Walking Home Alone

In the aftermath of the Brock Turner rape case sentencing in the US, and the powerful words of the woman he assaulted, Irish women took to social media to share their own experiences of “rape culture”. From being groped in nightclubs, to catcalling, to casual” sexism in the workplace, it painted a harrowing picture of a culture that is so engrained, we often don’t think to question it. The response to this outpouring from men was interesting and mixed, and I’ll be following up with a column on that. 

In the meantime, here’s the column I had (coincidentally) written for last week’s Mayo News, on one of my own experiences.

I’ve recently started a new job. It’s great and I love it. But, as with any new job, there’s a lot to take in, and that new job enthusiasm sometimes takes over. So one night, in an effort to get some quiet time to clear some things off the to-do list, I found myself in the office late. So late, that when I locked up the building, the security gates were shut. And in the darkness I discovered that the keypad was broken, so I couldn’t get out.

It’s a pretty secure car park, with high railings. I weighed up my options.

Call a colleague? At that hour of night, when in all likelihood, they wouldn’t be able to fix it? You’re a grown woman, I told myself. Sort this out yourself. Sleep in my car? Well, it’s 14 years old, and no hi-lux. Call a taxi? Never occurred to me. Scale the wall and walk home? I live in the middle of town, a ten-minute walk from the office. After a 14 hour day, it seemed like the easiest option.

Clambering over the wall none-too-gracefully, I hoped no-one would ever have cause to re-watch the CCTV footage. There’s 350 metres to walk to get to the main road. I throw my eye over my shoulder; clutch my bag close. No-one in sight. It’s a beautiful calm, quiet night with a radiant moon. I set off at a brisk pace. All good.

I walk about 100 metres and check behind again. In the distance, a guy on a bicycle is approaching down the hill. I keep walking. I think about tomorrow’s to-do list and wait for him to pass. But he doesn’t.

Nervously I look over my shoulder. He’s there, on the opposite footpath, just behind me. Despite the downhill, he’s slowed the bike right down, so he’s travelling at my pace. I hold my breath.

I keep walking. Directly across from me, he coasts slowly down the hill, his fingers on the brakes. He’s staring across, unspeaking. It dawns on me that he is doing this deliberately, to intimidate me. It’s about 200 metres to the main road. Most of the houses are unoccupied.

Contemplating my options, I keep walking, but don’t increase my pace – I don’t want him to know I’m scared. I can hear the whirr of his bike chain, his breathing as he coasts slowly downhill. I turn to face him, meet his gaze head-on. He stares back, expressionless. He’s young and slight, in his early 20s maybe. I wonder why he’s doing this. Every warning I’ve ever heard about walking home alone returns. I berate myself. Yet, I feel oddly calm. Either this man will attack and there’ll be a struggle, or he won’t – I’ve no control over his decision, and it’s too late to change mine. I clutch my keys in my pocket and turn away.

100 metres to the main road. It feels like 100 years. A game of cat and mouse.

We reach the junction. It’s still quiet. I turn left, to head for home, or at least to run to the safety of the nearest house. And just like that, all the time looking back over his shoulder, he turns in the opposite direction and cycles away. I exhale. I take off up the road like an Olympian, checking every so often that he hasn’t turned back. Nothing.

I’m home in five minutes, door locked. It’s over; I’m safe.

But I’m a different person now. I now have proof that I don’t have the personal freedom I took for granted.

The first reaction of many of you reading this will be to think how stupid I was to put myself in that position. I’m right, aren’t I? I mean, everyone knows women shouldn’t walk alone at night.

But like thousands of us do every day and every night, I took a chance. Why should my freedom be restricted because someone else decides it is their right deliberately intimidate me?

It was a minor incident in the grand scheme of things. But it made me feel angry and helpless.

And if something had happened, the first reaction would most likely have been that it was my fault, not his.

And that is just not fair.

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A Woman’s Worth Part II – sentencing for violent crimes against women in Ireland

Back in 2012, noticing a pattern of lenient sentencing of perpetrators of crimes of violence against women, I started to keep a record on this blog. 

There was a broader rationale for the original post; I wanted to demonstrate the way that small, seemingly innocuous behaviours and attitudes towards women ultimately impacted upon their safety, and I also wanted to focus on how society regards women who have been victims of crime, versus how the perpetrators of violent and/or sexual crimes against women are viewed and treated.

