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Burning bras and popping pills

March 18, 2018



The biggest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.


(Daniel J Boostin)




He rolled his eyes up to heaven, sniggered before declaring “I think it’s all a bit of jiggery pokery, there is no scientific evidence to support it”.


He, being an expert — a doctor.


Allow me to rewind.


My daughter’s face was swelling and, her breathing severely disrupted when she was asleep. Having already brought her to said doctor to assist me in getting to the root of the problem—he brushed me off, implying I was an attention seeking mammy. The above statement was his subsequent reaction to my telling him I had found a resolution to her issue.


At my wits end, I had attended a talk by a visiting American nutritionist. When she concluded, I approached her—telling her about my daughter’s symptoms. She suggested removing all dairy from her diet, wrote down a list of recommended reading for me and off I went.


Two and half weeks later, the swelling completely disappeared and her breathing improved.


Five years after this conversation with the doctor, I had occasion to return to the surgery. On the walls of the waiting room were posters advising parents to watch out for these symptoms, it could mean your child is lactose intolerant.


The day I attended the talk by the nutritionist, was the day my interest in food as medicine, as a healing substance, began. It led me to learn about the power of herbs, oils and the psychology of smell. Over the years, this interest led me to reflexology, acupuncture and reiki.


Approximately a third of the way through this journey of mine, a new documentary was released on Channel Four, filmed entirely in black and white—a film about end of life care on a hospital floor dedicated to cancer patients. It was one of the most honest, moving and spiritually uplifting documentaries (only surpassed by Alan Gilsenan’s The Hospice, 2007), I have ever seen.


One of the consultants at a patient care meeting said that chemotherapy extended life—but at a cost—one he felt was too high when the benefits were greater for the scientific research community.


His profound compassion and honesty stayed me. One I can say, hand on heart, I have rarely encountered in Ireland.




I have the wit to know that this is my experience—one that does not automatically translate to universal truth.




Following a termination resulting from rape, I was prescribed psychiatric medication—used to treat major depressive disorders and bipolar. I had to keep my mouth shut about the rape, because the stigma of being ‘used goods’ was beyond that which I could cope with—for a second time, and his status in academia guaranteed he would be believed over me.


I welcomed the psychiatric prescription.


In the late nineties, I watched a programme about women in the North of Ireland. The support networks they formed. The women who helped teenage mothers go back to education. The women who grew cottage industries to help feed their families. Women who never knew if their husband, partner, boyfriend would walk through the door again. The women who held support group meetings in their kitchens for women drowning in the psychological impact of rape and illegal abortions—whose traumas were sent to the back of the list because of the ‘troubles’ —who were told that the ‘situation’ endured by people living on both sides of the divide, should be enough to put perspective on their ‘whinging’.


Those women welcomed psychiatric prescriptions.


In the early 2000’s I watched a documentary about the treatment of women by priests in Ireland. I remember watching a woman sitting on a bench on some pier. She appeared almost dazed as she spoke. After giving birth to her fourth child, she developed urinary incontinence, which caused her unimaginable distress—her thinking was that having a fifth child would worsen the affliction, so being a woman of profound faith, went to her parish priest (another declared expert) to discuss taking the contraceptive pill. I still remember her speaking his words,


“Child, the good Lord wouldn’t give you a cross to bear if he thought you couldn’t carry it. Suffer now and the riches of heaven are yours in the next life”.


She welcomed a psychiatric prescription.


As I listened to a woman from the Mincéir community talking about her children waking up at night because they could hear the rats at the rubbish—rubbish the county council wouldn’t collect, I tried as a mother to imagine what that felt like—I couldn’t. When I heard the same woman talking about how afraid she was that one of her babies would get sick because the ambulance service wouldn’t go near the halting site she was on, I tried as a mother to imagine what that felt like—and I was angered.


She welcomed a psychiatric prescription.


As I read about Ms. Y, an asylum seeker who had come to this country seeking shelter from war discovering she was pregnant resulting from being raped as she fled her homeland—it was so easy for me to slip back to remembering. A woman forced to continue with her pregnancy, became suicidal.


I do not know—but I suspect, she too may have, albeit briefly, welcomed a psychiatric prescription.



The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.

