I was born after the fireworks during an opera in 1964 and from the off was an unusual child.
Having escaped every form of enclosure as a baby and being found at the bottoms of numerous stairs, on window sills and in presses I was christened a Divilskin.
I sat sideways in prams, propped on yellow satin cushions, listening.
As an infant I looked like a very old soul.
While still a toddler I eavesdropped in cars and relayed information back to the people who were being discussed, much to the mortification of the adults. I always opened doors in other people’s houses, of rooms that weren’t even tidy, and rooted in their cupboards asking can I have this, so I could take a piece of them home.
I was tied into the back seat of an Austin 1100 with baling twine to stop me climbing out the windows and regularly given a drop of the craythur on a dodo to sedate me enough to sleep. As a little girl I played alone with dolls, endlessly dressing and undressing them in the clothes my Nana Maggie Mahon crocheted, chatting away to them, singing them songs.
Maggie was the daughter of Tommy The Bullet Rossiter of Carrigeen who was terribly au fait with the Town Hall in the 1930s from being at all the corporation meetings proposing Richard (Dick)Corish for Mayor 25 years in a row. As an Alderman of the Corporation he was at every monthly meeting in this building and as the chief linotype operator at The People newspaper he printed the minutes.
Maggie Rossitter met her husband Micheal Mahon of Graignamanagh while he was stationed in Wexford Barracks during the civil war - listening to Micheal Collins give an address in St Peters Square on the steps of Cousins Mineral Waters. Her mother was Katie Cousins of New Ross, a woman who stood a foot taller than her husband and died 30 years before him.
When I was small I thought I was adopted and wondered when my real family would come and get me. I felt alien, other, and that I didn’t fit in anywhere. I couldn’t do right for doing wrong.
And was called a Changeling by my own family who told me regularly they brought the wrong baby home.
At school I was bright and feisty but had no friends.
The seat beside me was a moveable feast as children came and went. I stayed behind to draw on the boards and smell pencil cases when everyone else was gone home. I retreated into a world of books that opened doors into other peoples incredible lives.
My Father Tom has been in and out of the Town Hall since he was a child. He attended meetings, elections, retreats and parties here. Many groups hired this room for annual events, dances, Easter,Halloween, Christmas functions. A club would book it, then a committee would organise a society to admin the event, deciding on the price of admittance and engaging doormen. Usually 2 shillings and a random man who swept up after. When the dances started here my Dad was a regular presence gliding around the floor, gatching and entertaining people. He performed skits, mimed and did a drag act that won the fancy dress ball award as Miss Wexford. He recorded a vinyl record on stage here with a Dublin outfit who posted him the shellac disc, Streets of Laredo on the A side and Big Rock Candy Mountain on the B.
I have it lined up on a record player in my office. Tommy O Neill of John Street had a band called Tommy & The Collegians who played popular tunes so that the crowd could waltz and foxtrot around the floor. Mick Delahunty, The Clipper Carltons and The Lowney Showband were big draws.
There were no intoxicants served in house so the men bought bottles of porter and baby powers in Molly Mythens and drank them from their pockets between dances. The women were lined up against one wall, the men the other.
Johnny Reck and his Orchestra would admonish the attendees -
to stand around the windas lads and let them think it’s packed.
On occasion they were sent to Molly’s to borrow coats to hang from the windows to pretend the place was heaving. A journalist from The People called Eddie O Keefe was in charge of the Conga which he would lead down the stairs, across the corn market and around the pikeman in the bullring. The lads outside Con Mackens would join the end of the conga and dance themselves back up the hill and into the dance without paying, bottles in their coats.
At school I was an avid pupil, my hand permanently in the air.
Sister SISTER Sister, I know it. I had an unusual voice for a child, crisp and clear with perfect diction, a big eyed child who was asked to stand up, read aloud, recite poems, attend events, win medals.
I was acting.
Something in my inner sat nav was off, an ethereal voice saying turn left, turn left when I was heading to what I thought was right, an intuitive self, taking over, managing damage control,
That intuition taught me how to copy people and try to appear normal, how to mimic the way a person said a thing, rolling it around on my tongue, loving the words.
