Wretched Strangers: Available to Pre-Order Now!

Today marks the 2nd anniversary of Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union. I remember the day of the vote and the morning after when the shock result came through. I was living in Prague but was preparing to move home for the summer before moving once more to Norway. It was this very freedom of movement which a thin majority of the British people voted against, although most treated the vote to leave to the EU as a referendum not on membership of the EU and it’s institutions but rather as a referendum on immigration.

In the two years since then, Brexit and how it will function – what it means for those EU and EEA citizens living in the UK is still unclear. Likewise, the reality of sharing a border with Ireland – almost never discussed during the run up to the vote – now looms large in shaping what kind of Brexit can take effect. One of the few things that was clear in the immediate aftermath of Brexit was that many in Britain saw the vote as a chance to exercise openly a more aggressive and violent attitude towards immigrants and people of colour in the UK.

Wretched Strangers, a new book of poetry edited by JT Welsch and Agi Lehoczky, is a response to that, two years after Brexit. I am very proud to be one among many of the contributors to the book, which is available to pre-order now for just £12. ALL proceeds from the book go towards charities that help promote the rights of refugees. If you believe in a better world than the one Brexit signifies, read this book!

Story of Waterford’s first Jewish wedding in 1894 to feature alongside Representations of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition

I am delighted to say some of my research on the history of Waterford’s Jewish community will feature as part of an exhibition at Waterford Institute of Technology’s Library for the month of February. Below are full details of the exhibit:

Ulster University and the National University of Ireland Galway are pleased to announce a partnership with Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) which will see the Representations of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition being brought to Waterford. Representations of Jews in Irish Literature will be launched by poet Simon Lewis, who has recently published a collection of poetry Jewtown. Lewis was the winner of the Hennessy Emerging Poetry Prize and runner-up in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award in 2015. The exhibition will be hosted by WIT for the month of February and will feature a complimentary display of materials relating to Jewish culture and identity including an exploration of the lives of Miss Fanny Diamond and Mr Jacob Lappin, the first Jewish couple married in Waterford on 14 November, 1894.

The exhibition is the first major output of a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council which charts the representations of Jewish identity, culture and life in Ireland from medieval through to modern times. It examines the portrayal of Jews in the literary record alongside the contribution of Irish-Jewish writers to Irish literature and celebrates this unique hyphenated identity.

A Jewish wedding takes place at the Waterford Courthouse in 1901. Source: wikicommons.

Mr Kieran Cronin, Developmental Librarian, WIT, welcomed the collaboration: “WIT is delighted to be partnering with Ulster University and the National University of Ireland Galway to bring this illuminating and pioneering exhibition to the south east of Ireland. We share the curator’s vision that the exhibition works best when accompanied by primary local artefacts which shed light on Ireland’s Jewish history, which has largely been overlooked.”

“The WIT Libraries’ research into Waterford’s Jewish history has also opened up an exciting collaboration with San Francisco-based Valerie Lapin Ganley, producer of the documentary ‘Shalom Ireland’; to narrate the fascinating story of her great-grandparents’ wedding in Waterford in 1894.” This will include artefacts relating to the couple in display cases including copies of the wedding invitation and marriage certificate amongst other documents that can be found. Having a very successful debut in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin on 30 June 2016, the travelling Representations of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition toured a number of key venues during the year including Armagh Public Library, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Coleraine Town Hall and the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Principal Investigator for the project, Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh, Registrar and Deputy President of NUI Galway, commented: “The exhibition is testament to the fact that Irish literature reveals a cultural diversity that goes far beyond narrow stereotypes, and I would encourage everyone to come here and see for themselves what such diversity has meant in Irish literature.”

Director for the Centre of Irish and Scottish Studies at Ulster University and Project Team member, Dr Frank Ferguson also said: “This is a very significant project for Irish literary studies and one which shall make a major contribution to our understanding of the history and the cultural expression of Jews in Ireland. It is marvellous to see the interest that the project has already gained since its first official launch last summer and we are very pleased to be partnering with Waterford Institute of Technology to allow the exhibition to travel to the South-East.” The launch is due to take place at Waterford Institute of Technology on Wednesday, 1 February 2017.

The exhibition and launch are free to attend but booking is required. Those seeking further details and to attend the exhibition in February and its launch on 1 February should contact Peggy McHale by email or by telephone at: +353 51 302877 and email: pmchale@wit.ie.

Representations of Jews in Irish Literature Exhibition – Waterford Institute of Technology will run for the month of February and will be launched on Wednesday, 1 February, 2017 at 6pm.

Reading History: Preventing the Future by Tom Garvin


As this year’s budget is released in Ireland, I think it is timely to reconsider this book by Tom Garvin.

Garvin, a professor of political science at UCD for most of his professional career, wrote the book in 2004 at a time when – they tell us – we were all partying. Or at least, that’s what they would tell us once the hangover set in late 2008. I read this book while studying at UCC, and so far as I can recall, I didn’t read it until post-crash, sometime in late 2008, early 2009, in the final year of my degree.

