What Does A Rapist Look Like?

This is what a rapist looks like (Cormac The Rapist Talbot)

CW: Rape, Sexual Assault, Male Violence Against Women

Before you read this, please note that I will not engage with any whataboutery, or cries of ‘Notallmen’.

Research into the type of men who rape women has focused on asking men who are taking part in anti-recidivism courses, men in prison, and men who have accepted that they are guilty of rape. These are the exception, not the norm. Men who abuse women and children are crafty. They are devious. They are manipulative. They are not monsters. They hide in plain sight and they convince decent, normal, average, folks that they are ‘good guys’. As we have seen so often, it is not unusual for them to be well-known, and well respected, members of their communities. They ingratiate themselves into elements of society, and carefully hide the less savoury elements of their personalities. Then, when allegations of abuse are made against them, they have an army of defenders who are willing to say ‘he was always very good to me’ / ‘but he’s on the board of the local school’ / ‘he’s a great GAA man’ etc. etc.

Then, there’s the false sense of security that Garda vetting provides. Garda vetting doesn’t weed out predators, it doesn’t give any indication of who is, and isn’t a rapist. Garda vetting just tells us who has a criminal record. Do you see the problem here? You could be a serial rapist, but because you have never been found guilty in a court of law, your vetting disclosure will not reveal how dangerous you are.

The basic lack of understanding of trauma, how it impacts people, how memory is not linear, how memories reveal themselves, how prevailing culture silences women – all these elements of society conspire to silence victims. Sometimes for decades, sometimes forever.

Talking to the men who are happy to talk to researchers; talking to the men who got caught; talking to the men who are aware of, admit to, and have remorse for, raping women; is talking to an extreme minority of rapists. We won’t learn enough from them to understand what a rapist is like, their motivations, their manipulative ways, their lack of empathy for their victims, their lack of concern for the long-term, often life-limiting, effects that their abuse has on their victims.

If you want to know what a rapist looks like – ask their victims. We’ll tell you. In return, though, you need to listen. You must be prepared to accept uncomfortable truths; to reject your pre-conceived notions; to have the humility to accept that you have been wrong, that you have been duped.

Abusers do not stop abusing, rather they must be stopped and perpetuating the myths that men who abuse are a minority, and that men who abuse are monsters, won’t stop any of them.

Child Sexual Abuse Is Not The Same For Everyone

Content Warning: Child Sexual Abuse, Trauma,

In my work with people who were sexually abused as children, the notion of a hierarchy of abuse regularly comes up. Sometimes, people diminish their own experiences because someone else has had more extreme experiences. I remind them that our abuse has many elements: There’s the physical experience itself; the effect that has on our psyches, and on our emotions – which is sometimes referred to as our ‘reactions’ to the abuse. What also impacts us is the severity of abuse, as well as the duration of it, and the existing relationship (if any) we have/had with the perpetrator. Then there’s the support – or lack of support – we get from the people around us. Trauma is caused, not just by what happens, it’s also caused by what doesn’t happen – the understanding, the support, the interventions. All these threads weave together to create the fabric of our trauma.

All traumas are not equal, and the impact that being sexually abused has can be very different from person to person. Some manage to come out the other side of their experiences relatively unscathed. Some don’t make it out alive. Most of us exist somewhere in the middle of that continuum – and slide a bit up and down it depending on how a given day is treating us, and on how our recovery is going.

Pitting survivors, and their experiences, against each other is singularly unhelpful. Pointing to someone who reveals they were abused and ‘are fine now’ as an example of how all victims should feel/act/behave without unpacking the differences in experiences diminishes the lived realities of those who were more affected.

For illustrative purposes, let’s take a look at two different, hypothetical women – Anne and Zoe.

Anne was sexually abused, several times a week, by her father from the age of three, until she was twelve, and he died of a heart attack. The abuse included oral, digital, and vaginal rape. Anne’s mother facilitated the abuse by ignoring the obvious signs of it, and telling Anne that she was a ‘very lucky girl’ to have a father who loved her so much. Anne was not believed when she disclosed to her teacher. When her parents found out she had disclosed, Anne was punished for speaking her truth. Further, her mother blamed Anne for her father’s heart attack, telling the child that her ‘lies’ had caused the stress that was responsible for his fatal cardiac arrest.

Zoe was shown pornography by a male neighbour, on several occasions, over a six-month time period, when she was eleven years old. Later, her neighbour coerced her into adopting poses similar to those in the pornographic images he had shown her. He then took photographs of her in those poses, for his own enjoyment. When Zoe disclosed her abuse to her parents, they immediately believed her, and told her that the abuse had not been her fault. They engaged with the authorities, and supported Zoe through that process. They also ensured she had appropriate therapeutic interventions.

It will come as no surprise to you that Zoe fared a lot better than Anne did in terms of recovery. To compare them, and to berate Anne for not ‘getting over it’ while Zoe carves a successful career in her chosen area, might help Zoe feel better about herself, but it’s not going to do anything to help Anne, or to help greater understanding in the community of the long-term effects of child sexual abuse.

Our experiences are unique to us, and our reactions to them are, too. To expect and ‘Anne’ to react to her experiences of child sexual abuse in the same way as ‘Zoe’ is unrealistic, reductive, and – ultimately – damaging.

Choosing A Guide For Your Healing

Amid all the chatter on- and off-line around ‘reaching out’; acknowledging that ‘it’s okay not to be okay’; ‘ask for help’ etc. etc. finding the appropriate healing guide for you is not always an easy task.

What Do You Need?

I think the first place to start is deciding the type of professional you need: Is it a coach, a counsellor, or a therapist? I differentiate between all three this way:

A coach is not so much concerned with where you’ve been as in where you are and where you’re going. They provide tools and foster skills in you, as well providing their own perspective to help you get to where you want to be.

A counsellor will help, short-term, with a specific issue. They will bring their expertise to your experience and help you find your way out.

A therapist is with you for the long haul. They are there to help you unpick, and unpack, the myriad issues presenting in your life. They will be in a position to help you address trauma, to help you make sense of your past in order to move forward. You can expect to be with your therapist for a minimum of a year, in most cases, closer to two.

In many places (Ireland included), these are not protected titles. What that means is that anyone can decide they’re a coach/counsellor/therapist, then advertise and charge as such. All these professions, however, have accrediting and / or professional bodies. These accrediting / professional perform a few gate-keeping exercises for you: They will require that their members have a certain minimum standard of education, that they are insured, that they sign up to a particular code of ethics – and they are a place where you can make a complaint against your coach/counsellor/therapist, should you need to.


Whichever professional you decide to engage with on your healing journey, you deserve to work with someone who is qualified. Don’t be afraid to ask where your potential healing guide qualified, and what professional body they are part of. This is not private, personal, information – and anyone who is qualified is generally proud of the fact, and only too happy to provide details. It also helps to build trust, which is an essential element of the relationship you’re hoping to forge with this person.

A qualification is about more than just a spot of reading and a written exercise or two; it is about being challenged, being trained, and learning about your area, and the ethics involved in practicing within that area.

An unqualified person, therefore, is a danger to you, and themselves. I came across a ‘coach’ earlier this year who had no training, qualifications, or education beyond her secondary school exams, and an MA in Creative Writing – a degree for which no previous training or education is a prerequisite. When I asked how she thought it was legitimate to call herself a ‘coach’ she said that there had a to be a first coach in the history of coaching, and if they could call themselves a coach, so could she.

I was uneasy with this – not least because all professions have evolved and standards have been in place for decades (and, in some cases, centuries). It also told me that the vulnerable, traumatised, women to whom she sold her services were paying a woman who has no expertise, and no training around to work with traumatised people, and who had no supervisor herself. She’s a danger to the women she ‘coaches’ because of this, and a danger to herself because she has set herself up as a depository for other peoples’ traumas – and no idea of what to do with that trauma afterwards.

No matter how ‘nice’, ’empathetic’, or ‘wise’ a person may appear those traits on their own are not enough to provide the safety and support you need to heal; they need to be coupled with training, understanding, and structured knowledge.

Being Comfortable.

It’s an obvious thing to say, but you really do need to be comfortable with your healing guide. The only way to find out if you’re a good fit is to interview them. Remember that you are the one with the power here – you are the potential client (customer). Recommendations – from friends, from doctors, and Google – are all common ways to start your search. Pay attention, too, to what these professionals say about themselves, their areas of expertise, interests, or experience.

I know that many have their choices restricted by their medical insurance, or geographical location. The recent emergence of a more hybrid model – both on- and off-line – of therapy makes accessing help easier for some.


Before deciding whether or not to work with someone, I recommend asking the following questions, either over the phone, or in an email:

  • What are your qualifications?
    You want someone who is qualified to do what they say they can do.
  • How long have you been practicing?
    You may not need someone who has decades of experience, but if you seeking marriage guidance, a 24 year-old is not going to know as much, or have the perspective of, a 54 year-old.
  • Have you experience working with people whose difficulty is / stems from…
    You’re looking for a resounding ‘Yes’!
  • What type of therapy/ies do you offer?
    A therapist who is non-directive might be best. Or, you might be looking for someone who can provide help with using a specific tool (eg Mindfulness). Also, if a therapist is wedded to a particular type of therapy – eg CBT – to the exclusion of all others, that might not be helpful.
  • How much is your fee?
    Clearly, this needs to be within your budget. Figure out how much you can afford before you start looking for a therapist. Ask if they have a sliding scale.
  • How often do you offer sessions?
    Every week? Fortnightly? Monthly? On an ad hoc basis? You want someone who will see you consistently – so that there is a routine and a rhythm to your sessions. To begin with, you may need to see a therapist weekly, before moving to fortnightly.
  • Do you offer support outside of sessions?
    Ideally, your healing guide will model good boundaries for you, but will facilitate contact outside of sessions should a crisis arise.
  • How long is your waiting list?
    This is a double-edged sword. Someone with a long waiting list can be a good sign; but, at the same time, if you need help now, then you can’t be expected more than a few weeks – especially if you’re in crisis.

Finally, if you start to work with someone, and find that they are not the right coach/counsellor/therapist for you, don’t be afraid to say so, and move on. No matter how much time you’ve already put into the sessions, it’s never too late to do the right thing. Be aware, though, that sometimes, we can feel like fleeing help because it’s all getting a bit too ‘real’ or ‘messy’ or ‘uncomfortable’. Ask yourself if that’s why you want to leave this particular practitioner – or if it’s a genuine misfit.

A Smile Can Save A Life

Dún Briste, Ballycastle, Co. Mayo, Ireland.
Photo by Daniel Kirchner

**CW: Suicidal Ideation**

Photographs of Dún Briste (Downpatrick Head) in Mayo are becoming a regular feature on my social media feeds.

But I knew her before she was famous.

Decades ago, when I was a teenager, an aunt and uncle of mine had a second home in Ballycastle – a tiny, rural village on the coast of Co. Mayo, on the edge of the rough Atlantic. Dún Briste was a walk of about half an hour from the house. When we visited Ballycastle, we visited the Head, which was not well-known at the time. Indeed, it’s only since the nearby Céide Fields became part of Ireland’s Heritage Trail, in 1993.

The sight of the sea stack in my various timelines, however, does not flood me with happy memories. Rather, it instantly brings me back to the time when I – aged 15 – walked, on the springy grass, to the top of the cliff that air-kisses Dún Briste. I was on my way to throw myself off the cliff and die at the foot of the stack.

I’d had enough. My own family had abused – physically, sexually, emotionally, mentally – and neglected me, my entire life. I had been let down by every element of the community with which I interacted; educational, medical, and legal. I had never been loved, or made to feel that I mattered, by anyone. And I had given up hope. I couldn’t see how I could ever escape from the desperation I felt on a daily basis. I couldn’t see any value in myself, because no one else did, either.

Hope takes energy, and I didn’t have the energy any more. I’d done everything I could to try to make things better for myself. I’d run out of ideas. I’d run out of energy. I’d run out of hope. There was no way I could continue facing horrendous day after horrendous day. I felt trapped entirely in an existence that I felt I had no control over. (Professor Rory O’Connor speaks about this feeling of being trapped in his new book ‘When It Is Darkest’.) I couldn’t bear it any longer, I really couldn’t.

I believed that the best and bravest thing I could do was kill myself. I would no longer be in pain, and no-one would miss me. In fact, I was fairly sure they’d be delighted I was gone.

On my way to the edge (literally and figuratively!) I met two women, in their forties, who were descending. One of them looked in my eyes, smiled a rich, warm, smile, and said

‘Hello. How are you?’

I remember exactly how that made me feel. I felt seen. I’d felt like she had been genuinely interested in how I was (even though I just gave the socially-acceptable, stock answer ‘fine, thank you’).

Continuing to the top of the cliff, I felt my resolve weaken. Something niggled at me. The woman who had greeted me had smiled so warmly at me, and enquired so kindly after my well-being – as though I were a valuable human – that I started to doubt my own worthlessness. She had seen, and responded to, my humanity. And I felt it.

That made me think, long and hard, about my decision. I realised that, even though nothing had materially altered in my life and circumstances, a complete stranger had felt I deserved warmth and kindness. Nothing had changed. Yet, everything had changed.

I decided to retreat from the top of the cliff, and told myself that the cliff wasn’t going anywhere, and I could fling myself off it any other day I felt like it. As you can see, I managed to struggle on for a while longer. There were many more years of suicidal ideation, there were further close brushes with death – and there were many more strangers who felt I was worth something, even if I didn’t always feel that way about myself.

My point? Well, actually I have two: Every life – including your own – is worth saving; and a smile can save a life.

If you are feeling suicidal, please call your local Samaritans:
Ireland: 116 123
UK: 116 123

France: 01 46 21 46 46
The Netherlands: 113  
US: Local Numbers here.
Singapore: 1-767
Australia: 135 247

Ireland: Text HELLO to 50808
US: Text HOME to 741741
UK: Text SHOUT to 85258
Canada: Text HOME to 686868

Back To School

Male University student in library

Yesterday, in Ireland, those who have completed their final exams at secondary level (known as the Leaving Certificate – or ‘the Leaving’) received news of whether or not they were being offered their most preferred course at third level. For many, it’s a day of relief, joy, and pride. For others, it’s a disappointment.

I’m not about to launch into the predictable ‘I failed my Leaving and I’m doing grand’ or the ‘Your Leaving doesn’t reflect who you are as a person’ or even the ‘Don’t worry you’ll be grand – you’ll find your way’ spiel that many others are expressing.

And I’m certainly not going to tell young people that it doesn’t matter. Because if it matters to you, then it matters.

Instead, I’d like to tell you about returning to education as an older person. I was 32 when I started my first degree. I was a lone mother, who had escaped abusive marriages, and had two children under the age of four.

I’d done my own leaving at 16 – and studied Drama (which I adored and which still touches on everything I do, including my further thinking around narrative, and the power of our stories). I didn’t have an opportunity to further my education until I was in my thirties, and I was equal parts excited, and trepidatious. Excited becasue I was about to start something new, and have the opportunity to do something I’d never had the chance to do before. Trepidatious because I was terrified I’d fail – that I’d be asked to leave because I simply wasn’t good enough.

I’m delighted to say that I wasn’t uncovered as an imposter. I wasn’t told I had no business being anywhere near the hallowed halls of learning. I wasn’t told that those places weren’t places for the likes of me.

I’m now finishing up my fourth degree – having completed that first honours degree in Psychology and Sociology, an MA, and an LLM – and aim to have a PhD by the end of next year.

Along the way, I’ve learnt a few things, and I’d like to share those things with you now.

First of all, it’s important to note that for women, and especially for women with caring responsibilities, returning to education is hard – but it’s worth it. Learning to protect your time is not easy. Doing something that other people in your household don’t understand is difficult. Being unavailable to people who are used to your availability requires an adjustment on their part – and on yours. That said, few things that are worthwhile are easy. If you are interested in further study, then you really should go and do it.

Secondly, education is an end in itself, it’s not just a means to an end. If you want to study something purely for the love of it, then that’s enough reason to do so. There doesn’t need to be a clear, linear, trajectory from your chosen course to job, or a promotion. Studying something because you want to know more about it; because you want to immerse yourself in a subject you’re passionate about; or to prove to yourself that you are capable of undertaking further study, are all valid reasons for choosing to return to education.

Thirdly, education is not just reading books. So much more happens when we return to study than merely the information we glean from between the covers of books, or journals. Education is also training in a specific discipline – reading books on psychology won’t make you a therapist for example. Education is also the conversations we have with other students, and the learning we get from each other – viewpoints that challenge our own, different perspectives that aren’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but ‘different’.

Fourthly, education brings confidence. My own confidence – in myself, in my thinking, in my opinions, and in my position on various issues – has been enhanced by the fact that I have had the opportunity to learn at third level.

Finally – it’s great fun! Learning is lifelong, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to continue to stretch your mental muscles, to have the opportunity to keep evolving, and to have the chance to reach your full potential. If you’re considering returning to education, find the supports available to you, take full advantage of them, and go for it!

The Long Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse (Lecture Notes)

This post is a response to a question on Twitter the other night: Someone asked if there had been any work done on the long-term effects of child sexual abuse. I responded that I have a lecture I give that addresses just that. And I said I’d share my lecture notes. Here they are.

Physical Health Consequences of Child Sexual Abuse

I come with a health warning: you all know that child sexual abuse is far from sexy – it’s a difficult topic. You know that, you’re here because of that. Still, though, some of what I come out with in the next few minutes might touch a nerve. And if it does, please feel free to leave. Good self-care is essential for all of us.

When I first sat down last week to write this paper. I flexed my typing fingers, and said aloud,

‘Now, what should I tell these medical students?’

My daughter was in the room, and she responded:

‘Be kind.’

I think that’s a good place to start.

Meeting patients and clients with kindness is the least – and at the same time, the most – you can do for them. I know that’s probably so obvious a statement that many of you may be irked by it. Still, I think it’s also important enough to bear repeating. The most basic act of kindness, however, we need, as health professionals, is to listen to the people we care for – and to listen with all our senses to what they are telling us. This is where language is important. As medics, you have a language that enables you to speak to each other – to other medical professionals and healthcare providers. That language is often exclusionary to non-medics and it might be useful to be mindful of that when you’re talking to people who don’t have the benefit of your knowledge and education.

Apart from my academic qualifications, I’m also standing in front of you as a survivor of child sexual abuse. I was sexually abused by my father and my two eldest brothers for a total of 15 years. I was trafficked by my father until I was nearly 6 and ‘too old’ for that particular set of child abusers.

I was also – as is common among survivors – re-victimised countless times as a teenager, and a young adult, in my marriages and other intimate relationships. And I want to take a moment to explain that to you, because it can be difficult for people to understand how abused people can end up in situations where they are abused again. And again. I’ve heard – and you probably have, too, that it’s because abuse is what we know, and, therefore, what we gravitate towards. I’d argue that that’s a bit reductive – that revictimization is not quite that simple. People with histories of sexual abuse tend to be revictimized for a few reasons:

  1. This is one I first came across in Don Hennessey’s 2012 book ‘How He Gets Into Her Head’. Don is Director of the National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency, and he has observed that abused women are kind. And that kindness sees them (us) give second, third, and fourth, chances to people who hurt us.
  2. Our boundaries are very porous, to say the least, so we’re not always sure when we’re being treated badly, until it’s too late. I used to explain it to myself by saying that I was always wonderful at seeing the tail-lights, but rubbish at seeing the headlights.
  3. Abusive men are very manipulative. They know which buttons to press to active our guilt. One of the lines I’ve heard more than several times is ‘I’m being punished for another man’s crimes!’ or some variation on that theme. Why? So that they can get their own way.
  4. Closely linked to that point, is the way we feel we need to be fair. So, we ignore our previous experience in order to be ‘fair’ to the person we’re with. Often, compromising our duty to be ‘fair’ to ourselves.
  5. Perhaps the sum off all these things is Instinct. As abused children, we stop paying attention to our instinct, because to do so would be dangerous. By the time we’re older children, or teenagers, we have forgotten what our instinct sounds – or feels – like, so we can’t pay attention to it. That’s a skill we need to re-learn.

What is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse according to TUSLA

Sexual abuse occurs when a child is used by another person for his or her gratification or arousal, or for that of others. It includes the child being involved in sexual acts (masturbation, fondling, oral or penetrative sex) or exposing the child to sexual activity directly or through pornography.

Child sexual abuse may cover a wide spectrum of abusive activities. It rarely involves just a single incident and in some instances occurs over a number of years. Child sexual abuse most commonly happens within the family, including older siblings and extended family members.

Examples of child sexual abuse include the following:

  • Any sexual act intentionally performed in the presence of a child
  • An invitation to sexual touching or intentional touching or molesting of a child’s body whether by a person or object for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification
  • Masturbation in the presence of a child or the involvement of a child in an act of masturbation
  • Sexual intercourse with a child, whether oral, vaginal or anal
  • Sexual exploitation of a child, which includes:
    • Inviting, inducing or coercing a child to engage in prostitution or the production of child pornography [for example, exhibition, modelling or posing for the purpose of sexual arousal, gratification or sexual act, including its recording (on film, videotape or other media) or the manipulation, for those purposes, of an image by computer or other means]
    • Inviting, coercing or inducing a child to participate in, or to observe, any sexual, indecent or obscene act
    • Showing sexually explicit material to children, which is often a feature of the ‘grooming’ process by perpetrators of abuse
  • Exposing a child to inappropriate or abusive material through information and communication technology
  • Consensual sexual activity involving an adult and an underage person.

I have a huge problem with this last element of the definition. A child is, under law, incapable of giving consent. So, ‘a person who can’t consent’ can’t consent, so this is a bit problematic, to say the least.


The last time there was any sort of national study undertaken in Ireland to figure out the prevalence of child sexual abuse was in 2002 – the SAVI Report – and it told us that 27% of the population of Ireland reported having been sexually abused before the age of 18.

Dr Rosaleen McElvaney, produced a paper a few years ago that disputed this – and she and her co-author on that piece, Kevin Lalor – are of the belief that it’s probably closer to 1 in 3.

But whether you accept one in three or one in four, you’re still talking about a huge number of people. A large percentage of the people that you come into contact in the course of your every day personal and professional lives will have survived child sexual abuse.

One of the things I do is train midwives and other birthworkers in trauma-informed care for women who were sexually abused; and I advise them to treat every woman they encounter as a survivor of child sexual abuse until they are told otherwise. Not everybody who has been sexually abused will feel comfortable disclosing. Often, people won’t even be aware that their symptoms are attributable to their abuse.

Several things can be attributed to the trauma of abuse that may not be immediately obvious: For example, I cannot remember the last time I went to bed and just went to sleep ‘like a normal person’. I have to bring a book, or the laptop with some work, or Netflix, or – sometimes half a Xanax – because I can’t just drop off. This isn’t unique to me – Greenfield et al (2011) conducted a national survey in the US that found a direct correlation between child abuse and difficulty sleeping as an adult. You don’t have to be a specialist to figure out why – any ideas?

I also suffer with chronic, severe migraines, and by severe, I mean Difene shots, and an anti-emetic if I don’t get Imigran squirted up my nostril quickly enough. Sometimes, a migraine has resulted in my staying in hospital for three days, on stroke watch.

But it’s not just me, researchers have found a link between child sexual abuse and migraines. (Tietjen and Peterlin, 2011; Brennenstuhl and Fuller-Thomson, 2015). The American Headache Society cites several studies demonstrating that childhood abuse makes migraines more likely to develop in later life (American Migraine Foundation, 2013). You won’t be surprised to learn that the more severe the abuse, the stronger the link between it, and migraines.

The reason appears to be that chronic maltreatment in early life alters the brain’s response to stress.

A study of inflammatory blood tests suggests a mechanism for the link. In this study, adults showed higher levels of biomarkers in the bloodstream when they had been exposed to abuse in childhood. Sexual abuse has also been strongly associated with the migraine-depression phenotype if the abuse first occurred before the age of 12 years (Kaleağasi et al., 2009).

I’m not suggesting that you ask every person who presents with a migraine whether or not they have been sexually abused, but it might be no harm to be aware of the links, and to – perhaps – mention them if, and when, it feels appropriate.


I think it’s important to note that CSA can affect people’s perception of their own pain: Dissociation often means that we don’t properly ‘live’ in our bodies. If that makes sense? Somatic integration can be something that doesn’t easily occur for us. It can, therefore, take a bit longer for us to get back into our bodies and explain where, and how something hurts. Logging into our bodies can take a few minutes; which means that, as medics, you may need to exercise a bit of patience with people who seem to be taking forever to tell you what hurts and where. In addition, because we’ve grown up in pain, our thresholds may be higher than other, non-abused, people.  We can be a bit stoic, and a bit careless, with our own health and healthcare.

Broken Toe!

As an example, about ten years ago, I broke my toe. I knew it was broken because the pain of it made me cry. That’s my diagnostic tool, by the way – if a pain makes me cry, it means the offending bone is broken. Anyway, this was January, and I decided I couldn’t face hours in A&E waiting to be told what I already knew – that the toe was broken. So I left it. I was convinced that the two bits of bone would eventually kiss and make up, or a new piece of bone would grow and bridge the gap.

Now, in case you were in any doubt, I clearly don’t have a medical degree….Anyway, by May of that year, when things were still slightly uncomfortable in the general shoe area, I decided it was time to see a doctor. This was prompted, in part, by the fact that I was flying out to India for four months at the end of May: I thought it might be an idea to get the offending digit checked before I left in case things got suddenly worse, and I was over in India, and it suddenly determined that I needed surgery or something, and I had no one to mind my kids. So I hoiked myself off to Tallaght and sat around with a good book until an X-ray and a consultation confirmed that my toe was, in fact, still broken.

My rudimentary – no, sorry! – my non-existent medical training meant that my assumptions of magical healing were based on nothing other than wishful thinking; and my willingness to walk around with a broken toe for nearly half a year points to a deficit in appreciation of pain and its usefulness. 

A more obvious physical side-effect is the effect that being sexually abused had on my reproductive ability. I married young, and tried to start a family immediately. Sadly, because I was so young, doctors didn’t take my infertility seriously. I lived in Singapore at the time and I remember remarking bitterly – but still correctly – to my doctor that if I was trying to end a pregnancy, I’d get more help than I was getting while trying to start one. When I eventually found a doctor prepared to investigate, it was discovered that as well as polycystic ovaries, I had a condition known as hydrosalpinx: which basically meant that my fallopian tubes had fused closed – which is neither a congenital nor a genetic occurrence, and a number of doctors indicated to me that it was a result of abuse. In order for me to conceive, my tubes needed to be opened up, and stitched in place. I also had severe endometriosis. After my first round of surgery, I remember the gynaecologist asking me why I’d never said I was in such extreme pain. I hadn’t realised I was in pain. I thought that was just normal.

I did eventually have children and of course, childbirth was profoundly affected by my experiences of sexual abuse. Although my children were born abroad, and in my bedroom, with people who were in attendance by invitation only, the experience of childbirth was still fraught with difficulty. Part of the problem is ignorance, on behalf of birth attendants – whether they are doulas, midwives, doctors, or nurses – around the profound effect that a history of child sexual abuse can have on women. And it’s not just the obvious difficulties around being touched or having procedures performed on us.

For example, women who were sexually abused as children will often, in labour, ‘stop’ at 4cms dilation (Simkin and Klaus, 2011). Labour can actually go backwards, as well, with the cervix closing up again a centimetre or two.

It’s not hard to understand why; but a caregiver who doesn’t know that abuse can cause labour to stop, or reverse, is unlikely to react in a supportive way. It’s possibly useful to note that people who have a history of child abuse have been trained to be compliant. This means, we will often agree to something that we don’t necessarily want to do, in order not to upset the person who is doing the asking, or so we don’t get into trouble. It might, therefore, be worth asking ‘are you sure?’, rather than taking the first ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that you get.

Mammograms, too, can be difficult for women who have been sexually abused as children. Another person touching a woman’s breasts can be triggering, even if it’s for medicinal or diagnostic purposes.

Then there is the dreaded smear. For women without a history of abuse, a smear test is a non-issue. It’s like a trip to the dentist; not something they look forward to, but something they will do as part of looking after themselves, and as preventative, and diagnostic healthcare. For those of us who have been sexually abused, it can bring on an anxiety, or panic attack, it can be triggering, it can be so difficult that many women chose to go without.

I have suggested to the Irish Cancer Society that it might be useful to look at changing how smears and mammograms are offered to women; for example, having SATU-trained nurses deployed in key centres around the county so that women survivors of CSA have access to the kind of consideration and care they need. Small things really can make a difference.

The same can happen around pregnancy – getting pregnant and staying that way. For women who have been abused, the difficulties around conception include everything from receiving fertility treatment to ante-natal appointments and the actual delivery itself. Continuity of care helps, as does a little bit of kindness and understanding.

I have a few tips that work well to ameliorate the difficulties women survivors of CSA can encounter around obs / gynae issues. I won’t go into them here, because of time constraints, and I know you’re not all planning on heading down the Obs-gynae route, but I will send them on to Simon and he can put them up on your version of Loop or Moodle.


In your professional lives, you may find yourselves on the receiving end of disclosure. And that can be very difficult. It’s hard to know what to say to someone, and it can also be really difficult if you are a survivor yourself, or you’re close to someone who is.

I know I said this earlier, but sexual abuse is endemic. Err on the side of caution, and treat all women as survivors until they tell you otherwise.

  1. Continuity of care is best for women in order to build trust. We are extra vulnerable when pregnant, birthing, and in the peri-natal period.
  2. If a woman insists on a C-section, listen to that. She may have a much better reason than being ‘too posh to push’. Fear of birth and birthing, of being exposed and vulnerable – particularly in a non-familiar setting (like a hospital) – is understandable in any woman. Even more so in a woman who has lived through CSA.
  3. Always ask for permission before touching a woman – never assume that your clinical judgement trumps her lived experience.
  4. Call us by our names. Not ‘Love’ or ‘Sweetheart’. Abusers rarely use our names. Please don’t diminish our personhood.
  5. Never, ever use the phrase ‘good girl’. We’re not girls. We’re women. Most of us were abused by people who used the phrase ‘good girl’ while they were abusing us, to get us to comply.
  6. Please don’t use nursery / childish language around us. That can be triggering.
  7. Don’t tell us to do something, for example, ‘pop up on the bed’. Ask if we’d like to, and explain why you think it is best / necessary.
  8. Accept ‘no’ as an answer – don’t try and cajole, or persuade us to turn our ‘no’ into a ‘yes’.
  9. Never tell us you’re going to do something. Ask permission. Our bodies belong to us, even when we’re birthing.
  10. Never perform a VE unless it’s necessary (hint: during labour, it’s never necessary).
  11. Be aware that our physiological responses may be different to other women’s, and / or to what’s ‘expected’.
  12. Don’t rush with interventions because we’re taking ‘too long’. Trust us. Trust our bodies.
  13. After birth, breastfeeding – no matter how much we want to – may be extremely triggering. Have compassion.

Sticking with the subject of infertility, sometimes women avoid sexual contact, even though they deeply desire a child because of the brutality of orgasms. (link here to the piece I reference: https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/stories/sexual-abuse-colored-view-men/)

So – what do we do or say when someone discloses?

Well, here’s what not to say: (On the Slide)

Three little words – I believe you – to start with, then something like this: (Next Slide!)

And be prepared, that if someone discloses to you, and you react well, they might continue to disclose. You’re not likely to get a linear, start-to-finish account, but you might get a tentative ‘I have a history of abuse, so this might be hard for me.’

Coming back to the idea of no part of the body being unaffected by CSA, here’s a bit of a list:


This probably seems less obvious, but in an interesting study published in 2016 by Alcalá points to connections between child abuse and cancer. Unfortunately, research into the links is plagued by three inter-related issues:

  1. There is no agreement as to what actions constitute abuse, and how abuse types – physical, sexual, and emotional – are distinct or inter-related.
  2. Analytic strategies limit the types of conclusions that can be drawn because of how they treat or measure abuse and related concepts and
  3. Few theories exist to explain the connection between abuse and cancer.

That said, Coker et at (2009) and Afifi et al (2016), find that reporting sexual abuse is associated with increased odds of reporting cancer – but little work has been done around understanding which types of cancer are related to abuse, and what the potential mediators of this relationship might be. Of course, it’s complicated because abuse is related to lower educational achievement, higher unemployment levels and lower earnings.

