Writer and Author

Category: Women (Page 2 of 4)

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.

Beware the Big Bad Wolf

Mick Phillpott is no bogey man like Sawney Bean

Mick Philpott, who last week was sentenced to life in prison for setting a fire which resulted in the deaths of six of his 17 children, looks set to become the kind of legend that conservative mothers scare their children with when they won’t do their homework and eat their greens. His case has caused political ructions and spawned a slew of TV specials in numbers normally reserved for matters of grave national importance, like wars or epidemics. For a man who loves the limelight it must all be very gratifying, after all he’s no stranger to being cast as public enemy number one.

I’ve hesitated in posting on the case.  After all, it’s only a couple of months since I swore my days of writing about sensational trials are over. But Mick Philpott fascinates me. I’ve seen his type before. Most of us have. While Philpott might be being cast as the product of Trash TV and The Benefit Culture, his story is sadly nothing new. Men like him have been making bogey men for centuries. There’s something about that particular blend of monomaniacal swagger and ruthless selfishness that stops those of us who consider ourselves law abiding, or god fearing or unassuming members of society, in our tracks. We baulk at such shameless profiteering, such casual cruelty. It’s natural. If society has too many Mick Philpott’s in it’s midst the whole thing will come crashing down.

Delivering her sentence, the trial judge in the Philpott case went into unusual detail in highlighting a particular part of the evidence, including matters which had not been put before the jury. Mrs Justice Thirlwall’s full sentencing speech makes interesting reading and it’s also worth reading Grace Dent’s analysis of it. Both make clear the fact that Philpott was a very specific type of abuser. Dent compares him to Fred West, which is a fair enough but I’ve been struck by another comparison , a case I wrote about at the time and which sparked a similar furore in Ireland after the sentence, that of wannabe ruler of the New World Order and friend of social workers and gardai, Ronnie Dunbar.

I sat next to Dunbar for pretty much every day of his trial. That was back before criminal trials moved out of the Four Courts into the new Criminal Courts of Justice and in the absence of press benches the press often found ourselves sitting beside the prisoner in the dock. As the only left handed hack in the pack I usually found myself shunted down to the end of the row by clashing elbows. As a consequence I’ve sat next to quite a few of Ireland’s most notorious murderers. Most of them are very polite.

Dunbar was a particularly chivalrous child killer. He would great me with a warm smile each morning and once or twice bent to pick up a dropped pen. It’s unusual for a defendant to be so outgoing with members of the press but in this case, no one was particularly surprised. We’d already been regaled with stories in the press room from a colleague who’d doorstepped him during the hunt for his victim Melissa Mahon, whose body was undiscovered for two years. This journo, who’d fully expected to have the door slammed in his face was amazed to be ushered into the house. Dunbar shared that with Philpott. He liked the attention.

That craving for attention tends to put us on the back foot. When someone is aggressively upfront and outgoing they illicit a conditioned response. We smile and comply and engage – even if every sense is screaming that this person is as dodgy as hell. Before the brain has a chance to step in the head nods and the mouth smiles politely. Men like Dunbar and Philpott thrive on this. They are not the kind of killers who will hang about on the fringes of a crime, drooling over their gory deeds like the villain in a TV cop show. They will be front and centre, helping in the search, appealing on TV, offering suggestions. Men like that are so obsessed with control that they will try to take it everywhere. They are flamboyant in their seeking, greedy, hungry. We are always put on the back foot.

One of the most horrifying things about these cases is their inevitability, an inevitability most visible in hindsight. Fred West got help to lay the cement in the garage that covered the grave of one of his victims years before he was caught, Ronnie Dunbar became the go to person for albeit reluctant social services trying to care for vulnerable teen Melissa Mahon, Mick Philpott of course, was a memorable guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s easy to say after the fact that surely someone should have known. Surely the final tragic events could have been avoided? But these cases remind us that real life isn’t that easy. The clues might all be there but the great detective isn’t called in until after the fact and everyone else will smile through gritted teeth until it’s all too late.

