In her memoir, Sinéad O’Connor recollects writing this single sentence in English class, in response to Yeats’s poem ‘Easter 1916’. Nobody’s laughing now, either. Since July 2023, they’ve been keening, lamenting the loss of the ‘Irish Princess.’ In a country that prefers its poets internationally canonised and safely dead, Sinéad has ascended to the Pantheon, to the sound of solemn tributes and the ceremonial rending of garments. Oceans of ink have been spilled on the tearing of a picture of a pope, on a TV show no-one over here watches, 31 years ago. And on that one Prince song, the tracks of that single tear.
it’s real uncomfortable/ To be stuck somewhere you just don’t belong
‘8 Good Reasons’, from her monumental 2014 album I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, is almost impossible to listen to, now that eight reasons (or maybe nine now) were not enough to keep her in this world with us. The abstraction that she’s becoming—lost soul, fearless truth-teller, trauma incarnated, torn picture, single tear—looms over her tiny frame, her filthy jokes and dirty laugh, her open letters and Twitter spats, her body of blindingly brilliant songs.
Idon’t want to sing from where I sang before
In the days after her death, columnists wrote about the purity of her angelic voice. Nothing pure was ever as searing and true as that voice. Only something forged in anger and joy, woven from Irish sean-nós, reggae, gospel, bel canto, could cut through the noise around her like a blade. No angel outside of the Old Testament story of Lot could bring the snarl with which she spat ‘nothing would please me better’ on ‘Just Like U Said it Would B.’ From the very start of her career, she refused to settle into the single image the world requires its women to present. Bald and howling; bewigged, begowned and crooning; married; divorced; gay; militantly pro-abortion; renegade Catholic priest; mother of four; psychiatric patient; devout Muslim: she moved through phases and stages, bringing fire, integrity and hilarious, occasionally harrowing, honesty to each new chapter. Her restlessness drove her to try new ways of living, writing, making music, always reporting back, always refusing to settle into a fixed and final form. Only now has she been stilled for long enough for the world’s narratives to congeal around her.
Your joy gives me joy/ Your hope gives me hope
When people write and talk about Sinéad, they talk about the pain. Childhood trauma, ostracisation, post-hysterectomy breakdown, loss of a child to the care system then suicide—the suffering that saw her labelled unstable in life has seen her canonised in death. Less has been written about the ferocious, incandescent joy. There’s a wobbly video on YouTube of her performing John Grant’s ‘Queen of Denmark’ in Dublin in 2014. In her rasta-striped beanie and 1916 t-shirt, she looks more like a shy schoolboy than an icon in the fourth decade of her career. It’s a chatty crowd, and as she stands there, eyes closed, softly measuring out the opening bars, the drone of conversation competes with the music. Until her eyes snap open on the line ‘you really have no right to want anything from me at all’, and a radiant smile splits her face. Standing in a puddle of light, fist raised, rage and exhilaration pour out of her on every note. At the end of the first chorus, she’s beaming, shooting a thumbs-up at the sound engineer. And nobody’s fucking talking now.
I’ve been trying to resurrect my Irish language skills during this latest lockdown. Over the last few years, ‘use more Irish’ has been a New Year’s resolution that hasn’t lasted past the feast of the Epiphany, but this year I’ve really been trying. There are apps involved, notebooks filling up with vocab lists, and podcasts to partially understand. One of the great clichés around learning Irish is that, after 13 or 14 years of compulsory Irish at school, we’re all unable to speak it because of ‘the way it’s taught.’ While nobody uses the fact that I wander around the world functionally innumerate as an indictment of the maths teaching profession, Irish teachers everywhere are expected to carry the weight of our collective lack of fluency. The fact that you gain fluency in a language only through finding yourself surrounded by speakers of that language who don’t or won’t speak English, a situation virtually impossible to engineer in Irish, is rarely mentioned.
My brother’s Irish poetry textbook, source of abstract nouns and classic schoolbook graffiti
Another unmentioned truth of the schoolroom is that everything is badly taught there, at least some of the time to some of the people, by virtue of the students’ own lack of freedom to choose what and how they learn. In any room filled with people who are there under duress, it’s a wonder that any learning happens at all, and a tiny miracle when students manage to carve out space for themselves to blossom in these neoliberal wastelands of targets and measurable outcomes. Maths is ‘badly taught’ when it fails to convince its learners of its applications in ‘the real world,’ that domain to which the schoolroom is a mere antechamber. Poetry is ‘badly taught’ when it dissects poems into its component elements of theme, tone and technique, and fails to inspire a love of the art. This latter strikes me as a particularly harsh standard. While I’ve seen enough poems reduced to frogs in formaldehyde or cryptic crossword clues to suspect that these approaches are questionable, I also resent the implication that my job, in teaching a poem, is to elicit love. Where would you even start? Attention, and the ways it’s made, shared, and sustained in a classroom, is a mystery. At the end of any given unit of learning, I’m always astonished by the idiosyncratic jumble of wonderful things my students have taken away from the experience, often whole galaxies away from the hollow ‘outcomes’ in which I’ve had to couch my plans for their learning. People do learn things in classrooms, but the details and the modalities emerge in the miraculous interplay of attention and infinite unforeseeable variables. Love is sometimes one of these variable elements, but we have no right to expect it, and it certainly shouldn’t be the unit of measurement for the success of our engagement with language in the classroom.
