Ray McGrath

If men don’t speak out against misogyny, we’re part of the problem

I wish I could say I was surprised to hear reports of a private Facebook group, in which 200 male UCD students have been sharing and rating stories and photos of girls with whom they claim to have had sex. As grim as it is, there is nothing unprecedented about it. Less than a year ago, details emerged about another Facebook group, titled ‘Girls I’d shift if I was tipsy’. Just days later, one of its members was elected president of the Students’ Union. And just over a week ago, a high-profile misogynist was given a warm welcome by hundreds of students in Theatre L.

When I first read about this latest scandal, two recent incidents immediately sprung to mind. The first involved a group of young male students casually (and very loudly) discussing “the fuckin’ damage” they’d do to a lone woman who had just walked past – and was probably still within earshot. I said nothing because I didn’t want to create a scene. This happened when I was waiting outside a lecture theatre in the Agriculture and Food Sciences Building in UCD. I hate having classes there because it’s possibly the only building that makes the Arts Block feel bright and airy. I also hate it because it happens to be heavily populated by the kind of boorish twats who bring back unpleasant memories of secondary school.

The second incident occurred in the James Joyce Library, during the Christmas exams. A couple of lads (Ag Science students again, for what it’s worth) were trying to decide whether a girl on Facebook was old enough to “destroy”. The consensus was that they’d be prepared to “do time” for her. They said lots of other stuff too, but I don’t see any point in repeating it for shock-value. After a couple of minutes, I turned around and gave them that passive-aggressive ‘look’ that you give someone in a library when you want them to shut the fuck up, but don’t want to create a scene by telling them to shut the fuck up. And that was that. Their conversation continued, but in the form of indecipherable mumbling.

Maybe they were members of that Facebook group. Maybe the girl they were discussing was one of its victims. Maybe if I had actually been brave enough to call them out on their arseholery, they might have stopped and taken a long, hard look at themselves. That hypothetical chain of events might be highly unlikely, and maybe it’s even more unlikely that they’d take heed of a sanctimonious scolding from some eavesdropping mature student anyway, but as long as men like me are too meek and cowardly to speak out against this kind of shit, it will not stop happening.

When men, as a collective group, are criticised over stuff like this, it’s inevitable that some will react with that familiar shrill, overly defensive cry of “NOT ALL MEN!” – as though a perceived unfair generalisation is the real issue here. But until all men – or even just most men – are prepared to actively challenge this poisonous, dehumanising culture when we see it among our peers or colleagues, we will continue to be part of the problem.

Gender Quotas: Making Irish Politics slightly less awful

In July 2013, when the government was debating the highly restrictive Protection of Life during Pregnancy legislation, Tom Barry, a Fine Gael backbencher, grabbed his party colleague, Aine Collins, on to his lap. Her only ‘crime’ was being both proximate and a woman. Simon Coveney was standing nearby, but it’s no coincidence that the minister for agriculture didn’t find himself forced to sit on Barry’s lap. Collins very clearly put up a struggle; the type of struggle you might put up if you wanted a desperately uncomfortable and embarrassing situation to end, but also really didn’t want to risk drawing more attention onto yourself. After being held there against her will for six or seven very uncomfortable seconds, she eventually wriggled free. Live footage of the incident was captured from the Oireachtas website and almost immediately found its way onto YouTube. Inevitably, owing to people’s utter lack of imagination when naming political controversies, it became known as ‘Lapgate’ and went viral, creating headlines all over the world and taking attention away from the important issue of pregnant women’s right to bodily autonomy. A nation collectively cringed. And not for the first time either.

If I got my kicks out of drunkenly groping female waiting staff and forcing them to sit on my lap, I would almost certainly find myself ejected from pubs on a regular basis. No respectable establishment would expect their staff to endure that kind of sordid behaviour in the workplace. However, if I was a TD and did it to a female colleague in the Dáil chamber, a smarmy little non-apology ‘for any hurt and offence my actions may have caused’ would no doubt suffice. Maybe I could throw in a half-arsed offer of resignation too, safe in the knowledge that ‘the lads’ up in party headquarters wouldn’t accept it. Sure, it’s only a silly bit of auld horseplay anyway… it’ll all blow over.

