"[There is a need for] for a widespread social response and a wider conversation around how we raise boys in Ireland."
A renewed and hopefully sustained interest in discussing masculinities in Ireland has begun to resurface in recent months. In light of the murder of Ashling Murphy earlier this year, there has been a vehement public outcry for a widespread social response and a wider conversation around how we raise boys in Ireland. Unfortunately, these are not new conversations. Similar discussions arose in 2018 after the Belfast Rape Trials. In 2018, the murder of Ana Kriégel sparked similar demands for a national conversation on men and masculinities in Ireland.
In 1995, the Irish government piloted a programme entitled "Exploring Masculinities" aimed at opening discussions among young men in Irish schools on topics such as "men working, men and power, relationships, health and sexuality, violence against women, men and children, and men and sport" (Irish Times). Although the programme has seldom been discussed on a national level, its importance is more critical than ever. The first and most important step is still to open discussions and "allow students to reflect on their development as people." Thinking about masculinities is a crucial factor. Especially, unravelling the idea of "natural" masculinity; believing that masculinities just are the way they are. To believe in an essentialist view of masculinities being natural with ‘regrettable but rare’ side effects removes the responsibility on men to account for their behaviour and the behaviour of their peers.
I use the term "masculinities" in the plural above because there is no singular masculinity. Masculinities are varied and subject to myriad social, cultural, political, economic, and national factors. The sociologist, RW Connell, popularised the term "hegemonic masculinity" in her book, Masculinities, to describe the most popular or commonly seen form of masculinity in a given setting. Its dominance is not predicated on its superiority over other forms of masculiity, but is simply contingent on its wider social circumstances.
For example, a single-sex all-boys private school in south Dublin will uphold a masculinity that prioritises rugby playing, "gentlemanly" attributes (some schools have "Gentleman of the Year" awards), Catholic values, and collegiality or fraternity among pupils. In rural Ireland, however, a boys' school is more likely to emphasise a masculine identity predicated on talent or standing in the local GAA or hurling clubs. What is worth noting, is that hegemonic masculinity is transient. The captain of the senior cup rugby team in a Leinster-based school may not be upheld or revered in the same light if he is in a GAA stronghold in Cork or Kerry. Despite his prowess in rugby, his lack of aptitude in native Irish sports may single him out as inferior in rural Ireland’s hegemonic masculinity totem pole. Similarly, a GAA captain playing among Dublin rugby school boys may be said to lack the "gentlemanly" attributes that rugby is said to impart to its participants. Both of these young men may then be placed lower on the masculinity ranking abroad, where their own understanding of masculinity tied up in rugby or GAA has a devalued currency in a country where neither sport is played.
John Butler’s 2016 film Handsome Devil adeptly depicts the hierarchies and layers of hegemonic masculinity in a rugby school. The film is set in a boarding school in Ireland where a new, non-rugby-playing student struggles to fit in amongst his new peers. The recurring accusation levelled at him is that, because he does not play rugby, he is gay. Indeed, sexuality, particularly heterosexuality, is still normalised within many forms of hegemonic masculinity as the standard. Queer or Trans masculinities are therefore positioned beneath cis-gendered heterosexual ones. Butler’s film demonstrates how young men who do not play rugby are positioned on a lower rung of the masculinity hierarchy and deemed to be on a par with Queer masculinities; never quite reaching the idealised standard of masculine identity.
Butler’s film raises important questions about how hegemonic masculinity functions. The idea, in particular, is that for a dominant form of masculinity to flourish in a given setting, varying iterations of masculinity are oppressed and excluded. Recognising your own understandings of manhood are important first steps in discussing wider social issues around masculinity. Ask yourself two central questions: What are the dominant traits of the hegemonic masculinity I recognise around me? What forms of masculinity are excluded and why? Most importantly, perhaps, how are those excluded treated? Are women objectified in these social circles? Are gay men mocked? Are Trans men bullied?
Thinking critically about who is excluded from masculine social circles gives rise to wider questions then about how those non-conforming individuals are treated by masculine narratives. Thinking about our relationships with both those who are like us and those who aren’t, is a hugely important step towards opening wider societal discussions on misogyny, homophobia, Transphobia, and a wide array of social issues.