This is where my habits in teaching and writing poems overlap. Both cases involve planning and preparation, setting parameters and assembling materials, but when things are really working, I’m blindsided by what emerges in the process. For example, my forthcoming book Morsel May Sleep (Sublunary Editions) started out with me hunting through Mallarmé’s Thèmes anglais pour toutes les grammaires, a textbook that he devised around translation exercises based on English proverbs, scavenging for material to use in an essay on attention and pedagogy that never got written. Instead, I ended up making tiny erasure poems from the English and French proverbs, and writing ‘afterthoughts’ to them in both languages that spun off into poems and prose poems that fold a lot of thinking about teaching, learning and attention in among references to school, family, birds and animals, boats and water, and language itself, salvaged from the proverbs and Mallarmé’s translations of them.
The copy of Thèmes anglais pour toutes les grammaires was a gift from Peter Manson, arriving just as I was finishing work on my PhD thesis, a study of abstraction in contemporary poetry focusing mainly on his own poetry and translations, and the poetry of Peter Gizzi. Manson’s work has been central to my understanding of the possibilities of language and poetry since I first encountered it in a review of his translation Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse in 2012. The review quoted his translation of my favourite line, ‘Aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore’, rendered as ‘Abolished bauble inanely echoing’. It captured a wry wit that’s often smoothed out of Mallarmé in translation, while preserving a great deal of the line’s dense sonority. This set me off in search of Manson’s translations and his own poems, a quest that turned into an apprenticeship in the contemporary innovative poetry of Britain and Ireland, a field of which I had been entirely ignorant up to that point but one that has become my home in the years since. Reading Manson opened up this whole new world of poetry, and taught me how to read it, and eventually write it.
That line, ‘aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore’ from the ‘Sonnet en -yx,’ had, in turn, snapped me out of a hungover semi-coma in a 2nd year French poetry survey lecture in UCD in the mid-90s, and I spent the rest of that academic year squirreled away in the library, skipping lectures and reading every scrap of Mallarmé I could lay my hands on. My grades were underwhelming that whole year, and indeed for the entirety of my undergraduate career. I’m sure there was no mention, in the module descriptors for that survey course, of sparking obsessions with symbolist poets that would yield life-changing encounters with contemporary Scottish poets, and the subsequent authoring of books of poems in French and English. I know that I utterly failed to fulfil several of the criteria for that module: I’m pretty sure I never read a single Victor Hugo poem in its entirety, not even the one I submitted an execrable explication de texte on, and my grasp of French prosody remains embarrassingly sketchy. Learning did happen, though. Just not the kind that can be predicted, quantified, and outlined in the neat language of behaviourist objectives derived from B.S Skinner’s seminal work teaching pigeons to play ping-pong.
When I first started meeting the poets and readers of my new post-Manson world, beginning with visits to SoundEye, the unique and beautiful poetry festival that Trevor Joyce and an assortment of the best people in the world ran in Cork for 20 years until 2017, I was struck by how many of them had stories of coming to poetry relatively late in life. As someone who was just learning to read and write this language in my late thirties, I was comforted by this. People had stories of being ambushed by a Frank O’Hara poem on the radio, or ending up at a Keston Sutherland reading and having their mind blown. My own ‘origin story’ was Manson’s ‘abolished bauble’ in the Guardian book pages. But it went back further than that, as I only realised once I’d started writing in earnest and found lines from Dylan Thomas, Hilaire Belloc of all people, and whole chunks of Yeats (renamed ‘Yeets’ in our house in honour of A.J. Soprano) burrowing into ‘my own’ work like an infestation of parasitic brain worms.
It took me back to the classroom, specifically the cramped rows of wooden desks in the senior class of my two-teacher primary school, where I spent four years alternating between terrified tedium and quiet (and later, louder) mutiny. When I was in the younger two classes, the headmaster would spend most of his time with the senior classes while we worked on long division and wrote out interminable tables of forainmneacha réamhfhoclacha, the prepositional pronouns of Irish. I always tuned in to the senior classes’ poems instead, filling my head with Wordsworth’s ‘Ballad of Lucy Gray’ and the hired labourer’s lament beginning Go deo deo aris ni raghad go Caiseal (never again will I go to Cashel) instead of the finer points of Irish grammar, or any maths at all. Over 30 years later, those lines are all still squirreled away in there somewhere, finding their way back out when summoned by the sound pattern in a poem I’m writing. Nobody ever set out to teach me Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Tarantella,’ or Fr Pádraig de Brún’s ‘Valparaiso,’ an Irish translation of a spurt of purest doggerel by Oliver St. John Gogarty, and yet both poems are etched forever in my brain. During rainy afternoons when the hands of the clock seemed to be going backwards, rattling through ‘the tedding and the spreading of the straw for a bedding and the wine that tasted of tar’ in my head created the illusion of movement, and made those infinitely elastic moments tolerable, maybe even meaningful. What more could you ask of a poem?
I had the formative misfortune of receiving my primary education in an Irish, rural, two-teacher school in the 1980s. While corporal punishment was criminalised in 1982, the year before I made my First Communion, in many other respects my educational experience could have taken place at any time from the foundation of the state. The Irish language was prioritised above all other subjects. Religion came a close second, with the month of May dedicated to a range of queasy festivities for the Virgin Mary. We sat at hard, wooden desks, unless we were standing in the corner for not knowing our times tables or poetry recitations. Children who struggled to learn were routinely humiliated. During the run-up to the first divorce referendum, in 1986, proselytising on behalf of the ‘Vote No’ campaign replaced the rest of the curriculum, and the traditional pre-holiday activities that are my only fond memory of school. Where, most years, we spent the end of the summer term on nature studies, using quadrats to count insects, and woven willow traps to capture pygmy shrews, in 1986 we 9 to 12-year-old non-voters learned about the existential threat divorce posed to Ireland’s soul.
