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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Dear World, Love Ireland

This piece originally appeared at The Irish Times.

Nobody mentioned the loneliness of leaving and of being left behind’

Dear World, – Three and a half years ago I wrote for The Irish Times as a college student facing a destitute future in a bust economy. I was frightened of what would become of me, scared of the lack of opportunity that faced me beyond the safe walls of university. When it was published I became a target of both love and hate. Some respondents called me entitled and self-righteous; others encouraged me to leave Ireland before Ireland left me in the dust.

Well, I’m still here. I completed a master’s, worked part time for two and a half years and sought an internship I adored. I worked in communications for a politician and took part in a six-month youth journalism project, covering the Irish presidency of the Council of the European Union. In late 2013 I got a job with an NGO in Dublin and finally left Cork, many months after most of my friends.

By the time I left, Cork had become quiet. Toronto, London, Edinburgh, Sydney and China all called, and my friends answered in staggered groups. I noticed it in fewer social events and birthdays; fewer nights out. It felt like all the young people in Cork were there one day and gone the next.

In all of the discussions about emigration, and the brilliant, streaming light of gainful employment elsewhere, nobody mentioned the loneliness of leaving and the loneliness of being left behind.

The rest of the world is hosting hundreds of thousands of Irish people in their mid 20s. The reality of that has yet to properly bite us. Our young people have left to explore the wider world alone. In it they will set up their own lives, create new careers, marry and have children. They will settle, and it won’t be on home soil.

I miss the people I grew up with. I miss my friends. With the dawn of social networking it’s easier to stay in touch, but every few weeks there’s a Facebook update from someone else about to depart these shores. They leave in exultation, delighted to be working and living a life they imagined, reliant on themselves and determined to succeed.

What I’ve learned is that no matter where we fly to, and no matter what we do when we get there, like generations before us we’re more resilient than we look. We’ve been unafraid in our endeavours, leaping off cliffs into the unknown with unbridled hope. We’ve embraced fear. Not a person alive can say we’ve lacked courage.

Rest of the World, please mind my friends. Please keep them safe and happy. I know they had mighty dreams and aspirations. Please help them to achieve those lofty goals. And when the time comes, in two years or in 20, lead them home. – Love, Ireland

The language of the abortion debate has been cruel and unfair – on both sides

Note: This article was originally published at

Tonight’s vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill probably won’t end the public debate about abortion – and the women we all claim to care about deserve better than the unfair language that has been used recently, writes Aisling Twomey.

TODAY, OR RATHER early tomorrow morning, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 will go to a vote in Dáil Éireann following some debate on the 165 proposed amendments to the Bill. This Bill allows for the lawful termination of a pregnancy if there is a risk to the life of the mother. This risk must be real and substantial. A medical practitioner is to carry out the procedure, with the support of two other doctors unless there is an emergency and immediacy is required.

The suicide clause allows for a termination where life is risked by suicidal intent. Three doctors must sign off on such a termination, with an appeal for the pregnant woman to a further three doctors, should she feel the need to appeal the original assessment.

This Bill is as restrictive as possible

At its heart, this Bill is restrictive. It doesn’t afford a woman a choice as to her medical care in the event of her not wanting to carry a child to term. It doesn’t afford a woman any right to choose; to say otherwise is to be misinformed. The facts are before us and Enda Kenny has said it himself: this Bill is as restrictive as it can be.

Abortion has, for the entirety of its existence, been a contentious issue. This is the case all over the world and not just in Ireland. When Savita Halappanavar died in Galway Regional Hospital last year, the entire country rose to discuss the issue once more. For the first time since the now infamous case of Attorney General v X in 1992, as a nation we debated abortion for Ireland.

I am pro-choice

I always called myself pro choice. It is my absolute belief that a woman should be able to make a choice as to her own medical care. It is her body, her life: her decision. Throughout history, we have lambasted regimes that take ownership of autonomy; we have undercut and undermined efforts to liquefy personal rights.

Not only have I considered myself pro choice, I am in the extreme of that bracket. I believe that a termination is a medical procedure and that a person should be able to seek one out should she wish to, regardless of circumstance. I believe that that is absolutely none of my business what another person elects to do with their body.

I am pro-life

I have also always identified as pro life. I firmly believe that life is an absolute miracle. I think that we have fought to protect it, to save it and to celebrate it for thousands of years. I admit openly that were I to become pregnant at this point, it would be an unwelcome development – but I also admit that I would be reluctant to seek a termination. I don’t believe that I am the only person who feels this way.

The fact is that the language we use in discussions about abortion is a crude bastardisation of realities. The reality is that everyone is pro life, because nobody is pro death. Nobody in this debate preaches or celebrates death.

