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The Moral Outrage of the Damned: Public reaction to the plight of Sabrina McMahon

Sabrina McMahon is 36 years old. She has three children, ages 5, 3, and 1. She and her three children currently live in her car. Sabrina has lived in her car for the past week after her “temporary” arrangements, which lasted a year, broke down. She formerly worked as a dental nurse and as a carer. She keeps her buggy, nappies and possessions in the boot of her car and her groceries in the front. She avails of the kindness of friends so she can wash and clean her clothes. Her children sleep in the back. When the baby wakes for a bottle she switches on the engine to keep her warm. A Sinn Féin Councillor Maire Devine, has been making representations to South Dublin County Council on her behalf for the past year while she went from relative to relative over the months since her relationship broke down. When SDCC were contacted by the Irish Times for comment, they said they were “aware” of the case but didn’t wish to say anything further which was unsurprising.

Unless they were going to say, “We are deeply ashamed that we have failed to show basic human decency to this woman and her family and find her a home” they were probably better off to say nothing. No landlord will accept rent allowance from her. She presented at the Dublin Central Placement Service and was told to go back to Kildare, where she had previously lived, but she wants to live near her family.

If was I was living in a car with three small children I would want to live near my family too.

Her story was on the front page of the Irish Times and it covered on all the major radio stations. On Newstalk this morning, texts flooded in saying that Sabrina was a bad mother; that she should have her children taken from her; that she shouldn’t have even had her children in the first place; that she was irresponsible and only “using” the media to get a free ride on the back of taxpayers. Social media users had a field day in condemning the parenting skills of a woman who is literally living on the margins of society. Very little was said about her former partner. However, the level of misogyny and hatred directed at her in those texts and comments was a slightly more ignorant representation of the structural misogyny directed at her from the state. The state shows its disdain for women like Sabrina by failing to provide for her needs. The tweets condemning her are this simply this same attitude refined to 140 characters.

There are 98,000 families waiting for social housing in this state and the comments levelled at Sabrina McMahon are not unusual. In fact, Sabrina’s situation is not unusual. People are fooling themselves if they think that Sabrina McMahon is the only person in Ireland living in her car right now. And the comments about her are the same type of comments made about poor and homeless women who become pregnant and have families because they generally pathologised as people who made bad decisions, lack male authority, and exist without morals or values. They are believed to be selfish and parasitic and rearing children in their own rough image. It is the stock depiction of the very poorest working class women.

While Sabrina has some bread rolls in the front seat of her car, her problem is that she isn’t a consumer. She just wants somewhere to live that’s safe. It’s one of the most basic things a person can ask for. She isn’t economically productive, and therefore doesn’t warrant the concern of the state. She is a mother and a carer so not considered to be engaging in “real work.”

Women do the lion‘s share of unpaid household and care work. But it isn’t considered “work” because there are no wages, it’s just what women do. It is a bizarre attitude from a state that has a Constitution that specifically assigns a woman’s role to the home. But the very structure of capitalism, depends on women doing the majority of this form of work without payment.  Neoliberal capitalism neglects to acknowledge that women working within the home (or from their car in the absence of having a home) are economically productive as it allows the State to not provide public childcare infrastructure or other supports for childrearing. It is just something that women are expected to do, but it isn’t good enough for the terms of capitalist patriarchy.

Unfortunately Sabrina lives in a place where the government department responsible for welfare, the Department of Social Protection, aim to restructure the lives of poor women like Sabrina, in both a physical and a moral sense. It was not by mistake that it was the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald was out commenting on this story today, to address the concerned masses’ cries of “won’t somebody please think of the children?” rather than the Minister for Social Protection or the Minister for Environment, who ultimately have the responsibility for Sabrina’s situation.

It is unlikely that those who had the luxury of sending a message from their smartphone to a radio station to condemn and blame Sabrina for her situation, stopped to contemplate the precarity of their own situations; how many of them are only two, three or four pay packets away from homelessness themselves.

Not only was Sabrina demonised as a bad parent – but through their commentary, the very value of her existence was questioned. Caring for three small children in the back of a car isn’t valued because it is unpaid labour, although it is probably fair to say that if those who condemned Sabrina were forced to do it, they would think it was pretty hard work indeed.

SPARK ran a campaign last year against a programme forcing lone mams to work when their children turned 7, which had been introduced by Minister Joan Burton. You couldn’t have people remaining economically unproductive now could you? The rationale is that the state cannot allow people to exist in a way that does not overtly benefit capitalism. The point of that programme was to redeem the women who do not have male authority in their lives by forcing them into a situation where they would live within a patriarchal system that would give them male authority in the form of employment. The likelihood is, if they even managed to get a job, their boss would be a man. It is the state’s antidote to these dreadful welfare recipients of getting something for nothing. This particular form of workfare is branded an “activation measure” but it is punitive. It punishes women for not conforming to a life that involves a man who is a breadwinner.

