John and I started going out during the height of my personal development years. I was heavily into Tony Robbins, I’d just stopped eating meat and was into clean living. I’ve always been pretty clean living, even before the Tony Robbins phase. I always knew that my not drinking was at least in part about a fear of losing control, but it would take me years to unpick the fact that a lot of this personal development and health kick stuff was also much more control and fear driven than anything else. If you start to pull on that thread it doesn’t take long to arrive at a denial of the uncontrollable realities of life and ultimately a fear of death.
John tolerated a lot of my nonsense for a long time, but he would point out things he noticed every now and then. One thing he questioned more than once was whether my views and internal rules were influenced by my Catholic upbringing. I thought he was naive – just another English person who didn’t understand what life was like in Northern Ireland.
I’m not religious, I would explain. My upbringing wasn’t particularly religious. “You went to mass every Sunday, you went to Catholic school, you had teachers who were nuns,” he would point out. “You don’t get it,” I’d tell him, “It’s not like it is over here where engaging in religion is much more of an active choice. At home religion is just there. It’s the default. But I didn’t take it seriously. Most of my generation don’t.”
I genuinely thought I had emerged from this deeply Catholic world unencumbered by any cultural baggage.
During these years, my early to mid twenties, I also had very little interest in ideas around feminism. I would argue with friends that it didn’t affect me. Women suffer great inequality in the world, yes, but not me personally, I would say. I’ve had every opportunity in my life. Nobody ever treated me any differently. Or if they did, it didn’t make a difference to me anyway.
This is the armour I walked around wearing.
The recent horrors of the island of Ireland extend far beyond the Troubles alone. Abuse in the Catholic Church, mass graves at Mother and Baby Homes, denial of women’s reproductive rights, startling rates of domestic violence… the list goes on.
Through my school days I remember having religious retreats at age 12 and 14, a special assembly to hear a pro-life organisation speaker around age 14, and a performance of skits about the merits of chastity by an american theatre troupe at age 17.
During those same years there was a spate of teenage suicides at local schools that went entirely unmentioned in assembly or anywhere else. In another incident one of the women who worked at the school was brutally murdered by her husband. It was all over the papers both when it happened and during the court case. The entire student body was talking about it. But no one in a position of leadership said a word. At this all girls school with 1500 students that had suffered this loss in its community, no one said a word about domestic violence or abusive relationships.
In time I realised that John was right. I was not immune. The culture I grew up in had affected my view of the world and of myself in deep subconscious ways. I had internalised the cultural rules and not all of them were serving me. I had been resistant to acknowledging it all, I think, because in some way I wanted to avoid the pain of it. I wanted to believe that I had this wholesome idyllic upbringing. Ignore the war zone, ignore the aggressive edge to the culture, ignore the disconnection as a survival mechanism that’s all around. I’m grand. You’re grand. We’re all grand.
We all do this to some extent. It’s a natural coping mechanism of children. But there comes a day when we have to lay it all out on the table and separate that which serves us from that which no longer does.
We have to be open to reexamining what our culture has said to us. And maybe more importantly, what it neglected to mention. Absences shape us profoundly. It’s the omissions that plant mysteries in our heads that we spend the rest of lives working to solve.