images (2)First published in The Inishowen Independent.

1988. During my student days, while volunteering as a night liner for Queen’s University listening service, it became abundantly clear we needed two phone lines because the one line was jammed with the sheer volume of gay people needing advice, help and support.

I took a few of those calls, mostly from young men. Some called in person during the early part of the evening and talked about their pain, the lengths they went to cover up being gay, how they were coping, or not, in a world of hostility and fear. Others rang late in the night, their voices trembling, threatening to end it all and crying so hard they were not fit to speak. Many did not want to be gay. They were unable to accept how they were feeling. The isolation, fear and shame they were experiencing was preventing them to be true to themselves. A rollercoaster of negative emotions raged inside them. They were afraid to come out. They were being bullied, taunted, and excluded by others because of their sexuality.

Back then, lesbian and gay issues were relatively new to me. I came from the back of beyond, at least that’s what the city slickers thought—a bit like what Newstalk reporter Henry McClean thinks about Donegal. Buncrana has since put the record straight. Likewise, that type of thinking didn’t hinder me from accepting folk exactly as they were, from all walks of life.

As a young straight female student, I doubt I was able to fully understand exactly what a young gay man was going through or indeed if I was helping at all. The most I could do was listen and be there in a non-judgemental manner for anyone who came through the door or called on the phone. It was during those volunteering years I witnessed the impact of prejudice on the gay community and the destruction caused by individuals in society who remained ignorant and misinformed about people who feel different. Being ‘different’ seemed to get misinterpreted as wrong. They are wrong and we are right. We are normal and they are not. Views that fly in the face of equality.

We consider ourselves a more accepting and equal society now. Gone are the archaic prejudices and suppression of the past that prevents anyone regardless of gender, faith, or belief, to live at peace in our utopian society. At least, that’s what we like to think, but this referendum debate has unravelled some steadfast views that remain woven deep in the fabric of Irish society, views that are unyielding, erroneous and prejudice by nature when the heart of the matter is about two people loving each other and committing to marriage so that they can share the same benefits of any other married couple in society.

Throughout this debate we have been subjected to many mixed messages and distorted images, confusing those who are perhaps less informed or have limited understanding of the inequalities experienced by gay communities. What isn’t confusing in this debate is that marriage equality will acknowledge the gay community as full members of our society who are entitled to civil and human rights as well as having the right to declare their love for each other. Love knows no gender, it has no boundaries, yet every day many in the gay community have experienced hate and little acceptance, not for who they are but for who they love. To love, to acceptance, to equality and to the memory of many tormented and fearful young people I tried to help in the late ‘80s who felt excluded from society I vote YES.



What Autism Taught Me


I’m trying to write. A gloomy Donegal sky is sagging low, closing in around the hills.  It’s blowing a gale outside. Hail stones, like small round pills, are drumming against the window above me. Behind me, my ‘autsome’ boy is pacing. Up and down.  School’s out. Kids are in. No day for the trampoline. I know he wants an outside space where he can run and jump, and do what my ‘autsome’ boy needs to do, but the shower of sleet has turned everything white and wet.  There will be no going out for a while. The pacing continues. I read the same line over and over, trying to make sense of what I have written. I am struggling against the noise. Mowghi is making his signature humming sound as he continues to pace. His incessant need for movement hasn’t let up all these years. His need for noise hasn’t either. His favourite music channel on the television is belting out all the latest hits. It’s all noise to me. The computer is playing Thomas the Tank music. I know every quaver, every beat, every tune that’s comes with being subjected to Thomas the Tank videos for almost fifteen years. That’s how long ago autism sneaked in and took up residence in our home, a noisy, pacing, never a dull moment autism that demanded me to be on red alert at all times, even when I’m writing, There is no retrieve, no downtime, no out when autism is about.  It’s the way it is, and another Autism Awareness Month is upon us.  As Mowghi paces, and the wind howls, and the hailstones rattle I commit to paper a list of things that autism taught me of which there are many, too many to mention. In no particular order, here is a random thought list of lessons I’ve learnt from my ‘autsome’ boy.

