Wednesday, December 31, 2008

This year, 2009 and ME

In June of this year, while making a cup of coffee, I dropped a cup out of my hand.

Big deal, right? The cup didn't break and I was obviously not paying enough attention. I was no doubt thinking about some email I had to answer, a text I had to reply to or a blog post to be written. My mind wasn't on it, I wasn't focussed on what I was doing. Clumsy me. Don't do it again.

But I did it again. Over the next while I found myself dropping things more and more at infrequent intervals. My mobile phone. A book. The shopping I was holding. A glass of water. There was no connecting factors, no particular time of day or night and no activity bar mental planning I was doing when it happened, it just did. I kept on putting it down to me not focussing, not paying attention.

At around the same time I was doing a lot of things and enjoying them. Meeting new people, attending and volunteering at events, doing bits and pieces for charity as well as managing a full time job. I was tired though. Not just my usual tired, but exhausted. As in I began to have days when I couldn't get out of bed and I'd sleep for hours, exhausted. Couple that with regular insomnia and the need to do things and all in all it became a cycle of activity, tiredness, activity, exhaustion, less activity, more exhaustion etc.

I'll admit, before it's pointed out to me, that I was probably doing too much and not taking care of myself. I ate only when I remembered to, I spent far too much time online and I pushed myself to fit as many new experiences in as I could. I was doing what I wanted to when I wanted to. I'd had some sort of flu a few weeks before, but that seemed to go for the most part. I was fine. I was having fun.

Therefore I regarded the exhaustion as much more a hindrance than a warning. It was horrendously disconcerting - my motivation dissipated with my enthusiasm and productivity. I lost passion, excitement and mojo. So I cut down on a lot of things. Gave the mind and body a break, I thought. Cut my full time job to part time. Didn't go out as much, didn't exert myself, tried to focus. Couldn't. Energy returned in waves, but not to what it was. It was frustrating and (literally) depressing.

The pain started in my shoulders in July. I'm typing too much, I thought. I'd take breaks, exercise and massage them both but wow, would they hurt. And then stop hurting. And then the pain spread down my left arm. Like me dropping things, there seemed no set agenda, it would come and go - not a stabbing pang or a dull ache but a sharp cramp that would last anything from a couple of minutes to a few hours. It moved to my right arm. It was sore.

What's wrong with me, I thought. Probably nothing. I ignored it, went on trying to do what I was doing. Failing miserably. I lost more and more power in each hand, my brain telling my hands to grip things, the message being confused and lost on the way. I had no focus left, my mood was dark, my memory shot to blazes.

Climbing a small flight of steps one day my right knee gave way under me. It wasn't anything dramatic and I hadn't hit it off anything, it just wouldn't take my weight and I stumbled. Foolish me, I thought, I'm not paying attention again. Then that started happening regularly, with pain appearing in both my legs, causing agony when I walked.

I was sore. I had no energy. I felt awful. Sleep, though often, provided no rest. I laughed it off thinking "I'm getting old". I succumbed to the fear not that there was something wrong with me, but that there wasn't anything. That it was all in my head. That it was just stress. That I was imagining it.

Finally Niamh, as tired of my complaints as concerned for my health persuaded me to go see a doctor. I expected to be placated with a few vitamins and a warning to take it easy. Not so. After tests the doctor suspected a neurological virus, referred me to a consultant neurologist to find out what was wrong and suggested it may be the early signs of MS, which has pain, depression, fatigue, joint stiffness, loss of muscular power and more as symptoms. Further tests at a different doctor thankfully ruled that diagnosis out, but that's where M.E. was first suggested to me.


MYALGIA = Muscle pain
ENCEPHALOMYELITIS = Inflammation of the brain & spinal cord

M.E./C.F.S. is an complex and debilitating physiological illness involving neurological and endocrinal dysfunction and immune system dysregulation which is not improved by bed rest and can worsen with physical or mental exertion. Those affected also complain of many other related symptoms such as fever, sore throats, painful glands, muscle weakness, headaches, joint pains, sleep disturbance, confusion, irritability, poor concentration, and others.

I would have to get something awkward.

M.E. or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a condition and illness I've been reading a lot about since August. Wikipedia cites it as the most common name given to a poorly understood, variably debilitating disorder or disorders of uncertain causation. The illness is also known as chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), and outside of the USA is usually known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).

Basically, after effort or stress, people with M.E. suffer pain and fatigue, rendering them almost useless. It fits a lot of my symptoms - these days I can't spend too long at the laptop for fear of headaches, I haven't gone running in months and, most lamentably for me, my ability to remember names and words has rapidly diminished. When introduced to someone, I struggle now to remember what their name is, only a few minutes after being told. When writing, I find my ability to type descriptive adjectives other than "good", "bad" and "nice" difficult. I can't remember the words for things, the names of TV shows, the useless trivia I'd filled my head up with. I never considered myself a writer, but these days I find it hard to put a sentence together.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome itself is extremely difficult to diagnose. In fact, there's no test for it, it's an illness that requires the doctor to rule out many others that could cause similar effects. Such was the difficulty in analysis that for years it was seen as yuppie flu, a case of hypochondriasis, of malingering. In fact it wasn't until 2003 that a clinical diagnostic criteria was developed and published.
According to the CDC, CFS involves:
  • Fautigue, unexplained, persisting, "not due to ongoing exertion" and not substantially reduced by rest. The person myst have experienced a significant reduction in activity levels.
Four or more of the following symptoms:
  • Impaired memory or concentration
  • Post-exertional malaise
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Muscle pain (myalgia)
  • Pain in multiple joints (arthralgia)
  • Headaches of a new kind or greater severity
  • Sore throat, frequent or recurring
  • Tender lymph nodes (cervical or axillary)
Here's the most difficult part though - "when symptoms can be due to other conditions, the diagnosis of CFS is excluded" AND the symptoms (particularly the fatigue) should persist for at least six months. I'm now in month five or so with no sign of it clearing.

You know what though? It could be worse. (Hiya, Bernard!)

First and foremost, at least I know I'm not imagining it. Secondly, I have to eat chocolate to help alleviate the symptoms. Most of all though, I'm not in hospital, I'm thankfully not in the position of Kiva Humphries who needs a new heart and I've got amazing friends and family who have been supporting me. I haven't been able to work since August, so January sees me knocking on Prosperity Recruitment's door, CV in hand, ready to face the working world again.

I'm not sick. As a friend of mine would say, it's only a detail. It just means a change in how I do things, a regard for when I do them and the odd sit down. That's not too much to handle at all.

I've also been thinking a lot about this blog and all the people I've met and interacted with through it. You'll have noticed quality and frequency of posts dropped. Replies to comments dropped off. I did pretty much everything you shouldn't do with a blog, through a combination of lack of concentration and motivation. It became a task more than a pleasure so I've let it slide, only to come back to it renewed. Possibly not to the same extent I once was, but invigorated all the same.

2008 has been an amazing year. There's been events like the Shine Unconference, Cinemagic, St Patrick's Festival, The Blog Awards, Darklight, Kings of Concrete, The Cats Laugh, Creative Camp, The Dublin Writers Festival, The 4 day movie project, Spencer Tunick, Hello Sheila, The Street Performance World Championships, 2gether08 in London, The Festival of World Cultures, the KCLR interview, the Newstalk 106 slots, Fáilte Towers, Podcamp Ireland, The Irish Web Awards, Chain Reaction, and, well you get the idea.

