pakistan, I am instantly spotted as being different to the natives. Although people see me as a Muslim, they put me into a different category - like that of a tourist. I don’t have a problem with this because, after all, I am British. I was born here and this is where I have become rooted through school, friends and now university. I have adapted to being Muslim in a non-Muslim country.
Islam asks for Muslims to obey the law of the land wherever they live but surely this must include respecting the culture of this country too? I have lots of female friends and do not see the harm of giving any of them a lift in my car, provided they are able to put up with my singing! I love to have the stereo on in the car and sing. I go to pubs with friends where we watch football or rugby matches. They drink alcohol and I drink Pepsi, and there is never any pressure on me to do otherwise. My friends respect me for who I am. I also go to nightclubs with friends because I love music – not to chat up girls and have sex. Dining out with non-Muslim friends isn’t a problem either. They can eat anything they like as far as I am concerned. They know what I can and can’t eat. That doesn’t stop friendly camaraderie occurring amongst the group – for example if I’m out in town with friends one of them might ask who wants a bacon roll and nod at everybody before reaching me and saying, “Oh, sorry, Zebi. You’re not allowed one!”.
Restrictions according to one’s religion don’t have to be viewed negatively. You can adapt your lifestyle to that of your country without becoming assimilated and going against the values of your religion. You must trust yourself, and as a young person, you must ask your parents to trust you, too, and never betray them. It is perfectly possible to be a fully integrated Muslim in Britain without shunning non-Muslims and fearing their lifestyle.
It is perfectly possible to respect others who, in turn, will respect that Muslims don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, pray five times daily and do Ramadan every year. Life needs to be about welcoming people into your life not trying to keep them out. I really feel they will be far more of this in the next few generations of Muslims in Britain. There will be less emphasis on the culture and traditions of our grandparents and ancestors and more on what is important in our lives in the here and now.
My interest in books and reading stems back to my childhood growing up on a farm on the Sligo/Mayo border. My mother loved reading and in our sitting room there was a large bookcase filled mainly with novels that she had collected while living in England prior to marrying my father. It was only when I got older that I discovered many gems in the bookcase including works by Dickens, Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys, Nancy Mitford and Somerset Maughan.
I think everybody should be a reader. Books are the greatest source of knowledge. They allow us to enjoy new experiences and reassure us that other people’s lives are not so different from our own in the way we all think, act and love. Books also allow readers to enter into the realms of escapism, mystery and intrigue. Despite e-books flooding the market in the last decade, the printed word remains the preferred format for the majority of readers. Perhaps, it’s the feeling of holding a book, or its jacket cover, or the ability to easily flick through its pages which makes the experience special and personal to each individual – something which cannot be equalled in an electronic sense.
I read book reviews every week in various newspapers. These are usually books which have just been published, but reviews are not only for new books, surely? Whether a book is six months old or sixty years old, the person reading it will hold an opinion of what they’ve read. Some of my favourite authors include Ian McEwan, Colm Tóibín, John McGahern and Patrick Gale. It doesn’t matter if a book is by your favourite or by some new or forgotten author, there is a story waiting to be read and for you to voice your comments. A review is merely an opinion. One person might love a book but somebody else might feel less enthralled. The reviews I have written here are stories from an eclectic selection of writers. A lot of them are male authors which I must admit is bashful prejudice on my part!
I hope you enjoy my reviews and should you wish to share your own opinion on any of them please feel free to drop me an email via the contacts section on this website.
Asking For It
Even The Dogs
I’m Not Scared
In The Name Of Love
Love and Summer
Second Honey Moon
The Art Teacher
The Girl On The Train
The Grass Is Singing
The Married Man
The Testament of Mary
The Thing About December
When Love Comes To Town
A History of Loneliness
Amongst Women by John McGahern
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This book, by John McGahern, is a literary gem. Set in the 1960s, the story is about Michael Moran, his wife Rose, daughters Maggie, Shelia and Mona, and sons Luke and Michael. Moran was a former IRA soldier in the War of Independence. Now in his sixties, he is carving out a living as a farmer in County Leitrim. Being a manipulative, authoritarian bully comes easy to Moran’s brutish nature. As well as being critical and opinionated, he is also incredibly set in his ways. He ruled his entire family with an iron rod, although this failed with his eldest son, Luke, who went to England after a violent argument and never returned. His younger son did the same but returned a few years later. Although his wife and daughters stuck by him, they lived in perpetual fear of his moods, rendering them constantly eager to please him but rarely succeeding in their endeavours.
Every night, Moran recited the rosary with his wife and daughters without a hint of irony. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed are thou amongst women....... Someone once remarked that Moran got on better with women because they were less likely to challenge his authority than men, the best example of which were his sons who both stood up to him.
Amongst Women charters Moran’s family life over the course of fifteen years and shows how he controlled and shielded those closest to him from outside interferences in the local community. Indeed, Moran kept everybody in his locality at arm’s length. He did not like intrusion and although he had fought for Ireland’s independence in the war, his bitterness towards ‘New Ireland’ was always full of contempt because he felt he was never properly thanked for the part he played in bringing that about.
It was hard not to feel great sympathy for Moran’s wife and children - it’s a very emotive book - but at the same time it contains beautiful innocence and humour, which captures rural Ireland at the time. Moran’s overbearing personality is never far away and usually any happiness was spoilt the moment it veered towards any family member. Basically his life was full of fear, and since happiness eluded him, he made sure nobody else was going to taste happiness either. And yet despite his brutality, Moran’s wife and daughters loved him dearly. In the closing pages of the book which describe his funeral, we are given a glimpse of how his suppressive character has been passed onto his daughters who start to imitate his domineering personality in their criticism of other family members with mutterings of, ‘Arragh, if Daddy was alive, what would he think about that....... that’s not what Daddy would have wanted....... Daddy would be so mad about that.’ Sadly history sometimes repeats itself. Often those who are bullied become bullies themselves and victims perpetrate the same wrongs that have been done to them. It would appear that Moran left stains on the lives he touched and that his dysfunctional traits would continue to live long after his demise. He was a horrible man, which makes me wonder what happens to people like him to make them turn into sociopaths and be so out of touch with humanity.©Declan Henry
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This excellent book won the 1998 Booker Prize which is hardly surprising. It’s both a sophisticated and easy read and has turned out to be one of the quickest books I have ever read because I liked it so much.
The characters are very inviting and you soon get to know them intimately. The novel centres mainly on the friendship of two men who have something pivotal in common. They both have had an affair at some point in their lives with Molly Kane, a famous glamour photographer who died of a sudden and rapidly degenerative illness in her mid-forties. The scene is set at Molly’s funeral. Clive, an internationally famous composer and Vernon, an ambitious newspaper editor struggle to offer their condolences to George, Molly’s grieving husband, partly because they were embarrassed but mainly because they hate him. Also at the funeral is Julian Garmony, the deputy foreign secretary who is predicted to become the next prime minister of the conservative party. He too had an affair with Molly. So far, his other secret of being a cross-dresser has been kept hidden but this is soon to be exposed by his enemies, one of these being Vernon.
The story unfolds further with Clive horrified at Vernon’s actions of publishing the compromising pictures of Julian in a dress in his newspaper to increase readership because he believes Molly’s integrity and memory has been betrayed, especially because it was George who sold the pictures to Vernon that Molly had taken during her affair with Julian, with the intention of exacting revenge on him. However, Vernon is not impressed that his long-standing friend is so judgemental of him and sets out to expose a secret he knows about him! That’s just one example of the back stabbing in the novel. It is full of twists and turns, tricks and counter tricks leading up to a finale in Amsterdam (hence the title of the novel) with Clive and Vernon that is truly shocking – and sad.
I couldn’t help but think that McEwan held a greater affinity towards Clive than he did with Vernon because Clive was the more likeable of the characters. Admittedly he was ‘a bit of an old woman’, but he was also sensitive and kind. He had a great wine cellar and served good burgundy wine to his guests either a Richebourg or a Chambertin Clos de Beze. Vernon on the other hand was selfish and always put himself first. He was also impotent and McEvan captures this in a masturbation scene where Vernon makes an attempt to get an erection by repeatedly stroking his limp manhood to no avail. I was slightly disgusted that he didn’t wash his hands afterwards!
Amsterdam is eighteen years old now – so hardly a new book. But if you haven’t read it or want to become more acquainted with McEwan’s work, then I suggest you add it to your list. Let me take you into a little secret. I picked up my copy, which was in excellent condition, in a high street charity shop for £1.50 while rummaging through the book shelves. Best buy I came across in a while and easily the most enjoyable!© Declan Henry
Asking for It by Louise O’Neill
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This novel caught my attention when I read a review about in The Observer. Set in a fictional town in County Cork, you’ll find a group of Leaving Cert students drinking (a lot), experimenting with drugs and constantly partying (which usually includes unprotected sex and/or sexualised behaviour). Here you will find Emma, the central character, who is gang-raped at a party by some local young men known to her. She was taken advantage of when heavily drunk and after taking a synthetic drug. And her defilement didn’t stop there. In the days that followed, her perpetrators posted graphic photographs of her on social media which were seen by her friends and family. Scandal descends upon the small community. Emma becomes the prime focus of malicious gossip and social media trolls post many vile comments.
