Category Archives: education

The stolen violin

I started to play the violin at seven or eight years of age. My maternal grandmother’s family were all musically talented, and as my older sister Bernice was already playing the piano, my grandmother decided that I should play the violin. I remember my father buying me my first instrument and bringing it home. I unenthusiastically removed it from the case and made an attempt to play it. It sounded dreadful. It definitely wasn’t love at first sight, but like so many unpromising beginnings, my love for it grew.

Mother Cecily was the resident music teacher in Loreto College Crumlin where I attended school, and I remember happily gathering up my school bag during lessons and escaping the classroom twice weekly for music tutorials of 45 minutes duration. It was many years before music as a subject became an extra-curricular activity which took place after school hours. But while I was I with Mother Cecily I didn’t spend too much time wondering what I missing back in the classroom.

Cecily was an ancient tiny nun, who wore glasses that magnified her eyes so much, that she resembled an owl. She was passionate about music, and most of her pupils adored her. As time went by, I also learned how to read music, as each lesson included musical theory, sight reading and information on great composers and musical artists. I spent many happy hours in her little music room and as I progressed I entered and won several competitions and Feis Ceoil’s.

By the time I was twelve years of age, I was old enough to join the school orchestra. We performed at various events throughout the school year and competed with other schools in orchestral competitions. A couple of years later when we teamed up with the  Castleknock College Boys School orchestra, there was a sudden flurry of teen aged Loreto girls who begged to join the orchestra never having played an instrument before, pleading with Mother Cecily that they could quickly learn to play the triangle or other percussion instruments. Cecily gently insisted that they would have to know how to read music in order to become part of the orchestra, and many hopes were dashed, as being part of this musical ensemble suddenly became very cool amongst my peers.

Travelling out to the boarding school in Castleknock by hired bus every other Saturday was always an adventure, and after practice when Mother Cecily and Father Fehily went to take tea, we had an hour or two to gallivant and hang out with the lovely boys of Castleknock in the grounds of the college. I remember this period in my life as being great fun and I kept in contact with a few of those boys throughout my teen and early adult years.

My father had only one sibling, his brother Tommy who had never married. He was a skilled carpenter like my dad, but he enjoyed making musical instruments as a hobby. One Christmas he presented me with a beautiful handmade violin. It was remarkable. Each peg had mother of pearl and nine carat gold embedded in the wood, and the fingerboard featured an unusual treble clef motif in Ivory. The back of the violin was exquisitely inlaid with a mother of pearl rose whose petals held various hues and colours. It was absolutely unique. Tommy had spent almost a year, sourcing materials and crafting this precious gift for me and I had never owned anything so beautiful.

It didn’t come with a case, and when my father and I went to the music shop Mc Cullagh Piggott’s to buy one, we realised that the instrument was slightly larger than a standard violin so we couldn’t get a case to fit.

When I returned to school after the holidays, I carried the instrument in a makeshift soft bag that I had cobbled out of old jumpers. When Mother Cecily saw it, she rooted out an old ungainly wooden handmade case that looked like a coffin but the new instrument fitted inside perfectly.

As my violin was slightly bigger than a standard one Mother Cecily used me as a viola player when the need arose. We simply switched strings and I became the ‘viola section’ of the orchestra. The viola is the second instrument in the string family, graduating on to the cello, and finally to the double base. Being part of the violin section of the orchestra, I performed with several other players, but when my violin became a viola, I was always playing solo. I enjoyed the deeper tones that the alternative strings produced, and I also enjoyed the magical status that my violin held. It was a two in one and very special.

Because the wooden case was cumbersome and very heavy, I left it on a rack in a school corridor with other instruments and practised at home on my old violin. Leaving instruments on the rack in school was a common practice, and although they stood in a busy corridor, these instruments were out of bounds to pupils and were never touched or moved. On our trips out to Castleknock, it was simply lifted and placed on the bus, along with all the other violins, cellos, flutes, clarinets, oboes and various percussion instruments that were also often left on the rack.

