Small Roots

The greatest challenge I’ve encountered since starting postgraduate study is loneliness. You rejoin the familiar environment where you were part of the family mere months ago, and find yourself an outsider. You are no longer part of a class, griping, laughing, anticipating, working, celebrating together. Much as they are familiar faces, you are also not part of the staff. They are their own group, friends, colleagues, and you are not one of them, nor are you one of their students any longer. In my specific circumstances, through a few quirks of coincidence, I am utterly alone when I am in college.

You’d think, then, that I’d be interested in, perhaps even delighted about an effort on the part of my college to give students a chance to make new friends. Come and connect, they say. Join us in this particular spot, reach out, get to know someone new. There’s just one problem. It’s facilitated by the chaplaincy team.

In my college, the chaplain is a lovely guy. He’s experienced, he’s friendly. He’s also a Catholic priest – while he is employed and paid by my college, from public funds, he is in service to the Roman Catholic church.

What do I know of the Catholic church, just from personal experience?

In the past decade:

  1. I had a choice for my children to either attend one of the local schools, all walking distance from our home. Alternatively, I was free to try and get them a place (hahahaha good luck with that) in a “multi-denominational” school, which would still not be non-religious but hey, at least they teach all the religions, as long as they’re Christian. But by law you can opt out, so we did. In spite of that…
  2. My children have been forced or pressured at various times to attend Catholic rituals, against my express wishes and in at least one instance against their added clearly expressed wishes not to be forced to attend due to their own personal, very deeply held religious convictions.
  3. Catholic representatives were given access to my children without my permission.
  4. Two of my children were subjected to a full day of open, intense Catholic religious indoctrination. One of them surreptitiously texted me, disturbed, describing what was happening (think Jesus Camp style downright sick indoctrination), but the school had not sought my written permission for this off-campus activity, nor did I know where my child had been taken, so I could not fetch them immediately. I was one of a number of parents to complain; when the next child reached this age group, the experience was repeated with no change. At least this time we were prepared and the child in question chose, forewarned, to have the experience simply to get an understanding of the intensity and psychological power of such zealotrous indoctrination techniques.
  5. One of my children was bullied by a teacher for being opted out of religion. The child was forced to sit in class, because this is what the Catholic church does in the publically funded schools they control: they have to let you opt out as it is a constitutional right, but they fail to take any action whatsoever to make your choice practically workable. They refuse to move religion classes to a time of day that will allow for parents to simply drop off or collect a child a little earlier or later. They refuse to provide alternative classes, or allow a child to sit in on another class taking place at the same time. Instead, the child is “opted out” but forced to sit in the class as it is presented, and in many cases not allowed to keep themselves busy with something else. In this case the teacher then proceeded to vilify and smear atheists, and when my child objected she told them to “shut up, you’re not part of this class.”
  6. One of my children considered studying to be a teacher. I had to discourage them, as that would mean having to go to another country to study and definitely to work. The Catholic church is almost wholly in control of publically funded schools, running and controlling these schools with the money collected in taxes from all Irish citizens, not just Catholics. They can and do exclude or discriminate against anyone who is not prepared to at least pretend to be Catholic when it comes to appointing teachers. They also control the overwhelming majority of facilities offering teacher training. This career path is closed to my children in our country, directly due to the Catholic church.

If I ignore my personal experience:

  1. Personal friends have had their children insulted and humiliated for asking not to be forced to attend Catholic rituals. One family is deeply devoted, but in a different sect of Christianity. Still the child had a teacher hiss right in their face: “Just because you don’t pray doesn’t mean you can stop us from praying,” when the teacher was leading a class to church for an unscheduled, spur-of-the-monent mass attendance and the child said they didn’t want to go because they were not Catholic.
  2. A personal friend had marital trouble in the mid 2000’s. When she tried to find out where to obtain marital counselling to try to save her marriage, she was only directed to Catholic-controlled Accord. Believing she would get Catholic-controlled advice, and coming from a family near destroyed by a priest’s response to a cry for help in an abusive situation, she ended up not getting professional help. We lost touch, I have no idea if her marriage survived.
  3. Catholic control of hospitals, and where they are not directly in control, of patterns of thought around childbirth, does damage to women in Ireland way, way beyond the already serious and shocking issues reported in the media. Women I know personally have been traumatised in their pregnancy and during childbirth, as a direct result of Catholic views on women, pregnancy, and childbirth. I believe Savita’s death was directly caused by the Catholic church’s continued influence in women’s health care and medicine in general.
  4. The Catholic church ran slave camps in Ireland until the mid nineties.
  5. Criminals will exist in any organisation. However, the Catholic church as an organisation systematically enabled and assisted criminals in covering up past crimes and in continuing to commit crimes. The organisation then took very cynical steps to put their share of the burden of financial reparation almost completely on the backs of the people who were the victims of their complicitiy in crime.

