To explain firstly for those of you who don’t know, I live in Ireland and Easter 2016 is a huge event here as it marks the centenary of the Easter Rising in 1916. I won’t go into all the debates, discussions and arguments here as to whether or not the Rising was a good thing, if you want to read that there are millions of words written on that very subject. Irrespective of anyone’s opinion on the Easter Rising it is irrefutable that it set in train the long, painful and bloody list of events that led, eventually, to the creation of the Irish Free State. Again, opinions on the rights or wrongs of that are not what I am considering here today.
What I’m remembering today is a conversation I had over 20 years ago in Liverpool when I was an undergraduate. It was in the student common room of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University and somehow we found ourselves taking about the Easter Rising. I vividly remember saying that whatever else might be going on, I fully intended to spend Easter 2016 in Dublin, nowhere else.
Well today is Easter Sunday and I’m not in Dublin. Instead I’m ensconced on the sofa in our living room in Oldcastle, Co. Meath with the television on – telly NEVER goes on here this early in the mornings (9.45am) unless there is a major event happening. RTE (our state broadcaster) is giving full coverage of today’s State Commemoration. So am I disappointed not to be in Dublin this weekend? No, not really. Oh, I imagine the atmosphere in Dublin today and tomorrow will be great and it would be great to be there but with a wheelchair using child, hordes and hordes of people and a LUAS strike, its not the most appealing combination!
But I’m marking Easter 2016 in my own way. Yesterday I gave a paper on ‘Women of the Rebellion and the War of Independence’ at a seminar in Trim. Today is a day to follow it on the telly (I’ll see more anyway!!) and tomorrow, Easter Monday (the day the Rising actually started) I feel very honoured to have been formally invited by the government to attend the official State Commemoration at Ashbourne in Co. Meath, site of the Battle of Ashbourne. Over twenty years ago I never imagined I’d be living in Ireland and not only watching the commemorations but contributing to them in a small way.
You never know where life will take you!
The Disability Federation of Ireland has been running a campaign called Disable Inequality prior to and during the general election campaign, asking voters to vote to end discrimination for people living with disability. You might wonder in what ways are people living with disabilities facing discrimination. Take a quick look at the stories that the Disable Inequality campaign are sharing and you’ll see.
I do not have a disability but am the very proud mother of a feisty and fabulous daughter who has physical and intellectual disabilities. If you have children, ask yourself will your child/ren be helped and enabled to achieve their full potential? Children with disabilities are frequently told no they can’t take a certain subject for Junior or Leaving cert because the extra supports they need are not in place. Does that sound fair to you? Children with disabilities (who are still growing) are all too often left months, even years, with too small or inadequate equipment, or face long waits to have physiotherapy or occupational therapy. Does that sound fair to you?
Some children with special needs have to attend special school (like our daughter does) as their local school cannot provide the assistance and supports they need to achieve their full potential. That means they don’t get to go to school with their siblings and neighbours. Does that sound fair to you? In our case, our daughter’s school is 26 miles away. That is a round trip of 52 miles each day. 5 days a week. That is 260 miles she travels each week just to attend school. She has been doing this since she was five years old. Does that sound fair to you?
If children were facing these issues around equipment, therapies, appointments, schools because of their ethnicity or religion there would (hopefully) be an uproar. Yet when it comes to our children with disabilities we are told its all due to budgetary cutbacks and to staff shortages and to ‘the system’. If you get the opportunity to talk to a candidate in the next two weeks, ask them what they and their party if they have one are going to do to end this discrimination. Or contact them and ask. During the marriage referendum campaign last year I recall seeing a poster that said ‘Let’s treat everyone equally’. I hope I live to see the day when that really happens.
Two weeks to go to polling day and last night (Feb 11th) saw the first televised leaders debate on TV3 and Newstalk radio. I was undecided whether to watch or not as generally I don’t find the debates that interesting or useful when it comes to deciding how to vote. However influenced a little bit by commentary on Twitter, I decided to give it a whirl.
I should have stuck to my gut feeling and watched some more Netflix. I won’t waste my time or yours rehashing what was said, apart from Gerry Adams telling Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin (separately) “catch yourself on” and Micheal Martin telling people they had a brass neck. Honestly, you’d get a higher level of debate in sixth class.
I do wonder why media and politicians think these debates are a good idea. I’ve watched some British ones and some Irish ones and I’ve almost always come away fed up of hearing our political leaders shout over each other, not really listening and really engaging with the issues, of hearing them just spouting a load of frequently meaningless lines. Last night was no different. Now maybe some people do find these events useful when it comes to deciding who to vote for, but not me, all it has done is reinforced my decisions who NOT to vote for.
