Monthly Archives: August 2011

Cultivating hope

BETTY Doyle had just about reached the end of her speech when she began to lose her battle against the tears that had been welling up.

The manager of the women’s refuge in Wexford was paying tribute to two women who had been great supporters of the centre before their untimely deaths through illness in 2009, Emer Lovett (38) and Marion Gowan (49).

Betty told those at their annual barbecue last Friday that they were “two wonderful women” and the refuge was going to plant to holly trees in its new garden to honour and remember them.

“My last memory of Emer was a vision in red beside the Christmas tree in White’s (Hotel), laden down with presents for the mothers in the refuge,” recalled Betty. “This was what she did best, always caring and supportive.”

Betty said that Marion was a warm and funny person who loved coming into the refuge once a week to cook with the women staying there.

“The families loved her, but then we all did. Even in sickness she still came in to say hello,” she said.

“We talk about them all the time as if they were still with us. Both women loved Christmas and the evergreen holly will remain visually beautiful all year round, just like Emer and Marion.

“This year for our children we intend to have a Christmas tree in the garden to help fill their lives with hope and joy,” said Betty, as the tears finally got the better of her.

Dermot Gowan, husband of the late Marion Gowan, plants a holly tree in her memory, as (from L to R) Alestren and Berndaette Lovett (brother and mother of the late Emer Lovett), Betty Doyle, refuge manager, and Gusy Smyth, board chairman, look on.

Hope is the lifeblood of a place like Wexford Women’s Refuge, which is always full of women and children who have come from – or more often fled – very difficult circumstances. Domestic violence is driving increasing numbers of women to seek refuge in Wexford and throughout Ireland.

When it’s packed full of women and children all struggling to come to terms with what has led them there and all trying to cope in their new environment together hope and joy must feel like very distant prospects.

That’s where the staff, led by Betty, comes in. That’s where the volunteers, whose spirit was best exemplified by Emer and Marion, come in.

Last Friday there was hope and joy in what is often a very traumatic place. This was because the spirit that moved Emer and Marion to enter the refuge and brighten up the lives of those who stay there is still strong in the community that surrounds it.

The evidence of this was in the refuge’s new garden, which, Betty noted, had always been their “wild waste area” and over the course of years had become completely overgrown and rampant with weeds.

This “wild waste area” was located on a steep slope up behind the refuge and there was very little anyone could do with it. Betty said that “futile attempts had been made to tame the jungle that prevented light from entering the rear of the building for nine years”.

However, one man looking distinctly unimpressed with vista said “I’m going to do something about that”. Liam Keating had intended going to the Wexford Races that day, but instead found himself at the barbeque in the refuge, of which he is a staunch supporter.

Betty found out that Liam was serious when she arrived in one morning and saw a mini-digger scaling the steep slope. “We closed our eyes and waited for the digger to turn over!” she recalled.

However, it didn’t and out of a slope full of weeds was cut a large space, a blank canvass on which to get to work. And get to work they did. Liam oversaw the project and also rolled up his sleeves with the same determination that has proved so successful for him in his business endeavours.

Paul Caulfield, Derek O’Hehir and a number of other local men also got stuck in and from a waste of space they created a garden. There is also a cabin, beautifully decorated, and intended as a haven for mothers who need a place for reflection or just some peace and quiet.

Local artist John Byrne, with the help of some friends, came along and lent their creative talents to ensure that the garden is appropriately decorated, with the likes of Peppa Pig and Nemo now featuring prominently, along with other bright characters and colourful creations.

I looked at the before and after photos with Liam last Friday and the difference a year on is remarkable. He was reluctant to take too much credit for the project, but he can’t really avoid it now as the refuge has named it after him!

Liam said that he sought support from several tradesmen and businesses in Wexford so that his vision could become a reality. There was no talk of recession or resources when the question was put to them – they all got gave generously of their skills, time and, in some cases, stock, to help the refuge.

The staff of the women's refuge in Wexford

Betty made an important point about the garden project – it is solely the result of the hard work and generosity of men. This is not an insignificant point at a place where the majority of women and children find themselves because of men.

The manager of the women’s refuge said that a number of great men have walked through the doors of the refuge over the past year to work on the project.

