Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Years Eve

There are lots of reasons to stay at home for New Years Eve. Triple time babysitters, unreliable taxi services, not being able to get into that slinky dress after the chocolates bender and not finding oneself ringing in the New Year with a kiss from a stranger are all reasons to eschew the glitzy party. “Staying in” on the biggest ‘night-out’ of the year need not necessarily be the poor-mans option.  Once your children are old enough to understand that seeing in the New Year is a celebration, they will want to stay up and be part of the action. This weekend marks the passing of time - one year into another – as a significant event in our lives and so it is only fitting that we spend it in the company of our significant loved ones, including our children. Our eldest is ten, and for the first time this year, it seems truly bizarre that we would think of leaving him in the care of his grandmother so we can party with other people. Perhaps it is the year that is in it, but the Auld Lang Syne sentiment of garnering strength from the shared experiences of friends and family has never seemed more significant. New Years Eve and Day give us a second opportunity to do the Christmas entertaining thing but without the pressure of cooking sprouts and buying presents. A week into the holidays, most of us feel a bit sick. Certainly due to over-indulgence, but also a bit sick of our nearest and dearest and of slinging about the house and – for many of us too – sick with the thought of what lies ahead next year. The temptation is to just skim over the whole thing, either by going on one last  bender or putting our heads under the covers and forgetting about it altogether. But it is worth remembering that the grind of “real-life” will be back on in a few days and the loved ones gone again for long enough. So surely it’s appropriate to treat this time as a celebration of having loved ones to love, and homes to love them in – a reminder of all we have got in our lives that we’ll be carrying through to 2012.  Later today, I am going to look through my photo diary and drag a few photos across from my laptop to download onto a CD and share with everyone before midnight. I am always astonished looking back at how much our family have done in the past twelve months. School concerts, achievements at work, holidays – as the next year approaches it’s important to focus on how much life has happened since we last underwent this ritual. Time flies, but as well as the worry and the stress, family life is rich with love and laughter and it’s important to remind ourselves of that too.  Even though I’ve got half a ham glowering at me in the fridge and am exhausted from Dealing With The Leftover Turkey - I’ve made a New Year menu. I’m splashing out on the expensive exotic frozen party nibbles I normally reserve for “visitors” and have called in the rib-eye order from my favourite butcher, Charlie in Killala, for New Years Day. I’m going to make everyone get dressed-up and play party games and be a proper family for one last time – on this last day – of 2014. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


