Visiting Avignon

DSC_0373This year I went to Southern France for my holidays, including Avignon, famous for its song ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon.’ I was there just at the end of its annual arts festival so it was buzzing with life, hosting some fantastic busking musicians who could keep you entertained for hours while licking ice cream.  At least that’s what I did quite a lot of the time.

It’s also famous as the site of exile from Rome of the Popes, from 1309 to 1376, and has a very impressive Palais des Papes, which was their residence and is now a major tourist attraction.  As the audio guide to a visit explains, the palace demonstrated the secular as well as the spiritual (ideological) power of the papacy but the history untold is not one of the rise in the secular power of the papacy but of its decline from its zenith a century earlier.


Boniface VIII, pope from 1294 to 1303, who liked to wear a crown, declared papal authority over the clergy and threatened France and England with excommunication. In 1300 he also pompously staged a Holy year, selling indulgences to finance his worldly domain. Overreaching himself however he planned the excommunication of the French king, who promptly arrested and imprisoned him in his castle in Anagni.  Even though subsequently freed by the people of the town he was a broken man and died a few months later in Rome.  The second next pope was enthroned in France and eventually establishing his seat of power in Avignon, the start of a series of French popes all largely dependent on the French monarch.

The Catholic theologian Hans Küng remarks that though such events might lead one to assume a tempering of papal claims, this was not the case.  Indeed the guide to the Palais deals a good deal with its vast system of financial management, required to finance building of the Palais and development of the papal bureaucracy:

“In the late Middle Ages, the Roman papacy increasingly lost its religious and moral leadership and instead became the first great financial power of Europe.  The popes claimed a spiritual basis for their worldly demands, of course, but they collected revenues with every means at their disposal, including excommunication and bans” (The Catholic Church)

It was in this period also that saw creation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, originally propagated by an eccentric Franciscan previously accused of heresy.  Apparently this early claim was not taken particularly seriously and was eventually condemned as the work of the devil and the ‘father of all lies’, only to be resurrected later in the nineteenth century.

For political reason the papacy moved back to Rome in 1377 but the next pope showed “such an excess of incompetence, megalomania and outright mental disturbance that there was reason for an automatic dismissal.” (Küng) So another pope, Clement VII was chosen except that the incompetent, megalomaniacal and mentally disturbed pope – Urban VI – didn’t accept this result and so they had a fight over it.  Upon defeat of his troops Clement VII took up residence in Avignon again.

Now we had two popes who excommunicated each other.  You can’t have too much of a good thing; so you had two colleges of cardinals, two Curias and two financial systems.  Clement was supported by France, Aragon, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples and Scotland plus some Germans while Urban was supported by the German Empire, parts of Italy, Flanders, England and some others.

In order to sort this mess out the cardinals met at a general council in Pisa in 1409, deposed the two popes and elected a new one.  Except neither of the existing popes accepted this result either, so the Catholic Church now had three popes! You really can’t have too much of a good thing and we now had a new holy Trinity.

Of course this couldn’t last and eventually the Church managed to get itself just the one pope.

I’d forgotten all this history while doing the tour of the Palais and it would really make for a ripping yarn if it was included in the audio guide to the tour.  But unfortunately some people don’t like the story history tells us.

Another thing I didn’t know was that the area of Avignon continued to be owned and governed by the papacy until the French revolution, only joining the rest of France in 1791.  In the meantime (the Michelin ‘Green’ Guide explains) Jews were confined to a ghetto, locked in at night, compelled to wear a yellow cap, pay dues to their Christian rulers and listen to sermons designed to convert them.

The incorporation of Avignon into a unified French state reminded me of another book I had read some years ago, ‘The Discovery of France’ by Graham Robb.  He noted that at the time of the revolution there were hundreds of small towns, suburbs and villages all more or less independent of any national state.  France was a name often reserved for the small ‘mushroom-shaped’ province centred on Paris.


There was little common French national identity and no common language among ‘the French.’   As late as 1863 a quarter of recruits to the army spoke ‘patois,’ a ‘corrupt language’.  French seemed to be declining in some areas so that children forgot it when they left school.  Even half a century later some recruits to the French army in the First World War couldn’t speak French and there were reports of Breton soldiers being shot by their comrades because they were mistaken for Germans or because they failed to obey incomprehensible orders.

