Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Tale, a Tale...

Vanessa Delaney, Clontarf

A tale, a tale, have I, A tale of contemporary Ireland! I have many tales. But each one gets discarded because the participants are still alive and may not want to be included in my scribbles. Still I cannot resist telling this tale of two tales which is in essence completely true.

I think of a friend’s girlfriend 10 years ago, pregnant. A girl who had been told by her gynaecologist that she would probably never conceive. So when her parents heard their unmarried daughter’s news, they celebrated and said what a great man he was and all sorts of other wonderful things that make a man grow about 5 inches! His parents were distinctly not of like minds with her parents at the time when, over a half bottle of whiskey, I first heard the news of the imminent baby. His parents appeared to be ready to disown anything to do with his girlfriend and their soon to arrive grandchild. He was torn between protecting his girlfriend, now pregnant with their child, and maintaining what had up to then been a very close relationship with his, up until then, warm and loving parents. Now he was being asked to question their values and it felt as if he had to choose whose side he was on. It just didn’t seem right. I told him a story that I held up to myself as an illustration of how best to behave in times when you want to say to your family “to hell with the lot of you”. Or some worse wishes! With the confidence built up by my own personal experience and helped by a large glass of whiskey, I told him a story that promised him that if he ignored his parents’ disgust and visited and telephoned them as normal, all would be well. When the child is born, all will be forgotten and there will be no grandparents more doting.

The story I told him was this:
It was around 1986, we were all at that age when we were falling one by one into settled relationships. Some of us had a few failed relationships under our belts. Some were sticking with the one man and were heading straight for marriage. One friend, Gillian, wasn’t so lucky. There was no more welcoming shoulder to cry on when you had a broken heart or were simply in need of comfort. But despite her warm and bubbly personality, Gillian didn’t have a man of her own. Gillian was born with a large strawberry birthmark on the left hand side of her face and it seemed as if all too many people struggled to see beyond this. Nobody was probably more deserving of a good man than Gillian but they were just not appearing.

Then one night while out with friends, Gillian and Niall found themselves laughing and smiling in unison. They soon shared many laughs. Over the weeks and months that followed, at times we witnessed big dirty laughs and at times we witnessed that warm laugh that you hear when it is not so much that something is funny as that two people are just plain happy together. And so everyone should have been happy, delighted, elated. Especially, Gillian’s family. Their only daughter had found a good man.

But, no, Gillian and Niall are different religions and her family was horrified that she would even consider marrying outside her religion even though the number of eligible males of her religion in Ireland can at best be described as seriously limiting, even if you are a stunning looking drop dead gorgeous model. Her extended family said things about Niall that are best not repeated. Horrible letters were sent from sister-in-laws with all sorts of threats. Gillian’s mother didn’t ring Gillian but still Gillian did ring her mother. Many phone calls ended in tears although her mother would not always have been aware of Gillian’s tears. There were long silences from a mother to Gillian, her only daughter. It went on and on. There was much hurt. There was much confusion. Gillian spoke openly and honestly to Niall about it all. He felt deeply for her and said that much and all as he loved her, he could never ask her to choose. Throughout this time, Gillian never missed a birthday or a family occasion. She sent her brothers, nieces’ and nephews’ birthday presents as usual. She held her head high and rode slowly and painfully through it all.

Gradually her family realised that this guy was there to stay and gradually they were drawn to seeing him as the warm, loving man he is and was. The seeds of bitterness had been planted but when Gillian hadn’t watered them, they had withered and died. I remember the happy wedding as the father of the bride walked proudly down the aisle with his beautiful only daughter.
And so it has come to pass for my whiskey sharing friend and his now wife and now, two children and their doting committed Grandparents.

Our Lady of Dublin

Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Galway

Whenever I go abroad I like to visit churches in order to feed my fascination for religious iconography. In particular, I am always very taken with statues of the Virgin Mary. Something about her melancholic eyes and slender form as she cradles her baby reaches inside me and makes me want to linger and stare.

In Brussels a few years ago I hauled myself off the main drag in search of the church of Saint Catherine. I knew it was home to a statue of the Holy Mother and Child called the Black Madonna. The church stood on a quiet market square and inside we found the carved stone statuette. She was partitioned behind glass in the central nave presumably to save her from her previous fate. In 14th century Belgium this sensuous Black Madonna was tossed into the River Senne by Protestants but somehow landed on a clod of peat and was rescued and given a secure home in Saint Catherine’s church.

