A Dark Reputation

Angel

It’s that time of year again. The anniversary of a murder that happened long before I was born but that somehow managed to change the course of my life. William Kirwan haunts me, as do the women whose lives he destroyed – three off whom are looking at me as I write. I’ve written about the Ireland’s Eye murder many times – it’s the case behind the book that I’m working on, that I’m still working on. It’s rather taken over my life.

This year I want to share some of the secondary stories that surround the case. In 1852 the Kirwan case was a cause celebre. Even though the case itself was a fairly simple, tragic case of spousal murder – very like many I’ve covered in the past – the rumours and embellishments that have twisted around it over the years are impressive. William Bourke Kirwan was accused of multiple murders and all kinds of wrong doing. I’ve dug, and dug and dug, believe me. While I’ve absolutely no doubt that Kirwan was a nasty piece of work I really don’t think he was a serial killer. A wife beater and philanderer, of course, but was he guilty of the other crimes he was accused of? Almost certainly not.

I’ve written about the case before, quite a few times actually, but I’ll recap the basics. On September 6th William Bourke Kirwan and his wife Maria went out to Ireland’s Eye, a small island off the coast of Howth in north county Dublin. He was an artist and was planning on sketching some new scenes. She was a keen swimmer and was looking forward to the challenging swimming around the island. At some point that evening, before the boat came to take them back to Howth harbour, William Kirwan killed his wife. Some have said that it was a miscarriage of justice and she simply drowned, but I’ve seen evidence that shows he was a very abusive husband, an all too familiar scenario with a too inevitable outcome. This evidence wasn’t produced at Kirwan’s subsequent trial though, so to many it seemed a motiveless act of unfathomable evil. The fact that he was widely known to have had a second family, with a mistress and no fewer than seven children, cemented his reputation. The rumour mill ground into action until Kirwan was blamed for any inconvenient death.

Among the papers of Thomas Larcom, former under secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland is a note that suggests even the great and good were not immune. Larcom had been in charge of the Ordinance Survey of Ireland and when one of his surveyors was killed in suspicious circumstances a few years before Kirwan was convicted he took a personal interest in the case. A newspaper report of the inquest notes that the dead man’s brother, who had run up considerable gambling debts, had argued with his brother when he refused to lend him money. When questioned at the inquest the brother broke down and the reporter noted how his sobs could be heard throughout the room for the rest of the inquest. Despite the fact that it would seem pretty clear that this had all the hallmarks of a very private tragedy, Larcom’s note is definite that the death was at the hand of “the murderer Kirwan”, in an early, undiscovered atrocity. Larcom might actually have known Kirwan who had a lucrative sideline in colouring the Ordnance maps. Business was so good in that area that he had hired several young apprentices to meet the commissions.

Kirwan certainly seems to have made rather a habit of antagonising people. He might well have got away with killing his wife if it hadn’t been for those with hefty axes to grind. In the month after Maria’s death that rumour mill was being cranked by a very determined woman. Maria Byrne had lived a few doors away from the Kirwans when they lived on Lower Merrion Street before moving to the grander houses on the Upper street. She was a seamstress and had known Kirwan since before his marriage. She obviously felt she knew him well enough to get his measure. She didn’t rest until the Dublin Metropolitan Police had agreed to examine the case. Now Maria Byrne obviously was obviously carrying a grudge. She told police that Kirwan had stolen work from her husband, who shared Kirwan’s other business  of anatomical draughtsman. In this heyday of anatomical demonstration the draughtsmen were much in demand to drew sketches of autopsies and medical specimens. Kirwan had done very well in this line as well. Some of his work is still in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons here in Dublin and several sketches of syphilitic pustules are among the curious collection of sketches in the National Library of Ireland. Mrs Byrne was under no doubt that Kirwan’s success had driven her husband to an early grave. She also told police that he had tried to poison his wife on two separate occasions and as well as her husband, he had also killed his brother-in-law. Maria’s younger brother James had gone to America, and according to Mrs Byrne, was never heard of again.

But the darkest accusation had the most tragic outcome. There was one person who had more of a grudge against Kirwan than anyone else, whose resentment and anger went back long before his marriage and who would not be able to live with her accusations failing to strike their target.

Anne Downes Bowyer was the wife of Kirwan’s painting teacher. She came forward in January 1853 once it became clear that Kirwan was not going to hang. She wanted to make sure he got away with nothing. Her story went back to 1837, three years before Kirwan married Maria. She had carried a burning grudge since then and ultimately it would kill her. Hers is one of the most haunting interconnected stories in this case. She was a very lonely, very tragic character.

Anne Gaffney married the artist Richard Downes Bowyer on Halloween 1819. She was considerably younger than him but I’ve always thought it must have been a love match, a thing of passion. They got special permission to skip their last marriage bann. It may have been because she was pregnant, although the couple never had any children. Whatever happened, Anne turned into a very troubled woman. In or around 1824 she was admitted to Dr Gregory’s private Bellevue asylum in Finglas. She was subsequently released but the marriage did not survive. By around October 1836 she and Richard separated. Richard went to stay with Kirwan and his father. He wouldn’t tell Anne where he was going.

Some time later Kirwan went with Downes Bowyer to collect his things from the house on Mountjoy Street. Anne would later say that she was tied to a chair as her husband, Kirwan and several other young men ransacked her house. She took her husband and Kirwan to court in 1837 accusing them of theft. Her husband countersued and threatened to have her committed again. The judge ruled in Anne’s favour. He told her husband that she was entitled to a living of £40 a year for the rest of her life.

Anne obviously wouldn’t let things go. Her husband moved away from Dublin to Killeshandra in County Cavan, Kirwan’s sister went with him to keep house for the old man. Before he went Richard signed over family lands in Rhine, or Rinn in County Longford on the understanding that Kirwan would continue to pay Anne’s stipend of £40 a year. After Richard died in 1841, Anne became convinced that the Kirwan family had contrived to kill her husband. She couldn’t let the idea go and in January 1853 she went to the police with her accusation.

The Dublin Metropolitan police took Anne Downes Bowyer seriously. They even excavated the garden of the house on Parnell Place where Kirwan and his father had lived. Since Downes Bowyer had died in Killeshandra they found nothing to support Anne’s claims but they did uncover a small coffin much to the excitement of the press. The police duly examined the little coffin and found it to contain the bones of a young child. It was long dead and they couldn’t find out it’s story. It didn’t help Anne.

A few months after this Anne was dead. At her inquest, in July 1853, her sister told the coroner that Anne had been living quietly outside Dublin. The family were worried about her and visited her regularly but on July 7th her sister arrived down from Dublin to find the little cottage empty. A search eventually led to a local quarry, where there was a deep pool. Anne’s shoes and shawl were neatly placed beside the black water. The inquest ruled that Anne had died at her own hand but this is one death that I do think should be laid at Kirwan’s door, all be it indirectly.  It might of course be a complete coincidence but that week’s issue of the Nation newspaper carried a caustic article on Kirwan arguing that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. Kirwan was still in Ireland at this point. His sentence to hang had been commuted on New Year’s Eve but he had still not been transported that summer. As the Nation noted, poorer men with less celebrity would undoubtedly have been hauled off in chains months since. I can only imagine Anne’s reaction if she had read it or had it read to her. Surely enough to take away the last of her hope.

