A forty year fight against sexual violence

Pure chance brought Mary Crilly to get involved in setting up Cork’s Rape Crisis Centre, which would ultimately help more than 10,000 people to heal after sexual violence and educate many more. 

Liz Dunphy


When it was founded in 1983, the first rape crisis centre outside Dublin was considered so radical it was raided by Special Branch. Almost forty years on, the country has changed beyond recognition. But founder Mary Crilly - who is preparing to retire in three years time when she turns 70 - tells Liz Dunphy there is still work to be done.

A neighbour in Mary Crilly's Cork housing estate asked her to join a group trying to set up a rape crisis centre – a radical idea in 1980s Ireland. 

That conversation with her neighbour would launch Mary into a 40-year fight against sexual violence during which she would help push through dramatic and necessary changes in Irish culture. 

Mary Crilly, Director of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre at the premises on Camden Quay, Cork. PICTURE: DAN LENIHAN

The Rape Crisis Centre was regarded with suspicion in the highly conservative society of the time, even being raided by the Garda special branch when it initially opened in the Quay Co-Op in 1983. 

At that time, a narrow notion of ‘family values’ prevailed. Catholic doctrine influenced public policy and the justice system, and female sexuality was repressed and controlled by Church and State. Contraception was illegal to procure in Ireland without a prescription, marital rape was not a crime and homosexuality was illegal. Magdalene Laundries were still in operation, and women were being subjected to devastating symphysiotomies during routine births.  

Article from the Irish Examiner, 2nd March 1983.

Article from the Irish Examiner, 16th April 1984.

1983 was also the year the Eighth Amendment, which effectively banned abortion in the Irish Constitution, was passed in a fractious referendum. That change would limit women’s control of their own reproductive systems and entrench bitter divides in Irish society. Although abortion had been illegal for many years, the Eighth Amendment established the equal right to life of a pregnant woman and an unborn child to ensure that an abortion would only be allowed when the mother’s life was at risk. That amendment would only be repealed by referendum in 2018. 

Former Chief Supt. Barry McPolin.PICTURE: DENIS MINIHANE

Former Cork Chief Superintendent Barry McPolin first joined the gardaí in 1983, the year the Cork Rape Crisis Centre was founded. He agrees with Mary Crilly that “Ireland was a different country then." 

“These crimes were possibly looked down on by society, or victims were not taken seriously, the whole mindset has changed pretty seismically over the past 40 years.  Things then were the norm that wouldn’t be accepted today. The Rape Crisis Centre, as it was called then, was ground breaking," he says. 

But despite the prevailing conservative and often misogynistic values of 1980s Ireland, Mary and her colleagues persevered, knowing that the centre's work was too vital to be stopped.  

Then a single parent to two young children, she had left school early, had no third-level education, and no background in activism.  

But her keen sense of social justice, her fire and steadfast determination must have been recognised by that neighbour who asked her to get involved.  

As other founders of the centre, mostly academics and lawyers, sank back into their busy lives once the Rape Crisis Centre had been founded, she felt duty bound to drive it forward for the sake of all survivors.  

Mary Crilly, Director of the Sexual Violence Centre, Cork speaking to Liz Dunphy, Irish Examiner.

ork was only the second rape crisis centre in Ireland, set up after Dublin. 

“If you walked down the street back then, you’d see lots of priests. You’d see police who you would not approach. You’d see that patriarchal society very strongly,” Mary recalls now.

“Rape in marriage was not a crime then. That only changed in 1990. Homosexuality was still a crime.  There were only about 35 reports of rape in Cork city and county when we set up, so it was not seen as an issue. But how could you report it?"

“It was down to people like [journalist] Mary Raftery, who did the States of Fear programme, things like that opened the country and made massive changes because it showed the reality of what was going on in Ireland. 

“There were a lot of women fighting for change. There was an era of consciousness-raising in the '80s. Everything was run by a collective at that stage, so decisions were made by everybody, which is quite difficult.  

“There are lots of ways in which a collective worked but lots in which it didn’t.” 


Sexual violence, like it or not, is happening. And I don’t want it hidden anymore. I want the perpetrators called to account. 


In 1984, the Cork Rape Crisis Centre moved from the Quay Co-Op to MacCurtain street. The centre was tucked away, almost hidden, above a taxi company.  

