A Workplace Fable

Once upon a time, I worked in a crumbling old archaic and beautiful institution*. Within its many walls, two worlds co-existed side by side, adjacent and sometimes overlapping, but utterly distinct and separate and unrecognisable from one another in character and experience.

One was the dazzling front-of-house public veneer, and one was the creaking, chokingly toxic, behind-the-scenes underbelly.

If you didn’t spend much time beyond the locked and pass-coded “Staff Only” doors, you might think it would be a wondrous place to work. You might even desire it and daydream about it! How wrong you would be. Within days or weeks or even just hours you would realise that all was not as it seemed. That this was a venue that you might describe as all fur coat and no knickers.

For behind the scenes was a carved up and disjointed landscape of independent fiefdoms. Multiple departments of highly stratified staff worked in isolation from one another, cloistered away in different offices or cubicles and even in different buildings. Which would be fine, except that nobody ever organised cohesive staff meetings. Introverted staff could be left alone in their corner from one end of the year to the other. You could work there for years and walk past corridors where there were hermit-like staff that never came out.  I used to think it all suited the nature of the academic’s psyche – that academics liked working alone, even in the window-less deepest reaches of old attics. I think there is a level of obsessiveness required to be a researcher.  Extreme focus is how you become an expert. The place was full of them.

But expertise will come at a price if you don’t go for some fresh air, have lunch and talk to other people every now and then.

Not that many staff didn’t meet up for tea and lunch and socialise together. Only for teabreaks did staff detach from their desks at all. Because there were no staff-wide meetings, it was only over scones that anything new ever happened. It was your own loss if you missed out what was happening by not attending teabreaks. Here, and only amongst the more extroverted characters, ideas formed and schemes hatched as to how to convince decision-makers that new initiatives were good.

But the extraordinarily hierarchical staffing structure meant that decision-making was a nightmare. The Hierarchy seemed to be held in great regard, especially by those who operated from  within its ranks. Relative to the amount of staff, there were loads of bosses, meaning that a single member of staff could answer to a Supervisor who answered to a Manager who answered to a Higher Manager who answered to a single overall manager – referred to here as The Great Boss – who seemingly answered to a Board, but truthfully everyone in the entire place was answerable to The Great Boss, including the Board who never set foot in the place anyway and nobody was sure whether they even existed at all.

The Higher Managers all had big important meetings together around mahogany tables and made big important decisions that got emailed out to the rest of the organisation every now and then, with no warning or explanation or consultation.

And that would seriously piss off everyone else in the entire place. If this was fed back to the Higher Managers, all they could do was shrug and say nothing because this was the entitlement of their role and in “time-honoured tradition” this is the way it had always been and always would be, and one day if other staff were promoted to Higher Management then they would also do it the way it had always had been done, because that was their entitlement now too and nothing would ever change.

In fact change was not welcomed at all. Vibrant new proposals may or may not be indulgently listened to, but almost never ever approved. A persistent young enthusiastic female like me was nothing but a bemusing nuisance.  Ideas from lower grades of staff (don’t forget how important the Hierarchy was here) were a repugnance. Really, only Higher Management got to think up ideas.

Most other junior staff knew not to provoke Higher Management with ideas. They knew to respect the tradition.  But not even with their mahogany tables and their decision-making and their big important emails out to “All Users” were the Higher Managers happy. Not even when they had the power to think up Ideas for new projects were they happy. The entire organisation lived in fear of The Great Boss, but nobody feared him as much as the Higher Managers. Higher Managers would pale before visitations of the Great Boss. He could never appear without warning, because a highly-stressed staff is always highly alert to its stressors and The Great Boss was the greatest stressor of all. His whereabouts was always vigilantly communicated by phone to everyone else in that corner of that building at that time.

Nobody had even to mention his name or his title, all they had to do was phone and say “HE”:

“he is here.”

“he is downstairs.”

“he is outside the door now.”

And without a hello or a goodbye, the phoneline would click off and go dead.

No matter how much preparation was laid before a visitation, that one overlooked impossible detail or that one tiny nonsensical transgression would put Higher Managers into spins of incoherent babbling before his wrath.

That’s unless The Great Boss was in good form. These days were known as the days When the Great Boss had had his Weetabix.

Oh how charming and disarming he could be then!

He had enormous wit and knowledge and he could employ it lethally. Even Higher Managers who hated his guts because he made them stutter and lay awake at night with worry of him would laugh uproariously at his acerbic humour and fawn over his photographic memory that made him remember their great-aunt’s fondness for súgán chairs. On those days, the whole staff would bask in the temporary burn of his cheer, the deathly calm before the next storm of his more typically bad temper.

And so, morale in this place was not good. Too many variously dejected bosses under one nasty Great Boss under a faceless Board meant nobody felt supported, or heard, or valued.  In this environment isolation and and harassment and infighting was allowed to fester. Like I said, it was toxic.

For my part, when I started work there I felt excited and privileged to undertake my new job. I was getting to work on a staggeringly enormous and famous project. But my immediate supervisor sexually harassed me and in time the Great Boss bullied me directly.

The supervisor harassed me from the first day with utterly unwanted and inappropriate physical contact at every opportunity. It was insidious and persistent and I was expected to carry on a normal working relationship as if nothing was amiss.

I buried my head in my work and relished the satisfaction of it and of working in what I wanted to believe was the beautiful institution as was known from its public face, but I felt paralytically uncomfortable at sharing the office with my immediate boss. I grew to hate the office with its ivy green carpet and still can’t bear the tinny sound of a moped bustling up the street.  I was all but completely lost in the confusing hierarchic structure. It all made me uncharacteristically shy and retiring, and I developed a tickly cough and ulcers in my nose and in my mouth. The great privilege of working there was soured.

I confided in new friends in other departments and they told me sadly that it had happened before. I made an informal complaint to HR, as I heard others had done, and overnight the supervisor was removed to another office without him being told why. Just like the way the Catholic Church quietly transfers priests from one parish to another. I was left flying blind in my job, but I knew what to do and I can tell you I didn’t mind. I was so relieved he was away from me.

Unfortunately, I think that rather than feel empathy with previous recipients of this man’s harassment, I felt angry at them for not taking a stronger stance which might have protected me. HR told me that the only way they could really do anything was if I made a Formal Complaint. I felt responsible in ensuring it wouldn’t happen again to other women.