I've also made good friends. This time last year I didn't know Grannymar, Elly, George, Annie, Rick, Raptureponies, Anthony, Maxi, Sinéad, Jen, David and Debs, Sinéad, the Internet's Ben Kenealy, Little Miss, Suzy, Redmum, Grandad, Derek Marie, Peter, Green Ink, Green of Eye, Andrew or indeed my younger sisters, who my father was or anything. I hadn't met people on Twitter, didn't know many Irish bloggers and didn't have the same opportunities. It's been quite a personally fulfilling year in more ways than one.

Next year? More of the same, or better. Hopefully. ;o)

Keeping me warm in 2009

What comes from the heart, goes to the heart.
- Samuel Coleridge
Last June I left a comment on a blog that began a correspondence with a lovely Australian lady who was learning how to get better at knitting.

This Christmas I received a parcel in the post. It was one of the few presents I received and came as a total surprise. Inside a lovely handwritten card reading:
Dear Darragh

How are you? I hope you're feeling mighty fine. I'm not sure if you remember but earlier in the year we exchanged an email or two and I said I'd be thrilled to knit you a hat. Well here it is. plus a little bit extra.

I'm sorry though that it has taken me so long to post it over to you. I had read on your blog that your big birthday was in August so I knitted like crazy to get it done in time. And I almost made it, but wasn't sure of your exact birthday, and indeed fell in love with what I'd made for you that I wasn't sure I could part with it.

Having sadly not sent it in time for your celebrations I set the whole project aside for a time. I'd so furiously worked on it that I couldn't even stand to knit again for a long while. But, it was made just for you. And now I can't wait for it to get across the blue ocean to you and hopefully keep you snuggly and warm this winter.

The quality of the knitting on this scarf is excellent and the photos really can't do the vibrant colours justice. Even my mother, herself an avid knitter in her day, commented on the fine workmanship (and put dibs on the hat if I wasn't wearing it).

Coastal Aussie, thank you. I'm extremely touched by your thoughtfulness and kindness and thank you so much for taking the time to create such a lovely gift just for me, and all the way from Australia! Though I'll lend my mam the hat, that scarf will do me right up until St Patrick's Day, knowing Irish weather. Snuggly and warm is definitely what I'll be. I'll have to send you a pic of me in it.

I tell you, between blogger, knitted and toyboy badges, t-shirts, toys, posters and all the tickets from, I haven't done at all badly this year. Not at all.

Thanks again CA, and Happy New Year. There's something on the way to you as I type :)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

All my younger sisters in the same room

We sat chatting about Christmas presents, about parents and about DVDs. Andrea has just finished work and called over, the younger girls were drinking coke and giggling at stories of me as a small child. I'm sitting with my four younger sisters. I met two of them for the first time today.

I'll always remember finding out I had other siblings. Growing up in a two child family as the eldest, I sometimes wished for an older brother or even a twin. For a time I almost convinced myself that maybe, somehow I was a twin - that's what too much Highway to Heaven will do for you. To go from two to finding out I was part of a much bigger tribe was pretty awesome, literally.

Mary Ann and I were sitting in the hotel in Roscrea where we were to have our first formal conversation. I'd got my rehearsed "I'd just like to say thanks for putting me up for adoption, it can't have been an easy thing to do but I ended up in a very loving family and I'm very happy and I wanted you to know that." speech out of the way, and once said, I couldn't find much else. I was struck by the physical similarities in our faces - family traits had always been a fascination of mine, simply because it wasn't something I could share in growing up.

When I finally braved the question of other children, she told me of her family. Married after I was born, she'd reared a good strong country family with her husband, out in the wilds of Offaly. Shyly she produced a scrap book of photos and invited me to have a look. "Here's your brother, John" she said, pointing to one strapping young chap, "And here's your other brothers there." The photos were stuck on with sellotape, taken apparently from family albums. It's part and parcel of the Advice on What To Do when Meeting your Adopted Child procedures. Bring some photos. Make them aware of the current situation. Tell them about yourself. Props always help.

Turning the page she pointed to three young girls by a church wall. "They", she said "are your sisters." Whatever about being told I had brothers, finding out I now had sisters was almost a bigger surprise. Brothers, you see, I'd expected. Hoped for in fact. But sisters? I'd already got one of those, and she'd caused me enough trouble, so I didn't think I'd be "lucky" enough to get any more, I type very diplomatically. But I looked at those photos, thinking that in a different Ireland these could very well have been the brothers and sisters I'd grown up with.

(Even at 5, Andrea was difficult to be around :-P)

It's not that Andrea and me didn't get on, as such. We loved each other and grew up very close as young children, but once distinct teenage personalities came to the fore, that was it. At the time I met Mary Ann, Andrea and I got on great, living over 100km from each other and seeing each other once every few months. Magic.

But more sisters I had. I met Maureen in January of 2004 and was enthralled. We'd never met, never known of each other a few months before, but blood beats distance and I saw we shared a lot of similar personality traits, reactions and even mannerisms. She was my first personal experience of sibling semblance and it was an overwhelmingly positive one.

There was no awkwardness between us, other than the natural one of people becoming friends. When introduced to other people, I was her brother - there was never any explanatory talks of family history. Me, I'd have complicated thing unnecessarily, as I'm wont to do, but she immediately accepted and acknowledged me, regardless of which house I'd grown up in. When talking together, we'd talk of our mother but my mam and her mam, the distinction doubtlessly confusing to anyone not familiar with the situation. When asked it took me a while to realise I had more than one younger sister.

I met the others in ones and twos, sometimes in Offaly, more times in Dublin. The biggest test came when I was invited to a family wedding, where I'd meet them all en masse. Anxiety struck before then, let me tell you, but I was welcomed as a family member, introduced as a brother and treated like a friend throughout - a far better experience to some of the adopted family weddings I'd been invited to.

We're never going to be the Waltons, the Ingalls or Camdens, nor do we want to be. It's the differences between us that make it interesting - I grew up in a rural-urban setting, they in a rural one. They blossomed outdoors on their farm, I recuperated indoors lost in books. They are strong men in physical work; I type. The affinity we share is in kinship. There's no semblance of posturing, no sense of superiority through legitimacy. While we're related, we're not really family, in the traditional sense of the word. It's almost deeper than that, a fraternal bond based on genealogy more than genetics. We enjoy seeing each other when we can, but don't force it. We just let things happen as they happen.

Fast forward almost five years to today, when I meet my two youngest siblings. Our paths just haven't crossed until now - they're a lot different to the two small girls I saw in a photo five years ago. Eileen is in fourth year of school, loving practical subjects like Home Economics but hating maths - a lot like me. Brigid is in second year, giggling shyly as she tells me her favourite subjects are Tech drawing and lunch time. We're nervous around each other, of course, me probably more so than they. I've fallen very much out of practise of meeting new people, of giving a good impression and this one is important to me.