In opposition to this, no doubt a devoted enthusiast could make a very long list of good things the Catholic church has done, and continues to do. So why focus on the bad stuff?

Let’s say I tell you that there’s an organisation called, say, The Wonder Bunch (TWB). It has raised funds for victims of natural disasters, has sent representatives to help establish shelters for abused women. It has also raised funds to recruit and train child soldiers, advocates for slavery, and lobbies for any sexual relationship other than heterosexuality to be criminalised as a death penalty offence. Finally I add that they run the local tennis club.

Would you feel it’s ethical to join me for a game of tennis?

Everytime we do attend that game of tennis, everytime we do go to that “Chaplaincy-facilitated event”, everytime we shrug and accept the involvement of the Catholic church in small, “benign” events in everyday life, we allow a small root to grow, to remain, or to strengthen. These small roots individually are likely benign, even good for the immediate community. But each of these small roots supports a big, dark tree with bark like razor wire, and menacing branches with blade-like thorns hanging over others not as lucky as us to be nothing the Catholic church happens to oppose. Teachers or people interested in studying to be teachers who are not heterosexual or who are not Catholic and are not prepared to pretend to be Catholic; anyone in need of routine or critical healthcare; children who should be free to get education without the intertwined religious indoctrination; those traumatised by Catholic-enabled or perpetrated rape, abuse, neglect, and other crimes.

Everytime we’re ok with the small roots, we are siding against all those who have suffered, and strengthen the hand of the Catholic church to continue harming others still.

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I can’t celebrate with you

There is nothing like an outsider to look at something a society does and go: “What the hell, people? Ew.” It can pop a bubble around you, inside of which something was just normal, just the way things have always been done, and open your eyes to how weird it really is.

I had a similar epiphany about Afrikaner school anthems a while ago, and when I mentioned to a Northern Irish friend that as a child, black adults would refer to me as kleinmies (little miss), and my brothers as kleinbaas (little boss). Believe it or not, my family were considered progressive, because we were required to be respectful to black adults, but while we were required to address white adult men as oom and women as tannie (literally uncle and aunt, but in practice simply a less formal title than sir or madam), black adults were addressed by their first name. It never occurred to anyone that this was strange, because it was the norm. The sheer, staggering brokenness of what was simply normal when I grew up, simply the way things were done, never really hit home until someone else said: “What?!”

You wouldn’t think, coming from a society as messed up as Afrikaners, that I could look at anything Ireland does and go: “What?!” You’d be wrong. In the same way you might describe the weird habit of Slovakian men whipping women with willow branches at easter, I describe the utterly bizarre Irish ritual of dressing their kids up in wedding outfits and dedicating them to their church.

To me, the horror is confounding. Here is an organisation which has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide the sexual abuse that was rife in its ranks for decades (centuries?), that ran slave camps for women who dared fall pregnant without being married, that ran schools which indeed filled a gap in education, but was a gift wrapped in brutal abuse which caused festering trauma people still suffer from to this day.

This organisation then used the deference of the government of the time to make sure the victims of their abuse paid their own compensation. Let me repeat that: these feckers raped Ireland in every sense of the word, then cosied up to a spineless bastard to add insult to injury and make sure the long-suffering Irish paid for their abusers’ wrongdoings again. They were cynical, calculating and absolutely put corporation before people, more so than the most slimy banker you can imagine.

