The Truth Will Out- At Last

To get ahead in Irish society, a dubious attitude towards the truth has always helped. But as chickens come home to roost it is, at long last perhaps, time for change

The poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has said that the reason the Irish are such good fiction writers is that we are too close as a society to tell the truth about each other. We use fiction to distance ourselves. Enmeshed as we are on so many levels – familial, local and national, truth gets sacrificed in favour of consensus, in favour of not hurting people’s feelings or causing offence, or rocking the boat, or threatening those in power. We fear ripping apart the fabric of our social network, however damaging it is to us on an individual level.

Those who get on their “high horse” tread a lonely and sometimes dangerous path in Ireland. Whistleblowers get scapegoated. In Dolphin’s Barn, community workers and residents who complain against blatant drug dealing in the estate get vilified and threatened with bombs. In Limerick, a man who refuses to submit to intimidation gets his son killed, his business ruined, and gets chased by barbaric marauding hordes.

On a different level, gay people don’t come out to their families or workmates because “it would kill the mother” or they’d “never live it down” at work. Sexual secrets are most toxic in Irish society because if they are revealed the family can get ripped apart; sex is explosive, still taboo in this culture, in many ways. We are not an individualistic culture, it’s tough to get by here without family, to forge an identity that is separate, true to oneself. I like to think that being openly gay no longer has this potential to destroy, but there are enough gay and bisexual people out there living lies to make me wonder.

Certainly, the more disturbing secrets, such as domestic violence, childhood abuse or incest, or mental illness or addictions, can feel like refined plutonium if one feels pressurised to carry them alone. You are as sick as your secrets, someone once said, and I believe it.

There is an argument, that I have some time for, that counselling and psychotherapy can sometimes act as a conservative impulse on the social fabric. With counsellors the new priests, hearing a modern confession, it can seem that the damage done is healed privately, while nothing is done to change the circumstances that allowed such damage to happen in the first place. However, unlike priests, who in many ways encouraged victims to conceal their truth in order to preserve family stability, for example encouraging a woman with a violent husband to forgive him for the sake of the children, I believe counselling and psychotherapy can encourage people to stand up and fight for familial or social change, but consciously, in a focussed way, and fully aware of the price they may pay for it. It depends on the therapist, of course, and many people in the field of mental health, such as doctors and psychiatrists, see their job as that of maintenance, of management, and have no time for such radical notions, no investment in challenging the status quo, that has served them well.

But those who work, for example, in the field of helping rape victims to recover, know that the only way that rapists can be jailed is if their clients are brave enough to press charges. The risk of failure is enormous: re-traumatisation, scandal, shame, retribution, humiliation. This is especially true if the rapist is a family member, as is often the case. But even a public failure in the courts can act as a spur to improve the legal and social support for rape victims that follow. Most victims can’t bear to speak their truth in public in this way, and in many ways I don’t blame them. One is, in essence, being asked to sacrifice a lot for some vague notion that it might help others in the same situation in future – but it’s only a “might”. And we only have one life to live. Our culture prizes martyrs as long as they are silent and long-suffering, like Mary, Mother of God, but god help her if she starts pointing fingers, she becomes a harridan and a pariah.

Never a meritocracy, one gets ahead in Ireland by who you know. We are fierce networkers, schmoozers and stroke-pullers. In the English public-school sense, those who are “clubbable” do far better than those who are not – by which I mean that merit alone, or truth alone, or quality alone, do not guarantee success. If you make sure you get on with people, you aren’t a snob, if you react well to slagging, take your drink well and are good craic on a night out, classic “Irish” qualities, your ambitions are more likely to realise, you are more likely to climb up the greasy pole. If you toe the party line. If you don’t point out that the Emperor has no clothes. Someone who needs to stop drinking for their health and sanity gets ostracised severely, albeit unconsciously, by their peers, because we punish those who remind us of the sickness of our sorrow-drowning society, the sickness within us. They become party poopers, and that is the greatest crime of all in this dear old land.

Well, the party is over. Perhaps now is the time for those who have always been speaking truth about sex, about economics, about politics, about poverty, about crime, about drugs, about gang culture, all that has been wrong about our society – but which was hidden during the Celtic Tiger years – to be listened to.

 

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