I’s Bucket Challenge


In bike helmet

A few days ago, a friend named me to take up the Ice Bucket Challenge.  Sorry, no d’ice. I am not taking up the Ice Bucket Challenge, because I don’t want to….which in a way is more difficult than doing it, because it is going against the herd.


“She’s a rebel and she’ll never ever be any good,

She’s a rebel and she’ll never ever do what she should

But just because she doesn’t act like everybody else does….” that don’t mean to say she can’t send you lots of love (and a few bob.)


I don’t open videos of people with assorted hideous plastic containers being upended over their heads, after which they would run screaming. It is, I believe, for a good cause and people are making right eejits of themselves publicly to remind the rest of us that the pain of suffering Motor Neurone is akin to being doused with  a bucket of ice water.


Yesterday I set myself a challenge…..which is very different to being told to do something one does not want to do, and therefore, having gone against the herd, I have some explaining to do:


Two years ago, on a beautiful early autumn day just like yesterday, I put my fold-up bicycle into the back of the car and drove for an hour and a half or so up the mountain road to the foot of Mont Blanc, straddling Switzerland, Italy and France.  In the centre of Chamonix I parked the car, unfolded the bike and began to cycle through the Alpine town. Going down a narrow one-way street, a car, instead of holding back, came aggressively close up behind me and to make room, I went up on the pavement. The little wheels of the bike didn’t make the low kerb and I ended up on the ground with a broken wrist as the car headed off into the hills.



Enter an ambulance, an interim plaster in the local mountain hospital, a full anesthetic and another operation a week later in Annecy, a metal pin and 5 screws in my arm, 6 weeks of elbow immobility, sleeping awkwardly, unable to wear long sleeve clothes or to do very ordinary things; butter bread, type, sew,or garden…….6 weeks of physiotherapy (some in Singapore) and then an electric rotary blade cutting through the plaster ‘till I fain would faint…… Then followed 18 months of beeping and excuses at airport security, another op to get the screws out and 2 weeks of thrice weekly dressing changes followed by The Taking Out of the Stitches.


In all that time, I followed the medics’ advice and didn’t get up on a bicycle or clip on cross-country skis or wear flip flops on wet terrain for fear of falling down. I still do be in terror of falling down. The folding bike had long been banished to the cellar in the apartment in Berlin.


Heading to that city this week, friends asked if I’d like to join them on part of their odyssey to cycle the entire ‘Berliner Mauerweg’ the shadow of the old Berlin Wall, which is between 111kms and 155kms depending on what map you choose.  The Wall, breached on the night of November 9th 1989, is no longer concrete, though 25 years after the opening of free access between East and West Berlin, it is still very much a hard and horrible memory.  The largest extant stretch of Wall, known as “the East Side Gallery” because it is entirely painted over by artists and graffiti daubers, is along the River Spree from the beautiful tiered and turreted red brick Oberbaumbrücke almost to Alexanderplatz. It is 1.3kms long.


Berlin is a huge flat city, a fast city, a rebellious city, a well-behaved city, a cyclists’ city. Everyone, whether punk or banker, anarchist, artist or activist, hippy or hipster, tattooed trendy, tattooed heavy, street juggler, politician, butcher, baker, banker, candlestick maker, cyclist, crusty (with dogs) Angela Merkel or football fan with a skirt of blue and white scarves, waits patiently at the traffic lights for the “Ampelman” – the ‘walking’ man in a hat – to light up green before they cross the street.   I don’t drive in Berlin because the choreography of cars (jugglers, juggernauts, fire-eaters, windscreen spongers and bicycles…once I even saw a helicopter in the middle of the road) at intersections is beyond me.


To-day, challenging myself, I pulled on padded pants, donned a helmet, put a bag on my back, went down to the cellar and dusted my bike. Then I unfolded it, clipped it, pumped the tyres and walked it to “Rad laden” a shop down the road, where a nice young fellow with perfect English and a bicycle chain bracelet who self-depreciatingly shrugged “I’m just a bicycle repair-man” looked it over, changed around the handlebars (which he said were facing the wrong direction) adjusted the height and sent me on my way (charging me nothing.)  I thought I’d at least buy something from his shop, but his locks and chains I thought too heavy.  I asked him if he had anything lighter, but stronger – a super-duper thin wire lock I’d seen with a friend.  “There’s nothing stronger than steel” he said “Cryptonite?” I asked.  “Sorry, wrong planet” replied the Just-a-Bicycle-Repairman. (I had actually meant carbon fibre.)


The bad thing about my folding bicycle is that its wheels are small and it doesn’t jump footpaths nor glide over cobbles, tram tracks and broken pavements.  The good thing about my folding bicycle is that its wheels are so small I can sit on the saddle and walk, like a small child on those (usually wooden) bikes which don’t have any pedals. Challenging myself, I scooted and pedalled down through the Media Spree past Fashion Industry headquarters and the NHOW hotel (where one can rent guitars and grand pianos with one’s room) a satellite uplink facility, the in-your-face red box of the Coca Cola Headquarters, MTV Europe Headquarters, Universal Music Headquarters, to the Oberbaumbrücke and Warschauer Strasse intersection and the East Side Gallery.


“Some challenge” you say…..but I took my life (and my bike) in my hands. We live about 2kms from the East Side Gallery, but I have never, ever, passed by, whether in snow at 2 of a winter’s morning or in lashing rain at 9 at night, on a dull dead Sunday or a bitter March Monday but that there were groups of people walking by, staring, taking pictures. Yesterday, a beautiful early Autumn afternoon, it was mayhem. The street was lined with Eyes Buckets (tour buses) and their rubber neckers were crowding the wide pavement. There were groups and couples, small children wanting ice cream, elders on walking frames, souvenir touts, photographers with tripods and crusties with dogs and buskers accompanied by guys who danced and pranced and wove between the pilgrim-gawkers with plastic begging mugs…and everywhere people stepping blindly backwards taking pictures of poseurs and the inevitable, ubiquitous self-absorbed selfie-snappers immune to anything except the angle of their own mugs, as we cyclists rang our bells trying to keep the red path clear for wheels.


