The other five million

Of the 11 million said to have perished in the Holocaust, five million were not Jewish: they were Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, university professors from the Polish city of Lviv, the disabled, the mentally ill, homosexual, political prisoners, artists, 500 teenagers of mixed African and German parentage (the offspring of French colonial troops stationed in the Rhineland in the early 1920s) – in short anyone who wasn’t deemed fit to be part of Hitler’s Germany.

Walking past the House of Terror museum on Andrassy út on Sunday, I noticed a small crowd and stopped to see what was going on. A stage had been  set up outside, underneath the framed photographs of Arrow Cross victims that line the walls of the building. Two groups of musicians sat side by side.

IMG_1676 (800x600)IMG_1670 (600x800)On the left was a group of Romani musicians, running through a sound check. One played what looked like a milk churn, another what looked like a small wooden bath. I was struck immediately by the venue – the street outside the building where many of their predecessors met their end. An estimated 28,000 Hungarian Roma were killed as part of the Porajmos (Romani Holocaust) which is said to have claimed the lives of as many as 500 000.

IMG_1664 (800x600)IMG_1660 (800x600)To their right was a larger group, all wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the words Párafónia Zenekar. The band was set up about ten years ago and now has twelve members who collectively play thirteen different instruments, and most of them have their own musical assistant. They play at home and abroad – Germany, the Netherlands , Austria, Belgium , Poland, Vojvodina, and Transylvania – and are truly amazing to watch and listen to.  Involved with FECO – the First European Colour Orchestraan orchestra of people with intellectual and physical disabilities founded in January 2002 – Párafónia Zenekar is living testimony to what might have been lost, had Hitler had his way.

The mass sterilisation programmes that were a prelude to Hitler’s T-4 Euthanasia programme saw the deaths of thousands mentally ill and disabled people. Institutions were emptied as their patients were gassed. Adults and children alike.

On July 14, 1933, the German government instituted the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” This law called for the sterilization of all persons who suffered from diseases considered hereditary, including mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism.

The mind boggles.

Later that afternoon, I joined thousands of others who took to the streets to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day and yet it was those few minutes of music by those two particular groups in that particular setting that drove home to me what was done 70 years ago and what might have been lost.




March of the living

‘Communism was very good for us because no one cared if you were Jewish because we were all equal.’ I did a double-take when I read this in the Jerusalem Post yesterday. The words of Elizabeth Semesh, an octogenarian survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau still living in Hungary, struck a chord. ‘When I walk down the street they yell at me to go to Israel’, said Semesh. She was speaking in the run-up to Sunday’s March of the Living when thousands took to the streets in what was viewed by many as a strong showing against anti-Semitism and was in essence a way to memorialise the deaths of 600 000 Hungarian Jews 70 years ago.

IMG_1716 (800x600)IMG_1705 (800x600)Kids and grandparents, baseball hats and yarmulkes, men, women and children of all ages, flew the flags. It’s been on my list of things to do for many years; this year I was in town, so I walked, too. The crowds marched from Marcius 15 tér to Keleti Station, where 1000  Hungarians took the Train of the Living to Kraków in Poland to join thousands  of others on a march from Auschwitz to Birkenau to mark Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.   One of those on board was 75-year-old Catherine Zummer. When she was just 6  years old, she and her family were taken with hundreds more by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party.  She still remembers standing in line along the banks of the Danube waiting for their turn to die. Catherine and her family were freed by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who talked to the Arrow Cross and convinced them to let many of the women and children go. That was 70 years ago.

History cannot be rewritten

History cannot be rewritten

I’ve heard stories of Jews being spat upon in this city. I’ve heard people I know (and once respected) talk about ‘them’ as one might speak about something unsavoury. I know people blessed with dark hair and generous noses being randomly stopped and asked to produce ID. The World Jewish Congress estimates the number of Jews living in Hungary between 35 000 and 120 000 as the vast majority of Jews in Hungary are unaffiliated.

