The Last Christmas Party (for 2018) with Galway’s Forgotten Heroes

Recently I was invited to attend the Christmas Party of the staff of the Eglinton Direct Provision Accommodation Centre.

What used to be referred too as Asylum Seekers’ Accommodation Centres have got a bad press for many years. This is perfectly understandable when one realises that family members of all ages can live in a single room in an old hotel/hostel building, often occupied by one hundred to two hundred people from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, over a long period of time. There can be a loss of personal dignity and a feeling of being downgraded as a human being for the occupants of such a dwelling.  Quite a few of these adults and children have encountered war, death and persecution in their homelands and come to Ireland hoping to start a new and better life as quickly as possible.
Hence to find themselves living in such surroundings for a number of years can seriously impact on their wellbeing and on their relationships with others.
So it takes a very special type of person, that is endowed with a heightened awareness and sensitivity towards others, to work with people who may be fragile and vulnerable.
I can honestly say that the Eglinton staff have these qualities in abundance.
I started to work as a volunteer in this centre in 2004. Over the subsequent years, I have helped in setting up a well-equipped Computer Room, an onsite community organic garden, a residents’ committee, a library, a residents’ website and regular offsite recreational/educational activities for all ages.  I have also witnessed the establishment of a crèche, a games zone, the hosting of regular festive parties and excursions, and the active encouragement of involvement by bona fides external organisations and volunteers. None of these developments would have been possible without the generousity of spirit, the genuine sense of caring and concern displayed by the management and staff towards the residents who they treat as equals and indeed as friends.  It says everything when the Eglinton children refer to Anne, Carole and others on the front desk as ‘Auntie’.  For there is a genuine warmth and affection between most staff and residents that very few in the world outside would have ever thought possible in such surroundings.
In my professional capacity as a Science Education and Public Engagement Officer at NUI Galway, I have worked in many other Direct Provision Centres across Ireland. But I have never ever experienced the humanity displayed by the Eglinton staff who time and time again go over and above the call of duty in helping others.
So, as they at long last got to enjoy a late great Christmas Party, I was honoured to be with them in enjoying a night of food, drink and good cheer.
Finally, I join with the staff and residents in extending best wishes to the Eglinton general manager, the hardworking and benign Patrick McGovern, as we eagerly look forward to his return.

Join Monday Protest to demand Park Wardens for Galway city Parks

Public parks, woods and other green spaces are more and more recognised as essential to the health of people and to the wellbeing of the planet.
Sadly Galway city’s public parks are increasingly suffering from anti-social behaviour that is undermining all of the great work that has been undertaken over so many decades by volunteers of all ages. Issues such as litter, dumping, destruction of seating/tables and tree felling are undermining not only citizens’ enjoyment of our valuable green spaces but are also impacting negatively on wildlife species.
It is well past time that Galway city follows the centuries-old example of Dublin and Belfast in having dedicated full time park wardens. Such on-the-ground staff could regularly carry out essential maintenance, act as tour guides, dramatically decrease acts of vandalism and in the process restore public confidence and usage of a rich diverse range of meadows, forests, wetlands and parks that would be the envy of most other European cities.
 A motion from Councillor Mark Lohan in requesting such a full-time parks crew is on the agenda of the first meeting of Galway City Council in 2019, that starts at 2pm on next Monday (January 14th).
So we are asking all lovers of our urban green amenities to join us at 1.40pm outside the front door of City Hall and demand that all councillors support this critical motion that could make our parks and natural heritage areas as popular as St. Stephens’ Green or Phoenix Park in Dublin, Hampstead Heath in London or Central Park in New York.
Lets make a positive start to the New Year by having our publicly elected local politicians implement a policy that will positively transform our parks and natural heritage areas

Denizens of a Winter Wonderland: the Magical Hazel Tree.