  • Time is irrelevant.
  • Moments make up life.
  • Treasure the moments.
  • Not all moments are magical.
  • Most moments are little miracles.
  • A lesson can be learnt in any given moment.
  • The lesson is usually a lesson in self-love.
  • Self-love comes from within and reaches out to others.
  • Self-love is unconditional love.
  • Unconditional love has no strings attached.
  • When Mowghi rests his head on my shoulder the world stops.
  • Never underestimate the power of love of any kind.
  • Autism taught me who matters and what matters.
  • Never underestimate the joy of simple things.
  • Joy can find its way through pain.
  • Given time, the pain of loss and grief eases.
  • Patience is truly a virtue.
  • Autism has honed that virtue for me very well.
  • Humour can be found in the darkest of moments.
  • Look for humour always. It’s a life-saving device.
  • So is toilet paper, and I have to look for it too!
  • Hiding toilet paper prevents blocked toilets.
  • Hiding everything prevents mess and is sanity saving.
  • Whoever invented the key should be canonized.
  • Strangers are mostly real life angels.
  • Talking is overrated.
  • Silence is the sweetest noise.
  • An non-verbal person does not constitute an empty mind.
  • A warm bubbly bath can make anything better.
  • Be soooo grateful for any night of uninterrupted sleep.
  • Material things mean little to the soul.
  • The soul celebrates difference.
  • Our human understanding is limited by logic.
  • There is nothing logical about Autism.
  • Autism remains a mystery.
  • Autism grows up.
  • Autism doesn’t always behave grown up.
  • Grown up autism needs help, support and services.
  • People who work with the vulnerable in society are unsung heroes.
  • Acceptance is the first step on any journey.
  • The journey must be experienced.
  • It’s called life, with or without autism.
  • A good giggle is essential to survival.
  • Strive to enjoy the journey.

My boy is trotting steadily towards his seventeenth birthday. Only yesterday I held him, as in the photograph above, at Crummies Bay, Dunree in Inishowen, Donegal, a small laughing mischievous rascal in my arms who knew his own mind and tormented me with his antics. He still does. I still am at a loss to fully understand him, his strange ways, his sixth sense, his breaking down, his frustrations. his wonder, his need for space, inside and outside, his connection with nature, his withdrawal to the sanctuary of his room. As he paces up and down behind me, I clock up a few more sentences, and wonder is he at a loss to understand me too?


IL Papa – Living Simply in Vatican City

Newly elected Pope Francis Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican

(Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

Il Papa—it sounds much more precious in Italian—is a humble man who leads an austere and sober life without ostentation. He lived very simply in an apartment in Argentina where he took care of a handicapped Jesuit and rode the bus to work. I’ve written most of that in past tense because he has now moved house and we all know from here on in how he’ll be getting around.

Most women like the sound of a man who can cook and Jorge Mario Bergoglio is no exception but I’m guessing il Papa will need a little time to re-adjust in his new gaff before he turns the heat up in the kitchen.

Naming himself after St Francis of Assisi the rich young man, who renounced wealth and founded the Franciscan order of friars in 1290 and Francis Xavier, the formidable 16th-century Jesuit missionary evokes images of peace, poverty and a simple lifestyle. When I visited Vatican City with my Mum a few years back—eyes agog and dizzy with awe—images of poverty and simplicity didn’t spring to mind. In the same vein, Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s lifestyle and living on the edge of Buenos Aires is a far cry from the sprawling financial empire he is now in charge of that is dangerously hanging over the edge of reason.

Maybe it’s all the pomp and circumstance that goes hand in hand in electing a new pope or maybe it’s because it’s Easter or maybe it’s their age but my children are asking a lot of simple questions about Catholicism but simple answers are not coming forthwith as I clamour around in the confines of out-dated canonical law shadowed by contradiction, crime and cover ups within the male only Catholic hierarchy. In the middle of  it all sits my fourteen year old drop dead gorgeous autistic. He remains silent, asks no questions and has absolutely no concept of any religion on this earth yet his spirit is vibrating at a level deeper than the foundations of the Sistine Chapel! For him, simplicity is key and so it seems for il Papa.

I wonder what it is like for a Jesuit veteran to be plucked from the far corner of simplicity, adorned in robes and entrusted with the secrets of Vatican City that has not entirely trusted the teaching intelligentsia order he represents because, like my kids, the Jesuits ask difficult, challenging, and thought-provoking questions.

Pray for me, he asked, after emerging from behind the red curtain on the balcony of the central logia at St. Peter’s Basilica. And pray for him we shall because Pope Francis will need all the divine and human intervention he can get as the Catholic Church crumbles and cracks under the weight of great crisis, scandal and conflict in the Vatican bureaucracy. But young St. Francis’ conversion did not happen overnight and neither will the Vatican City’s conversion to spiritual simplicity. That’s not to say Pope Francis won’t make his mark and shake a stick or two.

