Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Ireland (page 1 of 17)

O Brave New World

Tattered-Union-flag

Nothing happens in a vacuum. My words are shaped by the experiences I’ve lived through. Everything has a cause and effect. Some events resonate so strongly within their own context that the echoes can be heard for years.

I moved back to England 5 months ago yesterday. My return was shaped by my departure many years before. I knew that the European Referendum would be the defining story of my first year. I was a journalist for a long time. I still think in stories. My own view of Europe is coloured by my experiences. While I was in college I produced and presented a European news show on community radio. I considered myself European, as a blow-in in a country of race memory it was the most comfortable choice. Europe was everywhere, the little blue plaques on public buildings, the awarding body for any funding. I visited Brussels on a press trip for local journalists, we all knew that the European funding for radio documentaries was so much easier to get than the Irish alternative and often more generous. In college I got the opportunity to mix with journalism students  from the Netherlands and and spent a semester in France with European funding. I studied French as part of my course, the better to read European documents and legislation. There’s an innate understanding in bi-lingual Ireland that translation can be a slippery thing and the devil’s in the detail.

Europe was labyrinthine, a gestalt entity built on centuries old rivalries and jealousies. A squabbling family that will stand together when it matters. I’ve watched that relationship grow tense and strained and the dream to falter but you can’t choose your family. You can refuse to attend a family Christmas but the ties and the shared history are still there. We’re shaped by our history and so much of that history is shared. That’s just the way it is.

Nationality is a funny thing. I chose to define myself as European for most of my adult life because the choice was either to be the member of a club that had the blood of half the globe on its hands or one that constantly told me I didn’t belong. I spent years viewing Ireland through a English lens and now I’m in England I view it through an Irish lens. At this point I don’t know where one nationality begins and the other ends. Being transplanted does funny things to the sense of self. I know my father spent many years without a nationality. An accident of birth. I have a form in a family file to apply for British citizenship when it’s not automatically given. My dad was born in India. A generation earlier my grandfather fought in the 1st World War in the Indian Army Medical Corps. He didn’t get his medals automatically like every other British subject. He had to apply more than a decade later. I never questioned those medals when I saw that multicoloured ribbon as a child. As a researcher looking at the documentary evidence from the National Archives I wondered, as I had wondered when I saw my great uncle, his brother, describe himself in various American documents as Indian, Irish or British as the occasion suggested. Nationality is a curious thing.

Given my experiences, a lifetime of noticed things and lessons learned, I cannot imagine voting anything other than Remain on Thursday. It saddens me but I understand why so many others will vote Leave. It’s a fairly safe bet that when Thomas Mair gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, he views the world through a very darkened lens. That case is live now so that’s all I’m going to say but those views don’t grow in a vacuum either and only time will tell what shaped them, if it’s possible to tell.

One thing I’ve noticed since I moved back to England is how many people take the whole “Island Nation” thing very literally indeed. I’ve spent the largest part of my life on a smaller island but Ireland has always looked beyond it’s rocky borders. For hundreds of years the Irish have been populating the globe – or at least making sure that there’s an Irish bar in every town, village and urban conurbation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that Dublin is not in the UK. Given that this is a country that appears on the weather map I’m still a little shocked at the lack of understanding of the next door neighbour but perhaps that’s the crux of it. I’m also discomforted by the all the little jumps to the right in everyday life. The fact it is now seen as normal to be vetted at almost every stage of setting up a life because everybody knows that people are inherently untrustworthy and they’re all just out to scam you so you might as well scam them first. So estate agents charge exorbitant fees for opening a Word document and credit checks have become so ubiquitous they have become a growth industry.  When you assume ordinary people are only on the make it’s easy to assume that anyone from outside is at least ten times worse. We’re seeing the results in the Leave camp of prejudices left unchallenged. If no one is correcting long held false beliefs then it’s easy for the cynical and power hungry to use half truths and fantasy to stoke a fire. This is something that is beyond newspaper columnists to fix, it needs to be addressed on a societal level through education and investment. I wouldn’t trust the current UK government to do any such thing so here’s hoping that European funding will still be available in the future.

Living in Ireland you get used to the fact that Europe is the voice of reason when all else fails. If it wasn’t for a European Court of Human Rights ruling many years ago Ireland would not have got as far as a referendum on marriage equality. For years it’s been Europe piling on the pressure to reform abortion law in Ireland. And that’s the one thing this referendum campaign has reminded me of through my Irish lens – it’s as divisive and poisonous as an Irish referendum on the family.

The point I’m trying to make is that just as I could no more be on the Leave side than sacrifice my first born child to a snake god, so a lot of people here are shaped by the world they live in. And when that world is shaped by papers who go out of their way to demonise the poor and the different, when ordinary people are vetted as naturally untrustworthy just to go through life. The world does feel just a little less fair, a little more brutal. An unjust, brutal world shapes the people who live in it. Not everyone will respond by looking beyond. Some will lash out. Some will kill.

This isn’t just a British problem it’s everywhere. It’s polarising people to the left and the right. The vote on Thursday worries me but I’m more worried about the world that we’ll be living in next week. It’s the same world we live in today and it’s a terrifying one.

Familiar territory

Recently in work I’ve been buried in 19th Century crime records. As has been obvious for the past while I’m now working with Findmypast, the online genealogy company. Since I started to research Kirwan I’ve spent so much time with historical records that working with them full-time seemed the logical progression.  I’m now their crime history expert and the past couple of months have been insanely busy as we were preparing for the launch of a major collection of court and crime related papers from The National Archives in London. I’ve recorded a couple of webinars showcasing the new records which you can find on the company’s YouTube channel is you’re interested.

As I posted a few weeks ago I was particularly excited to find Kirwan’s handwritten appeal among the records but I find the whole collection absolutely fascinating. After writing two works of true crime I know how tricky it can be to get hold of the actual paperwork. Unlike America, where you can request any document lodged in a public court, in Ireland getting hold of court documents is next to impossible. In fact when I was working on Devil the only garda statements I could lay my hands on where the ones that had formed part of the American case and so had been used as evidence in an American court. It used to be possible to get hold of the book of evidence if you had built up a good relationship with the gardai who had worked on the case or the barristers but these days it’s impossible. I’m used to hearing the exasperation and frustration from foreign journalists who want to research the case when they discover how little information is available here.

