Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Lynn Ruane. People Like Me. Gill Books 2018. 245 pp
ISBN 978 07171 8018 9
Footballers and pop singers aside, it takes bravura to write the story of your life at the age of 32. But Lynn Ruane’s story is far from normal and her life far from ordinary. She tells it here with courage and no little skill, though the reader will always be conscious of what she is leaving out.
When she was still an infant, Lynn’s parents moved from the Ballymun flats to a council house in Killinarden on the outer edge of Tallaght. As a child, she seems to have had a problem with anger. “One day in play school, I went for a boy when he wouldn’t let me play with his tractor. So my ma brought me to a different playschool.” Later in primary school, she says that her attitude was “Why should I just be quiet and get on with my work, forget about having a voice?”
When she was eleven, her parents sat her and her brother down and told them that they were not married. In fact, her father was still married to another woman and had another family; moreover he was in his sixties, twice his wife’s age. It is easy to imagine a number of ways that children might react to hearing this. Not all would have a reaction like Lynn: “I didn’t know who I was any more and I hated my parents for it. … This would fester with me over my pre-teen years until it turned into rage.”
She left school at 14, though it appears that her attendance there was often sporadic. She was smoking and drinking and had graduated to drugs, though she pulled back from heroin. Most of her funds came from shoplifting and she was part of a larger group of friends involved in joyriding and late night partying. Then at the age of fifteen, she found herself pregnant and decided to give up drugs completely, something which she managed to do even though the father of her unborn child was unable to do the same.
Lynn returned to school to do her Junior Cert, though she never sat the Leaving. She spent some years doing outreach work with groups like the Tallaght Cocaine Project and the Bluebell Addiction Advisory Group. She found that she was seriously curtailed in what she could do because of her lack of education and enrolled in the Trinity Access Program (TAP). She was now 21 with a six-year old daughter and would soon have her second child; she had a broad working class Dublin accent (scewel was not for me, bu’) and was heavily tattooed, not the kind of person that comes to mind when you think Trinity College.
She completed TAP and enrolled in a degree. She was living on campus with her two girls and still involved with the homeless and with drug education. She was elected president of the student union and in April 2017 was elected to Seanad Eireann as one of three representatives from Trinity College. In the Senate, she chose not to join with the other university representatives, helping instead to form a unit called the Civil Engagement Group.
This book deserves to be widely read, partly because it is a feel-good story, but also because it raises a number of issues that are rarely acknowledged as serious – the influence of social class on the choices we make, for example. It asks us to consider the way that the wider society deals with those involved in the fight against drugs, either those who are themselves struggling or the many workers attempting to reduce the damage done by addiction.
When I began setting up and developing drug services in Bluebell, I was conscious never to sell the false motto Get clean and things will be better. When a person becomes drug-free, he also becomes friend-free, time-free and free from a sense of belonging.
She claims that it is simplistic to say that people who are involved in drugs have made a free choice. “Free will is questionable,” she suggests.
The title of the book gives a hint of the attitude that the author has to her own achievements. She uses the phrase to say that there should be no special acclaim for someone who has made a success of their life just because they came from a disadvantaged background or had little formal education: her reasoning is that in an ideal world there should not be places of disadvantage or schools where students cannot flourish.
Reading a book like this makes one wonder whether any of the houses of the federal or State parliaments in this country contains politicians like Lynn Ruane and the other members of her little group of six in the Irish Senate, people whose special interest is care for the poor and the homeless, the criminals and drug takers: probably people who never actually vote.
By turns inspirational and emotional, controversial and maddening, this is a book that makes you proud of Ireland.
You can find Lynn Ruane’s Late Late Show interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4KyzfwJyfM