I was saddened to read of the death of Wexford teacher Eileen Flynn. In 1982 Flynn was sacked from her job as an English and History teacher at the Holy Faith Convent in New Ross, Co Wexford because at the time she was living ‘out of wedlock’ with a separated man with whom she had a child.
Two months after Ms Flynn gave birth she received a letter from the school manager informing her that following her decision not to resign from the school her position was being terminated.
The letter referred to complaints from parents about her lifestyle and of her open rejection of the “norms of behaviour” and the ideals the school existed to promote. It also reminded her of the “scandal” already caused.
Ms Flynn sought to be reinstated in her post but lost her unfair dismissal case at the Employment Appeals Tribunal and at the Circuit Court. She finally lost her appeal to the High Court on March 8th, 1985. In his reserved judgment, Mr Justice Declan Costello said: “I do not think that the respondents over-emphasise the power of example on the lives of the pupils in the school and they were entitled to conclude that the appellant’s conduct was capable of damaging their efforts to foster in their pupils norms of behaviour and religious tenets which the school had been established to promote.”
The 80s were a grim time in Ireland. Apart from recession, high unemployment and emigration we struggled to have coherent conversations about major social issues – remember the abortion referenda? and the attempts to get divorce legalised? (It took until 1995 for the latter to happen and it took until 1993 for the Irish government to decriminalise homosexuality). Eileen Flynn became a symbol of the struggle to separate church and state and was victimised for an act of bravery – albeit a very private one. There were others of course – remember Ann Lovett in 1984? a 15 year old girl whose dead body was found at a grotto in Granard where she had gone to give birth to a baby. Those stories sound like they come from a different era and yet, they are part of my history, my generation – I wonder how far we’ve really come?
When people vilify scapegoats it’s often interesting to pause for a moment and wonder if there’s a truth at the heart of ‘disruptive’ behaviour. Sometimes it’s difficult to see beyond the taken for granted culture we’re enmeshed in but very often there’s the kernel of truth in there that deserves to be heard. Eileen Flynn was scapegoated for our inability or unwillingness to challenge the relationship between church and state in Ireland – how many other lone voices are being stigmatised in 2008 for truths we’re unwilling to name?
May she rest in peace.