Never in my life has this chant rung in my ears with more truth, or more literally, than it did yesterday, as I stood outside Dáil Eireann dressed as a Handmaid, with a man standing over me, blocking my path and hitting me with his jumbo rosary beads with every step I took.
“Se do bheatha, Mhuire, atá lán do ghrásta”
In English: Hail Mary, full of grace. In Irish: It’s your life, Mary, that is full of grace.
It’s your life, Mary.
Think of all the times over all the years that this has been prayed in households, Churches and dinner-tables throughout Ireland. All those rosaries, every Angelus, every Holy Communion class of bridal children.
It’s YOUR LIFE, Mary, that’s full of grace.
As I stood outside those iconic gates of the Dáil, with my head bowed, face covered, body swathed in the same uniform scarlet as the women alongside me, the enormity of how badly the women of this country are treated hit me hard. The clarity of how low we are on the scale of priorities of this country. How utterly dispensable we are. That man had no reason to interfere with me that day. No reason to stand in my path, no reason to shout at me, no reason to hit me, and certainly no reason to use the powerful symbolism of the holy Rosary- the precious prayer that has been so beloved of the women of so many generations of Irish women- no reason to claim that for himself and could use it against me.
How dare he? How dare they?
Recent decades have seen Ireland move towards a more secular society, and at the same time there is no denying that Ireland is a country of deep rooted spirituality. It’s in our blood and our bones, in our rivers and trees, our seas and our skies. The monks of Glendalough, sitting by the lake inscribing nature poetry on the sides of their prayer-books, and the Celtic pre-Christian monastaries at Lough Derg, had a spiritual freedom and connection to nature that was lost over the centuries as colonisation and organised religion gained their footholds.
The 100 year Centenary celebrations of last year were a potent reminder that although Ireland is an ancient landscape, it is a young State- and to me, this feels like adolescence. We are a State that was birthed by great visionaries- our rebel fighters were poets, teachers and artists, people who longed for ad fought for an Ireland founded on freedom, justice and equality for all. But in the fallout of their great revolution, we lost them to the laws of another land, and in their place we got the Catholic Church, and a state founded on the morals and principles of that Church.
And so we have spent the last 100 years playing by the rules of that Church. We went to Mass, observed Lent, churched our women, punished our children, closed our Pubs on Good Friday, criminalised abortion, ate fish on Fridays, and look where it got us.
We stand in a Spiritual no-man-or-woman’s-land, where the rosary beads are in the hands of our oppressor.
We are a nation with a vibrant and very present Spiritual ancestry, but our spirituality has been colonised in the same way our land was, and in the same way our bodies are.
The Centenary celebrations saw us celebrating the role of women in the rising in a new way. We learned their names and the roles they played. We heard of their strength, their bravery, and their stalwart determination to stand by their male comrades, as they fought for their vision of the Ireland they yearned for. Their Proclamation of Independence spoke of equality for all men, women and children of the nation, and an end to the subjugation of our laws, of our language and culture, our deeply held spirituality, and our right to self-determination.
The leaders of this great Rising did not envision that we would replace one oppressor with another. The fact the Rising took place on Easter Sunday was indicative of their commitment to their faith, and the symbolism of this time for resurrection, both in pagan and Christian terms.
They held the vision for a land of civil and religious liberties, of equal opportunities for all.
They did not envision that one belief system would become the cornerstone of our Constitution. They did not believe that this Constitution should enshrine the moral code of one faith path into law. Women’s bodies have been written into our constitution, glossed over and unnoticed, like Mary’s womb in her prayer. “Is beannaithe torradh do bhronadh, Iosa”. “Blessed is the result of your womb, Jesus”
But it’s your life, Mary, that’s full of grace.
The women of Ireland in 1916 were predominantly practising Catholics. The women of Ireland in 2017 are predominantly not.
The women who fought for a free Ireland with her own Constitution did not foresee the horrors that were to befall this great country at the hands of political and religious leaders- sharing power behind closed doors and conspiring to cover up any trace of their wrong doing. Women and children bore the brunt of these horrors- institutionalisation and imprisonment, for ‘crimes’ such as illegitimacy and sexuality, denial of access to contraception, symphysiotomy to facilitate more births- and all in an attempt to force our women to meet the impossible standards of the Church’s epitome of womanhood- the Virgin Mary. A Mhaidin Muire.