You can find out quite a bit from the judgements in appeals of cases which you can find on the Courts Service website but it’s not the same as the book of evidence. There’s also next to no chance of talking to prisoners here. I did get the chance to visit Essam Eid while he was in gaol in Dublin but that was a specific case. It’s rare otherwise.

That’s what I find so fascinating with the court records that you can find from the 19th century. With my Victorian subjects I can read their prison records, appeals and trial transcript. I might even find photographs. The amount of information I can get about a crime that was committed more than one hundred and sixty years ago is vast compared to what would be obtainable for a modern Irish case. I know how difficult it is because I’ve done it and because I still get regular contacts from reporters and researchers who are still doing it.  It’s thankless work, especially if you’re not able to get to the court for the trial itself.

I sat in the same room as the subjects of my books and was able to watch them and listen to all the evidence. I know as much about those cases as it’s possible to know for a writer. But I know more about Kirwan, who died a century before I was born. I know how tall he was, what colour eyes he had, how he spoke, how he signed his name. I know thirty years of his life and the lives of those around him. That’s one of the reasons why I love historical research so much. I know that if I dig hard enough, search thoroughly enough, I will find out more than I could find out sitting in the same room as someone.

When I was researching Devil, seven years ago exactly, I was excited by how much I could find out online. But the possibilities from the digitisation of historical material are awe inspiring. Most of the research I’ve done on Kirwan has been the good old fashioned legwork type. I’ve been in so many different libraries, my pencil case is bristling with readers’ tickets. But so many of the really exciting discoveries I’ve made have been through digitised material. I’m excited to see where things go from here. So many stories, so many connections, so many lives waiting to be discovered. I want to be on the front line of that. How could I not?

A Moment of History

Una Mullally is hugged by Colm O'Gorman photo by Michael Stamp

Una Mullally is hugged by Colm O’Gorman photo by Michael Stamp

There aren’t many times in life when you can genuinely say you’ve watched history being made. Yesterday was a historic day, a happy day, a profound one. Today my muscles are sore from hours of standing, I’m a little sunburned and I feel 20 again. It feels as if all the cynicism has just melted away. I know this feeling won’t last but I’m holding onto it as long as I can because it feels magical. It feels like Christmas. It feels like a new dawn.

Walking into town around lunchtime there was something palpable in the air, an excitement, a sense of revolution. A steady stream of people were heading for Dublin Castle, conscious there was only one place to be, one place where you could touch history. All around us were rainbow flags, , rainbow umbrellas, rainbow socks, rainbow skirts, rainbow hair. The cathedral quarter had become a sea of colour. The Castle seems like a logical place to go. It holds such an iconic place in Dublin’s history, it’s been the seat of power, a place where leaders have faced judgement – or investigation anyway. It’s a place where you go to see concerts or sand sculptures or Dracula’s garden. A place of power and spectacle.

There are many things I’ll remember about standing in that crowd, watching county after county turning green. Every few minutes the graphic on the large screen that was showing us the feed from the count centre would refresh. The crowd would cheer as the patches of green came back one by one. As the afternoon wore on those patches of green picked out the shape of Ireland. For a second they would hang against the white before the familiar grey template popped back into view. It looked as if Ireland was being made out of green in those moments. The crowd cheered and laughed.

When the Roscommon result came in the howls of genuine anger and betrayal rose in a wounded roar. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. For the rest of the count Roscommon became the bleeding heart of Ireland but soon it was surrounded with green and the shape of Ireland became clearer with every screen refresh.

I’ll remember David Norris walking through the crowd and getting a standing ovation. The sound system wasn’t working so he held up his arms for quiet and the crowd, those thousands of ecstatic, excited people, were quiet. He had a forceful voice for speeches he told us, before telling those upturned faces that history had been made today, that our little country was a beacon to the rest of the world. We all cheered when he finished with the motto of another country “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, because in that moment everyone understood what the 1798  revolutionaries hoped would be true, that those values are as much part of the Irish DNA as any other. That this was what we were made of.

I’ll remember the mix of people there. The young and optimistic and the older, jaded, disbelieving. Some I knew, some I recognised from many, many years ago. Yesterday we really are one city, one family and it was incredible. I met so many people yesterday. A teacher from the Netherlands who had left Ireland years ago because of the intolerance over his sexuality. As Ireland turned greener with each county vote he turned to me and said, Maybe in a while I’ll look at coming back here to teach. Or the American couple standing behind us that we explained each appearance on the stage. He was a sociology professor. She worked in civil liberties. We agreed that history could be grim viewing if you approached it from the left. Days like this mattered.

It was one of those crowds. One united by a common cause, where people talk and share. No one could get mobile coverage to check the results as they came in. History was obviously clogging up the airwaves. We were in the middle of the crowd and there were many Monty Python moments as we tried to work out what was going on up the front. “Blessed are the cheesemakers”, “That was Cavan” “No Kerry, are you blind?” It was all good-humoured. There must have been No voters somewhere in that crowd but nowhere near us. Yesterday it felt like they didn’t exist. That’s a rare feeling.

Because I know writing this that this feeling of euphoria won’t last. The feeling was overwhelming yesterday, it was love, it was pure solidarity, but it’s a rare and fragile thing. The familiarity of it made the tears come. I hadn’t felt it for a such a long time. It was a feeling of optimism, of common cause, a feeling of invincibility. I’m in  my 40s now. That bright, shining optimism has tarnished, corroded. Cynicism took its place. I mourn it’s loss but now suddenly it’s back. Like a reunion with an old friend I can see the world the way I could half a lifetime ago, when it was all worth fighting for, when we never doubted we could win.