“That in itself is not an easy task for any man. Yet they accomplished what they came to do with dignity and respect,” said Betty.

She pointed out that Liam hadn’t just seen a hill full of weeds last year – he had seen a genuine need.

“He has carefully observed how the mothers paced up and down by the back door, sometimes in the pouring rain, attempting to make or take a phone call,” said Betty.

“The call couldn’t be taken in the bedroom, there are children around. In the kitchen and sitting room there are other residents and children, all going through their own trauma,” said Betty.

“There is nowhere to sit in peace, to take a call from a parent or sibling. There is no place to shed tears privately. I found Liam’s insight, empathy and holistic approach amazing,” she said.

“So Liam built a house and made a garden and from this day on it will be known as the Liam Keating Garden.”

Liam, just to the right of the plaque bearing his name, at the official unveiling of the garden.

The refuge is continuing to look forward and despite constant funding issues due to government spending cuts (without the support of local organisations, businesses and volunteers it would simply not be able to stay open), it still has ambitious plans, as the chairman of its board, Gus Smyth outlined.

Gus said the vision for the future is to transform the refuge from communal accommodation into self-contained flats.

‘We’re trying to get away from treating women as victims and trying to help them, with their children, establish a life for themselves,’ he said.

Meanwhile, up in the garden, grass continues to spring up where once weeds had completely taken hold.

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Tearing up the social contract – the London riots

EVENTS in London and other cities throughout England in recent days have forced a lot of people into re-evaluating the society they live in.

The horrific scenes were made all the more troubling by the fact that these weren’t people striking at the heart of power (no crowds gathered in Westminster, for example), but they turned on their fellow citizens in reprehensible acts of violence and wanton destruction.

It is the hard-working business owners and residents in the areas of London, Birmingham and the other cities targeted who have been left counting the cost of the violence, rioting, looting and vandalism.

The murder of three men in Birmingham in the early hours of this morning, after they were rammed by a car, is truly sickening and adds further fuel to the fiery and justifiable anger of decent, law-abiding people.

The footage emerging from the streets in recent days has been scarcely believable. Livelihoods going up in flames; businesses being looted by children; people being assaulted and mugged… the extent of what happened has been shocking.

There are no excuses for it.

The question does have to be asked though: why did this happen?

Now, I don’t have the answer and if anyone does it is undoubtedly a hugely complex one, involving many different factors, but it still has to be asked, even if it seems like trying to make sense of the senseless acts that have wreaked havoc in recent days.

And I don’t mean, why was this “allowed” to happen? That has been the burning question on many of the news reports I’ve watched and articles I’ve read in recent days.

It’s almost as if everyone knew and accepted that many (mostly young) people in England were perfectly capable of such total disregard for human life and property, it has just been a matter of keeping them in check  So we’re not surprised they did what they did, we’re just surprised they were allowed to?

There is no doubt the police and politicians have questions to answer about their response to the riots, particularly as they escalated out of control. People have a right to feel safe in their homes. They have a right to expect that their business cannot be burned down on a whim.

Why has the budget for policing been cut so significantly? Will it be cut further, even following the events of recent days? These are all relevant questions.

But the reality of the situation is that the police can only do so much. This is true of every city and State, not just London or Manchester.

If enough people, anywhere, decide that they are going to go on the rampage and cause utter mayhem and destruction, they will not be stopped. There are only so many police officers and they are vastly outnumbered by the citizens they work for.

In practice, we are all the law enforcers as well as the law breakers. The police, like our politicians, are given their authority by us. It is part of the social contract we enter into for our mutual benefit or, that old chestnut, “the common good”. The vast majority of us don’t need to be policed to abide by the law, we just do.

What has happened in England in recent days is that a huge number of people tore up that contract. They rejected the terms in a frightening display of criminality and lawlessness.

Now, you won’t have heard any of them articulate this on the news of course. You will have heard poorly educated, opportunist looters trying to justify despicable acts of criminality with incoherent ramblings about the police, tax etc

But there was no cause here, no quest for justice and it’s quite clear that the vast majority of those involved care very little about the fate of Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old whose shooting by police in Tottenham last Thursday triggered this series of events.