It’s not particularly surprising that cases like this become ciphers for other gripes. We seek justification, an easy ending. The idea that someone that blatant, that obviously dodgy, could go about with their swagger wreaking whatever havoc they may doesn’t sit well with an ordered society. So Ronnie Dunbar’s crime becomes a stick to beat the HSE with. Don’t get me wrong, there are massive failings in that area but the Dunbar case was the fault of one manipulative, narcissistic, sociopath not the social services in Sligo town. But it’s easier to think that it could have been prevented if the powers that be had been on their toes. It puts men like Philpott or Dunbar in a box, but that containment is an illusion.

Men like Philpott and Dunbar and Fred West fascinate because they are truly horrifying. They act with such disregard of societal norms that strikes against some very deep taboos. That’s why this particular type of robber baron takes the headlines, why they appear and reappear in fiction and legend. Take the case of Sawney Bean, illustrating this piece. It might have been a piece of anti Scottish propaganda but the tale of Sawney’s cannibal clan was used to terrorise generations of kids. The character crops up across popular culture too. Take Brian Blessed in Terry Nation’s original series of Survivors made in the 70s. His character Brod is a fictional take on much the same kind of character.

I’m not belittling the harm that Philpott, Dunbar and West have done. We are better off recognising this kind of abusive arrogance wherever it occurs rather than treating each new instance as an aberration and looking for somewhere else to lay the blame. Serial killers and cannibals might be outside the norm but narcissistic sociopaths who think the world owes them are two a penny and too many of them get what they want. Take the revelations about Jimmy Saville or the abuse detailed in the Ferns Report (and the rest) or pirate radio’s most notorious child abuser Eamonn Cooke. Abuse on this scale can only take place because an awful lot of blind eyes are turned. Philpott and Dunbar were both treated in the past as harmless clowns. Philpott got to make more TV. Staff walked out of Radio Dublin in the 70s when rumours were known but Cooke’s abuse continued for years. I’ve mentioned a disparate mix of cases in this post. They really only have one thing in common. The sexual abuse of the vulnerable. Arrogant men abuse. Arrogant men who are pandered to and allowed to continue. Sometimes they kill. All of the time they ruin lives.

I’m sick and tired of the constant surprise when these cases come to light. These men are predators. We should instinctively know how to spot them. It should be so deep rooted in us that we will run a mile but again and again those blind eyes are turned and nothing is done until it’s too late. The big, bad wolf is not cuddly. He’s a menace. He’s never a product of a society, however ill. He’s the thing we’re supposed to be keeping out. I didn’t mean for this to turn into a rant but it really does piss me off. As a journalist I watched some of the worst of these as they swaggered through their trials, acting the gentleman or even the victim. I’ve seen their victims tremble. But I’ve also known  my own big, bad wolf and I’ve been staggered at the blindness of others. Can we stop trying to blame these men on societies that are groaning at the seams and take a little bit of responsibility ourselves? I’m not in any way advocating anyone burning out their local paediatrician but if you know a child or a woman or a man who is in actually in trouble and who you genuinely feel is in danger for god’s sake say something to someone. The big, bad wolf does what he likes only when he’s allowed to and we all allow him.

Fighting the Federation in Killer Heels

Blakes 7

Growing up as a space-obsessed kids in the 70s and 80s I was used to the fact that, as a girl, I probably wouldn’t get to drive the TARDIS but if I happened to wander into the Federation, not only could I kick some serious fascist overlord ass but I could actually be that fascist overlord, if I so wished – and could put up with the feathers.

Recently I’ve been tweeting my way through the various box sets of the BBC’s seminal 1980s sci fi series Blakes 7. I’m currently halfway through the third series (where things start to get really silly) and most evenings I amuse myself sniping away at the frequently ridiculous costumes and somewhat hammy acting from certain members of the cast but fun as that might may be it’s got me thinking. I’ve been a fan of Blakes 7 since it first aired. I have a higher tolerance for the ludicrous plot twists of the third and fourth series because they were where I came in. When I was a little girl I thought Dana’s combination of cat suits with stilettos was seriously cool and I had a bit of a thing for Tarrant (both characters joined the show for the third series after the show lost two of it’s key characters including the eponymous Blake.) But with each adult viewing (we’ve the whole lot on DVD and it does tend to get yearly showings) I get a further appreciation of what a cracking show it is even at it’s weakest points. I’m increasingly glad that it was there when I was growing up, that it provided me with such strong role models and set the bar for all future space and future set viewing at an impressive height.

