Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Irish identity and the religious clause


A few things happened recently to remind me that Irish identity in Ireland, is defined very narrowly by some. The first was news that Kerry and Limerick County Councillors wished to promote and proclaim their Christian identity to the exclusion of all others. Then I was called to jury duty and was the only person out of two dozen not to hold the bible. 

Kerry County Council now has a crucifix hanging over its door. I listened to and participated in radio debates about this and the one comment often repeated, was that this is a Christian/Catholic country. That Ireland is a Catholic country. 

The overwhelming majority of people in this country do certainly identify as Roman Catholic. Does that make Ireland a Catholic country or does that make Ireland a country with a lot of Catholics in it? 

I have to hope it is the latter because I am neither a Roman Catholic nor a Christian. Am I less Irish than my friends, family and neighbours, many of whom are Catholic? If you prick me, do I not bleed? If you pay me, must I not pay taxes? If you call an election am I not allowed to vote?  

When I was called for jury duty, I thought about finding an excuse not to go. After those few seconds I sighed and accepted my fate like a hero of old, determined to do my duty i.e. sit, wait and be bored for several hours. 

That endless boredom unexpectedly ended when my name was pulled from the box. Tattooed and shaven headed, I presumed I would be objected to by one or other of the barristers. No such luck. I was going to be a jury member. The novelty banished the boredom, only for the novelty to be banished by the prospect of having to do something important, decide on a stranger’s guilt or innocence. But before all that, came the swearing in. An oath to do what a jury member must do. 

The swearing in involves having a bible thrust at you, then repeating an oath called out by the Registrar. I was tenth in line and I shook my head when the holy book was offered to me. Then came a few moments of confusion as the Registrar looked for the non-holy-book-oath. 

Then eleven and twelve held the book.   

First off, I know many jurisdictions demand that oaths be taken in court. It’s a requirement that confuses me as I do not swear an oath to drive within the speed limit or to pay my taxes. The law requires me to do these things and I am aware of the punishment if I don’t. Same as sitting on a jury or giving evidence in a trial. The law is clear so making a ‘pinkie swear’ seems superfluous to me. 

The usefulness or otherwise of the ‘oathing’ is less important than the presumption of the process. The holy book is the default. The equally valid bible promise is the obscure alternative. 

Why not simply ask the witness or prospective jury member their preferred method of making a promise to do what they are already obliged to do. Would that be so difficult? 

Of course there is a third element of a court appearance to remind the atheist that they are not really considered Irish. The presiding judge will have been obliged to take an oath to god (with no secular alternative) before assuming office.  

What is it about Irish national identity that requires so many people to include a religious clause to make it feel more valid?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Being subject to Constitutions


Two things happened recently that I think are very interesting. First was the decision by the American Supreme Court to uphold the right of anti-choice activists to harass women attending abortion clinics. The second was the highlighting of our own antiquated anti-choice laws by the United Nations Human Rights Committee

There is something truly fascinating about people who are certain things should be as they are, because of decisions made decades or centuries or even millennia ago. It is a particularly strange phenomenon in a democracy, where, through elections, we routinely change the people who make those decisions. It is even more difficult to accept, when one considers that every year, a new cohort of people get the vote. People who played no part in any decisions made up to that point. 

Possibly this is as good a reason as any to have constitutions. Create a short document that contains the essence of a nation’s values. If not that, then a long document that details the rights, privileges and responsibilities of all that nation’s citizens and interest groups. 

Of course the problem with constitutions is that almost as soon as the ink is dry, someone has to interpret what was written, and worse, interpret what the framers (long dead in many cases) may have actually meant. 

The US went the short document route. So you’d think less to interpret. Is this examination carried out in a collegial manner? No. It is a vicious partisan struggle. A vicious struggle based on the notion that what rich old white men wrote centuries ago, is ceaselessly relevant and sacrosanct. 

Thus, the First Amendment Right to free speech can and was interpreted in a way that makes the rights of women seeking medical attention secondary to the rights of those who would wish to prevent them getting that medical attention. Sadly this is not an illogical position to take. The Constitution in America is so fetishised that it is perfectly acceptable to many people to allow the harassment of women, because of something written centuries ago. 

