An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

A quick “I told you so”

Posted in Irish, Relationships, Religion by Frieda on January 11, 2010
Mrs. Robinson

Mrs. Robinson

Not that you’re disagreeing with me, necessarily.

DUBLIN — I ended my last post with a suggestion to “watch this space” — the particularly Irish space where scandals are brewing this winter holiday. Within four days, a new scandal had broken: the Mrs. Robinson liaison between the 59-year-old wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and a 19-year-old boy.

It’s a complicated, seedy, and frankly fascinating affair and one that has been treated widely enough elsewhere (here, here and here to give a small selection). I will, however, direct you self-promotionally to a whimsical piece I wrote about Iris Robinson’s credentials (or otherwise) as a feminist icon.

I’m watching BBC news right now. The newscaster has pointed out that Peter Robinson’s temporary replacement, Arlene Foster, is the first woman to lead government in Stormont, and the second woman, after Mrs. Thatcher, to hold such high office in the UK. And she’s only 39.

I’m not really arguing that feminism has anything to do with this story, but it’s funny how the tawdry shuffle of power is playing out for women.

I promise my next post will be wholesome.

Atheists in Ireland?

Posted in Irish, Religion by Frieda on January 3, 2010

Blasphemy is now punishable by up to 25,000 euros

DUBLIN — It turns out, Ireland has its atheists, and they are a wily, rambunctious bunch. In the past three days Irish atheists have become embroiled in a tussle with the Irish government, when the Justice Minister Dermot Ahern brought in a law (see article 36) banning blasphemy. The law took effect on January 1 2010, and the activist group Atheist Ireland immediately launched a campaign website, where they published 25 blasphemous quotes in defiance of the law.

You could almost see it as a modern-day, digital version of Martin Luther’s 95 theses (themselves a protest against the corrupt Catholic Church.)

The matter has already had vast coverage (including a short piece by me), and Atheist Ireland’s website crashed several times because of sheer demand. I met Michael Nugent, chairperson of the group and a fascinating character, earlier today when I attended the monthly meeting of the Humanist Association of Ireland, in Buswells Hotel in Dublin. Nugent is articulate and seems immensely knowledgeable on legal matters. In the face of government folly and insult flinging, he seems all the more quick-witted and bright.

In the London Times today the Department of Justice announced — not a little offensively — that Ahern did not “have the luxury of time to deal with some crackpot sitting in an attic somewhere sending around quotes that are intended to be blasphemous.”

According to Nugent, the Department of Justice has let it be known that there is no chance someone could be prosecuted under the blasphemy legislation.

“They’re not taking seriously the act of enacting legislation,” Nugent suggested, when I spoke to him.

If this is true, Ahern’s apparent lack of respect for the judicial system is even more shocking than his decision to enact the law. If he really thinks his amendments are too trivial to land anyone in court, then why on earth did he bring them in? It’s enormously short-sighted too. Once the legislation’s in place, we don’t know how the judges in future generations will interpret it.

Here’s what the law says: “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding 25,000 euro.”

The legislation continues, in a statement I barely understand, but which I think puts artistic freedom in jeopardy and looks back to myopic mid-twentieth century censorship: “It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.”

And it adds some intriguing remarks Nugent says are meant to refer to Scientology:

“In this section “ religion ” does not include an organisation or cult—

(a) the principal object of which is the making of profit, or

(b) that employs oppressive psychological manipulation—

(i) of its followers, or

(ii) for the purpose of gaining new followers.”

It’s getting late in the evening now, but I want to give you just two other snippets before I leave off this subject.

1) Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association next want to delete from Irish legislation the need for the President, and for judges, to swear an oath asking God for help. “So up to a quarter of a million Irish people [ie. the atheists] cannot hold these offices without swearing a lie,” they argue.

2) ) Nugent & friends have set up a Church of Dermotology — worshipping Dermot Ahern — on Facebook. I believe they may take legal action if someone blasphemes it.

Religious debates and scandals in Ireland are a simmering, potent brew right now. Watch this space — more fireworks are sure to come.

Book burning and protests at Dublin midnight mass

Posted in Irish, Religion by Frieda on December 25, 2009
St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Dublin

St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Dublin*

DUBLIN — Outside midnight mass tonight, a man was burning books. At least two copies of the Murphy Report into Child Abuse in Dublin went up in flames. The mass was no ordinary Christmas ceremony, but a tense affair, with hecklers and an Archbishop in full, golden regalia, who seemed humble and eager to please.

Although we’re not practising Catholics, my family has always gone to mass on Christmas eve. This evening my mom and I arrived late to the ceremony at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin (it began at 10pm, not midnight, we belatedly found out), but a sense of suppressed excitement was in the air, and we could instantly tell something odd was going on. I don’t remember gardai being at the service before but this year two or three of them stood at the back of the church. After the Palestrina choir’s gorgeous rendition of “Oh Holy Night,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has been navigating the tortuous waters the Catholic Church now faces in the wake of the Murphy Report, thanked the singers and all those who had helped prepare for the ceremony. Everyone clapped.

