Old fear lurks beneath pity and empathy

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Old fear lurks beneath pity and empathy

Miriam O’Callaghan goes back to the future and condemns stereotypes, suspicion and the sacrosanct status quo


SOCIETY DEMONISES SINGLE MOTHERS: Margaret Cash and her children (from left) Johnny (11), Rocky (two), Jim (four) Andy (one) Tommy (10) and Miley (seven) pictured at The Inner City Helping Homeless Organisation, Amien Street, last week
SOCIETY DEMONISES SINGLE MOTHERS: Margaret Cash and her children (from left) Johnny (11), Rocky (two), Jim (four) Andy (one) Tommy (10) and Miley (seven) pictured at The Inner City Helping Homeless Organisation, Amien Street, last week

It hit me first in autumn 1980. That sense of being different. In the Aula Maxima at UCC we queued up for registration, fee-paying students in one row, grant-holders in another. It was a time when two honours in the Leaving Cert got you into an arts degree. To do arts with a grant, however, you had to have four. Less well-off students had to do twice as well to access the ‘equal’ opportunity of education.

The fee-paying queue was mostly boys, groups calling out to one another, either as school pals or neighbours. In our queue, also mostly boys, we stood quietly, singly: we didn’t know anybody from school or home. From my bright convent class, only a handful of students had applied to university. Now here I was with the other handfuls from other classes, together but solitary, academically entitled but with a vague sense of trespass.

Initially, I had applied to study English, but a slew of points and the lunatic thought ‘why would I waste them’ resulted in a change to law. Criminal law was gripping. With contract and constitutional law, I lost the will to live. At 17, I raced past the hanging gate at Gaol Cross to the English Department across the Lee. Let me in? Not a chance. For a year, there would be no reprieve.

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