Una Mullally: Standing up to threats and violence on the streets of Dublin
‘If you confront violence in a successful way, chances are the perpetrators will think twice before they attack someone again’
‘I’ve been attacked in the capital a few times, mostly gay-bashing incidents’
A couple of weeks ago, the day after I happened to have a conversation with someone about a growing edginess in Dublin city centre, I was about to walk through the Ilac Centre as a shortcut to the cinema on Parnell Street.
A group of young guys on bikes cycled out of the shopping centre, one of them grabbing my black woolly hat as he cycled by. Damn. That hat was a present. And it was cold. Here we go. I screamed after him to give me my hat. The gang cycled away, calling me a slut and a bitch.
One, less dexterous than the rest, got his bike stuck in the doorway, so I grabbed him so hard my hand hurt for days. Over the course of the next five minutes or so, I held him by the neck of his jacket while he shouted violent abuse in my face and I dodged his raised fist. Eventually, as shoppers glided by unperturbed, two young women noticed my plight and stood with me asking for the hat back. The young man screamed abuse that would have made Tarantino blush, and the situation ended with the youngest of the group – I’d put him at 10 or 11 – calling me a “c***” and retrieving my hat. More calls of “slut”, “bitch”, “c***”, and that Dublin classic “geebag” sounded out into the night and that was that. I went to see The Theory Of Everything. It’s quite good.
I’ve been attacked in the capital a few times, mostly in gay-bashing incidents. A glass bottle smashed on my back as I was leaving a gay bar (the attacker was aiming for my head). I’ve been kicked to the ground in Temple Bar and had my head slammed on the pavement. And I’ve dealt with homophobic and sexist jeers – a few a year at least.
After a while, you think you’ve become immune to it, but a few days later you find yourself crying at the sink. Why do people shout and attack unprovoked? And why is it nearly always young men? What’s wrong with these guys?
Late last year, I called the police after I intervened when I happened to see a woman I know who was in a wheelchair being harassed by a man who was clearly not in a good mental state. After she left, he cornered me, screaming in my face. A group of men in their 20s watched the attack unfold and just walked by. I managed to run away.
Some acts of violence or harassment end up having good outcomes. A few months ago, after I pushed a shouting man off my partner while we walked down Harcourt Street, we engaged him and his friends in conversation, explained to them why their homophobic abuse was so hurtful, and they ended up apologising out of embarrassment. That’s a small victory that could have gone either way.
I don’t think I’m particularly prone to trouble, although a male friend of mine once warned me not to answer to abuse because of the violence it could provoke. I don’t think that’s the right approach. I think women have a right to defend themselves, and respond to violence and aggression with as much might as they have.
But I do often wonder what is wrong with some young men that violence is often their first instinct. The aggression that society instils in young men is horrifying. Why are we raising young men in this way? Are their role models so terrible that this is learned behaviour?
I told my friends about the Ilac Centre incident almost as a funny anecdote. And then a few days later, something else happened. While picking up a soft drink in a Spar shop the other night, I saw two young men stealing armfuls of Red Bull. “Stop stealing the Red Bull,” I said with almost comic politeness.
The staff looked up from behind the counter, somewhat dejected, and customers paused their browsing. The two young lads were almost in shock that someone had confronted their theft. “You’ve got loads of cans under your jacket,” I pointed out.
One of the biggest problems society faces is disaffected young men being drawn to violence. It’s the cause of civil wars and terrorism and school shootings and street attacks.
What are we doing to discourage young men from violence? How can we answer to the needs of young men so that aggression isn’t so seductive? And what kind of lives do these Dublin kids who attacked me lead, that visceral animosity is such an automatic response?
Their violence is pathetic, but I don’t want to shout at young guys any more. I’d prefer to listen to them.