Month by month, year by year I added examples of judgements that could be construed as unduly lenient to the post; however it started to become very long and unwieldly. You can read the original here, but this post, which I have laid out by judge in order to identify patterns, will focus purely on recording the sentencings. I am happy to receive additions and corrections. 

Judge Martin Nolan

  • In 2012, Thomas Finn, who viciously beat a neighbour in her garden in Finglas in an unprovoked assault had a two-year jail sentence suspended on condition that he pay his victim €3,000. Judge Nolan remanded him in custody for two weeks while he considered the sentence, and cited his clean criminal record and expression of remorse when imposing the sentence.
  • Earlier in 2012 Aidan Farrington, who sexually assaulted two of his adult nieces escaped a jail term after Nolan said publication of his name would “be punishment in itself”. His defence included a large number of character references, and his wife had taken the stand, describing him as a “magnificent person”. Nolan said “the abuse was very serious, but the seriousness of the assaults themselves does not mandate a custodial sentence”, as they were lower down the scale than other cases coming before the court and lasted a relatively short amount of time.
  • Nolan in 2012 also presided over the case of Mark Jordan, who, after assaulting his then girlfriend, leaving her with facial injuries, was handed down a two and a half-year suspended sentence on condition he pay her €5,000. Jordan broke his hand while punching his partner, who has since spoken about the lasting trauma the assault has had on her, and her frustration with the messages that such sentencing sends.
  • In October 2012, Nolan suspended the entire four-year jail term handed out to convicted sex attacker Graham Griffiths – on condition that he pay €15,000 to the woman he admitted violently assaulting while apparently under the influence of narcotics. Griffiths’ victim was just 18 years old, and was too traumatised to attend court.
  • In July 2013, a Dublin father of four who sexually assaulted his neighbour, while her eight-year-old son was present in the room and pleaded with him to stop hurting his mother, was given a two-year suspended sentence by Nolan. The child, instructed by his mother, ran to get help. Nolan said he felt that because of the man’s remorse, lack of previous conditions and the fact that he had since moved out the area, that the crime did not justify a custodial sentence.
    • In November 2014, the DPP successfully appealed this case, resulting in the sentence being increased to four years. However the four-year sentence was also suspended in full in November 2014 by the Court of Appeal. Ms Justice Mary Irvine, while stating that it had been wrong to place the case on the “low end of the spectrum” of seriousness and that it was in fact “very serious”, taking a number of mitigating factors into account, she stated that the court found it “only just and proper” that the four-year sentence be backdated and suspended in full. The father of the victim said that neither his daughter nor her son had been able to access counselling supports due to cutbacks.
  • In January 2015, Judge Nolan gave Stephen McCarthy, who sexually assaulted a woman as she slept in her bed following a party a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence. McCarthy told gardai when questioned that he “tripped and landed on top of” the victim. Nolan took McCarthy’s lack of previous convictions and guilty plea into account, as well as the fact that McCarthy had paid his victim €2,000 in compensation.
  • In February 2016, Jeffrey Mitchell was sentenced to a three years in prison by Nolan for a violent unprovoked assault on a woman late at night as she walked home alone. Mitchell had 70 previous convictions for crimes like assault and robbery. His victim said she suffered flashbacks and felt “crippled with anxiety”, and did not know if she would ever feel safe again. According to Nolan, due to the seriousness of the offence, and the defendant’s long history of convictions, he had no choice but to impose a “substantial” sentence.