Ireland’s soul was already familiar to us from our history lessons. Here, the headmaster railed with passionate intensity about Cromwell’s men bludgeoning proud Irish patriots to death with their own wooden legs, and the British deliberately exporting corn at the height of the famine to maximise the suffering and death. Long before I left that place, I had learned to disregard everything it was trying to teach me, from Catholic fundamentalism and the short stories of Patrick Pearse to long division.
My mother tells of a similar approach to history in her school days. The headmaster of her two-room school, still without an indoor toilet or paved playground when I attended it in the early 80s, was a more positive classroom presence for her, and his gentleness spilled over into tears when he taught about the deliberate injustice the British had orchestrated in order to clear Ireland of people and make room for cattle.
These formative experiences of being unwillingly inculcated with the patterns of thought of a compliant and unquestioning rural Irish citizen, left me deeply mistrustful of the ‘British genocide’ famine narrative. When it crops up on my timeline, often in the form of arguments targeting Blindboy from the Rubberbandits, I shy away from its attempt to oversimplify a complex history, with multiple agents and forces at play, into a simple story of villain and wronged victim. Then I find myself questioning whether my own grounds for this rejection stem from a similarly misleading oversimplification, a rejection of everything I was taught in primary school in favour of a history in which Irish people themselves play a wider range of roles than the hordes of passively wronged. I find myself picking at the words ‘genocide’ and ‘trauma’, attempting to untangle their meaning in the context of the famine itself and the stories it has become.
In a wide-ranging discussion between Blindboy and Fin Dwyer of the Irish History podcast, they discuss the attempt to frame the famine as a genocide as part and parcel of a view of the Irish as a people shaped by unique sufferings which they triumphed over, a ‘misery competition’ in which our history is often used ‘to be racist gowls.’ The subtext here is an effort, primarily or at least originally, by Irish America, to tell an origin story that was as steeped in suffering at the hands of others as the African Americans who were brought to the continent in chains, or the native Americans who were slaughtered and dispossessed. In the latter two cases, many of the hands doing the slaughtering and dispossessing were attached to Irish or Irish American arms, necessitating a tale of comparable struggle of their own to wash them clean of guilt.
This doesn’t quite explain why a primary school principal in 1980s Ireland was framing the famine as a deliberate massacre, perpetrated by the British on the Irish people. Dwyer mentions that this story really became part of Irish self-fashioning around the time of the independence movement, which revived tales that a generation had shied away from, in order to galvanise opposition to British rule. The poet-teachers who were the glorious martyrs of this movement, and whose execrable poems we were forced to learn, were the mainstays of our history lessons, supplemented with Cromwellian atrocities and tales of rapacious landlords and starving tenants. It was history as indoctrination in foundational national myths.
In an episode of Dwyer’s own podcast the use of the terminology of ‘genocide’ is explored in more depth, and Dwyer emphasises that the man-made nature of most famines since the 18th century means that it is unnecessary to use the word ‘genocide’ to make clear that what happened was an unnatural disaster, shaped and exacerbated by human intervention, and failure to intervene. Dwyer describes the approach of the British liberal government to famine relief after 1847 as a radical experiment in free market ideology, trusting the market and the charity sector to provide for the needs of the people. The market did not provide, and a million people died. It is baffling, and Dwyer made this connection himself in his interview with Blindboy, that this same hodgepodge of markets and charities is now relied on by the Irish state to provide the basic necessities of social infrastructure, from housing to social care and mental health provision. An approach that is labelled ‘genocidal’ in the context of 1847, is standard operating procedure in 2021. The idea of directly building homes, without enriching third parties in the process, is dismissed by Leo Varadkar with a sneer about ‘free houses.’
The worst devastations of the famine, rather than a genocide deliberately perpetrated by the British, were a by-product of liberal economic policies. It’s worth bearing this in mind when thinking about the lives of the country’s poorest under neoliberal austerity since 2007. Is a British landlord class qualitatively different from a multinational landlord class in any respect other than that it allows an external ‘other’ to be held responsible for the suffering it causes in its policy and practice?
A further consequence of framing the famine as a genocide is that it creates the illusion of a homogeneous Irish people, who were all equally targeted for destruction in an atrocity perpetrated by outsiders. A similar trompe-l’oeil operates by referring to the famine and its aftereffects as a ‘national trauma’ whose ripples we all feel to this day. Such framings serve to draw the eye away from diverging experiences and outcomes, dependant on wealth and social class. They airbrush away the uglier reality that the famine caused suffering and avoidable death among the members of the lowest social class, the landless farm labourers, but it brought prosperity to merchants and larger farmers, involved in their hundreds of thousands in the export of grain, dairy and beef throughout these years of starvation. The labouring cottier class was obliterated by the famine, and is ‘absent from both the historiography and the social memory of the period’, and yet we claim their fate as the source of a trauma we all share. In this case, the words ‘genocide’ and ‘trauma’ are uttered as uncantations, words whose purpose is to make sure the entangled complicities allowing for surviving and thriving at that time go unexamined.
Dwyer lays bare the realities of these entanglements on an episode set in Clogheen, a small village in Tipperary. I was drawn to this chapter as it’s set in a valley on the other side of the Galtee mountains from where I live, in similarly fertile agricultural land. While researching a project on the history of butter, I found evidence to suggest that exports of butter from my area rose, year on year, during the height of the famine in the late 40s and early 50s, but I was unable to find out how, or even if, this overlapped with the effects of the famine on subsistence farmers and cottiers in the area. Dwyer’s story of the experience of Clogheen, 40 km away, offered a promising point of comparison.