Uncle Tommy only visited our house about twice a year, but the violin was always brought out and I performed for him. He enjoyed classical music and it was a shared subject that we could talk about. I was an awkward teenager, and he was a bachelor with limited experience of kids, so the instrument and the music gave us opportunities to chat and to enjoy each other’s company.

One Saturday in early summer I went into the school to collect my violin as I had a competition later that day. I went to the rack and opened the case, but the violin was not inside. It had been stolen sometime between the previous day when I had had a lesson and that morning when I called to collect it.

Despite a thorough search of the entire school the violin never turned up. Fliers were sent around, and every teacher asked every class if anyone knew what had happened to my violin. No one came forward and the instrument was never found. Sadly the nuns refused to take responsibility for its loss. I felt so bad. My mother believed that I was at fault and had somehow ‘lost it’ or left it on the bus (as I had done a few years previously with the older violin, which was recovered from the C.I.E  lost property office a day later).

When Uncle Tommy came to visit that Christmas, my father and mother lied to him and told him that the violin was in school in the “big case” over the holidays, as they believed that it would break his heart to find out that it had been stolen. I still remember playing my dishonest musical renditions for him on the old violin that Christmas. I felt guilty with every note that I produced and cut short the performance that I usually basked in.

He died the following spring never knowing that it was gone. The heart of playing the violin left me after that, and despite still having my older instrument I subsequently left the orchestra. The old violin was eventually passed onto a younger cousin, along with the sheet music, books, music stand, and other paraphernalia associated with it.

After I left school I took my musical knowledge and got a job in Walton’s music store in Dublin where I worked very happily for over four years. Over the course of those years, many second hand violins were brought in to the shop to trade up to newer instruments. I kept my eyes out, and all the sales staff knew the story of the stolen violin. But I’ve never seen it again.

I sometimes trawl through the Internet in the hope that I might stumble across it. I don’t know what I would do if I found it, I just know that I would recognise it in an instant as there could never be another one like it.

Destiny can often be about still appreciating things that are given with love long after they have gone.

Taking things for granted…..

As people, I believe that we can all take things for granted without thinking too much about them. Things just ‘are’ in our lives, and we accept them and rarely give them too much thought. So many actions/interactions that we encounter daily can have an emotional impact on us, and I know that I have been guilty of not really thinking about the implications and consequences that they have on me personally.
Life can sometimes be so busy that we can get hopelessly lost in the myriad of tasks that we think have to be completed in order to provide structure and meaning to the day. I realise that with time on my hands I have become much more reflective than I have been in the past. I have a lot more time to ponder as I am not so caught up with a rigid time schedule. The studying and reading that was so focused and time consuming during the past few years no longer dominates my time. Now I find myself deliberately taking time out to consider what pleases me and what doesn’t.

After a year of mourning the death of my mother together with all the ancillary tasks that managing her estate entailed, I began to look for employment as soon as the New Year began. I scrutinised websites and agencies and updated my CV with the intention of going back to work full time after my five years in College. I applied for a couple of positions that I believed would suit me and my particular skill set, and I was so enthusiastic about my prospects that I even purchased new interview clothes. I never even made it to that stage.

While facing into my disappointment I took some time to think deeply about what it was that I was so upset about. Not being given a chance to put myself forward was the biggest difficulty that I had to deal with, but on reflection I wondered if this was about my ego and nothing else. I believe that I have great qualities, but the fact that I never even got to showcase them? How very dare they!

Imagine a scenario where I had been interviewed and given one of the positions that I applied so enthusiastically for. It was a 38 hour week in an area a fair distance away from my home. There would be morning and evening traffic to consider and selective early starts and late finishes.
Sometimes not getting what you want provides a clarity and certainty that you hadn’t considered beforehand.
Not being granted an interview made me take stock of my situation and my current life. While I moaned in the short term, I took time to examine the long term and I realised that I don’t actually want to work long hours and be away from home 40 hours a week and possibly more with travel.

My husband is retired, and while we live a small life we manage comfortably on his pension.

We don’t spend money unnecessarily, drive two modest cars, and we have never been the type that has to have the latest trend or fad.

