Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Women (page 1 of 2)

For International Women’s Day 2015

I have a badge on the bag I carry around every day. It’s brightly coloured enamel flowers growing up through a large number 8 on a yellow metal background. I’m not sure exactly where the badge is from or when but I know what it stands for. It was made somewhere in the Soviet empire to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. They were big on badges, the Soviets, and big on causes. I carry it with me not because I agree with everything they stood for but because I think this is one cause that should have a badge. Actually, sod it, it should have a badge and a desert named after it and small children should go to school in costume for it, dressed as their favourite woman like they do for World Book Day. I’d  like to see International Women’s Day as loud and as festive as St Patrick’s Day or Gay Pride – because maybe then things will change, maybe then in a few years we wouldn’t need it any more.

Now I know that, if you’re reading this and you don’t already see why there should be a day dedicated to just one of the sexes, then you probably think there’s already too many women bleating about how hard they have it. They never shut up and they certainly don’t deserve a desert, or even a badge. You may think that the newspapers are already full of the feminist agenda, those pinko liberal rags never stop banging on that particularly over wrought drum. You probably think that I should shut up because I’m a middle class white woman and we already have far more than we should have – what about the men? I should check my privilege and shut up.

If you haven’t already worked it out from those first two paragraphs I’m not in the mood to use sweet persuasion. This year I’m more angry than celebratory. I’m fed up with still talking about this. Yes I was lucky to be born when and where I was but my generation were promised the sun, moon and stars. We were told anything was possible. We were told a battle had been won. And yet we’re still having this conversation.

Researching 19th Century Ireland I’ve come across so many extraordinary women. Not powerful women. The women I am looking at would not be accepted in the grand drawing rooms of the Ascendency. These are the fallen women, those hanging on by their fingernails. They aren’t the nicest people and they aren’t the most charming, but time and time again I’m astonished at their strength and resourcefulness. There’s the wife who was working out how to leave her abusive husband – despite the fact she was living in a time when that would mean walking away from all security and very possibly all respectability. Or there’s the single mother who forced the authorities to provide for her and her children – and the education of her daughters. There’s the prostitute who stood up in court against the man who hit her and spoke so calmly about the realities of her life that the court listened to her in respectful silence. I deal mainly deal with the period between 1830 and 1860 so these women were very much acting without a safety net. The law still had to change in their favour and it would be a very long time before it would change in a way that they would be able to feel.

The harshness of the world they lived in can be shocking but it was the reality of the time. From where I stand, with all my freedoms and protections, context is important. I must maintain a distance from these women – things did change and we have come a long way. I look at them from behind a glass wall, knowing things to be different for me – and that’s how it should be. But I cannot have the same distance when looking at women today who are fighting those same battles. There is no glass wall between me and them. There are no excuses. I am well aware of how easy I may have it, despite there still being a way to go, but how can any of us stop fighting when the world is still as hostile as it is to the female sex.

Take the story of Jyoti Singh, told so brilliantly and harshly in the documentary India’s Daughter. Apart from telling the horrific story of newly graduated doctor Jyoti, who had gone to see a film with a male friend and ended up gang raped and murdered the documentary also looked at the problem in misogyny that is deeply embedded in Indian culture. The rapists came from one of the slums, or semi-slums of Delhi. They had a fairly miserable existence, amounting to nothing, no prospects, no worth – yet they thought that they were superior to Dr Singh. That they could do what they wanted to her. The film was unflinching in it’s description of the rape – and of the widespread grotesque misogyny that seems to infect India. One of the rapists’ defence attorneys was shown saying that if his own daughter dishonoured his family by being raped he himself would burn her alive. We live in a world were women are burned alive or have acid thrown at them to satisfy some warped idea of honour. Where women cannot walk safely after dark. We have come such a long way.

Or take Immaculate Shamalla, a formidable activist, counsellor and women’s educator who deals with misogyny I can’t imagine daily in her work in the West Pokot region of Kenya. Imma works with the victims of rape, of female genital mutilation, of child abuse and she teaches, educating women to give them a voice. I’m in awe of the work Imma has done and is doing for women and children in her region. Her IWD speech, to be delivered in Cheragany Hills as part of the Kenyan government’s celebrations says it all. What follows are her words:

“What would you do if you were told could not vote? Own land? Get a proper education? Would you be upset, furious, frustrated or annoyed? That is how most women felt when they heard this. Do you want that to happen to you and maybe even your daughter? For many years women have been trying to claim their rights while men have many privileges that women do not have. Many countries deny putting women’s rights into action.”

“Everyone is entitled to have freedom – especially women. Women’s rights let women be independent and treated fairly. Some of the most common rights they fight for are the right to vote, equal pay, owning land and getting an education. These types of problems usually occur in Kitale – but there is a ray of hope. Over the years I see more people respecting women’s rights. And therefore during this International Women’s Day I want to re-emphasis that we women are human beings, we are smart, we are equally important in this world and we rebuke in the strongest terms all the violations we suffer – rape, deliberate infection of HIV, disinheritance , undermined, underrepresented in policy positions. We ask the government to adhere to the one third gender rule, and we still feel the one third gender rule is not enough, we want clean hospitals we can give birth in, we want access to anti-retroviral drugs, education, job opportunities, access to information on our rights. Today I join other women in demanding equality in access and opportunities, I hope that today will remind the government that we exist – and will not settle for less. “

So I will argue that International Women’s Day should be shouted from the rooftops. We should have parades and themed deserts and badges and fancy dress. Because we are all in this together and the battle is far from over. And I for one will be here every year until I can say different. I hope that happens in my life time.

Methinks They do Protest Too Much

I’ve been having a bit of a contentious time on Twitter lately. It can be like that sometimes and mostly lately I’ve been steering clear. I’m tired of having the same argument. It’s the argument that pops up with depressing regularity whenever someone raises the issue of violence against women. It usually comes when someone has said that this violence is a serious societal problem that we all need to do something about. Yesterday it came up because of this piece in the Irish Times. In it Una Mullally made the point that perhaps we shouldn’t be telling women not to get themselves raped and murdered, perhaps we should be telling men not to be harming women.

Well it didn’t take long for the howling and gnashing of teeth to begin. First they started in the comments below the article, then the row took to Twitter, as these things tend to do. One after another men came forward with their chests puffed out, declaiming that this was a gross generalisation. All men were not rapists and murderers. Sexism! Misandry! What about the Menz!

It’s about the third time this week something like this has kicked off. As I said, on Twitter things kick off which the regularity of an explosions in a fireworks factory made of sawdust. Take your eye off the ball for a moment and Whoosh! I’m tired of hearing the same arguments, receiving the same barrage of hectoring points from some bloke who wants to show me the error of my ways for believing in this divisive nonsense. I’ve had enough.