Budapest’s Jewish history IMG_1754 (800x600)goes back for centuries, back to 1307. The flourishing Jewish population fell afoul of the rulers in 1490 just before the Ottomans invaded Hungary. Things righted themselves and all went well until the siege of Buda in 1686, when the Jews took to the Turkish side, with only 500 surviving. Under Hapsburg rule, the Jews saw pogroms and deportations and it wasn’t until the early 1800s when Karl the 2nd awarded privileges to them that they began to flourish once again.  Following the union of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda in 1873, the Jewish population of Budapest grew to some 200,000 and 125 synagogues were in operation. By 1944 some 600 000 Hungarian Jews had been sent to the camps, decimating the population, leaving just 200 000 behind under Soviet rule.

Monday’s march in Poland started by remembering the genocide in Rwanda, the mass slaughter in the Balkans and the murder of tens of thousands of innocent people in Syria.  Although the holocaust was 70 years ago, it would seem that we have learned little from history.

I struggle with what I believe at times and as I try to sort through the whys and wherefores of Israel and Palestine, while I search for  truth amongst the myriad of words published,  I keep coming back to one thing and one thing only: regardless of your religious perspective or political beliefs, the holocaust should never have happened and should not be allowed to happen again. The persecution of any people – be they Jew, Tutsi, Moriori, Romani, Armenian – cannot be right in any circumstance.

And let us not forget that the holocaust wasn’t just about Jews. Of the 11 million said to have perished, 5 million were not Jewish.







2014 Grateful 36

The ninth beatitude – blessed is she who never expects anything – was ringing in my ears as I left the opening night of Robbie Williams Swings Both Ways tour the other night.

RW1Given that I’m musically clueless (I’ve just discovered who Bjork is!) it’s little wonder that I only know one RW song – Angels – so I wasn’t expecting much from him. I wasn’t standing there waiting for him to sing my favourites. And so, when he didn’t, I wasn’t disappointed.

Say what you like about him (I can’t get beyond the fact that his has LOVE tattooed on his fingers) – the man’s a born entertainer. The set would have been at home in Las Vegas. And the bantering was classic – if somewhat wasted on the audience.

(c) Charles Griffin

(c) Charles Griffin

The lads said the acoustics were terrible. I said I was happy that I could chat and be heard, thus completely missing the point that I was at a concert and shouldn’t be able to hear myself above the gig. Ergo the acoustics were terrible. As the thousands in their seats stayed seated, despite the great swing numbers he played, I was a mesmerised by the complete lack of audience engagement. Had this been Dublin, the walls would have been shaking.

RW5He cleverly used  the curtain as a backdrop to add the words to some of the songs to get the crowd going. I’m a fan of self-deprecation and yet when he told us how stupid he was, having dropped out of school, etc. etc., as a prelude to singing ‘If I only had a brain‘, I thought this was a little too much. But he wormed his way back into my good graces when he brought his dad, Pete Conway, on stage for a duet, a plan that actually made the papers in the UK earlier this month.

I’m fond of swing – I like a good bop. He’s got a great voice. And he’s a showman. So I wasn’t disappointed. Were I a fan and had I gone expecting to hear Robbie doing Robbie, I’d have been gutted. This week, I’m grateful that I had no expectations… and that I wasn’t disappointed.




Too happy to eat? I don't think so

Happiness at work is not a new phenomenon: the Romans reckoned that happier slaves worked harder. Yet fast forward to the twenty-first century and employers still seem to be missing the point.

desk1Word came last week from jobs portal that some 40% of Hungarian office workers don’t take a lunch break. Given that food provides energy, one has to wonder how much their performance is suffering. Of the 2400 people surveyed, just 6% took the time to eat lunch at a canteen or restaurant; the others who indulged brought their lunch from home and many ate sitting in front of their computers.

desk2I know that some might say I’m equating eating/taking a break with happiness and productivity, but it does contribute. This might not be an indication of working conditions and pressure; eating in the company of a computer could be a result of the virtual togetherness that so often translates into real-time aloneness brought on by social media. But surely, consistently working through lunch cannot be thought of as good practice? Were I queen of the working world, I’d mandate lunchtimes and frequent breaks. I’m all for happier workers.

Welsh social reformer, Robert Owen, was one of those behind utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. Working in the early 1800s, he gave employees in the Scottish village of New Lanark, jobs, housing, clothing, and education. And no doubt they had scheduled meal-times, too.