These socio-economic factors are also associated with higher risk of some cancers (Banks et al, 2006). Then, of course, we’ve got to consider the fact that sexual abuse can lead to very early exposure to HPV; not just as children, but as a result of the documented risky behaviour that sexually abused people often engage in. This leads to persistent infection, and – therefore – an elevated risk for cervical cancers. Now, if you bear in mind the aversion that sexually abused women have, or can have, to smear tests, you can see that these factors combined push us into the high-risk group.

Bessel Van Der Kolk and Suzanne O’Sullivan have both written extensively about the links between mental and emotional trauma – in particular, but not exclusively, the trauma of CSA – and physical trauma. Van Der Kolk is a psycho-therapist, and O’Sullivan is a neuro-surgeon. Both have found that people presenting with ‘unexplained’ physical difficulties can – upon psychological excavation – find an explanation for these difficulties; and it’s rooted in trauma. Not wanting to sound like a disciple of ‘woo’, but their findings, which make perfect sense to me, indicate that the energy trauma that is not dealt with has to go somewhere, so it invades the body, and presents as physical symptoms. Of course the physical trauma, or pain, or disease, is real, but its origins are not obviously in the physical body.

The Icelandic Research centre has conducted research on women who were sexually abused as children and found correlations between sexual abuse and myriad physical diseases and disorders. CSA survivors report complex physical symptoms without medical explanations, such as stomach ache, colon cramp digestion dysfunction and infection; cardiac arrhythmia, angina and hypertension; dizziness, fainting, glandular dysfunction, problems with the lymphatic and nervous systems, and chronic fatigue. They have had problems with sleep since childhood, and six have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia / ME.

All the women participants have suffered unexplained pain in various parts of the body. All have some kind of eating disorder, and some of them have used alcohol to try to ease their emotional pain. One of their case-studies, a woman called Heather has been very ill and has had many of the symptoms of a dying person; her oxygen levels fell, the lungs were not functioning well, there were disturbances in nerve function and the heart, as if all bodily functions were slowing down. Extensive medical examinations yielded no results (Sigurdardottir, & Hallsorsdottir, 2013).

Mental Health

The most profound difficulties I have, however, are without doubt the ones that affect my mental health. I have recently accepted diagnoses for anxiety, and complex post traumatic stress – which occurs when a person is exposed to emotional trauma over a long period of time, and over which they have no control, and from which there is little or no hope of escape. 

Again, having a diagnosis helps me to understand why I feel, and react, the way I do to certain circumstances – and, indeed, people.

Anxiety, for its part, isn’t just being a bit nervous, it’s a physical sensation in my solar plexus that paralyses me. It feels as though a fear like molten-lead has been poured into my core; rendering me terrified to move, and irrationally worried for the people in my life that I love most.  It cripples me. It also heightens my emotional responses to things and makes me (feel as though I) become an emotion – rather than just experience an emotion.

In case you start to think that I’m blaming my abuse for everything that ever happened to me, I’d just like to mention that there is empirical evidence for this. A 2012 study by Roberto Maniglio found that child sexual abuse is very much a risk factor for anxiety disorders. His research points to the fact that PTD is more related to child sexual abuse than other anxiety disorders. Male victims are at the same risk as their female counterparts. The risk of developing anxiety, interestingly isn’t linked to the severity of the abuse, or the age of onset. He also found that alterations in brain structure or function information processing biases, parental anxiety disorders family dysfunction, and other forms of child abuse may interact with CSA or act independently to cause anxiety disorders in victims.

What he doesn’t address is how early in life we can expect anxiety to manifest in victims, but that may also be due, in part, to how infrequently – until recently – children were diagnosed with anxiety.

I also spent years self-harming, and I have to confess I adored the sense of psychic relief that the physical pain brought. I was self-harming before the phrase was in use, and the word used back in the 1990s was ‘cutter’ and my goodness, did I apply myself to living up to that title.

My favourite target was my breasts – the most obvious ‘cause’, to my teenaged mind, of my abuse. Part of me thought that if I could just perform a DIY mastectomy, no one would ever sexually assault me, or rape me again. Cysts have formed under the scar tissue of where I cut myself, and sometimes get painful, so there’s another long-term side effect that you don’t automatically associate with child sexual abuse.

Years later, though, I was so glad I hadn’t been successful in chopping my own breasts off. Not only did I breastfeed my own two girls – my youngest until she was five and a half, I contributed daily for over a year to the human milk bank in Fermanagh – helping hundreds of children in the process. I mention this not because I think it makes me a better person, but because it was hugely useful in my own healing journey: My body suddenly doing something ‘right’ suddenly being ‘useful’, suddenly being helpful to others because I chose it to be was empowering.

The other thing I’m really glad I didn’t manage to do was kill myself. I was seven when I learnt the word ‘suicide’, and understood that it described what I’d been trying to do to myself. Suicidal ideation never really left me until October of 2016. I won’t go into details here – for no other reason than it’s a long story…

But October was significant for me, not least because I was so calm about what I saw as my impending death; I saw no way I could make things better. No way that I could improve my situation. No way that I could feel better about myself and the life I was living. I was so overwhelmed by everything. I couldn’t find a way out, and I really didn’t want to.  I’d just had enough. I wasn’t sad. I was relieved. Relieved that I had an ‘end date’ in sight. I found I didn’t have the energy, or the desire, or the commitment to my own life, to keep going.

Just as I was getting my affairs in order, small, positive changes started to take place, in quick succession. Maybe it was just pure, dumb, luck, maybe it was Divine Intervention, maybe it was nothing more than coincidence. I’m not going to analyse it too carefully – I’m just glad I’m still here.

But, on that occasion, I didn’t engage with the traditional mental health services, or with my GP, or other medical professionals. On previous occasions, however, I did – and I found that I frustrated the doctors who saw me: Whether that was my own GP or a psychiatrist in a nearby hospital. I didn’t present as expected. I was lucid, logical, crying, but not sobbing. Crying in a way that it appeared my eyes were just leaking, rather than I was ‘upset’. It appeared that there was an incongruity between my words – I was very clearly saying ‘I want to die’, but my body, my demeanour didn’t seem to be translating that in a way that the doctors had been taught, or trained to expect. I can be a challenge, I accept that.

Afterwards, however, after I’d been sent home and after I’d regained a sense of ‘let’s give this living crack another go’, I thought about my experience, and I realised something that could have made a very significant difference very easily, and very early on.

If one person had, rather than ‘what’s wrong with you?’ asked ‘what happened to you?’ the outcome of that particular episode might have been very different. My anguish – if I had felt invited to explain myself, invited to be heard – might well have been diminished quicker, easier, and in a safe, supportive environment.

Still, I survived. And, as I said I’m glad I did. And I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad to be here. Glad to be able to share some of my story with you. Glad to be able to stand here and say to every person in this room who has ever been affected by child sexual abuse; well done. You made it. You’re here, too. And you are not alone. You are never alone.


Alcalá, H.E. 2016, “Making the connection between child abuse and cancer: Definitional, methodological, and theoretical issues”, Social Theory & Health, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 458-874.

Brennenstuhl, S. and Fuller-Thomson, E. (2015). The Painful Legacy of Childhood Violence: Migraine Headaches Among Adult Survivors of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 55(7), pp.973-983.

Greenfield, E., Lee, C., Friedman, E. and Springer, K. (2011). Childhood Abuse as a Risk Factor for Sleep Problems in Adulthood: Evidence from a U.S. National Study. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 42(2), pp.245-256.

Irish, L., Kobayashi, I. & Delahanty, D.L. 2010, “Long-term Physical Health Consequences of Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Meta-Analytic Review”, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, vol. 35, no. 5, pp. 450-461.

Kaleağasi, H., Özge, A., Toros, F. And Kar, H. (2009). Migraine type childhood headache aggravated by sexual abuse: case report. AĞRI, 21(2), pp.80-82.

Maniglo, R. 2012, “Child Sexual Abuse in the Etiology of Anxiety Disorders: A Systematic Review of Reviews”, Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 96-112.

McGee, H., Garavan, R., de Barra, M., Byrne, J. and Conroy, R. (2002). The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland. Dublin: Liffey Press.

Sigurdardottir, S. & Hallsorsdottir, S. 2013, “Repressed and silent suffering: Consequences of childhood sexual abuse for women’s health and well-being”, Nordic college of Caring science, vol. 27, pp. 422-432.

Simkin, P. and Klaus, P. (2011). When survivors give birth. 1st ed. Seattle: Classic Day Publishing.

Tietjen, G. and Peterlin, B. (2011). Childhood Abuse and Migraine: Epidemiology, Sex Differences, and Potential Mechanisms. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 51(6), pp.869-879.

Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps The Score. London: Penguin


Over the past fortnight, I’ve noticed that more people (myself included) have found their mental health slipping.

I’m very grateful for the fact that I have managed to move far enough along in my recovery that I didn’t spiral completely, but I know that not everyone is as lucky. I’ve trained myself to step back from the brink, but it’s still scary when you’re looking over the precipice.

If you’ve found your own mental health slipping a bit recently, I want you to know that you’re not alone.

For some, the sense of fear or instability is borne of the fact that we’re opening up again, after 18 months of lockdown. It was hard to get used to the sudden changes to our lives, routines, work-, and home-lives. It’s nearly as difficult now, to get used to reversing some of those changes, while accepting that some changes are here to stay.

For others, the fact that it’s back-to-school time is the cause of their current mental health slide. It’s bringing back memories of returning to school, when we were children ourselves. Even if school was a reprieve, or a ‘safe space’ for us.

Many people, however, aren’t entirely sure why they’re feeling a bit wobbly. If you’re one of those people, it might help to journal and ask yourself what’s going on for you. I’m a big fan of journaling, and I’m also fond of using my dominant hand to ask myself what’s going on, and then answering the question with my non-dominant hand.

There are a few reasons why I recommend this method: For a start, using your non-dominant hand slows your writing down. It ensures you take longer to answer the question, so you might find yourself accessing a response that didn’t immediately spring to mind. Secondly, it can help you to access emotions differently because you’re almost regressing – hand-writing with our non-dominant hands almost infantilises us so we connect with our emotions on a different level. It also helps to strengthen neural pathways, and can even create new ones.

Identifying the reason you aren’t feeling great now is the second step to feeling better (the first is admitting that you’re not feeling great). Journaling can be a great way to help with this identification.

Finally, if you’re feeling a bit wobbly, I would suggest you seek support sooner rather than later. Those of us who have slipped, slid, or stumbled in the past, know how rapidly the descent can come: I’d urge you to avoid the tumble.

It’s Not Rape

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Content Advisory: Rape, Lies, Dolores Cahill

‘Do you know that if you restrict someone it’s actually rape, under the law?’ so shrieked Dolores Cahill when she was (lawfully) denied access to the count centre in the RDS last Friday (July 9th). (You can watch a video on the Irish Times’s website here.)

Cahill had stood for election in the Dublin Bay South by-election and claimed she wanted to ‘supervise the vote’. Now, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt there, and suggest that she meant to say that she wanted to supervise the count, which is a different thing entirely.

But Cahill gets no free-pass from me for her comment on rape. It was beyond abhorrent, and disgusted not just me, but many other rape survivors. Many ordinary, decent, people who realised how wrong she was were similarly aghast.

Telling a Garda who was doing his job (upholding the law) that he was raping her by not allowing her entry (in spite of her referring to it as her ‘entrance’ – clearly she’s no professor of English) is a detestable thing to do. Using the word ‘rape’ deliberately incorrectly does a number of things:

It means that those of us who have experienced rape have our experiences diminished immediately by the screeching Tipperary gorgon. Our life-changing, harmful, traumatic, ordeals have been trivialised by her. It’s disrespectful, at the very least.

As a woman, accusing a man of rape is not something done lightly, and screaming at a man who is doing no such thing cannot be easy for him to hear. Even though it’s clearly a baseless allegation, I would not be surprised if the Garda was quite shaken by her spurious claims.

The other big issue I have with this harridan slinging accusations of ‘rape’ at a man who is clearly not perpetrating any violence upon her person, is this: She is legitimising the claims of misogynists that ‘women cry rape all the time’. With this behaviour, Cahill is undoing the hard work that those of us tasked with challenging rape culture, and rape myths, have been doing for decades.

Dolores Cahill doesn’t care who she hurts, or harms, in her quest for power. She is a woman who holds – and spreads – many dangerous opinions, and outright lies. She needs to be challenged on all of them.

If you have been affected by sexual violence, help is available here: http://www.rcni.ie

If you are a parent who was sexually abused as a child, and would like some peer support, and help, to unpack how the abuse affects your parenting, help is available here: https://bit.ly/3haWuSe

Encouraging The Narcissistic Fleas To Flee

Photo by Foad Roshan on Unsplash

‘For they that sleep with dogs, shall rise with fleas’, (Webster, 1612).

Lying down with dogs and getting up with fleas is a concept we’re familiar with – it’s basically a warning that we are likely to adopt the behaviours of those we spend time with. The more time we spend with someone, the more likely we are to adopt their behaviours. Those of us raised by narcissists worry a lot about becoming narcissists ourselves.

Some people believe that if you ask yourself ‘Am I a narcissist?’ that’s proof positive that you’re not. I don’t agree. I think a narcissist might well ask ‘Am I a narcissist?’ if it is suggested that they might be, and then completely dismiss the notion.
‘Of course I’m not a narcissist – I just have good self-esteem / know what my strengths are / disagree with X / Y is just jealous’, they might respond.

For some of us, we recognise (often with shock) that we are displaying behaviours our narcissistic abusers did, too. We worry then that we are also narcissists. I’m here to tell you that just because you behave in certain instances the way your narcissistic parent did – or in a way that they trained you to – you’re not necessarily one of them.

As an example; right up until I was an adult and cut contact with my narcissistic, abusive mother, she demanded I give up every scrap of information about myself. It’s a difficult one to explain to people who haven’t been through it, but – like most narcissistic mothers of daughters – she saw me as nothing more than an extension of herself. I wasn’t, therefore, ‘allowed’ to have any sort of privacy. (Mind you, growing up, I was sexually abused and raped by my father and brothers, so the notion of ‘privacy’ wasn’t one I was familiar with!) My worth was bound up with my complete exposition of myself to this woman. I was admonished, castigated, and threatened if I didn’t tell her everything she wanted to know as soon as she wanted to know it. She frequently rifled through my belongings, actively sought out anything I might be trying to keep private for myself (belongings, diaries, etc.), and berated me if I tried to keep anything of myself, to myself. This behaviour was reserved for me only – my brothers deserved basic respect, autonomy, and privacy. I didn’t. At the same time, my mother was very secretive, very slow to share anything that remotely approached a piece of personal information. In her economy, personal information was currency: She felt the need to accrue, and hoard it by any means possible, and the only way I could ‘buy’ her affection was to surrender all I had.

Being taught that I could only earn worthiness by disclosing more than I wanted to, more than I was comfortable doing, and more than was expected of others, I learnt to offer up every morsel of myself to others whose love and approval I wanted. This appeared, I must admit, like narcissism. I would talk about myself, and not enquire about my companion because I understood that I had no right to ask. I had been taught that, in order to be tolerated, I needed to surrender all of myself, and require nothing in return.

It’s not that I had no interest in the person to whom I was speaking, but I didn’t have the awareness that I was allowed to ask questions, too. It never occurred to me that I was not just allowed, but expected, to ask questions of the person I was with – that it wasn’t being ‘nosey’ it was being ‘interested’. The nuance was not one I was aware of until a number of years ago. This exchange was a social reciprocity that I had never learnt.

Awareness was the first step in unlearning this behaviour. I consciously asked questions as well as answering them. I took notice of how other people interacted around me, and I emulated those interactions. I didn’t become more interested in other people and their experiences, I became better at expressing that interest. I’m ashamed when I think of how insufferable I must have come across – talking only about myself as I really were the more interesting person in the conversation. I try to forgive myself by gently reminding myself that I was taught that this complete exposition of myself was the only way I could render myself acceptable, or anything approaching ‘loveable’. And I’m human – I want to be accepted. I want to be loved.

What about you? What fleas have you picked up? How might you rid yourself of them?

Victim, Survivor, Victor?

How people who were sexually abused choose to describe themselves, and are described, is something that has given many pause for thought over the past few decades.

I’ve given it a lot of thought myself, read widely about the choices, and their pros and cons, and heard erudite others give voice to their own thoughts, and research.

About ten years ago, I decided that most of the time, I feel like a survivor – because I made it through when so many don’t. On occasion, I feel like a victim. That’s usually when I have flashbacks, when I am further abused by one of my brothers (these days it’s not physical, or sexual, it’s ‘just’ bullying, on and off line), or when I have a nightmare that reminds me of the abuse I went through. More and more often, I feel like a victor. I feel like this most often when I am writing, speaking, or presenting on the issue of child sexual abuse, rape, intimate partner violence, and incest.

The word ‘victim’ however, often seems loaded – paired, as it so often is, with the word ‘helpless’. Those of us who have not died as a result of the abuse, or the trauma and other difficulties associated with it, rarely see ourselves as helpless. Sometimes, the word is used as if being a victim is a choice. Imelda Ryan, who lead St Louise’s Unit when I had the misfortune to attend, scathingly referred to me in letters as ‘viewing myself as a victim’. Bear in mind that I was being sexually assaulted about five times a week in my own home by my father and brothers, so how did she expect me to view myself?! This is the same ‘Doctor’ who referred to my disclosures of rape as ‘admissions’, and who told my father to be ‘more sensitive’ when he was sexually abusing me, so I am aware (from this remove) that her understanding of humans, abuse, and humans who are abused, might be rather lacking.

At the same time, I do believe that, before we can begin to heal, we need to acknowledge that we are victims in the first place.

Many of the women and men I encounter, and work with, prefer the descriptor ‘survivor’. I’m certainly not about to tell anyone what word they should use to refer to themselves and I think we need to credit ourselves with the fact that we have survived. We need to acknowledge how remarkable it is – how remarkable we are to have survived. We need to acknowledge that without feeling like we’re being immodest, to recognise the strength and commitment survival takes: Even on the days it really feels like we don’t want to, we do. And that needs to be acknowledged.

On the days when I feel like I’ve managed to feel bigger than my pain, on the days when I feel I have transmuted the abuse, and the terror, and the awfulness into something healing, and useful, I feel like a victor. My wish for every other victim, and survivor, is that they find their way to victory, too.

Borderline Nonsense

Borderline Personality Disorder – is it the ‘hysteria’ of the 21st century? If you remember, the word ‘hysteria’ was coined in Egypt about 2000 years BCE. Hysteria is a mental disorder only attributable to women, on account of our ‘wandering wombs’. The belief used to be that women’s mental health was adversely affected by their wombs – which (it was asserted) moved freely around their bodies, and a woman’s mood depended on where in her body her womb had decided to scuttle off to. As a ‘genuine’ diagnosis, Hysteria was only removed from the DSM in 1980.

I find Borderline Personality Disorder problematic for a number of reasons; it’s applied to women more than to men. In fact, over 75% of people to whom the label is affixed are women. I’m also aware that the women who are told that they have ‘borderline’ have histories of trauma – usually child sexual abuse, and often the trauma of being raised by a narcissist. In many cases, these woman have experienced both – child sexual abuse, and a narcissistic parent. I have a huge problem with normality being pathologised – it’s normal to react to trauma in certain ways, but to decide that these normal reactions are somehow indicative of a ‘personality disorder’ speaks to the patriarchal nature of psychiatry. It also reveals that there is a lack of desire to understand trauma and women’s trauma in particular.

Let’s take a look at the essential elements of ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’, shall we? The following is an indication of the statements that are put to people (usually women) to ‘test’ them for this ‘diagnosis’.

Source: Help Guide

Let’s unpack these symptoms, shall we?

I often feel ’empty’ –

Do you know who else often feels ’empty’? Trauma victims. Many of us with histories of abuse, who live with PTS feel ’empty’ until we have managed to learn to process our trauma and then we feel less ’empty’. It’s not a disorder. It’s a reaction.

My emotions shift very quickly, and I often experience extreme sadness, anger, and anxiety –

This is typical of those of us who have anxiety. The ability to regulate our emotions can be difficult – not least because this regulation has been stunted by the effects of childhood trauma/s. It’s also a sign of the neurobiological effects of maltreatment.

I’m constantly afraid that the people I care about will abandon me, or leave me –

People who have insecure attachment – those who have narcissistic mothers, who have experienced abuse or neglect in their early childhoods – are often afraid that the people they care about will abandon, or leave them. It’s a completely normal reaction.

I would describe most of my romantic relationships as intense, but unstable –

Here’s the thing – women who have been abused as children are often preyed upon by abusive men (that’s a whole other blog post). Abusive men are known to love bomb the objects of their affections, and to gaslight them. This results in intense, but unstable romantic relationships. Way to victim blame, DSM!

The way I feel about the people in my life can dramatically change from one moment to the next – and I don’t always understand why –

Those of us who were unlucky enough to grow up with abusive and / or narcissistic parents soon learnt that our thoughts and emotions did not belong to us: We were told what to think, and how to feel, and had to express thoughts and feelings that aligned with those of our abusive parent/s’. Our feelings were often ignored and / or invalidated. We learnt to adjust the presentation of our emotions very quickly. This coping mechanism, which helped us to survive, does not simply fall away when we become adults. Blaming a survivor for the behaviours they had to adopt in order to survive is a whole other level of victim blaming.

I often do things that I know are dangerous or unhealthy, such as driving recklessly, having unsafe sex, binge drinking, using drugs, or going on spending sprees –

These behaviours are all common to women who were sexually abused as children. When everything is dangerous, nothing is dangerous. Unsafe sex is an unhealthy behaviour that is a ‘classic’ indicator of child sexual abuse. All addictive behaviours have their roots in trauma (refer to the excellent, and accessible writings of Gabor Maté for more on this). Depression is also diagnosed by ascertaining whether or not the person is engaging in ‘risky behaviour’. Depression is bad enough – people don’t need to be told they also have a personality disorder.

I’ve attempted to hurt myself, engaged in self-harm behaviours such as cutting, or threatened suicide –

Every woman I know who has a history of child sexual abuse has been driven to externalising their trauma and their overwhelming feelings of helplessness in the form of self-harm. Many have also been driven to attempt suicide. This is a normal reaction to very abnormal circumstances.

When I’m feeling insecure in a relationship, I tend to lash out or make impulsive gestures to keep the other person close –

Again, this is an effect of insecure attachment. The fear of abandonment can be very intense for those of us who were not loved as children; who were neglected, abused, or both.

Women who are ‘tested’ for Borderline Personality Disorder also report being asked if they had difficulty knowing what they thought, or believed; or taking on the opinions of those around them. This, apparently, is a symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder. Do you know what it’s actually a symptom of? Trauma (let me know when you spot the pattern here). Women who are raised in abuse (including narcissistic abuse) learn, very quickly, and from a very young age, what they are ‘allowed’ to think. They learn that what they think and feel is not important. They learn that it is unsafe to express an opinion, or behave in a way that is authentic to them, but not aligned with what their parent/s tell this is expected/accepted.

Choosing to pathologise the normality of women like me – who were horribly abused, and / or neglected – is helpful to no-one except the psychiatrists who make coin out of labelling women with a non-existent disorder. It helps only those who wish to tell women that their – entirely reasonable – reactions are problematic; and persuading women that there is something wrong with them because they react in completely normal ways to completely abnormal events.

I’d like to see this ‘diagnosis’ addressed, seen for what it is, and removed from the DSM and the diagnostic lexicon.

It Takes A Village

Earlier today, I was privileged to address the NS218 students at DCU. They were very indulgent, and allowed me to witter on for almost an hour and a half.

I was honest about my experiences, but they were generous with their ability to bear witness.

The link to the talk on You Tube is below. I must warn you it is graphic in its description of child sexual abuse, trauma, suicidal ideation, and child rape.

Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse

Following the success of our first eight-week workshop, I am delighted to announce that I have formed a partnership with Danu Morrigan.

The purpose of this partnership is to offer assistance, support, and practical help to women who have been affected by narcissistic relationships.

You can find out more about our work here.


Every year, I have a word that I use to guide me. Rather than a resolution, or a set of them, I choose a word that return to.

This year, my word is ‘enough’.

It’s a reminder to myself for a lot of reasons:

I need to remind myself that I am enough. It’s a reminder I need more often than I’d like.

I need to remember that ‘good enough’ is enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect – ‘it’ being whatever I’m working on.

I’m doing enough. I really am. At the moment, having cut back, I’m working on eight projects. And that’s enough. It’s enough for me, for now.

I also need to learn to get better at respecting my own boundaries and insisting that others respect them, too. I need to learn to get better at putting my hand up and saying ‘Enough’. ‘That’s far enough.’ ‘You’ve done enough.’ ‘You’ve come far enough, and you may not come any further.’

It’s important, too, that I get used to saying ‘I’ve had enough.’ And then acting on that knowledge, sooner rather than later.

What about you? What’s your Word of the Year?

Sex Positive Parenting


More and more frequently, in my discussions with other parents about sex positivity and parenting, and being sex-positive parents, I hear mention of how they are so sex positive that they have condoms in their homes for their teenaged children to use. ‘Better under my roof and using protection than out in a field, and not,’ is the rhetoric. And, yeah, grand. I get that. If my daughters – or yours, or your sons – were having sex, I’d prefer they were doing so somewhere warm, and comfortable and that they were using contraception and avoiding disease. It’s not really that radical to say that we’d prefer our children to be safe, is it?

If you are a parent who wishes sex to be a glorious experience for your teenager, please read on. Much of what I’ve written here is focused on the female experience, and centering it, but you can be sure your sons, as well as your daughters, need to know this.

But – when is the last time we spoke to our children – particularly our daughters – about their bodies and about loving them? Even the most ‘positive’ of these sex-positive parents don’t say to their daughters ‘It’s time you got to know your own body.’ Even the most ‘positive’ of these sex-positive parents don’t talk to their daughters about satisfying sex, or about masturbation.

When was the last time you sat down and spoke to your daughter about the importance of foreplay? Or – for that matter – spoke to her boyfriend about it? Or, when was the last time you told your sons that they need to ensure that they sexually satisfy the woman they are with? Can you even be sure that your daughters know what sexual satisfaction feels like?

Sure, we give our daughters the names of the parts of their bodies, but it’s framed around procreation and contraception. The male gaze and male satisfaction is what girls are taught about sex. I wonder when you last suggested your daughter might hop on online and choose masturbation aids for herself? Boys’ masturbation is accepted, expected, joked about. Nocturnal emissions are taken as a normal part of male puberty, but do we expect, suggest, and allow that our girls would also have orgasms?

Have you ever had a conversation with your daughter around explaining her own body? Have you ever told her that it’s okay – no! it’s more than okay, it’s necessary for her to touch her own genitals? Have you spoken to her about being turned on? Have you told her that being ‘ready’ for sex is more than just the presence of sufficient vaginal lubrication to facilitate penetration? Text books and books on sex tell us is the signifier that a woman is ready for sex. It’s the ‘green light’ men look for – and this misinformation leads them to believe that as soon as they detect a dribble of fluid in, or around, a vagina, said vagina is desperate for their penis. And it’s simply not true. Good sex – sex worth having – involves so much more. Why do we not educate our girls about the tingles and trembles associated with female arousal?

Why do we not tell our daughters about how sexy sex can be? About how getting really turned on, and just being that way, is really enjoyable? About enjoying the feeling of being really well lubricated, of feeling her sex organs engorged, of enjoying feeling sexy and attractive? When is the last time you talked to her about being focused on the sensations of her own body, and to listen to what it is telling her? When was the last time you reminded her to enjoy her body simply for he sake of enjoying it? Rather than in preparation for being a receptacle for someone else – a vehicle for someone else’s pleasure?

Because I can guarantee you this: If you don’t talk to your daughter and encourage her to find out what she likes, what her body likes, she will be far more susceptible to being told by some boy her own age, or older, what she likes. And he will be porn-informed.

He will take it upon himself to tell your daughter what she does, and doesn’t, like. If she doesn’t know herself, how can she correct, or contradict, what he tells her? Even with no malice, even with no intention to harm your daughter, any boy – or man – whose information comes only, or largely, from pornography, will not centre your daughter’s experiences. So, it’s up to you to encourage her to insist that her pleasure is centred.

To do that, you need to ensure that she knows what works for her. Talk to her about kissing, and how it’s an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Talk to her about insisting that her body is ready before anyone enters it. Teach her to deny access to her body – all of it – until she feels ready to ask for touch; until she really wants it. Tell her that ‘sex’ is not just about genital contact. Leaving condoms readily available is not sending a message that you are sex-positive. Rather, it just sends a message that you are pro-fucking, and they’re not the same thing.

Soul Song

Over on FB, Phil Kingston invited me to take part in the Poetry Exchange Initiative. I was, to be honest, very flattered to have been invited. I recorded the video and shared it on FB. A few people liked it, so I thought I’d share it here, too.

Let’s be honest here, this video lacks finesse. It lacks any sort of professional lustre. It is very clearly shot on my phone and uploaded to my laptop. The shelves behind me need a good tidy. Do you know what it is, though? It’s honest, and it’s raw, and it’s real, and it’s happy, and a celebration of love. Because, let’s face it, if there’s anything we need more of in this world, it’s love.


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I am now the parent of an adult. And I don’t feel ready. I don’t feel worthy.

Ishthara Saoirse Larkin arrived into this world, ten weeks early, in a small town in India, 18 years ago. I’d like to say that I felt an overwhelming sense of adoration and love when I first held her. But I didn’t. I was shell-shocked. It was three days before I felt that powerful dam-burst of motherly love and – oh boy! – was it something else when it came. I’d always thought myself a pacifist but I was very shocked when I realised I would happily kill for this child.

Having spent so long waiting for her – and fighting with my own body over its refusal to get pregnant, I couldn’t quite believe it when I was, finally, holding my own child. When I was, finally, a mother! At last, nestled close to me was all I had ever wanted. For some reason I couldn’t quite understand, love didn’t flood through me the first time I held her. I was numb. It was almost as though I was in an altered state of consciousness. I couldn’t quite grasp that she was really mine, that I was really allowed to keep her. Years later, when studying psychology, I read Viktor Frankl, and the experience made sense.

In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Frankl details how he and others were liberated from a Nazi death camp. Instead of being joy-filled and jubilant, they found themselves mis-trusting their experience; not quite believing it. Frankl explains that they had spent so long dreaming of this very moment – and had their hopes and dreams dashed so many times – that now, they were not sure they could believe it. It took the men a few days to grasp the reality that their dream had come true, and was not about to be snatched from them. That’s what becoming a mother was like for me.  It took a few days for me to realise that my dream was not going to be snatched away from me.

Ishthara has taught me so much since 2002. She has taught me what unconditional love feels like – both to give, and to receive. She has taught me that I can make mistakes, and still be worthy of love. She has taught me that I am good enough. She has taught me to forgive myself. She has taught me that, sometimes, my standards for myself are too high, and I need to ‘chill Mama’ just a bit. She has taught me that I am good enough.

During the week, Ishthara’s younger sister, Kashmira, asked me how it felt to have an adult ‘child’. I told her I didn’t feel ready. She asked me why. I told her that I didn’t feel wise enough, or accomplished enough, to be the parent of an adult. I feel like I should know more, be more, have more, have done more, in order to be worthy to call myself the parent of an adult. I don’t think I’ve changed enough since Ishthara was born to be the fully-formed parent of an adult.

Kashmira (being Kashmira!) probed that.
I had to think.
‘I suppose, when Ishthara was born, I wanted the same for her then, as I do now. The fact that I haven’t evolved makes me wonder if I’m any good at this.’ I told her, truthfully.
‘What did you want for her 18 years ago?’ Kashmira asked.
‘I wanted her to be happy. And I wanted her to reach her potential. And that’s still all I want for her. It’s all I want for both of you – but we’re talking about Ishthara right now, so…’
‘And do you think we don’t know that?’

‘I think it’s wrong that you’ve grown up in consistent poverty. I think it’s wrong that you have had no support – financial, emotional, physical, or any other type – from your dad. That you have no family apart from me, and each other*.’

