Four Women Who Died For Ireland: on the concept of involuntary patriotism

Wednesday 11 February 2015 13:17

When I was a boy I was chosen from the eight people in my primary school class, three of whom were boys, to read, in public, in the village of Whitegate, The Proclamation of the Republic as part of the celebration of the 1916 Rebellion. This was 1966 and I was 11. In the lead-up to the celebrations we were filled chock-full of the martyrs of Irish history, a narrative that concentrated on our fitful record of rebellion against the Crown. That record was heavy with men who died for Ireland. We tended to start at 1798.

Who fears to speak of ‘98

Who blushes at the name?

When cowards mock the patriot’s fate

Who hangs his head for shame?

He’s all a knave or half a slave

Who slights his country thus,

But true men, like you men

Will raise their glass with us.

So we had Wolfe Tone, Roddy McCorley, Henry Joy McCracken, Father Murphy and Lord Edward Fitzgerald. After 1798 the martyrology moved on to Bold Robert Emmett, the darling of Erin, then the young Irelanders, the Fenians, the Manchester Martyrs, the Invincibles, and then 1916 and the War of Independence which was finally a big success. Great men all.

And the important thing to remember here today, is that it was all men who died for Ireland and if, by chance, a woman died along the way, then it was a misfortunate accident, a tragedy really, collateral damage as they say, or else she died for love of one of the male martyrs, like Robert Emmett’s sweetheart who tragically died of consumption and, one is forced at assume, a broken heart only five years after her hero. Although it must be said, disappointingly from the patriotic perspective, that she married somebody else in the meantime.

So dying for Ireland has always been the masculine principle. But that particular revolutionary tradition died when the treaty was signed. The first kind of equality achieved by women in the new state was the right to a proper martyrdom. And, typical of a state that achieved its revolutionary aims mainly be changing the names of the departments of state into Irish, it was achieved by a redefinition of the terms. Now it was no longer necessary to die for Ireland fighting the English because we no longer had them to fight. Other ways had to be found. Nowadays our martyrs don’t die for liberty or anything so foolish in a democratic state. Instead they die for the essential truths that underlie the very conception of our nationhood.

So today I would like to name four women who died for Ireland, four true patriots.

The first I name is called Anne Lovett. As the song says, she was but a lass of fifteen summers, and she gave her young life in childbirth in 1984 in a grotto dedicated to The Blessed Virgin in the village of Granard in the County Longford..

For what did she die?

Do Chum Glóire Dé agus Onóra na hÉireann. For the Glory of God and The Honour of Ireland.

Everybody knows that to be truly Irish you have be Catholic. Those old patriots who were protestants, Tone and Emmett, for example, were really like what Israel calls ‘Righteous Gentiles’, not properly of our race, but decent skins despite all. Anne Lovett bore witness to the Catholic nature of our state as surely as if she had been burned at the stake for Ireland.

She died in childbirth, at fifteen years of age. And her baby died too. They died in the cold, of shock and exposure because it was about this time of year. She was pregnant for nine months, as usually happens in these matters, and nobody noticed. Her parents didn’t know. The teachers at her convent school didn’t know. Her doctor never saw it. The inquest claimed that people did know and there is reason to suspect that one of them knew only too well. But there is a certain kind of unknowingness that is as much to do with not being an informer as anything else. We all know being an informer is almost the same thing as being a revolutionary because you end up being involved, and we don’t want to get involved. Turn informer or we’ll kill you, Kevin Barry answered no.

A pregnant teenager is a shameful thing, because almost by definition a sin had to occur to make her pregnant, and we all know that sins of the flesh are the worst. So better to say nothing. It was a patriotic thing she did, living and dying in silence. Didn’t St Paul tell us in no uncertain terms that a woman should ‘learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence’.

In case you didn’t know.