Though I meet them on neutral ground, in a local café for coffee beforehand, I do want them to see the house I grew up in, to meet my parents, to show just how ordinary I am, how similar our childhoods have been in many ways. My folks - ever welcoming and supportive - have met Maureen before, but I introduce them now to Michael and the girls. Andrea arrives to meet them all for the first time - she hasn't met any of that side of the family yet. We talk about everything from GAA to Home and Away, from Harry Potter to mobile ringtones. Once I relax, I'm grand. It takes a while though.

At one stage mid conversation, I look at the four girls and realise I'm quite lucky to be the older brother of four rather lovely young women. Family, though it is what you make of it, is important and this Christmas has emphasised that for me in more ways than one. I didn't grow up with these girls, but they are my family, they are my sisters and now they're part of my life. It's not a case of adopted families, biological families, half brothers and sisters or any such terms. We're in each other's lives because we want to be.

We part ways later in the evening with hugs - they have a long drive ahead of them. I'm delighted it's gone so well. On my walk home I'm texted "It was lovely to meet you bro, you're very sound". Can't ask for better than that, eh?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Links to all the Blogmas Carol stories

I wasn't very on the ball with this one I'm afraid, but the ever wonderful genius that is Mr Maxi Cane devised a fiendish festive exercise for us this year, which was to become the stories behind "A Blogmas Carol".

You can read the introduction here and then all of them in order from here:

1. Thriftcriminal -

2. Rick O' Shea -

3. Whoopsadaisy -

4. Maxi -

5. Will Knott -

6. Darren -

7. Raptureponies -

8. Chris P Pancake -

9. Mise mé féin -

10. K8 the Gr8 -

11. Lottie -

12. Grandad -

13. Someone Living -

14. Jo -

I've got about four to go, enjoying them all. Memories of roller skates, books, bikes, lego, trains, teddies and all in my head now. Looking even more forward to going home!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Blogmas Carol

CHRISTMAS: Noun, pronounced \ˈkris-məs\. Attributive. Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus. The English term Christmas (“mass on Christ’s day”) is of fairly recent origin.Since the early 20th century, Christmas has also been a secular family holiday, observed by Christians and non-Christians alike, devoid of Christian elements, and marked by an increasingly elaborate exchange of gifts. In this secular Christmas celebration, a mythical figure named Santa Claus plays the pivotal role.
Attributed quotes:
~ The Disneyfication of Christianity (Don Cupitt)
~ The one time of year when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ. (Bart Simpson)
~ From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it. (Katherine Whitehorn)
~ The season when you buy this year's gifts with next year's money. (Author unknown)
~ Roses are reddish, Violets are bluish, If it weren't for Christmas, We'd all be Jewish.(Benny Hill)
~ Have yourself a merry little Christmas (Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane)
~ We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year (Traditional)
~ I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, Just like the ones I used to know (Irving Berlin)
Have you ever noticed how it's the Concepts, the Characters, the Conversations, the Communications and the Creations that begin with the letter C that are best? All good things come in threes, C is third in the alphabet. The majority of your favourite indulgences begin with it. Comforts. Cake. Compassion. Chocolate. Concerts. Celebrities. Compliments. California. Candles. Charlie Brown. Coffee. Cinema. Cash. Comedy. Christmas. Carols. Cocktails. Cabarets. Candy. Cookies. Cards. Casablanca. Caresses. Cartoons. Campari. Carnal desires. Culture. The Carpenters. Cacophony. Christ. Caravaggio. Jim Carrey. Cadillacs. The Cure. For the Irish, the Commitments, Christy Moore, the Corrs, Cork. It's why I, of the 27 of us, is telling this story. It's probably why though third in, I was first out.

Christmas. This didn't start at Christmas. It was earlier when we were bought, the value of the late 1980s being in the twenty-easy-payments option. Nestled in cardboard we sat side by side, retaining the smell, storing the knowledge. We spoke of distant lands, far off places, new technologies, past victories. Our coverage unrivalled, our colours vibrant. We were more than just a purchase, we were an investment. Unmatched, unequalled, understandably, reassuringly expensive.

We sat in our comfort, confident in our impending release. We were to be pride of place, the crowning glory. We were for Christmas. We knew this. We knew of everything. Everything. Every American president, every population size, every breed of mammal, every work of Shakespeare, every part of a steam engine, one of use would tell you. We whispered together of what was to come. A family gathered. Children educated. Information imparted. We argued sometimes, crticising the others' pessimism, Deriding the others' optimism, belittling others faith but deferring to the index we waited. We learned and waited.

We would hear them outside at times, passing our place in the hall cupboard. Chats. Conversations. Arguments. We heard it all. We were unsure of how many there were to begin with. Sometimes two, sometimes more. Children seemed to be a permanent fixture though some would go to school (S, page 362) while some would come to play (P, page 617). We thought there'd be at least two. When they spoke of something we were unsure of we would consult the relevant text and inform the others. We were to be a gift (G, page 279) for Christmas (me, page 348) and we were to be delivered by Santa Claus (S, page 534, see also F for Father Christmas)
Santa Claus: Legendary figure who is the traditional patron of Christmas in the United States and other countries, bringing gifts to children. His popular image is based on traditions associated with Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Christian saint. Father Christmas fills the role in many European countries.
~ Aren't we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? You know… the birth of Santa. (Bart Simpson)
~ I once bought my kids a set of batteries for Christmas with a note on it saying, toys not included. (Bernard Manning)
~ Santa Claus has the right idea: visit people once a year (Victor Borge, Danish born American Comedian and Pianist, 1909-, see B, page 629)
~ Dyslexic demonologists often end up selling their soul to santa. (Author unknown)
~ The main reason Santa is so jolly is because he knows where all the bad girls live. (George Carlin)
and so we waited. We listened and waited.

The door slammed when he came in. It was slamming more and more this school semester (S: American (p.864), Term (T:UK and Republic of Ireland) (page 436)) at this time. Sometimes late, sometimes much later. We listened when he lost his shoe (See F, footwear, page 723) to the bullies (B, page 867). We heard the questions about his uniform (U, page 516) being torn, his belongings stolen. We heard the accusations and denials, the scepticism at his explanations, the emotion in his voice as he endeavoured to explain. His quietness his handicap, his shyness her excuse.

There's something wrong with you, she told him. You're not right.

After coffee (me, page 682) with neighbours sometimes she would ask jokingly if she could give him back. His sister wasn't this much trouble. It seemed she owned him and he owed her. She didn't seem satisfied with her purchase, comparing him to other versions, to previous expectations, to those she saw, with better veneer, presentation and style. There was something wrong with him. Though inanimate we somehow drew tighter listening, afraid the same accusation would be levelled at us. What if we became obsolete, weren't wanted, didn't fulfill the criteria? What if there was to be no place for us?

He who had bought us would try reason with her sometimes. He's young, He would say. It's that age. It's hard for him. He'll grow out of it. He'll be grand. He would come and look at us sometimes, removing the cover, running his hand along the spines, pride in his decision emanating from him. Not long now, he'd whisper. She threatened to burn us, to sell us, to convince him he wasn't worth it, he'd have no use, no interest, no respect. He'd ruin it us like he ruined everything. Sure wasn't everything he had broke or thrown out or given away or wrote on? What did he have to show for it? Sure it was no wonder he didn't have friends, look at the state of his room, the state of his hair. Who knew what he got up to. He doesn't think we can see.