Tom Barry, along with many other TDs, had been drinking that night. How heavily is unclear, but the incident resulted in questions being raised about the appropriateness of TDs drinking in a state-subsidised bar while conducting important Dáil business. Valid questions, no doubt, but they were the wrong questions at the wrong time. ‘Lapgate’ wasn’t about drink. Whether Barry was slightly merry, half-cut or absolutely shit-faced is irrelevant; the vast, vast majority of men, no matter how drunk they might be, do not feel entitled to grab passing women for a bit of non-consensual ‘horseplay’. Barry’s actions – and the failure of the men standing near him to intervene – could only happen within an environment where women are vastly outnumbered and are not taken seriously. Incidentally, Tom Barry voted in favour of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy bill, but only after double-checking with the Catholic hierarchy that he wouldn’t be excommunicated for doing so.

There have been various other incidents over the years that point towards the Dáil being little more than a boys’ club where the presence of women is more tolerated than encouraged. It’s nice that they’re there and everything, but the important business of running the country is something that should be left to the over-confident middle-aged male teachers, farmers, auctioneers and publicans, with their smart suits, comb-overs and general sense of entitlement. In 1992, Albert Reynolds, then Taoiseach, attempted to brush off a question from Fine Gael TD Nora Owen by dismissively throwing his eyes up to heaven and saying, ‘That’s women for you…’. He was asked to apologise and retract his remarks, but refused. And that was the end of it.

More recently, in 2010, Brian Cowen responded to a question from Joan Burton by politely asking Eamon Gilmore if he could possibly ‘try and rein her in now and again’. That Cowen saw fit to immediately apologise suggests that at least some progress had been made in the intervening years. Just not enough.

In July 2012, the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill, requiring all political parties to ensure that at least 30 per cent of their candidates are female, was passed by both houses of the Oireachtas. Any party that fails to meet the 30 per cent quota will lose 50 per cent of its state funding. Threatening the parties with the loss of state funding is a sensible idea, for two reasons: Firstly, should a party (for whatever strange reason) opt not to run any female candidates at all, there is no legal obstacle preventing them from doing so. The punishment is purely financial. Secondly, if the parties are being funded by the public, then it is hardly unreasonable to expect the candidates they put forward to be adequately representative of those who have no choice but to pay for them.

Much of the opposition to gender quotas stems from the worthy idea that politics should be about merit. This presupposes not only that Irish politics is already a meritocracy, but also that men are inherently more suited to the task. If it has always been solely about merit, it automatically follows that every person selected to run for the Dáil has got there as a result of being the best person for the job. Which implies that men are, in 84% of cases, more adept at fixing potholes, helping out with late passport applications, and voting in accordance with the wishes of the party whip (as long as the Catholic hierarchy is cool with it, obviously). And what a marvellous job they’ve done too, apart from that whole unfortunate ‘destroying the entire economy’ incident that resulted in the country losing its economic sovereignty. But maybe it’s time for a national parliament that more accurately reflects those whom it is supposed to represent.

The idea that Irish politics is based solely on merit becomes even more laughable when you consider the sheer number of TDs, past and present, male and female, who effectively inherited their seats from dead or retiring family members. When Henry Kenny died in 1975, his son, a 24-year-old recently qualified primary school teacher, was not selected to run for the Dáil because Fine Gael recognised whatever qualities would inexplicably result in him becoming Taoiseach almost four decades later. Nor was he selected because of his cool hairstyle. Fine Gael selected him because they knew that the tried and tested method of holding onto a dead TD’s seat involved cashing in on a mixture of sympathy votes and name recognition. Although the hair can’t have done him any harm.