The situation in Ireland isn’t so stark. The framers of our Constitution went the long route and it is a much younger document. And we get reasonably regular referendums to amend it. Added to this, our Supreme Court isn’t so obviously riven by ideology and we have European Law to take account of. 

All these little provisos yet this 40 year old man, has never been afforded the opportunity to vote on the reproductive rights of women. There have been little window dressing votes about information and travel etc, but not once have I been asked if I think women should be granted the basic right to reproductive independence. 

The last substantial vote on reproductive independence was in 1983, where the country voted to reduce women to the role of incubators. There was nothing unlawful or unconstitutional about this referendum. It was the overwhelming decision and right of our parents and grandparents to think so little of women.

It is a decision women continue to endure. A decision defended by many. A position regarded as questionable by our international peers. A decision that continues to force tens of thousands of women to seek expensive help outside this State. 

But because it is in the hallowed Constitution, it encourages successive politicians to be lazy cowards. Instead of allowing that massive proportion of the population who couldn’t vote in 1983, have their say today, we get apologetics and legislation so mean spirited it will penalise only the poor. 

It is fascinating the quasi-religious devotion many people have to ancient documents, but the idea that values are timeless is a dangerous nonsense. Worse, it is a moral and intellectual abdication by those who court our vote. 

To continue to subject ourselves to decisions made in 1778 is only marginally more ridiculous to allowing ourselves be hindered by rules made in 1937 or indeed in 1983. 

(Women who require an abortion but cannot afford one are supported by Abortion Support Network. Please donate what you can.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Refusing Custom


A baker in Northern Ireland has refused to prepare a cake for a customer. I’m already on the side of the baker. If I ran a business I would very much like to think I had a right to refuse service. If some KKK loon wanted me to bake them a cake with a Confederate flag on it, I want to be able to say fuck right off. I’d want to say fuck off too if I was asked to bake a cake for a bris. And I’d definitely baulk at having to adorn a cake with some anti-choice bullshit. 

The problem of course, with inventing a right to refuse and then giving me that right, is everyone else must get the right to exercise their prejudices too. 

In a perfectly atomised world, we would be able to do that, but in our increasingly cosmopolitan and tiny planet, we don’t get to hold on so tightly to our peculiarities.

At present, if I go into a shop, I don’t have to be concerned by the personal beliefs, philosophies or the political persuasions of the proprietors. I am there to engage in simple commerce. I do not look at what is on sale to establish which way they would vote in a General Election. And short of them wearing special costumes, I need never know their religion or if they even have one. 

What happens if we invent a right, which allows those in the Service Industries to put their prejudices above the rights of their customers? Think about it. A prospective customer, before even seeing what’s on offer, would have to check what prejudices that business endorses. Imagine it, NO BLACKS, NO MENSTRUATING WOMEN, NO ARSENAL SUPPORTERS AND DEFINITELY NO MENNONITES. 

Now some may argue that religious affiliations, political persuasions, race, gender, sexuality etc are all fundamentally different. That one cannot compare racism to sectarianism to sexism to homophobia to classism to voting left, right or centre. 

I’m sure someone who wishes to see gay people denied the opportunity to marry, would be very offended to be compared with a racist. Indeed, it is undeniable that, they are different prejudices.

This, however, is not about homophobia or racism, it’s about commerce. Do we want a world where all businesses have to display which customers are welcome and which customers are not? 

I’ve nothing against prejudice. I have a long list of people, ideas, things, places and beliefs that make my skin crawl. But prejudices are like hemorrhoids, it’s OK to have them as long as you don’t mention them to your customers. 

So if you are a racist, antichoice, homophobic religious nut please visit this site and give me your custom. And I will smile at you as you do so, because that is what civilised people do. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rebellious Lung and other ailments


For approximately four seconds today, I thought I was experiencing a heart attack of some sort. I parked my car and spoke to my partner and we concluded it was probably a reaction to my medication. Not an allergic reaction, more that I should have taken my meds after my breakfast, not before and also had a more substantial meal. On top of this, I’d finished one of the medications which may also have played a part. 