I bravely cycled the length of the East Side Gallery……but couldn’t face it on the way back, so crossed over and cycled home on the other side of the street. I haven’t cycled the perimeter of the Berlin Wall, can’t even do a long section tomorrow as my friends have called off the gig because of the weather but I’ll be back. I’ll find me a bike with big wheels (which doesn’t have one handlebar brake and one backward pedal brake) and I’ll cycle the Berliner Mauerweg. In the meantime, having paid my contribution to Motor Neurone Disease Association (which, the Government having recently rescinded a direction to cut its tiny budget because of general outrage at the outrage, now has enough in its coffers to aid research, and the US Association – known as ALS – is now scratching its cold wet head trying to work out what to do with almost US$100m) I’ll go down and dust off something else which has been banished to the cellar, namely my ‘Soft Berlin Wall,’ a double sided, wall-segment size quilt I made to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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Barrow Mouse

Red and black milkweed bugs mating


Working in the garden I am not alone.  Pollen-bummed bees back out of flower mouths in haste to get to the next bloom complaining loudly I block their flight path.  A blackbird follows me around, tweeting all his friends that this is HIS freshly-turned long- worm territory.  All kinds of little creatures ignore me completely, they are busy doing The Bold Thing.  (Milkweed bugs particularly like my hollyhocks and also each other, they mate for up to 10 hours at a stretch.)

When I emptied my high-backed plastic wheel barrow of rakes and spades the other day to work on a new flower bed, I found a cowering timerous beastie at the bottom of it.  “Hello little field mouse” I said amicably – to quell the panic in its breastie – but his nose was long and he was not at all like the mice which used to plop into the cereal bowl on the breakfast table at home long ago (my mother kept the cornflakes pack in the hot press [ours not to reason why.]) He could have been a vole (aka meadow or field mouse and a rodent) or a shrew or a mole which are insectivores. His eyes were big, his colour uniform, but I could not count his front toes.  Anyway, he was good company for a few minutes until I tipped the barrow over and bid him au revoir.


shrew mole

shrew mole 2



















Bless the gray mouse

that found her way
into the recycle bin.
Bless her tiny body,
no bigger than my thumb,
huddled and numb
against the hard side.
Bless her bright eye,
a frightened gleaming
that opened to me
and the nest she made
from shredded paper,
all I could offer.
Bless her last hours
alone under the lamp
with food and water near.
Bless this brief life
I might have ended
had she stayed hidden
inside the insulation.
Bless her body returned
to earth, no more
or less than any creature.


“Prayer for a Field Mouse” by Pat Riviere-Seel from Nothing Below but Air.

© Main Street Rag, 2014.

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The Smell of Lilac. The May Day Procession


In the summer term at Laurel Hill Convent in Limerick, the big events were the school sports, the picnic at the nuns’ summer house in County Clare, sometimes an “educational tour” to somewhere fascinating such as Shannon Airport, and the May Day Procession.


On the first of May, Marian altars throughout the school were adorned and bedecked with fresh spring flowers.  There was a carefully choreographed procession, purportedly venerating the Mother of God but with a decidedly pagan undertone of pattern dancing, ribbons, flowers and new beginnings.  Senior girls in long white dresses and white shoes, wearing small wreaths of flowers on their heads, walked in procession carrying between them, a statue of the Virgin on their shoulders and singing “I Sing a Hymn to Mary” and “……bring flowers of the fairest and blossoms the rarest/from garden and hillside and woodland and glen…….”  to crown the statue of Our Lady in the centre of the quadrangle lawn in front of the long school building.   Behind the white-robed girls walked the newly enrolled Children of Mary, proud that they had been deemed ‘good’ enough (the worst threat for misbehaviour was that one would not be accepted as an “Enfant de Marie”) with their silver medals on wide blue ribbons gleaming in the early spring sun.


The nuns of the Faithful Companions of Jesus were very good at ceremony, very good at creating a sense of occasion.   This extended from the clothes we wore to the songs we sang to the food we ate and the manner in which the study hall was decorated.  On feast days and holy days we wore a different uniform – green instead of school-day wine red, with and a white lace mantilla in lieu of the daily black – and there would be cakes for tea.


In the mid ‘Sixties when I was a boarder in Laurel Hill, many of the customs were exactly the same as those which were observed in the school sixty years earlier when the writer Kate O’Brien was a student, and about which she wrote in her novel “The Land of Spices”.  We no longer wore gloves, nor drank coffee with meals, nor spoke French in the refectory, but still took the Taj Mahal paperweight from the desk of the supervising nun at the top of the study if we wanted ‘to be excused’.  If the paperweight was not in its place on the high desk, then it meant some girl had already gone to use the lavatory, and no two girls could ‘be excused ‘ at the same time. In my day, it was still the Taj Mahal which decided the urgency of one’s calling.


Despite its whiff of snobbery and its rigidity in many matters, manners and mores (“Girls…..knees, legs, feet together……”) I remember the occasions with the same affection for the institution  as did Kate O’Brien: the green shamrocks on the white iced cakes  for St Patrick’s Day, the singing of the “Immaculata” on the the 8th of December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, with the first candle lighting on the Advent wreath at the top of the study and the excitement of Christmas to come.


