The damage of diet culture

Happy new year, readers! It’s that time again, when the tinsel and Christmas jumpers have vanished from the shops, to be replaced by a range of items designed to make you hate your body. Lycra, dumbbells, kettlebells, diet pills, skinny tea, diet books and magazines, protein powders. To turn on the TV or open Facebook is to be bombarded by images of skinny, muscled humans advertising weight loss programmes. Just like the relentless fake-happy-clappy magic-of-Christmas advertising onslaught since October, there is no escape. And this writer is having none of it.

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Farewell, Facebook

It’s well past lunchtime on Thursday, December 27 and I’m still in my dressing gown. Isn’t Christmas great? Tea and biscuits beside me,  I’ve  just submitted my first Mayo News column of the year (toxic January diet culture, I’m coming for you next week), and am remembering, as I do fortnightly, how much I enjoy writing and how little of it I do for fun, these days. 
I’m now in my sixth year of writing for the Mayo News and I will never not be grateful to the team there for the opportunity they gave me in 2014, particularly Edwin McGreal, Michael Duffy and the late Neill O’Neill. Somehow they thought that the ramblings they spotted here and on my various social media platforms were worth encouraging, and as a result, for over five years I have had a reason to sit down and do what I enjoy more than anything else. It is a privilege and one I never take for granted.
The turn of the year is always a time for reflection and also, for forming new habits and ditching some old ones. My attempts at new year’s resolutions are usually pretty feeble, but there is a common theme every year, and that is to attempt to spend less time online. Earlier in 2018, I made the decision to mostly quit Twitter in an attempt to claw back some time for other stuff. It is a decision I have not regretted, despite sorely missing the interaction and learning I had enjoyed on the platform for years. I still use it to auto-share blog content there, though I rarely engage. 
But online addiction does not relinquish its hold easily, so it’s time to cast off some more of the chains, and this time, it’s Facebook that needs to go.
2018 has been quite a year. It was a watershed year for women, and in Ireland, the repealing of the Eighth Amendment was one of the most historically, socially and politically significant events we will ever encounter in this country. Much of it played out on Facebook. Eight months after the campaign (mostly) concluded, its effects are still being felt on a social level, but also on a very personal level by many. World politics has been more tumultous than ever, with the Brexit storm raging, Trump breeding hate, and wars and genocides on enormous scales that barely merit a mention in the mainstream media.
Closer to home, social media is once again playing a strong role in raising awareness of social injustices such as evictions, and providing a platform for right-wing reactionaries to hijack people-powered movements. Closer to home again, outrage on local issues often trumps logic or accuracy of information.  And always, Facebook plays a pivotal role by providing the platform but absolving itself of all moral obligations or responsibility.
Personally, it was a challenging and relentlessly busy year. Yet I’m pretty sure that had I not spent considerable amounts of my spare time, scarce as it was, scrolling through my phone minding other people’s business (or being typically unable to resist a good argument!) I might have have felt a lot better mentally for it.
The conversations that take place on these platforms are simultaneously informative and misinformative, passionate and vicious, progressive and regressive, enlightening and worrying, but always mentally taxing. Alongside the nuggets of learning and food for thought, the mundane is celebrated, and most terrifyingly of all, crimes against grammar continue to mushroom. And still we scroll, and scroll, and scroll.
This year I will revisit the New Year’s resolution I make in some shape or form every year. And that is to put my time to better use, by creating, writing, volunteering, spending more time with loved ones. Planning rather than drifting, and re-introcuding some discipline. So the scrolling needs to stop. The biggest casualty of my online addiction (there is no point in denying this reality) has been my ability to focus and concentrate. In 2018, I read three books. Three. Yet I probably scrolled about ten miles on Facebook using my thumb. What a miserable tally and what an absolute waste of time.
A bit like diet culture, Facebook now feels toxic.It breeds negativity, gives a platform to liars, promotes division and judgement of others, and it thieves hours and hours of time that could be put to better use. I have always advocated the power of social media as a learning tool (and without it, I would not be in the job I am today, nor I would I be lucky enough to know a lot of brilliant people), but as of December 31, I’m done with the Big F.
I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg will lose much sleep over this, but I am far from alone in deserting the platform, when people who bought so much into these  platforms and embraced the technology early are leaving in their droves, it says something. I am tired of implicitly supporting the bad behaviour and moral bankruptcy of these tech giants by maintaining a presence. I am also tired of having my private data commoditised – something that never bothered me in the past, but I am getting quite elderly, odd and cantankerous now, so he can sod off.
I’m well aware that many people quietly depart the platform without feeling the need to write about it, but it was my friend Nick McGivney who inspired me to actually bite the bullet by posting about his own departure, and maybe this will provide food for thought for others too. Also documenting something like this means that you have to stick to it and I need all the help I can get to keep my resolve.
Inspired by Nick, a group of us plans to write a letter or two to each other throughout the year instead. Anyone wishing to stay in contact can get me by emailing thecailinrua@gmail.com. For now, I’ll continue to man a feeble attempt at an Instagram account, though given the narcicissm on that platform, I doubt it will be for much longer. And of course, anyone that knows me can pick up the phone or knock on the door. Because no matter how useful technology is, nothing will ever beat the warmth and civility a face-to-face conversation.
Thanks for the memories, Mark. Now, here’s to making some 3D ones instead.

When the political gets personal #8thRef

This article originally appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday, 18th April 2018.

A relationship with a close friend came under strain a few years back, when he was adamant in his opposition to the marriage equality referendum, and I was just as adamant in my support for it. We talked, we debated, we argued, we cried (well, one of us did) and ultimately we fell out. He went his way and I went mine and we each cast our votes according to our consciences. Afterwards, we reconvened. We didn’t talk about the issue ever again. And things have changed. I see him differently now, even though he’s the same person. He sees me differently too. And I miss the way things used to be, but we can’t go back.

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Belfast Rape Trial – three small steps to change

I tried really hard this week to write about something else, something other than the verdict from Belfast last week and the subsequent reaction. But I couldn’t. Truth be told, I’ve thought about little else since the verdict.

I won’t dwell on the verdict; it’s been done to death by the amateur lawyers on Facebook. However, it has rightly been acknowledged that “not guilty” does not equate to “innocent”; and in a complex case like this, proof “beyond all reasonable doubt” always felt like a bridge too far. The only positive outcome – if there is one – is the conversations that have been started, but the time for conversation has long passed.

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#IBelieveHer – turn your anger into action

This isn’t going to be a long blog post; I’m at my desk and don’t have time to delve into the horror that is today’s verdict nor to engage with any of the misogyny that is no doubt currently polluting social media.

It is a very short post to say I BELIEVE HER. Beyond a shadow of a doubt I believe her, and so do hundreds and thousands of others.

I can’t begin to imagine the effect that the coverage of and verdict from this trial has had and will, for many years, continue to have on those who experience sexual violence. They, like many others are neglected and abandoned by the state when it comes to providing essential services.

If you’re angry today, make your anger count. Donate, so that service providers can continue to support survivors.

Support Rape Crisis Network Ireland – a fantastic organisation that advocates for survivors, informs policy-making, conducts research and collates statistics

Donate to Mayo Rape Crisis Centre

Donate to Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (Or text ‘DRCC’ to 50300 to donate €2)

Donate to Women’s Aid Ireland

Donate €4 to Rape Crisis Midwest by texting RAPE to 50300

Please feel free to add more links in the comments below if you wish.

Withdrawal of SAVI funding an insult to sexual abuse survivors

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on 24th October 2017. 

