Mary Crilly had a mountain to climb in misogynistic Ireland

As she is about to receive the Freedom of Cork she richly deserves, AILIN QUINLAN pays tribute to Mary Crilly
Mary Crilly had a mountain to climb in misogynistic Ireland

Mary Crilly, of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, who will receive the Freedom of the City next month. Picture: Larry Cummins

IT can be hard to swallow, but let’s face facts; we often get things wrong. We celebrate and elevate criminals of every kind, placing the unworthy, the sociopathic, the cruel, the dishonest, the abusive and the entitled on tall shiny pedestals for all the wrong reasons.

We frequently punish those who least deserve it. Every day we fail to support those who need our help and too often we fail to acknowledge the efforts of those who bring light, warmth and real good into our lives.

And God, let’s not mention cock-ups like the Jack Lynch Tunnel or the M50 or the many, many, other visible results of our ineptitude and short-sightedness.

Yet, lately. our city has got one huge thing right – it has decided to bestow the Freedom of Cork on Mary Crilly, CEO of the city’s Sexual Violence Centre.

Ms Crilly will shortly celebrate her fortieth year at the forefront of what is now know as the Sexual Violence Centre Cork. She’s been there since March 1983, when The Cork Rape Crisis Centre helpline was first established.

And I would say that while Crilly quickly earned the respect and admiration of many abuse victims and their families, there were plenty of kicks and rather less pence along the way from other sectors of society.

The founding of the centre certainly wasn’t accompanied by warm handshakes, fanfare and golden welcomes from the great and the good or the throwing open of any coffers. There were many who sneered.

There were many to whom Crilly and The Cork Rape Crisis Centre were a thorn in the side, warranting no more than an eye-roll and a snide comment out of the sides of mouths.

There were those who made fun of this newly loud and strong insistence that sexual violence of any kind should be taken seriously.

In the early days – and this too may be hard to swallow now - Ireland was a place where a man could legally rape his wife, where domestic violence was often treated as a time-wasting nuisance or a bit of a joke and where any form of sexual assault or rape, no matter the victim’s age, status, or condition, was usually viewed as the woman’s fault. Marital rape only became a crime here in 1990; until then a husband could not be found guilty of the rape of his wife.

I remember sitting in a large college lecture hall in the mid-’80s while a lecturer told us that rape was legal within marriage. Male students sniggered and elbowed each other, female students sat silent and helpless.

This was the country where, on a freezing January day in 1984, some schoolboys found 15-year-old Ann Lovett, and her stillborn infant son at a grotto in Granard, Co Longford. Ann had given birth alone, on the deathly cold stone surface of the grotto in pouring rain. She had a pair of scissors with her to cut the umbilical cord, and, when the boys found her, was bruised, covered in blood and already dying. She died in Mullingar Hospital two hours later.

Three weeks afterwards, an inquest returned a verdict of death due to irreversible shock caused by haemorrhage and exposure during childbirth. The same inquest found a verdict of death due to asphyxia during birth for her baby son.

Meanwhile, the Irish workplace was an environment where even female employees routinely endured casual personal comments and disgusting sexual jokes; where many got touched from behind if they had the misfortune to stand at a printer or walk up the stairs behind certain male colleagues. Or worse, of course.

It was a country where victim-blaming was paramount – all too often a battered rape victim was complacently viewed as a slut who’d probably brought it on herself.

This is what Crilly and her team were up against from the get-go; a solid wall of societal resistance driven by a powerful, rampant and toxic masculinity.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s at least, the founders of the Cork Rape Crisis Centre had a mountain to climb; they were forced to navigate the dark and jagged side of a sanctimonious, hypocritical and deeply misogynistic society.

As a young journalist working in Cork city during that time, I became familiar with this mindset. As time passed, I got to know and respect Ms Crilly and the work she did. She was strong, articulate, and forthright, but at the same time humble and always genuine, always open to discussion about the bad things happening in the shadows that so many people didn’t want to know about. Always fighting for the Centre, which was always in need of more resources, more money, more support. And always, despite the deep resistance both overt and covert, to the work she stood for, she seemed so strong.

I found her to be an incredibly resilient and inspiring person. I really came to admire this woman who always seemed up against it but who was also always so utterly determined to keep going.

In fact, Crilly acknowledged recently that there were times that it got her down. She had panic attacks, she recalls now, and there were times when she really struggled. Crilly was also, by the way, rearing two children alone.

For one, I think it’s a miracle that she and the organisation kept going. The stress of running a centre like that in that kind of society we had must have been tremendous; firstly because the Centre was of such critical importance to so many damaged and traumatised people, and secondly because it was constantly struggling for resources, support and public acknowledgement to keep the show going.

There inevitably had to be dark days. Early on, for example, despite the amazing work it was already doing, there was such a stigma about the work of the Cork Rape Crisis Centre that, Crilly recalled recently, people participating in the mini-marathon didn’t want to wear tee-shirts bearing the Centre’s name.

But, somehow, they made it through every storm and kept going. Initially, between 30 and 40 women sought help there each year. Now several hundred women seek help at the centre every year. Through its hard work, sexual violence is steadily being dragged into the open. It’s estimated the SVCC has helped a minimum of 10,000 people, in person, in terms of those who have called into the centre to avail of counselling and support while also assisting many others by phone and, during the Covid-19 pandemic, remotely.

The centre was the first organisation in Cork to introduce counselling and support to women, men and teenagers who have experienced sexual violence or child sexual abuse.

And in the driving seat has been the woman who, when she was first asked to join the group of founders establishing the centre, considered the whole thing a “joke”. She’d never gone to college. She was a lone parent. She had plenty to deal with as it was. But she decided to give it a go for six months to see how she’d get on – and she got on.

She is now the CEO of the Sexual Violence Centre Cork whose workers accompany survivors of rape to the Sexual Assault Trauma Unit (SATU) at the South Infirmary Hospital in Cork and to court, which actively campaigns for changes in how victims and perpetrators of sexual violence are treated, and which runs a free helpline 365 days a year.

The ceremony will take place at Cork City Hall on June 9 at 2pm when the elected members of the Council will celebrate Ms Crilly’s work in “changing the response to male violence against women over the last four decades”.

What a legacy.

Take a bow, Ms Crilly.

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