Thursday, February 20, 2014


A reply to Breda O Brien’s column in The Irish Catholic 20th February 2014

I really do have some sympathy for Breda O Brien, particularly after reading her column in The Irish Catholic (published 20 February) entitled ‘My Good Name Was Demolished’.   Like Panti, I think that “the woman writing in the newspaper” is probably a very nice woman.  And I do believe Breda when she says “I have never written anything designed to hurt or harm anyone”.  I particularly feel sorry when she says that all of the publicity around the so called ‘Panti-gate’ episode has led her 15 year old daughter to ask whether they were in danger from all the vitriol.  It is sad that anyone is left feeling so vilified and vulnerable.

Breda’s latest column in The Irish Catholic outlines all of this and then goes on to explain why she is against what she calls ‘gay marriage’ and yes, it revolves around children. 

Breda says “No gay couple can bring children into their relationship without the assistance of at least one person of the opposite gender. This fundamental difference, with all the profound implications for children of being raised either without their mother, or their father, is supposed to be politely ignored so that adults can receive their ‘rights’”  She goes on to mention about online forums where those who were conceived “through gamete donation” are desperately seeking their biological identities (actually Breda refers to them seeking their siblings and parents which I am sure is offensive to many, if not all, of those who are seeking this information).

These are two completely separate debates.  I agree that all children, whether they are conceived naturally and adopted or via donated eggs and or sperm have a right to their biological information.  I believe that to be a human right.  But Breda – you admit that most parents who use donor assistance are heterosexual.  So why is this relevant to marriage equality?

And what are the ‘profound implications’ for children raised without mother or father?  Breda you must know that for decades children have been raised without two parents, usually by a lone mother who conceived the ‘natural’ way – no gametes required at all.  These women, who decided to parent alone while the biological father resumed his life with little or no interest or support for his child, had to endure the same nonsense about children needing to be parented by a mother and father.  And the tragedy Breda is that for many of us, although educated and reasonably smart, the baloney that was peddled during endless debates in the 80s and 90s about ‘unmarried mothers’ sank in.  Like you Breda – my good name was demolished and demolished regularly.  It resulted in the fact that somewhere in my subconscious there was always the feeling that I was not a good enough.  In fact, like thousands of other single mothers not only was I good enough, I was actually as good as many couples.

My eldest daughter is now a wonderful woman of 26 and I have two more daughters – teenagers, who were conceived within marriage.  I can tell you there is no difference Breda.  Children need security, love and protection and yes it is easier if there are two sets of shoulders to bear the responsibility, particularly financially.  But if there aren’t – one set can  do just fine.  But as to the gender of those shoulders – it matters not one bit. 

I am still angry that it took my daughter reaching 21 years of age for me to really believe that I had done a good job.  But the experience has given me the empathy to know how it feels to be ‘oppressed’ as Panti described it in her Nobel Call at the Abbey Theatre.  I know how it feels to be on the outside; in the minority and having my life choices questioned and my child’s future maligned.  I know where you are Breda and it’s not nice. 

Then I read the last paragraph of your column where you talk about “dissolving a child-centred institution like marriage which is designed to bond parents with biological children, and replacing it with an adult centred institution designed primarily to act as a state-sanctioned approval of romantic sexual relationships” and I get angry all over again! I get angry on behalf of single parents, of childless married couples, of celibate married couples and gay couples seeking equality. 

I am glad that the priest who married me didn’t seem to share your view Breda, as I walked up the aisle behind my then ten year old daughter.  As for ‘state sanctioned approval of romantic sexual relationships”....em., was I nuts?  I got married for love.  

Monday, February 10, 2014


I got married in October 1996 and I made a speech.  I had something to say.  And I wanted to say it publicly. 

I began by stating that although I was clearly very happy to be now married to the very nice fella beside me, I was also feeling a bit disappointed with my new title of wife.  Because being a wife meant that I was now respectable.  I had returned to the warmth and security of ‘polite society’ from the draughty corridor where I had lived for the previous ten years.  I felt a bit like a traitor and wondered how I might hold on to a little of my ‘disreputable’ status as I began married life.

My eldest daughter was born in 1987.  Three years after Anne Lovett died with her newborn infant in a freezing graveyard in Longford.  The term ‘illegitimate’ was still very much used to describe children such as my daughter.  I was a working woman of 25 but I was an ‘unmarried mother’.  And while not as scandalous as it would have been decades earlier it was still a status that made the rest of society very nervous. 

I was reminded of my awkward wedding speech last week as I listened to Panti Bliss make her eloquent Noble Call on the Abbey stage.  She spoke about the so called little things that felt oppressive.  Things like listening to TV debates where nice people debate about her and what rights she should and should not be allowed.  Things like reading newspaper columns written by a nice middle class woman arguing reasonably about how you should be treated less than everyone else.

As I listened to her I remembered.  I remember being asked, by people I knew, if I was collecting “the mickey money” for my trouble.  They thought they were making a witty, light remark.  It felt oppressive.  I had ‘friends’ who stopped inviting me to dinner because I had wandered into some kind of no man’s land of being single but not being free.  Or was it because they assumed I had some kind of less moral code than they did.  Yes, Panti, it too felt oppressive.

But as she continued her talk I realised that I was now that middle class woman in the coffee shop that Panti referenced.  The one that Panti thought just may have agreed with the nice newspaper columnist who thought gays were less equal.  Here I am buried in a nice suburb with my husband and my now respectable family.   Panti said we are all homophobic and sure how could we not be having grown up in Ireland?  Oh my God, I thought, have I forgotten what it felt like on the outside?