A century later, George Pullman, an American industrialist, created a town for 12 000 people employed to build his railway cars. He charged ridiculously high rents, added 250% to their water costs and 650% to their gas bills. And when the economy slumped, he cut wages.

I wonder which lot were the most productive?

Then came Frederick Winslow Taylor, with his time-and-motion studies, designed to rid the industrial world of ‘soldiering’ – the practice of looking busy to avoid being given more work when penalised for overproduction. His aim was to break down jobs into their constitute elements and then measure the time it took to do each task. Henry Ford cottoned on and industrial employees turned into automatons.

Hope for an alternative was briefly revived in the early 1900s with Walter Dill Scott writing about the importance of loyalty and the idea that it actually mattered to workers what they did. Later that century Abraham Maslow concluded that workers preferred meaningful to meaningless work. Not hard to believe. But then technology took over and employees began to be seen as costs rather than assets.

So here we are today, where top employees are paid more to stay. Benefits are better, bonuses are bigger, and many are chained in golden handcuffs, tied to their paycheques. Employees are once again being spoken about as assets, but does anyone really care?

London-based Happiness Works does. It has developed a happiness at work survey that gives immediate feedback. It doesn’t ask you how you’re doing and then forget to get back to you about the results (if I had a 1000 huf for every one of those surveys I’d taken, I could buy everyone lunch).  It gives you data, based on your answers to thoroughly researched questions, just moments after you complete it. It challenges you to look at what is going well and to work on those strengths, and to look at what is not going well and to ask yourself how can you begin to make a difference.

How happy are you at work? So happy that you’re in what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls ‘the flow’ and forget to take your lunch-break? Every day? Every week? All year? I doubt it.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 April 2014

Others want what I have

It’s really easy to use, the nurse said. Just strap this to your chest. Put this up your nose. Attach this to your finger. Turn it on. And go to sleep.

In a last-ditch attempt to figure out what ails me, I’m being tested for sleep apnea. Apparently this is when you stop breathing in your sleep and then wake yourself up to restart the process. This is done so quickly that your waking self doesn’t realise it. So all those hours I think I’ve been sleeping through the night might well have been an illusion.

When I met with the rather charming sleep doctor (the technical name eludes me), he said with a serious face completely devoid of humour and with full confidence that his message would be understood: You’re showing all the signs, and you have the body composition to make you a prime candidate – you’re carrying extra weight and have a thick neck.

Fair enough – but what is it with this thick neck? Not a month ago my hairstylist said: Darling, you just can’t wear long hair. It would make me look fatter. You have a thick neck.

neck3Perhaps I’m being hypersensitive but surely a little nuanced English wouldn’t go astray here, English teachers. There has to be plenty of other ways to get the message across without adding to my phobias. I’d settle for a wide neck, a generous neck, a solid neck, even a brass neck – but a thick neck?

neck 2Curious, I Googled the term ‘thick neck’ and see that there is a whole segment of society out there that wants what I have and are prepared to exercise to get it. Imagine that! Granted, they’re mostly bodybuilders, hired muscle, or professional footballers, but hey …

And there’s even a gallery dedicated to one person’s love of thick necks.

My Hungarian friends tell me I’m suffering from what’s known as  tavaszi fáradság or spring tiredness, which is apparently associated with the fact that as the days get longer, the increase in light affects people’s biorhythms and hormonal cycles. That might explain the mood swings but the tiredness stuff started in December.

Anyway, only time will tell. And in the meantime, I can bask in the glory of having a body part that others have to work hard to get. Doesn’t that make a pleasant change 🙂 It truly is all a matter of perspective.




The graveyard school of life

A dead man here. Another one there. This one in his 60s. The other in his 80s. Beloved father, husband, son. An inevitability. Yet to see the markers of 211 dead men, all of whom died within a few years of each other.  Some on the same day, at the same time even, and none older than 36. That’s not inevitable. That’s war.

IMG_1606 (800x600)IMG_1607 (600x800)The British War Cemetery is about 14km outside of Budapest in Solymár. Not all of those buried there were British (128). There are Canadians (6), Australians (13), New Zealanders (6), French (1),  South Africans (20), and  Polish (37). All of them  RAF men shot down in WWII. It’s one of the most inspirational places I’ve seen in a long time.