The world can be a pretty bleak place if you’re generally left-leaning. So many of my generation are. We are the children on the 60s, the 70s. We grew up with parents fighting encroaching cynicism just like we are today. But we took the memories that matched our youthful optimism. Our pop culture references are invincible. We all have those iconic moment, times we know where we were when, when the world seemed as if it was understandable just then, where uncertainty wasn’t needed. Yesterday will be a moment like that for a new generation. Because that’s what we’ve done Ireland. We’ve given the world a fairytale to tell its children, to be whispered in the dark when  hope is lost. We’ve done a thing that proves that  people are not shits, that humanity is worth saving. We were that moment in the movie where the music swells and the audience cries. We were the happily ever after, the knight in shining armour.

Yesterday was a battle won, and I don’t hesitate to use the terms of war here. Because a war it is and it is yet to be won. Yesterday was about love but isn’t it always? When we fight these battles it’s always about love, respect and empathy. That’s where the battle lines were drawn. There’s always someone who refuses to show compassion because it will erode their values. For those of us who believe that people are more important than ideologies or things these days don’t happen often. But when they do my god they are amazing. This feeling will fade soon and it’ll be onto the next battle. But after yesterday I’m ready for the fight. Because people are not shits, they can be trusted to do the right thing. They’ve done it once and they will do it again. We know that now.

Voting for a better future

On May 7th in the UK and May 22nd in Ireland voters will get to make a momentous decision. In both cases the choice will be not simply one for a political party or even a Yes or No – the choice facing voters will be a fundamental one, what kind of world do you want to live in?

Both votes are divisive ones. In the UK, this General Election is likely to result in a second consecutive coalition government. With a historically fragmented electorate the choice for voters is far broader than usual. Do they swing to the left or the right. In Ireland the choice, ultimately is the same.  The Marriage Equality referendum which offers a democratically sanctioned equality for same sex marriage has been fought on the old ideological currents that run beneath the fragile veneer of modern Ireland. Ireland is familiar with referenda but it’s been a long time since there was a vote on a subject that went so close to the still beating heart of Holy Catholic Ireland. While it might appear on first glance that the two votes have nothing to do with one another, don’t be fooled. This month voters in both countries are being asked to vote for one of two futures – in very broad terms we are being asked to choose Star Trek or the Hunger Games.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. If we vote Star Trek in either May vote, we are not suddenly going to discover life on other planets. If we vote the Hunger Games we will not suddenly be divided into zones and forced to fight to the death but if you look behind all the campaign posters and the political point scoring the choice is equally stark. In both votes one result will bring positive change. It will say to a marginalised quarter of society that they are included, they are of value and they will not be left behind. It is saying that principles like equality and compassion are central to society and that the people themselves recognise the need to step forward together into a brighter, fairer future.

Or in either vote the choice could go the opposite way. In both cases a retrograde step. In both cases a closing of ranks, a lowering of heads and a clear message to those on the outside that they are not wanted, they are not cared about, they are not “one of us”.

This is a choice about the future you want for your children. Do you want to look forward or back? Democracy is not something that we can passively expect to happen, it is something we must push forward ourselves. This May we have a chance to make a difference. Don’t vote out of fear, vote to include. At least connect.

A Question of Identity

Colin-Rieley-Feb-15

My father, Colin Rieley with his bearer and his older sister in India in the 1930s

I’ve grown used to not fitting in. That’s not a plea for sympathy or a “poor me” just an expression of the status quo. I moved to the west of Ireland from London in my teens. Even though I’ve now lived most of my life in Ireland, even though I care very deeply about what goes on here, even though I have dear friends and family here, even though Ireland is my home, on some very basic level I will always be an outsider. Those formative years in London shaped me in a way I just can’t change. They shaped my sense of humour, my political leanings, my values – my reticence. A million little things that make me who I am.

Over the years, on days when that cultural gap felt a little too wide, I thought at lot about where I’d come from, where my family had come from. Having an Irish surname has always been a bit of a double edged sword. One the one hand it proves the fact that I have some Irish roots, on the other hand – it’s spelled wrong. I get corrected all the time on that. Everyone knows how you spell “Reilly”.

So a few years ago I decided to find out where the Rieley came from. Find out where those Irish roots actually were. How hard could it be?

Now, I had some experience of genealogy. My first job after leaving school was working for the Sligo Family Research Society and helping people find their relationship to Yeats. I knew there were one or two issues with the Irish records but I didn’t think I’d have to go back that far. As far as I knew I would have been able to play on the Irish soccer team – not because I can kick a ball of course, but because my grandfather was born here. I knew that my dad had been born in India – that’s him on the left in the picture at the top of this post – but I remembered a story my mum had told me about him applying for an Irish passport at some stage but being told the records had been lost in the Four Courts fire. I knew my grandfather had been born at the end of the 19th century so I didn’t think I’d have much difficulty finding him in Ireland.

The best laid plans…

I started to look for my grandfather and almost immediately hit a brick wall. Apart from one marriage record I couldn’t find him anywhere. I ordered a copy of certificate and found out his father’s name and the fact that he was a bank manager but apart from that, there was nothing. I decided to go back a step and try to find my father’s birth record so I turned to the records of the British India Office and the East India Company, as well as the records painstakingly transcribed by the group FIBIS, the Families in British India Society. With a crash the wall came tumbling down. I found my dad – and my grandfather – and my great grandfather. They were all born in India, and married in India and died in India until my grandfather took wife and children back to England. The more digging I did the more people I found, great sprawling branches of people – all of them born and bred in India. I was back to 1820 and had yet to find anyone who had been born in Europe. I was puzzled with what I found. How had I got it so wrong? Was I misremembering?

Over the years I kept digging as more records found their way on line. I started to discover what jobs people had and time and again, when I did further research, I found that these were typical jobs for Anglo Indians. Could that be a reason why I had heard nothing about this Indian past? Why the Four Courts fire seemed so convenient? Had my family tried to “pass”?

I knew that to be considered Anglo Indian the Indian generally passed down through the maternal line. These were the children of Indian women who had children with European men. Could one of the women in the records have been Indian? The names really do not help.

