40 years on: Remembering the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre's beginnings in a changed Ireland 10 months ago

40 years on: Remembering the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre's beginnings in a changed Ireland

“The 1960s were not a good time to be a young woman. Nor were the '70s or '80s."

The Rape Crisis Centre was set up in an Ireland where there was no abortion, no contraception, and no divorce.

It was a time when the word 'rape' still elicited jokes, when sexual violence was not spoken about, and when it was still legal for a man to rape his wife.

It was 1979 - just 40 years ago - when the DRCC first opened its doors.

Run by a group of volunteers, aided by professionals, and set up to help women who otherwise had nowhere else to go, the DRCC existed in an Ireland that largely didn't understand why it was so desperately needed.

Novelist Evelyn Conlon was one of the first women to joined the DRCC back in the late '70s.

She came from the feminist group Irish Women United, and although the centre set about training themselves, she said that at that time, they knew "very little about what we were getting into."

“We did want the Rape Crisis Centre to last forever, but we didn’t know if that was going to happen," she said at today's DRCC 40th anniversary conference in Dublin's RCSI.

"We were one of the first groups we know of in Dublin that had an answering machine, and we had great fun trying to figure out how that worked.

“One unusual thing we did when we set up was we said we were going to be on time for every meeting. So when I went into labour in 1978, I rang up and said 'I won’t be there tonight.' We were that serious. And we kept it up."

Based out of a tiny bedsit on Pembroke Road, the first few years of the Rape Crisis Centre saw the slow growth of volunteers - and a steady stream of calls.

But it also experienced much criticism from a still intensely Catholic Ireland, regular heavy breather hoax calls, and a nationwide fear around speaking out about abuse.

“Every time we mentioned the word 'rape,' we had to deal with jokes," said Conlon.

"The language has changed now, the challenges are different, but back then you simply could not use that word without someone saying ‘I must tell you this joke.'"

Anne O'Donnell recalled the jokes too. As the first director of the DRCC, she witnessed firsthand the hostility directed not just towards the centre - but to women in Ireland in general.

“In the 1970s, Ireland was a deeply judgemental country with little compassion for women," she said.

"It was so punishing of women, and there was no room for anyone to make a mistake, or to live your life a little differently. What we were saying was considered unacceptable to a lot of people including some of our families, and almost everyone else in society.

“People sometimes talk with nostalgia for the '80s and for the good old days, but I don’t think it was better then. That was not my memory or the memory of a lot of people in this room."

O'Donnell pointed to cases like Joanne Hayes and Ann Lovett as proof of a country that was failing to listen to its women, and to see their experiences as valid.

“The environment at the time made it very difficult for people to speak out, and you could see that in the frequency of the silent calls [contact to DRCC where a caller would say nothing]," she said.

"Women would pull back, they’d tell you something and then start to minimise it. 'It didn’t really happen' or 'it wasn’t really that bad.'

"How can you support someone when they’re pulling back from their own truth? But there are plenty of reasons why people do it."

One of those reasons is because Ireland was a punitive place for women 40 years ago - and remained as so, even more recently.

“The 1960s were not a good time to be a young woman," said psychotherapist Barbara Egan. "Nor were the '70s or '80s."

Egan was one of the first counsellors to work with the DRCC. During her work, in and outside of the centre, she said that avoidance of discussion around women's issues - and the violence committed against them - was paramount in Ireland.

"I didn’t even know incest existed because nobody spoke about sex in Ireland," she said.

"I witnessed deeply disturbing attitudes towards women and children and the difficulties they were experiencing. We really were second class citizens."

The DRCC received their first reported case of child abuse in 1984. Egan said at the time, they were shocked by the story of what had happened to the two children as told by their mother - a narrative that has unfortunately become so common in more recent years.

Despite this, the majority of people contacting the helpline and availing of counselling sessions were - and still are - women.

“[In the '70s and '80s] we kept records of all the people who contacted us," said Egan. "They were mostly young women, and in almost every case, we were the first people they were speaking to."

In 1979, just 79 calls came into the centre. Last year, according to the DRCC's annual report, almost 14,500 did.

In 40 years, a lot has changed. Words like 'rape' and 'sexual violence' are now part of public discourse. The concept of consent is widely understood.

More people are reporting their assaults to relevant authorities, but as the years pass and the education continues, the numbers of cases aren't dropping - they're increasing.

Whether this is because of increased awareness, or due to more cases of violence, is still up for debate. The data to support either claim doesn't exist yet, although the DRCC is hopeful (not without reservation) that new research will be able to shed some light soon.

They are also hopeful about the future, especially given the clear and defined changes that Irish society has undergone in the past four decades.

“This country didn’t change of its own accord," said Evelyn Conlon at today's conference. "It didn’t change because one person did something."

"It changed because lots of people worked at it. And we should be very grateful that the DRCC did work, and that it didn’t collapse.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre on their national 24-hour helpline on 1800 778 888.