I took this photo on the evening of St. Stephen's Day in Terryland Forest Park. It captures somewhat the mythical nature of the Hazel tree, with its catkins almost luminescent in the rising darkness.
The Hazel in Celtic mythology is associated with magic, wisdom and poetry. Its fruit- the hazel nut- was a great source of nourishment in ancient times and is still collected by local families in the autumn. Its wood was used for making furniture, fencing and wickerwork. In our community garden we have used it in conjunction with willow branches to make fences.
Druid wands were made from hazel. Because the tree grew near water, it also has strong connections with fertility. It was believed too that the source of Ireland's most scared rivers, Shannon and Boyne, were to be found at wells guarded by hazel trees whose nuts would impart great knowledge and magical prowess to those that eat them. Its twigs were used by diviners to locate water underground.

Keeping Alive best of Irish Xmas traditions

Cepta and myself have fond memories of our childhood Christmases and the stories that our parents told us of their own youthful days at this very special time of the year.  We did indeed experience many of the characteristics of today’s Christmas such as Santa Claus, a Christmas tree in the living room and special programmes on the TV station. Nevertheless it was then first and foremost a deeply religious festival of Christian thanksgiving which our parents expected us to respect and to observe.

In my father’s (& mother’s) time…
On winter evenings around the fireside, mom, dad and particularly my grandparents, would tell stories of their own harsh poverty-stricken Christmas in a rural Ireland before the era of plastic trees, glittering baubles, twinkling electric lights, expensive gifts and sumptuous festive dinners. In those bygone days they would get up early and gather branches from Holly (holy) trees in the hedgerows to decorate their homes. For them the thorns and red berries symbolised the bloodied crown of thorns of the crucified Jesus. But the sacredness of this native Irish tree goes back thousands of years earlier, when it was recognised as a protector of Nature, with its red berries providing a rare source of food to the birds in the depths of darkest winter, and a reminder too of the resurrection of life during the coming Spring.  Lots of families made their own wooden figures for Nativity scenes that were placed prominently in the kitchen and which was a microcosm of the larger crib in the local parish church (a custom introduced by Francis of Assisi during the European Middle Ages).
Morning mass, where they happily engaged with all the cousins and neighbours, was followed in the late afternoon by a family meal comprising exotic foodstuffs not consumed at any other time of the year. Before refrigeration, a key element was the Christmas pudding (kept in a recycled metal biscuit tin), comprising fruits that had been dried out and stored from the autumn harvest with a generous lashing of home distilled whiskey (poitín) even though my parents throughout their lives hardly ever drank alcohol (Dad was a lifelong ‘pioneer’).  As in the modern era, the main delicacy was poultry. But rather than the American-originated turkey, they usually had the luxury of enjoying one of their own geese. 
But in the lives of ordinary people, meat was then a rarity. It was only normally consumed on Sundays (the ‘Sunday roast’) and on important religious/seasonal festivals.
This celebratory meal was primarily a gathering for the extended family, when those bothers and sisters who had gone to work in Dublin or had emigrated to nearby Britain would, at least before they got married, try to travel home for the most important day in the Christian calendar.
As was the custom at the beginning of every mealtime in Irish Christian homes in times past, a prayer was recited in thanks for the food that was about to be served.
On Christmas night, a simple wax candle was lit and placed in the window. It represented the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ that guided the ‘wise men (possibly Zoroastrian magi from the land of or modern day Iraq or Iran), with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, to the livestock barn where the newborn baby lay.
In the days before rural electrification, it must have been an awe-inspiring sight for children to look across a darkened Irish countryside vibrating with small flickering candle-lights emanating from isolated farmers’ cottages. It was as if the heavenly night sky had become one with the Earth.

So in honour of our parents for this and all Christmases, our family (as with so many other families) continue to observe some of the best of the old Irish Christian traditions. We decorate the walls with holly, make a Star of Bethlehem backdrop for an internal Nativity scene, place candles on the windows and doorways with some family members attending the local church and then enjoying a festive meal together.
Whilst I have many disagreements with the Catholic Church stretching back to my teens, nevertheless I have always being an avid follower of the great inspirational progressive, radical, pacifist, non-sectarian, communal feminist figure known as Jesus Christ.
So to all my atheist, pagan, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindi friends may I wish you all a peaceful and joyful Christmas and New Year.