Beyond Satire

Yesterday, 1st July 2014 saw an incident occur in Dublin city centre.

An incident that, in the way it played out, spoke volumes about our relationship with mental health in Ireland. Faced with the reality of  a potential emergency, the Irish public and media reacted in a way that painted a stark, grim and dare I say it, depressing picture of our real attitudes towards those who behave in a way that suggests mental distress.

At approximately 10.30pm yesterday morning, a shirtless man was spotted on the roof of the Abercrombie and Fitch building on College Green, where he was seen climbing back and forth between the “peak” of the building, to the roof just behind it. He then moved to the adjacent, taller Ulster Bank building where he continued to move around the roof, and for a time balanced precariously on top of a statue on top of one of the buildings. Gardai were called to the scene, where they talked to the man for a number of hours (while the crowd looked on) and eventually, to their credit (and I’m sure, great relief) saw that he alighted safely from the roof.

I wasn’t there. But I know this, because within minutes of the man being spotted, a crowd of hundreds of people gathered on College Green. They stood, and they watched. I know, because they started posting photos on social media. I know, because a number of national news outlets and “entertainment sites” – too many to name, in fact – under the guise of reporting ensuing traffic disruptions, decided to post photos of the man on their webpages. Photos that in some cases, would arguable render the man identifiable, particularly to friends or family. Some even went as far as posting video.

Because it’s “news”. Because we “live in a digital age”. Because news is now “real time reporting”.

Conveniently, every news outlet that went ahead, published images of this man and told the nation what was happening on Dame Street chose to ignore the Samaritans’ responsible reporting guidelines. Guidelines, which were issued because, according to the Chairman of the Press Council of Ireland:

“The media … has a heavy responsibility in the manner in which it reports incidents of suicide and self-harm. I know that they are anxious to meet that responsibility.”

Really?

That must be why they ignored the following advice, then, from page 9 of the guidelines:

“Avoid dramatic or emotional images and footage, such as a person standing on a ledge.Try not to illustrate a report with specific locations, such as a bridge or cliff, especially if this is a place where people frequently take their own lives.”

and did exactly the opposite.

It’s not like the media just forgot, or that they weren’t aware of the guidelines. Within seconds of posting the images, amidst the ensuing comments, callous jokes and bitter dismissals of a man “wasting taxpayers’ money”, numerous members of the public objected to the images, and posted links to the page on the Samaritans’ website. All objections were ignored. Apart from Broadsheet.ie, who, to their credit, removed the image. TheJournal.ie closed the comments on their article – the same article that included a number of photos and videos.

Those guidelines are there for a reason. They’re there to protect other people, and in particular, people who may be at risk of suicide or self-harm themselves. So basically, some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

(Incidentally, other guidelines on that list advise not providing detail on how a person died by suicide, and not reading out the contents of a suicide note. But of course, certain factions of the media have form in ignoring them.)

Of course, it can be argued that this wasn’t a suicide, so these guidelines didn’t apply. That none of us knew why the man was on the roof.

Sure, we didn’t. We didn’t even know whether it was related to a mental health issue. True.

Was it any of our business? No.

But did we know for sure that we weren’t looking at a man in serious distress? No.

Was there a concern for his safety? Yes.

Clearly, in the eyes of the Irish media, that concern for a man’s safety was superseded by the need to get the scoop. Everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t they?

That, unfortunately, is  how certain elements of our media (not all – there are some wonderful, conscientious individual exceptions) view people who behave in an “abnormal” manner.  They encourage people to turn voyeur. To watch, to point, to laugh and joke. Much like a circus freak of the 19th century. Very few are willing to take a stand, while there are clicks to be gained. How far we’ve come.

Then – then! –  because that wasn’t enough, the news outlets decided they’d turn the images over to social media. Just to make sure that as many people as possible all over Ireland knew that someone in Dublin was in trouble (and that there were traffic disruptions) so that they could all watch him, and the situation play out. Just like a TV programme, for our entertainment.

And we all know how social media works, on a good day. Complete with the usual crimes against spelling and grammar, the comments came flooding in.

From the Irish Times Facebook page:

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From the Irish Independent Facebook page:

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And from Twitter.

I could go on. I could post hundreds more, all screen shot from yesterday’s news stories (though many of the crueller ones have since been deleted).

Can you sense the sympathy? The  compassion? The empathy?

So it appears, for all the mental health awareness campaigns, all the suicide awareness discussions, all the reminders for people to watch out for the signs,  for each other, to show a bit of compassion and kindness, to talk and listen, when faced with a person who looked like he was in crisis, Ireland dismissed him without even attempting to understand, and reverted to cold, hard type. Some online expressed their disgust with what was happening – about the cruelty, and about the images. Which is encouraging, to some extent. But those objections were roundly ignored. The snide comments kept coming, and the images stayed.