HR told me I was brave. I didn’t feel brave. I felt terrified.

I went through the strain of invoking a formal investigation. A specialist mediation company was called in and I was interviewed several times. He was interviewed. We were fed reports of each other’s words. He mostly admitted it, and even tried to justify some of it, by telling them that he was a “naturally touchy-feely person” and wanted to kiss me and hug me so much because I was such a capable assistant. He confessed he had unhealthy thoughts towards me. He explained that he’d pushed me against the door one day to measure my height because he’d seen some tall school girls visiting the public side of our workplace and he “wanted to prolong the fantasy” he had with tall women, by contrasting my short stature with the school girls he’d seen just prior.  He said I was a “foil for his fantasies.” Re-reading  the investigator’s report of his words makes me shudder.

The investigators told me that the whole thing was the most disturbing case they’d had to work on.

The organisation upheld my complaint. They created a new fixed term contract to give me the role he’d had. Somebody joked that I’d done well out of the situation: that I was the cuckoo that had pushed him out. I didn’t feel amused. So what if I had had pushed him out? I had suffered under his treatment of me and as such he wasn’t deserving of his role. My responsibility and my workload increased dramatically.

After that I didn’t speak to him again, and I hardly saw him: I had to engineer my movements to avoid his. I heard that he still worked alone with women: some as young as Transition Year. It made my blood boil. I felt my efforts had been a complete waste. I wished to goodness he’d been fired, but in the kind of organisation I worked in, someone with a permanent contract could only be gotten rid of through death.

Meanwhile, because the Great Boss specifically didn’t like the Manager left remaining above my grade, he cut the project I was working on off from him and thereby left me alone with no department to belong to. I worked quietly and independently and I seriously loved the nature of the work. I was glad I no longer had to work with the man who had harassed me.  I was told to report to a Higher Manager (instead of a Supervisor or a Manager now), but he knew that my work was a personal pet project of the Great Boss and who would therefore have nothing to do with itThus he offered me no support whatsoever, and referred everything upwards to The Great Boss.

“Out of the frying pan and into the fire!” another commentator chuckled to me.

The Great Boss was largely suspicious and untrusting of me, as he was of everyone else, though he seemed to value my work in a twisted way. When I phoned to discuss maternity leave, he told me angrily that it wasn’t his problem that I’d got “up the pole”. At a social occasion, in front of horrified friends from outside the organisation, he told my partner in a seemingly jovial way that he’d better not get me pregnant again.

Because I had no Supervisor or Manager, and the Higher Manager I was supposed to answer to wouldn’t have anything to do with me because he was so terrified to touch a project that he saw as the Great Boss’s baby, I had to report directly to the Great Boss. And I had the audacity to propose Ideas. I suggested technological new solutions and creative approaches to raise funds and dynamic ideas to achieve tasks.

My attempts to upgrade time-honoured traditions made him apoplectic. He yelled at me, cursed at me, slammed down books in temper at me, spittled at me in rage, snarled at me that I was “not paid to think”. He referred to other staff that I spoke up for as “nobodies” and warned me not to let the “grubby paws” of people he didn’t like near the project that he saw as his.

In meetings, because my persistence and my challenges to his inaccuracies and his utter rudeness made everyone uncomfortable, I was frozen out by Managers, or I was told outright not to upset him: that he was, after all, The Great Boss.

Oh how totally they believed in the hierarchy.

Because to see through the illusion of his position would be to cast doubt on their own.

When the end of my Fixed Term Contract loomed in the new year, the Great Boss and the Higher Manager promised me they would move earth moon and stars to get it extended. They told me to plan the upcoming calendar year’s budget as if I would still be working there. But three months into that year I got a letter to my home thanking me for my service. It came with no forewarning, no meeting, no courtesy from anyone in management in phone or in person to confirm to me that actually, sorry, they’d done nothing to save my contract. The Great Boss himself had just retired with no warning and nobody in the Hierarchy wanted anything to do with his legacy. The project I worked on so devotedly was nothing but a poison chalice.

The dismay was sickening, better off and all as I knew I would be to get out of that toxic organisation.

This was all bad enough but the project was in full swing with its objectives for that year, because the Great Boss and Higher Manager had instructed me to go ahead with them. I had contractors appointed and interns newly in place. I had to sit them all down and tell them they their contracts couldn’t be honoured now and their positions had to be cancelled. I felt I was leaving the project like a veritable can of worms, not much better than how I’d found it.

And I was half way through a PhD research project based solely on my dayjob. I was going to have to give that up too.

The Union were very kind and told me I’d worked there long enough to make an application for a Contract of Indefinite Duration (in other words a permanent contract, but nobody was allowed to call it that). I should have been offered one in the first place. I told them eventually that I didn’t have the heart to fight anymore. I had given my all to my job and my family needed a better version of me. I needed a better version of me.

Near the end I had an email from my old supervisor. The man who had sexually harassed me. It was the first contact since the Formal Complaint. It was cheerful and friendly. He wanted to meet me – he’d heard I was leaving and felt he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t get to meet me and say sorry. He could spin over and meet me in my office, or we could go for tea he said. So chillingly lighthearted and breezy. I couldn’t accept there was any sincerity in it. I had been given to understand he was told not to approach me. Through the Investigation, I’d established I never wanted to speak to him and did not want to receive an apology. Clearly he felt absolved of all wrongdoing now that I was being let go.

I told him never to contact me again.

If his startling, uncalled-for and unexpected email was a knife in my back, the Higher Manager twisted it. Before I left, he called me to his office for a chat. Seeing as how the Great Boss had left, the project could be handed back to its former department now. As I was leaving, they had decided to put my former supervisor back in charge of it: as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

How would I feel about debriefing him?

The man who had sexually harassed me?

The man who’d been absolved of his duties because of his behaviour? They wanted to reinstate the perpetrator and they wanted me to debrief him?

I believe I said: “over my dead body”.

My cheeks thundered red for the rest of that day, at the shock that was piled on the shock of losing my job, at the reminder of what I’d been through and how pointless my Formal Complaint had been.

