Why Irishwomen are still waiting for their own Independence Day

YESTERDAY marked the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the state, but nobody was sure of the extent of our independence initially. Doubts about our sovereignty were dispelled

We had substituted dictation from Westminster for dictation from Maynooth. This became clear with the disclosure in 1951 that our politicians were secretly taking orders from a wholly unelected body the Irish Catholic Hierarchy.

People are usually appalled when they hear of the outrageous treatment of women in Muslim countries, but women here were shamefully treated as second-class citizens until quite recently. In the decade and a half following World War II this country had the highest rate of female emigration in Europe. No doubt this was partly because of the way that they were treated in their own land. Unmarried women were exploited in the workplace. They were not paid as much as their male counterparts, and they had few chances of advancement. Once they got married they had to resign from the civil service and a whole range of other jobs, including teaching and the banks.

In the 1930s Fianna Fáil governments brought in legislation banning the advertising, sale and importation of contraceptives. This was done at the behest of the Catholic Hierarchy, which seemed virtually obsessed with sex. Maybe this had something to do their own frustration as a result of their unnatural celibacy requirements.

It was said that Irish bishops stood on ceremony, walked on women and sat on everybody. For them, women were an occasion of sin and treated accordingly.

When the Hierarchy gathered at Maynooth for their annual Easter meeting in 1944, one of the items on the agenda was what to do with Tampax, the new sanitary tampons. Some of our more imaginative bishops felt that tampons "could harmfully stimulate young girls at an impressionable age." Can you visualise any group of people less qualified to deal with the subject? But ignorance never impeded an Irish bishop. They called for the sale of tampons to be restricted and the government dutifully complied, as they did in promoting the ludicrous censorial atmosphere which extended across the whole field of entertainment from books to films and even to records. We were an international laughing stock.

Films were cuts on ludicrous grounds and a great many distinguished writers, both Irish and international, had books banned here for absurd reasons. But the most ridiculous move of all must have been the banning of Bing Crosby's records from the air.

Crosby had a whole series of number one hit records in the USA from May to October 1944. "I Love You" was followed "I'll be Seeing You," which was replaced by "Swinging On a Star." But those records were banned on Irish radio, because some twit thought that Crosby's style of singing would undermine the moral fibre of Irish youth.

If anyone thought that the Fianna Fáil government had lost the plot, they were in for a real surprise after the first Inter-Party Government took over in 1948.

Although it would formally proclaim the Republic and launch the Mansion House campaign to end partition, one of its first acts was to send a telegram to the Pope desiring "to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and our devotion to your August Person, as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ, and to strive for the attainment of social order in Ireland based on Christian principles." Of course, it went without saying that the Catholic Church would define those Christian principles.

Maurice Moynihan, the Government Secretary, strongly advised against the telegram on the grounds that "no civil power should declare that it reposed at the feet of the Pope," but he was overruled and promptly banned from future cabinet meetings.

That government provided proof positive that Home Rule did amounted to Rome Rule. William Norton, the Tánaiste, backed down on a Social Welfare Bill when faced with ecclesiastical opposition, and Seán MacEoin, the Minister for Justice, abandoned an adoption bill under orders from the Archbishop of Dublin, JC McQuaid.

"He won't allow it," MacEoin told the cabinet. That was that! The ecclesiastical interference came to ahead when the Minister for Health, Noel Browne, ran foul of the Archbishop of Dublin. Browne had been doing a magnificent job in tackling what had been the highest rate of TB in Western Europe. By 1951 the TB rate had been halved and he turned his attention to the country's infant morality rate, which was also one of the highest in Europe. His Mother and Child Bill ran into ecclesiastical hostility, however, because some bishops thought it amounted to socialised medicine, as there was no means test for free treatment. The bishops also objected that the bill provided for the counselling of pregnant women and there was no guarantee that the doctor advising a pregnant Catholic woman would be a Catholic.

Browne sought to reassure them that the "education in respect of motherhood" related to diet and such not issues like contraception or abortion, which were illegal anyway. When Browne persisted with the bill, his party leader, Seán MacBride, demanded his resignation. He acknowledged that "Browne was a first-class Minister for Health," but demanded his resignation anyway to satisfy the Archbishop of Dublin.

Browne resigned and promptly released his correspondence on the controversy to the Irish Times.

"The most serious revelation," it thundered in an editorial, "is that the Roman Catholic Church would seem to be the effective Government of this country."

Any doubt about that was ould have been dispelled by the ensuing Dáil debate. Coalition leaders justified taking orders from the Archbishop of Dublin. Their big problem was Browne's behaviour in going public.

"All these matters could have been, and ought to have been, dealt with calmly, in quiet and in council, without the public becoming aware of the matter," the Taoiseach, John A. Costello, told the Dáil. So much for public accountability, the Republic, and the people's right to know! Any bishop who acted that arrogantly now would probably be told what to do with himself. Thus, we are freer than ever before, but women are still being denied membership of 11 golf clubs, just because they are women. Worse, the current government is condoning the practice by providing over €250,000 to help sponsor the Irish Open at Portmarnock, which refuses to permit women members.

The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, John O'Donoghue, called on people to challenge the club's bar licence.

Is this his idea of leadership sitting back and waiting for others to act? Back in 1978 the World Cup of Golf was due to be played at Waterville in the Minister's own constituency, but it was moved because the government of the time refused to admit a team from apartheid South Africa.

However, this government sees nothing wrong with promoting Portmarnock with taxpayers' money, contributed by both men and women. This is an affront to every woman in the country.

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