14 days and counting……..
Here in the Republic of Ireland we have a general election looming. It was finally declared this morning and will take place on Friday February 26th. Consequently I will be glued to the TV on Sat 27th, Sun 28th and quite possibly Mon 29th depending on how long it takes for all the counts to be concluded and the results finally known. (For readers unfamiliar with our system, we have multi seat constituencies and vote by proportional representation so it can take awhile. For political nerds like me that’s part of the fun.)
Along with the various candidates clamouring for our attention and promising us the sun, the moon and the stars, or least promising that they aren’t as bad as the other lot, a number of organisations have campaigns running either asking candidates to make various pledges or asking voters to highlight the issues that matter to them. Reading through some of these made me think about the issues that will decide how I use my vote this month. I WILL use my vote – I have voted in every election I have been eligible to vote in – but as yet, I am uncertain which way it will go.
In an attempt to tease out some of my thinking, I’m going to look at some of the issues/ideas/ways in which my vote might be influenced. A lot of psephologists and political analysts talk about there being certain ‘types’ of vote – so what kind of voter am I?
I’m a woman. I’ve often wondered if there really IS such a thing as ‘the woman’s vote’. It implies that women will vote the same way or at least be influenced by the same issues when deciding how to vote. I don’t know if that has ever been true. The National Women’s Council of Ireland have asked candidates to sign up to their Breakthrough Manifesto for Women, all of which I agree with. At time of writing none of the candidates declared for my constituency of Meath West have signed up for this. I know women who will not agree with all of the points in this manifesto, but we are all women voters – so is there really a ‘women’s vote’? Should a woman vote for a candidate simply because she is a woman? No – there are some women candidates who, if they were running in my constituency, I would not give any vote to, because their policies and beliefs are so far removed from mine that they would not be representing me.
I have a child with special needs, and am her carer. This will be one of the biggest deciding factors for me when using my vote. I wholeheartedly support the Disable Inequality campaign to end discrimination for people living with a disability. In case you think such discrimination does not exist, ask yourself do people with disabilities have the same access to education, training and employment as everyone else? (The answer is no by the way). Ask yourself, do people with disabilities struggle financially? (That’s a yes – the burden of paying for extra heating, housing aids and transport means many families with a member with a disability are struggling) This week when the country has been shocked by the terrible story of alleged abuse of children and adults with intellectual disabilities, Inclusion Ireland has released its manifesto for the election. It makes sobering reading.
I’m middle aged (and proud of it! Think of the alternative!) – is there a particular voting trend or voting appeal that should apply to me? I can’t think of one. Does being 44 (nearly 45) mean I think and hence vote a particular way?
I live in rural Ireland, on the edge of a small town with a rural hinterland. I am not originally from rural Ireland but have chosen to settle and raise our daughter here. That surely implies a commitment to rural Ireland, I could have just as easily chosen to live in a large town or city. I have no connection to farming, I don’t follow GAA (ok I like to see Meath win), I’m tired of hearing about ‘blow-ins’ who don’t understand the community they live in. Surely a community is not something set in aspic, surely it changes and adapts to those who live in it whether or not their families have lived there for generations. Those who wish to represent rural communities would do well to remember that these communities are not homogenous. Yes, many of the so-called rural issues are important to me – better public transport, the effects of the economic downturn and how long it is taking to see the promised upturn in some areas, employment, migration etc. But these are not the only things that will determine how my vote is used.
I want full equality in education, and support the campaign by Education Equality for the ending of all religious discrimination in State-funded schools. I would be delighted if the Education Equality campaign would also look at the issue of special schools and religious ethos.
To sum up then, I’m a middle aged woman living in rural Ireland with a child with special needs. I want to see full equality in our education system, an end to the inhumane system of direct provision and the repeal of the 8th Amendment. I care about where our food comes from and what we are doing to our planet. I’m not motivated by the acquisition of wealth and am passionate about making our history and heritage something that can be appreciated and cherished by all. What kind of voter am I then? I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that voters don’t fit into easy little boxes for canvassers and pollsters to tick off. We are more complex and have a range of issues that will affect our votes.
So, candidates of Meath West, what can you do to win my vote? You have 24 days including today and polling day. It’s over to you!
As part of my Year of Living Seasonally project, I am going to try and spend more time outside observing the seasons and their impact on my surroundings. All too often I spend time outside rushing from one place to the next, or working at something but not really BEING outside. So around noon today I spent about 45 minutes in my garden, just looking, listening. Much of what I saw I expected to see, falling leaves with such a glorious spectrum of colours from green to gold to copper to every shade of brown and finally to black before they decay completely. The last few vivid yellow berries on the rowan tree in the middle of the lower garden, a contrast to the vibrant blue sky. The starkness of branches no longer clothed in leaves but standing naked in the November garden.