We have our own Black Madonna in Ireland, a fact that was brought to my attention by my father. Her domain is the Carmelite Church on Dublin’s Whitefriar Street and she is known as Our Lady of Dublin. This magnificent statue of the Virgin and Child, reputedly carved from German oak, dates from the time of the Reformation. The statue’s wooden body is stained a deep, dark brown as rich colours weren’t allowed in churches during Reformation times. She is placed high in a shrine and her dark body is highlighted by the jewelled crown on her head and the white marble and golden mosaic that surrounds her. Our Lady herself appears subdued but the child Jesus, who is tucked into the folds of her robe, seems to be leaping in her arms. Similar to Belgium’s Black Madonna, Our Lady of Dublin has an interesting past.

Her original home was St. Mary’s Abbey on the north side of the Liffey. During the 16th century when monasteries were destroyed and their treasures stolen or ruined, Mary’s Abbey was used as a stable. The statue of Our Lady of Dublin was taken from the abbey and the length of her wooden back was hollowed out. She was placed face down in an inn-yard and put to use as a trough for feeding pigs. In this way she was almost certainly saved from being destroyed.

In the mid 1800’s the wooden statue with its hollowed back was discovered in a pawnshop on Capel Street by Father John Spratt, the prior of Whitefriar Street. The same man, incidentally, who brought the remains of Saint Valentine to Dublin. Father Spratt transported the unusual statue across the Liffey to his church and gave her a safe home there.
A couple of years ago, when I knew my partner was going to pop the question, I warned him to ‘pick somewhere good’. In the event, we went to Dublin. On a dark December night, just before Christmas, he brought me in a taxi from our posh hotel to Whitefriar Street and, there, under the watchful eyes of Our Lady of Dublin and Saint Valentine, we got engaged. I couldn’t have asked for a more thoughtful spot to seal our love.

When I re-visited the shrine recently and gazed at the virgin statue, basking in the lively atmosphere of the church, I couldn’t help thinking that we have a habit in Ireland of under-selling the riches we possess. After all, treasures are treasures no matter how large or how small they are. We may not have a Notre Dame or a Canterbury, but we are lucky enough to have Whitefriar Street Church and Our Lady of Dublin.


Paul Reidy

He turned to look squarely at me. I thought for a brief moment from the look in his eyes that he was challenging my authority and a wave of embarrassment passed over me. I showed him nothing though – I had long learned how to disguise such emotion from Silas. I felt ashamed nonetheless at the carelessness and throw-away nature of my remark when he was so confused and frightened that day, as they all were.

‘And why do you think we’re leaving, Mister Paul? Do you think we want to cross that border, to be killed, or even worse imprisoned? Where have you been this last while?’
‘I’m sorry, Silas,’ I replied. ‘I was just thinking aloud.’

I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like he shook his head at me. This was so unlike the Silas I had grown to know so well. I hoped he didn’t think too poorly of me after all this time. Not now. I wanted so desperately for us to part on a level of mutual respect, at least professionally if not personally.

He took his usual seat behind his desk in our Camp HQ, and stared at me in silence for some time, not unkindly, but uncomfortably. His face was drawn, lined, and stressed. He was clearly exhausted.
‘Sit down, Mister Paul, please!’ he said at last. ‘I have a parting gift for you.’

Outside the long day was coming to an end. The half light crept quickly over Ngara. Fifteen minutes of twilight was all the time we had left. It was Christmas week and somewhere in the distance were groups of people chatting loudly, perhaps downing the last of their banana beer in some futile effort to dull their senses. And then that solo voice rose above the din, a female one singing Usiku Kimya – Silent Night. It was at once the most beautiful and saddest sound I had ever heard.

‘We’ve worked together for how long now, Mister Paul?’
‘Three months. Well, closer to four.’
‘Ah, yes.’ he said. ‘Four months. Four good months. We worked well together, you and me. We had some good times, yes?’
‘Sure, Silas. Yes.’
‘And you know that tomorrow I am going to die.’
‘Going to die, Silas?’ I said in outrage. ‘That’s ridiculous! Stop thinking that way. You’re not going to die. Just explain to them that you’re innocent; that you had nothing to do with any of it. I’ll write you a reference letter for God’s sake. I’ll tell them.’
My voice had begun to rise and my cheeks were hot. But as I spoke Silas just sat quietly, with a sad smile upon his lips. He knew something I clearly did not.

