MY mother was very quiet. She is to this day – nearly 12 years after her passing – referred to as a “lady”.
She was quiet because she experienced many horrors in her life. They individually and collectively conspired to silence her. She didn’t scream or shout about them because she chose to continue living with a control she developed to survive, despite the maelstroms of addiction and abuse that sometimes surrounded her. She read voraciously, spoke politely, knitted beautifully and loved ferociously. She avoided conflict at all costs. If she fell out with you, you didn’t realise until you looked around and Elaine hadn’t been in touch for a long, quiet while.
Our house in Tallaght backed on to another house’s back garden with only a wire fence, some potato plants and mint my mother had planted separating us. Our kitchen sink looked out to the gardens. One autumn Sunday afternoon my mother was peeling potatoes at the sink. She suddenly dropped the knife from her hands and, without a word, ran out to the garden. The young woman who lived to the back of us was heavily pregnant and had a young son. She was being dragged by the hair and being kicked in the stomach by her husband.
My mother grabbed the little boy, who was standing wordless, handed him to me and said quietly, Ring the Guards.” As I carried the little boy away, she put herself between the woman, by now in a ball on the ground, and her drunk husband. She spoke quietly to him, told him that he could go inside now and rest, and she would take his wife into our house for a little while. My brother was by now by her side as she held back the man and tried to help the woman up, all the while continuing her quiet assurances that everything was okay now. My brother and my mother lifted the woman over the wire fence and brought her into our house.
The uncaring Gardaí came out, had a word, and went away. The man slept it off. The little boy ate spaghetti hoops. My mother held the pregnant woman while she sobbed and declared it all her fault and her husband was under pressure.
My mother was singularly without judgment. She just said, “You need to be safe, your babies need to be safe.” She did not get into a conversation about the man, his stresses or why he was “like that sometimes”. She just encouraged the woman to plan how to keep herself safe that night and in the days ahead.
The murders of Clodagh Hawe and her three sons in Ballyjamesduff were by the man they loved most. In the place they should have been most safe. It was portrayed as a tragedy. Their murderer was portrayed as an equal victim. And all of this transported me back to a time when violence against women was accepted as a private matter and women’s safety took second place to the illusion of family.
Times have changed in law but we are reminded there remains much to do to keep women safe in their own homes. That takes resources, education and a lot more media awareness. Fundamentally, though, women’s safety must never take second place to men’s reputations.