The “Immaculata” for me is more evocative than Christmas carols and the music of “Bring Flowers of the Fairest” is the smell of lilac. Always, when I hear that hymn, I smell lilac.

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Jimmy MacCarthy (et al)



Jimmy MacCarthy

Yesterday we left Cork to return to France after ten days in Ireland over Easter. I’m always sad to leave, but yesterday I was desolé because Jimmy (“Ride On”) MacCarthy was playing a concert last night in the Cork Opera House. I’ve been in love with Jimmy MacCarthy for about forty five years. One day, having done an interview with the singer/songwriter, my next appointment was with my solicitor. I came into her office and sat down dreamily, sighing “I’m in love with Jimmy MacCarthy”. The lawyer turned her eyes to heaven as though I were a right eejit to be stating the obvious. “Half of Cork is in love with Jimmy MacCarthy” she snorted, briskly unsnapping a sheaf of documents on her desk, rolling the rubber bands onto her elegant wrist.


A Facebook ‘update’ I posted last week: “Strolling through Dublin on a sunny Wednesday; al fresco lunch in a trendy new restaurant, coffee in a trendy new restaurant, two little girls of about 6, one Asian one a red-head, walking down Grafton street with (real) daisy chains in their hair, holding a long chain linking them…they had come with their adults from the grass of Stephen’s Green; an Indian family beaming from a horse drawn cab, the little girl waving, so I waved back and called “Happy Easter” (which daughter Lucy though extremely odd) the wonderful Dorothy Cross exhibition ‘Connemara” in the Royal Hibernian Academy….(thanks Rosita for the intel) and now chips in Sandymount and back to the hotel for “The Good Wife” and a bottle of wine (contented sigh.)”


One of my Fbk friends commented:  “I can almost hear Noel Purcell singing this.” The song was “The Dublin Saunter” by Leo Maguire, which was recorded by Noel Purcell in the 1940s and later by Paddy (“Fields of Athenry”) Reilly. Born in 1903, Leo Maguire was a musician and broadcaster who wrote over a hundred songs (including “The Whistling Gypsy”) and presented The Waltons Programme for nearly thirty years on Radio Eireann. The tagline of the Waltons programme was “If you feel like singing, do sing an Irish song” and on which Leo often featured “Charlie Magee and his gay guitar. ”


“For Dublin can be heaven

With coffee at eleven

And a stroll in Stephen’s green…..

…..Grafton Street’s a wonderland

There’s magic in the air……

…..And if you don’t believe me

Come and meet me there

In Dublin on a sunny Summer morning”

Last week in the sunshine, Grafton Street was indeed a wonderland of flower sellers and competing buskers, though its magic is currently marred by the Big Dig for the extension of the LUAS tram line (known locally as the ‘Daniel Day LUAS.’) I missed seeing Phil Lynott (though there is a statue) strolling by and The Dice Man (though there is a statue) performing and dallying with Pete the “Hot Press” magazine seller outside Bewleys. This is the terrain of the film “Once” and many of the characters are plucked from this city centre pedestrian area.


One day there was a picture of Jimmy MacCarthy on the cover of his Hot Press mags and I stopped to drool, telling Pete that Jimmy’s father had said he was a naughty boy because he got up too late in the mornings. Pete (a gentleman) replied gently that Jimmy was an artist so he was allowed leeway in his sleeping habits. I had rung Ted MacCarthy (also a gentleman) for Jimmy’s telephone number in mid morning and after a chat, his father added “….and tell that young fella to get up out of the bed!”


Magical moments in my memory bank woven by Jimmy are from a concert in the Opera House when he asked for the audience to join in and sitting behind me, Adi Roche of Chernobyl Children International (former Irish Person of the Year and University of Alberta Canada and National University of Ireland Galway Honorary Doctor of Law) began to harmonise. It was the sound of angels. In 1999, Jimmy, unannounced from the choir loft, sang “The Bright Blue Rose” at the funeral of the artist Deirdre Meaney (a perfect creature, natural in every feature.) I thought the church on the North side of Cork city would explode with the pure intensity of the background silence, the depth of sadness and regret in the congregation of misfits, city elders, drunkards and burghers, politicians, drop-outs, teachers, academics, atheists and art collectors, priests, poets and no-goods, gallery owners, museum curators, writers and artists…..all of us; her family, friends, loves, admirers and contemporaries with whom she had shared life in Cork. It was angels lifting her to heaven.


Because you’re also probably in love with Jimmy MacCarthy you probably know most of this already, but, as he embarks on his Irish tour (National Concert Hall Dublin April 27th, then Kilkenny and onwards……..) here is a “Weekend Profile” from November 1991, one of a regular series I did with well-known people for the Examiner Weekend Supplement.  It was in  formulaic Question and Answer format, which I usually don’t like, but through which I often managed to winkle a good portrait of the subject.


JOB: Singer/Songwriter


BIOGRAPHY:  Born in Macroom in 1953.  Educated at Glasheen School, Presentation and Christian Brothers Colleges Cork.  Apprentice jockey in Tipperary and Newmarket. Rode out for Fergus Sutherland in Killanadrish.  A riding instructor in Blarney, car park attendant in Conway’s yard, van driver for his father’s newspaper distribution business.  Began writing songs at age 21 and has been a professional musician since.


FAMILY: Second eldest of a family of 12.  His parents (Ted and Betty) live in Curraheen Drive in Bishopstown, the rest of the family “all over the world.”  The youngest, twins, are aged 24.


RESIDENCE:  Spent some time in Cork, Dublin, London and three years in Switzerland.  Now living alone in an old rented house in Delgany, County Wicklow.