“We were there for more than 10 years. Telecabs [below the centre] was quite visible but you’d have to look to find us.  

“If you didn’t know the street you could quite easily pass it and not see our door.” 

Confidentiality was so crucial that mail was sent to a PO Box to ensure privacy at the centre.  

But by the time the centre was to move once more around 1996, Ms Crilly decided to take a different approach. Public perception of sexual violence was slowly changing and she wanted the centre to be visible and a part of the community, where many different groups and individuals could come for education and awareness-raising purposes, as well as for counselling. 

Outside Cork Sexual Violence Centre on Camden Quay, Cork PICTURE: LARRY CUMMINS

“When I found this building [a large Georgian townhouse at Camden Place on the quays in the city centre] there were a lot of comments thrown at me. Were we going to make it too visible for people to walk in? Should we stay in a place where people have to find us?  

“I said, ‘we don’t want anyone feeling uncomfortable but why should they feel so ashamed that they have to walk up a lane nearly to find us?’  

“Sexual violence, like it or not, is happening. And I don’t want it hidden anymore. I want the perpetrators called to account.  

“And I want to name it because it is being done to young women and men, and they are being blamed for what is being done to them. I’m not even going to use the word, ‘what happens to them’ because it doesn't just happen, someone does it to them.”

By the 1990s, people were approaching the centre asking for education and information on consent and sexual violence as society slowly peeled back the layers of silence and taboo that had kept these issues hidden and ignored by many for so long. 

“More schools were starting to come in, asking to visit us, but the premises we had was not big enough," Ms Crilly says. 

“That was part of my thinking here, to open up the centre to everyone and educate people that rape was to do with power and control. And we really need to keep talking about it, keep the conversation going.  

“Now you see school kids coming [for education], lots of different people coming in for different reasons, because this building is open to everybody calling in.”  

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Dola Twomey, Mary Crilly and Roisín Kenny in the Art Therapy room at the Cork Sexual Violence Centre on Camden Quay, Cork. PICTURE DAN LINEHAN

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Mary O'Sullivan providing counselling for people at the Cork Sexual Violence Centre on Camden Quay, Cork. PICTURE DAN LINEHAN

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Mary Crilly with stalking awareness merchandise, at the Sexual Violence Centre, Camden Quay, Cork.

The different buildings the centre have inhabited over the years have reflected a changing Ireland which has become stronger, kinder and more victim-centred. 

The centre's large Georgian windows engage and gently challenge passers-by, draped in awareness-raising posters about campaigns like ‘Cork against Human Trafficking’, promoting safe gigs, and their pivotal role in establishing changes in stalking legislation. 

Cork Against Human Trafficking (CAHT) raising awareness of trafficking with the #ItHappensHere campaign.  

“We never have anything offensive or anything a child could not see in the windows. We want people to work with us, we want to bring people along.  

“We all hate sexual violence so let’s do something about it. But let’s not hide.” 

When the centre first moved to the townhouse on Camden Place, the building was “a wreck.” 

Pigeons fluttered among the rafters and lots of things were crumbling and broken. 

With a budget, at the time, of €15,000, that would barely cover fixing the windows. 


Even though the Cork Rape Crisis Centre Ltd owns the building, I always feel that the people of Cork own it. It’s their pennies that went into it. 


They had bought the lease, which was due to run out in one year after which time the building was to be sold. Throughout that time, auctioneers and bankers would stroll through the building, assuming it would be put up for sale within 12 months.  

They would have lost the building without the help of Marie Baker, now a Supreme Court judge, then a barrister practicing in Cork, Ms Crilly says. Solicitor Mary Linehan was also instrumental in helping acquire the building.  

“Marie remembered that there was some contract with all these houses that if you held the old lease - which we did by chance, the lease we had was over 100 years old - that you were entitled to buy a building, irrelevant of the condition, at a reasonable price. So although there must have been big offers on the place, they could not charge us €400,000 or €500,000.  

“Only for Marie Baker and Mary Linehan, we would not have got this building. We were brought to court a few times, there was huffing and puffing in the courthouse. Then I got a call one day saying ‘the judge has had it.’ 

Mary Crilly, CEO of the Sexual Violence Centre Cork (SVCC), at a special meeting of Cork City Council where the freedom of the city was bestowed upon her. This accolade is the highest honour a city can bestow upon a citizen or eminent guest. PICTURE: MICHAEL O'SULLIVAN/OSM PHOTO

"We bought the building for less than €100,000. 

