World Autism Day message

Thoughts on World Autism Awareness Day, my late mother and how we can all make a difference

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, a day when people across the world unite with a common goal – to raise awareness of autism and the challenges faced by those with autism and their carers.

Today is also the first anniversary of my mother’s death and although I was devastated by her unexpected passing I take a lot of comfort in the association with World Autism Awareness Day. Why? Because for many years my mother taught a class of children and young teenagers with a range of special needs and they held a big place in her heart.

She began this job in a temporary capacity back in the mid-eighties. The class had been set up but the school’s Board of Management was struggling to find a teacher who would take up the post. There was a lot less understanding of the specific needs of these children, and certainly no specialist training, no textbook to guide anyone who ventured into this uncertain world. My mother had carried out her teacher training during time spent in England, which meant that she was not qualified to take up a permanent teaching post in Ireland. But this didn’t stop her. She enrolled for a course that would lead to the required Irish language teaching qualification. With this accomplished, she was given a permanent position with the class, where she remained until her retirement 15 years later.

My mother’s approach was simple. Each child was a unique person, with a unique set of skills and abilities and a unique rate of learning. She was told by school inspectors and educational psychologists that there were some things certain children could never learn. Undaunted, she divided everyday tasks into smaller and smaller steps and focussed on praising the achievement of each of these small steps. The ensuing results astonished so-called experts and gave hope to parents who had been struggling for help and support.

Over the years, a number of children with autism came into the class. My mother seemed to know instinctively how to reach out to each one, though their needs communication levels were vastly different. After her retirement I heard her in conversation with a friend whose grandchild had recently been diagnosed with autism.

“The most important thing to understand is that you must go right into the child’s world and see  through his eyes instead of expecting him to fit into your world,” she said.

The child’s mother later told my mother that the grandmother had passed on this advice and that it helped her through some tough days.

Autism is complex and challenging and difficult to come to grips with, but thanks to initiatives such as World Autism Day and to people who step forward to embrace a challenge rather than recoiling from it, understanding is growing. And after understanding comes progress.

One of the most visual ways in which World Autism Awareness Day is marked is by turning landmarks blue. These range from globally-recognised structures to local churches, monuments and shops.  You might also notice other initiatives in your local area, such as displays of blue flags, bunting, ribbons or artwork. This show of solidarity means a lot to people affected by autism, many of whom are caring for others who have no voice.

Be part of the solution. None of us has a magic wand. We can’t change the whole world but we can each make our own little bit of it a nicer place to live.

More information on World Autism Awareness Day can be found at



Remember the Rubik’s Cube? 

Remember the Rubik’s Cube? Did you love it or did it drive you crazy with its complexity?

Rubiks 2

Today it celebrates its 40th birthday. I was a little surprised to discover it had been around quite so long. Almost as long as myself, in fact.

Apparently there are 43 quintillion possible combinations to the Rubik’s Cube but it can always be solved in no more than 20 moves. As a child I knew people who could solve it in under a minute. I was not one of them. The Rubik’s Cube was beyond me, though had I known what I know about it now, I might have stuck with it.

Professor Ernő Rubik invented the cube as a teaching tool in then-communist Hungary in 1974. Little did he know that its popularity would transcend the Iron Curtain and spread around the world. It was designed to combine science with play, developing skills linked to mathematics, group theory, spatial transformation, geometry and pattern recognition.

40 years on and the Rubik’s Cube is more relevant than ever. Innovation and problem-solving are crucial in a rapidly changing society where engineering skills sit alongside social sciences in policy development.

Today Professor Rubik met with the European Commission President, José Manuel Barosso. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the importance of science outreach and education in order to attract young people to mathematics and science. Finding a solution to youth unemployment is one of the biggest challenges in the EU. The mismatch of skills between traditional degrees and the modern workplace is one of the many strands of this complex issue. A number of programmes and supports have been put in place to help member states develop a workforce with these skills.

