Ireland took another step away from being a medieval theocracy last week by starting the implementation of new law forbidding anyone, including parents, to hit a child. It's one of those things for which our adult grandchildren will look at us closely and wonder what kind of people we were in those days when whacking children for real or imagined misdeeds was widely accepted. One of my earliest solid memories is a conversation at the school gate in the year I turned 8. I rather smugly confessed that I'd been in school for nearly a whole year and hadn't been beaten by any of the teachers. I should have stopped my gob, because in the last two weeks of that school year I was hit with a stick no less than 4 times . . . I was seven, I was struck, with a stick, by an adult, who was in charge of my education. It was typical of that time and place that boys used to have a session in boxing after lunch one day each week. Hitting other people was thus institutionalised; but assymetrically: children were not allowed under any circumstances to strike out at an adult - that would be disrespectful.
The weird thing is that if asked baldly "Is it okay to batter/bludgeon/beat a child?" a majority of adults will say "NO!". Asked if it is okay to smack or slap a naughty child, the unequivocal No! is likely to get a little wobbly. Is it all in the language? Under English Common Law, which we inherited at the foundation of the state in 1922, it was deemed okay for a parent or guardian to use "reasonable and moderate chastisement" to discipline a child in their care. Indeed this phrase was enshrined in the 1908 Children Act. But the problem is that one person's reasonable chastisement of an annoying little pillock who won't listen when asked to stop; is someone else's assault on the person and dignity of one much smaller than you. Senator Jillian van Turnhout was interviewed on the wireless that evening. She claimed that the new legislation was really just tidying up loose ends by repealing the relevant section of the 1908 Act but also by explicitly scotching the common law defense. She also pointed out that there were no sanctions if you were caught giving young Maisie a whack: and that omission was deliberate. The current change was just to make it easier to prosecute when a gross violation of a child's rights and dignity had been perpetrated. There is, now, no excuse (Maisie being lippy; The Da being drunk; The Mammy being worn to ribbons by sleep deficit) for striking a child. That's great in my book because it will make it really difficult to sustain boxing in youth clubs and elsewhere.
One thing about The Law is that's its requirements are, in some sense. what the majority want or believe to be necessary to maintain a happy society. Writing "thou shalt not strike any child" into the statute books brings that idea into everyone's consciousness. It's like a lot of inconvenient intrusions into our freedom: wearing seat-belts and not consuming alcohol while driving a car; not smoking cigarettes in aeroplanes and pubs; not burning rubbish in suburbia on Saturday morning; picking up dog-shit; paying for clean water. Once you break the old habit and embrace the new, oftentimes you wonder why you (and we all) put up with the other nonsense for so long.
Our sense of smug satisfaction of occupying the high moral ground in the world (like when we put a charge on disposable plasic bags aor banned smoking in pubs) lasted until Sunday. Marian Finucane on her RTE1 chat-show was all over the victory of Irish Cage-Fighter Conor McGregor. Whatever you think about boxing with its rules of not hitting below the belt mixed martial arts competitions run by the UFC Ultimate Fighting Championship are another level of brutality. McGregor finished off his Brazilian opponent José Aldo in 13 seconds with a few extra blows while Aldo lay befuddled on the floor. Because he was Irish, it was considered worthy of widespread media coverage: not only on RTE. Will our diminutive President welcome McGregor back to the country with the same razzmatazz granted to boxer Katie Taylor? Will nobody learn from Primo Carnera's 1933 victory over Ernie Schaaf which left Schaaf in a coma from which he never woke up?
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