“Happy Christmas” has to be one of the most over-used, yet under-utilised expressions in the English language. Aside from a few short moments on Christmas morning watching the children open their presents, the day itself is always fraught with stress and heightened emotion. Having thought I was on the home-stretch by ensuring that the turkey fits in my oven, and that I have a baking tray big enough to hold it, I will be frantically searching the house for bits of leftover foil with which to cover it. By mid morning I am topping and tailing sprouts and cursing my husband for insisting we find a way of transforming these fiddly green knobs into something that does not resemble cabbage for the one day of the year that he eats them. Having spent three weeks arranging fronds of fresh holly and candles in our “good room” – I am overcome with fear that one of the kids will smear the Mars Bar from their 7am selection box on my once-a-year sofa. Instead of enjoying the gift giving, I am glowering miserably at the piles of packaging and wrapping paper fretting over the next recycling bin collection date. My husband always buys me some wonderful trinket which makes the novelty mug and socks look even more dreadful than they are, and the stress of the last few weeks trying to make the perfect Christmas – sending cards to all the right people, buying gifts for everyone, finding a dressy red cardigan and gathering advice from Sunday supplements on what to do with those wretched sprouts, has fuelled me with such wild expectation that the day itself somehow always disintegrates into a toxic state of exhaustion and regret. By mid afternoon, I just want everyone to go home so I can settle into the Big Movie (which I have invariably seen already on my one cinema trip this year) and indulge my regretful addiction to Quality Street.
This Christmas is going to be different however because I am sick. I was diagnosed with a chronic disease back in September and, while nobody actually wants a disease, the whole business of my body stopping me in my tracks has caused me to reassess the more neurotic aspects of my personality and get my priorities into line. Where previous Christmases have been dominated by co-ordinating decorating schemes and scoring wild smoked salmon for the starter – this year we’ll eat farmed salmon for a fiver from Lidl and I couldn’t give a damn about the decorations. All I care about is the people I’ll be with.
The truth is all the decorating, and cooking and shopping and glittery table dressing is so often used as a distraction for the main business of being with our family. Not the favourite sister, or the adored children – but the extended family. The mother-in-law who makes better gravy than you, the verbally incontinent uncle, the vegan cousin who has to be especially catered for, the sibling you haven’t seen since last Christmas when he got into a drunken fight with your husband after an argument playing Family Fortunes.
“How to Survive Your Family this Christmas” is in every popular women’s magazine, and people keep saying to me “it’s a difficult time of the year.” But as I look out at the sea, for the first time I can see the snow-settled mountains in Sligo melt into the skyline and I realise that the gift this period of illness has given me is the time to reflect and appreciate the life I have and, crucially the people I have left in it.
Christmas is a time when everyone tries to be the best they can be. From going to their only mass this year, to putting on a glitzy outfit just to sit in their own houses or trying to turn dry, dull turkey meat into something magnificent. Not everyone gets it right, but it’s the time of year when it’s worth remembering that everyone endeavours to be their best selves, even if it is annoying or crass, even if they have to be drunk to get through it. The message of Christmas – “goodwill to all men” – is a challenge to tolerance and acceptance. At best, it’s a call to love. Not just the people it is easy to love, our partners and children - but the old, the difficult, the jaded, and the boorish – the ignorable relations. It’s not an easy time, but then I have learned this year, life is not easy – and the only thing we truly have in this life that is worth holding onto is people.
So instead of tolerating Christmas this year, I am going to treasure it. Because in the holding of this annual Christian tradition, society offers us the opportunity to share, not just the presents and the food and the hospitality, but of ourselves and our human spirit. The ability to be graciously outshined by our mother-in-law’s gravy, watch our husbands guzzle back the sprouts and forget about the bickering and disappointments of the other 364 days of the year because this day, this moment is all we truly have.
Midnight mass, usually an interruption to the stuffing and peeling frenzy that is Christmas Eve, will take on a special significance this year. An opportunity to get dressed up and meet our neighbours in the village at a time when the pub seems overwhelmingly social. While the “A La Carte Catholics” annual token trip can be a cause of irritation for the faithful as they arrive early and hog all the good seats, there is something solid and comforting about a community gathering to celebrate the mystery and magic of Christmas together.
We never know what the next year will hold, but on this one day, although our loved ones aren’t always with us in body, in spirit at least we will gather around the same table and eat the same food – and even if the brussel sprouts recipe has changed, there is always hope in the magical routine of Christmas Day.
Happy Christmas from Killala, County Mayo.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How thrilled does 'Bressie' look being photographed with his Middle Aged Lady Novelist Fan? My husband said I look like his ventriloquist dummy and I have to agree. Please note not one - but TWO pairs of identical glasses. Suffice to say I have burned the coat and the beige cardigan and ditched the hat. NOT my finest fashion moment. 

