Commemoration, Inclusion, and Dialogue in 1916 Centenary Drama in Northern Ireland

By: Kayla Rush

The sanctuary of Belfast’s Fitzroy Presbyterian Church buzzed with activity. Friends and neighbours chatted among the dark wooden pews, the columns of the pipe organ soaring high above their heads. The congenial atmosphere felt like the minutes before the start of a church service, save for the Beatles tunes playing softly in the background.

Halfway House

At precisely 7:30, the music stopped, and those assembled fell silent as the lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on the platform in the middle of the sanctuary, turning it into a minimalist theatre stage. A white-haired man walked onto the stage. He introduced himself to us as Philip Orr, the author of Halfway House, the play we had all come to see. He explained that the play is set in 1966, in a snowed-in pub in the Sperrin Mountains. As he described the particular historical setting of the mid-1960s – a time of significant social change in the Western world, and in Northern Ireland the years directly preceding the conflict known as ‘the Troubles’ – the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ began to play softly, and two women joined him on stage, entering from opposite doors on either side of the platform.
In the course of the next hour, we watched as the two women, Bronagh and Valerie, weathered the snowstorm – of which we were occasionally reminded by an audio clip of a howling winter wind – in conversation with one another, a conversation that ranged from congenial and sympathetic to tense and, at times, openly hostile. We soon learned that one woman is Protestant, the other Catholic; one’s father a veteran of the Easter Rising, the other’s father a veteran of the Battle of the Somme.

Parallels and Contemporary Politics

The essence of the play rests in these parallels: both women grew up in Downpatrick, County Down, but due to the divided nature of the community they have only heard of each other’s families, never met – ‘a question of “same place but separate lives”’, as one of the women puts it (Orr 2016: 5).

Both are equally proud of their respective parents’ brief military service in 1916, and both tell stories of national and familial hurts occasioned by the other ‘side’.

Halfway House[i] capitalized on an important historic concurrence: the close proximity of the Easter Rising (24-29 April 1916) and the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916). The Easter Rising is commemorated each year as an important event in the formation of an independent Irish state, and relatedly with the Partition of Ireland. It is associated with an Irish identity, and thus with Catholicism, nationalism, and republicanism. The Battle of the Somme serves as a sort of opposite: it is commemorated as an important event in British history, and is thus associated with British-ness, Protestantism, unionism, and loyalism (see Grayson and McGarry 2016)[ii].
Commemorations serve the present: they harness the past and shape it in ways that suit the commemorators’ present-day needs. As anthropologist Dominic Bryan puts it, ‘The marking of a centenary is an act of contemporary politics… the commemorative practices are constructed in the present, for the present’ (in Bryan et al. 2013: 66).

Female Voices and Cross-Community Dialogue 

As part of my Ph.D. research, I look at one particular approach to commemoration, in which artists, particularly those working in community arts, engaged with the dual centenary of the Somme and the Easter Rising in their work. Halfway House is one of my case studies.
I would like to draw out two key projects that such artistic endeavours attempt to accomplish, using Halfway House as an example. First, the play mirrors a wider move toward more inclusive commemorations in Northern Ireland in the twenty-first century. Commemorations that recognize both the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising, and the roles of both Catholics and Protestants in each, have become increasingly common (Daly and O’Callaghan 2007: 4; McCarthy 2012: 430-439; Grayson and McGarry 2016: 2-3).

Likewise, Orr’s choice to write women characters reflects a growing desire to include women’s voices in the narratives told during and around commemorations (see Mullally 2016).

While the stories that Valerie and Bronagh tell are still in many ways men’s stories – the stories of their fathers’ involvement in armed conflict, and of their fathers’, brothers’, and uncles’ pride in the respective commemorations – they also speak of the fabric of their everyday lives as women in the Northern Ireland of the 1960s: leaving the workforce after having children, moving to the ‘big city’ of Belfast versus staying at ‘home’ in Downpatrick, caring for elderly relatives, and so forth.

Second, Halfway House represents a desire for increased dialogue, both between individuals and, more widely, between the two main ‘communities’ in Northern Ireland. The two women model ‘good’ dialogue for their audiences: while they may disagree on certain points, they never raise their voices or interrupt each other, and each actively listens and attempts to empathize with her counterpart. They are ultimately respectful of one another, and willing and able to reflect on their own biases. Neither do they shy away from difficult or painful discussions. For example, midway through the play, Bronagh, the Catholic woman, tells Valerie that the Ulster Special Constabulary, known as the ‘“B” Specials’, regularly visit her family’s home to search their barns and house. She reveals a great amount of hurt at this felt invasion of her family’s property and privacy. Shortly after, Valerie hesitantly reveals that her father and uncle both joined the ‘B’ Specials after the war, and we can see her struggling to reconcile her own pride in their service with Bronagh’s experiences of hurt. The following exchange takes place at the end of this telling:

Valerie: But what you also have to realise, Bronagh, was the fear, back then. Uncle Joe still says you could have cut it with a knife.

Bronagh: The town was miles away from the riots in Belfast and it was miles from the border.

Valerie: But we were afraid.

Bronagh: Afraid of whom?

Valerie: Afraid of you. (Orr 2016:22)

Tellingly to the play’s project, the two characters have an equal number of spoken lines, so that neither dominates the dramatic action or dialogue. One reviewer commented on this phenomenon of ‘good’ dialogue, and the way in which it encouraged the audience to participate in similar conversations, writing that ‘the quality of listening on stage was echoed in the venue’s café afterwards as people sat round and discussed the play over a cup of coffee’ (Meban 2016).

A Major Shift: Re-Imagining the ‘Other’ 

This approach to cross-community dialogue in theatre evidences an important shift in the past thirty or so years. Take, for example, Frank McGuinness’s (1986) play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which dramatizes the journey of eight (fictional) Protestant, Northern Ireland-born World War I soldiers to the Battle of the Somme[iii]. McGuinness, born in County Donegal and hailing from an Irish Catholic background, famously drew his inspiration for this play from living for the first time in a majority Protestant community, while teaching at the (then) New University of Ulster in Coleraine. Grene (1999: 242-245) considers Observe the Sons an exercise in ‘imagining the other’ and encouraging audiences to do the same, as ‘[f]or southern Catholic nationalists Ulster Protestant Unionism is as other as you can get … The play represents therefore a new sort of imaginative reaching out in Irish drama’. Lojek (2004: 77-79) similarly notes that in both the play’s premiere and each of its subsequent stage revivals, Observe the Sons has been heralded as ‘an icon of cross-cultural understanding’, and ‘an indication of increased understanding by Irish Catholics that Irish Protestantism is also part of the island’s culture and heritage’.

What is particularly interesting is the major shift that can be seen between the type of imagining undertaken in Observe the Sons and that found in Halfway House. In the former, the playwright imagines the community that is ‘other’ to him, probing its trauma and writing from a place of empathy. It is indeed a type of dialogue, but much of the work of dialogue is implicit, having already taken place in the experiences of the playwright, though of course as spectators or readers we can choose to dialogue with the play’s material ourselves. In Halfway House, however, the dialogue is physically presented on stage. While we can, of course, choose not to engage with the material in an inner dialogue of our own, we cannot sidestep the fact of the dialogue itself, as it forms the very substance of the play. This great shift, then, is one from ‘imagining the other’ to imagining ways in which oneself – or someone very like oneself – might encounter the other in an everyday situation such as a snowbound pub.

[i] Halfway House and its companion play, Stormont House Rules!, were commissioned by evangelical Christian organization Contemporary Christianity as part of a project entitled ‘1916, a Hundred Years On’ (see Contemporary Christianity n.d.).

[ii] Of course, individual identities do not fall so neatly into these two categories, and plenty of residents of Northern Ireland, including its growing migrant population, do not consider themselves part of either the Protestant community or the Catholic community.

[iii] Dublin’s Abbey Theatre staged Observe the Sons of Ulster as part of its 2016 centenary commemoration programme. This production was staged at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in early July 2016, around the time of the local commemorations of the Battle of the Somme (1 July) and the Battle of the Boyne (12 July) (see Coyle 2016, Hardy 2016).


Bryan, Dominic, Mike Cronin, Tina O’Toole, and Catriona Pennell. 2013 Ireland’s Decade of Commemorations: a Roundtable. New Hibernia Review 17 (3): 63-86.

Contemporary Christianity. n.d. ‘1916: A Hundred Years On’.

Coyle, Matthew. 2016. ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’, Culture Northern Ireland, 30 June.

Daly, Mary E., and Margaret O’Callaghan. 2007 Introduction: Irish modernity and “the patriot dead” in 1966. In Mary E. Daly and Margaret O’Callaghan (eds.), 1916 in 1966: commemorating the Easter Rising. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, pp. 1-17.

Grayson, Richard S., and Fearghal McGarry. 2016. ‘Introduction’, in Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry (eds), Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University, pp. 1-9.

Grene, Nicholas. 1999. The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Hardy, Jane. 2016. ‘Review: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre’, The Irish News, 5 July.