Professor Rubik said: “After 40 years this anniversary is most of all a celebration of the intersection of learning and playfulness, challenge and emotion, engagement and reward. I am delighted to see the European Commission’s commitment to support innovation, creativity and scientific research by inspiring children and youth, fostering their curiosity and encouraging them to discover their own solutions.”

EU Commission President Barroso said the Rubik’s Cube was the ultimate metaphor for bewildering complexity and triumphant intelligence, creativity and innovation. As I mentioned, I never got beyond the bewildering stage, but who knows. Maybe the time has come to give it another go. I only hope that as with everything else in 2014 Europe, the internet will be of some assistance … or does that defeat the purpose?

An exhibition called “BRubiks 1eyond Rubik’s Cube” will open at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey (US) on April 26, 2014. It will tour science centres, cultural institutions and alternative exhibit spaces around the world in the coming years. The exhibition explores the innovations and insights inspired by 40 years of playing with the popular puzzle.


DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Writing Reflections – What is your ‘origin story?’

Today’s Daily Post writing challenge is Writerly Reflections, asking bloggers to explore their origin story, that is, to ask themselves where their writing began.

I read a lot as a child, and still do, but the quote below marks the first time I thought of stories as beginning with one person and being absorbed and re-imagined by another. This revelation had a massive effect on my journey as a writer, though it would be many years before I would recognise its impact.

“Briskly she gathered them in a ring around her.
‘Listen, children,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if you can understand me or not. But you must try. It’s the only way. Someone has robbed you of a very precious thing. I will not have you cheated. This thing I speak of is neither gold nor silver, neither a red nor a green jewel. It is something a great deal more valuable. The other things I teach you – the figures, the words, the lines and the letters – are not so important – as yet. […] Your minds are like rooms, if only you can pull aside the heavy curtains, you will find windows – these are the windows of wonder. Through these you can see the yellow sunlight or the silver stars or the many-coloured wheel of the rainbow. You’ve all seen a rainbow?’
The heads nodded.
‘Isn’t it beautiful?’
The heads nodded vigorously.
‘The windows I speak of are the legends of our people. Each little legend is a window of wonder. Each time you hear a story or ponder upon a story or dream yourself into a story or break or remake a story, you are opening a window of wonder.’”
(from The Windows of Wonder by Bryan MacMahon)

When I first encountered these words in a school textbook at the age of 12 they blew me away. Not in the dramatic sense, but slowly. Like a whispering wind that you get used to and only really notice when it shifts direction or gathers intensity.

All through secondary school I wrote stories. They progressed from stories about groups of friends having adventures to horror and fantasy. But I didn’t call it story-writing, I called it homework.

When I left school the adventurous spirit was strong and I went to live and work in France. I wrote page upon page about the sights and sounds, the people I encountered, the places I lived or visited, the food, the marketplaces, the buildings and the way of life. But I never called it travel writing. Those pages were the letters I wrote to family and friends at home, or to the friends I made along the way.

After I moved home, I studied, I worked and wrote many things that I thought of only as study or work. Then, when I was pregnant with my fourth child I became unwell and was forced to stop work and rest. Completely. Either that or spend the remainder of the pregnancy in hospital.

I spent my days looking out the window, or taking a stool as far as the porch and listening to the sound of spring rain falling on the forest. I had just bought a new house, so I was experiencing this with a deliciously fresh perspective. And for the first time in many years I felt compelled to write, purely for the sake of writing.

I thought of all the animals and birds living their lives in the forest without a thought to their human neighbours, except to venture occasionally into our world. I also felt the magic of those brief wildlife encounters. Like holding my breath while a badger slipped under the gate and ambled through the garden to reach the field behind the house; or opening the curtains one spring morning to see a mottled brown hare looking back at me.

Slowly the stories began to take shape and I wrote and wrote and wrote. Robbie the woodmouse, Millie the hedgehog, Poppy the young fox; they all became as real as the trees and the birds yards from where I sat.

One evening three or four years later, I was driving home with my eldest daughter. It was a dark, miserable evening and the area was blanketed with heavy, Atlantic fog. I braked hard as something ran out onto the road. It was a tiny woodmouse.

