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.

Suicide first-aid – a useful life skill? HSE ASIST training …

Following my last post over on Facebook, I’ve just registered with the HSE to complete their ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) course. Though not highly publicised, it’s a free, two-day interactive workshop in suicide first-aid which trains participants to reduce the immediate risk of suicide and increases the support for a person at risk.

ASIST

The issue of  our high suicide rates is always simmering away in the background, but it feels like recently, frustration with our mental health services, and increasingly, the difficulty in accessing treatment is starting to reach boiling point, as more and more people tell their story. There was the horrific death of Caoilte O’Broin, whose family had so desperately tried to get him the help he needed, only to meet frustration and closed doors at every turn, the tragic death of Stephen Byrne, and of course the dreadful loss a while back of Sharon Grace and her little girls, not to mention the loss of Una Butler‘s family. And of course Bressie’s impassioned appeal to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children to address the “epidemic of our generation”. I could go on; these are just a handful of examples.

Dealing with service issues can be fraught, frustrating and there are many problems to be navigated, not least the question of the involvement of families in mental health treatment, and the terrifying barriers to treatment that exists when a person, such as Caoilte, has a dual diagnosis.

I therefore feel, that for as long as we live in a country where equity of access to well-resourced, timely, affordable, holistic, compassionate, recovery-led mental health treatments is at present, a distant aspiration, we need to start equipping ourselves to better deal with the reality around us. That reality is that approximately 500 people annually in this country lose their lives to suicide. While our government has an obligation to step up to the plate, I can’t – won’t – accept that there is nothing we ourselves can do as a society to try and change this.

Prevention strategies have their place when it comes to addressing suicide; however, we can all sit at any point on the mental health spectrum at any time, and sometimes, it’s emergency intervention that’s needed. While we have become very, very good at telling people in distress that they should “seek help” or “talk to someone”, if someone did exactly that and told you they were considering killing themselves, would you know what to do? Would you feel confident you could help?

I know I wouldn’t.

According to the HSE, the ASIST workshop encourages honest, open and direct talk about suicide as part of preparing people to provide suicide first aid, and helps participants understand what help and support people in crisis might need. But it aims to instil a confidence in dealing with crisis situations that may just save a life. ASIST workshop places are limited, they say, therefore preference must be given to participants who are likely to come into contact with someone who is at risk of suicide in their daily lives. Given our current suicide rates, that could be any of us.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Further Information

  • Training dates: Regular trainings are scheduled around the country – you can find more information on these by contacting your Regional Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention at the following link. http://www.hse.ie/…/resour…/officers_suicide_prevention.html
  • Training in Mayo: There are two scheduled Mayo trainings – the first being on 8th and 9th March in GMIT, the next in Ballina on 31st May and 1st June(venue TBC). Contact me for details and I can put you in touch to register.
  • Cost: ASIST training is free. You just need to register in advance.
  • Who can take part? Anyone can partake in ASIST training, but it is particularly suitable for all kinds of caregivers – health workers, teachers, community workers, Gardai, youth workers, volunteers, people responding to family, friends and co-workers. he course can be intense, and it’s not recommended for people who may have lost someone to suicide or have been recently bereaved.

Download the ASIST leaflet 

Other mental health training resourses from the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention

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.

Ballycastle’s Giro de Baile – a novice’s account of a first sportive

It was some trepidation that I loaded the bike into the boot of the car for the Giro de Baile on a rainy Sunday morning in August. Having never taken part in a cycling event before, and having done no serious training, I don’t mind admitting I was panicking a little at the prospect of what lay ahead. 60km along the exposed north west Atlantic coast in the wind and the rain? Sure, you’d have to be mad.

Giro de Baile sign

Giro time

Having recently moved back to North Mayo, I was on the lookout for a new hobby. Cycling is something I’ve always enjoyed but never pursued regularly, apart from the odd commute or jaunt around Dublin or Mayo. Having been aware of the success of the inaugural Giro de Baile in 2014, and smitten by the stunning route, I’d been keeping an eye on their Facebook page, and had it pencilled it into the diary. As the day drew closer, the nerves multiplied, but there’s nothing like a challenge to make or break an intention, right? Having been chatting with the organisers on Twitter, they very gently cajoled me into giving it a shot. And when a group gets together and puts in a shedload of work to organise and promote an event to benefit and promote their community and locality, I do feel it’s important to support that effort where possible.

Arriving in Ballycastle, the festivities were in full swing, with a DJ pumping out motivational beats, an impressive inflatable start line and of course a healthy lashing of green and red flags. Football is at the heart of everything down here. Inside the Community Hall, there was a palpable air of anticipation as 320 cyclists, experienced and novice alike availed of the spread of food and refreshments provided, and prepared for launch.

Giro de Baile volunteers

Volunteers, you rock.