It’s getting increasingly hard to avoid that hectoring response. If ,as a woman, you identify yourself online as a feminist or are definite in your views there will be invariably be someone waiting in the wings who wants to tell you how wrong you are. While I’m all in favour of freedom of speech and while I’ve no problem with lively debate I am sick and tired of trying to make my point to someone who is only interested in getting the last word. This is why I usually lurk Twitter late at night talking about 70s TV. The discussions can get heated there as well but no one tries to shout you down.

There’s a particular type of arguing here that really sets my teeth on edge. It’s not restricted to gender politics either, I’ve encountered the same response when talking about other types of discrimination. The attitude that will invariably be shouted loudest is the one telling me to shut up, telling me that I’m exaggerating the problem, telling me I’ve got it wrong.

Normally I try to calmly reason with them. I try to make them see my point and to demonstrate that their argument is built on a principal of denial. I’m all right Jack. But we come back to the beginning again and again and I really don’t think anyone learns anything.

No if you’re reading this and your fingers are already itching to jump in there to tell me I’m generalising wildly, all men are not like that and I’m just another one of those ranty feminists, let me stop you right here. Chances are we’re not going to agree. Here’s why.

We all look at the world through the lens of our experience. If you go through life and don’t see any of the sharp edges then well done, congratulations, you are charmed. But I’ll tell you now, we’re not looking at the same world. The very glass that makes up the lenses through which we see is fused from different elements. I can’t not see the corners. But I can point them out.

Firstly let’s start with the very, very basics. I’m not a feminist because I hate men. I’m not a feminist because I just want to be argumentative. I’m a feminist because when I look at the world we live in today and see women like me denied education, denied freedom, denied a voice, it makes me very, very angry. Sure, as a white, middle class woman living in Western Europe I’ve got it easy. I come from a culture where I can choose the man I marry, where I can continue my education and where I can vote for a say in how my country is run. I am not forced to sell my body and by and large I’m not marginalised. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see how much easier it is for men to get on in this fine country of ours.

When I worked in radio I often heard that my female voice was just going to irritate listeners. On Irish radio in general two thirds of the voices you will hear belong to men. Women, who lets not forget make up around 50% of the global population, make up only 13% of our elected representative. As a writer I know that my work is likely to be under reviewed and that my book will be more likely to get a softly feminine cover regardless of it’s subject matter because of my gender. I know that while education was never an issue for me it’s not that long since a third level degree was an impossible dream for women. I worked in the criminal courts for over six years and when you’re there on a daily basis you realise that the majority of crimes that pass through the Central Criminal Court are crimes against women. So many sex crimes pass through the courts in Dublin that the papers cover only a fraction. Those crimes, I’m sad to say, tend to be picked for their sensationalism, a pretty victim, a particularly brutal accused. I’ve written about so many of them on this blog. Click on any of the women’s names in the tag cloud and chances are you will find a woman killed by the man who was supposed to love her.

And when I get angry about all this, when I say this is ridiculous and must stop if we are ever going to move forward as a people there will always be those who tell me I am wrong. They will be men. I’ve never had this reaction from a woman.

The problem is that it’s all getting worse. When I was a child in the 70s it was fashionable to give little girls tool sets and little boys dolls. Granted this might have been a vogue in our own leafy suburb but back then I never questioned it. I used to laugh at the boys I played with when they told me I couldn’t play Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. It never for a moment occured to me they had a point. That would be utterly bonkers. No if you go to a toy shop you can tell the aisle that’s meant for girls. While the boys are presented with a kaleidoscope of colours the girls have one option. Pink. Let me get this straight. All little girls do not want to be princesses. I always wanted to be the Prince. He got a horse and a sword and got to do stuff. All the Princess did was lounge around and look pretty.

I could go on and on and on with the examples of how this world is still trying to tell women to stay in the background, to shut up, to look pretty. It might seem like I’m off the point here but it’s all part of the same thing. Good girls are still pretty and mute and passive. Good girls need to be protected. Good girls need to be told when they have worried their pretty little heads about something unnecessary.

Because that’s the crux of it. These men who bristle when a point is made, who are so secure in the fact that they are nice men so we shouldn’t be telling them not to rape, who think that we just misunderstand or didn’t do our research, these men need to stop and listen. It doesn’t matter that you are a nice guy and would never harm a woman. That doesn’t mean that others of your sex would. For time immemorial, women have been told to beware, to watch out for the big bad wolf. We’ve been told to watch what we wear, watch how we speak, watch where we look. We are have the population of the planet but we hold a fraction of the power. It’s not an equal playing field. If your fingers are still itching to butt in just ask yourself why? Is it because you are so unsure of your own position that you can’t see the difference between yourself and the bad men? Is it because you started getting irritated by my words because they were written by a woman who really shouldn’t be this forthright? Is it because you need to look at your own attitudes before getting at mine?

I’ve been fighting my corner for a very long time. I’ll continue to do so for as long as it takes. I do not believe that I am any less capable, any less wise, any less worthy of respect because I was born a particular sex. But most of all I don’t see why as a woman I should have to take all the responsibility. Culturally we persist in assuming that men are at the mercy of animal urges. Surely it’s time they shared a little bit of responsibility and showed a bit of respect and a bit of empathy? I’m also confident that any of the lovely blokes that I’ve met, known and loved over the years will read this and not feel victimised. Because those men know that there is a problem and it’s one that we all need to do something about. I can rant until I’m blue in the face but even if every woman on the planet agreed with me we’d only be 50% and an underrepresented 50% at that. We all need to decide that this crap is unacceptable. We need to stop arguing about the bloody details.

Slut Shaming and a Twisted Morality

Twitter can often be rather in your face. There are often views on there that you’d rather not engage with. That’s the nature of the place, when you have a forum for anyone and everyone to speak their mind, often under the convenient cloak of anonymity, sometimes you come up against assholes. But this morning Twitter outdid itself. Of course it’s not the first time a young, vulnerable woman has been pilloried on social media and it sure as hell won’t be the last but for me personally it’s a step too far and I’m left wondering if it is finally the last straw.

I’m talking of course about the world-wide trending #slanegirl tag. For once, I’m not going to link. The pictures that started all of this are all over the hashtag and I won’t be part of sharing them. If you’re not on Twitter and even more, if you’re not Irish let me take a moment to explain. Over the weekend, Eminem played Slane Castle in County Meath. The castle’s been used as a concert venue for years and Eminem is only one of many huge names to play there. In the lead up to the concert there were all kinds of warnings to concert goers about alcohol and safety. There’ve been problems with behaviour at some outdoor concerts in the past couple of years so the gardai were on edge.