Fianna Fail members have been most vociferous in their condemnation of quotas, with one Longford councillor earnestly comparing the plight of male candidates with Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid:

Meanwhile, a failed candidate in Dublin has got himself all lawyered up in his brave fight for his right to party (a right, lest we forget, for which the Beastie Boys fought and died). Brian Mohan, who failed to win a seat on Dublin City Council in 2014, and was prevented from putting his name forward in the Dublin Central constituency for the forthcoming general election, claims that quotas based on age, gender, race or religion amount to ‘political discrimination’ and are therefore unconstitutional. Mohan joins a long list of men who suddenly start caring about inequality when they perceive themselves to be on the wrong side of it. He’s being represented by the former justice minister and attorney general Michael McDowell and has the support of Bertie Ahern, who described gender quotas as ‘zany’ and ‘mad’. Ahern believes that ‘the person who works their way through the system, and through their party branch’ should be chosen first. He fails to recognise that if ‘de system’ he adores didn’t encourage entitled male wannabes to view a career in politics as their automatic right, there would be no need for gender quotas at all.

As far as the electorate is concerned, voting for women, whenever parties choose to put them forward, is simply not a problem. For example, in the 2011 General Election, an unprecedented twenty-four candidates ran in the Wicklow/East Carlow constituency. Remarkably, on the longest ballot sheet in the country, in a relatively liberal constituency, just two of those listed were women. Between them, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein all failed to provide even one female candidate. Of Labour’s three candidates, just one (Anne Ferris) was a woman. And she was comfortably elected. Furthermore, in the 2014 European Parliament elections, we elected six women and five men as our MEPs. If the parties gave us the opportunity, there is no reason why we couldn’t also achieve parity between men and women in the Dáil.

Gender quotas aren’t perfect. They are a crude and awkward method of correcting a very real problem. However, those who oppose them offer no realistic alternatives. It seems that they’d prefer to just sit back and wait for the problem to rectify itself. Or better still – pretend that it’s not a problem at all. Quotas, for all the toys that have been thrown from prams, will inevitably result in an increase in female representation in the Dáil. Perhaps this will result in incidents like ‘Lapgate’ becoming a thing of the past. More importantly, maybe it will also result in decisions that affect the rights of women being decided upon by a parliament that isn’t dominated by men.

Why Stephen Fry is wrong about God

stephenfrygodIn a recent RTE interview, Stephen Fry said that God, if he exists (which he doesn’t), is a total bollocks. How, for example, could an all-powerful and benevolent creator possibly tolerate the existence of childhood illnesses, or a parasite that cannot survive without burrowing through a child’s eye? Nothing particularly new or original there, but Fry’s comments went viral, and have now been watched by at least seven billion people on YouTube. Understandably, religious commentators have been queuing up to tell us why Fry is wrong, and how God is actually really nice.

Having worshipped Stephen Fry for as long as I can remember, it feels almost blasphemous to question his infallibility, but I think he’s wrong. It’s not fair to suggest that God, if he exists (which he doesn’t), is responsible for all the pain and suffering in the world. He’s far too busy waging a daily war of minor inconvenience against me. He simply doesn’t have time to even think about preventing terrible events elsewhere. Making my life a misery is a full-time job.

Just yesterday, while enjoying a nice cup of tea, I felt a sudden urge to sneeze. I didn’t have time to swallow it, so a great big mouthful of tea went everywhere – all over my jumper, my laptop, the carpet and even the wall. And then I started choking on the small amount of tea that hadn’t just redecorated my room. It was my first and only sneeze of the day. And it was also my only cup of tea. It is obvious that these two events couldn’t possibly have coincided by some unhappy accident. The only rational explanation is that God, if he exists (which he doesn’t), decided to have a laugh at my expense.

I’m sure you think I’m just being paranoid. Everybody thinks I’m paranoid. They don’t say it, but I know it’s what they’re thinking. I’m not being paranoid (so stop calling me paranoid). These little things happen all the time. Last Friday, I was waiting for an important parcel to be delivered. I decided to have a quick shower when – lo and behold – just as I was all lathered-up (go on, let that mental image seep in…) the doorbell rang. I jumped out of the shower, hastily threw some clothes on and ran down the stairs, still soaking wet and covered in suds. When I opened the door, it wasn’t the courier at all. It was just some pensioner selling tickets for a charity raffle. I didn’t bother buying a ticket because I know God, if he exists (which he doesn’t), would never allow me the pleasure of winning anything. I’ve never won anything in my whole life. How much more proof of God’s malevolence do you need?

