An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Losing things

Posted in Irish, Local, New York by Frieda on August 6, 2010

The city

You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged here of late. That’s because something very sad happened which I didn’t want to write about, but didn’t want to bypass either. The result was that I didn’t write.

When I feel stressed or tired or upset, I often find that I’m clumsy, more likely to trip, or lose things. True to form, yesterday I lost some prescription spectacles (the purple ones that you can see on the right) when their case fell out of a hole in my bag as I cycled along St. Mark’s toward Franklin Ave. The day was gorgeously hot and I was wearing sunglasses, and though I heard a clatter behind me I just kept going. Later, when I went back peering under cars to look for them, they were gone.

A few months back, an acquaintance told me about a friend of his, an Irish woman called Lydia Prior who was based in LA, but moved home to Belfast when her father died. She’s writing a blog about his death called the Dead Dad Diaries. I’ve glanced at it from time to time, and I’ve found it to be excellent and intriguing, though the title is a bit much for me. Recently Prior posted up a poem by Elizabeth Bishop on the subject of loss. It’s a well-known poem, perhaps almost cliche; still, I’ve found that, more than anything else, poetry articulates these feelings best.

One Art

By Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


Brian Cowen’s summer holiday

Posted in Irish by Frieda on July 16, 2010

Brian Cowen at the Consulate (June 13)

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to meet Ireland’s taoiseach (~ prime minister) at the Consulate in New York. It was Cowen’s first visit this year, and he was variously drumming up business, or showing that he isn’t totally done for, depending on your perspective. At home, Cowen is facing harsh criticism, with an astonishing degree of success — indeed, he faced down a vote of no confidence from within his party just last month.

New York provided an opportunity for the beleaguered taoiseach to relax. Local Irish media reports have been politely positive and his speech at the Consulate on Tuesday was received with applause and even, from a blond lady behind me, a shriek.

The taoiseach spoke without any notes, not even a scrap of paper. This is very difficult to do, unless you’re well-practised or a brilliant orator. Probably as a result of this his language was convoluted and repetitive. He talked of the need ‘to ensure that our investment strategy,which has been so successful, is being allied with a continuation of that strategy.’ Referring to his trip to the New York Stock Exchange the day before, and to his own research into how to promote Ireland as an innovative place, he said, ‘the fruits of that work were coming to fruition yesterday.’

And he made another statement that seemed exceedingly strange but was probably meant to pander to his audience of former emigrants. Ireland is not so much a geographical location, it’s about ‘what’s in your heart.’ We are as determined as ever, Cowen said, to show that this generation is as able as earlier ones to overcome the problems of unemployment.

It didn’t seem to matter to him that emigration is often seen as a dark part of Ireland’s history and that young people’s enforced departure from Ireland now is a renewal of that tragedy. The audience clapped and cheered. Perhaps I hadn’t understood.

Later on I asked Cowen what specifically he planned to do to help young people whom circumstances are forcing to emigrate to the States. ‘It’s an issue I’m working on all the time,’ he said, smiling at me. He added that it’s very political (which immigration certainly is in the US), and said he’d met with immigration lobbyists earlier in the day — I assume this means the Irish Immigration Lobby for Reform. ‘We’re looking for more flexible arrangements.’

The statement seemed vague and I wonder if it’s enough, coming from Ireland’s current leader in the midst of the greatest financial crisis the country has seen. Working on it all the time? It’s better, I suppose, than saying he’s not working on it.

Below is a virtual flip-book of photos from the speech.

Consul Niall Burgess introduces Cowen

This was Burgess' last event in NY

Cowen takes to the podium

New consul Noel Kilkenny listens intently on the right

More of the same

As before

Cowen struck a confident pose

The speech was well received


Cowen greets Marie Burgess

Booked by the cops!

