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Foreign Bodies 

Writes Rían Browne, Opinion Editor 

As a country we have an interesting relationship with the exportation of fragments of our society and culture. In most cases this is incredibly positive – the celebration of a rich tradition of  art, music, and literature further afield comes to mind. But, the same can also be said when it comes to the more troubling aspects of our history and culture, parts that are considered ‘problematic’, albeit in a more shameful light. We tend to employ this same approach as an act of avoidance to alleviate the cultural shame when confronted with the deeper wounds that contribute to the production of some of the deeper wounds that have contributed to the social inequalities that have plagued the state for generations. 

We are fearful to address these issues due to the cost of the inevitable attention being brought to the vulnerabilities of that traditional Irish narrative we export to the international stage would be too high. But we are now more than ever acutely aware that the cost of not doing so, has proven to be far greater than we could have ever envisaged and as a consequence we are met at a crossroads, a reckoning with our sense of identity and the hurt and shame stemming from the foundations upon which it’s been built.

As a country we’ve acquired a talent for exporting our ‘problems’ or social ills. One of the first examples that springs to mind is the lonely and fraught journey many pregnant people have had to make to the UK and further afield to access reproductive healthcare, for fear of being criminalised at home. In a similar vein many transgender individuals are forced to travel abroad for gender affirming surgery and care due to the an inaccessible and substandard provision of care that pathologises their experiences. We are currently watching as numerous court cases against the national health service play out as women fight for justice surrounding the cervical check scandal, while simultaneously fighting their own battles with illness in the process. The recent mother and baby home scandal serves as another example of a state steeped in the upholding the grip of the church in the face of empathy. Published last month the commission of investigation into the mother and baby homes comprised the 3,000 page findings of a five year long inquiry into the treatment of women and girls who were sent to the homes and their babies. The report read as a damning inditement of the stigma surrounding sex and relationships, upheld by the state and churches that ran these homes, that justified the subjection of many women to emotional and material deprivation in addition to rampent infant mortality rates. The women sent to these homes were shamed for their ‘sin’ with many children sent to the US/UK for adoption to erase the ‘evidence’.

All of these examples are grounded in the control of bodily autonomy, historically disproportionately concerning women. We could argue that much of this may stem from the entwined relationship between church and state, which found its roots in the constitution wherein which Catholic ideals surrounding marriage, autonomy, the place of women in the home and the nuclear family in relation to the state were solidified into ‘traditional’ Irish values and attitudes. The constitutional drafts embarked upon in the early 1930’s were influenced by figures such as John Charles McQuaid who held a strong commitment to the relationship between church and state which was reflected in his contributions to early drafts concerning personal rights, the family, marriage and catholic social principles. The constitution that would transpire, under De Valera’s leadership, would be nationalistic with a strong Catholic conservative influence present. These same influences have often later been identified as a source for social shame and stigma surrounding social inequalities and the mistreatment of vulnerable groups within our society.

In many cases the issue of contention is the body. The policing of autonomy or control over vulnerable bodies comes into conflict with our foundations of tradition as a nation, one grounded in Catholic conservatism. When we do meet instances of social progression and liberalisation (as we have in recent years following marriage equality and repeal) we invoke a language of tolerance, acceptance and compassion. And while this may be true for many of us, as a whole there is a continued tension between this ideal of progress and the ideals that continue to live on in our response to progress as we begin to engage in processes of societal introspection surrounding them.

This relationship between church and state, the catholic and conservative, is gradually becoming progressively more strained as we investigate their influence and historical legacy upon us as a country which has continually revealed a nation plagued by shame and scandal due to the mistreatment of the most vulnerable in our society. We’ve seen this tension play out both in terms of the marriage equality referendum (2015) and the referendum to repeal the eight amendment (2017). In both cases traditional conceptions that were written into the body of the constitution surrounding the family, marriage and bodily autonomy were challenged and redefined to acknowledge the limitations and harm that these ideals may cause to the very citizens they were supposedly written to serve. This did not occur, however, without a very fought and often devise public debate that echoed previous moral-social referendums past concerning divorce and abortion, placing an emphasis on moral catastrophe that would result in the reasessment of the values that underpin Irish soicety despite the wishes of many acknowledging it was time to do just that. 

Although there are literal examples aplenty in the exporting of our social shame, it is not always so literal. In looking at our conception of national identity, the cornerstones upon which it was built and the values and traditions we opt to include (and exclude) as part of it, Kathryn Conrad (2001) suggests the notion of distinguishing the ‘foreign’ when an identity (in her case homosexuality) comes into conflict with these values. Those whose existence challenges or contradicts the values and institutions that uphold them becomes viewed as a ‘threat’ to the national identity. When it comes to constricting the autonomy of women, queer folk, and children, whose actions come into conflict with traditonal Irish values upon which the state was founded, they too become ‘foreign’ bodies – both literally and figuratively. 

The idea of conceptualising parts of our society as ‘foreign’, to exist outside the boundaries of our identity, also denies ownership or responsibility in its production. In witnessing the coverage of national scandal or shame many may hasten to add that ‘this is not us’, it is not afterall, representative of Ireland we are currently living in. And while this may be partially true, we are now having those difficult conversations that could not have been envisaged a generation ago, the tension between open conversation and habits past remains. When we can’t export or redefine we opt to sweep our problems under the proverbial rug. We see this now in relation to the hours of mother and baby home testimony that can no longer be retrieved. We also see this in our current handling of Direct Provision, many centres located in rural areas with limited infrastructure to support autonomous living. Those who have travelled here in search of a better life, to the island of a thousand welcomes are met with a punitive reception in response to their ‘foreign’ status.

We cannot vocalise our outrage as a generation’s recounting of hurt and trauma at the hands of the state is lost and simultaneously remain complicit in continued mistreatment of asylum seekers. As we grapple with our own legacy of social inequality we must not continue to perpetuate its fruits. Not only must we address these ideals that state institutions upheld in the perpetuation of shame and mistreatment it is imperative that we take ownership over the social inequalities and historical legacy that they produced as a result. Rather than alienating or exclusion we must allow for the examination of our historical wounds through frank and honest dialogue that can be truly learned from and internalised to prevent a cycle of shame, denial, and scandal that we have come to know as familiar. We are at an important juncture wherein we’ve been presented with the opportunity to reinvent the wheel, to challenge habits of the past as they inevitably rear their head again, until we do so meaningfully and with accountability this cycle may well continue.