Whatever sat nav was inside me taught me how to make eye contact, answer a teacher, hold my hands by my sides for photographs and how to engage in groups like the girl guides, but alas never how to win concentration against her worship Maura Bell.
There’s a 4 year old child on a high stool pulling levers in my brain like the wizard of Oz in a Widdendream.
I was being groomed to be a good girl.
I performed in Wexford Pantomime as a babe in the Woods because I had found the confidence to embrace an audience and not be afraid. I felt more comfortable out in the spotlight with a vast unseen audience in the warm darkness than I did at home.
The year The Old Town Hall became an Arts Centre I was 10 years old. I had a cropped mullet and wore a French poloneck under a gingham smock, and I was as lonely as tools on a grave.
I could talk the hind leg off a statue but never had a close friend. I hung around in gangs of noisy children skipping ropes, loitering out at the edges where lines soften and blur and where I could do what I do best, witness. We got a flyer in School about auditions for a new choir to be formed in Wexford, a childrens one. I was in like Flynn. The auditions were held on a Saturday morning where a throng of schools amassed on the path to be corralled into the building and up the stairs. The place was in a jocker. Sections of the floor were inaccessible, others were accessed by ladders and planks, there were Renault panels braced under the piano to stop it hurtling through to the Pillar Room beneath and a tiny Nun with thin white lips stood in the corner.
Sister Mary Walshe had the ability not only to teach singing at a professional level to children from all over the county, but had the savvy to weed out the messers, the fakers, the trouble makers and send them home. The competition was fierce and the rules relentless. If you could not sing you were not in. I loved it, the routine, the camaraderie, the harmonies of the chorus, I sang Alto & Soprano and learned guitar with Frank Sinnott competing with him in burning matches in a room filled with newspapers.
Singing in that choir took me around the country on buses to festivals and competitions, it introduced me to the concept of hostelling, swapping my allotted bunk name with another girl so I didn’t have to share with the teacher, while the girls where I was now pretending to sleep whispered about me and laughed. Singing in that choir allowed me to perform onstage at the Wexford Festival Opera where we filed in through the backstage door in high street to the Theatre Royal in our homemade white costumes with my backstage pass signed by Andrew Potter.
I have it still.
I began to find a voice.
The Art Centre was full of characters. Tousled of head, bearded of face, beads, plaits, frayed fair isle jerseys and college scarfs, badges, waistcoats, smokers. damp overcoaters, wire over the windows, paintings and posters, poets, pamphlets, punks, protesters, hippies, blue sky thinkers, drinkers, dreamers, artists and writers.
I had found my spiritual home. The Arts Centre published my first attempts at poetry using my own artwork to illustrate the A3 posters they screen printed in house.
I have them still too. I’m attached to everything.
I began writing it all down.
Half a century later a psychiatrist would tell me I turned a coping technique into art.
1981 In the Arts Centre Rhoda McManus had succeeded in getting £40,000 in funding for a May Day festival celebrating the tree of life with barefoot dance company and community artist Tony Robinson. The Arts Centre was talking about the importance of not just catering for the elite but of bringing the people of the town together.
Small things escaped me and yet I was still playing to the gallery learning how to deflect and laugh at the incidents that coloured my day. In school I was infamous for being hilarious, for questioning teachers, and being repeatedly asked to leave the class despite being the Prefect and the Captain of the debating team.
By the time exams were rolling around I had been described in an intervention as a wilful genius who is a catalyst for mayhem, and was removed from the body of the class and taught alone in the hall.
Because I was always sitting out there I became the messenger who was sent to the convent with news or questions and so roamed every inch of the building and gardens as if I was invisible.
I can’t be idle a second. My head is always racing. My hands are never empty, pens, paints, cigarettes, knitting needles. Streets are noisy, lights are blinding, sudden shocks make me levitate, I can’t even bear the buzzing of a fridge. I do not have a TV,
As a teenager I constructed a mood board and hung it on my bedroom door like an enigma machine. Along with the diaries which I have written since I could form words and the sketches I make every day on any random scrap of paper I documented my days to inform me of my place in the world. I wrote to see what was happening and what I thought about it. I have a photographic memory. Every time I asked for clarity or instruction I was removed from the room. My every day descriptions of people and places were considered outrageous.