Lojek, Helen Heusner. 2004. Contexts for Frank McGuinness’s Drama. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America.

McCarthy, Mark. 2012 Ireland’s 1916 Rising: explorations of history-making, commemoration & heritage in modern times. Farnham: Ashgate.

McGuinness, Frank. 1986. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. London: Faber and Faber.

Meban, Alan. 2016. ‘Halfway House – Philip Orr’s New Play Exploring 1916 from the Vantage Point of 1966’, Alan in Belfast, 19 January.

Mullally, Una. 2016. ‘Why Women Have Risen to the Top in 1916 Lore’, The Irish Times, 28 March.

Orr, Philip. 2016. Halfway House. Belfast: Contemporary Christianity.

Deep Time Diversity: Decoding 375 Million Years of Life on Land

By: Emma Dunne (@emmadnn)

Across the world today we can see a tremendous amount of biodiversity. Animals occupy every corner of the globe, from the lush rainforests at the equator to the vast icy expanses at the poles and the plethora of grasslands, deserts, and forests in between. Nature is outstanding in its variation of animal forms; animals have mastered flight, can tolerate extreme environments, demonstrate complex behaviours, and some can even use tools. But exactly how life on land became so diverse remains largely uncertain.



Chameleons are a distinctive group of reptiles which contains many different species that vary greatly in colour. Image: Pixabay.

Life has been around for an extremely long time – 3.8 billion years to be exact. Now, that’s a very long time indeed, but for the first 3.795 or so billion years life was microscopic. It wasn’t until 542 million years ago that animals became a little more complex – during the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ when most major groups, such as arthropods, first evolved. To put things into perspective, wherever you are right now stick both of your arms out straight to the side (don’t be shy!). The very tip of your left index finger represents the present day, and the tip of your right index finger represents the point about 542 million years in the past. Moving from right to left, the first fish appear somewhere in the middle of your right forearm just after the Cambrian Explosion. Plants emerged on land around 425 million years ago, a little closer to your right elbow. It wasn’t until the point just before your right shoulder that vertebrates first ventured onto land, beginning the process of evolving into the beasts we are all familiar with today. At the point in the middle of your body, the continents were all squashed together in a landmass known as Pangaea, while reptiles, such as the sailbacked Dimetrodon, ruled the hot and arid lands around the equator. Dinosaurs first appear somewhere on your left shoulder (about 240 million years ago), followed very closely by the first mammals. Dinosaurs are wiped out just before we reach your left wrist (66 million years ago), paving the way for mammals to begin ruling the land. And now to make you really feel like a big fish in a small pond: Humans did not appear until the very tip of your left index finger, occupying a slice of your makeshift timescale no thicker than your fingernail. So, our species really hasn’t been around for long at all!

2 Dimetrodon

Dimetrodon grandis, an extinct reptile that lived 295-272 million years ago during the Permian period in the wetlands of the supercontinent Euramerica. Illustration: Scott Hartman (


With all of these different animals evolving and going extinct at different points throughout Earth’s history, biodiversity has fluctuated, with increases in diversity punctuated by significant decreases known as extinction events, some more severe than others.

Over the last 50 years palaeobiologists have been trying to quantify exactly how significant these rises and falls in diversity have been using computational methods.

Typically, these analyses involve tallying the number of fossil families for specific time intervals and comparing the totals between neighbouring intervals. Previous studies using this method estimate that diversity on land has risen exponentially, or continued to rise faster and faster over time. A number of reasons have been given for this pattern, including the availability of suitable niches and favourable climatic conditions allowing species to thrive and diversify further.

Sounds simple, right? Not quite…


The currently accepted pattern of changes in diversity on land constructed using counts of fossil tetrapod (four-limbed vertebrates) families through time. This pattern shows an “exponential rise” in diversity and more and more families appear on land as time goes on. From Sahney et al. (2010) Biol. Lett. (Numbered 1-3 are the end-Permian, end-Triassic and the Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary mass extinctions)

The problem is the fossil record is inherently biased. When you think of a fossil I could almost be certain that you would think of a skeleton in a piece of rock. And that’s not wrong! Hard parts, such as bones, shells, and teeth, are much easier to preserve than soft squishy bits – bias number one. Luckily for vertebrate palaeontologists, like myself, we don’t usually run into this issue as our study subjects have bones. But we do unfortunately encounter other biases. Some groups of animals contain many more individuals than others, and are therefore more likely to leave fossils behind (think huge herds of wildebeest vs. a pride of lions). Similarly, different habitats allow more diversity than others (for example the Siberian Tundra vs. the African savannah). These ‘biological factors’ come in to play even before the fossilisation process even begins!


Groups of animals that exist in large numbers such as wildebeest or antelope, are much more likely to leave behind some fossils for us to find that animals who don’t exist in such large numbers, such as lions. These biological factors affect the fossilisation potential of an organisms waaay before the geological processes kick in!

The chances of an animal becoming a fossil are very slim indeed. Usually, after an animal dies its body rots away or is devoured by predators and scavengers, never to be seen again. But sometimes conditions are just right, and once the body is buried quickly with mud or sand, rock can begin to form and the remains can be fossilised. As we look back further in time our picture of the past gets a little fuzzier, as older rocks get overlain by younger rocks and mashed up by geological forces such as earthquakes and erosion. Fossils also only occur in sedimentary rocks (if you can remember back to your high school geography classes, you might remember that there are three types of rock: igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary!), and sedimentary rocks are not found uniformly across the globe. So even finding a fossil is an extremely rare occurrence!

Human biases permeate all scientific disciplines, and palaeontology is no exception.

Sometimes it is easy to stumble across a large ‘mass grave’ containing hundreds of fossils, and sometimes these sites can be in very sunny, very beautiful countries worth visiting. Other times fossils have been found in isolation in areas where conditions are harsh, such as the important transitional fossil Acanthostega found in eastern Greenland. So, who’s up for a fun expedition to the wilds of Siberia in search of reptile fossils in the dead of winter? What, no? Yeah, me neither.

All of these factors (biological, geological, and human in origin) contribute to what are known as ‘sampling biases’, or biases that influence the amount and type of fossil data we have available for us to study.


An exquisitely preserved full body fossil of the extinct amphibian Phlegethontia longissima from the Mazon Creek fossil beds in Illinois, USA. Finds like this little fella are very rare indeed. Specimen housed at the Burpee Museum.

With these sampling biases stacked against us, it seems unwise to use simple counts of fossils to illuminate important patterns of diversity through time. This is where my research comes in. We are currently building a shiny new dataset within the publically accessible Paleobiology Database ( With this dataset, we are able to apply more sophisticated statistical methods to our analyses and rigorously test the patterns of diversity change on land over the last 375 million years.

My research will allow palaeobiologists to answer the question; are we able to identify genuine patterns of diversity change, or are we simply viewing changes in the number of fossils available to study through time?

So, with so many millions of years to get through, where’s the best place to start? Why, at the beginning of course! My current work surrounds the interval of geological time when the first vertebrates appeared on land and began to diversify over the next 100 million years. Given that the rocks containing these fossils are very old and are poorly surveyed, our ability to identify genuine diversity patterns is significantly distorted. However, the story does begin to improve as we move into the next 100 million years and we begin to see the fossils reflecting the true patterns of diversity.


Map of the world from the Paleobiology Database ( showing the locations across the world where tetrapod fossils have been found from the time they first appeared approximately 375 million years ago right up to the present day. You can create maps such as this for yourself at:!

My research has just begun to scratch the surface of decoding the diversity of life on land, and there’s still a long way to go! Studies such as ours are becoming increasingly relevant today as we try to anticipate the effects of the current biodiversity crisis happening across the world. Many animals worldwide are currently under threat of extinction, and if this pattern is to continue we might well see ourselves experiencing the terrifying prospect of a 6th major mass extinction.

Research into past extinction events can determine how ecosystems and animal communities responded in the aftermath of dramatic decreases in diversity, and I hope that my research looking into the geological past will give us some hope for the future.

Find out more:


Researching through Recovery: Embarking on a PhD post-brain surgery

By Sinead Matson, B.A., H.Dip. Montessori, M.Ed.


Anyone who has had the misfortune to undergo a craniotomy should do a PhD. Seriously. It makes sense. Both paths have similar hurdles: Imposter syndrome – check! Struggle with writing – check! Trouble expressing your thoughts – check! Extreme tiredness – check, check! It’s physiotherapy, but for your brain.

I joke of course, because each person’s individual recovery is different, but doing a PhD has personally given me the space to recover from a craniotomy while still actively working on my career and passion. I was always going to embark on a doctoral degree but in October 2014 (ten weeks after my second child was born) I had four successive tonic-clonic seizures which ultimately led to the discovery and removal of a large meningioma (brain tumour) four days later. When I woke up from surgery I couldn’t move the right-hand side of my body except for raising my arm slightly; my speech and thought process was affected too. Of course, I panicked, but the physiotherapist was on hand to tell me that while the brain had forgotten how to talk to the muscle – the muscle never forgets. I instantly relaxed, “muscle memory! I’ve got this” I thought to myself – forever the Montessori teacher.

