Clodagh Finn: O’Reilly sisters’ courage underlines society’s cowardice

Clodagh Finn: O’Reilly sisters’ courage underlines society’s cowardice
15/6/2020 L-R: Philomena Connors, Helen O Donoghue, Mary Moran, Margaret Hutchinson, Anne O Reilly, Bridget O Reilly and Kathleen O Driscoll - all daughters of convicted rapist James O Reilly (75) of - who was jailed for 20years for the repeated rape and sexual abuse of his younger sister and his seven(7) daughters over a 23-year period 1977 to 2000. Pic: Collins Courts

‘Don’t be afraid.’ Helen O’Donoghue’s words after her rapist father was jailed for 20 years are a rallying cry to speak, no shout and scream about violence against women, writes Clodagh Finn.

There was something in the way the O’Reilly sisters moved that was particularly heartrending.

There was such grace in their movements as they circled one another, hugging, kissing, holding and comforting; gestures that offered a glimpse perhaps of how the sisters’ unbreachable bond helped them survive more than two decades of repeated rapes, beatings and starvation at the hands of their father James O’Reilly (75).

Their testimony on the steps of the Central Criminal Court in Dublin on Monday after he was jailed for 20 years was one of the most affecting I have ever seen. It was dignified, courageous, eloquent and generous.

Helen O’Donoghue, the eldest sister, urged all women, not just Travelling women, to come forward and speak about abuse. “Stand up and be who you are. Don’t be afraid,” she said.

It’s all the more remarkable that these women did come forward because, as they went on to explain, they did not get any education and suffered violence and degradation so prolonged that it caused “incalculable harm”, to quote Mr Justice Hunt.

Yet, these fearless women did find a voice and they have used it to ask why the State failed them in every possible way. Where were the teachers, the social workers, the medical practitioners, the neighbours, the institutions of the State?

The very least they deserve is a full review of their case but it shouldn’t be up to them to look for answers.

As Colm O’Gorman, director of Amnesty, tweeted: “We should laud [these women’s] courage, & at the same time ask why our society REQUIRES victims of abuse to show such courage in the first place? We need a more courageous society... one which enables rather than limits capacity of victims to report abuse.”

It’s a good time to make that point loud and clear as a new government attempts to form. Let’s hope it will act on a call from Sharon O’Halloran, CEO Safe Ireland, to appoint a minister and a fully resourced department to tackle our entrenched systemic failures on domestic and sexual violence.

If it doesn’t, perhaps it’s time to take a cue from women in Switzerland who gathered last Sunday to hold a mass scream to demand an end to violence against women and gender inequality.

They staged a flash mob and held a minute’s silence for the women killed by husbands or boyfriends. Despite coronavirus restrictions, thousands marched and screamed for a minute at 3.24pm, the time of day women start to work for nothing because of the ongoing gender pay gap.

If we staged a mass scream here, I’d be screaming for answers – at the very least – for the O’Reilly sisters and their aunt, and for support and recognition for all those who still suffer because of the continuing silence and invisibility of women in our society.

Violence against women does not happen in a vacuum. It is, to quote the European Institute for Gender Equality, “rooted in women’s unequal status in society”. That inequality seeps into every area of society, social, political and economic.

There is much to scream about.

I did a random survey among women I admire to ask what they would scream about. Here’s what they said.

Dr Caroline West, lecturer in Sexuality Studies at Dublin City University: “I want to scream about domestic violence, and how prevalent it still is in Ireland in 2020. Sentences are rare and lenient, and the gardai often aren’t up to date or as trained as they should be. The court process can be re-traumatising for victims. Victims of domestic abuse are being failed every time we have to turn them away from refuges as they are full.

“Children witnessing domestic violence and growing up in an abusive home are victims [too], not passive bystanders. We need more services, more funding and more education in schools about what healthy relationships are and how violence can take so many different forms.”

For Dr Mary McAuliffe, Assistant Professor/lecturer in Gender Studies at UCD, her immediate cause of rage is the continuing gendered inequalities and violence against women revealed by the pandemic. Domestic violence is up by 25%.

“As a feminist there are many things which make me want to scream and I do believe that righteous rage is a powerful aspect of being a feminist in an unequal world.

The continuing racism, marginalisation and violence that women of colour, Traveller/Minceir women and trans women suffer in our society make me want to scream from the mountaintops – stop!

"As a historian, the continuing battle to have women’s contributions, voices and histories recognised and included in our narratives informs my work and much of that righteous anger.”

Interfaith minister Rev Medbh Boyle would scream about the wounds left by generations of being shamed and silenced in the name of spirituality and religion.

“I believe we need to keep voicing our stories and shaking the shame from our bones so that we can truly claim and live our liberations. For me, this includes reclaiming women’s access to inclusive, supportive ceremony and spirituality. As a female minister, my shout is one of reverence to every woman and girl (indeed every person) that you, your life, your loves, your losses, your sexuality, your body, your choices, your stories are sacred and are welcome in Ireland.”

Margaret E Ward, CEO of Clear Ink, and founder of Women on Air, finds the barriers against women, at all levels, exhausting.

“I probably stifle my silent scream every day. Why don’t women have an equal voice in the policy-making that impacts on all of us? Why are there so few women in cabinet? Why aren’t women more visible as experts on radio and TV? How are all-male conferences still possible? Why aren’t there more women in government? At the boardroom table? Why won’t male venture capitalists invest more in women-led start-ups? I am not invisible. Women are not invisible.”

These are edited versions, alas. There was more to shout about. Why, then, aren’t we all screaming?

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