Because I tell the truth.
I learned to laugh along with them when I got over the shock.
Nobody is more surprised by what I say than me.
In the 80’s my involvement with the Arts Centre included singing, dancing, attending events, wearing clothes like an explosion in a paint shop and trying not to get asked to leave the building. In a space designated for artistic endeavours my own personality fit like a babby in moss.
It suited my airiness my Mother Siobhán said. She’s a little bit airy she described me to strangers, a kind way of describing madness from the daughter of an Asylum Keeper. In Carlow her family are still known as The Keeper Dooleys to differentiate them from The Widow Dooleys who lived around the corner.
I began to use the Cellar restaurant as an office to interview people and bash out mortifying letters to the Papal Peeper about the recession called Catch 22 on an old black Remington that may have been stolen. I was also calling people from the phone box in Roches Road as part of the team behind “The Boker Gazette”
The team was me and Frank, and a super ser.
Once on a call to Chris de Burgh he begged me to not let Frank near the phone as he just wasn’t able.
The stewardship of the Arts Centre had changed again as it was not a place where you actually pitched for jobs, more like fell into it because it was something you loved and were actually brilliant at, or because you just happened to be standing in the right spot at the right time.
and lo the arts council did send money and verily the people did rejoice.
The Arts Centre had a team that developed and expanded its remit and its staff, and it became a creative hub for locals, artists, and productions.
Despite being left alone in the hall I got a good leaving cert and was offered a place in Rathmines to do journalism. I didn’t go. Instead I boiled a piranha to death by accident in Colman Doyles. Recently a photographer named Paddy shouted over - I often went in for nails I never needed when you were there. I had an eye like Sally O Brien. A gynaecologist gave me a start and I took over the running of his practice. I am brilliant at organising other peoples shit so thrived with all the appointments, telephones, patients and babies. Then disappeared to Germany with a random chef I had become engaged to by accident. It was to be the beginning of a lengthy journey around Europe, lovers and careers.
I persisted in being hilarious, to other people.
The more my life fell apart the harder they laughed. I had an uncanny ability to open a train door on the wrong side, to have an overwhelming desire to follow the command of break glass on fire alarms, to swing from trawler ropes despite being terrified of deep water to run at life full tilt because to me it always has been.
All my life I’ve been saying, wait what…………. and oh shit was that today.
In my 20s my life was like running backwards in high heels carrying glass, which I was mostly doing as I was now a fully licensed publican in the West End of London. The Draymen asking where’s the guvnor dawlin when they arrived with the barrels. The actors coming in from all the theatres in Covent Garden at the interval. I could clear a bar full of drunks or stop a room singing a lonesome ballad but I couldn’t function like a normal person.
And still I wrote every day. Copy sent by post to the steaming office in Georges Street for printing, reams of air mail pages to my Mother, postcards and letters all over the world. I left my bedroom in Peters Square as if I had gone out for an ice cream. And left all the small diaries in a cupboard.
I came back in the 90s and after a pretty solid background in front of house, tourism, hotel management also training as a chef in kitchens in Germany and London pitched for the lease of the Café space in the Arts Centre which had been advertised.
Dennis Collins leaned back in the chair with his eyes closed, smiling as I told him my plans. Then gave me the keys.
I called it The Tookay Café because it was 1999 and everything was all about Y2K
Everyone just assumed it was 2 women called Kay, which didn’t help that I had a front of house manager actually called Kay.
She didn’t help at all.
I will draw a veil over some of the wilder events that occurred in the Tookay Café which penultimately became a shebeen where people came to drink and smoke listening to Dave Brubek over a flickering candle in a wine bottle. They rang the landline on the kitchen wall to get in. They never wanted to get out. I catered the Black Tie Millenium Ball ringing the Talbot to borrow their long mirrors to set up canapés & Champagne in the Pillar Room from a kitchen that was smaller than the one in my house. A solicitor around the corner said it was the best kept secret in Wexford and I said would you ever tell someone in the name of Jazuz and she laughed and said no, I’ll never get a table.
I explained to him that my living was unmanageable, that the harder I tried the harder it got, that I wasn’t coping well with situations, that I couldn’t understand stuff, basic stuff, that I had no routine, forgot to fucking eat, that I rarely, if ever, slept.