I have always thought that Anne Downes Bowyer was as much a victim of Kirwan as Maria was. He might not have been guilty of the imaginative carnage those who didn’t know him well accused him of but he was a toxic man who saw two women dead. There were other casualties of this case but they are still my subjects so I’m keeping them close to my chest for the moment. William Bourke Kirwan undoubtedly earned his dark reputation.

Dark Tourism

Long_Hole-Ireland's_Eye

There’s always been a fascination for murder. You only have to walk into a bookshop or turn on your TV to see crime, both fact and fiction, is where it’s at. Any high profile trial will have it’s followers. I’ve seen crowds queuing to get into court whenever a case caught the public attention. During both the Joe O’Reilly trial and the Eamonn Lillis trial the crowds got so large they caused problems for the courts staff. During both case, proceedings had to be stopped for public safety reasons. To be honest, if it wasn’t for this hunger I wouldn’t have had a job for as long as I did down the courts.

I’ve been researching 19th century crime for long enough to know that this ghoulish rubber necking is nothing new. The case that I’m focused on, that of wife killer William Bourke Kirwan, was no exception. Murder was a fairly rare occurrence in Dublin back then and when the trial took place in Green Street courthouse in December 1852 the crowds blocked the street.

I’ve been fascinated while researching the wider story how much of a thing this dark tourism was. In January 1853, just days after Kirwan’s sentence was commuted to transportation, an ad appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for “Kirwan the Murderer”. Sadly the advertisement doesn’t go into much detail and was never repeated so I’ve no idea whether “Kirwan the Murderer” was a Penny Dreadful retelling of the case or even a play. I haven’t been able to find any other reference to it and it’s unlikely that any playbill or copy of the pamphlet have survived, though I’d love to see them if they have.

I was amused when I saw it because nothing’s really changed. Any high profile murder trial  in Dublin will be followed by the tabloid commemorative booklet and then a little later with the TV3 re-enactment. It’s always the final flourish of the story. Just as it was then.

What we don’t generally get these days though is the actual murder tourism. It’s still there but they don’t often advertise in the papers. In August 1853 a series of ads appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for boat trips to Ireland’s Eye, the scene of the famous murder. The Long Hole, where Maria Kirwan’s body had been found, was a popular jaunt.  The picture illustrating this piece is an, almost, contemporary sketch from a tourism book, published around 10 years after the murder. The so-called Murder Rock would have been round about where the man and woman are standing as far as I can tell. In September 1853 it was reported that there had been so many pilgrims to the site all seeking souvenirs of the tragic events that the rock had been quite chipped away.

Around the time this story was printed, the  Crown auctioned off all Kirwan’s belongings. The crowds for the viewings were massive, especially for the auction for one of Kirwan’s suits and his gold watch. I’ve always suspected that the National Library collection of Kirwan’s work was bought at one of these auctions. I wrote about my theory for their blog a couple of years ago.

Bidding was swift on all the lots according to newspaper accounts but one expected buyer did not turn up. The Freeman’s Journal noted, at the auction that included Kirwan’s suit, that it was a surprise that none of the bidders had come from a waxworks. Chambers of horror containing effigies of notorious killers were commonplace except, apparently in Dublin. The journalist noted this fact with some satisfaction. The crowd, as well, were less of a throng than one might expect.

Kirwan’s always been a good story. He caught my imagination and if you get the boat out to Ireland’s Eye even today, you’ll hear his story. I wonder will people still be telling the story of Joe O’Reilly in 160 years.

Once Again Words are Not Enough

I’ve hesitated writing about the Tuam babies case. It’s not that I don’t feel strongly about it. It’s not that I’m afraid to write about it.  It’s just that I will simply be one voice in many and surely this is a case where words mean very little unless something can be done about the attitudes that bring us back here again and again and again.

If you’re not familiar with the story, and I’m sure there are plenty who still won’t be, it’s this. On May 24th the Irish Mail on Sunday broke the story. There followed the predictable social media outrage, the even more predictable empty words from those who allowed it to happen, the absolutely inevitable lack of action. Most things don’t happen here until the international press get the sniff of a story and sure enough, once thematter appeared in the Washington Post it really started being talked about.

So what happened? It’s a simple enough story. In Tuam, in County Galway, there used to be a home for Mothers and Babies. It stood on the site of an old workhouse and was run by the sistesr of the Bon Secours order. In this home, between the 1920s and the 1960s 800 babies and young children died. But that’s not it. It’s not that 800 dead over 40 or so years means an average of around 2 a month which might to the casual observer seem a wee bit on the high side. If that was all we would no doubt have already been mollified by those who would drag in every measles outbreak, every flu epidemic, every cholera, typhoid and diphtheria outbreak to cast a swathe through the Irish population in the last two centuries, to make the point that sometimes children die, sometimes a lot of children die. Life they would tell us,  is a fragile thing and you can blame germs, or poverty, or ignorance to tidy away the significant numbers of dead babies of times past.

But that’s not it.

The problem with these 800 babies is that there is a good chance some or all of them ended up disposed of with no care or reverence, thrown in a septic tank.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment. They were disposed of in a septic tank. Not buried in a euphemistically called “angel plot” for the unbaptised. Not placed gently in a little white coffin and honoured with flowers and favourite toys. These children were thrown where you would throw rubbish, in an empty concrete tank that had once held the workhouse’s sewage. There have been suggestions that many of the children who died were the sick, the weak and the disabled, left in what amounted to Dying Rooms to die a slow, sad death of malnutrition and avoidable illness. That these children were left because they were not as lucrative as the healthy children who could be sold to childless couples.

Already there have been those who have denied this. There are those who say that the only indication that there were bones in that septic tank were two small boys who investigated a crack in a concrete slab in the 60s and discovered a horror. There are those who are no doubt hoping that the bones turn out to belong to dogs or rats or sheep – if they are ever exhumed. If anyone bothers to try to find out what happened.

We need to focus on that septic tank because it doesn’t matter if there aren’t 800 babies there. If just one bone of one child is in there it tells us something we should never forget. It means that the body of at least one child was treated like rubbish, was denied the basic funerary rites that we have turned towards as a species since neanderthal times. It means that a child’s body was treated like a dead dog – and perhaps that dog would actually have had more care taken of it. It means that someone turned their back on the most basic human compassion, fought what is surely an instinctive need to treat the dead gently. If there is more than one child’s bone, if there are the dozen’s, hundreds, that have been described then that is an image from a scene of war. That is the piles of bodies in a concentration camp, the smoking piles of war dead. That is humanity lost.

Since the story broke the similar stories have come thick and fast. Just as when the first reports disclosed clerical sex abuse or the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries. There’s never a shortage of stories like that in Ireland. This country has a very, very dark past. Each time a story like this has been told it has caused outrage, anger and disgust. Each time there have been the harrowing first person narratives of what life was like in hell. Each time the Church has responded with platitudes and empty apologies that have never been followed up with action. Each time the apologists have gathered to sweep the dirt back under the now irredeemably bumpy rug. Each time, once a suitable period of chagrin has been observed the Church has sulked about anti-religious agendas and shut their doors yet again.