INTERESTS: “Music, art and mythology, holistic healing –  and horses of course.  I’m extremely interested in the I Ching and study it constantly.  I work on the Alexander Technique for posture, breathing and voice training.”


LEISURE ACTIVITIES: “I ride friends’ horses in Wicklow and Leixlip if I get a chance.  Swimming, reading, going to the theatre and punishing the piano.”


WORK IN PROGRESS:  “I don’t have enough time at present to give to writing.  The songs are there all the time, but one must be willing and able to receive them.”


FUTURE PLANS:  “I hope to record an album every year or every couple of years as part of my life from now on.  I’m singing with the Clancy Brothers in Upstate New York in November an I’d love to gig across the States.”


CONCERNS:  “All the basic clichéd humanitarian concerns for the environment, including the culture of the disposable; the music that pours out and doesn’t do anything for the world, also for the effects of alcohol on all levels of society.  Its abuse can have a devastating effect on the lives of those it touches.”


GRIPE:  “With the exception of a few such as ‘Mulligan’ ‘Solid’ and the token ‘Mother’  record labels, up to now there has been no indigenous recording industry and studios in Ireland; it’s just a warehouse for the majors such as EMI and WEA.  Only 5% of all the music played on the new independent stations licensed by the Government is Irish – RTE is an exception to this.”


THUMBS UP:  “To my mother and father for rearing twelve of us and instilling us with strong values and a sense of the real meaning of wealth, and to them also for the fact that they continue to grow and thrive in their own lives together now that we are all gone from home.”




https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1RfNeBdp10  this is Jimmy last year singing about himself at that time, “when I was young and I was in my day” and what he might have been…..





Ted MacCarthy died in 1998, Betty MacCarthy in 2009.


Ride on Jimmy. Love, Isabel xxx

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The Geldofs



Bob Geldof and Paula Yates with their daughters, Fifi Trixibelle and Peaches, in 1989. Photograph: Dennis Stone/Rex

Bob Geldof and Paula Yates with their daughters, Fifi Trixibelle and Peaches, in 1989. Photograph: Dennis Stone/Rex

Families have tragedies and bear them – or not – and we never know, because they are not famous.  Bob Geldof of Dun Laoghaire, south county Dublin, didn’t just have 15 minutes of fame in the mid 1970s as lead singer with the band “The Boomtown Rats” he re-invented himself as a fund-raiser, then as a TV producer and now as a media mogul and international activist. Now there are 3 generations of Geldof lineage and they are still famous.


This week the Geldof family is in the headlines again, because of the death of Bob’s daughter Peaches, a beautiful young woman who at 25 had already been married twice and was the mother of two children.   It is a terrible, terrible time of tragedy for the family and those close to them, and I am full of sympathy.


I met Bob Geldof only once, when I interviewed him and the band during their “In the Long Grass” tour.   I remember the occasion because Bob Geldof was one of the politest, most charming, gracious and generous people I ever talked to in a professional capacity as a journalist. It was in the City Hall in Cork and backstage there were drinks and a lavish buffet, of which Bob – and his equally well mannered band – kept inviting me to partake.   (Conversely, my mother [also a journalist] always held a wee grudge against the Irish balladeers the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem as, when she interviewed them backstage before a concert, they were drinking tea and whiskey and never so much as offered her a cup.)


When we met Bob and his partner Paula Yeats had one toddler daughter. I remember voicing concern that the noise levels of a Rats concert couldn’t be good for little ones. (The gig was so loud that my body reverberated for hours afterwards.)   Bob pooh-poohed the notion saying that such loud music was the family’s permanent sound-track. Conversationally, I asked when he was going to “make an honest woman” out of Paula Yeats…..a stupid euphemistic (and actually sexist) cliché of the times, meaning “are you getting married?”  He was appalled and answered “Paula IS an honest woman” and I was ashamed for being so flippant because, yes, Paula was an honest woman.


Paula Yeats was beautiful, wrote beautifully and honestly and was true to herself, even if it meant defying convention.  I remember reading a piece she wrote in a magazine (“Honey”? “19”?“Company”?) about the strange and not unexciting feeling of her boobs getting bigger (she only weighted about 7stone) and then telling Bob Geldof she was pregnant, and her apprehension that he might be angry.  He immediately sent her a bouquet of 24 red roses.  She grumbled mildly about how, owning a big house where people constantly came to stay, her days were punctuated by trips up and down stairs to the hot press (airing cupboard) with armloads of sheets and pillowcases. No matter how cool the company, somebody had to strip the linen and make up fresh beds.  She also wrote “even rock stars get piles.” Her idea of luxury was to lie in bed with a mound of newspapers and a box of violet cream chocolates.


Then Paula Yeats died, tragically, when she was coming into her own, when she had swapped pneumatic rock music for the newly discovered pleasures of Radio 4 talk radio, when her youngest daughter was barely big enough to stand on a chair and snib the lock on the front door of her home the day her Mummy was “asleep and won’t wake up.” The friend who was at the door that morning immediately rang Bob and asked that he take the little girl, Tiger Lily.   He thought she meant ‘take in’ though the friend only meant ‘come and get the girl’ but he said later that he never had to consider “not for a nano-second” but that he would adopt the child as his own.


This is the third time in his six decades – two thirds of which have been in the spotlight of fame – that Bob Geldof has lost a woman who was a part of him, a woman too young to die, a woman whose loss has left him with a gaping wound.  When he was only 10 years of age, his mother Evelyn died suddenly and unexpectedly one night of a brain heamhorrage at their home in Dun Laoghaire in 1961. She was either 41 or 44.  Almost 40 years later his ex-wife and love of his life Paula Yeats died at 41 and now his beautiful second daughter Peaches, “the wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest and most bonkers of all of us” is gone.