No, this was criminal opportunism on a massive scale. A chance to have a go at the police. A chance to run riot. A chance to cause serious criminal damage. A chance to steal, assault and engage in all the worst examples of human nature.

What really concerns me is how many people availed of the opportunity.

Of course it is a minority of people that have decided to reject the social contract and many others, in different ways, as you can see here and here, took a stand against them – the majority of people in London and elsewhere, remain law-abiding citizens.

But how big is the minority and is it growing? And what is the environment they are growing up and living in that fosters such blatant disregard for their fellow citizens first and foremost, but also the law.

The official line that has emerged is that the mayhem that visited London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and other English cities was “caused by a small minority of young people intent on criminal destruction”.

However, this “small minority” vastly outnumbered the police at times. And let’s not forget that the arrest of a small minority of that small minority also managed to fill every cell in London.

There was a mix of genders, ages and races involved in what happened. It’s not easy to pinpoint a particular group, though it is fair to say that the majority of them were young men from poor areas.

This is probably where you expect me to start making excuses for what has been happening – I won’t. But surely it’s in the interests of everyone to ask why so many people could behave like this?

They were not born angry. They are not born into gangs or lives of crime. They are, however, born into poverty and that is a cycle that is only becoming harder to break.

The gap between rich and poor grows wider and as it does the ties that bind all of us, our social contract, starts to make a lot less sense for people who feel that there is nothing in this for them.

If enough people feel they have nothing to gain and nothing to lose then that is a serious problem for all of us.

An increasingly large number of people in poor areas are becoming disenfranchised. And not just in England. Anyone who thinks the same elements at play in London or Birmingham do not exist in Dublin or Paris is simply wrong.

Of course there has always been crime and there have always been rich and poor, but the situation as it stands presently has been greatly exacerbated by the global economic crisis.

A huge amount of jobs have been lost, pay is being cut and taxes are being increased. Opportunities have been never been as limited for people. Many of them just can’t see a way out. Try telling people in the poorest areas of our cities that the markets have had a bad day (or year, for that matter).

A swathe of savage cuts to services has also hit people hard. These services working to address inequality that exists in the very areas that produced many of the troublemakers have also been greatly scaled back or, in many cases, closed.

Wexford man, Eugene Waters, Community Partnerships Manager in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, spoke to me about this situation yesterday and you can see what he had to say about it below.

On top of all this trust in the authorities has been seriously eroded. And before the riots began in London the social contract I’m talking about had already been trampled all over by bankers and politicians, mainly fuelled by greed and power. People in Ireland and Greece, for example, know all about this too. The problem stems from the top as much as the bottom.

Then in England they’ve also had the unedifying spectacle of the MPs’ expenses scandal and the phone hacking scandal, which implicated not just the media in extensive corruption and criminality, but also the police. Once again, the politicians were smack in the middle of it all.

Do those people who were out robbing laptops and runners with apparent glee feel they have a share in a social contract? Obviously they don’t. Then the question arises are these all scumbags simply bent on destruction no matter what their upbringing, education or the opportunities they are given?

Is there not the capacity for a good citizen anywhere amongst these young people?

If there isn’t and there is nothing that a society can do to address the problem of the increasingly disenfranchised then this week’s events are merely a warning of what could lie ahead for many cities.

If there is, then there are obviously serious issues that need to be addressed in a meaningful way. It won’t be easy and will take political will, money and investment, but it’s definitely in the interest of the common good.

Bringing those responsible for the crimes of the past week to justice (and each and every one of them should pay for their crimes) will not address the root of the problem, it will only temporarily paper over the ever-widening cracks.