“Then, because we owned the building, we were allowed to apply for an EU grant [to renovate it] and got €80,000. Then we applied to an architect, an engineer and quantity surveyor who took it over from there. They were fantastic. 

“So people have wanted to help and support.  

“A lot of goodwill has allowed the centre to grow.  

“Even though the Cork Rape Crisis Centre Ltd owns the building, I always feel that the people of Cork own it. It’s their pennies that went into it.” 

In 2004, the Cork Rape Crisis Centre was renamed the Cork Sexual Violence Centre to more accurately reflect both the range of clients who attend and the reality of the sexual violence they experience. Ms Crilly is both its founder and CEO. 

In June of this year, Mary Crilly was awarded the freedom of Cork city – the city’s highest civic honour - in recognition of her unstinting support and advocacy for survivors of sexual violence over four decades.  

Mary Crilly, Director of the Sexual Violence Centre, Cork speaking to Liz Dunphy, Irish ExaminerVIDEO DAN LINEHAN

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Amy Barrett

“I always refer to the Rape Crisis Centre as my safe place. It’s the first place I spoke to anyone in full about what had gone on"

Amy Barrett, Sexual violence survivor, speaking to Liz Dunphy, Irish Examiner.

Survivor of sexual abuse, Amy Barrett says the Sexual Violence Centre has been pivotal in helping her recover after years of rape and abuse by her father when she was a child. 

She believes that the Sexual Violence Centre Cork, known as the Cork Rape Crisis Centre when she first asked for their help, is a vital service to help people heal from sexual violence. 

“I always refer to the Rape Crisis Centre as my safe place. It’s the first place I spoke to anyone in full about what had gone on,” explains Amy.

“The attitude to abuse years ago was ‘you don’t talk about it.’ But things are changing, slowly. You are encouraged to talk about it much more now.” 

Amy Barrett was abused by her father Jerry O’Keefe in the family home in Youghal as a child in the 1980s. A retired soldier, O’Keefe was sentenced to 10 years in prison for rape and sexual assault of Amy and her sister Melissa in 2017. 

Jerry O'Keeffe was convicted of abusing his daughters Amy and Melissa.

Amy first attended the Cork Rape Crisis Centre aged 24. 

“Mary Crilly, she had my back. I knew I was going to get help from the moment I met her,” she says now. “I felt very safe up there. 

“At the start, I was a little embarrassed that people would see me walking into the building …but I ended up feeling proud of the place because this was my safe space. This was the place I could go where I could get help.  

“Mary Crilly is amazing. She’s always been there for me. She’d literally drop everything to see how she can help you.”

Along with changing societal attitudes, investigations of sexual crimes have also changed hugely since the 1980s, says Barry McPolin.  

“You’re talking about a whole panoply of improvements in how any police service can conduct an investigation, you have all of this science, all of this technology, we’ve moved with society. 

“And it’s reflected by how society has viewed these crimes. 


Victims have a lot more confidence in the system now. And there has been a cultural change in society in general. 


“People now have the confidence to report an incidence. The very low rate of reporting incidences in the past may have been societal pressure, family, friends, a general attitude towards such crimes at the time, but that has changed. 

“We’re a much more open society, there’s much more confidence displayed by victims of crime, people are now able to make a complaint and progress it to an investigation by An Garda Síochána. 

“They might not want to go through with a complaint now, but all the evidence can be collected early and they can make a statement down the line. 

“Victims have a lot more confidence in the system now. And there has been a cultural change in society in general. 

“Along with the Rape Crisis Centre growing exponentially over the last four decades into the centre of excellence that it is today, the State agencies and criminal justice system in general has moved along as well. That’s been very welcome.” 

Amy Barrett, Sexual violence survivor, speaking to Liz Dunphy, Irish Examiner.


Mary Crilly has seen many positive changes over the past 40 years but hopes that progress will grow exponentially in the next 40 years.  

Fostering a culture of zero tolerance of sexual violence and abuse is central to that, she said. 

“If you come across someone and she says she was groped on Washington St, that’s tolerated in Ireland, that’s accepted.  