Justice Garrett Sheehan

  • In June 2013, Sheehan handed convicted rapist Niall Counihan of Longford a seven-year suspended sentence. His reasoning? Imprisonment would “impose hardship on his family”. Counihan – who his then 14-year-old victim claimed had shown no remorse since the crimes of rape and sexual assault were committed over 20 years ago – has two autistic children. Sheehan asserted that Counihan had “self-rehabilitated” in the meantime. “What he did to me has affected every aspect of my life, said his victim, “and it has left me with a pain, trauma, loss and sadness that I continue to feel every day”.
  • in 2012, Sheehan opted to shorten rapist Gerard Kane’s 12-year sentence by three years, on condition that he sit his Leaving Certificate while in prison. Kane broke into his victim’s house, raped her twice and threatened to kill her and bury her in her own garden. Kane had, on the night of the rape, been out on bail for a burglary.
  • In October 2013, Sheehan sentenced a Cork man to ten years in prison for breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s house armed with a hatchet and a knife, and subjecting her to a five-hour ordeal during which he physically abused her, raped her repeatedly, and hacked off her hair while he forced her to perform oral sex because she “wasn’t doing it right”. He then threatened to kill her. In court, it was claimed that he wanted to apologise to his victim, but was “too shy” to do so. The final three years of the sentence were suspended due to his willingness to participate in a sex offenders’ programme in prison.  The woman involved had all the details of her assault read out in the courtroom, and reported in graphic detail in national newspapers. She has since left her home. This seven-year sentence was, according to Sheehan, at the “upper end of the scale” for such crimes.

Judge Desmond Hogan

  • In July 2012, Dublin Circuit Criminal Court judge Hogan suspended five and a half years of the six-year prison term he’d handed down to wealthy businessman Anthony Lyons for attacking and sexually assaulting a woman in the early hours , ordering the attacker to pay his victim €75,000 in compensation. His victim was reportedly horrified, claiming never to have wanted money, but a prison sentence instead. Hogan referred to Lyons as being “being of previously good character”.
    • The DPP successfully appealed the leniency of this sentence, and in August 2014, the Court of Criminal Appeal decreed that the correct sentence should in fact be six years, with four suspended. The DPP argued that Judge Hogan had attached undue weight to mitigating factors, one of which was the compensation order.
  • In 2013, Gheorghe Alexandroae of Blackrock, Dublin was convicted of two charges of sexual assault on a woman during a party. Hogan suspended Alexandroae’s five-year jail sentence, on condition that he paid his victim €10,000. Many people “spoke highly” of Alexandroae, noted Hogan. “It is the type of offence where a drunken person took advantage of another person who … had also taken a certain amount of drink”, opined the judge. The woman, who has since left the country, told in her victim impact statement how she now suffers with depression and has difficulties with intimacy.

Judge Carroll Moran

  • Martin Quigley, a businessman, dragged a teenager into a spare bedroom of a Killarney B&B in the middle of the night and sexually assaulted her. He was handed a suspended sentence at the Circuit Criminal Court in Tralee by  in April 2014. While there was a degree of violence involved, according to Judge Moran, all of the touching was outside her clothes. Early admission by the man and the guilty plea to the sex assault charge which secured the conviction and spared the victim from going through a trial was taken into account. Quigley had apparently also suffered adverse publicity, which had an adverse effect on him and on his business.

Justice Patrick McCarthy

  • On July 13th, 2015,  McCarthy suspended a seven-year sentence to Magnus Meyer Hustveit, who confessed to raping and sexually assaulting his partner up to 10 times while she slept, saying he had to consider the fact that had Hustveit not confessed his crimes, there would be no case. Incidentally Hustveit initially confessed not to the authorities, but to his former partner, in an email exchange. His words: “I convinced myself it was a victimless crime because you were asleep”. The victim of his crime suffered from PTSD, anxiety  and eating disorders, and attempted suicide. During the trial, an incident of childhood sexual abuse was suggested by the perpetator’s defence as a contributory factor to her psychological problems.
    • The DPP sought a review of this sentence on grounds of undue lenience, and on 15 March 2016 Hustveit was senentced to 15 months imprisonment by Mr Justice George Birmingham. Birmingham said in his judgement that it was not in dispute that this was an unusual case, and “indeed an exceptional one”. A combination of a number of factors, he said, including Hustveit’s cooperation, voluntary return to Ireland from his native Norway to be charged, his previous good character, the positive life he was now leading in Norway “justified and required” a lesser sentence than would normally apply in cases of multiple rapes. 

Judge Patrick McCartan

  • On 6th March 2015,  McCartan handed down a three-year suspended sentence to Liudas Vaisvilas after he sexually assaulted a young woman in Eddie Rocket’s diner on  O’Connell Street. The assault took place shortly after he had been released from garda custody following the assault of another 19-year-old woman in Dublin Airport late at night. In the previous incident, the woman was waiting for a flight when he approached her, verbally harassed her and grabbed her between her legs. When she tried to get away, he followed her and rugby -tackled her, pinning her to the ground and putting his hand between her legs. McCartan had previously directed that Vaisvilas undergo a psychiatric assessment which concluded he had been in “a temporary state of mind” following a spate of bereavements and extreme tiredness.