Last week, amidst all the talk of inclement weather and hatch-battening, it was reported by Ellen Coyne in the Irish edition of The Times that Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan had quietly reneged on a promise made by his predecessor, Frances Fitzgerald, to fund an updated report on sexual violence in Ireland. The first Sexual Assualt and Violence Report (SAVI) was carried out in 2002, and was groundbreaking both in its methodology and the insights it provided into the dark and murky world of sexual violence, as well as estimating the prevalence of the problem. (Hint: a lot more prevalent than many would like to acknowledge).

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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.

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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.

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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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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:

Irish Indo FB

 

 

 

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.

 

A Woman’s Worth Part I – the reporting of violent crimes against women

Update: January 2016

This post was originally intended to deal with the way society quietly contributes to and colludes with a culture of violence against women in ways that are often so subtle, we don’t even notice. Be it “casual sexism”, the acceptability of men catcalling or abusing women on the street, the common tendency to imply that survivors of sexual assault somehow are partially to blame, the frequent disdain towards feminism, the objectifying and abuse of women in the media, as well as workplace cultures and media cultures that continue to quietly reinforce the myth that somehow women have less to contribute. All of the above elements are intertwined, and all play their own role in the way women are treated in society. 

I also wanted to look at the low reporting levels and the frequently sentencing of crimes of violence against women, to examine the way the courts contribute to this culture. I have looked at reporting below; but the list of unduly lenient sentences became so long and unwieldy that I have now removed it, and it is available here. 

Reporting of crimes of violence against women.

There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that violent crimes against women are significantly under-reported. It’s difficult to obtain exact statistics, but it’s estimated that, as few as one in five incidences of domestic assault are reported to Gardai. The Sexual Abuse Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report (2002) published by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre found that disclosure of sexual crimes was startlingly low  – just 7.8% of women experiencing adult sexual assault had reported to Gardai. Bear in mind that prosecutions and convictions for reported crime are very low also – according to the Garda Recorded Crime Statistics report 2007-2011, published by the CSO, there were 1,992 sexual offences recorded in Ireland in 2011. Court proceedings were taken for 318 (16%) of the offences recorded (with 244 pending at the time of publication), and convictions were returned in 54 cases. 54 convictions. That’s a conviction rate of 16%. Out of all offences reported, that’s a 3% conviction rate.

Why is this the case? There are a myriad of reasons. Firstly, identifying an assault in the first instance can be an issue – sometimes women aren’t aware that what they have experienced is actually an assault. Many don’t know where to go for support (over a quarter, according to SAVI, would not know where to turn). The reporting process itself can be traumatic. A victim of crime may have enough on their plate just dealing with the fact that they have been assaulted, without embarking on process they may not feel able to cope with. The burden of proof usually lies with the person who has been attacked, survivors are often afraid that they will not be believed, or that they will in some way be blamed for encouraging or provoking the attack. And if someone who’s been affected by a crime does decide to go down this road, conviction rates are low. The ordeal of reliving their experience on the witness stand under cross-examination can prove too much of a deterrent. If the perpetrator is convicted, sentencing is inconsistent at best.

Even the 2014 Garda Inspectorate Report recently demonstrated just how flawed process are within the force in terms of recording, classifying and following up on domestic violence, and also demonstrated that within the force, “some members displayed negative attitudes towards domestic violence by referring to calls as problematic, time-consuming and a waste of resources.”) So it’s clear that there is a massive problem.

Take the following scenario. To report a sexual assault women need to contact the gardai, and probagly get to a garda station. Depending on who they deal with, they might be given detailed, sympathetic information about the process ahead. SAVI indicates that lack of information from gardai and medical personnel was the main source of dissatisfaction with services – with gardai in particular providing inadequate explanations of procedures being undertaken, and medical personnel needing to provide more comprehensive information regarding services and options. Upon arriving, they’d be advised not to wash, remove their clothing, or brush their teeth. They might be injured – missing teeth, for example, or bleeding heavily. They’d need to be medically examined, but because facilities are under-resourced, they may need to wait for hours to be examined. They may even need to travel to a certain unit to be examined (there are just seven specialist Sexual Assault Treatment Units in Ireland). This is all in the immediate aftermath of an assault.

In terms of reporting, journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy gave an excellent and detailed account of the reporting process, pointing out that it is often a fraught one for survivors, who can frequently feel like they are peripheral to the process. Deirdre has included two case studies on the reality of the reporting process which are well worth a read. (Notably, Deirdre also explains that legislation on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse, while designed to prevent re-offending, can place the onus on survivors of assault who are already struggling to deal with the abuse, to ‘save’ others. This legislation will also introduce mandatory reporting for social services, agencies and public sector organisations dealing with abuse victims, a move that may potentially dissuade them from seeking assistance or counselling for fear they may be inadvertently starting a legal process that they don’t feel ready or able for.)

Sentencing

We’ve already seen that once crimes are reported, it’s a long road to prosecution and conviction, and the process can sometimes take years. Over the past few months a trend has become apparent in the way crimes against women are treated in Ireland by the courts. Lenient and inconsistent sentencing in particular is a concern, and I’ve detailed in this separate post just some of the more unacceptable examples of sentencing reported in the past few years. There are undoubtedly more, and the number of judges referenced indicates that this problem is ingrained in the judicial system.

Sentencing is not the only problem. Take the case of Danny Foley, a bouncer from Listowel, who in 2009 was jailed for five years for sexually assaulting a 22 year-old woman. Before he was jailed, approximately 50 people in the courthouse lined up to embrace him and shake his hand – in front of his victim – before he was jailed. Foley later lost a bid to overturn the conviction.

Where is the incentive for survivors to report, and sometimes be forced to relive their ordeal face-to-face with their attacker on the witness stand, when rapists and violent criminals, receive what appear to be minimal custodial sentences, sometimes none at all? When victim-blaming is rife, what does that say to a woman? What does the commercialisation of crimes say to potential rapists – giving them an option to pay a “token” of compensation in lieu of a spell in jail? That they can pay a price for their victim’s consent? The consistent theme of judges commenting on offenders’ previously “good characters” indicates that such assaults are viewed as a mere slip-up, an indiscretion, a minor mistake. Nowhere is there evidence to show that any of the members of the judiciary referenced above demonstrated an appreciation of the impact a sexual crime can have on a woman.

So what’s to do be done?

There’s a lot to do, and less than ever to do it with. But we owe it to those women who have had to endure the physical and psychological trauma of a violent assault, to ensure that we start sending a strong message to them (we are on your side, not your abuser’s) and to abusers (this is not acceptable and you will be severely punished).

Stop victim-blaming

When violent or sexual crimes are committed, we need to immediately stop victim-blaming, or implying that women attacked violently were in any way responsible for their assault be that in how they might have dressed, where they were or what they might have been wearing. They were not. The only people ever responsible for violent crimes are those who commit them. This is indisputable – yet we still see fit to imply that women who have been assaulted Jane Ruffino, mentioned above, has written this piece, entitled 10 things you should do when confronted with violence against women, and it’s worth a read.

Female survivors of violent abuse need support, and somewhere they can go for practical advice or counselling in a non-threatening and confidential environment. Organisations like Women’s Aid, the Rape Crisis Network and the Rape Crisis Centres as well as many smaller organisations do excellent work, but in the current environment are fighting harder for a smaller slice of the funding pie. Wexford Women’s Shelter and the Midwest Rape Crisis Centre have both had to close for periods of time due to lack of funding.