Then, he added that he had spoken to auxiliary Bishop Ray Field and Bishop Eamonn Walsh before the mass, and they had offered their resignation to the Pope. The congregation clapped, again (my mother says with less enthusiasm but it was hard to tell). The archbishop looked worn and his cheeks were puffy and red.

“Pray for them,” he asked the congregation. And he added, “pray for me.”

The clergy made their way down the aisle in a long procession, accompanied by Dublin’s mayor Emer Costello and other dignitaries. They rounded the corner to return to the top of the church along a side aisle, but the archbishop and a priest swerved away and went straight outside instead, going down the cathedral steps and onto the road.

I could’t quite see what was going on — whether Martin crossed the street to the man burning the Murphy Reports. Cameras were snapping, people craned their necks to get a glimpse of the drama. Martin and the priest came back up the Pro-Cathedral steps and stood by the doors greeting those who came out.

I went over to speak to the protester. He said he had just completed a seven-day hunger strike outside the Dail. Both he and his brother had been abused, he explained. When his brother was a boy priests who were his teachers had broken his arm in two places and locked him in a shed for two days. The man said the Murphy Report is a cover-up and does not go far enough. He wants the bishops, and Archbishop Martin, to go on trial for concealing facts.

There was something obscene about the whole thing. People came out from the Pro-Cathedral in throngs and while many stared, nobody wanted to talk to the book-burner. One man called over, “the Nazis did that too.”

My mother and I eventually made our way to our car, which was in a desolate and now empty car-park. A drunk, short-haired, spotty guy in his twenties was loitering unsteadily near our car, and he requested money for “looking after” it. When we refused he held my 68-year-old mother’s door open and wouldn’t let her close it. We somehow managed to get quickly into the car and lock the doors, after which he spat a big glob on the window and kicked my mom’s door.

Dublin feels strange at the moment. On the drive home my mother said it’s a terrible time for Irish history, when all the horrors of abuse are coming to light. But even though it is terrible — and this may be why the city feels frightening and unsettled — it surely was worse before, when people couldn’t say anything.

*I got the photo of the Pro-Cathedral from a blog called Clerical Whispers — which itself reports that a woman knocked over the Pope at the Vatican’s Christmas Eve mass.

Ireland’s Forgotten Maggies

Posted in Irish, Religion by Frieda on October 5, 2009
High Park Laundry, after it was damaged in a fire

High Park Laundry, after it was damaged in a fire

Last week I went to a screening of the Forgotten Maggies at the Cantor film center in NYU. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. It’s a small, independent film made by one Stephen O’Riordan from Cork. He located four women who had been Magdalenes — incarcerated for years in Magdalene Laundries where they worked for nuns, without receiving pay — and got them to talk about their experiences. The interesting thing is the resistance the film encountered in Ireland: O’Riordan had to battle for it to be shown at the Galway Film Festival (where it went on to be a big hit); and only after it was screened in New York did the Irish state broadcaster, RTE, start to show an interest in it, mooting the idea of making it into a series.

The film was shocking. The women spoke of being beaten and abused sadistically by the nuns, though they were little more than children. Shame taints their experiences and some never told their husbands and families what they’d been through. But they’d had done little to deserve their punishment — one was on the street because her mother couldn’t care for her, another didn’t want to go to convent school; sometimes girls were put in Laundries just because they were beautiful, it was for their own protection. Perhaps most horrifyingly, O’Riordan discovered the mass graves of more than one thousand women, who were buried often without name or date, in groups, on convent grounds. They were the women who simply never got out.

The most fascinating aspect of the film, for me, was the Irish government’s continued resistance to acknowledge the Magdalenes. Although the government has investigated child abuse in the so-called industrial schools in Ireland, it says the Laundries were private institutions for which it’s not responsible; this is despite the fact that when girls tried to flee from the Laundries the Gardai would bring them straight back. The state certainly colluded in what happened.

Why won’t the current government, which can’t be blamed for abuses in the past, apologise to the women for their treatment meted out to them by the state? I asked O’Riordan this question in the Q&A session that followed the film. He pointed out that if the state apologises, it’ll have to reimburse the women. The Irish government has already paid out billions to the victims of child abuse, and its coffers are hardly full now.

The Magdalene women were always told by the nuns and other officials that nobody would believe them. This is something the Nazis also told their concentration-camp victims (the situations are utterly different. Still …). The irony is that now, even in our modern society, even with the Celtic Tiger (ok, it’s over. Still …), the government is refusing to give credence to their accounts. That says something terrible about Ireland. On the other hand, O’Riordan’s boyish support of the women and their cause says something altogether different, and better. Here’s hoping his advocacy pays off.

(Note: the photo above is from the image gallery in the website of Justice for Magdalenes)