He describes a deeply unequal society, with large farmers renting up to a thousand acres from Lord Lismore to grow wheat, mill owners running a network of mills and granaries, a town-based working class toiling in the mills, smaller farmers who could only rent a few acres, and landless labourers. Throughout the 1830s, tensions flared between these groups, as a cross-denominational coalition of landlords and strong farmers worked to enclose common land, consolidate strips of land into ever larger individual farms, contest traditional rights of access to the bogs, and push the landless cottiers to the most precarious of margins. Opposition to this ongoing dispossession took the form of ‘outrages’, the state’s preferred term for outbreaks of violence in response to ongoing oppression. In the early years of the famine, as the cottiers and small farmers were pushed to desperation by the loss of their staple crop, carts bringing flour to Clonmel, for export via the port of Waterford, were often attacked and robbed. Throughout the late 40s and early 50s, as a quarter of the population of Clogheen and its hinterland died or left the area, tens of thousands of barrels of flour were exported.
In the popular imagination, the British pursued their genocidal agenda through enforcing the export of food from Ireland throughout the famine years. In actuality, while the British army was sent into areas like Clogheen, their function was as a security force, allowing those who wanted to continue exporting to do so. Formulations suggesting that ‘the British’ sent food out of Ireland misrepresent the agents and the forces involved – Britain offered a ready market for the produce of Ireland’s dairy and grain farmers, who continued to supply this market throughout the years of the famine, and the British army ensured that this trade carried on unimpeded. Once again, an insistence on the famine as a result of deliberate British strategy occludes a more complex reality, in which the native Irish middle-class enriched itself and consolidated its position through prioritising its own profits over the lives of its tenants, employees and neighbours. The strongest opposition to an export embargo, right through the blackest years of ’47 to ’52, came from this class, unwilling to countenance the loss of income that would follow from limiting their trade to the decimated local population.
However, these same families also set up soup kitchens, distributed alms, and sometimes even reduced rents, and these charitable efforts were not considered incompatible with pursuing their own financial interests. In a pattern we have replicated ever since, the well-to-do prioritise their own material wellbeing above all ethical considerations, before sprinkling their largesse on the lower orders once their own needs have been met. Then, as now, economic concerns come first. Only once some invisible threshold has been breached can the surplus be funnelled to those at the bottom. Then, as now, individualist, piecemeal, charitable provision fills the void where structured, state-funded intervention could actually have a meaningful impact on people’s lives, up to and including the chance to go on living. This was a formative chapter in our history, not only in loss of life, and certainly not in unleashing some universally shared trauma. Patterns of interaction between classes, based on an asymmetric interdependence between economic and social spheres, that warp our social fabric now, were woven then.
Some hundred years after the famine, the head of the Co-operative Association dismissed the social and educational potential of the co-op movement with the words ‘there’s very little good in talking about social aspects unless the economics of the situation is put right first.’ From 1847 to the present day, ‘the economy’ has always been a hungry ghost, needing feeding before we can begin to think about mere people. Nobody knows how much this ghost needs to eat, so the situation has never yet been put right.
The famine finally did away with a way of life that took place almost entirely outside of the modern cash economy, on the margins of the dairy plantations that would enrich Munster’s butter merchants and strong farmers through the second half of the 19th century. It did this by killing off the most vulnerable, the landless labourers, and pushing the small farmers to emigrate. Cloaked beneath the myth of national trauma, the famine proved an opportunity for those left, the better-circumstanced, to consolidate and thrive, in what Homer Simpson would recognise as a ‘crisitunity.’
David Lloyd discusses 1990s famine commemoration in the context of an ‘alliance with a transnational capitalism whose rapacious, brutal and destructive past is continually reproduced in the present’ and indeed, the convergence of free market ideology with the subjugation of all social and ethical concerns by economic ones, ensures that Ireland in 2021 is as rapacious, brutal, and destructive towards those on its margins as it ever was. The attitudes and patterns of thought that lead to the loss of an entire social class in the 1840s, destroys lives today. Ever before it was an independent nation, Ireland was a country that hated poor people. Not ‘the poor’ as an abstract concept, but the actual bodies, homes and children of poor people. It is not uncommon to hear people wax sentimental about the traumas of the famine, while fighting against the most minimal supports for people marginalised by our current extreme neoliberal regime. You would think a constantly revisited history of suffering, supposedly shared by us all, would yield solidarity. And yet the Venn diagram of those who call the famine a genocide, and those whose reaction to the sight of a woman and her children sleeping in a garda station is ‘don’t have children if you can’t take care of them’, is a smooth-brained circle. This attitude has caused material harm and real trauma. It is at the root of our shameful network of carceral institutions, designed to punish the wrong kind of people for living the wrong kind of lives.
In June 2021, a poet shared some thoughts on the origins of the (shared, national) fear of eviction in an Irish Times article called ‘Irish Property Psychosis Rooted in Fear of Eviction’ whose subheading claims that ‘Eviction trauma is vivid enough in recent memory to be culturally transmitted.’ Attempting to trace the very real insecurity faced by renters today back to the long-lost cottier, thrown with his family and belongings out of his bothán, was insufficiently spurious for the author, who went on to claim this cultural trauma as the reason we are wary of such alternatives to home-ownership as ‘lifelong leases.’ This analysis neglects the reality that there is no such thing as a lifelong lease in the Irish rental sector, where the greatest security of tenure that can be hoped for is a 12-month contract. What is presented as an ‘irrational compulsion’ for young people to own their own property is, in fact, the only rational hope of a secure home in a rental market that has, courtesy of Michael Noonan, been remade as a profit-mill for corporate buyers and vulture funds. The only legitimate parallel with the late 19th century, one the author does not draw, is that the profits of a landlord class are now, as then, prioritised over the security and wellbeing of the people from whom they extract these profits.
