One Year On

This day last year we got the news that my younger brother, Finbar, had died suddenly.

I was at work when I got the phone call, and rushed home to see what had happened. Arriving at his home to find two guards and my sister in law waiting. Other family and friends arriving, in shock and in tears.

Finbar had died peacefully, though it took until June before the coroner’s report came back that it was a heart attack that killed him. At the time there was some comfort in that. There still is.

The rest of the day was a blur. Phoning the rest of our family to let them know. Gathering at the table to figure out what to do next. Food and lots of tea appearing by the magic and grace of wonderful neighbours and friends.

The next three days were more of a blur. Preparing for the dreaded funeral, whilst at the same time trying to make sure it would be a fitting tribute to the life and character of Finbar. Getting friends, family and neighbours involved in the mass. The ceremony itself went well, with a huge turnout, and lots of people gathered to celebrate the life of Fin.

But time passed, and we moved into the period after the funeral.

Following the Month Mind mass things changed. Now that the frenzy, the busyness of the funeral was over, we had to adjust to life without Fin.

I sometimes think that things were a bit easier in a different era. A time when there was an official period of mourning, and a person could visibly display or wear the uniform of grief.

There are times over the past year I could have done with that…
“How are you?”

The thing is, we often expect people to be fine. To be OK.
A friend of mine had a great phrase based on one of the self-help books from the 80’s. “I’m OK, You’re OK.”
His take on it? “I’m not OK, You’re not OK, but THAT’s OK.”
That’s an important message. It’s OK to not be OK sometimes.

There are definitely plenty of times over the past year that I’ve not been OK.
Times when the loss of Finbar has struck more than others.
Times when I’ve cried for no discernible reason.

But today.
The simple fact that it’s one year today that we found out.
Today is a day that will stand out for years to come.
Maybe today, and the anniversary next Sunday, will be the start of a greater healing.

As a post script, if you are ever in a position where you would like to help another, take into account a great bit of advice I received once.
We normally say something along the lines of “If there’s anything I can do, let me know”
In reality, a bereaved person often feels powerless, and is unable to ask for help, or unsure of what to ask.
A more powerful way to help is to offer something solid. “I’ll look after the kids for a day”, “I’ll cook dinner”, “Take the afternoon off, I’ll cover”
Something, anything.

Finbar on a fishing trip to Knockadoon.
I only realised later that this photo was taken on mam’s anniversary, 15th September.

Bloody Teenagers

I live near a lovely village in East Cork called Killeagh. It’s a small village that’s blessed with a public woodland tucked in behind it.  The wood is full of walks, and a great playground for younger kids.

The playground was the work of a local committee who managed to source the land, the funding and the goodwill to get it built.  We’re quite proud of it.

And this year it was vandalised

Not too long after there was a meeting.  Unfortunately I didn’t make it.  However, I heard after that someone was arguing for a higher fence to be installed, so as to keep out the anti-social element.

It strikes me that this is a particularly curmudgeonly way to a) view the whole affair and b) fix the problem.  I kinda doubt a few extra feet of fence would keep out anybody determined.

I suspect this man was at the meeting
(From the brilliant pen of John Connolly – The Wolf in Winter)

The whole affair got me thinking about the mindset of the individual(s) concerned, and how they view teenagers. 

You can see the arguments develop, can’t you?

 And yes, teenagers do get involved in risky behaviours:

  • Teenagers can be moody (shocker)
  • Some teenagers drink too much
  • Some teenagers smoke
  • Some teenagers engage in self-destructive behaviours
  • Some teenagers engage in risky sexual behaviours
  • Some teenagers can engage in anti-social behaviour

But you know what?  Teenagers are amazing

  • Teenagers sleep out every year in Dublin to raise money and awareness for homelessness.
  • On the quiet, many teenagers help out at home in a big way.  They visit grandparents, they help care for others in the family.  They take on a role far greater than we usually know about.  And they do it without any great praise.
  • Teenagers help charities.  How many teenagers go through the mammoth fundraising task of going to India to help street children?  That’s incredible!
  • Teenagers help out in local clubs, committees and societies.  They do this not for any pay, but because they enjoy it, and see it as a good thing to do.