The book, I recall, had an extraordinary impact on me at the time. Despite being written at the height of the boom, one reviewer notes that although “there is some discussion of later periods, this is not the place to look for an explanation of the “Celtic Tiger” era.” True enough, but that it was written in that era is not insignificant for how Garvin looked at the 40s and 50s, the period which receives the most sustained attention.

In essence, the argument of the book – and one which at base  I continue to think is nearly impossible to refute in most ways – is that the combined emergence of a new political elite from the revolutionary generation of the 1920s who were largely quite socially, economically and intellectually conservative combined with the rising power of the Catholic Church actively attempt to prevent the modernisation, and indeed secularistation of society in Ireland which was the hallmark of the postwar consensus across much of western and northern Europe. They were intent, as the books title suggests, to prevent the future.

And in some ways we live still with the success of their attempts to prevent the future, whether that be the future represented by the emergence of social democracy or something else entirely.

As the complainers on social media about a €5 increase to social welfare – miniscule in itself when we consider the same government just weeks ago sought to actively refuse €13 billion euro of owed taxes from Apple – indicate, Irish society sees social welfare safety nets not in terms of a collective responsibility to care for the vulnerable in our society. Emigration has rocked Ireland in the past eight years as it did during the period Garvin examines in Preventing the Future. Our homelessness crisis continues and looks set to continue as rent increases in our major cities show no sign of abating. The resistance to repeal the 8th amendment and finally provide women living in Ireland with the right to choose how to live their lives without fear of criminalisation and stigma remains. The idea that some are deserving of our sympathy and charity and others not persists. Ireland has yet to move beyond this.

Whatever future might have been imagined for Ireland once, it is hard not to feel that any number of these futures have been prevented. In many cases, this has been a mixture of the active insistence of Irish elites that the country works just fine as it is, and the passivity of the population in general not to change its own habits in terms of voting. This has meant the continued acceptance that our elected representatives have more often than not completely failed us as a people in making the choices that will actively make Ireland a fairer, more equal society. That is “just how it is”.

It is further evident from the mean-spirited attitude of those who see the €5 increase as a sign that life on the dole is better than working that many members of the Irish population, rather than reflecting on the experience of the past eight years that has seen services slashed, emigration rise and homelessness reach unprecedented levels, they have swallowed the rhetoric that pits us against one another. The deflection away from the staid thinking of economic policy in Ireland, away from the continued failure to account for the fact the current generation of under 30s have inherited a social and economic mess largely not of their making but for which they have paid the heaviest price, suits those who continue to espouse the orthodoxies of the market as king. In other words, as they did in the 1940s and 1950s, those with power in Ireland continue to prevent the futures of many as those many had imagined it. The longer we continue to accept that that’s “just how it is”, then eventually we will be culpable for preventing our own futures.

At the baggage claim

I came to Norway four weeks ago, so it seems a timely moment to reflect on my experiences so far. One of the big issues that most people struggle with when arriving in a new place is the shock of adjusting to a new culture and a new way of doing things. It can be hard anywhere, but if some are to believed it is especially difficult in Norway.  No story perhaps captures the experience of moving to a new country like my very first experience here.

I landed in Oslo’s Gardermoen airport and had my first experience of Norwegian rule following while waiting at the baggage claim.  At the belt to collect our bags, I was eagerly eyeing the conveyor belt as it passed. I had just landed in a new country, and my girlfriend was waiting on the other side of the exit for me. It had been a few weeks since we had seen one another and now I was finally here. I was scanning the bags as they spun slowly past, getting ever more anxious for the bags from Dublin to be visible on the belt. I recognised around me many of the people who had been on the same flight. It was taking an inordinately long time for our bags to appear. Some were checking the oversized luggage belts and elsewhere, vainly hoping that the long wait was the cause of misdirection to the wrong bag belt rather than the loss of bags.

Eventually the bags started churning through, though not mine. With each revolution of the belt, I crept closer and closer to the conveyor belt, anxious and locked into position to snatch my bag up as soon as it was in my eye line. That’s when I got a tap on my shoulder. A tall, thin man in his 50s, pointed out that I had crossed the red line which, I now noticed, was painted all the way around the bag belt. It was about a foot out from the belt itself and was clearly meant to keep order and allow the maximum number of people access to the belt as bags were collected.

He pointed this out to me upon which I mustered a tired “I’m very sorry” and wanted to explain what a long day I’d had, that I had just moved country, and that my entire life was laying itself out in front of me, unknown, but surely full of such awkward encounters as these as I adjusted to my new home, and  the culture in which I found myself. “It’s ok”, he said, “it’s the system, and if the system is to work, we all have to follow it.” You can’t say fairer than that really. Any such things like queues or barriers physical or imagined, only work if we all accept the implicit rule and fairness that underlies them.