Casting the famine as a shared national trauma is a story told by middle-class Ireland to conceal the fact that its wealth and social position were created and consolidated through collusion in the destruction of poor people. Fear of eviction is real, and entirely justified, in a country that offers no effective protections against its native landlord class. Trauma isn’t ‘culturally transmitted’, any more than solidarity is. The same kinds of people who suffered eviction in famine times suffer homelessness now, and the kinds of people who did business, exported butter, consolidated farms then, are doing the same now. Eviction isn’t everyone’s story, then as now. Claiming the famine as a trauma shared equally by everyone, in a way nothing else ever has been on this island, is a convenient way of avoiding facing the asymmetries of suffering shaping Irish society, then and now.
James Connolly, in 1897 when the famine was still within living memory, was alert to this tendency ‘to re-enact the old sad tragedies of our past history’ and neglect the difficult realities facing us in the present. He saw this as part of a sustained effort to build a revolutionary movement by conciliating Ireland’s privileged classes, ‘by assuring them that in a free Ireland their ‘privileges’ will not be interfered with. That is to say, you must guarantee that when Ireland is free of foreign domination, the green-coated Irish soldiers will guard the fraudulent gains of capitalist and landlord from ‘the thin hands of the poor’ just as remorselessly and just as effectually as the scarlet-coated emissaries of England do today.’ This was not the Ireland Connolly dreamed of, but it’s the one we have. These self-styled conservative revolutionaries set about rebranding the events of 1916-21 as the revolution of poets and teachers I learned about in primary school in the 80s, editing out the women and working-class people who had been central to the movement.
Connolly’s warning resonates in the weeks following the garda use of force to break up pickets by Debenhams workers trying to prevent the removal of stock from closed shops. It hits hard when you see pictures of guards in balaclavas assuming the role previously played by the redcoats in facilitating evictions and protecting property. It really hits home when you watch the organs of official Ireland push a narrative of shared atavistic trauma, when nothing in this nation, not even the misery it loves to cling to in its self-fashioning, has ever been equitably distributed.
I have a strong memory of my father, when I was a small child, singing the words ‘constitutional amendment’ in a sorrowful baritone. It was only in 2018, in the trenches of the Repeal campaign in Co. Limerick and North Cork, that my youngest sister and I deduced that it must have been the 8th Amendment to the Constitution that he was crooning to, so mournfully. My sister, having been born in October 1983, had no recollection of the ditty, sung with great pathos, which our dad would pronounce to rhyme with path-hose, as in, a length of rubber tubing with a particularly specific gardening purpose, or a set of nylon tights for garden paths.
Some years before the repeal campaign, my sister and I found ourselves in a small Limerick street by the People’s Park, waiting for the local Labour minister to arrive at her office. We were there, with a group of women and their children, to protest the recently introduced cuts to Lone Parents allowance which meant that supports would be removed when a family’s youngest child turned seven. This measure was spun as a means to ‘activate’ lone parents, by forcing them to seek employment and become PAYE workers, the only citizens our society seems to value. However, many of the women involved were already working, and design flaws in the policy, whether deliberate or accidental, ensured that women who were working part-time, and therefore fully activated citizens in the eyes of society, would find themselves €60 to €80 worse off a week.
A policy designed to increase inclusion by supporting single parents to become active participants in the economy (I can hardly type these words without retching) was going to disproportionately impoverish women who were already working. When the legislation was first proposed, the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, had promised it wouldn’t be implemented until Ireland had a ‘Scandinavian-style’ childcare system. Nonetheless, even though by 2015 the closest thing to this dream was the drop-in creche in IKEA, as one columnist quipped through gritted teeth, the policy was fully implemented, undermining the welfare and living standards of over 40 thousand women and their families. My sister, who was working part-time and studying at UL as well as raising her daughter, was no longer able to afford her house. She had to move back in with our parents, give up her job, and do the 50-mile round-trip to college every day.
When I’d been a single parent myself, in the late 90s, I’d had my rent allowance cut because I was earning £90 a week as a tutor in UCD, where I was a postgrad at the time. While I tried to explain to my Community Welfare Officer, patiently at first and then increasingly desperately, that the £90 a week I was paying for my son’s creche could not also be used to pay rent, I was met with a robotic mantra of ‘the onus is on you to inform yourself on how your earnings will affect your entitlements.’ I find it hard to imagine these words as my only response to a weeping 23-year-old with a toddler on her lap, who just wants to be able to keep a roof over her head, pay the thoroughly un-Scandinavian cost of her son’s childcare, and finish her course. The systems in place to support the people most vulnerable to poverty and marginalisation are designed to be hostile and almost impossible to navigate. The ‘onus’ is on you to glean the information necessary to work out the byzantine complexities of a system that treats its users with suspicion at every turn. For my sister and I, relatively privileged women with a supportive family to offer advice and respite, encounters with this machine left us bruised and in bits. I cannot even fathom how crushing it is to women without this backing, the ones who need it most. The word ‘onus’ makes my jaw clench, over 20 years later.
When my sister, along with tens of thousands of other women, was falling foul of Joan Burton’s ‘activation measures’, I took part in all the acts of solidarity I could think of: attending protests, writing to newspapers, contacting political representatives. None of these actions had any concrete effect on the outcome. I found myself, once again, viscerally disgusted by the language used towards these women and their families. They were depicted as the ‘passive recipients’ of social welfare, and the solution to the social problem they embodied was presented as the ‘labour market activation of lone parents.’ 