I knew then that despite all my hard work, my enthusiasm and devotion, nobody in the Hierarchy really gave a shit about my welfare or my contribution. They didn’t even care about the project; that, as I outlined, was a poison chalice. All that mattered was the Hierarchy and the entitlement it seemed to afford to some.

Like many before me I walked away from there, helpless and alone and scarred from the experience.  I walked back through the public face of those achingly beautiful buildings, an outsider again, a member of the public, my privileged access revoked for good.

I was left to wonder what good any of it had done. I thought of the many beautiful people I had met and the gorgeous sense of purpose many of us had shared, even if the Hierarchy hadn’t. We truly made the best of a seething, sorry mess, even if it broke my heart to have to close the “Staff Only” door on what was to remain a sorry mess.

As if to keep the workplace a mess was the Hierarchy’s right.

*Postscript November 2017


At the time that I published this blog post, last February, I was miserable with morning sickness and weary of hearing my former employer, the National Museum of Ireland, come under fire with news reports of its toxic work environment. When I read an online comment that it surely couldn’t be THAT bad in there, I bristled. The news reports weren’t describing a fraction of how bad I knew it was in there.

I felt triggered.

So in an effort to come to terms with my experience of 8 years of working there, I sat down to write this story. Thinking of this place, reading anything associated with it, even relating to any of my friends who had worked there or still do triggers a sense of trauma I know I still haven’t fully dealt with, so I wrote it with a sense of distance. I veiled my story, if thinly. I wanted my story to be something of a cautionary tale, as I tried to outline the problems of hierarchical work structures and how they might contribute to such terrible work relations: so I called it a “fable”.

I did not – nay, could not – pepper my personal blog with names that are triggers for me. I would not have been able to write it in the cathartic way I needed to if I did.

I wrestle, at the same time, with the need for clarity, as is highlighted currently in the #MeToo campaign and the question of naming perpetrators is raised: I see my blog post get read and shared, and I notice that some have to try guess the name of the institution, and may find themselves speculating as to names, so I write this postscript to clarify.


The institution is the National Museum of Ireland.


The “great boss” is its former director, PF Wallace.

The “supervisor” who harassed me is a member of the Irish Antiquities division, named Andy Halpin

Update here: https://kettleontherange.com/2017/11/09/vomiting-slugs-to-tell-full-truths/




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There once was a woman who didn’t know what to do with all her iPhone photos

There was once a woman who lived …  on a hill…. she had so many photos she didn’t know what to do …

I have possibly upwards of 100,000 digital photographs. They’re stashed on cloud storage facilities like Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Images, that I don’t remember the passwords for. They’re stashed on breakable hard-drives. They’re suffocating my iPhone.

I am digitally drowning.

Worse than that (I think) are the several thousands of digital images that I’ve lost over the past few years. Stashes were vanquished when one of my hard-drives slid out of my hand onto the desk below and never worked again. I also lost all the digital files from my indefinitely-paused archaeology PhD research when it happened. (That was the end of that.)

One old iPhone fell heavily against the old stone walls of our house when I waved it a little too vigorously – as if to improve the hopeless phone signal where we live – and I lost all the thousands of photos on that.

Another old iPhone won’t charge and I can’t access the thousands of photographs on that.

A few months ago, all the recent-ish photos I’d stashed on my laptop to make space on my storage-choked current iPhone were lost when I closed the lid on said laptop a little too firmly –  because our useless WiFi kept dropping! and its hard drive packed it in.

I don’t seem to practice taking good care of my technology.

And despite an old job I used to have where I was responsible for unprecedented archives of archaeological collections, I have no practice of collating my own digital photographs.

Even though I love my iPhone photographs. My iPhone is really a camera to me, with a phone facility attached that I hardly ever use because hey, the signal in our house is so bad anyway. I use cool apps to edit my photos to make what are to me beautiful images of the life I live in. One of the last things I do at the end of every day is flick through the photos I took that day, as if to distil my day into an aesthetic of memory. It’s a rare day that I don’t take any. I don’t even go to the clothes line in our back yard without my phone in hand (or thrown on top of the basket of laundry) in case I miss a Fleeting Beautiful Sight. And it could happen!

I do use Instagram, on five different accounts, sporadically and agonisingly. I tend to only publish what I consider my loveliest images, or those that fit the narrative I like to portray. Then months as later I look back over the images “from the cutting-room floor”, as it were, I wonder – why did I not share those? These were good too. I share even less on Facebook (though I do use Facebook in inconsistent bouts of activity, depending on mood and WiFi.)

Which leaves me, at the end of 2016, with 3,351 images on my iPhone and no space to take any more, unless I delete Shazam again as a temporary measure, and that’s just inconvenient.

And what to do then? Try to painstaking upload a few hundred to cloud storage, if I remember the passwords, where they will languish unseen and effectively lost?


Time to publish, and be damned.

In new blog posts I stash, via the WordPress app on my phone (whilst there is still space for it), images I clear from my iPhone. Some are already on Instagram, or Facebook. Most are not. As I share them I delete them from my phone, reward it some well-deserved digital space and consider myself absolved of a responsibility towards curating them.

I also endeavor to do this in the interests of giving this sorely neglected blog some visual narrative in a new theme of Kettle PicturesClick the link to see, and the new category of the same name is in the tabs above.

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Kettle Pictures – When Spring Crept in 

An installment of Kettle Pictures – a gallery of the sporadic pretty moments as seen by my iPhone and me.

These images below are from early 2016, when Spring crept in.

On our new gigantic blue beanbag

Pregnant sheep waiting for breakfast

John the farm cat loves the sheep shed (cos it’s warm in there)

The sheep maternity hotel

Newborn lambs let out to the field for the first time

Aoife lets the hens out in the morning

John the farm cat likes to knock over the Buddha so that HE can sit on the manhole cover

Movie afternoon on the Gigantic Blue Beanbag

We get a visit from a special visitor – new baby Eoghan

Lamb birthing in all its glory

Brand new Mamma Sheep

On the Victorian red rocking chair until they break it again

Eating at the edge of the room where they can see the TV in the other room

Spring sunrise at The Hill

Our three farmcats: Puffin, John and Whiskers

Sunrise triplet lambs

Sheep family No 7

Mamma Sheep in the frosty morning

Sheep Family No 2 – triplets

Bringing in kindling for the fire


Aoife delivers her first lamb

They spent the money they got from my second cousin in Ken Blacks in Carlow


We notice a beautiful stained glass window in Arro Smyths in Enniscorthy


Reading a poem in the window of Toffee & Thyme cafe, Enniscorthy

Posting orders from Colm’s online shop Irish Archaeology Shop

Spot the cat?

