During an interview in New York, Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain commented that she both loved and hated Ireland. I feel the same. I love Ireland for many reasons. I love how we collectively mourn the deaths of our poets and musicians, how we laugh a lot, cry a lot too. I hate Ireland for one reason. I hate the way it hates women, and again and again and again the ways in which it fails to protect them.
How ceaseless the violence against Irish women and children has been across the decades.
Teachers have some small contributions to make in changing this culture. Discussions about sex and consent, respect and equality should exist along the very spine of our education system. And yet, in many schools in Ireland of all places, of all places, we curtail these conversations. We curtail the role of the educator. The State proactively silences open conversations about sex and consent and pornography. Ethos trumps freedom. The State permits 90% of its primary schools to teach Flourish, a programme designed by the Irish Catholic Bishop’s conference, a group of celibate men.
The same programme tells small girls that they are perfectly designed to procreate with God. It denies them bodily autonomy and it tells them what a family should look like.
There is no room for God or silence in how Ireland discusses sex.
The Union of Students Ireland (USI) surveyed 6,000 people last year and found that 30% of female college students had experienced non-consensual sexual penetration. NUI Galway surveyed over 600 secondary school students and found that only 58% of boys felt verbal consent was necessary, 67% of girls said the same.
Open, secular relationship and sex education is essential for Ireland to change its gruesome legacy of violence against women and children.
Last Friday, Pat Kenny’s Newstalk decided to explore the importance of Catholic schooling for Irish parents. They invited David Quinn, the director of the Iona Institute to speak. Just him. He confidently declared that most parents are happy to go along with a ‘catholic lite’ school system, suggesting that a removal of the sacraments would be an inconvenience. Yet every single message sent into the show from listeners, from Irish parents, seemed to say otherwise.
What people fail, or indeed refuse, to see is the line between this censorship of education, this societal laziness, and the continuation of abuse in our country.
It is not simply about sacraments and the inconvenience of doing them ourselves. The integrated curriculum, the influence of Catholicism on other subjects, like relationship and sex education is something we need to acknowledge. We tell ourselves Ireland is known internationally for our education system — for the lauded Leaving Certificate. We forget we are far better known for the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries.
I read about proposed changes in the primary curriculum with some relish this week until I read the small print. The plan, to be finalised by 2026, is to reduce the teaching of faith formation by half an hour a week. Such reforms offer too little, too late, for too many.
Nuala O Faolain’s comment came back to me this week when I read Ms Justice Deirdre Murphy’s sentencing in the case of a young man raping his small cousin. The man received a suspended sentence and was advised to stay away from young children for five years. One of Justice Deirdre Murphy’s stellar recommendations was for primary schools to address pornography.
The 19-year-old is guilty of seven Section 4 rapes and 10 sexual assault offences. Research indicates that child molesters have the highest risk of sexual reoffending.
Ms Justice Deirdre Murphy suggests that schools and teachers might magic this blight away by addressing it in our censored Catholic classrooms. Her comment came a week before CBS Primary school in Wexford was ordered to re-open, reversing a decision made by the board of management and despite having over 30 cases of Covid-19.
Our judicial system gives schools impossible tasks to complete while our State denies the same schools basic autonomy and respect.
If we really cared about protecting women, vulnerable children, and vulnerable men, we’d demand open conversations in our schools, and we would expect nothing but the most robust and consistent supports for our staff and students. We have a very long road and a constant struggle ahead. Young people deserve open, age-appropriate discussions in our schools. They deserve a judicial system that doesn’t sweep problems under the school gates. They deserve far better than what they’re getting. We all do.