“The Irish In Me”

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 5 2014 @ 8:28pm

A reader writes:

I think there is something very important that gets glancing attention in your post on the Irish 800. And that is, there must have been many who knew about it.

Of course many knew about it. There is complicity by the population as a whole and it isn’t just Catholicism. Mind you now, I love the Irish. I’ve Irish in me. I say this being an American woman, talking to Irish women, knowing Irish women, observing, but from my very distant culture. There have been small Tuam Crosschanges in Ireland in the last 30 years, but … there is a place women must know, and it’s weird. It is far different than an American woman’s place.

In the 1990s, the 90s, for God’s sake, a proper woman wouldn’t order a pint in a pub, or sit in a pub itself. She sat in the snug and ordered a “glass”. So when I came there, I did it too. You wouldn’t look a strange man in the eye, or say hello on the street. That was for the man beside you to do. Friendly yes, extremely friendly. But never between the sexes. Strangers on the street, men, would do this weird little head tip to each other, and you would trot beside your own man, unnoticed, no “How are yeh.” At first visit, when I saw the head tip, I did it too, thinking I was being friendly, like we do back in the States–our two finger wave above the steering wheel on the two lane highways out here. I got caught doing the head tip by my male companion and it was like I was some upper class kid trying to throw up a gang sign in the poor part of town. “What the hell are you doing?” Understand that in my part of the Midwest, you just looked everyone in the eye and there just wasn’t this thing about being a woman. Just not. Looking people in the eye smiling and saying hi here is being polite, not stuck up. And there has never been some weird part of the bar that was the only place girls could go to, and only order a girl drink.

In Ireland, if you didn’t comply with these little norms, you were a slut. Or certainly an embarrassment.

Has Ireland changed? A bit.

However, in the year 2012, I visited relatives in rural western Ireland whose teenage daughter got pregnant. She wasn’t shipped off, she stayed home, had the baby. I came for tea. We talked of everything, but the baby. The baby sat in the room, and no one remarked about it. It was as if there was some creature making a bothersome noise, like an errant animal, and NO ONE TALKED ABOUT HOW THAT CREATURE GOT THERE.

I think about that poor girl, pregnant at 14, who in her tiny village would have had no access to contraception and very little sense of birth control. To get birth control would be to find someone to give you a lift 5 hours away, to Galway City. The likelihood of a girl like that being able to get away, to travel that far, just to do that, get birth control…well it just would never happen. I presume there was a boy involved, no one said anything. Dun da bheal. Shut yer mouth. She will never live it down. Never. Her life is over in that village. She will have to leave in order to have a decent life. Anytime she comes home for a visit, the talk will start up.

My husband used to fantasize from time to time about moving to Ireland and I just couldn’t. I have a daughter. The very thought just made by chest tighten with anxiety. I find that environment terrifying. There isn’t the equivalent, even if you are Catholic, in the States. There is somewhere to go. You have options. You can get contraception. People will acknowledge there is a baby, if you do get pregnant. Your life is not over. It isn’t Catholicism. It is dun da bheal.

The children of the slatterns, those 800, well that was dun da bheal as well. The cruelty of it is astonishing, because honestly, the Irish LOVE children, they dote on mine when we go over. But the 800, they were evidence of a great damning shame. They were the mewling creature in the room that one should just not notice.