When it comes to teenagers, we adults have very short memories. Teenage culture has always been at a slight remove from society and every one of us has gone through the silent, angry rebellion of wanting to be an adult while still feeling as emotionally needy as a child. 
Being young is a time of transition, of challenging the adult world and it is only made harder by the fact that society is built on the conventions of certainty and security. Even though we were all young once - we fear teenagers for the challenges they present to us – the mirror they hold up to our own failings as parents and society.
In my own twenties, I was editor of the teen magazine Just Seventeen and as such became a public spokesperson for my readers. I loved giving teenage girls a voice and the whole experience of working with them made me realise how harshly society judges its young. However, that was a long time ago, and I am now a crotchety middle-aged woman. From the remove of my quiet family life in a small country town it seems to me that we have produced a teenage generation of spoiled, promiscuous drunks. I really its not true because my eldest son is ten years old and will soon be moving among them so when a local branch of the Irish youth organisation Foróige invited me to their Band On The Strand gig – I decided to go along and see what the teens of today get up to. 
My fourteen-year-old niece refused to join me. It seems my nagging has resulted in my demotion from beloved auntie to judgmental, interfering old cow and no amount of begging would convince her that I would not be following her around for the night trying to persuade her to put on a coat. Even the attendance of Irish popstar ‘Bressie’ who was headlining could not sway her. However, I decided that this was my chance to be a bit of a teenager myself and pursue my mild crush on The Voice hunk.
For the first time in it’s nine-year history the Band on The Strand organisers were providing overnight camping for the kids. Anne-Marie Thompson who runs the Post Office in Lacken said I could park my campervan nearby and join them all for breakfast in the morning. She had clearly lost her mind. Teenagers? Camping? All together in a marquee?
The invite they sent me kept stressing ‘alcohol-free’ but I could just not even begin to imagine how they were going to keep control of the situation. Teenagers drink these days. It’s what they do – everybody knows that. They’d get it in somehow. It would surely be bedlam – a marauding teenage drink/sex fest.
I arrived as the first band Children of The Sun were about halfway through their set. It had been a dry, sunny day and the beautiful stretch of beach - Lacken Strand where the gig was being held was still bright. Across the dunes I could see a massive stage flanked with burger vans and bouncy castles.
I parked the van on a verge next to the long camping marquee – and walked across the shallow grasslands towards the broad beach and a thousand buzzing teenagers. The kids were all cordoned off into a barriered zone in front of the stage, flanked throughout by adults in high-viz vests. The kids had to walk down a security path to get to the stage and entertainment area. Everything was open and everyone visible - no hidden corners for troublemakers or dealers to lurk in. The adult presence didn’t seem to interfere with the kid’s excitement and the atmosphere was electric. I walked down in amongst the fray and felt instantly surrounded by all the energy and excitement of youth. These kids were high on life. They were out, in their hot pants and their hoodies and their Day-Glo socks and they were buzzing – just with the thrill of being alive and being together. Three passionate longhaired young teens were pumping out music from the stage and while the kids at the front were dancing, others further back were just milling about and chatting. The age group was twelve to seventeen and the boys looked way younger than the girls. I saw one or two young boys who reminded me of my ten-year-old son wandering the crowd looking a bit lost and I felt briefly compelled to scoop them up. The music was so great I wanted to dance. The air was so infused with the possibility of youth that I wanted to cry.  The truth is I felt overwhelmed by the intense positive energy around me. We forget how hard it is being young but we also forget how great it can be; the adventure of the world opening up to you – those first exhilarating steps of freedom. Then there was the kissing. All around me teenage boys had their hands nervously planted on the hot-panted bottoms of teenage girls as they kissed in that peculiar way teens do; their lips locked, their heads barely moving. Far from finding it appalling as I thought I would, they looked rather funny and sweet – and very innocent. It seemed very normal to me that these young ‘kissers’ should just being left to get on with it in full view rather than sneaking off to the dangerous corners my generation was more familiar with.
I went over to the volunteer tent to queue for my tea and sandwiches and got chatting to Sean Campbell The CEO of Foróige. No drink – he told me – was a major key in ensuring the success of these events. ‘Even if the volunteers go away for a week with the kids – there is no drink the whole time. We have to set an example - show young people they can enjoy themselves without it.’
His attitude was refreshing. ‘Learn to drink responsibly’ is the best we can do when it comes to a national mantra around alcohol abuse. But what does that actually mean? The implication is that drinking alcohol is such an important and integral part of life that it’s essential you learn to do it ‘properly’. Not doing it at all is rarely presented as an option. As a non-drinker people often express astonishment that I am able to socialise ‘normally’ without the aid of alcohol. If I was a teenager being told by my mother not to drink – yet I knew she needed half-a bottle of wine inside her in order to be able to get up and dance at a wedding would I listen to her line of reasoning? Our drink culture remains juvenile into adulthood. ‘I got hammered last night,’ people complain when they get hangovers, ‘I just can’t do it any more.’  Nobody ever says ‘I don’t want to do this any more because it’s pointless and makes me stupid and boring.’  We continue to aspire to drinking too much into parenthood – sending our kids the message that drinking is fun.
Small wonder they want to go out and drink as soon as they can. It’s do as I say not do as I do.