The book captures emotions in a very profound way. The reader feels Emma’s pain and sense of hopelessness. The ‘death’ of Emma is shown in powerful measure. We see a vibrant and beautiful young woman shrink into a lost soul, filled with self-hatred, guilt and shame. We see the impact that her rape has on her relationship with her parents and brother. Her father can barely look at her. Her mother, who lightens the dark tone of the book by coming across as a typical Irish ‘mammy’, is nevertheless under terrible emotional strain, ‘If only I could afford the comfort of a nervous breakdown’ and turns to alcohol for solace. Her older brother becomes fiercely protective of her and in some ways feels displaced remorse for not having taken better care of her. In the end, Emma becomes a recluse (only leaving the house for weekly visits to a counsellor she dislikes) and reliant on anti-depressants. She shuns all her former friends because she believes she is solely responsible for what happened to her.
Although a quick, gritty and well written book it’s not without faults. In the beginning, I found it a little difficult to get hooked into the story but I’m glad I persevered because suddenly it seemed to get better and continued in this vein until the end. Once the alleged perpetrators were arrested and awaiting trial, the national media picked up on the story (I considered this highly unlikely). Even the parish priest preached from the pulpit about the probable innocence of the young men involved (even more unlikely). Novels of course are all about fiction and artistic licence to deviate from events in real life but I felt O’Neill perhaps overstretched some points in the book that readers might find a little too incredulous to accept.
But notwithstanding these minor criticisms, I found it an excellent novel that I’m glad I read. I highly recommend that you add it to your reading list because it will enlighten you to current Irish youth culture and their attitudes towards sex, consent and the role played by alcohol and drugs. But more than anything else it will take you deep into the loneliness and isolation felt by this young rape victim, who is emotionally destroyed by what happened - although the book ends with a tiny flicker of hope that she may somehow rebuild her life. The Observer’s review stated that the book was originally published as a young adult novel - although its current edition is aimed at mainstream readership. Either way, it will stimulate thought and discussion in various age groups and cultural settings about a taboo subject that is ever present in our society.© Declan Henry
August by Bernard Beckett
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This may not be a perfect book but it’s an extremely well written one. I really liked it. Bernard Beckett, a New Zealander, is a superb storyteller. The way he constructs his sentences left me in awe. I often re-read certain lines and marvelled at their brilliance. His writing has a lovely, effortless glide to it, like watching a Viennese Waltz with good footwork and beautiful arm movements - but with a high degree of panache that never gets in the way of the story or appears pretentious. I have read several Booker Prize novels – and books that were nominated – but must say that many of these were not a tenth as good as this book. Although ‘August’ does not have the strongest plot, the crispness of the story makes it excel in ways that other novels often lack, particularly when the writing is clunky or overly pompous and prevents the reader’s enjoyment of the story – or indeed leads to misunderstanding its intended meaning.
August tells the story of Tristan and Grace who, following a road accident, find themselves capsized and hanging off a cliff in pitch black darkness. Injured and fearful that they might not survive until daylight before somebody comes to their rescue, they will themselves to remain conscious by telling each other stories about their past. Their relationship isn’t what you call a conventional one. Tristan is a philosopher and Grace is a prostitute. They have known each other for years, having both previously been part of religious orders and then ex-communicated for wilful behaviour. There is an underlying sexual tension to the story. Tristan has fantasized after Grace for several years, from when they first met as teenagers, and now that they have finally reunited properly, as adults, without having to worry about the constraints of religious life. The stories they tell each other makes the writing remarkable in substance. Whilst the novel is labelled a ‘thriller’, in my opinion, it might fit better within the remit of fantasy/mystery. Both characters - who appear to be middle-aged as opposed to elderly - recall life in an unnamed walled city (Rome sprang to my mind when reading it) in a bygone age when life and the state of your soul determined which side of the wall you belonged to. Those with souls enjoyed the privileges of the inside wall depicting civilisation whilst the heathens lived outside the walls of the city and were deemed soulless and uncouth. Both Tristan and Grace had experienced life on both sides of the wall but had the advantage of being well educated – unlike the heathens.
Is ‘August’ an adult novel or a young adult novel? That depends on which online reviews you read. Some say it is ‘young adult’ fiction but this was not immediately obvious to me, compared to other novels I have read that were labelled as adult fiction, only for me to detect elements that would have been better suited to young readers. If ‘August’ is young adult fiction, it certainly is at the older end of the spectrum. I see, however, from reading into Beckett’s background that he is the author of young adult fiction and adult fiction - as well as some plays.
The contrast between current time in which the book is set, with the backdrop of reminisces contained in Tristan and Grace’s flashback stories from a bygone age, admittedly make unusual reading. But at no point did I feel they made the entire story overly bizarre or unbelievable. Perhaps this was down to the succinct writing skills of Beckett (pictured inset). Once again, I must reiterate how impressed I was with his prose and am so glad that I stumbled upon him quite by chance. Based on this singular experience, I wouldn’t hesitate to delve into his other works. He certainly comes with my recommendation so please check him out.© Declan Henry
Deceptions by Rebecca Frayn
Reviewed by Declan Henry
Let me start by saying this is a strange book. It's a thriller, of sorts; one that uses a certain amount of suspense and anticipation to carry the story along, but it won’t overexcite the reader. I read it over the course of a few days, and found myself expecting a little more shock or horror than was on offer.
The story is set in London. Julian and Annie had only just announced their engagement when Annie's twelve year old son, Dan, mysteriously fails to come home from school one day. He vanishes without trace and despite an exhaustive police investigation he is never found. Julian and Dan never got on and we are led to suspect that Dan was envious of him taking the place of his father, who died of leukaemia when he was a young boy, and maybe, just maybe, this was the reason why Dan ran away.
Three years later there is still no trace of Dan but Annie refuses to give up hope that somewhere her son is alive and will one day return home. Julian is less enthusiastic and is fed up with keeping their lives on hold. One day, he says to her:
“Look Annie, it’s been three years now. Dan is not coming back. We can’t go on living like this. We need to draw a line under things. We need to move on with our lives…” (or words to that effect).
Annie doesn’t take kindly to Julian’s insensitivity and ends their relationship. Then… wait for this… one day, Annie receives a most unexpected telephone call from a social worker in Scotland, saying that Dan has been found in a refuge but that he suffers from amnesia. And then, rather bizarrely, Annie agrees for him to be put him on an overnight train from Glasgow to King’s Cross and next morning saunters off to collect him from the station!!!!!!
So Dan has returned. He is now 15 – and has grown into a handsome young man with his blond hair and fair skin. He is taller and his voice is broken. Girls eye him up. You can sense his testosterone. Did he have blue eyes before he went missing but returned with brown eyes? Nobody notices or cares. He is back and that’s all that matters – to Annie at least. His return though is as mysterious as his vanishing – and it is here that the real mystery begins to emerge but is never quite solved.
Two main weaknesses stand out for me in this novel. The first one is the narrator. It is written from the viewpoint of Julian – who is American. I imagined his Yankee drawl throughout the story. He does not present as being likeable or interesting. In fact, he’s quite anodyne. To me, he spoils the story because his viewpoint narrows the telling of the story which could have been far more expansive and expressive if it was told from Annie’s viewpoint, as Dan’s mother.
Another thing that diminished the opportunity for this to be an excellent novel was that Dan’s return could have been portrayed in a more powerful and tense manner. It could have brought great action and added suspense to the story but it didn’t. I wanted to discover more about Dan’s character, despite his memory loss. I wanted him to be rebellious, not placid. I wanted him to engross me, not disinterest me. I wanted him to have me sitting at the end of my seat rather than laboriously languishing and hoping against all odds that something terrifying would happen, which in the end never did. As I said, Julian failed, in my opinion, as narrator and in doing so ruined the chances of this being a much more creative and well told story rather than for it remaining, in the main, mediocre. In view of these criticisms, I am only awarding it three stars out of five, whilst acknowledging that I am probably being a little generous with my marking. To be extra blunt, I am surprised that this book was published by a leading publisher (Simon & Schuster). Frankly, I think it could have done with at least one further rewrite before being deemed ready for publication.© Declan Henry
Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor
Reviewed by Declan Henry
Heroin addiction, alcohol addiction, homelessness and poverty may not seem the ideal topics to make gripping reading but Jon McGregor has done just that in this unusual but carefully planned novel. But McGregor has taken these issues and created characters that feel real and genuine. He glides the reader through a journey that travels to the heart of the sordid, vile and utterly cruel world occupied by heroin addicts – where often the only escape route is death.