We don’t know what will happen yet with this. At this stage we don’t even know exactly what the situation is. Until things are clarified, and possibly even then, there will be those who ignore the absolute truth that has been staring us in the face for far too long. RTE journalist Philip Boucher Hayes has outlined what evidence is already available here and Catherine Corless, the local historian whose tireless work brought this story out into the open has put this summary of her findings on Facebook. These are both accounts that can be trusted. This is not a delusion, this is not an exaggeration. If one bone of one child found it’s way into that disused septic tank that is too much. This is not something we should look away from and this is not something we should allow to fade into the past.

The problem, the huge problem, with this is not simply that it is yet another account of a past full of unimaginable cruelty and heartlessness, it is because these attitudes have not been left in the past. The attitudes that allowed these things to happen that keep coming to light, that keep shocking us, the attitudes that dismissed life so absolutely are still here and they are all around us.

When a story like this breaks there are still those who deny it ever happened, who accuse the people who have brought the latest horror to light, of attacking the Church. The newspapers will still ask the local bishop what he thinks, will still listen to the response. The investigation will move slowly unless it gets indefinitely postponed while yet another inquiry creaks forward toothlessly. A lot of columnists will write elegant phrases about how hard the past was before moving on to the next outrage. Social media will get outraged for a while until the next thing turns up. Months down the road there will be a report or an investigation where more details come from the mouths of the victims. Outrage, disgust once again – until the next time.

Has the heart of the country really changed from the time when families were so soaked in catholic guilt that they would turn their back on their own? Isn’t it still a lot easier to listen to what those in power tell us to do than to stand up and demand change? Isn’t such deference hardwired into jaded souls so that certain views still have weight when they should have been resigned to the past.

It’s buried deep but there is still a checklist that weeds the good from the bad, a rigid code that places each of us in one pile or another. If you don’t check the right boxes you are bad, unsaveable, lost. In a mindset based on black and white, good and evil, ours and their,s that line is drawn deep. In my teens and early 20s I first noticed it. Because I was an “outsider” I could never be a good girl. I’ve seen what that does to the attitudes of the guys who were too sure in the discos we called nightclubs. I’ve seen it in the sneers from a certain type of dark-clad granny who would slowly look me up and down on the bus, making me blush and feel like dirt. That was what they meant to do. I was on the other side of the line. There would be no crossing over. I’m not comparing a few slights to what went on in the various homes but I recognise it.

Having a line like that is a dangerous thing as history never fails to show us. Lines like that destroy empathy. Lines like that cause genocide, brutality, slavery. We don’t even need to look to the world for proof of that. There’s ample evidence at home.

As long as that deference is there then so is the line. It goes deeper than prejudice, it’s the difference between black and white. It is hard wired into this country and it’s something that needs to be fought if  the ground is ever going to be kicked over and humanity restored. As long as that line is there people find it easier to assume that those who have been hurt will lie – as the Irish Times managed to point out when talking about the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag (which I’ll return to another time). As long as it’s there the voiceless will never have a voice and the sins of the past will never be truly repaired.

 

A Bleak Choice

Empty cradle by dannysoar

Saturday should have been a good day. It was a chance to meet up with friends, so many of whom were busy being inspiring as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations in Dublin. It was mild out and not raining, the beginnings of spring, a pleasant Saturday to spend doing not very much. But the day started with an article written by a good friend of mine. I’ve known Rosita Boland for a good few years now. I count myself fortunate to have her as a friend. I’ve known for most of our friendship that we shared an unfortunate situation that has caused both of us a lot of heartache over the years. Yesterday Rosita wrote about that unhealing wound and I hope that by sharing something so deeply personal her piece will start a dialogue that has been absent for far too long. But reading her piece coloured my day with grey. It will always be a painful subject.

If you find yourself having to look at alternative routes to starting a family here in Ireland you will quickly find that this is a silent, lonely place to be. It’s a subject that’s still not widely talked about, apart from with friends in the same boat. People who haven’t dealt with it tend not to bring it up. It feels like a shameful little secret, some retribution being visited for some unknown mistake. Then there’s the fear that you will be judged wanting, that this desperate last ditch attempt will be in vain. I really wouldn’t wish this position on anyone.

I’ve written here before about being childless. It’s something I have very complex feelings about. When I was first married I assumed children would be in the mix at some point. I looked forward to the eventuality. When the reality dawned that it was not going to be that simple I went through so many emotions. There was grief, anger, eventually resignation. At first it felt like a physical punch whenever another friend told me they were pregnant. Later I learnt to value my independence especially as it seemed a slimmer and slimmer possibility that we would ever be able to adopt in Ireland. A couple of years ago, after my mother died, we decided to step out of the adoption process as there didn’t seem to be any point of adding to the stress with something that seemed hopeless anyway. Lately we’ve started to talk about it again but only in the light of the realisation that for us ever to hope of being parents we’re going to have to move to another country. Friends in England applied to adopt a little over a year ago. They received their declaration in under a year. It’s often only when you see how things are done elsewhere that you realise just how chaotic things can be here in Ireland.

I know there are reasons why adoption is still something of a taboo subject here. The dark spectre of the babies forcibly taken from “undeserving” single mothers by religious orders still looms large and it’s a scandal that simply isn’t going away. It’s one reason given on an anecdotal basis for the scarcity of domestic adoptions outside the family. Add to that the various scandals in recent years concerning intercountry adoptions and it’s hardly surprising that some appear to think that adoption bodies in Ireland, not to mention prospective adoptive parents, are somewhere between Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Childcatcher and Cruella Devil.

There’s also a longstanding institutional blindness towards those who don’t fit into an extremely narrow definition of family. There is a violently vocal minority who think that the only family that should be recognised by the Irish State is one that conforms to a strictly Catholic ethos. According to these idiots my marriage isn’t valid because it didn’t take place in a church but that’s a whole other story. We’re used to the rabid prolifers and the anti gay marriage mob but surely it’s the exact same ethos that looks down on any couple who can’t have children within a properly sanctified union. It’s surely no coincidence that the Irish State has long ignored regulating the fertility treatment industry and that the ratification of the Hague Convention was allowed to go through without finalised bilateral agreements with compliant countries. You only have to look at the length of time it took the government to legislate on abortion (the laws only came into effect at the start of this year) to see how much of a stranglehold the Catholic church still has on all areas of reproductive policy. This is a situation that simply cannot be allowed to drag on for as long.

But there’s a bigger problem here in Ireland, one that means these issues aren’t even raised most of the time. It’s another reason why trying to remedy your childlessness in Ireland can be an excruciatingly isolating experience and one that’s fundamentally unfair. Ireland might be ostensibly a classless country but it’s one that is brutally divided into the Haves and the Have Nots. All too often the Haves, who are all prosperous enough to be able to throw money at the inconveniences of Irish life, control policy and populate the media. Those who Have Not are left voiceless. They’re not even recognised by the Haves who won’t even look beyond their front door. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start singing The Red Flag, but the fact that expensive solutions exist for so many problems here, including in the area of reproductive healthcare, and the fact that so many of the people who have the power to change things have the money for these solutions means that no change happens. There seems to be an assumption in a lot of quarters that money in some way equates virtue. When it comes to adoption and fertility treatment it can often feel that if you baulk at the cost you are showing yourself to be unfit parent material.