It was a scary few seconds. I find I can generally cope with pain, once I know what’s causing it. 

The reason I am on medication, which requires careful calibration with food is that I have a rather rebellious lung. My right lung is taken of an infection. I am apparently quite unwell. Last week I lost my voice. I found that amusing. Then I started coughing and began to feel not my usual self. So off to the doctor I went. 

I was struck by her level of sympathy. I thought it unnecessary to be honest. Surely a simple chest infection is nothing to be concerned about. I was prescribed steroids, antibiotics, an expectorant and solpadeine. I’d never had the first or last of that list before. I was worried about the steroids, but looking forward to the solpadeine. I’d heard good things. 

I thought I was doing fine. I couldn’t sleep in my bed though, as I was coughing and I was unaccountably sweaty. Yet I felt reasonably okay. It took my partner to explain that the only reason I was upright at all, was the solpadeine and there will be a price to pay for that, tick tock, tick tock.

Even now, while I am aware of the loss of appetite, the clamminess, some light-headedness, a tiredness, a tightness around my chest and unpleasantness trying to escape my lung, I have just returned from a walk with Arwen. 

As discomforted as I am by this malaise and its potential to escalate, there is an aspect to this malady which bothers me more. This was and is an entirely self-inflicted disaster. I have been off cigarettes for well over two years, but I like to dabble. Last week I went to a school reunion and a combination of nerves and grasping at excuses led me to smoke 15 cigarettes in one night. 

It happens anytime I binge drink and I only binge when I drink, for why else drink? I do confine this behaviour to no more than four or five times a year. This however was the first time I experienced severe consequences.

I was content to never smoke again as long as one defines never smoking again, as the acceptance that there would be occasional over-indulgences mixed with alcohol and if in Amsterdam etc. 

I can actually feel my lung aching, yet my lament is for the future nonsenses I may (I certainly should) forego. 

The idea that physical decline rather than mature reflection may curb my experiences of illicit pleasures makes me sad. I know that marks me as an immature ingrate. Guilty. I am a big fat child. Always have been, had always intended being. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Still an England Supporter


There is something about football. A something which appears to tap into that primal part of our brains we use to justify tribe and nation. I remember when I fell out of love with football. It was in 1996. England contrived to lose, again, to Germany. Coincidentally I was in therapy around that time and I spent a whole session speaking about how bad I felt. My therapist nodded his sympathy, but he was no football man. 

What a nonsense it is to invest so much of one’s own emotional well being, in the activities of preening, amoral yobs. On a mere game. 

But there is something about football. I grew up in Kerry during the 80s. My mother was English, I was born in England, my grandfather was Scouse and I was half English. Being a bit of a dick, I reacted to the casual hatred of England and all things English by embracing my Englishness. By that I mean, I supported England’s football team. I even developed a soft spot for Margaret Thatcher as she seemed to anger all the foam-flecked people I found most objectionable in my parish. 

With a terse father and a proud mother, I developed a rather narrow view of Anglo-Irish relations, but identity is formed regardless of facts. So before I began my own reading and before my father began to speak of being a ‘Paddy’ over there and friends told me about being abused and beaten while working on the sites in London, I was an England fan. 

There is then a part of my identity that will be forever England. It has led to some incongruity. I remember when I first went to the UK Embassy in Dublin to apply for a passport, I had to bring a family friend from Dublin. My Kerry accent was impenetrable at the time. Same happened when visiting an RAF base near London. My English cousin had to translate for the soldiers at the gate. There was a time I was wearing my Kerry jersey in a pub watching England play bloody Argentina and some Loyalists thought I was taking the piss. That almost went very badly, but for a mutual friend who explained I was in earnest. 

And eventually I ended up speaking to a therapist, about the empty despair of yet again losing. I fell out of love with football. Liverpool were going through their slump at the time, which didn’t help. 

