Hanna Greally

Kind of apt that my latest essay has the idea of support at its heart. Gives me a chance to say thanks for all the support and kindness that came  our family’s way recently, not only in the past few weeks but in the year leading up. A light in the dark that is very much appreciated.
Go raibh míle míle maith agat.


…Now, down to this business of essays. Click on the link if you want to listen to my RTÉ Arena essay about the brave and brilliant Hanna Greally.
Otherwise, get your scroll on and have a bit of a read underneath…

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Hanna Greally

The reality of mental illness can be swallowed up by the myth, twisted tales born from half-heard conversations or bouts of curtain twitching.  Some are called different. Or difficult. Touched.  Hanna Greally was one with such label. A writer from Athlone, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in the midlands in the 1940s and would spend most of the next twenty years institutionalised for what is frequently described as a nervous breakdown. Her book Bird Nest Soup, first published in the 70s, is an account of her experiences in the hospital and her numerous attempts to escape. It gives a harrowing insight into the approach to mental illness at the time, how it was more about containment than healing, and how the treatment could often be the stuff of nightmares.

One of the standout things for me on reading was the concept of circumstance and how easy it is to become a victim of it. It was Hanna’s mother who encouraged her stay in the hospital, a woman who bore large struggles of her own. This was a time in Ireland that release was only granted when an immediate family member opted to sign the patient out. Hanna’s mother died when she was institutionalised. And with it, Hanna’s chances of freedom.

In the book, she speaks of how, without love or hope, many patients deteriorated from their original personalities and became so introverted that they lost touch with reality. She remembers her friends in the hospital.

‘The outcasts,’ she writes. ‘The unloved, the incurably embittered and the spirited, still fighting for their liberty.’

These are terms that could easily be attributed to so many sections of our communities at present, a large number who are also victims of circumstance. And in the same way that no amount of little blue pills will ever eradicate mental health problems, these issues cannot be contained with quick or temporary solutions. People are most vulnerable when they retreat from society or do not have the skills or means to be part of it. And the outcome for these victims of circumstance is not so much a reflection on the individual, but on the priorities of society as a whole.

Mental illness doesn’t disappear with the departing ambulance or the closed hospital door. The underlying factors are too complicated for it to just vanish, no matter how the wealth of a country transitions.  It is part of a cycle of concerns that will forever ebb and flow, issues that might put in mind those coastal parts of Indonesia which are consistently prone to flooding. The poor can’t afford two story homes further inland, so strong wooden posts are constructed beneath their homes to keep them free of the water.
When shifting the land or changing the tides is impossible, it is important to gather around those at greatest risk of submerging and work together to lift them out.



My latest RTÉ Arena essay is about the power of the photograph…

Click here to listen

Or read on…


The photograph

The kids have turned the house into an art gallery. Stick drawings with spindly limbs and dotted features. Knotted creatures and smiling clouds, stuck to doors and along the hall. There are even posters of plays performed in their bedrooms, along with a list of characters and proposed future dates.  Like with most galleries, consultation is needed when one of the exhibits is to be moved. One such negotiation led to us taking a photo of a potato-headed sketch on the wall before we could proceed with repainting the kitchen. Of course, the resulting photograph encouraged a new art-form into the household and I’d regularly find strange photos on my camera phone. Lego man posing on table. Close up of Moshi Monster Magazine.  Bunny toy with red blanket draped behind like a cloak. Images that say so much about the things that excite and inspire them.



Like with Josef Sudek’s beautiful, almost otherworldly view of Prague, a photograph can contain so much personality and atmosphere. Stories too. They have the power to awake empathy and to change perception, Dorothea Lange’s images of people during the great depression a good example of this. I suppose the impact of the photograph shouldn’t surprise, considering how the trigger for so many memories can be held as a single snapshot in the mind. A visit to Florence- the corner of a Botticelli painting. The Great Gatsby- two eyes on a billboard. Lord of the Flies- a conch lying on a beach.

Recently, while researching for a book, I stumbled across an article from 1957 about two houses that had endured a series of trials. They were damaged by German bombers in 1941, floods in 54’ and then a fire in ’57 which a ‘Mr Daly’ claimed to have licked the back of his head as he escaped. The photograph above the article was of a smiling woman outside one of the unlucky terraced houses on Strandville Place. I was surprised to find it was my grandmother.  There was a time when getting a photograph in the newspaper was a big deal. I imagine a number of copies were purchased and shared. People would have stopped her on the street to discuss ‘the man from the Herald’.

I uploaded the article and it appeared on social media amid the selfies and the holiday snaps and photos of kittens dressed in little waistcoats and hats. The responses showed a further aspect to the photograph, how it has the power to ignite dialogue and memories. My cousin mentioned how our Grandfather would speak of the bomb damage to the house, that he would claim to have caught one of the bombs as it fell from the sky. She said she believed him for years. And isn’t that such a lovely snapshot for a child to have in their head. Granda running down the North Strand Road. Sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
A great big bomb in his arms.
And a huge grin on his face.



See you on the other side, Dad