Researching this post I came across this article for the Mayo News by Michael Commins that absolutely underlines my point. The article describes a public meeting last year, so since the ratification of Hague, with representatives from the only country left open for adoption, Bulgaria, and ARC, at the time the only accredited Irish adoption agency under the new laws. It describes how the meeting descended into chaos after ARC announced a tripling of the cost – with fees at their end of over €16,000. Now I know that the adoption process is a complicated one but that’s a hell of a lot for administrative fees. The change in fees, according to the article, had been agreed with the regulatory board, the Adoption Authority shortly before the meeting. Maybe I’m being naive but how could fees jump by that much? I was shocked by the fees when we first investigated adoption.  We heard many stories of unscrupulous agencies hiking fees at the last minute, leaving couples with an extra bill of tens of thousands of euro. One name in particular kept coming up, I’m not going to share it here without proof but I’ve no reason to doubt the people who told me this. The changes in the law were expected to change all the cowboy behaviour but one has to wonder if they have.

It’s not good enough to just shrug and say well you shouldn’t consider adoption if you can’t afford to raise a child (as someone once said to me). I’d genuinely like to know many parents could afford to have a child if the upfront costs were up to €50,000 – and that’s before you even get to the costs of raising a child. How can placing this burden on new parents be in the best interests of the child? Why have no questions been asked about the costs of adoptions? It really isn’t good enough to say “that’s just what it costs” when those costs are surely causing a major problem to all but the most affluent section of this society.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m completely in favour of what Hague was set up to ensure. Of course adoption should be carried out in the best interests of the child. We are talking about the most vulnerable children across the world. Of course they should be protected. But that’s what adoptive parents want to do – provide a loving, safe home for a child that desperately needs one. We’re not looking for a fashion accessory, something to go with the new living room curtains. Surely those who cannot conceive naturally deserve the right to try for a family just as anyone else does? It will be more difficult, it does touch on a myriad of sensitive issues but it shouldn’t be something that’s restricted on the grounds of affluence. Here in Ireland we’re in danger of assuming that a happy home can’t exist without affluence and that is a dangerous road to go down. We need to start talking about the problems with adoption. The current situation simply does not reflect well on Ireland as a civilised country.

I’m resigned to the fact that if I want to be a mother I will have to leave. I know the clock is ticking on that. It saddens me greatly that the country that I love is forcing me to make this decision but in matters like this Ireland can be a harsh place to live.

In Search of Heroines

Last weekend I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the new Ingenious Ireland walking tour. A specially commissioned tour to mark International Women’s Day and the opening of the new Rosie Hackett bridge across the Liffey, Obstreperous Lassies tells the story of just some of the incredible women who came to prominence in the period between 1913 and 1916 here in Ireland.

Now being an unrepentant liberal lefty feminist type the mere idea of the tour was enough to make me smile. I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour or so on a sunny morning but traipsing around Dublin hearing about women who refused to sit down and shut up, who refused to do what was expected on them and who refused to accept the status quo. It was wonderful to hear about Maud Gonne as the woman who had championed free school meals rather than the aloof romantic figure who used to make W.B. Yeats dissolve into sighs every time she wafted past him. Or Ann Jellico, the Quaker mill owner’s daughter who decided that women needed skills to earn themselves a living and set up schools to teach them. Or Kathleen Lynn, often known as “the rebel doctor”, who helped to set up St Ultan’s clinic on Charleville Street and was instrumental in the introduction of the BCG vaccine. The tour is a wonderful catalogue of women judges and politicians, doctors and fighters, women who were suffragists and pacifists and who played their part in the formation of this country.

After the first hour of being pleasantly inspired though something else started to nag at me. While many of the names I was hearing were familiar, it was striking how many of the details weren’t. I was used to hearing the names as footnotes in the sacred history of the land, women who had stood bravely beside fighting men but were largely remembered as the helpmeets, there to tend the sick and take down a note of history as it passed. The honourable exception of course is Constance Markievicz, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish that I’ll get to in a moment. The point that kept coming home during the tour was that the stories of these women, who were all formidable, magnificent, inspiring examples of their sex, the kind of stories I used to latch onto with fangirl adoration as a teenager, much of that stuff was absolute news to me. It felt almost shockingly fresh to be looking at historical events from a woman’s perspective. It was only by focusing on that angle that you realise how unusual it is to hear.

As a child in the 70s and 80s I knew I was lucky to be born into a time when as a girl I no longer had to fight for my education. Growing up in a middle class area I was expected to go on to university, I was expected to have the freedom to follow whatever career path I chose. It never occurred to me that as a girl I was any less able than a boy. I knew women had already fought for the right to vote, the right to an education, the right  to own property and to not pass into the ownership of the man they married. I saw all of these as battles that had been won, as rights I now had. Like any child I couldn’t see limitations until they appeared right in front of me. Back then it never occurred to me that the world was anything but equal. I wasn’t short of role models. I saw strong women all around me, in my family, in popular culture and in the books I read. It wasn’t until much later that I began to see that the world was a far from equal place. That’s when you really need your heroines.

The one thing that I really remember about my stint doing the @ireland Twitter account last year was a conversation that took place on my last day. That week there had been a lot of media coverage of the suffragettes. It was the centenary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and all the columnists were in a retrospective mood. At the end of a conversation about the various memorials to the suffragettes in the UK I had asked the 15,000 or so followers of the @ireland account to recommend similar Irish memorials to inspirational women down through the years. Several hours later we were still struggling to come up with anyone who wasn’t Constance Markievicz. And that’s my problem with the good countess. While she was undoubtedly a formidable force to be reckoned with and surely a fine role model for any trailblazing young Irish woman (or any other woman – or man for that matter – she really was a hell of a woman), it does appear that Constance has been venerated to the exclusion of almost all other women. When you look at the number of women who have been equally extraordinary and who have been all but wiped out of the history books it almost smacks of tokenism.

It’s taken until 2013 to have a bridge named after a woman. Calls to rename Merrion Square after Oscar Wilde’s extraordinary mother have fallen on deaf ears. Apart from Constance Markievicz there are very few memorials to prominent women in Dublin or anywhere else in Ireland. If you go by public monuments Ireland is a country that was built and maintained purely by men. That’s the thing that get’s me more than anything else with all of this – because Irish women are and have always been ballbreakingly strong. From the Celtic archetypes of the Morrigan or Queen Meabh, to the pirate queen Grace O’Malley who faced down Elizabeth 1, to any of the women who fought for Irish freedom right through to the indomitable Irish Mammy there’s no shortage of Irish heroines – many of whom were actually real people and aren’t simply mythological constructs.

In a world where inequality is rife, where violence against women is endemic, it might seem superficial to talk about statues and wallplaques but it’s all part of the same thing. Public statues are things we walk past on a daily basis, they are part of the fabric of our lives. We might ignore them most of the time but one day we’ll probably ask their story. Their mere existence tells us that there is a story to be told. Women’s history so often slips by, it’s harder find their stories because for so long they didn’t have a voice, they weren’t in a position to make a difference. So when they were we should celebrate them all the more. So to get the ball rolling I’d like to propose a statue Winifred Carney in the GPO.  She was there with James Connolly during the 1916 Rising, known as the typist with the Webley. I could see her as a little figure with a typewriter standing in the main hall on the edge of the crowds. They’d bump into her as they queued, especially at Christmas. People would stub their toe against her, apologise absently as they brushed past. They’d ignore her most of the time but every now and then someone would look to see who she was. It doesn’t have to be Winifred Carney, I just like the idea of the statue.