Nobody tells you that recovering from brain surgery is exhausting, so exhausting. Every day I had to relearn things I had previously known. Every single sense is heightened and a ten-minute walk around the supermarket is a sensory overload. However, I never questioned the fact that I would start college the following September; in fact, it drove me to do my physio and get physically better. I even applied for a competitive scholarship and won it. I can never explain enough how much of a boost that was to my self-esteem. There is nothing like brain surgery to make you question your identity and your cognitive skills in a profession that values thinking, research, articulating new ideas, and writing. It is like an attack on your very being.


When I started, I could not have been more accommodated by the Education department in Maynooth University, but in a manner which was subtle and encouraging whilst still pushing me to do a little bit more. My supervisor struck a delicate balance between supportive and always encouraging me to look a little further and read more. I never felt mollycoddled or out of my depth (well… no more than the average PhD student).

Of course, there are challenges. Aren’t there always? It can be frustrating (not to mention embarrassing) when you cannot process a conversation as quickly as it is happening at meetings, conferences, or seminars; it’s the same for when you answer a question but know the words you are saying are not matching what you are trying to articulate. Submitting a piece of writing to anyone, anywhere, is the most vulnerable thing that you can experience, especially when your language centre has been affected and you know your grammar and phrasing might not always be up to par. Transitions flummox me, particularly verbal transitions like the start of a presentation, introducing and thanking a guest speaker, taking on the position of chairing a symposium, and day to day greetings. I lose all words, forget etiquette, and generally stammer. I forever find myself answering questions or reliving scenarios from the day in the shower!

So, what’s different between mine and any other doctoral student’s experience you ask? Well, I’m not sure. I see my fellow students all have the same worries and vulnerabilities. We all have discussed our feelings of imposter syndrome at various points thus far, our excitement and disbelief when our work is accepted for presentation or publication, and our utter distress at not being able to articulate what we really wanted to say in front of a visiting professor. I do know this: it used to be easier; I used to do it better; I never had problems with writing or verbal transitions before; it is harder for me now. But (BUT) I now have a whole team of people who share my feelings and frustrations. I now have a community who champion my successes and comfort me with their own tales when I have bad days. I now feel less isolated and more normal. They allow me…no…they push me to do more, to believe I could travel to India alone to research; to not let epilepsy or fear to hold me back; to believe that I could negotiate the research process on the ground with preschool children and their parents and not get overwhelmed. They have read papers and assignments for me before I submit them and they expect the same of me. They simultaneously allow me room to vent (and take the lift when I’m too tired to walk) and they push me to be more adventurous with my reading and theory – to take risks I may never have taken.

All-in-all, I cannot think of a better way to recover from brain surgery and all it entails than the absolute privilege of completing a PhD. It gives me a space – a safe space – to recover in. The research process itself has helped me learn who I am again, what I stand for, and what I believe. It has pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone in a way that I’m not sure I would have done otherwise but I am positive is vital to my full recovery. It has exercised my own personal cognitive abilities, reasoning skills, verbal and written expression so much more than any therapy could have, and it has given me, not a cheerleading team, but a community of researchers who are on the same journey – in a way.

I’m not saying it’s for everyone – no two recoveries are the same. However, I wish there was (and I did search for) someone who could have told me before the surgery, but particularly while I was in recovery, that life doesn’t have to stop. That it is not only possible to research while in recovery from brain surgery, but that it can also have a transformative effect on your life and your sense of identity; that it will push you outside of every comfort zone you’ve ever had, and it will be exhilarating.

2015-10-26 15.54.54


10 things Americans can do to make St. Patrick’s Day about more than alcohol and appropriation

By: Grace McDermott


Around St. Patricks Day a TON of crappy “How to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day” posts go around touting outdated and frankly bullshit suggestions about ‘how to get your Irish on’.

There is nothing wrong with having a few beers with friends on St. Patrick’s Day, because that is a real and wonderful part of Irish culture and community. However, to have the sum total of your annual celebration, recognition or pride center on this, is reductive and frankly, stupid. The proselytization of Irish-ness as merely alcohol consumption is astounding from so many “proud” Irish Americans. We can do better.

As an American living in Ireland for nearly 6 years now, I can say without reservation that Ireland is an amazing place to live. Ireland is a country that exists in nuance, complexity and depth outside of the month of March. It cannot be distilled down to Lucky Charms (they don’t even sell it here) or Guinness, and like all places it has its ups, downs and in-betweens.

Irish citizens are humans and not the ‘happy-go’-lucky’ hooligans stereotyped depictions of them would have us believe. At their best they are artists, activists, authors, humanitarians business leaders, and musicians.

If you are proud of your Irish heritage or interested in Irish culture there are so many ways to celebrate that are respectful, non-appropriative and most importantly, worthwhile this ‘holiday’ season. Save your money on the “Kiss Me I’m Irish” booty shorts, and invest in the intellectual and cultural history/future of this awesome island.

In lieu of all of the shitty St. Patrick’s Day articles floating around the internet here’s my list of a few relevant, valid and respectful things you can do to celebrate Paddy’s day, the right way:


1.Forget outdated stereotypes built on the Ireland of our Grandparents

While Irish history is interesting, important and in many ways charming and romantic the reality is that Ireland today is a much different place than 80 or 100 years ago.Ireland is in many ways more socially progressive than the US (though like any place, there are still areas that need work). Ireland was the first country in the world to pass the right for gay couples to marry by popular vote. Despite a long and complicated history with the Catholic Church, Irish people continue to come out in favor of equality, progress and respect for their fellow citizens. While much of the Irish American identity continues to revolve around conservative ideals (as proved by the recent controversy regarding the attendance of LGBTQ organization at the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade) this does not reflect the reality of Ireland today.

Moreover, while agriculture, farming and rural-living remain an important part of Ireland there is another side to the country that the media often ignores. Ireland is home to big business and Dublin particularly, is a cosmopolitan and international city. In recent years the country’s low corporate tax rate, and educated population has driven a large-scale tech boom. Ireland is home to the European HQ’s of Google, Facebook, Twitter, AirBnB and Apple to name a few. There are tons of Irish tech websites where you can follow Irish tech leaders and industry. My favorites are: and 

 2. Buy Irish

While your leprechaun suit may be cool for about a day and a half, there are thousands of Irish designers, artist and craftsman who sell goods online that you can actually use or wear every day! I like:

  • Irish Design Shop: for a range of beautiful things from artists across the country
  • Chupi: The most GORGEOUS jewelry ever.
  • Lucia B: A painter with an eye and talent for painting stunning freckly faces and the scenes of Inis Mor, one of the Aran Islands.
  • MiniMaxi: Bought one of my favorite necklaces from the Dublin-based designer, who does prints too
  • Carousel: Irish made and designed vintage clothing:


3. Read up on the Irish political system

Ireland has a President, an Taoiseach and a few other positions I had never heard of until
I moved here. They have the potential to have coalition government , and the voting system is very different to that of the US. Also, they had a female president, before female presidents were a thing (in 1990!). Her name is Mary Robinson. They had a second female president too, Mary McAleese

So, basically… #presidentgoals.


4. Educate yourself  on issues impacting Ireland today

At the moment, the public call for a referendum on the 8th Amendment is a huge issue. The 8th Amendment currently blocks Irish women from having access to free, safe and legal abortions on Irish shores. As a result many women have died, or are forced to travel to seek a safe abortion. Of course, as in the States, there are opinions on both sides of this issue. Either way, the “Repeal the 8th Movement” is one that all Irish Americans should educate themselves on, regardless of their stance. This video is worth watching.


It is important to remember that although you may not be able to vote in Ireland, you can speak up for and support causes you care about via digital advocacy, education and by the way you vote at home. There is a New York chapter and others across the country marching and organizing in support of the Irish call to “Repeal the 8th”. Other similar support initiatives exist in the states: #TheIrishStand is another that comes to mind, marching for equality and justice on this St. Patrick’s Day.

Other recent events including the horrific situation involving the Tuam mother and baby home are important to be aware. These issues are connected to the long history of restricted female bodily autonomy in Ireland:


5. Learn some Irish 

No one who is actually Irish calls it “Gaelic”, they call it “Irish” or “Gaeilge” (sounds like: GaleGAH) so if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, probably start there. The reason for the “Irish” vs. “Gaelic” thing is complicated. I still don’t fully understand it, but trust me on this one, not one person I know here calls it Gaelic, so just don’t.

Irish is super cool and totally different than anything you have ever heard. There is a ton of silent letters, letter combinations etc. that make reading Irish for newcomers REALLY difficult. All the signs here are in both Irish/ English, and I actually have a few friends speak Irish as a first language. Despite what you may have heard, Irish is a thriving language that many Irish people know how to speak, and all Irish people learn in school. The Irish-American names we so often hear (for example, Colleen or Erin) are not all that popular here, because they in fact are Irish-American names and not Irish names.

