Wednesday, May 30, 2018


In the RTE sitcom Bridget and Eamon, set sometime in the nineteen eighties, Bridget throws a Tupperware party. For anyone who grew up in the 80s, this would have been a familiar reference; for a few years it was briefly a craze for married women to get together in each other’s homes and buy and sell plastic containers for food. It was more than this though; it was really an excuse to socialize and maybe drink wine and gossip, like the forerunner of the book club of the two thousands.

In the sitcom episode, Bridget gets a delivery of what she thinks is Tupperware, but which in fact turns out to be condoms. She and her Tupperware friends are stunned and appalled; after all, condoms were unavailable in Ireland until 1985 and it was in fact illegal to import them. After getting over her initial shock, Bridget soon discovers that the word is out in the locality that she is in possession of some rubber Johnnies, and she soon becomes incredibly popular – everyone wants some and is willing to pay. Bridget is now a condom dealer, supplying the pent-up demand for contraceptives that the infamous 1980s law created.

The episode plays on the absurdity of Irish society in that dark, baggy, big-haired decade; a place where people were still devout but becoming less so, where priests were still seen as special beings; a place where people didn’t talk about sex but did do it, in fumbling, furtive ways, and a place where abortion was unmentionable and undiscussable, an abomination so foul that even thinking about it would send you straight to hell.

The place sounds alien, but in fact it is only thirty years in the past. Thirty years is nothing; less than half a lifetime, maybe one generation long, close enough that the majority of people alive then are still alive now.

In the eighties though, the pious edifice of Catholic Ireland was still largely in place. The Kerry Babies happened in this decade, Ann Lovett died in those ten years, homosexuality was still illegal; society had changed a little but the structures and laws had not significantly altered from the really dark days of the fifties. Ireland was a country struggling and twisting and wriggling, attempting to break out of the box we had built for ourselves.

I remember it. A lot of us do. Above all, I remember the feeling that things were the way they were and that change was not a realistic possibility. That the country was a place where the past ruled and where life was lived within very strict limits. Maybe that was only a personal perspective, but I am sure I am not alone. You were allowed to live in a small number of limited ways, and you had to be happy with that as there was no other choice.

Certain things then opened the dark curtain a little and let a little light through. Music was one thing; I heard the Pixies and then Sonic Youth, and everything changed very subtly. I distinctly remember thinking “wait a second, are people allowed to make this kind of music?” That was my reaction; I questioned how other human beings had got permission to be so radical, so visceral, so honest, so free. I had grown up with so many assumptions that I hadn’t realized I had, so many limits, so much repression. Something inside me was shocked that some people outside our little corner of the world didn’t seem to be constrained by the rules of behaviour that for me seemed inviolable.

Then I travelled, and realized that the best people I met had no religious beliefs. The most generous, open, creative, interesting people I knew had no time for dogma, prayer or “faith”. I was ignorant and naïve, but I wasn’t alone; we were an ignorant, naïve generation who had been brought up to think that we knew the truth and who had in fact been deprived of anything resembling insight or reality. A lot of us went abroad, and realized that we had been lied to for decades.

And the country slowly caught up. Contraception was finally made widely available in 1992 and the next year, after David Norris and others had campaigned for years, homosexuality was decriminalised – bizarre to think that it was this late.

And then we started learning about what our moral betters had really been getting up to all of this time; the laundries, the mother and baby homes, Ivan Payne, Sean Fortune, the industrial schools – the collective horrors of a country that had seen itself as above reproach when really it was guilty of some of the worst crimes imaginable.

This was the game-changer; even at the end of the eighties it was still generally accepted that when the Church claimed that it was in a position to tell us what to do, it was worth listening to. This was mainly because it controlled education and we didn’t really have any other sources of information.

When scandal after scandal, crime after crime was revealed it was like stripping away flowery wallpaper from a room and seeing that the wall was actually infested with vermin, bugs, maggots, filth; all the rotten things imaginable. It is this gap between what our native religion told us it was – and told us that we were – and the hard, poisonous reality underneath that woke up a people that had been zombified by superstition and indoctrination. It is only sad that it took the revelations of so many tragedies to shake us out of our torpor.