I’m fed up of feeling that jolt of surprise when I hear a woman hosting primetime radio, or when a walking tour for International Women’s Day feels like a novelty, or feeling that it’s something to be applauded when a bridge or a banknote bears a woman’s name or a woman’s face. This stuff shouldn’t matter. I’m fed up of feeling I should be happy that a woman is being represented regardless of whether I have a reason to applaud their achievement. This isn’t a big, earth shaking change though it’s a canary in a coalmine issue. When it’s no big deal if a woman is on the bank notes or even when there are complaints because all the bridges are named after women, or all the voices on prime time are female or all the banknotes have women on them then we’ll have actually got some kind of equality. At the moment that still feels like science fiction and it’s utterly wrong that it should feel that way.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Lovely Girls, 20 Years On…

You’re the state broadcaster of a small country. You’ve secured the first European interview with two of the recently released Russian punk feminist activists Pussy Riot. Do you arrange an interview with one of your most experienced interviewers, a woman possibly, known herself for her championing of women’s rights in Ireland? Do you plan a wide ranging issue that will cover the context of these courageous young women’s stand, their subsequent incarceration and their points about the Russia they’ve grown up in? Do you draw sensitive comparisons with tensions in Irish society to produce a hard hitting interview that will be shown as a stand alone broadcast with quotes trailed across news coverage and circulated to other news outlets both in Ireland and abroad to generate as much coverage of what is undoubtedly an important and notable coup for the station?

Or do you instead put the interview on a light entertainment show on a Saturday night, giving the host the brief to approach his guests with all the sensitivity of the famous Lovely Girls episode of Father Ted? The state broadcaster is RTE. The country is Ireland. The interview takes place on the Saturday Night Show. It’s the car crash you would expect – and you don’t have to take my word for it. Here it is.

  

I mean, where do you start with that? Host Brendan O’Connor stays true to Father Ted by repeatedly referring to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina as “girls”. O’Connor, fresh from the previous week’s Iona-gate, or should that be Panti-gate,  transcript here, feels the need to have an explanation of why he was caught kissing a bloke on the telly. He asks them whether they think Madonna is an activist like them. He tells Nadezhda and her husband Pytor Verzilov to stop having a “domestic” (although I would dearly love to know exactly what the two women were actually saying in Russian. I have a feeling Pytor was delivering some of the most tactful translation we’ve seen on Irish television in years. My respect for them all actually went up by a couple of notches when they lasted to the end of the interview, even if they made a pointed exit at the earliest opportunity.

I wish that this thing was a one off but sadly it’s not. The list of mind boggling clangers from the national broadcaster is far too long to go into here – those moments when you do a double take because you can’t believe you’ve just heard or seen what you have just heard or seen. The moments when you take to Facebook or Twitter because if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. The moments when you find yourself referencing Alan Partridge or Ricky Gervais, when you ruefully say “I hope this doesn’t go viral”. We’re used to it here. Ireland is a small country and sometimes the inevitable tinge of parochialism lends itself to rather jawdropping lapses of judgement.

The Irish tend to be a kind nation. You won’t get the character assassinations here that accompany a high profile slip elsewhere. It might be hard to  believe in the cut and thrust of the social networks but there’s still a very strong sense of the old adage, if you can’t say something nice, say nothing. But this one humane characteristic can also be one of the most dangerous. It can mean that the bar isn’t raised high enough because the constructive criticism wasn’t there. It can mean that complacency flourishes and egos go unchecked. At it’s worst it can lead to a blind eye being turned on a golden child.

We cringe at the Pussy Riot interview, as we should, but that’s not enough.  We should also be angry at a wasted opportunity. Pussy Riot protested against an oppressive, intertwined church and state. That’s something that should ring a few bells over here. We live in a country where the state broadcaster will buckle at the first hint of a threat from the Catholic right. We live in a country where there is no legislation governing fertility treatment, where we have abortion law for less than a month. We live in a country where men are routinely allowed to escape jail time for sex crimes if they have a large enough wallet – there’s even another one today. But we cringe and we let it go, until the next time. We vent on Twitter, maybe go on a march, but what ever really changes?

Nadezhda and Maria are obviously highly intelligent young women. I wouldn’t be surprised if they chose to accept an Irish pitch for their first European chat show interview because they were aware of at least some of the issues we have in Ireland. I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt a degree of kinship with feminists here. Perhaps they saw Ireland as a country that had come further than Russia but that knew how hard the road was to travel. What they found though was how little has changed. How few women have a voice on primetime broadcasts and how little the status quo has been rocked. The gaffs O’Connor made were those of a man who’s used to referring to his female friends and colleagues as “girls”, who would still make sexist jokes without really thinking about it, who hasn’t really put much thought into the whole sexual equality thing. To be fair, he may well think he’s a fully reconstructed new man who could easily navigate the interview. Someone really ought to tell him otherwise.

What is crushingly depressing about the Pussy Riot interview is the whole inevitability of it. It would have been more surprising to have seen them interviewed by someone like Miriam O’Callaghan in a serious, wide ranging interview that sat proudly in the Prime Time strand or out on its own. That’s what should have happened, but it was never going to. Over the years as a journalist I’ve worked with so many talented, intelligent women, many of whom have gone a long way. But when you step back and take a long look, it’s not enough. I was watching the last part of The Bridge last night and it struck me just how many strong female characters there were. But the really extraordinary thing was that this wasn’t a thing. It’s not a madly feminist series. These were just women. Some of them were cops, some of them were stay at home mothers, some were CEOs or scientists. It really wasn’t a thing. That’s equality. I don’t think we’re even ready to begin that discussion here yet.

Methinks They do Protest Too Much

I’ve been having a bit of a contentious time on Twitter lately. It can be like that sometimes and mostly lately I’ve been steering clear. I’m tired of having the same argument. It’s the argument that pops up with depressing regularity whenever someone raises the issue of violence against women. It usually comes when someone has said that this violence is a serious societal problem that we all need to do something about. Yesterday it came up because of this piece in the Irish Times. In it Una Mullally made the point that perhaps we shouldn’t be telling women not to get themselves raped and murdered, perhaps we should be telling men not to be harming women.

Well it didn’t take long for the howling and gnashing of teeth to begin. First they started in the comments below the article, then the row took to Twitter, as these things tend to do. One after another men came forward with their chests puffed out, declaiming that this was a gross generalisation. All men were not rapists and murderers. Sexism! Misandry! What about the Menz!

It’s about the third time this week something like this has kicked off. As I said, on Twitter things kick off which the regularity of an explosions in a fireworks factory made of sawdust. Take your eye off the ball for a moment and Whoosh! I’m tired of hearing the same arguments, receiving the same barrage of hectoring points from some bloke who wants to show me the error of my ways for believing in this divisive nonsense. I’ve had enough.

It’s getting increasingly hard to avoid that hectoring response. If ,as a woman, you identify yourself online as a feminist or are definite in your views there will be invariably be someone waiting in the wings who wants to tell you how wrong you are. While I’m all in favour of freedom of speech and while I’ve no problem with lively debate I am sick and tired of trying to make my point to someone who is only interested in getting the last word. This is why I usually lurk Twitter late at night talking about 70s TV. The discussions can get heated there as well but no one tries to shout you down. 