“But in other countries that culture is being challenged. In Norway, I have a daughter living there and her little one started school recently and they had an LGBT day. They didn’t know what it meant but it was about difference. They have days about bullying.  

“In Iceland, they have days when they separate the kids and talk about gender when they’re in primary school. Not in sixth class, but when they’re in babies. So these young lads grow up to think ‘why would you do that?’ I’m not saying it’s perfect but in some of those countries, the men are horrified that the girls are treated differently. So we have to change the culture here.”  

Ireland must also continue work to reverse its culture of victim blaming. Although some progress has been made in this area, it has been incomplete and too slow. 


Young guys are still not calling out their peers. That’s not changing. 


“People still say ‘what were you doing?’ if you were attacked. I think parents with the best will in the world, will say to their daughters, ‘why did you drink so much?’  

“But they’re young, they’re teenagers, it’s what they do. They should be able to do it and get home safely,” Ms Crilly says. 

“I’m sick and tired of language like ‘she put herself in the way of it’ and ‘she should have known better’. It’s like giving the perpetrators free rein - do what you want and you won’t get blamed. 

“Young guys are still not calling out their peers. That’s not changing.” 

But grown adults are also still shockingly accepting of male sexual violence, she said.  

“One woman told me the other week that her daughter had been raped by this young fella who she said was like her brother, they grew up together. But the mother said ‘you know he’s like a son to me. I don’t think he realised what he did.’ That happens so often.  

“Of course, he realised what he did. If you stab somebody you know.” 

But other changes give her hope.

High Court Judge David Keane recently told a sentencing hearing that character referees for convicted criminals should have to come to court to be cross-examined. 

Article from the Irish Examiner, 19th July 2022.

He made the comments after lawyers for a man convicted of the rape and sexual assault of his son asked the court to receive references from the man’s partner, parents and GP. 

New legislation may be passed to allow the prosecution to cross-examine referees. The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2022, which would allow this, is currently before the Oireachtas. 

Too many times, Mary has witnessed or read about men who rape women and children being given character references by doctors, people in the GAA, people from their community.  

“This is when 12 honest people on a jury in Ireland have found this person guilty. There’s only a 10% conviction rate so they’ve really thought this through and said ‘this man is guilty.’ And then these people decide to give up a character reference – to say he’s a good father after being found guilty of raping his son?” 

New anti-stalking legislation, which the Sexual Violence Centre has been involved in working on, calling for barring orders and restraining orders to be added to it, is also before the Oireachtas. 

Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee.PICTURE: CONOR Ó MEARÁIN

Justice Minister Helen McEntee has secured Government approval for the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022 which is expected to become law in the Autumn.  

It will create standalone offences for stalking and non-fatal strangulation. Courts will be able to issue civil restraining orders against stalkers. The Bill will also increase the maximum sentence for assault causing harm from five years to 10 years, and allow life sentences for conspiracy to murder. 

“We’ve come across a lot of people who have been stalked who had no protection but if they could have taken out a restraining order against them, that would have helped,” Ms Crilly said. 

Helen McEntee’s general efforts to make the justice system more victim-centred gives her hope that things are changing. Amy Barrett also believes Minister McEntee's work is changing things.

Youth activism also gives her hope that the future can be a safer and brighter place. She has seen major changes in culture at student unions. Once overwhelmingly male and macho, last year’s UCC Student Union was populated by many dynamic women and led by Asha Woodhouse, who took initiatives to tackle and highlight gender-based violence.  

Mary Crilly, Director of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre at the premises on Camden Quay, Cork.  PICTURE: DAN LINEHAN

But one thing which still requires urgent change is the continuing culture of acceptance around domestic abuse. 

“When a woman is murdered in the street, quite rightly, there is mass anger and protest. But when a woman is murdered in her home there’s less of an outcry,” Ms Crilly says. “This must change.”

Although the centre receives funding from the HSE, Ms Crilly believes the large amount of "paperwork and red tape" required takes up valuable time that should be spent supporting victims. And, because HSE funding is granted on a yearly basis, the centre can't forward plan based on budgets from State grants, something she says has to change. 

Ms Crilly, 67, is working on a three-year exit plan to step down as centre CEO by the time she is 70, although she plans to continue campaigning and advocacy work after that deadline. 

Survivors of sexual violence who spoke to the Irish Examiner for this article said that whoever takes over will have enormous metaphorical shoes to fill.  


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