A religious person might suggest that, far from being the work of a mischievous God, my catalogue of everyday disasters is all part of some higher plan. Of course, I’m far too humble to suggest that God has a special plan for me alone, or that I’m perhaps some sort of messiah. I’m not suggesting that at all, but it’s definitely worth thinking about…

Originally published in the University Observer (18th February 2015)

Tragedy and the Irish Media

When you think of the media intruding into people’s private grief, what’s the first image that comes into your mind? Perhaps it’s that of a sordid little tabloid journalist in the UK intercepting voicemail messages from the phone of a dead child. Ok, that’s an extreme example, and one that will hopefully never happen again, but what about the behaviour of the media closer to home? Is the Irish media a paragon of sensitivity when dealing with the recently bereaved?

In the distant past, newspapers would send whichever unfortunate reporter drew the shortest straw to politely and sensitively request a relatively recent photograph of the victim of a fatal road accident. It was undoubtedly an intrusive act, but at least the family had the right to refuse. At least the journalist had to experience the discomfort of staring a real human being in the eye while intruding upon their darkest moment. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, this little act of courtesy is no longer necessary.

When the death of a young person makes it into a newspaper, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll publish a number of images alongside the story. Below the images, the credit will usually be given to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. This means that newspapers have actually asked their staff to stalk a dead person’s social media accounts and then steal their photographs. Those pictures might technically be in the public domain, but in what universe could that kind of creepy behaviour possibly be considered morally acceptable?

The intrusion doesn’t end there. More often than not, the paper will subsequently feature a story about the funeral. They might even allude to the fact that the family appealed for privacy, but this won’t stop them from publishing a few long-lens funeral shots. It doesn’t count as intrusion if the photographer isn’t caught. Bonus points if someone happens to be wiping away a tear at the time.

When reporting on the details of a high-profile murder trial, it can be almost impossible for the press to remain entirely sensitive towards the wishes of the victim’s family. In many cases, the jury will hear very intimate and sometimes embarrassing details of the victim’s private life. If those details are aired in an open court, the press has not only a right, but also a duty to report them. You can’t omit important facts altogether on the grounds that they might make for uncomfortable or embarrassing reading, or even because they’ll tarnish people’s memories of the person for whom justice is being sought.

Of course, this shouldn’t give anyone the right to use a personal tragedy for the purpose of selling newspapers. However, far too often, highly sensitive details of a murder victim’s private life are splashed across the front pages of the tabloids, delivered in the most sensational manner possible. This might be done under the guise of court reporting, but the commercial motives behind it are obvious. Sex sells.

We can’t blame the media alone. They’re merely serving up what the public want. And sadly, there are a lot of people out there who like nothing more than to be fed a diet of other people’s misery. It seems very unfair when the victim was just a normal person and not some celebrity. They didn’t willfully enter into a world where every facet of their private life would be posthumously pored over and speculated on by ghouls who think they’re watching a real-life soap opera.

It’s not just the tabloids. Even RTE News, our most acceptable face of journalistic acceptability, is regularly guilty of gross insensitivity, as they attempt to squeeze as much of a ‘human interest angle’ as they possibly can from tragic incidents. Whenever someone dies in a manner deemed newsworthy, rather than simply reporting on the factual aspects of their death, RTE will always send a reporter into the community, just to gauge how shocked everybody is. Very shocked, usually. But there will never be any shortage of people who aren’t too shocked to tell the whole country just how shocked they are.