Sentencing guidelines

The need for sentencing guidelines, particularly in the area of sex crimes is being examined. As already mentioned, the Law Reform Commission is calling for a re-examination of mandatory sentencing however it would also surely be prudent for the judiciary, who undoubtedly have a difficult job to do, to be versed in the very real effects of sexual crimes against women, and to bear in mind the message their sentencing sends to both perpetrators and victims of crime. It is worth noting, however,  that in a 2013 report, the Irish Sentencing Information System (ISIS) conducted research which suggested that sexual assault sentences in Ireland are not in fact too lenient, and that rapists who have either pleaded not guilty, failed to show insight into the nature and consequences of rape, or those who inflicted violence, were typically given a sentence of at least nine years in jail. Relatively few sentences were seen as lenient, according to the report, and those that were tended to be highlighted in the media.

Training

There have been a number of calls for training of judges with regard to rape sentencing, particulary from within the Rape Crisis movement; however these have proved fruitless to date. In a 2014 interview on RTE Radion 1 with Seán O’Rourke, retired High Court Barry White rejected the idea of judges requiring training, saying: “I don’t believe that judges need training in relation to sentencing, in cases of a sexual nature. There may be judges who are inexperienced in dealing with crime, who find themselves sitting in the Central Criminal Court, from time to time, but most judges who sit in the Central Criminal Court have had long criminal experience, have had substantial criminal practices over protracted period of time. And they are fully aware, as to the parameters within which a sentence should be imposed.”

The mounting evidence would suggest that they are less aware of the implications of their decisions.

Taking responsibility

Aside from this, we need to take control ourselves and start creating a culture change. A change in perspective from ‘punishment’ to ‘prevention’, and educating our children, especially our boys, about consent. That means thinking about the way we treat, regard, discuss and behave towards women. All of us, men and women alike. We need education. We need to think about how we speak to our children, how we speak  to each other in front of them and instil in them a different mentality than that which exists in society towards women presently.

If our judiciary don’t take it seriously, if our police force don’t do it seriously, if our government doesn’t take it seriously, if a significant proportion of the population at large doesn’t take it seriously, it’s time that those of us who do stepped up to the mark and started making Ireland a safer, better, more just country for everyone living here.

Violence against women, how society fuels it and what we can do about it

I wrote this post a couple of months back, about a friend.  Someone to whom I owe more than I could put into words here.  The reaction I received was astounding, heartening and saddening all at once.  Too often, we hear tales of domestic violence, abuse, murder in the media, and they’re just that. Stories. I wanted this post to be about a real person. Not just a photo in the paper, to be forgotten next week. I wanted it to remember someone I knew for a small time, but who made a big impact. Someone who had a family and friends, people who cared about her, and were devastated at her loss. For the sake of sensitivity, however I’ve changed some details and disabled comments (something I never do) so as to make her less personally identifiable. 

I’ve mentioned her before in this blog, but she was a colleague and a friend. Compassionate and clever, she had studied hard and was looking forward to a career helping others. I can’t do justice to her personality here, but she was the type of person you’d want by your side in a time of crisis. Gentle and softly spoken, she projected an air of quiet confidence and empathy that you knew would make her an excellent carer. She was weeks away from her formal graduation when she was murdered by her partner, seven years ago this month. She was in her early 20s.

I’d met her partner a handful of times. It had struck me what a strange combination they were. I’d heard her justifying what seemed to me like his bad behaviour more than once, and it had arisen in conversation among friends. In personality, he appeared her very opposite – everything she wasn’t. She didn’t speak much about him, but we sensed an ill-ease and a tendency to placate. We saw less of her socially. In hindsight, the warning signs were there.

But we never expected things to end up like they did.

Seven years on, I still feel angry. So angry with him, for doing what he did, to her family and friends. For thinking he could prevent her from living the life she wanted. I feel sad. Because undoubtedly, the world lost a truly wonderful person – someone who would undoubtedly  make the world a better place, which is all she wanted to do. (Though I’d argue that in her short time, she did just that.)

And I feel guilty, even now. For not doing more. Even though we weren’t particularly close, it had occurred to me that she might have been in an unhappy relationship. I didn’t make the effort I could have. To stay in touch. To talk. It happens all the time, though. People meet people; relationships begin. Things change. Who, in their right minds, could ever have contemplated the outcome?

Violence towards women is in the news every day. Every single day.

Recent statistics, particular pertaining to Ireland, are scarce, but research indicates that one in five women in Ireland, who have been in a relationship, have been abused by either a current or former partner. One in five. Picture yourself, with four of your friends. Statistically, that’s one of you. Since 1996,  190 women have been murdered in Ireland, and of these,  116 women were killed in their own homes. In those resolved cases, over half were murdered by a partner. According the WHO, most violence globally  against women is perpetrated by an intimate male partner, and women who have been physically or sexually abused have higher rates of mental ill-health, unintended pregnancies, abortions and miscarriages than non-abused women. One in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

So many things contribute to the culture of violence against women. Far more than I could squeeze into one blog post, but allow me to touch on some of them below.

  • Victim-blaming. It’s amazing how often we hear about the amount of alcohol that might have been consumed by the victim, how well she knew her attacker, what she might have been wearing. The ONLY person that bears responsibility for a violent attack is the attacker. No-one else. Ever. This can’t be said often enough.
  • Focus on the victim – especially if the victim is physically attractive. Reeva Steenkamp, anyone? We need start focusing on the perpetrators of crimes, and condemning their despicable actions, in the strongest possible way.
  • Public forgiveness of male instigators – Stan Collymore, Chris Brown are two prize examples. How these two have wormed their way back into public affection is beyond me, but there they are, being rewarded with media roles and record company support. As what they did can be forgotten, like it had only temporary consequences. It didn’t.
  • Jokes about domestic violence. “You can beat your wife, but you can’t beat the craic” – really? Language and discourse is so very important. Jokes about domestic violence are everywhere, yet many of us are nervous about calling them out, for fear of being labelled dry. I can’t take a joke? Yeah, cos getting your face smashed in is priceless. Women partake in this humour too. You need to stop and think. It’s not funny.
  • Social media responsibility – or lack of: Sites like Facebook deem it acceptable to allow pages glorifying and joking about domestic violence, as detailed here (warning – graphic images) under the guise of freedom of speech. Incidentally, Facebook also recently removed Jane Ruffino’s excellent post about domestic violence, stating that it contravened their terms of service. Go figure. An excellent campaign instigated by Women, Action & the Media is currently pointing out to advertisers that their ads are appearing on such pages and calling on them to pull ads until Facebook revises its policies and guidelines. And it’s working. There is such a thing as bad publicity, it seems.
  • Consequences. Sentencing for sexual crimes in Ireland is inconsistent at best. with some worrying trends emerging in terms of inexplicably lenient sentencing for perpetrators. There have been no fewer than three cases in the last few months of attackers escaping prison sentences if they paid a financial penalty. See HERE, HERE and HERE for examples. I can’t articulate how angry I am about this, and about the message it sends to both attackers and victims. Essentially, it’s putting a price on women’s safety. The legal position, where the onus of proof is on the victim, and they, not the perpetrator are cross-examined, is a deterrent to prosecuting perpetrators, and essentially ends up re-traumatising the victim. Fewer than 5% of sex attackers in Ireland are convicted.

Like many other injustices, every single one of us has the power to make change. How?

  • By calling out unacceptable behaviour, be that a tasteless joke, or a sexist remark or misogynistic comment. Language is so powerful. Domestic violence jokes just aren’t acceptable. And let’s face it, there are plenty other things to laugh about.
  • By looking out for your friends. If you suspect something’s not right, keep an eye. You don’t need to interfere, but let her know you’re there. Do not judge. You might lose patience with someone who’s constantly justifying bad behaviour, but you never know when she might need a friend who won’t judge her. Just be there, and be ready to listen.
  • By not being afraid to intervene and call the police when you hear your neighbour screaming because her partner is beating her. It IS your businesss.
  • Noting that psychological abuse can also be extremely damaging, and can happen along with, or without physical violence. It erodes self-esteem and the scars, just because they’re internal, are no less deep. It’s abuse, and it’s just as appalling.

