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What it was like to set up a rape crisis centre in an Ireland that was 'so punishing of women'

In 1979, when the DRCC was founded, it wasn’t a crime for a man to rape his wife.

“IT WAS SO punishing of women, and there was absolutely no room for anyone to make a mistake, maybe live their life a bit differently. It was a really hard country to live in and we were living in it.”

Ireland was a very different place 40 years ago.

In 1979, contraception and abortion were illegal. Divorce was unheard of. It wasn’t a crime for a man to rape his wife.

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) was founded, to much resistance, in 1979.

Setting up such a service was not an easy task – funding was minimal to non-existent, and women’s rights were in a similar position. One thing not in short supply was judgement, or the influence of the Catholic Church.

Speirs131078Dublin249-4 Protest march in Dublin organised by the Women Against Violence Against Women group; many of the DRCC's founders took part. Source: Derek Speirs

Still, a group of women with a vision set out to create a place that would support women who had been raped or sexually assaulted.

Some of the women who helped found the DRCC reminisced about the early days of the centre at a recent conference to mark its 40th anniversary.

Anne O’Donnell, the DRCC’s first director, recalled how the centre was “in a dingy bedsit on Pembroke Street” in the city, complete with mice.

“Just to remind people what we were up against – 1970s Ireland was a really deeply judgemental country with little compassion, particularly for women. In fact, it was a hostile country for women,” O’Donnell said.

She singled out three women in particular to highlight how Ireland treated women and girls in the 1970 and 1980s: Joanne Hayes (of the Kerry Babies case), Ann Lovett (who died at the age of 15 after giving birth) and Eileen Flynn (a teacher who was dismissed in 1982 for living with a married man).

O’Donnell said Ireland was “so punishing of women”, adding: “There was absolutely no room for anyone to make a mistake, maybe live their life a bit differently. “It was a really hard country to live in and we were living in it.”

The women who founded the DRCC were criticised publicly – and privately. Many family members disagreed with the founding of the centre and the parallel push for women’s rights. 

“We had families, we had children, we had parents, we had siblings. And what we were saying was considered quite unacceptable to most of them, as well as to almost everyone else. So it was a very difficult time,” O’Donnell said.

‘Hateful atmosphere’ 

In conversation with O’Donnell and others at the event last month, journalist Susan McKay recalled how the centre’s founders were targeted during the “hateful atmosphere” of the Eighth Amendment campaign in 1982 and 1983.

Campaigners in favour of the amendment – which inserted a subsection into the Irish Constitution equating the life of the mother and the life of the unborn, and would tighten the country’s abortion laws for decades to come – accused the founders of setting up the centre “as an excuse to bring abortion to Ireland”.

The government at the time spent hundreds of thousands of pounds for the pro-amendment campaign, McKay recalled, stating that the DRCC received £5,600 and was told “the government couldn’t afford any more”. 

Speirs071119DRCC011 A panel discussion at DRCC's 40th anniversary conference in November. Source: Derek Speirs

“You’ve got to remember that we did not have contraception, we did not have abortion, we did not have divorce,” Evelyn Conlon, novelist and early DRCC volunteer, said of that time. Conlon, who was also a member of feminist group Irish Women United, recalled how the centre’s work was largely dismissed or made fun of – much like rape itself at the time. 

Every time we mentioned the word ‘rape’ we had to deal with a so-called joke. Every time.

“I know that language has changed extraordinarily, and in some ways it’s worse, and more violent … The challenges are different than they were then. But what happened was is you simply could not use the word ‘rape’ without somebody saying ‘I must tell you this joke’,” Conlon said.

She said that over time, following efforts by the centre and others to raise awareness and increase understanding about sexual assault, “people had learned not to do that”.  The centre also provided services for sex workers and ran a women’s disco at the Pembroke Bar, downstairs from its office. 

“A number of women who were working on the street would come to our disco, because it was one of the only places where they could be safe and secure,” Conlon said.

She noted that many of the debates that were happening at the time, such as the pros and cons of decriminalising sex work but criminalising buying sex, are still happening around the world today.

Speirs251180Dublin1374-14 25 November 1980: Meeting in Liberty Hall in Dublin on the Criminal Law (Rape) Bill; Anne O'Donnell of DRCC speaking, with Miriam Logan of Women's Aid and Senator Gemma Hussey in the background. Source: Derek Speirs

O’Donnell said the early volunteers persevered because they wanted women who had been sexually assaulted or raped to have access to the same services women in the UK had, where rape crisis centres were well established. 

“[We did it] for those women who were suffering alone to have somewhere to go, to have an ear to listen to them,” she said.

The centre was initially solely run by volunteers before it was in a position to employ professional therapists, something she described as “a breakthrough”.  Volunteers, as they do to this day, ran the helpline and would support callers as best they could. Some callers would not saying anything at all.