This morning pictures surfaced of a young girl performing oral sex on a guy who appears to be giving a celebratory gesture at his good fortune to a number of other young men looking on. The girl looks very young and she’s noticeably the only female figure in a rather crowded scene. The pictures were trending worldwide well before lunchtime and the jokes were running fast and free. In fairness a lot of the tweets under the slanegirl tag were condemning the jokes and offering sympathy to the girl but that wasn’t the overwhelming tone of the tag by any means.

As I said, it’s not the first time this kind of thing has happened. Social media is rife with misogyny and I’m not going to detail all the instances here. If you’re a digital native or even enthusiastic adopter you’ll be well familiar with what I’m talking about and if you’re not,well, you’re probably not going to thank me for enlightening you. Let’s just say there’s a lot of it and it’s a depressing sign that sexual equality is still a very long way off. It’s frustrating when you’ve always been told the sky’s the limit. Walking down the aisles of girl’s toys in any toy shop and you’ll be forgiven for thinking the only way a girl can reach for the stars these days is as a (pink) fairy. It could be simply that the equality was never really there but for a few brief decades we were told otherwise and we can really see the bars now.

What’s noticeable in the slanegirl frenzy is that the initial focus was all on the girl. The eager jokers who merrily shared the picture over breakfast were happy to finger point at the slight figure on her knees in the mud. Very few condemned the skinny, crowing guy with his jeans around his ankles, despite the fact he was making an equal show of himself. Human beings will always make a show of themselves at some point. Our judgement doesn’t always work out and what might have seemed like a good idea at the time can quickly become a mortifying memory you’ll remember for years. It was one thing before the advent of social media when you only had to worry about witnesses on the ground. If you’d really done something dumb then you might feel the urge to find a new social set or if the worst came to the worst, move, but now social networking means that your stupidity can be broadcast to a global audience in seconds. There’s no shadows to hide in, there’s no hope that memories will fade because even when the hungry mob have moved onto a new victim the evidence will be preserved in the aspic of the cached world. We all live in a goldfish bowl now. There’s no knowing when your actions will be caught by a random camera phone.

My heart bleeds for today’s teens who have to negotiate the adolescent minefield with an ever present danger of appearing on a future youtube clip show. The world we live in now seems to be a harsher place than the one I grew up in, though maybe that’s just a product of growing up and seeing more clearly how things work. I look back on my own days of hedonism, at my own mistakes, but there really does seem to be a difference. Mind you I was always happier in jeans (though I’ve worn my share of short skirts). I’ve often sat on the bus into town of an evening and fought the urge to hand some young one sitting across from me, all bare white legs and strappy sandals even on the harshest January night, something to cover her up. I’m well aware of the fact that even writing that down makes me sound like an old fart and I can imagine the reaction if I ever said anything but a few hours later, seeing them upended in the gutter, mascara running down the cheeks and hair tangled and those pale legs scuffed and bloodied I feel afraid for them. I’d feel a lot happier if the guys with them wore as little. Why no fashion for leather hot pants for men? No, the guys will all be wearing jeans with a shirt or t-shirt. Their collapse at the end of the night is just as frequent but a lot less anatomical.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these young women should cover up for any prudish reason. Fashion is fashion and I completely understand them wanting to show off that supple, rounded slimness that you don’t really miss until it’s gone. But it seems to me that some of these fashions are more to do with satisfying a porn-obsessed male gaze rather than any feminine confidence boosting. The thing is that at that point in your life, when you’re young free and single and consequences don’t exist until they land on you with a crash, there will always be sex. Sometimes it’ll be life affirming, mind blowing, confidence sky rocketing sex. Sometimes it’ll be awkward, painful, pit-of-the-stomach-embarrassing, never-should-have-happened sex. And that’s staying within the legal, broadly-safe boundaries of normal human interaction. Social networking has twisted some of that interaction, giving it a spiteful edge that can destroy lives and stunt these ordinary explorations. It’s ridiculous that at this stage in the game the onus is still on the woman to behave a certain way. Men and boys should take responsibility for their actions just as much as girls and women are expected to and it’s so depressing that this still needs to be said.

I’ve been thinking about taking a holiday from social networking a lot lately. I’ve had enough of the mob mentality and the constant outrage. I’ve limited space for either at the moment and five minutes on Twitter can fill that space for a week. We live in a brave new world and I know I’m not going to be able to escape social networking for ever but just now I need to tune out the incessant roar for a bit. While this isn’t the post to discuss that it’s worth noting simply because poor little slanegirl has made up my mind. I hope this experience doesn’t break her but she’s going to learn some of life’s sharper edges in the next while. Those who share the pictures and who think her predicament is amusing should look to their own life and hope the same never happens to them. The lack of compassion online is worrying and scary and I don’t want to look at it any more. I know it’s still going to be there whenever I come back but right now I just can’t do it. I’m leaving the party for a while.

The Sound of Silence

I’ve been thinking a lot about silence lately. I think a lot of people have, if Twitter is a barometer of anything at all. This past Sunday the hashtag #twittersilence was impossible to ignore. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on whether the protest which led many prominent and not so prominent tweeters, led by feminist writer and commentator Caitlin Moran, to boycott the site for the day, was a good or bad idea. The debate is still raging as you’ll see from the link to the hashtag above.

I took part in the protest, even though I’ve reservations about silent protests in general. I’ve taken part in several similar protests in the real world but there’s a huge difference between showing your silent condemnation for something in person and absenting yourself from the roar that is Twitter even on a quiet day. In this case #twittersilence certainly provoked it’s desired reaction. Even just talking about whether it was right or wrong meant that the issue that had spurred it, that of the aggressive trolling that blights so many online forums, was and still is being talked about. I’d say most Twitter users have had their own spontaneous twittersilence from time to time. There are times when the frank exchange of views can get a little too full on. I know that I’ve often retreated into lurking on the sidelines on the site. It’s not that I’m afraid to put my views out there, it’s just that sometimes the constant ranting becomes too much.

It comes with the territory with most social networking sites of course. No matter how social we tell ourselves it is our engagement is normally a solitary practise alone at our computer or hunched over our phone. No matter how much you engage, from the beginning you’re standing on your soapbox shouting out into the darkness. The fact that those on nearby soapboxes can hear you and respond or the fact that familiar faces from the real world pop up on your timeline, doesn’t change the fact that what you are doing is a solitary thing. It’s particularly true of Twitter where everyone has something to sell, even if it’s just themselves. That’s what you sign up for and that’s what you get.