We visit Wells House with our friends

I love this photo. Quinn and the staff goat at Well House

They took their wishing very seriously at Wells House

Pensive rest in the forest at Wells House

Wagon spins in the back yard

The hens love the sheep shed too

Feeding the pet lambs with friends

Taking special care of Andy

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Aoife Day: opting out of first Holy Communion for her own kind of Special Day

Saturday 14th May 2016 was my 37th birthday (yes, THIRTY-SEVEN), but this day was not about me.

It was all about my daughter, Aoife (8).

It was: “AOIFE DAY.”


The idea for ‘Aoife Day’ came about when Aoife and I spoke about her not partaking in the First Holy Communion event with her school, and she decided she wanted to have a special kind of day for herself, in her own way. (I write about the background to that decision below).

It turned out to be a beautifully special day for us all: we rather spontaneously made it a significant coming of age kind of day. As I look back on that day, now as she moves into third class in her school, she does seem to have grown up a lot and left what we called “early childhood” ways behind.

It was also very wonderful and fun and totally freeform.

This is what we did on Aoife Day:

We had no real plans until a few days before. Aoife came up with  a list of ideas of what she wanted to do:

  • Get Up Real Early (to make the most of the day)
  • Go to the Heritage Park
  • Get Presents

She wanted the theme of the day to be “Nature-ly” as she put it – that is, she wanted us to do lots of Outside Things.

She basically wore her wellies all day!

She also wore a perfect and adorable fairy dress made out of unspeakably soft fleece, which Colm spotted on Facebook just the week before. He bought it to support a fellow archaeologist and thought maybe it would be suitable for her to wear on Aoife Day. How unbelievably perfect it turned out to be! (The dress was made by Bee Free Kids Clothing).

SO, in photos, this is what Aoife did.


We got up Real Early (she was up and bustling about excitedly at 6AM), we had a quick breakfast and went for a walk to the nearby stream. One of those simple things we’d been promising to do for the last two years.


We brought some light snacks for a makeshift picnic, at the stream, and collected some freshwater in a flask. They spotted tiny invisible fish (I couldn’t see any! I never believe them when they say they can see fish) and they played Pooh Sticks over the bridge.


Colm showed them an old neighbouring mill ruin and explained how it would have worked, and pointed out tree species and plants and basically nerded about archaeology and nature to them in the way that they know and love.


Colm carried her back through the long grass to mind her dress – I love this photo so much, because they are wearing the same expression: both refusing to look at the camera, and waiting wearily for me to get out of their way 😉


Here she and her brother Beineán (5) are holding buttercups under their chins (you know that old trick of checking whether the buttercup reflects a yellow glow under the chin? If it does, you like butter. They found out that they both, do, in fact, like butter.)


On the way back they looked for feathers.  She found two, which she is holding here. (I am holding cow parsley for display in our home).


We came home from our walk and had our second breakfast – she requested chips. For breakfast. And it being Aoife Day, she got chips for breakfast. (I somehow did not photograph that.)

Before we would leave for the National Heritage Park, for Part 2 of her special day, we had to tend to some farm jobs of course. Aoife fed her three pet lambs, same as every other day.



If you’ve never been to the Irish National Heritage Park, you should go. We are fortunate to live just 15 minutes away. It’s beautifully thought out and fabulously built – all of the buildings got painstakingly renovated or rebuilt recently, so for all its ancientness, it’s all wonderfully fresh and new. It really brings archaeology to life, and is set in a natural wonderland.  Aoife and Beineán love so much just to run there.

First things, first, Aoife wanted ice-cream. So on Aoife Day, she got ice-cream.

Here she is eating her ice-cream in 8000BC, the Mesolithic:


Still eating her ice-cream 4000 years later at the Neolithic House:


Ice-cream was long-since consumed, along with a feed of more chips in the restaurant (it was Aoife Day, after all), by the time the Vikings came:


And then there was time for another picnic, inside the actual (not replica) Anglo-Norman promontory fort overlooking Slaney Harbour.


Here they are watching baby moorhens:


On the raised walkway through the wetlands, she found another feather.


The Heritage Park offers archery, and we usually scurry them along to the next thing away from it (thinking them too young) but on Aoife Day, she was not missing out. Getting to do archery was a dream come true for her (really, it was one of those things she tended to pester us about). The attendant there was so helpful and encouraging to them both. They loved it, and instead of skipping the Gift Shop like we usually do afterwards, because it was Aoife Day we let them both choose something and Aoife selected her own bow and arrow to take home.

Just look at this cool archer chick on her sunshiney “Aoife Day”.



Well, part 3 was invoked already at the Heritage Park when they were allowed to choose something at the Gift Shop, but this was not to take the place of the thrill and rareness (actually, never-ness) of also going to Ken Black’s massive toy shop to pick out something “just cos”. (How much better can this day get?!) I decided not to be seen to impose any limits on them whilst they were choosing, instead waiting to see if they would focus on something expensive, and as it turned out they both selected toys that were within reason anyway.

She got lego, and he got a transformer.

And they were so happy! Can you tell?



Back home that evening, Aoife wanted to have supper outside by a campfire. On the spur of the moment, I had the idea for Aoife to pick a special tree somewhere near the house, that would be “her” tree from that day on. She chose this Laurel tree in the back yard, and I hung the pink canopy I found in a charity shop from it, for her to relax in. Colm made the campfire nearby and we had another picnic (with wine for Colm and me) whilst the sun went down.


To close the day, we decided to make up a little “nature-ly” magic for our wild little fairy girl.

Colm had the spontaneous idea of marking the day as a kind of growing-up milestone where she leaves her first phase of childhood behind and grows into her new phase (from now until she is a teenager). Near the campfire, before it got dark, we brought together some things we’d gathered that day, in a circle: the water from the stream in the morning, the feathers they’d found, a rose quartz stone she’d picked up for her collection (she loves rose quartz and keeps a stash in a fence outside the back door) and we lit a candle in a new candle holder we picked up at the garden centre that week because it was so orange, her favourite colour.