My best bet is that she was the Sophia who married a Patrick Rieley in Madras (now Chennai) in May 1819. She had grown up in the Female Orphan Asylum. Patrick was a teacher in the Free School. The children who went to both the male and the female orphan asylums in those days were often the children of Indian mothers and fathers from Europe. The fathers’ would leave and the mothers would have no way to look after their children – so they would leave them at the orphanage, where the church tried to turn them into useful members of society. I can’t find Sophia’s birth record so I don’t know for certain, but along with everything else this is what fits. It explains a lot, looking at that sprawling tree. It explains why my grandfather’s brother Terence, who ran away to sea and went to America, would tell the Federal Census that he had been born in Ireland. It also explains perhaps, why he wrote on his draft registration for the First World War, that he was a citizen or a subject of India. It explains why they were such a close knit family, never moving far away from each other, intermarrying – because they were “that” community – neither one thing or the other – both.

My theory is that young Patrick Rieley left Cavan or wherever he was from, having grown up with talk of rebellion. He would have heard stories of 1798 and 1803. He would have perhaps had contact with some of the progressive education reformers around at the time. People like Maria Edgeworth, who thought that Ireland’s troubles could be eased if only the children were taught well and taught together. Perhaps young Patrick thought that he could do something good with that education, that he made his way to India. A generation before he arrived, a teacher at the free school had pioneered the method of peer education known as the Madras system. This system of pupil teachers revolutionised teaching in places with a shortage of teachers. Perhaps Patrick wanted to be part of that legacy.

Whatever reason Patrick went to India for – if indeed he was the one who went there – he started a fascinating history. It’s been exciting tracing all those different branches and there’s a lot more work to do. I’ve only found out the direct line. I still don’t know if any branches of the family stayed, if any are still there. I find it hard to understand why anyone would hide such a story – but of course there were, there are a lot of reasons why people choose to do the things they do. This was not and is not a particularly tolerant world.

When I was very small, even before we moved to Ireland, I was still used to looking different. Every now and then I would get asked where I was from, because my face didn’t fit the standard British model. Over the years, I’ve been told my colouring came from Spain, or the Celts, or the Baltic. Perhaps the reason for the dark hair and sallow skin actually goes back to Patrick Rieley. I never did find those Irish roots but I’ll keep digging. Maybe some very early records didn’t get burnt in the Four Courts fire. It’ll be fun looking anyway.

Those twitching net curtains again

“Because they should know better…”

That’s what I was told when, as a young journalist, I asked why it was always bigger news when a crime was committed by someone in a white collar job. I never liked that answer. Let’s leave aside the fact that it assumes that anyone from a less privileged position in society doesn’t or can’t know that committing a crime is wrong, I just don’t think it’s the whole story.

Human beings as a species are naturally nosy. Maybe it grew up as a survival strategy, maybe it’s just one of our baser instincts, whatever the reason, there is a slightly sinful enjoyment to be had from peering into someone else’s life. Look at the success of reality television. Social media means we can stalk our nearest and dearest, not to mention people we haven’t seen since school or who we met briefly once long ago, like never before. But for proper Grade-A snooping, with added moral vindication, you really can’t beat the criminal courts.

When you’re reporting a trial there is a checklist you follow to find that perfect case. A perfect case, especially if you are a freelancer, is a story that will get you “above the fold”. A story that will have good enough quotes that they will appear as a “standfirst” in larger type at the top of your piece. A story with a strong enough hook that you’ll get a nice large headline and maybe a picture byline. A story that lends itself to pictures. A trial with a white collar criminal or a murder with a beautiful or heartbreakingly pathetic corpse tends to tick all the boxes. Add a sexual element, in murder at least, and you can guarantee the press benches will be full and it’ll be standing room only in the courtroom.

I’ve written about these kinds of trials for almost half my career. I wrote two books because the public appetite for these cases meant there was a market for them. I earned my living out from knowing which trials would generate the column inches, noting details when a death was announced, keeping an ear out for court dates, having the research ready. A big trial would mean more money, would mean the camaraderie of a large press posse following every move, could even lead to a book deal or a movie deal. A big trial would be a pay out.

But at the same time you tend to see the worst of people during a big trial. The rubber neckers who turn up every day, rubbing their hands with glee at the juicier evidence. The neighbours who’d grab you for the gruesome details. The callous jokes you hear yourself cracking at lunchtime with colleagues. Even though it was how I made my living, even though I shared the interest, the lack of empathy bothered me and became something I didn’t want to feed any more.

When we look at a white collar accused we do so with smugness. They should have known better than to be there, therefore we can freely judge them. They have transgressed, have let the side down – we are absolved from pity.  All too often this condemnation is extended to the victim. If the victim can also be seen to have failed morally in some way, then the way is clear to enjoy the gory details without being hampered by compassion. I can only imagine how the family of Elaine O’Hara are feeling this week as architect Graham Dwyer is on trial for her murder in a trial that is generating daily headlines about bondage and sadomasochism. Reading the headlines it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s on trial. Whatever the verdict at the end of the trial, Elaine O’Hara will be remembered by many because of her supposed sexual preferences rather than because of the facts, such as they are known, of her death.

I’m currently researching middle class crime in the 19th century for an academic paper – looking at the very early days of court reporting. I knew from researching the Ireland’s Eye murder that some things never change when it comes to the kind of trials that make the headlines but it’s fascinating to see how court reporting evolved in the early 19th century. Newspapers have never been free of the commercial need to draw in more readers. They’ve always had to “tickle the public”. There was never a time when sex didn’t sell, even when it couldn’t be mentioned.  The trials that are remembered today, that inspired songs and plays back then – like the murder of Maria Marten by William Corder, the famous Red Barn murder of 1827 – would still make headlines. Some things never change.

Once Again Words are Not Enough

I’ve hesitated writing about the Tuam babies case. It’s not that I don’t feel strongly about it. It’s not that I’m afraid to write about it.  It’s just that I will simply be one voice in many and surely this is a case where words mean very little unless something can be done about the attitudes that bring us back here again and again and again.