But this post isn’t really about Twitter. I’ve been thinking about silence because sometimes my own is deafening. That might seem an odd thing to say when I’m writing this at a domain name that is my own name and I’ll be broadcasting these words on all the networks I subscribe to, with my photo as an avatar and the whole thing in part to maintain a public image that I’ve worked hard to build. That’s part of the job of being a writer these days and thank god for the Internet because it allows us introverts to shout just as loudly as everyone else without actually having to get out there and mingle. I’ve written about difficult subjects here and there, I’ve written about personal stuff, I’ve flaunted myself as outspoken, blunt, unafraid to say what needs to be said. That’s the shtick and that’s what I’ll always keep on doing. But that’s not the whole truth. There are subjects that I skirt around, that I never write about and seldom talk about because when I look towards them to drag them out the silence roars. Some things I don’t talk about because they’re private and no one’s business but some things I can’t talk about even though I want to.

Not writing about these things kills me. Writing is what I do and in a huge way it’s how I deal with things. When something big has affected me I know it’s contained and beyond hurt when I can dissect it and cannibalise it to inform what I write. I approach writing the way my mum used to tell me to approach acting, using past experience to provide an emotional truth in what I’m describing. I can understand a subject from an intellectual point of view but if I can’t feel it I feel I can’t write it. This, of course, is why writers research and why so many will never say no to a new experience. It’s why they say “write what you know” even if it sounds a bit out there when I describe it like that. You’re probably thinking I’m stating the bleeding obvious but it’s my name at the top of the page so I’ll say it anyway.

It’s the nature of being a writer that everything is fair game in one way or another, so when something comes surrounded with a barbed wire fence it’s unsettling to say the least. The prohibition is caustic, it eats away at consciousness and the silence of avoiding a subject that should be talked about is loudest of all. In my case that barbed wire fence was erected by someone else. It was put down so long ago that I’ve absorbed it into my system and it’s going to take a long time to dismantle it. That’s one thing that bugged me particularly about the twitter silence campaign. The trolls that triggered it want nothing more than to shut up all the outspoken women that offend them so. They are standard issue bullies, nothing new, nothing special and nothing remarkable but what they are trying to do is what abusers have done to their victims for time immemorial. Abuse exists within a silence. It’s dependent on the silence of the victim to continue. The moment the victim calls it out and takes steps to bring it into the bright light of day in many cases the abuser will retreat back into the shadows. They might not go quietly and they might not retreat without a fight but abuse doesn’t survive very well in the sun. It’s something that roars in the shadows behind closed doors.

I learnt this from the person who put up the barbed wire. I learnt to be quiet in public, to smile when people were looking. I might have eventually learnt to stay out of the shadows but I never shone a light in there. I let the silence grow inside me until it felt like it was squeezing my heart and stopping me breath. Like avoiding a cobweb because you’re afraid of a spider that’s never going to solve the problem. The spider will just get fatter and hairier and the cobweb will grow. In the end you’ll have to move house or at the very least put a curtain over the manky corner that you wouldn’t go within six feet of now. Well I’m not the type to run and I’m in the mood for a spring clean. I’ve got a long handled brush and a scarf to cover my hair (even in this analogy my scalp is itching thinking of eight-legged, dive-bombing assassins lying in wait). In fairness this is probably going to be a job for professional exterminators so we’ll be sticking with the spider metaphor for the time being.

I know that because of that arachnid freak I’m left with a roaring silence that threatens to swamp me from time to time. I know that years of lying and pretending everything was fine have made grappling that silence all the harder. I know that once it’s broken I’ve no control over what noise takes its place. I know that I’m left with the relics of it’s construction to deal with on a daily basis – the belief that friends and family are not to be trusted, the belief that people laugh at me behind my back, the belief that the barbed wire is somehow there because of me, the paradoxical lure of the dark. I recognise these for what they are now, just crap left over that has nothing to do with anything, but every now and then I forget they’re there and I trip.

I’m skirting round the edges now, making half hearted feints with my long handled broom, but Spider’s days are numbered. I’m coming for it. I’ve had enough of silence. It’s too damned loud. I’m all for speaking out, for dragging the darkness out into the light. Silence can be powerful but it’s too easy for it to envelop you. The ground around me is crisscrossed with lines in the sand but I’m drawing another one and I’m writing about it because that’s where I need it to end up. Just another thing that I can dismember and use. That’s all it’s good for after all.

On Fishes and Bicycles and Other Hard Concepts

When I was very small I was taught that it was important to know right from wrong. I was told that I was a lucky girl who got to live in a civilised country, in a comfortable house, who got to go to a good school and who didn’t know anything about war or famine other than what the pictures on the little cardboard money boxes I brought home from school showed. I was taught that because I was a lucky girl in all these ways I understood there were those who weren’t as fortunate and who didn’t have what I had. It was important I stood up for what was right, what was fair.

It was a fairly standard liberal middle class indoctrination. But it stuck. Even now the one thing that reduces me to red-faced, fist-clenched, speechless rage is unfairness. I’m not talking sulky, pouty, “but I want it” unfairness here, by the way. Oh no. This is the kind of jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, bone-crunching unfairness that’s like a slap in the face with the sharp edge of a damp smelly towel. It doesn’t compute. It can’t, it’s wrong, spelled out in capital letters that are probably red and flashing.

When I was about five and the world was a far simpler, softer place that fundamental instability was locked in a milk carton. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t open the side of the carton myself to get at the last drops and instead had to wait with my arm raised, the puddle of milk in the corner of the carton getting warmer and sharper by the second. I couldn’t understand why I got into trouble when I opened it myself and showed my friends how to open theirs. It didn’t compute. It just wasn’t right.

When I was a little older I learnt there were bigger things that weren’t fair too. I remember well the burning cheeks and stinging eyes at being denied Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. I’ve felt them often. Once that stuff starts happening it doesn’t stop. You can’t get lost in a knot of rage every time it happens though. You grow up. You learn to stand your ground.

But this isn’t a trip down memory lane. I’m trying to make a point.  I wouldn’t consider myself madly political but I do believe that I have no right to judge my fellow human beings, that empathy and compassion are evolutionary traits and that everyone deserves dignity and freedom. Every so often, when I’m blunt about the things that matter to me, when I tweet about racism or blog about abortion or atheism, someone will tell me I’m brave for speaking out. What I’m trying to explain is that bravery has absolutely nothing to do with it. I was raised with a particular moral framework, a “sense of fair play”. Why wouldn’t you stand up for that?

Of course, I’m well aware that there will be some reading this who don’t think what I’m saying is reasonable or obvious in the slightest. They will have got as far as the title of this piece and dismissed me as a mouthy feminist, a dissolute member of the liberal meeja, a purveyor of happy clappy bullshit. It’s because of this dismissal of values that I consider fundamental and absolutely bleeding obvious that I have, in the past hesitated about tackling a range of subjects head on – and that’s at the heart of the problem.