(Coco Chanel)




In 2013, walking down Grafton Street after work, I heard a commotion before spotting a crowd gathering on the corner. As I drew closer I saw a man, maybe in his early forties, standing on top of a silver coloured box, approximately five foot in height, one that looked like it housed electricity. He was in full flow, screaming about how corrupt Ireland was. Some of the crowd was shuffling from one foot to another, others were giggling.


He was in the middle of a manic episode—not drunk or high as some of the spectators were saying.


“You mark my words, friends, you mark my words, the charity sector is robbing you fucking blind…you wait…you wait…you’ll see…they are going to be outed”


The crowd began to heckle him—some nasty comments now being spat at him.


I pushed through the crowd, stood in front of him and raised my hand, gesturing to him to high five me. He hesitated before realising I was not making a joke of him—then said “you know I’m right don’t ya? You hear me, don’t ya?”


An ambulance pulled up and three paramedics approached, taking him away.


One month later, almost to the day—the Irish Charities Scandal broke.


This man was my first thought.


This man was my first thought when, later, I saw Angela Kerins sit before the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee. My second thought was remembering how good she was to work with. A driven, ambitious and fair woman—working in an industry whose environment screams that women are the minders, the care givers and men determine policy and make the decisions. From my days working with those who live with varying degrees of intellectual disabilities; where I saw tired women, caring, fundraising and living with broken marriages, whose husbands left, unable to cope with the stress. (Women who also often welcomed a psychiatric prescription)—I am of the opinion, such an environment produces extra weight on female leadership.


As they continued to grill Angela Kerins with an unprofessional viciousness—I recalled how Patrick Neary’s utter incompetence was rewarded by a gratuity of €650,000 and a pension of €119,000 a year and faced no legal or professional sanctions.



And yet still, men face few consequences for their actions.


Despite allegations that the Gardai in Wexford knew of Bill Kenneally’s abuse in 1979, a call for a public enquiry is not forthcoming from elected representatives.


Despite Gemma Doherty’s award winning investigative documentary on missing child Mary Boyle and allegation of political interference in the investigation, a call for a public enquiry is not forthcoming from elected representatives.


Despite Gemma Doherty’s excellent investigative piece recently published in The Village, into allegations of sexual abuse by rugby coach (30 years in Terenure College, then head of sport, UCD), John McLean—there has been no outrage, no calling for a public enquiry as to why Detective Garda Tom Stack at Terenure Garda Station did not act on complaints made two decades ago.


Victims, now grown men, who continue to live with the impact of the abuse. Though I cannot say with confidence, only suspecting, a few welcomed psychiatric prescription.



Sometimes Dolores, sometimes you have to be a high riding bitch to survive; sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.


(Vera Donovan in Dolores Claiborne)




Patriarchy is more reflexive than strategic—a bold child reacting to being told to share its toys. And. Because it is never punished, has become increasingly volatile and dangerous.


The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have not only carved out a space for women to be public in their solidarity—it has demonstrated the patriarchy’s reflexiveness.


These movements have poked at the male psyche and it has made them uncomfortable—instead of checking their behaviour they’ve thrown tantrums—excluded women from conferences and commemorations—you can almost hear them say “ha, so there”


In the Good Friday Agreement, it is clearly stated


- the right of women to full and equal political participation


And furthermore,

  1. Pending the devolution of powers to a new Northern Ireland Assembly, the British Government will pursue broad policies for sustained economic growth and stability in Northern Ireland and for promoting social inclusion, including in particular community development and the advancement of women in public life.

(Source: Peace Accords Matrix, University of Notre Dame)


Yet, at a twenty year commemoration of the Good Friday Agreement this week, Leo Varadkar (the current unelected leader of Ireland) spoke to a room full of white middle-aged men.


(A man who has publicly demonstrated his misogyny, sexism and aversion to those who are not privileged. A man who apparently has not attended to his own afflictions; namely, infantile excitability and an increased blood flow to his penis when in the presence of pussy grabbers and film stars—causing excessive arrogance to the point that he believes it acceptable to declare his interference in the Irish planning process and then lie about it—while the entire world is watching).


He does not even qualify as a statesman. But, I have the wit to know, this is my opinion.