And now we have had this recent earthquake. Because that is – along with the 2015 referendum – what it is. In the 1980s, the idea that gay people could get married to each other and that abortion would be available on demand up to 12 weeks in Ireland would have been the stuff of science-fiction. The idea that they would both overwhelmingly be approved by such majorities, so soon after the darkness of our recent past, is beyond comprehension.

You can see this in the reaction of some No campaigners. They report that they don’t recognize the country that they live in. John Waters threatened to leave if the vote was Yes, there has been talk that the people have committed “treason” or have been fooled by George Soros. The No people believe that the nineteen-eighties are still with us, that the forces of control and superstition that they represent still own this country.

And they have been shown to be utterly and completely wrong. Our country is not what most of us thought that it was. The eighties are dead and thank fuck for that. This is not the country that we grew up in. Let us happily bury the Ireland where people had to go to Northern Ireland to buy condoms while women were being locked up for conceiving outside of marriage. Let us bury it and stamp on its grave, for all of the poison that it injected into our day to day lives. Let us celebrate this revolution – this series of quiet, and not so quiet revolutions – for what it is: a chance to wash off the nonsense and hypocrisy of the eighties and face the future with some kind of clear vision.  

Sunday, May 27, 2018


The abortion debate has been long, emotional and fundamentally tedious. There has been a protracted and involved argument – or series of arguments – in newspapers, talk shows, radio programmes, social media, blogs and on lampposts where the same points have been repeated and repeated and repeated until practically everyone engaged in the question could recite them by heart.

A Battle of Words

Fundamentally, the debate has been about language and terminology. It has been a battle of words. Whose words would win, whose words would people believe and accept and start using, and whose words would they make fun of and laugh at. And when it came down to it, it was about two little words, two of the most powerful in the English language; No – the ultimate negation, and Yes – the word of positivity, acceptance and affirmation.

Each side had their own vocabulary that the other side wouldn’t even use or utter. It was like they were speaking two dialects of the same language.

For the No side, the key word was “baby”. The No representatives had obviously been coached on and had practiced the correct, emotive pronunciation of the word, and endeavoured to get it into any and every conversation. Every sentence had to contain at least one “baby” – they said the word “baby” more than Barry White.

The other key words for Retainers were “human being” and “person”; the central, and practically only argument that they had was that the embryo and the foetus is “a baby”, “a person”, “a human being”.

The Yes side, on the other hand, generally avoided the B-word like the plague. They said “foetus” and “embryo”, or else focused on the pregnant woman rather than what (or who) was in her womb.

For the No side, their opponents are “pro-abortion” – or in some more extreme cases, “baby-killers” or “murderers”. They describe themselves as “Pro-Life”.

For the Yes campaign, they themselves are Pro-choice, and the other side are Anti-choice or, being kind, Anti-abortion.

Parallel Conversations

Neither side uses any of the other side’s words or even acknowledges the validity of the descriptions that their opponents use. They have been having parallel conversations that don’t even cover the same ground or use the same vocabulary.

So the vote was always going to come down to a question of whose words would win. If you accepted the use of the words “killing”, “baby”, “murder” and “die”, then the No-side had you. If these words seemed extreme, absolutist, inaccurate, hysterical or preachy then there was a good chance you were turned off the No message.

Babies, Babies, Babies

It is clear that the Irish electorate has rejected the No-side’s words. They did not buy the constant, unceasing repetition of the word “baby” to describe a two-week old embryo, a six week old foetus; entities that are clearly not ‘babies”, as we know them, or in any way full “human beings”, as they made out. 

And they did not accept the utter and complete inflexibility of that word – No. “No” allows for no grey areas, no compromise, no surrender. “No” means No – no to rape victims, no to women carrying unviable pregnancies, no to any woman who is not ready to be a parent. It means no debate, no discussion, no wriggle-room, and fundamentally, no compassion. It represented the old order, where you did what you were told and obeyed the words that your elders and betters said to you, because that was your place.