This country uses tax revenue to subsidise greyhound racing, and provide ministerial pensions to men who left politics in their 40s in order to run unsuccessful chains of bookies, among other things. How is ensuring that the children of single parents are fed and taken care of a less worthwhile investment then these, admittedly egregious, examples? There is nothing ‘passive’ about the work of raising children on your own. What’s more, talk of ‘labour market activation’ is undermined by the fact that so many of these women already have jobs, in some instances low-paid jobs in the care and service economies. And what of their non-market labour? Is the work they do at home, filling the roles of both parents in looking after their children and households, worthless to society?
Our constitution would seem to claim otherwise. According to Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution, ‘the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ So, the State itself agrees that the work of single mothers, in taking care of their families, is not passive and valueless. This notorious article, rightly seen by many as the source of such gender-based discrimination as the marriage bar, goes on to declare what looks like practical state support for the work of women within the home: ‘The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.’
What could be more unconstitutional than a policy of ‘labour market activation’ that deliberately sets out to ensure that mothers SHALL be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home? As I ranted and railed, often on social media, it was pointed out by people with a better grasp than mine on Irish constitutional law that, in order for legislation to be deemed unconstitutional, it would need to be challenged in the High Court. Someone with the means to fund a case would need to establish that the ‘labour activation law’ was repugnant to the constitution, and the High Court would need to agree with them.
Nobody ever took such a case. Since 1937, Article 41.2 has only been mentioned in 25 cases, of which it was only central to four, and ‘no substantive rights have been held to exist as a result of it.’ This article exists to mark Irish womanhood as synonymous with motherhood and homemaking, in the abstract. It has never been used to improve, or even defend, the material conditions of actual Irish women engaged in this labour ‘without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ Not a single case has ever been taken to ensure that this article, despite circumscribing the scope and potential of women’s social role, could at least protect their living conditions from attacks motivated by the neoliberal ideology of ‘labour market activation.’
Contrast this with the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, introduced in 1983, some 46 years after Article 41.2. While the latter article conferred ‘no substantive rights’ on Irish women, the 8th amendment was central to a series of cases and decisions that effectively conferred the foetus with a right to life to that was, in practice, superior to that of the woman on whose body it depended for life. How is it that one article remained an aspirational formulation, designed to categorise women’s role in society but not to defend that role in any way, while the other was used to police, control and destroy the bodies of Irish women?
Under other circumstances, the rights conferred on the foetus (referred to here, almost uniquely, as ‘the unborn’), given that they were predicated on the ‘equal right to life of the mother’, might have been relegated to the same realm of the aspirational nonperformative as the ‘woman in the home’ clause. Sara Ahmed uses the term ‘nonperformative’ for speech acts that ‘do not do what they say: they do not, as it were, commit a person, organization, or state to an action.’ This kind of language is, as we have begun to see, central to Irish public discourse. In these circumstances it is breath-taking, and endlessly infuriating, that the 8th Amendment came to have a power infinitely greater than the sum of its words.
Article 40.3.3 reads, in its entirety: ‘The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’ While the State’s recognition, in Article 41.2, is deemed to confer no substantive rights and has never been used in law or practice to defend the living conditions of Irish women, the state’s acknowledgement in 40.3.3 unleashed a series of harrowing, and in some cases grotesque, attacks on the freedom and bodily autonomy of these same women, living, dying and already dead. Even as the amendment was being proposed and bitterly debated, its shadow, and, more pertinently the shadows of its well-connected proposers and defenders, hung over the medical treatment offered to Sheila Hodgers. This woman was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant, and concern for the right to life of her unborn child meant that all treatment of her disease, including pain relief, was withheld. She died in agony two days after giving birth to a premature daughter, who died at birth. This happened in the March before the vote on the 8th amendment. To think that a country, and its medical system, that would treat a sick woman in this way needed a constitutional amendment conferring special protection on ‘the unborn’ defies comprehension.
Even under the cold gaze of Article 40.3.3, in the baffling dimension it created in which an unborn child’s life was valued as the equal of the life of the woman on whose body it was entirely dependent for survival, the clause ‘as far as practicable’ should have been seen to confer some protection on the woman in question, given that it is not practicable to expect an unborn child to live in and off a dead body. This was never how the clause was interpreted, however, in law or in practice. Indeed, in the PP V the HSE case of 2014, a grieving father had to take the health service to the high court in order to have his clinically brain-dead daughter removed from life support and be allowed to die with dignity. Her caregivers were keeping her alive artificially, in order to vindicate the constitutional right to life of the 14-week-old foetus she was carrying at the time of her death.
This intervention, on the part of medical practitioners, is the aspect of the extended hell dimension this country created for people with the capacity to become pregnant, that I find most unfathomable. Constitutionality is a feature of law-making. It is not something we consider, or are expected to consider, in our everyday personal or professional lives. I don’t find myself muttering ‘this is unconstitutional’ every time I teach a text in English class that parents (the ‘primary educator’, according to the constitution) are up in arms about. No property developer has ever sadly turned down millions of euros from vulture funds on the grounds that it’s incompatible with ‘the exigencies of the common good’ purported to underpin property rights in the constitution. Yet, for an entire generation, the most draconian possible interpretation of a catastrophically flawed constitutional amendment dictated the terms by which pregnant people’s lives in Ireland were valued. The vindication of the right to life of the foetus was valued above that of the woman or girl in whose body that foetus was living, in every single instance, leading to trauma and suffering up to and including death.
How is it, then, that while Article 41.2 was deemed to confer no substantive rights on Irish women, Article 40.3.3 conferred the foetus with rights that, in practice, superseded those of the woman it lived in?