Set in Leeds, the story centres on Robert Radcliffe, a former soldier, who fell on hard times after his wife left him. He turned to alcohol and everyday drinks himself senseless. His lifestyle allowed him to ‘collect’ many friends over the years – Danny, Ben, Heather, Steve, Ant and Mike. All of these had serious addition problems. Suddenly, one Christmas-time, Robert is found dead in his squalid flat after having been dead for over a week. Around the same time several of his regular friends die too of drug overdoses but their bodies remain undiscovered in various parts of the city. What follows is a stream of conscious thinking from each of his dead friends containing individual viewpoints and stories, exploring what Robert meant to them, dissecting their own lives in the way the police now dissects Robert’s death and circumstances - followed by his post mortem, the coroners enquiry and finally his bleak and deserted funeral, with each one knowing that a similar fate awaits them when their own bodies are found.
I appreciate that this may seem a gloomy story-line but that’s not the case. It’s beautifully written and captivated my imagination from the outset with its fine prose, character descriptions and dialogue. It’s also a quick read at 195 pages. It’s the type of book that should be on the National Curriculum but I fear schools may veto it owing to the number of expletives used in the text, although these are used appropriately within the context of the story and its characters. But it would be an excellent book at conveying the message of how addictive, destructive and soul destroying heroin is to impressionable youths with a cavalier attitude towards substance experimentation.© Declan Henry
Heat Wave by Penelope Lively
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This book makes good reading. It's very British. The characters are very middle-class. Emotions are restrained but enough to keep the story afloat. It's well written but not over written. Every chapter edges the reader a little closer to the story's climax without giving too many clues away. By the time I reached the last chapter, I was still eagerly wondering how the story would wrap itself up and was taken aback by the nature of the unexpected death – the circumstances of which are a little ambiguous. I would have liked another few pages to have this mulled over but the author chose to finish it there, half leaving me to think that the characters wouldn't be too unperturbed by this death and that their lives would, shortly afterwards, have resumed their normality. A typical British stoicism would have stepped in to fill the void.
The story is about Pauline, a middle-aged London editor who has a holiday home in the countryside. Her cottage, named 'World's End', is large and split in two with Pauline living in one half and her daughter (Teresa) and son-in-law (Maurice) occupying the other half. It's an idyllic backdrop, set deep in the English country, miles from the nearest town. Pauline is divorced and sceptical of love and relationships after having suffered repeated infidelity at the hands of her ex-husband. In simple terms, she believes she is an expert in the broken- hearted and a professional at spotting unfaithfulness. I didn't really like her character though as she presents as somebody who has been left bitter by her own experiences of betrayal. She also often comes across as snobbish, cold and aloof. Poor old Maurice didn't know that his mother-in-law had such expertise in spotting infidelity because otherwise he might have thought twice before embarking on an affair right before her eyes. He is an author, writing a complicated travel book. His friend James, a London researcher, is helping him with this which entails coming down from London to World's End at weekends. James's girlfriend, Carol often accompanies him on these trips. It was during one of these visits that Maurice's affections are directed towards Carol. Pauline had them under her radar from the very beginning. Not even the slightest sign, word or gesture escaped her attention. Anyway, the story intensifies when Maurice starts to make his trips to London in the middle of the week for whimsical reasons before Teresa finally suspects the truth, confronts him and discovers that Maurice is indeed a lying, cheating wastrel! Pauline could have told her daughter this all along but didn't. She feared resurrecting her own pain that had been buried deep long ago. And although she felt great empathy for Teresa's suffering and wished she could spare her these miseries, the enduring reminders of her own past heartache were never far from the surface.
It crossed my mind when reading the book that it would make excellent material to read out loud, such is the greatness of the construction and wording contained in some of its passages. There are beautiful extracts in the book that stand out and although they remain integral as background information to the main story, can be used as separate, standalone pieces, including descriptions of the countryside, being in love, betrayal and mistrust, and acceptance of fate in life. These could be used in a creative writing class or in a book club to stimulate discussion about writing styles. Indeed, this book lends itself to being a good audio book if it hasn't already been turned into one. All in all, I found this to be a good book and one that I am thankful for having read. It is published by Penguin under their modern classics collections. It is always good to read different styled books by a range of different authors. This stands out as being a good example of something different and out of the ordinary.© Declan Henry
I’m not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This is a magical book which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was drawn into the story immediately by its short, terse prose. The story is set in rural Italy during the late 1970s but the descriptions of the countryside and the dialogue reminded me so much of rural Ireland where I grew up. However, unlike my happy childhood this tells the story of lost innocence, hatred and blackmail and has an incredibly sad ending.
The story is told through the eyes of a nine year old boy named Michele who lives in a rural village in southern Italy named Acqua Traverse. This sleepy, remote little village has just a few houses, money is in short supply and everybody knows everybody else. Keeping secrets and minding your own business is not an easy task. One day when Michele is out playing with his friends he stumbles upon a big secret, hidden in the ruins of an old derelict house high up in the nearby mountains. Bit by bit, Michele begins to discover that this secret has origins very close to his own family – namely his father. Michele has always looked up to his father but he is not the good man that his son thinks he is, although by the time Michele comes to realise this, his own life is in grave danger.
My internet research has informed me that Italy was renowned for kidnappings of rich people, including children in the seventies, and that in 1978 - the year the novel is set in – it peaked to an all-time high of nearly 600 kidnaps. It wasn’t uncommon for criminals in the south to kidnap people from the north and take them to the south, where they would be hidden and sometimes killed unless the ransom was paid. The novel is set loosely on one of these kidnappings. I must reiterate again how impressed I was with the writing of Niccolò Ammaniti (pictured inset). His prose is so natural and unpretentious. I have read several Booker prize novels and frankly, I believe none of them surpass the quality of writing, plotting and likeability of characters that is found in this novel. It is faultless.
Foreign writers are often overlooked, unless of course they are fortunate enough to have their work translated into English like Ammaniti. Recently, when I was in Greece I noticed many bookshops with novels in their window displays and wondered what kind of stories they contained. Of course, the same scene is played out in many other countries where the possibility of similar literary gems becoming uncovered, lies with only those who are fortunate enough to be able to read the books in the language they are written.© Declan Henry
In the Name of Love by Patrick Smith
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This tense thriller tells the story of Lena, a young woman in her early twenties who was brutally murdered in Blido, a remote Swedish island known for its intensely harsh climate. Lena, who had a troubled childhood and ongoing mental health issues, was often used by men for sexual favours. However, Dan Byrne, an Irish widower in his fifties, who had lived on the island for several years, was not one of them. Dan was like a father figure to Lena in the beginning but gradually his feelings developed and their relationship turned physical. Lena was also closely involved with some Iraqi refugees who lived on the island because they were occupying the house and farm that belonged to her aunt where she had spent many happy childhood summers. The Iraqis had taken care of Lena’s aunt in the final years of her life whilst Lena was away at college and at the time of her murder, Lena was locked in legal dispute with the Iraqis over the rightful ownership of the estate. She felt her late aunt would have wanted her to inherit it but the Iraqi family stated that her aunt had willed it to them as a thank you gesture for taking care of her in her final years. In amongst the Iraqi family was the handsome Gabriel, who had fallen in love in Lena but his love was unrequited. After Lena’s death, suspicion fell upon Gabriel and Dan, who both gave credible accounts of their circumstances on the night of the murder, although the unresolved ending made it clear that it had to be one of them who murdered her.
There is a lovely, easy flow to the narrative that could be compared to running your hand over polished mahogany furniture and feeling its beautiful fine smooth texture. However, I have two small criticisms. Apart from his name and being told he is Irish, there is nothing else that reveals much about Dan Byrne’s cultural identity. He could easily have been French or Polish or some other nationality. It’s not that I wanted the book to be littered with ‘craic’ or Irish euphuisms, but I felt the character lacked description and depth. Another irksome feature was that whenever Dan went for a walk - which was certainly at least daily if not twice – we were subjected to a full commentary about the weather each time, the colour of the sky, the shapes of the clouds, the severity of the wind or rain or both and the texture and depth of the snow. Although, these descriptions are a common feature in many novels, I felt they were overused in this instance and sometimes distracted from the story.© Declan Henry
Love and Summer by William Trevor
Reviewed by Declan Henry
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel by William Trevor, who died a few months ago. My brother Kevin recommended him to me as I had not previously read any of his work. It's an old fashioned love story that is beautifully crafted. The construction of Trevor’s sentences and their nice finishes glided me effortlessly through the story, whilst I eagerly waited for the next part to unfold, keen to soak up his beautiful storytelling skills; because it was apparent to me from the outset that I was going to enjoy this story, which was set in rural Tipperary in the 1960s.
It tells the story of Ellie, a young girl who grew up in an orphanage, and now married to an older widower farmer, who although kind to her was dull and predictable. One summer Ellie meets Florian, a photographer who is half Irish and half Italian, from another village a few miles away. He was in the process of selling up his family home and moving abroad after his parents died. But before he goes, Ellie and he share a summer of blissful passion and love before the time comes for them to make up their minds about whether they have a future together or apart.