Posted in Irish, Local, New York by Frieda on May 13, 2010

My local station

“Where’s your ID? Are you here legally?” The two police spoke at the same time, loud and threatening, as if that was all they cared about. I was very glad to be a US citizen. And mad at myself for getting caught. “Are you here legally?” Officer Daly repeated. “Oh, come on,” I said, “My dad was American, I’m a citizen. Come on.” He stopped asking.

But I realized how bad it would have been if I’d been illegal, like so many other immigrants in New York. This is when you get caught: a small misdeamour or mistake and you’re on the plane back to Ireland, never to return. That Thursday, I was on my way back from an event at the Irish consulate, where I’d lunched with senior Irish educationalists at a networking event. I was wearing a short black dress, silver pearls and a blazer. I hopped into the 5th Avenue station and used my monthly card. Then I decided to step out again and make a call, to see if a Manhattan friend would like to meet for a drink. She wasn’t in, so I went down to the train again, but this time, as is usual with New York metro cards, my card ($89) wouldn’t work — you need to wait 18 minutes between use.

Feeling a bit rebellious, I snuck under the turnstyle — or “crept under” as my charge card later stated. In fact I’d done it earlier that week rushing to catch a train at my local station, and not gotten caught. Who cares? I thought. I’ve paid for monthly travel.

I was scooting down the platform when my eyes were drawn towards Officer Almodovar. He was smiling at me, and beckoned me to him. At first I smiled too, thinking he’d chastise me and let me go, but as he took my name, address and phone number, writing with incredible slowness, I realized that wasn’t to be. I pleaded, begged, told the officers they’d ruined my day, and finally became stonily silent. The fine was $100.

“But I paid, I have a monthly card!” I argued, several times. “We can’t bend the rules for anyone,” explained Daly with determined logic. He was a narrow-faced fair-skinned short-haired man several years younger than me. “We can’t have different rules for different people.” He pointed out I could have asked the attendant to let me through and this wouldn’t have happened. Not that I’d known that. He started to give me advice on how to get an ID card so I wouldn’t have to show my horrible, out-of-date NYU ID. He was quite nice. Meanwhile middle-aged Almodovar grinned in a way that made my blood boil. Commuters looked at me in surprise as they went by — a nice young woman in a posh part of town, getting booked by the cops.

Last night over drinks, I discussed this with a friend, a German science post-doc. who works at NYU. He told me how he’d been rushing for a train late one evening, and his card was out of money. He sped under the barrier, to find a cop on the other side. “In France, or Germany, there’s always some leeway, you can talk to them,” he said. “But not here. They were really serious and aggressive.” He’d gone through the same emotional cycle as me: friendly surprise, smiles at the cops; attempts to chat and plead; ending up in aggrieved silence.

“It’s $100,” Almodovar said when he’d written down all my details, with faux-reassurance adding, “We’re going to say that you broke the rules but it’s not a criminal act.” I asked if there were alternatives to payment. “You can turn up to a summons, if you want to.”

“Thanks, guys,” I said over my shoulder, as I headed off in a blackened mood. See you in court, I was thinking, already formulating arguments. It felt as if people were still staring; I was trembling, and too embarrassed to look at the yellow slip documenting my crime.

I’ve since mislaid the little yellow sheet, but my hearing’s sometime between 8.30am and 2.30pm on June 4th, in the not-very-glamorous MTA adjudication bureau.

I know I was in the wrong. But my crime was technical, not moral. I’d bought the bloody metrocard after all. I just hope the judge will agree.

For more info. see the MTA rules of conduct.

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A quick “I told you so”

Posted in Irish, Relationships, Religion by Frieda on January 11, 2010
Mrs. Robinson

Mrs. Robinson

Not that you’re disagreeing with me, necessarily.

DUBLIN — I ended my last post with a suggestion to “watch this space” — the particularly Irish space where scandals are brewing this winter holiday. Within four days, a new scandal had broken: the Mrs. Robinson liaison between the 59-year-old wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and a 19-year-old boy.

It’s a complicated, seedy, and frankly fascinating affair and one that has been treated widely enough elsewhere (here, here and here to give a small selection). I will, however, direct you self-promotionally to a whimsical piece I wrote about Iris Robinson’s credentials (or otherwise) as a feminist icon.