She stood inside the circle and the rest of us held hands, also in circle around her. We walked around her three times, ring-a-ring-a-rosie style: one… two… three!


After three times round, we decided she could hop out of the circle and into her new phase of life. We gave her an idea of some new responsibilities this meant for her, and I swear her cheeks were beaming pink and rosy when she hopped back out of the circle and into her Daddy’s arms and mine. (Her little brother, who was starting to get a antsy about being left out of all this growing up stuff, was given an honourary title of FireBoy whereby he has responsibility to help gather firewood and, under supervision, he gets to throw the wood into the fire sometimes too. That made him very happy.)

We all beamed, and still bask in the glow of spending an entire day of totally honouring this child in our own simple, freeform way: celebrating her, in her own individuality.


Opting out of The Communion

Colm and I come from backgrounds steeped in Catholic culture, like most people we know, but as a family we don’t “practise:” we don’t go to Mass. I grew up loving the rituals of going every week, to light candles, to visit family graves, to see and be seen. We did baptise our children, without thinking too much about it. In no way did we have courage or energy to consider not doing it at the time, and the days were significant and memorable in certain ways. (The priest in a Dublin church where our daughter was Christened did – very sweetly and kindly – point out that we ought to be married, and gently encouraged me to prioritise making plans for that.) (We are still unmarried.) 

But now in adulthood, I reject it as an organisation that is more interested in protecting itself than anything or anyone it is supposed to represent. The church’s nigh-on-hostile engagement with the Tuam Babies situation was the final straw for me.

My small daughter already knows in simple, broad terms about how the church treated women throughout the Mother and Baby Home years: she traipsed around the Tuam Babies burial site with us many times, she asked a hundred questions and I answered her as honestly and as simply as I could.

Whether or not I approve of the Catholic Church, my children certainly do live among its cultural framework.  Like the majority of schools in the country, their schooling, by its very design, is flavoured with prayer and holy pictures. As archaeologists and as admirers of beautiful buildings with stories to tell, Colm and I actually happen to visit churches a lot with them. It amuses me that both my children know the story of the pictures “Stations of the Cross” that hang in every Catholic Church, better than I ever did, from the many times they’ve hung around waiting for me and Colm to take photographs. We spend even more time in graveyards, photographing old headstones and researching family history.

Catholic symbolism is everywhere. I grew up so deeply with it I can explain it and discuss it when my children when they ask. I teach them the archaeology of it, and that churches and priests and Mass and Communion bread are important to people. 

One day when she was seven, Aoife and I discussed our church involvement, as I was hanging clothes on the washing line in the back yard.  

I told her my simplest bottom line: “they don’t let women be priests or make any decisions about anything. I just don’t support that.”

I told her I couldn’t, therefore, support the Communion ceremony preparations. She nodded. “I’ll have my own kind of special day.” It would be ‘Aoife Day’. And that was all.

Together we all began to feel our way through our decision to opt out. I had no idea what to expect. 

I felt nervous of offending other people, for whom the Communion seems to mean so much: as if our not doing might be perceived as was some kind of repudiation of their values. I mostly said nothing about any of it. 

For her part she had to explain herself a lot throughout the year, and still does in the aftermath, as many people obviously assume that a little girl her age, in a typical country National School, would have little else on her mind other than “The Communion.”

She wasn’t fazed. She told anyone who asked, crystal clear, “I’m not doing that”.

She got some confused silences, and I would hold my breath whilst she simply waited for her response to sink in. Most people didn’t ask any further, not even of me, standing there quavering, in utter contrast to the confident little girl beside me.

I did get some quizzical looks, and was even asked (out of Aoife’s earshot) about my own morality, and about the impact on Aoife’s life as an adult, but was able to reassure that I had no concerns about either.

My daughter took it all completely in her stride. Her school was very accommodating and considerate towards us. Aoife studied an extra maths book whilst the others prepared for Communion, and is now fully opted out of religious education in third class; I prepare some work for her to do at religion time. I will speak with my son, who is now in Senior Infants, about opting out when he is a little older, though he is already familiar with the idea through his big sister.

Our little family trundled on in our own world as usual.

Until “Aoife Day” 🙂 

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Words from Pennsylvania: Tuam Mother & Baby Home

Mam gets calls and visits all the time, from people directly affected by the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, and also by researchers in various fields  – human rights, social history, and anthropology, for example. Dr James A. Houck, whose research area is Pastoral Counseling, came to her from Neumann University in the United States.

He’s been teaching his students about what happened at Tuam, and told Mam about an essay that one of them, whose name is Emily, wrote about how the story affected her and how its legacy can be understood in terms of her own Psychology studies.

Mam deeply appreciated that a young person, as far away as Pennsylvania, was impacted with such empathy by what happened in the Mother and Baby Homes system, and asked me to post her words here (with permission).


“Tuam: Ireland’s Shame” By Emily, in Philadelphia

“My initial reaction to watching the documentary on the 800 babies uncovered from the mass grave was sadness. I was greatly disturbed watching the people gather outside the gates of the institution to hang baby’s shoes and teddy bears on them and hearing the speakers talk about how these women and children must have felt. These homes were supposed to be a safe haven for these girls but instead it made them feel as if they had done something wrong by bringing their child into this world. I have mixed feelings about what went on in these homes, most of it anger and sadness. I felt as if I could really feel the pain those women felt when I was watching the documentary and it moved me to tears. I can’t believe the public could let this go on for so long, and that these women had to suffer because they couldn’t stand up for themselves. They were put in a powerless position where they thought everything happening to them was their fault, but they shouldn’t have been ashamed. They shouldn’t have been abused. These places that were run to help the women even took away their children and mistreated them too, many to the point of death.

The children, supposed products of shame, were treated in the same manner as their mothers and that’s what I truly can’t stand. It’s almost as if the nuns who were supposed to care for them were just passing the shame on to the next generation. The operation these houses had was all about bringing the women in to have her child, sending the women off to work after, and putting the child in an orphanage. That’s sick. A lot of those children who were adopted probably didn’t even know they had a mother. It’s sad to think of the level of mental and emotional abuse that went on in these places, kept secret because of shame. It’s a complete disregard for human rights and it’s shocking that the nuns who are responsible had no morals against what they were doing.