‘I wonder if that was Robbie,’ my daughter said, even though she was into her teens and way too big to believe that it could have been a character from my story.

We both laughed, but in that moment I realised that we were staring into the forest and seeing it not through the yellow beams of my headlights on a dark, foggy night but through our very own window of wonder.

Note: The Windows of Wonder is a short story by the late Irish writer Bryan MacMahon. It tells of a young woman who takes up a post as substitute teacher in a valley school notorious for having children with whom it was all but impossible to connect. One friend warned her ‘the children will eat you with their big brown eyes.’ She tries in vain to get through their barriers until one day she stumbles upon the problem. They have never heard the legends that every Irish child grew up knowing. In other words, their imaginations have never been sparked. Her stint as a substitute teacher is cut short when her employers realise that she is filling the children’s minds with these stories. But she leaves behind a valley that echoes with the sound of children playing, imagining, breaking and remaking stories.


 Pause for thought on World Water Day …

Lough Mourne and Barnesmore Gap, County Donegal © Siobhán McNamara

Lough Mourne and Barnesmore Gap, County Donegal © Siobhán McNamara

Those of you who visit my blog may have noticed a somewhat watery theme in my photographs. It comes from living with the wild Atlantic Ocean to one side, and the beautiful Lough Eske and River Eske among the many natural water features in the area. There is a plentiful supply of water here. It is unpolluted and a great source of inspiration for writing and photography.

But for 2 out of every 7 people in the world, a supply of clean water is viewed as the ultimate, unattainable luxury. That means 2.5 billion people do not have access to clean water for drinking or washing.

Water is essential to life so its absence or contamination has devastating consequences. Every year 1.7 million people die because of insufficient clean water. On top of that more than 1 million children die each year from water-borne diseases. Yes, you read that correctly. More than 1 million children die each year from water-borne diseases.

Organisations involved in humanitarian aid prioritise access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. This is a broadly recognised system that bears the acronym WASH. Humanitarian WASH projects include provision of wells, sewage and water systems, and training to help communities become self-reliant in recovery from disaster.

Today is World Water Day, so take a moment to reflect on the essential role of water, the privilege of living in a society with access to good quality water and the importance of preserving its supply for future generations.

More information of World Water Day can be found on this United Nations website:

© Siobhán McNamara



DP Weekly Writing Challenge: The Power of Names

This is written in response to the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge: Power of Names. It is mainly true, with a few details changed in order to respect the privacy of others.

What’s in a name?Name

Many years ago I lost a friend to suicide. All his life, from long before I met him, he was known by a nickname. I knew him for months before I heard anyone call him by his real name.

He was always upbeat, always smiling, always trying to lift everybody else’s spirits. His death sent shockwaves through the community where I was living at the time. And yet, although I didn’t anticipate his suicide I can’t say I was surprised.

After he died, I never thought of him by his nickname again. In my memory where the picture of his life was complete, that name belonged to a persona, while behind the mask the real man was floundering. It all made perfect sense, in the cruel glare of hindsight.

So that I would never curse my failure to spot the signs again, I took a suicide intervention course and learned a lot. I am tuned in to people’s language, how they talk about themselves; how they talk about the future. I am especially aware of the jokers.

Not so long ago a man asked me if he could have a quiet word. I knew straight away he was in a bad place, but was willing to be helped. We talked through everything and got to the root of the problem. Next step was to find a way to move on, to shift his outlook and to establish a good support network. I felt reasonably confident that he had sought help in time and that he would be ok.

But I was a little surprised that he had approached me. We knew each other through mutual friends, but had seldom exchanged more that pleasantries.  So I asked him why. Had he known that I was trained in that area?

‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why, I just knew you were the right person to talk to. Maybe it’s because you’re the only person apart from my parents who calls me by my real name. To everyone else I’m just good old Jockster, always up for a laugh. I feel like I’m letting people down if I’m not like that all the time.’