It’s also important to note that violence against men, perpetrated by women or other men, is an issue that is very real, and is rarely ever acknowledged or addressed with any degree of seriousness. It should be. And no-one should feel unsafe in a relationship.

What happened taught me two very valuable lessons. Look out for your friends, and look out for yourself. I try to look out for my friends. I often fail dismally, but I’m more aware. I fervently hope that if any of them ever felt they needed to talk, they know they could turn to me. I really, really hope so. And when I found myself in a situation a while back that saw a partner I adored starting to become both obsessive and possessive – checking my messages, monitoring my online activity, questioning me about who I was talking to and spending time with, I knew, despite how strongly I felt about him that I had to get out. I’m not suggesting it would have had a similar outcome, nor that he was capable of being violent, but his behaviour scared me and my instinct screamed at me to leave. Maybe I panicked, but I was scared. I caught a glimpse of the life that potentially lay ahead, and I fled.

Violence against women does not discriminate. It can happen to any of us, regardless of age, wealth, class, outlook. My friend was beaten and murdered in her own home, where she should have been safe. Since she died, over 70 other women have been murdered in Ireland – roughly half of those at the hands of their partners.

If you’re reading this, and you need help, it’s there. People care. Check out Women’s Aid, or the Rape Crisis Centre, and know that it doesn’t have to be like this. If you’re reading this and don’t need help, be vigilant. And know that even you, through your words and actions can make an impact, good or bad.

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.

Bigotry, intolerance and marriage equality – a reply to Breda O’Brien

So much has been said and written on the marriage equality debate of late that I was reluctant to add my voice to the melee. Mostly because those who have written and spoken have done so regularly and in far more articulate and comprehensive terms than I could possibly hope to do within the confines of a single blog post. Colm O’Gorman, for example, every time he speaks on the issue does sterling work in debunking myths. And this piece by Carol Hunt in today’s Sunday Independent says it so much better than I ever could. With biscuits. However, reading Breda O’Brien’s defence of the status quo in yesterday’s Irish Times left me so bewildered that I felt compelled to reply.

It’s fair to say that Breda’s ideology and my own beliefs do not normally correspond. However, no matter how disagreeable her beliefs to me, I can acknowledge that O’Brien is occasionally capable of making a sensible argument.  In fact, I roundly applauded her piece on suicide and alcohol, published in January this year. Which makes it all the more remarkable that such a meandering piece could possibly, in O’Brien’s mind, advance her own cause.

O’Brien writes in reply to a piece published by the same newspaper by Fintan O’Toole, which suggested that the arguments against marriage equality were so flimsy that they essentially amounted to bigotry. O’Brien’s response was to argue that these arguments were not bigotry; rather that liberals like O’Toole were blind to the merits of conservative values and arguments, which in essence suggest that appeals to the greater good (“even, in this case, a child-centred good”) trump those “liberal” values of equality, choice and fairness.

At least O’Brien is admitting that, at the very least, opposing marriage equality is unfair.

I don’t know where to begin in terms of pulling apart her arguments. Many of them speak for themselves. But while they have already been addressed comprehensively, point by point elsewhere, I’ll reply to a couple that jumped out at me.

Firstly, there’s the lazy invocation of the tired old “liberalism vs. conservatism” argument. As well as being patronising and reeking of moral superiority (the essence being that conservatives make deeper, more rational considerations and that the former does not understand the rationale of the latter’s arguments) it takes no cognisance of the fact that 75% of the population, who support legislating for marriage equality, are rather unlikely to all classify themselves as liberal. This is not – or should not – be an argument based on political ideology, and on why conservatism apparently trumps liberalism when it comes to the greater good. Rather, the essence of the pro-equality debate is to show that we, as a society, value all members equally, regardless of their sexual orientation. To reduce it to a mere ideological argument exposes the detachment of those at the heart of the opposing debate from why this is actually important. It’s one-dimensional and, I would go so far as to say, irrelevant.

“Thoughtful conservatives are not bigoted, or intellectually inferior, or vile: they just see the balance of values differently”, says O’Brien. Indeed. In fact, if I were a thoughtful conservative, I would be deeply embarrassed by the fact that O’Brien claims to represent conservatives on this issue. Indeed, You need only look to New Zealand to see that some conservatives are capable and willing to embrace positive change.

O’Brien also says she believes marriage is a solemn covenant. So do I. So, I would wager do many of those gay couples who take the massive step of standing in front of their family and friends, publicly declaring their love for each other, and indicating their intention to commit to each other in a partnership for the rest of their lives. Based on love, that commitment to me is a sacred one (though crucially, there is nothing saying it has to be either sacred or based on love).

O’Brien states, however, that “society has a major stake because it provides the most stable environment for bringing up children, a physical and spiritual expression of the couple’s love.” This is incorrect. Obviously – and this has been effectively addressed a thousand times – this definition glaringly excludes those marriages that do not have children. It also, with no justification, calls into question those families who successfully bring up children without being wed. Rather, I see society’s stake in marriage as essentially ensuring that the contract I enter into, of my own free will protects me and my partner  and my home – and any children we may have – should anything happen to either of us. This, in addition to how I personally view marriage. The fact remains that civil partnership does not extend the same protection to same-sex couples. And it should. So yes, marriage is a personal relationship, but this is precisely why the state should take an interest.

It’s also churlish and petty of the Catholic Church to try to blackmail the state by implying they will refuse to carry out civil ceremonies in tandem with Catholic ones, as they have always done. Sadly, it’s also disenfranchising no-one but their own practising members.

O’Brien insists, once again that a “child needs both a mother and a father”,  despite there not being a shred of citable evidence available in the public domain that suggests that children do not fare just as well with same-sex parents. She suggests that in times when these ideals are not met, people “usually do their very best, and most times, the child turns out fine”. What a thinly-veiled, patronising insult to one-parent families, for example, to suggest that their family unit is less valid or desirable or even potentially damning to a child than the two-parent mother and father ideal. How judgemental. Legislating for marriage equality does not, as O’Brien suggests in a further challenge to the credibility of her own argument, declare that having both a mother and a father has no intrinsic value. And anyone who would suggest so is guilty of some rather poor spin.

(Interestingly, no argument either for or against marriage equality I have seen takes cognisance of the fact that children are not solely raised within the home. Rather, many influencers of children during their formative years are outsiders – be this extended family, teachers, youth group leaders, or indeed those further afield like say, media figures. So, just like those who confirm to the “ideal” family unit, parents in same-sex partnerships are not entirely responsible for how their children turn out.)

O’Brien’s piece then descends into further farce as she ties herself up in knots over the use of language and makes bizarre references to fictional characters like Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Wonderland in an attempt to legitimise her argument. Language is powerful, she says. Yes indeed, Breda. Language is very, very powerful. And language that says clearly to members of our society that they are not – or indeed, should not be equal or entitled to the same legal rights as others is powerful AND damning.

The most worrying aspect of the fact that O’Brien and the Iona Institute are allowed apparently unfettered access to our national airwaves on an almost constant basis, despite, in this case a lack of any relevant qualification, raises questions about the media’s difficulty in attempting to find qualified dissenting voices. While I for one am perfectly happy to see the Iona Institute rolled out as frequently as possible, because no-one does a better job of undermining their own arguments than they do themselves, ultimately the loser is society. Arguments not rooted in fact only serve to disarm the legislative process and the poor quality of opposition debate contributes to a corresponding decline in quality of legislation.

