Tag Archives: Repeal the 8th

The unsung heroes of #8thRef

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As I was watching the Pat Kenny Show today (current affairs show in Ireland), and I heard (yet again) the phrase ‘we don’t want the same set-up the UK has’, I suddenly heard the dog-whistle in it. The slight sneery undertone. And I was angered by it. We’re all taught to be suspicious of the British a bit. It can be a hard habit to recognise. But today, I really heard it. And I was affronted.

Now, I’ve done my fair share of Brit-bashing. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I’ve had the odd conversation (or 5,000) about the evils of empire, the class system, the screwed-up voting system. Etc. Etc.Etc. On the other hand – I’ve lived here almost 20 years and I’m speaking about these topics from a place of actual insight and experience, unlike certain people on the No side that I’ve heard over the last few days on Irish TV. And I’ll say something else about this, that has to do with the #8thRef.

Ireland should be so lucky to have a healthcare system like the NHS. Were it not for the wonderful institution that is the NHS, that bright, shining beacon of compassionate and free healthcare, Irish women would be worse off. Even when a corrupt government is trying to sell it off, it still welcomes those whose country has abandoned them. I cannot wax lyrical enough about the NHS. I’ve had experience of 4 healthcare systems: the US, the Irish, the German and the British. Now, the German healthcare system does have the edge on the NHS. But: the NHS has taken care of me in so many ways, and the absolute compassion and care that is mainly taken with people here is amazing. And, for the most part, FREE. (Did I mention that?). There would be no X case here. There would be no Savita Halappanavar. No Miss P. Given the circumstances and evidence, that sneering attitude is bred of a malign piety.

I also have mainly only received kindness from British people. I may abhor the Tories, I may despair of the voting system here, the class system might do my head in, but from my very first week here, I’ve been shown kindness by British, and, because I live in London, more specifically, English people. From the stories that have been told that I’ve read, kindness wasn’t lacking from the English, but from our own country. Maybe that will change. Maybe that is changing. Many of us hope that will change tomorrow, but in the meantime, the story of the 8th Amendment is a British story too. A story where they come off as by far the more compassionate side. A story where they’ve quietly and patiently and unquestioningly provided a solution to a particularly Irish problem. Where they’ve held our hand as a nation. Where their staff have literally and figuratively held the hands of distraught Irish women over decades. It’s time to let that hand go.

While there are sheroes and heroes emerging, the story of our neighbours, their NHS and all that work in it that took care of pregnant Irish women in crisis, that didn’t treat them with judgement or derision or scorn hasn’t been acknowledged as much as it should have been. And when you look at it from that perspective, there’s all the more reason to #Repealthe8th.

#ThankYouNHS #Together4Yes

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No Country For Irish Women

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No Country For Irish Women

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“.

 

 

 

The weakness of supremacy

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‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free.’

This quote by Emma Lazarus came to me tonight, after watching an utterly devastating clip on YouTube about the  Tuam babies . Those of you who read my blog will probably be aware of my feelings about the Catholic Church in Ireland – a vile, patriarchal, inherently corrupt and venal institution which should never have gained the place that it did (and among people of a certain age and mentality, still does). But an institution in itself does not have the power to wield authority – and what is becoming clearer, with the uncovering of each scandal, is this:

  1. Power and status was roundly abused by priests and nuns, the self-proclaimed representatives of Christ on earth.
  2. They were aided in this by the State, and, it seems, both profited by the incarceration and slavery of women and children for over 200 years.
  3. The feminist rebels of 1916 and the promise of gender equality for which they fought were roundly dismissed.
  4. In order for these places of slavery to have flourished, there had to have been collusion from the general public.
  5. In line with all patriarchies everywhere, and all countries dominated by religion, there was an unhealthy obsession and stereotyping of women into either Madonna or whore categories.

The first point is self-evident. It doesn’t need me to point out the sexual and physical abuse of women and children – this has been well-documented. The second point is perhaps less well-discussed, but a point that niggles at me on this score is: who profited? Because all that money made from slave labour, the selling of children to wealthy Americans etc, had to have made somebody (or somebodies) rich. Yes, the State is compensating these women. Notably the Church has yet to do this. One wonders, in austerity-stricken Ireland, what deals have been struck behind closed doors that the direct perpetrators of these crimes have virtually, bar receding power and reputation, gotten off scot-free.

What interests me most are points 3-5, because all of them have one thing in common: Patriarchy. This is not necessarily particular to Ireland, though Ireland serves as a relatively recent example of the betrayal of the promise of gender equality, and how, when women have served their purpose in fighting on the frontlines, they are pushed to being a footnote in history.