Justice Paul Carney (1943-2015)

  • In what was one of the most high-profile sentencing stories of 2012, Patrick O’Brien, father of Wicklow woman Fiona Doyle, who had subjected her to a ten-year ordeal of sexual abuse starting when she was just four years old, was released on bail by the late Justice Paul Carney after being found guilty of 16 charges of rape and indecent assault. After a public outcry, during which Fiona waived her right to anonymity and met with Taoiseach Enda Kenny to discuss her 20 year struggle for justice and her personal experience of the treatment of survivors of assault in the court system, the decision was reversed, and bail was revoked. O’Brien was jailed for 12 years – with nine of those suspended. Fiona called the original decision “utterly heartbreaking”, and backed the Law Reform Commission’s recommendation that mandatory minimum sentences be applied for rape. One might argue that even the sentence itself was unduly lenient.
  • In February 2013, a 49 year-old Tipperary man convicted of sexually assaulting a 15 year-old girl after supplying her with alcohol was handed a three-year prison sentence by Carney – with the final year suspended. Carney noted the man’s “previous good character” and his “strong work ethic”.
  • Indeed, Justice Carney had long-standing form in this regard, having back in 2007 handed convicted rapist Adam Keane a three-year suspended sentence for rape, citing the rapist’s previous good record and the fact that he came from a good home. Keane flicked a cigarette at his victim when leaving the court in what was described as a “triumphalist gesture”. She waived her right to anonymity, and after an appeal from the DPP, Keane’s sentence was subsequently increased to ten years by the Court of Criminal Appeal (with the last three suspended).
  • Carney was again involved in the case of John Daly, when in 2000, he was sentenced to three years in prison with one year suspended for attempted rape and aggravated sexual assault charges. The sentence was successfully appealed by the DPP on the grounds of undue leniency and increased to six years. Daly, had previously pleaded guilty to attempted rape and indecent assault  on two young girls in the early 80s, and aggravated sexual assault on a 62 year-old woman in the 90s. In October 2011, Daly boarded a Luas bound for a Rihanna concert, with the intention of molesting young girls for his sexual satisfaction. In April 2014, Judge Mary Ellen Ring sentenced Daly to four years in prison for this crime, but suspended the last two years. One of his victims said that as a result of the assault she felt uncomfortable meeting strangers on public transport, and is generally more afraid.
  • Carney was once again involved when on 1st December 2014, the Court of Appeal maintained that an eight-year sentence imposed by the judge upon a man for repeatedly raping a neighbour’s young daughter for over three years was too lenient. The abuse began when the child was just five years of age and involved violent acts of depravity “amounting to torture”. The child’s parents had also been abusing her and have since been charged. Carney had sentenced the man to eight years’ imprisonment for each of the 15 counts of rape, and five years for each of the five counts of sexual assault – to run concurrently. Justice Seamus Ryan deemed the sentencing unduly lenient, and a new sentence hearing was due to take place early in 2015.

Judge Rory McCabe

  •  Despite referring to a series of incidents where a 48-year old man sexually assaulted a 17 year-old girl as “frightening, deliberate, sustained, unsolicited and uninvited”, Judge McCabe saw fit to adjourn his case for a year so that the conduct of the perpetrator could be assessed in the meantime. John Ring, of Castlebar, Co. Mayo targeted the girl, who was working alone at her workplace and was assaulting her until another customer interrupted them. He later followed her in his van, handing her his number on a piece of paper telling her to give him a call. Later that day, he returned to the store, winked at her and stuck out his tongue. After the incident, the court heard, the girl was nervous around strangers and afraid to walk down her road alone. Jim Ring arrived to court with €2,000 in compensation for his victim.

Our broken health system

This article was first published in The Mayo News on 19th January 2016.

Raising your voice to an overworked nurse in the middle of the A&E department, teeming with patients, crammed with beds and trolleys; that sounds like a pretty obnoxious thing to do. Yelling at her as she tries to do her job sounds like the height of ignorance. But when you’re sitting in the waiting room and a relative calls you from inside the emergency department to tell you they urgently need your help, it means something’s not quite right.