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THE BRITISH government must not dismiss the riots there this week as purely driven by criminality or they will fail to learn a significant lesson, according to a Wexford man working in one of London’s poorest communities.
Eugene Waters, from Davidstown, Co Wexford, is the Community Partnerships Manager in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. It is one of the poorest boroughs in the UK and covers much of the traditional East End of London.
Though he said he’s not in any way excusing the serious criminality that has been occurring in London since last week, he said that there are still “two sides to it” and that severe cuts to youth and community services have played a significant role in the current crisis.
‘”A lot of the crime and violence taking place here now is simple opportunism. It’s not the same as the situation in Brixton in the ‘80s, when there was a deeper ideological strand to it,” said Eugene.
However, he still feels that a lot of the current trouble has stemmed from the fact that a generation is being disenfranchised by the swathe of severe cuts and austerity measures.
Eugene pointed out that David Cameron’s government introduced a “big society” drive to “empower” communities, but it has in fact done the opposite.
Government and local government funded-agencies and organisations moved out of areas where youth and community organisations were supposed o take up the slack.
However, many of these youth and community services were themselves suffering from serious budget cuts and have been unable to replicate the work of the publicly funded services that had been there before.
“The very people supposed to step into the breach have had their budgets slashed. A lot of youth clubs and youths services have closed as a result,” said Eugene.
He pointed out that the wide-ranging cuts imposed have also hit work placement programmes and crucial education initiatives that attempted to help bridge the widening gaps between young people in the poorest parts of London and third level education.
“It doesn’t excuse what’s happened here, but if you have young people occupied with something and being kept on the straight and narrow through various services, you can’t just take those services away and expect there to be no consequences,” said Eugene.
“If you are 16 or 17-years-old at the moment and from a poor community you would be asking yourself ‘does anyone care about me?’. It doesn’t in any way excuse what has been happening, but a huge number of people have become disenfranchised,”‘ he said.
“What I’d be worried about and what I hope doesn’t happen is that this turns into an ‘us and them’ situation. If the government takes that black and white approach to this problem and fails to learn any lessons then it will not resolve the underlying problems. The cuts to services that have taken place really need to be heeded,” said Eugene.

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Many people in London and throughout the UK, like Eugene, have been concerned for some time about the massive spending cuts imposed on youth services and the potential consequences. Here is a recent piece addressing the issue.