Blakes 7 inspired, at least partially, both Babylon 5 and Joss Whedon’s Firefly. It told the story of a motley crew of freedom fighters who were taking a stand against the repressive Federation led by the magnificent uber-bitch Servalan.

Servalan in heels

 

The original crew was lead by charismatic leader Roj Blake who ran around the galaxy righting wrongs dressed like a PVC -clad floppy sleeved Robin Hood (courtesy of the sometimes treacherous costume department). Blake had been a resistance leader on earth but had been stung with false pornography charges and sent to a penal colony (even though he never actually got there). Like Firefly our dynamic captain has a female second. Jenna Stannis was basically a female Han Solo minus the wookiee. She was a crack pilot, fearless fighter and a principled smuggler who had walked into her own brand of trouble when she refused to smuggle drugs for the mob. Kerr Avon is the somewhat self-serving hacker who’d got into trouble for a spot of bank robbing and was to spend the rest of the serious smouldering at Servalan and bristling at any rival alpha males including a computer. Olag Gan was the gentle strong man who had been fitted with a chip to help him with his anger management issues. Vila Restal was a super thief, known throughout the Federation and feared by anybody who had locks even though he seems to spend most of the later episodes playing the bumbling fool and token serf (back then the BBC future was very middle class indeed). After meeting on a prison ship this lot met up with alien empath Cally, who was basically a vigilante until she joined Blake’s crew. The seven were completed by the two ships computers – Zen, a Tetris light board with a rather stentorian attitude and everyone’s favourite neon perspex box of flashing lights, Orac. Orac was a computer with a personality problem who regularly refused to do what he was told, so not unlike some of today’s tech then.

Unfortunately after a very gritty, grimy start with hard hitting story lines and frequent industrial settings, the 80s and Margaret Thatcher arrived and everything got a little bit more neon and a lot more silly. Gareth Thomas famously left the part of Blake because he felt the show had become more Science Fantasy than Science Fiction. He was joined by Sally Knyvette who felt that the character of Jenna had been watered down in the second series. She talks about her concerns in this interview. The character of Dayna Mellanby who replaced her, certainly seemed to be more of a pleasure model, despite the character’s credentials as the best weapons manufacture the Federation had ever known. Tarrant, who attempted to slot into the green doublet left by Blake, was a rather petulant pretty boy who kept his silver spoon in his well pressed pocket. A rather unconvincing freedom fighter, since Avon had been providing the pouting arrogance since the start. The last female member of the crew Soolin, actually was a pleasure model with her fighting credentials tacked on as a bit of an after thought.

It’s perhaps odd that a show with such obvious flaws inspires such affection or perhaps it isn’t.  Each evening, when I start tweeting the next episode I’m amazed at the response I get. I’m always relieved people get in 140s characters that while I’m sending it up I do so with absolute affection – but I doubt I’d get the same response if I was so rude about Star Wars or Star Trek and I know I don’t when I poke fun at Hammer Films or The Prisoner. Cult movies and TV do get some rather intense fans but with Blakes 7 I’ve yet to encounter any. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a show that people love and love passionately. I loved it so much that when it came to an abrupt end in 1981 I was devastated. I started reading the Radio Times and watching Points of View just to scan for news of a reprieve. It was the first time I’d experienced the cancellation of a favourite show and I took it personally. Over the years, before either show was revived and we were all working purely on childhood memories, I’ve had rows with Doctor Who fans over which was better (I always liked both but you couldn’t say that in these rows). Blakes 7 was the one that people tended to forget back then, or to remember it dismissively as an also ran. Perhaps that’s why the affection for the show you encounter online is so warm. Despite the reliance on depressed industrial landscapes, despite the outrageous costumes, despite the sometimes dodgy portrayal of women and the utter campness of the whole thing, once you love it, you’ll love it for ever more.

