From top: John Waters; Eamonn Kelly
I had and still have great respect for John Waters. I read a lot of his stuff over the years and found him to be one of the most insightful commentators on Irish culture. One memory I have of him was when he was shouted down on the Late Late Show by the entire audience and Gay Byrne (early 1990s) for introducing an ancestral memory idea that argued that the famine still played a part in how Irish people behaved.
This idea stemmed from Epigenetics, the study of how dramatic impacts on peoples may involve changes to gene expression if not the genetic codes, leading to effects that may persist in a society for generations.
Irish historian Oonagh Walsh believes that the Irish Famine may have lead directly to an increase in mental illness in subsequent generations. The point is, the idea has substance and has since developed legs, as they say, no matter how vociferously it may have been rejected by the Late Late Show audience all those years ago.
The effect has been measured and proven and clearly shows that traumatic events like famine in particular leave a genetic imprint on a people which may manifest in how the society conducts itself later on.
I thought it was a really interesting idea, but what I was really struck by was the vehemence of the resistance by everyone to even the notion of such a thing. There was no exploration of the debate. John Waters was roundly ridiculed by audience and host in such a manner as to suggest, to me at any rate, that he seemed to have hit some sort of raw nerve.
That was all in the past, was the sentiment. That doesn’t matter now. That has no bearing on anything, and so on. Or as Gay Byrne pointed out – I paraphrase – I have never heard anything so stupid in my entire life!
This ancestral memory idea informed my own thinking about the impact the catholic church’s authoritarian innings may have had in Ireland. Particularly its input into Irish education, literally moulding minds. And then the later abuse stories, still ongoing, all amounting to a kind of cultural shock, and how this may also still be impacting Irish culture. Only yesterday (May 17th) there was a news report of a group of now elderly men still seeking state redress for sexual abuse perpetrated by clerics.
In an article here on Broadsheet a couple of weeks back, I suggested that the 8th amendment was the last bulwark of the grip the Irish Catholic Church held on secular Ireland and for that reason it would be progressive, a break with a dark past, to vote Yes to repeal the 8th amendment.
I was curious to hear what John Waters’ take on all this might be when I heard, simultaneously, that he was going to be on Eamon Dunphy’s podcast, the Last Stand, and that he had walked out of the podcast after less than 15 minutes.
But in that 15 minutes he dismissed the idea that the 8th amendment has anything to do with the historical influence of the church in Ireland, making out that those of us who believe this are not with it and are raising phantoms of Archbishop McQuaid still “stalking the land”.
John Waters clearly believes that there would be a kind of abortion free-for-all if the amendment was repealed. This alone is worthy of deeper examination because it suggests that he believes that Irish people need “policing” on moral issues like abortion, and that the 8th amendment protects them from themselves.
A suggestion which is also a kind of unfortunate veiled indictment of the priorities of women, suggesting also that he believes that the removal of the amendment would lead to callous women having abortions out of a kind of secular party-animal convenience.
It was a pity the interview was curtailed because the impression I was getting was that John Waters was using all his considerable powers of argument in an attempt to corral the discussion to narrow it in such a way as to be able argue partial questions in a shrunken arena he seemed more comfortable in.
He dismissed, for instance, an attempted discussion on the morning-after-pill as being irrelevant to the “real” issue which was focused exclusively on the rights of the foetus In fact, it was this attempt by Dunphy to broaden the discussion that precipitated Waters’ departure.
That he left when Dunphy pushed ahead to explore other aspects of the debate suggests that he, like many people, is equally challenged by trying to unravel the complexities of such an emotive and complex debate, a position of helplessness and befuddlement he is probably not used to and appears to resent.
The early impression though was that he was not at all open to considering anything that contradicted his already held view, and that in fact his argument seemed designed to rule out the more complex questions of the debate.
You would wonder then, even if he had stayed for the full 40-minute discussion would he ever have gotten near the question as to what such a human rights restriction, a total ban on abortion under all circumstances, is doing in the constitution in the first place, and the implications of such a ban on the rights of women, a restriction that the UN regards as a clear human rights breach.
I’m aware that John Waters has gone back to his Irish Catholic roots in recent years. I read his book “Beyond Consolation” where he argued that Irelands’ rejection of the church since the 1960’s has given rise to a rampant irresponsible consumerism, so it is clear that he genuinely believes that Irish people are not capable of governing themselves without the authority of the Church.
He argues in the book that the church’s greatest harm was in giving the impression that religious belief is externally imposed, this as a result of the church’s authoritarianism, and that the loss is that Irish people have developed no inner religious authority. That Irish people have missed the basic message that God is inside and not outside.
I don’t know about that. Buddhism, among other spiritual practices and religious observances, is popular in Ireland. But the deeper problem about such an argument is the underlying assumption that the only way to rectify such a spiritual deficiency, if such a deficiency even exists, is to restore an external authority as a kind of spiritual policeman.
This is a bit of a cousin of an argument to the view that former colonial powers should be reinstated in their various colonies as a response to the imperial notion that “the natives can’t rule themselves”, the “evidence” being civil wars and other governing problems that arise when the former authority withdraws.
While “Beyond Consolation” offered a compelling personal story of a return to the religion of his childhood, which is his prerogative, the book also revealed a suspicion of secular Ireland that chimed a bit uncomfortably with the often-restrictive doctrines and beliefs of the discredited organisation.
Whatever his personal reasons for seeking solace in the religion that was instilled in him as a child, it is difficult to escape the conclusion, based on the arguments condemning Irish secular society in “Beyond Consolation”, and then in his often irrational-seeming retorts on the Dunphy podcast, culminating in his dramatic walkout and abandonment of the argument, that his personal re-embracing of the Catholic church may be clouding his judgement on the issue of the repeal of the 8th amendment as it impacts on the human rights of women.
From a personal point of view, it is disappointing to see that the thinker who first raised the idea in my mind that the famine may have distorted Irish society, and who was roundly condemned for his insight, cannot also see that the impact of the Irish Catholic Church and all its private crimes against people may have had a similarly distorting and destructive effect on the culture, albeit not as extreme perhaps as the effect of famine.
For these reasons, my own position is that the only responsible and progressive answer in the referendum is to vote Yes to repeal the 8th amendment, as a vote of confidence in secular Ireland to conduct itself responsibly.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance writer
Yesterday: The Stand-Off