The most emotional part of the documentary was at the end when the film was scrolling through all the recorded names, ages, and causes of death of the children who were at the homes. Reading the ages of the children being lost was heartbreaking, many of them didn’t even live a year, some not even a month, or a week. In my opinion it was not the nun’s job to decide if the lives of those children and mothers were shameful or not. And it absolutely wasn’t their right to improperly bury the children. One life should not be any less valuable than the next, and it’s unfortunate that so many children and mothers had to suffer and die for so long before someone said something.

The people of Ireland didn’t want to bring up the subject of the mistreatment and death of the children at first because they probably didn’t want to accept responsibility for their history. But the popularity of how unjust the situation is only rising, and the history that the people of Tuam were trying to forget is slowly being uncovered again. It’s understandable why they wouldn’t want to talk about what had happened, after all the shame is now for a different reason. Instead of being ashamed for having unwed women giving birth to a child, they are now ashamed for how they treated these women and their children. The history may not be what they want to hear, but it is still history none the less. I hope the recognition of these wrongs and the acknowledgement of the deaths will somehow bring peace to the town and it’s victims.

This subject is relevant to several of the psychology themes covered this semester. One of the most prominent connections deals with the subject of trauma and how people deal with traumatic events. The discovery of the mass grave in Tuam would be a very traumatic event for the modern day people living in Ireland and it would have been even more traumatic for those who were experiencing the abuse and neglect during that time.

What I’ve learned from class is that there is a theory behind trauma and it is that trauma can be relieved by the individual talking about it. Often times what happens is the abused or traumatized person or people will hold onto their feelings and emotions, which is bad for them. This repression of what happened makes the person think they are moving on by forgetting what happened, but the truth is the issue has to be addressed for the trauma to go away. The same can be sad for the victims, family members, and residents of Tuam. The people there have repressed and refused to address what had happened to those women and children all those years ago, and in doing so they have not really gotten over the events that plague their mind. Repression doesn’t work for emotional memories such as what happened in Tuam. In finding a voice about the situation, it can hopefully help ease the town’s conscious about the discovery of the children’s graves.

Another point in the story that can relate to something covered in psychology class is the the cognitive distortion of fairness. Fairness and doing what one believes is right had a lot to do with what went wrong in Tuam. There are actually several cognitive distortions that can be related and applied to the events that occurred there. The distorted thinking of “being right” is a huge factor in what happened inside the mother and baby homes. The nuns who ran the facilities were so focused thinking they were doing the best thing for the mother and her child that they went so far as to deny them the basic human rights. They couldn’t see that what they were doing was wrong, because in their mind the mother’s sin of having a child with no husband was greater than how they were treating them. They were blind to how immoral their actions were because in their mind, they weren’t doing anything wrong.

Many of the mothers of the children also probably suffered from the cognitive distortion of “emotional reasoning”. These women were shunned and abused, and the emotions they felt from being treated this way must have made them feel extremely guilty even though they truly had nothing to be guilty about. After being emotionally abused for so long, they probably began to think that the guilt and shame they felt was their own fault, which is terribly sad. The cognitive distortion “fallacy of fairness” applies greatly to what happened in Tuam as well. The nuns running these homes saw their rules and regulations as fair. They thought putting these women to work for no pay was a fair exchange for them allowing them to have their child in their home. They also thought it was fair to separate the mother and child since the child was a product of shame, and to malnourished and mistreat the child since he/she was not worthy of the same life a child with two parents had. Their warped views of what was fair treatment and what wasn’t created an ongoing chain of events that was hard for many single mothers and their children to escape at the time. The women must have felt powerless to the system at the time.

Memory and how people remember what happened the events in Tuam can also relate to Psychology class. The kinds of episodic memories being retained by these women and children would have haunted them the rest of their lives. In thinking about what happened to them day after day they would have practically permanently engraved their negative experiences into their memories. The trauma attached to those memories might be repressed, but it could easily be brought back with a trigger.

It is extremely sad what happened to so many single mothers and their children in Tuam Ireland, and what’s even more sad is that many people today are still prejudiced against single mothers and young mothers. Hopefully someday people will be able to understand and learn from the past and see that being a single mother is nothing to feel guilty about, nor should it be a sign that they or their children are any less of a person because if it.

Works Cited

Howard, M. (2014, June 19). Tuam Ireland’s Shame Documentary. Retrieved April 26, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlZAWtQ-rTs

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The Vegan Sheep Farmer



With the first lamb of 2016

OK, I am not totally vegan. I am aspirational vegan. I don’t eat meat, and I avoid dairy and eggs: as time goes by it feels more and more natural to me to live without any kind of food from animals, and maybe some day I will eat strictly vegan food and will describe myself as simply vegan.

Like Moby does. (I love Moby!)

I don’t eat meat because I lost the taste for it. I can barely tolerate it cooking now.  This occurred in recent years: almost as soon as I got seriously into yoga, here in Wexford. Prior to that I always wanted to be vegetarian: my sister and my mother both are, because they don’t want to eat animals. I also did not want to eat animals, but I was too lazy to learn about vegetarian cooking and had never been exposed to great vegetarian food until I met my yoga teacher.

Suddenly I was craving delicious food like spinach, and aubergines, and asparagus. I didn’t “have” to eat meat anymore to feel like I was having a taste-rich dinner. Hurrah!

Exactly at the time that I was getting into yoga and vegetarian food and not wanting to eat animals anymore, Colm was building up a sheep farm. Suddenly my home was a place where we raised animals for the meat factory.

So it is Colm who is the true sheep farmer. As I’ve written before, (see my blog post about The Raddle and the Ram) the sheep farm started off just with four sheep. It was supposed to be a hobby (I thought). Colm was an archaeologist, remember! I still don’t know where his sheep-farming dreams (and skills, mind) came from. The four sheep became forty sheep and all now have lambs (well, except for one: except for Fairy the sheep. More about her another time).

I now live on a proper, sizeable sheep farm.

At first I ignored it. Even when it got busy, I didn’t hesitate about leaving Colm behind and hightailing to Galway to see my family. “Nothing to do with me, I’m not a sheep farmer, I don’t want anything to do with this!”  