So, whenever I hear the begrudgers giving out about teenagers, I tend to think of the generosity of spirit and the goodness that I’ve seen in the many teenagers I’ve had the privilege to know.

Headlines are easy.  It’s much more challenging to look beyond the drama of that, read further into it, and come up with your own conclusion.

Bloody Hell. 
Teenagers Are Amazing

A ‘Thank You’

A little over two months ago the lives of me, my family and friends were hit by the sudden loss of my brother Finbar.

The days and weeks that followed were a blur; with plenty of crying, frustration, sadness and some aimlessness.

A thing that struck me so strongly from the first day is just how good people are. The day Finbar died we had neighbours and friends out fixing the road, preparing the house for the wake, looking after the farm, and caring for us and those that travelled to be with us.

It was such a comfort that friends and neighbours were willing to take charge. We didn’t need to worry about any practical things. We were fed, watered, kept warm. Our children were minded, our visitors were cared for. People were just amazing.

Friends travelled from all across the country to be with us. People drove from Dublin, Galway and many other corners of the country to join us for the funeral, and then took the long journey home again. An incredible gesture of support and humanity from so many.

When he died, Finbar was in the middle of renovations of his house and some of his friends decided that they would finish the renovations and have the house ready for his Month Mind mass. (For anyone who doesn’t live in Rural Ireland, this is a Mass held about one month after someone dies – usually a more gentle get together than the jolt of a funeral mass).

The next month was inspiring. This group of men came up to Finbar’s house on their free weekends and evenings to do plastering, electrical, plumbing, flooring, painting and general cleaning up. It was a humbling display, exercise, of generosity. It was so touching to see so many lads who’s lives were touched by Finbar, and who wanted to do something to pay tribute to him.

Equally valuable were the visitors. My dad is 87 now, and having people come and sit with him has been a huge comfort. I’ve developed a new appreciation of how important my own friends are in my life, and so glad for all those who have taken time to come and visit.

Last week we had a fun chance to get together. One of Finbar’s friends had made a short film based in the Star Wars universe, and we were invited to the premier in Mitchelstown Caves. It was a great evening, and the film was dedicated to Finbar, so that was very touching. (Read This if you want a bit more on the film)

Years ago I heard a great piece of advice: “When someone is hurting, don’t just offer ‘if there’s anything I can do, call’. Instead offer something concrete, and take that burden off of them”. Without being told to do so, it’s what hundreds of people have done for me and my family over the past few months.

For that I am deeply grateful, and can never fully repay that kindness. If you’re reading this, thank you.


Finbar. May you rest in peace.

Voting Yes

With just over two weeks to go until the Marriage Referendum, things have begun to get ugly in the debates (arguments) between the two camps.

This is perfectly understandable.  Many of us hold quite strong views on marriage, and what it stands for.  The problem is that marriage is not something that is tied down to a simple definition or set of beliefs.  There are as many views on what marriage is as there are married people.  We all hold some kind of opinion of what our own marriage is about – or what we think marriage should be about.  Most of us are in one of two camps.

As you may guess from the title, I’m in the ‘Yes’ camp.

Underpinning many of the arguments of the ‘No’ camp is a set of beliefs based on, well, belief.  Based on faith, and on the doctrine of the Catholic Church, a church of which I’m a member.

One part of Catholic faith that is not pursued in either camp is the idea of an informed conscience.  We each have a conscience and can make choices in our lives, so long as we inform ourselves as to what the choices and consequences are.  For me this means going beyond the headlines of the poster campaigns, and actually thinking about what the referendum means for our country, and for the thousands of people who will be directly affected by our vote on Friday 22nd.

I have written before about some of the main reasons for the ‘No’ vote and why I don’t agree with them.  So I’ll try not to repeat myself here.

Really, it’s this simple:  What is the referendum about?

Forget all the posters, forget all the fancy slogans.  Think – what does this referendum mean for you, for your understanding of marriage, for your understanding of family.

If you believe that marriage is about love, then vote yes to allow those who love each other the chance to proclaim their love in front of friends and family.