‘But do you not see that that has given us a unique perspective on life? That we are compassionate because we understand rather than because we have an academic, or intellectual, understanding of other people’s lived experiences?’ (Yes, she really does talk like this!!)
‘When we say to the people we work with, when we’re older, “I understand”,’ she continued. ‘They’ll know we mean it, because we will. We’ll have been there.’
‘But….’ I started again, as my inadequacy raised its head.
‘No,’ Kashmira said. ‘Just listen. We have always known that you loved us. We have always known you’ve had our backs. Even on the really bad days, we’ve always known that you would manage, that it would be okay. Even last year – when you nearly died,  THREE TIMES! in front of us – ‘nearly’ is the most important word in that sentence. We knew you wouldn’t leave us. That’s why you have an adult child.’

I was humbled into silence.

Earlier today, I spoke to my friend, Seán. Seán has known me since before I was 18, and his kids are all older than mine. I told him how I didn’t feel accomplished enough, to be the parent of an adult.

‘Don’t you get it?’ he asked. ‘The adult child is the accomplishment.’

He’s right.

Ishthara Saoirse Larkin is a wonderful young woman; she is compassionate beyond her years. She reads, and understands, people with an almost eerie awareness; she loves carefully, but completely; she radiates joy; she yearns to make the world a better place; she is intolerant of injustice; she is kind, thoughtful, generous and loving; she’s a great cook; she has a wonderful, droll sense of humour; and she saved my life (metaphorically – by being born into it – and literally – by performing first aid and calling an ambulance when I collapsed last September).  I am pleased, proud, privileged, and grateful to be her mother.

Happy 18th birthday, my Darling Girl. The world is a better place because you’re in it.


* My father, Christy Talbot, and my brothers, Nigel Talbot, and Cormac Talbot, sexually abused, and raped me for 15+ years between them. My brothers, Barry Talbot and Ross Talbot, support them in their abuse of me, as do their wives / partners. My sister, Tracey Talbot, who was also raped by Cormac Talbot, is in such deep denial that she actually carried files into the Four Courts for him when I sued him and his brother for their years of abuse. My mother, Philomena (Johnson) Talbot is a narcissist who – to this day – condones the abuse I suffered at the hands of her husband and sons.

In Between Days

(This is an update of a post I first wrote on 29.12.2017)

There have been many thoughtful blog posts, and posts on social media recently for those of us who do not have family, and for whom Christmas is not a pleasant, or a happy time. For those of us for whom abuse was a part of our every day experiences of childhood, with no days off for Christmas – or even for whom Christmas made the abuse worse – Christmas is a time we’d rather avoid.

All that said, however, many of us who have fraught relationships with toxic or dangerous families, or for whom Christmas is tinged with grief, have wonderful friends. These wonderful, thoughtful, friends often remember us, and invite us to join with them on December 25th, and 26th. Then we find ourselves, on the 28th, or so, alone with our thoughts. If we’re lucky, we will have plans for New Year’s Eve. But there are the days between Xmas day and NYE that can be even more difficult than the days of ‘celebration’ themselves. The week that lots of other people humourously refer to as ‘the lost week’ where they don’t know what day it is, and there’s still mountains of festive food knocking about can be really difficult for those of us who haven’t felt we have much to celebrate.

It’s a week for concerted self-care. For this In-between Week, I have a list of things that you can pick and choose from to make yourself feel better.

  1. Get off social media for  24 hours (be sure to post in advance that you’re going to do this, so people don’t worry for your safety!). I love social media, but there’s a lot going on there at the moment that might make you feel more alone.
  2. Join a park run. You don’t have to actually, run, but it can be good for you to feel your body, and feel yourself in it. Park runs are fun, free, and you don’t need to register. Just turn up. Bring a friend, if you think it’ll make it easier, or look forward to making new ones – these Park Runners are a friendly bunch!
  3. Practice some self-appreciation. See yourself as a container for receiving good, and fill that container! By ‘appreciation’, I don’t mean ‘value’. Trying to value yourself often results in little more than either feeling squeamish, or like you’re trying to puff up your ego. Honest appreciation for what is present and true will boost your confidence in a powerful and authentic way. Honest appreciation is specific, both in what it is appreciating, and how it words that appreciation. Remember, appreciation is a gift you receive into your heart.
  4. Paint. Even if you don’t, do.
  5. Put some thought into buying a beautiful gift for someone – something you know they’d love, but would never get for themselves. Make an effort to get them something that is thoughtful, and lets them know how highly you think of them.
    If you don’t fancy braving the crowds in the sales, do the shopping online. In this exercise, though, that ‘someone’ is you.
  6. Plant something. Tend it, and look forward to it blooming. Give it what it needs, when it needs it. If you don’t  know how to grow things, read up, or ask a green-thumbed friend. Treat it the way you should have been treated.
  7. Every time your brain presents you with memories that you don’t need, thank them for showing up, but tell them it’s time to go.
  8. Make sandwiches, or buy biscuits and / or chocolate, and drop them into a soup run. There are several organised throughout the week, and they are always grateful to receive donations.
  9. Download Borrowbox, and check out an audiobook. This app works even when the library is closed. There is something lovely, and nourishing about having a book read to you. You are worth the time an effort the performer went to, to make it sound so good.
  10. Make a list of the films that are the celluloid version of comfort food to you. Watch them.
  11. Read some contemporary poetry, or get on YouTube and enjoy some spoken-word artists.
  12. Have a guilt-free duvet day.
  13. Print off some kids’ colouring pages from the Internet (unless you have a colouring book to hand) and colour them in. Don’t worry about the lines. Just enjoy yourself.
  14. Change the linen on your bed.
  15. Go through your wardrobe, chuck out anything that doesn’t fit / you don’t like / you haven’t worn for at least three months. Remind yourself of what’s in there that you actually like, and that you know looks well on you.

All Cut Up

A month ago, I had surgery to remove ovarian cysts. I’ve been around this particular block a few times, and knew what to expect, as well as how to prepare. Around the same time I was going into hospital, a few other women I know were similarly heading into hospital for the removal of ovarian cysts. They asked if I had advice, and I had!

Here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I had my first surgery for ovarian cyst removal:

It’s keyhole surgery, yes, but it’s still surgery. The incisions are small, but the amount of internal surgery is still the same. You will have stitches inside, layers of skin and bruises etc. that will need to heal. Also, remember, that when you’re unconscious, no one thinks to be gentle with you – they are just focused on getting the job done, so will rummage around inside you with a bit more vigour than they would if you were having a procedure done under local anesthetic.

You will bleed more than you expect. Get big granny knickers – at least two sizes bigger than you normally wear, because you will swell – and maternity pads. In fact, get maternity pads and enough disposable maternity knickers for a day or two.

You will often have huge gas pain afterwards: This is because you’ll be pumped full of gas to facilitate the surgery, and it gets trapped. The gas can go right up into your shoulders and be very painful. Get the strongest Deflatine type of medicine you can.

Get Night shirts for bed rest so that there’s no danger of elastic on the scar / damaged tissue.

Move as soon as you can after you’ve been released from hospital. You need to avoid clots (believe me – clots nearly killed me after gynae surgery a month ago, and I won’t be right for another six). Keep the surgical stockings on for 24 hours.

Remember that a general anesthetic can take up to six weeks to leave your system. The after effects include tiredness, and weepiness, and sometimes – if you are prone to it – you can get a touch of depression.

Take pain relief as you need it, sleep as much as you can, and use arnica tablets to aid swift healing.

Don’t expect yourself to bounce back – no matter what your medical team tells you. I recover well and quickly, but I found that on some occasions I was expected to be running around quicker than was possible. That said, do as much as you can, physically, but don’t push yourself. As your energy returns, remember

Listen to your body, and if you have any concerns, seek medical advice sooner rather than later.

Trauma Informed Care Workshop in Cork

This November 11th, in the wheelchair accessible Maldron Hotel on John Redmond Street, from 10am until 2pm, I am offering my workshop for birth workers (midwives, doctors, doulas, nurses, etc.).

It’s recognised, by the NMBI, for 4 CEU (Continuing Education Units), and certificates will be presented to all participants.

As a homeschooling mother, and a lone parent with no familial support, I would encourage you not to allow lack of childcare to prevent you from attending. By all means, bring your child/ren, if that’s the only way you can make it.  Please feel free to contact me to discuss your own needs.

The fee for the workshop is €150, with an early-bird price of €100 until November 1st.  You can book your place here:

What You Can Expect:

Child sexual abuse affects approximately one in three women. It’s safe to assume, therefore, that about a third of the women you care for will have some experience of sexual abuse. This trauma means that they have additional needs during pregnancy, labour, birth, and the post-partum period.

This workshop addresses:

  • A Definition of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)
  • The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse on Pregnancy
  • Dealing with Disclosure – including TUSLA and Mandatory Reporting
  • Issues of Control
  • Power
  • Challenges in Labour and Birth
  • Triggers
  • Clinical Challenges in Labour, and Possible Solutions
  • Postpartum Issues
  • Communication – Verbal, and Non-Verbal
  • PTSD and Other Postpartum Mood Disorders
  • The Potential For Healing
  • Self-Help & Self-Care
  • When the Birthworker is also a Survivor

What Others Have Said:

‘Every midwife should take this course.’

‘I learnt so much today.’

‘Hazel makes a difficult subject easy to understand and deal with.’

‘I’m so glad I did this. I got so much information, and I loved Hazel’s manner and (dare I say it?) sense of humour when dealing with this sensitive topic.’

Learning from someone who has “been there” and also has academic training made her very credible. She was also great at answering questions.’

‘I can’t believe we weren’t taught this in college, with so many women having histories of child sexual abuse, we really should know this stuff before being put on wards.’

About Me:

I’m Hazel, and I’m a PhD candidate at Dublin City University, where my area of research is transgenerational trauma with specific regard to child sexual abuse. I hold a BA (Hons) in Psychology and Sociology, an MA in Sexuality Studies, and an LLM in International Human Rights Law from Queen’s University, Belfast. In the academic year 2013-2014, I completed a year of research at Trinity College Dublin, where I focused on the effects of child sexual abuse on women during pregnancy and childbirth.

I am very proud of the fact that I was the first accredited doula to work in Ireland, and brought doula training here, in 2005. In 2015, I published my memoir Gullible Travels, which details my own experiences of CSA; and the long-lasting impact it has had on me. My two daughters were both born at home – in India, and Singapore, respectively – and I finally stopped breastfeeding when my youngest was five and a half years old.  My skills, experiences, and education, combine to make me ideally placed to offer this training.

The Power to Rearrange

This is a wonderful read; it’s profound, and thoughtful, and insightful.

The Women Who Support Abusers


Collusion is key. Men who abuse women are supported by other women. I’ve been trying to write a blog post all week about women who collude with abusive men. It’s harder than I thought it would be. On the one hand, I have so much to say on the subject – so many examples from my own life – that I’m afraid I’d write far, far more than a blog post calls for.  At the same time, however, finding the words to get started is proving difficult.


I’m not sure where to start, but I have a feeling the way in might be to actually just record my thoughts and then transcribe them.


Bear with me!

Breaking the Cycle

I wrote this, a year ago, on my other blog. I thought it might be worth sharing here, too.

Savage That There’s No Funding for SAVI

The Irish Government has said that there isn’t enough money in the coffers for a new SAVI report. The last one was produced in 2002.

A new SAVI Report is vital in order to get an idea of the current beliefs, attitudes, and – crucially – experiences of men and women in Ireland. Significantly for me, my eldest daughter was born in 2002, which means it’s very easy for me to remember that year. It’s not just nearly 16 years ago, it is a very real year for me. It means I can easily pinpoint 2002 in my memory, and compare and contrast now with then.

I am aware of how much technology has changed since then; how simultaneously enabling and disabling it is. I am aware of how much our attitudes towards sex and sexuality have changed since that year. I am aware that people are more aware, and more articulate around, sex, sexuality, and their sexual experiences now than they were then. I am aware that people who were young children in 2002 are now fully-grown adults. I am also aware that people who were young children in 2002, and who were being abused then, are now fully-grown adults who may, or may not, have ever had the opportunity to disclose and discuss their experiences. We need to capture this data.

We need to capture this data in order to inform policy, practice, and funding for people and services who care for those of us who are affected by sexual assault and abuse. We need to be visible and vocal about the fact that we are gathering this data so the people who are directly affected by it feel, and are, heard.

To commission a new SAVI Report would cost approximately €1m. The government has claimed they don’t have the budget. They do, however, have €64m for Irish Racing; they also have €16 for greyhound racing; they found an extra €500,000 for National Parks; and, of course, Leo the Liar easily found €5m for his own spin doctors

All of that tells us that sexually abused and assaulted children, women, and men in Ireland are worth less to this government than racing horses, bloodsports, trees, and Leo’s own personal public relations unit.  As if our self-esteem hadn’t taken enough of a battering already.




The #MeToo on Twitter, and the discussion in the wider world of sexual abuse, sexual assault sexual harassment, rape, grooming and other offences of a sexual nature is providing a climate where those who have not previously spoken about their experiences, to do so.


One of the things that has bothered me, though, is the number of people (predominantly men), who simply say things like ‘then go to the police / Gardaí’, and ‘he hasn’t been convicted, so….presumption of innocence’. As if it is that simple. As if reporting a sexual assault to the police or the Gardaí is as simple, or as easy as telling a woman (or a man) to do so. God bless the privilege of the people who say this. God bless their innocence.  Reporting a crime – particularly one of such a highly personal nature – to the Gardaí is no easy thing to do. (At this point, I must say that I have never been treated with anything but kindness and professional understanding by members of An Garda Siochana).


Yet, the smug ‘just report it’ crowd seem to believe that going to the Gardaí and making a full and detailed report of a sexual assault is as easy and straightforward – and that the results are as swift – as telling Mammy, or going to the teacher in a primary school classroom. Sadly, that isn’t the case. Apart, altogether, from the harrowing experience of going to the Gardaí in the first place, and making a full and frank statement; providing details of a very distressing event – an event that was visited upon your person, an event that was visited upon the most private parts of your person, an event that was visited upon your psyche, an event that will forever change you isn’t easy.

Even if a person does manage to find the strength to do all that, they then have to face the rest of what the smug ‘just report it’ crowd refer to as ‘due process’. Due process is the idea that a person will get a fair trial in front of an impartial judge. The ‘just report it’ crowd also seem to think that anyone who commits a crime, and whose crime is reported and investigated, and against whom evidence is gathered, will automatically appear before a judge and be found guilty.  Until and unless that happens, they feel that no truths should be told, no allegations uttered, no solidarity of and with, victims shown publicly.


In an ideal world, a person who commits a crime, and whose crime is reported and investigated, and against whom evidence is gathered, would automatically appear before a judge, and be found guilty. We don’t, unfortunately, live in an ideal world.


Then, there is ‘due process’ that the smug ‘just report it’ crowd clamour for. Broadly, this means that a file is prepared by the gardaí who have conducted the investigation. The superintendent in the station then sends the file to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The DPP then decides whether or not to proceed with the case, and bring it to trial.

Now, here’s the thing that you may, or may not, know. Here’s the thing that the ‘just report it’ gang clearly don’t know (or want to admit). The DPP doesn’t decide to proceed to trial based on the evidence. The DPP doesn’t decide to proceed to trial based on whether or not they personally believe the crime, as described, occurred. The DPP bases her decision on whether or not they are reasonably confident that they will secure a conviction. In other words, the DPP will only allow a case to proceed to trial if she thinks it makes financial sense. The decision, therefore, to prosecute is based, not on legal, as much as on economic considerations.

Looking at the crime of sexual assault, the DPP deciding not to prosecute doesn’t mean the man is innocent. Nor does it mean that the woman is a liar. It doesn’t mean that there is a lack of evidence. Nor does it mean that the evidence is unconvincing. What is means is that the DPP doesn’t think that a jury will convict the man in spite of the evidence, in spite of the recommendation of the Superintendent at the investigating Garda station. Sometimes, the DPP will decide not to prosecute even though a confession has been provided to the Gardaí.  (This isn’t far-fetched; it happened to me in the case of my father, Christy Talbot.)


In some cases, like the case of my brother, Cormac Talbot, the DPP will decide not to prosecute because, frankly, the cost of flying him back from France to be prosecuted for historical sexual abuse, including digital, oral, anal, and vaginal rape is not worth it. In spite of the evidence. Cormac, living in the South of France, is no longer a danger to the Irish public, so the decision was made to leave him where he is.


Sometimes, people aren’t prosecuted because they are unwell. As in the case of my brother, Nigel Talbot, who claims partial memory-loss on account of his brain tumour.


The fact that someone hasn’t been prosecuted, and found guilty in a court of law doesn’t mean they’re innocent. Worse, it doesn’t mean that they are no longer abusing women and / or children.


Others have contacted me privately to let me know that they were abused by my brothers. If you were, too, please feel free to contact me in confidence. 

If this post was difficult for you to read because of your own experiences, please remember that the following agencies have phonelines, which are staffed 24/7:

Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 778888

Samaritans: 116 123

Pieta House: 1800 247 247



Colour Me Delighted

A few years ago, I went to visit my friend, June. I wanted to bring her a gift, but rejected the obvious – wine, flowers, chocolates – in favour of a colouring book. She was delighted.

About a year later, ‘mindful’ colouring books, and ‘adult’ colouring books became a ‘thing’.

I liked the idea of grabbing myself a colouring book or two and calming myself with a bit of colouring. The first one I bought was full of mosaics. It drove me mad. There were so many little bits of it. It was abandoned.  I got another. Its pages were filled with intricate pictures awaiting colour. I couldn’t give them what they were waiting for. They remained monochrome.

The pages of the ‘mindful’ and ‘adult’ colouring books that I bought, or considered buying, filled me with anxiety. I could feel it rising. The sections were too small. They didn’t scream ‘fun’, they screamed ‘task’. I have enough tasks I was looking for something to enjoy – in a similar way to how I enjoy knitting. It is repetitive, meditative, and soothing. These colouring books were not stirring the same emotions.

Then I remembered Kalkitos, and how much I’d enjoyed that, as a child.  I also loved stickers, and using them to make pictures with. I couldn’t find any Kalkitos, but I did find a sticker book for adults. It was filled with tiny flower-stickers, and other tiny stickers. I was tempted, but couldn’t part with £12.99 to buy a book that didn’t fill me with excitement.

Then, I had a brainwave. Why was I so hung up on adult versions? Hadn’t I enjoyed colouring books as a child? So, why was I looking at adult colouring books?

I came home with this:


Which had the added bonus of these:

I was delighted. This little book, and the stickers in it, filled me with joy, and anticipation, and excitement.


Colouring might well be a good tool for improving your mental health. Like any other tool, however, you need to make sure you have the right one. Don’t feel you need a ‘grown-up’ version of something that used to bring you joy when you were a child. Think of comfort food; if a toasted cheese sandwich was what made you feel safe and loved when you were little, then avocado toast with a sprinkling of pink Himalayan salt and a light dusting of cracked black pepper isn’t going to revive that feeling.  Go with what it feels right to use, rather than what you think you should be using.





Me Time

What is ‘me time’, and when do I get it?

I became a mum at 28 – after nearly ten years of trying to start a family. My daughter lit my life up even more than I could have imagined (and I have a reasonable imagination). The love I felt for her was matched only by the arrival of her sister two years later. I was amazed by how much love was inside me. I still am.

By the time I was two weeks pregnant with my younger daughter, I was a single parent with a seventeen-month old, and another another on the way. I was very lucky, though; I had a fantastic live-in nanny with whom we had a great relationship, who was a great cook, and who adored my child (and, later, my children).

When I moved back to Ireland (worst mistake of my life, but complex and complicated – a whole other blog post!), I was completely on my own with the two girls. I started to hear about ‘me time’ from other women.  I started to hear about how I needed to make time for myself, how I needed to find time to get away from my children and indulge myself with kid-free time.

I was never really convinced. Until I had them, my entire life was – more or less – focused on trying to become a mother. Once I had realised that ambition, I wanted to revel in it. I wanted to enjoy every minute of it.

Here’s the thing; for me, ‘me time’ is time spent with my babies – who are now 13 and 15 – it’s where my joy is. Where my bliss is. Where I feel happiest. I don’t want to ‘escape’ from that; why would I? Why would anyone spend their lives trying to achieve something, and then spend the rest of their lives trying to get away from that same thing?

I adore my girls. I am very grateful for the relationships we have; I am delighted with the fact that they they have a wonderful relationship. They are best friends, as well as  being sisters.


Of course, I understand that it makes sense to spend time away from other people – even people you adore, people you love to spend time with. But if ‘me time’ is meant to be a reward, if ‘me time’ is meant to be something you do for yourself, then my ‘me time’ is the time I spend with my girls; enjoying their company, sharing experiences with them, encountering the world together. It took a long time for me to realise this: I felt like I was failing, somehow, by wanting to be with my girls as often as I could. I had my children because I wanted to. I had my children because I wanted their company – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Manufacturing time to be away from them is inauthentic, though of course, as they get older, they find themselves wanting to spend less time glued to me; which is perfectly age-appropriate. The thing is, though, that they are choosing to separate from me, rather then being pushed away. Rather than being told that I need to be away from them, they are telling me that they want to engage with the world on their terms, which often means I’m not invited. As my girls age, I will have more and more time without them. I’ll have more ‘me time’ than you could shake a stick at. I don’t need to find it – it will find me.






Don’t Cosy Up (To Sexual Predators)


It is with disgust that I register Dublin City University (DCU) has conferred an honorary doctorate on Bill Clinton today. I was awarded my first Master’s degree at DCU and – all things being equal – will be conferred with my own doctorate from DCU in a few short years. So, to be honest, I expected more of the university. One of the attractive things about DCU is that it’s a young, progressive, innovative university. I have studied at four other universities and have returned to DCU to pursue my doctorate for precisely these reasons. There is still an academic and intellectual rigour and standard, but there is less in terms of stricture that often impedes research in other institutions which are bound by a sense of ‘tradition’.


As an aside, I don’t have much truck with honorary degrees and doctorates. I do believe that people should have to earn their academic accolades. It’s a large two-fingered gesture to those of us who put more than ten years’ of hard work into our studies. I am of the view that an honorary doctorate is little more than a mutual ego-massaging exercise: Each party gets the PR associated with claiming association with the perceived achievements of the other.  My objection to Clinton’s ‘doctorate’ however, isn’t just based on this belief.


I am disgusted that a man who abused his power, who preyed on young women, who sexually assaulted women, has been honoured by my Alma Mater. I have no idea who makes these decisions, but I do wish that the alumni were consulted. I think we should have a vote on who is recognised by our university; on who our university declares admiration for in such a public way.


I think, on the same day that it has become common knowledge that that other sexual predator, Harvey Weinstein, contributed to Clinton’s legal fund when he was defending himself against Monica Lewinsky, it is in poor taste to honour the man.  This is also the week when #MeToo is trending on Twitter; when women the world over are talking publicly about their experiences of sexual assault.

DCU, I think, would be better placed honouring Monica Lewinsky herself. Apart from her TED Talk on shame, she has spoken out against bullying, and cyber-bullying in particular. Surely she deserves to be honoured more than the man who abused his power for (her) sexual favours?

The Love That Grows


I love my kids. That should go without saying, but not everyone loves their kids (as I know from my personal experience of growing up in a house of horrors).  Every day, I go about doing what it is I have to do, and am aware of the fact that I love my girls. In much the same way as I am aware of the fact that I am white, Irish etc. It’s just there. It’s just a fact.

Every so often, however, I fall in love with them all over again. Or fall deeper in love with them. I suddenly get gripped and overwhelmed by how amazing they are, and how they are containers for so much goodness, and joy, and love, and understanding, and kindness, and gentleness. I am overwhelmed by how awesome (literally, not colloquially) they are. I am humbled by the fact that they have allowed me to parent them, that they are so patient with me, and allow me to bear witness to their unfolding into adulthood.


It reminds me of when they were babies, and all I could do was gaze at them with gratitude and admiration. Now that they’re teenagers, I love that feeling of heart-swell I get, that feeling that my heart has to grow to accommodate the love I have for them. I am delighted that my love for them continues to grow, that it doesn’t stagnate, that there is more, there is more, there is always more.


Pic: Ishthara and Kashmira baking, exactly ten years ago – I didn’t think I could love them more, but I do! 

World Mental Health Day

Today is World Mental Health Day – a day when we’re supposed to reflect on our own mental health, and how we care for it.

I think that World Mental Health Awareness Day might be a more appropriate name, but I don’t get to decide these things. I suppose the fact that the day is named and acknowledged at all means that there is awareness brought to mental health.  Not so long ago, people in Ireland didn’t mention mental health at all. It was stigmatised almost as much as being an unmarried mother. And that’s saying something.

Sadly, both states – being a lone mother, and having mental health difficulties – are still stigmatised in today’s Ireland. It’s no wonder that so many women who parent alone report having mental health difficulties. As a proud member of the steering group of S.P.A.R.K., I conducted research among our members and will be presenting my findings at our First National Conference on November 3rd, next.

Campaigns such as the Green Ribbon Campaign   have certainly helped get people talking, but it’s not enough to get adults talking to each other about how they are feeling. We need to give our children the language to talk about their emotions, too, and – just as importantly – we need to listen. I am often struck by how the reaction to our high rates of suicide among young men, our response is to encourage them to talk. I honestly feel that that’s a case of ‘too little, too late’. As a nation, we spend their entire formative years telling our children to ‘shut up’, to ‘be quiet’, to ‘speak when they’re spoken to’, to ‘mind their own business’ when they ask questions, to do things ‘because I say so’, to ‘stop crying’ when they are upset etc. etc. How can we, then, reasonably expect these same children – when they are teenagers and adolescents – to talk about how they are feeling?


I must also point out that it’s all very well encouraging people to have conversations, to open up about their mental health, and to stop hiding how they really feel, but it’s a bit irresponsible if there isn’t also information around how to receive and react to the information once it has been expressed. What should you do or say to someone who reveals, in the course of a conversation, that they do want to die? Or even that they are teetering on the edge of a depression? Or that their anxiety is so bad that they aren’t sure they’ll be able to make it home from work?


Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems we have with regard to mental and emotional health and their effective treatment is access to appropriate supports. In Ireland, a child in acute crisis (eg at risk of dying by suicide) could be waiting months to be seen by a member of the CAMHS – the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. That’s if they’re lucky. Thankfully, Pieta House will see those who are suicidal much, much quicker. Adult services aren’t much better – with just six sessions of ‘talking therapy’ being offered to medical card holders in crisis; preceded, of course, by a good long wait on a waiting list. For those who would benefit from therapies such as CBT or DBT, a catchment area lottery applies. You may or may not be offered a treatment that has good success rates for your particular difficulty if it is not provided by the HSE in your area. This is hardly a person-centric model of care.


Even with a sympathetic GP, the help and support vista around mental health is rather grim.  GPs often have little to offer beyond chemical intervention (pills don’t suit everyone, and the side-effects can be horrific; including increased anxiety and suicidal ideation), and general advice to exercise, drink less alcohol and caffeine, and avoid stressful situations.

I’m not saying anything new. I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. I’m just bringing attention (again) to the dire state of mental health services and care in Ireland, and the damage lack of access to care brings to the lives of those suffering.



Ask And Ye Shall Receive…

I should be in bed, it’s past midnight, and I am planning on being out the door tomorrow morning (with my face and a good gúna on) by 7, because I’m speaking at a conference tomorrow at 9.30am.

I couldn’t end the day, however, without acknowledging something that happened earlier, and is, actually, still happening on my FB page.

A bit of background: It irks me that my children are stoic. Now, don’t get me wrong, I really don’t want a pair of moaning minnies for whom nothing is ever right, and everything is always the worst (insert issue here) ever. At the same time, though, I have often felt compelled to remind them that they are still only minors, and they don’t need to deal with everything by themselves, and if something goes wrong – or even looks like it might go wrong – they are to talk to me about it. I’ve also mentioned to them more than once that if they are in pain, they need to tell me that too, because pain is never ‘normal’. I think that if my eldest had bothered to tell me how much pain she was in on a daily basis, her coeliac disease might have been diagnosed (years) sooner, for example.

Anyway, on more than one occasion, friends have pointed out that I’m not exactly a moaning minnie myself, and maybe that’s where my children get it from. One or two have said things like ‘Well, that’s not something they licked off the walls’, and one or two even blunter friends have said ‘What do you expect? You’re pretty bloody stoic yourself!!’

I don’t think of myself as stoic, though, and that might be part of the problem. Children, I know, don’t do as we say, they do as we do. There is no point in telling my children that a certain course of action is the healthiest one, if I then deliberately and obviously choose another course of action myself.

I don’t want my children to think that they must handle everything that comes their way quietly – even if they are able to do so superbly.

So, today, in an attempt to model the behaviour I want my girls to emulate, I posted on FB that one of them is booked in for surgery in a few weeks. I explained that it’s (relatively) minor, she has a great surgeon, and it’s only going to be under for an hour. She’ll be out, and on her way home, about four hours afterwards. The bit that bothers me is the general anaesthetic; my girl in that liminal state between life and death frightens me. I know it’s not rational, but I’m not operating out of my academic, logical, rational brain – I’m operating out of my Mammy Brain. I asked for support. I asked for a volunteer to come and sit with me while my baby is in surgery, and I’m knitting and pretending to be nonchalant.

I didn’t get one response. I got more than twenty. More than twenty people contacted me to say that they would gladly come and sit with me for a few hours. Others with small babies offered to have me come to them (because a hospital – full of sick people – is no place for a small child), but I know I won’t leave the building until my baby is leaving it with me.  Still more contacted me from overseas to say that they would be there in a heartbeat if there weren’t seas and mountains and deserts between us.

Now, I have a support person and stand-by support people, and people offering to do shifts, and people offering to pop in to see me on their lunch breaks and have coffee with me and my support person…..truly, I feel so very, very blessed and humbled. Save for my girls, I have no (non-abusive) family members, so the fact that people who aren’t obliged to show up for me – literally and figuratively – are willing to do so makes me realise how lucky I am, and how fortunate I am to be surrounded by people who choose to give me their time and love.


That is what I want to model to, and for, my girls. I want them to not just hear me say that there is no shame in asking for help, I want them to see me ask for for help; and not be ashamed to ask for it, and to accept it with Grace and Gratitude.

Hook, Spine, And Sphincter

I’ve been away while this particular storm has been raging over in Ireland, but I’ve been following it on social media, and reading the opinions in the newspapers. I’ve read the transcript of Hook’s original comments, and his apology. Then I managed to make myself listen to them both – steeling myself first because I knew I would find them difficult. Still, I was lucky – I had had the trigger warning beforehand, unlike rape survivors who heard Hook’s bluster live.



Many of you will already be aware that George Hook made very offensive comments about rape victims on his show ‘High Noon’ on Newstalk radio on Friday, September 8th. In referring to a woman who was raped by a man in the UK, after having consensual sex with another man, George wondered aloud what she expected.  ‘Is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?’


This is what we call ‘victim blaming’ and it is an inherent part of rape culture. Blaming the victim shifts the focus of blame for a rape or sexual assault from the perpetrator to the victim. It implies that victims could – and should – have done something to prevent their assault. This puts the blame for the episode on the victim, and presupposes a non-existent situation where there is equality of power between the rapist and the rape victim. It presupposes a relationship where a woman can say ‘no’ and have that ‘no’ respected. It presupposes a relationship where consent is sought, and the response to that request is respected. Unfortunately, as those of us who have been raped, and otherwise sexually assaulted know too well, such a relationship does not exist.


Blaming a woman for being raped is the same as blaming a pedestrian who is waiting for the lights to change so they can safely cross, for their own injuries when a drunk driver mounts the pavement and ploughs into them.

From his place of privilege and power, Hook refuses to see that. He does not like to have his views challenged, and he is not open to having his opinions changed. He believes he is right all the time, about everything. Put bluntly, George Hook is an arrogant old boor of a man. But men like this have a special place in Irish society – they are tolerated by most, indulged by others, and revered by some. People refer to him, and people (usually, though not always, men) of his ilk as ‘harmless’. The ‘harmless’ man who says and does what he likes and gets away with it is an interesting character in Irish society. Their outrageous statements are greeted with a shrug of acceptance and the utterance that ‘Shur, he’s harmless; there’s no badness in him.’ It is an invitation – or admonishment – to  shut up and leave the man alone. To let him say what he likes because he doesn’t mean any harm.