Just inside the gate, there’s a register of graves, with each man’s name, rank, and family details inscribed. Those who went down in the same plane, on the same day, are buried side by side. It gives it perspective somehow.

IMG_1615 (600x800)Except for one French cross, and the 37 Polish headstones that have a pointed top, all of the markers are the same curved white stone.

The two Jewish graves have the tell-tale pebbles – which surprised me – as one was Canadian and the other South African. It does this occasionally jaundiced heart some good to know that someone, somewhere, still cares enough to pay their respects.

IMG_1627 (600x800)The cemetery itself is beautifully maintained, as  all Commonwealth graveyards are, thanks in no small part to Sir Fabian Ware, who founded the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Too old for active service at the age of 45, he went to France with the British Red Cross in 1914. It wasn’t long before he noticed that there was no system of recording the graves of those who had died in battle. He convinced the War Office that if the dead were properly looked after, it would boost the morale of the living. [I’m still trying to work that one out, but I suppose in an odd way, it makes sense. So much of what we see today still testifies to the need for closure; that need to know where the bodies have been buried.] His motivation? Common remembrance of the dead [of the Great War] is the one thing, sometimes the only thing, that never fails to bring our people together.

Admittedly, I wasn’t thinking of Fabian Ware or his Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as I walked each line of headstones. I was taken by the lessons to be learned from their inscriptions.

IMG_1635 (600x800)How many of us think in terms of a finished life? Of an end date by which we should accomplish all we have set out to achieve? Of a finite point in time when the clock will stop and our time will end? A preoccupation with such thoughts might be debilitating rather than motivating, but a healthy awareness of the inevitability of death might encourage us not to waste what time we have now.

IMG_1634 (800x400)I doubt this is a comment on Bill’s sexual preferences, but I’d like to think that it is. And that we could learn something from this – learn to accept each other for who we are without judging.

IMG_1628 The idea of sacrifice – how alien is that in today’s ego-centric, all-about-me world of likes and friends and followers? I am hard pushed right now to think of one cause that I would willingly die to defend. Oh, I’d like to imagine that I’d be in the thick of the resistance should WWIII break out. I’d like to think that I’d be helping  the persecuted escape, standing up for justice, playing my part. But would I really? I sincerely hope I never get the chance to find out.

IMG_1618 (800x400)Back in the 1940s, choice was a luxury few enjoyed. If your number came up, you got a uniform. Today, young people enlist. Perhaps some are misguided and fall for the marketing hype (I’ve seen one recruitment video for the US military and even I was tempted). More, I hope, firmly believe in their country. Others still might be making calculated career choices rather than playing to their patriotism. But those who may end up on the front line deserve our respect and our prayers, regardless of our politics.

IMG_1631 (600x800)In opting to be cremated, I will be crossing one task off my list – that of thinking of what I’d have etched on my tombstone (yes, I’m organising my own funeral lest someone gets carried away with the pomp and ceremony and God forbid, chooses the wrong music for me to depart to). But this saddened me to the core. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that he is nameless, ageless, stateless, or just plain dead. I’d like to think that when I go, someone will notice me gone.

IMG_1638 (600x800)I smiled at this one, as I do every time I remember playing with the elephants. That trip to South Africa changed me. Not noticeably, except perhaps to me. I smiled because it conjured up swash-buckling images of dapper pilots heading to their planes, silk scarves flying behind them. The notion of pals. Of enduring friendships carved out of circumstances that no one should have to endure. Those friendships we make in times of shared adversity or hardship or grief – they are of a different mettle, a different type of bond. And these pals – they all went down together.

IMG_1639 (800x600)There’s something about this place that makes it special. I’m not an advocate of war. I don’t pretend to understand why people choose a life that is in large part dictated to them by others. I cannot fathom how anyone could follow orders that go against their conscience. But that’s neither here nor there. Seeing these men, aged 19 to 36, their markers standing to attention in the shadow of a big white cross, gave me pause for thought.