Most people in the 18th century didn’t travel far and their identity was a local one.  Robb quotes records of 679 couples from 1700 to 1759 showing that almost two thirds of the brides came from within shouting distance of their bridegroom: – “In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, all but four of the fifty-seven women had married less than five miles from home. Only two of the six hundred and seventy-nine were described as ‘foreign’. This was not a reference to another land.  It meant simply, ‘not from the region.’”

Some of these towns and villages were “flourishing democracies” when France was an absolutist monarchy.  In one village, Salency, the children were never sent away to become servants, all were considered equal, and everyone worked the land. The village was conspicuously clean and tidy, harvests were abundant and crime was unknown.  Of course horizons were limited and no one was allowed to marry outside the village, which had only three surnames.

In another set of villages covering many square miles a clan called Pignou occupied an area in the northern Auvergne. All men over twenty elected a leader, there was no private property and all children in one village were brought up by a woman who ran the communal dairy.  Again people were forbidden to marry outside the clan and those who did were banished forever, “although they all eventually begged to be readmitted.”

So while the destruction of papal control over the mini-state of Avignon was obviously a progressive outcome of the French revolution the destruction of the much loved independence of many small communities by a remote, centralised state with its demands for standardisation, inevitable destruction of local customs (including language) and imposition of oppressive requirements, such as conscription into massive bloody wars, was not.

But such is capitalist progress.  Marxists understand its positive and negative aspects.  In fact understand that capitalist progress is a function of the contradictions and antagonisms within society that does not allow for real separation of good and bad.

Should it be rejected by seeking to go back to the past?  Obviously we can’t now go back to isolated village communities with no private property in the means of production in France or anywhere else but that is not how the question is posed today.

Today it is posed in terms of rejecting capitalist progress at the international level, also characterised by standardisation, centralisation and lack of democracy in favour of a return to more local, nation-state democratic forms.

Unfortunately much of the Left today is no longer confident about the future so seeks solace in the past.  But as we see, this past in the form of nation states was built upon its own brutality and disregard for peoples’ choices.

But just as the development of the nation state also heralded undoubted progress for humanity so also does the internationalisation of capitalism promise the grounds for a new and better society, a socialist one.  This is the ground upon which we must fight and seek to build an alternative.

The Irish State’s pathological oppression of women

1408603830298.jpg-620x349In Britain there is no higher loyalty than to Queen and country.  In Ireland loyalty is to the State via the Constitution.

From high oaths to common usage it is the Queen, and by virtue of this the nation that are her subjects, that is held up as the object of allegiance.  Proclaiming loyalty to the State sounds a discordant note.

Although in Ireland there is no less promotion of nationalism this does not find expression so much in calls for allegiance to the country, certainly not to the President, perhaps more so to the nation – although that now also has subversive connotations of actually including the whole nation i.e. all 32 counties – rather it is disloyalty to the state that would see you harangued in the Dail by the establishment parties.

Fine Gael sees itself as the unique guardians of the probity and righteousness of the state, having been the party of its creation, even in its declaration as a Republic, with what it considers unequalled adherence to its laws and devout devotion to its legitimacy.  Fianna Fail has seen itself as so embodying the identity of the nation that it has in the past seen itself as the body and soul of the state so that its own laws are also the laws of the state.  That means it doesn’t matter so much if you break them.

The Labour Party can be seen as the most inoffensive party in and with respect to the State.  Republicans, who once swore to a ‘second round’ of war against the Free State now bend over backwards to swear to the legitimacy of the state’s institutions, especially its police and security service An Garda Síochána.

The left wants the state to nationalise the banks and the economy, tax the rich, spend more money, take on more powers to put people in jail – that is those nasty bankers – and pass all sorts of laws against discrimination and for equality etc.  It wants a much bigger state that is a little bit more democratic.

But this week we have witnessed another grotesque illustration of the repugnant character of the real Irish State, the one beyond the idealised phrases uttered without reflection.  In particular it is the constitution which has once again been the grounds on which the denial of women’s’ rights has been based.  This denial is a product of the State’s view of the role of women in society spelt out in Article 41 of this constitution, which states that:

“The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.  The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.  In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.  The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”


It is the State and its constitution’s treatment of women that has given display to its most cruel, repulsive and hypocritical features.  Its reactionary historical origins have imprinted on it a character that all pretensions to modern liberalism have proved unable to hide.  While capitalist development has undermined the holy foundations of the confessional state and its Catholic ethos it has done so in a manner different from that which a strong, vibrant, secular and socialist workers movement would have achieved and with different results.