If you’re not familiar with the story, and I’m sure there are plenty who still won’t be, it’s this. On May 24th the Irish Mail on Sunday broke the story. There followed the predictable social media outrage, the even more predictable empty words from those who allowed it to happen, the absolutely inevitable lack of action. Most things don’t happen here until the international press get the sniff of a story and sure enough, once thematter appeared in the Washington Post it really started being talked about.

So what happened? It’s a simple enough story. In Tuam, in County Galway, there used to be a home for Mothers and Babies. It stood on the site of an old workhouse and was run by the sistesr of the Bon Secours order. In this home, between the 1920s and the 1960s 800 babies and young children died. But that’s not it. It’s not that 800 dead over 40 or so years means an average of around 2 a month which might to the casual observer seem a wee bit on the high side. If that was all we would no doubt have already been mollified by those who would drag in every measles outbreak, every flu epidemic, every cholera, typhoid and diphtheria outbreak to cast a swathe through the Irish population in the last two centuries, to make the point that sometimes children die, sometimes a lot of children die. Life they would tell us,  is a fragile thing and you can blame germs, or poverty, or ignorance to tidy away the significant numbers of dead babies of times past.

But that’s not it.

The problem with these 800 babies is that there is a good chance some or all of them ended up disposed of with no care or reverence, thrown in a septic tank.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment. They were disposed of in a septic tank. Not buried in a euphemistically called “angel plot” for the unbaptised. Not placed gently in a little white coffin and honoured with flowers and favourite toys. These children were thrown where you would throw rubbish, in an empty concrete tank that had once held the workhouse’s sewage. There have been suggestions that many of the children who died were the sick, the weak and the disabled, left in what amounted to Dying Rooms to die a slow, sad death of malnutrition and avoidable illness. That these children were left because they were not as lucrative as the healthy children who could be sold to childless couples.

Already there have been those who have denied this. There are those who say that the only indication that there were bones in that septic tank were two small boys who investigated a crack in a concrete slab in the 60s and discovered a horror. There are those who are no doubt hoping that the bones turn out to belong to dogs or rats or sheep – if they are ever exhumed. If anyone bothers to try to find out what happened.

We need to focus on that septic tank because it doesn’t matter if there aren’t 800 babies there. If just one bone of one child is in there it tells us something we should never forget. It means that the body of at least one child was treated like rubbish, was denied the basic funerary rites that we have turned towards as a species since neanderthal times. It means that a child’s body was treated like a dead dog – and perhaps that dog would actually have had more care taken of it. It means that someone turned their back on the most basic human compassion, fought what is surely an instinctive need to treat the dead gently. If there is more than one child’s bone, if there are the dozen’s, hundreds, that have been described then that is an image from a scene of war. That is the piles of bodies in a concentration camp, the smoking piles of war dead. That is humanity lost.

Since the story broke the similar stories have come thick and fast. Just as when the first reports disclosed clerical sex abuse or the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries. There’s never a shortage of stories like that in Ireland. This country has a very, very dark past. Each time a story like this has been told it has caused outrage, anger and disgust. Each time there have been the harrowing first person narratives of what life was like in hell. Each time the Church has responded with platitudes and empty apologies that have never been followed up with action. Each time the apologists have gathered to sweep the dirt back under the now irredeemably bumpy rug. Each time, once a suitable period of chagrin has been observed the Church has sulked about anti-religious agendas and shut their doors yet again.

We don’t know what will happen yet with this. At this stage we don’t even know exactly what the situation is. Until things are clarified, and possibly even then, there will be those who ignore the absolute truth that has been staring us in the face for far too long. RTE journalist Philip Boucher Hayes has outlined what evidence is already available here and Catherine Corless, the local historian whose tireless work brought this story out into the open has put this summary of her findings on Facebook. These are both accounts that can be trusted. This is not a delusion, this is not an exaggeration. If one bone of one child found it’s way into that disused septic tank that is too much. This is not something we should look away from and this is not something we should allow to fade into the past.

The problem, the huge problem, with this is not simply that it is yet another account of a past full of unimaginable cruelty and heartlessness, it is because these attitudes have not been left in the past. The attitudes that allowed these things to happen that keep coming to light, that keep shocking us, the attitudes that dismissed life so absolutely are still here and they are all around us.

When a story like this breaks there are still those who deny it ever happened, who accuse the people who have brought the latest horror to light, of attacking the Church. The newspapers will still ask the local bishop what he thinks, will still listen to the response. The investigation will move slowly unless it gets indefinitely postponed while yet another inquiry creaks forward toothlessly. A lot of columnists will write elegant phrases about how hard the past was before moving on to the next outrage. Social media will get outraged for a while until the next thing turns up. Months down the road there will be a report or an investigation where more details come from the mouths of the victims. Outrage, disgust once again – until the next time.

Has the heart of the country really changed from the time when families were so soaked in catholic guilt that they would turn their back on their own? Isn’t it still a lot easier to listen to what those in power tell us to do than to stand up and demand change? Isn’t such deference hardwired into jaded souls so that certain views still have weight when they should have been resigned to the past.

It’s buried deep but there is still a checklist that weeds the good from the bad, a rigid code that places each of us in one pile or another. If you don’t check the right boxes you are bad, unsaveable, lost. In a mindset based on black and white, good and evil, ours and their,s that line is drawn deep. In my teens and early 20s I first noticed it. Because I was an “outsider” I could never be a good girl. I’ve seen what that does to the attitudes of the guys who were too sure in the discos we called nightclubs. I’ve seen it in the sneers from a certain type of dark-clad granny who would slowly look me up and down on the bus, making me blush and feel like dirt. That was what they meant to do. I was on the other side of the line. There would be no crossing over. I’m not comparing a few slights to what went on in the various homes but I recognise it.

Having a line like that is a dangerous thing as history never fails to show us. Lines like that destroy empathy. Lines like that cause genocide, brutality, slavery. We don’t even need to look to the world for proof of that. There’s ample evidence at home.