At half ten I was called away for my audience with Bressie along with a selected group of teens. I tried to work myself up into frenzy of infatuation but while he’s a nice young man who is sometimes on the telly I discovered that the teen gene couldn’t undo the jading of forty-odd years – so I remained underwhelmed.
However watching the kids go crazy when he came on stage picked me up again.
At one am when the gig was over, the sky lit up with a massive firework display. Nearly two thousand kids raised their faces to the sky in sober silence gasping at the show.  The fireworks bought this celebration of life to a dramatic and significant close. The adults had invested hard work (an money) to bring this night together but they did all this because they believe the kids are worth it – and you know what? They really are.

At the end of a long night the teens were still high on energy and excitement. They were hugging and chatting and being so sweet to each other outside the camping marquee. There would be no sleep got and all the adults looked thoroughly knackered already but I could totally understand why they wanted to be there. I had forgotten that being around teenagers is actually really good fun.
I slept in my campervan next to a marquee full of three hundred hyped-up teens. Nobody banged on the roof of my van or rocked it in the middle of the night as has happened at other festivals I’ve been to. In the morning we all feasted, bleary eyed on breakfast rolls and tea in paper cups.
Honestly - I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a night out like it.
It occurred to me then that if a volunteer organisation can organise an event like this for kids – why can’t the rock promoters? The answer, of course, is that the promoter’s motivation is making money and Foróige’s priority is the kids’ welfare.
If only there was some way of combining the two.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

I am to London in a couple of days for a two week holiday.
I have a difficult relationship with the city where I was bought up. My parents were Irish, I was born in Scotland but we left there when I was two and moved to Hendon, a Jewish suburb of London (like Riverdale in NYC - which I love because it feels so familiar) - where I lived until I was in my late teens. I left home then and floated around London working as a hairdresser, then magazine journalist and eventually editor - always trying to find a place there that felt like home. The truth is, I felt more irish than English and my heart was in Mayo where I had spent my childhood holidays. I had friends here and there was a strong thread of affinity with the place running through the core of me that would not let me rest until I had moved my husband to Killala, County Mayo - within ten minutes of my grandmother's cottage in Ballina which has always felt like my true home.
One of my sisters moved over here too - but my middle sister and my closest sibling, my brother Tom - (who broke my heart by dying in 2009) are/were True Londoners. 'True Londoners' are a bit like New Yorkers in that New Yorkers love New York - and would not live anywhere else. However - London is such a huge, sprawling city - with so many parks you don't even need to leave it to visit the countryside (Central Park is like 'Meh' in comparison to even local parks like Richmond Common and Hampstead heath) True Londoners cannot see any reason why anybody would ever want to leave it. For any reason. Oh sure - they holiday abroad, but get in a car and drive outside its vast perimeters? What's the point. My brother and sister thought I was stone mad moving to rural Ireland. It was beyond their understanding.
I never loved London. To me is was the big scary city I grew up in and I was/am glad to be out of it and living somewhere that for me has been more human, more fruitful - a relaxed and peaceful nirvana where I can think and not worry about what I am wearing too much. I miss cappuccino and sushi - but we are catching up - yes - even here in County Mayo!
When Tom died - and we buried him - in his beloved London - my feeling of estrangement with my childhood city was complete. I flit in and flit out a few times a year for work. Short working trips, during which time I stuff myself with sushi and good coffee and collapse back into my rural idyll, grateful I don't have to live there. London is full of painful memories for me - of being a young, lonely woman trying to make my way in the city. Drinking too much, loving undeserving men too deeply - it always felt like a struggle. I hated being small and invisible in that vast sea of people - I felt like I was drowing. I needed to live in a smaller pond and now I do and I love it.
On one of these working trips earlier this year I bought my intern Danielle - a girl from Ballina. We stopped for a coffee in Starbucks Covent Garden and got to talking about London. HOW can I not LOVE the place - she said. Such a vibrant, BRILLIANT city. I was so LUCKY to grow up here!!!! I looked around the place - the teaming life outside the window, the lights, the exotic shops, the multi-cultural atmosphere and thought 'Tom loved this' - then I promptly burst into tears. She's right - Tom was right - London is a great place. And it is my city. Mine and Tom's. The last time I saw Tom we walked for a half day through these streets - dancing and laughing and being young again - which was always how I was with Tom. I miss him. London took him from me - in death but also in life because we lived different lives in different places.
Next week I am going back to London with my sons and I am going to reclaim it back as my city. We are going to go to museums - walk about - but not to my 'old haunts' as I have always done before. I don't want London to be about the past any more - I want it to be about the future. I want my sons to love London how I loved Ballina - for it to be their holiday home - a place they love and might want to live one day.
We leave on Wednesday.
Tune into my Kate Kerrigan page for updates.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Museums are such an important part of my research and thankfully we have loads if great ones in Ireland. Me and Mam and the boys are off to Limerick on a road trip Monday to visit The Hunt Museum on a special mission for my new novel - but more on that later..... Today - I am beyond excited that one of the most original and important Irish collections recently opened in Ballina - my home town. The Jackie Clarke collection is the lifetime’s work of our local businessman and republican Jackie - who was also a great friend of my grandfather, Hugh Nolan. I am ashamed to say, I didn't make the official opening and have been caught up the kid’s holiday craziness since - so I didn't get in until yesterday and even then I had the Tominator in tow so it was a very quick visit. It was a hot day and starting to drizzle slightly so as we were passing I simply veered the kids towards the side door of the beautiful old bank building where the collection is on display. The first thing we saw was the most beautifully designed 'secret' garden and in it was a small, purpose built garden room which, aside from a video about Ballina and a few cabinet containing papers - there was a cabinet containing beautiful vintage children's toys and books - including two very old and doubtless very valuable Mickey Mouse teddies. Tommo (4) was dumbstruck and frankly - so was I. Another cabinet had a collection of old lemonade stickers and food packaging. Aside from acquiring Ireland's important political documents around the formation of the state (including our actual Proclamation of Independence) Jackie must have been hoarding from an early age - keeping his toys and all sorts of what must have seemed like valueless paraphernalia for the posterity of future generations. The woman who has spent the past few years of her life organising Jackie's 'stuff' into a properly curated collection (which first must have amounted to a gargantuan shed-clearing exercise if the breath of the brief first-look I had is anything to go by) Sinead McCoole is one of Ireland's leading historians and boy - are we lucky to have imported her into our corner of County Mayo.  I've a feeling I'm going to be in here a lot.....

