Books for Aileen: Saying Goodbye to a Friend with Books she Loved

On March 18th last year, in a hospital bed in Ireland, one of my best friends passed away. She was 25. Diagnosed with a brain tumor at eight months old, Aileen fought for a quarter of a century before her war ended. She barely had a chance at life but she used the card she got dealt to live the life she did have with a resounding courage that I still can’t comprehend.

Aileen and I first bonded over books- namely, Harry Potter. She was one of the first friends I made in secondary school and we stuck together while we negotiated the move from childhood to adulthood, via the Teenage Years of Embarrassment. One of her favourite books was War of the Buttons by Louis Pergaud and in later years she remembered it really well even when her memory faded. It was the first book I read in an effort to bring her back to life in my mind- a story of rampaging children fighting a seemingly silly war with far-reaching consequences. The book stayed with me: even the smartest of us have big lessons to learn before we can properly grow up.

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Re-Climbing the Magic Faraway Tree

As a child, I stumbled across a miracle book. There was a bright place in the woods where a giant tree stretched to the clouds, its branches hosting a plethora of whimsical residents. The magic spilled out of every page and I read, and re-read, and read it again. It was called The Enchanted Wood. I was 6 years old, I’d just found Enid Blyton, and the world exploded.

Arguably, the adventures of Jo, Bessie, and Fanny were my introduction to fantasy, a genre that I adore to this day. I had no idea, reading The Farway Tree series in 1996, that it had been written in the 1940s. The world was at war a second time, hardship was everyone’s neighbor, and Enid Blyton was producing stories that would, for generations, help young people imagine a better, brighter place.

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Understanding the Real Ireland: Hardship and Change

Ireland has a sort of mythical status among creative types. The land of saints,  scholars and Guinness. Many depictions show Ireland as a home of parties and alcoholism, religious dogma and at time, Troubles. Ireland is both more and less than this mythical generalisation- but understanding the real Ireland takes more than a read of Ulysses.

2016 marks 100 years since the Easter Rising in Ireland. Revolutionaries, aggravated by years of imperialist rule, took up arms and led a struggle against the British forces in Ireland, beginning on Easter Monday 1916. It’s a story that often gets lost in the babble of world history, but some of Ireland’s best creative work covers that period. Sean O’Casey wrote , a play based in central Dublin in that week of 1916, and shows the experience of a family dragged into the rebellion and the devastation created in Dublin by rebels and British soldiers alike. The play is a microcosm of a history that gets lost and forgotten too often.

Please visit Book Riot to view the complete edition of this post.

Books for the Yoga Obsessed

Yoga has been around for centuries and as a result, there are endless books about it, some sublime and some ridiculous. I’m currently working hard to become a yoga teacher so I’ve spent months leafing through all types of books on the topic (because I’m a nerdy yoga teacher!)

Book Riot Yoga II

Yoga is more than the physical movements that people practice in classes. Not all parts of yoga suit all people (I discount quite a bit of it because I’m a tad cynical), but it has been a seriously mind opening experience to read about the different types, branches and effects of yoga, built up as a practice over hundreds of years. There’s a history in yoga that people just don’t see in their weekly vinyasa class- so I’m gathering the best books, technical, philosophical, instructional and plain old fashioned fun.

Please see Book Riot for the complete version of this post.

To Endure is to Conquer: Saying Goodbye to Aileen

On March 18th, 2015, a close friend of mine passed away after 25 years of illness and pain. Her sense of humour remained, to the end, incorruptible. This is my recollection of her in some of the best and worst moments of the time we spent together.


“The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.”

— from Everything Is Going to be All Right, by Derek Mahon


It’s uncommon to remember exactly how you met someone. Sometimes, we remember specific meetings because they’re unusual or because we come to love the person we’ve met.

Meeting people for the first time often falls into the background; irrelevant in many ways, once the moment has passed. The ones you remember are rare and they are special.

I met Aileen at a screening of Harry Potter on a school trip in Winter 2002.

Taking my seat in a row near the back, I somehow got talking to the girl sitting directly in front of me. She said I seemed familiar to her, and I said I had the same feeling. We spent a few minutes going back and forth, trying to work out if we had mutual friends, acquaintances or experience. We never worked it out. I’m not a big believer in fate- but maybe there’s something to it. Maybe she was just destined to end up in my life and I in hers. Who knows?

From that day on, Aileen would migrate from her classroom to mine for lunch. She was, first and foremost, a shock to the system. At times it was awkward to talk with her because she was so upfront and honest about her experiences. Her life was a pottered history of discomfort and pain- I had nothing to compare it to.

Aileen was diagnosed with a brain tumour at eight months and wasn’t expected to survive- but she did. There was a reoccurrence before she turned 10 and, suffering the chemotherapy to defy the odds, she made it. These huge truths were among she first things she told me, a naïve and innocent child of 12.