We take several mini breaks during the year and generally enjoy a life without timetables and rigidity.

We come and go as we please (with kids grown up and flown the nest) and enjoy spontaneous lunches out at the coast and picnics in forests when the humour takes us.

We have our own rhythm and we enjoy it, and although I would like to work I don’t want it to cut into this lovely way of life that we have. I also don’t want to leave him alone for eight hours every day as there are only the two of us at home now. Being rejected for these jobs has made me recognise how precious and special this shared life is, and I am so glad that I have had the time and space to realise what it is that I want, and what it is that I don’t want.

I have taken for granted the absolute pleasure that a day without time constraints can bring.

I have taken for granted the fact that I do not need to work outside my home in a paid capacity to be happy and content.

I have taken for granted the fact that I actually like spending time with my husband even when we have nothing to say to each other.

I have taken for granted the fact that we are financially secure enough that I don’t need to provide another income to our household.

I have taken for granted how extremely lucky I am that I have choices about how I live my life with my dear husband and partner of over 35 years.

I have taken for granted the simple pleasure of simple pleasures.

The past five years have provided me with a top class education and qualifications, but it has also been the toughest time in my life as I have lost my much loved sister and mother. Deciding not to take things for granted is the best way forward for me at this moment in time, and appreciating the simple everyday pleasures that shape my days is the greatest realisation that all this reflective thinking has achieved.

Destiny can be many things and can wear coats of jewelled enticing colours, but it can also be there sitting plainly, quietly under our noses if we could only just recognise it.

The Irish Gaeltacht – Triple Bunk Beds and Fridge Freezers…..

“Going to the Gaeltacht” is a great Irish tradition. It is the first rite of passage for many teenagers in Ireland and it has been happily in existence since the early 1970’s. Leaving your parents for a month to go away as a boarding student to “Irish College” in the West of Ireland in the middle of the summer holidays in order to encourage a fluency of the Irish language is how the deal is sold….How it is perceived by the students who go there is entirely another matter. I was that teenager back in 1970 something, and the idea of getting away to a remote rural location, far away from my parents for a whole month was better than winning the modern day lottery. I think that I would have willingly taken on Japanese lessons if it meant that I could get away, unshackled from home for a four week period.

My older sister Bernice and I were willingly dispatched to County Cork during the summer of 1972. She was 14 years of age and I was 12. Already an experienced veteran, (as she had been there the summer before and loved it) the pair of us were packed off to Ballingeary, County Cork for the month of June. Although we were staying with a host family, and we attended Irish language classes during the day, there was a huge amount of independence and autonomy where adults were not looking over and monitoring us and our time. We were allowed to make our own choices about what to do and where to go.

This was rural Ireland back in a particular time, and to be honest there really was very little to do. We were in a village with a couple of shops, a river, and lots of fields. But freedom from parental shackles, and making decisions about how to spend ones time was a heady combination that made this experience very special. I remember the Céilís (Irish dances) with great affection. These gatherings took place every night in the local school and every student was obliged to go. Being an urban city child, this was my first ‘live’ interactive experience with traditional Irish music, where local people came to play their instruments and enjoy communal dancing with no fee expected. I absolutely loved it.

Part of the nightly experience was losing the teenaged self-consciousness that hung around me like a boulder, and (eventually) learning to abandon myself to the joy of the music and dance every night. There were set Irish dances, for two people, for four, and for more. We learned them and practiced during the days, so that we would be better again the following evening. There was an element of competition about it all, so it wasn’t unusual to see gangs of teenagers ‘dancing’ inanely together during the days on the local tennis courts and on the small roads of the village.

There were no mobile phones back in those days, and the house that my sister and I were staying in had no land line telephone either. We used to queue to phone home every Friday night from the local phone box on the street and assure our parents that we were well and happy (as we undeniably were). Our spending money was restricted, so we received “tuck boxes” and letters from home during our time there. The excitement of receiving a registered parcel from the postman, filled with goodies to be shared, ensured that you were the most popular person in your house that day…

Our “houses” were gendered back in those days. There were “girl” houses and “boy” houses and they were separated by geographical distance. The organisers obviously knew a thing or two about raging teenage hormones and kept a strict segregation rule. This may also have had something to do with the Catholic religious ethos that was a predominant feature in Ireland at the time.