Parents across the country respond by dressing their little boys and girls up as brides and grooms every year, and watching in delight as they declare themselves dedicated to this stinking, corrupt pile of manure.

Forgive me if I don’t show enthusiasm for your kids’ confirmation pictures, or clap my hands in delight at how pretty they looked in their little outfits for their first holy communion.

Control, again

Ireland is set to vote in a referendum about same-sex marriage, and some other thing almost nobody can remember. It’s all about whether we should or shouldn’t allow people of the same gender to get married. The Yes side has dubbed it a question of marriage equality, the No side has dubbed it a question of anything but what it’s really about, screaming alarm over adoption and surrogacy, both completely irrelevant to and unaffected by the outcome of the referendum. This obfuscation manifested in both their claims of what motivates their opposition of the proposed amendment to the constitution, as well as their denial of what really motivates them.

While of course there will be exceptions, the vast, vast majority of those who are campaigning for a No vote, are motivated by a religious-based conviction that homosexuality is wrong. The Bible says it’s bad, the Church (in this country that of course always means the Roman Catholic Church) says it’s bad, therefore…

And this is where my disagreement with these views goes from “whatever, dude” to “stop, because what you’re doing is wrong”. That sentence above ends with “…I want everyone else to live according to my convictions.”

Of course, society often enforces legal prohibitions not everyone agrees with. We strive, hopefully, to limit such contested bans to activities that can clearly be shown to be harmful to the greater good if allowed to go unchecked. Murder and theft are two perfect examples of this. Someone else’s relationship with a consenting adult cannot possibly fall into this category. It’s clear the No side understand this, which is why there has been this remarkable distortion of the facts and intense effort to obfuscate the issue on hand.

But the truth is that a No vote is rooted in the very Catholic desire to not only live your life as you see fit, but to also force others to live their lives the way you see fit. This country is still steeped in that kind of approach.

On 22 May, I will be voting yes for a number of reasons relating to my conviction that deeply loving and committed couples should be able to make that relationship official, and that homosexuality is as normal a variation in the human condition as is being left-handed, though apparently slightly less common. Primarily, though, I’ll be voting yes because what consenting adults do with their lives is none of my fucking business. Society in Ireland crosses a line when it comes to control of individuals. We go way too far, still, in dictating forced organ donation onto women, in our interference with how people raise their children. A yes vote would be a step in the right direction, following a good few before it, and hopefully to be followed by many more in the future.

Bring it on.

Dear Dundalk*, why do you hate children?

I am still shaken as I write this. I still see the nose of that car stopping no more than a metre from impact. I still hear my own angry voice shouting, swearing, gesturing to the green pedestrian signal, through which one car had already breezed, before this one, too, ignored traffic rules, and almost smashed into Adam.

As we walked on into the park, trying to process the shock, I knew probably those who witnessed the incident would be far more concerned that I dared shout and gesture like I did, it was just my dog that was almost run over, after all. Nobody would listen to my argument that the driver no doubt didn’t sit in her car, see me and my dog waiting to cross, and decide sure it was okay to run us over. No, she simply ignored the red light because she was careless, because she didn’t think. Nobody would think it could just as easily have been my child. Nobody would likely know how frighteningly often this kind of thing happens, because everybody who saw this happen was a driver, very unlikely to walk and cycle as much as I do, and see first hand how dangerous Dundalk’s cavalier approach to driving is.

I knew complaining would most likely garner nothing more than a shake of a head, tsk-tsk, it’s a disgrace, so it is, and then anyone who might have listened would carry on with their lives as before. Dundalkers would continue to claim to love their children, claim to put their children first, while driving with little regard for traffic rules, making cycling and walking dangerous. Parking their fat, lazy butts in cycle lanes. Smashing bottles in those same cycle lanes. Making parents fear for their children’s safety too much to let them walk or cycle, instead dropping them at school in their cars, poisoning the air those same children will breathe all day, depriving them of the most obvious chance to exercise and reap the near endless list of benefits that exercise will bring: move from home to school under your own steam.