Women don’t become poor in a vacuum. Women like Sabrina don’t live in cars for the fun of it and as austerity continues to destroy Irish society, we will continue to see more Sabrinas living in more cars and cardboard boxes, and sadly, more people willing to condemn them for it.

36 responses »

  1. Good article Stephanie. There’s just a couple of points I’d like to raise.

    1) The story was also carried by the Irish Independent. However there is one major variance in their narrative; their reason for Sabrina’s move out of Athy was because of a break-in. I also thought that I read about her before – and sure enough I did. This also backs up the Independent’s version of events.

    A number of people condemning Sabrina made reference to these inconsistencies and that may have clouded their opinion i.e. “we’re not getting the full story so don’t cut her any slack”.

    2) It’s worthwhile noting that a number of people supporting her made some fairly unpleasant racist generalisations about “foreigners” and “non-nationals”. The usual clichés about immigrants “getting everything” were trotted out. Such racism should not go unchecked.

  2. Useless article. She was exposed as being a self entitled manipulator. She owns a property.

    • Nobody knows the full extent of her personal circumstances, and that is exactly the kind of attitude that keeps women who are in situations of domestic violence or very vulnerable situations from accessing emergency accommodation when they need it.

      As if this particular woman is living in a car with small children for the heck of it.

  3. And the plot thickens with a further interview given to the Irish Daily Mail yesterday. It’s all over the front page of their print edition today.

    I’m not a fan of the paper and consider it marginally better than The Sun (the faintest of praise). However this report puts a different gloss on the situation. You will see that it also refers to the Kildare Nationalist article that I referenced in my previous comment.

    “TODAY the Mail can reveal another side to the story behind the Dublin mother who says she has been forced to live in her car with her three children.

    Sabrina McMahon’s story shocked politicians and commentators when it was covered in newspapers and on the airwaves yesterday.

    But an Irish Daily Mail investigation has shown that the situation is not quite as straightforward as told by Ms McMahon.

    She claims she was forced out of her home in Co. Kildare – and back to the Dublin estate where she grew up – because ‘junkies’ took it over more than two years ago.

    What she did not say, however, was that her departure from the property came shortly after her partner was jailed for a bank robbery.

    And she also failed to mention that, at around the same time she had stopped paying her mortgage on the property.

    In fact, she defaulted on the payments, owing more than €10,000. Eventually walked away from the property, which she bought about eight years ago.

    Originally from Tallaght, Ms McMahon moved to the Co. Kildare town and then her former partner – a convicted bank robber Patrick Joyce – joined her a few months after the birth of her oldest child, five-year-old son Karl.

    The couple, who went on to have two children of their own – Michaela, two, and Chelsea, three – have since split up. After walking away from the Kildare home, she went back to live in Tallaght with friends and family.

    According to the interviews she gave on Wednesday, she decided to live in her Vauxhall Vectra because she didn’t want to impose on people any more.

    However, when asked by the Mail why she couldn’t stay at her mother’s house in Tallaght when her mother goes to stay in Wexford – which is where she was yesterday – Ms McMahon’s reaction was surprising.

    She complained that her mother doesn’t like Ms McMahon’s children, her own grandchildren.

    Asked about staying at her mother’s house, she replied: ‘I don’t get along with my mother at all.

    ‘She’s in Wexford and she’ll tell you that me and her clash because my children are not welcome.’

    She also denied that South Dublin County Council had done anything to help her, until the story of how she was living in her car with her children was published in the Tallaght Echo.

    However, council sources have told the Mail that they arranged an appointment for the mother-of-three with Kildare County Council but that she failed to turn up.

    She also denied this and claimed the suggestions were ‘lies’.

    She has vowed to live in her car for the rest of her life rather than go back and live in Co. Kildare.

    Ms McMahon broke down in tears and insisted: ‘I’m not going near Kildare. There is not a hope. I will stay in my car for the rest of my life with my children.

    ‘There is no way I am going back to Kildare. I am born and reared here and my child is in a school here. I am just going to take this all the way.’

    She insisted to the Mail last night that the reason she walked out of her home in Athy was because it was taken over by drug addicts. As a result, she says, she was forced to move back to stay with her Dublin-based parents and the friends she knew before she moved to Co. Kildare about eight years ago.

    However, in January 2013, she told her local newspaper, the Kildare Nationalist, a slightly different version of events. She said that she was ‘too scared’ to live in the house because the person who had burgled it while she was away for Christmas had threatened to firebomb the property if she ever returned.

    She is quoted as saying that she was staying with family in Dublin, and added: ‘However, I can’t stay there forever. I have been driven from my home and we will soon be homeless. At the moment I am trying to see if we can get anywhere else to live.’