People, she told him, are talking about us. Because of him.

We would hear from the Television (T, page 314) about the other toys, the possible alternatives. Something called the Atari (not in me said A, mustn't exist), the Action Men, the Transformers, the Meccano (M, page 243) the Casio keyboard, the Castle Grayskull. From time to time He would suggest one of them. She said no. The boy never asked, though enthused with friends about the commodore, the Ghostbusters, the board game called Operation. The girl in the house wanted Barbie and My Little Pony and Baby New Born and Pound Puppies and a surprise. We knew she was younger. We could tell.

The door slammed. The boy came in, hanging up his coat, kicking off his shoes, turning for the stairs. So come on, tell me then. Why haven't you asked for stuff from Santa? she said, not greeting him. Is it cos you know you don't deserve it?

We couldn't hear his response. Mumbling again she said, Just speak. Why can't you speak? What's wrong with you?

I know there's no Santa he said louder. I know it's you and dad. I don't need anything.

What did you say? she screamed at him. You little bastard. You ungrateful brat. Coming in here with your lies. You think you're so clever. So smart. One up on your parents. Don't ever forget where you're from. What we did for you. Don't you dare say anything to your sister. You'll ruin it on her like you ruin everything else. I see what you're doing. Get out. Get out of this house.

He left without food, without his jacket. We heard. He almost rang. She lifted the telephone (T, page 344). Dialled the number, we heard the dial turning. She spoke to Eileen, the woman down the road. She spoke to Carol, to Laura. Telling him of his cheek, his screaming, his slamming of doors, his swearing, his running when she tried to console him. When He came home she told him that he'd come in shouting, threatening to tell the young one, going to cause a fight if he didn't get what he wanted. We won't be blackmailed by him she said. We won't be held to ransom. Don't you be blind to what he's up to.

He went out.

Several hours later - we counted the ticks from the wall clock - he came back with him. Quietly entering, he sounded weary, sounded sad. Sounded disappointed. Look, I'm not saying you're a liar, I'm just saying you must have said something to get her so worked up with you. No, I don't know, you'll have to think about it. Just calm down a bit. Try and be good. Say nothing to your sister. Just try, will you? Here, give me a hug and go to bed. The boy's footsteps up the stairs bore no youthful bounding or happy creeping sound. Just a dull thud as he threw one foot on the other, the noise of his walk across his bedroom floor, the sigh at collapse on the bed. We maintained our objectivity, our independent perspective. We recognised his despair. (D, referenced as definition, page 232).

They didn't speak for a while.

Time moved closer to Christmas. Songs on the radio. Late Late Toy Show ("I'd give it a five out of ten, Gay, because the doors fell off"), new Star Wars film on the TV. The door to where we sat opened more frequently for coats, wrapping paper, decorations, hiding. The young one was excited. She was ready for Christmas, for presents. She was brought to see Santa. She was bought new clothes for Christmas. She was in a school play. She got to write a list. You're a great girl her mother said, you can have whatever you want. Her father asked her not to be greedy, to think of others. She ran like a whirlwind (see T, tornado, page 965). The boy watched what he had never had. He wrapped her presents without complaint. He had not asked for anything. He wouldn't get it.

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Except the boy. She had wanted to go out. Wasn't it enough they got their presents she said? Don't we deserve to go out? Does it always have to be about them? You never bring me anywhere. You don't care. You're so boring. She got her way. Look after your sister, son, He said. We'll try be back early.

What about the stuff, da. the boy said quietly, not wanting his mother to hear.

What stuff, son? He said.

You know, the Santa stuff? The milk and carrots and the letter?

Ah we don't need that, do we? He said, almost running out the door as She started beeping the car horn. We'll do it later.

Footsteps into the kitchen. Footsteps out. Footsteps in. Brush and hoover heard. Christmas tree plugged in for the first time - Leave it off so we won't have a bigger bill than the one you put on us, she had told him, tinny music playing as they flashed. Light off. Footsteps up stairs. Soft knocking. "But I can't. Mammy said go to bed. Santy won't come if I go down. He'll think I'm being bold!" came the young voice. "Just come down for a minute. It'll only take a minute." he pleaded. Running downstairs. Now, see, he said. Milk and biscuits for Santa. Carrots for the reindeer. The fireplace is clean. Everything's good. You go up to bed and when you wake you'll have loads of presents.

Ah that's great, isn't it? she said. Mammy and Daddy are really great to do this. They said they would.

She ran up the stairs as if her young life depended on it.

He turned off lights, closed the door, went to his room. Radio on low, Band Aid's second single. He sat on the bed. We could hear the creak.

Hours later parents returned. She pushed her way past him at the door, telling him he shouldn't have been worried about coming home, sure it was only a day. She went into the front room. What's this shite? she said, Did he put this mess here? Did he? Is he trying to be better than us? To tell her I didn't do it? To turn her against me? The words stumbled out, blurred by alcohol (A, page 344), while he, placating her, hoping she wouldn't wake the children said No, no. I did it before we went out. It wasn't him. I'll get the presents out of the press. You go to bed.

You better not have got anything for him. d'ye hear me? He doesn't deserve it.

I didn't. Now you go on.

Front door opened again. He returned from the car with packages. He opened the door to where we were and removed more packages from behind big boxes and under old coats. We felt him lift us, but put us down again, removing something from behind us. All this for one girl he said almost under his breath. All under one tree.

Light footsteps down the stairs.

Are you okay da?

I'm grand son, what are you doing up?

I waited for you to come back. I wanted to see if you needed a hand with Emer's presents. Do you want me to do them?

No, you're grand, son. I have them all done. Look, they're under the tree. She'll be delighted that Santa came. Thanks again for wrapping them.

No problem, dad. I hope tomorrow will be a good day. I hope Emer enjoys it.

You're a good boy, you know that?

Footsteps up the stairs.
You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.
(J. Fred Coots, 1934)

She bounded out of bed. Out of her room. Into the boy's room. Come on, let's see what we've gotten, Come on, come on. Footsteps down the stairs. What do you think you got she asked. Do you think I got roller skates? What did you get? Did you get anything? Did you get nothing because you're bold? I don't think you're bold but mammy says you are.

Words rushed from her mouth as they crept downstairs. Experience had taught them that too much noise this early wasn't tolerated. Sitting room door opened. She screamed and ran for the tree. Footsteps down the stairs.

Look what I got, look what I got! She exclaimed, the sound of ripping paper making some of our lesser used volumes nervous. Father and son reunited in the doorway, watching.

Oh look! she said. Oh look! she said again. Look at it. I'm going to show mammy.

Tiny footsteps up the stairs again.

Well that's it, the boy, said quietly.

Well, what about the box? his father said

What box? That big cardboard one? Isn't that the box from her toys? Sure She told me I'm not getting anything.

Well why don't you look and see?

We could imagine him peering at the box, looking at where we'd been carried to the night before, looking at where his father had scribbled his name hurriedly in the dark.

Is this mine? What is it? his youthful excitement apparent in his breaking voice.

Open it up.

Light. More light than we'd seen since we were taken from the salesman's car that day. Light and a room and a boy. Looking. Not believing. Not daring to touch. Not wanting to believe.