Ultimately, and happily, we all know that change is on the way. Even old conservative Ireland is gradually recognising that legislating for marriage equality won’t stop the world from turning, and will not impact on them in any meaningful way unless they choose to avail of it. But they are realising that it will make a positive difference to the rights of others, in addition to telling them that we respect and value them and their love equally. And that day is not far away.

I’ll leave you with this – a humorous and emotional celebration of marriage equality and what it really means by –  you guessed it –  a conservative.

#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)

The Great Lenten Challenge, or How I Will Cope With Six Weeks Of No Alcohol

On the back of my last blog post, I’ve been doing some thinking.(A little thinking time is a dangerous thing, and I happen to have a lot of that on my hands recently).

I’ve been toying for a while with the idea of giving up alcohol. Not permanently, just for a spell.  Not a big deal, I’m sure. Lots of people go ‘on the dry’ for January, or while they are training for an event, or while they’re pregnant. But while I’ve thought about it before, I’ve never managed to cut out alcohol completely, while carrying on with life and social engagements in the normal way. I think that’s the most difficult part – not shying away from social engagements on the basis of not drinking.

I met up for a chat last week with the lovely John Buckley of SpunOut, and among other things we talked about alcohol, and our attitudes towards it. John has given up alcohol for six months, and is blogging about it over here.

John also told me about the Irish launch of Hello Sunday Morning, which is being timed to coincide with the last episode of Des Bishop’s TV show, “Under the Influence”. HSM is an initiative originating in Australia, which involves giving up alcohol for a while, in order to reflect on your drinking behaviour, and see what impact it has on your life. You share your story, in order to contribute to a better drinking culture. In particular, it encourages you to reclaim Sunday mornings, which are often written off due to heavy Saturday nights. So for the month of March, I’ll be blogging about that either here or elsewhere.

I’m starting a little early though. I’m not sure sure what it is about Lent that encourages me to attempt something new every year (with varying degrees of success). But it seems to me to be a nice round period of time to try and do something new – not long enough to be excessively difficult and not short enough to be too little a challenge. So as well as the booze, I’ll be giving up crisps. Those of you who know me will know that this will not come easily….

With regards to my previous blog post, I know excessive alcohol consumption is not good for me. I know that when I drink to excess, I feel rubbish for about three days afterwards. My motivation disappears, I feel tired, I don’t want to leave my bed and the ‘beer blues’ hit me like a ton of bricks. Add to this days of self-beration and it all gets a bit much. I doubt this is unusual, either. So I for one and looking forward to eliminating those feelings for a while.

The difficult part will be the numerous social occasions that are cropping up in March. Be that football/rugby matches, St. Patrick’s Day, the couple of birthday celebrations, the hen night… the list goes on. So it’ll be a challenge. But hey, no point in doing something easy. I already know that more than anything I’ll miss that first glorious glass of red on a Friday night, or the creaminess of a single, leisurely pint of Guinness more than I’ll miss the big sessions. But they all count!

Anyone else with me? I’ll be posting occasional updates over on Twitter using the hashtag #boozefreelent – if you’re embarking on something similar do give me a shout.

In the meantime, I’ll be bidding a fond farewell to these and looking forward to a healthier happier me!

 

The reality of life as a carer – why we need to reverse the respite grant cuts


Protest against Respite Grant cuts outside Dáil Eireann, 11th December


Eighteen months ago, in a professional capacity, I undertook a piece of research that involved speaking to carers, both paid and non-paid.
The aim of the project was straightforward – to evaluate their reactions to some communication material and, based on that, suggest amendments.
But it turned into much, much more.
Over the course of a week, I spoke with almost 40 carers, broken into four groups.  Some were caring for elderly relatives, usually parents, but sometimes uncles, aunts. Others were caring for their children, some with physical disabilities, other with intellectual disabilities, some with both. They spoke openly, passionately, and above all, honestly.
The conversations I had with those people that week floored me. What they told me shocked me, and in sometimes, horrified me.
The group discussions were scheduled to run for 90 minutes each.  But such was the level of engagement, so eager were these people to be heard, that the sessions greatly overran. Timekeeping’s usually quite important when conducting qualitative research.  In the last 30 minutes of a 90 minute group discussion, you can sometimes sense a respondent fatigue. Not so, here. Two hours, two hours and fifteen minutes – two and a half hours. They didn’t want to stop. This was the first time they had ever had an opportunity to air their fears, their frustrations and their exhaustions, and have somebody really listen to them. And I couldn’t stop listening.
In light of the cut to the carers’ annual respite grant announced in the Budget last week, I want to share some of what I heard, and learned in those groups
Caring is a full-time job.
The first thing I learned is that being a carer is a full-time role. There is no downtime. And by full time, I mean for some, they were on alert 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  There is rarely any respite. Family carers spoke of how they shouldered all the burden. Siblings did not contribute fairly, or take any responsibility for the care of their parents. The load typically fell to one family member. They spoke of their exhaustion. How they were on high alert, all the time. “I don’t know how to relax”, one said. “It’s been so long since I relaxed, that I don’t know how to, anymore.” Respite was an essential. “Just a few hours to do your own thing, spend time with your own children, clean your house. Just to have that freedom from each other for a short while.”
Carers don’t always choose to care
The second thing that struck me is that many of those who care for others full-time do not make a conscious decision to do so. Rather, it happens. A parent falls ill, and, needing full-time care, moves into their house. Their child is born needing full-time specialised care. Would these people have chosen caring roles as a career choice? No. Rather, they do it because they have to. Often – and they are willing to admit this – they have no aptitude towards caring, and it does not come naturally. Neither – and this is important – do non-paid carers get any training. Paid carers are trained, but family carers are thrown into the deep end with no support. But they have no choice. They have to do it, and they get on with it.
Isolation is a huge issue
Because being a full-time carer is pretty all-consuming, it’s often impossible to have any kind of a social life. Carers spoke about how gradually, as the caring role subsumed all leisure time, their opportunities for socialising had declined and friendships had waned. Often the sense of isolation was the worst, they said. This is felt particularly in rural areas, where transport can be an issue. Having no-one to talk to is the hardest thing of all. Nobody cares, they felt. The media doesn’t talk about it. “No-one knows what it’s like, and no-one wants to know”. Support from the HSE is non-existent. “Sometimes you can’t even get to speak to a real person.”
Carers are human too – with human reactions
The carers I spoke with were unflinchingly honest. They were willing to admit that sometimes they got angry and frustrated. Sometimes it might be with a parent calling them numerous times during the night. Other times, it may be with a child who had wet the bed for the second or third time that night. Sometimes sheer exhaustion and frustration led them to say things they regretted to those in their care. Sometimes they shouted. Sometimes, they had shocked themselves. “Anything can happen”, one said, “when people are deprived of their sleep”. With no support, no respite, this is exacerbated.
Society ignores those who can’t speak for themselves
Carers felt angry on behalf of those they care for. “What’s missing in our society is dignity and respect for our old people”, one said. “Once they’re past their sell-by date, they’re thrown on the scrapheap. They’re only an inconvenience”.  Unanimously, carers felt invisible. They were shouting into a void, and no-one can hear, nor does anyone want to listen.
What does the annual respite grant really mean to carers?
Remember; however that caring is a full-time job. Carers often work around the clock, and do not have the means to earn an income. In addition, by providing care, they are saving the state the cost of providing this care on a residential basis. This care is provided for an allowance of as little as €200 a week (this can sometimes be the only household income).
So, what does the respite grant mean?
·         Respite means a break. It allows a carer to pay for supervision, either at home, daycare or residential care, so that they have the peace of mind to take a break. Be that a holiday, or just some time free from the responsibility of caring. Reasonable in anyone’s book.
·         Respite grant money is often used to pay for additional therapy for the person in care, to improve their wellbeing, either physically or mentally.
·         The respite grant is not always used for “respite”. Because carers are low-income earners, sometimes it’s used to pay for car insurance, heating oil, or home repairs. Everyday expenses. And yes, often carers depend on it for this.
What can we do?
There are many, many compelling arguments that can be made in favour of reversing this cut. We can express our outrage all we like, but it’s time to stand up and start doing something about it. There is still time to make a difference. Write a letter to your local TD. Or pick up the phone. Come out and protest (there is another protest outside Leinster House on Thursday 13th December at 11am. It’s not easy for carers to come out and protest – so we need to do this on their behalf.) The real mark of a society is how they treat their most vulnerable.
Don’t give up. Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. And let’s tell our government what kind of a society we really want.

