“Why does Dad prefer alcohol in a bottle to us, Mum?”

Hannah – 10 years old

When my daughter recently asked me that question, I had no idea how to respond. My first impulse was to reply that she should ask her Dad, but then I remembered that she can’t. She can’t because as a functioning, in denial alcoholic, his response, if he chose to answer and not just walk away, would not be honest and would only lead to further confusion and hurt.

Instead, I directed her to an online Alateen Chat Site where she was able to connect with other kids who are struggling with an alcoholic family member. She is not yet a teenager, but because of how fast she has already needed to grow-up in order to understand how and why her life is different from most of her friends, Alateen is a safe place. There, she can express herself amongst other kids in a way that she maybe can’t with me as an adult.

Having worked through online Al-Anon programmes for several years, I know the importance of finding a safe haven. The relief of breaking through the mystifying fog of going it alone to realise that your story is only one of thousands, each as similar, or more heartbreaking than your own.  I am aware that as I type this, there are millions of children who suffer in the stranglehold of silence. The most recent global statistics of severe alcohol abuse and its effect on children are staggering. Even now, in 2015, for thousands of households, alcholism is still the disease “that dare not speak its name”.

Living in secrecy with shame, embarassment and guilt – only a few of the toxic feelings most strongly associated with alcoholism – deprives children of the ability to mature into emotionally strong adults, severely reducing their capacity to deal with the eventual ups and downs of their own future lives.


Children do not want to be different. They want their lives to be as normal as their pals. They do not want to be taunted in the schoolyard or left out of activities because they have an alcoholic father or mother. They instinctively love their addicted parent, desperately wanting him or her to recover because of their innate need for a strong role model and nurturer.

Children cannot understand that their parent has been so fundamentally changed by their addiction that they are no longer able to function in a healthy manner; that they use blame, denial, lies and manipulation in order to continue their habit and that they are often oblivious to the damage which they inflict.

Children of Alcoholics week gives us all a chance to raise awareness, to reach out and help, to break the silence.

These kids are your nieces and nephews, cousins, children of friends, neighbours or co-workers. They are all around us, many too scared and ashamed to ask for help. They are hurting.

Children are so tech savvy now. Most own, or have access to, computers. If they are suffering, a nudge in the direction of some of the websites linked to in this text could be a lifesaver for them.


By breaking the silence we can break the cycle.


“Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than to remember me and cry.”
-Dr. Seuss

January 6th, 2015. Today you have 15 stardust years behind you, Jamie.

I have an image in my mind, of your essence scooting around the universe, like some kind of beautifully coloured, blazing comet. It puts a silly smile on my face everytime I look up to the stars; we’re not that far apart really, are we young man?

This New Year, the nature of goodbyes & letting go has been a lot on my mind. The older we get, the more farewells we entertain – consciously or unconsciously: Goodbye to the person we were several years ago, Adieu to longheld expectations, Adios to those who hurt us, Arrrivederci an old way of life, Auf Wiedersehen an old habit; finally letting go of those whose demons & addictions we cannot control or cure. Language is so full of beautiful ways to say goodbye … but also to say hello and begin afresh.

Music being so intrinsically woven into our lives, it came as a jolt to realise that, May, 15 years ago, about a month after you were conceived, your Dad was on stage at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, drumming with Stevie and Emmy-Lou to one of the most honest, beautiful goodbye songs I know. My most favourite thing that your Papa has ever done, I think.

Two years ago, I wrote for your 13th birthday, a turning of age for you, as well as a huge turning point for our family. Tough love goodbyes bring a grief akin to death … but where love is, there is also hope.

In the meantime, your brother and sister are as mad and beautiful as ever  –  2015 is now the year of “Bonjour”  Squeeze are always on the jukebox – le temps passe et on continue.

Happiest of Birthdays, sweet boy. xxxx


Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find a face of his own.  ~Logan Pearsall Smith, “Age and Death,” Afterthoughts, 1931



Happy Birthday dear Jamie, 

You are Thirteen today. Imagine!  We can, as we have always pictured your every turn of year; changing face, different hairstyles, interactions with your siblings and friends. How your being here may have affected family decisions and random events, as so often it only takes one person’s words and feelings to effect a wholly different outcome to an occurrence. How your own needs and wants would have shaped our everyday lives, with all the joys and sorrows that life brings. Your life, sweet boy, is a mystery always imagined.

The last time I wrote for you was on your tenth birthday. It was, I think, a much sadder time, brought about by the passage of a generation and a need to reminisce about life as it was then or could have been. I still dreaded Christmas and New Year. Trying to create an atmosphere of jollity with a heavy heart is a task in itself, but something shifted after that year. Whether it was just time easing loss or watching Eli and Hannah completely grow out of all infancy, I don’t know. You became no longer the baby I mourned, but rather the young boy I imagined you to be. Today is another milestone, your imagined passage towards becoming a young man and a new leap for your family into a renewed start. 