A nickname can be fun but don’t lose sight of the multi-faceted person behind it. Names matter. A lot.


Think you don’t speak any Irish? Think again ….

Ardnamona 2

At Ardnamona Woods, Donegal Town.
©Siobhán McNamara, March 2014

How much Irish do you use in a day? Probably much more than you realise. Many words that have slipped into common usage in English are believed to originate in the Irish language.

Some of the more familiar words are ‘galore’ which comes from the Irish ‘go leor’ meaning plenty. ‘Knack’ is thought to come from ‘gnách’ meaning custom, habit or practice. ‘Spree’ is derived from ‘spreach,’ the spoils of a raid in ancient times.

These are largely examples of the street language of early Irish-Americans who contributed much to the development of vernacular American-English. While many of these words are listed in dictionaries as being of unknown origin, those who study language say the similarity to Irish and the consistency of when they came into the language are too strong to be ignored.

Here are some of the many, many more examples:

Snazzy: Snas, Irish for polish. It entered the language through prison slang.

Quirky: Corraiceach (pronounced cor-a-cah), Irish for odd, unsteady or shifty.

Scam:  Is cam é, meaning it’s a trick.

Smithereens: Smidiriní (pronounced smid-er-een-ee), Irish for fragments.

Shanty: Sean tí (pronounced shan tee), meaning an old or run-down house.

Slogan: Sluaghairim (pronounced slu-a-garm), old Irish word for a battle cry.

Spunk: Spanc, meaning spirited.

Dude: Dúd (pronounced dood), a term used by the Irish in New York to describe a typical wealthy young man on a night out at the theatre. Its passage into common language was noted in the Brooklyn Eagle in February 1883:
“A new word has been coined. It is d-u-d-e or d-o-o-d. The spelling does not seem to be distinctly settled yet. Just where the word came from nobody knows but it has sprung into popularity in the last two weeks, so that now everybody is using it. The dude is from 19 to 28 years of age, wears trousers of extreme tightness, is hollow chested, effeminate in his ways, apes the English and distinguishes himself among his fellowmen as a lover of actresses.”



Free AJ

Press freedom is taken for granted in most countries but it is denied in too many places. It is a basic right for people to have access to accurate, responsible news and for journalists to carry out their role of reporting without fear of imprisonment from authorities.

I am proud to be a journalist and fortunate to live and work in a country which recognises the role of a free press. It is difficult to imagine men and women doing the same job while fearing for their lives, their freedom and the safety of their loved ones.

A Global Action Day is being held today, February 27 in support of journalists imprisoned in Egypt.

Protests are taking place in many countries across the world in response to this denial of people’s right to know what is happening.

To show your support, please post or tweet some or all of the following hashtags: #FREEAJSTAFF #journalismisnotacrime #journalismisnotterrorism

Thank you,


Irish MEP Calls For Mental Health First Aid Classes

Ireland North and West MEP Jim Higgins is calling on the government to introduce mental health first aid classes. This follows the successful implementation of a programme of classes in Wales.

“In Ireland, thankfully, people are more aware of the importance of positive mental health, but there’s still reluctance, among men in particular, to break the taboo of talking about feelings and speak up if they are experiencing depression,” said Mr Higgins.

“The only way to change that is to get the nation talking about positive mental health through a country-wide campaign to educate everyone from teens up to frontline professionals.”

The Welsh Assembly Government’s Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) schemes are open to the public. Workers such as teachers, local authority staff and others working with young people are particularly encouraged to take part. These are 6 or 12 hour courses run by experts who help participants understand positive mental health. They learn how to promote positive mental health while recognising symptoms of mental distress and crucially, learning how to help someone in distress.

Mr Higgins said: “While GPs and psychologists are trained in recognising the symptoms of depression and can assist people, members of the public, co-workers, friends and family could be more likely to notice the signs, if trained to do so, during daily interactions with an individual.

