No Country For Women: dire consequences of silenced voices

Lavinia Kerwick and Catherine Corless among presenters of RTÉ’s sprawling documentary

'No Country for Women' is a new two part documentary series by RTÉ exploring how women have been treated by the State since it's formation. Video: RTÉ

 

In Ireland, a woman’s place is in the home. Or else it is dancing at the crossroads. But, historically, it has not been on a jury, or within easy access to justice for sexual crime, or with dominion over their reproductive rights, or, if employed at all, to get equal pay.

Many of those who transgress have been incarcerated in punishing, dehumanising institutions such as Magdalene laundries or Georgian asylums. That, roughly, has been a century of indignity and ignominy visited on Irish women since suffrage.

“You can’t change history,” says Lavinia Kerwick, early in No Country for Women (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 9.35pm), “You can only learn from it, I think.”

That is also the challenge to Anne Roper’s sprawling documentary, delivered in two parts. It understands how the manufacture of an independent Irish State curdled revolutionary energies and, through constitution and culture, assigned a passive role for womanhood. In reaction, perhaps, Roper wisely gives her programme a deliberate female agency.

Kerwick, for instance, is one of the programme’s three investigators, introducing herself as being “interested in the history and laws around sexual violence in Ireland”.

That is a freighted enquiry, because Kerwick, the survivor of a high-profile 1990s rape – a case that brought about legislative change – is a significant part of both.

Separately, Catherine Corless, the tireless investigator of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home atrocities, follows the story of Julia Devaney, a woman confined there most of her life, whose previously unheard recordings describe a harrowing history.

Elsewhere Samantha Long investigates the history of her unknown grandmother, one of many women committed to mental asylums – “one of the Free State’s solutions to social hardship”. That Long’s biological mother was confined to the Gloucester Magdalene laundry nearby is shocking but also grimly telling about how prevalent this practice was when Eamon de Valera and Archbishop Charles McQuaid inveigled to turn “sins” into crimes.

“What do you do with a criminalised reproductive body?” asks academic Mary McAuliffe. “You incarcerate it.”

Roper relies on experts for context, detail and colour, but, more intriguing, for emotion too. Diarmuid Ferriter, a historian who conveys such personal anger with the past that he seems ready to give it a headbutt, castigates male hypocrisy: “Irish men want to have sex before marriage but Irish men want to marry virgins.”

Journalist Justine McCarthy recalls inculcated shame among her own family, and the emotion catches in her throat. By the end of Kerwick’s interviews with a legal historian, she is given a reassuring hug.

Such levels of feeling are unusual to see in a documentary and that seems deliberate. Emotions, like women’s bodies, are something the patriarchy prefers not to display; here they flow unashamed.

For related reasons, the documentary’s structure is hardly neat: There are so many voices, from Sinead Cusack’s voice-over, to the three searchers, to various experts and trailblazers such as Mary McGee and Mary Robinson, that they could have been more easily accommodated over more episodes.

Polyphony, however, may be the point. Concluding with the new inhuman structures, from direct provision to the housing crisis, the show understands the dire consequences of voices that are silenced.

Part two of No Country For Women is at 9.35pm Wednesday on RTE1