It was in this period of ‘post fandom’ that I’d begun to examine and radically alter my attitude towards my identity. I came to realise I was an atheist. That had such a profound impact on me that for a time it looked as if I’d never return to football. It did not seem logical to me, to throw off the yoke of religion without also including the parochialisms of tribe and nation. Kneeling for a priest, bowing to a flag, any and all chauvinisms based on minute differences just seemed irrational to me. They still do, but I’m not a Vulcan, nor would I wish to be. 

In 2005 Liverpool won the European Champions League. I struggle to think of a night I enjoyed more. The emotional roller-coaster of that night and the ultimate payoff of unbridled joy is impossible to describe to anyone who doesn’t live vicariously through the sporting efforts of others. It was the counterpoint to 1996. 

It wasn’t that amazing night that brought me back to football though. It was Barcelona, Spain and playing a bit of five-a-side for the first time in almost 20 years. 2005 reminded me just how much fun lending one’s devotion can be. Kicking a ball again and then watching what Messi, Iniesta and Xavi were doing, reminded me that football of itself is a beautiful thing. 

Watching Spain crash out of Brazil ’14 has been like turning the last page on the best book I will ever read. A book that can be reread, analysed, remembered, but never again experienced for the first time. Even as I write this, I feel as if a friend as left, never to return.  It is of course a nonsense, but a nonsense I would not be without. To see a thing of such beauty, that it takes your breath away, sure what else is there worth living for? 

Then there’s England. I now feel for English nationalism what I feel for Irish nationalism and what I feel for all nationalism, take your religion, your holy books, your martyrs and your version of history elsewhere, I care not one jot. And anyway I’m a Kerryman, so I’m better than you all by default. 

Football is more than a devotion to perfection. It has to be, as more often than not the team you support will be shit. And when you support England, you know disappointment is inevitable. It is inherent to the cause. But why embrace this particular nonsense? 

I’ve come to realise my inner child is still English. It supports that team with dumb nationalist pride. I could of course suppress and ignore that lapse in consistency. I could rise above such silly sentimentality. But football’s greatest gift to its supporters is that the stakes are, in reality, so low. 

All that the game asks for, is an emotional investment. And it will never once fail to repay that investment. It may be a peak or a trough, but it will always be a ride to remember. Last night England did their usual by disappointing all and sundry. I am angry, sad and frustrated, with a smattering of smug hatred towards the FA. But my heart was racing, my stomach knotted and my eyes glued. 

I fell back in love with football. It is such nonsense, but I cannot imagine life without it. In what other context could whole nations be led by their sacred colours, in such paroxysms of passion, powerless to stave off despair, yet with nothing but a temporary disappointment being risked? 

In what other context could the petty chauvinisms taught to us at children be given full and hearty vent? 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Truth and Tuam


Ever since Tuam, the overnight sensation that took 40 years to break, broke there have been calls for investigations and enquiries. Making me wonder, to what end? I’m not suggesting we leave the past in the past. Far from it. I just want to know what it is we want here?

Do we want an investigation to merely compile a list of all those survivors (and there descendants?) who must get compensation? Would we be looking for reasons why our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents appeared to hate sex so much? Or was it women they hated? Do we hope to discover even more incidents of Roman Catholic amorality? Will we finally know how little the State cares for the poor? Are we looking for reassurance that we are better people now than we were then? Do we think if we just know everything that happened, we can be certain to not repeat those mistakes? Or is it merely a macabre need to know all about those particular baby bones in Tuam. 

I’ll be honest, my interest is mostly Discovery Chanel, Police Procedural, Mystery Novel reading, morbid curiosity. I want a forensic pathologist or perhaps a forensic anthropologist (I don’t know what the difference is) to lead a team of experts, who will carefully retrieve, catalogue and investigate each of the bones in whatever that is in Tuam. Then I want them to work with archivists to create a broad picture of what happened in that unhappy place and put together a data base of every single person who went through the doors of that particular institution. 