“If members of the public were trained to recognise and respond to signs of mental distress in a responsible, helpful way as many do with medical First Aid, we could help people in need and potentially save someone’s life or encourage them to seek help, so hopefully we can greatly reduce the number of tragic deaths by suicide in Ireland.”

Mr Higgins believes Irish people would be genuinely interested in taking part in the courses in the way that many people take part in First Aid courses. The MEP is bringing his proposal to the attention of  Minister for Health Dr James Reilly and the Department of Health.


A selection of tributes to the late great Seamus Heaney

His contribution to the republics of letters, conscience, and humanity was immense.
President Michael D Higgins

The strength, beauty and character of his words will endure for many generations to come.
President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso

Both his stunning work and his life were a gift to the world. His mind, heart, and his uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace.
Former US President Bill Clinton

Very shocked and deeply saddened to hear that Seamus Heaney, Derry man, poet and Nobel Laureate, has died.”
Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

At a time of so much anxious change in our country, he was a star who gave us a true sense of direction.  He cast a warm light into a hundred thousand homes.”
Eamon Ryan, Green Party Leader

Seamus was a true ambassador of conscience.
Director of Amnesty International Colm O’Gorman

Still trying to come to terms with the fact that a giant among men, the great Seamus Heaney is suddenly gone from us. A huge loss to Ireland and to anyone anywhere who appreciates the beauty and power of the word. Your spirit lives on, Seamus!”
Singer Paul Brady

He crafted through his poetry who we are as a species and the living soil that we toiled in. By doing so he defined our place in the universe.
Actor Liam Neeson

Seamus, in peace you’ll set the darkness echoing.
Actress Mia Farrow

A great, great poet who changed my life.
U2 frontman Bono

Earth receive an honoured guest, Seamus Heaney’s put to rest.”
Actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry



RIP Seamus Heaney, one of the greats

by Siobhan McNamara for

Acclaimed poet Seamus Heaney has died at the age of 74.

Seamus Heaney was born near Toomebridge and as a child moved with his family toBellaghy. His upbringing in the Co Derry countryside was to have a huge influence on his writing.

He learned Irish and latin during his education at the Catholic boarding school St Columb’s College in Derry and Queen’s University in Belfast. While working as a young teacher in Belfast in the 1960s he began writing poetry and has since published an extensive volume of work.

Heaney’s career led to him becoming a lecturer in Queen’s University but he resigned this role in 1972 to become a full-time poet. He lived in Co Wicklow but later moved to Dublin and became Head of the English Department at Carysford teacher training college. He then took up a position with Harvard that allowed him to teach for one semester and have the rest of the year free for his writing. He also delivered lectures in Poetry at Oxford University.

As well as recording rural life during the war and post-war years, Seamus Heaney wrote extensively on the social responsibility of poetry. The violence of the troubles was to add an inevitable darker element to much of his work. He described poetry as: “poised between a need for creative freedom within itself and a pressure to express the sense of social obligation felt by the poet as citizen.”

He dedicated a lot of time to supporting emerging poets. While a lecturer at Queen’s University in Belfast he helped young poets to produce pamphlets of their work. Heaney also served as judge and lecturer in countless competitions in Ireland and abroad and was closely associated with the Field Day Theatre Company and the Yeats Summer School.

In 1995 Seamus Heaney was honoured with the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has receieved many other honorary degrees and awards throughout his career. In 2011 he donated a huge collection of manuscripts and notebooks to the National Library of Ireland. He is survived by his wife Marie and their three children.


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

©Seamus Heaney


Bluestack Way to become part of iconic international trail 


View from the Bluestack Way, Co Donegal, Ireland © Siobhan McNamara

Way-marked walks in Donegal and across Ulster are to be included in the International Appalachian Trail.

The Trail was established to develop a long-distance walking trail that extended beyond modern-day borders to geographic regions once connected by the Appalachian Mountain Range on the ancient super-continent of Pangea.

