Less about the world, more about me.

Month: March 2013

Column: The new world of surrogacy

My column in The Kerryman. 27 March, 2013

I’m a big fan of science fiction. I especially like Star Trek, as it paints such a positive picture of our future. There have been five different Star Trek series. The very first of the franchise was broadcast in 1966. The most recent series ended in 2005. The series which ended in 2005, called Star Trek: Enterprise, was conceived of as a prequel to the original series.

What was the biggest problem that faced the producers of this latest Star Trek? Just watch the original series and you’ll see very quickly, that in 30 years what was once considered futuristic has quickly become commonplace. The writers and set designers had to balance being faithful to the original series with not offending the sensibilities of a modern tech-savvy audience.

In 1966 it would not have occurred to anyone, that we could all have small, sleek and very fast computers, tucked away in our pockets. That’s not a criticism of their lack of imagination. We are talking about the generation who put a man on the moon, using computers less powerful than the phone I use to order my Indian food with. We are talking about a time when automatic doors were cutting-edge. Who even notices automatic doors anymore? It’s revolving doors that catch our attention these day.

Science fiction writers from the 60s, the age of sexual liberation, could imagine ‘magic‘ doors, but it never occurred to them, that a child could be born in the 21st Century, to four different mothers. There’s science fiction and then there’s the true wonder of science.

Our courts have recently had to adjudicate on who are the ‘real’ parents in a situation, where a surrogate mother was involved in the production of a baby. I use the term ‘production’ purposely, because what we once thought of as a rather straightforward, biological and closed process, is now anything but closed.

Let’s return to the four mothers scenario. If a lesbian couple wish to have a baby, they must source sperm. That’s relatively easy. If however neither of them can carry the foetus, then a surrogate will be required. There is zero legislation in Ireland governing this, so a woman can volunteer or be hired to provide her womb. Further, if this couple cannot provide eggs, then eggs can be donated or bought.

When the baby is born, it has ‘commissioning’ mothers, a ‘genetic’ mother and a ‘birth’ mother. Not to mention a ‘genetic’ father. So many possibilities yet there are no laws to say how all this should be managed. Seán Lemass was Taoiseach when Star Trek was first aired. We really can’t complain about him not legislating then for what science can do today. We our entitled however to ask more of present day politicians. They are living with the science.

That science can find a way to defeat circumstance and infertility is a wonderful thing. The drive to have children is so primal, that we sometimes get a bit judgmental about those who choose to remain childless. For many, having children is a fundamental part of being human and thought of as a fundamental right.

It is, however, time to begin a very important conversation. We need to start debating the possible pitfalls of this new technology. We need to begin to create safeguards for everyone involved in these new equations. This can be a wonderfully progressive step in the evolution of our understanding of parenting, or it could be a disaster. None of us is smart enough to predict the science will allow next, so let’s at least sort out what we can do today.

Kerry Column 44

Column: Workplace Discrimination


My column in The Kerryman. 20 March, 2013

It’s now over 20 years since I was in Causeway Comprehensive School studying Hamlet for the Leaving Cert. I remember having mixed feeling about this. The play was interesting enough I suppose, but there seemed an awful lot of elements to it, that’d have to be remembered for the exam.

I’ve no idea what came up on the day, but I’ve been fortunate enough since then, to have developed a real affection for Shakespeare. I’ve even had the pleasure of seeing ‘The Merchant of Venice’ performed in The Globe Theatre in London. And pinned to the wall in my kitchen, are tickets for King Lear, which is in The Abbey Theatre this month.

My only regret is that I cannot quote Shakespeare from memory. I don’t think there’s any scenario, where a quote from Shakespeare wouldn’t describe and explain the situation better than anything a mere mortal could mumble.

So it was back to Hamlet I went, when I read the Government had invited an organisation called BeLonG To, to run a campaign to highlight and hopefully tackle homophobic bullying in our schools. Studies have shown that our schools our failing to protect gay teenagers, so this intervention is more than necessary.

Yet the quote I think most appropriate for this situation is, “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.” This is Ophelia returning gifts to Hamlet, as his behaviour towards her since he’d given them, had been so terrible.

The State is making an attempt to address the very real dangers, physical and emotional, that gay children are facing in our schools. That’s a gift, well a duty, but let’s not quibble. The problem is the State is also standing over a law which permits the sacking of gay teachers. Section 37.1 of the Employment Equality Act 1998, allows schools that are run by religious organisations to refuse to employ or even fire teachers, who they decide are not adhering to the religious ethos of that school.

As the vast majority of our schools are run by the Roman Catholic Church, gay teachers are forced to either hide or deny who they truly are, when in or out of work. That is not to say the Roman Catholic Church is openly homophobic. The church strongly denies being a homophobic organisation, but it does condemn homosexual acts as immoral and it is entitled to do so.

No adult is forced to be a Catholic, but few children get to choose a school with an ethos that’ll accept them for who they are. A gay teenager who survives our unsympathetic education for long enough to study Hamlet, will see what Shakespeare has to say about tragedy, irony, hypocrisy, treachery and crushing isolation.

We can hope that teenager will go to college and have a great time being themselves. After that, perhaps they will go on to teach Hamlet. He or she can take their turn pretending to be something they are not and they can watch their teenage students struggle with isolation just a they once struggled and be powerless to intervene.

There are so many famous lines from Hamlet. So many ideals expressed that we often don’t realise we are quoting from the play. We try to teach our children to; “This above all: to thine own self be true” as it is how we all wish to live our lives.

How unfortunate then, that our schools are best described as; “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” I doubt even Shakespeare could describe such hypocrisy without being reduced to a “wtf?” and a “seriously?”