10 things I like about Dublin Bikes

  1. Not driving. Driving in a big city is generally a pain. Dublin is no exception. Parking can also be hard to find and expensive. Cycling is easier, often quicker and altogether better for your mental health. Incidents of cycle rage are few and far between and statistics (that I don’t have to hand right now) have also proved conclusively that errant, frustrated motorists are to blame for 88.2% of them. Potholes account for the other 11.8 per  cent.
  2. Baskets. They may not be (okay, they are definitely not) macho, but they sure are handy! There was a time in this country when a man could have a basket on his bike for carrying essential goods (e.g. the turf he had just cut or his pet Collie) and not be judged unfavourably for it. Dublin Bikes are helping men to break down the sexist bicycle barriers that have been thrown up in front of men in recent years, as well as helping us transport essential goods (e.g. baguettes and flowers) and avoid the sweaty backs caused by manly, load-bearing backpacks… or accidents caused by getting our man bags caught in the pedals. Okay, so maybe things have changed a little since baskets were last butch in Ireland.
  3. Exercise. No need to labour this point. Cycling is good for your health, there’s no impact on your joints and if it’s a nice day in Dublin you can pedal for a very long time without even noticing – it’s a pleasure, not an effort.
  4. Low expectations not being met. I remember clearly when this scheme was first mooted, and later introduced, there were plenty of sage warnings about what a savage people we are and how these bikes would quickly be second only to traffic bollards in terms of canal dwellers. We weren’t ready for this namby pamby European carry on we were told and the bikes would be quickly wiped out in a spate of thefts and vandalism. But, it turns out we’re not all hell bent on anti social behaviour and given a good public service the citizens of Dublin (drum roll please…) simply used it. In great numbers. Shocking, really. We are now closing in on a total of 2.5 million journeys on Dublin Bikes since the scheme opened in September 2009. I’m sure there have been some incidents where bikes haven’t fared too well, as one would expect in all major European cities with such schemes, but I still haven’t seen one swimming with the bollards and I see a lot of the Grand Canal these days.
  5. Cheap. They wouldn’t be so well respected or used if they were expensive, but crucially they aren’t. The three-day ticket is €2. The year long subscription is €10. All journeys under half an hour are free. The average journey time for a Dublin Bike is 13 minutes so clearly the vast majority of subscribers are not spending anything bar the signing up fees, which are pretty good by any standards. If you go past half an hour you are charged on a rising scale (50 cents for an hour, €1.50 for two hours etc), but if you don’t want to do that you can always stop back at a station before the half hour mark, put your bike back, wait a minute and take it (or another bike) back out. If you attempt this thrifty practice just be sure there are enough bikes there to pull it off! With Dublin Bikes you also save money on fuel for your car, parking, public transport and taxis. That means more baguettes and flowers.
  6. Sturdy. I like the bikes. I have had some enjoyable journeys around the city recently on my trusty three-speed steed. These have varied from leisurely jaunts with my better half to simply getting to where I need to go in a timely and hassle-free fashion. The bikes are easy to handle and sturdy too, following the same successful model as pretty much all city bikes, with the usual features you’d expect, from the comfy saddle to the handy lock. They are suitable for all shapes and sizes and seem to be maintained quite well too.
  7. The wind in my hair. Cycling is fun! Not so much when it rains, but otherwise it is fun and there’s pretty easygoing terrain in Dublin too. As long as you’re careful in traffic, cycling is also a great way to discover a city, not just getting from A to B. In a car you are severely limited in terms of where you can go, stop and what you can see, never mind the characters you might meet! If you’re like me – structure is your enemy and whims beg to be indulged – than cars are out for exploring. Walking is great, but the one drawback there is there’s only so much ground you can cover and it’s generally more tiring. Sometimes cycling is the happy medium. Funnily enough, even though they say we never forget how to ride a bike, a lot of us forget why we ever wanted to in the first place. Rediscover the joy!
  8. Going green. We’re going to run out fossil fuels at some point, right? You may as well get with the programme now. Plus all the positive effects of cycling on your physical and mental health can be augmented by that smug feeling you get from the FACT! that you are saving the world with every rotation of your pedals. And however bad your emissions may be, they pale in comparison to the damage to the environment that the cars flying by you are doing.
  9. Cycling community. The Dublin Bikes have been a real shot in the arm for the much maligned cycling community. This once marginalised bunch of seemingly kamikaze Stephen Roche fans and hippies have seen their numbers swell in recent years thanks to both this scheme and the Bike to Work scheme, which has seen a great surge in people buying their own bikes. The cantankerous Irish weather notwithstanding, there just seems to be more and more people cycling in the capital every week and motorists (despite my sideswipe at them in no 1) are now well used to them and (the vast majority) treat cyclists with the respect they deserve. That’s certainly been my overwhelming experience at least. Plus, for the cycling community, with greater numbers comes greater legitimacy, lobbying power and, hopefully, facilities. The Dublin Bike scheme has almost 60,000 members, and about two thirds of those (including yours truly) have taken out a year long membership. The great thing about the bikes is that you can clearly see in Dublin now that men and women of all ages, classes and creeds are using them. Making it not just one of the city’s most effective public services, but one of its most inclusive too. It’s also great for our visitors and boosts our tourism offering. More cyclists also just make the city feel like a more social place for me too.
  10. Plans for expansion. There are 550 Dublin Bikes operating from 44 stations in the city. They are increasingly well used. There was a new record set for daily journeys on July 13. 6,280 journeys were undertaken on Dublin Bikes that day, compared to 6.043 on April 15, the previous benchmark. When I was staying in Dublin for a week recently I cycled to my course and back every day, but I used to walk (the indignity of it!) past two empty stations (Charlemont and Portobello) every morning, hoping there would be one left at Grantham Street. Thankfully, there was always at least one. On a sunny day available bikes can be as rare as hen’s teeth. There is also the issue of all the current stations being too close to the city centre for many. To address both these issues Dublin City Council is planning to increase the fleet almost tenfold, so there will eventually be around 300 stations and 5,000 bikes – out as far as DCU to the north of the city, UCD to the south, Inchicore to the west and Sandymount to the east. Progress has been relatively slow so far, but I’m sure they’ll continue to do their best give the people what they obviously want.

Déise Delights

Our best laid plans went awry on the recent Bank Holiday Weekend when I had to work on the Monday.

The  need to stay closer to home forced some swift rearrangements and ultimately brought us on a tour of wonderful County Waterford for what was a great, albeit two-day, weekend.