As long as that deference is there then so is the line. It goes deeper than prejudice, it’s the difference between black and white. It is hard wired into this country and it’s something that needs to be fought if  the ground is ever going to be kicked over and humanity restored. As long as that line is there people find it easier to assume that those who have been hurt will lie – as the Irish Times managed to point out when talking about the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag (which I’ll return to another time). As long as it’s there the voiceless will never have a voice and the sins of the past will never be truly repaired.

 

A Bleak Choice

Empty cradle by dannysoar on Flickr

Empty cradle by dannysoar on Flickr

Saturday should have been a good day. It was a chance to meet up with friends, so many of whom were busy being inspiring as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations in Dublin. It was mild out and not raining, the beginnings of spring, a pleasant Saturday to spend doing not very much. But the day started with an article written by a good friend of mine. I’ve known Rosita Boland for a good few years now. I count myself fortunate to have her as a friend. I’ve known for most of our friendship that we shared an unfortunate situation that has caused both of us a lot of heartache over the years. Yesterday Rosita wrote about that unhealing wound and I hope that by sharing something so deeply personal her piece will start a dialogue that has been absent for far too long. But reading her piece coloured my day with grey. It will always be a painful subject.

If you find yourself having to look at alternative routes to starting a family here in Ireland you will quickly find that this is a silent, lonely place to be. It’s a subject that’s still not widely talked about, apart from with friends in the same boat. People who haven’t dealt with it tend not to bring it up. It feels like a shameful little secret, some retribution being visited for some unknown mistake. Then there’s the fear that you will be judged wanting, that this desperate last ditch attempt will be in vain. I really wouldn’t wish this position on anyone.

I’ve written here before about being childless. It’s something I have very complex feelings about. When I was first married I assumed children would be in the mix at some point. I looked forward to the eventuality. When the reality dawned that it was not going to be that simple I went through so many emotions. There was grief, anger, eventually resignation. At first it felt like a physical punch whenever another friend told me they were pregnant. Later I learnt to value my independence especially as it seemed a slimmer and slimmer possibility that we would ever be able to adopt in Ireland. A couple of years ago, after my mother died, we decided to step out of the adoption process as there didn’t seem to be any point of adding to the stress with something that seemed hopeless anyway. Lately we’ve started to talk about it again but only in the light of the realisation that for us ever to hope of being parents we’re going to have to move to another country. Friends in England applied to adopt a little over a year ago. They received their declaration in under a year. It’s often only when you see how things are done elsewhere that you realise just how chaotic things can be here in Ireland.

I know there are reasons why adoption is still something of a taboo subject here. The dark spectre of the babies forcibly taken from “undeserving” single mothers by religious orders still looms large and it’s a scandal that simply isn’t going away. It’s one reason given on an anecdotal basis for the scarcity of domestic adoptions outside the family. Add to that the various scandals in recent years concerning intercountry adoptions and it’s hardly surprising that some appear to think that adoption bodies in Ireland, not to mention prospective adoptive parents, are somewhere between Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Childcatcher and Cruella Devil.

There’s also a longstanding institutional blindness towards those who don’t fit into an extremely narrow definition of family. There is a violently vocal minority who think that the only family that should be recognised by the Irish State is one that conforms to a strictly Catholic ethos. According to these idiots my marriage isn’t valid because it didn’t take place in a church but that’s a whole other story. We’re used to the rabid prolifers and the anti gay marriage mob but surely it’s the exact same ethos that looks down on any couple who can’t have children within a properly sanctified union. It’s surely no coincidence that the Irish State has long ignored regulating the fertility treatment industry and that the ratification of the Hague Convention was allowed to go through without finalised bilateral agreements with compliant countries. You only have to look at the length of time it took the government to legislate on abortion (the laws only came into effect at the start of this year) to see how much of a stranglehold the Catholic church still has on all areas of reproductive policy. This is a situation that simply cannot be allowed to drag on for as long.

But there’s a bigger problem here in Ireland, one that means these issues aren’t even raised most of the time. It’s another reason why trying to remedy your childlessness in Ireland can be an excruciatingly isolating experience and one that’s fundamentally unfair. Ireland might be ostensibly a classless country but it’s one that is brutally divided into the Haves and the Have Nots. All too often the Haves, who are all prosperous enough to be able to throw money at the inconveniences of Irish life, control policy and populate the media. Those who Have Not are left voiceless. They’re not even recognised by the Haves who won’t even look beyond their front door. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start singing The Red Flag, but the fact that expensive solutions exist for so many problems here, including in the area of reproductive healthcare, and the fact that so many of the people who have the power to change things have the money for these solutions means that no change happens. There seems to be an assumption in a lot of quarters that money in some way equates virtue. When it comes to adoption and fertility treatment it can often feel that if you baulk at the cost you are showing yourself to be unfit parent material.

Researching this post I came across this article for the Mayo News by Michael Commins that absolutely underlines my point. The article describes a public meeting last year, so since the ratification of Hague, with representatives from the only country left open for adoption, Bulgaria, and ARC, at the time the only accredited Irish adoption agency under the new laws. It describes how the meeting descended into chaos after ARC announced a tripling of the cost – with fees at their end of over €16,000. Now I know that the adoption process is a complicated one but that’s a hell of a lot for administrative fees. The change in fees, according to the article, had been agreed with the regulatory board, the Adoption Authority shortly before the meeting. Maybe I’m being naive but how could fees jump by that much? I was shocked by the fees when we first investigated adoption.  We heard many stories of unscrupulous agencies hiking fees at the last minute, leaving couples with an extra bill of tens of thousands of euro. One name in particular kept coming up, I’m not going to share it here without proof but I’ve no reason to doubt the people who told me this. The changes in the law were expected to change all the cowboy behaviour but one has to wonder if they have.