Everyone knows A&E is a busy spot. But in our visit over Christmas, a result of a respiratory illness, my relation was seen surprisingly quickly. In the midst of their assessment, they suffered a severe asthma attack. They were helped to a small room at the back of the department and sat in a chair, with the promise of relief to come via a nebuliser, a device that uses oxygen to break up a liquid medical solution to deliver relieving medicine directly to the lungs. They were left alone. As the minutes passed, they started to feel faint, as they struggled to get air into their lungs. And no-one returned.

So when my phone rang, I knew something was amiss. Confused, by the time I made my way into the department – where I wasn’t technically meant to be – and located them, their distress was evident. Although I tried to appear calm, it was obvious that help was urgently needed.

I ran to seek assistance from someone – anyone. I hijacked a nurse, already occupied, and begged her to help. And when she started asking perfectly reasonable questions like the patient’s name, the location of their file, the identity of the original nurse, panic got the better of me. And I raised my voice to that nurse. That tired, overworked nurse near the end of a long shift, trying to do her job in what can only be described as horrendous conditions – to yell at her to forget the files and to please, just help, right now.

And she did, without batting an eyelid. And within seconds the oxygen was flowing, and with it, a tiny bit of relief amidst the chaos. The blood returned to all our cheeks. We thanked her profusely.

As we waited in the room for a doctor to arrive, both trying to calm ourselves, I got my bearings. I went to find water, and the corridors strewn with people on trolleys. One man was starving, he said. No food for hours. In the waiting room, the coffee machine was broken, the snack machine was broken and the toilets were out of order. There was nowhere to get a bite to eat.

 Across the way lay an elderly gentleman in a gown. “When will the doctor see him, do you think?” asked his wife. “I’m afraid there are eight other people ahead of him,” said the nurse apologetically, “that need attention more urgently.”

patients on trolleys

When the doctor arrived, he was young and gentle and tired. Sensing our distress, he spoke in soft and reassuring tones, explaining what he was going to do and why. And we started to feel safe again.

And the mystery of why the original nurse didn’t return, or administer oxygen when all the equipment was right there in the room, was never solved, because it didn’t matter, and because I didn’t trust myself not to raise my voice again. Maybe someone else needed attention more urgently. Perhaps, with a hundred other things on her plate in the midst of that madness, she just forgot. Nurses are human too.

I chatted with the porter as he wheeled the trolley down to the deserted X-ray department. “I love coming down here for a bit of a peace and quiet,” he said. “That place”, he gestured, “is like a zoo.” A doctor had been assaulted in a row earlier in the day, he said.

We were lucky. After treatment, we escaped in a matter of hours. I drove back down the road feeling fortunate to have a passenger. I wondered what would have happened had I not been there. Perhaps it would have been fine. But perhaps not, and that’s the thing.

They say this is a country in recovery. But its health system is very ill.

Patients deserve – at the very least – to feel safe in A&E. To know they are getting the best possible care, not to feel at the mercy of an overcrowded system. Medical professionals – among them many unsung heroes – deserve to feel safe and have sufficient resources to work to the best of their ability.

And none of them deserve to be yelled at while doing their jobs.

Seven things I’ve learned since returning West

At the end of May, after sixteen years living away from my Mayo hometown, in search of a different pace of life and a greater sense of community, I decided to make the move back West. I wrote about it here in The Mayo News at the time.

I’m now seven weeks back on home soil, and can safely say that I haven’t (yet) questioned the decision. I feel consistently more happier, more relaxed and at ease and I treasure being close to my family again, and reconnecting with friends; spending real, unhurried time with them. Because I am in equal measures a firm believer that life is short and there to be lived, and a deluded optimist, I decided not to seek full-time employment for now and have remained  freelance in order to make the most of the west of Ireland summer. So far, that decision has ensured that I have spent lots of time outdoors on my own in the lashing rain.

But all in all, it’s been a surprisingly easy transition, though the adjustment process is ongoing.  Here are just seven things I’ve learned since returning west.

