I think it was on RTÉ’s Prime Time, following the Carrickmines fire, that a Traveller woman voiced her incomprehension at the attitude of residents of Rockville Drive, who had refused to countenance an emergency halting site to accommodate families left homeless by the fire. She said that in her community, if children arrived in the middle of the night left homeless and in need of shelter, you would get out of your own bed and let them sleep in it.
This afternoon I opened a book titled ‘Grow in Love’. It is a religious education book for junior infants in Irish primary schools. My daughter was given a copy. The book received publicity recently because it depicts Mary ‘saying Yes to God’ when the Angel Gabriel tells her that she is pregnant and going to give birth to the son of God.
There is another part of the book that has escaped attention.
‘One kind innkeeper let Mary and Joseph stay in his stable’.
In On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor write that ‘it is often said of small children that they are naturally cruel, but it is less often said that they are naturally kind, instinctively concerned for the well-being of others, often disturbed by the suffering of others and keen to allay it’. A five-year-old encountering this book may conclude that the innkeeper is indeed being kind. But what is really happening here?
No-one in the town, two thousand years ago, is prepared to let a heavily pregnant woman take shelter. There is, however, one innkeeper, who like all the others does not wish to disturb his paying guests, so he says that the heavily pregnant woman can sleep out with the cows and the donkeys and have her baby there. And in 2015, in Ireland, infants are being taught, in publicly-funded schools, in a way that appeals to their own instinctive concern for the well-being of others, that treating pregnant woman like farmyard animals is a laudable act of kindness. Disturbing the logic of commerce and property, however, is simply out of the question. It is a miraculous fact of life, like a virgin birth, that needs no explanation or justification. Then we wonder why Travellers are treated with such cruelty, or why maternity and reproductive health services prove such a nightmare for so many women.