Basically, the No side lost so badly because they way they used words, and the words that they used, failed to convince people. In fact, the biggest ally of the Yes vote was the No campaign – it was lecturing, whiny, self-righteous, repetitive, preachy and treated people like children. They had one approach, and that was to bang on and on and on about babies, babies, babies. If someone didn’t buy the baby-tactic, then the No campaign had nothing. Absolutely nothing.


On RTE after the result had become clear, there was an indication of the gap in the vocabulary that still exists between the two sides. Noel Whelan, political commentator and Yes voter called the Eighth Amendment “monstrous” – a word of such power and accuracy that expresses what a lot of people were feeling.

Meanwhile, Senator Ronan Mullen continued to say that the Eighth was something “beautiful”. After listening to the stories of women throughout the campaign, and about all of the heartbreak that the Eighth Amendment has caused, he still felt able to use that word to describe it. It is a sign of how deluded and far from reality the No-side has been and of how utterly their words have failed them.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


I was driving back from Ballina to Sligo one evening last year and noticed some of the scenery on the way, which was spectacular in the growing sunlight, as the clouds cleared away. 

Out of the gloom appeared Knocknarea, which is unmistakable with the little pimple on its summit. I had never seen it from so far away before - there were at least thirty kilometres to go before I reached Sligo. 

I have lived near this hill for most of my life, but this view of it was something I had never experienced before. It was so grand there, so solid and sure of itself. A new perspective on a familiar landmark.

HILL     (27/07/17)  
Out of nowhere,
The drive home from Ballina
Becomes a spectacle.

Heavy all day,
The clouds part and scurry off,
The curtains of the sky
Have opened.

Knocknarea appears
And is clearly visible,
Though there are still thirty Ks to go.
The Queen’s hill is a button, a blister,
Sligo’s nipple;
An unmoving nub
On the landscape.
A scab you just want to pick.

I have lived near it most of my life
But have never seen it
From so far away.
It is so grown-up looking;
Up close, it is an adolescent mound,
A childish swell of rock
That is barely a mountain.

But seen from Enniscrone, Easkey,
Dromore West,
It is little but grand,
An ancient dwarf,
Dignified in its insignificance.

A tiny sign that home is approaching.

Monday, May 7, 2018


(For the first blog post in this series, click here.)

So, ensoulment……

Ensoulment means exactly what it sounds like – the process whereby a human being receives his or her soul.

Variations of Ensoulment

Depending on the time period and on the religion, there have been a number of different theories over the centuries about exactly when the soul enters the human body. The current Catholic teaching, which seems to have spread to other branches of Christianity, is that “The rational soul is present from the instant of conception” (

In Islam, the soul is said to enter the foetus after 120 days, after which time it is termed “a person”.  This is usually termed “delayed ensoulment”, as it doesn’t happen at the moment of conception. In Christianity, Saint Thomas Aquinas was also a proponent of delayed ensoulment, saying that it happened after 40 days for boys and 80 days for girls. Aquinas did, however, believe that even before ensoulment, abortion was always wrong as it violated natural law.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Catholic teaching has changed over the centuries though, tweaked by theological discussions and references to the nature of Jesus Christ and to certain passages in the Bible. The theology is quite tortuous and complex, but it seems to rest on the hint in some Bible verses that Jesus’ soul and body  were created at the same time, and because “Jesus is “like us in all respects except for sin,” then this is also true of all human beings, and we get our soul at the moment of conception too.

This dogma seems to have started out as a Catholic tradition, (“Catholic theologians in modern times have generally said that ensoulment happens at conception” - and has since spread to elements of Evangelical Christianity. Whatever the basis for this belief and the background to it, it is now the dominant position for traditionalist Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals, especially in the United States.

Opposition to Abortion

The logic behind opposition to abortion is now clear – a human person is marked by his or her possession of a soul (actually called a “rational soul” by some theologians). Once any entity receives its soul, it is then by definition human. And if the soul enters the embryo at the moment of conception – the very second when sperm and egg fuse – then of course that embryo is a human person just the same as me sitting here typing, the kids next door laughing, the elderly man walking down the street. We all have souls, therefore we are all people.

And if we are people, it is murder to end any of our lives. Therefore abortion is murder as it is the ending of the life of something that has a soul.

