The unbearable shame of being an Irish male


A few years ago I got a letter in the post with photocopies of newspaper cuttings from a woman who felt that Stone Age religious laws had taken away her freedom and that nobody was listening.

 But she was too frightened even to put her name to what she wrote. So what could I do about that? I’m not a political person. And I don’t get involved. The great silence of death is the only thing that seems to ease pain inflicted by planes over Gaza, or the wrath of religious zealots, or any other political injustice. So there’s nothing for me to do, apart from being depressed about it all.

And then I saw the story in The Irish Times, about a pregnant Indian woman who died in an Irish hospital.

Here it comes again, I thought, this unbearable shame of being an Irish male. It covers me. It immobilises me so badly that I don’t correct what ought to be corrected, and then that paralysis in turn adds further shame.

I couldn’t bear listening to the news about the death of Savita Halappanavar. Being in bed I just went back to sleep. And when I got up I was only half awake. I ate my dinner with closed eyes, watched television with deaf ears, and sat on the train to Dublin, enveloped in complete sorrow.

As the week went on, I couldn’t bear the evening news. I couldn’t bear the upset in people’s voices on radio talk shows.

I felt as if it was raining in the house. There were big damp clouds in the hot press. It rained on the kitchen table and on the television set.

My bed floated on rising waters. It rained inside my guts, and behind my eyes and in my soul.

By the end of the week I was so immobilised that I spent hours sitting in an armchair, the one I took from my mother’s house, where she used to sit and sometimes wish that the great silence of death would release her from the injustices and misery of this life.

But I’m not that depressed, so to cheer myself up I went around hugging other people, because there’s always comfort in the tenderness of others. Although I didn’t grasp the ones I hugged with much zest. It was as if we were in parallel universes; as if the sun was shining on them all the time and I was still standing in the rain.

Intensely alive

I saw the woman who died in Galway in a white dress, dancing on YouTube. She seemed intensely alive, while my clothes felt like the drapery of the grave, and the people around me in the supermarkets were like the sleeping damned in an underworld they didn’t even try to resist.

I felt lousy; like the man whose fridge stood outside an old house for over a decade until he opened the door and found a dead rat, and in the freezer box a fish that had turned to liquid. The smell was intense, but he knew it was a fish because 10 years earlier he had argued with his girlfriend about who should clean it. She said that he should at least clean the fridge. He never did. They fell apart. The fridge remained intact, silent and frozen through 10 winters until he opened it again and discovered what human beings are capable of.

And it’s funny how, no matter what terrible injustice is in the dying, the rest of us continue to forget. I know some corners of this country where people were executed and where the trees now look just so beautiful that I often wonder was I dreaming all that blood in the long ago. But I suppose that’s what politicians hope for: that we will forget about injustice so that they can continue to do nothing.

But I didn’t want to do nothing, like I always do. So I drove to Dublin to be part of the vigil for the woman who died in Galway. Twenty thousand people walked together in the rain. But it was the women I noticed, quietly moving towards the parliament, pushing buggies and holding each other’s arms with a silent dignity that reminded me of, Dínit an Bhróin, a great poem by the Galway poet Máirtín Ó Direáin.

And I felt that the shame in me was lifting. I was not immobile any more. At last, at long last I was doing something; I was walking with them.