Kerry Column 45


Column: The price of meat

My column in The Kerryman. 13 March, 2013

I watched a film recently, starring Claire Danes. It’s a true story about an autistic woman, called Temple Grandin. I’d thought it’d be about a woman with mental health issues, who was extremely intelligent and who’d an interest in animals. I assumed it would be a feel-good movie, describing Temple overcoming her difficulties, integrating into society and who would now be running an animal shelter somewhere in rural America.

I was very wrong. The film is about the limits of normal. How the majority of us, who are ‘normal’ make life so very difficult for those who just don’t fit in. How unkind we can be and how people like Temple have to battle all their lives to find their place in our world. In this film we have the good fortune to witness Temple reshaping the world, so that it better fits her.

That is however, less remarkable than the career she chose for herself and in which she had to battle hard for recognition. To be honest, if it wasn’t a true story, it would seem too farfetched to make a film about. Temple Grandin is famous in the American cattle industry, for designing cutting-edge (pardon the pun) factory-sized slaughterhouses.

She did this by conducting a detailed study of cattle behaviour and psychology. In America, cattle are herded for slaughter in their tens of thousands. The scope for chaos and the loss of stock is huge. Temple, with her study of cattle, worked out how to take the stress out the entire process. The cattle’s stress that is, so every cow walks calmly and willingly to the bolt in the head. Stress free for the unfortunate cattle, but most importantly, expense free for the ranchers and processors.

‘Stress free’ must seem like a dream for famers and meat processors in Kerry today, who despite our politicians going on about ‘knowledge economy’ this and ‘broad band connectivity’ that, continue to be vital to our economy. Temple Grandin believes that there is nothing immoral about eating meat, but that we owe the animals something in return. Not gratitude exactly, not even kindness as such, but respect. Our animals are conceived, raised, slaughtered and consumed, all on our say so. They exist because of us, and our appetites are sated and our export euros roll in, because of them.

To treat them only as products, fails to respect and accept that they are living things. This is not the first step to vegetarianism, oh the horror, but failing to acknowledge that these creatures, we own and eat are alive, diminishes a part of what we are. We risk losing a portion of our empathy to the pressure of profit.

Worse than the farmer hardening his heart, is the rest of us deluding ourselves about price. In a rural county like Kerry, it is inexcusable for any of us to expect meat to be cheap. Even in a recession, meat costs a lot because animals cannot be cajoled into growing faster and bigger, with less food and shelter. There are drugs and hormones and in time there will be gene manipulation, but there are some costs never worth paying.

Pig rearing units must now take into account the mental wellbeing of their sows, even though the cost of feed is always going up. Chicken growers must allow their hens space to move, as the cost of heating increases. Meat is only ever going to cost more.

We can accept that, or if we think even horse burgers still aren’t cheap enough, then remember that last year in Ireland, 5000 stray and abandoned dogs were put to sleep.

Kerry Column 46

Column: Yet another recession.

My column in The Kerryman. 6 March, 2013

We like to think that in times of great crisis, people from all different backgrounds will unite to meet that challenge. Even those of us brought up in Kerry, have been fed a diet of films telling us how united Londoners were during the incessant bombing they suffered during World War Two. I doubt there’s a man or woman in Kerry who couldn’t now identify the sound of an air-raid siren if they heard it, because of all the films made to romanticise that period of British history.

What we aren’t taught is that crime in the UK, increased by 57% during the War years. Looting and Black Marketeering were rife as criminals took advantage of a reduced police force and the chaos of destruction.

History is full of such people, who are quick to pounce on their own when a crisis hits. We would probably remember the Great Famine a little less, if it wasn’t for the fact that this catastrophe was a money making bonanza for the Gombeen Men and the already rich. A crisis divides as often as it unites.

Think about that as we shoulder the burdens of yet another recession. We could be forgiven for thinking us well used to these economic crises by now. Except for the mismanaged Boom of the noughties, we’ve been in one downturn or another since independence. There are people from Kerry and people descended from the people of Kerry, in every corner of the planet and it wasn’t searching for good surfing that took them away.

The problem with this recession, is the unimaginable level of debt. Our country, our banks, our property developers and we ordinary citizens have separately and collectively, built up a level of debt so ridiculous, we are no longer capable of looking at it in its entirety.

Instead we look at the ‘promissory notes’, the monthly borrowing by the State, the amount of mortgage debt in arrears, what a single developer owes, what a singe bank owes. What we don’t look at, is the total figure of hundreds of billions of euro owed, which is so high it’ll have students of history and economics, from all over the world, studying our recession for decades to come.

And how are we uniting to combat this devastation? Well that depends on how much you owe. If you owe millions then it’s off to the UK and but a single year of bankruptcy. If that doesn’t suit, then NAMA will pay you a six-figure salary while they manage your losses.

If you only owe your mortgage, then you can expect to be crushed by your unrepentant bank and your disconnected politicians. If your bank repossess your negative-equity house, they will pursue you for any balance outstanding, while our politicians are preparing to abandon each of us to the banks, for up to eighth years. Abandoning us to the banks and loading us up with extra taxes, as food and transport costs keep increasing.

Bankers, politicians and developers, this new looting class, these new Gombeens, have been spared the gut-wrenching despair of true poverty. They have been spared the true pain of this recession. Worse, they are growing fatter as we buckle under the weight of them. But that’s ok. They’ve worked out how to save us all. Just cut a nurse’s Sunday pay. The nurse may go on strike, but that just means she will be working for free, because that’s what a true public servant does.

Kerry Column 47

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