Oh wow. Are these mine? Really? All for me? he asked. Really, all mine?

I was the first book he opened. I was the first one he saw. I was the third encyclopaedia but the one that could show him Canada and Caterpillars and Caius Claudius Nero and China and the Caddis fly and Cadmium and Cairo and Caesar and CS Lewis and, of course, Christmas. Just like his dad just had.
~ The only real blind person at Christmas-time is he who has not Christmas in his heart. (Helen Keller)

~ They err who thinks Santa Claus comes down through the chimney; he really enters through the heart. (Mrs. Paul M. Ell)

~ Remember, if Christmas isn't found in your heart, you won't find it under a tree. (Charlotte Carpenter)

~ Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more."
(Dr. Seuss (1904-), American author of children's books. From 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas')

Happy Christmas.

T, page 342. : Teddy Bear: an enduring, traditional form of a stuffed animal, often serving the purpose of comforting children. Name originating in 1902. In recent times, some teddy bears have become expensive collector's items.

On the way

There's a story on the way. Just like himself below.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Homepages: a first look

My copies of Homepages, Tales from the Irish Blogosphere arrived this morning and I abandoned the computer to sit and read. An A5 book with a lovely cover (well done Katharina), it's light enough to be carried and small enough to fit in the most carriable of man bags or under the tree at Christmas (hint, hint).

In her introduction, Catherine, compiler of the book, calls it

"Fifty stories and photographs, fifty different impressions of homes past, home comforts, homes from home and home truths."
and that it certainly is. There's a lovely scene in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas where Jack is transfixed by the veritable feast of new things to discover. I felt the same reading this book. From the opening story Yellow Summers Behind The Wall from OneForTheRoad right through the 147 pages to where John Braine's Homeboy sits, I tore through the book this morning with a ferocity and hunger normally reserved for a new Discworld novel.

I've been introduced to new writers and reminded of those whose blogs I've neglected. I hadn't heard of Ann from For The Long Run, whose farewell to her house evoked strong memories of all the houses I've moved from. The Kitchen in Thomastown photo by Catríona Dwyer could have been taken in my next door neighbours. Devin Mungovan's The Return of the Queen, John Butler's tale of LA, The Most Exclusive Prison Cell in the World, Beth Morrissey's Home Is Where The Heart Is and Elizabeth Hutchinson's Egyptian Space Invaders all convinced me to go add their feeds to my reader, to find out what else they've done.

Equally the name of friends and familiar bloggers appear. Darren's Talbot Street, Grannymar's The Light Went Out, K8's House Proud, Annie's He is a dog, not a human, Gray Wright's Tonight I'm Going Out and Sharon's Learning at Home with Autism are all posts I remember from their blogs, but somehow, as with my own inclusion The First Time, seeing them in print, in book form, away from the screen somehow changes them, adds gravity, exposes them for the quality pieces they really are, rather than just "another blog post" on a blog.

Similarly inclusions like Andrew's Baxter, Colm's Bonfires, Twenty's Home and David Maybury's fantastic tale Landscaping served to emphasise the quality of the writers who are blogging out there, who do share their thoughts on a regular basis.

I'd love non-bloggers, those who don't understand what blogging is or indeed people who think they might like to, but lack the courage, to read this book. From Marian's O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree to Manuel's Trophy Breakfast and from photos like Red Mum's Making a Swing to Narocroc's Home Under The Stars, the collection shows the breadth of talent, the variety of interests and the opportunity everyone has to contribute something, both to the blogosphere and to worthwhile collections like this.

More than anything, it's somehow appropriate that this collection arrived today. I sat, reading and thought of home, thought of cereals and icicles, window seats and cupán tae's, of Christmas songs, of clutter and cribbage, of London, Spain, Barretstown, Blessington, Graiguenamanagh, Blanchardstown and Dorset Street, all places I've lived in the years since I met my biological mother for the first time. It's the five year anniversary today. I'll send her a copy.

You've probably seen the link to buy on enough blogs now to know where to go. However, I'd invite you to think about the people who won't get the chance to read this, who don't have a home, those people for whom this book is more important, because it's funding their survival on the streets. Focus Ireland, like so many other deserving charities need your support, so getting a collection of quality writing into the bargain is no bad thing either.

Buy and have a read. Tell people about it.

Camille O' Sullivan at the Olympia Theatre

Take a stage with cello, a harp, a piano and keyboard, steel drums, ordinary drums, a saxophone, three electric guitars, a banjo, an accoustic guitar, a trumpet, a clarinet, a flute, a harp, five gold dresses - one a sparkly, glittery gold - a handbag and a shawl all suspended from the ceiling, a mannequin head, a bottle of wine and wine glass and the sweet strains of John McCormack's Mo Chuisle echoing through an expectant Olympia Theatre and you get some idea of the set up for Camille O Sullivan's concert this week.

It's my first time to one of her shows, though I've seen her perform at the Olympia before. Born in London of an Irish father and French mother, Camille grew up in Cork, studied Fine Art and graduated as an architect from UCD. As a performer though she's performed sell out seasons in Australia, New York, the UK and Ireland.

The transition makes sense to her: "I think with performing and the dressing up and glamour element, the thing that it has in common with painting and with architecture is creativity" she says in a recent interview. "I think I found something I was really interested in and that kind of performing suited me very well as I'm not very good at doing reality".

She sang to us of her death, waiting. However Bowie performed the song, surely Jacques Brel wrote My Death to be sung like this. Huskily, emotion filled, angrily. While it waited for her, she sang to each of us. Individually, her incredible voice came to tap us on the shoulder, embrace us and let us know she was happy we were there, that somehow, in some small way, we were her salvation.

My death waits to allow my friends
a few good times before it ends
so let’s drink to that and the passing time

But what ever lies behind the door,
there is nothing much to do
angel or devil I don’t care, for in front of that door…
there is you.
No happy tune this, no fanfare to life, no forced jollity, ah isn't life great mentality. Here was a woman, her songs and her bottle of wine. The audience loved it.

If you've ever been to a Camille gig before, you'll know costume changes, fishnets and that fantastic body of hers plays a part. As the music started for Marc Almond's The Bulls, she began her transformation, rawwwrring at the audience, greeting the front row with "See, if you're scared, that's when I'm gonna come for you". The percussion provided by a curtain rail and rings, she indulges in the evocation of the bull ring, of the crowd and of the audience reaction.
On Sundays the bulls get so bored,
When they are asked to show off for us

There is the sun, the sand, and the arena
There are the bulls ready to bleed for us
The moment of triumph when grocery clerks become Nero
The moment of triumph when the girls scream and shout the name of their hero.
"I'm exhausted", she says at the end of the song. "Someone took up the hem of this dress. I need to talk to them. It's highly undignified. Are you having a drink?" She turns again to the front row as she sips her own wine. "You'll need one. For those of you who might not have seen me before... good luck."

She speaks of her obsession with the music, of her love of cabaret songs, of characters and stories as in the writing of Nick Cave, of Tom Waits and of course of Brel. In the recent interview with Jade O' Callaghan in Temple Bar Magazine, when asked how she chooses her repertoire, she said
"Well the Brel stuff would be because I am half French and my parents had a great record collection, and I started listening to songs that were more like storytelling and had characters, and I like dark and dramatic tales.