In tackling these subjects I’m aware that perhaps I may be painting myself in a less than favourable light. It’s been suggested to me more than once that by being honest about my liberal opinions I could offend people, even jeopardise my career prospects. In my head there’s still a treacherous little voice warning me I could come across as “strident” and no boy will ever want me (well, perhaps not quite). Yup, it’s still there. I live in a Western European country, I’m middle-class, educated. As a woman I’ve benefitted from the ground gained by former generations, by the hard won right to a third level, even second level education, to vote, to have autonomy.  Looking back over my family tree I can watch as they joined the middle classes and benefitted from greater opportunities and wider choices. Over the past century or so the world has changed beyond recognition because people saw that progress lay in these fundamental rights. The right to work for a fair wage, in decent conditions. The right to an education. The right to own property.

These changes have given us the world we live in today. They’ve benefitted the right as much as the left (although the former land owning men who once held all the power must be feeling a wee bit hard done by). Many of the social and religious conservatives seeking to shape the world we live in today wouldn’t have a voice if it wasn’t for these waves of progress. So why does it so often feel that we haven’t moved forward at all?

Last night during the late night sitting over the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill Fine Gael TD Tom Barry pulled his colleague Áine Collins TD onto his lap. He’s since apologised but it’s a stark reminder of why that treacherous little voice is still telling me to be quiet. Mr Barry has since apologised and the whole thing is being brushed away and that again is the problem. I know that if a male friend did the same in the pub I’d take exception. I also know that if I did so at least some of the company would tell me not to over react. I know this because over the years this kind of stuff has happened many, many times. I know it’s wrong but in the past I’ve laughed it off myself to play the game.

As I’ve grown older I’ve seen it so many times. I’m out of patience. I fail to see why speaking up should make me mouthy, or militant, or strident. I could be fairly sure that Mr Tom Barry TD would not have grabbed one of his male colleagues and wrestled with him on the benches of the Dáil Chamber. That kind of horse play just wouldn’t have been proper in such solemn circumstances. The fact that he and his colleagues think this is a minor, if insulting, lapse in judgement says it all. It’s not right, it’s not fair and it shouldn’t be an issue to say so.

This isn’t a call to arms, or an incitement to anything. I’m really not that dogmatic. But it’s always important to stick up for what’s right. That will never change.

Every Sperm is Sacred (with apologies to Monty Python)

Pro Life marchers

I’ve written a lot on this blog about issues that affect women but there’s one subject I’ve always steered clear of. Abortion is a contentious subject the world over but here it’s a subject that tears the country apart. It’s the wedge driven between two Irelands, a poison seeped into the heart of the Irish family. Any public debate that strays near that hallowed ground will get infected with a contagion that threatens to swamp any liberalising call – it’s a wonder any progress has been made at all.

As any regular reader of this blog knows my upbringing was not an Irish catholic one. I was born in London and raised C of E. I was wired by that schematic and even though I’ve lived in Ireland since my teens that schematic never really changes. I have never been particularly religious, although at one point I did end up teaching Sunday School (actually not half as long or interesting a story as you’d perhaps think) and these days I tend to describe myself as an atheist just to forestall any confusion. I’m not of the dogmatic atheistic persuasion though. If you want to believe in something knock yourself out, just let me believe or disbelieve what I choose. I won’t try to rattle your cage if you don’t try to rattle mine. My approach to abortion would be along the same lines. It’s all a matter of choice. Those who want, or more usually need to have one should be supported through a difficult period of their lives. Those who don’t agree with it should be free not to have one. I really wouldn’t have thought it was all that difficult. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to approach this any other way.

That’s why I don’t write about abortion. It feels as if it’s not my argument. I’m pro choice. I’ll fight for the right for women faced with that difficult decision to have all the options open to them. It is barbaric to expect them to travel outside the country. It always was. It always will be. The fact that it has taken this long to get to the point where the Irish Government is on the brink of legislating to clarify the mire of case law that’s built up since the so-called 8th Amendment is insane. But that’s Ireland. That’s the hornet’s nest I don’t particularly want to kick.

The Government are due to vote on the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill on Wednesday. For the past weeks and months the pro life movement have been ramping up the hysteria. Once again it’s getting deafening, the roaring of old Catholic Ireland in it’s pain.

It was absolutely deafening, as I watched the “Rally for Life” make it’s triumphal way down O’Connell Street in the blazing sun last Saturday afternoon. Watching faces grimacing in smug malice as they shook Youth Defence-provided posters at the pro-choice protesters lining their route, it was clear that here were two utterly incompatible Irelands, suspended over a chasm. Marching down the road, jeering at the counter protest, occasionally throwing salt and holy water to cast out the demons inhabiting their fellow country men and women, these people saw an Ireland tinted with the sugary washes of an old postcard. This is the Ireland that wanted Monty Python banned. This is the Ireland that keeps seeing the Virgin Mary in inanimate objects. This Ireland is the poster child for ultra-conservative Catholicism. The question will always be, does that Ireland actually exist?

We all know that there was a time when that Ireland was real enough. This country has been dealing with the legacy of that Ireland for many years, learning the sombre lesson that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely again, and again and again.  Certainly the people on that march on Saturday believe that Ireland still exists – but it’s not the country I know and love. That Ireland is the one that has flourished despite the poison leeching into it from it’s toxic twin. I’m not saying that Catholicism per se is bad, but when dogmatism creeps into any religion, when it becomes a single-minded fervour that stamps out compassion and empathy and rationality, well, that’s never good.

The subject of abortion in Ireland is sadly a very powerful magnet that very dogmatism and several thousand people proudly paraded their lack of compassion on Saturday. They called female protestors “sluts” and  “murderers”, they made their own children cry for political ends, they laughed at the passion of the opposing view (all widely reported on Twitter and Facebook and all seen personally by me as I watched). This was the grinning face of Old Ireland standing defiant on the battle field.  They’re looking for a fight. They will not back down. But the Ireland they think is all around them is gone. It’s frozen on old postcards, it’s discussed from the psychiatrist’s couch.

Sadly I don’t think there’s any easy solution to any of this. The poison will keep eating away. But hopefully compassion and empathy and rationality will rule the day and the country will move forward, even if it must drag the panting body of Old Ireland along with it. Some things will never be easy. But we must do them anyway.

Thoughts on Being a Country for a Week…

Backyard Battles by Michael Stamp metaphor for @ireland

Photograph by Michael Stamp. All rights reserved.

Over one week at the end of May I got the opportunity to discover what it’s like to be a country, nominally at least. The @ireland Twitter account was set up by WorldIrish.com in March last year. It’s modelled on the @sweden account which has a different Swedish person curating the account each week, sharing their lives and their views to give a kaleidoscopic view of the people and ideas that go to make up a country.  There are quite a few of these accounts now. Towns and cities all over the world have cottoned onto the fact that this format plays very well with public and commentators alike. It’s a low cost way to get the word out there about how cosmopolitan a place you are, how gorgeous the scenery is and how achingly cool your people are and lets face it, stuff like this is what Twitter was made for.

