watershed | 

It’s hard to say but harder to accept that this is no country for women – young or old

We – men and women – were shaped by a church/state whose creed, often beaten into us, was that we were sinners in thought, in word and in deed

Flowers and messages placed outside Leinster House, Dublin, in memory of murder victim Ashling Murphy. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Annette Blackwell

‘A watershed moment for action’. That is the term most used to address violence against women in Ireland since the news broke of Ashling Murphy’s murder .

I am a journalist who fled Ireland in the early ’90s and returned recently.

I am sitting in my home, near a midlands canal, wondering just how many watershed moments Ireland must go through to finally examine attitudes cemented deep in the Irish psyche.

It is hard to say but harder to accept that this in no country for women – young or old.

For me, the core problem has always been Ireland’s past. We – men and women – were shaped by a church/state whose creed, often beaten into us, was that we were sinners in thought, in word and in deed.

It is worthy of comparisons to Big Brother from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four . If you were not sinning, you were thinking about sinning. Even as a child, I wondered about that ‘Gotcha!’ strategy to keep us in line.

But for young girls, it was worse. Virgin Mary, mother of God, was an impossible role model to live up to. That bar was so ludicrous and so high there was no way a girl or woman could ever reach it.

As a result, we were taught to think less of ourselves. Boys learned that we were less than them.

Blaming, belittling and beating women was almost sanctioned.


So how is the latest heart-breaking and soul-destroying slaughter of a young woman a watershed moment?

As a journalist in Ireland, I covered many watershed moments. I was in Granard, Co Longford covering the death of 15-year-old Ann Lovett at the foot of a shrine to the Virgin Mary. I was in Monasterevin, Co Kildare, when a man bludgeoned his pregnant wife, Anne Holmes, to death.

I was in Ireland when young women were disappearing in Leinster and when, in Kerry, Joanne Hayes was arrested and gardaí ludicrously built a case against her.

One of the myriad reasons I left Ireland for Australia was due to a watershed moment of my own.

I was 18 and hitched a lift from Dublin to my home in the midlands. The driver pulled down a side road near Naas, “to deliver something”, but then, in a secluded spot, he threatened me with a hammer.

He sexually assaulted me. When he ejaculated, he cried about how he was a father and wanted men to respect his daughter. It was all our own fault, he said, because of the way we dressed. He let me out in the middle of nowhere.

This happened 53 years ago but has stayed with me all my life. I did not report it when it happened because I knew I would be given out to and somehow blamed because I was hitch-hiking.

At 18 in 1969, I knew nothing about sex, relationships and definitely nothing about the status of women.

I was fresh out of a convent school where we were taught that boys would be boys but we could be the cause of sin. It was our fault.

If I ever told a friend of the trauma, I would try and lighten it by saying I was a hippy. My attacker was ranting about girls in miniskirts and hot pants and I was overweight, had long hair, a long skirt and an Afghan coat.

But even that feeble humour was, I later realised, me trying to convince myself this was not my fault. I was a good girl.

Decades later, when cold cases were reopened on the midland disappearances, I explored going to the gardaí but the advice I got was unless I had something concrete, I would just be opening an old wound for myself. That wound has never healed.

I returned to Ireland often from Australia but it is only here that I feel that frisson of fear. Ashling Murphy’s murder has stirred it up again.

I thought the fear I felt was just because of my own experience. However, over the past few days I have heard women speak of how they must be on high alert, even in what should be safe social spaces.

Over the past few days I have had contact with friends and former colleagues across the world. A friend in Italy said: “At least it is still shocking in Ireland. In Italy it’s a common occurrence.”

And there is still often the sneaking suggestion that women are at least partly to blame.

Another friend who has worked across the globe tells me that attitudes to women are far worse in Japan and Dubai. These friends are Irish women who have lived abroad and are defensive, as I have been, about their homeland.

I lived in a country, Australia, that bred serial killer Ivan Milat but it is only in Ireland that I feel that level of fear.

The argument ‘but this country is worse’ has no meaning for me.

Why? Because I was made in Ireland, brought up in Ireland, believed in Ireland, loved Ireland, hated Ireland, suffered violence in Ireland, was afraid and confused in Ireland.

The public discourse around Ashling Murphy’s death has brought back feelings and memories I buried and never ever wanted to exhume.

An Irish friend living in Australia reassures me with: “We who have sons are part of the solution, even if people listen to our sons more than they listened to us.”

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