Our elderly deserve better. An open letter to our TDs

This is a letter I have today written to my local representatives in government, and have published here, for wider circulation.

Reading Marese McDonagh’s piece in today’s Irish Times has made me so angry. Angrier than I ever recall being over the past five years. Enough is enough.

Because I have had a home, and income, my health and my independence, I selfishly haven’t done enough to protest against injustices over the past five years.  But this is my tipping point. I can’t stand by any longer.
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Dear ….

I write to you, as my local representative in government, including the link below to an article in today’s Irish Times.

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/health/2012/1204/1224327432416.html

If you have not already read this article, I urge you to take just two minutes to read it in detail. Absorb it. And think about what it really means. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is housebound and dependent on an hour of help a week to maintain just their basic dignity. Really think about it.

I urge you strongly to reconsider the decisions this government has made with regard to the provision of home help cuts in our country.

Enough is enough. What your goverment is doing to the weakest and most vulnerable in our society is wrong, and it has to stop. These cuts must be reversed.

No, providing for the most vulnerable in our society won’t help the economic recovery. But the way we care for our elderly tells, more starkly than any economic indicators ever could, the type of society we really are. 

Is this really the type of society you want to preside over? Really? The type of society that will leave an incontinent woman lying alone in a bed, waiting for her home help to arrive to attempt to restore her some dignity in the space of half an hour? Really? Is this really what we have come to as a country?

Yes, families have responsibilities to older members, but sadly, these responsibilities for whatever reason are not always met. That absolutely does not mean it is acceptable to abandon the people who have called this country home for decades, who have contributed to its economic growth, have raised children and grown their businesses here. To leave them to the mercy of their own physical and mental frailties. Like it or not, we have a duty of care towards these people. They are our parents. Our grandparents.

As a direct consequence of your actions, thousands of our elderly will become directly reliant on the HSE to provide them with care, at the expense of those with chronic illness. Can you not appreciate how short-sighted this is? Remember, this is the same HSE that thinks it is perfectly acceptable to place cystic fibrosis patients, at high risk of infection, in shared wards and in rooms with shared facilities. In a hospital that is suffering with a severe outbreak of the winter vomiting bug. A HSE that has already shown itself, many times over to be inept at bed management. Yet you appear to fail to realise the potential impact of adding more long-term patients to the system, both in terms of bed availability and overall standards of care.

Is this really what you want to leave as your legacy? Really?

We will all be old one day. We may not all be privileged, or have a voice to speak up for ourselves. But we will eventually all succumb to the limitations of our bodies, and possibly even our minds.You cannot in all good conscience argue that this should mean our dignity should also be sacrificed.

This is only one of a number of letters I could have written. I could have written in anger about how your government has not delivered on your promises on mental health. How education aids for those who really, really need them are being cut, quietly, all around the country. I could have written about how your government continues to justify the payment of €30+bn of OUR money to a dead, gambling entity, in order to fulfil the conditions laid out by our European friends. I understand that patience is necessary when dealing with Europe, and that demonstrating prudency and economic discipline can only help in our quest for debt restructuring. But what you are doing to achieve this is wrong. Wrong on so many levels.

I’m a “middle earner”. I’m not well off. By no means. I drive a car that’s 10 years old, can’t afford health insurance and have a certain level of personal debt. But for goodness’ sake, I have a job and an income and I am not reliant on anyone to care for me, and I can stand up for myself when I feel I am being unfairly treated. I’m the person you should be targeting for cuts and levies, if it needs to be done. No, it wouldn’t be popular with voters. I know, and am not dismissing the plight of many middle earners – particularly homeowners – are already under severe pressure. But we are not confined to beds or empty houses with no independence. What you are doing is not right. It is just not right.

I’m tired of being angry. I’m tired of feeling that we are merely postponing the inevitable sinking of our society. But I’m not tired enough to stop fighting for the care of those who need and deserve it the most, and, as representatives paid by us, to represent the interests of EVERY citizen in this country, neither should you.

I want to know what you, as a paid public representative are going to do, to restore this tiny amount of dignity to our elderly by restoring home help hours to their previous (already woefully inadequate) levels. Writing to you is the first step of many. I, like many others have been silent for too long already. I will not stop until I hear evidence that you are taking definitive action to improve the circumstances of those fellow citizens who rely on their home help to provide them with a minimal level of dignity.

I await your reply.

Anne-Marie Flynn.

My 10k adventure – and a thank you

Two months ago, I took a mad notion and decided I’d run 10km for charity.

Okay, I lie. I did no such thing. I decided I’d repeat the efforts of previous years, and sign up for the Women’s Mini-Marathon, do some token training – consisting of running 500m down the road and back while feeling faintly ridiculous – for the week preceding the big event. Then I’d turn up on the day, togged out like a pro. I’d jog a little and feel smugly fit and healthy before starting to wheeze, and would happily succumb to a(n albeit brisk) walking pace around the 2k mark. Then I’d finish triumphantly by jogging across the line at a respectable 1 hour 40 minutes and head to the pub to smugly celebrate my achievement.

This year was different, though.

I work for a large multinational corporation. I’ll openly admit that this is not necessarily the career path I’d have chosen as a young idealist, but it’s worked out well for me. While I work hard, and sometimes excessively long hours, I consider myself pretty lucky that I can work with some great clients who do fantastic work in the social arena. I’m glad that as part of my day job that I get to meet people who inspire me, and I’m grateful that I’m able to play a very small part in helping them achieve their aims more effectively and successfully.

One of the single biggest positives of my job is that as part of our corporate social responsibility programme, I with a small team of others have been able to work closely with the wonderful people at LauraLynn House, Ireland’s first – and only – Hospice for terminally ill children. Social responsibility programmes within big multinationals sometimes get a bad rap among cynics, who suggest they smell a little of tokenism and are simply part of an effort to generate positive PR, but I say, if I can contribute to a cause like LauraLynn House, even to a tiny extent, as part of my day job, then that’s good enough for me.

I’m sure by now that most of you have heard Jane and Brendan McKenna’s tragic story, but if not, you can read it here where you can also find out a little more about the work that the Children’s Sunshine Home and LauraLynn House do.

Three weeks ago, I was confronted with an image on the front of the Irish Independent that stopped me in my tracks. Tiny baby Leo McWade, aged 6 months old, gazing up at his dad with his beautiful big eyes, had been born with an inoperable heart defect. Told he would have very little time, his parents, Catherine and John had brought him home to care for him side by side with his twin sister Molly. I won’t deny that I cried when I read of his dad John’s feeling of panic when, on a particularly awful night, he phoned the hospital desperately looking for help and was told not to bring him in, that there was nothing they could do. I don’t have children, but I can only imagine the how horrifying that feeling of helplessness must have been.