How long have you been depressed he asked and I said I don’t know.
Then came medication, and sleepers.
I look like Bette Davis in Rosemarys Baby and I feel like the child on the wall.
The child smiles at me with her 4 year old folded hands and I wink at her with my left eye like here’s looking at you kid. And she whispers I kept you alive till now. And I whisper back in the mirror and so did I.
My eyes have been described as hypnotic and as ones only a Mother could love. They mirror wildness and vulnerability. They’re the eyes of a child and a crone. In New York a theatre critic described himself as incapable of meeting them onstage and reviewed me next day as mdm not only could do scintillating after dinner conversation but she would be the first person I would go to with a dead body. I got prescription shades and was rarely seen without a black train drivers cap. I only travel on trains. They’re my favourite thing.
A Psychiatrist sent a letter to my new Doctor saying she’s bi polar, manic, hysterical and needs Lithium to sedate her. Go on so, give it to her. Be grand. You mind her. I don’t see a need for follow up here.
Lithium made me fat enough to become diabetic.
I cold turkeyed and began to write again. A Facebook post prompted an invitation to perform onstage for the first time in years and suddenly I had a career in the arts. I wrote 7 one woman shows in one year and didn’t blink. I flew to Sweden for a month long literary residency and opened the Spiegel Tent on my 50th birthday under the fireworks. I never performed the same material twice. Because when are we ever going to run out of now? It’s why I now have a decade of film archive that no one has a hot second to look at. It’s why you will pay for more storage rather than delete your photos.
I became addicted and dependant on sleepers instantly. The house became cluttered with pages and pages of work, photographs, and memories all of which were priceless and needed collating and storing. I added them to my list of terrible things that Michelle doesn’t remember to do and sent anger and shame to the mirror. My house is filled with mirrors. I look in them when I am crying, which is a lot.
I am fascinated trying to work out who Michelle is.
The new Director at the Arts Centre was a woman called Elizabeth. She had served her time in New York and Boston and took this arts centre and gave it a good shake. It was because she knew what it was capable of becoming. She had to convince a board and the arts council that they could do it.
They did it.
I started performing at the arts centre again at cabarets, then longer slots, then full shows. I re-created the Tookay Café downstairs in a show called The Shellshock Café /One night only 9 weeks after my Mother died. I fed them eggs and ham at the interval that took me and 4 other women 3 days to boil the eggs for and nobody even noticed that it was a nod to the first ever food served in the building, a Wesleyan Supper that was served on March 10th in 1863
At the same time I was writing a book about her life, death and alzheimers that I crowd funded and wheeled into the Book Centre for the launch on my 51st birthday. When Elizabeth read Scourged she thought it would make a hell of a play. She was right about that too.
17 years after diagnosis I opened the door to my Doctor’s office last December and said can we talk about my mental health? I’m never depressed just exhausted, and I can’t work out how things operate, I don’t know what to say or not say, it’s why I never go to things, think I need to go back to the clinic. After a referral, a series of observations, lengthy family histories, interviews, forms, tests, family forms, a new psychiatrist diagnosed high functioning Autism and ADHD.
After 20 years on the wrong meds for the wrong illness it was a relief to be finally diagnosed with what should have been obvious, except that I had been masking a condition since childhood, Masking is what autistic people try to do to fit in.
It means hiding the worst of the tics and learning to copy other people, to try and fit in to an allistic world. Women are not usually diagnosed until they are in middle age because they hide it better and cope longer, but as the aging body becomes tired they are more likely to present in medical offices, whom it would seem use depression as a panacea.
The reason an autistic person ends up in a doctors office is called burnout. It means total overwhelm and exhaustion from trying to be considered normal. As hard as I was working to appear normal I was stored on everyones phone as mad michelle. ADHD worsens with age as the body becomes less able to control the situation. It is why I buy food and never cook it, why I order food and forget to eat it, have osteo arthritis, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoke. It’s a lot.
Your autism is not a glitch in the operating system of your brain, said the psychiatrist – the autism IS the operating system.
One of the first things she told me was that it was ok to wear a hat and shades in a supermarket as that is the most traumatic space to be in.