The Spraoi festival was on in Waterford City and is always a lot of fun, but we avoided it altogether, instead opting for the quieter, coastal charms of the Déise.

After getting the car ferry over from Ballyhack on Saturday, we went on our merry way through Passage East, stopping in Woodstown, Dunmore East, Tramore (which has it’s own particular charms at this time of year!), Newtown Cove, Stradbally and, eventually, Dungarvan, where we stayed for the night.

The copper coast drive was great and even though we made a lot of stops, we could have made many more if we had the time. There’ s an attractive array of coves and villages all the way along it.

Sunday was less hectic, but also lovely. We spent the first half in Ardmore, where we enjoyed the cliff walk, visited the round tower and cemetery (where two of my great grandfathers and other family members are interred), availed of the local hospitality and then relaxed on the beach. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite swimming weather!

We made our last Co Waterford stop on the way home, making our way up the misty Comeragh Mountains until the beautiful Mahon Falls came into view. It is a magnificent place to visit for a breath of fresh air – in every sense.

It was a fitting end to our weekend and a whistle-stop tour of a county that definitely deserves a lot more attention – and not just when the Tall Ships sail in!

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“Ambiguous loss is the worst cancer of all – not knowing where someone is”

Families from all over Ireland will gather in the beautiful and peaceful surroundings of Our Lady’s Island on Sunday (August 7) to pray for their missing loved ones.

The pilgrimage at the Island in south Wexford takes place from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. and people are urged to go along and show their support for these brave families.

It follows last year’s moving and dignified ceremony, the first of its kind here. I attended it and spoke to some the families of missing people. None of them were praying for miracles, they were simply praying for closure

The outdoor Mass was celebrated less than a kilometre from the pub where Fiona Sinnott was last seen in February 1998. The 19-year-old was looking forward to her sister’s 21st birthday party when she disappeared. And her daughter’s first birthday.

A plaque in her memory was erected on a wall at the local cemetery to mark the tenth anniversary of her disappearance in 2008. It’s the closest thing her loving family have to a resting place.

Fiona’s family are one of many in Ireland who are living with such a terrible and tragic loss. Hopefully, they will find some solace in each other’s company on Sunday, as they did last year, but the acute pain they still feel, years after they lost their loved ones, does not dissipate with time.

Here’s the report I wrote for The Irish Times:

FAMILIES OF missing people travelled from around Ireland on Saturday to attend a Mass in a place of ancient pilgrimage.

The Mass at Our Lady’s Island in south Wexford was organised by Search for the Missing, which is headed by retired Garda diver Thomas Lavery.

Mr Lavery extended a special welcome to the families of missing people in attendance, which included relatives of Jo Jo Dullard from Kilkenny, Gussie Shanahan from Limerick and Philip Cairns from Dublin.

The largest representation by far was from a local family, the Sinnotts. The outdoor Mass was celebrated by Fr Brendan Nolan less than a kilometre from the pub Fiona Sinnott was last seen leaving in February 1998.

“Ambiguous loss is the worst cancer of all – not knowing where someone is,” said Mr Lavery.

During the Mass, seven homing pigeons were released by Mr Lavery with the help of Fiona Sinnott’s nephew, Johnny Walsh.

Mr Lavery said the two white pigeons represented a male and female missing person and the five blue pigeons were going to guide them home.

“We’re not looking for justice, we’re just looking for closure,” said Bob Shanahan, whose son Gussie went missing in Limerick more than 10 years ago.

“We just someone to come forward with information so we can give our son a decent burial,” said Mr Shanahan, who is offering a substantial reward for information that will lead to the recovery of his son’s remains.

He said he was glad so many had come to the Mass. “It was lovely because you can discuss it with other people. You are trying to console one another. It gets no easier, you are always hoping for closure,” he said.

Also still looking for closure are the Sinnott family. Fiona’s first cousin Gina Sinnott once again appealed, in a poem, for those with knowledge of what happened to the 19-year-old mother of one to do the right thing.

“How can you sleep with what you have done, with tears flowing down her face, her empty cries, her swollen eyes, only you know her resting place,” she read.

After Mass, Fr Nolan passed the cross to her and she led the families of missing people and the other pilgrims in attendance around the island, as they prayed for the return of their loved ones.