There’s a particular type of arguing here that really sets my teeth on edge. It’s not restricted to gender politics either, I’ve encountered the same response when talking about other types of discrimination. The attitude that will invariably be shouted loudest is the one telling me to shut up, telling me that I’m exaggerating the problem, telling me I’ve got it wrong.

Normally I try to calmly reason with them. I try to make them see my point and to demonstrate that their argument is built on a principal of denial. I’m all right Jack. But we come back to the beginning again and again and I really don’t think anyone learns anything.

No if you’re reading this and your fingers are already itching to jump in there to tell me I’m generalising wildly, all men are not like that and I’m just another one of those ranty feminists, let me stop you right here. Chances are we’re not going to agree. Here’s why.

We all look at the world through the lens of our experience. If you go through life and don’t see any of the sharp edges then well done, congratulations, you are charmed. But I’ll tell you now, we’re not looking at the same world. The very glass that makes up the lenses through which we see is fused from different elements. I can’t not see the corners. But I can point them out.

Firstly let’s start with the very, very basics. I’m not a feminist because I hate men. I’m not a feminist because I just want to be argumentative. I’m a feminist because when I look at the world we live in today and see women like me denied education, denied freedom, denied a voice, it makes me very, very angry. Sure, as a white, middle class woman living in Western Europe I’ve got it easy. I come from a culture where I can choose the man I marry, where I can continue my education and where I can vote for a say in how my country is run. I am not forced to sell my body and by and large I’m not marginalised. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see how much easier it is for men to get on in this fine country of ours.

When I worked in radio I often heard that my female voice was just going to irritate listeners. On Irish radio in general two thirds of the voices you will hear belong to men. Women, who lets not forget make up around 50% of the global population, make up only 13% of our elected representative. As a writer I know that my work is likely to be under reviewed and that my book will be more likely to get a softly feminine cover regardless of it’s subject matter because of my gender. I know that while education was never an issue for me it’s not that long since a third level degree was an impossible dream for women. I worked in the criminal courts for over six years and when you’re there on a daily basis you realise that the majority of crimes that pass through the Central Criminal Court are crimes against women. So many sex crimes pass through the courts in Dublin that the papers cover only a fraction. Those crimes, I’m sad to say, tend to be picked for their sensationalism, a pretty victim, a particularly brutal accused. I’ve written about so many of them on this blog. Click on any of the women’s names in the tag cloud and chances are you will find a woman killed by the man who was supposed to love her.

And when I get angry about all this, when I say this is ridiculous and must stop if we are ever going to move forward as a people there will always be those who tell me I am wrong. They will be men. I’ve never had this reaction from a woman.

The problem is that it’s all getting worse. When I was a child in the 70s it was fashionable to give little girls tool sets and little boys dolls. Granted this might have been a vogue in our own leafy suburb but back then I never questioned it. I used to laugh at the boys I played with when they told me I couldn’t play Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. It never for a moment occured to me they had a point. That would be utterly bonkers. No if you go to a toy shop you can tell the aisle that’s meant for girls. While the boys are presented with a kaleidoscope of colours the girls have one option. Pink. Let me get this straight. All little girls do not want to be princesses. I always wanted to be the Prince. He got a horse and a sword and got to do stuff. All the Princess did was lounge around and look pretty.

I could go on and on and on with the examples of how this world is still trying to tell women to stay in the background, to shut up, to look pretty. It might seem like I’m off the point here but it’s all part of the same thing. Good girls are still pretty and mute and passive. Good girls need to be protected. Good girls need to be told when they have worried their pretty little heads about something unnecessary.

Because that’s the crux of it. These men who bristle when a point is made, who are so secure in the fact that they are nice men so we shouldn’t be telling them not to rape, who think that we just misunderstand or didn’t do our research, these men need to stop and listen. It doesn’t matter that you are a nice guy and would never harm a woman. That doesn’t mean that others of your sex would. For time immemorial, women have been told to beware, to watch out for the big bad wolf. We’ve been told to watch what we wear, watch how we speak, watch where we look. We are have the population of the planet but we hold a fraction of the power. It’s not an equal playing field. If your fingers are still itching to butt in just ask yourself why? Is it because you are so unsure of your own position that you can’t see the difference between yourself and the bad men? Is it because you started getting irritated by my words because they were written by a woman who really shouldn’t be this forthright? Is it because you need to look at your own attitudes before getting at mine?

I’ve been fighting my corner for a very long time. I’ll continue to do so for as long as it takes. I do not believe that I am any less capable, any less wise, any less worthy of respect because I was born a particular sex. But most of all I don’t see why as a woman I should have to take all the responsibility. Culturally we persist in assuming that men are at the mercy of animal urges. Surely it’s time they shared a little bit of responsibility and showed a bit of respect and a bit of empathy? I’m also confident that any of the lovely blokes that I’ve met, known and loved over the years will read this and not feel victimised. Because those men know that there is a problem and it’s one that we all need to do something about. I can rant until I’m blue in the face but even if every woman on the planet agreed with me we’d only be 50% and an underrepresented 50% at that. We all need to decide that this crap is unacceptable. We need to stop arguing about the bloody details.

The Power of a Good Story

Typewriter image by fiddleoak on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

When Michael Dobbs wrote the novel House of Cards he had a definite ending in mind for the wonderfully Machiavellian Frances Urquhart. When the BBC adaptation came along, mindful of building on it’s success with a sequel, that ending had changed quite dramatically. Dobbs found himself writing two more books around his villain but always said that he insisted he should find his just desserts at the end of the trilogy. For the audience as much as a writer there are only so many ways a character like Urquhart can end up. With someone that gleefully amoral we want to see them finally meet their match, no matter how much we love their machinations. It’s like finding the right note at the end of a peace of music. Get it wrong and it’ll sound horrible.

Stories are part of who we are. They’re in our bones, in the air we breath. We know their rhythm and are pulled along to the conclusion as if we are caught in a river’s flow. We can only follow the route that’s laid down for us. Writing fiction again I’m conscious that I’m digging out the river bed in a way I don’t normally do. With true crime it’s a question of waiting until a case comes up that will happily run along a pre-existing river. That fits with our innate idea of story. It’s the same finding a news story. It has to be something that chimes with narrative points that are embedded so deeply in us that anything else sounds discordant. Sometimes that discord can work on it’s own but the story that’s pinned to our expectations has to be there as well. Killers have to have an extra degree of sadism to make them into the Big Bad Wolf. Victims have to take on a mantle of purity to sit comfortably in the the Victorian melodrama role that’s still common currency. Bankers and rogue solicitors must enjoy the lavish lifestyle of a despotic Roman emperor to make their betrayal complete. If real life is a little messier, a little blander, a little realer than the stories we expect then we don’t want to know. They don’t merit the ink, even if they are the norm.

I knew the story that underpins this novel was one I could work with precisely because it ticks the right journalistic boxes. Stretching it into fiction I’m struck by the places I can go with the story and even more so by the places I can’t. Technically I can take the story anywhere I want where the history’s lacking but there’s still that narrative river keeping me on a certain course. There’s a real sense of what’s right for the characters, the plot points that just fall into place as if they were always there. Even though what I’m writing is my own invention I’m playing with the historical facts and all the stories that have come before. It’s all about finding the harmonies, creating something that sounds real, that sounds right.