When I was a kid I never noticed the fact that the women were styled to appeal to all the boys not to me. I loved the fact that Dayna was a crack shot with the large guns she’d built from scratch, not to mention the fact she could still aim straight while balancing in those strappy silver sandals with the three inch heels. Cally was my hero. I loved that she could calm situations without even raising her gun. Jenna I only discovered once I got the dvds so I can’t say she was a childhood rolemodel but to be honest the deepest impression was left by the series bad guy. Even though you weren’t supposed to like Servalan it was hard not to. The woman is a monster who destroys planets before sitting down to breakfast. She is so far over the top she’s coming down the other side and generally performs her tyranny in full evening dress with perfectly manicured nails and drag queen makeup. Jacqueline Pearce, who’d made various appearances in Hammer Films in the 60s as a wide eyed ingénue, gives the role her all and somehow, despite all the set chewing, flamboyant extravagance, is brilliant.

Servalan

With Servalan you knew she wasn’t wearing an outfit like this  because she was a sexual object, she was wearing it because she wanted to and probably because it unsettled whoever was in the meeting with her. She is the embodiment of an assumption that I always remember seeing in British sci fi growing up that the future would be equal. There would be no barrier to getting the top job as a woman because that argument had already been had. I knew I couldn’t drive the TARDIS because I wasn’t a Timelord but there were no barriers in the Federation. These were women who frequently did the rescuing, who could be in charge, who could do what they wanted. It’s something I’ll go into in more detail in a later post but I remember growing up with no shortage of role models like these. I’m not sure you could say that these days things have got worse but I can’t help feeling that for every Katniss Everdeen or Zoe Washburne there’s a Bella Swan dragging the whole side down. Perhaps it’s because family shows back then couldn’t have cohabiting protagonists back then so strong female characters tended to be shown as single (although that opens up a whole other kettle of worms if you’re going to look at them from a feminist perspective). Like I said – we’ll leave that for another day. Back in my college days I wrote countless essays on feminist views of popular culture. Don’t get me started on the male gaze! But that’s not for today.

Today I just want to sing the praises of the women of Blakes 7 who helped to make the show one of the campest BBC shows outside Come Dancing. I’ll be back on the Twitter when we put on the next episode tweeting at the hashtag #blakes7. If you want to watch along and have the DVDs we’re on Series 3 episode 10. I’m there most evenings between 10 and 11 GMT.

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!

A Point that Really Shouldn’t Need to be Made

Late yesterday afternoon, at around the time thoughts were turning towards what to have for dinner, my phone rang. It was a wonderfully geeky friend who knows of my own (not so closet) geeky tendencies. Had we talked about Much Ado About Nothing she asked excitedly.

“Um no, not recently.”

I knew that Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most hotly anticipated screenings at this year’s Jameson Dublin Film Festival. In attendance would be the director of this new production, none other but Joss Whedon. I knew about the screening all right. I also knew it was sold out.

But my wonderful friend had a tip. A small number of tickets were being released in the final hours before the screening. Would I like to go with her.

“Hell yes!”

So at 6 o’ clock yesterday four of us, all women, excitedly met outside the Savoy Cinema. We weren’t the only women there. Why would we be? This is the man responsible for Buffy the vampire slayer, for the formidable Zoe Washburne in Firefly, I could go off into a long list of amazing female characters but I’m trying to keep the fangirlness to an absolute minimum. Let’s just agree that Joss Whedon is known for his strong female characters. It’s a fact so mind bogglingly obvious it really doesn’t need saying. You would think. There were a lot of women at last night’s screening, a substantial percentage of the enthusiastic crowd.

After last night’s screening there was a Q&A conducted by John Maguire of the Sunday Business Post. Eventually questions were thrown open to the floor. You can imagine the number of hands went up for those microphones. The first question went to a guy in the first row. What it was is unimportant. The second went to a guy in the row behind him. Then another bloke, and another. Eventually Joss Whedon had to point out that there were women in the room. Wasn’t it time to let one answer a question?

The next question went to another man. Much to the annoyance of the woman sitting next to him who had also had her hand up.

Now I’m not saying that the guys who got the mic didn’t have a right to ask their question. Everyone in that audience was there for the same reason. Tickets sold out so quickly because Mr Whedon has a hell of a lot of fans of both sexes.

But he is known for his strong female characters.

Afterwards in the crowd outside the cinema people were smiley and happy and chatty. Our little group of four got talking to other audience members. All of them women. Nothing surprising in that. It was just the way it worked out. But we all commented on the fact that so few women had got to answer questions.