In Dame Street, 300 people stayed in the area for the duration of the incident, watching and waiting. Waiting for what? Who knows. After four hours, the man alighted, and everyone went home. A day of entertainment over.

And what now of our friend on the roof?

Who knows? And who really cares?

The below image links to an article worth reading, from the consistently excellent satirical site, Waterford Whispers News. Not for the first time, it holds a mirror up to Ireland – to us –  and the way we behave when faced with vulnerable people in our society. Time and time again, it’s been demonstrated that we either ignore them, we dismiss them or we simply ridicule them.

How far we’ve come, indeed.

 

#DatesWithDublin #4 – Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum

As part of my ever more enjoyable Dates With Dublin series, I’d planned to take a trip out to Glasnevin Cemetery last Saturday for a wander through the mausoleums and a mooch around the museum. I’d heard that the Glasnevin Trust have been doing some pretty amazing work developing the museum, as well as repairing and maintaining the vast cemetery in Dublin 11 – Ireland’s largest, by far and was looking forward to an afternoon hanging out with a bunch of the least argumentative people you could possibly encounter.

As chance, coincidence and plain old good luck would have it, I received an email from the lovely Darragh Doyle on Friday afternoon, inviting me along on a blogger’s tour of… you’ve guessed it, Glasnevin Cemetery, courtesy of the folks at Slattery Communications. I didn’t need to be asked twice, and at 12pm on Saturday, I found myself ensconced in the boardroom at Glasnevin Cemetery Museum, chowing down on sambos with the crème de la crème of Dublin’s bloggers, tweeters, and PR people learning the story of Glasnevin. From a personal point of view (and I know this is weird), death and funerals fascinate me. I find the traditions and the rituals around death interesting, particularly in Ireland, and I was looking forward to finding out a bit more about them from the experts.

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I know I won’t do justice to the national treasure that is Glasnevin Cemetery in this short blog post. I couldn’t.  You need to go and see it for yourself.  If you haven’t been, organise a trip, or hop on a bus and just go.  But I will tell you that while it’s not your regular tourist attraction, it’s a fascinating way of passing a half a day. Even if you’re not as big a fan of dead people as I am.

Our day started with a bit of background from Tipperary-born Mervyn Colville, who filled us in on the history of the cemetery, and about the work the Trust does. Mervyn was riveting – the story of Glasnevin is fascinating, and his passion for the job shone through with every word. Mervyn was ably assisted by resident historian and mine of information Shane MacThomáis (who later brought us on a tour of the treasures), and social media guru Luke Portess, who’s responsible for creative marketing and communications. Luke is doing excellent job of engaging with the public via contemporary media (you can follow the cemetery and museum on twitter and Instagram) and is one of the team responsible for the cemetery’s quirky new marketing campaign which, in a theme that consistently emerged throughout the day, is all about the people. Watch out for it

Glasnevin Cemetery

What it says on the tin

Some of the more fascinating facts about Glasnevin, in a nutshell:

  • There are 1.5 million people buried in the cemetery. That, my friends, is more people underground in Glasnevin than are over ground in the whole of Dublin City. Impressive, huh? And it’s still filling up rapidly, necessitating the formulation of contingency plans, before the cemetery runs out of space.
  • The first funeral in Glasnevin was that of eleven year-old Michael Carey, on 22 February, 1832. He wasn’t alone for very long.
  • There are approximately 200,000 gravestones in the cemetery. Many, before restoration began, were in a state of disrepair – cracked, sinking etc. About 60% of them have now been restored.
Repaired gravestones in Glasnevin Cemetery

Repaired gravestones in Glasnevin Cemetery

  • Glasnevin was the first cemetery in Ireland to blaze a trail (sorry) and open a crematorium. There are still only four in Ireland, though the number of people opting for cremations is steadily growing year on year. Pacemakers and artificial hips are not suitable for cremation – the former can explode, and the latter, well, nothing happens to them. Just so you know.
  •  Interestingly, there is no regulation governing cremation in Ireland at present. None.
  • There are, however, regulations in place in Glasnevin now regarding the type and size of headstone you can add to a grave, and the message you can write on it. This is to avoid political and overly personal messages. You can, however, use whatever font you like. No-one’s opted for Comic Sans … yet.
  • The cemetery is non-denominational – basically no matter what your religion, you’re welcome here. A cemetery “for all religions and none”.
  • There are watchtowers located around the cemetery, built to deter bodysnatchers. (Rumour has it that back in the day, Prime Minister Robet Peel, upon the subject of the body-snatchers, was heard to proclaim that it was “indeed, a grave matter”.)
  • There are many, many famous people buried in Glasnevin. Writers, politicians, characters from Ulysses – you name it, Glasnevin is home to them. On our short tour we “met” Michael Collins (and Kitty Kiernan, buried within a respectable distance), Eamon de Valera, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jim Larkin, Maude Gonne, Brendan Behan and Sir Roger Casement among others. And of course, Daniel O’Connell.
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Shane Mac Thomáis emulating Big Jim Larkin