If I hear something and it resonates with me then I'll look into doing it. It's more about the story within the song than singing the song sometimes.... It is always a personal thing, and it's always about being sincere with a song rather than it just being about my voice".

As she starts into Rock 'n' Roll Suicide, one of Bowie's last songs for Ziggy Stardust, you begin to understand where Camille is bringing us. The journey she has started is no fairy tale, we're invited into her life, into her space as she shows us who she is
Oh no love! you're not alone,
No matter what or who you've been, no matter when or where you've seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain, I've had my share, I'll help you with the pain. You're not alone
In the same interview: "As a woman too I think that it's important to shake that image of yourself, and not just be the femme fatale in the fishnets and heels singing. It's important that you show every aspect of yourself; that you can be vulnerable, that you can be tough or angry or gentle.

What I love best is humour and charm and that's what I love about the intimacy of being on stage; you can use all these aspects of your personality to lock in with the audience, it's not just about singing to them, you're very much with them"

As she starts into the Tiger Lillies' Crack of Doom, she laughs. Here's one she will delight in, indulge in, have fun with.
And so your life's been a success, and you have pleasure in excess. Don't worry it will all end soon,
The crack of doom is coming soon
And so your future's looking bright and you've reached the giddy heights. Don't worry it will soon end.
It is all shallow and pretend.

And so she continues through Act One. Harpist Sinéad Ní Ghearailt joins her for Nick Cave's Little Water Song. Tom Waits' All the World is Green is next - "The moon is yellow silver on the things that summer brings. It's a love you'd kill for" - followed by Cave's Brompton Oratory. "I wish that I was made of stone so that I would not have to see a beauty impossible to define". Time and time again I'm impressed with the lyrics - I haven't heard (m)any of these songs before, so being new to me, the way Camille communicates them seems the way they were written to be sung, composed to be performed.

The Port of Amsterdam comes next with crowd favourite In These Shoes rounding out the first act. A new friend comes down to me, a lover of music, a new Camille disciple, just over from London for the weekend "She's amazing mate. Really stunning. That vibrancy and energy is incredible." He's right. it is that energy that is infectious. It's that that has us clapping along to her version of Mack the Knife, intertwining Nick Cave's version from September Son into a sordid bilingual feast. Her version of Hurt rivals the Johnny Cash version for fidelity to the Nine Inch Nails original. It is her talent to make the song sound original, sound believable. There are no theatrics here other than her voice. It's enough.

Dillie Keane's Look Mommy, No Hands has the girls reaching for the tissues. Knowing her own mother is in the audience seems to amplify the intensity and cause her to cry all the more. It's her hesitant phrasing, her understanding of when to pause, when to inflect and when to go for the jugular.
Remember the daughter and all that you taught her
She's grown up at last with a child of her own
She struggles alone as the years all fly past
But now you're no not there to answer her calls.
You're not there to catch her when she stumbles and falls.
Look mummy no hands.
I'm having to do it all by myself
Look mummy no hands.
I used to dismiss you. Now I just miss you.
With lyrics like this you can understand how she feels she is "like and actress signing a monologue and interpreting something that's often dark or sad." When asked if she's ever thought about writing her own lyrics, she says "No, I think because I am scared that it would be rubbish. How can I write after singing Brel and Nick Cave, I mean they are phenomenal writers."

Image from here.

The Weill/Brecht 1928 What Keeps Mankind Alive brings us further into harsh reality. No fluffy kittens or rainbows here. She dons her white make-up to sing:
The fact that millions are daily tortured.
Stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed
Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
in keeping its humanity repressed.
Bowie's Suffragette City follows, then Nick Cave's People, They Ain't No Good. She seems too young to sing this, but does so despite that and with a vengeance. As her foot stomps to herald the opening of Waits' Misery Is The River Of The World, we're drawn back into this spinning dervish existence.

"I'm exhausted." She says after, "I don't know how the hell you are." She goes on to thank her parents for being there "If you want to know how crazy I am, they look like me. You can find them." and amid the applause and laughter she says "If you thought I was mad, I'm now going to go a bit further with you."

And further she goes, introducing us to meow, an audience and performer making cat noises at each other. "It doesn't make sense to anything or anyone. It's just makde me happy in the last few months." she says. "You've got to do it subtly. Walk past a stranger and say meow. If it gets to eye contacts, it's over. Over." she laughs.

Her last song. Will she leave us on a high? Something jaunty to send us on our way in a cold December night? Not a bit of it. We get a haunting version of Bowie's Five Years "News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying. Cried so much, his face was wet, then I knew, he was not lying" before the encore of Brel's Marieke and then, she's joined onstage by the wonderful Jack L who dances and duets with Camille for Fairytale of New York.

It is though when she starts the opening lines of Nick Cave's The Ship Song that we are reminded that though we may want to, we can't spend the evening in the company of this siren, songstress and artist, who has painted the evening with lyrics of heartbreak, of life, of solace, and, as Lottie says, afterwards "We stepped back into the colour and cold of a 21st Century Dame Street".

She left the stage with this, singing the last verse without any music, just her and the band. No better way to end it.
Your face has fallen sad now for you know the time is nigh
When I must remove your wings and you, you must try to fly.

Come sail your ships around me and burn your bridges down.
We make a little history baby every time you come around.
Camille O' Sullivan plays London's Roundhouse on January 14 and 15, 2009. Her website is here and My Space is here and you can buy any of her four CDs or live at the Spiegeltent DVD through Celtic Note.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gloria - Ireland's lesbian and gay choir - sing Christmas

We were lucky to get the last two tickets for the Glória Christmas concert last night in St Ann's Church on Dawson Street. I hadn't heard them live before and seeing as my date for the evening cancelled, we decided to get in the festive spirit with a few tunes.

I bring a few things with me everywhere I go. Phones, camera, pen, notebook, wallet etc. The notebook keeps me occupied, noting thoughts and ideas that spring up, often much to the bemusement of those sitting near me. I didn't take photos last night out of respect to the choir members, but the sight of them in black with pink stripey ties was enough to put a smile on everyone's faces.

Listening to the opening songs of "A Jubilant Gloria" and "The most wonderful time of the year" last night, I scribbled down "It's almost a pity that Glória label themselves a 'gay and lesbian choir' because they're much more than just a "something" choir, they're fantastic." If the reaction of the crowd - actually, if the numbers of the audience were anything to go by, here is obviously a group of people that puts a huge amount of work in, has a lot of support and benefits from same. Why the tag?

Voices soared last night. Musical director John Francis Murphy seems to understand the balance between male and female, between tenor, alto and soprano and used it to create great harmonies, interesting contrasts and an extremely pleasant sound. The interpretations of the songs were clever - neither rigidly traditional nor over the top gospel, we were treated to some acapella, some jazzy numbers and some where the choir just seemed to love the song.

Photos from

'Away in a Manger' was the first sing-along song and, truth be told, I almost laughed. We'll sing along in pubs, on pitches, in cars, at concerts but put people in a church and we revert to that public shyness; the fear of being told to stop singing or being laughed at seems to be something only alcohol or social events can dispel. Looking around a very mixed audience, it seemed the men were staring fixedly at anything but other people while the ladies sang along, oblivious of the male awkwardness. No, I didn't sing, I just scribbled furiously. I was as shy as the rest of them.