If you believe that your faith speaks against this referendum, then consider this.  Not all bishops agree with the Irish Hierarchy.  Recently  German Bishops voted to allow same-sex couples to keep their jobs in the Church.  (In Ireland a teacher can lose their job in a Church funded school if they come out as being Gay.  Apparently we have a long way to go)

For me a faith based argument against the referendum is based on a tenuous premise.  Not everyone in Ireland is Catholic, and of those who are, not everyone agrees with some of the rules of the Church.

And, apart from any of this, I base a lot of my faith on the sayings and actions of Jesus.  He was there for people who were excluded, He was there for those who needed a voice, those who needed love.

Based on this alone, I am voting yes.

Voting Yes

On May 22nd in Ireland we will be asked to vote on  whether to add to the Constitution that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”

And this is causing something of a fuss.  A lot of groups are having a say in this, with some coming out (sorry) in favour of a ‘yes’ vote, and some promoting a ‘no’ vote.

The ‘No’ camp have a number of arguments that they feel are compelling:


Every Child Is Entitled To A Mother And A Father

On the face of it, this can look lovely.  An idyllic world where we all have a mum and dad.

Of course it does tend to gloss over a few uncomfortable facts of life.  Men and women can be cruel, spiteful people.  Some are incompetent, and some should never have become parents. Sometimes children are better off without said mother (or father).

So, while they may cry that somebody should ‘think of the children’, a bit more thinking could change their point of view.


This Will Undermine Marriage

As I see it, I married for love.  Pretty sure my wife is of the same opinion.  Marriage is a bond between two people who love each other.  Two people who love each other.  Simple as that.

The argument sounds familiar.  Could this be because we heard the same thing when divorce was leglaised in 1996?  And yet, marriage still seems to be a choice for a lot of adults.  Not undermined yet.


This Will Promote a Homosexual Lifestyle

Oh we could have so much fun with stereotypes here.  Will Irish men be forced to become better groomed?

Really, this argument displays an incredible ignorance of the nature of sexuality.  Some people are hetero, some are gay.  Most of us would agree with the concept that sexuality is not based on choice.  If I spend time talking to a gay friend, then I don’t think that time spent will end up in my going… “hmmm, I wonder if…”

If the referendum passes, I don’t think that we’re going to be faced with gay peoples canvassing straight couples (or singles) trying to get them to shift camp (sorry again)


Marriage Is About Having Children

For many people this is true.  Lots of people get married and want to go on to have children.  Relatively few decide to go through life without ever having children.  And yet this happens.  Not having children is an incredible burden on those who would love to be parents.  Again, the ideal world does not match the reality of the world in which we live.

Denying marriage to a couple simply because they will not conceive together is unjust.

On that.  Gay couples are recognised by Tusla (the child protection agency) as being potentially good foster parents.


It Offends God

The bible is a pretty big book.  And, if you read it, there is a lot to be learned and valued there.  Lots of stuff about loving neighbours, looking after people on the edges of society, forgiveness.

Not so much stuff in there about the evils of homosexuality.


It’s Against My Faith

Ok.  That I can go with.  Many of us have our own religious beliefs.  Many of us try to live our lives by a moral code that has been informed by our faith.

But, I need to recognise that many Irish people are not Catholic, or Christian for that matter.  Should I be forcing my beliefs upon them?

Just what are schools for?

It’s the kind of question that can get you thinking.

Depending on who’s standing on a soapbox, you could be led to think that schools are responsible for any number of different, and possibly contradictory, functions.

  • Schools should prepare students for science
  • Schools should prepare students for business
  • Schools should prepare students for the world of work
  • Schools should prepare students for the arts

and so on.

In the midst of all of this there is the juggernaut of assessment.  The cycle of PISA brings panic and hysteria to departments and newsrooms as whole countries try to reassess how they are doing in competition with their neighbours.

I have previously stated my reservations around the Narrow Focus on Assessment, but for a better reply to PISA than I could ever write, have a look at this piece written in the Guardian.

But schools are, I  believe, more than just about turning out utilitarian units destined to be productive members of the business community or of industry.