  • Daniel O’Connell’s family tomb is located under a huge round tower monument that took 8 years to build, but was bombed by Loyalists in 1972, destroying the staircase and with it a spectacular view of the city. The plan is to rebuild the staircase in time and restore this unique and historic vantage point. O’Connell’s enormous coffin is placed within a tomb, through which you can see it, and reach in and touch it. Wow. In a separate room is the “family stack” where the lead-lined coffins of O’Connell’s family are piled up, almost carelessly, close to the great man himself.

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The great man’s great big coffin

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The O’Connell Family Stack

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Tantalising view of the top

There are at least a million more things to tell you about Glasnevin (probably 1.5 million, given that every body has its own story). You might say death is a great equaliser, but from the mass pauper graves homing the thousands of people who could not afford decent burials or died during epidemics, to the Angels plot, to the extravagant, ornate carvings which adorn the resting places of Dublin’s wealthy, all human life is here. The museum in particular is a poignant, yet powerful monument to the people within Glasnevin (who at all times remain the focus), telling as it does the stories of many who lie within the plots. The glass wall displaying symbols of the lives of a select few serve as a striking reminder of the purpose this place serves.

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Just one of the many stories of Glasnevin Cemetery

What struck me throughout our day with the team was the respect and sensitivity with which they spoke and with which they treat their surroundings – all are evidently keenly aware that the position they hold is one that brings with it great responsibility in terms of  maintaining, repairing, developing and marketing the cemetery, particularly given the need for greater commercialisation in order to generate funds for maintenance. I got the sense that every decision is debated, dissected and considered carefully, which is reassuring given the amount of stakeholders – dead and alive – who are potentially affected. Shane, in particular, you feel, has walked every inch of this ground hundreds of times and knows it intimately, and this very charismatic, warm and witty man’s affection for the place shone through in every word.  In what is becoming one of Ireland’s busiest tourist attractions, there is, oddly, a wonderful sense of calm and beauty, particularly in the older, green areas among the cemetery’s oldest residents.

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Tranquility for Taphophiles

The Glasnevin Trust has many more plans for the future. As well as restoring the O’Connell monument, there are still thousands of graves to be repaired and a memorial wall containing the names of all the dead from 1914-22 is being mooted. The cemetery lies a little bit away from the tourist trail, on the northside but is very easily accessible via public transport or you can drive and park. Hop on a bus or your bike and go! There’s a shop, café, all the information you can possibly consume, a genealogy centre and a myriad of guided tours and events in the pipeline. I really can’t encourage you enough to go see this piece of our history.

And go visit the Gravediggers afterwards. The hype is indeed true, and the pint I had there afterwards with my new blogging buddies was indeed one of the finest I have tasted above ground in Dublin. A fine end to a fine day.

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Thirsty tourists

Thanks to all at Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum, and the good people at Slattery Communications for the invitation – it was a pleasure to partake.

A response to a response to a response on marriage equality

You may remember I wrote a response  in reply to Breda O’Brien’s piece on marriage equality a few weeks back.

My piece sparked a discussion on twitter with David, an old friend of mine, and a far greater thinker than I could ever hope to be. While himself an endorser of marriage equality, David wondered, with sound reason whether there were a better way of making the argument Breda was trying to make, and indeed, if there were any merit to the arguments being made against marriage equality.

What David says:

“I’m curious whether there is a distinctively conservative, non-question-begging argument against marriage equality that should trouble those of us who endorse marriage equality. It might seem odd that I’d be interested in that question. If I think that we ought to have marriage equality, shouldn’t I be happy that opponents of marriage equality use such terrible arguments?

Here is my answer to that question. I doubt that many people believe that the reason we ought to prohibit same-sex marriage is the arbitrary dictate of a god (though I’m sure some do). And I think many people, even if they have reactions of disgust to homosexual sex, do not think that their reaction of disgust is a good reason to prohibit same-sex marriage (though again, I’m sure some do). But many of those people, I suspect, still think there’s a good underlying reason to prohibit same-sex marriage, even if they can’t quite express that reason.

