Ireland Has A Major Chance To Address Prejudice and Suffering

Dr Maureen Gaffney

We think Ireland has moved on from a hellish past of suffering, but as we approach May 22, we need to keep reminding ourselves that prejudice and exclusion remain, says Dr. Maureen Gaffney


Over the course of barely 40 years – a blip in the life of a society – Ireland has changed dramatically. We have gradually, and not without pain, become more open, more tolerant, more generous, particularly in relation to children, lone parents and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT). It is, of course, a work in progress.

We have managed to transform ourselves, not so much by adherence to high ideological principles of rights and justice, but by a very different, more feeling process which, paradoxically, may be our richest legacy from the appalling revelations of abuse that have emerged over the last few decades.

Those heart-breaking stories of prejudice, of personal and institutional cruelty threw up a hellish vision of Ireland. They revealed a society where the pious rhetoric of religion and tradition was at such variance with the rigid social control and suppression practiced particularly on vulnerable women and children, and on people whose sexual orientation was deemed sinful, a pathological disorder or both, and where the weapons of shame and guilt were very effectively wielded indeed.

As we engaged with these individual stories, we were appalled. We felt moved to try to find a way to respond, to change the laws and systems that created such terrible suffering. Whatever about our private beliefs and principles, we became acutely sensitive to individual context, to the complex details of individual dilemmas. Hard cases make bad law we were told. But hard cases turned Ireland into a more compassionate society.


A Provisional Consensus

After all the debates and controversies of the last 40 years, we have reached an understanding of sorts, a negotiated compromise on many issues in what we might broadly call the moral-psychological sphere. We have a provisional consensus, even if we don’t have universal agreement. We continue that journey now as we grapple with similar issues in the Marriage Equality Referendum and try to find a way to forge a more equal society, by transforming those private norms of civility and compassion into a set of appropriate laws, rights and policies – the covenant between citizen and state.

One of the most dramatic changes that happened in the last few years is in the position of the Catholic Church, once the most powerful institution in the land and the undisputed arbiter of private and public morals. For a variety of reasons, many of its own making, the evidence from a succession of surveys and polls shows there has been a comprehensive rejection of its position on matters of personal morality in relation to sexuality and gender.

In fact, we don’t find the Church’s position on anything to do with sexuality credible, and this is particularly marked among younger people. The sexual revolution, the development of effective contraception, the growth of the women’s and gay rights movements – all these historical shifts have left the church stranded with an archaic psychology of sexuality. The Church’s pronouncements on all these issues are so much at variance with the lived experience of most people as to terminally undermine its credibility in the area of intimate relationships. This in an era when intimate relationships have become central to our sense of self and to our personal identity.


Coloured By Rejection

The rejection of the position of the Church on these matters has not happened because people have stopped being religious. Nine in ten of us still describe ourselves as Catholic, and 58 per cent as strongly or moderately religious. Many Irish people, including myself, retain a deep, often unarticulated attachment to religion for all kinds of reasons: as a source of spiritual sustenance; as a way of understanding and dealing with the insufficiency of being human; of making sacred the great transitions in our lives.

People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender frequently have to face them in a world where their relationships with crucial others – family, peer group, employers and work colleagues are coloured by rejection – overt or subtle. They have to battle with the added burden of the prejudice that comes from ignorance, or official lassitude, or the intransigence of those who continue to want a kind of cultural supremacy for their views.

This is particularly painful for young people as they face the normal developmental task of having to figure out who they are and where they fit in to their peer group or the wider society. In an era when we more fully understand the great potential and fragility of adolescence – when we know that adolescents feel more extremely than adults, are less anchored in the middle ground, more vulnerable to unexpected events that threaten their precarious sense of self, more likely to experience despair, it is particularly dispiriting to read research that shows that 17 per cent of LGB people have attempted suicide, two-thirds on more than one occasion, with 85 per cent of those saying the attempt was related to their sexual identity. The average age of suicide attempts? Seventeen and a half. It is it is nothing short of shameful that these young people face such an added risk. Growing up is hard enough without that.


New set of rationalisations

It is easy to look back on the old Ireland and to think that we live in a more enlightened and conscious age. And of course, we do. But we need to keep reminding ourselves that prejudice and exclusion remain – albeit disguised by a new set of rationalisations, by weasel words, and a new more secular self-righteousness.

It is particularly troubling, for example, to see attempts being made to link marriage equality to the extremely complex and often worrying issues that arise from the continuing advances in reproductive technology – as if these are somehow created by LGBT people’s desire to be equal – a kind of guilt-by-association. These are issues can only be addressed by rigorous regulation nationally and internationally, informed by scientific research, on-going careful monitoring and a considered public debate about and concern for the common good

We also know a lot more nowadays about the extraordinary interconnectedness of things – what scientists grandly call non-linear dynamic systems – where one change, one action, can create an extraordinary spiral of influence – in which seemingly trivial things, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wing in one corner of the universe can create a raging storm in a far flung place. So it is with the human community.

That is why we cannot be indifferent. The casual intimate insult, the public shaming of a young person because of their sexual orientation; the looking- away from such suffering by an indifferent onlooker – can launch a cascade of fear, rage and despair that can distort a whole society. A process that Seamus Heaney described as “how cowardice in the soul issues in corruption in the state, how failure of nerve in the bystander is ultimately responsible for callousness in the culture”.

The poet WH Auden, understood suffering and the interconnectedness of things very well. In his wonderful poem Musee des Beaux Arts he used an image from one of Bruegal’s paintings – the boy Icarus falling from the sky, head first into the sea but “how everything turns away/quite leisurely from the disaster”. A ploughman “may /have heard the splash, the forsaken cry/but for him it was not an important failure.” And a beautiful ship “that must have seen/something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky/,had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

Today, we must be ever watchful in case somewhere on this island, another young boy or girl is suffering the sting of prejudice and exclusion, and we must resolve that the rest of us don’t turn away ‘quite leisurely’ from the distress and sometimes disaster that follows, and sail calmly on. We have to understand that when someone, anyone, is falling out of the sky, it is an important failure for us all.

Because when it comes to equality, and the fight against exclusion prejudice, as in many other matters, there can be no bystanders. We are either part of the problem or part of the solution.

This is an edited version of Address by Dr Maureen Gaffney at the launch of the Psychological of Ireland’s Good Practice Guidelines with Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Clients.


Dr Maureen Gaffney is a well-known psychologist, writer and broadcaster. She is the author of the best-selling book, Flourishing (Penguin Ireland). How to Be Happy, a two-part TV documentary based on the book was recently broadcast by RTÉ. She served as Executive Chair of the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) for 17 years, advising government on issues of equality and social exclusion and, as early as 2003, produced a report on Equality Policies for Lesbians, Gay and Bisexual People. Follow her on Twitter here.


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