But as anyone who knows sheep-farming can tell you, lambing time is a very tiring, intense, and sensitive time. Colm was up to his eyes, supervising healthy new lambs and taking care of delicate arrivals. With a lot of care and vigilance, delicate baby lambs can pull through fine. Without it, they can die.

Last year I realised that if I was around and on board, I could be of help to Colm and to the health of the lambs and their mothers. Colm would go to bed after midnight and set his alarm to get up during the night, so I offered to do the 6AM check throughout the three-week lambing period. From then on throughout the day, somebody, Colm, or me, or the kids, would check the shed every half hour, or any time we went outside.

It became addictive to keep hopping out to the shed just to take a look. This Easter, I didn’t go on my travels to Galway, because it was lambing season. I stayed, and got stuck in.














I would find myself wandering out to the sheep shed to be awestruck at a birth happening right before my eyes. I learned to watch for signs that a mother was about to “yean” (give birth, or “lamb”.) I fetched Colm, and watched with him, as he hung back to see if he thought the mother needed assistance, and I held my breath as he stepped in to pull out an unresponsive lamb, only to get it breathing by splashing cold water on its nose, or swinging it carefully to get its lungs working. I began to get the water ready for him ahead of time, and to fetch a basin of clean water and dettol if he needed to assist.

I gasped in delight as I got to carry newborn sticky, yellow, hardy, bleating lambs from the lambing shed to clean pens, the mother trotting fussily alongside. We set down minutes-old new lives onto the straw, their strong legs splaying awkwardly underneath them until they learned how to stand up properly on them, nudging their mothers undersides for the teat.

And I would fuss too, as good as any sheep, over pets who became our charges for hand-rearing.

I cried and cried when lambs died. (I notice I cry a lot on this blog.) A fox took one, a mother sat on one of her triplets, and we lost some weaklings, including two pets (Arabella and Andy.)

I cried more when Colm sold one of our pets to another farmer one day while I was away in Dublin. That farmer’s sheep had lost her lambs, and he hoped to get her to adopt our pet. (Colm had intended to sell two of the pets to him, but he kept one back when I freaked out over the phone).

I came back to the farm and sat with the then-remaining pets (Alfie and Aideen), my head in my hands in the corner of their pen. My eight-year-old daughter looked in over the gate and chided me:

“Mammy, don’t be so upset. Jim Bob needed Amelia more than we did, or his sheep would’ve gotten sick without a lamb to feed!”

She was right. A mother sheep can get mastitis if her lamb dies. It happened one of ours last year. I allowed myself to grieve the little pet we’d nursed to good health, and dried my eyes and got out of the pen to follow my no-nonsense child back into the house.


Three of the pets

My children don’t seem to get so attached as I do: though we were all very upset when Andy died. He was a little darling pet with clubbed feet and couldn’t feed from his mother. He had these woolly long locks on the side of his face which my daughter said made him look Victorian. He had been fine, so fine, but Colm found him unconscious one day when it rained. We massaged him, and warmed him with hot water bottles and the hairdryer, and he came round and bleated and cried out but he never got  well. He died that night.

“You can’t mind them, you just can’t mind them,” my mother lamented to me on the phone when I told her about Andy. Lambs will always die, every year, without warning, she reminded me, remembering to me the casualties we’d had when I was growing up. My sister wrote a poem about the loss of her pet lamb when she was nine.

Oh yes, I grew up with sheep farming. That’s also why I was so sure  that I didn’t want to be a sheep farmer.

It is so rewarding when they survive though. And it is so utterly miraculous to watch them being born! It is joyous to walk among them as the sprock in the field, and it is hilarious to watch them grow into marauding adolescent sheep who travel the field in packs. It is infuriating to have them escape their boundaries to get into our garden and eat our vintage rose bush.

They fill our days with raw delights and raw challenges.

For now they have only just begun to roam a bit more independently from their mothers. Soon they will be teenager sheep, and then towards the end of the Summer they will be quite grown, almost indistinguishable from their mothers but for their junior fleeces, and Colm and his brother will begin to single them out for the factory.

This is the part that my parents and me skipped out of our consciousness when I was growing up. When lambs were being sold, we were told they were being sold to “another farmer”  – usually in Donegal, for some reason. Even now if I speak to my parents about this, they say they didn’t like to think about the truth of where the sheep went to. My mother is vegetarian herself, after all. I think they convinced themselves, not just us, that the sheep went to Donegal.

Colm has no moral quandary: he is what I would describe as a responsible meat-eater. Mostly the meat that is cooked in our house is beef (and some days we all actually eat vegetarian cooking anyway), and he does not divorce his awareness from the animals that this meat comes from (we can get quality local beef from Staffords Butcher Shop and Wilton Mills Farm Foods in Enniscorthy). No sheep meat in this house so far: the factory that will buy our sheep will sell their meat to France.

With his own sheep, Colm is proud that they have a  very good life and are very well taken care of until it is time for them to be called in from the field for good. He genuinely enjoys his time working with them up until this end.


Lambs on the Hill

The sheep have been given a purpose in coming to life here, and I do not deny that their presence is so fulfilling in our lives.

But I stop short at even attempting to consider that age-old ethical question of farming: that if we weren’t raising them for the meat-eaters, they would never have been born.

I can’t easily reconcile that.

On the day that they are grown enough to leave us,  I will climb up on the wheel of the trailer to look in at them, herded together, seemingly clueless about their destiny. All I can do is say farewell and thanks to them for having known them, and Colm will know not to try and reassure me, but will instead join me in a moment of solemnity and gratitude.

I’ll think of their births, their play on the hillside, the challenges and the joy they brought us, and don’t mind me if I cry.

I wonder what would Moby say?

We post farming photographs on our farming Instagram account @The_Hill_Farm


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Considering the Burial ground – Tuam Babies

Whenever I visit my parents in my homeplace near Tuam, I catch up with Mam’s ongoing work to research the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. I’ve seen the multiple and varied representations of the burial ground that have been published in the media over the past year, and here I try to outline what I know of the ground myself.

The site today alongside 1905/6 OS map revision

The site today alongside 1905/6 OS map revision

Above ground, there seems to be little evidence as to what lies beneath. If you visit the site – and you should, to get a sense of it alongside the maps and images here – you’ll find a walled-off corner of the open space at the back of houses in the residential estate, built here after the Home was demolished. It has two gates leading into it. Galway County Council put the wall and the little gates there, knowing what the space was, but nothing else.

