Monthly Archives: July 2013

Waking at 4am


It’s so humid at the moment and very difficult to sleep through the night. Yet why is it that we always seem to wake up at 4am? My Irish Times Health Plus article from 2012 explains all.

It’s not just tortured poets that are prone to nocturnal wakefulness. This well documented phenomenon frequently occurs when we’re feeling a bit low or some problem weighs heavily on our minds. This inconvenient and exhausting habit of waking up in the middle of the night, officially termed sleep maintenance insomnia, is commonly experienced during periods of stress and depression, although physiological conditions such as sleep apnoea or restless leg syndrome are also causal factors.

Many of us find it difficult to sleep soundly but what is odd is that, anecdotally at least, it would seem that sleep maintenance insomnia often strikes at precisely 4am.  Just try googling “waking at 4am” to discover how prevalent a problem this is. The constancy of a phenomenon estimated by sleep experts to affect one in four of us surely can’t be coincidental. While it’s easy to accept that anxiety interferes with our sleep patterns what is less obvious is why we wake, feeling anxious and with thoughts racing, at precisely the same time every night.

This tendency is most commonly observed amongst those of us who typically fall asleep at around midnight. A decent night’s sleep should contain four to five sleep cycles, each lasting between ninety and one-hundred-and-twenty minutes.  During that time we progress from a stage of light sleep through deeper sleep before entering a period of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep at the end of each cycle. Whilst it’s usual to re-enter a period of lighter non-REM sleep after each phase of REM sleep, we shouldn’t reach full consciousness but should slip back under without even being aware of the change.

Problems arise when we are too tense, a state that makes our bodies more responsive during the phase of lighter sleep that tends to occur at precisely the same time every night. The slightest noise, variation in light or change in temperature is enough to jolt us fully awake and fretful. By 4am the room may be slightly warmer, weak light may be filtering through the curtains and the birds may have commenced their dawn chorus. These signals are sufficient to waken us, as the four hours of sleep we have managed by then fools our body into believing that this is sufficient to start the day. It’s not.

Clinicians previously associated early-morning waking with depression. Psychology Today has stated that, “at least 80% of depressed people experience insomnia—difficulty in falling asleep or, most often, staying asleep. Indeed, early morning awakening is a virtual giveaway of depression”. However, the increasingly stressful nature of modern life is boosting the prevalence of this phenomenon. When you consider the overwhelming burden of national and personal debt and the news of natural disasters and conflicts that are beamed into our living rooms each night, leaving us feeling powerless to resolve them, it’s little wonder that we increasingly feel down.

Research findings documenting the nature and incidence of insomnia amongst Irish adults were recently published on the website The authors of this study found that one third of Irish adults are currently suffering from insomnia and it’s hardly surprising that twenty-five percent of insomniacs cited work and insecurity as the main cause. One in ten specifically mentioned money worries with fourteen percent blaming current economic conditions for regular sleep disruption.

The prospect of facing into an indefinite future of waking with the proverbial lark is enough in itself to disrupt the sleep we crave. So what can we do to combat early wakefulness? Sleep experts at the National Sleep Foundation of America recommend: A quiet, relaxing bedtime routine incorporating a relaxing bath or soft music; avoiding stimulants like caffeine; getting some exercise during the day to induce physically as well as mentally exhausted; finally we should only go to bed when we actually feel sleepy.

Once we are awake our anxious state is not helped by our feeling the need to lie still and quietly in the dark with only our thoughts for company. Anxieties are amplified and any possibility of recapturing that elusive somnolence slips further and further from reach. There’s really no point in lying there indefinitely. The National Sleep Foundation suggests, “If you can’t go to sleep after 30 minutes, don’t stay in bed tossing and turning. Get up and involve yourself in a relaxing activity, such as listening to soothing music or reading, until you feel sleepy. Remember: Try to clear your mind; don’t use this time to solve your daily problems”. Mayo Clinic Sleep Specialist Timothy Morgenthaler M.D suggests hiding your clocks. He says, “clock-watching causes stress and makes it harder to fall asleep”.