The mission behind the initiative is to promote natural and cultural heritage, health and fitness, environmental responsibility, cross-border co-operation and rural economic development. The Trail begins in Mt Katahdin in Maine, USA. It takes in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, The Faroe Islands, Ireland, the UK, the Scandinavian countries, France, Spain and the Netherlands.

The Bluestack Way and Ulster Way will be incorporated into the famous route on August 31. The new section of the Trail will begin at Slieveleague and run through Donegal to Strabane. It will go through the Sperrins and on to the Antrim coast at Larne.

A launch event to mark the inclusion of the Bluestack Way and Ulster Way will take place in Omagh on August 31 at the Ulster American Folk Park. Elected representatives from both sides of the border will be in attendance. Representatives from the Appalachian Trail including IAT President Paul Wylezol will also be present.


Megalith at Disert in the Bluestack Mountains, Co Donegal, Ireland
© Siobhan McNamara

More information on the International Appalachian Trail including the break-up of Pangea from 200 million years ago to present-day can be found at




A novel approach to book sharing – Buncrana in Co Donegal is the latest town to install wee libraries

Buncrana’s Free Wee Libraries may be no bigger than dolls houses but they are attracting a lot of attention. Both RTE and BBC have run features on the initiative to get people reading through a free community book sharing scheme.

In total there are five mini libraries, hand-made by volunteers. Each library has two shelves, the upper one for adults and the lower shelf for children. The idea is that users take one book and leave another.

The people behind the project hope to encourage more ‘green time’ by placing libraries in some of the community’s many scenic areas.

Volunteers are keeping an eye on the libraries, and say the system is working well. It is expected that each library will turn over its collection several times per month. 


Photo competition to capture a little bit of Gaeltacht life

A nice competition to showcase the people, the heritage and the landscape of Ireland’s Gaeltacht regions.

©Siobhan McNamara

©Siobhan McNamara


Údarás na Gaeltachta is running a photo competition called ‘Is Álainn í an Ghaeltacht.’

The aim of the competition is to promote the Gaeltacht as an ideal place to live, work, do business and as a holiday destination.

Organisers are looking for photos that represent life in the Gaeltacht. Suggested themes include Gaeltacht landscape, community, events, festivals, culture, tradition, heritage and language.

The closing date for entries is August 19, 2013. A shortlist will be announced around a week later and the public vote will then be open until September 6. The winning entry will be selected through a combination of a judging panel and public popularity on Facebook (50% for each). The winner will be announced by September 13.

First prize is €500, second prize is €250 and third prize is €100. Entry forms and the full list of terms and conditions are available at

Údarás na Gaeltachta is the regional authority responsible for the economic, social and cultural development of the Gaeltacht. The overall objective is to ensure  Irish remains the main communal language of the Gaeltacht and is passed on to future generations.

Article written by Siobhan McNamara for


The Glass Album Exhibition shows first photographs ever used as evidence in an Irish court

An exhibition showing the first photographs ever to be used as evidence in an Irish court will be held in Donegal County Museum.

This is the first time the photographs have been displayed since they were taken in Donegal in the late 19th Century.

The photographs are connected to the famous 1889 ‘Land War’ trial of Fr McFadden and his parishioners. The trial followed the killing of District Inspector Martin in Gweedore. It is believed Derry photographer James Glass was commissioned by the defence to take the series of photographs depicting tenant life in the area.

The photographs subsequently became known as the Glass Album. The exhibition tells the story of the Derry photographer and will display one of only two known copies of the album. The other is in the collections of the National Museums of Northern Ireland.

As part of the exhibition the Museum would like to make contact with any relatives of people directly associated with the trial. Donegal County Museum can be contacted on 074 9124613 or by emailing

The exhibition runs from July 5 to August 31. Admission is free.  A special launch night will be held on Friday, July 5 at 7pm.

The Museum is situated at High Road in Letterkenny and is open from Monday to Friday 10am to 4.30pm and on Saturday from 1pm to 4.30pm. Anyone wishing to stay up-to-date with events at Donegal County Museum visit their Facebook page at

Article written by Siobhan McNamara  for  on June 26, 2013


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