All of this is perfectly fine; people have a right to believe what they want, and to change their minds, if they so wish. Most religions believe in some kind of spiritual essence that each human being possesses, but they differ on the nature of this essence, and on when humans receive the spirit.

Lack of Evidence

But what they all have in common is that not one of them offers the slightest scrap of evidence for their beliefs or claims. Christianity tells us not only that human beings have a soul but that this soul enters the embryo at the moment of conception. And apart from appeal to certain Bible passages, there is not one scintilla of evidence or proof for either of these claims.

Never mind when ensoulment occurs, do human beings really have such a thing as a soul in the first place? What does it look like? Where does it reside? Does it change as we get older? What does it contain?

Christians cannot answer these questions, because the whole concept is simply an idea that people hold as an explanation for why humans and animals are different, for why humans are supposedly rational beings and animals are not. But evolutionary science and biology easily explains why we are so different, so much smarter and more capable of thought and language than our animal cousins. The soul is a concept that people are free to believe if they want, but which now explains nothing in the real world, and for which there is no evidence.

And so, is there any evidence for the idea that an embryo is ensouled at the moment of conception? Of course there isn’t. It is a topic of discussion among theologians and an accepted dogma, just as Limbo used to be an accepted dogma, before the Catholic Church jettisoned this idea a few years ago because it was losing converts to Islam.

No Explanation

What we are left with is a whole anti-abortion movement based almost exclusively on a centuries-old Christian dogma for which there is zero evidence. And this is why I haven’t been able to find any justification on No campaign websites for their claim that a two-week old embryo is a fully human person; this is because the only justification lies in an ancient religious dogma that has no basis in reality, and which will not be taken seriously by a twenty-first century populace that has access to other forms of information.

So instead of offering a defence of their position, they simply keep stating over and over and over again that the foetus is a baby, the embryo is a person, is a human being, hoping that no one will notice that all they are doing is repeating themselves and are not offering anything concrete to back up their extremely suspect claims.

I am not sure how many of the actual present-day anti-abortion activists know about or believe in the doctrine of ensoulment. Most of them are motivated by religion in one form or another, and all of the anti-abortion groups in Ireland and the U.S. are connected to religion. I saw a small No march in my home town of Sligo on Saturday; they walked down the main street of the town carrying placards and were led by what looked like a friar in long robes and carrying a large cross. They then made their way to the Presbyterian Church in the town for what looked like a meeting or council.

Basically a Religious Position

There are anti-abortion atheists, but not many. The anti-abortion position is one that seeks to impose a religious doctrine – one that has no basis in fact and which is based on superstition, ignorance and fantasy – on the general population by making laws in line with this dogma. It is theocracy in action; an attempt by the old guard who used to run this country – who were allowed to run this country by the people who should have been doing it – to say that they are the righteous ones, they are our moral betters, that we should do as we are told.

But these are the same people that gave us the Laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes, the nightmare of Sean Fortune and Ivan Payne, the Tuam babies, censorship and all of the other toxic elements that they injected into our society since Independence. They contributed to the death of Ann Lovett, they ruined countless lives with their adherence to nonsense dogma, their intolerance of dissent. They have no credibility.


I am voting Yes. Of course I am voting Yes. There is no other rational choice. The topic of abortion, of when we can call a foetus a human being and of what constitutes “humanness” is an incredibly complex, messy question. It needs to be debated seriously and respectfully, and a lot of factors need to be taken into consideration. 

The anti-abortion side, though, does not want to deal with complexity. They want black-and-white. They do not want to engage in serious debate as they minds are already made up by their dogmatic positions, inherited from centuries and centuries of doctrine based on a fundamental ignorance of the nature of humanity. They want simplicity, they want to be told what to believe and then to believe this absolutely, without any reference to the facts.

I am voting Yes; of course I am voting Yes. There is no other rational choice.


There has been no more divisive, painful, incendiary subject in Ireland in the last forty years than abortion; it is at the nexus of all of our recent nightmares and divisions and topics that make people mad – church power, the rights of women, sex, children, fertility, secularism versus religious domination, bodily autonomy, moral absolutism. Abortion has all of these things and more.