Of the two women who did get to ask one of them identified herself as a theatre director and producer. She wanted to adapt the famous musical episode of Buffy for the stage she explained. She had written a letter. To the audience’s, and I’m sure her, delight, Whedon crossed to her seat and took the letter from her, tucking it in his jacket pocket.

That took balls, everyone outside was saying. How appropriate.

That failure to give the mic to the women in the audience was the only gripe in an otherwise great evening. I don’t think it was done maliciously, probably not even intentionally, but it was done and it was noticed and it was remarked upon by the guest of honour himself.

The truly depressing thing about the fact that it wasn’t malicious and it was probably wasn’t intentional is that that this kind of stuff happens all the time. It happens with such mind numbing regularity I frequently want to scream. It’s like the time in college when a big journalistic name came to speak to our class. There was a lively discussion that went right up to the end of the day. Afterwards this big journalistic name, who was an old friend of our lecturer, agreed to go for a pint. Invitations were carelessly given but somehow the only people who got them were they lads in the class. Once again it wasn’t intentional, once again I found myself outside with the women noticing the omission.

It’s like fact that you can turn on Irish radio station between breakfast at dinner time and only hear a male host. The fantastic advocacy group Women on Air was set up to combat this. Despite a long list of qualified female contributors out there, Irish journalists (and those elsewhere, this isn’t solely an Irish problem by a long chalk) will go for the same old male reliable. I could go on giving examples forever. I’m sure you could add them yourself.

It’s frustrating as a women to feel even now, in Western Europe in the 21st Century, that you don’t have the same voice as the other half of the population. Even though my generation of women are the first who can look on our freedom as a birthright there is so much still to do. The fact that this freedom, this equality, is so easily forgotten shows just how fragile it is. The worst thing is that sometimes the offenders really should know better. Members of the so called “liberal meeja” really should know better.

When you’re interviewing someone who is known particularly for writing strong female characters then the issue should surely be at the front of your mind.

I’ll leave the final word to Joss Whedon himself. My miraculous ticket fairy also pointed me towards this clip of him accepting an award from the Equality Now movement. Says it all really.

The Importance of Remembering

This weekend past I visited the graves of forgotten women. It’s something see I do now and again when I can. It started when I was in the early days of researching this current book. There’s a gravesite in Glasnevin Cemetery, unmarked and unnoticed among the more haphazard stones of a century ago that belongs to one of the women I’m writing about. I know that Maria Kirwan bought the plot DX39 and the one beside it a couple of years before she died. I know that in September 1852 she was laid to rest there, only to be dug up a month later when the police investigation into her death got going.

I know that the grave was waterlogged that grim October day, that the new O’Connell tower was under construction, that the part of the graveyard she inhabits is known as the Dublin section, not quite as posh as the Garden section but classy enough for the good burghers of Dublin town who paid handsomely for headstones for their dearly beloved that left the reader in no doubt about the wealth of the mourners and the success of their businesses on such and such a street. Maria doesn’t have a stone. After her untimely death there was no one to buy one. Her husband didn’t care, too busy with the family he had built behind her back, her mother was too in thrall to the husband that had killed her, taking his money and speaking in his defence. Her brother had left for a new life in America and her doting father was dead. The victim often disappears in a murder case but that bare patch of ground is such a stark reminder of the anonymity of death. I know she’s down there but you can only find her if you know where to look.

I look at Maria’s face every time I sit down at my desk, she’s the subject of one of her husband’s sketches that I’ve copied and pinned at eye level to keep me focused on the task at hand. But every now and then I pay her a visit too. Sometimes I take flowers but every time I stop for a moment to think of her, or at least the version of her that now lives in my book. It started as a focusing exercise, a way of grounding myself to the characters I’m writing but now I pop in if I’m passing Glasnevin cemetery. Her grave reminds me that I’m writing about real women, that even though I’m imagining their story their pain was real, their lives and deaths were real. This is the hinterland of fiction, with its ghosts and phantoms. I have to keep one foot in the real world and be respectful of the historical fact.