Few people dare to publicly call George Hook out, because when they do, they are accused of attempting censorship.  Here’s the thing, though, it is not a call to censorship when a person calls for disgusting views and opinions not to be shared on the national airwaves. Yes, George Hook is entitled to his personal opinion on any- and everything under the sun. What he is not entitled to do, however, is to spew that opinion publicly. He, and his employer, have a duty of care to listeners. That duty includes not spreading hate, or putting a group of people in danger. Saying that rape victims bear responsibility for the fact that they were raped does both.

While we talk about Hook, and those like him as ‘harmless’, and while it may be true that he ‘means no harm’, the effect of his words is harmful.  By saying what he does, and being allowed to say what he does, his views are endorsed and given legitimacy.  They become an accepted narrative, they become seen as reasonable points of view. Not everyone is a critical thinker; not everyone is analytical. Many people will take their lead from a voice on the radio and think that because they agreed with one opinion a particular person set forth, that person is always right; and will find themselves accepting that broadcaster’s stance on any and every issue.


Imagine, for a moment, if George Hook had said ‘All Jews are filthy money-grubbing bastards, and Hitler was right’, or if he’d said ‘All Travellers are duplicitous monkeys who smell like shite,’ would people still be falling over themselves to say that he was entitled to his opinion, and to voice his opinion, and that any attempt to silence him was an attempt at censorship?


And if you want to talk about censorship – let’s talk about how women are censored on the airwaves of Ireland. Our voices, for the most part, aren’t even allowed on said airwaves. Think about that for a second.


Sure, Newstalk’s Managing Editor, Patricia Monahan, in a piece in the Irish Times last Saturday went to  great lengths to remind us all that she is a woman, and that most of the producers in Newstalk are women.  Her piece misses many points, however. One of them being that women who are in the minority take on the characteristics of the dominant culture – which, in the case of Newstalk is male. Just because a person has a vagina doesn’t make them a champion of women’s right. Sadly. It takes a minimum of three women on a board, for example, to effect real change within an organisation.


Monahan poses the question ‘Do I not qualify as female representation because my voice is not heard on-air?’ – and, my answer to that is sadly, no, you don’t.  I have worked in media in enough countries to know that the on-air voice has the final say (literally and figuratively). If that voice is male – which it is for the most part on Irish radio – then the fact that the researcher, producer, and even the managing editor are female makes no difference to what goes out on air.



George Hook was forced to apologise for his victim-blaming comments the Monday after he made them. I wonder, though, if  his employer would have insisted he apologise if their bottom line wasn’t hurting? George Hook is a misogynist and his comments often reflect this, but Newstalk has never had the backbone to make him read out an apology before. I think the only reason they did on this occasion was because advertisers and sponsors had withdrawn their financial backing, and Newstalk was trying to claw back some credibility.

It is worth noting that Newstalk only suspended George Hook a full week after he made these comments. If they had any spine, he would have been suspended immediately after he made them. The fact that it took a week for him to be suspended (not sacked, mind you, just suspended) means that his employers don’t have any difficulty with George’s comments. If they had, they would have sacked him years ago.



When a sphincter muscle is touched it contracts. Those who have reacted in George Hook’s defence remind me of sphincter muscles. They have bunched up and contracted in reaction to his being challenged on his victim-blaming comments, talking about how he’s not the worst.

Ciara Kelly, a colleague and friend of Hook’s wrote a piece for the Journal calling George one of the most ‘gender blind’ people she’s ever worked with. All I can say to that is that Dr Kelly must not have worked with many people, ever, because people aren’t gender blind, any more than they are colour blind.  The only example of this alleged ‘gender blindness’ she pointed to in her article was to mention how George has always championed her. And she’s a woman. That’s great. But she’s also his friend. People generally champion their friends. It’s human nature. It doesn’t mean they’re gender blind, or colour blind, or sexual-orientation blind, or religion blind, or that they have any other kind of blindness.


George Hook is not a monster – of course he’s not. He is human, and humans are not cartoon characters – either hero or villain. People are not this or that; they are complex, and our feelings about them are equally complex. It is absolutely possible for a person to be kind to animals, yet beat their own children. It is absolutely possible for a person to be  rapist and make wonderful art. It is absolutely possible for a person to be good at his job and have raped his sister for years (like two of my own brothers). One fact does not make the other untrue.  Nor does one fact make the other excusable.


I’m all for personal responsibility, but that extends to George Hook. He needs to be held personally accountable for his comments to victims of rape. And, yes, maybe I am taking this personally – after all, I was raped by family members, strangers, acquaintances and both my former husbands. But those experiences mean that I am more aware than most of how damaging George Hook’s comments are, and how grateful I am that he no longer has a public platform from which to air them.

Hidden In Plain Sight

At the end of last month, Jack Watson died on the streets of Dublin. I know (now) that he had a number of other names, but to me, he was Jack, so that’s what I’m going to call him.


Not long after the  vigil at Dáil Eireann (which I attended) along with many other people who had been volunteers in Apollo House over the last Xmas and New Year period, the Irish Sun revealed that Jack had a string of convictions behind him in Australia. The most serious, and the most unpalatable of which were two convictions for sexual assaults on young girls, and another for the wilful transmission of HIV to a woman.

For me, and for many of the people who interacted with Jack during his time in Apollo House, and when he was on the streets afterwards, it was an enormous shock to learn that Jack had committed sexual offences. Speaking with some of the women afterwards, we were all dismayed to learn of Jack’s past; not least because – for many of us – our personal and professional backgrounds had brought us into contact with abusive men, and we were pretty sure we’d know one if we saw one. We were confident in our abilities to spot the ‘warning signs’ and the behaviour of a man who preyed on women and girls.  To learn that we’d been duped by Jack – not one of us suspected that he was, or might be a sex offender – shook us.


And that’s the point: Men who abuse women, and men who sexually assault children don’t have a certain ‘look’; they don’t use key phrases that you can identify immediately, and recognise as indicators.


Above all, they are cunning. If they have been caught (as Jack was), they learn from that ‘mistake’ and adapt their behaviour in order to avoid detection in the future. They modify their approach to women in order to avoid suspicion. They don’t stop abusing women. They just stop getting caught. Sex offenders and predators walk among us; they look like the other men in our society, they sound like them, they present like them. They don’t have horns and a tail, or an easy identifier to alert the rest of us to their presence. They are our fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins, trusted friends, neigbours, priests, teachers, solicitors, doctors, quantity-surveyors, gardeners – they exist in every socio-economic demographic, are of every religious and cultural background, and they walk among us, hidden in plain sight.

Happiness Is…

Happiness is walking in your front door and hearing your 13 year-old daughter and her friend in gales of laughter.

Happiness is having a chat with your 13 year-old daughter and her friend, and really enjoying the conversation.

Happiness is phoning your 13 year-old daughter’s friend’s mum and telling her that even though you have met her daughter a number of times, you haven’t met her, but you wanted to reassure the mum that her child is safe, and fed and happy.  That you haven’t sold her into the white slave trade.

Happiness is hearing your 13 year-old daughter’s friend’s mum laugh and tell you she’s glad you phoned, and she’s glad the girls have made friends (what remains unsaid is that you know that your girls find it hard to meet people like them).

Happiness is knowing your girl finds it hard to meet people like her, but she finally has, and – not just that – they get on like a house on fire.

Happiness is walking into your fifteen year-old’s room while she’s on the phone to her boyfriend, and he says ‘Is that your mum? Put me on speaker, please, I’d like to say “hi” to her.’ And you and he have a lovely, comfortable chat with your fifteen year-old contributing.

Happiness is heading back downstairs and heating up food the three of you made the night before, and smiling at the memory of the assembly of the food and the discussions that led up to it.

Happiness is a glass of thick, syrupy Zinfandel on a Friday evening.


Happiness is knowing your babies are safe.

Happiness is a roof over your head.

Happiness is the little things.

Happiness is the big things.

Happiness is the little things that are huge.


Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, I hope you’re dancing with happiness.

A Woman on Public Transport is Not Public Property

I read this today: It’s a story about a woman – Nathalie Gordon (@awlilnatty) – who was on a bus, with her headphones in, when a man made unwanted advances. She was polite to each of his intrusions, and the incident ended with him masturbating in the seat beside her, and her reporting this to the bus driver. The driver shrugged and asked her what she expected.


In response, Nathalie reveals that what she expects is:

Respect for women no matter who they are, or what they look like, or what they’re wearing; respect for women who don’t want go for a drink, who ask for help, who are afraid; to feel safe on the bus, the street, in her house or anywhere she chooses to go; not to be on guard everywhere she goes; she expects men to stop thinking every woman on the planet owes them something; good men to be on our side, to support us, to listen, to care, to stand up for us when we can’t, and to educate others.


It doesn’t sound like too much to expect, does it? Sadly, if you’re a woman, it appears that, if this is what you expect, you’re expecting too much. I shared Nathalie’s piece with friends. Interestingly, every woman who responded, had a similar story to tell. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a woman alive who has not been on the receiving end of unwanted male attention. Not only have we been on the receiving end of unwanted male attention, we’ve also been on the receiving end of comments like:

‘What do you expect – you’re a pretty girl?’ (So, should I disfigure myself to make myself less of a target?)

‘Take it as a compliment.’ (Really? Assault is a compliment?)

‘What were you doing?’ (Usually minding our own business.)

‘What were you wearing?’ (Clothes. Always.)


Those of us who also have daughters related our concerns regarding our girls, and how society views (literally), and treats, them. I was reminded of the work my girls and I had to do before I could allow them to take public transport on their own. To prepare my (then) 11 year old for taking a single bus (in other words, there was no need for her to change buses) from outside her school to the end of our road took hours. I spoke to her and her sister about the rules:

  1. Greet the driver (to be polite, but also so s/he registers that you are a minor onboard, unaccompanied);
  2. If you must sit beside someone, choose to sit beside a woman rather than a man.
  3. Stay sitting on the aisle seat, allow someone to pass by you, so they get the window seat.
  4. Stay downstairs. Even if there are no seats downstairs, and there are seats upstairs, stay standing downstairs.
  5. If possible, stay where the bus driver can see you.
  6. You do not have to be polite to someone who is making you feel uncomfortable.
  7. If you feel threatened or unsafe, move seats. You do not have to justify your feelings, even to yourself. If it feels wrong, it is wrong.
  8. If someone makes you feel unsafe, go to the bus driver and tell him/her.


Then, we role-played, several times, over several days, how to act / re-act if someone made them feel uncomfortable. We defined what that might be – talking to them when they didn’t want to be spoken to, saying things – racist, sexist or personal things – that made them feel uncomfortable. Pretending not to speak English if they felt that would keep them safer (they can get away with this, because they look ‘foreign’).   I gave them permission to be rude to someone they didn’t feel safe beside. I practised being a lecherous male and putting a hand on my daughters’ knees, so they could practise shouting ‘Stop touching me!’ (I was amazed at how long it took to get them to shout. How well society has taught them to be quiet!). I got them to practice getting out of their seats and going to the driver. I gave them permission to defend themselves, and showed them how.


As I discussed these measures with my friends this morning, a thought struck me; if I had sons, it would never have occurred to me to go to such lengths before letting them take the bus on their own. I can’t imagine that I would have felt the need to do more than have one conversation with a son about general safety and what to do if he was uncomfortable. The difference being that, as a mother of daughters, I know my children will have to confront a male making unwanted advances. I know they will need to know how to react. I know they will have to confront lecherous males (they do, on a regular basis), and I want them to feel empowered in those situations. Don’t get me wrong, though, even though I am aware that the girls will face unwanted sexual advances, doesn’t mean I’m resigned to the fact – it means I will continue to fight to change this fact. The first step in changing something is acknowledging that it exists in the first place.






Rosemary’s Bravery

Five months ago, Rosemary Mac Cabe wrote a brutally honest post about why she didn’t report the fact that she’d been raped. Her piece resonated with me, and my fingers itched to write a response straight away. I didn’t though. I thought about it, I thought about it for a few days. I got busy with other things. Then, I decided I’d left it too late, and my response was too long after Rosemary’s post to be timely and relevant.

Of course, women’s experiences are always relevant, no matter how historical. The truth is, that I was avoiding it. I have been writing for long enough to know that when I provide myself with excuses not to write something, it’s usually because I’m afraid of it. I’m afraid to confront my own knowledge and / or experience of the thing I’m trying to write about. I’m simply not ready. The more solid my excuses to myself, the more I’m trying to avoid whatever it is I know I need to write. I have realised, in the past few months, that I sometimes avoid writing something – or at least writing something for publication – because I haven’t processed the issue at hand. My aversion to writing in support of what Rosemary had written was born of avoidance.

Then, within the past month, Rosemary tweeted that she’d been alluded to in a podcast. I didn’t hear the podcast in question, and it has since been removed from the website where it was originally hosted, so I can’t really comment with any first-hand knowledge on its content. All I can say is that reminded me that I needed to write a response to Rosemary’s post. So, I got my pen out, and started to write. And then I dithered. I told myself (again), that I’d left it too late to respond. That the moment was lost.

Until nearly three weeks ago, when someone else decided to troll Rosemary Mac Cabe on Twitter. I was reminded that it is never too late to tell the truth. It’s never too late to speak your truth. It’s never too late to honour the part of you that worked hard to ensure you made it through the traumatic event – whatever that event was. So, today, I have decided to write – and publish – my response to Rosemary’s post of five months ago.

We don’t have accurate figures for rape and sexual assault in this country. The SAVI Report  is 15 years old, and it tells us that 20.4% of adult women are subjected to unwanted, non-consensual sexual contact. A further 5.1% reported unwanted, non-consensual, non-contact sexual experiences. In addition, 6.1% of the women interviewed reported being raped. And, in that last sentence, the word reported is key. As we learn from Rosemary’s post, and the response she had to that post when it was originally published, many women don’t report their experiences of rape. Like Rosemary, many of us don’t term what happened to us ‘rape’. Many of us don’t realise that what happened to us was, actually, rape. Many of us blame ourselves.

We are conditioned to believe that when men act badly, it is our fault. We are conditioned to believe that, not only must we be responsible for what we do, we must be responsible for what men do, too. This attitude sees men absolved of personal responsibility – which is a by-product of the patriarchy, and serves men as poorly as it serves women, by infantalising men in this regard.

In her post, Rosemary talks about how she didn’t report her rapist because he was basically a nice guy, and she didn’t want to ruin his life. That’s part of the problem with the dominant narrative of sex offenders as monsters. We find it difficult to accept that men who are good to their mothers, who adopt three-legged dogs, and who give money to charity, can possibly be the kind of men who would touch a woman who didn’t want them to touch her. Sadly, the kind of men who abuse women look exactly like ‘normal, everyday’ men. Tom Meagher wrote about the ‘Monster Myth’ three and a half years ago and made the point that most cases of violence against women are ‘perpetrated and suffered in silence’.

Reading Rosemary’s blog, I was reminded of two specific incidents that had taken place in my own life. There are many more, but these are the two that sprang to mind immediately:

  1. I was Eighteen Years Old

I’d gone out West to spend the weekend with my baby niece and her family. Her mother – Mary (not her real name) – wanted to go out in the local town. She had made arrangements to meet her boyfriend, Donal (not his real name), at a nightclub there.  So we got dolled up, Mary’s parents and siblings were put on babysitting duty, and off we went.

It was a pleasant enough night. I got talking to one of Mary’s boyfriend’s friends, whom I will call Brian (again, not his real name) – who also happened to share a house with Mary’s boyfriend. When the nightclub closed, we went back to Mary’s boyfriend’s house because they wanted some private time together. I was knackered. Mary suggested I have a sleep in Brian’s bed because he wasn’t home yet.

I collapsed into sleep – fully clothed except for my jumper – and the next thing I knew, I was waking up as Brian groped me.

‘What are you doing? Stop!’

I think it was reasonable, at this stage, for him to stop touching me. I was expecting too much, though. This white, privileged male, in his early twenties didn’t see why he should stop touching a woman who was asleep and had not consented to any kind of physical contact with him.

‘You’re in my bed.’ He responded. As if being in a man’s bed – even if you had made your way there when he wasn’t even in the building, and with the sole intention of getting some sleep – gave him the right to touch you without your consent.

‘I’ll get out of it then,’ I offered, groggily, sitting up.

He pushed me back down.

‘No. You’re here now. This is my bed. You might as well say.’

‘Mary and Donal said it would be all right for me to get a bit of sleep here, because you were out, and you wouldn’t mind.’

‘Yeah? Well I do mind’

‘I’ll leave then,’ I offered again.

‘No. Stay where you are,’ he said and got into bed beside me – wearing nothing but his boxers – grabbed my breast and started to kiss me.

I surprised myself by not freezing, but by trying to push him off me, and by saying ‘no’ again.

‘What?’ he said again, annoyed. ‘You’re in my bed.’

‘If you don’t stop,’ I warned him. ‘I’m going to scream.’

He considered this for a moment.

‘Have your bed back,’ I told him. ‘I’ll sleep on the couch.’

‘No, it’s fine. Stay where you are,’ he responded. ‘I’ll sleep on the couch.’

Later, on the way home with Mary, I recounted the episode.

‘Wow!’ she said. I thought she was aghast at his behaviour. And she was, but not for the reasons I’d hoped. ‘He must really fancy you. Brian’s got a girlfriend. They’ve been together for the past 18 months and they’re mad about each other.’


‘God. I’ve never heard of him even noticing another woman. He must really fancy you. You should be flattered.’

And that was the message I got – that the unwanted attentions of a man should flatter a woman. This is rape culture.

  1. I was twenty-five.

Not long out of my first marriage, I met the man who would become my second husband. He was a friend of a friend of mine. And she sent me off to meet him, warning me that he wasn’t my ‘type’, but we’d get on. She was right, he wasn’t my type, but I thought there would be no harm in having a drink with him. Within less than an hour, he’d declared he loved me, and was going to marry me. I was taken aback, but the alarm bells that should have been ringing weren’t. That was the night my schooling in the fragile Indian male ego began.

After a while, Krishna suggested we get dinner. I agreed.

‘First, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go home and change,’ he told me.

Later, people would scoff at how I fell for such an old line; but it wasn’t one that been tried on me before then, so I took what he said at face-value. The first thing he did when we got back was open a bottle of arrack and insist I tried it. I demurred. I didn’t want to drink any more without eating first. Sitting down with a glass in his hand, Krishna reverted to his earlier topic of marriage. Specifically, one that involved the two of us. Still too much of a ‘good girl’ to be rude, I did my best to be polite, but discouraging.

Eventually, he sat in front of me and said ‘I’m trying really hard not to kiss you.’

The last thing I wanted was for this man to touch me – but I had never been equipped with the tools to fend off men who propositioned me. I didn’t know what to do or say and was terrified of causing offence.

‘You keep trying,’ I told Krishna. ‘Because you’re doing a really good job. And I appreciate you not kissing me.’

He wasn’t deterred, though. He kept insisting that he was going to marry me.

‘You’re going to be my wife,’ he insisted.

‘I’m not, actually,’ I tried to be firm, but polite.

‘I’m telling you you’re going to be my wife, and you will be,’ he nodded.

‘You’re wrong about that,’ I laughed, trying to keep the tone light. Arguing with him wasn’t getting me anywhere.

In the end, he just lunged in and kissed me. It was horrible, and felt more like an assault than a caress. He was a dreadful kisser – tasting of cigarettes and alcohol and clearly of the impression that pouncing on a girl and poking your tongue into her mouth and swirling it around a little bit counted as ‘kissing’. I couldn’t escape from him, however. He’d had too much to drink and was hostile to the idea of my leaving. Too late, I realised how foolish I’d been; I was in the apartment of someone I didn’t know, and I didn’t know where I was, either.

Of course, this was Singapore, so if I’d managed to get out of the apartment, I’d have managed to get a cab to take me back to where I was staying. That wasn’t possible, however, because Krishna forcibly barred my way to the door and locked me in. I was on the fourth floor and there was no other way out. There was no fire escape. I could have jumped off the balcony. But God knows what harm I’d have done myself if I had. Left with no real choice, I stayed the night and did my best to keep Krishna off me.  I wasn’t very successful, however. Eventually, I stopped saying ‘no’. There was no point.

I wasn’t happy about what transpired that night. But at no stage did he ask me what I wanted. At no point was consent raised. At no point did my ‘no’ make any difference to him. Still, it was only in 2013 – fifteen or so years after the event – that I realised what had happened that night was rape. And I had to have it pointed to me by someone else; a woman doing her PhD on re-victimisation of women spoke with me and we discussed the episode, and, gently prompting me, she asked what I would say to someone else who recounted the tale I had just told her. How, she wondered, would I term the event?

‘Well, it’s rape!’ I told her. ‘If a woman says “no” and a man continues, and has sex with her, that is non-consensual sex. That’s rape!’

‘If it happened to someone else?’ she gently asked. ‘But if it happened to you?’

I was silent for a while as I tried to make sense of what she was saying. How could I have been raped and not known it? How had I been raped, and then gone on to marry my rapist?

It turns out that this is not as unusual as we would like to think. I have spoken to a number of people since who have had similar experiences. And this, too, is rape culture. The idea that if a woman doesn’t successfully fight a man off, then it’s her fault. Never mind that we’re also told that if we fight back, it will make it worse.

Let’s not forget that even now (never mind back in 1999, in Singapore), a woman is held accountable for any and all sex that takes place. Let’s not forget that victims are still blamed for rape even when the man admits he raped her (you can read about that here, here, and here, as a few random examples)

Let’s not forget that most cases of rape happen behind closed doors and involve an element of ‘he said / she said’.

So, yes, I understand why Rosemary didn’t report the rape that was perpetrated on her. Why would she have? Would you?



The zeitgeist of Irish society, with regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape is sadly very regressive. Victims themselves are still blamed – to a large extent – for the assaults they suffer. Their previous sexual experience is interrogated. What they wore; who they were with; if, and how much, they had been drinking; how they met the person who assaulted them; how long it took them to report the assault (if they did); and whether or not they fought back, are all discussed and dissected in the Court of Public Opinion, if not in the legal court of the land. In the rare event that a case of sexual assault actually gets to court, the sentences are shockingly short, and don’t always include an immediate custodial element.


As a society, we don’t seem to have realised that unless consent is sought, freely given, given in advance, given enthusiastically, and ongoing, any ensuing act is assault. The problem with the prevailing attitudes and beliefs has long been identified by feminists. Identification of a problem, of course is an important first step; but it is only the first step. Once it’s been identified, a solution needs to be found. A concerted, consistent campaign (or series of campaigns) to highlight the issues and confront them is what’s needed next. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again, but consent really is key. Consent workshops are a great idea, and my feeling (unpopular though it may be) is that they should be mandatory across all educational institutions. Yes, I really do mean starting with preschool facilities, and teaching children that they don’t have to give or receive hugs and kisses that they don’t want. In tandem with that, our understanding of, and response to, sexual assault needs to move beyond the binary, and speak to those in our communities who don’t identify as straight.


Finally, it wouldn’t hurt, either, to insist that any judge in Ireland, who is likely to be asked to preside over a case of sexual assault, abuse, or rape, should undergo mandatory training from the Rape Crisis Centre. I have it on good authority that, even though it’s been offered for several years, no judge has ever availed of this training.

























Yoni reclamation is key to recovery from Girls and women who are sexually abused, sexually assaulted, and / or raped are violated at our very core. In Sanskrit, the female genitalia are referred to as yoni. The meaning of the word itself is akin to ‘source’. Female genitals – vulva, vagina, and womb – are collectively the source of life; but not just the source of the next generation. Our genitals are the source of our sexual pleasure, and when we have been abused, that sense of pleasure is interfered with.


I have spoken with many women who express deep shame as a result of experiencing sexual pleasure when they were abused as children. No matter how often they are told that a sexual reaction to sexual touch is not something they had control over, they are still upset and disgusted with themselves. For many, it is ‘proof’ that they were complicit in their own abuse, which makes them deeply conflicted.


Reclaiming her yoni – and all its power, and joy, and beauty, and promise, and orgasmic glory – is one of the hardest parts of recovering from sexual abuse for any woman. It’s made harder still because of the lack of recognition of the damage that is done, at a primal level, to women when they are abused. If there is no public acknowledgement of the need to reclaim something, then accessing the resources to do so is difficult, if not impossible.


Many healthcare professionals – including doulas and midwives – have no understanding of the deep wounds inflicted on women and their psyches when they are sexually abused. This makes receiving healthcare fraught with difficulty, and the potential for re-traumatisation cannot be underestimated. If your pain, and your trauma has not been acknowledged, has not been addressed, how – and where – do you go to heal?


If the fact that something has been taken from you is not something about which you are encouraged to talk, or think – or even feel – how do you go about getting it back? The first thing we need to do – personally, and as a society – is acknowledge that the yoni of the sexually abused woman, and its energy, has been misappropriated by their abuser/s, Only then we can start to think about how to reclaim it.








Xenization refers to the act of travelling like a stranger. For many of us who were sexually abused, particularly those of us who were sexually abused as children, we can often feel that we travel this whole, wide, world as strangers.


Dissociation can leave us feeling as though we are strangers in our own bodies. Essentially, dissociation is a coping skill developed – usually in childhood – whereby the abused person disengages from their own body and steps outside of themselves, in order to create distance between them and the abuse that is happening to them.  There is a propensity to label dissociation as an unhealthy coping skill, but – for those of us who developed it – it served a purpose, and helped us to cope with unspeakable horror. A child who is overwhelmed by trauma, and who manages to get through it should not then have to have their means of getting through it criticised. We did what we had to do to stay alive!


Those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families where we were abused felt strangers in the world of ‘normality’. I remember, as a child in primary school, scrutinising what other people did, and how they reacted to other family members, so I could ape them. Even now, I sometimes catch myself asking myself what ‘normal’ people would do.


As an adult, nowhere is this more obvious than in the arena of sexual relations. I’ve written about this before but behaving ‘normally’ around a member of the sex to which we are attracted can be a hugely difficult task for those of us who have been abused. It is definitely an arena where we walk like strangers.


Like any stranger, we observe the cultures and the language of those in the world we have travelled to inhabit: For those of us who were sexually abused as children, there is a need to learn the culture and language of people who were not abused, so that we can integrate into this new world. This can mean that, as adults, we need to learn that certain words and phrases – which were part of our experiences of abuse – are not used by other people as ‘code’ or with the intention to  upset or demean us. It means learning that the language of touch can be comforting, reassuring, loving, even. It’s not always abusive.


Like many strangers who travel to distant lands, we often carry luggage with us. Over time, and with experience, however, we learn (hopefully), that our luggage doesn’t have to be comprised of several large pieces. As my wonderful friend, Sarah-in-Leiden (that’s how we refer to her in our house – I have a few wonderful friends called Sarah!) says: ‘We all have baggage. You just need to decide if you’re going to cart around a steam trunk, or an interesting handbag.’



Whistle Blowers

We’re not fond of whistle-blowers in Ireland. Ask Jonathan Sugarman, Gda Maurice McCabe or Dr Tom Clonan.  We don’t make it easy on people to tell the truth, and the truth we hate the most is the truth around sex abuse. Look at the Grace case, where a child was abused, in foster care, for years before the HSE – who knew about the abuse – did anything.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is what Ferguson refers to as the notion of ‘abused and looked after children’ being viewed as ‘moral dirt’. I believe that part of the difficulty around welcoming whistle-blowers in the arena of child sexual abuse is tied up with our societal propensity for victim-blaming. Victims are viewed as ‘dirty’ and ‘shameful’. They are treated with less respect than they deserve, and they are blamed for their own abuse. Because we find the topic of CSA distasteful, we view the victims as shameful, too. By extension, then, we view those who highlight their plight as equally shameful, and attempt to silence them. It’s not a guilt around our collective failing of the vulnerable, but a disgust around discussion of anything to do with sex and the distasteful issue of child sexual abuse, which we still don’t know how to properly address.

Until there are better protections for whistle-blowers, until we shirk off the yoke of mis-placed omerta that exists in Irish society, until we make it easier to whistle-blow, until we actually reward whistle-blowers, we will continue to fail our most vulnerable.







Sadly, victim-blaming is a huge part of every survivors narrative. Questions are asked of her and her behaviour and demeanour that are never asked of a victim of any other type of crime. Questions like:

‘What were you wearing?’

‘How much had you had to drink?’

‘Why were you there on your own?’

‘Did you lead him on?’

‘What did you expect?’

‘Boys will be boys.’

‘Why didn’t you just tell him to stop?’

‘Why didn’t you just fight him off?’

A woman’s previous sexual experience and the fact that men can’t really help themselves will be discussed in certain quarters. This puts the onus on women to accept responsibility for, not just their own behaviour, but that of men as well.

The bottom line is that victims of rape and sexual assault are blamed for what happened to them. As a result, a lot of victims blame themselves. This sort of victim-blaming is used particularly around young children to ensure that they stay quiet and don’t report the abuse because they are told that society, power, people in charge will not believe them – or will blame them for what happened to them.

Should a victim have the temerity, the audacity, and the courage to even attempt to seek some form of justice (there’s that word again!), they will find that those who take the side of their abusers will blame and bully the victim. For many (such as the members of my own immediate family), this helps them to avoid dealing with their own culpability, shame, and guilt around their own abuse of the victim. Or the fact that they allowed the abuse to continue by refusing to do anything to help the victim. Far, far, easier to blame the victim than to look in the mirror and take responsibility for how they made matters worse (or, at the very least, refused to make them better) for the victim.







Here’s the thing about sexual abuse – it’s not sexy. In fact, it’s decidedly unsexy. For those of us who have lived through sexual abuse, sexual assault, or sexual harassment, one of the things that can be really difficult is disclosing to a (potential) sexual partner.

When survivors enter into new romantic/intimate relationships, the twin questions of when, and how, to disclose to this person can be difficult. Until you actually disclose, you can’t be sure how the other person will react – and, of course, you don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. Minimizing what you’ve been through might help the other person to feel less uncomfortable, but you’ll be doing yourself a dis-service. I would suggest discussing the approach you plan on taking with someone else; a trusted friend, relative, therapist or counsellor.

It’s never going to be easy to have the discussion, it’s never going to be easy to disclose (and, if you’re like me, you’ll resent having to every single time). After disclosure (which I always think feels like a ‘warning’), the unsexiness doesn’t end. There is the difficulty that every survivor encounters when they attempt to blossom as a sexual being. For many of us, the easiest thing is to exit the scene. By that I mean be sexually available to your partner, but unable to actually take part in the event. [Edit: I talk more about this here]. For many survivors of sexual assault, reclaiming their own sexuality is one of the hardest things they will ever have to do – not least because so few people understand, or appreciate,  the difficulties and complexities surrounding this reclamation. It’s decidedly unsexy.

Being a participant, rather than an observer, in your own sex-life, is the least we can expect. Getting there can, however, be decidedly unsexy.

Terrible Teenagers

My Tremendous Teens & Me

About an hour ago, I heard an advertisement for an article in tomorrow’s paper. The piece promises ‘experts to tell you how to deal with your terrible teens’ and it really annoyed me. Why would anyone talk about ‘terrible teens’? Why would anyone tell parents that their teenagers are ‘terrible’? More importantly, why would anyone tell their teens that they are ‘terrible’?


I was so cross. Why would anyone tell anyone that they are ‘terrible’ – unless it was in that jesting way of ‘oh stop! You’re tehhhrrrrible‘ ? And why, oh why, would anyone tell a sensitive teenager that they are terrible? Why are we so happy to shame teenagers? Could you imagine if the same language was applied to older people? Imagine if there was an advertisement on the radio for a piece in tomorrow’s paper that would tell you how to deal with your ‘Problematic Parents’, or your ‘Exasperating Elders’? would that be okay? I hardly think so. Why is it permissible – even expected – to tell our teenagers that they are difficult? I’d also question the credentials of any ‘expert’ who would suggest that teens are ‘terrible’.


Here’s the thing; teenagers will live up – or down – to the expectations placed on them. Given that, how about this for an idea; instead of popular culture telling our teens they’re ‘terrible’, how about telling them they’re ‘terrific’, or ‘tremendous’? Instead of writing articles about how to deal with ‘terrible’ teens, why don’t we have experts writing articles about ‘terrific’ teens?


I would also respectfully suggest that any parent who thinks their teen is ‘terrible’ might want to look at their parenting first.


I don’t write poetry much / often these days – who has the time to be brief?! – but I wrote this the other day for someone I love, who happens to be dangerously ill, and who I’m not ready to let go of.