However I also saw a few things I wasn’t expecting to see: a buttercup in flower, a dandelion holding on to its last few seeds, rose buds on my daughter’s rose bush. Today is November 3rd, Samhain has passed, according to the Celtic calendar we are now in the season of winter. But how much can we take the changing of the seasons for what they used to be? Last week (the last week of October) was incredibly mild, both here in Ireland and in parts of England. I saw a news report from the Tower of London with people in tshirts and shorts. It was 24 degrees!!! It wasn’t that warm here, but average temperatures here last week were around 16 or 17 degrees. Yes, while people were commenting on this, no one seemed terribly surprised. Our climate is most certainly changing. What will living seasonally mean in thirty years time?
Its October 31st so that means in Ireland, Britain, the USA and probably in other parts of the world too its Hallowe’en. (Note the apostrophe!) This is the first festival/feast day/notable date in my Year of Living Seasonally project and its one that I’ve never much partaken in. I grew up in the south-west of England and we never really marked Hallowe’en much (that might just have been us mind you). Bonfire Night (Nov 5th) was a bigger deal for us. As I learnt more about Celtic and Irish folklore and customs and also began to explore religion and spirituality more, this time fascinated me.
You see, traditionally (and I’m slightly wary of that word because one family’s traditions, or one region’s traditions are not the same as another’s) here in Ireland it was the festival of Samhain, one of the cross quarter days that marked the changing of the seasons and the cycle of the year. It was seen as the start of winter and was marked – according to some authorities – from sunset on October 31st until sunset on November 1st. James MacKillop in his Dictionary of Celtic Mythology says Samhain was the “principal calendar feast of early Ireland.” Samhain was – and for many still remains – the Celtic New Year. Many pagans observe this festival as their New Year today. It might seem an odd time to celebrate or mark the start of a new year. I rather like the idea of starting a new year as the seasons change and as we move into winter. The sense of burrowing down, of resting and reflecting by the fireside appeals to me very much. I like to spend the winter evenings reading, pondering, switching off. For me its a time to shed the old and prepare for the rejuvenation that comes at Imbolc, the start of spring on February 1st. MacKillop says that “Samhain seemed suspended in time, when the borders between the natural and the supernatural dissolve and the spirits from the Otherworld might move freely into the realm of mortals.”
The Celtic calendar is usually displayed as a wheel – emphasising the cycle of life and the seasons – and it is common for Samhain to be at the top of the wheel (in the 12 o’clock position if you like). In Ireland and Britain we still alter our clocks twice a year and it was last weekend when we turned the clocks back an hour. Consequently it is darker earlier now in the evenings and this enhances (for me anyway) the sense of it being time to slow down, to relax, to reflect. For many people, Samhain is a spiritual and religious event which is marked by ceremony and ritual. I live some 15 miles or so away from Tlachtga near Athboy in Co. Meath where on this date every year a ceremony is held to mark the date, the turning of the wheel and to honour the dead. You can read more about this here. I haven’t attended it yet, and won’t be this year either but I like the idea of the ceremony. There are many many gatherings, feasts and ceremonies being held to mark this night. I found this little verse online earlier and it spoke to me:
Blessed be the ancestors, the ones whom life has fled
Tonight we merry meet again, our own beloved dead
The wheel of the year turns on, a new year is in our sights
The maiden has become the crone, we celebrate this night
Over the last couple of years I have been reading more and thinking more about the sacred feminine so the reference to the maiden and the crone resonates with me. So if Samhain is a calendar festival that marks changes in the natural year and for some is a sacred occasion, then where did Hallowe’en come from? You might be surprised to learn that the term Hallowe’en is of Christian origin. I mentioned the importance of the apostrophe earlier – it signifies that the original term was likely ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘holy evening’ which probably came from All Hallows Eve, being the term for the night before All Hallows Day – or All Saints Day as it is better known. All Saints Day of course precedes All Souls Day, which is a Christian day of prayer for the dead. I have my own personal beliefs and I do try to actively respect those of others but a day of prayer for the dead just two days after Samhain – I wonder where the idea came from? However, I digress. So Hallowe’en then is the night before All Saints Day. So where do the now widely practised traditions of trick or treating, Jack O Lanterns and the like come from? You could do worse than start with the Wikipedia entry for Hallowe’en for some explanations. A couple of quick points though: Jack O Lanterns are hollowed out vegetables (now usually pumpkins) in which a face, often a grotesque one, is carved and a candle is placed, the idea being that this monstrous illuminated face will frighten off any unwanted creatures from the Otherworld who might have passed through the veil between the two worlds (back to Samhain again). Trick or treating, well that seems to have grown from the tradition of going from door to door receiving food Britain and Ireland called “souling”, where children and poor people would sing and say prayers for the dead in return for cakes. Guising—children disguised in costumes going from door to door for food and coins—also predates trick or treat, and is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1895, where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.