At the Burial Ground

At the Burial Ground

It was locals who got a plaque put up at one of the gates. They knew enough to know that there were burials here, and that there were children, and it was with this in mind that they genuinely, lovingly preserved this corner the way they did. The plaque anonymously reads:

“In loving memory of those buried here”

The wall is arbitrary. I quake at this, because there is evidence that a significant section of the rough-surface laneway that curves around the wide open space at the back of the houses also lies over burials.

This is obvious on a 1971/72 Galway County Council planning map: the full area of the “burial ground”, as it was demarcated on the map, is clearly shown.

1971/2 Council Archival Map showing full extent of burial ground

1971/2 Council Archival Map showing full extent of burial ground

The walled-off green plot with its plaque corresponds with a squarish projection of this. And the alignment (east-west) of the access laneway corresponds exactly with the longitudinal section. It seems that they walled off the squared end of the plot only.

It was around here that Mary Moriarty, and separately, Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney fell in. (Philip Boucher-Hayes gives an insightful outline of their accounts here and here.) The ground was already known for being unsteady, as sometime earlier, Mary’s niece had also fallen down through some kind of cavity in the ground here. Mam spoke to her recently, and heard she’d been clearing a spot of brambles to make a ‘kitchen’ to play in.  She pulled up a root, and to her terror, the ground fell in.


Both sites marked out in red by me, as it is today

I personally heard Mary give her own account. She had gone to the site to investigate the source of tiny skulls brought to her attention by children playing in the area. The area was not demarcated as a burial ground at this time: it was an overgrown wilderness, as you can see from the contemporary aerial photograph.

Site of former Mother & Baby Home, aerial shot 1970s

Site of former Mother & Baby Home, aerial shot 1970s

This is it zoomed in to focus on the “burial ground” (compare with the maps above).

Mother & Baby Home burial site aerial shot, 1970s

Mother & Baby Home burial site aerial shot, 1970s

From this photograph – and of course from the archival map –  it is obvious that whoever devised the building plans for the new use of the area as a residential estate made sure to avoid development of the burial ground.

Full extent of Burial Ground at rear of Mother & Baby Home

Full extent of Burial Ground area at rear of Mother & Baby Home

Gardaí came to see the site in the 1970s when Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney fell in. The area was quietly covered over, and the boys were told not to play there again.

When Mary fell through the ground, she saw swaddled bundles – she called them ‘parcel-eens‘: little parcels of babies, their swaddles now in rags. They they seemed to be laid in rows.  It must have been a frightening, disturbing experience. Mary went and fetched her neighbour Julia Devaney, whom Mary knew had been raised in and lived much of her adult life in the Home.

I feel like I know Julia, though I never met her; she died in 1985. Julia was born in 1916 and had arrived at the Home with the Bon Secours in 1925. For most of her life she effectively worked as a long-term, unpaid servant at the Home. She gave an amazingly detailed testimonial about her experience of the Home to a forward-thinking neighbour of hers in Tuam.  I have read the transcriptions and from her story I form an impression of Julia as a resolute, resilient, philosophical woman.

Julia wasn’t surprised about what Mary saw. She remembered that this was the space used to bury babies from the Home, and indeed told Mary that she herself had been instructed to bring them there.

“Many a little one I put in there,” is what she told Mary.

She’d had to enter the makeshift burial chamber by a passage that lead down steps from the back of the Home building.

I imagine her, acting out her orders to walk through this dark gloomy underworld. The thought feels macabre.

Well, it was macabre. Her trek to this spot was through an elaborate, disused red brick Victorian sewerage system.

I can’t help but wonder about another anecdote I’ve heard, about witnesses who saw burials take place above ground. There were houses overlooking the grounds of the Mother and Baby Home, and locals could see when burials took place.

“Get down on your knees and say the rosary,” a mother would instruct her children, standing by the upstairs window in her own house.  “There is another one dead in there tonight.”

It would happen at evening time, dusk.

I imagine the underground chambers reconstituted somehow for oft-occurring death. When my mother told me, reading off contemporary newspaper entries, that the women (the Bon Secours nuns) charged with running the Home tendered in advance for coffins, I all but gasped.



The Commissioner acting for the Committee invites Tenders for the Supply of Coffins, Plainand Mounted, in Three Sizes, to the Children’s Home, Tuam, for One Year, from 1st April 1932.

Plain Coffins must be one inch thick, W.D., stained, in large, medium, and small sizes. Mounted Coffins must be of similar make and sizes, but Mounted with Electro-brassed Grips, Breastplate and Crucifix.

Tenders must be lodged with the undersigned before 4 o’clock, p.m., on Monday, 8th February, 1932.

By order,

J.J. Hanafin, Secretary, Secretary’s Office. 22nd January, 1932


It feels like deathly efficient forward-planning.

Mary saw no coffins.  Mam spoke to two men whose fathers won the tenders for providing coffins, a Mr Fahy and a Mr Dwyer. They were local carpenters, and they did make coffins for the Home, but certainly not in the quantities that we know would have been required. According to Mam, the coffins provided were simple boxes, lined with a white sheet.

I wonder if the coffins were used for older children, and the swaddles for infants.

And I make a guess. Did they inter the infants in the underground tunnel system, and secretively, in fading light, bury older children in the longer strip of ground – the area that is not even afforded a boundary wall now, but which is treated as a laneway?

When information about the extended area became known last year, media reports claimed it was a ‘second’ graveyardBut on the archival map drawing, the two sections are both part of the same demarcation for burial ground. The long section is not now enclosed, and it has since transmogrified into a laneway, shown in the photo above. The gated entrance to the much smaller section, the enclosed area we’ve been hearing all about since last June, is visible in the background.

Information sourced (see article by Conal O Faharta) regarding  infant mortality, falsified death certificates and child trafficking at  the Tuam and at Bessborough Mother and Baby Homes was so shocking, that already in 2012, before any of Mam’s research made headlines, the HSE made recommendation that “a fully fledged, fully resourced forensic investigation and State inquiry”  be launched.

A state inquiry is underway by now, and a full forensic investigation is the only way to definitively explain the exact nature of and extent of burial.

For further reading see:

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