Kiev isn’t far from Budapest, literally and figuratively. Could what’s happening there, happen here? On a wider scale, are we due another great war? And if we did find ourselves in one, would we be able to cope? So many questions…





2014 Grateful 37

As I child, I gave up chocolate each Lent. I’d hoard every bar I was given as a present until Easter Sunday when I’d gorge on the lot and make myself ill. My idea of sacrifice wasn’t to do without but rather to delay gratification.

Easter Sunday 2014 has come and is almost gone. I’ve a lot deadlines on right now so most of this holiday was spent in front of my computer. To a greater or lesser extent, it was a day like any other, yet I still expected it to be full of Easter bonnets, Easter eggs, and roast lamb dinner. But it wasn’t.

IMG_1646 (800x600)In fact, the only thing that made it different to any other day this week was that I went to Mass. And technically, as I go  to Mass every Sunday, that in and of itself didn’t do much to separate it from the other 50+ Sundays in the year. But today, two things stood out.

About half-way during Mass, a middle-aged woman a couple of seats in front of me stood up. The rest of the church was sitting, but she continued to stand, blocking the view of those sitting behind her. Her muttered mumblings to whom I assume was her daughter or daughter-in-law (given the husband and two kids she had in tow) led me to believe that (a) either the cushion on the seat was cold/wet or (b) the pew was too hard. In any event, stand she did. And stand out she did, too.

I was reminded of an encounter on a bus in Malta a few months ago. A woman with a young child got on the bus and sat towards the back. The child (about 3 or 4) was acting up so the mum told him that he should watch how quiet everyone else was being, and behave exactly the same. For some reason I had a horrendous vision of the Holocaust, one that confusingly flashed in front of me with a background narration of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’. I’m still deliberating….

Studying this woman today though, she seemed perfectly at ease with standing up (and out); it was those around her who seemed disconcerted. It left me wondering about conformity and who benefits most.

IMG_1644 (600x800)IMG_1648 (600x800)The second involved the Crown of Thorns that I noticed at the base of the cross on the altar. I’d not seen it before, although the church has been decorating the altar in the same way for the all the years I’ve been going there. It struck a chord, perhaps because last night I watched one of many episodes in the first series of Prison Break, in which John imagines seeing the head of Jesus, crown and all, as He hung on the cross. The rust stains in his cell he sees as Christ’s Blood. He then goes out to kill another inmate, but instead, forgives him (having found the Lord), only to have yer man turn and kill him instead. Is there no justice in the world?

In some convoluted way, with some random word association and image processing going on in a chocolate-starved brain perhaps, I began to think about the crown of thorns that each of us wears. Some of us have little choice but to keep suffering, to keep wearing our Cancer or our MS or our Hunger, but I suspect that many more of us could simply take off our crowns of thorns off. We have a choice, one we choose too often to ignore.

After a week that was longer and more intense than usual, I’m grateful that today was the day it was, a quiet day with two clear messages. (1) Stand up for what I believe in no matter how uncomfortable it makes others feel. (2) Be conscious that almost everything in life involves a choice…and I can choose to say no.

Happy Easter to one and all. Hope someone is making up for my chocolate deficiency 🙂



Of pros and cons

scamEinstein was of the opinion that two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity … and he wasn’t sure about the universe. Recognising that peculiar failing in others, we have been conning each other since the dawn of time. Some of us do it to survive. Others do it for the sheer pleasure of putting one over on someone else. More do it just because they can.

Since coming to Budapest in 2007, I’ve held forth on occasion about the various cons in operation in the city. The one that makes me laugh most at man’s stupidity is when Gorgeous Girl meets Average Joe in the street and suggests they go for a drink. Bowled over by his luck, Average Joe accepts and then, hours later, wonders what happened as he’s strong-armed to the ATM by the bar’s muscle to withdraw his daily limit to pay off the horrendous bar bill he ran up while chatting to Gorgeous Girl. I base my lack of sympathy for Average Joe on the fact that if he hasn’t been pulling gorgeous women at home, he should have stopped to wonder at his miraculous change of fortune when he hit Budapest. Note to Average Joe: Palinka is better at obliterating the past than shaping the future.