  • If you want to hear what Irish sounds like, listen:
  • You can start practicing today with DuoLingo (a free app!). I started a few months ago and I am still pretty bad, but it is fun and worth a shot!
  • Also, is a bilingual blog (English/Irish) that gives you a great opportunity to hear from Irish voices.


6. Educate yourself on, understand and advocate for Irish immigrants and other immigrants in your area.

Irish people have a long history of emigration. The reasons for Irish emigration have always been diverse, despite the fact that US history classes would tell us it started and ended with the famine. I met my Irish fiancé while working in Australia, a place where thousands of young Irish immigrants live today. New York, California and Chicago remain hotspots for Irish immigrants in the US, but you can find Irish people in every state.

While Irish immigrants living in the US are often spoken about with a type of excpetionalism, separating them from Mexicans, Muslims, Africans, etc. the reality is that the struggle for legal and safe immigration into the US continues to be a challenge form many Irish people and Irish families.

While I can attest to the Irish immigration processes being difficult, the US legislation that continues to effect immigrants in the US has a HUGE impact on Irish communities. Illegal immigration of Irish people into the US is a common occurrence.

Thus, consider your Irish identity and pride, when speaking or voting on immigration policies. Although Irish immigrants may be your history they remain a reality for America today. Moreover, their struggles are embedded and inalienable from the struggles of other immigrant populations in the US.

Read more:


 Listen to Irish Musicians.

In the last few years I have tried St.Patrick’s Day playlists curated by Spotify that were loaded with English and American artists. That’s cool, but again, not Irish. Music is probably my favorite part of living in Ireland. It’s on the streets, in the pubs and totally amazing. Here are some actual Irish musicians you should listen to:

  • The Gloaming
  • The Heathers
  • Saint Sister
  • Wyvern Lingo
  • Sinead OConnor
  • Mary Black
  • Mick Flannery hlk
  • Hermitage Green
  • Lisa Hannigan
  • Hozier
  • We Cut Corners
  • Damien Rice
  • Glen Hansard
  • Aslan
  • The Coronas



8. Ditch the xenophobic language and get the terminology/country right.

Firstly, it’s “Paddy’s Day” this is what Irish people call it, why, I still do not know. Also, bagpipes and kilts don’t belong to Ireland, that’s Scotland.

On a more serious note, every year at this time I find it disheartening to have to explain this to people. If you love Ireland, are interested it, want to wear green and party in the name of Ireland, the least you can do is not be a dick about it. Ordering an “Irish Car Bomb” and even “Irish Car Bomb” recipes continue to be a normal occurrence this time of year. Real Irish car bombs were not and are not funny. This is disgusting, particularly coming from Americans who understand the real, painful implications of terrorism. Just don’t do it.

Also, the “Irish Yoga” shirts (of passed out people), “Kiss Me I’m Drunk” etc. is damaging whether or not you think so. Why should you not do this if it’s not ‘hurting’ anyone? Well, non-Irish people under the guise of the “drunken Paddy” stereotype often trivialize actual Irish people and they’re suffering. In other words, when actual bad things happen to actual Irish people others often dismiss or make light of it because they believe they too are “Irish” or that the Irish identity itself is a joke. This works against Irish people in the same way any racist/sexist/social othering does. Don’t think this happens? You should familiarize your self with the New York Times coverage of a Berkley balcony collapse that killed 5 Irish young people in 2015.

I am all in favor of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by non-Irish people, Irish Americans etc. but only if done so respectfully. As Americans we hold our national identity as a sacred source of pride, so don’t disrespect someone else’s that doesn’t belong to you and call it a holiday.

9. Talk to an actual Irish person

Being Irish American is NOT remotely the same. If you are interested in Ireland or proud of your heritage, it is your responsibility to learn about what it means to be Irish now. If that means going out of your comfort zone, and meeting someone new, good.

I can tell you about Ireland all I want BUT I did not grow up here, my parents are not from here, and my experiences will always be different than my Irish counterparts. In the same way, YOUR Irish American identity is not the same as being an Irish person. This can be a hard pill to swallow when in the States, we are fed the notion of our cultural heritage being a defining characteristic our identity. Accepting that you are NOT Irish, but rather, an Irish American is an important step towards becoming an educated, and supportive ally for Ireland.

10. Visit Ireland

Ireland is a really safe and easy place to travel. The people are wonderful, the sites are amazing, and as I said, the music is like nowhere else in the world. Flights from New York and Boston are very affordable and are only about 6.5 hours. From other parts of the states, it is a bit more expensive but definitely worth the investment. What better way to show your Irish pride then to get on a plane and visit. You never know, I did that 6 years ago and here I sit, writing to you from my Dublin apartment!


In the last 6 years, Ireland has given me so much and over the last few thousand years it has given the world a bit too. I think it’s time we start doing it some justice at home. Happy Paddy’s Day everyone!

What can the brain learn from itself? Neurofeedback for understanding brain function.

By:Dr. Kathy L.Ruddy

STEM editor: Francesca Farina

The human brain has a remarkable capacity to learn from feedback. During daily life as we interact with our environment the brain processes the consequences of our actions, and uses this ‘feedback’ in order to update its stored representations or ‘blueprints’ for how to perform certain behaviours optimally. This learning-by-feedback process occurs regardless of whether we are consciously aware of it or not.

The more interesting implication of this process is that the brain can also ‘learn from itself’, forming the basis of the ‘neurofeedback’ phenomenon.

BCI_soft_EdgesBasically, if we stick an electrode on the head to record the brain’s electrical rhythms (or ‘waves’), the brain can learn to change the rhythm simply by watching feedback displayed on a computer screen. Because we know that the presence of particular types of brain rhythms can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the context and the task being performed, the ability to volitionally change them may have useful applications for enhancing human performance and treating pathological patterns of brain activity.

In recent years neurofeedback has, however, earned itself a bad reputation in scientific circles. This is mainly due to the premature commercialisation of the technique, which is now being ‘sold’ as a treatment for clinical disorders – for which the research evidence is currently still lacking – and even for home use to alleviate symptoms of stress, migraine, depression, anxiety, and essentially any other complaint you can think of! The problem with all of this is that we, as scientists, understand very little about the brain rhythms in the first place; Where do they come from? What do they mean? Are they simply a by-product of other ongoing brain processes, or does the rhythm itself set the ‘state’ of a particular brain region, enhancing or inhibiting its processing capabilities?

In my own research, I am currently working towards bridging this gap, by trying to make the connection between fundamental brain mechanisms, behaviours, and their associated electrical rhythms or brain ‘states’.

By training people to put their brain into different ‘states’, we were – for the first time – able to glimpse how brain rhythms directly influence these states in humans. We focused on the motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement, because there is a vast ongoing debate in the literature concerning whether changing the state of this region has implications for movement rehabilitation following stroke or other brain injury. Some argue that if the motor cortex is in a more ‘excitable’ state, traditional stroke rehabilitation therapies have enhanced effectiveness, compared to when the same region is more ‘inhibited’. Brain stimulation directly targeting the motor cortex has been used in the past in an attempt to achieve this more plastic, excitable state, but with mixed success and small effects that have proven difficult to reproduce.

TMS neuofedback_imagesIn our investigation we used brain stimulation in a non-traditional way to achieve robust bidirectional changes in the state of the motor cortex. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can be used to measure the excitability (state) of the motor system. By applying a magnetic pulse to the skull over the exact location in the brain that controls the finger, a response can be measured in finger muscles that is referred to as a motor-evoked potential (MEP). The size of the MEP tells us how excitable the system is. We developed a form of neurofeedback training where the size of each MEP was displayed to participants on screen, and they were rewarded for either large, or small MEPs by positive auditory feedback and a dollar symbol. This type of neurofeedback mobilizes learning mechansims in the brain, as participants develop mental strategies and observe the consequences of their thought processes upon the state of their motor system. Over a period of 5 days, participants were able to make their MEPs significantly bigger or smaller, by changing the excitatory/inhibitory state of the motor cortex.

Our next question was, how exactly is this change of state being achieved in the brain? Are electrical brain rhythms changing in the motor cortex to mediate the changing brain state? Using this new tool to change brain state experimentally, we asked participants to return for one final training session, this time while we recorded their brain rhythms (using EEG) during the TMS-based neurofeedback. This revealed that when the motor cortex was more excitable, there was a significant local increase in high frequency (gamma) brainwaves (between 30-50Hz). By contrast, higher alpha waves (8-14Hz) were associated with a more ‘inhibited’ brain state, but were not as influential in setting the excitability of the motor cortex as the gamma waves

page-0The implications of these findings are twofold. Firstly, having a tool to robustly change the excitatory/inhibitory balance of the motor cortex gives us experimental control over this process, and thus opens several doors for new fundamental scientific research into the neural mechanisms that determine the state of the motor system. Secondly, this approach may have future clinical potential, as a non-invasive and non-pharmacological way to ‘prime’ the motor cortex in advance of movement rehabilitation therapy, by putting the brain in a state that is more receptive to re-learning motor skills. As the training is straightforward, pain free and enjoyable for the participant, we believe that this approach may pave the way for a new wave of research using neurofeedback in place of traditional electrical brain stimulation, as a scientific tool and an adjunct to commonly used stroke rehabilitation practices.