Ah, we love our children, until we are asked to love them enough to sacrifice our convenience so they will have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, a planet remaining when they are our age which is still fit for human life. Until we are asked to suffer some inconvenience, show some patience, so infrastructure can be provided to make cycling a more attractive option. Until we are asked to sacrifice ten more minutes to walk or cycle with them to school instead of driving them as they sit passively in the back seat, getting fat, sick, and stupid.

When you strip away the bluff, we love our children, all right. But we love our cars much more.

*If you read this and go: “Hang on a minute, how dare you, I walk everywhere/cycle everywhere/walk my child to school/drive like a saint but am too scared to walk or cycle because of what you describe here,” you are obviously not the part of Dundalk I’m referring to. And you should join me in my outrage at the status quo.

Why things stay the same

So this happened:

Last September, I started a degree course at Dundalk Institute of Technology. It’s a great college, and I’m very happy here. But there’s always a but.

Part of the (mandatory) orientation included all of us being addressed by a Catholic priest. I left the room before he started speaking, I happened to have a legitimate excuse, but if I hadn’t, I’d still have left. It felt so, so wrong to have an address by a religious figure included in the orientation for a course at a secular college. But that’s just my own, private, personal feeling so I aimed to handle it discreetly, and I think I succeeded. I just want to keep my head down and get my degree, then move on.

Then boom, I got these emails from the priest. The first one was understandable, he had to let everyone know he was there if they wanted to confess something, right? But the second one was not okay. Nor was the third. By the time I received a fourth email (this at a rate of about one a month), I asked very politely that I please be taken off their mailing list. That was not possible. The priest, in this college, has blanket access to every single student email, he has licence to inject his religious invitations into your inbox if you study here, whether you like it or not. He couldn’t exclude me even if he wanted to.

I tried to block emails from his address. It was not at all an obvious process, and why should I have to be the one to have to actively resist this spam? Why is the onus not on the person actually sending this stuff? But hey, I just wanted to quietly and privately opt out of this, so I figured it out and changed email settings to make sure I at least didn’t have to see this ridiculous assumption of entitlement stuffed under my nose into my inbox every month.

What do you know, it didn’t work. So in January, I emailed the college president, explained as politely as I could why I had a problem with the current state of affairs, and got a great, understanding response. That is not sarcasm, my faith in humanity was restored. In February, I got another feckin’ email from the priest. And again in March. I replied and asked him to please stop spamming my email account.

Finally, an email from an administrator, offering for me to go to her office for her to help me set up my email to no longer receive these emails. They had changed back-end stuff since December, so now it was in fact an option to send such crap directly to the shredder. This doesn’t solve the fundamental problem that the college assumes by default you want to receive all the priest’s news every month, and that you have to jump through hoops to get it to stop. It doesn’t solve the problem that the RCC is given outrageous privilege in access to students who never asked for it. It doesn’t change my extreme discomfort that something that’s not exactly secret but also most certainly not public – my student number, which is part of my student email address – was given to the RCC’s servant. But by now I just wanted to get this over with and I was exhausted after a rough week. Just… whatever.

So finally I’m in the admin’s office, and I tell her I’m ragged but am going to try very hard not to swear. Just so’s you know, I don’t think this solves the problem. I mean, how can it be right to send religious emails to people through an academic communication channel? What the fuck?

POUNCE! I swore. Bad girl, to quote her, “watch yourself.” Fair enough. Because, I then realised, firstly I was wrong to swear, no matter how many months I’ve had to struggle to get the extremely simple request met to not be spammed, no matter how frustrated I was, no matter how outrageous the situation seemed to me. It was not on.

But also:

Reason One why things stay the same:

When you point out something that has always been done this way is wrong, you’d better make sure you’re perfect because The Powers That Be are going to nail you to the floor for every single flaw you show. I decided at that point to be courteous and under no circumstances to try to argue my point. Just to emphasise, I was wrong to swear, I don’t deny that, but the “watch yourself” was a reminder how the game is played. I just had to shut up and get the priest’s spam to be dealt with then leave.