The Catholic Church has lost mass-goers and much credibility but it still has patronage over the vast majority of primary schools, is still allowed to discriminate in appointing teachers and still imposes its dogmas in much medical practice.  The state it blessed, and which in turn blessed it with collusion in its violent abuse of thousands of women and children, and which paid for the cost of claims arising from this abuse, is now the primary mechanism that upholds its dogmas.

The decline in the ideological hold of the church has not been matched by its political decline and the political power it retains now owes more and more to the power of the state.  It is the State which stands more and more exposed, or should at least, as the rock upon which the oppression of women in Irish society rests, an oppression previously sanctified primarily by the Church and its institutions.

The state’s treatment of a teenage pregnant immigrant illustrates what this seemingly clichéd piece of jargon actually means.  The young woman at the centre of this latest tragedy was interviewed by Kitty Holland in ‘The Irish Times’.

The interview revealed that the young woman was refused an abortion after she had said that she had been raped, although she did not know she was pregnant until arriving in Ireland.  She was initially told she could have an abortion at 24 weeks but this subsequently changed and she delivered a baby by caesarean section.

“Yes, I would have preferred an abortion,” she said. “I was told the only way to end the pregnancy at this point would be a Caesarean . . . They said wherever you go in the world, the United States, anywhere, at this point it has to be a Caesarean.”

“I was raped in my country. I did not know I was pregnant until I came here.”  She was referred to the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), where her pregnancy was confirmed.  “It was very difficult for me. I cried. I said I am not capable of going through with this. I said I could die because of this… They said to me abortion was not legal here, but people like me are sent to England for abortions . . . I asked to go and they said they would have to arrange the documents and that could take six weeks.”

“They said it is okay because I was eight weeks and four days. After that day I hoped they were going to help me. I was shown documents that were filled in, and I understood that the process was under way.”  Over the following weeks, she says, she had a number of meetings at the IFPA and although the process seemed to be in train she was told some weeks later that the estimated cost of travelling to England, having the abortion and possible overnight accommodation could be over €1,500.  An individual in the IFPA, she says, told her the State would not fund the costs.  Remember this is the State that borrowed €64,000,000,000 to bail out the banks.

“In my culture it is a great shame to be pregnant if not married . . . I didn’t even know what [the medic] was saying to me.  “I said to her, ‘I could die because of this pregnancy. I am   prepared to kill myself’.”  At this stage she was 16 weeks’ pregnant.  “I said we’re getting too far, and she said, no, in England they carry out abortions up to 28 weeks . . . She said ‘that is not the problem. The problem is the money’.  She told the journalist that by then she had decided to kill herself.

She then made contact with a family friend who advised her to go to a GP and tell them that she was suicidal because of the pregnancy.  The GP referred her to a hospital, where she saw a psychiatrist.

“She had read the report and she said to me, ‘No, you are already too far pregnant’. I cried. She asked me lots of questions and I answered them, telling her everything I felt. Around 11pm I saw another psychiatrist. I told her the same thing. I spent the night there.

‘“The next day, around 10am, I was taken in a taxi to another hospital . . . When we got there I thought they were going to help me. They brought me to a room where they did a scan and the pregnancy was 24 weeks and one day . . .They said they could not do an abortion. I said, ‘You can leave me now to die. I don’t want to live in this world anymore’.”  She said that from this point a nurse was constantly at her bedside and was always accompanied to the bathroom.’

“They knew I was going to do myself ill. From Friday I did not eat. I did not drink. For four days I didn’t drink, I didn’t eat . . . I thought that way I could die…On Monday night two doctors came, a psychiatrist and a gynaecologist, and said, ‘We are going to carry out the abortion next Monday but you have to be strong. You have to eat. You have to drink.’ I started to eat and I drank.”  A few days later she was told that the plan had changed.

“They said the pregnancy was too far. It was going to have to be a Caesarean section . . . They said wherever you go in the world, the United States, anywhere, at this point it has to be a Caesarean.

“I didn’t know if I could continue to suffer.”  She says that a number of days later, two medics told her the authorities had been made aware of her situation and she would need a solicitor. “That really shocked me.”