And yes I had forgotten.  I am now married almost twice as long as I was an ‘unmarried mother’.  But what Panti articulated so gracefully brought back vivid memories.  I also spent years listening to the reasonable middle class commentators debating about me and my likely impact on society.  And the worst part is that after a few years I subconsciously started to believe some of what they said.  Us ‘unmarried mothers’ of the 80s and 90s were told, time and time again, that we were likely to cause society to break down. We heard some of the very same rhetoric that is now being rehashed in the marriage equality debate.  The main point which was always that children need a mother and father in order to grow up right! Our single parent households were bound to produce children who would grow up to be dysfunctional at best and most likely be delinquent.  It was a huge relief and surprise to me when in a stunning moment of clarity at her 21st birthday I realised that I had done a good job and my daughter was OK.  Just like thousands of other single parents in this country.

I have had the pleasure of meeting Panti Bliss last year, when we were both on a panel on TV3’s Midday programme.  I had never met a drag queen before.  Hell, I have never been to a gay bar and until very recently I had never had a gay friend, as far as I knew anyway.  I had to check with the programme’s producer as to whether I refer to Panti as ‘her’ or ‘him’.  I was so way out of my middle class suburban comfort zone. 

This week Panti’s Noble Call has made me take a long honest look into my soul.  Am I homophobic?  More importantly are my children growing up with homophobic attitudes that they are subconsciously picking up in my home.  I certainly hope not.

But it’s not enough to say yes to marriage equality because in my view, that’s easy.  And it's straightforward.  Equality can’t come with conditions or limitations.   But are we sure we are all sitting comfortably with what Panti refers to as “gender discombobulation”?  That, that Bard might have said, is the question.  

Monday, February 3, 2014


I don’t know any woman who looks forward to having a smear test.  But as I have learnt over decades, bringing a sense of humour with you to the doctor’s surgery is highly recommended. 

Now at the outset let me categorically state that I believe in the absolute necessity of regular smear tests.  I have twice had precancerous cells detected which required further treatment and I am glad to say that for the last number of years my smears have been normal.  But my history means that I am called every year for a new test.  So I consider myself a bit of an expert. 

I was probably twenty something when I took myself off for my first ever smear.  Our family GP was a lovely chap.  Described in our house as a bit of a west Brit, he was an angular, tall man in the mode of Basil Fawlty, with a mid Irish Sea accent and an easy laugh.  Being a woman of the world I thought I am not going to seek out a female GP who I have never met before, I can do this with your man I always go to.

So appointment was made and I presented myself at the surgery.  His greeting to me was always the same “Oh Barbara, oh good.  How are you?”  “Hi Doc” I answered trying to calm the butterflies in my stomach, “I am here for a smear test”.  His face displayed that rare combination of delight and puzzlement.  “Oh right. A smear test you say? Great.  Golly gosh no one has come to me for a smear test in years.  I normally just see all the old women round here.” 

 My heart sank and my brain roared “mistake Scully, big mistake”  He ushered me towards the bed with the usual instructions to remove all my lower garments and said he’s be back in a minute.  To this day I suspect he went to consult some medical manual to remind himself as to where he was likely to find my cervix.  Minutes passed as I lay there until I finally heard him re-enter the room and his face came around the curtain wearing a big grin and what looked like a miners lamp strapped to his forehead.  “Jolly good, we’re all set”, he announced as he blinded me with his ‘headlight’.  That test took ages but it was ‘jolly good fun’ by all accounts.

The following years my smear tests were carried out by my gynaecologist due to a combination of recent childbirth and my odd cells.  But some years later I was back at my local GP. 

Basil Fawlty had retired and so my current GP is a younger man.  But it seemed that all the other women in the village knew what I still did not.  Go the practice nurse for a smear test.  So, although he wasn’t quite as gleeful at the prospect of furkling around in my undercarriage, he was just as at sea.  “Right you get sorted there and shout when you are ready” he instructed as he pulled the curtain around the bed.  I took off my shoes and looked around for modesty blanket.
“Em, where’s the blanket, Doc?”
“What blanket?”
“The blanket. I am not going to lie here with everything on show.  I need a blanket”
“Oh, right.  Back in a minute.”
So once again I lay there while he went off in search of a blanket. 

Finally he returned and an arm came though the curtain brandishing a blanket.  A picnic blanket.  A very small one.  A scratchy one.  “Please tell me you didn’t get this from the boot of your car” I pleaded.  By now he was right grumpy.  “No I didn’t” he barked.  So I disported myself on the bed, knickerless looking like I was wearing a tartan mini skirt a la Vivienne Westwood at the height of the punk era.  In the distance there was the sound of a penny dropping.

The following year I made an appointment with the practice nurse.  The room was nice and warm.  There was a gorgeous soft yellow blanket she was that wonderful ‘nursey’ combination of common sense and empathy.  As she approached with KY Jelly in one hand and the speculum in the other she announced that she was using a plastic implement.  “More comfortable, and not as cold” she assured me.  Everything was going reasonably smoothly as she began her furkling.  “Oh I think you have a tilted cervix” she muttered with only a small hint of exasperation.  Then a loud crack, like a gunshot rang through the surgery.  It emanated from my nether regions.

I nearly fell off the bed with the shock, I am sure some elderly patients in the next door waiting room got a right fright.  The nurse turned a bright shade of red.  “Well I have never had that happen before” she said as she retrieved her speculum which was now in two separate pieces. 

 I still go to the nurse but I make sure to tell her immediately that my cervix is round a bend and breaks plastic implements.  I bet not too many women can say that!!