For those outside of Ireland, abortion has been almost completely illegal in this country since the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution was passed in a referendum by a still very Catholic Ireland, back in 1983. The Eighth Amendment gives equal right to life to the “unborn” (is this just an Irish term, or is it used anywhere else?) and the pregnant woman.

There are many places to start a discussion of the topic, but for me there is one that really stands out, and that is the following; the anti-abortion side (Save the eighth, abortionnever, Loveboth, the so-called “pro-life” side) have one, very simple message – embryo/ foetus = person.

That’s it. That is what all of their sloganeering and self-righteousness and browbeating come down to; any entity that results from the fusion of a sperm and an egg is a fully-fledged, completely whole human being, no matter what its size or stage of development, and is deserving of all of the protections that we afford born human beings living independently in the real world.

Embryonic Development

It is useful to look at exactly what an embryo is. For the first couple of weeks of its existence, the human embryo is simply a tiny, round collection of cells. By week three it is beginning to elongate a little and curl itself around into a living form, and by week five there are the beginnings of the development of organs.

By week six or seven there are the beginnings of some parts of the embryo’s brain, though the spinal cord is still not developed and so the central nervous system cannot be said to be up and running quite yet.  As Kate Connors (spokesperson for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists) says "The science shows that based on gestational age, the fetus is not capable of feeling pain until the third trimester,". 

Similarly, Wikipedia has this…. “The hypothesis that human fetuses are capable of perceiving pain in the first trimester is not supported by science; the scientific consensus is that a fetus "is not capable of feeling pain until the third trimester", which "begins at about 27 weeks of pregnancy".

Difficult for Both Sides

Talk of the development of embryos and foetuses (spelled “fetuses” in American English) is uncomfortable for both sides in the abortion debate. For the Yes side, which supports greater access to abortion, the pictures of developing foetuses slowly becoming more baby-like as the weeks pass may be a reminder that this entity growing inside the womb is getting nearer and nearer to being something recogniseably human. These visuals make abortion more unpalatable for some people.

For the anti-abortion side it is also a tricky area. The fact is that an embryo in the early stages of development cannot feel pain, does not have a brain or vital organs, does not have blood or a central nervous system, and really does not have any recogniseable limbs or a head. Does this sound like a human being? How many human beings do any of us know who lack all of these things?

For the groups who oppose all abortion under any circumstances, a two week old embryo, which is not much more than a vague collection of cells with no discernible human shape, is a “person”. It is a person in just the same way as I am, as I sit here typing on my Dell laptop (though an embryo does not have fingers) or the kid next door who is playing on the swing (though an embryo does not have legs or arms to swing) or the elderly man I passed on the street this morning as he made his way into town to buy the paper (though an embryo does not have eyes to read). The embryo, all embryos, are “people”.


I have also used the word “it” to describe an embryo, and this is not to imply any disrespect, it is simply a necessary term because gender does not develop for at least the first two weeks. In fact, recognisable gender markers take about eight weeks to begin to develop, so it is not possible to use a gender pronoun (“he” or “she”) about an embryo until then.

And yet, this entity without a gender is, according to the anti-abortion movement, “a person”.


I have looked at a number of anti-abortion websites to try and find a justification for this belief, and there isn’t a lot there. Or rather, there are a lot of words, but there are very few substantive arguments in favour of using the word “person” to describe a two-week old embryo.

There is talk about “life”, (the anti-abortion activist’s favourite word), that “life” begins at the moment of fertilization, as if this is sufficient. One anti-abortion website defines “life” as “The condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, & continual change preceding death.”

This, they seem to think, is proof of the correctness of their position. We are for Life, who could argue with that? Yet in their definition, they include animals and plants when describing “life”. By this logic, all killing of animals – even for food – is wrong, and anything that results in the destruction of any plant life is also immoral. I may be wrong, but I would bet that most anti-abortion campaigners contentedly eat meat and pull living weeds from their gardens without a second thought.