The idea of a young person being so ill startled me. I could never work out how she was pretty much always in a good mood when it seemed to me she was dealt a hard hand. It would take me years to work out what she and Churchill already knew: to endure is to conquer.

Once Aileen decided you were her friend, you didn’t really have a whole lot of choice in the matter. She was polite and friendly to everyone- but her genuine friendship and loyalty was a gift to the few and not the many.

Aileen was quick to laugh, easy to wind up and loud as hell. It took us a while to build a group of friends, but we managed it, all of us different and trying to claw our way into being teenagers without dying of embarrassment along the way.

Through the first three years of school, Aileen and I were separated in different classes, rarely sharing lesson time. But early in the morning, she would be among the first to school for gossip and was ever present at lunch times.

Perhaps the funniest and most frustrating thing about Aileen was her devilish love of the fabled purple snack. Early in the morning, Aileen would cajole other students to go to the shop and purchase a small number of purple snacks for her. Not the pink ones, not the yellow ones- just the purple. She had a group of people essentially lined up to do her bidding and she knew exactly where to find them at 8.30am. From what I remember, nobody ever turned her down.

It was frustrating because Aileen had significant health concerns- we pointed out to her that it probably wasn’t good for her. She didn’t care: her love affair with purple snacks was simply all-consuming.

Needless to say, given her history with a brain tumour, Aileen’s head was a constant risk: accidental whacks to the head simply weren’t an option. To her delight, this meant she couldn’t participate in PE. I think now that Aileen would have been great craic on a sports field, given her sense of humour, but at the time I was busy trying to skive off PE myself and didn’t think about it. I firmly believe her ferocity would have led her to great success in women’s rugby.

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Travellers would thrive if they were given the opportunity

Please note: This article was originally published by the Irish Examiner and can be seen here. 

You don’t need a degree to see there are serious impediments to good education outcomes for Travellers. This is a legacy that must stop, writes Aisling Twomey

WHY don’t Travellers have good education outcomes? Is it because they don’t want to go to school; they don’t want jobs; they don’t want to achieve?


Is it because their parents don’t want them to achieve?

Of course not: All parents want the best possible outcomes for their children and Mary Stokes is a prime example of that.

There are serious impediments to good education outcomes for Travellers.

First and foremost, there has been steadfast, consistent, appalling institutional discrimination levelled against the Traveller community in the education system.

For years, they have been variously segregated, ignored, and educated in an atmosphere of low expectations. The current stories around enrolment policies based on parent and older sibling attendance are just another chapter in the same disappointing story.

Traveller education outcomes have been consistently disappointing. None of this information is new and none of it is surprising.

After the economic crash, Traveller education funding was cut by 86.6%. It meant the end of the visiting and resource teachers for Travellers and the senior Traveller training centres. Mainstreaming was welcomed, but it was widely recognised that Travellers required additional support to participate in mainstream education.

These supports were simply never provided. Austerity hit Traveller children hard, adding new obstacles and undoing past developments.

Many Traveller adults did not attend and complete second-level education. According to the 2011 census, 55% of Travellers failed to complete senior cycle post primary education. The Our Geels: All Ireland Traveller Health Study (AITHS) 2010 found that 38.5% of 30 to 44 year olds and 25.8% of 45 to 64 year olds had primary education only.

Those adults have children who face an automatic disadvantage as a result. No matter how hard those children apply themselves, even if they beg, the excuse of the “parent rule” will limit their access to education.

It’s 2015 and children can’t get into schools because their parents didn’t go. That’s intolerable.

Mary Stokes wanted her son to achieve great things. She sought the best education possible for him and was dogged in her pursuance of that goal. They were turned away at the door — victims of an enrolment policy that localises benefits, rewards privilege, and leaves those most at risk stuck on the margins.

The Supreme Court appeal of Stokes v Clonmel High School was legally complicated, littered with questions about equality law and new facts and, in the end, dismissed. This dismissal has been five years in the making but the story isn’t over.

European courts may beckon. Challenging institutional discrimination has never been quick and easy.

The shame for us is that institutional discrimination has been affecting families like the Stokeses for decades and we haven’t fixed that when the evidence is screaming at us that change is needed.

The dismissal of the Stokeses’ case isn’t the end of the world — it comes at the end of an extremely strategic piece of litigation which we hope will yet influence and change education access policies in Ireland.

It has shone a light on an unsexy topic that rarely hits the front pages. Some of our children are disallowed access to schools because they don’t have relatives who attended: Nonsense.

[Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre] has long supported the introduction of legislation to prevent the implementation of enrolment policies that create barriers for children.

