Tuesday 22 January 2019

A history of women in Ireland never quite hits the right tone

Laboured: The first part of No Country for Women was focused on the barbarities meted out to young women in the Magdalene laundries and other institutional obscenities
Laboured: The first part of No Country for Women was focused on the barbarities meted out to young women in the Magdalene laundries and other institutional obscenities

John Boland

When my mother married, she had to give up her civil service job because that's the way it was in those days. She never said she minded, though perhaps if she'd been allowed the choice, she could have had a more fulfilling life juggling the demands of career and motherhood.

Her situation, and that of women like her, was raised in No Country for Women (RTÉ1), a two-part documentary on the position and treatment of women in Ireland over the last hundred years.

In both focus and tone, the thrust of Anne Roper's film was almost entirely negative, which meant that it had nothing to say about the generation of young women I encountered in college who went on to pursue interesting careers while finding ways in their personal lives to get around the official prohibitions of a sexually more repressive age.

These belonged, of course, to the educated middle-class, whereas the focus of No Country for Women, especially in its first part, was mostly on the barbarities meted out to those young women who were too poor and vulnerable to do anything about the cruel and inhumane treatment to which they were subjected by State and church and often by their own families, too.

The problem, though, was that this muddled documentary, flying off in too many directions to be properly coherent, brought little to this shameful subject that hadn't been more powerfully addressed in previous television accounts of Magdalene laundries, mother-and-baby homes and other institutional obscenities.

There were also too many talking heads, some of them stating truths so obvious they came across as truisms ("a male-dominated judicial system is not a good thing"), some of them merely laboured soundbites, as in Diarmaid Ferriter's "Irish men want to have sex before marriage, but Irish men want to marry virgins". Is this even true?

However, Justine McCarthy's story of her pregnant sister's enforced flight to England and subsequent disappearance from her family's life registered strongly, while courageous and tenacious rape victim Lavinia Kerwick was an arresting presence throughout the first instalment.

The film's second part, which focused on the inequities faced by women in the workplace, had a greater coherence, but overall the film was a bit of a mishmash, never quite making up its mind whether it wanted to be social history or feminist polemic and ending up being not quite either.

Over on BBC2, Managing England: The Impossible Job provided an amusing rundown of the 13 hapless individuals who've tried to guide the English football squad to victory since Alf Ramsey last managed that feat 52 years ago.

Ramsey himself had a plummy-toned, patrician air to him that still startles, unlike his down-to-earth successor Don Revie, whose ambition was to get the team playing "entertaining, attractive football". That didn't work out, or for Bobby Robson, either, who enthused: "It's a great job, and if I get it right, it's utopia." Sadly he got it wrong, with the tabloids screaming 'Plonker!' and 'Go!'

Then there was Glenn Hoddle, who was not only in thrall to a faith healer but also declared that disabled people might be paying for sins they incurred in a previous life. "In the era of social media", one commentator drily observed, "he wouldn't have lasted until lunchtime."

And who could forget unlikely Swedish superstud Sven-Göran Eriksson, who got more media coverage for his affair with Ulrika Jonsson than for managing the team. Or Steve McLaren, who after yet another defeat was pictured with an umbrella under the headline 'A Wally With a Brolly'.

The film concluded with current manager Gareth Southgate deeming it all to be "an honour I'm enjoying", though on Monday night it took a stoppage-time winner from Harry Kane to confirm that enjoyment. "Watch out, Ronaldo!" BBC commentator Guy Mowbray exulted, "There's a Harry Kane coming!"

I had switched over to the BBC coverage of the England match just so that I could hear Mowbray reveal how the hot weather, which apparently was "warmer than anywhere else in Russia", was "causing a problem" for the English players.

Otherwise, though, only a fool wouldn't stick with the RTÉ2 pundits, who were as articulate, informed and lively as their English counterparts weren't. But then the coverage of major sporting events has always been one of our national broadcaster's great strengths.

But women's concerns dominated the week and I counted 22 programmes directly devoted to women's issues. Most of these were on BBC4 and were screened as part of the BBC's Hear Her season, which doesn't quite have the ring of #MeToo , but featured such diverse offerings as Rebel Women, 100 Years of the Women's Institute, Kate Adie's Women of World War One, Suffragettes Forever and Female Composers.

There was also an all-women version of Julius Caesar, which was too gimmicky for its own good, and an arresting series of monologues under the rude name Snatches, subtitled 'Moments from Women's Lives.'

You could, I suppose, also include the second series of The Handmaid's Tale (RTÉ2/Channel 4) in this women's season, but that would be to ignore its content.

The first season, which ended as Margaret Atwood's novel ended, was grimly gripping and had a horrible relevance in this time of Trump, but this new outing is nothing more than torture porn that doesn't further any feminist cause but merely reveals the unpleasant depths to which its ratings-hungry makers are prepared to descend.

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