I happily look back on that halcyon summer remembering it with vividness and colour. Nothing bad happened to me, although I experimented with cigarette smoking, seances and ouija boards in my naïve attempts to raise the spirits of the dead. I survived (with the subsequent occasional nightmare about dead people crawling all over me in the dark) and the end of the month came all too soon.

Returning home to Dublin via train I remember looking forward to seeing my family as I had missed them more than I thought I would. My dad had written to tell me of the changes that had occurred at home while I was away. There were a couple of new additions. A new fridge freezer had been installed as had new bunk beds for myself and my two sisters.

We were collected from the train station by a neighbour whose daughter was also with us in Cork and we all fell out of their car excitedly and into our respective houses. My mam opened the door to greet us, and my older sisters first words out of her mouth were to ‘snitch’ on me for smoking while we were away… Never mind that she had also smoked, I got a slap before I had time to defend myself. When I replied that “She had been smoking too” I got another slap and was told “not to tell lies about your sister” as she smugly stood by knowing that as the oldest and most precious child she would be believed regardless of what I said about her. Grrrrrrrr…….I never won that that war, and many years later my Mam still didn’t believe me when I told her that Bernice stitched me up as she was smoking too.

We eventually got into the kitchen and admired the brand new Fridge Freezer…. This was such a rare commodity that it still had a wonderful “exotic” feel to it. We opened and closed the door watching the internal light go on and off and felt the wonderfully cold milk bottles, and wondered at the frozen ice cubes in the freezer section. Our milk bottles had previously been stored on the “cold shelf” over the stone sink in the kitchen and frequently went sour in the summer heat.

My dad then excitedly carried our cases up the stairs to our bedroom so that we could view his newly built wooden bunk beds for his three daughters. Unlike traditional bunks, instead of two beds, this set had three. One box unit was at floor level for my two year old sister Annie, who up to then had been sleeping in a cot in my parent’s room. Another was in the middle about chest high for me, and the highest was at forehead height for my older sister Bernice.

I had never had a “WOW” moment like it before in my life. They were the most ‘avant-garde’ beds that I had ever seen, and I was so proud that my Dad had made them. (They were the talking point in our neighbourhood for years). I tumbled into my new bed that night and thought about how lucky I was to have been away having had the holiday of a lifetime, coming back to all these wonderful new changes. A new bed AND a new Fridge Freezer. Crikey – but I was easily pleased.

I remember many nights whispering to both Annie and Bernice as we lay in those triple bunks. We had great fun sharing as sisters although the room was cramped. I left that bunk bed eight short years later as I married and moved out, and Annie who was 10 at the time, moved into my bed. Bernice also left her top bunk to marry shortly afterwards.

Dad later carved them up and left the middle one (my one) as a single bed that Annie slept in until she too left number 33 to move to Mullingar with her husband Mark….

I was reminded of the bunks tonight by Joanne, Annie’s childhood pal as she posted on Facebook her memories of times past remembering the triple beds as being ‘soooo cool’. They were crafted by my dad in order to give his girl’s individual space to sleep and grow. As an experiment it worked, yet I have never seen triple bunks since. They may be gone, but they are certainly not forgotten. Memories of that particular summer include- Irish language, dancing, and music, being away from home, the wonder of refrigeration and three new beds for three sisters.

Destiny is shaped by experience, but it can also be complimented by outside influences and talents that make our lives better. Thanks Dad.

Living with Epilepsy…..

My son has Epilepsy. This is not the sum of all parts that make him as a person, but it is a huge factor in his life. He grew up healthy and happy, but he suffered a head trauma 10 years ago when he was a trainee Guard at 19 years of age. He banged his baby soft skull against a concrete wall when playing a joke on a colleague which resulted in a major seizure within 24 hours. The precious safety cap that surrounded his brain was chipped and damaged that day and can never be repaired.
 