With a cheer, we were off. Pikemen, reminiscent of the 1798 rebellion which forms a huge part of the county’s historical narrative cheered the procession of cyclists at the first corner. Motivational messages on the challenging (this is a euphemism) Flagbrooke Hill gave an extra push (“It’s only a hill, get over it”), though I will admit that it eventually got the better of me and I had to get off and walk. Which I have absolutely no regrets about doing, as it meant I could stop for a second and look back at what is probably the most magnificent view in North Mayo. (If you’re doing this event next year, remember to look around you as you go – on a challenging route, it’s easy to keep the head down, but it means you’re missing out.) A samba band greeted participants at the crest of the hill. Throughout, stewards and marshals were helpful and encouraging. The roads were quiet and felt safe. Even the oncoming traffic was friendly with plenty one-fingered salutes (not that kind, the country kind!) and beeps from motorists.

Flagbrooke Hill

The never-ending Flagbrooke Hill. Yes, there was a “Mayo for Sam” message

I’d tackled the event with a friend who is (thankfully!) of similar ability, and while at times, we found ourselves a little isolated on the route, we were never too far from a race marshal. After the third stop in Moygownagh, we realised we had only 14km to go, and we spent the last 10km telling each other how great we were. Then we turned the last corner into Ballycastle to be met with that last hill! It was probably the most challenging moment of the day and needless to say getting over the finish line was a memorable moment. Our time might not have broken any records (or if it did, it was of the Wooden Spoon variety), but we made it. For two first timers, we couldn’t ask for more than that.

A shot from the 130km route. A good incentive to go further next year

A shot from the 130km route. A good incentive to go further next year

Two things really struck me from the outset about this event.

Firstly, when starting out in anything new, encouragement is important. For novices, taking part in an event like this can be daunting. In the week leading up to the event, the Giro team posted updates on their social media account aimed at participants taking part in their first sportive, such as including practical advice about cycling. In addition, they were hugely reassuring to anyone who might have doubted their abilities to keep up with the pack (i.e. people like me!) If you can do 20k, they said, you can do 60k. There is no pressure to compete. The atmosphere carries you. Plus for every uphill climb there’s a downhill freewheel! Such information might seem trivial to the experienced cyclist but means a great deal to the novice.

Secondly, what stood out was the obvious determination of the wider community of Ballycastle to make this a success. There was a strong and cheerful volunteer presence along the route, plenty of opportunities to refuel and refresh, lots of cheering spectators, and veritable feast of food at the end. The Ballycastle community is a small but proud one, and cycling along the breathtaking route, even in the rain, it’s very clear to see why.

Giro de Baile

Probably one of the happiest moments of my life – seeing the barbecue at the finish line after 60k. Thanks to my buddy Martina for keeping me going!

If any of you are considering doing the Giro next year, and are looking for a new route, I’d recommend checking this out. And if you’re a local wondering whether you’re up to the challenge, my unequivocal advice would be to go for it.  The Giro website says: “The ride is not a race, it’s a chance to enjoy a challenge with like-minded people with spectacular views throughout the routes”. What they don’t say is just how well the event is organised and just what a great sense of achievement you get from taking part and crossing that finish line. It’s kickstarted my cycling hobby and I know I’m looking forward to next year’s event already where hopefully I can tackle the longer 130km route. And let’s hope the sun shines!

Only another two hours to wait for us to finish, Bernard!!

The next Giro de Baile cycle takes place on 31st July 2016, and all information on this North Mayo Sportive can be found at girodebaile.com. Proceeds from this year’s events were split between three local organisations: Cancer Care West, Kiddies Korner Playschool, Ballycastle and Moy River Rescue.

Pic credit; Giro de Baile on Facebook.

The great name-changing debate

Recently there’s been some talk in the national media about the practice of women taking their husbands’ surnames when they marry. A few days ago, two similar and thought-provoking articles in the Irish Independent by writers Barbara Scully and Dearbhail McDonald – both self-declared feminists – examined the merits of the custom, with each expressing some surprise that in this enlightened age of feminism, women should be taking their husbands’ names at all.

For women in Ireland, historically the practice of changing name after marriage has almost been a foregone conclusion. However, the sands as ever are shifting, and there has been a quiet, but growing resistance to the custom. The aforementioned articles generated much debate on social media – including Twitter, where people just love a good argument – and the exchanges threw up some interesting perspectives on the tradition.

Many women who had kept their names said they did so to retain their own identity. For some, it amounted to a political statement; a public rejection of traditional patriarchal structures and notions of submission and subordination. Professional women argued – many from experience – that name-changing can negate years of work put into building a strong reputation or personal brand. Some, rather less optimistically, maintained that they wouldn’t want to be still called by their ex-husband’s names when – when! – they got divorced.

On the other hand, there were women who for various personal reasons embraced the chance to rid themselves of their old name and make a fresh start with a new one. More enjoyed the unity symbolised by their family all having the same surname, while others had happily adopted the double-barrelled system. Some declared that they just liked the novelty, or simply the old-fashioned romance of it all.

Bride And Groom Enjoying Meal At Wedding Reception

Men also contributed to the debate, many of whom declared it wouldn’t bother them either way. However, as McDonald herself mentioned, once the subject of children was broached that perspective tended to change. A small minority had taken their wives’ surnames after marriage, while others visibly balked at the notion. (The very idea!) Men and women alike wondered how the process would work within same-sex marriages. All in all, the exchanges demonstrated once again that nothing is ever black or white; the beauty of it being the freedom that exists for people to make the choice for themselves. Indeed most women were adamant that the decision should be theirs; not dictated by husbands, families or interfering in-laws, and that their preference should not be assumed by others, either – something to bear in mind when addressing your Christmas cards!