On a positive note it has been theorised that insomnia is linked with creativity. Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems is a collection of over eighty poems including several by Walt Whitman, Emily Bronté and Robert Frost, all inspired by the sleepless nights endured by each author. It’s also worth noting that Marcel Proust wrote much of À la recherche du temps perdu while kept awake by chronic illness. Contemporary evidence of night-time creativity can be found at a collection of photos from around the world all taken at the magical time of 4am.

PDF of original article is here –


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Painted Love

John Constable - The Hay Wain (1821)

I wrote a version of this article for the Health Plus supplement of the Irish Times in 2011. The measurable and beneficial effect of art on the human psyche is extraordinary. I know the sun is shining at the moment but if you fancy a break do pop into an art gallery and get a beauty boost.

‘It was William Dargan, the engineer who constructed Ireland’s first railway line between Dublin City Centre and Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire, and went on to lay more than eight hundred miles of rail crisscrossing the country, who made arrangements for a substantial display of artwork to be included in the Great Dublin Exhibition of 1853. This display was located on Leinster Lawn, a public space facing Merrion Square in Dublin, and such was the enthusiasm of the visiting crowds that the authorities undertook to house a permanent public art collection in a custom built gallery on that very spot as a lasting monument of gratitude to Dargan. A statue of the visionary man who brought public art to Dublin stands in front of this fine building.

So why did our predecessors demonstrate such enthusiasm for art, and why do natives and visitors alike continue to flock to our many art galleries? The answer lies in the positive affect that looking at an attractive work of art has on our sense of well-being. In fact sometimes the beauty we encounter in art can be overwhelming. A well recognised condition can leave viewers of art so overcome by the beauty of what lies before them that they may swoon or experience a sensation of weakness and dizziness. It even has a scientific name.

Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic illness that causes dizziness, fainting, rapid heartbeat, confusion and, in some recorded cases, hallucinations takes its name from the 19th-century French novelist and art critic Stendhal (aka Henri-Marie Beyle), who documentd this phenomenon after his 1817 visit to the beautiful Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. He wrote about it in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio and describes it thus:

“As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart (that same symptom which, in Berlin, is referred to as an attack of the nerves); the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground”.

The syndrome was given his name as recently as 1979 when Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini observed and documented more than one hundred similar cases among visitors to the magnificent galleries of Florence.

In 2011, in a series of brain-mapping experiments, Semir Zeki, Professor of Neurobiology and Neuroaesthetics at University College London concluded that viewing beautiful art can give us as much pleasure as being in love. When his research subjects were shown artworks that they considered beautiful, blood flow to the relevant area of the brain increased by as much as ten per cent – the same effect as is observed when a subject gazes at a loved one.

By studying MRI scans it was evident that exposure to beautiful art triggers a surge of the positive neurotransmitter dopamine into the medial orbito-frontal cortex of the brain and this leads to feelings of intense pleasure.

Of course beauty is subjective but paintings by the English romantic painter John Constable (his Hay Wain is above), the French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (his portrait of Countess D’Haussonville is below) and Italian Baroque artist Guido Reni produced the most powerful ‘pleasure’ responses among subjects.

These findings have significant implications for government policy. At a time of economic hardship when arts funding is constantly under threat and the need for public art is relentlessly questioned it is encouraging to learn that the availability of such beauty to the citizens of Ireland and the wider world has a positive and proven beneficial effect on our psyche.’ Portrait of Countess D'Haussonville by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres First published in the Irish Times Health Plus on November 22, 2011

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My Review of Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood

I’m absolutely delighted that the wonderful Margaret Atwood will open the Mountains to Sea festival in Dun Laoghaire, which is on from 3-8 September 2013. Several years ago I reviewed her book, ‘Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth’. I was struck at the time by her deep understanding of our relationship with debt and would recommend this book highly. Here’s my review:

BOOK OF THE DAY: ELEANOR FITZSIMONS reviews Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood Bloomsbury 230pp, £9.99

WITH REMARKABLE prescience and a firm grasp of the zeitgeist, Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle herself, has produced this timely and engaging treatise on the nature of debt – a concept she believes to be integral to the human condition. This is not the first time that Canada’s first lady of literature has reflected current preoccupations in her work. Her post-modern novel Oryx and Crake, depicting in the bleakest terms a devastating global pandemic, was published in 2003 just as her home city of Toronto was in the throes of the Sars epidemic. Now to coincide with the current economic turmoil resulting from the anchoring of our financial system on the shifting sands of unsustainable debt, she has written Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a companion piece to the Massey Lecture series that the author delivered during a recent lecture tour of Canada. Each of the five chapters in the book formed a lecture and the series will be broadcast on radio in Canada starting on November 10th. Atwood maintains that her motivation for this tangential undertaking is common curiosity. She has, she claims, long been fascinated by the concept of an underlying balancing principle governing society and giving rise to the concept of indebtedness. Debt, she argues, “mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear”. So integral is it to the workings of society that it predates humanity and forms the model underlying the functioning of all groupings of social animals, including several species of primate.

Shedding light on the world’s current predicament, Atwood makes the compelling argument that our hunter/gatherer antecedents preclude us from fully realising the consequences of paying back in the future the money we borrow to satisfy our immediate desires. We are programmed for instant gratification and unable to resist credit if it is offered. This is compounded by our unrealistic optimism about our ability to repay loans. We simply cannot be relied upon to self-regulate our level of personal indebtedness in the absence of external guidelines and regulations. Though filled with such gems of common sense, this is definitely not a book to reach for if you’re struggling to balance your personal finances. Instead this quirky little volume, weighing in at just over 200 pages, is an abstract and erudite exploration of the relationship between creditor and debtor. In asking the fundamental and quaintly old-fashioned question “is debt sinful?”, the author notes a shift in our attitudes from sinful (as believed by the hard-working, self-sufficient generation of our parents) to harmless (as espoused by the recent credit card generation) back to sinful again (according to this new credit crunch generation). Is the sin of indebtedness equally grave for both the borrower and the lender as Dr Johnson maintained? Is it possible that some seek the thrill of indebtedness in the same way a laboratory rat, when deprived of all stimuli, will choose to electrocute itself rather than withstand boredom?

Payback flows along in an accessible, conversational style that belies the considerable research and learning underpinning it. Seamlessly blending classic with contemporary culture and drawing on Atwood’s own sensible Canadian childhood, it meanders through mythology, ancient history, literature, theology and anthropology with concepts lifted from Star Trek and vivid evocations of ancient Egyptian burial rites sharing the same page. In one paragraph, Machiavelli warns of the dangers of a leader plunging his country into debt as it results in a loss of power and influence. In another, we learn that forbidding Christians from charging interest on loans gave rise to the kind of anti-Semitism best illustrated in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Dickens’s Scrooge and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus are described as shadow debtors, one spending with abandon having pledged his soul to the devil and the other grasping money but incurring a debt to humanity for his harsh treatment of others. Atwood’s finale, a reworking of A Christmas Carol, sees a modern manifestation of Scrooge inhabiting a chilling environmental parable. Ultimately, the author offers us a glimpse of redemption but urges us to act now or lose it forever. This slight volume, an extended essay really, grapples with some huge concepts and would make an affordable stocking-filler in these austere times. First published in the Irish Times of Tuesday November 6, 2008.

PDF is here: Review – Payback Debt & the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood

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My Review of Emperor: The Blood of Gods by Con Iggulden


My review of Emperor: The Blood of the Gods is available on

Ten years after the publication of the first book in his Emperor series, Emperor: The Gates of Rome (2003) and eight years after the fourth instalment appeared, bestselling author Conn Iggulden has completed the cycle with a much anticipated fifth book called Emperor: The Blood of Gods. This new episode opens with a vivid description of the bloody assassination of Emperor Julius Caesar, Iggulden’s main protagonist in earlier instalments and a man he has brought vividly to life. It is to the author’s great credit that this book does not suffer from the early loss of such a dominant figure. What follows is a compelling tale of bloody retribution, shrewd political manoeuvring and epic combat.