Hallowe’en now – and this really seems to me to have taken off in the last fifteen years or so – is marked by many as something of a gore fest. The more horrific and scarier the better. Ok, scary is one thing and of course Samhain is the time when the veil between our world and the otherworld is at its thinnest so any kind of otherworldly being might put in an appearance. But I will lay my cards on the table here and say that the whole blood and gore and frightfest doesn’t appeal to me at all. I don’t like horror movies or gory stuff (I will admit to watching The Walking Dead though – sometimes with a cushion close by) and I’ve never understood the appeal. But if its how people want to mark Hallowe’en then who am I to argue? I suppose at least it has some links to the festival’s origins in Samhain when who knew what Otherworldly beings might be among us? Two things I really don’t like though: the so-called sexy costumes, which have NOTHING to do with the festival and are just fancy dress, and secondly the term ‘Happy Hallowe’en’. Its just too Americanised (a generalisation I know!) and too saccharine for me.
As I finish this post the sun is almost set. Samhain is upon us. The wheel has turned, the veil has thinned. Its time to reflect upon the darkness and to restore ourselves ready for the coming of spring. A blessed Samhain to you all.
Wednesday 13th July, Oldcastle, Co. Meath. A beautiful warm sunny morning, just as it should be for the middle of July. July. My daughter’s birth month and she has just turned 4. Another milestone that a few years ago we didn’t know if we would ever see. I load Fionnuala and her heavy special needs buggy into my little car and head for Mullingar. Our ultimate destination is Dublin as we are taking part in a protest against the cuts in special needs education. It might seem odd to travel from the Meath-Cavan border to Dublin via Mullingar but we’re going by train and Mullingar is our nearest station. It takes about 40 minutes to get there. We take the Castlepollard road out of Oldcastle, bypassing Fore and its seven wonders. There’s nothing worth listening to on the radio so I check the CD player – first CD up is Horslips ‘Treasury’. The first track that comes on is ‘Furniture’, I haven’t listened to this in a while and I’m humming along when they launch into the chorus from ‘Oró Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile’ and I feel the spirit of Gráinne Mhaol surging through me, putting me into fighting mode. Fionnuala is clapping her hands and singing away in her car seat, oblivious to her mother communing with long-dead Irish women. Skip through a track or two and next up is ‘Dearg Doom’ – this was the first Horslips song I ever heard – and now the spirit of Queen Meabh is right up there with Gráinne Mhaol. The blood is pumping, the adrenalin is rushing, I feel like I can take on the world and win!! And we’ve only been on the road for half an hour…
Eventually I calm down somewhat, get us to the train and safely to Dublin. After a lovely lunch we stroll casually down to Kildare Street. The protest – organised by the Special Needs Parents Association amongst others – is due to start at 3pm. I figure we’ll be there by about 2.40 so at least there will be a few people ready by 3pm. We turn into Molesworth Street and are enjoying the (rare) sunshine when it hits me like a thunderbolt. There are tons of people outside the Dáil. Parents, children, teachers, SNAs, buggies and wheelchairs of all shapes and sizes. There must be a few hundred people there already! I am both amazed and delighted. Many of us have been trying to encourage people who don’t have or know a child with special needs to join us for this protest. I manage to locate some good friends and Fionnuala and I take our places just outside the gates to Leinster House. More and more people arrive, the Gardaí close off the lower half of Molesworth Street and still the people keep coming. We are asked to move over from Kildare Street to Molesworth Street for the rally and by now it is a pretty impressive sight. (The press has varying numbers the next day but I believe there was approx 1000 people there). TD’s are arriving out of Leinster House, members of the Technical Group of Independent TD’s, members of Sinn Féin, I think I see a couple of Labour TD’s. No Fianna Fáilers or Fine Gaelers. Or not that I could see anyway. The vibe is good natured, people are angry at the cuts to SNA positions, but its a positive kind of anger. Plus there are a lot of children present and we want to keep this a family-friendly protest.