This narrative current tugs at us even when we’re not actually being told a story. How often have you felt, after a run of bad luck, that you deserve a break? You know the way your own story should go and it feels wrong, discordant, when life refuses to comply. We are immersed in stories from birth. How can we possibly hope to swim against that current? The good get rewarded, the bad get punished. Those simple truths are at the bottom of every fairytale, every major religion, every book, every film, every TV show, newspaper story, even advertisements. We no longer question what’s constantly repeated.  How can it not be true? We conveniently ignore the fact that life very often doesn’t work that way. Or perhaps we see it as anathema and feel bitter outrage rising in our throats. That narrative current is a very strong pull indeed.

As a writer I’m governed by these rules. I can riff on them, syncopate them maybe but I can’t throw them out the window or ignore their very existence any more than you can ignore the basic rules of physics. What has always fascinated me though is how the narrative current pulls at us as we go about our daily lives. It’s there in the presumptions we make about strangers on the street, making a whole soap opera out of a snapshot of someone’s existence. We all do it, judging what kind of person they are on such arbitrary evidence. The trick is usually not allowing these initial broad strokes to cloud any more fact-based analysis of each other, but that one can be a little trickier. I’ve commented before that when the time comes to write up verdict copy in a trial, usually alternate forms for each possible verdict, one version will always be easier to write. Of course that’s the version that the evidence backs but it’s more than that. There’s always one version that flows, where the elements of the story fit together comfortably. It works as a story. That’s usually the version the jury goes with. Usually.

Most of the time we bob along quite happily on the narrative river. It’s comforting to have a time honoured route to navigate and usually we don’t question. Why would we? It’s only when you find yourself unexpectedly beached. Where the river feels like it’s spat you out and all the harmony of fitting in with the story that’s always being told disappears. We’re stranded, discordant. It shouldn’t be like this. The love story that would have worked out in a movie, the glittering career that never really took off but that should have followed the path we can still see fading in the evening sun like an airplane trail. There are certain things that, when they don’t work out it hurts more, because in the story of our lives, they should have followed the long established rules. We all tend to cast ourselves in comedies but not every story has a happy ending. It just has to stick to the rules we expect.

We are all immersed in stories. Whether you get your stories from religion or more secular mythologies it has surrounded you for all of your life. We can’t just step away from the narrative river, we are of it and we ride it from beginning to end. These stories can give us the satisfaction of finding a good story or they can be the root of our discontent but they are as important as the air we breath. Personally I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Slut Shaming and a Twisted Morality

Twitter can often be rather in your face. There are often views on there that you’d rather not engage with. That’s the nature of the place, when you have a forum for anyone and everyone to speak their mind, often under the convenient cloak of anonymity, sometimes you come up against assholes. But this morning Twitter outdid itself. Of course it’s not the first time a young, vulnerable woman has been pilloried on social media and it sure as hell won’t be the last but for me personally it’s a step too far and I’m left wondering if it is finally the last straw.

I’m talking of course about the world-wide trending #slanegirl tag. For once, I’m not going to link. The pictures that started all of this are all over the hashtag and I won’t be part of sharing them. If you’re not on Twitter and even more, if you’re not Irish let me take a moment to explain. Over the weekend, Eminem played Slane Castle in County Meath. The castle’s been used as a concert venue for years and Eminem is only one of many huge names to play there. In the lead up to the concert there were all kinds of warnings to concert goers about alcohol and safety. There’ve been problems with behaviour at some outdoor concerts in the past couple of years so the gardai were on edge.

This morning pictures surfaced of a young girl performing oral sex on a guy who appears to be giving a celebratory gesture at his good fortune to a number of other young men looking on. The girl looks very young and she’s noticeably the only female figure in a rather crowded scene. The pictures were trending worldwide well before lunchtime and the jokes were running fast and free. In fairness a lot of the tweets under the slanegirl tag were condemning the jokes and offering sympathy to the girl but that wasn’t the overwhelming tone of the tag by any means.

As I said, it’s not the first time this kind of thing has happened. Social media is rife with misogyny and I’m not going to detail all the instances here. If you’re a digital native or even enthusiastic adopter you’ll be well familiar with what I’m talking about and if you’re not,well, you’re probably not going to thank me for enlightening you. Let’s just say there’s a lot of it and it’s a depressing sign that sexual equality is still a very long way off. It’s frustrating when you’ve always been told the sky’s the limit. Walking down the aisles of girl’s toys in any toy shop and you’ll be forgiven for thinking the only way a girl can reach for the stars these days is as a (pink) fairy. It could be simply that the equality was never really there but for a few brief decades we were told otherwise and we can really see the bars now.

What’s noticeable in the slanegirl frenzy is that the initial focus was all on the girl. The eager jokers who merrily shared the picture over breakfast were happy to finger point at the slight figure on her knees in the mud. Very few condemned the skinny, crowing guy with his jeans around his ankles, despite the fact he was making an equal show of himself. Human beings will always make a show of themselves at some point. Our judgement doesn’t always work out and what might have seemed like a good idea at the time can quickly become a mortifying memory you’ll remember for years. It was one thing before the advent of social media when you only had to worry about witnesses on the ground. If you’d really done something dumb then you might feel the urge to find a new social set or if the worst came to the worst, move, but now social networking means that your stupidity can be broadcast to a global audience in seconds. There’s no shadows to hide in, there’s no hope that memories will fade because even when the hungry mob have moved onto a new victim the evidence will be preserved in the aspic of the cached world. We all live in a goldfish bowl now. There’s no knowing when your actions will be caught by a random camera phone.

My heart bleeds for today’s teens who have to negotiate the adolescent minefield with an ever present danger of appearing on a future youtube clip show. The world we live in now seems to be a harsher place than the one I grew up in, though maybe that’s just a product of growing up and seeing more clearly how things work. I look back on my own days of hedonism, at my own mistakes, but there really does seem to be a difference. Mind you I was always happier in jeans (though I’ve worn my share of short skirts). I’ve often sat on the bus into town of an evening and fought the urge to hand some young one sitting across from me, all bare white legs and strappy sandals even on the harshest January night, something to cover her up. I’m well aware of the fact that even writing that down makes me sound like an old fart and I can imagine the reaction if I ever said anything but a few hours later, seeing them upended in the gutter, mascara running down the cheeks and hair tangled and those pale legs scuffed and bloodied I feel afraid for them. I’d feel a lot happier if the guys with them wore as little. Why no fashion for leather hot pants for men? No, the guys will all be wearing jeans with a shirt or t-shirt. Their collapse at the end of the night is just as frequent but a lot less anatomical.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these young women should cover up for any prudish reason. Fashion is fashion and I completely understand them wanting to show off that supple, rounded slimness that you don’t really miss until it’s gone. But it seems to me that some of these fashions are more to do with satisfying a porn-obsessed male gaze rather than any feminine confidence boosting. The thing is that at that point in your life, when you’re young free and single and consequences don’t exist until they land on you with a crash, there will always be sex. Sometimes it’ll be life affirming, mind blowing, confidence sky rocketing sex. Sometimes it’ll be awkward, painful, pit-of-the-stomach-embarrassing, never-should-have-happened sex. And that’s staying within the legal, broadly-safe boundaries of normal human interaction. Social networking has twisted some of that interaction, giving it a spiteful edge that can destroy lives and stunt these ordinary explorations. It’s ridiculous that at this stage in the game the onus is still on the woman to behave a certain way. Men and boys should take responsibility for their actions just as much as girls and women are expected to and it’s so depressing that this still needs to be said.