A few months ago, a man in County Cork killed his wife, seriously injured his daughter and then took his own life. Nobody could argue that this wasn’t worthy of being the main story on the Six-One News that night. However, the bulk of RTE’s coverage of the tragedy consisted of bewildered locals, including a priest, a nun and a Sinn Fein councillor, all telling a reporter that the whole town was ‘numb with shock’. Considering the very personal and tragic nature of that particular incident, it’s hardly unreasonable to expect that a family’s right to privacy might be considered more important than some local busybody’s urge to insert their own irrelevant feelings into the narrative.

Despite adding nothing worthwhile to our understanding of events, this kind of vacuous journalism has become an indispensible trope of television news production in Ireland. Footage will invariably begin with shots of crime scene tape around a house, the state pathologist entering a forensic tent, locals huddled together in disbelief, and a child handing flowers to the obligatory stony-faced Garda on duty. And finally we have the interviews outside mass. Remove all these clichés and RTE might have no choice but to devote more time and resources to the pertinent question of whether there might possibly be some kind of link between such tragedies and decades of chronic underfunding in the mental health sector.

The press in Ireland might be more humane and less aggressive than elsewhere, but perhaps it’s time to reevaluate what is and isn’t acceptable when reporting tragedy. Perhaps it’s also time to stop confusing ‘the public interest’ with what the public happens to be morbidly interested in. Being only slightly morally superior to the likes of the News of the World should never be something to boast about.

Originally published in the University Observer (18th February 2015) 

Ian O’Doherty…

When writing about the likes of Ian O’Doherty, you run the risk of falling into a couple of traps. Firstly, you’ll be accused of becoming as much of a cliché as O’Doherty himself.

“Oh, there you are again,” the Reader will say, “getting yourself into a tizzy over the oh-so-controversial and anti-PC opinions he gets inexplicably paid to churn out every day. Why even read it? Are you suddenly expecting him to write something insightful and worthwhile?”

Well, dear Reader, I am not “in a tizzy,” as you so irritatingly put it. I’m merely a little disturbed by the content of today’s diatribe. You see, IO’D (as we’ll call him from now on) seems to have some very odd views on men’s behaviour towards women.

“And you’re shocked about that? The guy’s a massive racist, a homophobe and a climate change denier. He seems like the kind of chap who’d struggle to walk past a homeless person without feeling the urge to kick them. Ignore him – He’s just a poor man’s Jeremy Clarkson – and Clarkson’s just a poor man’s P.J. O’Rourke. Are you seriously pretending to be surprised that he has a funny attitude towards women?”

Look, you’re starting to piss me off now…

“Thought you said you weren’t in a tizzy!”

Reader, please… can I just continue with this blog entry?

“Go on then, fire away, if you’ve nothing better to do with your time than pay attention to an attention-seeking ignoramus, who thinks that straight, white men are the most discriminated-against members of society.”

I actually have lots of other things I could be doing, but thank you, Reader, for bringing me straight to the point of this blog. IO’D, like so many of his ilk, genuinely seems to believe that being a straight, white man is really difficult. He’s the kind of person who’ll always seek to downplay all instances or allegations of homophobia, racism or sexism… Unless, of course, he feels that white, straight males are on the receiving end of discrimination. In his eyes, perceived discrimination against the white, straight male is the very worst thought-crime of all.

Maybe IO’D is just really unhappy and should be pitied. Like many of those who claim that us white, heterosexual men are the most oppressed group on earth, my own life has yet to really work out as I might have ideally liked. But that’s kind of my own fault, with maybe the odd dash of bad luck thrown in for good measure. I’m not about to start blaming the ‘feminazis’ for my own shortcomings.

“I have to admit, It is a testament to our inherent strength and indefatigable resilience that the white, straight male has overcome centuries of misandry, heterophobia and anti-white racism, to become the most dominant group in almost every facet of public life.”

Quite, Reader, quite. I don’t know how we do it sometimes, I really don’t. This week, IO’D is really annoyed (in a bit of a tizzy, even) that a handful of universities in the UK are launching compulsory ‘Sexual Consent Workshops’ for male students. He thinks it’s patronising and demeaning.

