Yes (I hear you ask) I did say her words: ladies and gentlemen, this week we welcome our first lady reader, hopefully the first of many.
Caitríona Ruane represents County Down for Sinn Féin in the Assembly. A former tennis pro, fluent Irish and Spanish speaker, she grew up in County Mayo, a stone's throw away from where the Blind poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí lived. Encouraging parents and a 'wonderful Aunt Rita' imprinted the love of reading on a young Caitríona and her six siblings.
"As a child I liked reading because there were seven children in my family, all steps of a stair. There were books everywhere in our house. I remember one Christmas being very excited waiting for Santy to come. We were all in my Aunt Rita's House in Annagh Hill, near Kiltimagh. I got a box set of books, and I can still feel the excitement as I looked at the five books in the box set. (...)
My father's home was less than a mile from where the Blind poet Raifteirí lived and we learned his poems Mise Raifterí an File and Cill Aodáin. I read novels, Mills and Boon, classics, comics, boarding school books, horsy books, Heidi, What Katy Did, What Katy did Next, Annuals, Guinness Book of Records, you name it I read it... I liked nothing better than on a rainy day cuddled up in bed next to my sister Breda and reading. I remember watching the Olympics and Nadia Comaneci won the gymnastics and I read a book about her. And the Russian Gymnast Olga."
Aunt Rita has a warm place in Caitríona's heart. She was her aunt, her godmother, the one who would always look upon her nephews and nieces as individuals and not as an impersonal unit. She was also a strong woman, a reader, a 'never-give-upper':
"She was a great teacher in the Vocational School in Kiltimagh. She taught English and French. She was the only girl in my father's family: seven boys and Rita. There was very little money in the house and Rita never got to university. My father encouraged her to become a mature student, helped pay the fees. She qualified. I still remember the day that she got her first pay cheque: she arrived at our house with a pair of new jeans for each of the seven of us. Unheard of.
Families with seven children do not get individual presents yet Rita bought us a pair of jeans each. I think they were Wranglers. I can still see those jeans. At her funeral hundreds came to pay their respects but the most touching for me were the country lads who said: "I came because she cared. She tried to teach me French or Shakespeare, she brought English alive for me."
What an amazing tribute to a much loved role model. Rita touched young minds by bringing words to life and passing on the priceless gift that reading is. This is the magic of books. Words become sensations, emotions, thoughts and shapes. They make you see, hear, smell, taste and touch in a whole new way; they make you travel in space and time.
For as long as she can remember, Caitríona has been reading every day. Like me, she tends to re-read books that have taken her to the most wonderful imaginary places. "Books that I've read and re-read are W.B. Yeats Collected Poems. I have had it for as long as I can remember, for over 40 years (...). Dúil by Liam O'Flaithearta, An Chéad Chló (...) and more recently The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. I have read this book so many times and never get tired of it. The Guardian's Joseph O'Connor reviewed Barry's Secret Scripture as "a novel about loss, broken promises, failed hopes. (...) The result is a richly allusive and haunting text that is nevertheless jagged enough to avoid the anaesthetic of high lyricism.
This is a novel in which swans enduring a rainstorm are 'like unsuccessful suicide' and the accents of Sligo corner-boys are 'like bottles being smashed in a back lane'. The setting is the western Ireland of traditional literary depiction - subtle Yeatsian references abound in the novel - but Barry's destabilising of inherited images gives the book a punkish energy as well as fiery beauty."
Caitríona reads it when she needs "food for the soul. I love Roseanne's descriptions and thoughts: an old woman in a psychiatric hospital in Roscommon put there by misogynists. She is writing about her life and hides the pages under the floorboards so it will not be found until she dies: 'If you are reading this, then the mouse, the woodworm and the beetle must have spared these jotters.
What can I tell you further? I once lived among humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren't like them.
If our suffering is great on account of that, yet at close of day the gift of life is something immense. Something larger than old Sligo mountains, something difficult but oddly bright, that makes equal in their fall the hammers and the feathers. And like the impulse that drives the old maid to make a garden, with a meagre rose and a straggling daffodil, gives a hint of some coming paradise. All that remains of me now is a rumour of beauty.'"
Caitríona's career was built on literary and political influences backed up by intercontinental travels and varied and challenging work experiences. Contrary to previous contributors, she cannot identify a specific book that has influenced her political career. Rather, she gorged on the literature connected to her ever changing circumstances as she grew politically. "I worked in El Salvador and Nicaragua for four years and during that time I read every book I could get my hands on about the history of Latin America: Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, 100 years of Solitude and No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel García Márquez. I read [Martinique-born philosopher] Franz Fanon and [Tunisian Jewish writer] Albert Memmi. I loved all of Maya Angelou's books and her poem Still I Rise is beautiful.
I read Glimpses of World History when I was in India, Ghandi's letters to his daughter from gaol. I read Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom in South Africa. I loved the Unbearable Lightness of Being and read it again when I was in Prague.... I re-read on a regular basis Ronan Bennett's Catastrophist and Danny Morrison's Then the Walls Came Down."
This week Caitríona is reading Fire on the Hill by Gretta Curran Browne, "an Irish epic set in the late 1700s about Michael Dwyer [a United Irishman]. My father taught me a poem about Michael Dwyer when I was around 8 and I was in Mayo recently visiting my mother and picked up the book from my sister Therese's book shelf; it was given to me by the author a number of years ago." The book takes Caitríona for a stroll in the Wicklow Hills and along the River Slaney where the heroes' young love is blossoming.
Caitríona reads everywhere: "in bed, on trains, on buses, in bookshops, in coffee shops, in libraries, on airplanes, sitting by the fire, lying on the couch, sitting at the table. I read to my grandchild in Irish and English. I love that my daughters love books, my 16 year old never stops reading. I read inside and outside - the best feeling is reading outside on a gentle summer's day with a slight breeze. I read paper books, don't use Kindle or digital books. I like the feeling of holding a book in my hand and turning the pages. I love the smell of books."
Our quote of the week comes from one of Caitríona's favourite collections:
"Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery hand in hand
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."
(Yeats - The Stolen Child)
Coming back to the feeling I shared in my introduction: to me Caitríona describes literature as the door to an imaginary world where all senses come to life. A new understanding of one's thoughts develops to help us better deal with reality when we return from our literary travels.
For this we need to let go and immerse ourselves in the book we have chosen. This comes naturally to children whose open minds are not yet polluted, but needs to be practiced as we grow older.
Caitríona's reading history was a pleasure to write about: it is layered with light, deep and warm books... and we share a taste for Kundera and García Márquez.
What is your reading history layered with? Is it classic with a hint of spice, or maybe spicy with a hint of poetry? Let me know, I love to hear from you.
One of Caitríona's favourite poem is too beautiful to gloss over, and I hope you will love discovering it as much as I did.
Still I Rise
by Maya Angelou
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.