Last week, a friend was visiting from Malaysia. On the last day of her trip, at Blaha Lujza tér, she was stopped by a chap asking directions to the train station. As they were talking, a second guy approached and proffered his ID which identified him as a policeman. He asked to check their IDs and said he wanted to make sure that the cash they were carrying wasn’t counterfeit. In the heat of the moment, faced with a dual-pronged distraction, and seeing her lost tourist hand over his wallet without hesitation, my friend followed suit. Mr Policeman even went so far as to ask for a PIN to their ATM cards and then pretended to phone their banks to verify that the numbers were genuine. Satisfied, Mr Policeman moved on, as did the lost tourist.

Some minutes later, on checking her wallet, my friend noticed that her ATM card was missing. She can’t say for sure about the Hungarian cash. Thankfully, she had hidden her passport and euro (although our intrepid policeman had been keen to check that, too).

scam2My initial reaction when I heard this was: You idiot! What were you thinking? Or not thinking? But my friend didn’t need any help kicking herself. Alarm bells should have sounded sooner, but they hadn’t. I wondered what I would have done, two days into my first trip to Budapest, had a policeman asked to see my ID and check my currency. There’s no doubt in my mind but that I’d have handed it over. And I’d have done it for a couple of reasons. (1) I was brought up to believe that the police are there to serve and protect. I’d have blindly trusted that ID because (2) I’d have been afraid not to.

Yes, afraid. I have an unhealthy fear of the law, particularly here in Budapest, but pretty much anywhere except, strangely enough, Belgrade. Perhaps I’ve read too many crime novels or overdosed on TV cop series, but when it comes to what police are capable of doing, in the name of the law or otherwise, I don’t draw any lines. While the law of the land might prevail in the long run, there is the matter of those hours between being arrested and talking to a lawyer, the twilight zone in which pretty much anything can happen.

Note to self: If approached by a policeman, ask for his badge number, his PIN, and call to see if it’s real.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 April 2014

Trees. Death. Dying.

People in suburbia see trees differently than foresters do. They cherish every one. It is useless to speak of the probability that a certain tree will die when the tree is in someone’s backyard…You are talking about a personal asset, a friend, a monument, not about board feet of lumber. So said Roger Swain, the man in the red suspenders who for years held forth on his PBS show The Victory Garden. [When looking for a clip of it to show you, I came across this 1942 short film explanation of what a Victory Garden is – it might come in useful in the future, if the world stays on its current trajectory.]

Anyway, I was struck by our relationship with trees today, as I walked down Bajza utca. Ahead of me, in the section between Délibáb and Benczúr, I noticed a couple of lads from Főkert chain-sawing their way through a tree. I was too far away (and wearing my out-of-prescription sunglasses) to see exactly what they’d cut down.

20140416_095047_resizedBill Vaughan came to mind – he who is famous for his aphorisms (my favourite being In the game of life it’s a good idea to have a few early losses, which
relieves you of the pressure of trying to maintain an undefeated season). He defined suburbia as a place where developers cut down trees and then name streets after them. Yet this seemed to be going on in just one section of rather a long street. And before and after, old trees stood glorious in their greenery.

20140416_095016_resizedAs I came closer, it seemed that a number of trees had been felled – thin ones, that looked very dead indeed. And I was surprised, that amidst such growth, this one section of Bajza could be so barren. What is it about this part of the road that kills off trees, stunts their growth, withers them on the spot? It would be interesting to find out.

The neighbourhood itself screams of affluence. Lots of embassies around – and the FAO has its offices nearby. Back in the day these stately homes were obviously single-family residences and I had a fleeting moment of envy when I thought about those who’d lived there then. And a slightly less fleeting moment of envy when I thought about those who could afford to buy the magnificent building for sale around the corner.

20140416_095817_resizedBut back to the trees. When I was home last weekend, I went to see my uncle. My dad’s brother. He’s dying. I’ve gotten this far as a good Irish Catholic without ever clapping eyes on a dead body despite the number of wakes I’ve been to, and this was my first close encounter with death in the flesh. And it was disturbing. To see a man who was so sure he’d collect his cheque from the President when he turned 100 lying there with a foot in the next world was upsetting. I made a mental note to myself to root out that prayer for a speedy death (and while failing to find it on Google – if anyone has a copy, do send it to me  – I did come across a rather interesting piece on imprecatory prayer, which I thought was an absolute no-no).

