Deirdre reappeared last week. A regular caller at the door during our eleven years in Dublin, her plight seemed to grow steadily worse during that time. Calling a fortnight before we left, she had been blunt, ‘I’m sure you’ll be relieved that you won’t have me calling with you’.
Things must have deteriorated further, for last week she found her way to a colleague’s door. Wary of the string of hard luck story tellers, he had quizzed her and she had pleaded with him to phone me. He called and I felt I should offer some sort of apology that she should have arrived at his door, that he should have to cope with the conversations that would arise. Encounters with Deirdre brought a sense of frustration with the welfare system and anger at a Constitution that protects abusive husbands.
Deirdre called one day in the spring two years ago. Her oldest child was to make her confirmation in the Catholic church in the town where they lived and her husband had (again) spent the entire household budget in bars and bookmakers. The Department of Social Welfare had written to her to say that the benefits received by the household meant she was above the cut off point for receiving a grant to buy the child some new clothes for the occasion.
Deirdre’s right eye was almost closed over. “He’s thumped you again?”
“You should see my back – it’s black and blue”.
“Why do you put up with it?”
She stared away into the middle distance.
“Sometimes he is all right. Sometimes he is nice to me”.
“Sometimes he’s not. Is there no refuge to go to?”
“There is, but they can only accommodate four; I have five children”.
“I’ve known you ten years; where are you going to be in ten years’ time?”
It was a stupid question. She could hardly think about next week, let alone ten years.
“Can’t you put him out?”
“His name is on the rent book. The Guards say that they can do nothing, if it is his house. They cannot put him out of his own house. You can phone them and ask them about it, if you don’t believe me”. Without hesitation, she reeled off the number of the Garda station in her town – she had obviously had reason to call the number.
“Couldn’t you call down to the refuge? Maybe one morning a week; ask them if you could just call in for a cup of coffee?”
“Sure what would I say? I would have nothing to talk to them about. They would look at me and think I was some fool and I would just sit there and say nothing. They would look down on me”.
“You would go and talk to them just the way you talk to me. Sure, I’ve been to three universities; if you can come and talk to me, you can talk just as easily to them”.
“It’s not the same”.
“They would be friendly. Just tell them what you’re going through and ask if you can just call and talk to someone over a cup of coffee, just for an hour. Will you promise me you’ll do that?”
“You know I’m honest with you. I can’t keep that promise, so I’m not going to make it”.
“Would you at least think about it? You can’t live the rest of your life like this”.
I got together some money. It would be pointless to try to force a promise.
I vowed that I would contact someone; phone the refuge or something. I didn’t. What would they have done? What could they have done? If the Guards were powerless, a small women’s group would not have been able to do much.
The words of the Constitution have a very hollow ring at times:
1. 1° The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.
2° The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.
What about the inalienable right of a woman not to be thumped by her husband? What about the inalienable rights of children to live free from fear? What about the future of a family trapped in daily misery?