Trevor was 81 years of age when this novel was first published in 2009. By then he had written dozens of novels and short stories during a lifetime of creative output. He understood the Irish psyche and this novel is full of wit and idiosyncrasies associated with Irish culture. I can definitely recommend this novel to you and I hope to read more of Trevor’s novels in the future now that he has entered my reading domain and have sampled his excellent writing.© Declan Henry
The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey
Reviewed by Declan Henry
The elegant narrative of this story will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it. I bought it thinking it was a novel about a young aristocratic Romanian living in Paris in 1927, but after reading the first few pages, I soon discovered it is much more than a coming of age story. It is a love story – a very captivating love story - between two men. But please don’t assume that if you’re a heterosexual the story won’t have any relevance for you. Trust me, it will. There were times when I forgot that the author (Paul Bailey) was taking about a love affair between two men; rather it features a love affair between two human beings, which is strong, bold and enduring.
Dinu was nineteen when he went on a four month sabbatical to Paris from his native Bucharest. The young, intelligent aristocrat, mourning the death of his beloved mother, went to Paris on a bohemian adventure. Funded by his wealthy father, Dinu intended to learn about the great French writers, including Marcel Proust. His ambition was to one day become a great writer himself. He was only in Paris for a little while before he met Razvan in very unconventional circumstances! Razvan was in his late thirties and came with a fascinating personal history. He had originated from a Romanian peasant family but was adopted by a Romanian prince as a child and brought up as a gentleman, hence his nickname – The Prince’s boy. However, after the prince died, Razvan found himself in ‘no-man’s land’. Although refined and educated, life presented him challenges because he was neither of noble blood nor was he any longer a peasant. Cut off from his family, country, roots and identity, he had little money. But his luck changed when he met Dinu.
Dinu and Razvan fall madly and deeply in love. Razvan casts his spell over Dinu and educates him about literature and art. Their love remains steadfast after Dinu returns to Romania to continue his studies, and despite the long gaps apart, their love for each other does not diminish. There is a host of funny and eccentric characters in the book who keep the story alive and fresh during their time apart. We learn that Dinu hates his money obsessed father, who has remarried, and that he was callous to Dinu when he found out that he was a homosexual. His stepmother, though, becomes a great friend and ally. Secret trysts take place when Ravel makes trips to Romania to visit his ailing mother. The political situation in Romania sees the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews, which horrified Dinu and made him hate his father even more (along with extended family members for their financial greed and corruption). He leaves Romania for good and returns to Paris to be with Razvan.
Back in Paris, life passed along comfortably for them for a couple more years. They were now more mature and had relaxed better into each other’s psyche. Then suddenly one day, Razvan had a stroke and died shortly afterwards, bringing their ten year love affair to a sad close. The story is somewhat hurried after that – mainly because Dinu never recovers from Razvan’s death and never enters another relationship. Although he became a distinguished lecturer and literature critic, we are left feeling that his life remained perpetually half-empty after Razvan's death. The story ends thirty years after Razvan had passed away. Dinu, now in poor health himself, enters the cemetery with a large bunch of anemones to place on the grave of the man who had mesmerised him while alive and created a void in his heart after his death.
This is not a long book – 151 pages. You could easily read it in one sitting, although I savoured it over the course of four days. The decadent lives of the rich and privileged who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s is warmly captured. I was so glad I read it. It’s a little gem that is beautifully written and conveys, without strain, a tender and warm story. Although I wholeheartedly commend Paul Bailey (picture inset) for his excellent talent, my only criticism of The Prince’s Boy is that I felt it was slightly rushed in a few parts – making me wonder if another draft might have smoothed out the parts that weren’t as taut as others. However, based on the acknowledgements page, I am surmising that Bailey, who is aged 79, may not have enjoyed the best of health in recent times. I am really grateful he wrote this book, though, which was published in 2015. He is undoubtedly an accomplished author who has written several other novels over the past four decades.© Declan Henry
Second Honeymoon by Joanna Trollope
Reviewed by Declan Henry
I had lunch with Jill (a writer friend) recently. I asked her, ‘how many men, do you think read Joanne Trollope?’ to which she replied, ‘not many!’ The purpose of asking her was to introduce a discussion about authors who are considered exclusively female or male reading. It goes without saying that not many men read ‘chick lit’ (although I sampled Cecelia Ahern to see if she was any good as a writer and discovered that actually she is quite amenable). But you will never find me reading a Barbara Bradford Taylor tome, or Jilly Copper or, indeed, Jackie Collins. Personally, I would find them torturously boring and tediously pretentious from the snippets I’ve seen or heard about. At the end of the day though, people are perfectly free to read whatever interests them. However, it is recognised that some books and authors are more readily acceptable as male or female reading. Having said that, women who read gritty SAS style macho thrillers will be less frowned upon than men who read about romance or books filled with emotional turmoil. Would P.D. James have had as much success if she published as Phyllis James or would as many boys have taken to J.K Rowling and her Harry Potter novels had she styled herself, Joanne Rowling?
I wanted to read Joanne Trollope because she is loosely connected to the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, although not a direct descendent. I have seen her books in bookshops for eons and wanted to see whether or not she has literary talent. She has, and I actually enjoyed this book - although it’s not entirely without fault. But overall, it provides an easy-to-read, enjoyable portrayal of family life. The book centres on the Boyd family – Edie and Russell and their three grown-up children – who, one by one, have all left home only to return, one by one, after relationship problems and financial difficulties forces their hand to call upon their parents for emotional and financial support. The plot is sound and the characters are believable. The storyline is well-spaced, giving the reader ample time to get to know Edie (an actress) and Russell (a theatrical agent) and see how they cope with the many dilemmas of family life, whilst wishing that each of their children could live independent and happy lives without allowing their paternal obligations to over duly distract them from their own lives and time spent together. The book is well crafted. The characters are wonderfully described. Trollope displays an incredible skill at making ordinary mundane happenings sound interesting. I liked her wise observations of human nature which sometimes prompted me to put the book down whilst reading to reflect on some of her wise and shrewd musings. All loose ends are firmly tied up in the closing chapter which brought the book, with its many twists and turns, to an appropriate closure. My only criticism of the book is that I found the dialogue clunky in parts and sometimes confusing as to who said what.
Anyway, I now add Joanne Trollope to my literary repertoire and won’t dismiss the idea of reading another one of her novels sometime in the future.© Declan Henry
The Apartment by Paul Read
Reviewed by Declan Henry
It tells the story of an ex-marine who fought in Iraq and later accumulated a large amount of money working as a freelance intelligence operative for both the US government and the Iraqi police. He left his old life, not wanting to return to America, and chose instead to relocate to Europe and put his complicated past behind him - although there is reason to believe he may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder given his lethargic disaffection towards life. His main aim though is to blend in with his new surroundings and be as anonymous as possible.
The story takes place over a single December day in an unnamed European city. I believe the city is a conjured up image of several European cities rolled into one, with some aspects of Berlin, Prague and perhaps a Russian city combined, based on the freezing temperatures described in the novel. The 41 year old narrator, who never reveals his name, meets a 25 year-old girl named Saskia at a museum. She works as an economist, loves to party and hardly surprisingly is his only friend - he is very much a loner and comes across as not being very humorous. The narrator lives in a small hotel but is anxious to find an apartment and readily accepts Saskia’s help to find one. There is no hint of romance between them, which makes the friendship difficult to fathom. It can sometimes feel that nothing terribly exciting happens between the characters. They drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, play pool, travel on buses, he meets some of Saskia’s friends, he buys a new coat (are you yawning reading this?). What captures the reader’s attention though are the narrator’s reminiscences, in-depth recollections and anecdotes from his previous life in the form of flashbacks. Here he tells some unique stories, often resembling a Chinese box. You know there is going to be another layer to what you are unwrapping but you never quite know what it’s going to be.
This is an unusual novel - mainly because it doesn’t have a straightforward plot -(some might say it doesn’t have a plot) but there was something about it that drew me into reading it. The story is written as a continuous passage as opposed to having chapters. It’s short, well written and does not require a terrible amount of concentration. It could easily be read on a long train journey or flight. Although it’s somewhat an oblique story, it is written in quite an easygoing style that is interspersed with some great moments of descriptive prose and beauty that makes it stand out.© Declan Henry
The Art Teacher by Paul Read
Reviewed by Declan Henry
I’ve just been looking at my eyes in the mirror. They have definitely increased in size since reading this ‘thriller’ by Paul Read (pictured inset). The novel is an eye-opener purely because of the sheer un-believability of the plot. Every chapter gets more and more incredible and surpasses anything that resembles reality. However, this is what makes it a fairly good read. I was disappointed that it wasn’t better, given that it had some fairly good reviews in the media, which prompted me to get a copy. Having said that, once I had accepted how farfetched the plot was, I relaxed into the storyline more easily and accepted its bizarreness.