The view from here: fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

by Cindy Withjack


You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés. –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises


I was wearing an Esmeralda crewneck sweatshirt the first time I heard someone say the President should be ashamed of himself. I was either reading or spinning around in circles, and I liked Esmeralda best because she looked most like me. There were at least three adults, perched like gargoyles on the couch edge and they, along with a sizeable portion of America, were all at once captivated and scandalized; the 42nd President of the United States had brought shame upon all our kettle black homes. I had yet to understand the difference between peaches and impeachment, and in twenty years time I would be an expatriate.

I was an expat before America changed hands, before Bernie Sanders was officially out of the running, before Hillary Clinton was deemed a ‘nasty woman.’ America felt to me considerably far away during my Master’s program in England where I was writing a short story collection and finalizing PhD applications, still trying to decide if it was weird to put milk in my tea. In the postgraduate pub or university café, I was often asked how I was allowing this to happen—‘this’ being the rise of Donald Trump—and I responded, with my significantly less charming accent, that I held much less clout than they assumed. And yet, it was unnerving how guilty I felt, how relieved, to be so far away from America. I busied myself with PhD applications asking that I demonstrate my intentions: my plan to contribute something new and significant to academia and why. This portion of the applications felt timely; in my case wanting to contribute something significant meant being present, from afar, in the matters of America. While the critical and creative aspects of my proposed novel materialized, I returned again and again to that awareness of guilty-relief, which did not add to my work as much as it hindered it.

During my Master’s program, in spite of American news and Brexit, I produced a sizeable portfolio of more than twenty short stories. This output created in my mind, alongside minor paranoia, an almost mystical idea of how my novel would come together. Compared to the struggles I had faced in my life to date, I felt confident in my ability to go into any PhD program with squared shoulders. There was, I believed, a surge in Intersectional Feminism, morality, and accountability. In my belief that I would change the world, I assumed the world was changing with me. Not so quietly, there was a disconnect forming, a disillusionment that would burrow its way into my studies and my writing.

I watched Donald Trump become elected the 45th President of The United States on five screens. Receiving the news this way, five different times, each one on a slight delay with varying accents and facial expressions, was both remarkable and necessary; my brain wanted to understand absolutely, without cushion or crutch, despite the disappointment that followed. America, the grassy place my immigrant parents felt was best, had let down so many of us in just a few hours. As a devoted academic I wanted precise control over the way my brain absorbed and processed the information, which meant having an early morning Q&A with myself: How did we get here? (We were always here.) Who let this happen? (We did.) What happens next? (Go to sleep.) Still, the idea of this particular President dictating what happened next with my freedom, my body, and my future was unfathomable.

My Master’s program had recently ended; I decided on a PhD program, but it was still several months away. I was appreciative that I had nowhere to be, no deadline, no expectations. I allowed myself time to wallow, stayed inside for 24 hours after the election, wondering how long I could go without disclosing my nationality as to avoid being forced into discussing what had just occurred, finally leaving to pick up a pizza. Mumbling as few words as possible while paying, I gave myself away.

            ‘Where are you from?’ asked a man to my right.

            ‘Is it that noticeable?’ I stalled.

            ‘You’re definitely American.’

            I sighed feeling both embarrassed and defensive.

            ‘What a huge mistake,’ he said. ‘How could you let that happen?’

Here I considered laughing, but truthfully I cannot remember how I actually responded. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and in hindsight, I can only imagine all the best possible retorts forming one giant metaphorical middle finger.

What followed were several months of cyclical social media overload followed by social media blackout, before I returned my attention to books, having distractedly cast them aside and, for the first time in my life, I found no comfort there. The abundance of news easily became overwhelming despite my feeling that remaining informed was a requirement. Wouldn’t it be negligent and irresponsible to distance myself from the news, both good and bad, and to potentially find myself ignorant about the state of the world? The anxiety of activism—attempting to quell my resentment by becoming more involved, and sharing important articles, and signing petitions felt at times like two steps forward followed by one very long backslide—left me exhausted and unfocused. Fighting disillusionment proved difficult following Donald Trump’s first week in office, and I went into day one of my PhD program feeling completely derailed.

Roughly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rough two months it has been indeed, I still feel derailed, but I am listening to Purple Rain on repeat. I am writing less but reading more, and since my Master’s graduation I have been skeptical of the idea that I can contribute something of real significance during such a tumultuous time; those twenty short stories seem so very long ago. It is in our nature, people like to generalize about writers, to be self-deprecating and melodramatic, and I totally agree. Writing as a profession is hard all on its own; add to that a complete upheaval of the things a writer holds dear—freedom of speech, reproductive rights, racial justice, issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights—and things get a bit more complicated. However, ‘[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work,’ Toni Morrison’s words try to remind me. ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ The year is only just beginning, so there is still time for me to latch onto Morrison’s words and follow through. I have no immediate plans to return to America, and as my program is the same length as one presidential term, I have at least four years to read, spin around in circles, and write a novel. It only took a year for me to genuinely enjoy black tea. A lot can happen in four years.


Austerity, women and health inequalities in the UK

by Amy Greer Murphy, Durham University

My PhD is part of a five year research project entitled ‘Local Health Inequalities in an Age of Austerity: The Stockton-on-Tees study’. It’s a mixed method case study exploring the localised impacts of austerity on health. My role is examining the experiences of women living in Stockton using qualitative research.

A few key terms

Austerity refers to attempts to reduce government deficits through spending cuts and sometimes tax increases. Across Europe, austerity was implemented in many countries, such as Greece and Ireland, as a precondition of receiving bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. In the UK, a major restructuring of the public sector and welfare system has been undertaken since 2010.

Neoliberalism refers to the application of free market principles to public policy. It has been enacted in the UK since Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in the 1980s and has comprised of deregulation (e.g. of the banking and financial system), privatisation (e.g. of bus and rail services) and, more recently, austerity (e.g. extensive welfare reforms).

‘Health inequalities’ refer to disparities in life expectancy and years of health life (‘mortality’ and ‘morbidity’) within and across nations. There is a gradient in all countries – those with more socio-economic resources also have better health (Marmot, 2010). In the UK, health inequalities are widening since austerity began. Schrecker and Bambra (2015) have referred to the process of widening health inequalities and liberalised economic and social policies as a ‘neoliberal epidemic’.

Austerity and inequality in the UK

The UK is a large country, and one of great social contrasts. The contrasts that are relevant to my research are related to inequality of opportunity, resources, health, and the government policies, political decisions and historical legacies that bring these about. The North East has experienced a huge restructuring of its’ social landscape in recent decades. Mining, heavy industry and manufacturing have all but ceased to operate there. The jobs that once provided decent incomes and rooted people to their communities, providing clear routes through the lifecourse and class allegiances, have slipped away. In their place are zero hour contracts in care homes and nurseries, seasonal work in factories and as agency staff providing security in shopping centres.

Through this research process I have tried to understand what neoliberalism and austerity feel like if you’re not on the winning side of them, focussing on gender and class. I’ve then tried to see the wider connection to globalised economies and deregulated financial markets.


One of the ways austerity is affecting places and people differently is through health. In Stockton-on-Tees, the gap in life expectancy for men is the largest in all of England, at 17.3 years, and one of the widest for women, at 11.4 (Public Health England, 2015). If you are a man born in one of the wealthier, typically less urbanised parts of Stockton you can expect, on average, to live 17.3 years longer, and more of those years in good health, than a man born just a short walk away, in a more built-up and less well-off part of town. You are also at a higher risk of cardio-vascular disease, obesity, cancer, mental health issues, suicide, alcoholism, to be more socially isolated, have a worse paying, precarious job or no job at all, and to be at the mercy of an increasingly retrenched welfare state for your income and livelihood. The picture for women is similar, but different in crucial ways I will explore later.

This, of course, isn’t the picture for everyone in Stockton; I don’t want to paint a doomsday caricature (Benefits Street, the Channel 4 show, made a noble attempt at that in 2014 with their ‘poverty porn’ foray into life on Kingston Road). Stockton is steeped in a proud industrial legacy, is surrounded by beautiful dales and hills, has a vibrant town centre, and is home to thousands of people of all kinds who are creating thriving and enduring communities. Undeniably, however, government policy is making the lives of an increasing number of its residents tougher.

The research topic

Women face a distinct set of risks under austerity, as their lives, choices and opportunities often play out differently. This led me to develop my research project, to be carried out with mothers from across the borough. I wanted to understand what the experiences are of being a woman living in a place like Stockton – what can they tell us about other similar places that have experienced stark deindustrialisation and withdrawal of resources and traditional routes to employment and social stability? What does it feel like to live through welfare reform, as a mother, with enough money or very little, in an area with lots of different inequalities?

