Farewell to Ashling

As I sit to write this blog I find my mind is about 160 miles away as a beautiful young woman was laid to rest in Mountbolus cemetery outside Tullamore in the Irish midlands.

Ashling Murphy was a young primary school teacher and, last Wednesday afternoon as she went for a run along the Canal on her way home from school, she was attacked and murdered.

It’s an event that has shocked the country and, today, my heart goes out to Ashling’s parents, Raymond and Kathleen, her sister Amy, her brother Cathal and her boyfriend Ryan. 

It makes no sense that someone in the prime of her life, having just started her first job, a talented sportswoman and traditional musician, should have the most precious gift of life taken away from her as she took some exercise in the late afternoon.

Tullamore is an unremarkable provincial town. It’s comparable in size to towns like Ballynahinch or Downpatrick. There are supermarkets and shops, a hospital and schools, a hotel or two and some pubs and cafes. As a young man, I remember going to nighclubs there on a few occasions with friends, we drove through it regularly on my trips to the boarding school I attended in the neighbouring county of county Westmeath. We occasionally did some shopping there, but you simply don’t expect something so shocking and terrible to happen in such a place.

Ashling’s murder has raised much discussion and debate about violence towards women in our society and has caused me to reflect much in this past week about my own attitudes and behaviour and the values I want to pass on to my son.

One of the troubling memories this terrible tragedy brought to my mind was an incident when I was a student back in 1991 in University College Dublin. I had cycled into the city centre on this particular night to meet a friend for a drink and, on my way home around 10.30pm, I heard a woman calling out for help. I stopped and went over and discovered her to be holding another woman whose lip was split and who had been attacked and assaulted. As I made my way towards them, the woman who had been assaulted started to cry and become hysterical and told the other woman holding her she could not cope with a man coming near her after what had just happened.

I wanted to bring them to a Garda station, but the injured woman wouldn’t hear of it. “They will only say I was asking for it,” she said, “and nothing will be done.” As she became increasingly agitated by my presence, the other woman told me to go on and she would take her home. I remember feeling so powerless and helpless and angry at what had happened to this young woman and how it made her feel. She felt unsafe and vulnerable and that all men were potential attackers. I cycled back to my flat, it was a time before mobile phones, and I began to worry about my friend who I had  left in the city centre waiting for her bus. Was she ok? Did she get home safely? I remember going to a telephone box and phoning and feeling so relieved that her journey had been safe and uneventful.

It’s over 30 years ago since this incident, but I remember it vividly and how ashamed I was to be a man and to somehow be associated in someone’s head with a section of the human race that wanted to hurt and harm and damage. I look back on my school days and how, as young men, we would joke and comment on the appearance and shape of the girls in our class, without any thought to how this might make them feel if they overheard our conversation. Those are not things I’m proud of and its terrible that it takes an event so terrifying and dreadful to make us think on how we might, inadvertently, have been part of a toxic culture.

I’m a runner myself and, quite often, I go running in the early morning before it gets bright, so as I make my way around the streets of the suburbs where I live here in Belfast I rarely give a thought to my personal safety. A colleague posted a photo last week of his running shoes and his wife’s running shoes and he explained that she never felt safe running alone, so they often ran together around the forest and lake near where they lived. It’s a shameful thing to have created a society where one half of our population feel unsafe and vulnerable to go about their daily business without comments, harassment and even physical intimidation.

What does the ‘church without walls’ have to say to this culture? Well, first of all, it says it shouldn’t be so. The ‘church without walls’ and the Bible shares a belief that people are made in the image of God. They have a dignity and beauty that comes from beyond themselves. We should, therefore, treat other people with that respect and tenderness and love that God has directed towards us.

I think the second aspect that the ‘church without walls’ would want to highlight is how we take that message on board in our own lives and pass it on to others.

In my role as a church leader, as a husband and father, am I offering a good example as to how to treat women with love and respect and gentleness? I feel grateful for the men in my own life who have modelled good behaviour to me. I think of my parents, teachers, sports’ coaches and different clergy who were very influential in my life. They didn’t do huge things, but they did small things well. They helped out at home, they expressed thanks and appreciation. They sometimes held me accountable or took me to task if they saw behaviours in me that they felt could be better. As I read the Scriptures, I see the counter cultural way Jesus treated women. He listened respectfully, he gave them space, he pointed out to the men in his company the special things they did to help Him.

In reflecting on one of the saddest and most affecting events in this land in recent times, I wonder can I ask God to shape my attitudes and actions and thoughts daily and model something of the same spirit to my son?

Looking forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,

Jono.

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