If that’s right, then if we proponents of marriage equality only respond to the terrible arguments that Breda O’Brien illustrates, our responses might still leave many people uncomfortable. Those people might have the lingering feeling that there was some truth in those arguments, terrible as they were, and that our objections to the arguments missed that kernel of truth. If, however, the argument against marriage equality is set out at its strongest, I hope those lingering feelings can be lessened, and that people can more wholeheartedly embrace marriage equality.

At the very least, we will more clearly understand what separates us from our opponents. That doesn’t mean I think it’s any less important to respond to Breda O’Brien’s, and others’, terrible arguments; I think it’s really important to do that. But I think we ought to undertake, too, this different task.”

David teases out the arguments in great detail here and here , and I’d strongly recommend you have a read.

You’ll find David at @_d_o_b_ on twitter.

#Savita, abortion, and why no-one is ever right

The findings from the inquest of Savita Halappanavar in Galway this week make for grim reading. As the days pass, and snippets of information are fed through on TV, radio and social media, with each sorry revelation we are slowly piecing together a tragic chain events. We are hearing of failures – both human and systemic – of frustrations, of fears and of the story of the very avoidable death of a young woman. What struck me most when that story came to light on 14th November 2012 was that happened to Savita could easily have happened to any one of us, our sisters, friends, daughters. And amidst the many, many elements of this complex tale – the reporting, the laws, the healthcare, what ensures this makes headlines day after day is not just the politics, but the very human face of the story.
Photo: IrishTimes.com

The discussion and debate around Savita’s inquest this week has been criticised for the level to which it has been hijacked and politicised by the two sides of the debate – the “pro-life” and the “pro-choice”. (Terms, incidentally, I detest.) Indeed, the crassness and closed-mindedness of some of the commentary has been nothing short of disrespectful in its militant determination to push its own agendas. Many of the pro-life side blatantly and robotically ignoring the fact that Savita was refused a medical termination was a key factor in the outcome. Many in the pro-choice camp ignoring the fact that in turn, medical negligence has clearly also played a large role. The complexity of the inquest means that both the abortion issue and the standard of the medical care received by Savita are relevant, and to deny either amounts to a deliberate obfuscation of the story in order to pursue a personal agenda. Which in itself is disingenuous and counter-productive, even disrespectful. This is not to mention the glee with which certain elements are attacking Catholics en masse, in what amounts to another form of thinly disguised bigotry. Not that certain members of the church can claim any degree of critical thinking in the debate, such is their adherence to tired Catholic dogma at the expense of the more Christian values of compassion and care.

However, we do need to have this discussion. And happily, we are hearing a little more from those who occupy the middle ground. Listening to and watching coverage of the debate on abortion in the Irish media over the past 20-odd years, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no middle ground. That everyone is either pro-life or pro-abortion. I have even heard arguments rubbishing the use of the term “pro-choice”, suggesting that those who use it are simply, “pro-abortion”, and why dress it up? This does a great disservice to the large proportion of people who may or may not personally agree with abortion, but fervently hope that they are never faced with that decision, and would not seek to deny others the choice of making it. I think of all the discourse I have read around abortion since November, Johnny Fallon summed up my own feelings best in this piece published in the Irish Independent. The issue is far from clear-cut, and despite what political commentators insist, I would hazard a guess that most reasonable, compassionate Irish people feel like this and above all, hope it is a decision they are never faced with.

What irks me most, I think within this debate, is that, within the pro-life lobby – apart from the frankly ludicrous women-queuing-up-to-have-abortions scenario they appear to envisage –  there is little recognition of the fact that even if abortion were readily available in Ireland, it is a path that many women, even those facing an unplanned or unviable pregnancy would not choose. Even among those who advocate for choice, it’s a safe to suggest that for some, it would not be a choice they would make personally.  Equally, what irritates me about certain elements of the pro-choice campaign is the inherent assumption that all pro-lifers are driven by a religious agenda.

Meanwhile, what scares me the most reading Savita’s story, is that as a woman of childbearing age, under current Irish law, I can present to a hospital, in physical and emotional pain, be told that my baby is going to die, and be forced, against all my wishes and instincts, to comply with a standard procedure – natural delivery – that prolongs that pain. Under Irish law, in this situation, I don’t have a say in my treatment. Whatever your views on abortion, forcing a pregnant woman who is miscarrying to carry through with a natural delivery (and placing her at a higher risk of infection) when there are medical options available to hasten the procedure is, in my mind, wrong. The thought of it terrifies me – Praveen and Savita are described as “begging” for a termination. How needlessly traumatic.  I’m not medical expert, but I can see no moral or ethical reason why she should not have had the choice of a medical termination in that situation. And I see no reason either why a middle-aged midwife should feel she has to apologise for explaining the cultural basis of our laws to a distressed woman why it is that her wishes had to be ignored.

