Monday, June 16, 2014

Not Such A Great Little Country After All

I have tried and failed about three times to write this post.  It has been really difficult to work out my feelings about the revelations concerning the treatment of mothers and babies in Ireland in the very recent past.  As a woman and a mother and indeed as a former single parent myself  there is something deeply unnerving and disquieting to learn that your country, the place you live, the place that is rooted deeply in your bones, the place that defines so much of you has been hiding such dark and cruel stories for decades.

I took my youngest daughters to see the movie ‘Philomena’ when it was in cinemas some months back.  They are 13 and 15 and their usual choice of movies is a mix of fantasy and American pop culture... Philomena was something very different.  But they were both moved and disturbed by the story.  What bothered them most was that this was an Irish story and a recent one too. 

It is often remarked on how we still love to be told we are great.  Only on an Irish chat show will the first question asked of a visiting superstar be “and how are you finding Ireland, do you like it?”  Which has to be the stupidest question ever because what do we honestly expect a visiting movie star on a PR trip for their latest movie to say?  “Well actually I am very disappointed.  I find your country dirty and the standard of service is appalling.”  No of course not.  They all say “oh I love it.  I hope to come back soon and spend more time here.”  Our sense of our own wonderfulness established, the interview can continue.

It would be easy at this point to heap all the blame for the cruelty of how single pregnant women and girls were treated at the feet of religious orders.  The orders certainly carry a huge burden of responsibility and their callousness should be recorded for posterity.  They must be held to account and their track record of intransigence and tight fistedness should not be tolerated for one day longer. 

But we must also accept that we all bear responsibility for this dark chapter in our history.  It was the families and communities in which these women and girls lived that sent them into the arms of the nuns who were clearly overwhelmed.  And it is this complicity, our complicity that will haunt our sense of ourselves for decades to come.

There is little we can do from this remove to heal the hurt caused to the thousands of women whose babies either died or were taken from them for adoption.  We cannot rewrite history.  But if we don’t learn from it we are likely to repeat the mistakes, the injustices and the cruelty over and over again.

Right now in Ireland adopted people are still having great difficulty in accessing their birth information.  We must pressure the government to amend this situation immediately.  Today in Ireland Traveller babies have a higher mortality rate than the general population and many Traveller children are living in appalling conditions.  Funding to Traveller services was cut by 80% during this period of so called austerity.  Next month lone parents are facing another cut in their payments when their youngest child turns seven years of age.  Today there are thousands of immigrant families caught in ‘direct provision’ which is having a detrimental effect especially on their children.  What are we doing about all these children?

I love this country.  We have produced great writing and great music.  We have a unique sense of fun and invented ‘the craic’ which is beyond explanation.  We are masters of irreverence and have an interesting relationship with authority.  We have some of the most stunning scenery on the planet.  We have much to be proud of. 

But we also have much to be deeply ashamed of.  For decades I think our history of colonisation, of being a victim of British dominance has defined us.  We were this little nation whose influence has spread all over the world; this little nation who after centuries of failed attempts finally shook off our oppressor and gained our freedom.  Weren’t we just wonderful altogether? 

We are now coming to terms that we are not quite as wonderful as we thought.  Our treatment of Mothers and Babies for most of the twentieth century is surely one of the most shameful episodes in any countries history.  And we have no one else to blame.  We, as a nation facilitated the church in its abuse of these young women and their babies.  Right now we are again turning a blind eye to many injustices which are impacting Irish children.  Are we content to continue to allow our Government to unfairly target groups that are vulnerable in the pursuit of financial stability?  Are some children once again worth more than others?

The last three weeks have changed fundamentally how I feel about my Irishness.  I am still proud to call myself Irish.  But I think that feeling of smug self confidence in my nationality, that one that Irish chat show hosts love to reinforce is gone.  I can only assume that this is a good thing.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Ni Neart Go Cur Le Cheile

“Be yourself, because if you can get away with it, it is the ultimate feminist act.”
Liz Phair – American Singer/Songwriter

According to the Oxford English Dictionary Feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”   The two words that jump out of that sentence are rights and equality.  Surely every woman has the right to make her own choices and live her own life as she sees fit.  You see, for me feminism is as much about choice and freedom as it is about equality. 

And that right there is why I often find myself getting very depressed when feminist women (rarely men) get angry when a woman puts forward a vision of fulfilment that doesn’t rate climbing the career ladder her major priority in life. 

Over the last few days we have had another stunning example of how we women seem to find it next to impossible to accommodate views that do not fit neatly with ours.  Kirsty Allsop is the latest feminist to find herself in very hot water with the mainstream feminists who have been ranting and raving about her in our newspapers and on social media.  You see Kirsty has opinions and has never been afraid to express them.  Surely this is what feminists are all about?  Having women’s voices heard?  Not apparently if your opinions run contrary to the mainstream feminist view which seems to be all about achieving in education and career.