The methods

The research design was informed by the work of Sociologists who have used their skills to bring to the academic and policy world narratives that are otherwise silenced – quite often the voices of women. Berverley Skeggs (1997), wrote about class and gender and respectability in an area of England not so far from Stockton, Ann Oakley (1979; 1993) spent years with mothers asking them what they thought about housework, women’s health and becoming a mother, and Arlie Hochschild (1989) delved into the lives of women trapped in the double- or triple-bind of work, caring for children and elderly relatives. The methods I used are similar to theirs, and ‘qualitative’, meaning they are designed to explore diverse social worlds and understand why certain groups of people or individuals make choices or live in certain ways, or why their lives are presented in a certain light. I had a methodology (system of methods) and sampling strategy (idea of why I wanted to contact, and why). Unlike some quantitative social research or scientific experiment, or the research wasn’t designed with representativeness or generalisability in mind.

I used ethnography, or participant observation; I spent 16 months at a women’s group where I gained friends and mentors and learned about being woman living on a low income in Stockton. I also interviewed 15 women, 14 of whom are mothers, from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and from many different walks of life. I recruited participants through the local Sure Start centres, Twitter, Thrive, the anti-poverty charity I spent a lot of time at, and through snowball sampling (asking people I met if they could recommend someone, or pass on my details). I offered a voucher as a thank-you and recorded my interviews.

Some findings

Continuing austerity and the decline of opportunities: For respondents and their wider networks, there is a huge concern about the likely continuation of austerity and what that might mean for families and communities. We spoke about diminishing opportunity and prospects, the long-term decline of services, the quality and availability of housing and work in the area.

The desire to ‘just be a mam’: Respondents found their roles as mothers and carers increasingly devalued, with the expectation that caring work should be provided by the market and that they should seek formal work as a primary source of income. However, quality work is unavailable, childcare unaffordable, and an important source of identity formation, their role as carers and mothers, diminished under austerity.

Mental health: It became increasingly obvious as I spent more time in the field that the deterioration of participants’ mental health and sense of wellbeing was stark. Discussions of everyday struggles with depression, anxiety and serious bouts of post-natal depression were worryingly frequent. Furthermore, long-term physical health and chronic pain issues were part and parcel of life for many of the women I spent time with, symptoms of a lifetime of stress, poor quality housing and other inequalities (Mattheys et al. 2015).


Underpinning my research is the understanding that women, particularly mothers, face a set of distinct risks under austerity, through labour market changes, reliance on the welfare system and the public sector. They are employed in higher numbers in the public sector, and so more vulnerable to job losses there, and more likely to be underemployed or in low-paid work in ‘feminised’ sectors. They may also face maternity discrimination in their workplace, experience a large gender pay gap and are absent from the labour market for extended periods while they take care of young children. Women also make use of public sector services in high numbers, the very services being cut back during austerity. They rely on the welfare state for many reasons to a much larger extent than men. Welfare reforms like the benefit cap, bedroom tax and sanctions, closures of community centres and privatisation of Sure Starts and lone parent conditionality hit not just women in large numbers, but children and families too. This research is trying to illustrate how austerity is regressive and contributing to growing inequality, and how this group, like many all around the UK, are finding it a challenging time to live through.


  • Blyth, M. 2013. Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Hochschild, A. 1989. The Second Shift: working parents and the revolution at home. Viking Penguin, New York.
  • Konzelmann, S., 2014. The political economics of austerity. Cambridge Journal of Economics 38 (4) pp. 701–741.
  • Marmot, M., Allen, J., Goldblatt, P., Boyce, T., McNeish, D., Grady, M., and Geddes, I. 2010. Fair society healthy lives. The Marmot review executive summary. The Marmot Review. UCL Institute of health equity, London.
  • Mattheys, K. Bambra, C. Kasim, A. Akhter, B. 2015. Inequalities in mental health and well-being in a time of austerity: Baseline findings from the Stockton-on-Tees cohort study. SSM -Population Health 2 Pp. 350–359.
  • Oakley, A. 1979. Becoming a mother. Martin Roberston and Company Ltd., Oxford.
  • Oakley, A. 1993. Essays on women, medicine and health. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  • Public Health England, 2015. Stockton-on-Tees Health Profile 2015.
  • Robson, S., and Robinson., J., 2012. Findings and recommendations from interim case study: the impact of austerity measures upon women in the North East of England. The Women’s Resource Centre, London.
  • Rubery, J. and Rafferty, A. 2014. Gender, recession and austerity in the UK. In: Karamessini, M. and Rubery, J. 2014. Women and Austerity, the economic crisis and the future of gender equality. Routledge, Oxon. pp. 123-144.
  • Schrecker, T., and Bambra, C., 2015. How politics makes us sick: neoliberal epidemics. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  • Skeggs, B., 1997. Formations of class and gender, Theory, Culture & Society. Sage Publications, London.


“Be yourself. We won’t tell:” some thoughts on HBO’s Westworld and the curiosities of tourism to Mexico

By: Julia Hieske 


Fictional advertisement for a fictional themepark – via

I recently watched the first season of HBO’s new blockbuster series Westworld and, I admit, it had me hooked right from episode one.[1] Westworld is about a Western-themed amusement park where rich visitors can do pretty much anything they want. Those visitors do not pay thousands of dollars just to go horse riding and drink whiskey in a makeshift saloon. No, while they certainly do not mind the whiskey, they are after the ‘real deal.’ Westworld, the park, is inhabited by androids so lifelike they scream and cry when you abuse them, bleed when you hurt them, and die when you kill them. Designed to cater to the customers’ every need, the show suggests those androids, women, men, and children, are not so far from human beings, after all. Without wanting to give away too much, then, it is safe to say that this show is about negotiating what it means to be human. It gives much food for thought about morality, the power of narrative, and, yes, about feminism. Yet, while I would love to talk to you about all those things over a pint or two, this article will look at another aspect of the show because, for me, Westworld is all about tourism.

While the corporation behind Westworld insists on calling them ‘guests,’ the visitors to the theme park are essentially tourists. These guests are offered a real cruise-ship-like package deal which includes their transport, equipment, and accommodation in the park as they are brought into Westworld by means of a steam-powered train which they board all suited up and armed for their personal cowboy adventure. Having seen it all, the affluent visitors are looking to experience something new. The novelty, for them, is connected to two things: authenticity, on the one hand, and nostalgia, on the other.

Tourism studies have long since agreed on the fact that the quest for authenticity is crucial to the tourism industry. It has been extremely difficult, though, to pinpoint how authenticity should be defined exactly. To be marketed as ‘authentic’ to prospective tourists, locations must strike a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. If the first prevailed, the place would be perceived as boring or mainstream. If the latter dominated, though, the destination would seem overwhelmingly foreign and travelling there too stressful to call it a vacation. Think of it as the difference between an all-inclusive resort vacation in Cancún and a zoological expedition in the jungle. While during the first, sheltered in a hotel district, you might even forget where you are – after all, beach resorts all over the world are not that different from each other – bug collecting in the rain forest will possibly not be something many people associate with a vacation. The solution to the dilemma, so to say, is to bring some jungle into the resort. Bits and pieces of nature – palm trees, cacti, exotic flowers, et cetera – or artefacts from indigenous cultures decorate the otherwise modern and often sterile environments of the tourist centres.


Actor in Mayan clothing in Cenote  –

Another strategy to provide tourists with the thrill of authenticity are performances of native or native-looking dancers and actors who are brought in to stage traditional dances and rituals. In the case of the Mexican Riviera, there are even theme parks that contain within their premises the whole package of what Mexico’s culture, history, and natural beauty have to offer, or so it seems. From cenotes (natural sinkholes or wells) and Mangroves to “Mayan walls,” a “Mexican cemetery” and “Prehispanic performances,” parks such as Xcaret and Xel-Há, sell a taste of Mexico to the tourists too cautious or lazy to venture out of both the tourist and their comfort zones. In many of the touristic centres which are exemplified by such “Disneyfied ecoparks,” – the Lonely Planet’s words, not mine – cultural heritage, as well as wild nature, become spectacles contained in restricted areas and adjusted to the current trends in the industry.[2] The same is true, dare I say, for the native inhabitants of those areas who become props positioned there to accommodate tourist imaginaries.

Sound familiar? In Westworld, the series, the corporation’s biggest selling point in the promotion of the park is the authenticity of experience. Of course, here, the concept is taken up a notch. After all, we are talking about the tourist who has seen it all. Resembling in its basic thought, perhaps, the ‘authentic experience’ of a trip to a township or the thrill of a bungee jump in the wilderness, Westworld, the park, promises a ride that is even more exciting. The ticket to this artificial world is supposed to have bought its holder the adventure of a lifetime. The trip promises to reconnect the guests with their primal instincts and the park offers plenty of adrenaline in its so-called narratives. The thrill of chasing bandits, playing cowboy, and paying the brothel a visit (‘what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld’) is balanced, though, by the fact that as guests, and in contrast to the humans used as props in the park, they cannot be harmed. On the one hand, this lets them go through a cathartic experience of sorts, on the other, however, some of them become unhinged by their powers of superiority.