Our MCs on the night were entertaining and informative. "Join in", one urged, "just don't necessarily compete". Murphy, introducing Sleigh Ride, told us that this was the 100th anniversary of composer Leroy Anderson's birth and the song was 60 years old this year. It was during this tune that I noticed a very enthusiastic gentleman standing apart from the choir, smiling, singing and signing. It was hypnotic.

On the way in we'd noticed a large group of people using sign language, and so, the signer's presence made sense. Darren and Senan from ISL put more work in than anyone last night, communicating the lyrics and music of each carol through sign language in an inimitable style. Their round of applause (both claps and hand waving) at the end was well justified and the support from the community much appreciated.

Name the song this verse is from:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA
But it's December the 24th
And I'm longing to be up north
I didn't know until last night that this was the first verse of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. Neither did I know that the gifts for the 12 groovy days of Christmas ("remember, this was the 70s, okay?") were
Twelve lava lamps, eleven sticks of incense, ten sets of door beads, nine paisley blankets, eight disco balls, seven giant earrings, six leisure suits, five golden mood rings (oo oo), four Volkswagen bugs, three headbands, two platform shoes and an 8-track by the Partridge fam'ly.
Frosty the Snowman, a lovely version of Silent Night, O Holy Night, an emotional version of Breath of Heaven, O Come all ye Faithful (a song I haven't sang in Latin in about 15 years) and Ring Christmas Bells ("Is it wrong I wanted to sing the Garmin version?", Niamh asked me) rounded out the show. By the time Adeste Fideles came around, nerves had softened and the audience was louder than the choir.

Thought the concert was free, there was a charity collection on the night. The beneficiaries were the choir's costs, Gay Switchboard and MarriagEquality. Gay Switchboard has been in operation for 30 years and is Ireland's longest running LGBT resource. It's staffed entirely by volunteers (they're recruiting at the moment) and is an important resource for the community.

MarriagEquality is a single issue charity - granting equal marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples on the basis that lesbian and gay people and heterosexual people are equal in the law. "We may not want to marry", our MC told the audience "but the choice should exist.", promoting one of the biggest cheers and ovations of the night.

It's when he spoke of "increasing visibility of gay people in Ireland" that I finally got what Gloria is about. It's not a label or a tag, it's just a fact. From reading their website:
Glória was established to provide a safe and comfortable space for gays and lesbians to meet and sing together and to promote a positive image of gay and lesbian life in Ireland.
Last night they did just that. St Ann's was a welcoming place for fans, friends and family. There were many hugs shared afterwards, lots of greetings and catching up with people over a glass of mulled wine and a minced pie. Events with such warmth and support are rare in a very commercial Dublin, so the organisation of this concert was equally important for the choir, their supporters and those who love to hear good music.

Glória are performing their second 'Breath of Heaven' concert in St Ann's Church, Dawson Street on Thursday 18 December. Free tickets will be available on the door from 6pm but turn up early - if last night is anything to go by, they'll be gone in 15 minutes. You can find out more about supporting the choir here. I'm already looking forward to their next event!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mary Robinson talk at the Abbey tonight cancelled

Just so you know: due to unfortunate circumstances, tonight's talk with Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at Dublin's Abbey Theatre has been cancelled. This news might save you a trip in bad weather!

In the meantime though, you could check out the website of Realising Rights, The Ethical Globalisation Initiative.

How many miles to Basra: interview with Colin Teevan

A stage empty but for ten chairs. Actors walk out, taking their seats. No costumes, no props, just scripts and water. The audience is here for a play reading of Colin Teevan's play "How Many Miles to Basra?", one of the Abbey Theatre's series of talks and readings in their Bearing Witness season, a celebration of 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The play, about "Four soldiers take a chance to redeem themselves after an accidental killing, while their journalist companion learns that the nature of truth is always distorted by the media" deals with the Iraq war and the uneven relationship between the media, politicians and the armed forces. At times comedic, at others poignant and disturbing, we are treated in two acts to a provoking look at the reality of today.

Can ten actors do a play with such important undertones and aspirations justice through just a reading? Yes, yes they can. Director Conall Morrison and his cast took the audience from the offices of BBC radio to Iraq and back again through convincing passion, accents, emotions and a storyline that resonates with all of us. It's hardly surprising, given the prevalent question - did the British government lie about Iraq? Was the weapons dossier sexed up? What was it like in Iraq for the soldiers there?

Through the eyes of Freddie, Stewart, Geordie and Dangermouse, four soldiers based in Iraq, completely bored by their station, the answer is "boring". We're introduced to them through reporter Ursula Gunn, there to find a story, a woman racked with guilt over her brother's death in a RUC shooting years before. When action happens, it happens in a big way, disturbing the routine of all involved and creating a situation none of them could envisage and a reality the audience cannot ignore.

"That's not how it happened" "What are we doing here?" "Why does this Iraqi have so much money? Why shouldn't an Iraqi have 400 dollars?" "I don't feel anything for him, I hate him". "That's what we're doing here, trying to liberate them from living like this. It's what we're here to do, leave the country a better place" "The war is over, according to my editor" "Tell your editor I would gladly swap houses with him. "I wish the world would stop trying to help Iraqis" "To remove this monster Saddam who you made to keep us in our place, you have bombed us, destroyed us. You have reduced this country to rags, then you call us ragheads".

The script is harsh and unforgiving, brutal in its assault on the lies perpetrated, constantly seeking the truth of the situation and inviting us to do the same.

I sat with playwright Colin Teevan after the performance to find out more about him and this play. Colin, from Dublin, is a playwright and translator, whose work has been produced by theatres including the National Theatre, London, the Young Vic, the National Theatre of Scotland, The Abbey Theatre and off Broadway. He has lectured widely in Britain, Europe and the US on theatre and writing for the stage and is currently Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of London.

(Please excuse the sound and lighting - still practising on the N95!)

Reading and acting in How Many Miles to Basra? were Roisín Coyle, Fiona Bell, John Cronin, Anthony Brophy, Ronan Leahy, Barry John O' Connor, Raad Rawi, Christopher Simpson, Janice Byrne and Ali White.

The Bearing Witness series continues this week with talks and readings address how Irish people bear witness to international events through art, debate, and politics.

Wednesday 17 and Friday 19 December sees two more readings. Returns by Joshua Casteel tells of Torture, guilt and post traumatic stress are explored through the memories of James and his companions, who have returned from Iraq only to find they cannot escape their past. Zero Hour by Tea Alagic is a biographical piece of how the playwright is just another student – until the cracks in her society are exposed by civil war. Zero Hour parallels her journey into adulthood with the transition of Bosnia from war to peace.

All readings take place at the Peacock Theatre at 2pm. Tickets €4/€2 concession each, and booking is on 01 87 87 222. The Abbey Website is here, and you can become a fan on Facebook here.

One Day International: interview with Matt and Ross

Matt Lunson is reading Neil Gaiman's Stardust. It's a good way for us to start our conversation, me a Gaiman fan, him being recently introduced by a friend. "I'm really liking it" he says, something that doesn't surprise me, having read Matt's own writing for the past few weeks.