Constitutionality is a feature of the making and interpretation of laws, and laws and their interpretation are challenged by those with the means to do so. The 8th amendment was proposed and supported by a cabal of well-connected and well-funded organisations that have since been displaced, slowly, from the centre to the fringes of Irish society. These people were, in perception and in fact, always ready to litigate in order to challenge medical practices that they viewed as incompatible with the right to life of the unborn. For a generation, the threat they represented cast a shadow over the healthcare available to women and girls in Irish clinics and hospitals.
While their spokespersons still boast weekly columns in the Irish Times, for example, their grip on discourse and practice in this country is slipping and will, I sincerely believe, finally fail within the decade commemorating the centenary of the state’s foundation. But this fall has come from a position of almost unfathomable power. Women and girls have been traumatised, butchered and killed in the exercise of this power.
If a language is a dialect with an army, the impact of the 8th amendment was the consequence of the generally nonperformative language of the constitution’s social provisions, enforced by an army of lawyers.
The foot-soldiers of this army, in pink hi-viz vests with ‘Love Both’ emblazoned on the back, were everywhere in the run-up to the repeal referendum. What wasn’t initially clear was that it was the same, single battalion of foot-soldiers, being bussed from town to town through the Spring of 2018. This only became clear to us, the small band of Together for Yes campaigners working to cover as much as possible of the sprawling rural terrain of North Cork and Co. Limerick, as we manned our single card-table stand at the mart in Kilmallock on the May Bank Holiday.
Five minutes after we set up the stall, one of the ‘Love Both’ vans, all sides covered with enormous posters of a girl with Down Syndrome, pulled up across from us and vomited out a pink-vested stream. They outnumbered us by ten to one, easily, and though we were all from the local area, none of them looked familiar to us. We did our best not to engage with them, in the face of pretty sustained provocation, and just continued handing out leaflets and chatting with anyone who stopped by. After a while, people started handing us their glossy leaflets. It started with a large farmer, about my dad’s age, who palmed over a stack of them with a wink, saying ‘You might have a bin for that rubbish’, and taking away a couple of our badges ‘for the nieces.’ This continued throughout the day. Many people scuttled past us with their heads down. A few stopped to have a go at my husband and the other man in our group, who were standing at the gate to the mart. A group of local teenage girls were ushered past us at speed, though several ducked back later for badges. One woman, trailing a number of small children, stopped beside us and began shouting at her kids that we were ‘murdering babies.’ Her eldest son got very agitated, and an older lady who was passing by guided them away.
Many people stopped to chat, though. Often, they were having a conversation with themselves rather than us, and our function was as witnesses. I’d seen this a lot on the doorsteps canvassing, too. Our presence served to bring a conversation, already ongoing in the speaker’s mind for some time, to a conclusion. A couple of days earlier, I’d called to the home of a man in his late forties, who was planting flowers in his garden. His first words were ‘My wife and I are very religious’, and I prepared to back politely right out his gate. But he went on ‘we’ve been talking about this a lot, and we’ve decided, who are we to decide for anyone else? Women find themselves in awful situations. Who are we to judge?’ He went on ‘At first, we were just going to not vote. But we’ve decided we have to vote yes. It’s the only thing.’ Throughout the interaction, I nodded and smiled encouragingly. That’s all. It was an indescribable feeling. There were a lot of interactions like that at the mart, too.
Towards the end of the day, traffic was at a standstill as the crowds headed home, and a driver beckoned me over to his car. He asked if I was local, and I pointed in the direction he was heading and told him I lived 10 minutes that way. He said that he and his wife had very recently been affected by ‘all this’, and that it was so good to see us out and about, here of all places. ‘Keep up the good work’, he said as he drove off.
That evening, sitting in the garden with a beer, it began to sink in that the story the country had been telling itself about Repeal was all wrong. Commentators like the novelist Patrick McCabe declaimed confidently that the urban elites were misreading the mood of the plain people of Ireland, and would be in for a shock on the 25th. But we plain people, and the other plain people we had been speaking to, had a different story. The majority of people we spoke to were delighted to tell us that they would be voting yes, but regretted that they were among the few ‘yes’ voters in their area. As you would expect in a country where the dead hand of the Catholic church and its associated institutes had controlled the narrative for generations, people believed that most Irish people were firmly against abortion, except in the most limited circumstances on compassionate grounds. The fact that the Citizens’ Assembly, composed of a random, representative, sample of citizens, pushed for much freer access to abortion in a range of circumstances, did nothing to convince the commentating classes that they might be misreading the people they claimed to speak for.
This misreading shaped the approach adopted by the ‘Yes’ campaign, an approach centred on sharing stories of everyday suffering. Only baring our most intimate traumas, on doorsteps and at makeshift stands, would allow us to be seen as human, worthy of the kind of consideration heretofore reserved for fertilised eggs. I lost count of the number of men who told me ‘I wouldn’t like to see it used as contraception’ and, faced with voters whose mistrust of women was so deeply ingrained it undermined logic and even the accepted meaning of words, all we had was our stories and we told them again and again. Those of us who mistrust our native love of narrative, to our very marrow, were forced to swallow down our misgivings for the greater good.
There’s a photo of my sister and me, taken the day after the vote at the celebrations in Dolan’s. Our faces, despite the bags under our eyes, are radiant with joy. She served a much longer stint in the trenches than I did, and near single-handedly ensured that the Limerick repeal campaign would cover the county as well as the city. When I linked up with the brilliant bunch of people starting up a Together for Yes branch in Charleville, she brought out officers from the Limerick branch to train us, and they had us ready to start canvassing within two days. Repeal is a narrative woven of thousands of strands of stories. Ours is the story of a small band of men, women and teens from small towns and villages in North Cork and Co. Limerick who ran the gauntlet of our parish priests, neighbours, colleagues, doctors, former primary teachers, to persuade other people like us that women could and should be trusted to make the right decisions for themselves, their bodies, and their lives.