I think that the piece of Irish Legislation dealing with the running of schools (The Education Act, 1998) actually gives a good idea of what schools can be.  In Section 9, (d) the Act states that schools shall “promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students, and provide health education for them

That really opens it up.

The children we take into schools will one day leave as adults ready to take their place in the world.

Yes, some will go on to be business leaders, and yes, some will go on to be innovators, entrepreneurs, productive employees.

But not all of them.

There will also students who will not find a job, there will be the students who may be too ill, or have too great a disability to work.

The students who leave our schools will go on to become parents, friends and neighbours.  They will be members of communities and clubs, they will be a part of society.  And how do our schools serve them?

Schools are not something that are separate, where students are trained.  Schools are a part of society.  They are places that children grow and develop.  They are messy complicated places full of little (and large) dramas.  Schools have got ranges of students of differing abilities, and differing personalities.  Schools are full of students fighting their own battles and still trying to do their best.

We already know this.  But in the face of the constant pressure of assessment, we sometimes forget it.

There is a great line in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’.  In a scene where a library is burning, some characters argue over which books to save.  As one fights for scrolls on maths and engineering, another fights for literature and philosophy “these teach us how to be human!” he cries.

I like that.

Schools are places full of humanity, and places where we learn to be human.

Maybe, ultimately, this is what schools are for.  Places where we learn to become human.

Time heals

Time is a very strange thing.

It is now 19 years since my mother died.  Sometimes I have trouble remembering things that happened yesterday, or even this morning, yet I remember that morning in September 1995 with crystal clarity.

As I wrote before, my mam died of a brain tumor that was brutally, and, perhaps mercifully, quick.  But something that has been in my memory a lot recently is something that happened about a month into the illness.

After mam’s diagnosis our house was bedlam, as you might expect.  We were trying to deal with the physical needs of a person who was terminally ill.  At the same time, speaking for myself, I was denying the terminal part of that statement.  We sought cures everywhere.

We went to herbalists, we spend a wad of money on capsules containing shark cartilage, we called in every quack you could think of.  In short, we prayed for a miracle.

And then mam had a chance to go to Lourdes.

It was something that she had thought about for a long time before she got sick.  And such a pity that it was only in the midst of illness that she actually got to go.

Mam went to Lourdes with my dad and my sister.  Up to that point our house was a place of heightened emotions.  It was a place where we were trying to fight an illness. The word ‘fight’ brings with it certain overtones.  Words like ‘anger’, ‘aggression’ and ‘violence’ come to mind.  And yet it wasn’t that kind of fight.

Nevertheless, a certain atmosphere did pervade our house for that first month.

And them mam went to Lourdes.

Many of us associate Lourdes with healing.  People go there praying for miracles.  People go hoping for healing.  People go there hoping for a great many things.

Mam did not heal physically in Lourdes.  She travelled there in a wheelchair, she came home on a stretcher.

No physical cure then, but something did change.  And I didn’t spot it until much later.

After mam, dad and Monica came home, the atmosphere in our house was very different.  I have no memory of fighting the cancer at that point.  The focus now became one of making mam as comfortable as possible; of making our home a place of welcome for the very many visitors that we had.

Whatever people say about Lourdes, I believe that something happened there.  There was a cure, but not the one we hoped for.  The cure was within each of us.  We were given the strength, the grace, the courage to endure the next few months and years.

For that, I am grateful.

The narrow focus of assessment

You’ve probably all seen it this Summer.  The letter from Barrowford Primary School to a student where the school sets out to reassure the student that his results only reflected a small aspect of who his is.

Here’s the letter in full:

Letter to student

Many people have lauded the school and its approach.  But let’s look a little closer.

This letter is from a primary school, and the exams the student took were apparently for Key Stage 2.  According to Wikipedia, this stage assesses students in the age of 7 – 11.

I personally have a problem with this.  I understand the need to ensure students progress academically.  But formal exams for 7 year olds?  At what stage did we give up on childhood and adapt a utilitarian approach in all we do?  Maybe the children can get a day off occasionally to clean a chimney somewhere?

We rely on tests too much.  The education systems in England and Ireland seem to cry out for some sort of standardised assessment that will ensure the teachers are doing their job, and that we can measure students’ progress.

