I recently went to see a film called Philomena. It is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, who found herself in a Magdalene laundry after she fell pregnant out of wedlock (as the phrase goes). At the age of 3, her son was sold to adoptive parents in the USA. For those 3 years she bonded with her son, even though their daily interaction was limited to an hour per day. The women spent the rest of their time working, praying and generally trying to atone their sins. Philomena was not consulted or considered as the child’s mother and, cast out of her family home from the ‘shame’ of her actions, she was powerless to change it. The film tracks Philomena’s journey 50 years on to find her son.
I have seen countless films and documentaries about this part of Ireland’s history. I have followed the campaign for justice by the Magdalene survivors. But no matter how much you see and hear about what went on in Ireland in the name of ‘morality’, it remains shocking and sickening. Seeing Ireland as it was then (and bearing in mind the last Magdalene laundry closed in the 1990s), it is in many ways hard to reconcile with the society we now live in. Mary Robinson, our former president and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was denounced from the pulpit of her local church for advocating for family planning rights in a legal case during the 1970s. That Ireland was told that the sky would fall in if there was access to contraception or if divorce was legalised in any form. Guess what? The sky is still intact.
Ireland has come along way since she turned her back on the likes of Philomena Lee and her son and raged at Mary Robinson. We are on the brink of a referendum on marriage equality for same sex couples, there are moves afoot to move the education system away from the patronage of any religious institution, we even have a Taoiseach who openly criticised the church and its handling of the clerical abuse scandals. After 20 years of procrastination, the country finally has some painfully limited legislation on abortion.
In all aspects of life, I believe that there is seldom a one size fits all and that it is inherently wrong to take away somebody’s choice and agency. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my views, but I also don’t expect to be told in black and white terms from on high what would be right and what would be wrong in circumstances that can only ever be intensely personal, complicated and difficult. I can live by my choices and morals and others can live by theirs. What is on our statute books should have no bearing on anyone’s ability to live by their values and beliefs. If only….
As a woman who hopes to have children at some point in the not so far away future, it is difficult not to have strong views on Ireland’s approach to reproductive rights, motherhood and childcare. Maternity benefit was cut in the last budget and child care is exorbitantly and inhibitively expensive. We also have a pretty shoddy gender balance in our political parties. Ireland may treat her women better than they treated Philomena and her generation, and I completely appreciate the opportunities afforded to my generation of Irish women. But is this progress really much to shout about given a benchmark that was so pitifully low?
I am not in the camp that thinks everything about Ireland is awful and depressing. I think the grass may be greener, but that this is not always a given. Ireland has a rich and fascinating history, one of the most ancient cultures and languages in Europe and countryside so beautiful it makes your heart ache (provided you can see it through the rain clouds).
On the flip side, there are days when I want to tear my hair out in frustration. Days when everything in the papers is about unemployment, how emigration is the only possible option if you want any sort of a decent life. Endless articles and debates and programmes celebrating the fact that already overpriced houses are climbing in price as huurrrraah!! this must surely be a sign of recovery (apparently amnaesia has set in about the damage a bloated property market did to our country and thousands of its citizens). Days when the comments section is littered with narrow minded and vicious comments about immigration, and when reports come in of violent racist attacks on ordinary working people. Days when you see things on the streets of Dublin that make you wonder if we have any pride in our city at all. These are days when I feel that this is a society I no longer want to be a part of.
And then inevitably something happens to change my mind. This might be a conversation over wine with good friends. It might be an inspiring story I hear through work. It might be a pink evening sky behind the Poolbeg towers, or the impossible-to-recreate atmosphere in a really good pub.
I got to thinking during the week about where I might have to move to to live in a society that was aligned with my values, where I wouldn’t get the rage from reading the papers. Where indeed. The immigration policies pursued in, say, Australia and the UK, make us look like bastions of human rights (which we’re not, by the way. Just ask someone who has been sitting in direct provision for 5 years). I read during the week that Iceland and the Nordic countries lead the charge in gender equality….plus they have cool ponies in Iceland. Hmmmm…Iceland you say…
If I move to Iceland, I’ll let you know if it really is the promised land. But I doubt it. A place or society, either at home or abroad, may greatly appeal to you, may fit with you, may allow you to live your life in its fullest form. But that’s doesn’t mean it’s perfect. No matter where you are, there will always be someone wringing their hands about that pesky sky that is just waiting to tumble down on you. That, however, is not to say that you are obliged to believe them – just ask chicken licken.
I have written before about how I believe in the power of stories. The story of Philomena Lee sparked an entire thought process and a week long brewing process for this post. The post may be disjointed and messy, but then again so is life. Now to find the next story, the next lesson, the next brewing process…