A solicitor was appointed by the Health Services Executive.   “The solicitor said he was familiar with my case but it would be better to explain it myself. . . I didn’t eat again those days . . . On Monday evening a psychiatrist came again and said if I eat and drink they will try to do the operation on Tuesday.  I would have preferred an abortion.”

Was she told she had a choice between an abortion and a Caesarean?  “No. I was told the only route that remained was a Caesarean.”  She met the obstetrician she understood would perform the section on Tuesday, and this doctor told her about the operation.  “She said to me, there is a law. This law says abortion is prohibited but people like me can be helped. Abortion is allowed if the pregnant person wants to kill herself because of the pregnancy. “

“She promised they would do it [the Caesarean] on Wednesday. She showed me a document with three signatures, two psychiatrists and one gynaecologist.  She started talking about the negative effects [of a Caesarean section]. I didn’t listen. I didn’t have a choice. All the suffering I had gone through. Then on Wednesday at about 3pm they did it.

“When I woke up I felt sick. The following Wednesday I was let out.”  “I didn’t want to even know that I had a child. Still, even today, I feel really bad.”  She has seen a psychiatrist twice since she left hospital, provided for her by the HSE.

Asked if she has any friend to talk to about her situation, the young woman says she has not.  “No, I didn’t want people to know . . . For me this was shameful. In our culture if a girl gives birth to a child before marriage everything is finished. No one can respect you. As well as that, for me, with the rape, it was difficult.”

“Sometimes, when I feel the pain . . . I feel I have been left by everybody . . . I just wanted justice to be done. For me this is injustice.”

A spokeswoman for the HSE, when asked about the allegation that the woman was not offered a right to appeal the decision to carry out a Caesarean section, said that the woman’s request for a termination on the basis of suicidality was acceded to.  “It is important to note that a pregnancy can be terminated by way of delivery through Caesarean section, as it was in this instance.”  As they were acceding to her request for a termination of the pregnancy on those grounds, there is no requirement for a review.

It’s hard to know in what proportion this response of the HSE is composed of cynicism, mendacity and deceit; or how much to that infamous principle of conduct by the Irish State of ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem.”  As the columnist Fintan O’Toole pointed out:

“At least 160,000 Irish women have had abortions abroad since 1980. That’s close to one in 10 of the female population aged between 14 and 64. These women are our mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, neighbours. Yet abortion is part of official discourse only when a new atrocity breaks the surface of a deep silence.”

An inquiry will be undertaken by the HSE which will, it is reported, establishe “all of the facts surrounding the care given to the woman” and will “end any inaccurate commentary surrounding this matter currently”, except that it “would not involve any review of the decision taken by the three clinicians who were empanelled to decide if an abortion was warranted under the 2013 Act .”

Meanwhile the Government through the Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan has said that the constitutional ban on abortion should be revisited by a future government, but that the legislation introduced by the Coalition was “the best possible” under the circumstances.  A phrase that hardly comes anywhere near describing truthfully the circumstances of the case.

The announcement of an inquiry will attempt the same role as the inquiry called after the death of Savita Halappanavar.  Already we have been told that it may not be published in full and of course it is to be conducted by the same organisation, the HSE, which is squarely in the dock as the guilty party.

The Government has already ruled out doing anything so the exercise is entirely cynical and entirely in keeping with the history of a state that took 21 years to legislate for the X case.  It’s remarkable that at this time the Irish state could move at such speed in an attempt to prevent another young 14 year old rape victim threatening suicide from having an abortion in Britain yet took 21 years to legislate for the limited concession to women that resulted from the case.

The state has no role in limiting the participation of anyone in society or determining their role.  It certainly cannot be allowed to control the rights of women to control their own fertility or to endanger their health or their life because of doctrines dreamed up by a medieval institution that believes its leader is God’s deputy on earth.

Women must have the right to choose whether they will bear children without conditions being imposed.  The Constitutional impediments to this must be repealed and the fight to make their free choice a real one, which cannot be settled by any constitutional provision, must be taken up.

A way forward cannot be left to the existing State but requires a movement that not only campaigns for the freedoms and resources to make women’s self-determination a reality but starts itself to put in place the services that women need.

Savita Halappanavar told “This is a Catholic country.”

Savita Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, arrived with back pain at University Hospital Galway on October 21st but was found to be miscarrying.  Doctors told her the baby wouldn’t survive but it would all be over in a few hours.  Her agony lasted until 28th.