I’m watching BBC news right now. The newscaster has pointed out that Peter Robinson’s temporary replacement, Arlene Foster, is the first woman to lead government in Stormont, and the second woman, after Mrs. Thatcher, to hold such high office in the UK. And she’s only 39.

I’m not really arguing that feminism has anything to do with this story, but it’s funny how the tawdry shuffle of power is playing out for women.

I promise my next post will be wholesome.

Atheists in Ireland?

Posted in Irish, Religion by Frieda on January 3, 2010

Blasphemy is now punishable by up to 25,000 euros

DUBLIN — It turns out, Ireland has its atheists, and they are a wily, rambunctious bunch. In the past three days Irish atheists have become embroiled in a tussle with the Irish government, when the Justice Minister Dermot Ahern brought in a law (see article 36) banning blasphemy. The law took effect on January 1 2010, and the activist group Atheist Ireland immediately launched a campaign website, where they published 25 blasphemous quotes in defiance of the law.

You could almost see it as a modern-day, digital version of Martin Luther’s 95 theses (themselves a protest against the corrupt Catholic Church.)

The matter has already had vast coverage (including a short piece by me), and Atheist Ireland’s website crashed several times because of sheer demand. I met Michael Nugent, chairperson of the group and a fascinating character, earlier today when I attended the monthly meeting of the Humanist Association of Ireland, in Buswells Hotel in Dublin. Nugent is articulate and seems immensely knowledgeable on legal matters. In the face of government folly and insult flinging, he seems all the more quick-witted and bright.

In the London Times today the Department of Justice announced — not a little offensively — that Ahern did not “have the luxury of time to deal with some crackpot sitting in an attic somewhere sending around quotes that are intended to be blasphemous.”

According to Nugent, the Department of Justice has let it be known that there is no chance someone could be prosecuted under the blasphemy legislation.

“They’re not taking seriously the act of enacting legislation,” Nugent suggested, when I spoke to him.

If this is true, Ahern’s apparent lack of respect for the judicial system is even more shocking than his decision to enact the law. If he really thinks his amendments are too trivial to land anyone in court, then why on earth did he bring them in? It’s enormously short-sighted too. Once the legislation’s in place, we don’t know how the judges in future generations will interpret it.

Here’s what the law says: “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding 25,000 euro.”

The legislation continues, in a statement I barely understand, but which I think puts artistic freedom in jeopardy and looks back to myopic mid-twentieth century censorship: “It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.”

And it adds some intriguing remarks Nugent says are meant to refer to Scientology:

“In this section “ religion ” does not include an organisation or cult—

(a) the principal object of which is the making of profit, or

(b) that employs oppressive psychological manipulation—

(i) of its followers, or

(ii) for the purpose of gaining new followers.”

It’s getting late in the evening now, but I want to give you just two other snippets before I leave off this subject.

1) Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association next want to delete from Irish legislation the need for the President, and for judges, to swear an oath asking God for help. “So up to a quarter of a million Irish people [ie. the atheists] cannot hold these offices without swearing a lie,” they argue.

2) ) Nugent & friends have set up a Church of Dermotology — worshipping Dermot Ahern — on Facebook. I believe they may take legal action if someone blasphemes it.

Religious debates and scandals in Ireland are a simmering, potent brew right now. Watch this space — more fireworks are sure to come.

Book burning and protests at Dublin midnight mass

Posted in Irish, Religion by Frieda on December 25, 2009
St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Dublin

St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Dublin*

DUBLIN — Outside midnight mass tonight, a man was burning books. At least two copies of the Murphy Report into Child Abuse in Dublin went up in flames. The mass was no ordinary Christmas ceremony, but a tense affair, with hecklers and an Archbishop in full, golden regalia, who seemed humble and eager to please.

