Fintan O’Toole: Why are the State's great secrets often about women's bodies?

Our Republic still exists in the long shadow of shame. Why would it not?

Women such as Vicky Phelan, above, have to give up everything – privacy, intimacy, ultimately life itself – to try to make the State break its long habits of secrecy and silence. Photograph: CourtPix

Women such as Vicky Phelan, above, have to give up everything – privacy, intimacy, ultimately life itself – to try to make the State break its long habits of secrecy and silence. Photograph: CourtPix

 

I suppose you can tell something about a State from the nature of its secrets. For many states, the biggest secrets are to do with spies and covert operations, but such things are a relatively small part of the workings of power in Ireland.

For many others, the corrupt ways of kleptocratic leaders are the most important sites of secrecy, but when Ireland had a leader like that (Charles Haughey) he flaunted the wealth he had accumulated during a lifetime in public office, hiding it in plain sight.

No, in Ireland the things the State tends to keep secret are things to do with women’s bodies. Female bodies are buried and, in the way of such things, come back as traumatic stories to haunt the State.

Abortion has been discussed largely through the bodies of women without names: Miss X, Ms A, Ms B, Ms C, Miss D, Miss C

The determination of the State, in the form of the HSE, to keep the truths of faulty cervical-cancer tests close to its chest is not untypical of the way institutions tend to behave in all societies. But the scale of the scandal points to a much deeper reservoir of denial. Our Republic still exists in the long shadow of shame. Why would it not? It had a very long history of locking women away in Magdalene laundries and mental hospitals, in mother-and-baby homes and convents, and of sending them away to England and America. Institutionalised terror on the scale that was practised in Ireland doesn’t just disappear all at once. It lingers. It seeps into the groundwater. It forms habits of mind. We like to think that those habits are irrelevant to our enlightened, cosmopolitan present, but they persist in the State’s unconscious.

Secrecy

The most persistent habit is secrecy. Irish women did not use the contraceptive pill – they were prescribed “cycle regulators”. Irish women did not have abortions. Irish women were not infected by the State with hepatitis C and when they were, they were initially told that they were “well women”. Irish women did not have their cancers misdiagnosed. The cervical-cancer screening programme was not badly designed from the start and women did not need to be told that it failed to detect their illnesses. The nature of the secret changes from decade to decade but the instinct itself persists.

It is, though, a paradoxical kind of secrecy. For one thing, it involves a strange kind of public anonymity. Abortion has been discussed largely through the bodies of women without names: Miss X, Ms A, Ms B, Ms C, Miss D, Miss C – the alphabet city that has been the legal capital of a land in which women have bodies but no faces. Their lives, their experiences, leave a kind of ghostly trail through the public record, invoked in courts and parliamentary committees and expert reports and referendum debates, but their true selves are secret.

Painful speech

Equally paradoxical is the weirdly inverse relationship between secrecy and privacy. The more secretive the official culture remains, the less privacy its victims end up having. Official silence coerces women into painful speech, whether it’s Brigid McCole not being allowed to die in peace from the consequences of being infected with hep C by a State agency or Joanne Hayes having to talk about her body and her sex life in a tribunal that was supposed to be investigating the actions of gardaí or Sophia McColgan having to drop her anonymity to explain how the State remained in denial about the years of horrific abuse she suffered, or so many other women who have to break the silence with their own intimate voices.

A photographic portrait of WB Yeats. Photograph: Sotheby's
As WB Yeats asked so plaintively of blood sacrifice in Irish history: “O when may it suffice?” File photograph: Sotheby's
Women have to give up everything – privacy, intimacy, ultimately life itself – to try to make the State break its long habits of secrecy and silence

The latest in this line are Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathúna. Again, secrecy invades privacy – what begins with “pause all letters” ends with women having to talk about the most confidential things – their bodies, their families, their impending deaths – on Morning Ireland and The Late Late Show. The only counter to secrecy becomes raw exposure. And even while we admire the courage of these women, and the powerful articulacy they can manage when most of us would be tongue-tied by rage and despair, we have to be ashamed that these qualities are necessary. Unhappy the land (to adapt Brecht) that needs such heroines – the individual heroism is a product of a collective cultural and institutional cowardice.

Blood sacrifice

This becomes a kind of blood sacrifice: women have to give up everything – privacy, intimacy, ultimately life itself – to try to make the State break its long habits of secrecy and silence. And as WB Yeats asked so plaintively of blood sacrifice in Irish history: “O when may it suffice?” When will enough be enough? When will we get to the point where we don’t need traumatic displays of women’s bodily distress just to make us pay attention to what needs to be done? 

Perhaps when we move out of the long shadow of an attitude to women’s bodies characterised by shame, denial, displacement and doublethink. Maybe then we won’t have to swing constantly between keeping quiet and shouting out in agony, between the instinct to cover up and the imperative to expose, between a self-deluded righteousness and a self-lacerating guilt. We will know more after the vote on May 25th about just how long that journey is going to take. 

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