Westworld: a different ride altogether! Rachel Evan Wood, James Marsden, and two horses- via

For me, it was hard not to be reminded of colonial or imperial travellers in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, here. Not only did many of them travel to those countries with an Orientalist perspective of assumed superiority over the natives, the excitement associated with a firsthand experience of the real or imagined dangers there, oftentimes, seemed like a welcome adventure. Take, for example, Fanny Calderón de la Barca, the Scottish wife of a Spanish diplomat, who moved to Mexico in the late 1830s. The vivid accounts of her travels deserve an entire article dedicated to nothing else but them but, for now, I want to highlight only one of her many anecdotes. A recurring theme in her letters spanning two years, as well as in plenty of travelogues from the same period, is her fear of bandits. Again and again, Fanny mentions rumours about robberies and several times she even expects to finally run into a bandit with such certainty, she is sure to have only escaped one by a hair’s breadth. Funnily enough, though, she would eventually leave Mexico without having ever had an encounter with a bandit whatsoever. Nevertheless, the topic seemed to have excited her so much, her writing makes the impression she must really have enjoyed telling her (almost) dangerous anecdotes.

Banditry, then, became some sort of a staple topic in Anglo-Saxon travel writing about Mexico. So much so, that it has become part of the imaginaries tourists have had about the country ever since. Regardless of the actual risk, what rather interests me here is the excitement of mystery and supposed danger, that could be enjoyed as long as one was safe. Their guaranteed safety, therefore, allows the guests in Westworld to live the ultimate tourist experience: all the adrenaline, the anecdotes, the souvenirs – in episode one, we see a couple getting their photo taken which also features the man’s first killed bandit – and none of the risk.


Rodrigo Santoro as the bandit soon to be taken care of by a guest – via

However, there is yet another factor that links the experience of the guests in the series’ theme park to that of tourists now and then. Nostalgia, as we will see, plays a huge role in both Westworld and tourist fantasies from the nineteenth century to the present. In the show, one of the biggest selling points of the park is that it allows for its guests to step into a world that belongs to the past. Evoking the spirit of the American frontier, Westworld provides narratives of exploration and fights to the death which provoke exhilaration that, to such an extent, is hard to be found in their everyday lives. Fundamentally, however, the theme park offers a ride to a simpler existence, where good and evil are easily distinguished and primitive impulses are not constrained by a complex set of laws. When, in episode one, for example, a guest shoots two robbers, we can see how the expression on his and his wife’s faces changes from initial shock to elation and pride. And, while the series quickly develops an intricate web of storylines featuring guests who do not seem to stick to any moral code, the first episode makes an effort to show us Westworld, its opportunities for – erm – ‘character development,’ and the results of a trip to the imagined past from the perspective of ordinary, seemingly decent people like the couple I just mentioned.

Doing what I do, that is, working your way through a ton of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century travelogues and tourist guidebooks to Mexico, you cannot help but notice the similarities. Take Charles Macomb Flandrau, for example, a writer and temporary plantation owner who marvels about the supposed lawlessness of the Mexicans and notes that he has “grown to regard battle, murder and sudden death as conventional forms of relaxation.”[3] After the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the former Mexican states and new U.S. territories were seen by many of the U.S. settlers who moved there as some sort of new frontier. The same was true when U.S. Americans began to flock even further south during the government of President Porfirio Díaz. For many, the renewed spirit of exploration was inextricably linked to a sense of Manifest Destiny and the disregard of the indigenous population. Nevertheless, they were not only lured there by the promise of making a fortune in the mining, coffee, and rubber businesses or the railway companies, they were also smitten with the picturesqueness of the rural villages and their inhabitants. While early travellers and, later, entire tourist groups visited these places and raved about their simplicity and beauty in letters and travelogues, their admiration was generally restricted to the visual, almost voyeuristic pleasure of observation. Their wonderment at the otherness of the indigenous people, their culture, and dwellings, thus, did not keep them from appreciating their modern homes upon their return. On the contrary, and this is true for the contemporary tourist, too, visiting poorer areas, indigenous cultures, and rural communities often seems a welcome change from the busy lives of members of modern societies, who, then, return feeling something on the spectrum between appreciation of their privilege and confirmation of their entitlement.

The yearning for a simpler existence that is connected to the past drives tourist fantasies to this day and it is the motor behind all kinds of advertised experiences, from ‘digital detox’ and ‘back to nature’ retreats to voluntourism and tours to the hinterlands. Let’s not forget, though, that tourist destinations are always projections to some extent. Just like the fictional Westworld, Xel-Há, Xcaret, and the likes thereof are the culmination of an industry that represents concepts of authenticity, culture, and the past which accommodate often nostalgic and romanticised tourist imaginaries. It is through the commodification of such concepts, then, that tourism can offer both Westworld’s guests and real tourists the opportunity to grasp the intangible.


Actor re-enacting Mayan ballgame, a ritualistic event which concluded in a human sacrifice by decapitation and disembowelment – via www.

The series has a point when it provocatively suggests that the right amount of money can buy its owner virtually anything – even a free pass to act out one’s darkest fantasies – because it reminds us of the fact that tourism is always a matter of privilege. It also shows us that much of what we secretly might look for in visiting a place is linked to a yearning for authentic experience and nostalgia for a simpler life. Nevertheless, other than the bleak picture painted in HBO’s Westworld, I think travelling or tourism in real life still gives room for hope. Travel, in my opinion, has the potential to broaden our horizons and put things into perspective. It can be transformative, in a good way, if we let it. But let’s see what the second season of Westworld will have to say about all that when it comes out next year. I will be watching on the edge of my seat.



[1] Westworld. HBO. 2016. To avoid confusion, reference to the show will be made in italics, while references to the park itself will appear in standard font.

[2] Lonely Planet Yucatán. Lonely Planet Publications. 2003. p. 125.

[3] Charles Macomb Flandrau, Viva Mexico!. D. Appleton and Company. 1908, p. 115.

Women and the Forensic Thriller

By: Elena Avanzas Álvarez

Every time I tell someone I am pursuing a PhD in the Humanities, it is clear to me that they do not think I am in my right mind. Then I tell them that I am doing this with no fixed income or scholarship to support it, and I can see fear in their faces. But my favourite reaction comes when I tell them I am writing a thesis about forensic crime fiction: ‘Why do you write your thesis about trash/airport/commercial literature?’ And every time I tell them that there is more to crime fiction than CSI. There is even more to CSI!!! And here is why:

Crime fiction has been – along with romance – one of the most popular literary subgenres since the 19th century. People are addicted to crime, especially if it comes from a book, as it appears to be a shallow but safe entertainment.

As Umberto Eco said, fiction offers readers different forests in which to get lost: No immediate or physical harm comes from reading a crime novel, and if it ever gets too much, we can always close the book and start another one, or turn the TV on, or simply go for a walk to clear up our minds. It is that simple. However, despite our historical preference as a society for crime stories, we are quickly to dismiss them as low-quality cultural products. Think about the contradiction between CSI’ audience ratings during its 15-year run (2000 – 2015), and how it is perceived by most people. Where does this tension come from?TemperanceBrennan

Historically, crime fiction has been regarded as corrupting literature, contagious stories that could turn readers into deprived human beings. Despite this belief, writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are well-known even to modern audiences. They were big back then, and they still are. The passing of time has turned them into classics, but what do we have to say about the men – and especially the women – writing crime fiction nowadays? This is the reason I chose to focus my PhD thesis on contemporary authors: They are writing as we prepare our meals, go to school, go to work, or simply have a bath. Many of them are making a living of their writings, and some of them have changed the way in which we define ‘detective fiction’ in the 21st century. It is our duty, as well as a privilege, to enjoy their work, but also to support it in order to keep the arts going and evolve as a society.

If artists have it difficult, imagine women artists. We still live in a patriarchal society where the roles of child-bearing and caring are primarily associated to the women in the family leaving them – us! – less time to develop our careers and passions than our male counterparts. This is why I have also chosen to focus my research on women writers, especially since the crime fiction has always been considered a masculine genre that, nonetheless, has had some of the most successful female writers in the past century. Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976), Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1889 – 1955), Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995), Margaret Millar (1915 – 1994), Liza Cody (1944 – ), Eleanor Taylor Bland (1944 – ), Ruth Rendell (1930 – 2015), P.D James (1920 – 2014), and Sue Grafton (1940 -), are some of the most well-known, but their works can be considered classics, even though some of them are still writing nowadays. So, instead of researching more about the past, I decided that it would be worth researching the type of crime fiction that has made of the detecting process a complicated and exciting combination of science, technology, and brains. That is, I chose to focus on forensic crime fiction because many of us cannot understand the detecting process without forensic science.

It all started in 1990, when Patricia Cornwell published the first novel in the Kay Scarpetta series. Postmortem (1990) tells the story of doctor Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner of the State of Virginia, as she investigates the serial rapes and killings of Richmond’s young professional women.PostMortem

The novel is historically relevant as it inscribes DNA profiling in literature. Back then, recent forensic developments were considered yet another form of hocus-pocus and Scarpetta has to fight for DNA evidence to be performed by the laboratory.