You can get around quickly

Getting around in the West of Ireland takes no time at all. This has been one of the unanticipated delights of the return west. One of the reasons I moved was because commuting cross-city every day was (literally) driving me out of my mind. Living in a small town means that I no longer view traffic lights as a target, and even taking into account the curiously high proportion of very slow drivers, I don’t behave like a deranged fishwife behind the wheel any more. (Much.) I am constantly marvelling about just how little time it takes to get anywhere. In my new blissed out state of mind, I have even found myself coasting along at 50km an hour on occasion, much to the chagrin of visiting D-reg Audi drivers. I also still sometimes manage to be late.

Weather envy does you no good at all

Moving west always came with the caveat of ‘more rain’, and the best way of dealing with it is just to bring a brolly and get on with it. However, in bygone days we didn’t have to cope with being reminded of this all the time on social media by our smug easterly counterparts. There is little so maddening as reading about the rest of the country’s woes as they collectively sweat in a heatwave, having to watch them Instagramming their 99s/pasty legs in surfing shorts while meanwhile, you are donning full waterproofs just to sprint to the car. However jealousy gets you nowhere, and I have consoled myself with the fact that I am saving a small fortune on Factor 40 while maintaining a pale and youthful visage. In your faces, you sunburned suckers.

View of Clew Bay from Ben Gorm in the rain

Clew Bay, taken from Ben Gorm in the Nephin Beg range. In the rain, of course

 Freelancing is fun … but challenging

While there are the obvious advantages of being your own boss such as calling the shots and managing your own time, there is also the uncertainty of not knowing whether you’ll be able to pay the rent in two or three months’ time. But freelancing involves (a) deciding what exactly you’re freelancing in (am I writing, researching, copywriting, social media managing, PR-ing or doing a combination of some or all of these?), and (b) packaging and promoting it; this is something I haven’t managed to do very well just yet, mainly both because I haven’t needed to and I’m still figuring it out. Just today two projects I had in the diary for August fell through for various reasons, so while it does mean I can now go on my holidays without a looming deadline, it also makes the prospect of further holidays look a bit bleaker. But them’s the breaks – and there’s nothing like the prospect of an overdraft to inspire some enterprising creativity.

There is no excuse for boredom

Even if you’re on a budget, I’ve found that here, there are shedloads of things to see and do. Before moving, I was advised by well-meaning friends to think carefully about returning due to the lack of “things” going on. While there’s no Camden Street nightlife and pulled pork eateries are fewer, I’m still a bit baffled; I’ve barely spent an evening sitting in since I got back. It’s festival season down here (and summer of course), so there are lots of local jollies, but apart from pursuing actual hobbies like running, hillwalking and cycling (there are over 40 sporting clubs of various types in this area alone) there are plenty of volunteer-led projects into which to throw yourself. Unless you’re actually sitting in your house watching paint dry, I can’t understand how anyone can ever be bored. And there is always something new and fascinating to learn about your home town if you’re interested in looking. Failing that, you can always take up knitting.

There is a “local” mindset … and it can be a sensitive one

While there’s lots of evidence of a strong community spirit – something I missed for a long time, away from home – local involvement also comes with its own politics, sensitivities and dare I say it, egos. It’s been interesting to remember just how easily offended people can be if you don’t explicitly acknowledge their individual contributions, or if you question their established ways of doing things, and sometimes bearing this in mind from the outset can help to keep the waters smooth. Likewise, easing your way gently into a new group is the way to go – tenure can result in territorial tensions. Diplomacy  – treading carefully but confidently – is a skill in itself.  What can I say? I’m always learning.

 Football is a religion

Yeah, we all knew that already. Now I just get to worship inside the church all the time. Watch out Sam, we’re comin’ to get you. Yes, this is our year.

It’s bloody gorgeous here.

Of course, I am completely, unashamedly biased, and this is not a learning, rather a reminder. I wake most mornings feeling lucky to live in such a gorgeous part of the world.  I’m torn between wanting to tell the world about it and share its stunning secrets, and keep it all to ourselves. But sharing is caring, right? Even in the rain I think it’s beautiful (though I may be in a minority there) and a walk on a deserted beach in the wind and the rain oddly never fails to make me feel alive. And at this rate, we might even get another sunny day before September.

Lacken in summer, on 14th July 2015. Yes, that one day.