It’s not good enough to just shrug and say well you shouldn’t consider adoption if you can’t afford to raise a child (as someone once said to me). I’d genuinely like to know many parents could afford to have a child if the upfront costs were up to €50,000 – and that’s before you even get to the costs of raising a child. How can placing this burden on new parents be in the best interests of the child? Why have no questions been asked about the costs of adoptions? It really isn’t good enough to say “that’s just what it costs” when those costs are surely causing a major problem to all but the most affluent section of this society.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m completely in favour of what Hague was set up to ensure. Of course adoption should be carried out in the best interests of the child. We are talking about the most vulnerable children across the world. Of course they should be protected. But that’s what adoptive parents want to do – provide a loving, safe home for a child that desperately needs one. We’re not looking for a fashion accessory, something to go with the new living room curtains. Surely those who cannot conceive naturally deserve the right to try for a family just as anyone else does? It will be more difficult, it does touch on a myriad of sensitive issues but it shouldn’t be something that’s restricted on the grounds of affluence. Here in Ireland we’re in danger of assuming that a happy home can’t exist without affluence and that is a dangerous road to go down. We need to start talking about the problems with adoption. The current situation simply does not reflect well on Ireland as a civilised country.

I’m resigned to the fact that if I want to be a mother I will have to leave. I know the clock is ticking on that. It saddens me greatly that the country that I love is forcing me to make this decision but in matters like this Ireland can be a harsh place to live.

In Search of Heroines

Last weekend I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the new Ingenious Ireland walking tour. A specially commissioned tour to mark International Women’s Day and the opening of the new Rosie Hackett bridge across the Liffey, Obstreperous Lassies tells the story of just some of the incredible women who came to prominence in the period between 1913 and 1916 here in Ireland.

Now being an unrepentant liberal lefty feminist type the mere idea of the tour was enough to make me smile. I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour or so on a sunny morning but traipsing around Dublin hearing about women who refused to sit down and shut up, who refused to do what was expected on them and who refused to accept the status quo. It was wonderful to hear about Maud Gonne as the woman who had championed free school meals rather than the aloof romantic figure who used to make W.B. Yeats dissolve into sighs every time she wafted past him. Or Ann Jellico, the Quaker mill owner’s daughter who decided that women needed skills to earn themselves a living and set up schools to teach them. Or Kathleen Lynn, often known as “the rebel doctor”, who helped to set up St Ultan’s clinic on Charleville Street and was instrumental in the introduction of the BCG vaccine. The tour is a wonderful catalogue of women judges and politicians, doctors and fighters, women who were suffragists and pacifists and who played their part in the formation of this country.

After the first hour of being pleasantly inspired though something else started to nag at me. While many of the names I was hearing were familiar, it was striking how many of the details weren’t. I was used to hearing the names as footnotes in the sacred history of the land, women who had stood bravely beside fighting men but were largely remembered as the helpmeets, there to tend the sick and take down a note of history as it passed. The honourable exception of course is Constance Markievicz, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish that I’ll get to in a moment. The point that kept coming home during the tour was that the stories of these women, who were all formidable, magnificent, inspiring examples of their sex, the kind of stories I used to latch onto with fangirl adoration as a teenager, much of that stuff was absolute news to me. It felt almost shockingly fresh to be looking at historical events from a woman’s perspective. It was only by focusing on that angle that you realise how unusual it is to hear.

As a child in the 70s and 80s I knew I was lucky to be born into a time when as a girl I no longer had to fight for my education. Growing up in a middle class area I was expected to go on to university, I was expected to have the freedom to follow whatever career path I chose. It never occurred to me that as a girl I was any less able than a boy. I knew women had already fought for the right to vote, the right to an education, the right  to own property and to not pass into the ownership of the man they married. I saw all of these as battles that had been won, as rights I now had. Like any child I couldn’t see limitations until they appeared right in front of me. Back then it never occurred to me that the world was anything but equal. I wasn’t short of role models. I saw strong women all around me, in my family, in popular culture and in the books I read. It wasn’t until much later that I began to see that the world was a far from equal place. That’s when you really need your heroines.

The one thing that I really remember about my stint doing the @ireland Twitter account last year was a conversation that took place on my last day. That week there had been a lot of media coverage of the suffragettes. It was the centenary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and all the columnists were in a retrospective mood. At the end of a conversation about the various memorials to the suffragettes in the UK I had asked the 15,000 or so followers of the @ireland account to recommend similar Irish memorials to inspirational women down through the years. Several hours later we were still struggling to come up with anyone who wasn’t Constance Markievicz. And that’s my problem with the good countess. While she was undoubtedly a formidable force to be reckoned with and surely a fine role model for any trailblazing young Irish woman (or any other woman – or man for that matter – she really was a hell of a woman), it does appear that Constance has been venerated to the exclusion of almost all other women. When you look at the number of women who have been equally extraordinary and who have been all but wiped out of the history books it almost smacks of tokenism.

It’s taken until 2013 to have a bridge named after a woman. Calls to rename Merrion Square after Oscar Wilde’s extraordinary mother have fallen on deaf ears. Apart from Constance Markievicz there are very few memorials to prominent women in Dublin or anywhere else in Ireland. If you go by public monuments Ireland is a country that was built and maintained purely by men. That’s the thing that get’s me more than anything else with all of this – because Irish women are and have always been ballbreakingly strong. From the Celtic archetypes of the Morrigan or Queen Meabh, to the pirate queen Grace O’Malley who faced down Elizabeth 1, to any of the women who fought for Irish freedom right through to the indomitable Irish Mammy there’s no shortage of Irish heroines – many of whom were actually real people and aren’t simply mythological constructs.

In a world where inequality is rife, where violence against women is endemic, it might seem superficial to talk about statues and wallplaques but it’s all part of the same thing. Public statues are things we walk past on a daily basis, they are part of the fabric of our lives. We might ignore them most of the time but one day we’ll probably ask their story. Their mere existence tells us that there is a story to be told. Women’s history so often slips by, it’s harder find their stories because for so long they didn’t have a voice, they weren’t in a position to make a difference. So when they were we should celebrate them all the more. So to get the ball rolling I’d like to propose a statue Winifred Carney in the GPO.  She was there with James Connolly during the 1916 Rising, known as the typist with the Webley. I could see her as a little figure with a typewriter standing in the main hall on the edge of the crowds. They’d bump into her as they queued, especially at Christmas. People would stub their toe against her, apologise absently as they brushed past. They’d ignore her most of the time but every now and then someone would look to see who she was. It doesn’t have to be Winifred Carney, I just like the idea of the statue.