Although we’re not practising Catholics, my family has always gone to mass on Christmas eve. This evening my mom and I arrived late to the ceremony at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin (it began at 10pm, not midnight, we belatedly found out), but a sense of suppressed excitement was in the air, and we could instantly tell something odd was going on. I don’t remember gardai being at the service before but this year two or three of them stood at the back of the church. After the Palestrina choir’s gorgeous rendition of “Oh Holy Night,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has been navigating the tortuous waters the Catholic Church now faces in the wake of the Murphy Report, thanked the singers and all those who had helped prepare for the ceremony. Everyone clapped.

Then, he added that he had spoken to auxiliary Bishop Ray Field and Bishop Eamonn Walsh before the mass, and they had offered their resignation to the Pope. The congregation clapped, again (my mother says with less enthusiasm but it was hard to tell). The archbishop looked worn and his cheeks were puffy and red.

“Pray for them,” he asked the congregation. And he added, “pray for me.”

The clergy made their way down the aisle in a long procession, accompanied by Dublin’s mayor Emer Costello and other dignitaries. They rounded the corner to return to the top of the church along a side aisle, but the archbishop and a priest swerved away and went straight outside instead, going down the cathedral steps and onto the road.

I could’t quite see what was going on — whether Martin crossed the street to the man burning the Murphy Reports. Cameras were snapping, people craned their necks to get a glimpse of the drama. Martin and the priest came back up the Pro-Cathedral steps and stood by the doors greeting those who came out.

I went over to speak to the protester. He said he had just completed a seven-day hunger strike outside the Dail. Both he and his brother had been abused, he explained. When his brother was a boy priests who were his teachers had broken his arm in two places and locked him in a shed for two days. The man said the Murphy Report is a cover-up and does not go far enough. He wants the bishops, and Archbishop Martin, to go on trial for concealing facts.

There was something obscene about the whole thing. People came out from the Pro-Cathedral in throngs and while many stared, nobody wanted to talk to the book-burner. One man called over, “the Nazis did that too.”

My mother and I eventually made our way to our car, which was in a desolate and now empty car-park. A drunk, short-haired, spotty guy in his twenties was loitering unsteadily near our car, and he requested money for “looking after” it. When we refused he held my 68-year-old mother’s door open and wouldn’t let her close it. We somehow managed to get quickly into the car and lock the doors, after which he spat a big glob on the window and kicked my mom’s door.

Dublin feels strange at the moment. On the drive home my mother said it’s a terrible time for Irish history, when all the horrors of abuse are coming to light. But even though it is terrible — and this may be why the city feels frightening and unsettled — it surely was worse before, when people couldn’t say anything.

*I got the photo of the Pro-Cathedral from a blog called Clerical Whispers — which itself reports that a woman knocked over the Pope at the Vatican’s Christmas Eve mass.

Poetic New York

Posted in Culture, Irish, New York by Frieda on November 20, 2009

Beautiful images from Bernard O’Donoghue

Tonight I was at a wonderful poetry reading at Glucksman House in Manhattan, by Bernard O’Donoghue, an Irish scholar-poet who teaches in Wadham College, Oxford. A sweet, friendly man, originally from the borders of Cork and Kerry, he introduced each poem with a preamble, which gave a revealing context and background. He’s come up with such wonderful images as this: “like breath on eggs or love pressed too far…”

Every place you live in brings something new to your life, but who would have thought that it would take New York to introduce me to poetry, and Irish poetry at that?

I’ve always “loved” poetry, in a general sense. In school I was a fan of Soundings, a lovely little anthology with poems by the likes of Milton and Shakespeare, and more contemporary figures. I especially loved the Irish section — not only because it introduced me to Yeats, but also because of Austin Clarke’s “The Lost Heifer,” Patrick Kavanagh’s “Canal Bank Walk,” and  Thomas Kinsella’s “Mirror in February.” All through my adult life I remembered these poetic pearls, and would have described myself as a lover of poetry, if you’d asked.