Hailed as heroes, Caesar’s twenty-three assassins, led by the traitorous general Marcus Brutus set about mapping out the future of an empire under their control. Few dare oppose them but those who do prove to be powerful enemies. The most prominent of these men is Caesar’s adopted son and chosen heir, seventeen-year-old Gaius Octavian, the man who will one day become Augustus Caesar. The young man forms an alliance of convenience with his old rival, master orator Marc Antony, once a staunch ally of the murdered emperor. Together they turn public opinion in their favour and raise an avenging army to march into battle in Caesar’s memory in a bid to restore Rome to its former glory. But victory is by no means certain, and they meet fierce resistance from Brutus and his followers.

Iggulden is a prolific writer and attributes his storytelling gene in large part to his Irish mother and seanchaí great-grandfather. In the gaps between his Emperor books he completed a five book series on Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kublai Khan; he travelled extensively throughout Mongolia in order to immerse himself in their alien world. He has also written a number of children’s book and collaborated with his brother Hal in the compilation of the hugely popular The Dangerous Book for Boys.

Earlier this year Iggulden announced a move to Penguin and a new series of historical novels based on the War of the Roses; the first of these, Stormbird will be published in October 2013. While we can all look forward to this new series and probably many more, fans of Iggulden’s forays into earlier history will be delighted to discover that his pleasure in returning to ancient Rome is palpable on every page of Emperor: The Blood of Gods.

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My review of Fever by Mary Beth Keane

Fever by Mary Beth KeaneMy review of Fever by Mary Beth Keane is available on
‘The name Mary Mallon once struck fear into the hearts of the residents of New York and, although a century and more has elapsed since her notoriety was at its height, the Tyrone-born immigrant is still well known to us today as ‘Typhoid Mary’. Yet while we may be aware that, as the first identified asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, Mary was held responsible for a number of deaths and incarcerated as a result, few of us know anything of her internal life and her response to being labelled an unwitting harbinger of disease and death.

In Fever, her second novel and the follow-up to The Walking People (2009), Mary Beth Keane eloquently blends fiction and fact to fill in the largely undocumented intimate details of Mary’s life and her emotional response to such tragedy. Perfectly capturing the harsh realities of life as an immigrant in early 1900s America, Keane paints a sympathetic picture of Mary, an accomplished cook whose popularity amongst the monied families of New York led to unexplained sickness and sometimes death whenever she entered their kitchens. In 1907, after one of these families hired medical investigator George Soper to identify the source of this pestilence, he confronted Mary and had her quarantined against her will on North Brother Island in the East River. There she remained for three years fighting her case and proclaiming her innocence until finally she was allowed to return home on the understanding that she would never work as a cook again. Yet Mary found it impossible to accept that a woman as healthy as she could be the cause of such devastating illness and, determined to make a decent living, felt she had little alternative but to conceal her identity and exploit her talents.

While it’s often difficult to sympathise with Mary, Keane tells her story compassionately and lets her humanity shine through. Mary’s relationship with fellow immigrant Alfred Briehof, a troubled and often feckless man, yet someone she loved dearly nonetheless, is particularly poignant. Keane’s book is a compelling retelling of one of the best known medical mysteries of our time and her version allows us to understand that although the real victims were undoubtedly the people Mary infected, it was a horrific experience for a powerless woman to be demonised and labelled a danger to society through no fault of her own.

Although we are all probably familiar with the facts of the story to some extent, Keane, a talented and lyrical young writer, succeeds in building suspense and surprising us with the twists and turns of feisty Mary Mallon’s tragic life. Recommended.’

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