No wonder he says he is “beyond pain.”







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Frida Kahlo, Yoko Ono and Me



Image 1


It is spring, and in spring a young woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of love…..and sometimes, when even the sanest, most sensible, feminist, career woman’s head is turned by love, when she is swept off her feet by an avowal of same and a proposal of marriage, frothy dresses with long trains, frothy veils and flowers, fascinators and photographers, parties after parties, parties before parties, arbours with glowing lanterns, invitations with ribbons and diamonds suddenly become the order of the day. And that is all fine and dandy.


A lavish wedding extravaganza can tell a lot about a couple and denote the tenor of their relationship, their generosity and the closeness of their links with their family and wider circle for the rest of their lives but it is necessary for a marriage to succeed?


One summer day, a long time ago, I married a man in what we and both our families thought was the perfect match. From the same backgrounds, we had interests and friends in common, were social and cultural, intellectual, age and educational equals. The wedding was in the university chapel, the reception in the city’s poshest hotel. The marriage lasted 4 years because I didn’t have wings on my heels. Because he is such a wonderful person, my former husband and I are still close and loving friends, but we just couldn’t hack the proximity.


Seven years after my first marriage broke up I met someone else. He was eight years younger than I and we had nothing at all in common except that we were both interested in the media and the entertainment industry in particular and were both from Cork. I didn’t notice him for a year though we had met several times a week through our jobs.  Then one November evening, in a helicopter flying between the Kinsale gas rig and Shannon Airport, we fell in love. Seven years later, we decided to get married and as it was illegal in Ireland at the time, I – literally – bought a divorce from the Dominican Republic and Himself and I went to the United States to get married.


It was Christmas 1991 and we were staying with friends in Connecticut.   We had planned to get married in the town of Fairfield on New Year’s Eve and then all of us follow the James Taylor route up to the White Mountains, covered in snow (“…and so was the Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, Lord the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting’…..”) I would wear a cream padded silk coat with gold quilting and fur trim.


The Daughter and I flew to New York, to be joined next day by Himself, who had taken the Newfoundland-Baffin Island-Toronto route (and incidentally, arrived with a purple-bruised nose having fallen on the ice curling in Iqaluit.) Before leaving I had suffered what I though was sciatica and put it down to the increased workload before an absence and the organisation and excitements leading up to the event. On the first day in Connecticut, we got all the marriage licences, legal and medical papers organized and I went to a chiropractor who prescribed bed rest, but two days later, when filling the bath, I bent down to put in the plug and my spine seemed to snap. My memory of getting back to bed from the bathroom floor is as though I were Wilma Flintstone, being pulled along the floor by Fred.  We contacted the nearest major hospital, Bridgeport, and considered my immediate admission. The Bridgeport vicinity turned out to have burned out houses, “$1,000 reward” notices on mugshots pinned to railings, loitering gangs, cruising cars blasting rap music and the hospital had armed porters, a large police presence in the Emergency Department and pools of blood on the floor.


I was frightened, I wanted my mammy. My sister in Cork rang a neurosurgeon friend who passed on the useful intel that nobody dies of a bad back. Knowing I wasn’t going to die cheered me up considerably because I had no idea what I had done to myself and the pain was akin to an unnaturally prolonged labour of childbirth…..but with no let up.  We saw a neurosurgeon on St Stephen’s Day who said I would need to stay in the US close to a month in order to have an operation and post operative care, but we decided to cancel everything and head home…..but first, we had to get married.

 Image 8


The wedding took place at 12 noon in our friends’ house. I wore a white sweat shirt and leggings and a pearl hairband P (Himself) had bought me down the road in a Fairfield shop. He washed my hair in a basin as I lay with my head over the side of the bed. That was the extent of the bride’s preparations and beautifications. P also went to a local jeweller, who, without question, gave him $10,000 worth of gold rings in plastic baggies to take home for my perusal, but I kept wailing “I don’t like it” so he just bought a wedding band for himself and I used a narrow gold ring I had with me to pledge our troth.


Next day we made our slow, painful way downstairs and I lay on the living room sofa for the ceremony, with P sitting beside me. There was no Googlable Internet then and few books available to trawl for inspiration, and our friends were out in the midst of their busy lives in the busiest season of the year. The groom read from his namesake to the Corinthians, The Daughter read a poem by Margaret Atwood, I read a Barrett Browning sonnet.  We were married by Pat Coffey, a nice, cheerful and interested Justice of the Peace, who said it was the strangest ceremony she had ever performed.  We cut the cake my sister had made and sent out with us, and as I was on serious painkillers, I drank a half glass of champagne through a straw, which is not the same as from a slipper while dancing.



Image 5


Image 3














We made another excruciating, semi-horizontal journey back upstairs, I dictated a 700 words for my weekly ‘Examiner’ newspaper column to the newly married groom who then faxed it off, and that was our wedding day.


Over the next few days, the parents of her friend in New Jersey invited The Daughter – a mere child – to spend the rest of the holiday with them in Hoboken. Our hosts in Fairfield who were going to Ireland the next week said they’d bring her back with them on the ‘plane. On December 30th, Sally, a nurse sent out by the insurance company, rang to say that she had arrived in Connecticut from London and was on her way to collect me in an ambulance. I was slid onto a stretcher which looked like an ancient burial canoe and held onto the ropes at the side as Sally took the air out, so that it moulded rigid to my shape. It would be my bed from one continent to another over the next 14 hours, in an aeroplane and two ambulances.