This major brain injury has impacted in so many ways on my family that can often be inarticulate and without expression, but it has affected my darling son in ways that I am sometimes emotionally inept at dealing with.
 
He has had much more to deal with than I have.
 
His promising career with the Irish Police Force ended when another seizure occurred almost twelve months later. The Guards ‘let him go’. Epilepsy is a condition that prohibits so many life and career choices, and being a member of the police force was one of them.
 
He took all of this in his stride, and despite the desperate fallout, he took a side wards step to fulfill his ambition of working with marginalised youths and went to college and is now doing all that he ever wanted to do. He works full time with disadvantaged and vulnerable young people and he is dedicated to his profession and is well loved and respected by his peers. He is also a volunteer in the local football club and gives so much of his free time in the endless pursuit of community building through sport with young people.
 
He is on prescribed epilepsy medication for life and it keeps him safe (most of the time) but he has had infrequent seizures since.
He is my precious child and I adore him.
 

I admire his refusal to be categorised by his Epilepsy although the mammy in me wants to protect him and keep him in bubble wrap.
I admire his dedication in trying to make life better for other people, but I get frustrated when he puts his own health on the back burner and doesn’t place himself first.
I admire the way that he will not let this condition rule his life as he gets on with it.

But….

I wish I could wave a magic wand and go back to that day and put a pillow on that concrete wall.
I wish that he didn’t have to hide this terrible stigma that he carries 24/7
I wish that Epilepsy was understood and talked about more.
I love him for all the parts that he is and I wish that life didn’t deal him such a shitty hand of cards.

Destiny is not all that and a bag o’ chips sometimes…..

The flip side of the coin…

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family”. The opening words of the iconic monologue from the 1996 movie ‘Trainspotting’.

But what choices do we really have when it comes to living?

I believe that life can be a series of accidents and opportunities that are constantly dependent on outside factors that we have absolutely no control over at all.

Take that great job interview that you recently did. You know that you ticked all the boxes. You know that you are qualified for the job. You have the expertise. You presented well on the day and you answered all the questions correctly.

You didn’t get the job.

Outside influences may have played a major part. The Interviewer may not have liked the colour of your hair, or she may have had her best friend’s daughter interviewing later that day. You will never know the reason.

You will go over and over what it was that you did wrong, and never find the answer because it was nothing to do with you, it was to do with someone else making a decision that might affect the rest of your life.

You had decided on a particular path assured in the belief that if you completed A you would progress to B and then on to C. Mapping out our lives is something that we all do. We have goals and aspirations to aim for, and we hope that they will be realised as we all work toward personal fulfilment.

Achievements are celebrated and greater goals are set as we attempt to pilot our way through our lives, providing for our families, setting example by our standards and generally expecting that things will work out the way we want them to because we have worked so hard to make it happen. It’s what we have been taught to do. I cannot visualise my world without order, hope, expectations and dreams.

But life is actually so arbitrary. I realise this now, and it has taken me so long to understand it.

I realise that no matter how qualified I am for a particular job, it’s someone else’s decision as to whether I get it or not.

I realise that being an obedient citizen guarantees me nothing.

I realise that actions and decisions take place that impact on my life all the time and that I have no hand in them.

I realise that most of life is chaotic and unplanned, despite our belief that there is an order to the events that affect us.

I realise that no matter how much I try to protect the people that I love, I cannot keep them safe from harm.

I realise that I have to let go my feelings of desolation because life didn’t work out quite as I had planned it would.

I realise that life can be explained by the simple metaphor of a coin toss.

Heads you live – Tails….

Destiny can just be about flipping the coin of life and accepting where it lands.

Language and how we speak.

I have thousands of words dressed up in a carnival of colour regularly riding the carousel of my mind…. Like James Joyce writing Ulysses I live in a constant stream of consciousness. There are a myriad of thoughts, actions, voices, and images that surround me in every minute of every day although I don’t record or write them as they happen.