When my turn came up, to be honest, the gloss had gone off Twitter a little. I joined around the same time I set up this blog, and set up my Facebook page, back when my first book needed selling. I stayed when I stopped seeing it as a pressurised shop floor and simply as very, very large room full of people talking, rather like a massive party with no beginning and no end. After a while I realised that scattered through the crowds were the kind of people you end up having very interesting conversations with in the kitchen at a party like that. Like the song says, you really will always find me in the kitchen at parties. Lately though I’ve started looking around for my coat. I’ve already swapped phone numbers with the people I was talking to in the kitchen and a bus load of noisy new people have arrived just as the beer’s running low. Or something. Party analogies aside, it’s been a long time since I’ve been my normal, chatty, opinionated self on Twitter. Until I got to be a country.

I started bright and early on the Monday morning. I think the first thing I talked about was actually the weather. Within minutes I realised the difference between tweeting to a couple of thousand followers and tweeting to over 15 thousand.

There’s a lot more people.

I use Twitter mainly through my phone and it wasn’t long before the bloody thing was chirruping and vibrating as if it was trying to hatch. Conversations rattled by at breakneck speed and I soon realised that with this audience you couldn’t get away with casual throw away comments. People actually wanted to know what you had to say, then often contradict it. On my second morning I glibly mentioned that it was a grey day in Dublin and within seconds had half a dozen replies telling me they were looking at the sun right now.

I’ve been doing this author thing for almost five years now. I’ve done live appearances – those wonderful events when you look out into the audience and realise you’ve got the phone numbers of half the people there in your phone contacts and the other half have come to see the other people on the panel.  Having that many people actually looking straight at you and waiting to see what you do next (even if they are online) is a bit of a culture shock!

I knew when I started my week that I didn’t want to pull my punches. I’ve grown more political as I’ve got older and less inclined to keep my opinions to myself. I’m frustrated on a daily basis by the conservatism in this little country and I didn’t want to shy away from that if it came up. To be fair I didn’t always wait to see if it came up. Equality matters to me and there’s far too much stuff in the news at the moment not to come back to the subject again and again.

So we ended up talking about religion, or rather my lack of it, feminism (no surprise there), racism, abortion and spirituality. The two subjects that kept coming back were the way society views women and the way Irish society can sometimes be a little less than the land of a thousand welcomes if you’re different. With both these subjects the thing that really hit home was the number of responses I got from people telling me it wasn’t a problem. I’m a reasonable woman. I’d much rather spend my time talking about books or old films and TV. It these things weren’t a problem, believe me, I wouldn’t keep banging on about them. As a woman in today’s society I think there’s still a long way to go before we gain a real, lasting form of equality. Too many women are treated purely as sexual objects or worse, lesser human beings, across the world not to be worried and angry about the fact that this persists even though, as a species we should surely have copped on by now.

It’s the same with the racism issue. When I started tweeting about the subject under the @ireland account it was in response to the racial attack on journalist Una Kavanagh. Una works of WorldIrish.com and manages the @ireland account so naturally I shared her initial tweets and commented. While the bulk of the response was the generous, warm, outraged response I’d expect from the Ireland I know and love there were a significant number of people who took exception with me tweeting about the incident from the account, since “Ireland doesn’t have a problem with racism”. This is a myth I’ve heard many times over the years and yet when I spoke to my non Irish friends during the week, everyone had their own story. A problem doesn’t have to be all engulfing to be a problem. It just has to be persistent and widespread, and like it or not racism is a form of bigotry that’s persistent and widespread in this country. When someone’s attacking you because of the colour of your skin or your accent you don’t stop to reassure yourself that this person is the exception. You might think that later but not immediately. Coming out of this conversation I found myself sharing my own experiences of xenophobia in Ireland for the first time online. A fair few people responded with similar stories, enough that it really brought home to me how important it is that this issue is talked about as often as possible. It needs to be stamped out, not ignored.

As important as it might have been to talk about racism the conversation I think I enjoyed most was on the Sunday, my last day. I’d been watching a documentary about Emily Wilding Davison to mark the centenary of her death after falling under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. I asked where were the monuments to the many extraordinary Irish women who’ve inspired over the years? Where were the heroine’s for young Irish feminists. Throwing that out there started a stream of suggestions. The conversation rumbled on for much of the day, throwing up many very inspiration names and stories. What did become clear though was that, in terms of public memorials, either statues or plaques, women are vastly under represented here. By the end of the day it was difficult not to see Constance Markievicz as almost an example of tokenism, being celebrated almost to the exclusion of all others. It was notable how hard everyone was racking their brains and how few names it was throwing up. It was a fact remarked upon by several Tweeters that the majority of women who appear in statues around Ireland are fictitious or mythological. This is something else that I’ve taken away. We need to do something to change that status quo, these things send powerful messages.

Of course it wasn’t all contentious. I talked to a lot of people about Sci-Fi – and even tweeted about my beloved dystopias, although I didn’t get to be a geeky as I’d like. I also had a great chat about nail polish, which involved my first ever picture of a manicure. I’ll be doing “selfies” next! I also got to be severely nerdy about the Four Courts and criminal Dublin. Right down my alley.

What I can take away from the week is a renewed appreciation of Twitter. I hadn’t realised how unique one of these country accounts is. At the risk of coming over all philosophical, they put you in an unusual position. You deal with the expectations of the world about a country that’s an expert at mythologizing itself. You deal with the nostalgia and protective homesickness of the Diaspora who are watching for a taste from home. You deal with the manic salesmanship of some of the country and the sharp-tongued cynicism  of the rest. It’s an intense experience. A previous @ireland tweeter described it to me as like being plugged into the Matrix. I know exactly what he means. It can feel quite profound, if it’s late enough and you’re tired enough and it’s been a very long day. It’s addictive and it’s illuminating. Talking about racism, which eventually developed into a conversation about national identity, I thought about my own national identity. I’ve known for a long time that that while I can’t ignore my Englishness, I’ll always be a Londoner, I’m as Irish as they come now too. I can’t remember the point where I stopped feeling like a visitor. My nationality was remarked on to such an extent it was constantly underling the fact I didn’t belong. But at some point I accepted my place here. I don’t know if I’ll stay for ever, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop giving out about all the things that make me hop up onto my soap box, but I know that Ireland is in my heart and I’ve now got two homes rather than none, as I might have thought a long time ago.

