angalis texte

“Not wanting to cause a fuss” by Caroline Heanue

On 22 May 2015 Ireland became the first nation in the world to enshrine the right of same-sex couples to marry into the Constitution by means of referendum.  An unprecedented response resulted in an unambiguously resounding yes against the explicit instruction of the Roman Catholic Church.  This act by means of popular vote speaks to having banished the once powerful and pervasive influence and image of the Church as bearer of knowledge, power and ideal to the margins.  Ireland made international headlines and celebrated with the hashtag ‘We Made History’ trending on Twitter.

 What is of particular interest in this act may be posed in three questions.  The reason why this right had to be voted for in a referendum?  What does this overwhelming support of democracy in defiance of the Church’s position say, given the historically deeply embedded relation with the Church?  The third question is around the unrestrained celebration of the referendum success which is starkly contrasted to the more accustomed position of “not wanting to cause a fuss” especially in matters relating to the Church.

 The first question is inextricably tied to the second one.  The Irish Constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann) established an independent Free State based on a system of representative democracy in 1922.  This was replaced by a second Constitution enacted in 1937 which aimed to be less pliable to amendment by law and delineated an Irish ‘identity.’  Legislation for same-sex marriage was therefore not considered a viable option because of the possibility for lawful challenge given the constitutional protection of marriage and the institution of the family.  There was not only one type of marriage recognised under the Constitution but also one type of family.  A family which mirrored Catholic ideology, established on the condition of heterosexual marriage.  It was not until 1972 that a reference to the « special position » of the Church was removed from the Constitution under the Fifth Amendment.  However the effects of this trace remained alongside the paradigm of masculinity in the text of the Constitution.

 One such example was the prevalent institutions which operated from the 18th to the late 20th centuries run by the Church which ostensibly provided refuge to ‘fallen women.’  This was the signifier nominated to women who were unmarried and pregnant and therefore judged immoral.  Stephen Frear’s film “Philomena” released in 2013 portrays a single case.  It is the story of Philomena Lee who was forced to enter a convent (‘Mother and Baby Home’) for such shamed ‘fallen women’ after her family disowned her.  There she gave birth and was coerced to renunciate her son in a closed secret system of adoption abroad.  This narrative echoes the fate of thousands of Irish women of that time who were shamed, condemned to secrecy and without voice – as were their children who were displaced objects, frequently relocated overseas.  Condemned women and children who did not adhere to the one-dimensional and constraining definition of family contained under the auspices of the staunchly Catholic Constitution.

 In 2009 yet a further ‘turn’ of the signifier victim was revealed with the revelation of Ireland’s history of systemic institutional abuse.  Following the television broadcast of a documentary exposing Industrial Schools,[1] the unprecedented public outpouring of similar experiences forced the State to initiate ‘The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.’  The remit of this Report was to investigate abuse allegations and develop procedures to prevent its reoccurrence but excluded future prosecutions of those involved, thereby eliding any sense of justice.[2]  This Report known as the Ryan Report instantly became the master signifier of systemic child abuse and contempt for human rights in Irish discourse.

 Industrial Schools were residential institutions run and managed by various Catholic religious orders for children classified as ‘juvenile delinquents.’  These Schools were recognised as the solution in which to place the category of children classed as delinquent, destitute, neglected or orphaned.  Parental responsibility was invalidated and children transferred to the Schools scattered throughout the country and deposited into the real of endemic abuse.  Many thousand of Irish children were stripped of singularity and brought up in a regime of “severe, excessive and pervasive corporal punishment and chronic sexual abuse.”[3]   Extending over decades, this collusion of the Church and the State, the traditional pillars of Irish society, ensured a scandalous silence from the perspective of the law enveloped the country’s Victorian model of institutional care of its children.  The world media condemned ‘Ireland’s shameful tragedy.’[4]

 This model of institutional care of our children and The woman has been obliterated from our landscape and we no longer pathologise unmarried mothers.  The institutional framework which exacted power over an incarcerated society, both within and without its walls has yielded and so with its’ determining effects.  These signifiers have lost their shame and secrecy but their impact remains embedded and transmitted.  One by one, at times we meet a ‘Philomena’ in our practice and at other times her child or grandchild.  The real denied and covered over returned last year with the discovery of 796 infants in a mass unmarked grave at a formerly designated ‘Mother and Baby Home.’  Disposable human waste, unnamed and discarded.  Once again the story made international headlines, exemplifying a history of institutional abuse of The woman and child.