Ms Allsopp had the audacity to say in a wide ranging interview with The Telegraph that she thought that “women are being let down by the system. We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact it falls off a cliff when you’re 35. We should talk openly about university and whether going when you’re young, when we live so much longer, is really the way forward.” 

She went on to say that if she had a daughter (she has two sons) she would advise her to postpone university and to concentrate on having a family while she was young and doing the career and university thing later on.  She further said in an interview with Newsnight that she would have the same conversation with her boys.

Whether she is right or wrong is irrelevant.  The point is that she has every right to express her opinion.  She wasn’t saying that this is what every woman should do but that it is what she would advise her offspring to do.  But the immediate rubbishing of her view along with plenty of derogatory commentary concerning her background (which is reasonably wealthy by all accounts) and her work with interiors, design and crafting surely runs contrary to what feminism should be all about?

For generations women have passed down wisdom and stories along with recipes from mother to daughter; precious nuggets of knowledge borne from experience of our grandmothers.  In our enthusiasm for full equality we have narrowed our vision about what it is to be a woman – what it is to be a feminist.

Some of the greatest feminist women I know are working quietly in the home, caring for children, their aged parents and their household.  They have little if any interest in board rooms or glass ceilings.  Are there views on life less worthy?  Are these women some lesser species of feminist?

We need to be very careful of becoming too macho in our pursuit of full equality and freedom.  Actress Natalie Portman said “I want every version of a woman and a man to be possible. I want women and men to be able to be full-time parents or full-time working people or any combination of the two. I want both to be able to do whatever they want sexually without being called names. I want them to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”

Before we can change the world we must change ourselves.  As a women’s movement we must recognise that we women are as different as we are the same.  We don’t all necessarily want the same things.  Equality is essentially about choice.  The choice to be yourself.  It is vital that we recognise the right of each woman to make the choices that are right for her. And we need to support each other regardless of how we personally view those choices.

So if Kirsty Allsopp wants to tell her children that they might consider fertility and plan a family early and put off career advancement till later, that is fine.  It is another way of doing things.  No more and no less valid that waiting until you are established in your career for the babies.

But women can we please stop being so critical of other women whose views don’t chime with ours.  We are often our own worst enemies... Ni neart go cur le cheile (no strength without unity)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


For the day that's in it.... and this comes with best wishes to all who are sitting Junior and Leaving Cert Exams tomorrow...


Dear Eldest Daughter:

It is 8 o’clock on a cold, autumn evening and the house is quiet.  I am sitting here at the kitchen table, with my cup of coffee, in the company of Doc, the old cat.  The clock keeps steady time, marking out the seconds with a deep ticking.  All is well.  All is settled. 

But my sense of peace is rattled slightly by something in the air.  A vague tension stirs my sense of tranquillity.  My own inner peace and the conspiring quiet of the house, allows my senses to pick up an energy which is seeping through the ceiling…… from your room.

Without visiting your room, I can picture you clearly.  Sitting, bent over your desk.  Your face lit by the desk lamp which also drops a pool of yellow light onto the dog eared pages of your notes.  Your face is tense and your forehead holds furrows of stress as you attempt to force the information from the page into your brain.  In front of you, your notice board is full of post-its and timetables.  Reminders of what has still to be done and highlighting deadlines which loom menacingly in the middle distance.  I am so proud of the way you are tackling your study, albeit it in a room which looks as if it has just been raided. 

I was 18 once and I was where you are now.  I can remember so well, the constant feeling of drowning slowly in a sea of home-work and study.   Like you, I was sure that my whole life path would be determined by my Leaving Cert.  The grand finale of my school days loomed like a huge mountain which had to be scaled alone.  And I too thought that my ability to climb this mountain would determine how the world would view me as a person for the rest of my life.

Oh my child….. if only you could have the gift of seeing into your future.  If only you could know what it has taken me 30 years to know.  Your life path is already determined.  You, the person you are, is already set.  This exam, once done, will fade so quickly in its importance that it will leave you wondering if you dreamt it all up. 

But I cannot tell you all this.  Not now.  You have to do what you have to do.  And just now, life is presenting you with this challenge which will consume you and your spirit for the coming months.  And this too is part of your life path. 

So I sit here at my kitchen table, decades further down the road from you and I write you this letter.  I will not send it.  No, I will date it and keep it safe and on the last day of your exams I will give it to you.  As you embrace your new found freedom and walk proudly out of school and into the world, know that I have always known what a wonderful human being you are.  Know that the world will not look for your exam results in order to understand what a kind, caring, good person you are. 

So as you read this, some day in June, I say congratulations to you, my daughter – you have arrived on the other side of the mountain.  And as you stride from school for the last time, stop and look back at the building where you have been guided and encouraged and taught for the last six years.  And behind the school, can you see the mountain.  And look, already it is shrinking.

With love always

Your mother