If all you can give me

Is today

Then give me today.

I won’t ask for tomorrow.


If all you can commit to

Is now

Then just give me now

I won’t demand then.


If all you can promise me

Is the night

Then just me the night

I won’t ask for the morning.


When the grief is too much

Let me sit with you

When the fear is too much

Let me hold you

When you’re too overwhelmed

Let me save you

When worry weighs you down

Let me pick you up.


If all you can give me

Is today

Then give me today.


Every day.

Apollo House

I wrote this piece on December 27th, but didn’t want to publish it until it had received the ‘all clear’ from the media team at Apollo House. Given that they have more pressing things to worry about, this took a while. 🙂 


I did my first shift at Apollo House yesterday. For those of you who don’t know, Apollo House is a government building that is owned by NAMA – the National Assets Management Agency (essentially a ‘bad bank’). That means that, really, the building (which – ironically – was a social welfare office) is owned by the Irish people. About a fortnight ago, the building was taken over by a group of activists, artists, actors and musicians, who opened the doors of the building to homeless people.


‘Ordinary’ people responded with generosity, solidarity, and kindness. They donated books, clothes, shoes, food, more food, kitchen equipment, toiletries, blankets, office equipment, money, washing machines, dryers, washing powder, plates, cups, coffee, tea, milk, time, talent and love.


NAMA responded by taking the Home Sweet Home Group – under whose auspices Apollo House is run – to court in an effort to get them to vacate the building. They claimed that part of their reaction was on the grounds that the building was unsafe.  The counter-argument to that was that the building was checked by Health & Safety Officers, and by Fire Safety Officers – who deemed the building safe. It is beyond ridiculous to suggest that people are safer on the cold streets of Dublin than they are in a secure building where they are treated with dignity: Where they have access to nourishing food, tea, coffee, water, medical care, showers, cooking facilities; and people who will talk to them, listen to them, and show them love and kindness.


Enda Kenny, our head of government, said that there are enough beds available so that no one needs to sleep on the street. At best, he is ill-informed. At worst, he is lying through his teeth.


Last Thursday, Judge Gilligan granted the order to vacate, but gave a stay until 12pm on January 11th. He further stipulated that the house could only give shelter to 40 people.
By the time I turned up for my shift at 3pm, all 40 beds in Apollo House had been allocated. People who had no beds secured for the night wandered by, asking if they could be put up. Over and over again, it was explained that we absolutely had to keep to the 40 residents that the judge had ruled. The best we could do was feed people we couldn’t accommodate, offer them clean, dry, warm clothes, sleeping bags, and a phone call to the Freephone number to seek a bed in a hostel.


Not everyone wants a bed in a hostel – they can be dangerous places; we heard tales of people being beaten up, robbed, having their clothes stolen; of recovering addicts being exposed to drugs, and worse.


After a handover and a brief, I went on the first of five runs for the day; bringing food, blankets and  clean, dry clothes to people on the streets who didn’t have accommodation. We tried to get beds in hostels for people who wanted them. By 7.38pm, however, the operator on the Freephone line told us that there were no more beds available. Of course, our runs were done in co-ordination and co-operation with other charities who were doing runs last night so that we didn’t end up visiting the same streets.


Inside, Apollo House is a well-run organisation. Volunteers are divided into teams – media, finance, security, support, outreach, medical, cleaning, catering, legal – according to their skills and experience. The volunteers are well-managed, with handovers at the start of each shift, proper briefings, tasks allocated, and a team manager who answers questions and makes decisions.


Apollo House is a home for the residents. Unlike the hostels, where people are usually only allowed to stay between 9pm and 9am, the residents of Apollo House are not put out on the streets mid-morning. They come and go as they please (as long as they sign in and out – for obvious reasons). They eat, shower, wash their clothes, watch telly, chat, read, hang out and – since yesterday – play pool  (thanks to the generosity of a man who drove from Kerry to Dublin to bring a pool table to Apollo House).


The Apollo House initiative is a short-term solution to a long-term problem; we all know this. But, for the 40 people who have been safe, warm, clean, fed, kept company, cared for, cared about, and nourished in several different ways since the takeover of the building, each night inside is a better proposition than a night outside on the cold, dangerous streets of Dublin.


The point of the initiative is two-fold; to provide for as many people as possible, and to continue to raise awareness. I’m not telling you this because you haven’t heard it before. I’m telling you this because you have heard it before. There is nothing new in the plight of the homeless in Ireland. There is nothing new about how shamefully they are treated by successive Irish governments. There is nothing new about people shivering, hungry, and wet on the streets of Dublin – and the streets of other cities and towns around Ireland. There is nothing new about women and men being treated disrespectfully on the streets of Dublin. There is nothing new about women and men being scared and vulnerable and abused on the streets. That’s precisely the problem. It is an old story, and it’s still being told, just with new narrators.



‘Don’t Use Words I Don’t Want You To’ – Irish Minister

As if running the Department of Poverty wasn’t a big enough job for Leo Varadkar, he’s decided to elect himself Minister for Mansplaining, and give himself cabinet responsibility for correct terminology as well.

Leo has decided that for every person, everywhere, who is ever pregnant, the correct word to use to describe the contents of their womb is ‘baby’.

‘Foetus’ Leo mansplains to all of us who have ever, will ever, or might ever, be pregnant, is not a word that we should use. Nor is it a word that should be used in reference to our pregnancies by mere mortals without a medical degree. ‘Foetus’, according to Dr V, is a medical word. The implication being that those of us who don’t hold medical degrees should not use medical words. We should not refer to our fingers as ‘digits’, either, he cautions. Presumably in case we lose the run of ourselves entirely, and start having a go at performing craniotomies during our lunch-breaks.

I only wish Dr V had been around 13 or 14 years ago, when I started telling my daughter that her vulva was her vulva, rather than her ‘fanny’ or her ‘front bum’ or her ‘butterfly’. I hope she doesn’t get notions above her station as a result. Idly, I wonder if Leo referred to his penis as his ‘passion pencil’ until he was a fully qualified medical doctor. Or if he’d be chagrined if he heard me talking about a migraine, and explaining to my GP that it had started occipitally? Would he chastise me, do you think, and tell me I should talk about the back of my head, instead? Except, referring to the back of my head is not as precise as referring to my occipital bone; and sometimes it is necessary and useful to be precise.

Does Leo not understand that women are allowed to refer to the contents of their wombs however they please? If a woman wants to refer to the product of conception inside her as ‘foetus’, ‘baby’, ‘peanut’, ‘sprog’, ‘alien’ or any other word she likes (the last time I was pregnant, my daughters referred to the contents of my womb as ‘The Minion’), it is not my place to tell her that she is using the wrong word. I would respectfully suggest that Dr V adopt the same attitude.

I find his diktat that all women should refer to their foetuses as babies – and that their friends and families should, too – to be more than vaguely unsettling.  If women aren’t even allowed, by Leo, to use the language which feels most appropriate for them, at a given time, what else does he think they really shouldn’t have a choice about? Or that they should only have limited choice about?

There is an element of nuance involved in this naming business. For a lot of women, when a pregnancy is wanted, they talk about their ‘baby’ even though they know it is not, actually, a baby. Every woman who wants to be a mother, wants to have a baby; but knows that first, she will have a blastocyst, then a zygote, then an embryo, then a foetus, then – if she’s lucky – a baby. We project our hopes onto our wanted pregnancies. We imagine what we’ll have at the end. We invest in them.

Every woman who doesn’t want to be a mother, doesn’t want to have a baby. She knows that she is well within her rights – even if not well within the law in Ireland – to decide what happens to her body. She will refer to it as an embryo or a foetus when discussing it because she is using the correct terminology, whether Leo likes it or not.

Leo also mentioned asking his pregnant friend if she knew what sex her baby was going to be (thank God he used correct terminology and didn’t ask her what gender) and I’m a bit horrified by this, to be honest. It’s none of his business. If his friend wanted to tell him, he should have left it up to her to disclose, and not gone prying. Is it just me, or does this interrogation assume a level of entitlement that he doesn’t deserve?

I also find it interesting that Leo decided to speak for his friend and his sisters by telling the world that if he had used the word ‘foetus’ when referring to their pregnancies, they would have been offended. Why? Because he thinks it’s a ‘medical’ word. I find this deeply disturbing; that a man would assume a woman would take offence because he thinks their thoughts and feelings should match his own? Is this more evidence of entitlement? Or am I over-thinking this?

When I speak to friends who are pregnant, I never say ‘How’s the foetus?’ (I reserve that for when I’m gently joshing friends who are in May-December relationships). Equally, though, I never say ‘How’s the baby?’ Instead, I ask ‘How are you?’ The person I’m addressing is free to choose whether or not to interpret that as second person singular or second person plural (do you think Leo will object to my using such technical language?), and answer accordingly. I don’t decide for her what word should be used in this context. It’s not my place.

 Maybe I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe I just don’t like being mansplained at by a privileged male with an over-developed sense of entitlement.

Breaking the Cycle

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Safe Ireland held a seminar with distinguished speakers from around the world. They discussed things I know a lot about – abuse, violence, trauma and the effects of same. I wasn’t at the conference, because (frankly) it was out of my price range, but I am very grateful to those who live-tweeted the event using the hashtag #safeirelandsummit


One of the things that struck me was the fact that John Lonergan (former governor of Mountjoy Jail) was reported as asking ‘How do we prevent? That is the challenge’


I can only assume he was asking how we might prevent domestic violence. Part of me is shocked that someone would even need to ask, but I’ll get over that and focus instead on the fact that, if you’re asking, it means you’re interested. So, here, are ten things that you can do to work on the prevention and elimination of domestic violence.


  1. Stop calling it ‘domestic’ violence. It’s family violence. It’s intimate partner abuse, it’s family abuse. ‘Domestic’ makes it sound less serious than it actually is. Calling abusing your partner ‘a domestic’ makes it sound innocuous, and makes it less likely that anyone will intervene.


  1. Start respecting women. All women. Not just the ones you’re related to – and not just because you’re related to them. Women deserve respect because they are alive, not because of their relationship to you or someone you know. Personally, I’m sick of hearing / reading ‘Imagine if it was your wife / girlfriend / sister / mother / daughter’. Woman are valid regardless of their kinship.


  1. Don’t tolerate sexist language. If a colleague makes an anti-woman ‘joke’ or statement, call them on it. Remember when it was okay to tell anti-Irish jokes? Why is it not okay to do that any more? Because people stopped accepting that casual racism as ‘humour’. Do the same with sexist jokes.


  1. Don’t tell your sons not to hit girls. Tell them not to hit anyone. Telling boys not to hit girls implies that girls can’t take care of themselves, and are easier targets than other boys. It also reinforces the notion that hitting females is an easy way to control them. We don’t want violence in our lives, no matter who it’s directed at.


  1. Teach the males in your lives that it’s not okay to talk over women, or interrupt them. To do so is disrespectful. Respecting women is key to not abusing them.


  1. Don’t take up more space than you have to: For example, ‘manspreading’ on public transport, and expecting a woman to move out of your way when you’re walking down the street. It’s aggressive and disrespectful. By taking up more space than you need, you’re forcing us to take up less than we need. You’re treating us as if we’re invisible. Invisible women don’t feel safe.


  1. Recognise that abuse is more than physical. Often, it’s the bruises that can’t be seen that cause most pain. Emotional, financial, psychological and sexual abuse cause (at least) as much damage. The threat of being hit, of knowing that the man you’re with, may strike out at you at any stage, is hugely damaging. Gaslighting is highly abusive.


  1. Make sure there is information about where help can be found prominently displayed in your office. Often, women who are gaslighted and otherwise abused, have no idea that what is happening to them is wrong. Often, they don’t see themselves as abused. Sometimes because a part of them believes they deserve the treatment they’re getting. Informing them otherwise may empower them to get help.


  1. Many women who are victims of their intimate partners are re-victimised. They have already been traumatised. They have grown up seeing their (step)fathers abuse their mothers; they have been sexually assaulted, they have been conditioned to expect nothing else. Be kind. Kindness – given freely, and without expectation of ‘payment’ – is the opposite of abuse.


  1. Finally, we will stop men hurting women when we stop accepting and excusing it. Stop saying ‘But he’s a pillar of the community’, stop saying ‘But he’s a great GAA man’, stop saying ‘But he’s a good provider’, stop saying ‘But he’s very good to his mother’. Stop insinuating that because he has done one good thing, he is incapable of hurting the woman he lives with – and their children.


Break the cycle. Don’t accept, excuse, or refuse to see, intimate partner abuse.

Dear Ireland

Dear Ireland

I don’t have long this morning to make my point, so I will be brief (we all know I can bang on a bit, so I know you’ll be a bit relieved to read that.)

I seem to be in a perpetual state of annoyance with you, but if you’d keep your word on the important things, then maybe I wouldn’t be quite so cross.

What’s been really annoying me lately is your treatment of refugee children in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais. Actually, ‘annoying me’ is an understatement. I’m actually spitting fire.  Ireland, what is wrong with you? These are babies. And you are turning your back on them. These are young hearts and minds and souls that you are deliberately failing. The damage that abandonment and trauma does to young minds is irreversible. It is. I’ve studied this. I know what I’m talking about. (I’m also an adult who was traumatised as a child, and had that trauma compounded by the state, so I have lived experience, too.) You, Ireland, by refusing to act, are condemning these children to a lifetime of psychological pain. And many of those lives will be cut short because of your inaction.  A generation of little babies damaged beyond repair. On your head be it, Ireland, because you are standing idly by and doing nothing more than wringing your hands and – I’ll bet – counting your blessings that Calais is not just outside Cork or Dublin or Galway.

I am disgusted, ashamed, and appalled by your treatment of these children who need help, and need help now. Honestly, though, I’m not surprised because – let’s face it – your track record on looking after babies and children leaves a lot to be desired.  But I don’t have time to list your past failings, I think what’s most important today is to address your current one.

Ireland, I know your memory for certain things is a bit poor. (Except the potato famine and the 1916 Rising, of course.) So let me take this opportunity to remind you of a document you signed, and then ratified on September 28th, 1992. That’s a while ago I admit; 24 years, one month and four days ago now. Let me remind you what it was – a wee thing known as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. You signed this, Ireland. You signed this as a solemn pledge to be bound by the contents of the document. You signed this, agreeing that it was right and proper and correct that children should be treated in accordance with the Convention.

Let me jog your memory a bit, Ireland, and remind you of your obligations under this Convention. Article 38.4, if you want to have a look at it, says that countries who sign up to the Convention

‘shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.’

Article 39 is a commitment to

‘take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts. Such recovery and reintegration shall take place in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.’

Now, Ireland, can you honestly say that you are honouring your commitment to these children? And don’t start whining about ‘looking after our own’ first or any of that nonsense, because I don’t want to hear it. Not least because these children are our own. Every child is the responsibility of every adult. Really. If a child’s primary carers are unable to care for them, for whatever reason, then the rest of us need to step up and mind those babies and treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve. And, yes, love them. Love them fiercely and unconditionally and without reservation.

Do it now, Ireland. These children can’t wait any longer. Do it now and argue about it afterwards. Don’t be the country that saves banks, and sacrifices children. Step up, Ireland. Grow a pair. Open your doors and your heart and welcome these children. Hold them close, nourish them, help them to heal as much as they can.

I said I didn’t have long this morning to fire off letters to you, Ireland, but these children have even less time than I do. They need you to act now.





Charity Begins?

It’s been another rough week for charities in Ireland. That is to say, it’s been a rough week for mis-behaving charities in Ireland. The revelations about misappropriation of funds meant for suicidal people by the charity Console has left the country reeling. Then, news came of financial irregularities in the St John Of God organisation. These come while scandals at the CRC and allegations against Bumbleance are still fresh in the public’s collective memory.

The effect of these scandals is that people who have contributed are – understandably – hurt and upset by the fact that money they have donated, or worked hard to fundraise, didn’t reach the people for whom they intended it. People are also more wary of giving money to charities. It also means that people question how this was allowed to happen. There are supposed to be checks and balances, aren’t there? Isn’t there supposed to be some sort of oversight to ensure that this kind of oversight doesn’t happen? Well, yes, there is.

I sit on the board of directors of an Irish charity and I can assure you that we take our responsibilities very seriously. We are aware that the buck stops with us – that we are personally responsible should there be any irregularities in the finances – or elsewhere – that we don’t report. We have regular board meetings and, at each of these, our accountant comes along and goes through the finances with us. He invites questions, and answers them thoroughly. We are audited annually. Recommendations made by the auditor are acted upon and we were delighted that this year the auditor had no recommendations to make, except for us to keep doing as we’re doing.

Directors of Irish charities are not allowed to accept payment for their work on boards. They are allowed reasonable expenses. In the case of the charity on whose board I sit, this amounts to transport paid at the rate of public transport, a lunch when at the meeting – we sit through lunchtime – and an allowance of just over €10 for a meal if you are away from home for more than eight hours. We sit on the board because we believe in the work of the charity and we want to support it. We sit on the board because it is a way of ‘giving back’. We sit on the board because we feel what we’re doing is important. We do not sit on the board because we want to be given millions of euros for so doing.

I think part of the reason we have trouble with charities in Ireland is that there are so many of them. I’ve said this before, but I think the Irish charity sector has a bit of a ‘People’s Judean Front’ mentality (to borrow a phrase from Monty Python). What this means is that we have a glut of charities in the country all doing essentially the same thing. We have over 20 charities and NGOs working in the area of suicide and self-harm prevention. I’m not entirely sure we need so many – though, of course, each agency would argue for their own unique angle on the issue. I still think that there should be one charity responsible for tackling suicide and self harm, and that all other charities working in the area be amalgamated. I do think that it would be much easier to keep an eye on sector’s behaviour – financial and otherwise – if there was only one agency to deal with.



Incest appears to be the taboo within the taboo. Society prefers to think of rapists and sexual predators as extra-familial. We prefer to think that they are the men who wait, in dark alleys, for women to rape; we prefer to think of them as clergymen who cannot contain the impulses that an ‘unnatural’ life as a celibate dictates they must; we prefer to think of them as coaches and teachers and scout leaders who abuse and traumatise our children. We prefer to think of rapists as cruel, evil men who spike girls’ drinks on nights out in order to abuse and rape them.

We do not like to think of rapists and sexual predators as men who rape their own granddaughters, daughters and sisters. Sadly, however, the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by men who are blood relations to those they assault. This makes it harder for the victim to both process and reveal. If the people who are closest to you, the people who are meant to protect you, are the people who are hurting you in the most abominable ways, who are you supposed to trust? Who are you supposed to tell? How do you even find the words to describe what is happening to you?

Family is, to a large extent,  a social construct. It is also held, by many, to be the bedrock of society. As such, there are certain expectations of how a family is supposed to function – or appear to function – there are certain rules and mores that are associated with family. When these rules are transgressed,  as they clearly are in incest situations, the person who is abused is completely abandoned and alone; the ‘family’ which is supposed to be their safe haven and is attacking them. The society of which they are part, tells the abused person, through all manner of messages, that they are expected to behave in a certain way towards their family members including the member/s who is/are abusing them. This dreadful confusion compounds the awful situation the abused person finds herself in. Very often, the internal and external pressure to maintain the status quo and say nothing is overwhelming. As a result, only a small percentage of people actually disclose inter-familial abuse to anyone but their therapists.

People who are victims of incest often feel that they have no choice but to remain within the fold of the family and preserve appearances. They are often pressured to act ‘as though’ all is well within the unit. This, of course, does all manner of damage to the child and maintains the culture of abuse within the family. As a society with a duty to all the members of that society – and, I would argue, especially its children – we need to address this taboo within a taboo and confront incest as the most pervasive form of sexual assault.


Gas Lighting


Gaslighting is a term that comes from the name of the film, Gaslight. In it, a man tries to convince his young wife that she is going insane by twisting her words, convincing that things she is sure are happening, aren’t and that her version of events are flawed. The term ‘gaslighting’ is used to describe psychological abuse that attempts to destroy the victims’ trust in their perceptions of reality. People who distrust their perceptions are easier to manipulate and control.

Gaslighting is something that often happens to people who are sexually assaulted over a period of time. If you think about it, abusers will rarely declare ‘I am going to abuse you now’ or ‘come here ’till I use you for my own sexual gratification and to feel powerful’. No. They are more likely to tell you that this is what love looks and feels like, that they are touching you in this way because you are ‘special’ or they might say ‘stop crying, it doesn’t hurt.’

Gaslighting is sometimes part of the grooming process; and, because victims of sexual abuse are prone to re-victimisation, we are prone to being gaslight in other relationships as well. Gaslighting can be linked to the lack of awareness of/trust in your instinct that I referred to last week, in the first of these AtoZ blogs. Below, I have listed my ‘Five Cs’ of gaslighting. If you find that these apply to a relationship you’re in, it would be worth mentioning it do your therapist.

  • Confusion. You feel confused and off-balance when you interact with someone. You receive puzzling responses to ordinary actions, and your reactions are labelled wrong or unreasonable.
  • Concerns about mental stability. You worry that you are going crazy. Someone repeatedly expresses concern that you’ll have a nervous breakdown.
  • Conflict about memory. You hear, “I never said that,” when you clearly remember hearing it. You frequently hear, “You’re imagining things,” or “You remember that wrong.” Memory differences can be expressed respectfully by saying, “I don’t remember saying that,” or “I don’t remember it that way.”
  • Confounded emotions. When you think about your situation, or recent conversations you have had with the person in question, you feel muddled. The facts do not add up; but you see that as a flaw in yourself, rather than in the situation or the other person.
  • Cross-examining your own perceptions. You ask others to confirm what you notice. When someone disagrees with you, you immediately assume you were wrong. Ask yourself if you remember a time when you did trust your own perceptions. If so, when did that change? If it is linked to the beginning of the relationship in question, it’s probably time to leave that relationship.

Gaslighting is a particularly insidious way of damaging someone’s psychological perception of themselves and their situation. I know I’m repeating myself, but if you the ‘Five Cs’ match characteristics of a relationship you’re in, it’s time to think about leaving that relationship. If you recognise the signs from a previous abusive situation, then I hope this will help put it into perspective for you.




Forgiveness is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. When I say ‘lately’, I mean the past eighteen months or so. I’ve been examining it from philosophical, emotional and psychological points of view with my eye on publishing a long piece in the near future.

I’m including a short piece on forgiveness in this A to Z Challenge because I have heard and read on many occasions, that forgiveness is crucial for survivors of sexual abuse. We are told that in order to ‘free’ ourselves from the pain of the abuse, we need to forgive those who molested and / or raped us. Forgiveness is sold to us as a A Good Thing. In the accepted rhetoric, forgiveness seems to be something that is as good – if not better – for the forgiver as for the forgivee.

The way forgiveness is generally talked about, it appears as if forgiving confers on the forgiver a deed to a piece of land high up on the moral ground. Forgivers are seen as morally superior, somehow. ‘Good’ people forgive. ‘Bad’ people don’t. This puts the onus back on the transgressed to do the right thing; to fix the situation. We are urged to ‘let it go’ to ‘move on’, to ‘let bygones be bygones’ to ‘be the bigger person’. We’re told that holding on to the anger just hurts the transgressed – it does nothing to the transgressor.

But is it really better for the person of whom forgiveness is expected to actually give that forgiveness? Is forgiveness the same as saying that whatever happened doesn’t matter? Or that it doesn’t matter any more? Can you really be expected to forgive someone who shows no remorse?

I don’t think that you have to ‘forgive’ the person who hurt you, you don’t owe them anything. You do, however, owe yourself your best life. What we,  as people who have managed to survive abuse, are looking for is peace – peace inside ourselves so that we can move on and move forward and live our best lives.

Forgiving the people who damaged us in unimaginable ways doesn’t have to be part of that. Choosing not to forgive does not mean that you are wallowing in hate. Choosing not to forgive doesn’t automatically turn the person who has been hurt into a bitter, twisted individual.  Choosing not to forgive may, in fact, be a hugely empowering stance. It may feel like one of the few choices you actively had in your your relationship with the person who abused you.



The A to Z April Challenge

Over on my other blog (hazelkatherinelarkin), I’ve joined in on the A to Z Blogging Challenge. The idea is to take a theme and blog it through the month of April, working your way through the alphabet while you’re at it.


Given that it’s also Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I’ve decided to marry the two and will be blogging an A to Z of sexual assault for the month of April.


If you’re interested, you can find the first post here:  http://wp.me/s6sNwP-abuse

Have We Lived Up To The Ideals of the Proclamation?

Easter 1916 saw the most famous of the rebellious risings against the British in our history. It has been revised and re-positioned several times in my life-time, never mind in the hundred years since the thing happened. But, I just can’t muster up any enthusiasm about the celebrations, or commemorations or whatever you want to call them. I think we’ve failed. We’ve failed the ideals expressed by the leaders of the Rising, as outlined in the proclamation. Taking a look at some of those ideals, (and ignoring all references to God), I have a few thoughts:

We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.

Tell that to the 5,000 homeless children, women and men on the streets of Ireland. Tell that to the people whose government sold her rights to the gas that lies off her shores, who considered selling off the woodlands. Tell that to the people who have been brought to their knees, or emigrated, or killed themselves due to the financial pressures brought about by the Irish government’s decision to bail out the bondholders.

The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.

I’d say there are plenty of Irish people feeling destroyed on a daily basis – and a right is not much use if you don’t get the opportunity to exercise it.

The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally…

What use is religious liberty if your children are refused access to an education on the grounds that they are of the ‘wrong’ (ie not Roman Catholic) religion – or practice none at all? As far as civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities being secured, well – tell that to the women who are unable to access legal abortions in Ireland. Tell that to the widowers and motherless children of women who have died because they couldn’t get access to abortions. Tell that to women whose pelvises were sawn in half and who are still waiting for justice. Tell that to the children who were incarcerated and abused in industrial schools. Tell that to the women and children who were incarcerated in laundries up and down this country. Tell that to the children who have been born into and continue to live in direct provision. Tell that to the women who were fecked out of their jobs as soon as they got married – until 1973 it was illegal for a woman to keep her job in a bank or the civil service (unless she was a nurse or a teacher).  Tell that to the women of Ireland who are still treated as second class citizens – who are not allowed autonomy over their own bodies.

As far as cherishing all of the children of the nation equally – I could be here all day commenting on that one. Children are not cherished by this nation. Grace and Karen tell us that. Children with disabilities tell us that. Children who have any type of special need tell us that.

For all these reasons and more, I don’t think that we are in any position to celebrate anything. I’m disgusted that over €50m has been earmarked for the 1916 commemorations. How many families would that have housed? How many procedures for people on our long waiting lists would that have paid for? How many children in desperate situations would that have saved? How many special needs assistants’ salaries would that have paid?

I struggle to find a reason to be proud of Ireland. I am proud of certain individual Irish people; but more and more I am frustrated by the attitude of Ireland to her children, to their pasts, to their present moments, and to their futures.


I’ve published one book – but written 50!

In November, I published the first volume of my memoirs. Called ‘Gullible Travels’, it is – by the very fact of being a memoir! – a hugely personal tale about the ten years I spent in Asia, married to the wrong men and desperate to become a mother.

Keen to avoid being labelled a ‘misery lit’ writer, I wove the back story of the sexual abuse I lived through into the book, rather than making it the focus. I thought that would make the subject easier for people to read and – crucially – I used a different font for the descriptions of abuse, so that people who didn’t want to read those parts could just skip over them.

A therapist who heard me speak at a conference on trauma a year and a half ago got in touch to say that, having read the book, she was recommending it to some of her clients, in an attempt to help them make sense of their own behaviour.

A woman in her early thirties emailed to let me know that she’d sat up until 2am to finish the book (on a school night!). For her, I’d written a book about maternal love. Another woman emailed to let me know that she had spent four years in therapy after her husband left her; and one line in Gullible Travels made more sense to her regarding her situation than all the things her therapist had said in that time. One reader emailed me from Australia to let me know that she was applauding me – she felt Gullible Travels was a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Many women have been in touch to disclose their own abuse, and to express the feeling that, finally, someone understands.

It’s not just women who are reading my book, of course. Men are contacting me to let me know that Gullible Travels has had an effect on them, too.  Some are shocked at the behaviour of other men – and write, telling me of their resolve to be even more mindful of how they speak to, and treat, women. Others are relieved that they never treated a woman as badly as I have been treated by members of the opposite sex. One man wrote to thank me for helping him to understand a former girlfriend who had been sexually abused. He was planning on getting in touch with her – armed with this new understanding – to see if they could give it another go.

Every few days, I get a message via email or social media from a reader to let me know that they have read my book and how it has impacted them. Never having written a memoir before, I am astonished by how people are reacting to it. I thought I’d written one book, but it seems I’ve written several.


I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions many moons ago. For so many people, they are just sticks to beat themselves with. They are something else to fail at. So many people make resolutions before they are ready to keep them – otherwise, they’d have made them before the new year. Anyway, who says that we can only make changes to our lives at the beginning of the year? That seems a bit restrictive to me.

This year, instead of a ‘resolution’ (or a list of them!), I have a word. Just a single word that I will use to guide me throughout the year. That word is ‘Expansion’. Even thinking it makes me smile, it makes me breathe deeper, it fills me with excitement.

Expansion is, perhaps, the first cousin of Abundance, but this year, it was expansion that demanded my attention as a theme for 2016. Choosing a word as a theme feels like a much gentler thing to do with, and for, and to, myself than giving myself a list of ‘resolutions’.

Expansion is going to be fun; it will probably throw a few challenges at me, but that’s okay – I enjoy a challenge. Expansion is a good, inclusive, word. The more I expand, the more I have space for: More space for more relationships; more space for nurturing the relationships I already hold dear; more space for more learning; more space for more ideas; more space for more books (!); more space for more thinking; more space for more loving; more space for more action.

If you were to choose a word to guide your year, what would it be?

Ten Things Writing a Memoir Taught Me About Writing A Memoir.

As you know, I published my memoir, Gullible Travels, in November. This book is my first memoir, but not my first published work by a long shot. Memoir writing, however, is very different to the other types of writing – academic writing, screenwriting, playwriting, and writing for a variety of magazines from financial to parenting – that I had previously done.

So, while writing Gullible Travels, I learnt a few things about writing in this genre, which I am delighted to share with you here:

Do your therapy first!

I have very strong feelings on this one – it’s a complete non-negotiable, as far as I’m concerned. If you are going to write about something that’s upsetting or difficult, don’t use writing your memoir as therapy. Do your therapy first, work through your stuff, and then write your book. Your reader’s job is not to work through your shit for you. That’s your job, and yours alone.

Sure, writing is therapeutic, keeping a journal is good for all of us, but do that work first, before you write you book. The way you write for yourself and the way you write for an audience are (should be!) very different.

You don’t have to begin at the beginning.

Years ago, I read that the difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that the former covers your entire life – from when you were born until the time the book is written. A memoir, on the other hand, covers a specific time or event; whether that’s a decade or two in your life, your recovery from an illness, or your year travelling through Africa on a goat.

When you have decided which part of your life story it is you want to tell, bear in mind that you don’t have to start at the beginning. Drop in in the middle of your anecdote, if that makes more sense, or is a more interesting point to start. Hit the ground running, and take your readers with you.

You can be honest without being cruel. 

One of the women who made more than a brief appearance in my book was a champion farter. It didn’t matter where she was – her home, your home, a friend’s home, a restaurant, a five-star hotel, or the bus – she would happily, blissfully trumpet away without as much as a ‘Pardon me’ the entire time I knew her!

Of course, I could have included this piece of information – but to what end? (oops!). It would just embarrass her, and it wouldn’t necessarily add anything to the narrative. Even though it’s completely true, I had already given plenty of indication of how difficult our relationship was – so this piece of information wouldn’t have shed any new light on the situation.

Not every anecdote needs to be included. 

I have quite a few funny stories that didn’t make it in to Gullible Travels, but they don’t need to be included in the book.

Doubtless, you have a sackful of those kind of anecdotes as well – interesting, amusing things that have happened to you along the way. Don’t put yourself under pressure to include them; you’re not concealing material facts by doing so. Keep them for your book launch, for interviews, and for when you’re speaking at events. Or even just for sharing with people over lunch, or at parties.

Two can become one without it becoming a ‘lie’ or a fiction.

