“She should still be here.” A small homemade sign, doused in candlelight during one of the many vigils for Ashling Murphy, said what was on the minds of thousands who have stood in solidarity across the island of Ireland and beyond in the past few days.
The killing of the 23-year-old schoolteacher, out for a run after class in the bright afternoon light, has been described as “random”. As her life was honoured and she was laid to rest near her home town of Tullamore today, one of her cousins offered a hope that the many vigils taking place in Ashling’s memory would “mark the beginning of an end to violence against women”.
An outpouring of grief but also of testimony in the wake of her death is forcing a collective reckoning with violence that is anything but random. Two weeks ago, a young woman in Dublin was assaulted and left with facial injuries. Two men have been charged. This Thursday marks one year since the fatal attack of Urantsetseg Tserendorj, a mother of two and teacher from Mongolia stabbed while walking home from work in Dublin. A teenage boy was charged with her murder.
The stretch of canal where Ashling was running that day is named Fiona’s Way, in honour of a young pregnant woman who went missing in 1996. Between 1996 and 2020, at least 236 women died violently in the Republic of Ireland. Their names have been written out and remembered individually in recent days. A majority of these women were killed in their own homes, by a man they knew, by men they loved, men they had children with. How do we protect against that?
When schools in Ireland were asked to observe a minute’s silence today, I thought of how a majority are still under Church ownership and how many are segregated by gender. During lockdown I spoke at a number of feminist society events at Irish universities. I listened to young women speak about never receiving education around consent or sex, how some who had been victims of sexual abuse and assault had been shamed by their own teachers. These women are demanding change.
The last of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries only closed in 1996. Last week marked the first anniversary of a government-backed report that claims these religious-run institutions that incarcerated “fallen” women and girls were in fact “refuges”, contradicting survivor testimonies. Some of the same religious orders now run anti-prostitution initiatives, supporting laws that put female sex workers at greater risk of violence.
Women shouldn’t have to die for their experiences to be heard. In the 1980s, the schoolgirl Ann Lovett died alone in a grotto while giving birth and the national airwaves were flooded with testimonies of hidden pregnancies and the violence of shame imposed through doctrine and legislation. When Savita Halappanavar died after being denied an abortion in 2012, the breaking of silences that followed eventually forced constitutional change. But how do we tackle the crisis of male violence and misogyny that is so deeply normalised?
The Irish government is promising a new “zero-tolerance” strategy to tackle domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. But the justice system that enforces laws is rife with violent misogyny. In the past few years, barring orders have been issued under the Domestic Violence Act 2018 against 21 serving police officers. Ireland’s Garda commissioner has apologised not only for hundreds of ignored domestic violence 999 calls but also for an Irish police officer recording video of a woman being arrested while naked, a woman who died by suicide after that footage was posted online. A sergeant was recorded joking about raping and deporting two women who were under arrest. Decisions made by those in power over the past few decades to cut single mothers’ welfare and close rape crisis centres have put vulnerable women even more at risk.
Even as thousands stood against gender-based violence over the past week, a Men’s Rosary group tried to drown out female voices at one vigil, a female journalist received a threat warning her against soliciting “negative comments about men”, a man is reported to have masturbated at an online vigil, and male “patriots” with links to the far right stoked xenophobia over the potential nationality of the killer.
Last summer, after speaking at an event on Irish feminism, of all things, I was having a few drinks outside with some women, when two of us needed to pee. We were walking alone along a darkened road, trying to find a secluded spot to squat for lack of public toilets when a white van passed us, a man just beginning to leer out of the window. In the last week, Irish women have shared experiences of near abductions, of assaults on streets, of constant hypervigilance. That time, we suddenly heard another male voice in the van: “Shut up man, you can’t be saying that.” It was that simple. A man calling another man out. “Shut up man”. And he did.
In Duck Duck Goose, a play by the Irish writer Caitríona Daly, a young woman describes how passengers on a bus turned a blind eye when an eccentric and sad-looking man who she smiled at began to grope and assault her. “It’s [a] feeling like assault but nobody else is responding to it in that way so it can’t be, can it?” she asks herself. “People don’t like assault, they stop assault, that couldn’t have been assault.” She escapes, walks to work, and appears calm. “So I want to know how you just know?” she asks a young man who is defending a male friend accused of rape on the basis that the woman looked normal afterwards. “How do you feel so confident having seen her after the ‘alleged’? When people don’t even seem to know what assault is when it’s happening there in front of them?”
The scene was based on the testimony of a young Irish woman I know. It is just one example of the everyday violence that is normalised by misogyny and ignored – until a woman is killed.
Caelainn Hogan is an Irish journalist and author of Republic of Shame
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic violence helpline is on 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic Violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org