I apologised, stepped back to the correct side of the red bag belt line and that’s when I noticed something that this man, taller than me by a good foot, could hardly have failed to notice: I was not the only one in breach of the red line rule. In fact, more than half the people standing around, were on the wrong side of the red line. Everyone of course, in an airport, is anxious to leave. Either to get on a plane or get off. Waiting for your bags at an airport means you’ve arrived, but not quite. Baggage claim is the ultimate limbo. Get your bags quickly and your holiday, your new life, can start as quickly as you like. The longer the wait the greater the dread of the bags being lost, and if that happens, it will colour everything else to come.

While his point about the rules needing to be followed if everything was to run smoothly and efficiently was perfectly fair and correct,  the man’s problem with me in regard to the red line, however, was not that I had broken the rule. It was that I was the only one doing it in his immediate vicinity. His point about the system working for all was absolutely right but he was really annoyed at the fact that I was standing directly in front of him. To our immediate left and right there were people doing exactly the same as me.  Pointing my error out was, nonetheless, a quick crash course in the way Norwegians respect the rules of how things are done, and was as good an introduction to the country as I could have asked for. I’ve had a few moments of minor cultural breakdown since, but of all of them, this is the one after four weeks that has stuck in my mind. You never forget your first, whatever it might be!

The Desirability of Emigration

In today’s Irish Times, as part of their ongoing Generation Emigration section, they noted that despite many improvements in Ireland’s economy “emigration is still a desirable option among Irish people, with 31,800 moving abroad in the period”. The article goes on to point out that just one in 10 emigrants was unemployed before leaving. As such, it is suggested that “they may be departing for the experience of living abroad, or because they are unhappy with their current job situation in Ireland.” But what does all this really mean?

First I want to address the fact that only one in ten people who emigrated in the period were unemployed. Emigration isn’t cheap today and it wasn’t in the past either. While in the past people boarded steamers in a variety of classes, the cost was not cheap and while we may have lots of cheap flights to lots of destinations, until you try to put your life into a 20kg bag and move to another country, you won’t realise how hard it is to do and how costly it can be. In addition to the cost of getting there, setting up in a new country is expensive. If you are going to go without work already secured, you need to have some savings behind you. Even if you go with a job contract in your back pocket, you’ll have to find an apartment to rent, take time out from your job to register with the local police, probably buy a local phone, whether pay as you go or bill. None of this stuff is cheap. It’s also terrifying, interacting with a new culture, possibly a new language, knowing few if any people, and trying to navigate the culture shock.

Emigrating is not going on an extended J1 visa. It’s real life. And it can be absolutely dread inducing. Absolutely yes, the experience gained living abroad is invaluable and the more people who get to do it,the better. You have to learn to embrace  your new situation but that takes time. It can be exhausting putting yourself out there and meeting new people, people you can’t be sure if they’ll be passing acquaintances or lifelong friends. Being an emigrant – even an educated, adaptable and positive one – can be hard.

For many going away, coming home isn’t the end goal, may not in fact be desirable. It’s easier now to come home than it used to be, but as the Generation Emigration series has shown in many of the individual stories that have been told, often those who stay away for a few years find it harder and harder to envision actually coming back. Because then you are dealing with reverse culture shock.

Now, to turn to dissatisfaction with a person’s job situation in Ireland. I know plenty of people with good, fulfilling jobs in Ireland. But I know plenty of people whose jobs don’t even pay well, nevermind offer any kind of satisfaction. And even if they do pay okay, how are they meant to keep up with the kind of rent increases we are seeing, where in Cork it has risen by 18%. Dublin , as we all know, is a nightmare. This is the net effect of too much concentration of new business only in those cities. Many other places are lagging far behind in terms of recovery. We can’t and shouldn’t all have to live in Cork or Dublin.

No one is likely to forget the cynical appropriation last Christmas by the then-Government in Ireland of the #hometovote hashtag related to the Marriage Equality referendum. They turned in to #hometowork but as we know, there aren’t jobs for the hundreds and thousands to come home to. The return of that many en masse would constitute a crisis for the country. The new Minister for the Diaspora admitted himself that some qualified graduates were more equal than others, after all. In an article back in June, the Irish Times noted:

Identifying opportunities in the science and engineering sectors, Mr McHugh said that while Ireland required people with these skills, it would be wrong to suggest there were jobs for all emigrants. That situation may change as the economy recovers and services are developed, but it is likely to be a slow process.

To give some credit to today’s Irish Times article they do quote Marie-Claire McAleer who works as head researcher for the National Youth Council of Ireland. McAleer says  that “young people would continue to leave in high numbers if issues such as high living costs and insecure working conditions are not addressed.”

Most people I know can’t afford the deposit on a house to get  a mortgage, and things like car insurance is still insanely overpriced for the young in Ireland. We are, in almost all the markers of progress through adult life, priced out. Wages in Ireland do not reflect the cost of living there. That’s the simple truth. So imagine being in your 20s, educated, qualified and with some work experience behind you and being offered a more secure better paying job elsewhere. Why wouldn’t you go?