There may well be certain people who need to feature in your memoir that you don’t want to identify, but who are necessary to the narrative. Beyond changing their names, you can change the sex of a person and their relationship to you. For example, your raging alcoholic Aunt Bertha can be transformed into your raging alcoholic Uncle Benny (who also happens to be a priest). Or you can turn two of your boyfriends from when you were 16/17 into one boy.

In Gullible Travels, for example, ‘The Horrible Boy’ is actually three people amalgamated into one. While all the events attributed to ‘The Horrible Boy’ took place, the abuse by one was very similar to the abuse by another, so it would have added nothing to the narrative to have separated them out – in fact, it may well have confused the reader trying to keep so many abusers straight in their heads. Having just one identity also supported the repetitive nature of the abuse, and the dissociation that is mentioned in the book.

Writing in dialect can be a distraction.

If someone in your life/book speaks in a particular dialect, or with a specific accent, it’s probably best not to try to reproduce it on the page. As well as being a distraction to the eye, it may not be ‘heard’ in the reader’s ‘mind’s ear’ the way you hear it in your memory. The best thing to do, really, is to write the words that the person meant, fully and completely.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that writing in a dialect or reproducing an accent on the page can also present problems for your translators further down the road.

When recounting dialogue, the rules of fiction apply.

When I started writing my memoir, I thought I needed to be completely faithful, in my recounting of conversations, to what was actually said. Halfway through the first draft, however, I realised that wasn’t useful. Just as when I was writing for stage and screen, I needed to keep dialogue to the essence of what was said: The meaning needed to be conveyed to retain the truth of whatever conversation I was recounting, but every word did not have to be set down on the page. Actual speech can be very repetitive, full of half-finished sentences, thoughts that aren’t completed, and meanderings that aren’t necessary to the story you’re telling.

Sometimes, the conversation itself doesn’t even need to be recounted at all. You can simply say ‘We shouted at each other for two and a half hours without resolving anything’. Or ‘By the end of the discussion – which we returned to on a daily basis for a week – we decided boarding school was the best option.’

Even though it’s a memoir, your job is still to entertain your reader. 

Your memoir might be dealing with the darkest, bleakest of human experiences, but it can still be entertaining. My book, for example, is about being sexually abused (by several people) as a child; re-victimisation; abusive marriages; miscarriages, and lots of other un-funny subjects. Even with those subjects as the material for the book, the one thing I repeatedly hear from people who read Gullible Travels is that they can’t put it down. Some people even tell me that they laugh when they’re reading it. Good! I’m delighted.

I want to entertain the people who are giving their time to me and my book. That, I believe, is the contract between writer and reader; they read your work with the expectation that they will enjoy it, and you must do your best to render unto them something that will amuse them.

Be clear about your motivation. 

One question you need to ask yourself is why you want to write your memoir.  It doesn’t have to be something deep and profound – having a cracking great story you want to tell is reason enough.

I wrote Gullible Travels because someone else told me that – in spite of it being my story – it wasn’t about me. The point of writing that book, I was told, was (among other things) so that other women could identify and remove themselves from abusive relationships; so people who haven’t been abused could better understand how it affects those of us who have been, and so people who have been abused would realise they are not alone.

Of course, you don’t have to write for publication. I know quite a few people who have written memoirs in order to preserve their memories for future generations of their families. These books are prized possessions by those who are entrusted with them.

A word of caution, however; a desire for revenge is not a good motivator. If that’s why you write your memoir, then you can be sure that your writing will appear bitter, mean-spirited, and will make for squirmy reading.

Remember, it’s your memoir.

The book you’re writing is your memoir. It is your story. It is yours to tell the way you want to tell it. You are under no obligation to explain, excuse, interpret or analyse anyone else’s behaviour.  Write your own story, write it in your own voice, and write it with all the integrity you can muster.

Dear Men Who Date Online…

It’s no secret that I have been an online dater a few times in the past twelve years of my singledom. A few years ago, I had a regular feature on the radio where I shared my experiences of looking for a fella in Ireland as an intelligent, divorced, mother of two in her thirties.

In the interests of research and radio, I flirted (see what I did there?!) with a variety of different ways to meet men on the island of Ireland. I went to a few matchmakers; I asked friends to look through their husbands’ address books for eligible unattacheds; I went speed-dating; on blind dates; dinner events for singles; wine-tastings and other ‘events’. I even went to the pub on my own to see if I’d meet anyone there (I didn’t). And, of course, I tried online dating.

I tried a few sites – from those that promised to be a cut above the rest (and charged accordingly), to those that made no claims at all (and were free), and everything in between.

Along the way, I have read the online profiles of thousands of men. So my New Year’s gift to every man over the age of 35 who is looking for more than just a shag (though there’s nothing wrong with that) I offer you my observations in a handy list.

When creating your online profile, I respectfully suggest that you:

  1. Wait at least a year between leaving one serious relationship and looking for another. Trust me on this one. You are just not ready. By all means go out, date, meet your friends, go to gigs, accept invitations, do whatever it is you fancy – but don’t start looking for another serious relationship. Spend time getting to know yourself again – who you are as a single person – before looking for someone else to get to know you.
  2. Put some thought into what you write about yourself. If you want a woman to engage with you, show her you are worth engaging with. ‘I’ll come back to this later’ or ‘I don’t know what to say here’ or ‘Jaysus this is hard. I’ll have a pint while I think about it’ isn’t endearing. If you want a woman to think you’re worth her time, show her you think you’re worth your time.
  3. Don’t slag off your ex. This shouldn’t even need to be said, but it’s not funny (even if you mean it to be funny rather than offensive). Women need to see that you can treat women with respect – how you treat/speak about your ex tells us a lot about you. Also, it can make a woman who is interested in you worry about what you’ll slag her off over if things don’t work out between you.
  4. Don’t tell us what your friends say about you. If we wanted to know, we’d ask them. Show us you have some degree of reflexivity and self-knowledge by telling us what you think about yourself. Tell us what you like about yourself, one or two of your endearing habits and the things you love to do in your spare time.
  5. Don’t lie. If we like you, we will take notice of what you say, and if you’ve lied in your profile, we will catch you out in that lie and – because we have self-respect and don’t like being lied to – never see you again.
  6. Be open. Even if you think you have a type, be open to dating women who are different to the kind of women you’d usually go for. Maybe you thought you’d never date a woman who wasn’t blonde, or hated football, or had kids; but if you suspend your expectations and convictions, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.
  7. Post your second-best photo of yourself. This might seem counter-intuitive, but the reason is simple: If a woman sees a photo of you that isn’t you at your best, and still wants to meet you, chances are she’s interested in more than your looks. When she sees you in the flesh, she will be pleasantly surprised. Which is a whole lot nicer than the other kind of surprised.
  8. Post pictures of yourself and yourself alone. We don’t want to see pictures of you with other women (that includes your mum), with children, or with all your buddies. We don’t want to date any of those people – we want to date you. By all means, show us photographs of your kids/siblings’ kids when we’re on our second or third date, but not in your profile picture.
  9. Post pictures of you without your car/helicopter/jet in the background/foreground. Do you really want to go out with a woman who is only interested in what you drive? Wouldn’t you rather go out with a woman who is more interested in what drives you?
  10. Write your profile stone cold sober and have a straight female friend read over it before you put it online. Like most people, you’re not as funny drunk as you think you are. A straight female friend will read your profile from a straight woman’s perspective (naturally) and give you honest feedback. If you’re really lucky, she’ll catch your typographical errors as well.


Wishing you the best of luck in your online search for Ms Right in 2016!


Listening to Louise O’Neill chatting with Seán Moncrieff today had me thinking about consent again. Particularly and specifically consent in the context of sexual relations. Now, when I say ‘sexual relations’ I don’t just mean penetrative sexual intercourse. I mean everything up to, and including, penetrative sexual intercourse; and, yes, that includes snogging.


It really isn’t okay to lunge at someone and ‘lob the gob’ (as the young people say), stick your tongue in their mouth and swish it around a bit. Uninvited, unwelcome, that’s assault.


I remember the first time someone asked me if they could kiss me; it really surprised me, and I thought it was a bit quaint and slightly old-fashioned. Afterwards, though, I realised that it was probably the most respectful thing a man could do before kissing a woman. Now, I expect it. I don’t know if consent is such a huge issue for me because – for most of my life – who touched me, and when, was not something I had any control over; or if it’s simply because it’s a respectful way of going about things.

In discussions about consent, I have heard people dismiss the obtaining of it as ‘not sexy’.  Personally, I find it really sexy. I find it very sexy when a man doesn’t assume that I’m there to be touched as, and when, and where, he feels like it. I find it quite sexy that he considers me important enough in the proceedings to find out before touching me that it really is something I want.  And, let’s face it, if I’m in a position (no pun intended!) where a man is asking consent, chances are it will be granted. There again, it might not be – I might say ‘no’, or ‘not yet’ or ‘wait’ but at least I have been consulted about what happens to my body. The effect that has on me is intoxicating. Knowing that nothing will happen to me until I have granted permission for it to happen also means that I relax and am much more in the moment – and much more open to enjoying it – than I would be otherwise. I’m not tensely on guard, aware that the moment might well arise where I have to fight someone off.

Also, it’s so much nicer to be asked for permission than to be in the situation where you have to stay ‘stop!’ or ‘don’t’ or push someone away. Particularly for those of us who have been sexually abused, and where having things done to us without warning, and without consent is triggering. It can be very difficult to stop someone who starts to do something unwelcome when your historical experience is that your pleas will either be ignored, or met with more force. In those instances, we’re less likely to feel as though we’re active participants in a pleasurable exercise than we are to feel that we’re objects being subjected to activity. This can result in ‘stop’ being screamed in our heads, but never making it past being more than a lump in our throats. It can also result in dissociation, meaning we’re no longer even in the room – which is a bit sad when you fancy someone and have been looking forward to a good spit-swapping session (or more).

The last time I snogged someone, I tried to discuss how I felt about consent. I explained that, if his hand was to end up anywhere between my neck and knee, I either wanted to be the one who put it there, or to be asked first if it was okay. He was surprised.

‘I’d hate you to be uncomfortable,’ he explained. I knew this already. The reason we were kissing in the first place was that I’d decided he was one of life’s nice guys, and that I was probably as safe with him as I could reasonably expect to be with any man. ‘But I’m kissing you. And when I’m kissing you, it feels natural to want to touch you, and to want to run my hands over your body. If I do something you don’t like – then tell me to stop and I will.’

I have no doubt he would have stopped if I’d asked him to, but – really – that’s too late. You’ve already done something to me that I don’t want you to, you’ve already breached my trust, you’ve already made me anxious. Also, as I explained earlier, for those of us with a history of sexual abuse, saying ‘stop’ can be difficult.

At the other end of the spectrum, I renewed an acquaintance with a very lovely man about six months ago. We hadn’t met since 1999 (we live thousands of kilometres away from each other) – and the last time we’d seen each other, we’d been kissing. I was hoping we’d pick up where we’d left off. We did.

In and of itself, that was lovely; but what was lovelier was the fact that he did nothing without making absolutely sure first that it was something I wanted. It started with him telling me – when we were arranging to meet – that he wanted to kiss me, and asking if that would be okay; to asking permission to hold my hand when we were out walking, to checking with me, when we alone and getting cosy, that his intentions were acceptable before acting on them.

After about a week of this wonderfulness, I asked him about it.

‘Consent is really important to me,’ I told him. ‘But why is it important to you? Why are you so aware of it? Why do you always ask me before you touch me?’

‘Because I was raised to have respect for women – and I respect you,’ came the response. ‘And I can’t just presume that because I want something, that you want the same thing at the same time. I would hate to hurt you or upset you, so I need to be sure before I do something that I am allowed to do it, and that it’s something you want as much as I do.’

Still intrigued, I asked a bit more. It turns out that he was raised to treat women with respect not because we’re weak and need ‘minding’ but because we’re strong and formidable. As such, we need to be treated with due consideration, and as equals.

Of course, consent is a two-way street, and I would never dream of touching a man without his permission. I often find, however, that my requests are met with puzzlement, amusement and / or surprise. On more than one occasion, requests for consent have been answered with

‘Just do what you want with me!’

Once I’ve explained that I’m uncomfortable with that, and why, they have come around to my way of thinking; and enjoyed being asked as much as they have enjoyed the acts they have given consent for.

Dear Reader

I just had an amazing phone call from a woman who read ‘Gullible Travels’ yesterday in one sitting. She was in tears as she spoke about how it had affected her. *I* was in tears as she told me how it had affected her.


Then her partner got on the phone and told me that *he* bought the book, but she took it and read it first. He won’t get a chance to start reading it until today, but he’s looking forward.
‘Write another one, Hazel!’ he said. ‘There was no talking yesterday, there was no television, it was great! She was just reading all day until after midnight.’
‘I was more affected by your book than I was by his,’ my reader chimed in, from the background.


*That* left me speechless, because this is his book:


In recent weeks, I have fallen in love with the Irish Times Women’s podcasts. These invariably feature interesting women who have done (are doing) interesting things, and who have interesting things to talk about.

Yesterday, I listened to the marvellous Aisling McDermott and the equally wonderful Laura Kennedy. They were interviewed by Marian Keyes, who is one of the funniest writers I have ever come across. I nearly burst my post-surgery stitches I was laughing so much when I read one of her books a few years ago. Anyway, this podcast did provide a few laughs (before I forget, the link is here) but what really grabbed me was the raw honesty with which Aisling spoke about her illness, and Marian’s compassion and kindness in the moment.

At one stage, Aisling’s voice caught on the tears in her throat, and Marian apologised for distressing her. Aisling brushed the apology aside, saying that she wanted to talk, she wanted to share her story, and she wanted to explain what it was like for her to have to deal with a debilitating illness. She was not embarrassed or ashamed or annoyed with herself for crying. And I, in my kitchen, cried too, and applauded Aisling for her pragmatic attitude to the display of emotion.

I have often thought it’s a bit daft that we are embarrassed by crying in public (unless it’s with laughter). We are expected to apologise for, or hide, our tears. Yet we aren’t expected to apologise for, or hide,our frowns, smiles, eye-rolls, gasps, giggles or laughter.

In my family of origin, the manifestation of my emotions – all emotions, but especially sorrow – was ridiculed. I learnt to swallow my laughter because it wasn’t lyrical. I learnt to hide my smile behind my hand because it wasn’t pretty. I learnt to bite the inside of my cheek and tilt my head a certain way so I wouldn’t shed tears. I learnt it was far, far better to cry myself to sleep at night (which I did – every night), than to do so if there was a possibility of an audience.

I decided to stop that nonsense about eighteen months ago. I was addressing the annual conference of Barnardo’s and, in the middle of my piece, I started to cry. Not a full on break-down, not sobs, not snot and shuddering. Just three or four tears and a wobble in my voice that I couldn’t successfully speak through. I decided not to hide it, not to apologise for it, not to fight it, just to go with it. I stood in front of this room full of strangers and said ‘Oh look! An emotion. It will pass.’

And it did. I continued on with my presentation and managed to make people laugh again before I stepped down from the podium.

My point is this – I think we would all be a bit healthier if we allowed our emotions to manifest in safe ways (I don’t mean boxing the heads of people when we’re angry!), acknowledged them, and let them go. And if we learnt how to bear witness, in a supportive way, to others’ tears, too.

Gullible Travels

From the Back of the Book:


Gullible Travels is a book about a young woman who spent ten years running around Asia getting herself into, and out of, various scrapes; married to the wrong men, and desperate to become a mother.


That woman is me.


By the time I turned thirty, I’d moved from Ireland to the UK; then to Singapore, Jakarta, India, and back to Singapore. I’d married and left two men, had a seventeen-month-old baby, and another on the way – in circumstances that were far from ideal.


My relationships were abusive, my self-esteem was in the gutter (and I couldn’t see the stars!). I struggled to believe that I had the right to exist – let alone thrive – and frequently made poor life choices.  A series of flashbacks woven into the narrative – and populated by The Little Girl, The Bad Man, The Mean Woman, and The Horrible Boy – explain why.


Gullible Travels is also, therefore, a book about the long-term and far-reaching consequences of child sexual abuse. This memoir reveals how being sexually abused as a child affected me long into adulthood.


World Prematurity Day

Yesterday was World Prematurity Day: A day to celebrate the babies born around the world well in advance of their ‘due’ dates. Technically, that means a baby born before 37 weeks’ gestation. The further out from 37 weeks a baby is, the slimmer their chance of survival.  Things are not as grim for these ‘early-borns’ as they were 20 or even 15 years ago.

My own early born came into this world 10 weeks early, and so many of the stories I read yesterday resonated with me. I’m not, however, going to reproduce a blow-by-blow account of her early hours and days. Instead, I’d like to offer hope to parents struggling with tiny babies. I was told my little girl wouldn’t last the night. I was told my little girl would have severe learning and developmental delays. I was told my little girl would never ‘look right’. I was told my little girl would always be small for her age.

Now, at thirteen and eight months old, Ishthara has defied the odds. She is narrow and fine-boned (like her sister) and she will always be petite. But she’s not tiny. Not any more.

Ishthara is a bright, confident, sweet young lady. She is kind and thoughtful and good to her sister. (She’s good to her mum, as well!). She is responsible and polite and loves her friends. She loves to cook and loves make-up and crime shows on Netflix. She is a normal thirteen year old girl. Because miracles do happen. They happen every day – and they happen every day in the lives of early-born babies and their families.

My Body, My Rights

My daughters and I were on the March For Choice in Dublin yesterday. Us, and about 10,000 other people, marching – again – for the right to bodily integrity; the right to make decisions about our own bodies. There is always great camaraderie on these marches, but each of us there hopes we’ll never have to march again. We hope that each time we march, it will be the last.  So far, we have hoped in vain.

Growing up female, in Ireland, I was taught young that my body did not belong to me.

My first memory is of being three years and one month old, and being carried up an old creaking stairs to be sexually abused. I can see myself, in my mind’s eye; small and chubby-cheeked, green eyes that had already seen more than they should have, dark blonde curls bouncing on the journey. And knowing, knowing with all my being, what was coming next. Because this was not the first time this scene had played out. Nor would it be the last. Not by a long, long shot.

I did not own my body as a baby, a toddler, a child, a teenager, or a young adult in Ireland. Now, in my forties, I still don’t own my body. Now, as then, my body is regulated – not by me – but by men who claim to have my best interests at heart. Men who claim to know more about my body and what it ‘should’ be ‘allowed’ to do than I do. Men who claim that they should decide what my body (and mind) must endure.

The priest who told me, when I was a teenager and finally broke my silence, that ‘boys will be boys’. The doctor (a paediatrician, no less) who was more worried about scandal in the village should I get pregnant, than about the scandal that I should even be at risk of getting pregnant. The doctor (a psychiatrist, no less) who told one of my abusers to abuse me with ‘more sensitivity’, more worried about the stigma of a broken family than the damage to my broken mind.

These people still exist. They are still active in my life and those of my young daughters. Oh! Their names and faces have changed, but their attitudes have not. The men (and, to be fair, women) who felt they had the right to decide what happened to my body are still active in Irish society. They are the people who aver that I do not have the right to decide who can touch my body and when – that should I decide I need to be touched by caring professionals in order to end the anguish of an unwanted pregnancy, I am not allowed. They are the people who feel that their wants, wishes, desires, beliefs and mores should be mine.

Make no mistake, this is gendered abuse in the same way as being sexually violated on an almost nightly basis was gendered abuse. The damage that the Eighth Amendment does to women is just as awful, just as gruesome, just as real. The message is the same – you, as a female in Ireland, do not own your body. You never will.

I am pro-choice. Not because I would ever choose to have an abortion (even when – as a young teenager – I thought I was pregnant with a rapist’s baby, did I consider abortion), but because I do not have the right to tell any woman that she does not have that right.

If you need an abortion, I support your right to access a free, safe, legal one. If you need an abortion, I support your right to have that decision respected. If you need an abortion, I support you. I will fight for your right to have that abortion in Ireland. I will fight for your right to be treated with dignity and respect as you undergo the procedure, and afterwards. If you need an abortion, I support you in any and every way I can. You deserve that because you are a woman. You are a human. Until it can survive outside your womb, what you hold inside it, is not. The contents of your womb are not worth more to me than you are. They are not worth as much. Your choices matter. Your decisions matter. Your rights matter. Your body matters. You matter.

Until the Eighth Amendment is repealed, however, Irish law will not recognise that fact. Until the Eighth Amendment is repealed, as a female in Ireland, your body will not belong to you. It’s time to change this. It’s time to stop telling our women they worth less than our men. It’s time to stop telling our daughters that they are worth less than our sons. It’s time to stop the misery that gendered violence brings.

Choose Life

This is a pro-life post. I am pro-life. I believe every one is. Including suicidal people. I say this because (as regular readers will know) I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation for most of my life. I am happy to say that it’s more than six months now since I thought it might be a good idea to kill myself.

But here’s the thing; I never wanted to die. Not really. I wanted the pain to end. I wanted to make the pain I was suffering go away. I wanted to live torment-free and know that the torment was gone for good. The sensible, logical part of my brain went through a slew of possibilities before, sensibly, logically, deciding that suicide was the best answer. How I’m actually still here is anybody’s guess – but I am. Maybe it’s because only the good die young.

Years ago, I heard the brilliant Professor Rory O’Connor speaking. Energetic, passionate and compassionate, Professor O’Connor was conducting research on suicide and he made an impassioned plea to everyone listening:

‘If ever there is a question to choose between life and death, choose life. Choose life!’

His words echoed in my head for months and years afterwards. On some of my dark days, I repeated them mantra-like adn waited for how I was feeling to catch up with what I was saying.

Today – World Suicide Prevention Day – I’d like to share two lists with you. First up is a list of things I would urge you to do for yourself if you are suicidal.

  1. Have a mantra and repeat it to yourself. This can be anything that steadies your soul. Choose a religious one if that helps. Or find an aphorism that works for you. For years, mine was ‘It will all come right in the end: If it’s not all right, it’s not the end’. My current favourite is ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going’ alternated with ‘You are never alone’ which echoes in my head in the voice of the wise friend who first said it to me.
  2. Seek help. Even though you feel you’re not worth it, believe me – you are. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Have a message set up, on your phone, and ready to send to five or six people who know you and know your history and that you might – on occasion – be suicidal. It’s best if this note is kept short ‘I need help. Pls call me back if you can’ works for me. Then, when (or if) you do send the message, you will know that whoever gets back to you is self-selecting and you’re not intruding.
  3. Go somewhere safe. Even if the safest place for you right now is in bed, get back into bed. If it’s in your friend’s kitchen, go and sit in your friend’s kitchen.
  4. Ring a dedicated hotline – like the Samaritans or Pieta House. You are not ‘bothering’ these people by phoning them, you’re keeping them in a job. Make the call.
  5. Find a photograph of you that you like and that captures a moment when you were happy. Keep it in your wallet or somewhere you can find it in a hurry. Look at that photo and remember where you were when it was taken. That happy person is in there still. They will be back, if you just wait a while .

Secondly, if you become aware that someone you know is suicidal, please be mindful of what you say:

1 Do not tell a suicidal person that they are being selfish. In the same way that you wouldn’t tell an asthmatic that their asthma was selfish.

2. Do ask if there is anything you can do – and offer something concrete; a cup of tea, a hug, a walk, etc.

3. If you think the person is ‘just looking for attention’ give it to them. If they are that desperate for attention, then they are desperate.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of witnessing; just being with a person and allowing them to feel what they’re feeling without trying to ‘fix’ it. It’s okay to just sit and say ‘I am here for you’.

5.  Don’t dismiss the feelings of a person who says they are suicidal. If you feel you can’t cope yourself, ring a dedicated hotline like The Samaritans or Pieta House.

Spoil The Rod And Spare The Child

There’s a great national debate taking place in Ireland at the moment around the area of child abuse. Sorry, I mean slapping. Actually, scratch that, I do mean child abuse. Hitting is abuse, it’s physical abuse no matter how light, how hard, or who administers it.

As the teacher and child psychologist Haim G. Ginott put it:

‘When a child hits a child, we call it aggression. When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility. When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault. When an adult hits a child, we call it discipline.’

I understand, and have sympathy for, people who have nothing else in their toolboxes to deal with children. Rather than use tools that don’t work, however, they need to go and find tools that do. In order to find such tools, they need to go looking for them; and they won’t go looking for them unless they feel they need to. There is no argument for hitting children. I’ve heard people try to explain it over the past few days saying things like ‘you can’t reason with a toddler’ and the truly wonderfully  rationale ‘it never did me any harm’. With regard to the former, I think people who say that mean ‘you can’t bend a toddler’s will as easily as you might like’. It is possible to reason with toddlers, you just have to be willing to try. You just have to be willing to meet them where they are. You just have to be willing to see things from their point of view.

As for people who claim that being hit did them no harm and, therefore, they are quite right to hit their own children, I really do beg to differ.  If you were hit as a child and you hit your own child/ren, then all you are doing is perpetuating the cycle of abuse, which you can read more about here.

So much of our acceptance of child-hitting stems from our attitude to children as ‘belonging’ to us in a proprietary sense. We view them as our property and forget that it is a privilege – not a right – to be a parent. We also have a duty to do our best. I’ve heard a lot this week about how ‘all parents want what’s best for their children’, I simply don’t believe that. I have encountered too many children and adults whose parents clearly had no desire to do what was best for their children, but rather a desire to do what was was easiest for them (the parents).

It takes bravery to break a cycle; having broken the cycle of abuse in my own family, I know how hard it can be. I have heard people on vox pops on radio talking about how ‘everyone’ hits their children, and that it’s perfectly okay. But do you remember when ‘everyone’ used to drive without wearing a seat-belt? And how ‘everyone’ used to drive after a few drinks? And how ‘everyone’ used to drive and use their mobile phone at the same time? We’ve changed those attitudes, those habits and the laws around those issues, so there’s no reason we can’t do the same with this issue.

It takes a change in public perception and attitudes before a change in the law will be accepted by society. Last week’s marriage referendum in Ireland is indicative of this; the referendum would never have passed, opening the way for the laws to be changed, if Irish society had not changed thinking and attitude towards its non-heterosexual members.  It took a lot of campaigning, a lot of discussion, a lot of heartachingly honest conversations in public and in private to bring about this change.

I am hopeful that the current examination of our attitude towards hitting children is the next step in our journey towards respecting the rights of children – which is not something we have a habit of doing in this country.

The Referendum That Nobody Lost

There were no losers in Friday’s referendum. Love won, and when love wins, nobody loses – not even those who voted no and did not want the amendment to be made.

This referendum was important and it really caught my kids’ attention. Ishthara, at 13, was a bit stumped that we would even have to vote on it in the first place. Why would a civil right be reserved for one ‘type’ of person? On Wednesday night, Kashmira sent me a text to let me know how many minutes were left before I could vote. On Thursday night, she set her alarm for 6.30am to make sure I was up in time to vote. (I explained that I wasn’t voting until 10.30am, so there was no need for her alarm!).

On Friday night, she was anxious – worried that, somehow, our electorate might not actually vote in favour of equality – so I was delighted to bring the news to her that the early reports were good. As we listened to the radio and I refreshed my Twitter feed every two seconds, we found sitting still difficult. Both my girls expressed a desire to be in the courtyard of Dublin Castle when the result was declared. They wanted to be there, they wanted to share the excitement and the joy and to celebrate.

We were lucky; getting to Dublin Castle just after 2pm, we managed to get right up the front, with just one line of people between us and the crush barrier. There was so much joy, so much celebration, so much love in the air that we wouldn’t have wanted to have been everywhere else.

Cheers of joy went up every time a constituency returned its numbers, and yet another area of the country turned green. Cork, for some reason, kept us waiting more than two hours. In the end, however, they were forgiven, because they voted ‘yes’, too.

‘Will this be in history books in the future?’ Kashmira asked.

‘Yes,’ I said.

She beamed.

‘And I can say I was there.’

There were so many beautiful moments – like when Katherine Zappone re-proposed to Ann Louise Gilligan; when David Norris took to the stage and he and Colm O’Gorman embraced. When Colm asked the crowd if anyone had seen Úna Mullally, and when Úna made her way on stage and was overwhelmed and Colm held her and let her cry on his shoulder. The young French woman at the end who was just standing, alone, crying tears of joy. I walked to her and hugged her and she explained that she was French but so proud of Ireland and so proud to be with us on the most day in our recent history. Personally, I was very proud of David Carroll and Grainne Healy with whom I studied in DCU, who were gracious in their victory.

One of the messages that rang out loud and clear yesterday was that Irish people are a generally decent lot and that we can be trusted to make decisions for ourselves; something our government would do well to remember when treating us like children and making decisions on our behalf that are not in our best interests.

Now that we have brought marriage equality to these shores, we have other issues to sort out – child poverty; the lack of abortion rights;  women’s rights; children’s rights, and our appalling suicide rates all need to be tackled. Let’s grab the momentum generated by the recent campaign and make it work for us on these other important issues, too.

Baby Maria’s Mum

Last Friday, Ireland’s listening ears were arrested by the news that a baby girl had been found in a bag in Rathcoole in Co. Dublin.

The usual appeal went up in the media for the mother of the baby to come forward. She was told, via news bulletins and articles in the papers, that she would be treated sensitively, and there were ‘concerns’ for her health. So far so inoffensive.

Then the speculation started. It was assumed by some that she was a single mother, perhaps one who couldn’t afford an abortion.

All the speculation reached screaming-at-the-radio levels today, when Pat Kenny spoke to the pompous psychologist David Carey in an ‘interview’ which consisted of two fatuous, upper middle-class, upper middle-aged white men indulging themselves with conjecture, speculation and discussion of the social, emotional and mental health of this woman. Calling their self-indulgent twaddle patronising is an understatement. It was unhelpful, at best, and damaging at worst. If you have low blood pressure, you can listen back here.

These two men, comfortably ensconced in their ivory towers, sounded very smug as they speculated on every aspect of this woman’s life: They decided she was poor, distressed, probably in need of medical attention and possibly on drugs. Look, I’m not saying that the media shouldn’t have reported that the baby was found, of course they should, even just in the hope that it would help to find her mother . But the media should stick to reporting facts and the facts in this case are that a baby girl was found in Rathcoole, she was less than 3 days old, she was healthy, removed to a hospital and her parents (as of today, not just her mother) is being sought. That is all we can know for sure and that should be the limit of what is reported and commented on.

What annoyed and vexed and upset me today was listening to all the supposition that is going on. The woman in question was patronised, pitied (comments like ‘the poor girl’ really set my teeth on edge) and blamed. Because if there’s one thing we’re really fantastic in this country, it’s victim blaming. For all these conjecture-merchants knew, the baby might have had a very abusive father and the mother felt that the safest place for the baby was where she was left. Lord knows that the HSE can’t be trusted: Maybe this woman had already had a baby (in spite of David Carey claiming it was most likely a first baby – he has no proof that that’s the case) in a hospital and was so brutalised by the system she couldn’t bear to return (this is not far-fetched, research for my PhD bears this out).

Maybe there was drug-taking, and the father was the one doing the drugs. Maybe this woman was in a relationship where the father decided the baby didn’t look enough like him and started saying it wasn’t his and threatening the mum and the baby. Maybe the woman gave birth and fed the baby and to punish her for loving someone else, the jealous father took the baby and abandoned it. This is me, speculating, painting possible scenarios. Wild and all as they are, they are just as likely, just as possible, just as credible as anything that Pat and David came up with this morning.

The only difference is that I haven’t patronised the woman in question. I haven’t decided I know anything about her and spouted it on the national airwaves with authority.

I know nothing about this woman, I don’t claim to, and I don’t need to. I just hope with all my heart that she is safe, she is well and that she finds peace sooner rather than later.

Make Grá The Law

The Rubber Bandits posted this on their Facebook page and I think it’s a fine example of an easy-to-understand graphic. They have distilled all that is essential about the upcoming marriage referendum into this pithy visual.

All the recent talk on the referendum and equality and gay rights has meant a few little surprises for me. I’ve found myself reading something on Twitter or Facebook and thinking ‘God! I never realised she was gay’ or ‘Is he gay? I never knew that.’ I have long since resigned myself to the fact that my gaydar malfunctions. If, that is, it even exists. But do you know what else? I’m not gay, so I don’t need a gaydar. I don’t actually need to know who is in your pants – whether you’re gay or straight – because it’s none of my business. The reason I can’t ‘spot’ gay people is they are exactly the same as straight people: They (generally) look the same – one head, four limbs, ears a back and a front. They think the same – being able to grasp concepts such as 1+1 =2 just as quickly as straights. They love the same – as deeply, passionately and completely – as everyone else.