What would we be doing today, young man? Laser game, cinema, your pals over for some gaming, pizza and music? I imagine you tall with dark, unruly hair – we still have a curled baby lock in your old case – sporty maybe, as your brother most definitely is not! Hanging out with Edward, our fourteen year old neighbour and a great kid. Scouts possibly, girls probably. Would you have had ‘the chat’ with Dad already and beg me to park 50 yards down when collecting you?

Spats and Tiger, your two girl dogs, who lay gently on our bed with you when we brought you home as a baby have both moved on to chasing cats in another place. Iggy, our first boy dog, ensures we don’t forget our place in the scheme of things with strategic wee puddles and reminding us that our house isn’t a home without tumbleweeds of dust and dog hair in all corners. 

Your brother and sister continue to amaze me every day, when they’re not driving me crazy. Eli lives in a world of his wonderful imagination; storifying, characterising, inventing. How much of his world would be changed by having an older brother as mentor and menace? Hannah, the practical. She sees all and understands all in a flash. Musical and artistic, with the ability to twist your Mama’s arm with humour and hugs. I can live with that.

So, for your special day today, Jamie, we’ve cooked up a couple of guinea fowl (I imagine that, like your Dad, you’d appreciate some wild bird). For pudding there is a mousse framboise chosen by your sister.

“I think Jamie would love that, Mama.”

“I imagine he would, bunny.”

Happy Birthday. xx

There’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway

A song that they sing when they take to the sea

A song that they sing of their home in the sky

Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep

But singing works just fine for me…

Rock-a-bye sweet baby James.

(James Taylor)

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“The advantage of being eighty years old is that one has many people to love.”

– Jean Renoir (1894-1979)

My father has reached his “fourscore years and ten”.  As I watch him trudge grudgingly into his elder years, I struggle to remember that he was, at one time, a man of twenty.

I struggle to remember that he was a young lad who, like thousands of others, embarked upon one of the many ships to cross the seas in the late 1940s; riding a prolonged wave of post-war, Irish emigration to Australia, America and England.  He chose England because it was closer to home and family.

I struggle to remember that he had a separate existence before my brothers and I were born; that he was a person unto himself.  I would like to have known him then. Not in a daughterly fashion, but as a friend: sharing a guinness, a joke, a good story, a song. But, no matter how many times I gaze at the cracked and tattered photographs, I seem to look beyond the fresh-faced, handsome young man setting out on his life’s odyssey.  I see always, the weathered, mature features of the man I can only ever know as my father.  This man of eighty, this man of few words, this man whose eloquence lies in the faint cock of an eyebrow, a tilt of the head.


(O’Connell Bridge, Dublin – 1948)

Born and raised on a farm in County Tipperary, the great city of London must have come as quite a shock, but he was an astute and practical young fellow: “I learned how to make the city suit me, not the other way around.”  He met and married my mother several years later and, as is the way of things, they settled in to raise a family, always with hearts and minds firmly fixed on a return to the home country; when the time was right.  In the summer of 1972, with three additional small heads in the backseat of the old Hillman Minx and another ‘in utero’, my father ferried his family back to Ireland.

(Highgate, London – 1959)

Fast forward thirty seven years, to a time of reminiscences and gatherings.  From far and wide, immediate and extended family made the trip to the west coast of Ireland, to celebrate the life and health of this wonderful man.  The second youngest of five, his three elder siblings did not live to see eighty, a poignancy which was not lost on all who were present.

My three brothers and I reunited with long lost first and second cousins, aunts and uncle. In the space of an evening we tried to catch up with each other’s lives. We harked back to tales of shared childhoods, commiserated with losses and disappointments, and discussed the merits of good gun dogs for the pheasant season. We indulged in a kind of giddy relief that we were together for a party and not another funeral.  Then, towards the evening’s end, when whiskey and cognac had mellowed throats and inhibitions, the old dining-room hummed along to the songs which hushed it.

Five noisy grandchildren were ecstatic to be all together again with Grandad. They were psychedelically fueled, long into the night, by the chocolate fountain, birthday cake, and (it being Oíche Shamhna), bags of sweets . Additional glee came in the form of coins and notes furtively stuffed into little pockets – “Mama, I am SO rich now!”  Indeed.

It is a continual joy for me to observe the easy and loving relationship which my  children have with their Grandad.  They delight in hearing stories of “long years times ago” and being gently teased by him.  When he visits, they squirrel their way into his chest for a hug as he tousles their hair before bed.  Then, when he says to them, “Grandad loves you”, I feel a restriction in my throat.  It’s a deep, childish, emotional cauldron of pride and envy.  It’s the sixteen year old me wanting to blurt out, “Why can’t I remember you telling me that you loved me when I was small?”  It’s the adult, mother me, saying, “Thanks, Dad, they love to hear that the most.”