IMG_3344

Legend has it that a pagan chieftain, Crom Dubh attempted to burn St. Patrick to death, but our Paddy was having none of it. Crom Dubh, seeing that he had met his match hid in his fort, but Patrick hit the ground with his crozier breaking it and leaving the fort – known as Dun Briste – isolated from the mainland. Crom Dubh was eaten to death by midges, something that will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent a day working in the bog in Mayo.

‘Yes, I said, yes I will yes’ – why ‘Yes’ x 2 is the way to go this Friday

With a mere few days to polling day, you’d be forgiven for being under the impression that we were voting on just one issue on May 22nd. Coverage of the marriage referendum has been so comprehensive, relentless and so repetitive, that it’s all the more surprising that media haven’t been focusing on the other choice being presented to voters – the proposal to lower the age of presidential candidates to 21 – if for no other reason than to just give us all a bit of light relief. But it’s highly likely a significant proportion of the population aren’t even aware they’ll be handed two ballot papers on Friday week. A fine example of democracy in action.

As fatigue begins to set in though, it’s likely we’ll see some half-hearted efforts in the next few days to publicly debate why we should allow 21 year-olds – people who may not even yet have started their first job – to run for President of Ireland.

The reactions to the proposal to date have tended to be predictably dismissive and a bit disparaging, which is disappointing. Granted, this isn’t the most pressing change that needs making in Ireland, but at a time when politics is crying out for an injection of youthful enthusiasm, the scorn that’s been instantly heaped on the suggestion without any detailed consideration subtly demonstrates how we really regard our young people. Surprisingly, even youth organisations have been relatively quiet on the matter, instead preferring to focus on the marriage referendum – which ironically, is a campaign with which young people have thus far engaged on levels rarely seen before. But perhaps they’re just being smart by not channelling their energy and resources into flogging a dead horse when there’s a far more pressing issue on the table.

Why is this amendment even being put to the people? Well, the issue arose during the Constitutional Convention, a forum of 100 citizens established in 2012 to discuss amendments to the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention had also sought amendments on housing rights, social security and healthcare services, but this was somehow deemed more appropriate. It’s a funny one; but it’s likely that the government felt backing a contentious, divisive and ground-breaking Constitutional amendment such as allowing two people in love to officially declare their commitment to each other a risky enough manoeuvre without creating further havoc. Best to play it safe on this one, because let’s face it, this government is already all too familiar with the sensation of egg drying into their whiskers.

So, what discussion have we heard to date in #PresRef, as it’s known in the online sphere? Well, the main assertion is that no-one aged under the age of 35 could possibly have the life experience, capability or maturity expected to carry themselves with dignity in this position of great importance. The majority seems to concur. Apart from perhaps the fact that allowing someone to become President in their twenties means you might get landed with paying the Presidential Pension for a few extra years, that, incredibly appears to be the sum total of the debate. Pretty incredible for something as important as a Constitutional Amendment.

The debate has failed on any level to counteract this argument by pointing out the inherent ageism, laziness and unfairness of it.  We are not voting on whether or not we will have a 21 year-old President, though given the level of opposition to it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a Yes vote would automatically propel one of Jedward into Michael D’s still-warm seat in the Áras come 2019. I can tell you, however, I’d far sooner see either one  – or both of them in there – than the likes of Dana.

The key argument for voting YES to the Presidential amendment is that the current system is anti-democratic, because young people don’t even get the opportunity to present themselves to the electorate. They are currently automatically excluded based on an arbitrary number, rather than getting the chance to be elected or rejected on their merit, or lack of. There is no good reason for this, but plenty of good reasons for our young people – many of them perfectly talented, hardworking, intelligent and capable – to be given the opportunity to put themselves out there. They deserve, at the very least, not to be excluded from this process. And in fact, the key objection to this referendum should be that it proposes to continue excluding adults aged 18-21 from running for Presidential office – the only justification apparently being that it will then mirror the age at which you can become a TD.

So it’ll be two emphatic Yeses for me, because I want to see Ireland becoming a place that’s fairer and kinder, and it strikes me as more than  a little hypocritical to be voting for inclusiveness in one referendum while simultaneously opposing it in the other. But the joy of democracy is that we all have our say, so on Friday week, wherever you stand, be sure to have yours too.

jedward

An abridged version of this post appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday 12th May 2015.

