It’s been over four years since the RTE documentary that I partook in, Somebody to Love, was aired for the first time. At the time the documentary was recorded, I was going through quite a rough patch emotionally, the mental wounds of having been so heavily scrutinised as a disabled mother had not yet healed. Frankly, I had felt hard done by, the victim of discrimination as a result of my physical impairment. But I was soon reminded, when I watched the documentary that however bad things had been for me, they were much worse for other people.
Living in Ireland all my life, I know that the subject of sexual intercourse has traditionally been taboo, especially sex outside marriage and the notion of freedom of sexual expression. But what if you were living in a country where, for you at least, having sex was illegal? What if you were excluded from exploring your sexual identity because of an outdated law that dictated that sexual intercourse before marriage is essentially rape?
Ireland has a tradition of mollycoddling disabled people, and this culture is slow to change. You may not be aware (as I wasn’t prior to taking part in the documentary) that until recently there was an archaic law called the Lunacy Act 1891 (replaced in 2015 by the Assisted Decision Making Capacity Act) that deemed it illegal for people with intellectual disabilities to have sex outside marriage. This meant that it was assumed that people with intellectual disabilities could not understand or give consent to sexual intercourse.
This is the undercurrent of the film Sanctuary. Sanctuary was originally a play commissioned by the Blue Teapot Theatre Company and written by Christian O’Reilly, who also wrote the film Inside I’m Dancing. Sanctuary is different to any other film I’ve seen depicting the lives of people with disabilities because the cast is largely comprised of people with intellectual disabilities. It’s a refreshing break from the norm of non-disabled actors assuming the roles of people with disabilities; Daniel Day Lewis played Christy in My Left Foot; in Inside I’m Dancing, the two main characters Rory and Michael were played by James McAvoy and Steven Robertson, neither of whom have disabilities in real life. So it was almost a surreal experience to be watching authentic disabled actors on screen.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that the actors were merely given these roles as some kind of tokenistic gesture – these actors are talented and each one inhabited their character with the same dedication as you’d see on any Hollywood screen. The film is set in Galway, with beautiful shots of Galway scenery showcased throughout. Kieran Coppinger plays Larry, a quirky guy with Down Syndrome and Charlene Kelly plays Sophie, who has an intellectual disability and epilepsy. Both of the actors face the same reality as the characters they play – for them, sex before marriage is illegal. But that’s not going to stop Larry in his quest to have some ‘alone time’ with Sophie!
Tom, the care worker, brings a group of people with intellectual disabilities to the cinema, then leaves them unsupervised to arrange a hotel room for Larry and Sophie with the contents of Larry’s piggy bank. The existence of the piggy bank reminds us how childlike Larry is – or is it simply because he’s treated like a child? As the story progresses, it becomes clear how sheltered Larry has been. Although he’s in his twenties, his mother is disgusted at him for looking at a woman posing in her underwear in a magazine, and she chides him as he leaves the house for bringing too many sweets in his rucksack (she doesn’t know he’s bringing his piggy bank).
Shielding people with intellectual disabilities from the reality of sexual intercourse is bound to have repercussions. Firstly, it doesn’t make people less vulnerable to abuse, something that Sophie can attest to, having been sexually abused in her care home. Secondly, Larry knows that he needs to use a condom ‘to stop Sophie getting pregnant,’ but doesn’t know how to use one, and giving Larry a demonstration is beyond Tom’s comfort zone. This results in Larry and Sophie having unprotected sex because, as Sophie says, ‘ah sure we couldn’t work it out.’ She smiles at the thought of having a baby with Larry, oblivious to the fact that it is highly unlikely that the State would allow two parents with intellectual disabilities raise a child.
Even though the main story is dark, some parts of the film are hilarious. While Larry and Sophie contemplate breaking the law, their unsupervised companions wander the streets of Galway and end up in comical situations, robbing shops, getting drunk and even getting high! There are some brilliant one-liners too that will put a smile on your face.
Does the film have a happy ending? That’d be telling! All I’ll say is this is a story that you won’t forget, and one that should be talked about long after the closing credits. And that the authenticity of the film – a combination of the plot, the characters and the setting -will change the way you perceive people with intellectual disabilities in a way no other film has thus far.
Sanctuary is available on Amazon. Go buy it – you won’t be disappointed!