Three seats had been moved at the front of the ‘plane to accommodate my little canoe and a major sniff ensued when an Aer Lingus flight attendant (ironically, the same one as had been less than sympathetic when I had asked her to fill a hot water bottle for me to ease the pain on the trip out) insisted that ‘the patient’ face the front of the ‘plane, Sally said I should face the back….so they sought the judgement of the highest powers.  “Tell the patient she can face whatever way she likes” said the Captain “and tell her that I’m her mother’s first cousin.” All the passengers entering the ‘plane gave me pitying looks as they passed by to their seats, but I smiled back….I was not going to die, I was going to have the most comfortable Atlantic crossing of them all. Captain Donoghue came down for a chat and brought P into the cockpit to view the view (those were the days my friend!)


We were met at Shannon by another ambulance and rolled into the Admissions Bay at the Regional Hospital (now the Cork University Hospital) as the light of the last day of 1991 was dawning.  When I was wheeled into my room in the neurosurgery department, P pointed to the bell on the wall. “See that?” he said “if you want anything, ring it.  I’m going home to bed.” The neurosurgeon removed what he called “a large chunk of crab meat” from my spine a couple of days later, it had wedged out of a disc and was touching nerves. The dotey nurses and domestic staff of the hospital were totally fazed by all the cards reading “Congratulations!” “As you are Married” and “A Wedding Wish for You” in lieu of “Get Well Soon” on the window sill.  The ward sister looked aghast that I had been married three days and yet had a pre-teen daughter, so we told her it was a premature baby.  P went back to work and when asked “Aren’t you supposed to be on your honeymoon?” and he told them he had brought his wife back on a stretcher, a colleague retorted “you animal!”


I was released, ambulatory, from hospital on January 6th in time for Women’s Christmas and we all lived happily ever after.


Oh, p.s…..did I neglect to say that we’ve got married again since and have had 3 wedding parties in all, one of which was in France? Well, when divorce was finally allowed in Ireland, we realized that we’d better make everything legal on home turf. Though the tax man had accepted our marriage almost immediately despite the ban on divorce, wanting to know if we’d be taxed separately or as a couple, P and I were ‘strangers at law’ which had huge property and inheritance implications. I rang my first husband and said “c’mere, we’re after forgetting to get divorced……” He said “oh yeah, sure I’m probably getting married myself too, so we’d better go for it.” The pair of us went to court on the day appointed and were the only separating couple in the courtroom sitting together in the room….all the other husbands, the wives’ solicitors explained to the judge, were “not available because they were in jail.”






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Edith Kiss



It was the day before St Valentine’s Day in Berlin and a small group of people gathered at the side entrance of the new Daimler Mercedes-Benz Distribution Headquarters. The 13 storey building, which went up over a very few months, can house 1,200 employees and a lot of very expensive motor vehicles. The street is Muhlenstrasse and at right angles, down the side of the Daimler Mercedes building runs a road which was getting a new name.


The district is Friedrichshain, on the borders of Kreuzberg, the two divided geographically by the River Spree. It is across the road from the ‘East Side Gallery’, the longest extant stretch of the old Berlin Wall, the one which is ‘decorated’ with works by a few dozen artists and thousands of defacing scribblers with the need to see their names on a historic monument. Now the two districts (incorporating a third, Treptow) are linked politically, somewhat to the chagrin of the populace. A thirty metre high steel sculpture of three human figures by US artist Jonathan Borofsky stands in the river waters. “Molecule Men” is supposed to represent how the molecules of all humans merge to create our world, but it is popularly said to denote the antipathy between the communities and every summer a Vegetable Fight takes place on the beautiful Oberbaum Bridge, with the denizens of Friedrichshain on one side and those of Kreuzberg on the other, pelting each other with soft fruit and vegetables…. tomatoes being the preferred ammunition.


Friedrichshain used to be in the old East, a place of cheap rents and factories; now gentrified, it houses the European headquarters of trendy international entertainment companies, earning itself the marketing name ‘Media Spree.’ Kreuzberg, during the city’s division, on the Western side of the Berlin Wall, has been a punk and alternative lifestyle mecca since the 1970s with the largest Turkish population in Berlin. So when it came to naming a road in their neighbourhood, the districts were vocal. Mercedes wanted to name the street bordering their spanking new building after a woman associated with the company, suggesting Bertha Benz, wife of the inventor’s partner and Baroness Mercedes Jellinek. (Friedrichshain has a policy of only naming streets after women, to attain parity of the sexes.) The largest group in the parliament district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, the Green Party said thanks a whole heap (or words to that effect) “They can build their headquarters here, but it’s not our job to help with public relations management” according to the Green Party Group Chairperson Paula Reister.


Another name was put forward by the Pirate Party, that of Hungarian sculptor and artist, Edith Kiss. (The Pirate Party is a national political party, growing out of a movement against regulation of the Internet, it was founded in 2006. The Pirates support the preservation of current civil rights in telephony and on the Internet, opposing, in particular, the European data retention policies and favouring the civil right to information privacy and reforms of copyright, education, genetic patents and drug policy. The Pirate Party won its first seat on the state parliament of Berlin in 2011, but is now in decline nationally after a series of scandals and internecine struggles.) When the vote was taken at the District Parliament on the re-naming of the street in December 2012, the Green Party, the SPD and the Left voted with the Pirates in favour of their nominee.