But I was kind of stuck. I rarely read anything new. And although I love Seamus Heaney too, it’s actually his prose I like best, the essays in his “Redress of Poetry” in particular; you can read them as a defense of literature and the arts.

It’s only in New York that I’ve been exposed to poetry, not in books but in performance. A couple of weekends ago, I went to a poetry festival at the Irish Arts Center in New York. The poets who spoke there — Enda Wyley, Joseph Woods, Peter Sirr, Paula Meehan, Harry Clifton and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain — were all Irish, and (obviously) all living people. It was wonderful to hear them read in the small theater with other listeners, and to hear them speak the rhythms of their poems. Paula Meehan’s heavy lilting tones were especially affecting, but all the readings gave the listener an emotional experience of some kind.

It’s ironic for me to find out that this is how I like poetry. I spent years (a decade) studying and analysing the poems of ancient Greece — Homer, Sappho, and stranger names like Archilochus. I encountered them in old editions, in dusty libraries at Oxford where even the air was yellow, but all the Greek poets originally performed their compositions in public places. They accompanied themselves on musical instruments, performed at parties, and sang bawdy lyrics, while audiences laughed along. Poetry was more than public, it was communal, and festive.

Anyhow, back to O’Donoghue. I bought his book. He was signing copies, and chatting away with a kind friendliness, and what seemed like endless patience, so now I have a signed copy of his selected poems. I’ll leave you with my favorite poem so far. In his preface to it, O’Donoghue explained he’d met a wonderful nun in her 70s. She had joined the convent when she was 14, and she told O’Donoghue that that same day, she also saw a car for the first time. The poem’s called “A Nun Takes the Veil” and I’m only going to quote the beautiful first stanza (it’s eight stanzas long, but to quote dislocated sections would spoil it):

“That morning early I ran through briars

To catch the calves that were bound for market.

I stopped the once, to watch the sun

Rising over Doolin across the water.”

Ireland’s Forgotten Maggies

Posted in Irish, Religion by Frieda on October 5, 2009
High Park Laundry, after it was damaged in a fire

High Park Laundry, after it was damaged in a fire

Last week I went to a screening of the Forgotten Maggies at the Cantor film center in NYU. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. It’s a small, independent film made by one Stephen O’Riordan from Cork. He located four women who had been Magdalenes — incarcerated for years in Magdalene Laundries where they worked for nuns, without receiving pay — and got them to talk about their experiences. The interesting thing is the resistance the film encountered in Ireland: O’Riordan had to battle for it to be shown at the Galway Film Festival (where it went on to be a big hit); and only after it was screened in New York did the Irish state broadcaster, RTE, start to show an interest in it, mooting the idea of making it into a series.

The film was shocking. The women spoke of being beaten and abused sadistically by the nuns, though they were little more than children. Shame taints their experiences and some never told their husbands and families what they’d been through. But they’d had done little to deserve their punishment — one was on the street because her mother couldn’t care for her, another didn’t want to go to convent school; sometimes girls were put in Laundries just because they were beautiful, it was for their own protection. Perhaps most horrifyingly, O’Riordan discovered the mass graves of more than one thousand women, who were buried often without name or date, in groups, on convent grounds. They were the women who simply never got out.

The most fascinating aspect of the film, for me, was the Irish government’s continued resistance to acknowledge the Magdalenes. Although the government has investigated child abuse in the so-called industrial schools in Ireland, it says the Laundries were private institutions for which it’s not responsible; this is despite the fact that when girls tried to flee from the Laundries the Gardai would bring them straight back. The state certainly colluded in what happened.

Why won’t the current government, which can’t be blamed for abuses in the past, apologise to the women for their treatment meted out to them by the state? I asked O’Riordan this question in the Q&A session that followed the film. He pointed out that if the state apologises, it’ll have to reimburse the women. The Irish government has already paid out billions to the victims of child abuse, and its coffers are hardly full now.