I don’t care who other people fancy, who they love and who they want to marry. What I do care about is that people have the right, in law, to fancy, love and marry whomever they want. I do not want to marry a woman, but if you do, I think you should have the right to do so. Come to think of it, I don’t want to marry a man (thrice bitten and all that), but if you do, I think you should have the right to do so.

I’ll leave you with this, where you can see that passion and facts win over bluster and speciousness every time.


Why ‘No’ Now?

If you’re living outside of Ireland at the moment, you might be unaware that our little country is going to the polls next month to vote in two referendums. The first (which I’m not going to discuss at any great length just yet) is to change the constitution to allow those over the age of 21 to be elected president. The other offers Irish people the chance to change the constitution in order to make marriage equally available to people regardless of their sex. If passed, the amendment would read:

              ‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex’.

Personally, I think that’s a glorious idea. I think it is a wonderful idea to make marriage available to people who want to get married. Let’s think, for a moment, about what marriage actually is. It started as a way to bind two people together in order to protect assets; it was commonly used to join the estates of two families of equal standing. Sometimes, one party would be wealthier, in the financial sense, than the other. In those cases, the less financially well-off person would bring something else – social cachet, considerable beauty or the willingness to marry the gimpy son of the wealthy merchant – to the partnership. Marriage also served as a way to try to ensure – in the days before DNA tests – that the children men were raising were their own. Within the confines of a marriage, people were contractually obliged to have sex with no one but their individual spouses.

That brings me to another point; long before it was about love and fluffy stuff, marriage was about the legalities of safeguarding wealth and property within the confines of the marriage and with regard to inheritance. Marriage was and still is a legally binding contract. People enter into legally binding contracts with people of the same sex all the time. People enter into legally binding contracts with people of the opposite sex all the time. No one bats an eyelid. Why shouldn’t men and women enter into legally binding contracts with whomever they want whenever they want?

These days, our understanding and expectations of marriage have changed to incorporate an assumption that the two parties are deeply in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together based on that love. The legally binding contract bit hasn’t gone away, however. (Though it has changed a bit to reflect that women are not regarded as property; rape within marriage is illegal, violence within marriage is illegal and a husband can no longer sue another man for ‘lack of consort’ if his wife has an affair).

Many people still choose to get married in accordance with their religious beliefs, and this referendum – if passed – will not change that. Religious marriages, however, are not civil marriages. Anyone who gets married in a religious ceremony also needs to have a civil marriage in order for their marriage to be legally recognised. That is why the argument some religious people have against equal marriage perplexes me: equal marriage is about civil marriage, not religious marriage of any denomination. The terms and conditions (for want of a better way of putting it) of religious marriages will not change if the constitution does.

The ‘argument’ that children will be adversely affected if they are brought up by two loving parents is just an exercise in casuistry, not an argument at all. Not to mention that it’s rather irrelevant if you refer back to the wording of the proposed change in the constitution.

In November 2012, we had the opportunity to vote in another referendum. At that time, I was open about my intention to vote ‘No’. It was an unpopular stance; many people I know and respect were voting ‘Yes’ and campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote.  While I disagreed with them, I could understand their point, I could see where they were coming from. This time around, however, I can’t say that. There are many people who are campaigning for a ‘No’ vote and I would really like to understand why. So far, I haven’t heard a single real argument against equal marriage. Maybe this is because there isn’t one, or maybe it’s because I just haven’t been pointed in the right direction.

If you feel that a ‘No’ vote is required on May 22nd, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to understand your objection and engage with it.

Can You Breastfeed Your Kids Gifted?

Breastfeeding to Giftedness?

(This piece first appeared on the Gifted Ireland blog.) 

Last week, the media was all aflutter with news that breastfeeding makes children smarter which, in turn, leads to a higher level of education and, by extension, better paid employment. Breastfeed your kids if you want them to be smarter and earn more (and, perhaps, choose an altogether more pleasant nursing home for you!) was the message mainstream media sent us. Newspapers here, in the US and in the UK told us that breastfed children have higher IQs and earn more money.

Before I go any further, let me declare my own personal bias. I am a breastfeeding advocate and have been for as long as I can remember. I breastfed my own children until they self-weaned (which was five-and-a-half years in one case), donated my spare milk to the milk bank and am a firm believer in the healing powers of mothers’ milk for pretty much every ailment and difficulty associated with early childhood. Nothing, therefore, would make me happier than to read new research making stronger and further arguments for breastfeeding.

Unfortunately, the study cited in this longitudinal study from Brazil doesn’t do that.  The fact that breastfed children have higher IQs (or artificially-fed children have lower IQs, depending on how you look at things) is not news. Instead, what is new is that the authors of this study claim that breastfeeding causes higher IQs, which in turn causes higher educational attainment, which in turn causes higher incomes.

Many women I’ve heard from in the past few days have been saying – tongue in cheek for the most part – that their babies will be geniuses on account of the fact that they have been breastfed. Some, who are part of the GAS network of support groups, have wondered if their children are Gifted because they were breastfed and if they might be more Gifted if they had been breastfed for longer.

Sadly, the findings of this study don’t support that theory. For a start, we already know that there is an inherited element to intelligence that infant feeding has no bearing on.  We are also aware that children who are of gifted intelligence don’t necessarily do well at school for a variety of reasons (we won’t go into those reasons here – that’s a whole other blog post!). In addition, even those who do well at school and go on to attain BAs, MAs and PhDs don’t always earn more than those who are not as well educated: The sense of global justice that often accompanies gifted intelligence sees those with the highest IQs busy themselves in academia, research and other areas that don’t necessarily bring the most financial reward. Or, we find that they reap the greatest rewards pursuing their passions – which doesn’t necessarily bring riches, either.

Crucially, with regard to giftedness, this article finds that the difference in IQ between the most extreme groups was nearly four points, or less than a quarter of a standard deviation. While this is certainly statistically significant, giftedness is marked by the presence of two standard deviations above the mean. More importantly, the margin of error in IQ tests is five points, so the difference of not quite four points between the most extreme groups make the findings of this study meaningless.

The difference in education was just 0.9 years, which is roughly a quarter of a standard deviation. Again, this isn’t a difference big enough to have push someone’s education up a level; it’s just over a month, really.  The difference in income was reported at about a third of the average income in Brazil. It’s a bit of a leap to extrapolate that figure into non-Brazilian populations (as much of the mainstream media did) because there are so many variables associated with income.

Of interest is that, of the 3,493 adults in the study, those who were unemployed were excluded from the analysis. Michele Pippet, Gifted Ireland’s Treasurer, is a psychologist, and in her work with gifted adults, Michele has noticed that, while there are many who are hugely successful, there are many who are un- or under-employed. So excluding unemployed adults who were breastfed from the study skews the results somewhat.

The other difficulty with these findings is that the study didn’t measure home environment characteristics during childhood; nor did it factor in maternal-infant bonding. It, therefore, does not explore the possibility that associations identified might be attributable to the biological components of breastmilk itself, mother-infant bonding or the intellectual stimulation of breastfed children. I have to wonder, though, how exactly they did that – because the article in the Lancet doesn’t give any indication. My research in the area of breastfeeding leads me to believe that, when a child is breastfed from the breast (as opposed to fed expressed breastmilk from a bottle), the separation of the benefit of the actual milk from other influencing factors is nigh on impossible.

I’m also concerned with how this study defined ‘breastfeeding’. Once the babies who had been signed up to study were 19 or 42 months old, researchers asked their mothers how they had been fed. While exclusive breastfeeding was noted, it was excluded from the analysis of the study which I find a staggering omission. Exclusive breastfeeding to six months of age is the minimum recommended by the WHO (though I can’t be sure when that was first recommended, I know it was more than 20 years ago) and it should surely be seen as relevant in a study like this.  I also wonder at the value of asking mothers so long after their children were born. Whatever about the children who were 19 months old, those who were 42 months old may well have had younger siblings by then and we all know how easy it is to get details of your children’s babyhoods confused.

This study also has a large percentage of ‘loss’. That is, there is a large number of candidates who were lost from the final number of participants (including 325 who are known to have died before the study concluded). The study started with 5,914 and finished with 2,421 participants. This represents a loss of 41% which, to social researchers, is a suboptimal rate. In general, a loss rate of 20% is considered good, while a 40% loss rate is not considered acceptable. Further, we’re not told if this loss includes the unemployed who were excluded from the findings, or if this loss of 41% is further compounded by more exclusions. So we really do have to treat these results with caution.

The bottom line with these results was that men in the survey had slightly higher IQ results than women (again, there are difficulties with the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, third version – the test used), women attained higher educational results than men, and men earned more than women. Which is pretty much how things play out in every country in the world regardless of how and what babies were fed.

I would treat the results of this study with caution: Breastfeed your children if you want to do what’s best for them, but don’t expect it to turn them into genii as a result.

If you would like to read the study in its entirety, it can be downloaded here.

Vote With Your Ears

In 2010, Margaret E. Ward set up Women On Air in a response to the lack of female voices in Irish media – specifically on radio. At the time, the voices on Irish radio were nearly 90% male, according to a piece ‘Radio Gaga’ by Una Mullally. Things aren’t much better in early 2015, I’m afraid.

Women’s voices are sorely lacking from prime time radio and the number of women who present their own programmes is woefully low.

It annoys me that there are so few women presenters on national radio stations between the hours of 7am and noon. I’m starting to think, however, that being annoyed about it isn’t going to change anything. The only way that anything will change is if women and men insist on that change. So, I’ve decided that, for the next month, I’m only going to listen to women between those hours. If there is no female presenter on Irish radio, I’ll switch to the BBC or switch off. So, basically, my choice is between Morning Ireland on RTÉ (on one of the mornings that Claire Byrne or Rachel English present), Patricia Messinger on C103 or Tracy Clifford on Dublin’s Spin 103.8 (is 103 the pro-female frequency?).

While I’m delighted to hear these women on air, I despair that there are so few. I do hope I’m wrong and that there are tens more women who broadcast around the country between these hours. If I’ve missed one, would you be kind enough to point out my error in the comments box? Also – if you fancy it – why don’t you join me in my boycott of all-male radio?

A Year on From ‘Check Myself’

A year ago, Panti Bliss stood on the Abbey stage and delivered an amazing speech. The video had us all here in Ireland talking. Within days, the clip of Panti’s oration went viral. It wasn’t just Irish people who were talking – people the world over were tweeting the link and getting in touch with Panti. Even Madonna was moved to email Panti and commend her on her honest, passionate speech.

I wrote about it at the time and I haven’t changed my mind.  I still think Panti was brave and magnificent that night. I think she deserved every word of praise that came her way.


But there is something that has bothered me since I first saw the video. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it immediately. Something just niggled at me; like a word on the tip of your tongue, or seeing a photograph of someone you used to know really well, but whose face you can’t put a name to. It was a few months before the penny dropped and I realised where my discomfort sprang from.

Here’s the thing; Panti Bliss got on stage and spoke about her reality. She was lauded and applauded around the globe. Suddenly, people outside of this little island knew who Panti Bliss was, the name of Rory O’Neill (Panti’s alter-ego) became known around the world as well. At the same time, women around the world are screaming to have their truths heard. They are clamouring to have their voices listened to, their eloquently-expressed points of view taken seriously and their realities acknowledged.

A woman living in what is still a man’s world – men make the rules and women have to engage with, and play by, them – needs to be like a man in order to succeed. A woman who works in a profession learns very quickly that traits and behaviour mimicking the most male of males is what garners respect, kudos and positive comments. The professions value their creators – men – more than they value women. Men make the rules, and they make them so they favour men. Even the so-called ‘feminine’ professions – like nursing and teaching – favour men. More men get promoted, and more quickly, to senior positions than women. Every day when such a woman gets up to go to work, she is essentially dressing in drag, and trying desperately to fit in to a profession that does not value her nearly as much as it values her male colleagues.

In a nutshell, what made me uncomfortable about Panti Bliss’s wonderful address last year was nothing about Panti and the way she spoke and what she said. What made me uncomfortable was the knowledge that when a man wears a dress, puts on heels, carefully applies make-up and speaks his truth, he is is heard more clearly, listened to more carefully and applauded more loudly than a woman who does the same thing.

Special Deliveries

Today’s post is part of the Moods of Motherhood blogging carnival celebrating the launch of the second edition of Moods of Motherhood: the inner journey of mothering by Amazon bestselling author, Lucy H. Pearce (published by Womancraft Publishing).

Today over 40 mothers around the world reflect on the internal journey of motherhood: raw, honest and uncut. To see a list of the other contributors and to win your own copy visit Dreaming Aloud.net

I do not remember a time when I didn’t want to be a mother. It was a longing I was born with; not a desire to replicate my genes or a want to have a ‘mini-me’ that I could dress up in things I’d have liked to have been dressed up myself. No. I wanted to be a mother because I wanted to mother.  I wanted to raise children who would be loved and who would know it; children who would be happy and confident and encouraged to take their rightful places in the world.

I had always assumed I’d have at least seven or eight kids. (When I was between the ages of 4 and 12, my ideal number of offspring was fourteen – clearly I was raised Catholic!).  When I married, at 20, all I wanted was to have a baby to celebrate our first anniversary with.

Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. It would be eight years, two husbands, three surgical operations, bucket-loads of pills, months of injections, invasive procedures and every ounce of my considerable determination before I held my baby.

The agony of being denied motherhood devoured me from the inside out. I ached, sometimes physically, for a child to call my own. My arms longed to hold a baby that they wouldn’t have to return to its rightful owner. My heart overflowed with un-shared love. Love for a child I was desperate to have, desperate to love, desperate to parent, desperate to raise. I read books on pregnancy, homebirth (having decided, by the time I was 18, that the only sensible, logical and safe option was to birth at home), breastfeeding, parenting and children. I dreamed of what it would be like when one of those infernal pregnancy tests eventually gave me the result I was looking for.

Sometimes, I would dream about holding my own baby and the dream would be so vivid that I would awake from it and still have the scent of a small baby lingering in my nostrils; would still be able to feel the silk of a tiny child’s hair on my cheek; the near-nothingness of a baby’s soft skin; the sweetness of a baby’s breath on my neck. I questioned the love of a God who could create such longing in my soul, and who could equip me with a certainty that I would be a great mother – and then deny me the fulfilment of my longing. It was analogous to creating a singer with a voice to rival that of Maria Callas, then ripping out their tongue and wiring their jaw shut. Every time I got my period – which was far from a regular occurrence – it was as though my womb was directly connected to my heart and, distressed by its own emptiness and failure, was shedding tears in synchrony with my eyes.

Poisoned by my desire I found it increasingly difficult to rejoice with people when they announced that they were expecting a baby. I got more and more resentful of others when they shared that they were pregnant – I  felt that I had been longer in the ‘conception queue’ than they had. I deserved that baby, not them. It was almost as though there was a finite number of souls who chose to incarnate in a particular year and somebody else, by getting pregnant, had snatched one of the souls that otherwise would have come to me. I could still smile to someone’s face and congratulate them. As soon as I was alone, however, I would cry tears of pain, sadness, jealousy, anger and fear. Fear that I would never fulfill my destiny to become a mother; that all the babies would be allocated to other people and I would be left without one. It felt as though my pain was bigger than I was. It was such a great thing that I was unable to contain it.

But it finally went away: On March 13th, 2002 in Pune, India, my beloved daughter, Ishthara was born. No words can express my joy when I held her in my arms for the first time. I couldn’t quite believe it. I was a mother! Finally, nestled close to me was all I had ever wanted. For some reason, love didn’t flood through me the first time I held her. I was numb. It was almost as though I was in an altered state of consciousness. I couldn’t quite grasp that she was really mine, that I was really allowed to keep her. Years later, when I was studying psychology, I read Viktor Frankl, and the experience made sense.

In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Frankl details how he and others were liberated from a Nazi death camp. Instead of being joy-filled and jubilant, they found themselves mis-trusting their experience; not quite believing it. Frankl explains that they had spent so long dreaming of this very moment – and had their hopes and dreams dashed so many times – that now, they were not sure they could believe it. It took the men a few days to grasp the reality that their dream had come true and was not about to be snatched from them.

On the third day, Ishthara reached her bony arm up and touched my cheek with her hand. She looked in to my eyes and I swear I saw all the knowledge of the Universe in hers. Love surged through me stronger and more overwhelming than anything I had ever known. I knew true happiness for the first time in my life. Finally, I knew what love was. I discovered a bottomless well of love that I had never thought could possibly exist – much less that it could exist inside me.

Everything about Ishthara sent joy and love surging through me – and nothing had prepared me for that. I knew I was prepared to be a parent but I wasn’t prepared for the love that being a mother brought me. I found that I instinctively knew what she needed and wanted. I found extreme joy in being with her, in responding to her needs – in pre-empting them, even. Holding her little body close to mine, keeping her body alive with mine, watching her flourish and grow and thrive filled me bliss and peace. For the first time in my life, I felt as though all was well in my world.

When I held Ishthara in my arms, and breathed in the scent of her, I felt as though I had come home to myself. It felt that I had spent my entire life preparing to hold a child I didn’t have to give back. This little splinter of God had made my biggest, greatest, grandest dream come true. She had turned me into a mother. 

Not long after Ishthara’s first birthday, I left my second husband. Then the unbelievable happened – I discovered I was pregnant. Without even trying!! How did that happen? I was shocked and delighted. I was also worried about how I would love the baby I was carrying. I had no doubt I would love her, but I loved Ishthara so much – she was the child I had always dreamt of, the child I had always longed for, and she and I had such a tremendously tight bond – that I was sure I wouldn’t possibly be able to love my second child as much. I felt sorry for her, coming into a family where she wouldn’t be loved as much as her elder sister. I couldn’t conceive that there could be enough love in the entire world – never mind in me – to love my second child the way I loved my first. 

Kashmira was born on the 18th of May, 2004. When I held her in my arms and told her I loved her for the first time – I was lying. I knew I should love her, but I felt the same way I had when I’d first held Ishthara – kind of shocked and numb and waiting; waiting for waves of love to wash over me. I fretted that this meant my fears were correct, that I would never love this child as much as I loved my other one. Three days later, however, I woke up and looked at Kashmira and a feeling of adoration for my child flooded through me. I was overcome with relief and profoundly grateful that this little person had chosen to turn me in to her mum. 

Pic: Ishthara and Kashmira, aged 38 and 18 months, respectively

It’s a feeling I have felt, for both my special deliveries, and the privilege of being their mother, every day since.

Raising Teenagers

When she turned eleven, Ishthara told me that she was now a teenager because, in Irish, the word for ‘eleven’ translates as ‘one-teen’. Well, she’ll be 13 in March, and is fast becoming what I recognise as a teenager. Her sister, at ten and a half is not far behind. I am very happy with how we’ve managed so far; I’m proud of who my girls are and love the fact that they get on so well, and we’re generally a happy lot.  Having babies and children was easy – but now we’re on the brink of something new and I really want to ensure I don’t make huge mistakes and damage my girls at this fragile stage in their development.


I realised I needed help if I was going to negotiate this one. Talking to the parents of my girls’ peers is very useful, but there are certain times when something comes up and it’s not possible or appropriate to ‘phone a friend’.  I don’t have a partner and I don’t have family I can discuss raising children with, so I feel very heavily the weight of the responsibility of doing this and doing it properly. I can’t draw on my own experience of being parented because the level of dysfunction in my family of origin was such that the (then) Eastern Health Board recommended I be placed in care. My ‘mother’ refused because she was more worried about what the neighbours would say than the constant danger I was in. (Of course, the EHB could have acted anyway, and taken me away against her wishes. They have never provided a satisfactory reason why they didn’t.)


My girls mean the world to me and it would kill me if I damaged them to the extent that I was damaged by my ‘parents’. Doing what they did would ruin my children, but – equally – doing the opposite of something does not necessarily produce the opposite results. I truly believe that everything I need to know has been written, somewhere, by someone – I just need to find it.


In Hodges Figgis the other day, I went searching. The helpful assistant asked if she could help.

‘I’m looking for a book about bringing up teenagers.’

‘Do you have a particular title in mind?’ she asked.

‘Ummmm – the manual?’ I responded, a tad hopefully.


In the end, I parted with my pennies for ‘Flagging the Screenager’ by Harry Barry and Enda Murphy. I chose this one for a couple of reasons: It’s new (published in September of this year), it’s Irish (at the moment, I’m bringing my children up in Ireland, so I wanted something that would be relevant to the society they are currently in); and it’s endorsed by someone I know and respect and with whom I share a lot of values and thoughts on children and the rearing of them – Carol Hunt.  When I contacted Carol and told her I’d bought the book on her say-so, she was enthusiastic; reiterating that it’s a ‘brilliant book’. I felt relieved and confident with my choice.


 Photo credit: http://www.libertiespress.com/shop/flagging-the-screenager


I will be honest – I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far, so good. I am finding that specific issues that have already come up for us are addressed in the book in a ‘real world’ way rather than a theoretical way and there are plenty of examples and illustrations from the authors’ own lives and case studies from their own practices.


Hopefully (with the help of this book and my other resources – including fabulous friends) my children will reach 25 as happy, healthy, positive, confident young women with good memories of growing up and becoming young women. That’s not too much to expect, is it?




Vent to Maintain the Status Quo

A few days ago, a frustrated mother wrote a letter to the Irish Independent. The day after, my friend the writer and broadcaster Barbara Scully wrote a reflective piece sparked by her reaction to the letter. Ralph Riegal has a piece about it, too, saying pretty much the same thing as Barbara.


Cue much soul searching and reflection nationwide, as Facebook and Twitter share the letter and discuss its contents. Nodding in agreement with the sentiments and situation expressed by Ms Hartnett. But here’s the thing; Nothing will change because of it. It doesn’t matter that so many of us agree and are in the same situation. It doesn’t matter that so many people feel that their children are being short-changed by this government. It doesn’t matter that so many of us can recognise this as a form of child abuse. It doesn’t matter that so many of us have our hearts broken on a daily basis because we are not able to spend as much time as we would like with our children. It doesn’t matter that so many children are deprived of quality time with their parents. It doesn’t matter that parents suffer and children suffer and we are doing who-knows-what damage to future generations because one salary is no longer enough to provide adequately for a family.


Ms Hartnett has vented and turned the national gaze to what we’re doing to our children and ourselves in order to bail out the banks. She has focused our attention on what is the reality for many of us. But nothing will change because of it – except, perhaps, in the lives of Ms Hartnett and her family. I applaud and support her decision to excuse herself from the rat race and wish her well, but in the full realisation that we need a shift in culture in order to effect any real and lasting change in the lives of our citizens.


I have said this so many times already but I’m saying it again; in Ireland, we do not value our children in this country. We do not love them enough, as a nation, to do our best for them. We do not pass laws, make societal changes and enact decisions with our children and their well-being at their core. Until and unless we do, nothing will change. A rant, a vent and a few column inches as a result do nothing to change the status quo; in fact, all they do is maintain it.

Misogyny, Double-Standards and Witch-Hunts

As a woman, Ireland is not a great place to be. Not just because of the patriarchal hierarchy but because of the blatant denials that the patriarchal hierarchy exists in the first place. I’ve been giving this quite a bit of thought lately – not least because I am a woman and I have two daughters. I’ve also been thinking about it in the context of this workshop that I’ve designed and am offering at the end of the month.

Part of the problem with Ireland’s peculiar brand of misogyny is a constant denial that it exists. Or the mansplainers telling us that, really, we women have a grand old time of it in Ireland. For example, a doctor told me a few months ago that ‘the feminisation of medicine is a real, documented thing’. I tried to argue that, no it’s not really; that medicine is still patriarchal, but he was having none of it.

‘Look, the facts don’t lie. There are more women entering medicine than men. In a few years, a male doctor will be a rarity,’ he lamented, while with that one phrase – ‘I’m not going to argue about it with you’ – doing what the patriarchy does best, shutting women up and dismissing their arguments (or even their right to argue) while insisting on having the last word.

The problem, as I see it, with this doctor’s assertion is that more women in medicine does not a more feminised medical establishment make. Sadly. As women, we share a deep and real problem; we live in a world created by and for men. We are desperately trying to to fit into a society that values its creators – men – more than it values us. Men make the rules and we, as women, desperately try to live by them. Men create the rules we work by, the rules we play by, the rules we love by. They set the bar that we try to reach. In politics and across all professions – the standards, the expectations, and the rules are set by men.

The doctor I was talking to a few months ago had missed the point; that there are more women in a profession does not make it more ‘feminine’ or more ‘feminised’ – it just means that there are more women trying harder to play and succeed at, a man’s game. Even in so-called ‘female’ professions – teaching and nursing for example – while there may be more women in these professions, they don’t get promoted as often as men. Why? Because it’s a man’s world and we’re trying to operate within it.

Today, I’m thinking in particular about the current witch-hunt against midwife Philomena Canning.  (I think the term ‘witch hunt’ is very apt in this case as midwives were often burnt at the stake because of their women-centred care and their reputations as wise women.) So far, the best article in mainstream media was written by Michael Clifford in the Irish Examiner. You can read it here. (And, yes, I am aware that Michael is a man – but it is possible for men to be feminists!)

This is where the double-standards bit comes in: A number of mothers and children have died under the ‘care’ of the HSE recently – you can read about them here, here, here, here, here, here and here. And these are just a few of the ones that I’m aware of. Not one of the medical people involved in these cases has had their insurance revoked, their livelihoods threatened, their reputations smeared, or their practice suspended. Even though they were directly implicated in the deaths of women and/or children. Unlike Philomena Canning, who is not political, and who is passionately focused on women, babies and their care. No one has ever made a complaint about Philomena and the care she provided them and their families in her 31 years of practice. No one. Ever. In 31 years. That’s some record. Could it be that the HSE is threatened by women who put women first?

Germain Greer summed things up rather succinctly when she told the Irish Examiner that “Women still have very little power. They still have to become men. They can’t make real things happen for themselves in the workplace. Or it’s still extremely difficult. If they get stroppy, they’re removed. They can’t get real redress when they’re wronged. They can’t get redress anywhere.”

If you fancy doing something to support women, babies, families, human rights, Philomena Canning and the 25 women who are booked to give birth under her care in the coming 7 months, you can sign this petition. I believe there is to be a rally at the gates of the Dáil on the 8th of October, but I can’t find any details to link to, unfortunately. If you have more information on that rally, please post the in comments, or email me so I can add a link.

Update: Thanks to the lovely Heike Eberwein, I can now add that link – Rally in Support of Philomena Canning.

A First World Problem

Look, I know it’s completely a first world problem, and (truth be told) I’m slightly embarrassed to be even admitting this one, but…..

I’m not entirely sure what you’re supposed to do on holiday. Are you supposed to chill out and do nothing? And if so – isn’t that a bit of a waste? Couldn’t you do nothing at home, and save a few bob?!  Or, are you supposed to do everything that it is possible to do in the area where you are? Should a visitor to Dublin, for example, trot around every museum, every library, and set foot in to every pub with literary associations – with a side trip to Glendalough and Newgrange thrown in for good measure? Or is it enough to stroll down a few streets, pop in to a few shops and soak up the atmosphere? Is it enough just to be  in a place – or should you feel guilty if you’re not doing a place as well?

Is it enough just to be in a different place, eating food that’s a bit different and enjoying weather that’s a bit different to what you’d get at home? Or are you letting yourself down and missing a whole slew of opportunities if you’re not out biting every cherry that presents itself?  Of course, I am aware that, as we age what we want from a holiday changes, too: A gaggle of 18 year-olds in Ibiza is going to want vastly different things from that holiday than a multi-generational family in the same place. A pair of honey-mooners in Bali is also going to want different things from the island than four 19 year-olds on a gap year. But will the four 19 year-olds want the same thing as each other? Is it even reasonable to expect them to?

I don’t really have much of a history of holidays – although I’ve travelled a fair bit. As children, we were never brought abroad and holidays were a week or a fortnight in a caravan in Wexford or a house in Mayo. There, I just did pretty much what I did at home – read, went for walks and day-dreamed. The change of scenery was enough. As an adult, I’ve travelled a fair bit, but it’s usually been work-related or for extended periods, so it didn’t feel like a ‘holiday’. When I lived in Asia, trips back to Europe didn’t count as holidays, and trips anywhere else were dictated by my former husbands, so I had little say about either where we went or what we did when we got there. My girls and I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit in the past few years, but we tend to go on city breaks and visit the museums, the galleries and a few shops in our destination cities. We’re also very lucky to have friends in a number of interesting places who open their homes to us – which means a different (lovelier) experience of a place entirely.

It’s October now, and the organised among you are already plotting where to go for a winter break or – if you’re really organised – where you’ll be next summer. But what are your plans beyond destination? Are you going to do or just be?

Pic: My girls in the pool on holiday earlier this year. 

I Can’t Believe I’m Still Protesting This Shit

Part of me thinks there’s little point blogging about the current abortion story that is bothering Irish people at the moment. If you are unfamiliar with the salient points of the situation, you can read them here.


There has – rightly, in my opinion – been much outrage around how the young woman at the centre of this case has been treated. There are no winners in this situation – neither the woman nor her baby is better off because she was forced to continue the pregnancy (which was the result of rape) until 24 weeks. The woman herself has been violated in several ways and has had several of her human rights trampled on. But this is Ireland and, apparently, that’s perfectly legal.


The amount of violence that has been visited upon this woman’s body and psyche do not bear thinking about. The wars of a nation are waged on the bodies of women, and this is yet another example of that situation. Time and again I ask myself why Ireland hates women so much – why, as a nation, we hold them in such contempt. Last night, in conversation about this issue, someone said that it’s like living in Saudi Arabia. Sadly, in this instance, that’s not quite true: Women in Saudi Arabia (which was described by a former colleague of mine who used to live there as ‘the largest women’s prison in the world’) have access to safe, legal abortions. In this instance, women in Saudi Arabia are better off, treated with more respect, than women in Ireland.


So, my daughters and I will be taking to the streets again on Wednesday evening (join us if you can). We will be shouting about the need in Ireland for women’s bodily integrity to be respected. We will be demanding the laws around abortion in Ireland be changed. We will demand that the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution be repealed.


I was 17 when I first marched, in Dublin, on a Women’s Rights issue. At that time, we were clamouring just for the right of women to access information regarding abortion. It seemed so ridiculous – even then – that people could be prosecuted for giving women information about how to procure a safe, legal abortion outside this jurisdiction. It is equally ridiculous now, that women still can’t access safe, legal abortions in Ireland.


The last referendum on abortion was in 1983. What this means is that no one under the age of 49 has voted on the issue. What that means is that  no one on whom this legislation can impact personally has had a say in the law around it. It’s time to change that. It really is.  Because, 23 years later, I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.

Whatever You Say, Say Nothing When You Talk About You-Know-What

Years ago, when ‘The Troubles’ as we Irish euphemistically called the bombing, shooting, maiming and intimidation that went on a daily basis here, there was a saying that if you thought you knew what was going on up North, it meant you really hadn’t a clue.


At the moment, I feel the same way about what is going on in Gaza. I have tried to educate myself about the situation and it’s historical roots. I have tried to figure out who is ‘right’. So far, this is what I’ve come up with: There is nothing ‘right’ about killing. There really isn’t. There can be no justification for bombing places of civilian refuge – hospitals, places of worship, schools. Two wrongs never make a ‘right’ and an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind (as Mohandas Ghandi is reputed to have said).


I happen to know and love people from both sides of the current conflict. Many years ago, a Palestinian friend saved my sanity. In more recent times, an Israeli friend has saved my life. Literally. I have listened to both these wonderful men talk about the conflict in the Middle East. They are both fabulous people and I am blessed to know them. But the problem is, when I hear them give their sides of the story (I don’t mean the current conflict, but when they have generously tried to educate me in general about the conflict in Israel and Palestine), I can see both points of view. I can see why my Palestinian friend wants his land back. I can see why my Israeli friend wants his land back. I can see why they both feel that they have a right to land. And I can see why neither of them has any right to be anywhere near it.


What I can see – what I do see – is picture after picture after picture of dead, dying, wounded, grieving, terrified men women and children. I see human beings in pain and I want it to stop. I just want the violence the terror and the trauma to stop.