And so Anne Lovett was silent for nine months, though I doubt very much that she died in silence and it’s a surprising thing that the whole village of Granard didn’t hear her dying in the Grotto of the Blessed Virgin. But they didn’t. And appropriately enough she was discovered by a group of children. In Catholic teaching all sorts of miracles are discovered by groups of children, like Lourdes and Knock. And so I suppose a dying girl and a dead baby in the grotto of the virgin was some sort of miracle of the negative kind. More Old testament, let’s say, than New.

For what did she die? it comes down to this: she gave her life so that her family, her community, her school and Ireland would not be shamed. She died so that Ireland would be in reality and name a Catholic country where nothing out of the way happened. She died do chum glóire dé agus onóra na hÉireann. And the church, as represented by the Cardinal Primate of All Ireland, passed judgement on her, as they often did of our martyrs, and said she died because of immaturity. Meaning it was nobody’s fault god help us, if only she had gone to somebody. The nuns, say. But do not think that what happened to Anne Lovett was a mistake. It was an inevitable part of the nation we have constructed.

My second martyr is Bridget McCole. She was administered a medical product called Anti-D which was designed to help prevent the passing on of Rhesus Positive antibodies to future babies. Ireland is peculiarly dedicated to the health of future babies as we now know only too well. Or at least, it’s dedicated to bringing them successfully into the world. You probably know that this is the safest country in the world to give birth – excluding births in grottos and other unsupervised places, of course. Haven’t we even tried to make dead women give birth? The people from The Iona Institute are forever patting us on the back for our dedication to the production of future generations, although once they’re born it’s the devil take the hindmost.

Now as, it happened, the Anti-D that was administered to Bridget McCole to protect the health of her future babies gave her Hepatitis C, a fatal condition. And the same contaminated batch was said by the government to have been administered to as many as 100,000 other Irish women, though the figure boiled down to 1600 in the end. A number of the affected women sued the state for compensation. The then Minister for Health, Michael Noonan bravely took up the challenge. His argument was that as Minister he was obliged to fight because our much-vaunted legal system is adversarial and it would have been wrong if Bridget McCole had met no adversary on her day in court, and he would have been letting the state down. And of course, a court is the right place for the state to fight its citizens, or customers as we prefer to call them nowadays. Otherwise it would be repression. Aren’t we lucky to have a highly developed legal system? Look at the recent noble judgement of the high court which gave standing to a foetus inside a dead and decomposing woman. What other court in the world would take such a broad view of what it means to be human?

Michael Noonan was, in fact, a wily and ruthless adversary and he proceeded by threats and promises – threatening huge legal costs, and offering an ex gratia payment – ex gratia – that would draw the women away from the courts. He was lucky in the fight, of course, for Bridget McCole was dying and he was not.

In the end, fearful of the State of which she was a citizen, of the ruthlessness of the Minister for Health, of leaving her husband and twelve children penniless and with Michael Noonan’s costs to pay, Bridget McCole accepted a paltry settlement and died. In fact she died the day after she signed the papers. She was 54. She had been told that in insurance terms, which means legal terms, the infection was an act of God.

And we all know there is a great tradition of Irish Patriots having their day in court and making terrific speeches from the dock after the sentence of death has been pronounced. Emmet spoke a brilliant one for example, it was in all our school books when I was a boy. Unfortunately Bridget McCole did not get to make a speech from the dock because she died in the course of a civil case and never had the satisfaction of hearing herself condemned to death. And so we don’t know what she had to say about Ireland, if anything at all. But she might have echoed Emmett’s words, ‘While Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’ Different graves of course.

For what did she die? She died to save Ireland from ruin because the cost to the treasury of compensating the women we had poisoned would have ruined us as surely as if all our banks had collapsed. And she died to save her family, and who could ask for a more noble death for a mother. And she died for Michael Noonan.

My next martyr is Rachel Peavoy.  She died at 30 years of age in her home in Shangan Flats, Ballymun, Dublin.

For what did she die? She died to save capitalism, to save Ireland from the IMF, the vulture funds, and national bankruptcy. She died in vain, as we know, but there is a long tradition of Irish patriots dying in vain. Sure we all know the 1798 crowd died for nothing, and Emmett, and the Fenians. It is an important part of their nobility, that their cause was vain.