Edith Kiss was born in Budapest in 1905 and studied art in the city. In 1944 she was deported from there to Ravensbruck Women’s concentration camp and was later moved to the Daimler Benz factory 60kms from Berlin, where, as a forced labourer, she was one of 1,000 other women making aircraft engines for the Nazis. The conditions were horrendous, but however bad, were not as terrible as those at the concentration camp. Edith Kiss survived, as did her friend Agnes Rezsone Bartha. The two women escaped a forced march and went into hiding. Edith Kiss went on to marry twice and to live and practice her art in London and Paris, where she committed suicide in l966. And so, on a cold, but not bitter, February evening, as the ubiquitous cranes lit up the darkening sky (night falls fast and early in Berlin) with just a handful of people present, the street became “Edith Kiss Strasse.” Later, a much larger number of guests faced a number of heavy security guys and young women with clipboards before being admitted entrance to the foyer of the Daimler Benz building and the opening of an exhibition of works by Edith Kiss, a double honour for the artist.




















Both Edith and Agnes had vowed never to talk of their Holocaust experiences, but later Edith Kiss did a series of Ravensbruk scenes, re-creating drawings she had done in the concentration camp, which had been confiscated, and when Agnes Bartha was interviewed in 1992 for a history of Daimler-Benz, it was suggested she conquer some of her pain by telling her story to schoolchildren, which she has done ever since. At the opening of the exhibition, the 93 year old (who appeared about 70, sharp of mind and handsome of face) spoke by video link live from Budapest about Edith Kiss, the friend whom she says saved her life. The small gouaches – not much bigger than A4size – are hung on the plain white pillars of the Daimler Benz reception area, which the company wants to exploit for exhibitions of work by local artists in different mediums. There was food and drink and lots of speeches, which unfortunately, I could not understand. As I sipped my sparkling Reisling and partook of tasty morsels, as men tried to interest me in huge lumps of white painted metal on wheels with price tags in the region of €100,000-€170,000, I hesitate to admit that I “understood” the work. It was a simple, realistic illustration of some of the aspects of life, suffering, humiliation, deprivation and death in a women’s concentration camp. How could we understand it in those surroundings? Or maybe we could understand it all the better.



In the gas chamber

The Edith Kiss exhibition is open and free to the public until March 13th. There is also a cafeteria in the reception area, and as companies in Berlin are required by law to allow the general public to use their dining facilities, I suggest you avail yourself of their subsidised coffees. And if a pilgrimage to a concentration camp is not feasible when in Berlin, or you can’t bring yourself to witness the walls that enclosed such suffering, then visit Edith instead and ponder………


(source: Sebastian Heiser, Taz, December 2012)

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Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown: Red Carpet at the Berlinale

Lifestyles of the Poor+Unknown I don’t do clothing with logos and have but two sweatshirts with messages on them.   One says “Art is Dirty Work, but Someone Has to Do it”  the other says “Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown.”


As my lifestyle is that of the Poor and Unknown, I have never experienced walking the red carpet…..at least, not until last night, in front of a mass of straining, cheering, waving people and a dark bank of cameras. (“What did you wear Belle?”  Navy blue cord jeans,  sweater+cardigan, navy pashmina, navy and lilac lurex fingerless gloves, embroidered blue cowboy ankle boots and a big, fat black down puffa coat, with the ubiquitous nylon back-pack over one shoulder.)  It was the same carpet at the Berlinale Palast at Potsdamer Platz as Cillian Murphy, Jennifer Connelly and Mélanie Laurent had walked a few hours earlier.


'Aloft' Premiere - 64th Berlinale International Film Festival

Cillian Murphy, Melanie Laurent, Claudia Llosa and Jennifer Connelly at the Berlinale world premiere of “Aloft”


They had been going in, I was coming out, of their new film “Aloft, a Spain,USA,France co-production, directed by Claudia Llosa.”  All I wanted to to was get to the U Bahn and home to Himself and being Poor and Unknown I could run it, out into the anonymous city night.  The professionals have to smile and simper and show their best side, they hold in their tummies and make  slow and excruciating progress in their high high heels and dresses with no straps nor backs and long beaded trains (both in Haute Couture gowns, Jennifer Connelly in Elie Saab, Mélanie Laurent in Chanel.) The noise level is high…everyone shouting their name, ordering them to turn this way and that, people shoving paper in their faces to sign, pulling at them for selflies with the stars.




When I got my ticket for “Aloft” I had no idea it was a world premiere, I just read the blurb, saw the word”Arctic” and a picture of  Cillian Murphy on a bicycle with a raptor in snow, and marked it on the programme.  It had all those elements, particularly snow, which suits me just fine.  (As for “Arctic” however…..at a small bleak airport, Murphy and Laurent were told there was a wait for their flight to “Nunavut.”  When they got onto the tarmac, their ‘plane was a tiny propellor job and they weren’t wearing enough clothes.  (SPOILER ALERT! Later, they were in a jeep on an ice road – presumably in “Nunavut” – and they stopped for some nookie and took off all their clothes. In real life, they’d probably have lasted about 7 minutes before suffering hypothermia. But hey, that’s the movies.) The night before, I’d seen the premiere of “Calvary”, which was about forgiveness and so was “Aloft” in a very different landscape.  One was under bare Ben Bulben’s Head, to where the dark side of Craggy Island parish had been transported, the other in Northern Canada (i.e. Spain, the UK and Manitoba.)  “Aloft” is in many ways a lugubrious film, but what made me sit up in my automatically-reclining-red-velvet seat was the landscape sculptures, the swings and refuges of woven twigs and tree branches, which brought to mind my friend Peter von Tiesenhausen, a Canadian artist of high renown.  (Google Images for Peter von Tiesenhausen artist. Swoon.)  It wasn’t Peter who had done the land art for “Aloft” but it should have been.


On the way in to the Film Palast, I did not stop to take photographs of the red carpet and the grasping crowds (even bigger than when we were coming out) nor did I take any for the stars, director and producers line-up on the stage after the screening, though I was in the 5th row. It just feels embarrassing. However, I did email my daughter this morning to tell her I’d seen Cillian Murphy last night. “Cillian Murphy?” Lucy replied “The last time I saw Cillian Murphy was in Henchy’s*.”