We have bought into a culture where our children are valued based on what they achieve.  Play for the sake of play is getting rarer and rarer.  You like sport? Join a team and train a few nights a week.  You like dancing, finish each term with a competition, where you may or may not EARN a medal.  And we, as parents, join in.

We miss the whole point that our kids have, each of them, unique and wonderful characteristics.  By excessively tying them down to a narrow focus, we risk blocking out a whole range of their creativity, their personality.

I like the image below:

test qualitiesImage from:

So in the month and week following the release of the Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate results respectively, we could do with looking at what we are actually doing to our children.

If we follow the English model, we will end up examining children from the age of 7, and keep this up until after they finish college.

This is punishing on all concerned: the student who may not achieve the results that others think he/she should; the parents worried that results should be better; and the teachers who worry about their own assessments.

In the year ahead the teacher unions in Ireland are going to challenge the Department of Education and Skills over the issue of assessment in the new Junior Cycle School Award.  Particularly contentious is the issue of in-school assessment.  Who does the assessment, and how is the assessing standardised.  (Who assesses the assessors?)

We need to open a very, very wide discussion on where we are going with education in Ireland.  Ultimately, what is the point of education, and what, really, are our aims at the different stages of childrens’ development.  And, of course, will we put the proper resources in place in order to ensure the best outcome (to use the lingo) for the whole education system.


First Communion & Our Primary Schools

Let me tell you a story, it’s a sad story, so please don’t laugh…

There was this little school where all the children got on well. All the boys & girls were well prepped and worked towards getting ready for their First Holy Communion.

The day arrived and the class assembled in church, going over their moves when the teacher noticed that little Mary was missing.  Mary never missed a day so the teacher got worried and she phoned Mary’s family.

“No problem,” they said “we got held up at the hairdressers so we’re going to skip the church and go straight to the hotel”.

I believe that First Communion in this country has gone in the wrong direction.   I first heard the above as an urban legend, but it has an air of possibility about it.  And that, for me, is sad.  First Communions and Confirmations are happening all over the country at the moment, and the commentary isn’t far behind.  Last year I remember Matt Cooper interviewing the owner of a Limo business who put in a policy that he wouldn’t accept First Communion bookings.  Why was the policy even needed in the first place?

A little context, First Communion is what is termed a ‘Sacrament of initiation’.  There are three of them: Baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist (Communion).  The idea is that a child on having taken part in all three sacraments will be a full member of the Catholic Church.  Very early in the Church’s history the three were separated out.

Funnily enough, in the modern world, they are not always separated.  A convert to Catholicism will receive all three in one go (in a rite called RCIA), and in the Orthodox church, all three also happen in one go.

Due to the Church having such an integral role historically in our primary schools we have a situation where the school is the place where children learn about, and are prepared for, the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation.  The sacraments have become rites of passage where the emphasis has moved towards the finery and the money spent rather than on the sacrament itself.

I’m against this.  Yes, make a big deal out of a sacrament if you want, but since when should 8 year old girls be worried about a dress costing €200 or more?  Since when should they have fake tan?  Since when is the contest in school later about how much money in gifts they got?

I think that I may agree with Ruairi Quinn on something.  <did I just say that?>

Like him, I think that it would be a good idea to take some of the preparation for communion out of the school.  Instruction in Religion could still happen in school, but move the responsibility for the sacramental preparation to the parish.

This has started in some places.  In my own parish children and their families attend a series of masses in preparation for their own Communion.  A group of parents meet on a regular basis to plan and prepare.  The links in the community are strengthened and those who choose to be part of the Church deepen their understanding.

Make communion something that a family, that a child has to opt into in their own time and you will very quickly find out the ones who actually want to be involved for what it is – part of the journey in the Christian Faith.

Things can’t change fast enough for me.  One of my daughters will receive her First Communion next year, and I would far prefer her to wear a pretty dress and not worry about the hype than be dressed in a miniature wedding dress and comparing hair-dos.

Lets put away the farce of Fake Tans and the Limos.  Let First Communion be for those who want to take part. Do away with the crap that has built up around it.