I’ve been thinking about taking a holiday from social networking a lot lately. I’ve had enough of the mob mentality and the constant outrage. I’ve limited space for either at the moment and five minutes on Twitter can fill that space for a week. We live in a brave new world and I know I’m not going to be able to escape social networking for ever but just now I need to tune out the incessant roar for a bit. While this isn’t the post to discuss that it’s worth noting simply because poor little slanegirl has made up my mind. I hope this experience doesn’t break her but she’s going to learn some of life’s sharper edges in the next while. Those who share the pictures and who think her predicament is amusing should look to their own life and hope the same never happens to them. The lack of compassion online is worrying and scary and I don’t want to look at it any more. I know it’s still going to be there whenever I come back but right now I just can’t do it. I’m leaving the party for a while.

The Sound of Silence

I’ve been thinking a lot about silence lately. I think a lot of people have, if Twitter is a barometer of anything at all. This past Sunday the hashtag #twittersilence was impossible to ignore. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on whether the protest which led many prominent and not so prominent tweeters, led by feminist writer and commentator Caitlin Moran, to boycott the site for the day, was a good or bad idea. The debate is still raging as you’ll see from the link to the hashtag above.

I took part in the protest, even though I’ve reservations about silent protests in general. I’ve taken part in several similar protests in the real world but there’s a huge difference between showing your silent condemnation for something in person and absenting yourself from the roar that is Twitter even on a quiet day. In this case #twittersilence certainly provoked it’s desired reaction. Even just talking about whether it was right or wrong meant that the issue that had spurred it, that of the aggressive trolling that blights so many online forums, was and still is being talked about. I’d say most Twitter users have had their own spontaneous twittersilence from time to time. There are times when the frank exchange of views can get a little too full on. I know that I’ve often retreated into lurking on the sidelines on the site. It’s not that I’m afraid to put my views out there, it’s just that sometimes the constant ranting becomes too much.

It comes with the territory with most social networking sites of course. No matter how social we tell ourselves it is our engagement is normally a solitary practise alone at our computer or hunched over our phone. No matter how much you engage, from the beginning you’re standing on your soapbox shouting out into the darkness. The fact that those on nearby soapboxes can hear you and respond or the fact that familiar faces from the real world pop up on your timeline, doesn’t change the fact that what you are doing is a solitary thing. It’s particularly true of Twitter where everyone has something to sell, even if it’s just themselves. That’s what you sign up for and that’s what you get.

But this post isn’t really about Twitter. I’ve been thinking about silence because sometimes my own is deafening. That might seem an odd thing to say when I’m writing this at a domain name that is my own name and I’ll be broadcasting these words on all the networks I subscribe to, with my photo as an avatar and the whole thing in part to maintain a public image that I’ve worked hard to build. That’s part of the job of being a writer these days and thank god for the Internet because it allows us introverts to shout just as loudly as everyone else without actually having to get out there and mingle. I’ve written about difficult subjects here and there, I’ve written about personal stuff, I’ve flaunted myself as outspoken, blunt, unafraid to say what needs to be said. That’s the shtick and that’s what I’ll always keep on doing. But that’s not the whole truth. There are subjects that I skirt around, that I never write about and seldom talk about because when I look towards them to drag them out the silence roars. Some things I don’t talk about because they’re private and no one’s business but some things I can’t talk about even though I want to.

Not writing about these things kills me. Writing is what I do and in a huge way it’s how I deal with things. When something big has affected me I know it’s contained and beyond hurt when I can dissect it and cannibalise it to inform what I write. I approach writing the way my mum used to tell me to approach acting, using past experience to provide an emotional truth in what I’m describing. I can understand a subject from an intellectual point of view but if I can’t feel it I feel I can’t write it. This, of course, is why writers research and why so many will never say no to a new experience. It’s why they say “write what you know” even if it sounds a bit out there when I describe it like that. You’re probably thinking I’m stating the bleeding obvious but it’s my name at the top of the page so I’ll say it anyway.

It’s the nature of being a writer that everything is fair game in one way or another, so when something comes surrounded with a barbed wire fence it’s unsettling to say the least. The prohibition is caustic, it eats away at consciousness and the silence of avoiding a subject that should be talked about is loudest of all. In my case that barbed wire fence was erected by someone else. It was put down so long ago that I’ve absorbed it into my system and it’s going to take a long time to dismantle it. That’s one thing that bugged me particularly about the twitter silence campaign. The trolls that triggered it want nothing more than to shut up all the outspoken women that offend them so. They are standard issue bullies, nothing new, nothing special and nothing remarkable but what they are trying to do is what abusers have done to their victims for time immemorial. Abuse exists within a silence. It’s dependent on the silence of the victim to continue. The moment the victim calls it out and takes steps to bring it into the bright light of day in many cases the abuser will retreat back into the shadows. They might not go quietly and they might not retreat without a fight but abuse doesn’t survive very well in the sun. It’s something that roars in the shadows behind closed doors.

I learnt this from the person who put up the barbed wire. I learnt to be quiet in public, to smile when people were looking. I might have eventually learnt to stay out of the shadows but I never shone a light in there. I let the silence grow inside me until it felt like it was squeezing my heart and stopping me breath. Like avoiding a cobweb because you’re afraid of a spider that’s never going to solve the problem. The spider will just get fatter and hairier and the cobweb will grow. In the end you’ll have to move house or at the very least put a curtain over the manky corner that you wouldn’t go within six feet of now. Well I’m not the type to run and I’m in the mood for a spring clean. I’ve got a long handled brush and a scarf to cover my hair (even in this analogy my scalp is itching thinking of eight-legged, dive-bombing assassins lying in wait). In fairness this is probably going to be a job for professional exterminators so we’ll be sticking with the spider metaphor for the time being.

I know that because of that arachnid freak I’m left with a roaring silence that threatens to swamp me from time to time. I know that years of lying and pretending everything was fine have made grappling that silence all the harder. I know that once it’s broken I’ve no control over what noise takes its place. I know that I’m left with the relics of it’s construction to deal with on a daily basis – the belief that friends and family are not to be trusted, the belief that people laugh at me behind my back, the belief that the barbed wire is somehow there because of me, the paradoxical lure of the dark. I recognise these for what they are now, just crap left over that has nothing to do with anything, but every now and then I forget they’re there and I trip.

I’m skirting round the edges now, making half hearted feints with my long handled broom, but Spider’s days are numbered. I’m coming for it. I’ve had enough of silence. It’s too damned loud. I’m all for speaking out, for dragging the darkness out into the light. Silence can be powerful but it’s too easy for it to envelop you. The ground around me is crisscrossed with lines in the sand but I’m drawing another one and I’m writing about it because that’s where I need it to end up. Just another thing that I can dismember and use. That’s all it’s good for after all.