There is also some talk of DNA. An embryo contains all of the DNA necessary to produce a fully formed human being, so it is, in essence, already a fully-formed human being. From the Pro Life Action website “A human fetus is no less human simply because it is smaller and more delicate. For that matter, neither is an embryo less human, though it looks quite strange to our eyes, even in comparison to a fetus. Still, it is our duty to recognize our common humanity at all stages of development.”

Again, no actual argument to back up the contention that an embryo or a foetus is the same as a fully-formed, born, independently living human being. The generally don’t make arguments; they simply state their beliefs as if they were self-evident, without any need for justification or arguments in favour.

So what is behind this assertion that two-week old embryos – entities with no brain, central nervous system, organs, limbs or gender – and adult human beings are essentially the same, with the same rights and worthy of the same respect. Where does it come from?

Inevitably, the answer is that it comes exclusively from religious dogma, and from nowhere else.

Blog 2 follows with a discussion of the doctrine of ensoulment.

Sunday, May 6, 2018


I had the misfortune recently to have to look for a new car, as my own died a very sudden death. It had been four or five years since I had had to go through this, so it was an eye-opener. 

There is a whole different kind of language used when talking about cars, you almost have to learn a new vocabulary, which you will probably not use at any other time of your life. The people you meet talk about cars all day, every day, so they are already in on the lingo. 

In rural Ireland, there is a tendency to pronounce some words in different ways - the name Walsh, for example, is pronounced "Welsh" in many parts of the Irish countryside, for no really good reason. 

This is also true of the car manufacturer Renault, which many people pronounce phonetically, as if it were an English word. This is to explain a little of the following - very short - poem. 


He called all vehicles “she”
And pronounced Renault
As Ren-alt,
So I was immediately sure
That when it came to cars,
This man knew
Exactly what he was talking about.

Saturday, May 5, 2018


I had been planning to go to the annual Self-Publishing Conference in Leicester for years now, but finally made it last weekend for the first time. It was worth it.

Statue of King Richard, Leicester City Centre

The big thing that I took from the weekend - something I already knew in truth - was that self-publishing is as much about promotion, PR and marketing as it is about writing. 

There were multiple presentations on a marketing strategy, on PR techniques, on social media campaigns, writing a blurb, on book design to attract people's attention. There was a huge focus, not on writing a book, but on how to get people to buy and read the thing.

For many writers, this is an uncomfortable position to be in; if you are someone who is comfortable spending hundreds of hours on your own to be able to complete a book, then putting yourself out there and suddenly becoming a self-publicist - that is not a natural fit. You need to get over your natural reserve and reticence. 

I have had some experience with this, when I promoted my first book, A Year in Lisbon. I did a couple of radio interviews, one or two interviews in local newspapers, and organized a number of events to promote the book. I became more comfortable and confident as the process went on, but I did have to get over a kind of ingrained reluctance to talk about myself. 

More than that, it was meeting other authors that I found inspirational and fascinating. Everyone there had written books or were in the process of writing books, many had already published novels or non-fiction, and everyone was willing to talk about what they were writing. 

There was the writer of historical fantasy that had written a novel set in Poland in the Dark Ages. There was the woman from the Home Counties who had been wanting to publish a book for years and had finally got around to doing it, and was in the process of putting out her unique combination of chick-lit and thriller. There was the woman who I later learned was an MBE, a paralympic gold medalist and a champion archer who was writing children's books as part of her project to promote inclusion in sport. 

There were many others, all with their own projects in their own chosen genres and fields, all with the same goal of trying to get people to actually read what they are writing. It was an atmosphere where writing and publishing were seen as totally everyday things, something that we do as easily and unthinkingly as writing an email or a text. A community of sorts. 

The only slight negative that I would mention is that it turned out that the conference was being run by Matador, which is the self-publishing imprint of the publisher Troubador. This was not entirely obvious before the conference started, but pretty soon it became clear that it was also a kind of marketing opportunity for the Matador company and brand. 

Many of the presenters were Matador employees and their presentations were built around the services that the company offered and what the company could do for potential clients who wanted to self-publish a book. I am not sure if everyone there was so aware of this fact, but we were in many ways paying to have Matador give us a sales pitch. They mostly tried to keep this element subtle, but it was there all of the time. 

That said, I will return, if only for the opportunity to meet other authors.