It's been a busy morning - the guys are in the middle of shooting interviews about blogging down one end of Le Cirk, I'm up at the other arranging tea for Matt and Ross who have come to tell me more about One Day International. Ross barely has time to sit down before I invite/send him to be part of the filming, leaving Matt and me to talk.

I've been constantly listening to their debut album, Blackbird, since I got it. There are eleven beautiful, carefully crafted songs here that have accompanied me for the past while. Heavy on piano, accompanied by cello, the lyrics drew me in conjuring images of torrid love affairs, sweet kisses and a girl I knew a long time ago. Powerful stuff. Indeed, as their website says

"A deep and passionate respect for language resonates through each and every track. Words are not wasted, each turn of phrase demands attention. The collected musicianship of the group affords the listener a hoard of minds-eye treasures to call upon."

I ask Matt as I about the band's emerging profile "We have been very fortunate so far. We've been careful about what we've done, with whom and when and even though it's not a route all bands take, it's worked out for us". Indeed, the five piece band, together since 2007, Matt on vocals, Ross (Turner) on drums, Cormac Curran on piano, Danny Snow on bass and Eimear O’Grady on cello have been building up a steady following and respect from fans and within the industry, something reviews of their album on and State bear testimony to.

"We've spent 18 months creating this album" says Matt. "Our first batch of songs were quite delicate. Fragile. We didn't want to expose them to a situation where they wouldn't be comfortable. We want to take care of the music we play. The only real thing of value a band has is the songs that it writes."

I found that strange to hear, but listening to lyrics from Closed Doors: "For the first time in your life you stopped tearing yourself apart and it was beautiful", Miss Your Mouth "I know you like that I am a mess that I'll do my best so you'll believe that my aim is good", Not Over You "Do you remember the way that we made the best of a bad situation always seem worse" and Black is the Bird "Black is the bird that can't sing and black is the bird that loses it's wing" that I began to understand how personal this album is not only to Matt, but to the band.

"It's the same reason why we're not out on the road seven days a week. We've been guarded about doing any gigs until there was an album we were happy with. We could have gone and played to 15 people in gigs, but that doesn't benefit anyone. It needs to benefit the music that I write rather than the band." says Matt. "This record has been quite carefully arranged and constructed over time. We've worked on it for a year and a half and it's the best that we could have done it. We're very proud of it."

Their gig in The Button Factory on Thursday promises to be a good one. "We're looking forward to it" Ross grins, having rejoined us. "We concentrated on making the record first - the live shows take care of themselves. However we work hard on creating an atmosphere for an hour or so where our songs can be played. It's almost making a grandeur out of vulnerability. We worked hard to strike the balance between too literal, too obvious and too obscure. If we can bring out the soulful and emotional aspects of our songs in our performance, we'll be happy" says Matt.

Photo by Dara Munnis

"The live show has superseded the record", he says, "it's more dramatic. The songs are written to be performed and the show allows us to flesh out the crescendos built into the music". "The structure and arrangements don't change that much", Ross adds, "but there's more power and energy in the live show".

"I find it better" interrupts Matt "to see what I can do with the music rather than just show what I can do. It can be dangerous territory - if you force a change in the music just for a show, it comes out contrived. For us it's about the balance".

They spent some time this year supporting Lisa Hannigan. "It was wonderful" says Matt, "We became really good friends with her and the band. She is just so beautiful and relaxed in her performances that playing with her was a pleasure." They've also toured with Cathy Davey and were widely regarded as one of the best acts of this year's Hard Working Class Heroes.

Matt, a respected singer/songwriter far from his native Tasmania, released his first album Miss Vaughan, named after his first music teacher in 2005 and has toured with many artists - Mundy, Mary Coughlan, The Walls, Ollie Cole, Tim Freedman (The Whitlams) and Liam O Maonlaí to name a few. The others are no less accomplished - Ross plays with Cathy Davey, Jape and David Kitt while Eimear plays sessions and orchestra with equal fervour.

"We had three songs when we started", says Matt, "songs that required a band to share them". In a recent State interview, Eimear had commented how they were "definitely learning the trick of the five of us being in a room and somebody bringing something in and being able to spark it off the next person."

"Our personal relationship is important"
says Matt "Everyone likes each other, respects each other and contributes. We were good friends when we started this and that has continued. Everyone had their place. Ross, who duals as the band's main blogger, knows such an incredible amount of music that he's often our finder of new things."

The band have a huge respect for music bloggers and are one of the rare few that update their own blog when they have news, giving equal coverage to artists they like as well as their own news. "People consume so much Irish music now that isn't just from 2FM or Hot Press. They're seeking out the tunes, talking about the bands and reviewing the gigs. It's a good thing" says Matt "Intelligent criticism of their music will make the bands work harder, be better informed."

The album cover too is a thing of beauty. Designed by Sarah Brownlee, a designer and illustrator, its apparent simplicity, like the music, doesn't show the amount of work that's gone into it. "We love it" says Ross, "Sarah understood us, understood what we wanted and gave us something wonderful." The album itself is produced by Brian Crosby (BellX1 and The Cake Sale) with whom Matt has been friends for a long time.

The band is looking international next year. "It's about ambition", says Matt, "We're not just limiting ourselves to Ireland. Don't get me wrong, there's been a seismic shift in Irish music in the last two years - a huge shift in scope and eclepticism. Where before, to fit in, you were either a singer songwriter or a skinny angular guitar band, you now have events like HWCH and bands like The Vinny Club that show that musicians are prepared to take genuine risks. And out of that will come stuff that is genuinely great."

"We will however bring our songs and music on the road. We're going to South by South West (a legendary festival showcasing more than 1,800 musical acts of all genres from around the globe on over eighty stages in Austin, Texas) in March and have been invited to the Canadian Music week too. The album is due for release in the UK in April."

When I ask for their advice for anyone starting out in music, their advice was simple. "Really work at it and don't try to be anything you're not. There's no need to sound like someone else or try fit into a certain scene. Your music will drive your success. Play often and together as much as you can" advises Ross. "Unless you're die hard there's not much point" says Matt. "If the band is weak, if the performance is weak or the music is weak, the band will fall apart. You need to hone it constantly and really work at it."

When asked for favourite songs from the album, they both hesitate. "All of them" says Ross. Matt believes that Darken Your Door is perfectly sung and written, while Ross favours Black is the Bird as a song that has benefited from live performance and the vocal expression of it. Matt says he remembers a 1940s quote that reads "If you burn the midnight oil on revision, you'll often leave the smell of the lamp" - not something they want to do. "Buy our album, come to our gigs, find out for yourself" they invite you. You can see all that information and more on their Facebook page, their MySpace page here and their website and blog here.

I'm looking forward to Thursday's gig. "There'll be no Christmas songs" grins Matt, when I ask "though we were thinking of "The River" by Joni Mitchell." Whatever they play, it's bound to be a musical treat and a great experience. Here's their current single, Closed Doors.

A big thanks to Matt and Ross for the interview, to Emma for her help, to Le Cirk for the venue and the wonderful Mr Byrne for the photos. You can read his review of One Day International's Blackbird here and buy the album here.