So. When she said our student email is not an academic communication channel, I didn’t argue. This:

not_academic_comm_channel

…is not an academic communication channel. Which brings me to:

Reason Two why things stay the same:

When you dare to complain and they can’t fault your arguments, we’ll start getting extremely technical about definitions, for instance, to create, out of thin air, a way to invalidate your complaint. So God for instance may get redefined until they claim when they pray to Jesus to open a meeting, when you hear Jesus you should understand it to mean some vague deity which totally can include whatever you believe. Wink wink.

I saw the light. Of course, this email with the college logo and which has your student number and the college acronym as part of it, through which you get notifications about classes changing or being cancelled and when your assignment has been submitted successfully and through which you’re notified when an assignment has been marked and through which lecturers notify you of changes in deadlines, it’s not an academic communication channel, therefore presumably it’s okay for it to be used to circulate the RCC’s notifications and invitations and shit.

How could I not have understood that from the beginning.

Reason three why things stay the same:

Bad, bad me! The chaplaincy is a requirement for all academic institutions in Ireland. How can I ask anything to change that is required from on high?

So that was indeed new. Wow. The state actually requires SECULAR academic institutions in Ireland to have a chaplaincy for students*. But her next sentence blew me away:

“We can’t afford to pay for representatives of all faiths, so we pay the priest and he covers all religious needs.”

Okay. Right. So I’m not even going to begin to try to begin to START discussing everything that’s wrong with looking at religion that way. I mean, I’m an atheist, but I used to be an evangelical Christian and I can give you a written guarantee I would not EVER have turned to a Catholic priest for my religious needs. We viewed the RCC as a corrupted version of Christianity and the Pope was speculated to be the antichrist. I remember my mom being very progressive and controversial when she said, years ago: “You can find true Christians even in the Catholic church.” That statement blew me away back then. What a novel thought, that you’d find an actual real Christian in the RCC.

But yes, sure, great, I’m sure all students of all religious persuasions are just grand to have a one-size-fits-all priest. I wonder does he have a collection of signs in his drawer, and he pops one around his neck to just let whoever is with him know today he is an imam, tomorrow he is a guru, day after that he is a shaman.

And there I was fooled by that black outfit. Looks just like a Roman Catholic priest, but you learn something new every day. No doubt nobody would ever feel reluctant to go see him fearing he’d either deliberately or uncosciously steer them towards his particular religion. The RCC is after all not known for indoctrination.

So now we have to go back to that little sentence and have another small inner explosion. I’m sorry but WHAT THE FUCK is this time totally justified: the college has to PAY the priest???!!! I… let’s just move on before I sprain something.

Reason three, summarised, is that if you complain, you create problems for often already overburdened organisations who are just doing their utter best to comply with the demands made of them. This is usually true. You may not be a villain, you may just want to stop receiving spam, for instance, but you will end up feeling like a villain and chances are if you make more of a fuss you’ll look like one, too.

Reason four why things stay the same:

You may not need this service, but others do.”

How dare you object to 100% of students being subjected to an intrusion by a religious organisation through a non-academic communication channel mandatory for all students, with no opt-out possible unless you email the college president and eventually make an appointment with an admin to show you how to implement the instructions secured from the IT department? How dare you feel it’s not right for a representative of religion A to be paid and given an office on campus to minister to people from religions A through Z? You’re so selfish.

Things stay the same because if you dare complain, you always end up feeling like the sea couldn’t wash you clean.

Reason five things stay the same:

“Really?” said my husband when I told him about the one priest to rule them all, one priest to find them approach to ministry on campus. “Why don’t you make an appointment with him, tell him you’re a satanist and you need religious guidance. Ask him to have the Satanic Bible on hand, you really need an expert’s advice. Go on, I dare you.”

I laughed. “Nah.” Because I just don’t have the energy or time. Reason five things stay the same is because It’s Always Been Done This Way is like a huge blob of… let’s say jelly. If you try to push it, it doesn’t really resist, but it’s also not moved. You end up covered in it, exhausted, possibly ruined, and the jelly will be exactly where it was before you started.

Not for me, thanks. I just wanted to stop some spam.