In the same vein, nobody is pro abortion. Abortion is an actual tragedy. Nobody grows up wanting to have an abortion and nobody grows up wanting to give one. I can’t think of a medical professional whom might express delight at such human tragedy. I cannot name a person who has ever claimed to like the notion. If abortion is to exist, it should be safe and legal and very rare.

The language used has been crude, cruel and unfair

The language used by both sides of this debate is crude, cruel and unfair. These brash words are used to define what can’t be defined, to separate people and to put them into camps. The reality is that you can believe and invest in both sides of the argument according to your own belief.

To support abortion laws for Ireland does not make you an ‘abortionist’. It does not make you pro abortion or anti life. It does not make you a murderer.

To reject abortion in all its forms for all reasons does not make you a religious zealot. It does not make you a fascist.

The words we use to define sides of this debate are appalling. Savita Halappanavar and her husband were not abortionists or murderers. They sought to protect what life could be saved, and doubtless would have mourned the loss of their unborn child. Instead, Praveen Halappanavar must mourn both.

Every now and then, I think of the girl involved in the X case. No more than a child when she was brought before the court, defined solely as a suicidal mother to be. We neglect constantly to remember that she was a child, a crime victim and a rape survivor; we talk of her only in terms of her suicidal intention, her court case and her unborn child. She wasn’t a murderer and she wasn’t an abortionist. She was a child.

We owe more to the women we all claim to care for

As activists, our horrible definitions are backed up only by our deviant tactics. Posters with pictures of foetuses on them are incendiary. Defacing a building with excrement is literally filthy and demonstrates a severe lack of respect. Calling regular people on the street murderers is callous and untrue. Showing people photographs of allegedly aborted foetuses is a sick scare tactic and it’s upsetting. Hacking a website is a crime; publishing a full newsletter list is an invasion of privacy. Taking down posters and replacing them with others is laughable. The inflammatory mailouts to constitutents and the attacks on politicians’ homes are all intolerable. Bloody letters sent to the Prime Minister of the State? Absolutely disgraceful.

We have used this debate to incite, to revile, to hate. We have used it to undermine women, to undercut activists and to abuse politicians. In yet another example of language gone awry, the word ‘conscience’ is tossed around a lot on both sides of the debate, but many of the actions of campaigners- on both sides- have been far from conscionable.

Ireland has been a significantly single issue country for the past few months. Not a day goes by without abortion commentary coming from here or there, experts talking in the Dáil, hundreds of articles published, countless letters to the editor overtaking national newspapers. That rush may now be coming to an end but you can be sure that it will crop up again in the future. If it does, our method of campaigning has to change. We surely owe that to ourselves, to each other and to the women we all claim to care for.

Curating @ireland

From May 13th to 17th 2013, I was the curator of the @ireland Twitter account, hosted by WorldIrish.

At the below link, you can see the archive of my tweets during those five days, which focused on social issues like racism, homelessness, prisoners’ rights and immigration. It was also the week of Eurovision, which led to hundreds of sassy tweets on that topic.

@ireland- Aisling Twomey

Your Other Lives- ‘I considered myself a circus artist’- The Irish Times, July 2010

My brother and I, at a young age, frequented the bannisters of our house, sliding down, climbing up, dangling from them- you name it, we chanced it.

Every time, I considered myself a circus artist, clambering higher and higher to provide entertainment to screaming hordes below. I intended to do this for the rest of my valid life.

My career was cut short when I was but five years old. Casually clinging to the highest bannister in the house, some 20 feet above any kind of solid ground (solid ground that was nothing more than stairs, so doubly dangerous), I realised I simply could not hang on any longer.

After that night, my career path changed; I simply was not meant to reach those heights.

Egregiously trusting in the imagination that once made me a circus performer, I followed a different path- I became a writer.

Cork Independent Leaving Certificate Column #8

20 days to go!

NERVES setting in now. That number is the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen, fact.

I was an exam attendant last June, during the Leaving Cert then, and now that we’ve come full circle, l realise something. The boredom I felt last June during that job. I have never felt since. I’ve been run ragged since September. 1 hate being bored, but roll on days of absolute nothing!

It’s a bit worrying at this stage. Like, it’s less than three weeks away now. There’s only so many times you can try to calm yourself down before that just doesn’t work anymore, and you come very close to freaking out, ripping all those books to shreds and starting a fire for them in the backyard, pulling a total Britney on it.