The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013 might not address the inequality of these enrolment policies — but it definitely should. Policies that disproportionately affect children from accessing basic education shouldn’t be the norm.

These policies don’t just affect Travellers.

The same issue presents itself for migrant children, or for those families who relocate to a new area. These policies are unacceptable precisely because they make life harder for the children who need extra support.

These enrolment policies are proof, if you needed it, that Travellers are still subjected to a litany of discriminatory processes that directly inhibit genuine, tangible progress in education outcomes for the community.

In 2011, just 115 Travellers had completed third-level education — 1% of the population. In the settled majority, more than 30% of people attain a third-level degree.

Ironically, you don’t need a degree to see that something has gone badly wrong here.

This is a legacy that has to stop somewhere, and the time to stop it is now. How many more generations of Traveller children will we condemn to poverty, unemployment and social exclusion?

If we want Travellers to have better outcomes, we have to let them into schools without prejudice. Like everyone else, with opportunity they’ll thrive.

Life at all costs: Growing up with Ireland’s abortion policies

It was November 27th, 2014.

By now, the story is well known- or at least, the basic facts are. A woman, in the early stages of pregnancy, was admitted to hospital with headaches and nausea. Two days later, she suffered a fall and was later found to be unresponsive. On December 3rd, she was declared clinically brain dead. She had a loving father and was already a mother to two children, aged 6 and 4, with her fiance, also the father of her unborn child. She was just 26.

What follows is bleak, if not outright harrowing. She was brain dead, but the foetus still had a heartbeat. For a period of weeks after her death, her body was maintained by mechanical ventilation and she was fed by a nasogastric tube. She was given high doses of various medications for pneumonia, fungal infections, high blood pressure, fluid build up and urinary tract problems. Physiotherapy was required. When her children came to see her, efforts were made to improve her devastated appearance: make up was applied, but the whites of her eyes were so swollen than they could not close. One of the children became distressed on seeing her. Her body swelled. An open wound on her head became infected. She no longer resembled the photograph of herself on the bedside table.

The woman’s father was told that this course of treatment would continue, ostensibly for the duration of the pregnancy. The idea was to attain foetal viability- to bring into the world the unborn foetus lying inside its brain dead mother while her corpse degenerated around it at a rapid pace. The doctors felt trapped by a decision made in an Irish referendum in 1983, relating to the right to life of the unborn child. Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution states as follows:

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

Her father asked that life support be discontinued, as did her partner. They felt that the support measures were unlikely to safely bring a child into the world. They felt the treatment was experimental and not based on any ethical principle. Medical staff said they felt constrained because the foetus still had a heartbeat.

How is it that Ireland’s doctors find themselves using a dead woman as an incubator, in the vague, unqualified, unscientific hope that a child may be born eventually of the experiment? How is it that this could be, not just legal, but possibly Constitutionally protected?

To find the answer to the question, we have to go back in time and consider the status of women and the unborn in Ireland- as well as Irish society itself.

Read more at Medium.

Letter to Alan Caulfield, Editor, Metro Herald

September 5th, 2014

Dear Mr Caulfield,

I am writing with regard to an article published in this morning’s Metro Herald regarding the sad details of the emerging events in Charleville, Co Cork over the past 24 hours.

A line in the article reads “A well-informed source said: ‘The place is like a butcher’s parlour, or an abbatoir. Those poor little boys suffered a shocking death.’”

I believe this sentence to be incredibly insensitive. Such graphic detail was not required or requested and in my opinion, does not serve the public interest. I firmly believe that the article was very well placed to draw attention to rising mental health and suicide problems among young people and particularly, among the Traveller community. Instead, the article has sensationalised the tragic end to three lives in a small, close knit community.

This particular sentence was particularly grim and I question the validity of printing it as a result. I draw your attention to Principle 5 of the Press Ombudsman Code of Practice, relating to Privacy. Section 5.3 states that “Sympathy and discretion must be shown at all times in seeking information in situations of personal grief or shock. In publishing such information, the feelings of grieving families should be taken into account. This should not be interpreted as restricting the right to report judicial proceedings.”

I suggest this situation is unlikely to become a matter for the courts, nullifying the exemption in the clause in question. The sentence printed in the article compares the violent deaths of two young boys to a butcher’s practice, presenting an image of animals for slaughter. Frankly, I believe that drawing such an analogy lessens the worth of their lives and would have a horrific impact on family members who may read the article in question.

I also note Article 9 of the Press Ombudsman Code, specifically relating to Children. Section 9.1 reads that “Newspapers and magazines shall take particular care in seeking and presenting information or comment about a child under the age of 16.” By printing the sentence in question, your newspaper has presented gory, brutal and unnecessarily visceral information about the deaths of two children under the age of 10. I remind you that there are surviving relatives, many of them very young, who may in time also read this piece.