She died in her home in Shangan Flats, and she died of the cold. The winter of 2010 was the coldest in living memory and the Celtic Tiger was dead. The Council said it could not afford to heat her flat because we all partied during the boom years and now we must pay the price. This is our original sin, that when we had money we spent it – those of us that had money. As if money is for something else.

And our politicians said we must all share the pain, and we know from their personal statements, that they share our pain too, the politicians. So Rachel Peavoy died in her unheated flat because this country needed to save the banks and pay the bondholders, to save our national pride and maintain our place among the great nations who always pay up no matter who dies, and thus she died to save that other great pillar of Irish nationhood – capitalism. And the inquest found that she had washed her hair, and was taking tablets for her period pains, and the flat was not completely cold and maybe she didn’t feel the cold as much as the rest of us. As far as I know inquests don’t ever find that someone died because she was a woman, but they got as near to it as they could, given the circumstances.

My fourth martyr for today, is Savita Halappanavar.

But before I explain her place in the Pantheon, let me digress and tell the story of a woman who failed to die for Ireland. When my sister was born my mother began to haemorrhage badly and was in danger of bleeding to death. My father and my aunt (a nurse who qualified in England) pleaded with the doctor to carry out a hysterectomy - then the only treatment. He refused on the grounds that a hysterectomy would prevent her having future children. In effect it would be a form of contraception. When my father threatened to take him to court he held out both hands and said, ‘Mr Wall, these hands were blessed by the Pope’. Nevertheless, and despite this killer argument, under threat of legal action, he buried his conscientious objections and did the deed and saved my mother’s life. This was 1960.

So how did Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman and not a Catholic, come to die for Ireland?

She died to save doctors and nurses from having to commit the absolutely non-Irish sin of abortion. She was dying of puerperal fever, which, of course, women have always died. Henry VIII’s mother and two of his wives died from it. Mary Wollstonecraft, not unknown to this parish, died of it. Rousseau’s mother died of it. It’s a woman thing.

It’s treatable of course, but inevitably there will be refractory cases and this was one. And she was a qualified dentist and knew something about what was happening to her, and naturally, not being Irish or Catholic, she asked for an abortion. But her doctors determined that the baby’s life was not in danger and we the people of Ireland have decreed that a fine balance exists between the life of the baby and the life of the mother, a balance worthy of a mediaeval theologian – in fact a balance devised by medieval theologians, albeit modern-day ones. And accordingly she was denied an abortion and told ‘This is a Catholic country’ and then she died.

For what did she die?

She died to save Ireland from abortion.

Thus, I propose installing Savita Halappanavar in our national pantheon as a patriot who died for Ireland.

Of course, every struggle has many martyrs and these four are simply representative. I could mention the thousands of women who suffered and died for the nuns in the Magdalene Laundries; the women who underwent symphysiotomy so that this nation would not have to think about contraception; the thousands of other victims of contaminated blood products and who suffered so we wouldn’t have to pay;  not to mention the people who die because of waiting lists in hospitals, or cutbacks, or the one million Irish people whose lives are shortened by poverty, thus saving us a fortune; even the 80,000 people a year who emigrate so we don’t have to support them and their families; I won’t mention the sick children who do their bit for Ireland by going on the 27 month waiting list for an MRI scan at Crumlin children’s hospital;  and I won’t mention the dead pregnant woman who was kept on life support against the wishes of her family so that the population of Ireland could be augmented by one – or zero if we take the fine balance of mother versus baby into account. And so on. But no army commemorates all its deaths, all its heroes. The four I have chosen must stand as emblems for all, because these women died for the things that make us what we are – the church, the money, the family and the babies. They died for Ireland.

God save Ireland! cried the heroes;

God save Ireland cried they all.

Whether on the scaffold high

Or the battlefield we die,

Oh, what matter when for Erin dear we fall!