After that, the sociologists, historians, apologists, politicians, lawyers, bloggers and talk-show hosts can begin the task of generating interpretations and consequences. What will most likely happen (and what in fact is happening, and I say this as a wannabe columnist) is the commentary will come before the science. So much heat and noise, that we’ll have no energy, interest or resources to do the actual forensic work. For example, has a single bone been examined by a scientist? Not that I’m aware of.  

I’m as guilty of this as everyone else. I’ve written one blog post on Tuam and have written 3000 words of another blogpost on the same topic and yet no one with a white coat, white wellingtons and little trowel and brush is slowly unearthing those bones. 

Must everything we do in this country be half-arsed? What is the point of a Departmental paper search, or a Judicial Review or even a list of death certificates? There is a pit of possibly human remains that may date from as recently as 60 years ago and the response has been bureaucracy. No, a parody of bureaucracy. 

I love pointing the finger at Roman Catholic cruelty. I get a kick out of pointing out the inherent nastiness of conservatism. I enjoy seeing wronged people given justice. I think history is vital to understanding the present. I think sociology has a lot to teach us. And I love the sound of my own voice. 

But just this once, can our dim-witted State send in a few bloody experts to actually see what, and possibly who, is buried in Tuam. If not the State itself, let it invite the Discovery Channel or Time Team or the archeology Department in Trinity to do the work. I bet they’ll be a damn sight cheaper and infinitely more useful than the gravy train of an ‘official enquiry.’ Most importantly, they might actually find some truth. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Tuam and the death of empathy


It’s not easy coming to terms with mass graves. A mass grave always denotes a tragedy of some sort. Be it war, genocide, epidemic, famine, earthquake or tsunami, it takes a disaster of epic proportions for us to dispense with the individual care our species routinely pays to its dead. 

In Tuam there is a mass grave of babies. The pit in which they were disposed was a septic tank. 

The normal response to such a departure from common decency is shock and horror. Followed by a call for justice. Who were these monsters who would fling dead infants into a shithole, a pit already clogged with the tiny bones of hundreds of dead babies? Let these demonic creatures be named and shamed and the sick philosophy which inspired them, be enjoined to perpetual silence. 

A mass grave of babies. What ravening savages could visit such wanton destruction to common decency? 

That is the difficulty here. This wasn’t an invasion. This wasn’t alien. This was the work of hundreds of ordinary women. This was the work of hundreds of women who were taught a thing no one should ever be taught. They were taught to not feel empathy. Difficult to do?

People are generally not cruel to people. In World War II, the Germans didn’t gas people, they killed untermensch. In Rwanda the Hutu did not massacre people, they killed cockroaches. Christians didn’t murder people, they burned heretics. Americans didn’t wipe out people or keep people as slaves. They civilised savages and owned livestock.

In Tuam and in an unknown number of other locations, ordinary women were taught that the children in their care were other, were less. The ordinary rules of empathy and decency need not apply. As each creature died, it could be disposed of without the ritual and reverence we would give the meanest murderer.

Ordinary women. Ordinary women taking babies from other ordinary women. Throwing dead babies into pits. Ordinary people being extraordinarily callous. 

How far is the journey from normal empathic responses to a vulnerable baby, to dismissing it as a farm animal, or a demon or an insect? I do not like the term ‘evil’ as it has supernatural connotations, but if I had to use it, it would be to describe that journey. 

Imagine looking after babies. Ordinary, noisy, smelly, snotty, perpetually hungry babies. Then imagine if you can, the kind of teaching that would be required to make you see those children as slightly less than human. Just ‘other’ enough that their cries of illness or hunger never quite reach you as the cries of a ‘normal’ baby would. Just ‘lesser’ enough that when it dies you could dump it into a septic tank and still sleep well that night. 

Now we have a mass grave filled with the tiny bones of dead babies. And I am left wondering about all those ordinary women who filled it up with infant corpses. I am left pondering that all too short journey from common decency to throwing babies into a mass grave. 

Empathy is a truly wonderful quality in our species, but it’s terrifying how easily empathy can be switched off and for the mass graves to appear.