On that note, such was the interest in the topic that following McDonald’s article, the Irish Independent even ran a poll on the topic, asking “Should a woman take her husband’s surname?” And therein lies the rub. Women are constantly dictated to – how they should behave, how they should dress, the body shape they should  behave. As feminists, surely we should be asking why on earth should a woman have to do anything? Why would anyone assume they have the right to dictate to women what they should – or should not – be doing with their own names? Why are we not asking why more men don’t offer to make the change? But ultimately, whose business is it, anyway?

Scully’s article suggested that we follow the leads of jurisdictions such as Quebec and Greece (you won’t hear that too often these days) in actually outlawing the practice of wives taking their husbands’ names. This restriction also applies in countries like Netherlands, Belgium and France.  Japan, on the other hand, legally requires couples to adopt either one of the spouses’ surnames when married – but unsurprisingly and somewhat disappointingly, this means that 96% of women make the change.

What seems ludicrous in all of this is the idea of the State having any say either way in what is a private matter.

Implying that women who change their name are somehow damaging the feminist cause is a contradiction in terms. While the feminist argument appears in the main to be that women who take their husband’s names are complicit in preserving a patriarchal structure, surely true feminism means promoting  the freedom of women to make their own choices – including taking their husbands’ names if they wish – and supporting and respecting that freedom, even if the outcome contradicts your own philosophy? Judging women for making this choice is unnecessarily divisive, and  . once again assigns women with sole responsibility for changing societal norms.

There are plenty of battles yet to be fought by women in the quest for equality. This should not be one of them.

This column first appeared in the print version of The Mayo News on Tuesday 4th August 2015

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.

Service with a smile … it works both ways

With a month of country living under my belt after the move back west (God, it’s great to be home), the boxes are finally unpacked and I’m readjusting to the easier pace of life in the homeland. There’s plenty to love, but a constant source of joy is just how little time it takes to get from A to B. Because Dublin has approximately 94 sets of traffic lights per kilometre, sometimes the drive to pick up a litre of milk and a few spuds entails more braking than driving. Here, you just turn the key in the ignition and you’re there. Dorothy and her red slippers ain’t got nothing on life in Mayo.

It also strikes me daily how much friendlier people are. That’s part of our charm, but importantly, in a region depending so heavily on tourism, it’s also an essential business attribute. Hand in hand with that comes good customer service, which, it’s fair to say, is probably the norm. That’s why, when confronted with a bad experience, it jars all the more. But while the majority of encounters are positive, if truth be told, we could still sometimes do better.

As a customer, when you go to the shop to buy a litre of milk, or to buy a stamp in the post office, what are your expectations of that experience? Do you like to be greeted with a hello, some eye contact, a chat? Do you prefer to be handed your change, rather than it being slapped on the counter? Entering a clothes shop, do you expect a friendly greeting and an offer of help? On your weekly shop, do you prefer it when the cashier talks to you, not their colleagues? Most of all, is a smile important? Most of us would probably agree that these are the most basic tenets of customer service. Having someone go the extra mile thereafter is just the icing on the cake.

When the basics aren’t met, there is a knock-on effect. Chances are, if your experience in a shop is an unfriendly, unhelpful one, you’ll bring your money elsewhere next time. As a local, if you experience poor service in a restaurant or café, you’ll probably tell ten people about it. As a tourist, add TripAdvisor into the mix and tack on a few zeros. Poor service and lack of warmth in a business make for a poor tourist experience, and colour their entire impression of an area. Meanwhile, among locals it discourages loyalty. And whoever deals with customers is the face of that business, regardless of the name over the door. If that face is a scowling one, you’re onto a loser from the start. Little things, big implications.

There are, of course, two sides to every argument. Working in the service industry and dealing with the public can be no picnic, and years of retail management in a past life taught me that contrary to popular belief, the customer is most definitely not always right. On the contrary, they can be rude, confrontational and frequently downright mad. Working in fashion exposed me to all sorts, from the “I know my rights” brigade (they generally don’t) to those who think it appropriate to use your fitting rooms for their bodily functions (yes, even that one). Once, I went home with a black eye, the result of a shoe thrown at me by a gentleman I can only describe as being overexcited. So there is little doubt that facing the public on a daily basis can bring its challenges. If you’ve just been eaten alive by an irate customer, it can be hard to plaster on a smile to greet the next one.

High angle view of cashier with a line of people at the check-out counter

But good service is essential for business to thrive and survive. Taking pride in your business will garner respect from your customers, and not just in the hospitality industry. Visiting tourists become part of our landscape for a while, using our supermarkets, our filling stations, our corner shops. Their experiences help to build their impressions of our county, as well as building our economy. And for those of us at home, service with a smile can brighten the day. But remember, it works both ways!

This was originally printed in The Mayo News on 15th July 2015.