Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Category: Religion

Poetry and profanity–a couple of thoughts on Miggeldy and blasphemy

Michael D. at Arbour Hill

So Ireland has voted to #keepthepoet and take blasphemy out of the constitution. Miggeldy will have another seven years in the Aras. For any non-Irish readers I should explain, Miggeldy is the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Miggeldy is an affectionate pet name for this president used widely by Irish people after a child’s school essay misspelling his name went viral some years ago. The name is a joke on how the president has been referred to for years, especially in the West of Ireland, as a popular left-leaning politician and minister. Back then he was universally known as Michael D. rather than as Minister or Deputy Higgins. It’s fitting for someone who has spent his entire career arguing for equality and fairness. Michael D. was the politician everyone would stop on the street to say hello to. Miggedly is the president who loves his dogs and is immortalised in a popular tea cosy. He’s also the president who had a pleasingly humanistic inauguration ceremony the first time round and who’s official speeches have made me repeatedly proud of one of my countries on a regular basis over the past seven years.

Since Mary Robinson took the job back in 1990 the Irish presidency has become a very aspirational role. The presidency was where the Irish people could try out new ideas for size. There have been two female presidents but no female Taoiseach for example. Seven years ago Ireland could have had their first openly gay president in the shape of Senator David Norris but instead voted for their first humanist president, someone who’s further left than the majority of TDs. Michael D. was elected before Ireland’s historic referendum votes in favour of marriage equality and to remove the 8th amendment banning abortion. The winds of change might have already been blowing but once again, it was the presidency that tried out the idea to look for a fit. I’ve often thought that in recent years the presidency has become the face Ireland wants to show the world, a “good room” in human form to be brought out for visitors and kept under plastic covers the rest of the time – and we’re almost back to tea cosies.

This election campaign has been a bit extreme though. Coming so soon after the abortion vote it was always going to be. That vote revealed a lie that had been told to liberal Ireland for a generation – there are more of us than you. That vote proved the lie and gave a breakdown. Of course there are complexities in any vote result, a variety of reasons why people may vote this way or that, but the abortion vote, like marriage equality before it, showed the breakdown to be  somewhere in the region of a 60/40 split. You see Ireland, like many other countries has always had two faces. There is conservative, Catholic Ireland – the country of greys and blacks, right wing, dogmatic tendencies and an ultra Catholic tone – and there’s liberal Ireland – the land of saints and scholars, dark cynical humour, dazzling discoveries. These two countries have always existed in theory. In practice Ireland as she really is is a balance of the two. The question is always what is the balance. It’s the balance we glimpse in referendum results. Divorce in 1992 told us it was 50/50. Since marriage equality we know it’s shifted a bit but you can never be certain.

So when it was announced that Miggeldy was in fact going to seek a second term (he had always said he would only do the one) they all came out of the woodwork. That’s how there were early stories about famine theme parks and anti-vaxxers and Dragons Den. Actually it all got very odd. In the end there was only one other contender. Peter Casey managed to garner around a third of the vote by dog whistling anti traveller sentiments and being generally reactionary. The last 24 hours have seen a flurry of articles explaining that Casey is not the Irish Trump. He’s not – but his comments about travellers did appeal very neatly to that section of Irish society who are reeling from discovering that they don’t have 50 % of the vote anymore, that they are now in the minority. They didn’t vote for Miggeldy the first time round, they didn’t vote for marriage equality and they didn’t vote to repeal the 8th. That lot have always been there, they just can’t say they’re in the majority anymore. It isn’t that long ago when Casey may well have won. This isn’t a sign that Ireland has a growing rump of right wing sentiment, it’s just an indication of where they are.

Which brings me to blasphemy. As well as the presidential election there was also a referendum on whether or not to remove “blasphemous” from the statement “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” This hadn’t been a major problem until 2009 when a clause on blasphemy was added to the Defamation Act, thus defining it in law. Now it might have been a pretty useless law that was ultimately unprosecutable but it was still put in there. It seems to have just been there to catch out comics with Tommy Tiernan inadvertently triggering the damn thing in the first place and Stephen Fry falling foul of it and ultimately setting the ball rolling to get rid of it. Well kind of. Most of the coverage of this blasphemy referendum has referred to the Irish people voting to remove the law on blasphemy. They’re not. The law will still stand but at least now politicians can no longer argue it’s a gap that needs filling and hopefully speedily remove the clause from the Defamation Act.

So having Miggeldy for another seven years is a good thing. Having further confirmation that liberal Ireland is still in the majority is a good thing – even if there is still a third of the population who would vote hard right conservatism. Given Ireland’s history this is actually a pretty good figure. There’s still a very long way to go but at least Ireland has decided to put a progressive face to the world.

Holy Orders…

Every year on Good Friday Ireland closes down.  It’s illegal to sell alcohol here today so houses up and down the land are full of people getting completely rat arsed at home with oceans of booze bought the day before.  One or two uncharitable souls might venture into town to laugh at all the tourists wandering dejectedly around Temple Bar because no one bothered to tell them about the law.

Off licences around the country enjoy their one Friday night off of the year and rebellious parties rock through the night, continuing the theme of getting rat arsed with previously bought alcohol.  This year the truly dedicated (along with hotel residents, people in airport departure lounges and one or two other refuges of the desperate and alcoholic) can actually get wined and dined totally legally, not quite in international waters but a definitely aquatic bending of the rules.

The standard line you hear trotted out today when people complain about the levels of drunkenness sparked by enforced prohibition is that it’s only one day a year.  Sure we’re not that desperate for a drink are we?  But it’s not really a question of the whole nation going cold turkey if they don’t have intravenous alcohol it’s simply a case of the Irish inclination to do the opposite of what they’ve been told to do (look at the Lisbon Treaty!)