He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and removed a sealed envelope with my name written neatly upon it.
‘Open it when I’m gone,’ he said. ‘Promise me to wait until then.’
‘You’ll be fine, Silas. Things will work out, you’ll see.’
‘Promise me!’ he urged.
‘Okay, I promise,’ I said. ‘I promise.’
We shook hands as we had done that first day when he had stood at the foot of the steps of the ten-seater plane that had brought me from Mwanza to a machete-cleared strip of runway on the Tanzania-Rwanda border.
‘Mr Paul, I presume,’ he had said. ‘I’m Silas, Camp Manager of Lumasi Refugee Camp. I am here to help.’
I was soon to realise that he was a man of his word.

We waited for three days in the safety of our expatriate compound, nine kilometres from the Rwandan border as the Tanzanian army moved into Lumasi. We had expected to hear much shooting in the distance over our Christmas turkey dinner which had been flown in from Dublin to make us all feel a little less homesick. With half a million or so reluctant refugees on the move again, the silence was eerie.

By St Stephen’s Day, the job was successfully completed. I remember that it was a particularly beautiful morning, the sun still low enough in the sky to throw shadows of the few remaining trees on the red clay. There were twenty or so of us, volunteers from the remaining organisations, a search party, standing in a line to sweep the camp, sector by sector, checking every individual mud hut to see if any vulnerable persons had been left behind in the furore of the sudden exodus. Who needed the old and infirm to slow them down under such circumstances? No one knew what lay across the border.
Some of my expatriate colleagues that day had reported standing at the roadside on Christmas Eve, watching them move down the surrounding hills like colonies of ants. It was true that there was hardly a sound to be heard but the heavy tramping of feet. Sacks of their belongings were held above their heads with smiling children skipping and waving to their munzugu (or white man) spectators. As they spoke, I could think of little else but Silas and his young family, praying they had made it home alive.

We began to scour the huts in groups along designated routes, one by one. It had not occurred to me before how little I had truly known of this camp that I had managed for so long now it seemed. It looked different. Some of the huts were hidden away behind bigger ones. Some were so large they had a number of rooms and an internal pit-latrine or two. In the market square – an open clearing close to one of the Food Distribution Centres – were barber and tailor shops, restaurants and bars. It was a small functioning city like any other, and all abandoned in a matter of days. It painted a lonely picture.

Then near Buffalo Crossing – an intersection that saw a poor, confused buffalo approach one day, unprepared for the hungry excited chase that ensued and the animal’s ultimate capture and clubbing to death, some time before my arrival – I found Silas’s hut. I had only been there once before, but I recognised it instantly. It was what I had come to find.
I entered, having to bend low so as not to strike my head off the low frame. At first it was like any other inside – humid, bare but for some straw mats, with a leftover tin cup or two. But when my eyes adjusted to the scene, I noticed that there in the corner of the room were flimsy Christmas decorations made from bits of discarded cardboard and paper from the boxes and tins that we had so often distributed to the camp population. He had been taking them home with him habitually after work, something I had noticed but never bothered to question him about. Now, as I stood in the house that he had occupied for two and a half years, a house where his wife had given birth to twins, I saw him working late at night in the dark, in the painful build-up to Christmas, to bring some sense of normality, some sense of hope perhaps, to the madness of his situation.

I instantly remembered the promise I had made him, and removing the envelope from my pocket, I tore it open there and then. It was a photograph, taken shortly after my arrival to Lumasi, of Silas and me, lifting a sack of maize on to the back of a truck. We were laughing for some reason – I can’t recall why. On the back he had written the following message:
To my very good friend, Mister Paul –
Joyeux Noël and a Merry Christmas.
May God bless you and your family always.
Ngara 1996.

I read it a number of times and cried unashamedly. Never before in my life had I felt so far away from home.