Of all the towns and villages we campaigned in, only one, our parents’ parish, voted no. They, supportive as they were of our campaign, full of admiration for our commitment, were mortified. No matter how many chats we had had about the amendment, though, and the ’83 campaign that introduced us to dad’s mournful anthem ‘constitutional aMENdment’, we never got a straight answer to questions on how they’d voted then. We read between the lines, from the tiny gold feet pins I’d found at home around that time to the nightly childhood rosaries, and drew our own conclusions. That story, not ours to tell, of growth away from the stranglehold of Catholic moralising must have played out in so many other homes in the area, given the swing to ‘yes’ in these last strongholds of social conservatism.
In kitchens like my parents’, all over rural Ireland, the spectre of ‘the unborn’, that abstraction invented by a shadowy, well-funded and -connected cabal to diminish and destroy the lives of Irish women for a generation, was finally confronted and faced down. Babies in the abstract will always be prized above the bodies of existing women and girls, in corners of this country. Only the knowledge that these corners are getting smaller kept us going, keeps us going still.
In April, I was back in the classroom for the first time in 2021, as the schools re-opened post-lockdown after the Easter holidays. I was teaching a Transition Year media class, and we were reading an article on discrimination against Travellers in access to work, housing and education.  The students were horrified by the stark, inarguable story told by the statistics. This is a topic that leads to tense discussion, in an area where strong farmers and people from particular local towns have always been vocal, active and unembarrassed in their expression of anti-Traveller sentiment. We tried to steer clear of the kind of confrontation encouraged by ‘debate’, instead using creative writing in response to videos or articles. It wasn’t perfect, but it bypassed some of our worst urges to polarise.
When we got to the second half of the article, the students who had volunteered to read started to falter. ‘What does any of this even mean?’ one of them asked. He had waded through paragraphs of quotes from politicians and experts featuring phrases like ‘incumbent on us’ and ‘proactively extend the hand of outreach’ before coming to a halt on ‘a role for Government in terms of showing leadership on this.’
The rest of the class were equally bemused, and suspected that none of the fine words and roundabout phrasing amounted to a promise to actually do anything, other than ‘showing leadership’ and ‘providing clarity’, and everyone agreed that none of those things actually counted as actions. ‘Why do people talk or write like this?’ I asked. Students suggested, in bits and pieces, that it was so that they could sound like they were going to do something, while not tying themselves to doing anything too specific that could be checked up on. That talking about action was easier, and made for better media coverage, than the complicated, messy business of working out what needed to be done, and then doing it. We wholeheartedly, unanimously agreed for the first time all year, so we celebrated the accord, and a rare sighting of the sun, with a walk around the hurling pitch.
Abstract language as a substitute for, or even an impediment to, action, is as Irish as spuds or sexual hang-ups. Almost 100 years ago, as he was assuming the role of one of Ireland’s first Senators, W. B. Yeats lamented that ‘Ireland is ruined by abstractions […] every thought made in some manufactory and with the mark upon it of its wholesale origin.’ We still do our remembering wholesale, and our planning in the abstract, couched in stock phrases free of verbs in the active voice.
The woman in that article is not purposely obfuscating, at least I don’t see any reason why she would be. She’s just using language following the conventions of Irish public life: volubly saying nothing meaningful. Meaningfulness is a fraught quality in its own right, with every utterance so open to interpretations. Anyone who’s had a conversation with a fellow human being will have known moments of sighing ‘That’s not what I meant at all.’ This isn’t only Prufrock’s complaint. It’s the condition language subjects us to and vice versa. This frustration is not, however, the condition of the speaker of the stock phrases of Irish public life. The language of ‘endeavouring’ and ‘seeking accountability’ flows freely, in a way words wrestled with sweat and feeling into an attempted alignment with the actual world do not. These discourses offer a simulation of discussion; they sound like plans, or even calls to action, but when you wave away the clouds of abstract nouns, you find that the few verbs left are subjectless, and pitifully unequipped for action.
This is, of course, a universal quality of public language. For the most part, it forms a frictionless, liquid flow of platitudes that gestures in the general direction of actions that could potentially be taken. It is not a uniquely Irish property of language. Indeed, Donald Trump’s inability, or unwillingness, to adapt to the flow of acceptable political language was an early marker of how he would go on to bulldoze the entire landscape shaped by that flow. Yet there are reasons, some political and historical, some linguistic, to suspect that the Irish are unusually fluent in action-deferring abstraction.
On that April afternoon in the prefab, before releasing my charges into the fresh air, we returned to one section of the offending article. In the lines ‘it is about having access, presence and participation in the venues and arenas where discussions, decisions and social policy-making that impact on us all are taking place’, we counted the abstract nouns and tried to find a verb pressing them into action. It seems that it is about having three abstract qualities linked with access, in two unspecified locations where a further three abstract nouns denoting discourse are happening. What teenager, not to mention member of a historically underserved and vulnerable minority, whose life expectancy, living conditions, and levels of educational attainment are catastrophically poor, and falling, has time for so much hot air? The environmental consequences, alone, don’t bear thinking about.
The following week, one of the girls told us that her mam had told her that there was only one Traveller man over the age of 65 alive in South Limerick at the moment. We fell silent at that. Even the boys whose every point over the past few weeks had snaked back to their grandfather’s large farm, and robbing. For once, we had no words. Not ‘incumbent’, not ‘proactively extend’, not ‘live that diversity.’ Nothing.