And here’s me thinking I was just having a breakdown in Tesco.
If someone tells you they have autism don’t say we all do.
We all most certainly do not.
Maybe ask them how they are, if they need a dig out.
I have found a tribe of twins, all of whom are highly functional with professional careers, some leading experts in their field, all of us sharing traits we thought were flaws, all of us masking to slip under the radar.
Attention deficit is the wrong term for ADHD, in that there is overload in my attention in because I am paying attention to every single thing at the same time all the time.
The autism means I am neuro divergent and that I see and experience the world in a different way.
It isn’t an illness it’s a divergence in brain activity.
Being in a pre -set wardrobe with a doll you found on a Carlow road is like being at your own wake.
“She got me thrown out of a choir”
“I’d have to be dragged out on that stage in a body bag hun”
How do she do it eh?
I cannot even begin to describe what the feeling is like with stage fright and nerves and autism and attention overload as I try to extract 90 minutes of the jenga tower of words that is The Scourge out of my head when the house lights go down and the music starts.
The sound of Karen Dalton wailing like an animal in pain, my cue, I open the door.
I opened the doors of the wardrobe of the Scourge hundreds of times, in rehearsal, in performance, in the arts centre, in the civic in Dublin, in an grianan In Donegal, Theatre Royal, Waterford, Carlow Visual and the Irish Rep on 22nd st off Broadway in New York City. When we finished the Irish Tour and the lads were dismantling a stage wardrobe that was in flitters from being hauled in and out of vans, I begged for help to keep the doors because I am attached to everything and we sailed them home on our heads through a chapel car park like small boats.
Elizabeth Whyte commissioned the adaptation of the play, went on to produce it with the arts centre and engaged Ben Barnes to direct the most beautifully lit production I have never seen. One day she was driving us to do media in RTE about the tour and I mentioned I was getting angrier and couldn’t hold it in. that I was shouting at drivers who splashed me limping across School Street carrying dinners to my Da. I didn’t tell her there were teeth marks in a toilet roll as I tried to stifle a scream.
Maybe I’m autistic I said.
I used the line about being tied into a car with baling twine in the scourge and the response to it nightly was a delighted gasp.
How in the name of God did she come up with all of that stuff a woman in Donegal had said to the ASM. It’s real said Val. It’s all real.
There were nights I thought of Maggie Rossiter out there in the white light, in Dublin or New York, dressing and undressing a battered doll called Vonnie Dooley, chatting to her and singing her songs, telling an audience that my Nana played cards like a vegas croupier while her 92 year old son sat in the same house the Rossiters lived in St Peters Square, opposite the spot where Maggie Rossiter met Micheal Mahon
Autistic people often believe they are adopted or aliens.
I wrote a pitch of a play called Changeling that a young actor named Jack said hun if they don’t fund it I will.
The Bullet Rossiter took to the bed in his 90s and to honour their chief ranger on his birthday a parade of 1000 foresters marched past his house in Carrigeen while he sat on the windowsill grinning a toothless smile with his medals hanging on his suit coat.
The Producer flew an autistic woman with ADHD on the wrong medication to New York city for a month and we hit the ground running like 2 Duracell bunnies. And after the clapping and the crying, the party and awards ceremony where the play was nominated in 4 categories (including best actor) they deemed my writing important enough for “bringing underexposed issues vital to women in Ireland to an International Audience” and gave me a special jury award, and we flew home again into a lockdown.
We both deserved an Oscar, just for that.
I didn’t turn autistic overnight, I’ve had it all my life.
It just took half a century for someone to tell me.
I’ve written a book called Spiders don’t eat biscuits about my Dad and I. When I printed the first 400 pages and read it I just opened a new document and titled it Volume 2.
The 4 year old child who wrote it was leaving me notes about Autism and ADHD constantly throughout the manuscript. I only printed it because Im on amphetamines now. I literally feel like Judy Garland on uppers and downers.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the arts centre, to the hundreds of interactions I have had here over the course of nearly 50 years, from a big eyed child singing hymns on a broken floor to a big eyed woman cradling a doll as she witnessed a standing ovation on the preview night.
I have always been opening doors and trying to fit in.
Now, hurtling to 60 it would appear I have to open new ones
mdm November 2022