Men I’ve spoken to about this have normally come back with ‘But the nuns were just as bad’. Yes – behaviour-wise, they almost were (though there doesn’t seem to have been the widespread rape of children that was a feature of their male counterparts). But they were also operating under a system devised by men, for men. For a lone woman to go up against that could be fatal. We saw that all too clearly with the Gay Byrne interview with Annie Murphy, where she was cast as the evil seductress bent on taking down a poor fallen man of God. From my own conversations with an elderly relative, who was a young woman in the 1950s, people knew what was going on – but as young girls/women, they were terrified to speak up for fear of being sent to the laundries themselves.

So let’s take this argument back to where it should lie: at the feet of men. At the feet of the men to whom female sexuality was and is an affront, something to be controlled, not encouraged. At the feet of politicians and the priesthood, who wielded the bulk of power and privilege. At the feet of fathers, brothers, male relatives who saw their daughters and female siblings as less than equal, deserving of slavery.

And this is an argument that still dogs the Irish psyche. We can afford marriage equality to all (marriage essentially being a conservative, approved institution, and Ireland being a conservative society at heart), but we cannot yet afford women equality. Either in the workplace, in the public spaces (which is what #WakingtheFeminists was about – the irony of women having to fight to be heard in a space which was championed by Countess Markievicz!), or, most humiliating of all, over their own bodies.

I would have more tolerance for the pro-life brigade if, in the interests of absolute consistency, they condemned every male masturbatory act as an act of murder and picketed every man’s bedroom and sperm donor clinic. To paraphrase Monty Python, by the argument the pro-lifers make, why isn’t every sperm sacred? Again, there will be those who say (rightly) that there are prominent female ‘pro-lifers’ who also, in the mode of Kelly-Anne Conway, see themselves as both ‘pro-life’ and an ‘individual feminist’. Ladies: there is no such thing. You can be one, but not both. Because your brand of ‘individualistic feminism’ takes away choice from other women – and that’s not feminism, that’s patriarchal brainwashing, and pandering to male fears about losing their supremacy in the world. In Ireland, to realise the Proclamation in full, it is absolutely vital that the 8th Amendment is repealed. Worldwide, (and again, it’s interesting to note that this backlash against women’s rights is not just confined to Ireland, but worldwide) it is vital that women’s reproductive options are defended against a worldwide resurgence of male supremacy.

The issue of supremacy is an interesting one. Here are my thoughts on it – be it along race or gender lines. Supremacy is weakness. It is weakness because it explicitly needs structures in place to give its beneficiaries an unfair advantage over another group. And we have reached a tipping point where, as women fighting to maintain rights hard-won, and move towards a more equal world (which benefits everyone), we don’t want to do it alone. We can – that has what the last 100 years of suffrage has been about – but in order to make real steps forward, it requires men to yield the supremacy in power and privilege that has rendered our world weaker. So this International Women’s Day, it is up to men not only to notice what life would be like without women, but also how much better it might feel to not rely on an unfair advantage. I wonder if men as a group are that fair-minded – history and evidence would point to the contrary. Yet I remain hopeful.

 

 

My Citizens’ Assembly submission for #Repealthe8th

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Why it is essential to the concept of the Irish Republic that we repeal the 8th

 

It is 100 years since the Easter Rising. An Easter Rising in which women fought, and sacrificed their lives to, the ideal of a nation that ‘….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..’. Where the women of the nation have been concerned, however, the idea of civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities have been denied, and, through an unholy alliance of Church and State, betrayed.

It is essential that we no longer betray our forebears who sacrificed so much on our behalf. The suffragettes who risked life and limb, and who had the added burden of not just being revolutionaries on behalf of their fellow citizens, but on behalf of their fellow female citizens. Helena Molony, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, Dr Kathleen Lynn, Rose McNamara and Elizabeth Farrell, Winnie Carney, Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell are names all but unknown now – yet the role that these brave women played in altering the course of Irish history needs to be honoured.

There needs to be reparation for the sins of the past, in particular the sins of the State in colluding with the Church to imprison and enslave generations of Irish women in the Magdalen Laundries. There needs to be reparation for the toxicity of a State that held the rights of its male citizens as paramount and sacrificed its women at their altar. There needs to be reparation for the lack of care given to the women who were unjustly denied abortions: Miss X. Savita Halappanavar. The endangered, unnamed migrant woman in 2014 denied an abortion by our courts. All the unnamed women who, for reasons of their own (which should be their citizens’ right to decide) have had to make the lonely trip to England. Oh the irony that their former colonial masters can provide the medical procedure that their own supposed Free State will not. What a bitter pill to swallow, on top of all the other bitter pills women have endured since the beginning of our nation once again. Same oppression, different master. In modern Ireland, the possession of the Y chromosome is paramount.

Towhit: either all of our citizens are free and autonomous, or none are. For anyone who considers themselves an Irish citizen, true to the values of the Proclamation, no matter one’s personal or religious beliefs, this is the crucial point to understand. To believe otherwise is to dishonor the very tenets upon which the Irish State was created. To believe otherwise is to betray those brave men and women who sacrificed their very lives on our behalves. To believe otherwise is but to ape the tactics of British rule, by which we were but second-class citizens in our own country. It is time to elevate women to first-class citizenship, whereby they have that most basic of human rights: complete bodily autonomy. Let’s finally do the right thing and be a shining example of transformation in the world. #Repealthe8th

A nation once again?