This weekend I brought two bunches of flowers. There was another grave I wanted to visit. Actually in Glasnevin there are a number of graves I’d like to place flowers on, just a gentle nod to say I’ve noticed, just an acknowledgement of their story, their passing, a nod of solidarity as one human being to another, a nod to say they are not forgotten. There’s the Millennium Plot, in the somewhat grim mass grave section, this is where they bury those who died alone. Who had no one to mark their passing, on the street, in a bedsit wherever. It’s all too easy to slip through the cracks in this world we live in now, just look at poor Joyce Vincent, subject of the 2011 film Dreams of a Life, who wasn’t discovered for three years after her death, the television still playing for her skeleton when she was found. It’s a very modern fear, that lonely forgotten death, even if it is nothing new.  We should all pay more attention to those around us. Maybe stopping at the Millennium Plot would remind us that.

But this weekend the extra flowers weren’t for them. Last week former presidential spouse Senator Martin McAleese’s report into the Magdalen Laundries was published. It got a rather mixed reception. While it did find beyond doubt was that the Irish State had indeed routinely sent women into the infamous Magdalen Laundries, it also took the word of the religious orders about the word of the women who had come forward to describe their experiences. Lets not forget that these laundries were the sweat shops that provided the grand hotels with nice starched linen, the crisp white tablecloths of State banquets, that kept wayward girls and women off the streets in the days when the female sex were viewed as dangerous and crushable. These were places where the courts sent female convicts, where families sent their rebellious women folk, the receptacle where the destitute and the desperate ended up, in some occasions sent there by those they had approached to help including, staggeringly, the Red Cross, The Simon Community and the Samaritans. Over the past seven days we have watched the Taoiseach stumble his way round a non-apology, the religious orders who ran the homes try to tell the women who had suffered under their care that they just hadn’t fully appreciated the experience in the spirit it was intended and the women who were there still waiting for proper recognition of what they’ve been through.

These workhouses were no different from the grim places of terror that haunted the Famine weakened. They were run with the same pious ruthlessness that calmly discussed in the 1840s how they could make a handy buck from the sale of the bodies piling up within their walls if they sold them to the anatomists. We think of workhouses as fossils, relics from an unrecognisably brutal time when life was cheap and brutal. But the Magdalen Laundries continued into the 20th Century. They continued past the formation of a new State, they continued until the last one closed it’s doors in the 1990s. You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats it’s weakest. What do these stories, and these, say about Ireland?

It’s not good enough to say that times were different. Times are always different from what passed before. This was a brutal thing done by religious orders who should have shown more compassion, a State that should have shown more concern for it’s citizens and a people that should have cared more about their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. Sadly the Magdalens aren’t an isolated tale of a section of society ill-treated by those who had a duty of care. We’ve already heard of the Industrial Schools, the Orphanages, the Asylums. modern Irish history is littered with the weak and vulnerable being treated like inconvenient rubbish by those who should have done better. We should at least have the honesty to say that if you didn’t decry the system you allowed it, you condoned it, you are just as liable. It’s easy to feel that it’s just all too much, that the constant revelations over the past couple of decades are threatening to overwhelm you in a wave of intolerable injustice. But you can’t turn away, not this time. When the decision was made to deal with the vulnerable by pushing them out of sight out of mind and turning a blind eye no one came out well. It’s a shame the whole country has to take their part in. It should never have happened, but it did. It should never happen again, but it will.

So that’s where I brought my bunch of flowers.

Flowers in front of the Magdalene memorial in Glasnevin Cemetary

 

This stone stands in the car park of Glasnevin Cemetery, commemorating nameless women whose sins went with them to the grave. It’s not the only Magdalen stone in the Graveyard. There are others and still more in graveyards around the country. Then there are the buildings were we locked away those that couldn’t look after themselves, or that didn’t fit in. None of it should be forgotten. This is a part of Ireland’s history that is still a part of our present. We need to remember the truth, the reality of what happened and why it happened and watch for that brutality and nip it in the bud. Maria’s grave helps keep my fiction rooted in fact. I’d like the other flowers to do something similar. I’ll keep leaving flowers and you never know it might catch on, perhaps one day it’ll be as big a trend as the padlocks that hang from the Ha’penny Bridge to honour teenage love. Something that will get people talking, asking questions and will keep the memory of all this stuff alive. It’s our duty to remember or it will keep happening because no lessons will ever be learnt.

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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