Let’s hope Papa gets some answers and time to cook, and freedom to hop on a bus. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to keep things simple and cook in my bare feet singing an old Janis Joplin number. ‘Oh, Lord will you buy me a Mercedes-Benz… I wonder did Jorge Mario Bergoglio, while he was cooking the rice and wandering around in his bare feet caring for his friend ever dream of a Mercedes-Benz Popemobile? It’s kind of like a bus…isn’t it?


May the tills ring out in 2013.

Ghee, 2013 is going to be some year for Ireland, north and south of the border, with the cosmopolitan cultural activities in the City of Culture and North-West, the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast, an all Ireland Gathering and now the G8 political pow wow taking place in rural Fermanagh!

Most government officials, tourism and politicians are giddy with excitement for this golden opportunity to showcase Northern Ireland and perhaps surrounding regions to the world with the hope that it will attract badly needed investment and more foreign visitors to our shores. And it’s good news for the Lough Erne Golf & Spa Resort too! It has been rescued from the rough by a booking of a life time as it awaits a new owner—price tag £10 million if any of you are interested—and its high profile guests.

So while one half of us are totting up our points and saving for our next Super Valu break and the other half of us are away making a crust in far flung places, the leaders from the richest nations in the world are preparing to mix business with leisure in Fermanagh to debate about the future of the world but will their chit chat bring relief to the present economic difficulties?

The morning after Cameron’s announcement I rang my dear retailing, on the verge of closing down, menopausal friend of mine who has poured her heart and soul into her pretty shop in Enniskillen. “Yo,” I said, “I hear you are expecting visitors.” “Aye,” she said, “More visitors!” My friend is under no illusions. When President Clinton and Her Majesty The Queen of England came to her town they only attracted people watchers, protestors and padded security, not business. Unless the G8 leaders are big into retail therapy she doubts very much if her till will ring during the two day summit.

“It’s great for Fermanagh but bad for business. They picked the perfect location—a fortress in the middle of nowhere—easy to ring fence and lock-down. It will cost the taxpayer millions and security will cut off Enniskillen. The shops will be empty, the roads congested and locals will suffer….” What’s new pussy cat? “I may as well close for the week,” she said.

After listening to my friend I considered ringing Cameron myself. Maybe he would reconsider? Could they have a conference call instead? Skype perhaps? Cheaper…less disruption…no need to worry about the rain? How can you save the world in two days anyway and that Nick Faldo golf course is going to be a terrible distraction, don’t you think? Humph? Least my friend could keep her shop open for the odd unsuspecting tourist that might stumble upon sleepy Fermanagh and part with a few pound but then what about the chance in a lifetime for Ireland’s beauty to shine in the eyes of the international media? Even my friend hoped that while Fermanagh held the world’s attention during the G8 summit there might be a long term spin off and busier weeks ahead.

Ahhh…It would seem there is always a price to pay and lessons to learn. So I didn’t ring Cameron but I do hope while G8 is considering their menu and spa treatments…er…I mean agenda and policies let’s hope they don’t leave Ireland in the economic state it was in before they arrived. Maybe Chancellor Angela Merkel will need some retail therapy and surely all those guys will want to bring a little something back to their wives and loved ones…that is, if they are not being put up in the Lough Erne hotel too. Maybe they will do their own shopping! Who knows? My friend’s till might ring out yet!

© Aileen McGee

When Disaster Strikes Compassion Comforts

And a voice cried from heaven… “It is done.”

It probably isn’t accurate but this quote from the Bible came back to me as I climbed into bed on the night that Mother Nature took on New York. There is nothing like the hand of nature to stop us in our tracks and there is nothing we can do when Mother Nature speaks.

So I did what I could. I spared a thought and sent out a prayer for all those 60 million people who were projected to be directly impacted by Hurricane Sandy as I reflected on how nature always triumphs over technology. And electrical power. And political power.

Isn’t it ironic that Mother Nature had her say at a time when the election season in America was drawing to a close without any serious discussion about climate change? Two presidential candidates decided not to speak about climate change, and yet the climate spoke to them—and to everyone else around the world that is awake and listening.