Her husband says she asked several times that the pregnancy be terminated but that this was refused because the foetal heartbeat was still present. Her husband reported that the doctor “told us the cervix was fully dilated, amniotic fluid was leaking and unfortunately the baby wouldn’t survive.”  There followed three days, he says, of the foetal heartbeat being checked several times a day.

He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination.

This was refused, he says, because the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”.  She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped.  When the dead foetus was removed Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.

“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby. When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning Savita asked if they could not save the baby could they induce to end the pregnancy. The consultant said, ‘As long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’.

“Again on Tuesday morning, the ward rounds and the same discussion. The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.

“That evening she developed shakes and shivering and she was vomiting. She went to use the toilet and she collapsed. There were big alarms and a doctor took bloods and started her on antibiotics.  “The next morning I said she was so sick and asked again that they just end it, but they said they couldn’t.”

When the foetal heart had stopped Ms Halappanavar was brought to theatre to have the womb contents removed. “When she came out she was talking okay but she was very sick. That’s the last time I spoke to her.”  At 11 pm Ms Halappanavar’s husband got a call from the hospital. “They said they were shifting her to intensive care. Her heart and pulse were low, her temperature was high. She was sedated and critical but stable. She stayed stable on Friday but by 7pm on Saturday they said her heart, kidneys and liver weren’t functioning. She was critically ill. That night, we lost her.”

On the face of it we have a desperate tragedy that could possibly have been avoided. That it has not is because of the continuing power of a state colluding with an institution, the Catholic Church, which, despite being increasingly discredited, continues to wield enormous power.  This includes its patronage of hospitals and influence on medical practices.

The Church has been found guilty of systematic and widespread child abuse in report after report.  It has defended itself first by cover up and denial, relying on the state, including the Garda to protect it; and finally by expressions of sorrow and regret while making the minimal of changes.  The Church has still been allowed to continue to ‘self-regulate’ while it being obvious that the resources provided to protect children are woefully inadequate. The Church has shown not the slightest sign of willingness to pay for its crimes.

Above all it has been the state which has been the last line of defence for the institutional power of the Church and this is so despite the much publicised criticism by politicians, including Enda Kenny in the Dail, and the weak measures to reduce Church patronage of schools.  Such criticism is designed to save the Church from itself and reduced patronage is acceptable to it, if it is limited, because the Church has already stated it is currently over-extended.

For years the Irish State has been under an obligation to legislate for abortion where the life of the mother is threatened and all the political parties have avoided discharging this obligation.  How bitterly ironic then that the Expert Group set up to report on this issue, in reality a device to kick the question further down an infinite road, reported its findings to the Government last night.  We can be absolutely certain that this procrastination will continue now that the report has been completed.

The expressions of sorrow from the politicians in the Dail this afternoon are nauseating and hypocritical.  If the facts are as they are now understood then their defence of Catholic Church teaching has led to a result that has been both foreseeable and foreseen.  Two internal inquiries into what has happened are to take place, one by the hospital itself and one by the Health Services Executive.  Those who work in the hospital should, through their trade unions if that is easiest, report what has happened or at the very least prevent any cover up.  Much better would be a workers enquiry made up of health service staff and users of the services. Neither of the internal inquiries can be trusted to reveal the truth of this case.

Most fundamentally this is because, while this is a personal tragedy, it is the result of a political system that still defends the reactionary social teaching of an increasingly disgraced institution.  It does so because of the independent power of that institution, the historical ties that bind and the need for the Irish State to hold to whatever forms of legitimacy it can, no matter how tattered.  The Church and its teachings remain a powerful reactionary force in Irish society notwithstanding the scandals.  This is an earthly power with deep roots.

Some on the Left appear to believe that confronting the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland is a battle won when in fact it has been battles fought by women and the self-inflicted wounds of the abuse scandals that have weakened its authority.  It is now well past the time that the Left demanded the rights of women to control their own bodies, with the right to choose whether they have an abortion or not.  This requires the complete separation of the Church from the State and the expulsion of the Church from education and health services.  Safe and legal abortion services must be provided by the health services free at the point of delivery.

We should expect to see the deputies of the United Left Alliance excoriate the political leaders who have allowed this to happen.  It is one of the few truly useful functions a TD in the Dail can perform.  This is not a tragedy above or beyond politics but is something a rotten political system and its defenders made inevitable.