Micheal & Eileen

Andrew Shiels, Cork

When we lived on the west coast of Ireland, we used to buy milk from a small farm. Fresh from the udder, collected in an old enamel pitcher, it tasted wonderful. None of today’s homogenized, chill-sterilized, safe-to-drinkalized stuff. This was whole milk from an old fashioned cow, drawn in the traditional way and much the better for it.
Our house had a couple of acres of grass and Michael the farmer would come over with his scythe in June to cut the long sward for hay. He would work for hours, swishing the blade back and forth. From time to time the scrape of sharpening stone on metal would punctuate the sea breeze quiet. As the day warmed, the fragrant perfume of fallen grass intensified, while drying leaf and stem shrank back. Michael would toil on, carefully economic in his work, the rhythmic elegance of his scythe’s movement would have been the envy of many a golfer.
He was one of the most contented people I had ever encountered. Although bent over old and with knuckles swollen and arthritic, his face always smiled. I could hardly understand a word that he said, let alone a sentence in his broad country dialect, but we seemed to get along just fine. When he stopped for a break, he would sit alone at the edge of the field, drinking cold tea from a bottle. I often invited him over to the house, to sit in the cool shade and eat his lunch, but he never came.
Once all the hay was cut, Michael would call over almost every day to check the crop. Rain was the biggest enemy, but I never remember the hay being spoiled. He would walk along through the drying grass with a two-pronged pitch-fork, tossing the fallen stems in the breeze to hasten their drying. Depending on the weather, this could go on for anything up to a week, before he arrived with his donkey cart to transport the crop home. I liked the idea that the cows giving us milk would feed on hay from our fields.
Sometimes I would go fishing in the afternoon. Down on the rocks I could sit for hours, watching the sea gently rise and fall, catching an occasional fish and relaxing in the solitude. The fish could be quite big, but tasted awful and only our neighbour’s cat would eat them. One day when I reached the top of the cliff path, Michael was there and called to me. I showed him the fish and his face shone brighter than usual. Apparently he shared that cats’ taste and from then forward I would always give my catch to him.
Eileen’s tastes in food were unknown to me, but from the look of the cooking apparatus in their small house, the menu must have been limited. Suspended from a blackened chain, over an ever-embered peat fire in the open hearth, hung a large cauldron. I never saw anything being cooked in it, but always assumed that this was their cooking pot. Although I knew nothing of Eileen’s cooking style, I soon learned of her passion for drink. Michael didn’t touch spirits, but there was always a bottle of whiskey open in the kitchen.
One memorable day my father came with me to collect the milk. Eileen hadn’t seen him for some time and this appeared to her a great opportunity for celebration. She offered us a “drop” which we were too polite to refuse, even if it was only 10 in the morning. She placed a large empty glass on the table before each of us and then half filled both with the spirit, giving herself the same measure. My father and I had enough whiskey to drink her health a thousand times and the fiery liquid burned my throat. When Michael came in with the milk we made a quick exit before the glasses could be refreshed.
Sometime later we sold our house on the west coast and moved inland, losing touch with Michael and Eileen, and resorting to supermarket milk. Several years later I heard that in the end, it was her drinking that did for poor old Michael. I had always assumed that the land belonged to him, but it had been her family’s farm. When milk prices dropped, whiskey prices didn’t follow and their farm income no longer supported Eileen’s craving. So she took off into town on the weekly bus, put the farm on the market and had the place sold within a year.
Michael was devastated. Farming in his simple, yet effective way was all he had ever known and she had taken everything from him. They found him hanging in the cow shed, no suicide note, he had never learned to write. I drove out that way a couple of years ago. The house was almost gone, walls were crumbling and roof timbers were rotting, exposed to the Atlantic gales. I don’t think I will travel that road again.

A Pint and a Haircut

James Smith, Cavan

After 50 years in the pub business my father recently retired, in those 50 years he has a collection of stories that you wouldn’t believe and are a reflection of Irish life from 1959 to 2009.

My father was the type of publican who valued every one of his customers and the craic that each one brought to the pub. He would rather lose money on drinks than lose a customer. As long as the customer wasn’t insulting, fighting or generally being a nuisance they were always welcomed.