“I must admit, I’d find it a bit patronising, being forced to listen to someone explain what I already know…”

Yes, dear Reader, but you aren’t a clueless seventeen-year-old undergraduate, fresh out of secondary school, having received only the most rudimentary sex education, most of which involved being told to stop sniggering whenever the word ‘vagina’ was uttered. The workshops are aimed towards educating those who might not fully understand the concepts of consent and boundaries. To take full effect, they really need to be compulsory.

In his poorly-written rant, probably shat out, after-hours, in some hovel of a bar, through a haze of cigarette smoke, and with the stench of beer leaking from his pores, IO’D has adopted his usual tactic of setting up a straw man – in this case, the nasty ‘feminazis’ set up those workshops because they believe all men are potential rapists.

“By portraying him as a barely literate, chain-smoking drunk, aren’t you also engaging in ‘straw man’ tactics?”

I suppose I am, yes. Thank you, reader, for bringing that to my attention. Let’s just imagine that IO’D was sitting in a luxurious leather chair, in his own personal library, surrounded by some of the world’s most profound literature and listening to Verdi’s Rigoletto, through a pleasant haze of sweet pipe smoke… when he described ‘lad culture’ and ‘unwanted sexual advances’ as ‘essentially harmless behavioural traits’.

“Wait, he actually said that? Seriously?”

Yes, Reader, I’m afraid so.

“What a cunt”

No, you’re not supposed to call him that. He’ll only get all self-satisfied and accuse you of proving some point he was making in one of his other columns.

“What point? That he’s a cunt?”

Um, yeah, I suppose…

Review: Acer C720 Chromebook

I recently decided to replace my unreliable, heavy and cumbersome laptop – with something reliable, light and portable. After initially setting my sights on a MacBook Air, and then spending several days ogling them on Apple’s website, I did a few sums in my head and realised that I didn’t have a spare €1,000 lying around. This laptop would have to be cheap. Dirt cheap, actually, as a few more sums revealed that even €250 would be a bit of a stretch.

I’ve often seen relatively well-equipped laptops, advertised in shops as “Ideal for Facebook!” – as though sharing photos of your dinner, or telling people that you’ve just been to the bathroom represents the pinnacle of an expensive machine’s potential. It’s like advertising a Ferrari as “Ideal for popping down to Tesco!” Or an 84-inch Ultra High Definition Smart TV as “Perfect for the Emmerdale Omnibus!” Oh Icarus, fly not so near the sun, lest thy waxen wings doth melt.

While I loftily sneer at people who use Facebook (which is pretty much everyone, except me… and probably my 85-year-old granny), my own laptop needs are far more basic than I’d ever care to admit. I rarely have reason to use any programme other than Chrome or Word, I don’t play games (because I’m an adult) and I can’t remember the last time I edited an image with anything more complicated than Microsoft Paint. Even if I could somehow scrape the money together, could I really justify buying an unnecessarily powerful machine?


I eventually settled on an Acer C720 Chromebook. At €229 in Currys/PC World, it was well within my modest price range. In addition to being affordable, it’s extremely quick and has a battery lifespan of over eight-and-a-half hours. Which is almost eight-and-a-half hours longer than my Windows laptop. By using Google’s Chrome browser as an operating system, and relying entirely on free online apps, including Google Docs, rather than Microsoft’s expensive and resource-hogging software, the Chromebook is so much faster and more responsive than the average Windows laptop. It’s also ridiculously easy to use. If you’re over 40, you won’t even need to ask a child to show you how to use it.

Upon switching the Chromebook on for the first time, I was greeted by an audible silence. Which wasn’t very audible at all, what with being silent and everything. Indeed, like all silences, it was actually completely silent. However, for the purpose of illustrating just how silent it was (no more silent than any other silence), let’s just pretend that it was so silent that the aforementioned silence was audible and could therefore be heard for miles. Yes, it was so quiet that if you had a pin, dropped it and then listened really carefully, you could actually hear the noise it made as it collided with a solid wooden floor. This might also work with linoleum, laminate flooring, concrete or tiles, but not so much with carpet. The point I’m trying to make here, somewhat laboriously, is that the Acer C720 is a very quiet machine. Silent, actually. In stark contrast with my previous laptop, there is no whirring fan-noise and no overheating.

