What if one embraces one’s shame? E&M‘s author Lauren Foley has a closer look at Ireland’s history of women’s rights in an attempt to free her homeland from the silence that has accompanied and continues to accompany this topic and, consequently, to make it a stronger nation everyone can be proud of.

Irish people often talk about Irish pride. Irish pride is more than just being proud to be Irish, like you’d be proud to be Norwegian or Argentinian. Irish pride is a particular kind of pride almost forced upon us as a result of oppression but an identity that we are delighted to assume ownership of, nonetheless. To drive home how ingrained the concept of Irish Pride is, it is one of our nation’s favourite bread brands – one you’ll find in nearly every household. In my opinion, we talk a lot about Irish pride but not enough about Irish shame; a particular kind of shame which breeds silence and holds you back. I believe that speaking on one’s supposed shortcomings not only frees you from the silence but also makes you stronger. No one can ambush you with information if you simply own it. I write this in an attempt to free Ireland from its own confines.

Let me preface what I’m about to say by stating that I love Ireland and I love being Irish. It is by complete chance that I ended up being from the Emerald Isle but I am immensely proud to be from a nation that has such a good reputation worldwide. It is with this love that I can look at Ireland and wish it were as perfect as it is sometimes made out to be. There seems to be a slight resistance in Ireland to emigrants criticising our fair nation but it for this exact reason that I want to see Ireland be the best that it can be so that I can continue to traverse the world with pride.

Mary Robinson, President of Ireland (1990-97) | Photo: Chatham House (flickr) ; Licence: CC BY 2.0

Ireland’s history with the treatment of its women is something we are slowly coming to terms with but something that is rarely spoken about in international circles. To some degree, we are a nation of hypocrisy and double standards. Sure, from certain perspectives, we are a nation that has had two female presidents serve consecutively for a total of 21 years during some extremely pivotal years in our history as a nation. Until I was 17, all I had ever known were female presidents. However, we have never had a female Taoiseach (prime minister). We had never even had a female host of Ireland’s beloved Friday night talk show The Late Late Show until recently when the male host became infected with COVID-19 and a woman replaced him for two weeks. Even then, there was pressure and scepticism as to whether a woman could fill the coveted seat.

I still hear people close to me talk about how they don’t like to see a woman drinking a full pint.

Ireland is known for its Guinness. When we have official royal visits, they go to Dublin’s Guinness Brewery and if President Barack Obama did not drink a pint of Guinness whilst on the Emerald Isle in 2011, it would have been deemed a diplomatic incident. We equate Guinness with God but didn’t allow women to legally drink pints in pubs until the year 2000 with the introduction of the Equal Status Act which prohibited discrimination in the provision of goods and services. I still hear people close to me talk about how they don’t like to see a woman drinking a full pint, as if it affects their life to have to observe such a catastrophe. On a more grim level, we praised reproduction and it was the norm to have anywhere between eight to twelve children. But, we also sent “fallen” women who “fell” pregnant outside of marriage to institutions to hide the “problem” and took their children away from them or worse. Women were shamed for having children outside of marriage whilst simultaneously being shamed for wanting to terminate a pregnancy. We were allowed to have contraception within a marriage as it was deemed to fall within marital privacy laws but simultaneously confiscated condoms and spermicide from members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement who travelled on the ‘Contraceptive Train’ from Dublin to Belfast and back in 1971. We are a nation that literally sold babies to prospective American parents whilst pretending to care about the life of the unborn. We are a nation that repealed the Eighth Amendment to allow for abortion but we are simultaneously that same nation that denied women reproductive freedom until the year 2018.

Women were not allowed to drink pints in pubs until the year 2000. | Photo: Tamara Gürtler (Unsplash); Licence: CC0

Spanning over decades, the Catholic Church and government projected a country of virtue and purity whilst priests inflicted sexual abuse upon the nation’s youth and nuns pressured young women into having illegal abortions or raising the children not recognised by their priest fathers alone. Women were viewed as second class citizens whilst, simultaneously, the concept of the “Irish mammy” (mother) was something to behold and revere. Our country is one named after Ériu, the Goddess of Irish Sovereignty, whilst we treated women’s own bodily sovereignty like something to be tossed around and disposed of. With the natural progression of society, this has changed somewhat overtime but we still have a lot more work to do and owning our treatment of women is one of the first steps.

I hope we’ve learned that shame has not served anyone.

A common thread in all of these instances is shame and hiding; shame of what others thought of us and hiding our apparently inherent indecency. We hid problems like a child hiding something it’s stolen behind its back hoping no one would notice. We projected this fun-loving, carefree Irish persona whilst keeping secret the things that might out us. It’s akin to a massive case of imposter syndrome except in this case, were we actually the imposter? Owning our past transgressions has made some inroads into our collective advancement into the future and to ensure that these things don’t happen again. I hope we’ve learned that shame has not served anyone. Ireland is not perfect; no country is. But Ireland is home to wonderful people, a wonderful culture and a wonderful message. I want Ireland to own its past and truly embrace Irish pride in order to move into the future and be the country everyone thinks we are. I want people to love my country; not out of ignorance to our imperfections but of how well we carry ourselves despite them.

Cover photo: Katenolan1979 (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

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    Lauren Foley is an Irish feminist who lives and breathes all things gender equality and women’s rights. Having obtained two law degrees from Ireland and the Netherlands and having spent two years working in the European Parliament in Brussels, Lauren took her Iife into her own hands and now creates videos, writes and facilitates gender equality workshops for anyone who will listen. Her favourite colour is yellow and you’re likely to catch her watching Grey’s Anatomy while eating spaghetti carbonara most nights of the week.

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