And You Can Dance - What Madonna and girls have meant to Ireland

Music can be such a revelation
For a laugh I'd sometime watch the girls battle on the playing pitch at my high school. Grey rain would fall in sheets from the nearby lough all afternoon.

They'd play through it, ignoring it.  They were hardy and vicious out there on the camogie pitch. In October light, which was like the absence of light, in Donegal.

I wondered about them as people, which they found astonishing. The smartest ones understood the truth about me and befriended me right away. It was a bit like when convicts form pacts in the penitentiary, and to most of us Catholic high school in Ireland in the eighties felt like a penitentiary.

Looking back, I marvel now at how many of them actually managed to evade all the looming icebergs that Irish society had waiting for them. There weren't many role models for girls then.

If you were girl the first rule that applied was that you couldn't be yourself. You had to be somebody's daughter, somebody's girlfriend, somebody's wife.

No one was actually interested in your opinion. You could just keep that to yourself.

There was the bakery that you'd find your first job in. There was the restaurant were you'd work without tips. There was knitting shop and there was supermarket and there was the nightclub and there was the cinema.

You'd find yourself in all of them shortly. The trick was to keep on walking.

And if the message still hadn't gotten through, a quick walk to the grotto would clear it up for you. There was the Virgin, who pulled off a trick that no Irish woman ever has, conceiving without any of the usual arrangements.

Mary (there were so many Marys in my town) was a ubiquitous reminder that no matter how much you might struggle for greatness, you could never ever match up. It was said that she was an especial comfort to women, but all I could see was a supernatural being unlike any breathing one I knew. I suspected that was the point.

Then came christenings. That was fascinating stuff. A woman would hand her child to a man. He would dip its head in a kind of spiritual birth water, diluting a mother’s own natural achievement.

She had given life but the priest had given eternal life. Birth water trumped by Holy Water. It was like women couldn't catch a break anywhere, I thought.

Being gay in this bizarre world of heterosexuals, I would constantly marvel at what they all took for granted.

How, I wondered mildly, could a newborn infant ever be thought of as stained with sin? How could a man in a frock coat on an alter think he'd somehow birthed it into a wider world? If he wanted to know what childbirth really involved I knew some girls who could school him.

That was because some of the girls I knew at school were already having infants. That was something to behold.

Maggie, the good time girl whose main interests seemed to be Billy Idol and having a laugh, was the first to fall. They actually called it a fall. The rumor spread through the entire school in five minutes.

She brazened it out too, the name calling, for the whole day, until the tears fell.

It was a terrific scandal that had created groups of detractors and supporters by lunchtime. Impromptu debates were held in the corridors where we almost came to blows, but she was gone the next day and she never returned.

In fact, I never saw her again. Her story had run out, and when that happens you disappear.

People took it all in their stride but I was horrified. It felt like I was living in an Eastern German police state where people could just get pulled into the shadows in the night.

Up the road in the North that was actually happening. Young men in British Army uniforms would stop you at night on country lanes and stick flashlights in your face. They said where you could and could not go.

Men were always telling you where you could and couldn't go, I discovered. You'd find out quickly what would happen to you if you ignored them.

To be a girl in all of that? It seemed to me like you'd be given a series of choices that were actually traps.

If you were a virgin there was something wrong with you. If you weren't a virgin you were a slut and there was really something wrong with you.

The point was, there was always something wrong with you.

After school I hung out with the girls who lived somewhere between the two poles, and we'd listen to Prince and Madonna and throw night long parties on the beach that no one else got invited to.

“Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free.
At night I lock the doors, where no one else can see.
I'm tired of dancing here all by myself.
Tonight I wanna dance with someone else,” Madonna sang, setting us free, because someone had to.

The girls that I hung out with then understood that we had common enemies, girls and gay lads, and it brought us closer together, but they also knew they could still be a part of the society that was always threatening to turn on them.

They learned there wasn't any room in the story for me, or the likes of me. Not an inch of space, not a paragraph. It infuriated them.

So I think change happened in Ireland because girls and gay boys danced to Prince and Madonna and became lifelong friends, finding the courage to be the people we dreamed of being together. Our friendships were rehearsals for modern life.

There hasn't been nearly enough recognition of that particular Irish musical revolution. It involved a lot of dancing.

First we held our get-togethers in secret, until we discovered how many people wanted to come. In the end it turned out that as many of our friends wanted change as we did. Blame Madonna.

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