But behind all the hilarity and festivity is an inescapable problem with the Good Friday licensing laws and similar rules that govern Christmas Day.  They are there solely because Good Friday is a holy day in one religion.  For two days a year the laws of Ireland seek to force everyone in the country, regardless of their belief or lack of it, to toe the line laid down by the Catholic church.  It’s not a question of whether people can stand being without alcohol for 24 hours, it’s a question of why they’re being told to abstain.

In my previous post I wrote about the ads taken out by the Humanist Association of Ireland which are currently running on DART commuter trains around the capital.  The ads point out that in order to take high office in this country you have to take an oath to the Christian god.  Not exactly a separation between Church and State!  The Good Friday licensing laws are part and parcel of the same thing.  A religious law imposed on a population.

Now I know that Ireland is still a predominantly Catholic country.  According to the 2006 census there are still more than 3.5 million people living in Ireland who would describe themselves as Catholic.  However, the same census also shows that there are more than 700,000 people who do not share that faith.  Granted, included in that 700,000 would also be all the other denominations of Christianity who would also celebrate the resurrection but who might have different customs when it comes to observing Good Friday.

The licensing laws don’t take any of this into account.  They assume a population that needs policing to follow the rules of their faith, not allowing for personal discipline or responsibility.  They are no different from rules under Muslim Sharia law that dictate what a woman must wear and restrict her movements. These rules assume that religion needs to be policed and takes it away from a matter of personal conscience.

It might seem like a little thing.  An archaic rule that harks back to a simpler time and might actually have positive health benefits.  We’re not talking about going to your local butcher here or buying organic.  This is a situation where the rules of one religion dictate the law of the land.  I have no problem with individuals following whatever faith they choose.  I do have a problem when they impose that belief onto me.

A Still Small Voice of Reason?

A few months ago the British Humanist Association launched bus advertising in London.  The ads which said “There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” caused quite a bit of controversy and sparked several retaliatory campaigns from religious groups.

At the time the Irish Humanist Association told the Irish Times that they would not be following suit because they thought the ads were too inflammatory.  In a predominantly Catholic country like Ireland you can see their point but I for one was rather disappointed.  After all, we see plenty of ads appearing from the Christian side of things, be it the “What think ye of Christ” ads that  pop up on buses at this time of year to the various campaigns by pro-life groups, most notably the Mother and Child campaign a few years ago.

The Mother and Child Campaign, and of course Youth Defence, are vociferous in their fight to protect Catholic morals.  I spent some months several years ago working for the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution when they were looking for submissions from members of the public on possible changes to the section of the Irish constitution that deals with the family.  We weren’t even dealing with the contentious Article 40.3.3 which is the one dealing with abortion (a somewhat volatile subject here).

What was under discussion though was a woman’s place in the home, the definition of a family and the rights of unmarried parents, adoptive parents and gay couples.  Not to mention the ratification of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the child.

There were thousands of submissions.  The bulk of them were printed red and white forms distributed by the Mother and Child Campaign in churches around the country.  We had people raging against the possibility of taking God out of the Constitution (not up for discussion at that time) and dozens railing against yet another attempt to “bring in abortion by the back door”.  People would phone up and hurl abuse.  There were even veiled threats at those working in the Committee if they tried to change the status quo.

Having experienced this much vitriol at an attempt to simply modernise the Constitution to take account of the changing make up of the Irish family, I was disappointed but not altogether surprised at the HAI’s response to such a confrontational bus campaign.  Religion is a highly inflammatory subject here.  Even careful reasoned arguments can get a violent backlash from a particularly vocal minority.

I remember the placard waving crowd that appeared outside the Four Courts every day during the High Court case around “Miss D” a teenager in state care who had been told her baby was suffering from an incurable condition and would not live long after birth.  It made going into work an uncomfortable experience and must have been highly traumatic for the pregnant teen who had to run the gamut every day while she tried to simply avail of the right to travel out of Ireland for an abortion available to every woman in the State.

So I was surprised to learn that the HAI have reconsidered and posted ads on the DART commuter trains that form one of the main transport systems in Dublin.

The information campaign from the Humanist Association of Ireland during Easter week 2009

The information campaign from the Humanist Association of Ireland during Easter week 2009

And here’s a close-up of the text of the ads.

Humanist Dart campaign close up

Humanist Dart campaign close up

 

They might not be quite as eye catching as the London ads but they do make a very good point.  There has been a campaign for the separation of Church and State here for years but it’s had only limited success.  While you can affirm without use of a religious text if you swear in for jury duty, that option isn’t available if you take high office here.  God is still firmly part of the constitution and will be for a considerable time to come.

However, it makes a refreshing change to see Humanist ads up where usually there would be “What think ye of Christ” ads promising a video presentation showing proof of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The “What Think Ye”s were up but they’ve been taken down again so the Humanists are out on their own.

I thought a lot about posting on this subject.  I had wanted to write about the initial London bus campaign but thought twice about it.  Even touching on the subject of religion can open the flood gates and the vitriol can be extreme.  There are some sections of society here that don’t like any viewpoint but there own seeing the light of day.  Even though there are almost 190,000 people according to the most recent census, who say they have “no religion” making this the second largest group after Catholicism it’s still a largely ignored group.

Hopefully the DART ads will get people thinking and start a debate.  I don’t hold out much hope though.  Reasoned debate is often drowned out by the shrieks of those trying to drown it out.

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