But this isn’t about me, or how I feel, or what I wish I could do. It’s about human beings inflicting untold suffering on each other while the rest of the world wrings its hands in a practiced gesture of helplessness and forgets, completely, how it said ‘Never again’.



Garth Brooks

Honestly, I couldn’t care less if Garth Brooks plays one night or twenty or none. I completely respect that he’s a talented musician, but I don’t like his music, so I wouldn’t be going to see him. Nor do I live anywhere near Croke Park, so the concerts would not impact on my life at all. The most impact I can imagine these (proposed) concerts would have on me would be that, were I in the city centre before or after a gig, I might see more people with ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots than usual. That’s it. That’s the sum total of the impact it would have on me.


Garth Brooks and his (proposed) concerts in Dublin are under huge discussion in the Irish media at the moment because a licence was not granted for all five of the proposed gigs. The tickets themselves were bought and sold with the caveat ‘subject to licence’. The promoter didn’t even apply for the licence until April – two months after the tickets had gone on sale. Dublin City Council deliberated over the granting of the licence and decided that – based, in part,  on the objections of residents of the area (and let’s not forget that Croke Park is slap-bang in the middle of a residential area) – they were only going to grant a licence for three of the five days.


Then Garth Brooks himself weighed in and said he couldn’t choose which of the dates to play “To choose which shows to do and which shows not to do, would be like asking to choose one child over another.” Well, don’t worry your pretty little head about that, Garth – Dublin City Council has made that decision for you. You don’t actually get to decide. The Council has granted a licence for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday night gigs. The Monday and Tuesday ones have been axed.


Garth Brooks then told anyone who was interested that it was ‘five gigs or none’. Playing ‘just’ three nights wasn’t acceptable. What a spectacular spitting of the dummy! It’s his ball and he’s taking it home.


As I said earlier, I couldn’t care less if Garth Brooks never sets foot in Ireland again. The man, his music and his musings have absolutely no relevance to my life. I have no skin in this game. What I do have, however, is a concern for the fact that this man seems to be having a problem with his memory! He seems to have no recollection that, initially, he was only going to play two nights in Dublin. Then, due to the fact that the tickets for those nights sold out in something like 0.07 of a second ( I exaggerate, but only slightly), the performer and his team generously offered another night. They kept offering extra nights until they had reached the magic number of five.


So, this is the bit that has me puzzled – if, initially, he was only going to play for two nights but then managed to offer the Irish public five, why is he so upset that Dublin City Council is ‘only’ granting permission for three gigs? I mean, if I agreed to work for someone for two days and then they said they needed me for five, and then they revised that figure and said, actually, they only needed me for three, I’d still see it as a win.


Clearly, I’m not rich or famous enough to understand how being offered work for three nights when you’d initially only planned to work for two is a bad thing. I must be one of those friends in low places I believe he sings about….

Progress Report

Yesterday, I was on Talking Point with Sarah Carey on Newstalk. The talking point was mental health, and I was there in my capacity as an ambassador for See Change.  If you’re interested, you can listen here.

The programme was pre-recorded on Friday which, it turns out, is probably just as well because yesterday was a really bad day for me. It started with some bad news on Friday night.  Okay, it was a bit more than ‘bad’. It was so bad that someone  emailed to say they were devastated to hear it. Imagine how I felt?

Immediately, I went down the road of

‘It’s because I’m not good enough.’

‘It’s because I’m shit.’

‘It’s because all my ideas are crap.’

‘It’s because I was an idiot to expect that this would work out for me.’

‘It’s because no matter how hard I work, nothing good comes of it.’

‘This is how my life always is. It is shit now. It always was shit. It will always be shit.’

‘I should stop expecting things to get better.’

‘No matter what I do – and I do a lot – my life will never improve.’

‘I would be better off killing myself now.’

‘Wouldn’t I be better off killing myself now? Then this would all end. No more disappointment.’

And so it went for a few hours.

Then, I took myself off to bed. Not because I felt sorry for myself, but because it was the safest place for me. I retired. I decided to give myself a day off from problem solving. I decided I didn’t have to sort the entire problem out there and then. I had enough to do just minding myself. I allowed myself to do that.

Early (5.30am early!) on Saturday, a really good friend of mine gave me a call. He’s in another time zone and knows I get up early, so it wasn’t unusual. I’d sent him an email the night before – a two-liner to let him know what had happened and he rang to see how I was doing, to offer support and to remind me that I am not alone.

He didn’t ask me what I was going to do now, he didn’t ask me what my next strategy was, he didn’t berate me for ever thinking this particular piece of bad news would never come. Instead, he told me ‘I don’t think you realise how successful you already are. I don’t think you give yourself credit for how much you have done – and for how much you continue to do.’

Instead of asking what I was going to do for the next five years, he asked what my plans for the rest of the day were. I had planned on going to the Excited conference in Dublin Castle, but had decided not to bother.  In the course of the conversation with my friend, however, I changed my mind again and went to the conference.  My mood dipped, however, and by the time we were on the road, the reality of my situation hit me again and I was overwhelmed. I told myself I’d  stay at the conference for two hours. And managed to stay for five.

Back home, I returned to bed. I was exhausted. Drained mentally and emotionally from the bad news and the knocking it had given me. I tweeted that I was retiring and received gentle concerned messages from people. They said they were there for me, and I knew they meant it. I knew I had people who would listen if I needed to talk. At the same time, I was pretty sure that a good night’s sleep would help.

And it did. I’ve taken it easy today and – apart from cooking – have done very little. I’ve been a little down, but not suicidal. I’m feeling much better. I’ve changed perspective slightly and seen that I have choices – I always have choices, even if I don’t always immediately see what they are. ‘Hidden in plain sight’ is one of my favourite concepts and often that’s where my answers are .

The reason I’ve shared this with you is to make the point that recovery is possible; your mental health doesn’t always have to spiral; doesn’t have to follow the same turbulent path. What always was doesn’t always have to be. I helped myself by realising that there were elements I could control, things I could do to help myself.

The first thing I did was be kind to myself. I can’t do much about what other people say to me – but I can absolutely control what I say to myself. So, I stopped with the berating messages in my own head. It helped.

I chose the people I shared my bad news and my consequent frame of mind with. I didn’t go looking for people to (metaphorically) beat me up – as I would have previously.

I no longer take my woes to people who will reinforce the negative. I used to. For years, there were people in my life who fed me those lines and started those beliefs in me in the first place. They reinforced those beliefs the entire time I was in touch with them and freeing myself from those people has freed me from being told terrible things about myself all the time.

So, because I no longer hear those words externally, I don’t have to listen to them internally anymore, either. If I find myself thinking ‘I am worthless’ I question that. I choose whether or not to believe it. Of course, sometimes I will believe it. But I believe it for a shorter period of time.

Sometimes, part of deciding whether or not we believe something is to test its validity externally – by asking other people (directly or indirectly) what they think. These days, I surround myself with supportive people (not people who always tell me I’m right, but people who see my value and support my growth).

Set-backs, disappointment, fear, worry and heartache will always be a part of life, and I know that. But I’m getting better at dealing with those situations. Not everything is the end of the world. Not everything is the end of my world. I have always been skilled at problem-solving, but I no longer expect myself to have an immediate solution and I am prepared to give myself the down-time I need to feel better without the voice in my head excoriating me for ‘wallowing’.

When’s the last time you were kind to yourself?

Weeding for Mental Health

It’s May. So it’s Mental Health Awareness Month. As a See Change ambassador, I try to make at least one post in the month of May that deals with mental (ill) health. By the skin of my teeth, here is one for 2014.


Yesterday, an interview I gave appeared in the Irish Times. Now, it might seem a bit daft, but sometimes I forget that people read the paper. More to the point, I forget that people I know read the paper! Then I’m a bit stunned when they refer to something I’ve said in a piece I’ve written, or been interviewed for. To be honest, reaction to my pieces has always been kind, but the reaction to this piece has been overwhelming.


One of my oldest and dearest friends shared it on her FB page and, via that share, I got a slew of messages from people I’d been at school with, people I hardly knew and people I know quite well.  They were all generous, supportive and from the heart.  Three parents spoke to me at the school gates today – with another running up to me as I was stopped at traffic lights – to say they’d read the piece and to share kind comments.


So then I got to thinking about friends and how they sustain us.


A few years ago, I started to worry about myself. I worried that I was becoming selfish, unkind and harsh. I worried that I was becoming judgmental (a trait I really hate to see in myself) and intolerant. Why? Because I was ending friendships and relationships and I thought it reflected badly on me. In the space of a year, I had managed to turf two people out of my life whom I had regarded as friends. I was uncomfortable with myself. I thought it meant I was A Bad Person.


Gradually, it dawned on me that, instead of falling out with them, I was falling in with myself. I was making a stand and saying ‘no more’. I was seeing unacceptable behaviour and calling it for what it was for the first time ever. I was telling people that I could no longer be treated badly and take it. I was saying ‘I deserve better’.  Of course it felt uncomfortable. Doing anything for the first time feels uncomfortable. Especially when it is against all that you have been told is ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘acceptable’.


Sometimes, though, you have to put yourself first.


Part of that was choosing my friends and not feeling obliged to maintain ties with people who were damaging – or even people who took me for granted.  I was astonished at how much better I felt. Suddenly, I had more energy, I felt better, I had less angst. I was able to follow my dreams without worrying about having my ideas (and, by extension, myself) knocked, ridiculed or torn apart.


These days, I surround myself with wonderful people. People who are kind and generous and thoughtful. People who share my fundamental values – even if we come from different backgrounds, religions and generations.  They don’t always agree with me – but they always respect me.


Weeding out the people from my life who were toxic, destructive and abusive (even if that abuse was just unkindness and/or taking unfair advantage of me) has been a huge gift to myself. Being around people who think I’m all right has done wonders for my mental health. It wasn’t easy to start with, but – like so many other things – it has become easier with practice.  I’d highly recommend it. 🙂


As women, we are socialised to believe that anger is a less than feminine emotion. Dismissing a woman as ‘angry’ is akin to dismissing her as ‘hysterical’. Angry women are ugly women. They are deeply unattractive on many levels – physically, spiritually and intellectually.


Believe me, I have had occasion to spit fire more than once in my life and while anger is often justified, it is seldom ‘pure’: Anger is generally where we end up, emotionally, when things don’t turn out the way we want or expect them to. Anger is tinged with fear, frustration, betrayal, and any number of other emotions.


Outrage, on the other hand, is magnificent.

Whenever I am outraged, I feel called to action. Outraged people are, I feel, the only people who actually change anything. Outrage is what propels us to call out bad behaviour – whether that’s on the part of an individual, a society, a corporation or a government.


When I am outraged, I do not experience the paralysis of anger. My anger is turned inward, but my outrage is turned outward and it causes me to fight for change; whether that change is agitating to have a child-trafficking organisation closed down (which I did in 2008), removing my children from school (which I did three years ago), or even just changing my own last name (which I did, legally, when I was 16).


When I am outraged, I confront injustice and call it by its name. When I am outraged, I can bide my time and work to achieve the best outcome for all involved. When I’m angry, on the other hand, I find that I act impetuously. When I act from a place of anger, I don’t usually cover myself in glory. Outrage, on the other hand, sees me at my empowered best. I feel bigger – like I am inhabiting more space – when I am acting from a place of outrage. I feel my voice is louder and my words are truer.


Anger feels red-hot.

Outrage feels white-hot.

Anger feels impotent.

Outrage feels potent.

Anger entangles.

Outrage liberates.


I’ve had a few thoughts on forgiveness lately, too – but that’s a whole other blog post.




A Note From Jimmy Carter

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.


I’m not going to bang on about my own experiences of violence, or those of women I have encountered in my personal and professional life. I am not going to draw from my current research and highlight how  obstetric practices leave many women feeling as though the events surrounding the births of their babies was similar to rape. No – for a change, I’m not going to get on my soap-box about anything. I’m going to let a man do the talking.


I know, I know, not like me at all, right? But – every now and again, I have the joy and the privilege of encountering a man who gets it. A man who understands how life is profoundly different for women simply because we are women; a man for whom this doesn’t sit right and a man who desperately wants to change it. A man who (gasp!) is a feminist. Usually, these men are friends of mine who have a very fine grasp of how women and men are equal, just different. Today, however, it was the words of former US President, Jimmy Carter that caught my eye.


I’m going to sit for a minute now, conjuring up in my imagination what the world would look like if the need for a day dedicated to the elimination of violence against women was unnecessary.



Cutting Your Cloth

Years ago, my life was very different.  When a friend of mine came to visit, we’d start off with a good gossip over a mani-pedi at my local “beauty parlour”. Then, we’d go out for lunch and continue our chatting. 


After lunch (which would probably include a glass or two of wine), we’d indulge in a spot of shopping at a local market  shopping mall before heading somewhere for dinner. The following morning, after breakfast, my friend would head to the pool while I’d get some work done. Depending on how quickly I got through my work, I’d either join her at the pool after lunch, or we’d go to a bar and listen to some music. Sunday brunch in the Ritz or the Conrad was always a given.


If my friend was staying for more than a week, we’d fly to Thailand or Vietnam or take a ferry to a small island. Even if we didn’t make it that far, we’d always manage a day in the outlet stores in Malaysia.


We were living a life of privilege and we knew it.


Now, circumstances have changed. The closest I get to a mani-pedi is buying a new emery board in Boots. Champagne brunch is something I have pictures of – and a few corks kept for nostalgia’s sake. The house I’m in now doesn’t even have a paddling pool. My passport expired last week and I didn’t panic and/or grit my teeth as I applied for an emergency one – because I’m not going overseas anytime soon.


When my friend comes to visit, all meals will be home-cooked and eaten at home. If there is any wine, it will be from the supermarket – and then, only if it’s on special offer. We may all pile into my car and go to Galway for a day out, but that’s only If I can afford the petrol. We will still enjoy each others’ company. We will still chat. We will still laugh. We will still reminisce. We will still dream.


My point? Dr Tom Cloonan asked this question on Twitter this morning:

I’m fairly sure we all know the answer. There’s no way the Troika members will be staying in budget accommodation, while terminally ill children have their medical cards taken from them. If my friend arrived here and expected me to fly to the South of France with her for the weekend and expected me to starve my children for a week in order to do so, I think I’d have a few stern words with her.


The Troika is happy to march in here and tell us what we should be doing with our money, but seems to have no understanding that in our time of financial difficulty we need to cut back on everything. Everything. Including our hospitality spend.  Including  our hospitality spend on them.



10 Lies Women Hear in Irish Maternity Hospitals

Women in Ireland are, finally, realising that they have – for the longest time – been sold a pup when it comes to how they are treated with regard to maternity care in this country.

For as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in mothering, maternity, babies and birth. Before I’d even turned 18, I was sure I would not give birth in a hospital. By the time I was 20 and trying to conceive a baby with my first husband, I was doing more and more research on the subject and learning more and more about ‘normal’, ‘natural’ and what they should look like.

Years later, after the birth of my second daughter, I became a doula and my outrage at the lies women were told increased to the point that I needed to watch my blood pressure.

I operate from a belief that birth and pregnancy are normal, everyday occurrences. In more than 80% of cases, there is no need for intervention and women can safely birth their babies without interference from outside forces. The problem is that birth has become medicalised.

Doctors are wonderful people.  They do tough jobs in difficult circumstances. The problem with doctors being involved in birth, though, is that they are trained in the abnormal. They come to your bedside believing that there is something wrong with you – and then they set about finding that problem. If there is no problem, they need to invent one.

Hospitals are designed around the medical model. They are set up to save the health and lives of people whose health and lives need saving. They are not set up to watch and wait – which is what normal birth requires. And normal birth is what most women will experience if they and their bodies are trusted.

In order to coerce women to submit to unnecessary medical intervention, they are routinely lied to. Here is a selection of those lies:

1. Your baby is too big to be born vaginally. (Women grow babies big enough for their own pelvises. A small woman can birth a big baby no problem).

2. Your baby is breech, so you must have a C-section. (Breech is just a variation of normal – there is no reason why you can’t have a vaginal birth).

3. Your waters have broken. You must give birth within 48 hours, or you will have a dry birth and that’s more painful & dangerous for you and the baby. (Amniotic fluid, like saliva, does not just ‘dry up’).

4. We have to ‘check’ you – i.e. perform (often painful) vaginal examinations – to see how you’re progressing. (A VE is not necessary and does not indicate how dilated a woman’s cervix is. The cervix – like the anus – is a sphincter muscle. It will contract involuntarily when touched.)

5. Once you go ‘over’, we’ll have to induce you. (Babies come when they’re ready. The ‘rule’ about pregnancy lasting 40 weeks is a load of nonsense. Women have different cycles and pregnancy length is affected by a number of variables. A normal pregnancy can last anywhere from 37-44 weeks if dated from the last menstrual period).

6. Normal progression is one centimetre an hour. You have 12 hours to produce this baby, or we’ll have to induce you. (Women are different. Babies are different. Many things affect the rate at which labour progresses. This 1cm per hour rule – known as the ‘Dublin Rule’ because it was invented in Holles Street – is a load of nonsense and does more harm than good).

7. If you don’t submit to X your baby will die! (women are routinely told that their babies will die if they are ‘careless’ enough to ignore doctors’ wishes.)

8. Your last baby was born by Caesarean section. Therefore, it is too dangerous for you to have a homebirth. (A previous c-section does not automatically preclude a homebirth or vaginal birth of any sort.)

9. Push when we tell you. (This practice – known as ‘purple pushing’ – is actually bad for you and your baby. It increases the likelihood of you bursting blood vessels in various parts of your body – including your eyes. It also affects oxygen getting to your baby and works against your body.)

10. You are lucky I did a Caesarean section. The cord was around the baby’s neck and it would have died if you’d tried to have it vaginally. (About 50% of babies – my own included – are born with their cords wrapped once or twice around their necks. This is not dangerous because an umbilical cord is not like a rope, but soft and squidgy like a full garden hose).

There are many, many more lies that women are told. Please feel free to add yours in the comments section below.

Our collective outrage is being collated under the hashtag #maternityire on Twitter and you can join in the conversation.

Austerity Bites – Recipes From Day 6


200g Plain White Flour

2 Teaspoons of Baking Powder

1/2 Teaspoon of Salt

3 Teaspoons of Sugar

400mls of Coconut Milk

1 (precious) Egg

Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl.

Add the salt and sugar.

Crack in the egg.

Mix in the coconut milk.

Stir the lot together, adding water by dribbles until you have a smooth (though not runny) batter of dropping consistency.

Heat a drop of oil in shallow frying pan.

Drop a soupspoon-full (or dessertspoon-full) of batter on the pan and spread it slightly with the back of the spoon.

Cook over a medium-high heat until bubbles appear on the surface, then turn them over and cook for another minute or two.

There is so much you can serve these with – yogurt, berries, fruit, ice-cream, cream, sugar & lemon, honey….. 🙂

Red Lentils

200g Red Lentils

1 Litre of Water (approximately)

1 Teaspoon of Turmeric

Pinch of salt

1 Tablespoon of Ghee

1 Onion

2 Teaspoons of Panch Phoran*

400g of Tinned Tomatoes

Rinse the lentils. Put them in a sieve and run cold water over them until the water runs clear – otherwise, the lentils will be scummy.

Put the lentils in a saucepan and cover them with cold water.

Leave them to steep for about half an hour.

Drain the lentils and add about 1 of fresh cold water – really, you just want enough water to cover them and come about another 2 cms over the lentils.

Add turmeric and salt.

Bring to the boil.

Turn the heat down and simmer the lentils, covered,  for a half an hour or so – until they are soft, but not mushy.

If they are still too ‘soupy’, take the lid off the pot, raise the heat and boil rapidly for a few minutes. You’re looking for a more like ‘porridge’ than ‘soup’. A bit like this:

While the lentils are cooking, prepare your masala:

Peel and chop the onion.

Heat the ghee in a frying pan.

Add the onion and caramelise over a low heat.

Add the panch phoran and cook for another five minutes, until the spices release their fragrance.

Add the tomatoes and cook for 4-5 minutes.

For divilment – and so I can call it fusion (!) – I added a splash (about 1 teaspoon) of Balsamic vinegar.

Add the drained lentils and, stirring, cook for a further five minutes.

*There’s a recipe for this spice mix on Day Two of Austerity Bites 

Austerity Bites – Day 5

Well, we’re nearly there. Today is the second-last day of rationing in Larkin Lodge – well, until the next time, that is. 🙂

Today, we finished off our one sliced loaf of bread for breakfast – toast and cheese, supplemented with dry cereal. There’s still coffee in the pot for me, so all is well on that front.

I’m drinking tea during the day when I would otherwise have coffee. But when this is what you’re making tea with, it’s a greater pleasure:

My tea set is a beautiful hand made set brought back from Korea by my lovely friend and former neighbour, Howard. It goes perfectly with the Oolong tea that he brought me back from China.

Lunch was hummus, carrot batons, olives and some of the lovely fresh rocket I bought last night,  and some more chapatis.

Later, when I was cleaning under the stairs (in times of plenty, I store extra tins, bottle of water and spices in the cupboard under the stairs) and I found a tin of tomatoes and two bottles of water. Result!

For dinner, I made an Indian dish that is typically associated with the state of Maharashtra – where my eldest daughter was born – and which always makes me nostalgic for Pune whenever I cook it. The dish is usually served with boiled eggs, but my girls don’t like boiled eggs – which is just as well because we only have one egg….. So I substituted a tin of kidney beans (bought with 21 cents from the €2 I found in my jeans).  We had two green bell peppers in the fridge from about two weeks ago, which were still in good shape, so I added them, too.

Fruit bowls were harder to assemble today. There was a nectarine and 20 cherries left (I thought they’d polished the lot off yesterday, but I was mistaken) and they had another orange each. I’d have preferred to have given them more, but it wasn’t there.

I’m hoping that their fruit bowls, carrots, olives, tomatoes, onion and chickpeas will all combine to make up their five-a-day.

Tomorrow will mark the end of our six days of “Austerity Bites”. I can’t say I’ll be sorry.

Recipes to follow…..

Austerity Bites – Recipes From Day 4

Kashmiri Aubergines

Vegetable for shallow frying (I’ve little  oil left, so used ghee)

1 large aubergine

4 green cardamom pods, bruised

1/2 tsp fennel powder

1/2 tsp tumeric powder

1/2 tsp dried ginger powder

Pinch of asafoetida (hing)

300g natural yoghurt


I salt aubergine before I use it (unless I’m roasting it). This is seen by some as ‘old-fashioned’, but I find that it removes excess moisture and ensures that the vegetable  crisps up nicely when fried, and doesn’t go ‘spongy’ when you cook it any other way. Often, people who don’t like aubergine find the texture objectionable, not the taste. Anyway – to salt the aubergine, top and tail it, cut it into discs and pop the disks into put it in a plastic sieve or colander (metal, salt and water not being the best combination). Shake a generous amount of salt over the eggplant (you can use cheap salt like Saxa for this job!). Leave it to drain over a bowl or in the sink for about half an hour. Then (and I know this seems counter-intuitive) rinse the salt off under running water and gently squeeze the discs against the sides of the sieve to get all the water out. If you like, you can pat the discs dry in kitchen paper or a tea towel. 

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan until it is very hot.

Fry the aubergine on both sides until it’s golden brown in colour.

Drain on kitchen paper and keep to one side.

Discard all but 1 tablespoon of oil.

Drop the cardamoms, spice powders and asafoetida into the oil.

Add the yoghurt immediately.

Season with salt and heat through, stirring constantly, until the gravy is heated through.

Add the fried aubergine and serve immediately. If you have coriander, it’s nice to garnish the dish – I’ve none the moment, but we survived. 🙂

Urid Dhal 

There are two types of urid dhal. One is whole urid – which is black – and the other is split urid – which is white. For this recipe, I used the split urid, which doesn’t need much soaking. 

1.2 Litres of Water

150g Urid Dhal

1 Onion

1 Teaspoon of Ginger

2 Green Chillies

1 Teaspoon of Cumin Seeds

2 Bay Leaves

3 Cloves

1/2 Teaspoon of Turmeric Powder

Pinch of Garam Masala

Squeze of lemon juice (I’ve loads of lemons – they were on special 2 weeks ago!)

1/2 Tin of Tomatoes (I still had half a tin in the fridge from Day 2)

Wash the urid dhal – put it in a sieve and run cold water over it until the water runs clear.

Put the lentils in a pot with enough water to cover them and soak for about 15 minutes.

Change the water on the lentils and bring to the boil.

Simmer the lentils until they are soft, but not mushy – 30-40 minutes.

While the lentils are cooking, prepare the masala.

Peel and chop the onion.

Cut the chillies into small pieces  (I use a scissors).

Bash the ginger with a pestle in a mortar. If you don’t have those, bashing it on a chopping board with a rolling pin or wooden spoon works just fine.

When the dhal is nearly cooked, start the masala.

Heat the oil in a pan and add the cloves, bay leaves and cumin seeds.

When they start to splutter, add the onion and ginger and green chillies.

Fry for a few minutes then add the dhal, lemon juice and tomatoes. Stir gently over a medium heat for about 3 minutes.

Add in the garam masala and serve immediately.


I’m not sure I should post this seeing as I didn’t get it right, but I will anyway! 🙂 

300g Plain Flour

1/2 Teaspoon of Baking Soda

1/2 Teaspoon of Salt

1/2 Teaspoon of Baking Powder

150 mls Hot Milk

120 mls Hot Water

2 Teaspoons of Nigella (Onion) Seeds

Take the racks out of your oven and cover them with tin foil.

Turn the oven on to maximum.

Sift the flour, baking soda and salt together in a bowl.

Mix the baking powder into the hot milk and leave it for about a minute. When a few bubbles pop up on the surface of the milk, add it to the flour and mix well.

Knead the mixture, adding the water to make a soft dough. Keep kneading until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Keep it covered, in a warm place, for 3-4 hours, until it rises.

Divide the dough into 6-8 balls.  Shape them into oblongs and pop them in the oven for about 15 minutes. The bread is done when it rises slightly and brown spots appear.

Austerity Bites – Day 4

Breakfast today was some of last night’s dhal with left over rice. Bacteria on rice multiplies very quickly, so you can only safely keep it for up to 24 hours in the fridge. Longer than that and it’s potentially dangerous – so chuck it.

By the way, having lentil curry for breakfast is not the same as having left-over pizza! In Asia, it’s not uncommon for people to start their day with curry, and we would do so often when we’re there, and occasionally when we’re here.

Lunch – which the girls prepared – was cheese and crackers, with the last of the cherry tomatoes (all bought on my shopping expedition last week) and a few slices of cucumber.

Later, the girls had oranges and finished off the other punnet of cherries I bought in Aldi (again part of their Super 6 this fortnight) last week.

For dinner, we had naan with Kashmiri Aubergines

and a different type of dhal – urid dhal.

There’s a bit more work in naan than in chapatis, and as I don’t have a tandoor, I just used my electric oven. I have to be very honest here – I rolled the naan too thin, and they were not as fluffy as they should have been. Oops!

The girls have managed to ration their chocolate so there was enough for a bar each, and every time I looked at them I reminded them to drink water, so the bottles I bought last week are nearly gone. There wasn’t money for a new filter for the filter jug last week, and I don’t allow them to drink ‘raw’ water from the tap, so I’m hoping that we can get to the end of Day 6 without anyone suffering dehydration…..

In a spot of good fortune, I found €2 in my jeans pocket when I was tidying. It’s ‘trolley money’ from when I was in the supermarket last week. Joy! I was able to buy some greens.

Recipes to follow!

Another Rapist Goes Free


I’m still reeling at Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan’s decision, four days ago, to suspend sentencing for a man who raped his sister-in-law.  At the time, she was 14. The rapist is ten years her senior.


The judge, in his ‘wisdom’ has decided that the suffering the victim went through matters less than the suffering the man’s family would endure if he went to prison. Two of the man’s sons have autism and a third child has other medical needs.


The court has decided that it would put too much strain on the family (and, the cynical part of my brain suspects, the public purse) , if this man went to jail.  So he doesn’t have to. What next? Will a judge next week or the week after decide that a successful businessman doesn’t have to go to jail because the State might miss his tax contributions?


Or might a man be kept free because to imprison him might deny his new wife the right to start a family?


I’m sitting here wondering what the criteria actually is for a judge in an Irish court to decide that a convicted criminal actually has to serve his sentence.  These kinds of decisions hammer home an idea that women and children in Ireland are worth less than men. Or even just worthless, full stop.


The potential difficulties that this rapist’s family might encounter is deemed to be worse than the real and actual harm that has been done – and continues to be done – to the victim. The trauma that she has had to deal with on her own, is not deemed to be worth as much as the potential suffering that the rapist’s wife and children might endure.


I can’t help but wonder why the judge is so overly concerned with this man’s family when the man himself didn’t give much thought to them when he was busy raping his wife’s underage sister.


As for Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan’s assertion that the rapist has ‘self-rehabilitated’? I have two words – evidence, please? Research leads us to believe that men who get away with raping – as this man effectively has – don’t stop.


What about the victim, though? Surely, those of us who go to court put ourselves through that awful experience because we are seeking justice? What justice has she received?


Newspaper coverage of the case is here.

Through The Lens of Motherhood

In Ireland, we’re still talking about the Prime Time Special Investigative Report into child care and that’s a good thing. Childcare is an issue that needs examining. The sad thing is that it’s taken a crisis like this for the Irish public to take a look at where and how our children are treated when we’re away from them.


Dialogue is always good: People expressing their opinions and sharing their experiences, making suggestions and offering support is helpful. I am delighted that the conversation here has not resulted in women who work outside the home being pitted against women who don’t.


It’s disheartening, though, to note that this debate is happening now – when the damage has already been done to a number of children. As I have mentioned before, Ireland is a nation of reactionaries. We, as a nation, don’t sit down and plan things. We lurch from crisis to crisis and try to cobble remedies together instead of methodically looking at solutions to possible problems in the planning stages. Look, for example, at the current baby boom. Where are the babies born now  going to go to school in 4 or 5 years’ time?


One of the reactions to abuse in childcare is people asking for cameras to be installed to keep staff under surveillance. I have a few problems with this. Cameras don’t always work. They can be switched on and off with ease. Then there are issues around child protection – all parents would have to consent to all other parents having access to images of all the children. I might not want your husband watching my daughters. I might not want your wife commenting on our child’s speech to your wife.


My biggest concern with cameras is the message they sent to care-givers. If I put you under surveillance it means I don’t trust you. It means that I will allow you to do something but I won’t really trust you to do it or to do it properly. People who are constantly being watched are not necessarily going to do their jobs better. Certainly, care-givers aren’t going to express a more loving attitude because they know they are being filmed.


When I needed childcare, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful live-in nanny. Part of the reason that things worked so well for us was that Nishanthi knew she was a respected member of our household. When she’d only been with us a few days, she came to me to hand up her passport. Initially,  I thought she needed me to take it for safe keeping, but it transpired that Nishanthi assumed that (like her previous employers) I’d want to hang on to it so she couldn’t run away.   I told her I’d happily put it in the safe in my room for her, but that I certainly wasn’t demanding she surrender it.

“Nishanthi,” I told her. “I trust you with my baby. If I thought you were going to run away, then I have no business leaving my child with you.”


I think that basic premise applies no matter who you leave your children with. If you have an inkling that all is not as it should be, then act on that instinct. In Ireland, we defer too much to perceived authority figures. “Why” is largely academic at this moment. Whether it’s part of our colonial hangover or not is irrelevant.  What matters is that we fix it and think for ourselves.  I’m a great proponent of personal responsibility and recognise that, as a parent, my child’s welfare ultimately rests with me.


Baby zoos are impractical and not the best solution at all. Industrial solutions are fine for bags of cement or packets of biscuits, but for our babies? Definitely not the way to go. People say they like the idea of their children socialising with their peers. But how many other children do they think they need to ‘socialise’ with? If the were at home with Mammy, they’d only have one or two other kids to play with. So 30 or more children is not ideal. At a time when we are beginning to realise that large class sizes in schools are not conducive to either the social or academic excellence, why can’t we make the same realisation with regard to our babies.


There are many different solutions to the childcare issue. Each family needs to make the choice that is best for them, based on solid information and their own preferences. It is right that we are reeling. But when we’ve finished reeling, we need to do something real.