Once upon a time, over a hundred years ago, a green land was governed by a cruel and malign force. This force had starved them, taken their lands, tortured them, raped their women, hung, drawn and quartered them, quashed mercilessly many uprisings over 800 years of their tyrannical reign. ‘No more!’ some people of the land cried, and they rebelled. Six of them were martyred, and the rest of the country, men and women alike, fought for freedom from the malign force. Finally, they gained it.
But the promises of freedom are never what is imagined, and as the teller of the tales of those called handmaidens once observed ‘Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.’ Human beings, being human, will arrange themselves into leaders and followers, and into the breach left by the malign force stepped the one who is known as Diabhal Éire, or the Devil of Éire, more commonly known as DeValera and a brotherhood of men only known as The Church. Beware the man who clings to power! For men are poor curbers of their own excesses. In this new land of freedom, only half the population were free; the other half were kept as the subordinates, for every new land will inevitably ape the worst aspects of their captors, and, in a cruel twist of irony, become what they most hated. As a Wilde man once said ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’, and that includes freedom for the many, not just the few.
I offer the ‘fairytale’ above somewhat facetiously, and somewhat to make a serious point. Our interpretation of history can depend on many things: what is recorded; what is remembered accurately; whose stories gain precedence; whose stories fade into the background; whose stories are repressed; sex; gender; race; religion. During the past two years, and in particular the last 5 months, I’ve been thinking about the long sidelined Women of the 1916 Rising, and indeed, of the Republic itself. The 1916 Proclamation, essentially the battle cry of our republic, starts with the phrase: ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’. It’s an immensely important document, setting out a vision of a pluralistic, forward-thinking nation that failed to be realised. We failed. Our forefathers and foremothers had a great vision of the Ireland they wanted, and by and large, as a nation, we have failed them. Two paragraphs in particular struck me, when re-reading this great document during the 1916 celebrations, and they are as follows (bold markings are my own):
“…The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”
“…We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms, and we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine.”
Looking back at the last 102 years of the Irish republic – who can honestly say that the women of the new republic have had the equal rights and opportunities they were guaranteed? In De Valera’s original text for ‘The Ireland that we dreamed of’, he talked of ‘the contest of athletic youths’ and ‘comely maidens’ (later ‘happy maidens’ in the broadcast). The implication is clear – contrary to what had actually happened a mere 27 years beforehand, women were being relegated to passive figures in their own lives and in the imagination of the nation.
As an Irish-American living in the Ireland of the 1980s, my main impression of the church of that era was the word ‘dour’. The dour learning of catechism by rote. The dour drone of prayers on various holy days and occasions. The dour atmosphere in the churches themselves. The dour insistence of the clergy on being recompensed by their congregations, and their following up of those who didn’t. The bitter, angry tirades from the pulpits over the abortion and divorce referendums. These made an impression, perhaps, because I had something to compare them with in the American half of my split personality – the joyful congregations, the positive sermons, the warm, open arms to all, the donuts and coffee, the sense of uplift and celebration. I could understand why someone would want to be a Catholic in the US.
My first real epiphany came from reading a book by David Yallop, called ‘In God’s Name’. I recommend it highly. As a teenager who sensed there was a huge disconnect between the fundamental teachings of Jesus and those teachings enacted in what I witnessed around me, it provided a history to my suspicions that the Catholic Church, and particularly the Catholic Church in Ireland, did not view men and women equally. I moved to Dublin, where a whole aspect of a world that I didn’t know existed, sheltered as I was in the rural Ireland of my youth, the gay nightclub scene. A fan club around the film ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. A Dublin of lock-ins and clubs that were open till 6am. I found it all utterly fascinating. But my social conscience was really awakened by the X case and the marches that ensued. Suddenly it became clear. Ireland didn’t love or trust its daughters, and never had. They hated and mistrusted them so much that they would force a 14-year old girl to go through with the pregnancy of her rapist. Females were a problem, not to be solved, but to be kept in check.
In the mid to late 1990s, I did a production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in the Everyman in Cork. In that production was an actress over from London, Phyllis MacMahon, who played Ms. Prism. She had been a novice in a Magdalen laundry and was so traumatised by what she witnessed that she left, went to England and became an actress (She later consulted on the film The Magdalene Sisters). A short while later, I did a play called ‘Eclipsed’ by another ex-nun, Patricia Burke Brogan, playing the Mother Superior. There were children of the Magdalene women in the audience, and they were absolutely clear that my portrayal, in its severity and cruelty, was accurate. On top of all this, news items and documentaries were coming out about what happened in those laundries – in an ironic twist of fate, they couldn’t wash away the sins of Ireland’s dirty little secret.
Where this really struck home though was much later. About 6 years ago, I went to hospital to visit an older female relative. Not one for public displays of affection, she started crying as she told me about how, as a young woman, she had known someone who was in a Magdalene laundry, but being a young woman herself, and therefore vulnerable, she didn’t dare speak out. It really struck me, as I left the hospital, the very real dilemma that faced Irish women and girls of a certain generation. There were consequences for females defying the rule of the Church, which was essentially the rule of the land. Who, in their position, would want to take that chance? While it may be frustrating that certain of the older generation vote No on Friday, in this context, it is understandable. Defiance had real life consequences. Indoctrination is a hard habit to break.
Here’s the thing that is changing: While the Ireland of the twentieth century talked about the ‘fallen women’, it never talked about their partners, the equally culpable (by Catholic logic) ‘fallen’ men. Unless the Church and State were pretending that they didn’t exist, in which case Ireland has produced miraculously ten thousand virgin births, which does throw a central tenet of Christianity into question. So really what the almost first 100 years of the Irish republic was partly built on was the forced enslavement, imprisonment and labour of women, in collusion with the Church. This is why the vote on Friday to repeal the 8th is, in essence, about the democratic rights of women to choose that most basic of human principles: autonomy over their own bodies. Until we understand, and own up to, the physical, psychological and societal traumas faced by every Irish citizen who happened/happens to be female, and seek to redress that, as our forefathers, and, more importantly, our foremothers envisioned, we are a republic only in name, not deed. Until that happens, Ireland will not be a nation free from the effects of imperialism, but rather a victim turned oppressor to half its population. When you treat livestock better than you treat citizens, there is reason to question what path we have taken, that has taken us so far away from the vision in the 1916 Proclamation. We will see by the weekend whether the Republic is committed to “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally“.