Friday, July 12, 2013


We have passed the halfway mark now of my sons summer holiday. Thank god! "Holiday" is a word fraught with the pressure of relaxing and enjoying oneself. Relaxation and enjoyment shouldn't be things that cause stress, but I find that they are.

Firstly, my son's school holiday is three months long. So that's three months during which time I have to ensure his relaxation and enjoyment because the rest of the time the poor child has to go to school – an experience which I loathed.

You can, of course, train them to occupy themselves all summer with television and computers (check) but you are obliged to let them out into the fresh air once in a while and allow them mix with other human beings.

Last year I was scheduling an intricate childcare rota which involved various summer camps and grandparents when my ex housekeeper Theresa  (I miss her!) once said when I was trying to rope into helping me create a child-free working summer, pointed out: "It's supposed to be their holiday."

Theresa is great like that – she can always cut straight to the point. A useful talent for when she has to manage the people as well as the house.

This summer has been a successful one for junior. We have the usual excitement when my mother’s ebullient sister Auntie Sheila comes to stay followed by Mum’s birthday dinner and lots of sleepovers with the cousins. In a couple of weeks we are off to London – a first for us all which we are all very much looking forward to.
We have a network of fantastic friends so there is rarely a shortage of playmates and my house is familiar with the mayhem of small children running up and down the stairs going "Yeeeee-hoooow!"

However while friends occupy them, they still have to be invited, and fed, and scraped off one another – and in amongst all of this I have to write a book. Because, allegedly, I am a writer who has to start writing another novel, although at the moment it doesn't feel much like it. At the moment it feels like I am caught in some awful suspended reality where I should be working, where I want to be working, but I'm not. It's not writer's block. It's summer holiday block, and it happens to me every year.