However, the novel’s strength comes from the main character herself, who inscribes the struggles of the 1990’s feminism as her struggle against a male-dominated police department who doubts her abilities as a doctor takes central stage. After the success of Postmortem, Patricia Cornwell has written 25 Kay Scarpetta novels – the latest one published in 2016 – in which the middle-aged female forensic doctor has faced the difficulties typical of her gender, job, and situation as a main character in one of the most successful crime fiction series in America.

Cornwell’s success quickly inspired other female writers to dip into forensic thriller territory. Kathy Reichs being the most remarkable of them in the 1990’s with her debut novel Dèja Dead (1994).


If her name does not ring a bell, the television adaptation of her novels surely does. Author of the Temperance Brennan series, Reichs has seen how her fictional alter-ego has been transformed in one of the most beloved television characters in Bones (2005 – 2017). Even though Cornwell has a remarkable knowledge about forensic science, and she keeps herself constantly updated on the latest developments in the field, Reich has the advantage of writing about what she knows best: Forensic Anthropology. Like Brennan, Reich is one of the best forensic anthropologists in the USA, as well as a remarkable scientist, who has been working in humanitarian causes for the last 40 years. With the Brennan series, she has inscribed a very specific field of study in popular fiction, and she has offered women all over the world the opportunity to discover forensic anthropology as a field of study: If she can see it, she can be it.

From the rise of the forensic thriller in the 1990’s until the present day, the introduction of female forensic doctors in contemporary popular fiction (‘fiction’ here understood as any text in any format, television shows included) has become a tendency. And we, as an audience, love it. If you think of any crime fiction television show that you enjoy, it is very likely to star a female forensic doctor. Some of them feature this doctors as secondary characters, such as Castle (2009 – 2016), and CSI: NY (2004 – 2013). But there were also productions that focused on a female forensic doctor, who also did some detecting work. Think of Crossing Jordan (2001 – 2007), Body of Proof (2011 – 2013), or even Bones.


Crossing Jordan

All these women have something in common, and that is their ability to transform detection into a whole new process by including the latest advances in science and technology. Furthermore, they are qualified experts in reading bodies. If the corpse is the raison d`être of the crime narrative, forensic doctors are the ultimate sleuths, as their medical and scientific knowledge allows them to read a body and produce a narrative of the victim’s lived experience.

Crime fiction may be commercial. A crime novel may also be the best choice to keep to keep your attention during a flight, or while you wait for the train back home. But crime novels have so many layers, that they allow for both light and in-depth reading.

It is up to us to choose whether to focus on the thrilling page-turning quality of the text and dismiss it – why do we still equal easy with bad? – or we can choose to see the social prejudices, tensions and developments that build the story. In any case, something is clear: We like crime fiction. We read detective fiction. And we should study it.

More about women in crime fiction and the author here:


From The Taming of the Shrew to 10 Things I Hate About You: taming wild women in European culture

Don’t kiss him, Kate: Shrew-Taming Traditions in European Culture

by Dr Florence Hazrat

Before she is allowed to leave the house for a Friday night date, her father makes her wear a plastic apron with a big belly attached to the front. This is how it would be if she became pregnant. And does she want to become pregnant? Never trust boys! She complies begrudgingly, familiar with her father’s peculiar protectiveness. She needs to humour him, the prom is fast approaching, and the hottest guy of the whole high school has asked her out. If only there wasn’t her elder sister! Their father lets Bianca go to the proms upon condition that Kat goes too. But she’s a wild one, and has never had a date in her life. Only that mad boy, Patrick, could perhaps be bribed into asking her out…

This scene stems from the beginning of the 1999 teen film Ten Things I Hate About You, featuring future Hollywood actors Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger in the leading roles. The film, however, is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s late sixteenth-century comedy The Taming of the Shrew in which a recalcitrant young woman, Katherine, is getting married off to a robust character, Petruchio, who starves her high spirits into wifely obedience. But Shakespeare’s piece is itself a spin-off of previous versions of the well-known theme of shrew-taming across diverse cultures, languages, and times. Scholars propose at least 400 of such stories in European literature alone, including oral versions, proverbs and story collections. Shakespeare’s play is among others inspired by an anonymous ballad called ‘A merry jest of a shrewd and cursed wife, lapped in Morrelles skin, for her good behaviour’ in which the husband cowers his wife by beating and wrapping her in his horse’ skin.


A Louis Rhead ink drawing of Katherine breaking a lute over the music master’s head, from a 1918 edition of Tales from Shakespeare

Modern audiences struggle with the physical and emotional violence of the tale, particularly in the case of Shakespeare whose celebration as moral paragon sits awkwardly with the seeming misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism of some of his plays such as The Shrew, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. Critics either denounce or attempt to salvage the playwright from such charges, arguing he writes within the traditions and genre conventions of his time, indeed  wringing subtlety from them by pushing and pulling their limits. The Shrew, it is said, is a satire on domineering male behaviour, emerging from a social trend towards the romantic companionable rather than arranged marriage. That the inequalities suggested were unpalatable even to early modern sensitivities is, perhaps, shown by a play written as sequel to Shakespeare’s, The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher: Petrucmisohio has bullied Katherine into the grave, re-marrying a supposedly mild young girl who turns out to be a wilder wife than the first. As in Shakespeare’s play, the couple eventually makes peace after many hilarious tricks played upon each other. As in Shakespeare’s play too, we’re left not entirely sure what to think, but that may just be the point.


A caricature by Williams from Caricature magazine (1815), entitled ‘Tameing a shrew; or, Petruchio’s patent family bedstead, gags and thumscrews.’

The Taming of the Shrew complicates the difficult business of “are we to take the misogyny seriously?” by setting it apart as play within the play. The piece doesn’t actually start with the shrew story but with a framing device: a drunkard is duped into believing he is a lord for whose amusement the story about wife-taming is being staged. It is introduced as farce, and we are supposed to laugh at what it so obviously proclaims.

        In production as in interpretation, much depends on Katherine’s final speech in which she berates disobedient wives, advertising the complete submission of women to men in marriage.

Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey. (Act 5, scene 2)

What sounds at first as almost intolerably cruel – the speech ends with Katherine’s offer to place her hand under her husband’s foot – may be a beautifully effective piece of subversion when staged: the 1967 Zeffirelli film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton has Katherine storm out of the hall after her earnest speech, leaving Petruchio to run after her, severely casting doubt over just how tamed she is.


A pre-Raphaelite painting by Edward Robert Hughes from 1898 (‘The Shrew Katherina)

A fascinating response to this particular ambiguity of Shakespeare’s play is a seventeenth-century German version called The Art of all Arts: How to Make an Evil Wife Good. Between the 1590s and 1620s, English acting companies travelled across the continent, carrying with them numerous texts by Shakespeare and contemporaries. Some years later, these texts start to appear in, amongst others, Danish, Dutch, and German, sometimes closely attached to the originals, sometimes adapting them according to the theatrical traditions of the different cultures. There is, for example, the clown-figure called Pickleherring with whom seventeenth-century Germans would have been familiar with, dropping into the tragic Romeo and Juliet adaptation.

It is a mystery how these versions came into being: did the English actors learn German? Did they work with translators, or did they marry German women who helped them translate, or with whom they had children who spoke both languages? What is clear, however, is that these plays are an untapped source for insights into the Renaissance landscape of European theatre, attesting to a much more wide-spread exchange than we are aware of. They also bring us tantalizingly close to performance practices of Shakespeare’s own time, considering their date of printing a mere handful of years after the playwright’s death.

        I am part of a team at the University of Geneva that seeks to make early modern German plays available to an anglophone readership, and am re-translating The Art of All Arts into English. Differing attitudes to gender between the German and the English play are particularly striking: although The Art of All Arts does firmly anchor itself in the shrew-taming tradition (Socrates offers the prologue, lamenting his cursing wife Xanthippe), Katherine is accompanied by a robustly practical maid servant with whom she holds conversations that reveal her thoughts about the situation, a privileged access to her situation lacking in Shakespeare. Her final speech also receives radical treatment in shrinking from some 46 lines expatiating on female obedience to a bare two:

This I want to tell us briefly:

You men, love your wives. And you women, obey your husbands (Act 5).

This ‘lesson’, though ambiguous and performance-dependent it is, shifts the poetic weight onto both men and women in the audience through its memorable parallelism. The translator’s decision to cut a speech that crowns the play, particularly considering the sometimes close verbal echoes to the original, is a stunning circumstance which encourages a revision of charges of misogyny with which we encounter early modern ideas of gender.

Today, it seems, we still have not quite outgrown a taste in shrew-taming: films and musicals, notably Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate, evidence a sustained interest in the subject, if only, perhaps, because it puts under pressure what we think we know about gender relationships. Little known Shrew versions like The Art of All Arts will contribute to complicating and nuancing our notions of marriage in the Renaissance, as well as today.