I got there this week. I still have all my hair though. Think about it. I get up at 8am, spend eight hours in school, sometimes I have four extra hours of Maths every week. on top of drama classes, trying to eat and trying to sleep a normal amount…. I’m supposed to get eight hours of sleep a night. I’m lucky to get six. Because on top of studying and trying to get things done, my head screams at me when I go to bed that I should be doing more.

Maybe this is the ‘Breaking Point’ I was thinking about a few weeks back … This stress is actually tantalisingly close to making me throw something at someone. Everything’s winding down now, all courses done, you’d think that if anything, the pressure would lessen. But I have folder upon folder of notes, my brain hates me for doing this to it. I haven’t read a book in almost a year. My shoulders are actually nearly to my ears with tension, and five minutes lost have become a thing of torture.

I hate traffic, I hate walking anywhere, I hate eating and sleeping, because it loses me time. It’s actually not healthy. Five minutes just shouldn’t be so important. Unless, you know, you cross the street at the wrong time or something.

The Leaving Cert is driving me berserk. Well. Almost. The stress relief here every week is soothing. All my anger comes out in print. My keyboard hates me. We’re finished school tomorrow. Officially, at least. Unofficially, classes run to June. But wow! My last day. It will be perfunctory, unvaried, with a distinct lack of anything special. We’ll go to classes. and we’ll go home with a ton of heavy books and exploding heads. Way to have a bad hair day. It will be completely devoid of any celebration. Because what’s to celebrate? 19 days left? I think not.

Gotta go, have to make my lunch for tomorrow. Here’s a celebration; my LAST ever packed lunch!!

Cork Independent Leaving Certificate Column #13

AS YOU read this, I’m finished my Leaving Cert, but as I write it, I have one exam left.

I’ve spent the last two years, three in some cases, trying to get ready for these exams, and in only two weeks, they’re gone and finished. I’ll never have to go over French verbs again, or Philip Larkin quotes. Or the factors affecting rates of reaction.

Never again will I have to differentiate anything, hopefully. and I’ll never have to remember what my cerebrum does or discuss what my hobbies are, as gaeilge. Brilliant. So since you’ve last heard from me, I’ve sat most of the rest of my exams. Maths Two was alright. I messed up my option question, but otherwise there were no problems there really, it was what I had expected to be honest.

Irish paper One was very accessible to everyone, with reading comprehensions on the Blasket Islands and Fairtrade being both topical and surprisingly interesting. The essay topic of the health service was well prepared by everybody- except, typically, yours truly, who wrote about how the media controls us.

Irish paper Two was similarly friendly. The question about staging an TriaiI was a bit weird. but nonetheless I did my best. Very happy with it overall and the listening was really easy, even the usually frustrating Northern accents were no obstacle.

French was a nice exam. Listening was very easy. comprehensions well understood and easy to write about. and the written pieces were carefully selected to coincide with the Lisbon Treaty- the importance of voting was a theme of one of them. Ironic! A piece on the importance of silence in everyday life was a little silly and more than a bit obtuse, but once you kept the head and tried not to get bogged down in the abstract, it ought to have been alright.

History turned out to be a lucky exam. In each section, there was sadly only one question I could answer, but they were questions I was very good at, so I was very happy. The questions on Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam were very easy, but the expectation of writing a 100 mark essay on the contribution of Goebbels or Riefenstahl to Hitler’s Germany, without a question on the man himself,  was a little deluded in my opinion- as one of the most famous people of our time, and without doubt one of the most important, Hitler surely should have been examined. And if not him, why not ask on Mussolini? Neither came up.

Biology was grand. Great experiment questions- you actually simply had to describe two experiments and there were no difficulties as long as you could think back to it. Lots of ecology questions. and the expected questions on genetics were lovely. and digestion and excretion were very accessible too. No problems, even though I was very nervous going into it.

All in all, I’m happy with my exams. With only one left to sit, Accounting. I’m hopeful that everything will work out alright. Imagine, two years, and suddenly it’s over and it’s done. Next week is my final diary. The end of an era!

I started this diary almost eighty days ago, and time has flown out the window. The whole two years went at a mental speed, and I’m looking forward to a Summer of music festivals and trips to London …

Cork Independent Leaving Certificate Column #12

IT FEELS weird to not have a timeline up here anymore… Anyway, what am I complaining for?! It’s brilliant that there’s no more waiting, no more flopping on the couch and napping (though admittedly, some things never change), no more sick feeling in my stomach.

English has long been my favourite subject, so I really didn’t find any problems with English Paper One last Wednesday. It was very accessible, and though some people complained about the essay titles, in truth you could have written about anything. The questions on the reading comprehensions were very user friendly, it was just a case of picking the ones that most suited you. I was expecting something harder for the B questions, but the diary entry was the one I chose eventually, and it was also very doable.