The story centres on Patrick Owen, who teaches art at an underachieving school in south-east London. It sounds like somewhere deep in the depths of Thamesmead. He hates his job. He hates his pupils. He hates himself. Patrick is generally disaffected with his life, failed music career, broken marriage and irregular contact with his young son. Despite continuously failing Ofsted inspections, Highfields School remains open and struggles with the challenging behaviour of its pupils on a daily basis. The school is next to a large council estate where gang culture is the norm. Patrick has poor control over his pupils and has given up the will to teach them. One of his pupils, Denis, a leading gang member, pushes boundaries to the limits. He physically threatens Patrick in class and they have altercations outside of school, resulting in Patrick assaulting Denis on one occasion, and with Denis holding a knife to Patrick’s neck on another. None of this gets reported to the police. Then one day matters intensify in class when Denis indecently assaults a fellow pupil Jenna in front of Patrick, who, instead of reporting it to the headmaster and the police, goes around to Jenna’s home in a nearby ‘concrete jungle estate’ and tells her mother, Sarah. Before too long Patrick falls in love with Sarah (a totally unbelievable pairing – oil and water spring to mind). Anyway, one night when Patrick is visiting Sarah, he goes into Jenna’s bedroom to look for proof that she is being bullied by Denis – or determine if they are in a relationship - and discovers a handgun and a large amount of cannabis hidden under her bed. Shortly afterwards Jenna shoots Denis dead after he allegedly tries to rape her. Jenna then turns to Patrick for help and he obliges because he wants to win her approval for dating her mother. So Patrick does what Jenna requests and removes evidence (including the gun) from the crime scene; although we later discover that he was ‘set up’. Let me just finish by saying that after a lacklustre police investigation involving many twists and turns, the gang that Denis was the lead member of ‘takes over the case’ placing Patrick’s life in grave danger. All of this ensures that the incredulous storyline continues with its characters remaining outside the realms of reality right to the very end.
I think the storyline might work better if it was labelled as ‘young adult fiction’ as opposed to ‘adult fiction’ because I could see many young people quite enjoying the story and its characters. It reads very easily and has a fast pace to it that works. The novel is compiled into four main parts with short chapters in each section. Read uses very quirky descriptions of people in the story and whilst these would seem strange in a more conventional novel, I think young readers would warm to this more than experienced fiction readers who might consider them ‘amateurish’.© Declan Henry
The Cook by Wayne Macauley
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This is easily one of the best books I have ever read and possibly one of the best books written in modern times, according to some online reviews. Although I finished reading it a few days ago, I am still thinking about Zac, the main character. Have you ever watched a TV programme when you become so engrossed in the acting that you have to pause and remind yourself that it’s not real life? That’s how this book felt to me. I don’t believe I’ve read a book written by an Australian author before, but I’m certainly pleased that I stumbled across this book by Wayne Macauley. I’ll share a little bit more about him once I’ve told you about his excellent book.
The Cook centres on Zac, a seventeen year old young offender from a rundown estate in Melbourne. The judge gives him the choice of either going to a young offenders’ institute or enrolling on a rehabilitation course at a Cook School for young delinquents. He chooses the latter and goes to a remote part of the countryside where he embraces cooking with a passion – more than passion, with a vengeance – in fact more than a vengeance. His interest and love of cooking takes over his life, as if a demonic spirit enters him and he surrenders totally to its power. This intelligent young man surpasses obsession in his quest to become a leading celebrity chef and to have his own award-winning restaurant. To honour his dream, he devours information and learns everything there is to learn about food. Zac also readily acquires the specialist skill of slaughtering chickens, lambs and pigs as part of his training in Cook School and grows every type of vegetable and herb imaginable in its gardens. This is all part of appreciating the importance of freshly sourced food. Although Cook School is abruptly closed down, he is fortunate to be given a job as a personal cook for a fabulously wealthy couple in Melbourne, where he continues to experiment and finesse his recipes and dishes, often serving mouth-watering gastronomic dishes that excel excellence. He keeps on practising and refining his skills – never quite satisfied until the time approaches for him to cook the defining meal of his young lifetime. Yes, indeed, it is in this house that Zac ends up doing something that will have the reader quivering at the shock ending, to an otherwise promising and glittering career that may have lain ahead of him!
Wayne Macauley is a brilliant writer and tells Zac’s story with a persistent zest that ensures the reader is hooked throughout. He tells the story with speed and force - deliberately ignoring the need for any commas throughout the entire book. After the first few pages, I became so engrossed in the story that I hardly noticed they weren’t any. He deserves hearty congratulations on writing a book that will satisfy even the most culinary or gourmet advanced person. The amount of research he has undertaken takes the subject matter to a high degree of brilliance. I highly recommend you read this book.© Declan Henry
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This really is a very enjoyable read. It left me in a state of awe at how well it’s written. It’s no surprise that it has sold several million copies in the UK and the USA. It's a gripping thriller set in London suburbia. Paula Hawkins has done a superb job at conjuring up a unique, yet simple plot and turning it on its head into something extremely captivating. I’m not going to overly review it here because there are hundreds of reviews already online. What I will say, however, is that the ones I have read share my opinion of the book. This is a book that will appeal to all kinds of thriller enthusiasts; regardless of gender.
Rachel, a 32-year-old alcoholic lamenting the break-up of her marriage to Tom, has moved to a nearby town. Her drinking has caused her to lose her job but she conceals this from those closest to her by maintain her routine and take the train to London every day. As the train slows to a halt at one particular junction, Rachel can see directly into the back of a row of houses; one of which is her former home (now occupied by Tom and his new family).
Despite her drinking problem, Rachel is incredibly observant and it is during these slow train journeys that she begins to compulsively watch an attractive couple who live a few houses away from Tom. Rachel has never met them but imagines their relationship to be perfect – how she would have liked hers to be. Little does she know that the couple has marital problems. The woman has a dark secret – she is seeing a handsome therapist with whom she is also having an affair (one of many). One day, Rachel watches the news on TV and discovers that the very same woman - whose name is Megan - is missing. Her body is later found buried in the local woods.
After Megan’s murder makes the headlines, the story really starts to heat up. Rachel feels a deep connection to Megan from all those sightings of her from the train and turns sleuth to help uncover the truth about what happened and who murdered her. Rachel is sly, she is sneaky and is often drunk in her detective endeavours - but she is also incredibly likeable, which adds much enjoyment to the plot. With her safety often in jeopardy, the story steers the reader towards a gripping and tense climax to where the murderer is revealed and then confronted.
Trust me; you won’t want to put this book down until you discover who murdered Megan, given the many twists and turns amongst the various suspects. I really liked this book and thoroughly recommend it as a piece of holiday reading or train reading. Perhaps, you’ll even start looking into the backs of houses yourself, if your train suddenly stops at a junction. It’s nice to be nosey sometimes and have a good peep into somebody’s back garden. It can tell you a lot – or nothing at all - about the person/people who live inside but with a little imagination, you might be surprised where your mind takes you.© Declan Henry
The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
Reviewed by Declan Henry
Giannis, my Greek friend, recommended this book to me and how pleased I am that he did. Published for the first time in 1950, Doris Lessing’s story of racism and white supremacy in Africa (set in Rhodesia – which is now Zimbabwe) reminds us of racism in its purest form and shows us how insulting and devaluing and destructive it was in this era. The book is incredibly thought-provoking and I would challenge anybody to read it and not feel ashamed of the cruel and barbaric treatment that white people have inflicted on black people throughout history. In-between this message of racism and racial brutality is a gripping story of two troubled individuals who were destined for disaster from the moment they met.
As individuals, Mary and Dick Turner were incredibly dysfunctional– but even more so as a couple. Dick was the nicer of the two, though. He loved being a farmer. He loved the land and worked continuously from dawn to dusk seven days a week. But he had no head for business. Every new farming venture he turned his hand to failed. He was constantly in debt. In the eyes of other fellow white farmers, he was a failure – an embarrassment whose foolish, reckless ways let white people down. He even had to sell his car because he no longer could afford to run it.
Mary and Dick were both well into their thirties when they married, almost as a last resort. Mary hated men, hated sex and couldn’t entertain any form of emotional intimacy. Mary’s father had been an alcoholic and as an only child she grew up in a toxic household. Her mother despised Mary’s father and relied heavily on her daughter for support. Having lived in a town all her life, moving out to the remote countryside was quite a change for Mary. She made no effort to befriend the neighbouring farmers’ wives and lived rather idly in a tin shack which had no ceilings (and consequently made the daily heat intolerable).
Although Dick grew fond of Mary, his feelings were unreciprocated. Mary despised him and loathed how she had to lie beside him in bed every night. In fact, the only thing that Mary despised more than Dick was black people. She hated them with a passion because this was the way she was conditioned to think and behave towards them. So she treated them with continuous contempt and distain, as if they were lower than Dick’s two dogs. Indeed, she went out of her way to be as nasty as possible to the servants, which resulted in many staff changes over the years.
Then Moses came along, the new house boy. He was tall and handsome and very good at his job. Mary heavily resented him for his good looks and his capability and the fact that he stirred up feelings in her that she was unable and unwilling to confront. But over time they became ‘intimate’ - to what degree is left to the reader’s imagination. Personally, I doubt their relationship was physical because of Mary’s frigidness and loathing of sex, although Moses was allowed in Mary’s bedroom. He helped her to dress, which showed a degree of intimacy unheard of in African culture between a married white woman and a black male servant. I’m not spoiling the plot when I tell you that Moses murders Mary in the end because this is divulged in the opening pages of the book, but I will let you read it yourself to discover the circumstances leading up to her death.
Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. She died in London aged 94 in 2013. I enquired of a fellow writer, who is also a teacher, if this novel has ever been on the school curriculum. He said to the best of his knowledge, it has only been on university reading lists but never in secondary schools. What a shame. It should be. I think it would make an excellent book for either GSCE or A Level studies and would provide an excellent opportunity to discuss the folly and destructive roots of racism. Admittedly, the world has come a long way since this book was published, but racism – like homophobia – is still entrenched in certain social classes and pockets of society. It would also be good to listen to the views of black people who read this book because it’s inevitable that they will feel a different level of emotion reading this than a white person; although most rational readers, irrespective of race or ethnicity, will share a common bond of revulsion towards the inhumanity inflicted upon native Africans at the hands of white supremacists throughout history and until recent times.© Declan Henry
The Married Man by Edmund White
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This classic read (first published in 2000) is about the brutality and horrendousness of AIDS. No modern disease can frighten in the way AIDS can, but none more so than in the 1980s and 90s before antiretroviral drugs became a lifeline and replaced the automatic death sentence that catching HIV had become. I visited hospices during this period and saw young men with the disease transformed into skeletal figures before their untimely death. So this exquisitely written book takes us back in time to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and provides a great reminder of the devastation caused to the thousands of people whose lives were touched by AIDS.
This story is set around an American named Austin, an art historian and writer in his late forties who has lived in Paris for eight years. Austin had many rich friends. He likes the finer things in life. He is a snob who prefers upper class society to his own more modest background. He travels widely and is well-known and respected in his work. He enjoys frequent sex and has had many boyfriends and conquests. Austin is HIV positive. One day at a gym, he makes eye contact with a handsome Frenchman named Julien, an architect in his early thirties. Julien is married, although he is in the process of divorcing his African wife. Austin falls in love with Julian but is worried about losing him if he discloses his HIV status. It is only after they’ve had sex on a number of occasions that Austin finally tells him the truth. Julien is fine with this and continues the relationship. They enjoy a fabulous, decadent lifestyle among Parisian high society, coupled with lavish trips overseas and all the finer and luxurious trappings that life brings. It is only when Julien is required to take a HIV test in order to get a visa to visit America that he finds out he is HIV positive – and what’s more he is in the early stages of AIDS. We are led to believe that he may have become infected from Austin, before other seeds of doubt are planted. Although his ex-wife tests negative, the reader is left wondering if Julien was promiscuous during his time in Africa or had a secret gay life in Paris that he remained tight-lipped about. Either way, he stayed with Austin who remained by his side and cared for him through the ups and downs until Julien died whilst they were on holiday in Morocco.
Although this is an exquisite book, it’s not perfect in the sense that White’s descriptions can sometimes overshadow the main storyline. I should have sobbed like a baby when Julien died but I didn’t. My reaction was ‘finally he is dead’. I thought his illness was far too stretched out in the book; to the point I was beginning to get bored by its prolonging stance. My heart should have gone out to Austin who had lost his best friend and lover but it didn’t. Upon reflection there were reasons the book did not lend to the reader feeling deep emotions in the story. Although White’s descriptions of buildings, places and restaurants are extremely well done, I did find them to be sometimes unnecessarily lengthy. He seemed to invest far less time and effort in capturing the emotions associated with love, death and grief in the storyline. Whilst he tells the readers certain things about his two main characters and their past, for me at least, it didn’t feel enough to hook me into caring about what happened to either of them.
White, now 76, is a gay man himself (picture inset). I note from reading up on his life that he lived in Paris for many years and that he too has been HIV Positive for several decades. This background information left me wondering if he drew upon his own life experiences when creating this character, based on the level of detail in some of the descriptions. Whether or not he brought his own sexual experiences into the story I don’t know.
Another observation I had was that there are also various times throughout the book that it ever so slightly switched from fiction into ‘reportage’. This was comparable to an actor who briefly comes out of character before suddenly realising it and then switching quickly back into role, hoping that nobody noticed. This was particularly evident in the passage following Julien’s death where White describes in detail the Moroccan cultural milieu of death and funeral rituals in Islam. Austin’s loss and grief were cast aside whilst this ‘reportage’ played out, before White reverted back to Austin and the aftermath of Julien’s death. But for me, this proved just a fraction too late because the moment had passed.
Do add this book to your reading list though because I believe it accurately captures the fear, destruction and deep sense of hopelessness associated with HIV and AIDS in the early decades of its existence. I doubt if any other novels have been written since which convey this as convincingly as White does here. Maybe it helped that he is a gay man himself who lived through this era and who probably had friends who died of the disease, that this allowed him to give the story a powerful and realistic gravitas that may fail younger writers in years to come that don’t have this level of experience to draw upon. Notwithstanding my brief criticisms, this novel is undoubtedly a remarkable piece of writing and I’m sure it will continue to be recognised as such for a very long time to come.© Declan Henry
The Quarry by Iain Banks
Reviewed by Declan Henry
It is said that humour comes in many varieties. I wasn’t keen on the variety shown in this book by Iain Banks and rather suspect it’s an acquired taste. It’s the quirky socialist type, often associated with Guardian readers, but in this book it is mingled in with drug-fuelled views that resemble ‘hippy’ views, often preferred by university students of the past. However, it wasn’t entirely that which made the book feel tiresome in parts (there were times it bored me rigid). I suspect it was when the plot veered off course and the times when unnecessary descriptions filled page after page (which could have been cut out to improve the story’s flow allowing it to be more succinct and purposeful).
The story is about a man dying from cancer – Guy - who lives with his 18 year old son, Kit, in a big rambling old house which was in a chronic state of disrepair and waiting to be demolished because the nearby quarry was edging closer towards it. Perhaps this was symbolic to represent death creeping up on Guy and indeed Banks himself, who died of cancer shortly after the book was published. Kit is the narrator of the story and possibly the saving grace of the book. He comes across as a likeable and endearing young man. It is made clear early on that he is on the autistic spectrum and has OCD, which is reflected in the way he relates to people and his eccentric behaviour around cleanliness and order. Kit does not have an easy relationship with his sick father and at times, it feels like his father bullies him by calling him horrible names and demeaning him whenever possible, although Kit is dutiful in taking care of him. Guy invites six of his friends to the house (who, in the main work in films and the media) for a long weekend. We are lead to believe that they have had regular catch-up meetings over the years since their university days together. Partly, this latest meeting is a chance to say a final goodbye to Guy who is in the last weeks/months of his life. The second reason is they all want to locate a missing film reel that contains some sexual indiscretions from their youth, fearful that if it got in the wrong hands, their respective careers could be destroyed. The weekend, apart from consuming large amounts of alcohol and drugs, concentrates on a big search of the house for the tape. Searching for the tape was very drawn out and then suddenly (and strangely) it wasn’t found in the house after all. Rather, Kit was out for a walk one morning and for some bizarre and random reason decided to climb down the quarry for a peep. Somewhere on his descent he noticed an old tape on one of its ledges. This miraculously turned out to be the missing tape that everybody desperately wanted to get their hands on. How very exciting. Not.
This last book by Banks before his untimely death received mixed reviews, some favourable (by loyal fans who I suspect had read his other books) whilst others remarked that the book seemed rushed. This was not something that I had picked up on myself – well not until I was well into the latter half (it is 374 pages in length), so no excuses for rushing, you might think - but I could see why people thought it was rushed because the last chapter is a mere four pages long. There are loose ends that needed greater tightening and a few points that needed greater clarity and explaining for them to pass more realistically. For example, who hid the videotape in the quarry, especially as it turned out to be a dud in the end that had been taped over? I can’t say that I enjoyed this book. I endured it. Maybe, in fairness to Banks, this may not be his finest piece of work given that he knew he was dying when he was writing it. I can forgive him much but I would tend to be less forgiving to his editors who should have addressed the aforementioned shortcomings which might have lead, in my opinion, to a better book that would in turn have been a more befitting epitaph to Banks.© Declan Henry
The Sea by John Banville
Reviewed by Declan Henry
I consider myself a well-educated man but I defy anybody to read a John Banville novel and not have to make a few trips to the dictionary. He certainly has an expansive vocabulary at his disposal. He reminded me of Francis Mac Manus – an Irish writer long since dead. Mac Manus, too, used a pretty impressive vocabulary in his novels (I’ve read all thirteen of them) but his vocabulary appeared to blend in naturally to the text. Banville, however, uses archaic or technical words for effect, probably knowing that the reader may become stuck in the process. John Banville has often been described as a ‘writer’s writer’. From his interviews, it seems he has a healthy regard for his writing ability and has referred to some fellow writers as being ‘middlebrow’ in their literary offerings. What he would have thought of Mac Manus, I have no idea – nor do I know his views about fellow contemporary Irish writers.