It was one of these customers who in the 70’s realised that farmers bringing milk to the local creamery didn’t have time for a drink AND a haircut and decided to set up a barber shop in the toilets of the pub. He would come in every Friday, have a few whiskeys and a couple of Guinness and then take one of the bar stools into the toilets and each farmer would wait patiently at the bar for their haircut. For the first couple of weeks my father didn’t realise what was going on and when he finally caught on to what was happening, he decided that as long as the “barber” wasn’t too drunk when cutting the hair and didn’t clip the top of someone’s ear off then it why not let it go. This went on for about 6 months and it became such a part of the pub life that no one thought it was strange. That is until an off-duty member of the Garda Special Branch from Adare felt nature calling. He went into the toilet and encountered a slightly inebriated barber cutting the hair of an even more slightly inebriated customer, all 3 nodded at each other and went about their business. After that day the Garda became a regular of the pub until the day my father closed the doors for good. His reckoning was that in all the pubs in Ireland that he had visited, he had never encountered a sight like this. This was a pub that virtually anything could happen in and he wanted to be there if it did.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


We Irish all have at least one good true story to tell - whether it be funny, sad, poignant, surprising...

Share your true Irish stories with me and help raise money for a very worthy cause - Concern's Haiti Appeal. Just email me your stories at For more information see here.

Thursday, February 18th

Just discovered 4-5 stories in my Spam folder - it was like finding a tenner in a jacket you haven't worn in ages. Thanks very much for the stories and please keep them coming in.

100 Stories for Haiti
Here's a plug for a very worthy charity project for Haiti. Greg McQueen has run a similar campaign to ours to get 100 fictional short stories. The book is going to be published in a couple of weeks so while your waiting for all the True Irish Stories to be compiled why not order a copy of Greg's book. Click here for more details.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Progress Update

We Irish all have at least one good true story to tell - whether it be funny, sad, poignant, surprising...

Share your true Irish stories with me and help raise money for a very worthy cause - Concern's Haiti Appeal. Just email me your stories at For more information see here.

Valentine's Day Update
Got some more good stories this weekend - please keep the stories coming and keep passing the word on - we really need to get as many stories as possible!
If you can, please download and print the pdf poster from here (click the download button in the middle of the page).
To make it easier to remember, I've now registered so as to make the website easier to remember.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Some frequently asked questions

We Irish all have at least one good true story to tell - whether it be funny, sad, poignant, surprising...

Share your true Irish stories with me and help raise money for a very worthy cause - Concern's Haiti Appeal. Just email me your stories at For more information see here.

Since I launched the project last week I've been getting a number of questions so I though I'd try and put the most frequently asked one down...

How long should my story be?
Ideally the stories should be no more than 2 A4 pages - don't ask me how many words that is - I haven't a clue. But if you have a story that takes a bit longer to tell than that don't worry, send it on in.

Does my story have to be set in Ireland
No - All I ask is that it has some sort of connection to Ireland - it can be by someone Irish or of Irish descent, about someone Irish, mention something Irish - basically it needs to be as Irish as a Jack Charlton soccer team!

What can my story be about?
Your story can be about anything at all. I'm reluctant to even give some general headings. As long as it's a story that you feel is worth telling, please send it in.

Can I make it up?
Ehhh....No. The story should be true even though it may read like a fictional story. But given that this is True Irish Stories, I'd be disappointed if a little license wasn't taken!

Do I have to give you my name?
You'll need to give me your name but if you'd prefer that the story is published under another name, that's fine. Also, if the names in your story need to be changed to protect the innocent (or even the guilty) that's fine.

Will any of the stories be published online before they're published in a book?
I'm not sure yet! But rest assured that I won't publish anybody's story online without first letting them know.

If you have any other questions you'd like answered, just drop me a line :

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Up and Running

We Irish all have at least one good true story to tell - whether it be funny, sad, poignant, surprising...

Share your true Irish stories with me and help raise money for a very worthy cause - Concern's Haiti Appeal. Just email me your stories at For more information see here.

Very encouraging first 2 days. We've already received our first few stories (and they're good ones) and lots of promises of ones to come.

Please keep them coming and keep telling your friends!

Remember - it's as simple as this...

Just take a little time to type your story and email it to me ( along with your name and where you're from. It must be true, it must be short (one to two A4 pages) and it must relate to Ireland or something Irish in some way (however tenuous - we've never been too fussy!).

BTW - I've created a facebook group called 'True Irish Stories for Haiti' - all are welcome to join!