Instead of continuing with their campaigns the political powers were forced to listen and react with the naturally occurring healing element of compassion for those caught up in the wrath of the storm. In the city that never sleeps schools were closed, businesses shuttered and mass transit suspended. Residents were told to hunker down and emergency responders where getting prepared to offer evacuees a safe place, a warm meal and emotional support. What else do you need when disaster strikes? What else do you need at any time in our lives when we are in trouble, fearful and anxious? Yet we spend so much time ‘needing’ other things that can be wiped out so quickly by a power much greater than ourselves.
In the past few years we’ve seen a number of natural disasters that leaves us without those things that we are too connected to, too plugged in, too fanatical, too dependent on. Is there an opportunity here to heighten our awareness of what really matters, to bridge and tunnel our way back to a deeper connection with each other and develop an understanding of what power really is?

At the time of writing this piece, the full extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy had not been fully totted up but with that we are presented with an opportunity not only for the healing of others, but perhaps, surprisingly, for ourselves too. When disaster strikes compassion comforts. It is a time to come together and put it into action. The collective effort, the ‘we’re-all-in-this-together spirit,’ triumphs in the face of disaster, but it shouldn’t take a natural disaster to make us tap into our natural humanity.

When trouble knocks on your neighbour’s door, when a friend is in need it offers us an opportunity to reach out and support each other. Not only will our support help those who need it, it will also help keep ours spirit intact as we practice spiritual values that comes from the same power that causes Mother Nature to speak.

The act of compassion can fill us all up with hope at times when life and nature is full of uncertainty. Compassionate action has the power to makes us feel connected to something greater than ourselves and can ultimately gives us a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives which reminds me of another quote, this time from The Dalai Lama, “It’s not enough to be compassionate, you must act.”


To treat or not to treat…Ireland’s million ‘euro’ question.

First published in the Inishowen Independent’s Bright Side Column 


Sometimes we have to make difficult choices and today, according to our lamp posts, we have the choice of two possible answers Yes or No. Straight forward, right? So, what is the question again?

Basically the question is, do you agree with a financial treaty that is already agreed by 25 EU states in January this year, (of whom were able to ratify it by a vote in their parliaments—all except Ireland, where our Constitution requires us to have a referendum) to prevent EU countries from blowing their budget and bogging themselves in debt, pretty much what you would teach your children. Of course, children being children rarely stick to the rules. They need discipline just like our governments, apparently. Now big Daddy European Commission is going to supervise and any country that doesn’t adhere to the rules will be banished to their room or in this case to European Court of Justice.

The reality is aspirational. My kids are never in the room more than five minutes until I start feeling sorry for them. So other programmes have to be implemented to bring them steadily into compliance to enable them to grow into responsible law abiding adults because at the end of the day they could end up running the country and we don’t want our children running the country into the ground just like our government has over the past few decades.

But back to the question that our politicians have managed to boil down to two words Stability or Austerity. The Stability or Yes camp is an optimistic lot. They claim a Yes vote will create conditions for economic growth and recovery to our country and stability to the euro zone. It will also allow Ireland to access euro zone’s future permanent bailout fund, the ESM, in case it is ever needed again.

The Austerity Treaty or No camp is much less the bright side. They postulate fire and brimstone for Ireland if we agreed to this treaty including long dole queues and severe budget policies for years to come. The No camp claims that government belt-tightening is not going to go away any time soon. The Yes camp believe voting no is not going to make that situation any better.

The thing is, the rotten deal we got that transferred billions in private bank debt into sovereign debt, weighing heavily on the Irish taxpayer’s shoulder, has nothing to do with this Fiscal Compact. We are tethered to the terms of the EU-IMF bailout which are more demanding than this Stability or Austerity treaty so any amount of ratifying and implementing will not make a blind bit of difference to us in the short term. In the long term, we have a European Daddy now so we have to be good children and follow their rules. Furthermore, unlike other treaty referendum times, Ireland has no veto – the fiscal pact needs only 12 member states to sign up to it to become operational.

The lamp posts of Ireland may very well give you a choice of answers, a Hobson’s choice by the look of it, but the problem is the lamp posts fails to clarify the loaded question.

“Pick one,” my mum used to say when she was holding out a brown bag full of delicious, fruity smelling, mouth watering treats. Oh, it was such a hard choice but when you are peering into a can of worms under a dodgy lamp post it’s even harder.

But we have to make a choice nonetheless, and today there doesn’t appear to be an easy choice or a bright side for Ireland unless the lamp post you are standing under is switched on and used for the purpose intended.