The Sea, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2005, is about Max Morden, a retired art historian grieving for his wife who has died of cancer. Her death has rekindled bad memories from his youth when, during one summer, two of his friends (a girl who he had a crush on and her twin brother) were tragically drowned in the seaside resort town where he and his parents were holidaying. To ease his grief and to reconcile with the past, Max decides to go back to the seaside town (named Ballyless) and stay for a few weeks in a guesthouse that he much frequented during his childhood. The novel is full of witty observations, reflections and philosophical mutterings, along with many twists and turns – swaying back and forth between the current day and memories going back fifty years.
Is The Sea a great story? Not quite. It's a good story though. Ultimately, I enjoyed it but it's certainly not the most cheerful book I have ever read. This is essentially a novel about grief, so yes there are times when the reader will get a bit fed up. I know I did, and on two occasions over a ten-day period, I placed it aside for a day or two before resuming. Whether it was intentional or not, the novel stirred up in me a range of emotions, not uncommon with grief, so there were times when I felt sad, angry and tired. Having said that, I also laughed (sometimes out loud) at the Irish humour used in his character descriptions. Overall the story is finely crafted and well told and is paced beautifully throughout.© Declan Henry
The Last Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This short novella is a quick and easy read. The story and narrative belongs to Mary, mother of Jesus, as an elderly woman living her final years in exile in Ephesus (Turkey) whilst looking back on her life, and in a state of fear that she might get captured and killed by the Roman authorities. From a Catholic perspective, the story is a fresh - if not bold - approach which reveals new insights into the life of Mary after the crucifixion; although Tóibín’s story remains entirely fictional.
Very little is actually written about Mary, with the exception of snippets in the gospels. But even these tell us little about the kind of person she was. Having being brought up as a Catholic, however, I have been conditioned to imagine her as a beautiful, kind and loving woman. I remember the first time I visited the Louvre in Paris, years ago, and being fascinated by numerous paintings showing various artist interpretations of Mary – either showing her young or middle-aged, plain or beautiful, as well as different representations pertaining to her body shape.
By the time I finished reading this story, my previously imagined view had changed somewhat. In this book, Tobin conveyed to me an image of Mary as a tired and cantankerous old woman who wanted peace and reclusion. By doing so, I was easily able to muster up images of old ladies I knew as a child growing up in Ireland, who lived by themselves and were self-sufficient with just their own company. They disliked outside interference and wanted to live peaceful existences where they weren’t disturbed by others. They were satisfied with simplistic living and desired few luxuries or materialistic goods, with the exception of the warmth that an open turf fire might have offered them. I think ultimately Tóibín did a marvellous job portraying Mary as a human being – vulnerable, flawed and alone who held opinions about Jesus from a maternal viewpoint without being concerned that her views clashed with his followers who wanted to write about his life through ‘rose tinted’ spectacles. Her thoughts questioned the necessity of the crucifixion because she still wished that it had never happened and were mainly fuelled by her disbelief that Jesus’ death had anything to do with saving mankind from sin.
Shortly after finishing reading Tóibín’s novella, I visited Greece, where I was taken on a tour by friends to Greek-Orthodox churches and monasteries. A recurring feature in many of these religious buildings was the sight of a Fresco on the western wall depicting a scene referred to as ‘The Koimisis of the Virgin’. In simple terms this is a picture of Mary on her death bed, surrounded by the twelve apostles, along with Jesus in visionary form holding a small child, representing her soul. The truth is this scene too is fiction because theologians recognise that nobody knows where, when or how Mary actually died.
I commend Tóibín on the very unique stance he has taken in this book. It was first published in 2013 and I note that it has received mixed reviews online, but overall it has been well received with the greater majority praising it for his simple yet provocative narrative, whilst recognising that Tóibín has not distracted nor discredited anything said or implied in the gospels – rather he has added to the diversity of what may or may not have happened to Mary after Jesus’ death. Overall, I think Tóibín did a fabulous job with this story.© Declan Henry
The Thing About December by Donal Ryan
Reviewed by Declan Henry
Loved it, loved it and loved it. This is easily the best novel I have read in ages. It was recommended to me by his brother Kevin who commented on its originality. For me, The Thing about December delivers something very unique that Irish people in particular will appreciate. The language, the descriptions, the nuances but most of all the ‘Irish mentality’ draws the reader into the story better than any other Irish novel I have read in recent times. I could use typical descriptions like ‘gripping read’ and ‘page turner’ and both would be true but there is much more about the style and pace of this book that encourages the reader to get lost in Johnsey, the main character.
In today’s politically correct times, Johnsey would be known as somebody with learning difficulties, although the terms he uses to describe himself are far less flattering. But it’s his internal dialogue that makes his story so engrossing and convincing. It takes you on a journey from the death of his parents to dealing with local bullies who attack him in the most brutal way - to neighbours and ‘friends’ who try and trick him into selling his father’s land to make way to build a business development.
In some ways, it’s a typical Irish story but it makes the reader, particularly if you are Irish, to reflect on what it means to be Irish in today’s world. For myself, I have lived away from Ireland for a long time and can be guilty at times of remembering it through rose tinted glasses. But this novel served as a wake-up call – a reminder that there is another side to Ireland, a cruel side. It makes a funny and enjoyable read with its continuous amusing observations from Johnsey. Its believability drew me in and gently reminded me that there is a part of Johnsey in us all. This book comes with my highest recommendation.© Declan Henry
When Love Comes to Town by Tony Lennon
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This novel is 24 years old now so hardly new, however, it has been reprinted several times over the years which shows how popular it has been. It’s a ‘coming out’ story about a young man and is set in Blackrock in Dublin. Although we now live in a very changed world to 1993, there are core elements contained in the story that carry an ageless message.
Ten reasons why I liked this novel:1.It is extremely well written and fast paced.
2.Neil, the central character is both believable and likeable.
3.It captures the era of the early nineties extremely well.
4.There are many twists and turns in the plot that work well.
5.There is an innocence to the story that is emotive without being overly sentimental.
6.It contains lots of Irish wit and humour.
7.It shows how even subtle homophobia can sometimes upset greatly and dent self-confidence.
8.Neil shows bravery and great strength of character.
9.I liked how Neil felt a closeness to Jesus (he needed it at times).
10. It has a lovely feel-good ending.
© Declan Henry
A History of Loneliness by John Boyne
Reviewed by Declan Henry
Wow, what a fantastic novel but at 471 pages in length, it’s not a quick read (although I wasn’t able to put it down for long). This novel tells the story of a paedophile priest and assists the reader in getting to grips with the clerical abuse scandals that first erupted in Ireland during the early 1990s and which have since tarnished the reputation of the Catholic Church and many of its priests. It is a novel that will help readers understand why this occurred and in doing so will unveil the lies, deceptions, pain, suffering and misery that the perpetrators of abuse inflicted on so many people.
‘A History of Loneliness’ tells the life story of Father Odran Yates and his family. It was his overly zealous, religious mother who had steered him to enter a seminary in 1974 after his father had committed suicide. Yates is an odd character and this is conveyed throughout every aspect of his life - which covers a forty year period. He’s cold, aloof, sometimes arrogant, stuck in his ways, devoid of humour and struggles with personal emotions. Although he is not a paedophile, the same can’t be said about his one-time best friend, Father Tom Cardle – and it’s about this protagonist that the story of abuse is told in the most revealing way possible, whilst never deviating from the fact that this is a novel and not a non-fiction account of clerical abuse. We see Cardle moved from parish to parish throughout Ireland, time and time again, and always at short notice. There is a cloak at the heart of the church hierarchy regarding these hasty moves. That is until the truth can no longer be covered up after victims of abuse go the police - resulting in the arrest of priests from all over Ireland. Unbelievable scenes follow, whereby courtrooms are filled with paedophile priests on trial. Cardle gets caught too and, once convicted, serves a lengthy prison sentence.
Cardle, though, is not the only one who has to examine his conscience. Yates is not as innocent as he first appears. Whilst he did not physically abuse any child, he questions how complicit he was in the case of his friend – turning a blind eye and always afraid to question or challenge Cardle or his superiors, who ruled the church with an iron rod. It is through this examination of Yates’s conscience that we realise many other clergymen were in a similar position including bishops, archbishops, cardinals and maybe even the Pope, because whilst these were not directly involved in abusing young children themselves, they aided and abetted in the cover-up of paedophile priests.
The loneliness experienced by Yates and his contemporaries saw them enter seminaries at a young age and forced to live a life where it was forbidden to talk above love, sex or desire. It was a life where friendships were monitored and where emotions and feelings were constantly regulated and tempered in order to maintain celibacy. Even masturbation was forbidden. It was a life where its occupants became emotionally stuck and many failed to turn into well-adjusted human beings as a result of this constant suppression and fear of human intimacy. The novel, however, neither justifies nor condemns the actions of priests who later went on to abuse children.