*Henchy’s, at St. Luke’s Cross, is a very well known pub, a veritable Cork institution, favourite of poets, writers, artists, locals, wannabes and time wasters (Lucy was a local.)

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Berlinale, The Berlin Film Festival

Berlinale Booking, Potsdamer PlatzYes, it is a First World Problem, but how is one supposed to get on with one’s life when one has to book tickets for the Berlin Film Festival?


The Berlinale as it is known, is currently running in this most edgy and ordinary, well-behaved and anarchic, enormously exciting sociable city.  Now in its 64th year (older, my dears, even than CORK!) the Berlinale takes place just after Sundance, just before Dublin and ahead of Cannes. Its budget is €21m., €6.5M of which is provided by the Federal Government Committee for Culture and The Media. There are some 400 films on view from about 124 countries, with 816 films for sale in the European Marketplace. Last year, 303,077 tickets were sold and there were half a million theatre visits.


Berlin is to film what the entry which comes 2nd in the Eurovision Song Contest is to middle of the road popular music. Many a crowd-pleasing, slightly off-the-wall film has launched here, ‘foreign’ films are the order of the day, the Retrospective category throws up all kinds of old gems one never got round to seeing and the Shorts are like tasting all humankind’s desiring, her fears, her humour and the beauties of the world in a few bites. There is a Culinary category dedicated to …… food…..and then one goes out to eat.  Berlin is one of the best, most varied and most affordable cities in the world for food and everybody is always eating – and often drinking –  whether on the train platform or in the street huddled up in the blankets provided at sidewalk cafés and restaurants, in grungy clubs or outside vans and snackaramas under grimy archways.   The exterior, interior or size of a restaurant is no indicator of gastronomic quality.


Each film on the Berlinale programme is shown several times, there are venues all over the city, which is which is four times the size of Paris. One can go to three locations – Potsdamer Platz is the most popular – and queue up for a.very.long.time. to buy tickets (no block booking, so you can’t buy for pals or profit) or you can book 2 tickets per show on-line in advance, subject to little icons which invariably show red ‘X’s through them for exactly the show, date, venue and time you wanted. That is, if the programme page loads at all.   Just now, Sunday morning before going out to brunch (another Berlin institution) with friends bombarding me by text, my mind is boggled, my head is aching and I’m feeling frustrated to the point of the screaming hab-dabs…The website is down, probably through overuse.  Last year, the site got over 17million page views.


So that’s Berlin, and there are movies I want to see which I will have to forego. However, all is not lost…….next week, I go to Dublin, in the middle of the Jameson International Dublin Film Festival, which opens this Friday, 14th.  JDIFF and the Berlinale have very few showings in common – I thought there would be more – except “Calvary” (dir.John McDonagh 2013, Ireland) and “The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared”(Sweden.) “The Grand Budapest Hotel” which premiered in Berlin I can see within weeks at the CineLaudon in St Jorioz (the best cinema in the entire world) for 5e instead of 20e here.


The programme for Berlin is vast, that for Dublin much more manageable, much more accessible and frankly, I prefer the line-up for the latter.  Berlin this year has a lot of very dark films, difficult films, tense thrillers – not my faves – and sex (the full 5 hour version of “Nymphomaniac” [no thanks, I’d rather go shopping.])  This is the current trend in cinema, according to a friend, the Director of the Danish Producers Association.


So I’ll be back first thing in the morning to try the website again for tickets. I have had the coveted lanyard denoting accreditation at festivals from Banff in Alberta to Cannes and La Rochelle in France and through 4 decades in Cork but in Berlin, I scavenge for what I can get, and pay the price……that’s why it’s a First World problem.

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Cargoes, the Spree

This morning in Berlin I had to get the dressing on my poorsorearm changed (metal plate and 5 screws were removed in an operation in France last week from the wrist broken 17 months ago.) The medical practice is a five minute walk from our apartment across the Elsenbruecke over the Spree River.


A lot of heavy materials are transported through the huge city, not by road, but by barge along the curves of the meandering river.  Last week, an ice-breaker was used to forge a channel for the shipping traffic to pass through; now the intense cold is over and there are only a few stray ice floes on the dark waters, many of them carrying mussel shells where the birds have used the floes as a picnic table. The sculpture “Molecule Man” by American Jonathan Borofsky stands in the water between Elsenbruecke and Oberbaumbruecke, now known as “The Media Spree” district near the intersection of the three districts of Kreuzberg, Alt-Treptow and Friedrichshain.  The three 30 metre high figures are said to denote the rivalry between the districts, which were merged in 2001. A very beautiful double-deck bridge and one of the city’s landmarks, the Oberbaum Bridge has featured in films such as “Run Lola Run” and “The Bourne Conspiracy” and was from where Liam Neeson and his car went flying in “Unknown.”  Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg used to be divided by the Berlin Wall and the bridge is now a symbol of Berlin’s unity.


Characterised by a high number of immigrants, traditionally Kreuzberg had a strong counterculture, while the number of non-German citizens in Friedrichshain is much lower and the average age is older. Both boroughs are now dealing with the consequences of gentrification and every summer they let rip at each other with tomatoes from either side of the Oberbaume Bridge in an anarchic “vegetable fight.”


As I crossed Elsenbrucke this morning, a double coal barge was puttering along the river, and brought to mind John Mansefield’s poem “Cargoes”


“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.


Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.


Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.”


…..and then on to the doctor’s rooms, in a building dedicated to medical care of varying kinds, with a pharmacy on the ground floor.   This is what it looks like:

flower medical centreI just love Berlin.

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