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'She was living in a derelict building dripping with damp under a tin roof. The year was 1998'

During the making of No Country for Women, we journeyed with women today to learn more about their mothers’ and grandmothers’ lives, writes Anne Roper.

Anne Roper Writer, producer and director

GRANGEGORMAN AND BALLINASLOE mental asylums, Tuam and the Navan Road Mother and Baby Homes, Gloucester and High Park Magdalene Laundries: I’ve long wondered why so much of Irish history is about locking people up.

In a new TV documentary series, No Country For Women, psychiatrist Brendan Kelly reckons: ‘Ireland put more people into mental hospitals per head of population than any country in the world’.

Carceral institutions acted as a threatening force of social control. Those who held the power over them become intertwined with the history of the Irish women living in them.

Anniversary year

No Country for Women was made to mark the 100th anniversary year of Irish women’s vote. The Proclamation of 1916 had promised equality of citizenship but after the Free State was formed, those promises were soon clawed back by law and practice.

The British colonisers may have left the building, but the rein of new Ireland was grabbed by Ireland’s Catholic middle class men. UCD historian Lindsey Earner-Byrne calls them those ‘in the bowler hats’.

A coloniser often stakes claim to a country through erecting edifices to their power. The British built some of Ireland’s oldest workhouses, county homes and asylums. But when the British left, taking social service monies with them, Ireland made an alliance with the Catholic Church and their buildings.

Religious orders took over

Religious orders took on education, health and social care within them. Much was supported through the unpaid services of poor women and children placed in Mother and Baby homes, Magdalene Laundries, industrial schools.

These institutions were connected through a social and economic system. The Local Government Act of 1923 effectively incarcerated single mothers as guilty of an ‘offence’.  Those incarcerated for ‘illegitimacy’ became ‘illegitimate’ citizens and effectively denied the most basic rights.

Working to put a roof over her head was made difficult by law for many women. Marriage was one solution. Joining a religious vocation or emigration were two others. But with no divorce and most property held in men’s legal hands, who really benefited and why?

One answer may be that for a new State in turmoil in the wake of Independence and Civil Wars, placating those who fought in numbers was essential for stemming the chaos. Defending Catholic property owned by men and protecting work done by men through legislation was also a solution.

Women’s role in the home

From the 1920s, successive Irish governments put obstacles in the way of pensions and women sitting on juries.  Rape, violence, property and inheritance cases were largely judged by men.

Laws also censored sexual health information and banned the sale of contraception. Social welfare, housing benefits, inheritance and domicile were placed in the hands of brothers, fathers, husbands, sons.

In 1937, Ireland formalised the lot by solidifying women’s role in the home as part of the Constitution. It almost seems it didn’t matter where the home was as long as women were contained there: marital or institutional.

No Country for Women

During the making of No Country for Women, we journeyed with women today to learn more about their mothers’ and grandmothers’ lives. We visited old asylums, workhouses and mother and baby homes.

Samantha Long remembers when her mother was still living in a Magdalene Laundry, aged 50. How she was living in a derelict building dripping with damp under a corrugated tin roof. The only heat came from an open-door cooker and her mother’s thin winter coat. The year was 1998.

I spent a day more recently filming in a now disused mental asylum. Mementos of so many past lives still haunt the corridors: a mildewed wallet, an icon of the Virgin with child, a fraying ironing board where patients worked unpaid amid the dormitories and cells. Such are the gravestones of Irish inequality.

Yet the legacy is still being felt today: the Dail is still only made up of 22% women. Women are still paid 14% less than men. Only 16% of women figure on company boards. 22% of Irish women experience levels of domestic and sexual violence. Rape statistics increased last year by almost 30%.

Sentencing in rape cases varies significantly and almost half of perpetrators get their terms reduced on appeal. In the wake of #MeToo, sexual harassment accusations against the powerful continue.

Denials still happening 

Cause and effect are the questions No Country For Women tries to examine as it looks back over 100 years. Because women have a voice now, women can vote.

As Samantha Long says: ‘Today we need to look at the denials that are still happening to women: women shouldn’t be living in direct provision or with small children in a hotel because of  homelessness. Women and girls need to know the value of their vote so discrimination never happens again…’

Anne Roper is the writer, producer and director of No Country for Women. No Country For Women will be broadcast across two night on RTÉ One on 19 and 20 June at 9.35pm. Additional content available on www.rte.ie/player.  

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Anne Roper  / Writer, producer and director

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