20140416_105421_resizedDeath seems to be rampaging through my world right now, however tangentially. It seems as if everyone I’ve met lately is either coming from or going to a funeral. It’s showing no discrimination between age, gender, or nationality. A ten-year-old boy clipped by the wing mirror of a passing car as he waited to cross the road. A mother of three in her mid-30s overdosing and then sitting in her car waiting for the pills to take effect. A man in his 60s whose wife just died in February, following her sooner than planned. All of them would have left their mark on the word. Just like those trees.

But after my meeting, retracing my steps, I saw that even the stumps had been uprooted and it seemed that all was set to plant something else in their stead. Two thoughts crossed my mind. One was about how replaceable we all are and the second was a fervent hope that the soil had been checked or something had been changed so that the new trees might not go the way of their predecessors and instead have some hope of surviving.

Random thoughts indeed for a Wednesday morning in Budapest. But as my man Yeats once said: If what I say resonates with you, it is merely because we are both branches on the same tree. I just couldn’t resist.

Behind high walls

There’s a streak of curiosity that runs through me, activated to varying degrees depending on the stimulus present. When I was passed from class to class in primary school, the teacher who was getting rid of me would warn the one that would have the pleasure of teaching me for the next twelve months that I asked questions. Lots of questions. And it was said in such a tone that it wasn’t the brilliantly amazing phenomenon I thought it was.

So if, in the Creed, God says that He will come to judge the living and the dead, does that mean that there will be some people alive at the end of the world? And if the priest is a pioneer (a teetotaler in Ireland), why is he allowed drink wine during mass? And if Jesus came back from the dead, why is the Catholic Church so against reincarnation? And this was just religion.

My curiosity peaks at the sight of a high wall. I simply have to see what’s on the other side. And even if I’ve seen photos of whatever lies beyond, I have to see it for myself.

I’d passed through Strokestown in Co. Roscommon on a number of occasions. And I’d noticed the high wall and the stone-arched gateway in the middle of the town. But I’d never ventured inside. Someone else had always been driving – and driving with a mission – so I’d never felt that I could ask to make a detour. On Sunday, I didn’t have to ask. All I had to do was wonder aloud what lay behind the wall. Enough said.

20140413_125143_resized20140413_125403_resizedSometimes, when I venture past these walls, I’m disappointed. Other times, I’m gobsmacked. I’m convinced that in a previous life, I was Elizabeth Bennett or of her ilk. I have such an affinity with these big country houses that I’m sure I spent time in one – upstairs rather than downstairs. I have little difficulty imagining life as it was and even less imagining life as it might be.

Strokestown House was far from disappointing. Built in second half of the seventeenth century by one Thomas Mahon, it remained the family home until 1979. Back in 1847, at the height of the Great Famine, the landlord,  Major Denis Mahon, was assassinated so perhaps there’s a certain poetry to the Famine museum that was established here in 1994. Worth a visit if you’re in the neighbourhood.

20140413_150914_resizedAnother detour and this time confronted by a high hedge, we stopped so I could get a look beyond and see Slane Castle. The last time I was here, I was burnt to bits. In the heat of the sun, having lost my mates, I sat for hours without sunscreen at a Bruce Springsteen concert. That night, they coated me in a mixture of camomile lotion and yoghurt. When I woke the next morning, I was mummified. It was as if I was in a full body cast – and a pink one at that. My eyes still water at the remembered pain.

Little wonder then that I had no recollection of what Slane Castle looked like. The place can host up to 80 000 people in the grounds, and is often used as a wedding venue by those in the dough. Owned by Henry Mount Charles, 8th Marquess Conyngham, it, too, is worth a gander.  I believe that U2 are playing there later this year… not that this would entice me back … but it might be of interest to you.

And loosely connected though perhaps not at all relevant to this post, I remember reading somewhere that we often put up walls not to keep people out but to see who cares enough to break them down. I doubt that’s what the masters of Strokestown House had in mind, and they did have the good grace to leave the gates open.




Henry Mount Charles, 8th Marquess Conyngham
Henry Mount Charles, 8th Marquess Conyngham
Henry Mount Charles, 8th Marquess Conyngham