Bishops’ arguments against same-sex marriage don’t stack up

This article appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th December. 

Last weekend, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland distributed a 16-page document to all 1,300 parishes in the country, outlining their opposition to same sex-marriage, in light of the imminent referendum on same-sex marriage due to take place in Spring 2015. In this lengthy tome, the bishops suggested that same-sex marriage is contradiction in terms, because marriage, by its nature is a “committed relationship between and man and a woman which is open to the transmission of life.”

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Photo: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

The debate on same-sex marriage has been rumbling away in the background on social media and the airwaves over the past year and is set to ramp up after Christmas, when campaigning from both “sides” will begin in earnest. Let’s call a spade a spade; it hasn’t been pleasant to date, nor will it continue without causing considerate, disproportionate hurt to many. I can’t cover the entire discussion here, but some of the arguments are questionable, so within the constraints of this column let’s lay some facts on the table.

First things first – the same-sex marriage referendum is concerned with granting civil marriage to same-sex couples, not Catholic marriage. That’s an important distinction. While many wedding ceremonies take place in churches, those that don’t hold exactly the same legal footing – it’s all about that little piece of paper you sign at the end. (And of course, the small fee.) So while Catholic bishops are perfectly entitled to express their opinion on same sex-marriage, the passing of the referendum will – reasonably – not oblige the church to facilitate it.

Secondly, who defines marriage? It doesn’t fall within the Catholic Church’s remit to do so – in fact, claiming it is a little cheeky given its existence outside Catholicism, and given that the first recorded marriage contracts pre-date Jesus himself by about 600 years. Marriage can mean different things to different people – for some it’s about love, other about taxes (both equally troublesome, if you ask me). For more, it’s about children, for others it’s not. To suggest that procreation is central to marriage doesn’t reflect the reality of many marriages today, and is unfair, even hurtful to those married couples who don’t want children and those would love to have children, but can’t.

Children – the big one. One of the central tenets of the Catholic argument against same-sex marriage claims it could effectively “deprive children of the right to a mother and a father”. Now, let’s get this straight (no pun intended). This Referendum is not about parental rights. Many children currently don’t have a mother or father, or either. Others live in unsafe homes with both. Gay people routinely have children, gay couples in Ireland can foster children, and gay individuals can adopt children. The imminent Children and Family Relationships Bill provides for allowing same-sex couples in civil partnerships to jointly adopt, thus protecting those children should something happen to one parent, and is likely to be passed before the referendum takes place. And the obviously, unmarried people – gay, straight, whatever – have children all the time. So this argument simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny on any level, I’m afraid.

Finally, for those who would suggest that civil partnership in its current form is sufficient protection for gay couples, there are over 160 statutory differences between it and civil marriage, many centering around finance, taxation, even the home.

The fact is, allowing lesbian and gay couples – our own families, friends and colleagues – to pledge their love and commitment, secure their futures and those of their children won’t change or affect any existing or future marriage of a man and a woman. Other people’s finances, family lives and bedroom activities are their own business – nothing to do with a Church that with all its own problems, can surely find something more constructive and Christian to do with its time. Ultimately, if you don’t like gay marriage, no-one is forcing you to have one. But if you believe in equality, it surely stands to reason that everyone should have the same opportunity to be miserable.

I’ll be voting ‘yes’. Will you?

The short, desperate life of Mariora Rostas

This would break your heart. And it’s a stark reminder of the fact that while we might dismiss certain sectors of our society that they are fighting their own battles, far more than we can ever know.

Philip Boucher-Hayes

Alan Wilson will never again stand trial for the murder of Mariora Rostas. Given the difficulties in getting the case this far it’s doubtful anybody will ever again stand in the dock accused of ending this girls life.

Why this injustice should rankle quite as much as it does is hard to say. Justice denied to the family of any victim, or the memory of that victim diminishes the entire justice system. Perhaps though it is that Mariora was so completely failed by everything in the course of her short life that this last attempt to do right by her is a disappointment that is particularly hard to stomach.

I have reported from Palestinian refugee camps, the squats of migrant Africans in abandoned railroad warehouses, sink estates in Eastern Europe and drug dens in Central America. I have never been as shocked by somebody’s living conditions, though until I went to…

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