Though English Paper One presented no problems, I really loved English Paper Two. The predicted poets came up, and the style question on Derek Mahon was perfect. The questions on Othello looked hard at first but after a few minutes thought and a very sloppy spider plan (I couldn’t read it later on …), the one I chose was the second, a question on weak judgement.

The Comparative Study on Theme and Issue was fine, a question on key moments relating to theme should have kept everybody happy.

English was one of the subjects I was most nervous about originally, you never quite know what to expect and the chance of messing up is probably quite high because of first day nerves, but it turned out to be very relaxed and not at all difficult.

Straight after English Paper Two on Thursday, I had the dreaded Chemistry and I’m thrilled to say that it actually went, dare I say it, very well. I didn’t find anything challenging about it, it was just a case of avoiding the things I knew nothing about, so I think that really I got quite lucky. But it does have to be said that I ended up with a crick in my neck that didn’t disappear till Saturday, and I was so tired after Thursday that I didn’t do a whole lot for Maths Paper One the following day.

After looking over tipped questions and theorems and formulae for the six questions I intended to tackle on Paper One, I went in quite confident that everything would be okay.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Maths is not a particular gift of mine, so maybe I can’t judge, but I thought the paper was a bit, shall we say, weird. The thing I’ve always liked about Maths is that there are proofs. Normally they’re worth twenty marks in a question, so if you invest a little time, it’s easy marks.

This year there were lots of tipped proofs. De Moivre, Differential Rule, Factor Theorem, Volumes of Revolution … Only on of them came up. I was a bit disappointed, because I knew them so well. There were funny part Cs in Algebra that were worth a lot, and some of the Calculus seemed to go on forever, but after going back over it all and thinking things through again, I managed to finish some parts I had been stuck on, and I think that in the end it went quite well. Not as well as Chemistry, not as well as English, but definitely not as hard as I thought it was when I first saw it.

Though yet again I write this on a Sunday, next week will see some of my last exams taking place. Reaction to the papers has been varied and I’ve heard different stories from all sides, but the only thing I can really say is that this whole process, though not to be underestimated, is not the melodramatic, traumatic experience you hear people talk about every year. I mean really. Have they not heard of tea?

Cork Independent Leaving Certificate Column #11

OKAY, so technically, I haven’t sat any exams yet. You see, I write this column on a Sunday … which means that as I write this there’s really like, 3 days to go, so I can’t tell you how any exams went. Sorry. Next week, I promise!

Anyway, my birthday was fun. It was so nice to just sit down with a group of my friends and talk about the exams. We decided that really, everything is done now. All we have to do is prove it by writing it down on paper. Which is admittedly much easier said than done, but regardless, that’s all there is.

Bit freaked at the moment. It’s a mite too late to learn new things, a mite too early to stop studying and hope for the best, three weeks too early to give up the whole thing and cry.

I am so sick of this entire thing that if the exams were all last October, I would have been at my happiest. I know that in October, with the gift of hindsight, I’ll be cruel and derogatory about the whole thing. I’ll realise that it was all a waste of time and not worth it at all. That’s what everyone keeps saying to me, and I absolutely believe them.

But in the moment, that’s fairly bad advice. There’s no point in getting blase about it. It still has to be done, like the hovering or whatever. So many people have done this before I have. So why does it feel as though I’m the only per. son this is so ridiculously hard on? You know what the worst thing is? High expectations.

Not necessarily from other people, but from myself. I’m a terror for it, a bit obsessive about getting high grades even where I don’t need them. It’s a bad thing to be such a perfectionist.

It’s gotten to a rather burned out phase where the best I can muster is a halfhearted nod at my books and scanning through of notes. Like, what more can I do? I’m being cheap, but the work I did in fifth and sixth year has to pay off somewhere, doesn’t it? My Leaving Cert just can’t depend on these few days alone, right?

It’s amazing how much your confidence crashes in the last few days. I’m full of doubts. I’ve spent 77% of my life so far in schools of some form or another, and this is the last stretch. It shouldn’t be so disgusting and I definitely shouldn’t feel so bad about the whole thing. I shouldn’t be wondering if I’ll get the points even before I’ve sat the exams, there’s no way for me to know. And yes, fine, regardless of how much work any person has done, if it ain’t your day, it ain’t your day, I get that too. It’s fine to write all that down, but if it isn’t my day, I’ll be inconsolable, not wise and accepting and forward thinking.

Which is why this whole thing sucks when you get down to it: I’ve learned smart things, but not how to use them. Get me? I’m thinking too much.