The woman who opened our eyes
Who are these people who attend charity balls? They must be peculiar creatures indeed, who squeeze themselves with nary a squirm of embarrassment into their obscenely expensive designer gowns and tuxedos, as they parade down the red carpets to do their bit for the less fortunate. What, if anything, goes through their minds as they sip champagne and nibble canapes in aid of the dying, the abused and the maimed, secure in the knowledge that these latter know their place and will never intrude to spoil the fun?
The charity balls are usually the major events in the social calendars of the great, the good and the rich of Irish society. They get to dress up, show off their wealth, and rub shoulders with their own kind, all in a good cause, of course. Newspapers and celebrity magazines feed off the events with lavish displays of photographs. A line of text is usually appended giving the amount raised for charity. A warm glow pervades the air at the gorgeous goodness of it all.
In a fashion article in this newspaper a few weeks ago featuring charity ball organisers, one said that her ideal charity event is Elton John’s, with its concept of wearing as many diamonds as possible. Another spoke of the downside of €2,000 designer gowns: once you wear them to a ball, it’s very hard to wear them again to another event. She assured us, however, that she does get two to three years out of an Armani outfit. A third tells us that she keeps the clothes she likes, but the rest she gives away to one of her “cleaning ladies” (note the plural).
These women are a step up on the ladies who lunch, soldiering socially as they do for charity. And it is certainly true that their efforts raise very substantial sums of money for organisations which might otherwise either not survive or have to curtail the services they provide. The charities concerned are rightly grateful for their efforts, as indeed no doubt are the direct beneficiaries of their bounty.
Looking at the area as a whole, though, a few salient features emerge. In general, the charities which benefit from the balls tend to be the less controversial, those which devote themselves to healthcare or medical research, rather than any which seek to effect fundamental change within society. Giving money to a hospital or a hospice through a charity ball does not threaten the status quo. It does not challenge the fairness of a society where some people get to shop for designer gear in New York and Paris while others die homeless on Dublin’s streets, outside the glitz and the glamour. Nor does it in any way tackle the fact that hospitals and hospices are in desperate need of this charity as a direct result of the disgraceful underfunding by the State.
Such challenges to the way we order this society, entailing as they would the espousal, for instance, of increasing taxes on the wealthy, would most likely be anathema to the charity ball constituency.
They are the contents of company boardrooms and their spouses, the shareholders of Ireland, and those much-caressed creatures the entrepreneurs. They are the kind of people who approve, for instance, of the Irish Ferries approach towards maximising profit. They might decry the boot-boy tactics, but you certainly won’t find many of them protesting against that company’s actions on the streets of Dublin tomorrow. Organising a charity do, to help the victims of the untrammelled pursuit of wealth, would be more their style.
Charity is, and has always been, the easy outlet for the beneficiaries of our inequitable society, who may from time to time feel sorry for the less fortunate. Vehicles for the distribution of largesse were in the past very much the territory of the churches and served to keep the poor in their place by instilling feelings of both gratitude and insecurity.
The emphasis was on charity and generosity rather than on the rights of people to services. The charity ball is the shiny, modern, secular replacement, complete with its fringe benefits of networking and securing business contacts. One sales recruitment firm has even singled out the charity ball (together with the golf club) as a most profitable arena in which to do business.
But, like their church-bound predecessors, today’s charity fundraisers are also predicated on the principle that the poor and the downtrodden will always be with us.
Nothing about them has the slightest intention of shaking the comfortable notion that there will forever be an unlimited supply of those in need of our generosity, which in turn allows us to surround ourselves with an aura of virtue as we dance the night away.
Restoring dignity to Magdalenes August 21st, 2003
Exactly 10 years ago, a firm of Dublin undertakers began a mass exhumation in Drumcondra. As far as they were concerned, the papers were all in order: 133 bodies were to be dug up and ferried to Glasnevin Cemetery, where they would be cremated. It was a small burial plot, with the graves unmarked except for a few plain black crosses. Not exactly a run-of-the-mill job for the undertakers, but not that unusual either. It was only when they discovered 22 additional bodies that alarm bells began ringing. This was a burial site for Magdalenes, women who had effectively been locked up for most of their lives, working for no wages in High Park convent, one of the largest and oldest Magdalene laundries in the country.