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*A friend asked a legitimate question: really required? By the state? I realised it was an assumption, she didn’t specify who required it. So now I am puzzled and intrigued. I can find no explicit info online. It would be interesting to know. If I find out I’ll update this. 🙂

Busker

It’s late now, fiddler man. Go home!
Balance your fiddle and folding chair
on your sturdy bike, while over there
a pair of racers breeze past
on sleek fast bikes, and students
lay in the park where you played,
on the lush, soft green, the summer scene
a welcome relief from their brief burst
of hard work. A seasoned drunk
marches along, the harsh song
of his over-loud voice advertising
his choice between reality and
sweet escape this night.
Yeah, right enough it’s late, and
the notes fade, and fiddler man
balances his odd load on his bike,
and he pedals away, away.

Ireland, land of the violated child

Ireland’s sorry history of child abuse is no secret. Much has been done since to change things, to make life better for Ireland’s children. However, a fundamental problem in this country’s view on children has remained unchanged. It is, I believe, the foundation of two major violations.

The first I became aware of in the course of researching for a possible story (I sporadically consider returning to writing fiction. The affliction passes quickly, don’t worry). It turns out that in Ireland, if a person under the age of eighteen wants to go for counselling, they have to have the consent of a parent or guardian. If they seek the help of a school counsellor, the parent will be notified. It doesn’t take very long to figure out how that is just plain stupid. All people in Ireland have a constitutional right to privacy, except one group. If that group were black, or women, or Protestants, there would be an enormous outcry. But because that group are people below a certain age, their right to privacy is violated without anyone batting an eye.

What’s even more tragic is that when someone is suicidal or self-harms, some of the biggest problems among teens in Ireland at the moment for which they are likely to seek help, the feelings are often strongly related to a sense of not having any control. In what universe does it make sense to deprive people who already are on the brink of even this, control over who knows they asked for help?

The other area in which society misses the pot by a mile, is when it comes to religion. Again, we all have a right enshrined in the constitution to religious liberty. The farce this is when it comes to education has recently been under the spotlight, but there’s one issue which I haven’t seen highlighted. I’ve read the argument that parents who wish for their children to be given a religious education should be free to do so, ie provided with a school run by the church of their choice. I’ve read that non-religious parents should have access to secular schools. I can’t recall ever having heard anyone outline how children’s right to religious freedom is infringed even if they attend a school run by their parents’ favourite church/mosque/temple/whatever. What if they disagree with their parents’ religion? Why should a certain group of people have the right to subject another group of people to religious indoctrination? If you’re a boss in a standard workplace, you can’t force staff to pray, to attend religious services, to have every task infused with religious bias. We are even debating whether those who work for a religious organisation can be forced by their boss to practice the religion in question. It never crosses our minds that a certain group of people have their personal religious convictions flatly ignored, that they can be forced by another person to go to a place where they are subjected to and forced to participate in religious practices every day. Again, simply because that group of people is not black, women, of a certain sexual persuasion, it’s okay to deprive them of a fundamental right.

Until Ireland stops looking on children as parents’ possession, there will be a gigantic problem. We cannot treat people as lesser human beings with no voice and fewer rights than others for the first eighteen years of their lives, and expect them to emerge from that magically unscathed. Yes, I am all for discipline: when a child is young, there are some rights they cannot yet exercise without harming themselves. I’ve said it before, it is crucial for a child to feel their parent is in control, but that parent must always view control of their child’s life as a temporary necessity, handled with respect for their humanity and stepped back from as soon as possible.

Irish society violates children, rapes their sense of control of their lives especially when they are in crisis. What just puts the cherry on the cake is that they then wring their hands in despair: why oh why is there an epidemic of depression among Irish teens? Depression is strongly linked to a sense of helplessness, of not being in control of your own life. You regulate someone’s life and deprive them of rights the first two decades they’re alive, they’re going to develop problems.

For a country that is so child-safety obsessed, it continually amazes me how little Ireland thinks of children. They truly are moving from “children are ultimately the possessions of the church” to “children are ultimately the possessions of their parents”. Let’s hope some day society will cop on and discover children humans should all be the possessions of nobody but themselves.