There is an uncomfortable message at the heart of a new book studying the chilling phenomenon of suicide by young males in Ireland and beyond.
It is leavened by the author’s belief that at least here in Scotland we are handling the same problem far better, but it is an uncomfortable message all the same, and it is well summed up by the book’s cover.
There’s a pair of dark glasses with a man walking away reflected in one lens, but more important to the message of the book is that the glasses are lying on a death certificate. Date of Birth is said to be late 20th century, the Cause of Death is given as Feminism.
Phil Mac Giolla Bhain is arguing directly that the crisis in youth suicide has a connection with the growth of feminism and the counterpart of that, loss of notions of manliness or public space for that concept to be acceptable.
Put these trends together in a society as supra-culturally conservative as Ireland was for centuries, which spent generations idolising passive, virginal women, led by active, positive men, and you have a recipe for disaster when the old social order breaks down in the face of global capitalism.
Add to that a system of social services which he sees as run entirely according to feminist nostrums and you have a death march of young men towards a noose and a stool in their garden shed or a cliff in their car.
The author is Glasgow born, a community worker who then qualified as a social worker. He knows what he’s talking about. But when decided to move with his family to County Donegal, and a new career as a mixture of outdoor pursuits guide and freelance journalist, his old social work training kicked in when he got involved in the debate about young men killing themselves.
He is full of praise for the way Scotland has tackled the problem head on with the “Choose Life” campaign which did not flinch from the reality that suicide was a particular issue for young men.
Mac Giolla Bhain quotes Dougie Paterson, head of Choose Life, as he produces what are literally killer statistics; one million suicides globally a year, one every 40 seconds, more than all wars, murders or terrorist acts. In Britain and Ireland, one every 82 minutes.
“Scotland, like this island, has a male suicide problem, to be precise a young male suicide problem. The striking thing about Paterson’s presentation was that the Choose Life campaign explicitly stated that was the problem, that young men were the ones primarily at risk and this was where the information had to be targeted,” states the book.
Football was the key to the Choose Life campaign, with slogans like “helping a friend stay in the game” and employing different teams’ strips bearing the number 12 and the name Life, spelling out that there was no “substitute for life”.
Mac Giolla Bhain praises Choose Life, saying: “Suicide is mainly a killer of young men in Scotland. Go to where young men are and speak their language. Don’t speak down to them and don’t judge them.”
The author’s style is conversational, personal, and at times confrontational as he takes on what he sees as the feminist orthodoxy now dominating social policy in his country and ours. That will spawn its own debate.
But what is not in doubt is his passion and compassion. He has the burning zeal of a campaigner who believes a great wrong has been done to young men, compounded by the burying of their fate.
Mac Giolla Bhain is at his best when he is anecdotal and this shines through the case studies in his book, where he has a righteous anger for the way the system in Ireland – North and South – has failed to handle the issue. This continued right down to his original publisher, who wanted a noose on the front cover. Mac Giolla Bhain said this was an insult to all the families who had told him their stories, lost the deal, and he has now self-published.
I know and like Phil Mac Giolla Bhain. My views still have more in common with the “feminist orthodoxy” than his yearning for “manliness” as a culture which I feel shades too readily across into misogyny. But he sure as hell has a point. Young men have to feel valued, given self-respect, and the sense of self-worth with would prevent anyone taking their own life.