Every year I am behind when June comes and I decide I have to "work" hard through the summer to catch up. But writing is such an absorbing activity that I find it impossible with another person – never mind a gang of children – in the house.

When I am working I feel guilty that I am not camping – and when I am camping, I feel guilty that I am not working. I wish I was one of these focused writers who can zone out and switch off from human contact and write with a fierce concentration, but I'm not. There is always a small part of me open to distraction – and there is nothing more distracting than my beautiful sons.

Or as Theresa put it when I tutted after the Tominator landed in on top of me this morning to give me a no-reason kiss: "It's your summer holiday too, you know."

Friday, July 5, 2013


I’m really, really busy at the moment. Have I already done a blog on how busy I am? I can’t remember. I can’t remember much these days. I probably have because I seem to be repeating myself constantly. Late motherhood and recession-anxiety have conspired and turned my life into nothing more than dozens of small, acts repeated over and over again.
There are important things that need to be done; big things like writing a whole book, then smaller, but equally important things like getting some exercise so that I don’t keel over and have a heart attack before the next book is finished, and getting my teeth cleaned before I go on the next American book tour so that I don’t get turned away at JFK airport for having yellowed, European knashers.
Yet I can’t seem to get to any of these important tasks completed because my life has become clogged up with the “two minute” jobs.
“It’ll take you two minutes,” my husband says about almost everything and he’s right. Ordering in the oil online, cashing in that birthday amazon voucher for the Kindle I so desperately wanted two months ago and yet haven’t bought yet, leaving my glasses in to the opticians for new lenses, hanging up the washing, emptying the dishwasher, booking that hotel for my mum, firing off an email to my agent, firing off an email to my editor, firing off an email to my sister, feeding the baby, wiping the baby down, feeding the dog, brushing the dog, making a hair appointment – all these things only take two minutes. Put them all together in one ghastly relay and they are my entire life.
I have started to have days where I have got no discernable work done at all. Whole days are being swallowed up with these two minute jobs.
“I HAVEN’T GOT TWO MINUTES!” I roared at my husband the other night when he suggested I – I can’t remember – looked up something online or ordered that Kindle.

I was beside myself with rage and frustration having been trying to fill in an online funding form for the best part of the evening. I kept going back and wiping the whole thing and having to start again.  A two-minute job that was threatening to never finish, like one of those hideous dreams when you are locked in Brown Thomas overnight and told you can have whatever you want, but you can’t choose (Just me? surely not!) or keep running but find yourself on the same spot forever!
I took a break and switched my computer back on at 8pm, after the dinner had been eaten, and the plates put in the dishwasher, and the kids put to bed and it was “couples” time.
My husband took a deep breath as the laptop went “ping”. If he’d have said whatever he was thinking out-loud there would have been crockery broken and we haven’t got the time (or the money) to repair broken crockery these days.
What he was thinking was; “Jesus – give it up woman!”
What I was thinking was; “This is ALL your fault!”
Even though, of course, it wasn’t. But that’s what marriage comes down to sometimes. Having somebody else to blame for your own failings.
I know this overwhelming too-much-to-do meltdown is my fault. And if I didn’t have so much to do I might be able to sit down and figure out exactly why.
I suppose it’s a combination of things. Lack of organisation and no routine would be a start. I have always been one of those people who has to do a thing the moment it pops into my head. Which is why I’ll put the pan on because I fancy sausages, then while it’s warming up get started on writing a column and forget about it until my husband points out that the kitchen is on fire.  I have no set routine to my working day so that, if I want to work from the moment I wake up to the moment I go back to bed, I can.  My work as a writer, novelist, columnist has no beginning middle and end. Each column, each book melds into the other; my work, as they say is never done.
Yes, I am a busy working mother and I could be more organised but the underlying truth is that I drive myself too hard for perfection. I take too much on. I cannot accept my limitations. I can’t relax. I thought, after my brother died, that I would take life more slowly – relish it more. Instead I feel as if I am running out of time and want to cram everything in. I know I am driving my husband and indeed myself mad with this compulsive achieving. Maybe just knowing it is the first step.