Quite a few people asked me was I mad, when I told them I was going to curate the @ireland account. They worried it would be too intrusive, that I’d be too exposed and yes, I see that. You learn very quickly with an account like that you can’t steer every conversation and they will take you where they will – which can be a little disquieting at times.  But here on the other side, it was an extraordinary experience and one that I count myself lucky to have had. It’s renewed my affection for Twitter and once again confirmed a lot of the things I love about this country. I’ve met a lot of very interesting people, many of whom have stuck around to continue those kitchen party chats. If I needed reminding that this social interaction 2.0 works better with total immersion I’ve got it now. You’ll be hearing a lot more from me. I’m glad to be back in my own little universe but I enjoyed the holiday and I’ve come back refreshed. If you’re curious to see exactly what happened you can see the tweets on my profile page on WorldIrish.com here.

In Praise of Women

 

Photo property of Abigail Rieley all rights reserved

When I was a child I never doubted I could fly. I never saw any reason why I couldn’t rule the world one day. I could be a doctor, or a spaceman, or a time traveller. I could be a famous artist or an explorer or have my very own book shop. I never saw being a girl as a help or a hindrance, it was just the thing that occasionally meant I had to wear rather uncomfortable woollen tights. When I was a child I was surrounded by women, women who showed me a world that was waiting to be discovered, women who were the best role models I could ever ask for, women who made me the woman I am today.

After my dad died it was just me and my mum. Despite her own loss my mum was the heart of my childhood. It was she who taught me to love books and music  and who, when she discovered the contraband lipgloss and black eyeliner hidden in my schoolbag, sat me down with a drawer full of makeup with names like Biba and Miners and taught me how to apply it like a pro. My mum was the one who, when I was in the school production of Hiawatha she stayed up all night stitching together scraps of leather to make a costume on a budget. My mum taught me how to make an entrance. She taught me how to be strong in a crisis. She taught me how to create magic out of nothing. I knew she wasn’t happy when I was a child but I knew that she would always be there when I needed her.

My mum was strong but I don’t think she could have coped without the friends and family who surrounded us in those early years. I remember Alison, who’s lifting me up in the picture that accompanies this piece, who came to help after my father’s death and stayed for my early years. Alison was one of the first people I talked to about writing and was the person who told me, after I joined Mensa to vanquish an ex boyfriend’s taunts, that I didn’t have to prove myself in the face of other people’s insecurity.

There was Dee, my mum’s cousin, who was always her rock. Dee was a second mother. I remember having my tea at her house while a malevolent tortoiseshell cat eyed me from the top of a cupboard. Dee taught me not to be afraid. She taught me to face things head on and not to be afraid of speaking up. Her house was always full of life and noise, so different from our solitary quiet. She brought calm practicality into our sometimes chaotic existence and a normality that couldn’t be washed away by moments of panic.

There was Branny, my mum’s best friend, who told me,when I needed to hear it, that my mum was human. Sitting up the night before my audition for the drama school I didn’t really want to go to we sipped tea laced with left over Christmas brandy and I laughed myself some perspective over stories of my mum’s less edifying exploits. Branny confirmed that my mum and I were very different people and much as I loved her I would never be her. Drama school was the dream she had attained. My dreams were somewhere else.

There was Anna my godmother. An actress and broadcaster, she would fly in from visiting  the flat she kept in Paris with fresh-baked croissants and lie in our garden soaking up the paler English rays of sun to top up her French tan. Anna was always impossibly glamorous but still ours. I grew up wanting to have a flat in Paris, to work for the BBC. I grew up wanting her independence and freedom.

When I was about eight my Gran came to live with us. Like her daughter, my grandmother could be an impossible woman but she had the trait that a great many women seem to have in my family – bloody mindedness. When my Gran broke her back in her 60s the doctors told her she would never walk again. She proved them wrong. She would never break any speed records but when she lived with us a year or two later, if the bus was late she would walk home. My Gran told me stories about her life. How she had run a record shop and a hair salon. How she had been offered a scholarship to the Slade school of Art on the recommendation of her art teacher Archibald Knox. My Gran still said her Us the old fashioned way with a hidden i and taught me phrases like “too, too bay window” and “all fur coat and no knickers” – goodness knows what kind of conversations we were having!

Then there was my aunt, my wonderful extraordinary aunt Jill. Jill has always been there for people. She’s been a teacher, a social worker, a missionary and a vicar. My earliest memories of Jill are of her warmth and her quick affection. I’ve always been a little in awe of her but Jill was particularly amazing when my mum died. She made family seem immediate again instead of distant.

These are just a handful of the women who shaped me into the  woman I am today. There are many, many more.  I count myself fortunate to have been surrounded most of my life by a multitude of wise, funny, generous, warm, wonderful women who have enriched my life and given it colour. In previous years I’ve marked International Women’s Day by writing about how much further there is to go. I’ve talked about violence against women, about the pitiful sentences for rapes, but this year I want to celebrate. I want to raise a glass to extraordinary women in my life, in yours, everywhere.

As I sit at my computer and type this post I’m looking into the faces of three more extraordinary women, subjects of my current book. I’ve been privileged to look into their lives, lived so long ago, and get to know their strength. I wouldn’t have found them, might not have listened, if I hadn’t been taught to look.  I stand here at this point in my life because of all the women who’ve known and shaped me. Thank you ladies! Here’s to you!

Time to Say Enough

So here I am throwing open my window and shouting out into the night – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”. Something has to change and it has to change now. The past week has been a bad week to be a woman in Ireland. Actually not just a woman, it’s been a bad week to be in Ireland.

On Saturday, 70% of the voters in this country were too confused or too apathetic to go to their local polling station and vote on the rights of children. In a country that has seen countless children abused and ignored over the history of the State, you’d think this would be a subject that people might have feelings on. There were strong feelings on both sides but they did not translate to votes. Of the 30% who voted on an amendment that was supported by every major political party, not to mention the majority of advocates for and protectors of children, 40% of that 30% voted No.

On Wednesday the country awoke to the news that a healthy 31-year-old woman, expecting her first child, had died needlessly and avoidably while doctors stood by staring at a foetal heart monitor while the mother died of septicaemia. As the world now knows, last month Savita Halappanavar arrived at University College Hospital, Galway complaining of back pains. She was miscarrying at 17 weeks and her amniotic fluid was leaking. Instead of bringing her in and helping her through this traumatic event safely and speedily, doctors waited until there was no foetal heartbeat before acting. She died in agony a week later after repeatedly asking doctors to terminate her pregnancy. They failed to act. Savita’s husband has said that on at least one of the occasions his wife asked for an abortion she was told that option was not available as Ireland is a Catholic country. There will be an inquiry into what happened in Galway but it’s no surprise to anyone familiar with Irish abortion law that the legal situation is a mess. There’s been a lot written about Savita all over the world over the past two days and there will be a lot more but here in Ireland we’re good at talking and not so good at acting.