I have no aspiration or talent to be a writer and I accept this and can smile about it. I am much more mundane. I like being articulate when saying what I want to say and I have no great desire to make it to the best seller list. I generally just want to be understood. I want to verbally connect in the best way that I can.

Language is the universal way that we communicate and we all do it differently. I recognise this and I am a lover of listening to the spoken word as much as I love writing it. Language is powerful and how we articulate and use it can sadly set us apart.

I only have to listen to the voice of a news reader and compare it to a voice in my local community. Somehow the passion and spirit of a community speaker can be lost when their words are taken, relayed or broadcasted. By the time the message is conveyed through mainstream media these words have been altered and may not reflect the feeling of the original speaker. Passion becomes diluted, and voices and words are mixed and broken up into sound bites that are acceptable. This is all so wrong. I believe that in this way language has been sabotaged. Sometimes if you can’t be fluent and say what you have to in three minutes, you don’t get a shot.

For me, how we speak and communicate defines the narrative of our lives. Our memory bank of words is personally relevant to each and every one of us and is a reflection of how we have arrived where we are through our lived experiences, our families, our education and the people that we associate with. We listen and we mimic. We read and hear words all the time and we store them. We make them our own and use them distinctively. Everyone has the right to speak, to engage, to converse. To be heard and to be listened to regardless of how incoherent mixed up or inarticulate they are.

I communicate though my language. I use my own stored words. Most of them are like old friends, familiar and comforting. But I sometimes dip into my suitcase of words to root out the unexpected, to explain or to describe something that needs stretching out like elastic. For me, embellishing a word is my way of creating something beautiful in a sentence in the same way that an artist may add extra colour to a work in progress. If I strip the sentence back to its basic form it will still be understood, but it is missing the beauty and colour that I believe language contains.

Through my education and my lifetime love of words I am now more articulate in my life that I have ever been. I was that person who’s passionate voice was unheard because I wasn’t fluent or eloquent enough but not anymore. I can now say what I want to, but I add the colour and texture that language produces. This can make me sound like a right windbag sometimes, but as long as the sentence flows beautifully, sounds good to my ears and is clearly understood then I am ok with that 🙂

Destiny can be about looking at the things we take for granted and viewing them in a new light.

Valerie’s Gallery.

This was a phrase coined by Mark my brother in law in response to the amount of photos, posters and personal memorabilia that I have displayed in my downstairs loo. He said going to the toilet in my house was like walking into a gallery.

I figured that people who ‘used the facilities’ would ‘sit for a bit’, and if I could make their visit more memorable then I would. Inside this room there are photos of family & friends, posters, art work, and the general tack & tat that we all love to collect and which remind us of particular good times.

After Mark inaugurated the space about 10 years ago, my hubby Dermot had a handmade tile made for me as a gift and we stuck it on the door. ‘Valerie’s Gallery’ was born although there was no grand opening, and I didn’t invite guests to a cheese and wine reception.

This tiny area contains so many captured images of my life, and people who come to my house and ‘use the room’ are constantly surprised by how I have utilised this space. They remark on its colour and content and all the bits inside.
As they emerge they might ask ‘who is that in the black & white picture in the small car’ or ‘I love that pic of your sister and you’. It is a real conversation starter and I never tire of conducting tours although it can be exhausting with all that walking around!

Like in a real gallery there are some exhibits that never change, but every year I try to add to the collection although space is at a premium. It’s difficult to remove a picture or thing, but time moves on and this is reflected in the images that are featured.

I personally love sitting and contemplating all the people who surround me and who have been encapsulated in the smallest room in my house. I often gaze in wonder at all of these photos and paraphernalia that represent my life, and are beloved by me and mine. I have post cards, photos, billboards, and watercolours. In my view all the necessary ingredients that make up a good gallery.

Come pay a visit to my house and let me show you around. If you want to know me and my family- they are all there on the walls of my downstairs loo. Visiting hours are random and there is no fee. All are welcome.

Destiny can be about being surrounded by your past whilst still being able to see a future.