When I began writing these short pieces for publication on my website, I decided that the things I’d write about would centre on music, as this is something my life has revolved around. Although I don’t pretend to be an expert on the matter, at least I can write from personal experience. And yet, the story of Ashling Murphy has haunted me for weeks now. While I know nothing about criminal law nor have any other prerequisites of a similar nature, I feel compelled to write something.
Ashling Murphy, a teacher and Irish traditional fiddler was murdered in broad daylight on 12 January 2022 in County Offaly in Ireland.
As I have been reading the news, the back door that I keep so carefully locked on my wild imagination and bad memories has started to creak open. My own stories of being stalked, harassed, and assaulted spring to mind, but these are far less stifling than the deep discomfort and sadness that Ashling’s story draws from me. I’ve spent years working through my own distressing moments, but Ashling’s horrific experience, which cost her her life, reveals the reality of the lurking danger that can strangle-hold people’s minds. The media response in Ireland is also telling of how the island, in my experience, not only encourages, but lives and fully embraces the ideology of “community”. As I write this article, a quick search of The Irish Times shows more than 60 articles about Ashling, her death, the vigils that were held around the country in her honour, her funeral, the arrest of suspects, and so on.
My mind ran through the events in 1995 which we heard about as teenagers in Dublin. A rapist held six women at knifepoint over the course of five days. Two months prior to that, a different man was found guilty of a similar crime. In the same year, Paul Moore, a serial rapist who went on to sexually assault at least five more times over the years was set free three years after his last conviction in 2015. It was reported by the Probation Service that he showed no remorse, resisted rehabilitation, and continued to be an indefinite danger to women. He roamed the streets of Dublin freely, before dying of natural causes in 2019.
A simple Google search lists occurrences of similar stories throughout Ireland while I was growing up. At the time, I keenly recall feeling that my mother was exaggerating when she repeatedly expressed her concern. Some years later, leafing through old copies of Irish broadsheets, I am amazed that she let me out at all – I’m not sure that I would have had the tables been turned.
For a country with a history such as Ireland’s – steeped in invasion, suppression, famine, violence, religious conflict, and ultimately, liberation – there is a great sense of gratitude for peaceful coexistence. Rape exercised upon any of its women is a deep cut in its Shangri-La.
Returning to Dublin regularly, I notice all the things that change. And all the things that don’t. There is a joke amongst my friends that young Irish women don’t wear anything that is the size of a skirt on a Saturday night – more, the size of a belt. The observation may not be politically correct, but it doesn’t stop it from being true. Rarely have I come across such a large group of women that dress themselves up to the nines with such ease, as well as lavishly display their bodies as they do in Ireland. Makeup is piled on, along with bijoux, perfume and hairspray. Women spend hours, alone or together, getting ready to go out. So did I. And we went out EVERY weekend. In all my teenage years, though, I don’t remember being approached in a way that I felt was menacing.
Arriving to Switzerland, just shy of my nineteenth birthday, within the first two years of living in Berne, I experienced more explicit confrontation of gender-based violence or uninvited approaches than any I experienced in Ireland. As the months passed, I began to dress more and more conservatively, a reflection of my understanding of what this society called for. I also distinctly recall changing the way I walked and the expression I carried when I moved from point a to point b. I tried to invoke a standoffish manner and bore a warrior-like frown in an effort to repel any man from even looking at me. It didn’t help. All it did was create a distance between myself and any friends I might have made in those first lonely years in a new country.
Naturally, how a person dresses or walks, whether they chose to smile or search for eye contact, has absolutely no relevance as to whether or not they place themselves in a position of danger. The very idea is absurd. Only a person doubting their own significance or power would impose upon another that moral conduct is to be extended to how a person chooses to express themselves with garments, hairstyles, and so forth. I have always thought that. And still, after moving to Berne, I suddenly predominantly wore trousers, high-collar tops, and a tight lip.
Speed dial to this past January. Ashling, a woman in her early twenties goes for a run along a well-known canal at 4pm on a Wednesday. She is attacked and strangled to death. The devastation to her family and community is unimaginable. In Ireland, a nation stands still, horrified.
4pm… I imagine that Ashling thought to herself: “Sure, if I go out now, I’ll be home before it’s dark.”
Do you care whether it’s light or dark when you go out? Do you take your mobile phone so that you can text someone to tell them to check that you’re home in thirty minutes? Do you move quickly and look over your shoulder regularly, tucking your hands into your pockets where a set of house-keys is ready to be brandished as a poor substitute for brass knuckles?