Incidentally, neither do I, as a citizen of a supposed democracy, should I feel I should have to consider before attending a doctor whether their own personal beliefs will prevent me from accessing all the information I need to decide what course of action is best for me. While it’s natural that doctors hold personal beliefs, based on their own ethical and moral code, at the very least they should be obliged to provide information and contacts on all options, including abortion, should a woman seek them.

Using Savita’s death to call for “Action on X” makes me feel uncomfortable, however. In fact,  I have serious reservations about leglisating for X in its current form, but that’s a discussion for another time. My understanding and belief is that even had it been already enshrined in legislation, it would have done little to prevent Savita’s death, as it was not believed her life was in danger when the termination was requested. Had Savita been granted a termination when she sought one, however, and not been left vulnerable to infection for so long, it is likely and arguable that the sepsis which killed her would never have set in. (It is also likely, that had it been a surgical termination, she would have monitored more closely). That she did not, and was not is a direct consequence of our abortion laws. And who is to say that Savita is the first, or will be the last?

Ultimately, I am in favour of full choice for women when it comes to abortion. Yes, abortion “on demand” (what a dreadful, dreadful term) should be available, if a woman decides it is the option she wants to pursue.  I believe that any woman who honestly thinks an abortion is the best option for her should receive the necessary physical – and more importantly, psychological care, firstly to make that decision and secondly, to deal with the implications if she does. While I may hold my own beliefs, I cannot in good conscience say why they should prevent others from making a decision that involves their own body, based on their own instincts, conscience and beliefs. I would greatly welcome a referendum on full abortion; however I cannot imagine that happening in Ireland even within my lifetime.

I’ve been accused, perhaps justifiably, of passing the buck on this before. How I can advocate giving people the choice to “kill an unborn child”? Do my beliefs extend to giving women the option of third trimester abortions? Where I would draw the line and at what stage does an “embryo” or “fetus” become a “life”? Again, I have my own beliefs, but I still maintain it’s not for me to say. In the absence of proof, I’m not the one who should draw those lines definitively for others. All I can ever do is try, in as much as is possible, to control my own situation, and live by my own conscience and moral code when it comes to such matters, and importantly, allow others the freedom to do the same. And certainly where others are not in a situation to control their situations (e.g in the case of a pregnancy as a result of rape, or  where a pregnant woman has been told her fetus is incompatible with life) who on earth am I to deny them the means of dealing with it in the way they feel is right?

The bottom line is that with abortion,  no-one can ever claim to be really right.

Whatever your opinions on abortion, or indeed on religion or healthcare in Ireland, it is important and respectful to remember that at the heart of the evidence we are hearing this week lies a tragic story of a beautiful, healthy young woman, two bereaved parents living half a world away and a heartbroken husband who has lost his wife needlessly. With her, he lost the promise of a family, and whilst dealing with his own grief he has had to fight to have his story heard and believed. In doing so, he has done this country a huge service by making us confront an issue we have conveniently ignored for far too long. That should not be forgotten.

 Photo: D.B. Patil (www.thehindu.com)

Seasons

Never mind your festive season, your romantic notions of White Christmases, your open fires and your winter cheer.

In reality, it’s usually just rain. Or slush. And The Grey.

February, anyone? Is there a more miserable month of the year that must be endured? I think not.

No, you can keep that.

Give me glorious Autumn any day, with its crisp, bright golden mornings. Nature’s annual parade of pride when the trees puff out their chests and wear their technicolour coats with aplomb. Harvest smells abound. And the countryside looks so alive and beautiful, it could make your heart burst.

The worst thing about Autumn? It doesn’t last long enough. It’s a few fleeting weeks – a parade, a showtime. Then it’s gone – it’s just a russet-hued, blush-soaked memory of better times,  a distant beacon in your mind when the Grey appears.

I wish it could be Autumn every day.

Simple pleasures in sunshine

This weekend just gone, I spent a day with a dear friend, driving and walking through the very best that North Mayo can offer. We walked for miles on the beautiful Enniscrone beach. We walked for mere steps on the smaller, peaveful cove at Ross Strand:

Just look at how clear the water is.

We drove through the rugged coastline of Lacken and Ballycastle, stopping to marvel at the wild, deserted beauty of Kilcummin Back Strand:

We topped it off with a visit to the most savage edge we could find:

The Twelve Apostles? We only need one.

And there we sat for hours, watching the sun dip in the sky. A perfect day.