The speeches begin and they are all received positively. Finian McGrath TD spoke very well saying that if people were not for children with special needs then they were against them. The crowd are in total agreement with him. Lorraine Dempsey from the Special Needs Parents Association speaks just prior to a meeting with Minister Cannon and other government TD’s. Shane Ross, Mick Wallace, Catherine Murphy, other TD’s too many to list here, teachers, SNAs, a gutsy young boy with autism and his mum, loads of people speak and the crowd applaud. Its a sunny day, we’re all too hot, the children are getting bored but at least we feel like we’re getting the chance to have our say.
Clare Daly TD opens up the stage for anyone who wants to address the crowd (thinning out a little bit now, its after 5pm). And with my ego to the fore, I decide to go up. I’ve no real idea what I’m going to say but what the hell, I’ll just keep my little daughter’s face in my mind’s eye and something will come to me. There are two speakers before me and then its my turn. Momentarily I panic. I introduce myself to the crowd and then it hits me what I want to say…..
“I don’t want to be here today.” Not the usual opening line to address a rally with I grant you but I elaborate on my theme and speak for a few minutes. I get lots of applause and two TD’s tell me I spoke well. I get back to my daughter and friends to lots of hugs and congratulations. Phew, maybe I didn’t make a class eejit of myself! My dear friend Aisling then speaks very movingly and passionately about her son Jack and their fight for Jack to have the education he is entitled to. Eventually the rally is over and a group of us retire to Buswells to relax, cool down, collect our thoughts and celebrate. After all, its not every day we campaign outside the Dáil and address a rally. We are all thrilled at the turnout and we’re on a high.
After an hour or so Fionnuala and I head back to Connolly station to start our journey home. Its been a long day and we are both tired. We finally get back just before 9 having left home at 10 that morning. She goes straight to sleep and I fill my husband in on the day’s events while we wait for the 9pm news. Yay! We got some coverage and another good friend of ours is interviewed with her children. Then we hear that the Govt motion to maintain the cuts already announced in SNA positions has been won in the Dáil by 103 votes to 47 and the high that I’ve been on all day starts to fade. I knew there was virtually no chance of the motion by the technical group (to reverse the cuts) winning but there’s always a glimmer of hope. I spend the next hour or so chatting with friends online talking over the day, swapping news and photos. And so to bed.
But the next morning I feel terrible. Awful. Exhausted. Worn out, weary, tired tired tired of having to fight. And sick to my stomach at the way our children are being treated. And I’m not the only one. Facebook is full of mums and dads who feel the exact same way I do. And that brings me back to my speech at the rally. None of us WANTED to be there last Wednesday. Its not easy taking a child with special needs to the Dáil, having to manoeuvre buggies or wheelchairs, cater for a child who might be peg fed or who might have a trach tube in place. Or who has autism and doesn’t cope well with crowds. Or who has seizures. Or who is simply unable to understand why we are there and why she has to sit in her buggy for Mum for over two long hours, pacified only with white chocolate buttons. But we did it. Parents and supporters from all over the country came, from Donegal, Meath, Kildare, Wexford, Wicklow, Louth, Kilkenny, Cork, Galway…. and that’s only the ones I know about. I’m sure pretty much every one of the counties in this State was represented in the crowd last Wednesday.
We did it because we have to fight for our children to receive the education that they are entitled to. We did it because we want our children to be as independent as possible and to enjoy life as much as possible. We came in our hundreds on one of the hottest days of the year to stand outside our national parliament and say to the politicians and to the people of this country “We are here. Our children are here. They are citizens of this country too and they have the right to an education. Listen to us. Support us. Reverse these cuts.”
But so far they haven’t. Parents all over the country are still anxiously waiting to hear if their child will have an SNA in September. And the new school year is only a few weeks away…. Other parents that I know have already learned that their child will have reduced SNA hours or none at all. Yet these children’s needs have not changed. I mentioned my friend Aisling and her son Jack earlier. Jack has Down’s Syndrome and CINCA Syndrome. He has high care needs and is classed at severe to profound level of disability. He has a place in a special school for September but so far his mother has been told he will only be able to attend for one hour each day because of the SNA situation. How in the 21st century can this be considered acceptable? Jack has as much right to an education as any other child. I could cite numerous other cases all of which illustrate just how badly our children are being let down by the Irish State.
We all know the country is in a dire financial mess. We are all “taking the hit” and “sharing the pain”. But why are children with special needs being targeted? They are part of this country’s future too. I know I’m not going to get answers to these questions here. I know that the Government will not give me a straight answer. But we live – allegedly – in a democracy and so we will use all the tools available to us to have our voices, and more importantly those of our children, heard.
I didn’t want to be at the Dáil last week. None of us did. But we went and we’ll be there again and again and again as long as we have to. Cuts to special needs education affect every school and potentially every child in the country. Will you join us next time?