I’m not sure of your level of awareness about mental health and suicide in the Traveller community. Currently, the Traveller suicide rate is six times that of the national settled population, and for men specifically, it is seven times higher. Incidences of mental health problems are extremely widespread and members of the community express anxiety and discomfort when talking about mental health concerns. Your article could have drawn attention to suicide support services, mental health awareness for young people, victim support organisations and Traveller support structures, but it did not. Indeed, instead of analysing the blood on the walls, the journalist could have asked why this happened, why 1 in 11 Travellers die by suicide- and how we can work to lower that figure.

This article made victims of those children all over again, rehashing their cruel end in technicolour. The public interest was not served here and I believe an apology is due- not just for this family, but for the sake of the many families who have suffered the aftermath of such a situation and who do not need such brutal reminders.

Note: Mr Caulfield did not respond to this letter. Instead, he published it in heavily edited form on the Herald website, removing all references to the Press Ombudsman Code. My complaint was never acknowledged and the Press Ombudsman refused to consider the issue unless a member of the (traumatised) family in question would sign off on on the process. 

My view from behind the bar at Electric Picnic is truly sobering

This article originally appeared in the print edition of the Irish Independent on September 2nd 2014.

More than 40,000 people descended on Stradbally, Co Laois this past weekend for the Electric Picnic, tents in hand and ready for a three day drinking party. They were willing to forgive the dank mist and grey rolling skies on Friday morning, utterly unbothered by squelching mud paths stretching from campsites to the arena.

I arrived early with a friend, gazing at the sky with a sense of foreboding and preparing myself for the dread of The Portaloo. After the business of tent pitching, we headed to the arena, but while others went to party, we went to work, serving at a bar. Like many staffing the bars we were volunteers, raising money for causes and joining in the festival fun when we had a chance.

Electric Picnic as a sober person is, well, sobering- and the view from the bar offered a sharp slap of perspective.

The pictures in the newspapers don’t tell you the full story, of people coming a cropper on the roots of trees in the dark and children exposed to dangerous, riotous drunkenness, the result of a drink culture that makes people reckless and stupid. The photos look beautiful, but the portaloos covered in excrement and vomit, the men lined up at walls urinating in front of children and the thousands and thousands of empty cups littering the grass all tell a different story. There is a darkness to Electric Picnic.

Throughout the weekend, I mildly refused suggestions of discounts, free pints and kisses (among other things). I got to know some revellers quite well, because they returned to the bar like clockwork every twenty minutes. I watched them stumble across the grass, tripping over their own wellies and spilling the pint they had just paid €6 for. Easy come, easy go.

I didn’t have to make any active effort to sell copious amounts of alcohol- in fact, it was unusual for a person to order merely one pint. The idea of not having a drink in hand at all times seemed inconceivable to most people. A 125ml plastic flute of Prosecco sold for the extortionate price of €7.50 and festival attendees lapped it up. Fifty euro notes rolled in and thousands of gallons of alcohol poured out. Plenty of bar-goers complained at the €6 cost of a pint- but not one person in thousands turned it down. Not one.

We were overworked, slipping in the mix of mud and spilled drinks inside the bar, calculating quick maths in our head as we served one person every five to ten seconds. 90% of people who came to the bar were a total joy, full of cheer and good craic, chatty and polite- but a minority were simply horrible, bullying staff into breaking regulations about bottles, lids and serving requirements.  Several people refused to leave the bar unless they got their own way and one or two offered me ‘extra money’ to break the rules, throwing temper tantrums that belong in primary schools.

It would have been incredibly easy to buy drink for the multitudes of under-agers at the festival, simply because the crowds were so huge and the bars so busy. I worried, in my sobriety, for the thousands of girls walking the grass in the pitch dark wearing very little in the freezing cold. I worried at how fragile they seemed, how easy it would be for just one person to prey on them. I worried for the 18 year old ‘men’, lost and wandering the campsite, completely unaware of the streams and dark ditches on the sides of the paths, stumbling into danger.

I settled in on Sunday evening to see St Vincent, where I laughed with a friend about an extremely drunk man who was dancing to his own party, oblivious of the world around him and almost unable to stand. That didn’t stop him from slapping women’s arses as they walked past- and fearful, they simply moved on without saying anything. He teetered close to a picnic blanket that served as a base for three small children- one still in nappies- who played chasing in the dark of the tent. Mom and Dad were close by, but I winced every time I saw bigger feet come close to trampling them in the grass. Meanwhile, festival-goers holding their children’s hands became irate when bouncers denied them access to the bar.

My bar manager was extremely surprised on Sunday when I turned down her offer of free pints at the end of my shift. She couldn’t understand why, at 6pm on a Sunday, a person wouldn’t want to unwind with a drink.