I’m fed up of feeling that jolt of surprise when I hear a woman hosting primetime radio, or when a walking tour for International Women’s Day feels like a novelty, or feeling that it’s something to be applauded when a bridge or a banknote bears a woman’s name or a woman’s face. This stuff shouldn’t matter. I’m fed up of feeling I should be happy that a woman is being represented regardless of whether I have a reason to applaud their achievement. This isn’t a big, earth shaking change though it’s a canary in a coalmine issue. When it’s no big deal if a woman is on the bank notes or even when there are complaints because all the bridges are named after women, or all the voices on prime time are female or all the banknotes have women on them then we’ll have actually got some kind of equality. At the moment that still feels like science fiction and it’s utterly wrong that it should feel that way.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Lovely Girls, 20 Years On…

You’re the state broadcaster of a small country. You’ve secured the first European interview with two of the recently released Russian punk feminist activists Pussy Riot. Do you arrange an interview with one of your most experienced interviewers, a woman possibly, known herself for her championing of women’s rights in Ireland? Do you plan a wide ranging issue that will cover the context of these courageous young women’s stand, their subsequent incarceration and their points about the Russia they’ve grown up in? Do you draw sensitive comparisons with tensions in Irish society to produce a hard hitting interview that will be shown as a stand alone broadcast with quotes trailed across news coverage and circulated to other news outlets both in Ireland and abroad to generate as much coverage of what is undoubtedly an important and notable coup for the station?

Or do you instead put the interview on a light entertainment show on a Saturday night, giving the host the brief to approach his guests with all the sensitivity of the famous Lovely Girls episode of Father Ted? The state broadcaster is RTE. The country is Ireland. The interview takes place on the Saturday Night Show. It’s the car crash you would expect – and you don’t have to take my word for it. Here it is.

I mean, where do you start with that? Host Brendan O’Connor stays true to Father Ted by repeatedly referring to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina as “girls”. O’Connor, fresh from the previous week’s Iona-gate, or should that be Panti-gate,  transcript here, feels the need to have an explanation of why he was caught kissing a bloke on the telly. He asks them whether they think Madonna is an activist like them. He tells Nadezhda and her husband Pytor Verzilov to stop having a “domestic” (although I would dearly love to know exactly what the two women were actually saying in Russian. I have a feeling Pytor was delivering some of the most tactful translation we’ve seen on Irish television in years. My respect for them all actually went up by a couple of notches when they lasted to the end of the interview, even if they made a pointed exit at the earliest opportunity.

I wish that this thing was a one off but sadly it’s not. The list of mind boggling clangers from the national broadcaster is far too long to go into here – those moments when you do a double take because you can’t believe you’ve just heard or seen what you have just heard or seen. The moments when you take to Facebook or Twitter because if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. The moments when you find yourself referencing Alan Partridge or Ricky Gervais, when you ruefully say “I hope this doesn’t go viral”. We’re used to it here. Ireland is a small country and sometimes the inevitable tinge of parochialism lends itself to rather jawdropping lapses of judgement.

The Irish tend to be a kind nation. You won’t get the character assassinations here that accompany a high profile slip elsewhere. It might be hard to  believe in the cut and thrust of the social networks but there’s still a very strong sense of the old adage, if you can’t say something nice, say nothing. But this one humane characteristic can also be one of the most dangerous. It can mean that the bar isn’t raised high enough because the constructive criticism wasn’t there. It can mean that complacency flourishes and egos go unchecked. At it’s worst it can lead to a blind eye being turned on a golden child.

We cringe at the Pussy Riot interview, as we should, but that’s not enough.  We should also be angry at a wasted opportunity. Pussy Riot protested against an oppressive, intertwined church and state. That’s something that should ring a few bells over here. We live in a country where the state broadcaster will buckle at the first hint of a threat from the Catholic right. We live in a country where there is no legislation governing fertility treatment, where we have abortion law for less than a month. We live in a country where men are routinely allowed to escape jail time for sex crimes if they have a large enough wallet – there’s even another one today. But we cringe and we let it go, until the next time. We vent on Twitter, maybe go on a march, but what ever really changes?

Nadezhda and Maria are obviously highly intelligent young women. I wouldn’t be surprised if they chose to accept an Irish pitch for their first European chat show interview because they were aware of at least some of the issues we have in Ireland. I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt a degree of kinship with feminists here. Perhaps they saw Ireland as a country that had come further than Russia but that knew how hard the road was to travel. What they found though was how little has changed. How few women have a voice on primetime broadcasts and how little the status quo has been rocked. The gaffs O’Connor made were those of a man who’s used to referring to his female friends and colleagues as “girls”, who would still make sexist jokes without really thinking about it, who hasn’t really put much thought into the whole sexual equality thing. To be fair, he may well think he’s a fully reconstructed new man who could easily navigate the interview. Someone really ought to tell him otherwise.

What is crushingly depressing about the Pussy Riot interview is the whole inevitability of it. It would have been more surprising to have seen them interviewed by someone like Miriam O’Callaghan in a serious, wide ranging interview that sat proudly in the Prime Time strand or out on its own. That’s what should have happened, but it was never going to. Over the years as a journalist I’ve worked with so many talented, intelligent women, many of whom have gone a long way. But when you step back and take a long look, it’s not enough. I was watching the last part of The Bridge last night and it struck me just how many strong female characters there were. But the really extraordinary thing was that this wasn’t a thing. It’s not a madly feminist series. These were just women. Some of them were cops, some of them were stay at home mothers, some were CEOs or scientists. It really wasn’t a thing. That’s equality. I don’t think we’re even ready to begin that discussion here yet.

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