Also on Wednesday 39-year-old graphic designer Mark Jordan, with an address at Donabate, North County Dublin, who beat journalist Jane Ruffino and left her scarred for life, walked away from court with a suspended sentence and the price of her suffering was put at €5000. Sadly, as the linked article points out, this sentence was not unique. The judge, former garda Martin Nolan has considerable form but here in Ireland this kind of story might cause outrage but it’s a weary outrage dampened by overuse for as long as anyone can remember. Those who attack women or children here are rarely sentenced to more than a couple of years in jail. Sentences of more than eight years are rare. It’s a subject that has angered me since I started working in the courts and one that I’ve written about often on this blog.

So that’s one week, seven days, that have shown the dark side of Ireland. The side that would prefer to stay in the shadow of the Church, ears closed against the cries of the vulnerable, in pursuit of a life of piety and obedience. This is the holy Catholic Ireland of legend where dissent is quashed, the Church reigns supreme, men are men and women and children shut up and do what they are told. It’s hard to see this Ireland in 21st Century Dublin on a day to day basis but there are certain things that make it show it’s face. Any time the Family is mentioned you will see it. It’s the reason why successive Irish governments have taken more than 20 years to act on the X case. It’s the reason why there’s also no legislation on Assisted Human Reproduction here and why the country’s fertility clinics are unregulated. Make no mistake, holy Catholic Ireland is very much alive.

There are plenty here who’d like to go back to that Ireland. They feel safer there, wrapped in so much moral certainty, but what about those who don’t want to go back? What about those who are happy with the more secular, more liberal country we have now? Who have been ashamed of their country as the world watches the story of Savita’s tragic death unfold? What about those who didn’t come from that tradition in the first place, plentiful in our increasingly multi cultural society? Savita and her husband are Hindu but they were bound by the laws of old holy Ireland. There are plenty of couples who aren’t religious who go through fertility treatment every year but have to endure the the taboo that still exists around it because of these attitudes. But they are vocal, these inhabitants of holy Ireland. They try to shout down voices raised against them, just as they always did. So governments fail to act. The people fail to speak up, to shout stop. But it’s time we all stood up and said we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. It’s not ok that men can attack women with little consequence. It’s not ok that women in desperate need of medical care are forced to travel outside the State if they have any hope of receiving it. It’s not ok that people don’t stand up, don’t speak out, don’t demand change. It’s not ok that couples are judged because they have IVF.

I want to live in a country I can be proud of but after the week that’s in it, that country isn’t Ireland. There might be a chance to change things though, even after this horrible week. There are demonstrations and vigils all over the country and beyond in the wake of Savita’s death. Let this be a catalyst for change. One that both the politicians and holy Ireland will have to listen to.

The Siren’s Song

Image by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Pinned above my desk are the pictures of three women. One is a young bride staring into the face of the man she has just married. One is a little girl marking her place in her book as she pauses to indulge the most important man in her life. The last is the resigned lover, waiting patiently to put her clothes back on whenever he has finished that less than Titanic-romantic life sketch. They are all reacting to the same man. The man who would go on to wreck each of their lives.

I first made their acquaintance almost two years ago and it felt like kismet. I have notes of that first encounter, bristling with excited exclamation marks. The first time I saw their faces I felt a thrill of recognition as I picked out each one. I was familiar with their story but hadn’t yet listened to their voices.  Now they won’t shut up!

Two years ago I had no plans to write a novel. I’d just finished my second book Death on the Hill  and I was looking for another subject. I went into the National Library to look through old cases searching for material, casting the net wide. I searched the library catalogue, putting in random searches and seeing what came up but I knew as soon as I saw it that I’d found something special. If you approached an editor today with a murder case involving a philandering artist who’d bumped off the missus to spend more time with the mistress they’d explode with delight. It’s a story that’s so embedded in the history of Dublin that even for me, a blow-in, there was a flicker of recognition. It’s one of those cases that never stays forgotten for long. It’s been fodder for numerous true crime authors, been turned into a play and was  prominently featured in a rather legendary RTE series back in the 1990s.

It’s mostly known as the Ireland’s Eye murder. It took place 160 years ago this year on the famous island just off the coast of Howth here in Dublin. One evening in September a young woman, 28-year-old Maria Louisa Kirwan, was found dead on the island. The only other person there was her husband, the wealthy artist William Bourke Kirwan. It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on him, despite Kirwan’s insistence that he had spent the time his wife was dying sketching the sunset. There was a thorough police investigation and a sensational trial. But Kirwan’s conviction didn’t stop the debate and there was so much media and political pressure that his death sentence was reduced to transportation for life.

I’ve covered a fair number of trials of men who’ve killed their partners. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Men like Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, David Bourke, Anton Mulder, and yes, Eamonn Lillis as well. I’ve heard the excuses, watched the guilty wriggle in the stand. I’ve seen juries struggle to come to a verdict when the weight of taking away another’s liberty hangs heavy on them. I’ve watched the victim become nothing more than a disparate collection of evidence, watched their families try to redress the balance, trying to resuscitate a loved one scattered over a jumble of specimen jars. The first time I read Kirwan’s defence my gut told me he was guilty. The more I read the more he seemed just another spoilt, angry man trying to defend the indefensible and the more the women in his shadow fascinated me.

It soon became clear that to tell their stories I wouldn’t be able to write the book as straight nonfiction. Their history lies in the gaps in the documentary record. They appear as brides, little else. Despite the wealth of information that exists because this was such a very famous case in it’s day I found myself staring at a very narrow view. They were defined according to their relationship to a single event. There was no sense, as there was with all the men involved, that there was a life outside the crime, a full existence off-camera. These were women who lived in a time when to be female meant, for most, a life in the shadows of history, waiting at the corner of the scene, mute until they have to fight for their survival.The suffragettes were a generation away and Mary Wollstonecraft was within living memory. If I wanted to tell the story of the strong, lively, intelligent women staring out from these pictures I’d have to look into those shadows and step right to the edges of the scene.  So I embraced the gaps and started to write a novel.

I’ve written fiction before but after two factual books it’s a joy to take the breaks off. There’s still a lot of research to do, more now that I can look beyond the independently verifiable actually but  now that research is a framework I can hang from like a kid on a climbing frame.

William Bourke Kirwan put down his profession as an “anatomical draughtsman”. In other words he earned a living drawing anatomical illustrations for the medical profession. It was a lucrative profession but he also fancied himself as a miniaturist and portrait artist. He wasn’t actually very good. I know this because the three pictures pinned above my desk are actually his work. They belong to the collection of his work that’s in the National Library collection. It’s a rather odd collection of scraps and half finished doodles along with some rather unconvincing skeletal legs. If this book was nonfiction I’d be able to make educated guesses about what, if anything, was the significance of some of the pictures.

But this book isn’t nonfiction, it’s a novel. I can look at them and put myself in Kirwan’s head, decide what he was thinking when he painted each one, why he painted each one. I look at the faces and I see my characters. It’s their stories I want to tell.

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