I am particularly thankful to John Boyne for showing the reader the distinct difference between somebody who is a paedophile and somebody who is gay. The polarity between both is indeed unmistakeable but ignorance sometimes prevails in society around both of these – often imparted in religion itself but equally in certain segments of hard-line political parties around the world.
‘A History of Loneliness’ really is a thought-provoking novel. Of course not all priests are bad people and not all priests turn out to be paedophiles. I can’t help but feel sorry for many genuinely good men whose reputations were tarnished by their colleagues – and indeed how they often had to carry on being priests with little support from the church that they had given their lives to. In many ways, what happened in Ireland during the 1990s will never happen on this scale again. A declining clergy and safeguarding of children has put paid to that. This novel will help you see how Ireland changed in the aftermath of the abuse scandals and how the clergy lost the reverence and esteem that it was once enjoyed. What it doesn’t show and leaves the reader wondering is when the church itself will fully examine its faults and shortcomings, particularly around sex and celibacy – or will some other scandal need to take place before it is finally forced to change because the resistance to do so is indeed mighty?© Declan Henry
Constance by Patrick McGrath
Reviewed by Declan Henry
This novel is all about the psychological. Set in New York in the sixties, it tells the story of Constance, who at the age of twenty-one marries Sidney, an author and literacy expert in his late forties. Sidney, who had been married twice before became fascinated by Constance and begged her to marry him. He considered her a ‘catch’. I’m not sure what Constance considered Sidney to be, other than rich and able to afford her a very comfortable lifestyle. Constance came across from the outset as being a morbid, forlorn character who was full of emotional angst towards the world - particularly her father whom she fervently hated. In fact, the whole book surrounds her father and their relationship, which she blamed for every mistake she ever made, every inadequacy she ever possessed and for the deep unhappiness in her life that blighted her childhood. She even blamed her father for her mother’s death from cancer when she was twelve and for him favouring her younger sister, Iris, who enjoyed a closer relationship with him. In fact, she was very jealous of Iris and this too became a fixation that eventually led to drastic consequences. But once the story reveals the ‘secret’ that existed between Constance and her father (and no, it’s not sexual abuse) it becomes easier to understand her viewpoint. However, it does not fully explain her obsessiveness towards retribution - although in the final months of her father’s life she does show him a little tenderness. Alongside all of this, the story outlines the impact that Constance’s behaviour and leanings towards revenge has on her relationship with Sidney, who must be commended for his patience. But he loved her and that explains much of why he tolerated her behaviour and mood swings. The book really is a tour-de-force of emotions which shows the reader the levels of unhappiness that occur when they not articulated in a rational manner. It also shows the destructiveness that lies and secrets have on relationships and the price people pay for their deceitfulness. It also shows a degree of karma containing the well known mantra of ’what goes around, comes around’.
Patrick McGrath (pictured inset) is a British novelist who was born in 1950 and now lives in New York. This was the first time I had read one of his books, although I had read about him. McGrath had an unconventional childhood. He grew up close to Broadmoor Secure Mental Health Hospital where his father was its medical superintendent. I know he has been critical of psychiatrists in the past because I once read he had said that psychiatrists are only drawn to the profession because of their own level of dysfunction. According to his Wikipedia page his fiction ‘is principally characterised by the first person unreliable narrator’. In addition to writing about mental health and emotional complexities, he also leans towards plots about repressed homosexuality and adulterous relationships. Indeed, with the exception of any homosexuality, the remainder of this criterion can be found in Constance. It’s an incredibly well written novel and is actually highly enjoyable to read, despite its dark nature. However, if I’m picky I must say there were a few occasions when I thought McGrath used words that were incorrect – for example, he described Constance as being promiscuous. Given that she was a virgin when she married Sidney and had only cheated with one other man (Iris’s ex-boyfriend) I think the most appropriate word to use he should have used was ‘unfaithful’. Other than that it’s a great literary creation that has an air of panache about it from beginning to end.© Declan Henry
These houses were once the pride and joy of their owners. Imagine the happiness experienced when they moved into their new home. The busy time spent unpacking, arranging furniture and objects whilst open turf fires provided warmth and a picture of the Sacred Heart over the mantelpiece assured protection. Read more
These holy places of worship have seen generations of families pass through their doors. Some of these buildings will have borne witness to thousands of happy and sad occasions throughout the last century. The sanctuary lamp perpetually lit as a reminder of being in God’s house. Read more
Ireland has numerous castles spread across its four provinces. Many are merely preserved ruins, some have been adopted by the Office of Public Works and restored to high levels of craftsmanship, and others transformed into luxurious hotels. One thing they all have in common, though, is that they are steeped in history… Read more
Irish Catholic Churches
These holy places of worship have seen generations of families pass through their doors. Some of these buildings will have borne witness to thousands of happy and sad occasions throughout the last century. The sanctuary lamp perpetually lit as a reminder of being in God’s house. Those arriving with a heavy heart find respite from their troubles. The walls hold many secrets from… both the living and the dead. Shame, fear and guilt experienced by our ancestors for perceived transgressions are no longer viewed in society as wrong. Prayers will have changed radically over the years. Most of what people prayed for eighty or even fifty years ago is unrecognisable in today’s world, although petitions for good health and fine weather remain the same.
Since the 1990s, church attendances have slowly dwindled in the aftermath of clerical child abuse scandals. The crimes of a minority of priests helped tarnish the reputation of many good men who had devoted their lives to the priesthood. Despite smaller congregations and notably fewer young people attending Sunday Mass, the Catholic custom still remains in place for a great number of families. Some traditions will never be lost because there is still something beautiful, peaceful and reassuring about entering a Catholic church. I personally feel that no matter how long I leave in-between my visits that I sense a welcome, a familiarity that I don’t feel anywhere else. I guess that is what makes our faith so special.
Old Irish Houses
These houses were once the pride and joy of their owners. Imagine the happiness experienced when they moved into their new home. The busy time spent unpacking, arranging furniture and objects whilst open turf fires provided warmth and a picture of the Sacred Heart over the mantelpiece assured protection.
The remains of these houses now ache with memories of the days when laughter was heard from adults and children alike from within their walls. Where prayers were said as a family, where children completed their homework, where neighbours came to pass the time of day or play cards, where fiddles and flutes played with dancing in tow and where home cooked meals and freshly baked bread scented the air.
These houses will have witnessed the events that shaped many Irish lives – First Holy Communions, confirmations, weddings and wakes as well as the birth of grandchildren. They will have held the secrets, fears and desires of people who longed to be accepted for who they were. The battle against the elements, the harsh frosts, wind and rain, will also have been fought bravely.
And then time drew to a close and the end came. In each of these houses somebody will have closed the door for the last time. Somebody will have slept there for a last night. Marking the end of an era, a sense of abandonment set in and gradual decay came about until, what was a once a home, became but a shell of its former glory.
Ireland has numerous castles spread across its four provinces. Many are merely preserved ruins, some have been adopted by the Office of Public Works and restored to high levels of craftsmanship, and others transformed into luxurious hotels. One thing they all have in common, though, is that they are steeped in history, with some dating back to the Middle Ages. Ireland once had its own noble system with dozens of High Kings – the last of whom was Brian Boru, who died at the battle of Clontarf in 1014 – however, neither he nor his predecessors will ever have lived in a castle.
It wasn’t until the Normans captured and invaded Ireland in the late 11th century that castles emerged. The Norman invaders mainly consisted of Earls and Barons, and their castles were built as symbols of status and power. Possession of a castle, a wife of fine-breeding, a few good horses and a pocketful of golden coins reflected a high position in society.
The castles varied in architectural design but the turret (a tower where servants or soldiers kept watch) was a common feature in all of them. Ireland was a very rough and disordered society back then in what would later be described by historians as a cruel and violent age. The castles served as fortresses for protection against enemies and often functioned as prisons, where prisoners were kept in overcrowded, dark dungeons and made to sleep on bare earth with little food. This would be in contrast to the nobility upstairs where wood fires burned, comfortable straw beds were slept on and the finest venison, pork or beef was served for dinner, washed down by generous amounts of ale prompting laughter and song to echo round the castle walls.
Whilst some had to wash in rivers, the aristocracy had their servants boil water for them. Some ladies will have enjoyed the luxury of soap, but overall, personal hygiene was often neglected and some never even washed.
By the 14th Century, society became increasingly sophisticated, which meant the aristocracy wanted more comfort. Many castles were restructured and had glass windows installed to improve warmth. Interiors became grander and beautiful tapestries adorned the castle walls. By then, castles were centres of administration for the wealthy landowners and a hive of activity where farmers went to pay taxes. They were no longer useful as fortresses because of the advent of gunpowder, and instead, gradually became domestic homes – with the retained castle features illustrating the occupants’ wealth. Others were abandoned and never occupied again.
The Romantic Movement of the 19th Century, however, saw a rise in the number of castles bought by wealthy manufacturers or businessmen who restored them into grand places of residence. By the 20th Century, some of the larger castles were sold and turned into hotels. Whilst this entailed extensive building work, some of the original stonework was often retained, and the majority kept the turret – a symbol of its past history.
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