 There remains the intractable issue of abortion as possibly the final hurdle to overcome in our treatment of woman.  The deeply rooted Catholic foundational beliefs enshrined in the Constitution under the 8th Amendment gives the unborn child the same rights as the mother.[5]  The current status has resulted in ambiguity for the medical profession due to uncertainty over the constitutional status of the foetus which vindicates the right to life of the unborn at the (sometimes) expense of the mother.[6]  Controversy continues to erupt with the case last year of a woman who was declared clinically dead at 15 weeks gestation, who remained on life support until the High Court ruled on its withdrawal with the consent of the woman’s family.

 For almost two years, advocates on both sides of the argument have been calling for a fourth abortion referendum, a call which echoes that of the UN which has formally called for a referendum on abortion and on the place of women in society[7] stating that Irish women are still being denied human rights.  It urges new abortion legislation and the revision of the Constitution to ensure that women who are pregnant as a result of rape, incest or who have a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly or where a woman’s health is at risk have access to abortion if they choose it.  Motivated by the outcome of the same-sex marriage referendum, the State has pledged to review abortion legislation and end a thirty year intensely debated deliberation on the subject.

 For many years Ireland has had a particular connection to the signifier victim in its specific relation to the institution of the Church.  The edict of the Church permeated the fundamental laws of the land within the Constitution enabling its discourse to act as the master discourse by underpinning State policy.  The referendum on same-sex marriage realised an unprecedented voter response, one which spanned the age spectrum with many young emigrants returning home to vote.  An opportunity to make ones’ voice heard in support of the definition of the family and the treatment of the real of sex.

 The response indicates a changed symbolic order with a determination to consign to history the once ubiquitous response of fearful silence.  A refusal of a social order founded upon traditional authority and prohibition and a move towards one which not only allows but makes a space for singularity and possibility.  The semblant of the Church has definitively been irretrievably shaken, which in turn paves the way for further dismantling of its mortifying edifice.  As its shackles become looser a redoing of the threads of history becomes possible, one which no longer privileges the Church, one which allows for the creation of something new.  This act marks a re-invention one by one of the definition of the family, of the woman as separate from mother, of a new social link permitting a not-all of feminine to emerge.  Once again, Ireland has made international headlines – but this time, for very different reasons.

 Finally, what of the third question concerning the unrestrained celebration of the referendum success?  A lot of fuss alongside victory celebrations was made.  There are currently two media campaigns running in Ireland: one launched by an insurance company and the other by a well known German global chain, which both cleverly and accurately portray an integral aspect of the Irish social bond.  They have both founded their campaigns on wit in order to emphasise how the Irish ‘don’t want to cause a fuss’ as the latter concludes.  This parody of comic exchange is founded in self-depreciation and is ingenuous in its targeting of the Irish market as there are few who would disagree!  Perhaps this position of “not wanting to cause a fuss” in relation to the Church has finally ended.


[1] Reformatory Schools under the Reformatory Schools (Ireland) Act, 1858 and Industrial Schools under the Industrial Schools (Ireland) Act, 1868 were combined and known as Industrial Schools.

[2] “The first requisite of civilisation … is that of justice … the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favour of an individual”. Sigmund Freud, SE21, Civilisation and Its Discontents.

[3] Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, 2009, Volume 1, Chapter 8, Section 8.264

[4]The day after the publication of the Ryan Report, The New York Times headlined ‘Ireland’s shameful tragedy’ describing a ‘Nuremberg trial, Irish-style, with no names, no prosecution and no court appearances’.

[5] The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1983 was effected after a referendum which acknowledges the right to life of the unborn, equating it with the mother’s right to life. This was further refined in 2013 with the « Protection of Human Life During Pregnancy » Act.

[6] The death of Savita Halappanavar in October 2012 who died at 17 weeks gestation which captured world headlines calling for a review of the abortion laws in Ireland

[7] Irish Times, July 2014

Translations : Espagnol, Anglais, Italien, Néerlandais