The Magdalene women were always told by the nuns and other officials that nobody would believe them. This is something the Nazis also told their concentration-camp victims (the situations are utterly different. Still …). The irony is that now, even in our modern society, even with the Celtic Tiger (ok, it’s over. Still …), the government is refusing to give credence to their accounts. That says something terrible about Ireland. On the other hand, O’Riordan’s boyish support of the women and their cause says something altogether different, and better. Here’s hoping his advocacy pays off.

(Note: the photo above is from the image gallery in the website of Justice for Magdalenes)

Bertie at the Sheraton

Posted in Irish, Irish interest by Frieda on September 27, 2009

Bertie_drinkingThe Sheraton hotel is a strangely shabby place to have a meeting of world leaders. It’s in the Times Square area of Manhattan. TS is beloved of tourists, sure, but to locals like myself its disnified glitter is known as “hell.”

But that’s where Bill Clinton chose to hold his Global Initiative meetings this week. The hotel itself is alright (it gets three AAA stars out of a possible five); a red-carpet led up the entrance steps and inside it was whirring with activity (and security).

The talks included a panel on developing the economic future of Northern Ireland, so I decided to go along. NI, UK and Irish ministers were on the panel. Gerry Adams and other political folk were in the audience, which was apparently full of US CEOs and even Hollywood stars like Martin Scorsese. Bill chaired, with the expected degree of charm and politesse — his jokes were genuinely funny.

It was a presentation, rather than a discussion panel, and the speakers spent most of the time pitching NI’s economic potential to the CEOs (I peered over the shoulder of one, who kept checking his blackberry and answering emails).The funniest, edgiest moment was when NI first minister Peter Robinson spoke of “Londonderry” and his deputy Martin McGuinness corrected him, with “Derry.”

Afterwards I lingered in the lobby, waiting to see who would emerge. RTE’s Charlie Bird flew past in a rush, and at the bottom of the escalator I spotted another familiar figure: former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. I had never never seen him in the flesh before. His face was surprisingly florid, his body plump, and his eyes flicked around nervously. This is the man who led Ireland for eleven years and was Minister of Finance before that. He took us straight through the Celtic Tiger years before depositing us on the other side, his own affairs embroiled in scandal; and he gave us Cowen.

He was chatting to a middle-aged American woman and looking ill-at-ease. I thought about going up to shake his hand. But at the same time, I thought about the state of Ireland now, the corruption that went unpunished, and the reams of ugly unoccupied houses that scar the country. I wanted to say hello. I just couldn’t do it.

(Note: The photo above shows Bertie in his local pub in Drumcondra, and is from a 2008 article in the Irish Independent, shortly after the taoiseach resigned.)

Starting up

Posted in Irish, New York by Frieda on September 27, 2009

It’s always hard to come up with an idea for a blog. The problem is there are too many possibilities. What aspect of my life do I want to focus on, which of my interests do I want foreground?

I wanted to write about being Irish in New York, but Irishness always brings with it the risk of cliche. Immediately you think of A Fairytale of New York, of Irish types in Irish pubs downing Guinness wearing plastic shamrock hats. The funny thing is that this type of Irishness does exist in the US — I’ve seen it.

But I want to write about something different and more particular: the life of a modern European girl in the city. I don’t define myself entirely by my nationality; in fact, I’m lucky enough to have a US passport. In terms of religion I’m far from Catholic, really more agnostic, with a half-Lutheran and (yes) half-Catholic upbringing. But still, I’m an alien in New York, and that’s an experience I share with many many Irish people.

So my blog will outline my impressions of America, and specifically of this wonderful city. I’ll talk about culture and politics and whatever else I want. Everything will be filtered through my outsider’s (Irish) view.

Oh, and along the way, I’ll have tips about where to drink and dine, all with a local emphasis you can only get by living here and having time to hang out — for instance, I’m writing this from a vegan cafe in 5th Avenue Brooklyn, surrounded by freelancers and rather surprisingly, businessy types in suits, with Portishead playing in the background (‘Snice — I’d recommend it).

I’m an Irishwoman in New York, but really, I’m an Irish girl in Brooklyn.