John and Catherine subsequently moved into LauraLynn House with Leo and Molly, where Leo has received specialist care. The twins are now six months old. John, during his interview with the Irish Independent marvels at Leo’s resilience. “Now we have gotten to know this little boy. We can hold him and he looks up at me and he smiles”, he says. They can now tell Leo’s little sister that they did everything they could for him.

I hope John and Catherine don’t mind me telling their story here. But I don’t mind saying that nothing I have ever read has affected me so much. I hope Catherine and John get some more time with their little boy, and when the time comes, I hope sincerely that they’ll get the support they need at such a terrible time.

LauraLynn House is a wonderful facility. In their recently-opened new hospice building, they’ve thought of everything. It’s full of natural light. The bedrooms are decorated so as to make them feel as homely as possible. While every room houses essential medical equipment such as hoists, they are discreetly housed behind doors so as not to serve as a reminder that this is a medical environment. Large recliners beside beds enable tired parents to rest in comfort. Computer screens where staff can access medical records double as interactive screens for children to play games. There are guest rooms, with small kitchens where families can avail of privacy and retain some dignity at that most terrible of times. And in the most poignant of additions, there is a beautiful room called the Butterfly Suite, where children close to death are brought to die with their families around them. Importantly, LauraLynn House is not a sad place, nor is its sister organisation, the Children’s Sunshine Home. Though the facilities between provide care and respite for hundreds of children and parents, they are places of light and laughter.

LauraLynn House receives NO direct government funding. Not a cent. Apart from some funds diverted from the state contributions towards the Children’s Sunshine home, on whose grounds LauraLynn House sits, the hospice relies solely on the goodwill of fundraisers to pay its staff, and maintain its buildings and equipment. Running costs for the Hospice amount to over €2m annually. That’s a lot of money to raise.

When I read baby Leo’s story, I’d already started fundraising. I’d already raised quite a bit, having beaten my original target of €250, which I’d thought ambitious when I set it. But reading this made me more determined than ever. So I started to make a nuisance of myself, and it paid off. I’ve known from years of getting soaked outside churches while shaking buckets and selling raffle tickets at table quizzes, that we as a nation are an incredibly and unerringly generous people. I’ll always remember the old gentleman with no coat and a jumper that had seen better days who, outside a north Dublin church on a freezing cold, rainy night with a shy nod pressed a €50 note into my collection bucket. Once people are asked, they almost always respond with genuine enthusiasm for a good cause. But when times are that bit harder, and money is tight, I’d have understood if people were more reticent. I was prepared for that. But the opposite proved to be the case. In the end, I’ve managed to raise over €1,200 for LauraLynn House, and to say I’m delighted is an understatement.

One of the most amazing elements of my fundraising effort was the response I got from my efforts to promote the cause using social media. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m  an avid fan of twitter. I’ve been using it for about three years, and during that time (once the initial rite-of-passage novelty of celeb-following wore off), I’ve gathered over 1500 followers, and enjoyed thousands of fascinating, bite-size conversations with people from all walks of life on lots of interesting topics. (And politics.) I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting some people who I can now safely say will be friends for life. But despite my already strong conviction that the people you meet on twitter are among the best you’ll ever find, nothing could have prepared me for the response I got there to my fundraising efforts. In total, nearly half amount came from people who follow me on twitter. Astoundingly, a third came from people I’ve never even met. Some even passed my fundraising page on to friends and colleagues who in turn, also contributed.

Just… wow.

So when I togged out last Monday, I felt I owed it to those who donated to put in a bit of effort, over and above my usual laid-back ambling through the route. Work commitments meant training time was minimal, so I approached the day with some apprehension. (By minimal, I mean non-existent.) An old injury didn’t help, but along with a good (and annoyingly, infinitely fitter) friend of mine, I vowed I’d give it socks. (I even bought special socks for the occasion.) The first kilometre was a breeze. I was starting to wonder what the big deal about running was. By 2k, I was getting a wee bit sweaty. At 3k, I was starting to wheeze and feel a bit dizzy. By 5k, parts of me I didn’t know existed were starting to hurt, and I had to slow down for a bit. (By slow down, I mean stagger to the nearest water station and consider catching a bus.) Around the 7k mark I was definitely starting to hallucinate and reminiscent of the Lenten episode of Father Ted where everything appears to Ted to be a giant cigarette, I was having visions of tantalisingly cold pints of liquid. (Swithwicks.) The firemen cheering us on at Donnybrook at the 8km mark bolstered the spirits somewhat, despite being somewhat of a distraction. By 9k, every single part of me, including my eyeballs hurt (and didn’t stop hurting for four days). But I crossed the 10k mark having managed to run a good 90% of the route, and clocked a time of 1hr 18 minutes. Not exactly impressive, but bearing in mind that I absolutely detest running and avoid it at every opportunity, I was pretty damn chuffed with myself. I was so chuffed that I even contemplated running a victory lap around the Green.

So, this post is a thank you. To anyone who made a donation to the cause, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart. I’m humbled by your generosity towards what is a wonderful cause. LauraLynn House value every cent of the money you donated. But in addition to that, the past few weeks served to remind me that despite all the negativity and cynicism that pervades the news, the papers and our everyday discourse, there is still an intrinsic goodness in us, and a desire within us to help out others less fortunate than ourselves. And it’s for that reminder that I’m even more grateful.

You can read John McWade’s interview with the Irish Independent here.

Money Talks…

It’s that time of year again. The Great Cake Experiment has kicked off for a second round.

As usual,  I have, at the very last minute, managed to submit this week’s entry.

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Money talks, but, as the words of a famous song attest, it can’t sing or dance, and it don’t walk. (Note: “Famous”, naturally, does not equate to  “decent”, or “credible” or even “listenable”.  But I’ll try not to digress, before I even get past the first paragraph. And Neil did have a point, before the chorus descended into farce).

Residing in Ireland these days is no great picnic, at least not according to the media. As a country, we are flat broke, and have sold our sovereignty/souls to the Germans/Devil, (delete as appropriate). Our houses are worth negative money – the bricks and mortar equivalent of celery (yes, if you eat nothing but celery, all the time, you’ll have a negative calorie intake. Crash dieters, take note.)

And oh, how we love talking about this. In outraged tones, we condemn the FF-‘led government of the time for mismanaging us into this pit of destitution. We blame the banks for lending us the cash to buy what we did not need. We scorn the broadsheets for force-feeding us swollen property magazine supplements we did not want (but feasted on). We decry the economists who gleefully discussed  the best and safest ways of investing in property abroad. How we revile the car dealers who persuaded us that a five year payment plan for the BMW X5 – for on-road activity, natch -was a no-brainer. Lacking, however in this blame game, is the more uncomfortable notion of personal responsibility.

Today, in Ireland, to be blunt we have a society that, to its shame, has collectively failed itself. Our most vulnerable are now at risk. There is every indication that tomorrow’s Budget will signal bad news for children in disadvantaged families as child benefit allowances are cut. Class sizes will, in all probability be increased. Already, the number of Special Needs Assistants for children with learning difficulties has been slashed. Nursing homes are closing, resulting in traumatic moves for elderly patients who, for many years have known no other home. Proposed funding for mental health facilities is now no longer guaranteed. Note that those most affected here are the ones with very little power to defend themselves.

Take a bow, Ireland. To say “we all partied” is wrong and unfair, but frankly, there is no denying that many of us did. Plenty of us sit in debt, because we lived beyond our means when times were good. Nobody ever told us we had to buy that car, or take out that mortgage, but we went ahead and did it anyway because everyone else was doing it and we didn’t want to be left behind. Now, in our grim fiscal situation, all we can do is talk about it, and continue to place money at the centre of our lives, and forgetting that the loveliest things we own cost nothing. (The irony is, that despite the fact that €120 billion is held in this country’s banks in hard currency and cash deposits, we collectively cry poverty, but of course, I’m digressing again.)