It took the Irish government eleven years to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities—then, to add insult to injury, omitted the protocol that gives people with disabilities a real chance to achieve their rights in cases where the government is failing them. The protocol allows groups or individuals to make complaints to the UN to ensure the government does what it says it will do.


In the absence of political leadership, they have to fight again. Fight to make those who are supposedly representing all citizens, accountable.


Meanwhile back in Boys Land, entitlement, like a weed, continues to secure its grip.


Citizens who are left on the street with no access to a home are demonized and ridiculed—yet money is found for hockey pitches and golf courses.


(as a throw away comment—in the late 1980s golf clubs in Dublin alone, received three point five times the money given to women’s shelters when the lottery profits were being allocated. It seems to me we are currently engaging in time travel).


We are scolded with kind words—told they are doing their best to reduce the list for children needing operations to treat Scoliosis—then book flights to the US, China, Italy, Israel, Palestine so Ministers can tell the world what a great little country Ireland is—equipped with shamrock and a leprechaun.


The weeds disappearing boundaries.


Arrogance being the order of the day and arrogance never listens nor does it promote progress.




Something’s, like, crossed over in me and I can’t go back.


(Thelma Dickinson in Thelma and Louise)




It was through reading Noam Chomsky that I began to understand that the national broadcasting station of any given country is an extension of the political classes' public relations unit, though it was not until I wrote my book A Holiday from My Head that I grasped the ability to separate individuals from the institution.


I was extremely isolated at the time and living with a high level of anxiety. Not paralysing, but enough for me to proceed with caution.


I needed feedback—something I had never done, something that demanded a mammoth serving of emotional energy from me, and didn’t know who to ask. So over several weeks’ deliberation, I selected three people to write to, asking if they were inclined or had the time.


I wrote to a journalist. A business man. A suicidologist.


Two responded. 


One is the reason I continued writing; with hope.



I watched the documentary Eavan Boland; Is It Still the Same? during the week. It was, for me at least, magic. I wanted more.


I wanted more—like needing water in the desert. I wanted more and I began wondering why, in a year that marks a hundred years of some women being allowed to vote why the national television broadcaster, RTE had not started the year with an onslaught of advertisements about all the new and old programmes celebrating women it was going to show. No announcement of a Women’s Season—maybe a slot of twelve weeks.


Maybe four talk programmes similar to After Dark—showing Margo Harkin’s work and an all women panel discussing it afterward. Talk show specials with women poets and writers performing and discussing their work. Women historians doing short documentaries about women during certain periods. Women from the Mincéir community, talking and sharing stories, without being framed by the settled community.


I thought about all the women who are housebound. I thought about all the women who are still sitting in their cardboard box of trauma—crippled with loneliness. I thought about all the women wheelchair bound who, even just thinking about navigating an unfriendly terrain to reach a venue to here women speak or perform is too much. I thought about the women in rural areas, looking after the farm who wouldn’t leave to see women, believing they had nothing in common.


Women who pay their TV license but don’t see themselves represented on the screen—without being filtered through the male lens.


I asked why the new children’s hospital wasn’t being named after Dr. Kathleen Lynn—who founded St. Ultan’s Children’s Hospital in 1919.


And as I thought about hospitals, I asked why, in 2018 Irish women still have to travel to England for reproductive health care. Why are women still carrying the weight of consequence on their shoulders. I asked why we are not trusted.


I thought about a woman called Miriam O’Callaghan reaching out to another woman. Me.


I thought about how considered and kind her feedback was on the book (my book) she had taken the time to read—how her words became a small fluffy cloud that I travelled on for nearly three years afterwards.


I thought about a young woman, sitting on a plane on her way back to Ireland, gripped with a paranoiac fear that the abortion didn’t really happen —people staring at her as she tried to calm herself down, crying, on the verge of hysterics, sitting in an aisle seat. The pain in her heart, real, wishing there was someone she could have reached out to.


But there wasn’t. So I popped pills instead.


And now.


Now I burn bras. I tell my story.


You don’t have to agree with my choice or any other woman’s.


Just take an emotional and spiritual leap and trust that she will make the best choice for herself, reach out to all the invisible women and vote to repeal the 8th amendment—it will make a difference.


We carry enough—individually and collectively.


We carry enough.



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