The inbuilt speakers are, in a word, terrible. They are more tinny than a massive tin full of tins at the bottom of a tin mine. The sound quality is only marginally less infuriating than that of a teenager upstairs on the 46A, blasting out his favourite tunes on his phone. But forget about all that. The Acer C720 doesn’t pretend to be a multimedia machine. And who plays music through the speakers on their laptop anyway? They’re always terrible.

Thankfully, there is a headphone jack – although it is as tight as an unnecessarily crude simile. It’s a minor design flaw on an otherwise well-built laptop, but it makes an ordinarily simple task far more stressful than it ever should be. If you’re using those ludicrously expensive ‘Beats By Dr Dre’ headphones, you’ll need to be really careful not to break them when unplugging. Incidentally, you might also want to take a long look at yourself…

If, like me, you’re a bit of a fat-handed twat, you’ll find the keyboard slightly awkward at first. It isn’t quite full-sized, and there isn’t a lot of key travel, so you’ll probably find yourself making lots and lots of ty[od typos until you get used to it. But you will get used to it – and every other computer will seem massive afterwards.

The Acer C720 isn’t for everyone. It looks nowhere near as impressive or as flashy as a MacBook, the keyboard is tiny and you’re limited to whatever apps are available in the Chrome Web Store – which means it doesn’t support Skype. But if you just need an inexpensive, portable, no-nonsense laptop for basic web surfing and word processing, it’s ideal. “Ideal for Facebook!” even…

Mother’s Day

Two years have passed since my mother died. This time around, her anniversary has fallen on the eve of Mother’s Day – a fact that sounds really nice and symbolic, but kind of isn’t. It’s quite convenient that her anniversary mass coincides with Mother’s Day itself, simply because it neatly condenses two sad occasions into one, but it doesn’t really make it more sad or poignant than if it fell on, for instance, Good Friday, as it did last year.

Grief hasn’t been what I expected. It hasn’t started to abate, as I had naively thought it would, with the passage of time. Those moments of total bereavement are no less intense or unbearable now than they were two years ago. Contrary to what I had previously assumed, grief isn’t this safe, predictable, linear process that starts off terrible and then eventually fades away. For me, it comes in waves, sometimes when I least expect it – when a random memory pops into my head for no discernible reason at all, or when I stumble across some new television series or film that I just know Mum would have loved. Other times, I find myself actively seeking it out, like some kind of weird mourning-masochist, tearfully thumbing through old photo albums and immersing myself in memories of an idyllic childhood.

Mum was usually the one holding the camera, so we don’t have that many photos of her. Unless, of course, you count the ones where her finger was covering the lens (she was, by her own admission, never a great photographer). We have a couple of videos of childhood birthday parties, but I can’t bring myself to watch them just yet. Photographs are one thing, but actually hearing her voice (particularly her legendary rendition of the ‘Hokey Pokey’) is probably a step too far right now. Still, it’s an incredibly nice thing to have.

Faced with the likelihood that nobody else is ever again going to offer me that same unconditional love – the type that you can only get from your mother – I feel helpless, like a scared, lost child. In a strange way, it’s like a magnified version of that ‘first-day-at-school’ feeling. Instead of clinging onto her leg, whinging and begging her not to leave me in this strange, scary place, surrounded by other children also whinging, begging and clinging onto their mothers’ legs, I find myself hopelessly, powerlessly and – let’s be totally honest here – quite selfishly and pathetically wishing that I could go back in time and maybe even make her proud. A world without her feels like a strange, scary place.

My mum was a kind, warm, gentle soul, who trod cheerfully through a life that wasn’t always very kind to her. She lost her own mother when she was sixteen, and her father when she was twenty-two. She endured an unfair amount of rotten luck throughout her life, especially in her final years as her health began to deteriorate, but whenever anything went wrong, she had an amazing ability to just pick herself up and carry on. Her stoicism was extraordinary – and her ability to tolerate physical pain was bordering on superhuman, and probably quite dangerous. She once reacted to a minor heart-attack by taking two Nurofen, before eventually going to the doctor… three whole days later.