It’s not just men and women that fear the unknown and the dark – every marginalised person on the planet avoids the threat of danger wherever possible. How else would we have survived this long?
But broad daylight? That’s a poor cliché, a badly written film script, a ridiculous eye-roll emoji sent by a teenage girl to her over-protective mother.
Somehow, though, the fear of the male gaze (as opposed to the genderless, object-less idea of the unknown) is cultivated in a young girl’s psyche, instilled there by her family, her environment, and some archaic form of collective consciousness. That is to say: the unknown MAY harbour a potential danger – and that danger probably has a Y chromosome. I am by no means suggesting that all men are predators. But a woman grows up knowing that she might be prey.
Following Ashling’s murder, I found myself looking over my shoulder for the first time in years. Doing my usual ritualistic stair-climbing jaunt of the old town of Berne, I found myself dropping the little dance intermissions (I have a fabulous playlist) and being frightened out of my reverie by innocent, random, fellow pedestrians. Particularly absurd when those fellow pedestrians were women. I found myself turning off the music as I ran up the stairs. Just to make sure I could hear only my footfall and no one else’s.
I used to think that when I became a mother, all those old fears would dissipate, but Ashling’s story set all the old fears free.
I have struggled to find some sort of conclusion to this jumble of words that tries to pay homage to a woman who suffered an unspeakably tragic death. Ashling was a dear friend of students of my mother and observing their reactions, one has the impression that Ashling had a luminous personality. In messages that I came across in the Irish press and on social media, it was clear that here was a woman who contributed to society, who was loved by her students and friends, an adored family member and girlfriend.
I notice that in Irish media there has been a lot of talk of misogyny, of silence when it comes to gender-based violence and of countless stories that don’t appear in mainstream media. But is the death of Ashling one that comes from a place of societally-induced misogyny?
I thought of unleashing a tirade against the internet, against freely and easily accessible pornography, of false ideas of what it is to be sexually attractive, of a culture around sex and women that idealises certain concepts of beauty and behaviour and, let’s be honest, entirely un-erotic, violent ways of approaching women in the bedroom.
The horrid truth is that in Ireland, a country known for promoting togetherness and equality, the brutality towards women is faint inducing. According to Women’s Aid, 244 women have been violently murdered in Ireland since 1996. That is femicide. A 2014 EU survey found that 50% of women have been sexually harassed. One in three has experienced physical and/or sexual violence.
Hold on. Let me try presenting that differently. Half of half of the EU has been sexually harassed.
I know a lot of women with these kind of stories – and I’ve never met a man who admits to being the harasser.
If any of us accept the daily comments against women that range from seemingly harmless remarks in the office to online harassment, or glamourise the latest love-story turned sour where a women suffered psychological abuse as delivered by a man, we cannot be surprised when violence against women escalates to rape and murder. Yes – someone who smokes cannabis will not necessarily turn into a heroin addict. But – a boy who grows up in a culture where it’s ok to walk all over mammy’s wishes or worse, where mammy and daddy make excuses for his unkind behaviour, right through to the teenage boys who one assumes will inhale their daily dose of porn at age 12, whilst girls are constantly reminded that they should not draw unnecessary attention to themselves… well – that is a society that, whether its aware of it or not, fosters violence against women.
Women’s stories are constantly swept under the carpet. We are told that we should appreciate being called “sweetheart” and “beauty”, but when we say that we don’t appreciate the verbal catcall, we are told to lighten up because this should be seen as a compliment. We point out daily cases of sexism and are told, “Yes, but things are changing! They are getting better!” Are they, though?
We are brainwashed to the point that once women do rise up, the trend flattens out again – it becomes uncool to point out the obvious. I recently asked some young fellow musicians whether, if they had to make the call, they would choose a male or female colleague for a chamber music concert. All of them, female and male, said, “It should not be a gender question – I would choose the best musician.” I wholeheartedly agree! In theory. When it comes to balancing the status quo, we NEED to shine the spotlight on women who, the world over, are still discriminated against at best, and tortured and killed at worst.
If we are to further the discussion, improve the situation and live the equality and freedom that we all yearn for, we must start by improving the lives of women. We must involve all men in the discussion to acknowledge co-responsibility. So long as we think of a “them” and not an “us”, things won’t change. And when we liberate women, and offer them a safe world in which to be, women might be able to prove that point so many of us keep making: there would be more peace if more daughters felt safe everywhere they went, instead of being kept home in order to avoid the possible violence against them by our sons…