When the London-based Irish comedian Dara
O Briain appeared on The Late Late Show in November, he told an anecdote about his latest television series Three Men In A Boat that sees himself and two British comedians travel around Irish waterways. The other comedians, Gryff Rhys Jones and Rory McGrath, kept asking about the tree stump in Rathkeale in Limerick, which locals attested depicted an image of Mary. But
O Briain played it down, mortified at the ridiculousness of it all, not wanting them to see that part of Ireland, the Father Ted Ireland, the Ireland from The Field, an Ireland full of ignorance and embarrassments.
After a decade of commentary on the Ireland we were living in, the 'real' Ireland was called for in moments of reflection, the 'old' Ireland, which apparently was something to be yearned for.
We got a glimpse of that 'real' and 'old' Ireland in a Tralee courtroom last week when about 50 people shook the hand of convicted sex attacker Danny Foley as he awaited his sentencing. They queued in single file before the judge returned to the court room, squeezing his hand and embracing him, while his victim sat in the front row of the room accompanied only by gardaí, a rape counsellor and one friend. "She cut quite a solitary figure," a reporter for the Irish Examiner said. The incident is of course, outrageous. What kind of person would sympathise with a sex attacker who, on cctv evidence, carried a woman who was drunk behind a skip, forced her to the ground, pinned her down causing scrapes to her wrists and extensive bruising to her back, and pulled off her trousers? When gardaí spotted him crouching over her, he lied, saying he just found her there, semi-conscious. He referred to his victim as "yer wan".
On Newstalk's breakfast programme on Thursday morning, Fr Sean Sheehy, a priest in Listowel – where the incident happened – who appeared in court as a character witness for the 35-year-old bouncer Foley said: "My Christian responsibility was to this person that I knew and to the person who is the object of, what I call, this extremely harsh sentence." Sheehy didn't particularly seem concerned about his 'Christian responsibility' to a victim of sexual assault, but hey, she wasn't his buddy. Sheehy's shocking behaviour isn't that shocking in light of what we now know about Irish priests, but it does show their strange and disturbing attitude towards sex abuse isn't just confined to paedophilia.
Why dozens of men felt compelled to sympathise with Foley is a complex expression of many attitudes; attitudes to women, attitudes to sex, attitudes to community and solidarity. Perhaps they would have felt different if Foley was in the dock for attacking their daughter, sister, mother, wife or girlfriend – or perhaps not. But it does show that many people refuse to accept that rapists are very often the supposedly nice upstanding and well-liked family men in our communities. It is rare that the face of sexual assault is an anonymous one in a dark alley; much more often, it's the Danny Foleys of this world. The blokes who go out on the lash in the hope of getting some young wan hammered enough to sleep with them. Sex attackers are our friends and our family members and our neighbours. The people of Listowel find that very hard to swallow.
And while Foley might be typical of sex attackers in Ireland, unfortunately, his victim is very much the exception as a sex-crime victim. She is the exception because she reported the attack. She is the exception because she went through with the legal process of bringing her attacker to court. She is the exception because after her case was brought to court, her attacker was convicted. And she is the exception because that conviction involved a jail sentence. Despite facing total isolation from her community, she had the almighty bravery to follow through. In her victim-impact statement she said: "I feel as if people are judging me the whole time. I've been asked by people I know if I am sorry for bringing Dan Foley to court. I am not sorry for it. All I did was tell the truth." It's commendable also that Judge Donagh McDonagh didn't listen to the "character reference" from the priest about Foley's respect for women, but it's sad that he needs to be commended because his actions should be automatic. Is this the Ireland that we want? Where a sexual-assault victim is judged by her community as though it was some delusional nation with an extreme vision of Sharia law? Is this what we have regressed to now? An Ireland of magic tree stumps, and eejits blinding themselves looking for a dancing sun in Knock, of people sympathising with paedophilic priests and colluding bishops, and of men patting the back of a sex criminal?