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Last year I did some ADR on a little film called ‘Brooklyn’. The book, by Colm Toibín, is one I’ve had a sort of tenuous relationship with – a couple of years ago, I narrated it for the RNIB, and was delighted to be involved, even in a small way, with the movie. The book itself is wonderful, delicate and as one would expect of a master like Toibín, extremely well-told. Even from the brief recording session, it was clearly a beautifully crafted film, telling a story that has been familiar to many Irish people, myself included, of the homesickness of being an Irish immigrant in spite of always having dreamt of leaving the motherland.  There is a romance attached to this sense of Irishness and being Irish abroad which neatly fits into universal sensibilities and the perception by others about what it means to be Irish. And this is a notion that is somewhat based in a truth, and which we have fostered and encouraged, to a certain extent.

But there is another narrative that is no less true, though less often told. This week was the week that it became blatantly apparent that Irish women’s voices were being silenced at our national theatre, which is a microcosm example of what has happened to Irish women over the last 100 years. It brought me back to something that happened to me a few years back. I was in hospital visiting an elderly female relative. She was in a frail and very vulnerable state and began crying as she recounted that she perhaps could have done more to help Magdalen girls she had come across. The sheer sense of terror however at the thoughts of going up against the powers-that-be (the Church, the State) was palpable, and it made me think about what it meant to be a young girl or young woman in 1950s/60s Ireland: the knowledge that if you gave into natural sexual desires, were raped or were too pretty, that you ran the risk of being incarcerated. Given what was known to happen, it’s hard to blame those who did not stand up and be counted.

Ireland’s treatment of its women is something that has not been scrutinised, because by and large in society in and out of Ireland, women’s stories are not seen as important enough. Out of the activists involved in fighting for a free state, the names of Maud Gonne (through association with Yeats) and Countess Markievicz may be known – but who knows the names of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Mary Galway, Margaret Cousins, Louie Bennett, Kathleen Lynn, Rosamund Jacob and Helena Molony beyond a few interested scholars? They certainly don’t rank in recognition in the same way that Pearse, De Valera, Collins, Connolly, Clarke, MacDermott, Plunkett and MacDonagh do. I don’t even have to use their first names for them to be instantly recognisable to anyone who went through the Irish school system. Sure, most of these lost their lives and that forms part of their remembrance; but the women aforementioned are important figures of their time, and yet sidelined historically.

Toibín’s Eliís, or the late Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher is how Ireland prefers to view its women: feisty, quirky, sanitised for Hollywood consumption. In a way, it is an aspect of Irish womanhood, but not the sum totality. There are also the women who effectively were state-sponsored slaves in the Magdalen laundries; the 12 women a day who travel to the UK to get abortions because somehow their reproductive organs are a matter of national danger and concern. Miss X. Miss Y. Salvia Halapannavar. The clinically dead pregnant woman kept alive last year for over 17 weeks, despite her parents’ wishes. Not to mention the women and children directly abused by the Church, protected by the State. It’s not necessarily been the best 100 years for the women of Ireland and this is not something we can blame on our oppressors as a nation, because these crimes and the attempts at silencing these voices are something that the ‘free’ state of Ireland has done to itself.

The job of any national theatre is to tell the stories of the whole nation, not just those of an overprivileged male cosmopolitan elite. Having read through the official line from the Abbey via its artistic director, I don’t buy that none of the works by female writers were up to par – that comes across as sexist prevaricating. However, if it is the case (and of course that will be hard to judge until the season planned is upon us, and the audience and critics judge the relative merits of that position) then serious questions must be asked of the management of the Abbey Theatre as to why this was allowed to happen. It is not as if they did not know the significance of the centenary in 2016, and that it crept up on them unawares, and could not plan accordingly, surely to be representative of the nation as a whole? And the Abbey is funded largely by public funding, so any under-representation, especially of half the population, should be grounds for public enquiry and concern.

Having been in Ireland the weekend of the Yes Equality vote, I felt it was a turning point in our history, and one that could prove of huge benefit in the campaign to repeal the 8th. What has transpired with the Abbey under Fiach Mac Conghail indicates there is much work to be done before Irish women are seen as equal citizens in our own country. As well as the celebrations that will occur to mark 1916, we also need to be brave enough to face the mistakes of the last 100 years and that dark history. Because until that happens, we will remain in a colonised state. Irishwomen were instrumental in the formation of the Free State – the 1916 proclamation directly acknowledges that. The best way of eulogising those who fought for our freedom would be to honour that. In that sense, it is not just the feminists who need to wake up. To be a nation once again, with the responsibility, the accountability and maturity that involves, every Irish citizen needs to.