“The environment at the time made it very difficult for people to speak out, and you could see that in the frequency of the silent calls,” O’Donnell noted. She added that some women would “tell you something and then start to minimise it: ‘It didn’t really happen’ or ‘it wasn’t really that bad’.”

“How can you support someone when they’re pulling back from their own truth? But there are plenty of reasons why people do it.”

‘Embarrassed to be from Ireland’

O’Donnell recalled how she and others would be “embarrassed” to be from Ireland when at conferences in the 1970s and 80s.

“I remember women from other European countries who would ask ‘How can women be so badly treated in Ireland?’ They were shocked about all of the things that we didn’t have in Ireland as women – contraception, divorce,” O’Donnell said, noting how women had to protest to even be allowed swim at the Forty Foot.

I hear people sometimes talk with nostalgia for the ’70s and talking with nostalgia for the good old days, and ‘Wasn’t it much better then?’. I don’t think it was better then.

“That was not my memory and it is not the memory probably of a lot of people in this room who were around at that time.” O’Donnell admits that while there is much more work to be done, Ireland is now viewed by some as progressive in terms of women’s rights – particularly since the Eighth Amendment was repealed in 2018.

She recalled how feminist author Margaret Atwood interview recently referred to Ireland as a “beacon of light” amid regressive policies in many other countries.

We are a country that seems to be going slightly in the other direction from all the Trumps and people of his kind, so I do think we need to celebrate the fact that we’ve come a long way. That’s not to say we’re there, there are still a lot of issues to be dealt with.

“But it was comforting that rather than like back in the 1970s – being the country everyone was shocked by, and you would embarrassed as a woman to be coming from a country with so little going on for women – at least we’ve arrived where we have rights for women.”

O’Donnell described the Eighth Amendment being repealed in May 2018 as “unreal”, stating: “I couldn’t stop crying the whole day. Finally, the vast majority of people in Ireland believed in women’s rights and that was a great moment.”

‘More than a service, it’s a mission’ 

The current CEO of the DRCC, Noeline Blackwell, said she and others are “moved by the vision and the dedication of those who set [the centre] up”.

She paid tribute to those who continued to run it “through hard times – times when society was against it, times when society wouldn’t hear a single word about rape; times when even the inadequate funding that the centre received was cut without adequate regard for those using or delivering the service”.

Speirs071119DRCC017 Evelyn Conlon (right) and Anne O'Donnell (left) speaking at DRCC's conference in November. Source: Derek Speirs

Blackwell said she believes the centre has survived for 40 years “because it put the human rights and welfare of every person who experienced sexual violence at the heart of what it is”, adding: “It is more than a service, it was and is a mission.

It was that holistic approach that worked – providing urgent support to those harmed by sexual violence, providing incontrovertible evidence and information on the problem, training and educating others, building models of best practice which learned from experience of what had gone before it and anticipated future needs.

Blackwell said that through running the service, DRCC staff and volunteers have “learned that sexual violence descends in many forms and needs many actors to address it”.

She said committed voluntary organisations, non-governmental organisations, and State actors must come together to help end sexual violence and all forms of gender-based violence. Blackwell said the voices of survivors and victims but also be listened to when developing policy and raising awareness.

“It must include those who are impacted by sexual violence, those who’ve experienced it or have had their lives changed by it – be they family members, friends, caregivers, teachers.”

Savi report 

Blackwell called on the government to prioritise compiling a new national report on sexual abuse and violence in Ireland. The last Savi report was conducted in 2002.

The government has committed to carrying out new research, but said it could take five years to complete.

“I think everyone needs it now rather than in five years’ time. We in the centre would like to have the information because we’d like a deeper understanding of the trends and the prevalence of sexual violence that could help guide our work in supporting victims,” Blackwell told TheJournal.ie.

But even for the State, if the only information they have is from 2002 then they know nothing about the world we’re living in today, and the prevalence and trends in sexual violence today.

“At the same time, they’re spending money and time and resources, trying to end sexual violence, but they’re doing it without evidence. They’re doing it without the information that they need.

“So it is in the State’s interest as well as in society’s interest to have the information about what is the prevalence, what are the trends, where are people most vulnerable, and how do we actually sort it out for them?”

State funding of €150,000 was made available this year to allow the Central Statistics Office (CSO), which is overseeing the report, to carry out preliminary technical research.

The preparatory phase of the project will include conducting a pilot survey in 2020. The large-scale survey will look in detail at the experience of women and men in Ireland of sexual violence and abuse, with repeat surveys every decade.

“The goal is for an ongoing programme of high quality research in a sensitive and ethical way, to ensure a robust set of data to inform government policy,” Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan recently said in the Dáil.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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