It’s something of a cliché, when a person dies from cancer, to say that their illness was ‘borne bravely’. In my mother’s case, it couldn’t have been more true. Terminally ill at the age of only fifty-eight, she had every right to be angry about her situation. But she had no time for that kind of carry-on. Even throughout her month in Blackrock Hospice, she remained determined to extract as much fun and enjoyment from life as she possibly could. She was obviously scared of what was happening, but she hid it well, always showing more concern for everybody else than for herself. Always apologising for something that was completely beyond her control. She had an ability to accumulate friends wherever she went, and had so many visitors that the hospice staff were genuinely worried about crowd-control. I hope so much that she knew how many people loved her.

I wish she was still here.

Marriage Equality and the Religious Right

I’m in two minds about the forthcoming referendum on same-sex marriage. Obviously, like any decent person, I hope it’ll be passed with a healthy majority, but I never feel very comfortable about being given the chance to decide what rights other people should have. It would be a bit like being given the chance to cast my ballot in the recent Austrian general election… I obviously wouldn’t have been very happy if the so-called “Freedom Party” got into power, but I don’t live there and the result of foreign elections doesn’t affect me. Anyway, when has a far-right Austrian ever done any harm, eh?

Scarcely a week passes without a representative of the Catholic Church, or one of their creepy apologists from the Iona Institute or – worse still – Youth Defence, being invited onto the airwaves to voice their opposition to how other people live their lives. They go to great lengths to pretend that their pathetically shallow arguments about same-sex marriage aren’t based solely upon their religious beliefs, but many of these people are the very same sort of extremists who, just two decades ago, would have protested with the very same level of ferocity against the legalisation of homosexuality itself. And not long before that, they and their ilk devoted much of their energy to protesting against contraception. Put simply, they are obsessed with what other people do with their private lives – especially if it involves their private parts.

The most sickening thing about the Catholic Church, and the various useful idiots who speak on their behalf, is their insistence on framing their opposition to marriage equality around the idea that all children should have both a male and a female parent. This, let’s not forget, is an organisation that presided over the rape and torture of thousands of children, and then spent many subsequent years covering it all up, while continually moving paedophile priests from parish to parish. They don’t give a damn about children, and to see them pretend otherwise is vomit-inducing.

Another well-worn – and well-defeated – argument is that the inability of gay couples to procreate should bar them from marrying. But if marriage is primarily about procreation, shouldn’t those on the religious right also seek to exclude heterosexual couples with fertility problems? Perhaps even put an age-limit on marriage. If a woman passes childbearing age without getting married, then it’s the spinster’s life for her. Far from opposing the redefinition of marriage, these people seem to be advocating it.

When all other arguments fail (and they usually do), you can always rely on a good old “slippery slope” fallacy: Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman. If you redefine it to include same-sex couples, aren’t you effectively opening the doors to polygamy? Perhaps people should be allowed to marry their pets too? Well, around a century ago, you almost certainly would have heard similarly illogical and idiotic arguments from those opposed to female suffrage: “Well, if you’re going to allow women to vote, aren’t you effectively also extending the franchise to children? Perhaps hamsters should be allowed to vote too.”

It is no coincidence that those who claim to worry about marriage being redefined, or about the importance of children having a male and female parent, are with very few exceptions, the very same people who also just happen to believe that homosexuality is a sin. I’m not suggesting that they aren’t fully entitled to believe that gay people are, in the words of the Westboro Baptist Church, gonna split hell wide open. But their deeply-held religious bigotry should be entirely a matter for themselves and their imaginary god. They need to start being honest (not least because lying is a great big dirty sin). They should stop pretending that their irrational opposition to giving equal rights to gay people is based around anything other than their disapproval of “what they do”. And they really shouldn’t expect any sensible or rational person to have an ounce of respect for their opinions.

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