And it’s absurd of course.  I have known very few men of my father’s generation who were comfortable expressing their feelings in words.  That was always the mother’s role.  The love he felt for us was demonstrated in a non-wordy manner.  The nighttime routine of peeping into our bedrooms, to check if a stray arm or leg needed to be tucked in, while kissing our foreheads.  The way he had to quickly walk out of the living room one Christmas Day morning, when he opened his gift from us, and saw a magnificent pair of suede, fur lined slippers, for which we had sacrificed our pocket money for months.  The way he would let us tag along on fishing excursions, when they were his only escape from the constant tumult in the house.  The way he simply said, “God bless you”.

(Regent’s Park, London – 1963)

On the night of the party, Dad walked into the room with a look of stunned bemusement.  I was struck by how long it had been since I had seen him look so happy, the recurring bouts of painful rheumatism and sciatica taking an increasingly longer time to ease.  Always a dapper dresser, he still easily outshone many of the younger, male assembly; I thought he looked resplendent.

It took him quite a while to move through the crowd of well wishers.  As he came closer to where I stood, I could see his brimmed eyes and trembling hands.  I hugged him very, very hard:

“Happy Birthday, Dad.”

This man of eighty, with tears sliding down his cheeks, hugged me back, very hard:

“God bless you, love.  Thank you. I love you.”


December 1st.  This dreaded, parental date in central Europe, heralds the beginning of the chocolat overload season.  In this house, the date announces itself by the need to create a miniature ‘Santa’s Little Repair Grotto’ in order to glue, hammer, wire and restring the various receptacles in which said chocolat is housed, along with the other Christmas countdown relics.

(Glued the Santa back on, hammered in tiny nails to hold roof together, applied new wire holder to back)

(Re-glued number pegs, re-attached wire at back)

Truly, my Xmas D.I.Y. skills are second to none.

‘Tis the start of the season whenThings One & Two’ leap out of bed at 6 a.m. every morning to race, squabbling all the way, down the stairs to check if St. Nicolas, er, remembered to place the chocolate squares in the Advent house and to argue ferociously over who gets to open the daily box of the Playmobile ‘tableau’ calendar.

By 7 a.m., the combined sugar hits of the chocolate and breakfast Cougnou (a traditional sweet bread, in the form of the baby Jesus, with raisins and sugar) peak. It’s kind of like the over-excitable kids from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, on acid. This early morning horror scenario will last for TWENTY FIVE DAYS. By Christmas Eve, this Mama will have lost her baubles.

(Who knew baby Jesus had two heads?)

As if this were not all bad enough, on the night of December 5th, St. Nicolas and his band of not-so-merry men (armed with switches), are due to pop in.  The children put their slippers outside the bedroom doors.  If they have been good, St. Nicolas will fill them with goodies; if bad, I think one of the ‘companions’ of the blessed Saint, um, beats the child with a switch…

You know what, I’m going to leave it up to David Sedaris to explain the whole thing to you.

David Sedaris: 6 to 8 Black Men



“The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the  eleventh month”  (1918).

November 11th, 2009.  The only significance of this date yet to my children is that they are on congé from school.  At seven and five they have yet to study history, a subject which I loved in school but which also left me bewildered as to the extent fellow humans would go to kill each other for the sake of “power and glory”.  Nearly thirty years have passed since I last picked up a history book; the wars may have become more sophisticated but alas it seems, the motives of man mostly remain unchanged.

Sometime during my sixteenth Summer, I travelled alone, back to England for the first time since our family had made the move to Ireland when I was nine.  I went to stay with my Auntie Pat who was a professor of social anthropology at Clare college, Cambridge.  In those days I was much consumed by the poetry of those who had fought during World War I; Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell and most especially, Rupert Brooke.  One sunny afternoon, we took a leisurely walk to the village of Grantchester, where my aunt gave me a beautiful little Sidgwick & Jackson, 1931 edition, Selected Poems by Rupert Brooke. For the remainder of that year, I carried that book with me everywhere.  There is a handwritten inscription before the title page and frontispiece, which reads:

“To Joan, with much love and best wishes, from R.A. Liddell, (Xmas, 1934)”.

And directly underneath in different handwriting:

“On behalf of Subaltern R.A. Liddell, killed in action on 7th, January, 1944”.

Rupert Brooke02.JPG

The first time I read this inscription I cried, and even as I write this my heart aches for the terrible waste of life brought about by human folly and greed.

Here, on the border of Belgium and Luxembourg, we are surrounded by testimonials to those who died in both World Wars.  Whether it be an engraved wall of a judicial building in the larger town squares, with a hundred names, or a small tablet in a village, with just five, the impact is the same.  Military cemeteries are scattered across the landscape. Nothing that is written in any history of conflict prepares you for the stark sight of thousands upon thousands of white crosses; so many young men, known and unknown; a weeping continent of mothers and fathers.


Today, we will watch some of the ceremonies at Ieper (Ypres) together.  At eleven o’clock we will be silent for as long as the children can bear it, (probably 30 seconds or less).  I will read this, even though they won’t yet grasp any real meaning; but they will like the image of red poppies in a field and larks in the sky and that their world is perhaps safer because of many, many brave men.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

– Lt. Col. John McCrae (1872-1918)