Yet despite our rejection of the horrors inflicted upon Irish women by the Catholic Church, we still identify strongly with Mary. As a nation, we too are held to an impossible standard. We identify with Mary’s pain, standing at the foot of the Cross while her only son is crucified. We too watch our sisters and daughters crucified on the cross of the 8th amendment, by those praying Sé do bheatha Mhuire. It’s your life, Mary.
Can they hear their own prayers?
And so the spiritual temperature of our nation is rising. Current generations remain vicariously traumatised by Ireland’s relationship with the Church over the past hundred years, and before, through the legacy of the abuses inflicted upon our parents, our grandparents, and ourselves. And so a large part of the nation has split off from Spirituality. Through the revelations of child sexual abuse, the brutality against the young women in the Magdalene Laundries, the sale of their babies to the highest bidder, years and years of Institutional abuse have taken their toll on our Spiritual psyche.
April 1916 saw us complete our National Census. Question 12 has provoked controversy in that it asks “What is your religion?” with Roman Catholic as the first option.
Wouldn’t it have been a more realistic question to ask first: “Do you practice a religion?”
The presumption that the majority of Irish people regularly practise a religion is outdated, and this question has forced the nation to choose between two tick boxes- Roman Catholic, or No Religion.
Maybe my religion is nature? Maybe my children are my prayers.
What about those of us who occupy the space in between?! What box do we tick? As an Interfaith Minister this is a question I really grapple with. Where is the space in between, for those of us who value and respect the Rosary, and the teachings of a gentle, compassionate and social justice activist Jesus, but don’t wish to stand in the shackles of the Catholic Church? I feel a huge amount of conflict in my relationship to the organised religions of this country. Most of the hostility is towards the Catholic Church, given the horrors inflicted on the people of Ireland over the past few centuries, particularly the women and children, but this is balanced by the undeniable strength of faith of our ancestors, who prayed the Rosary for comfort in times of great anguish, and we who continue to find comfort in the mantra-like rhythm of the decades as we gather around the coffin of a loved one at a wake. These time-honoured traditions connect us through generations. How dare anyone claim this beautiful symbol of unity, and use it as a weapon against women?
We are currently in a time of unravelling. We’re at the very beginning of trying on the clothes of a more grown-up, Independent exploration of who we are as a nation. The Equality Referendum of 2015 was a huge leap forward for Ireland, as a nation determined to show the world where we stand on Equality, and determined to show that we’ve cast off the shackles of Catholic conditioning.
Unless you’re a person who is pregnant.
It’s your life, Mary- but our laws still say otherwise.
It’s your life, Mary, but there’s no problem if a man wishes to stand in the street brandishing his rosary beads against your daughters, as long as he claims the protection of his “faith”.
We’ve had enough deference, enough denial, enough holding back. Enough apology, enough struggling to find an acceptable phrase to replace the term for abortion “on demand”. (Because nice girls never demand). It’s time to launch our own rising. Reclaim our sexuality, our spirituality, and find and fertilise the space for it to grow. Let’s create our own manifesto for the Spirituality of our children- one that is grounded in the landscape of our great ancestors, who could merge nature with God, and knew our forests and rivers were filled with beauty and life before our children were taught that they harboured dark spirits and danger. Our seanfhocal (old saying) says “Ni neart go cur le cheile” (There is no strength without unity), so let’s unite in our desire to create a new space. Space for ourselves, and space for choice, so that we can find our way back to our own truth.
To quote our great poet, John O’Donoghue, on Ciitizenship:
In these times when anger
Is turned into anxiety
And someone has stolen
The horizons and mountains
May we have the courage…
To discover what we must do,
How to turn anxiety
Back into anger
To find our way home.
It’s your life, Mary. That means it’s my life too. When we’re angry together, we’ll find our way home. And home is where we have choice.
Se do bheatha, Muire.
It’s time to hear our own prayers.