Times are hard. For many, they’re immeasurably shit, and they have my sympathy, they really do. But for many of us, they’re not as bad as we’d like to pretend.

I can’t understand why we continue to talk ourselves into this negative, defeatist frame of mind. Think of the happiest memory you have. The person you love the most. The things you treasure most dearly. What you would cry hardest over losing. I’m willing to bet that the things that matter most to you don’t didn’t originate in your wallet. Why not place them at the centre of your world, and while you’re at it, make a difference to the people around you by doing something small, something almost immeasurably tiny, in fact, like sharing a smile, holding a door, or just telling someone how much they mean to you? Why not devote your time and energy to what feeds the heart and soul, and worry a little less about what you can’t bring with you where you’re going?

Money talks, but no-one ever said we had to listen.

Why THAT Club Orange ad annoyed me

I’m sure most of you have already feasted your eyes on the orgy of faux bit-squeezing borderline soft porn that makes up the most recent Club Orange advertising effort. If you haven’t, do go right ahead and feast/hide your eyes right here. (I’m not really too fussed about adding the video to my blog – I think I’d feel a bit dirty. Please make sure to clean the screen afterwards….and you can take that any way you like.)

Yes, I know, I know. By talking about it, I’m contributing to the debate, generating buzz, giving them what they want, all that jazz. The only thing worse than being talked about, etc etc. While my profession involves lots of work based around advertising, I tend not to get on my soapbox about creatives, instead preferring to regard them as a necessary evil. The fact that the Club ad has made me feel strongly enough to put pen to paper surprises me, but I’m fascinated by the reaction it’s garnering across all the various spectrums, particularly in social media. The ad has “gone viral” it seems, which is what most savvy marketers apparently aspire to these days. But is it necessarily a good thing?

I have a number of issues with the Club Orange ad debate. I don’t really buy the “Diet Coke break” revenge argument that has cropped up so many times in its defence. Diet Coke ads are equally shit, equally lazy and equally sexist. I know Matthew McConaughy was happy to get his pecs out for the Dolce & Gabbana cause. I also recall another aftershave advert – the brand name escapes me – involving a naked man, and a leather couch (the meeting of which upset me greatly, I might add. Bum sweat on the sofa? No thanks.) We’ve all seen countless ads portraying men AND women purely as sexual objects. Sex sells, or so they say… but this is different.

Firstly, it’s the sheer lack of subtlety that gets me. It’s really not very … classy. Granted, this argument won’t stand up to much scrutiny in a reasoned debate about sexual objectification, but my instant reaction upon seeing this ad was to think, how well, …..cheap … it looks. It’s the advertising equivalent of Katie Price, isn’t it? All boobs, faux sex “appeal”, and very little substance. The ad sells using sex, in its lowest form, aimed at the lowest common denominator in the cheapest, most tabloid-esque manner possible – the type of manner that would make a red-light district window display look positively classy. All brawn, and no brains, and titillation (no pun intended) without fulfilment. Of course, procuring yourself some Club Orange may just provide alternative fulfilment… depends on what you’re into, I guess. On another level, this ad just irritates me no end – it has a “nails on a background” vibe about it and that contrived accent is already starting to grate, before it even hits the screen.

More importantly, however, I’m almost annoyed with the “actresses” featured, and their deliberate, unashamed provocativeness. I feel betrayed by them. Every day, we read about the ‘glass ceiling’ and witness first-hand the struggles women face in the workplace and on the world stage simply in order to be taken seriously and to progress in their chosen careers. Never mind that they shouldn’t have to fight harder, the fact is a lot of them do, and it is strong, powerful, intelligent women that I would prefer to be seen as representative of our gender – and of me. Then, you look at this ad, and read the (mostly male-generated) comments on YouTube, dissecting as they are the finer points of an ad featuring a row of boobs in tiny bra tops (their faces are barely shown, of course) designed to sell a soft drink, and you start to despair. Yeah, there’s a freedom of choice argument – women are free to do as they will with your bodies (mostly) and all that. But I can’t help thinking that women everywhere striving for true equality are being let down by the “actresses” in ads like these.

I’m conscious the opinions above might imply that I think all men are suckers for this low form of wit. I know the opposite to be true. What’s struck me about this palaver over the past few days is the amount of men I have observed rolling their virtual eyes at this and dismissing – nay, slating – the ad both for its lack of intelligence and its dearth of originality. The advert is clearly targeted towards young men, and I’ve noticed quite a few such men taking offence with the notion that advertising agencies still believe they are brain-dead enough to fall for such base concepts. Men object just as much as women to the fact that teenage boys and young men are being targeted using an ad that blatantly objectivises women, and that’s heartening, as is the level of condemnation for the ad by men on behalf of women. I think it’s born out of a realisation that objectivising and sexualising women to the extent where we’re almost watching soft porn before the watershed is wrong and unhealthy, particularly because in our media-saturated world it plays a massive part in skewing young people’s perceptions of each other’s gender at an impressionable age. All of this contributes to a greater malaise in society – and ultimately, on a more serious level, contributes in no small way to a culture where even violence against women, particularly sexual violence, is not regarded or treated with the seriousness it should be. I am in no way exaggerating when I say this. It all adds up.

On another note, having scanned through a number of the reactions on the internet over the past few days, I get the sense that most women actually don’t feel they can voice their annoyance with this ad, without being labelled. Even the stronger, more prolific, outspoken women I’m aware of in the spheres of media and journalism, seem to feel they need to qualify their objections with an “I’m no prude but…” or “You might think I’m being old-fashioned and conservative but…” and this is what really makes me sad. As women, the fact that we still appear to perceive ourselves in such a way that we don’t feel comfortable enough to voice our objections without prefacing them with a qualifier, says a lot about how we feel we are perceived – and at the risk of being controversial here – specifically by men, for articulating these concerns.  I won’t lose any sleep over this ad, but on a moral and ethical level I’m not happy about the level to which sex is used – across any industry – to reduce people to brainless, objectified, sexualised objects. I’m less happy about the fact that it appears to work, to an extent, but I’m most unhappy that I as a women should feel I need to justify my objection to it, for fear of being labelled a frigid old feminist. And yes, feminism is still, in this day and age, seen by many as a dirty word with negative connotations. Hysteria, even. There’s a lot of progress to be made yet.

Finally, I’d also like to note that this ad irritated me purely because I think it’s rubbish. It’s lazy, it’s boring, it’s clichéd and it’s been done to death already. Hunky Dorys got there before Club, Diet Coke before them, and if this ad was designed as a parody, as has been suggested, then it’s an abject failure. I can’t help but feel the agency responsible might have done a pretty great Irish brand a considerable disservice. In what I’m guessing is an effort to differentiate it from its biggest competitor Fanta, they have misfired, and by resorting to such a cliché-ridden, one-dimensional campaign, lacking in any subtle nuances or discernable humour, I wonder if they will cheapen the brand irreparably, and alienate a good proportion of their non-regular buyers.

I’ve no problem with a brand tailoring advertising in order to target a specific market, and indeed redefining their target market – it happens all the time, to good effect and is clever marketing – just look at Special K and Yorkie respectively for examples. But for a brand which had such great potential to shine in a much broader territory, and from a uniquely Irish position, at that – I can’t help wondering whether the agency, and Club themselves have shot themselves in the foot. It’s easy to drive brand equity down, but very, very difficult to reverse the damage.

Time will tell. But I know what I won’t be buying for a sugar rush from now on.