    She also admitted that she had tried to leave the house in 2012.

    Ms McMahon, whose parents no longer live with each other, added: ‘I was paying a mortgage to Permanent TSB. But I am no longer paying that mortgage.

    ‘I am nearly €10,000 in arrears and I had looked to hand the keys back several months ago.’ Although she has told friends it was repossessed by Permanent TSB, a friend of the family has said they had heard the mortgage agreement was terminated ‘by some mutual agreement’.

    The family friend said: ‘She just couldn’t hack it any more. She wasn’t working, the children’s father wasn’t working and she just couldn’t afford the payments any more.’

    Also last night, Kildare County Council said that the address where Ms McMahon had lived was not council property. And when Mail reporters visited her old home – which was modest and presentable – they found no sign of drug addicts or squatters. Indeed, people living in the Pairc Bhríde estate were quite surprised to hear claims that it had been over-run by drug addicts and that Ms McMahon had been forced to live elsewhere.

    She insisted that the property had been wrecked, and told the Mail last night: ‘I have photographs and Dublin County Council has photographs and the Garda station can confirm that. I have photographs of the house being ransacked.

    ‘They totally ransacked the house and they locked me outside the house. In November two years ago. It would have been over two years ago. I came down to give the children a good Christmas. And when I came back the house was ransacked.’

    When asked if the reason she moved back to Dublin was in fact more to do with her not paying her mortgage any more, she said: ‘No, that had nothing to do with it. The house wasn’t safe.

    ‘The police advised me the house wasn’t safe. I had to get the electricity and the gas knocked off.’

    When asked if walking away from her mortgage had any connection to her no longer living in the house, she insisted: ‘There is no connection at all. I walked away from the mortgage in the end but I had never signed the deeds of the house. I never actually signed the deeds. I had been paying the mortgage. I thought I had signed the deeds. This would mean, technically, she didn’t even own the house.

    ‘Seven years later, I found out I hadn’t signed the deeds of the house. I didn’t know that I hadn’t.’

    She added: ‘I never owned the house. I have the paperwork.

    ‘I was working so hard to keep a house.’

    She added: ‘I could nearly name the person who robbed my house. The people knew I had left the area and then when I came back, the whole place was ransacked.

    ‘ Underwear drawers were ransacked. The police told me not to go into the house. There was blood over the place and there were used needles around. Have you been inside the house? I have photos of the house. I have photos of what the place was left like.

    ‘Both the kids’ rooms had been ransacked and my room had been taken over. They were using my bed for whatever they were doing with the drugs.’

    As far as the South Dublin County Council comment that they organised a meeting with Kildare County Council that she didn’t turn up to, she said: ‘That is total lies. They never made an appointment for me.

    ‘The first time I heard about going back to Athy was two days ago,’ she said. ‘I rang Athy and they told me that if I leave Dublin, I would have to surrender my homelessness in Dublin and go on their homelessness list in Athy.

    ‘God only knows if I would get anything up there. I am not willing to move back there with my kids. Not a hope am I going back to that little small town.

    ‘I only heard about Kildare County Council the other day. I was told I would have to re-school my kids there. But I am not doing it. I’m not doing it for anybody. I don’t care. I’ve waited long enough. Everyone can verify what I went through in that town.’

    She added: ‘I’ve got no help from anybody The homeless unit will not help me I’ve no choice. I am a burden to people. I’m never going back.

    ‘Why would I want to go back to a place that was ransacked?’ She appeared very defensive over any suggestion that she intentionally made herself homeless.

    ‘Why would I intentionally make myself homeless?’ she asked. ‘Do they think I am going to move back into a place where people have keys to my house, to get in and out whenever they want?

    ‘With my three children? Do you think I am going to stay in a house where junkies can break back in?

    ‘The gardai did investigate this. They were up in the house a number of times.’

    She denied she had been going out with anybody. A photograph of her with a man was on her Facebook page recently but she said she had only dated him for a week.

    Maire Devine, a local Sinn Féin councillor in Tallaght, has been making representations on behalf of the family for the past year.

    Ms Devine said Miss McMahon and her expartner Joyce wanted to buy a home in Athy eight years ago because the market in the area was affordable.

    ‘Like a lot of people at the time, they wanted to get onto the property ladder. They wanted to stay in Tallaght but it wasn’t affordable so they went to Athy.

    ‘Things went belly-up. He lost his job. She didn’t work. Mortgages couldn’t be met.

    ‘He left and she couldn’t manage. She abandoned it’

    She added: ‘She was too isolated and away from her family. She had been driving up and down to Tallaght because the kids are in school in Tallaght.

    ‘Her dad lives in Dublin and he’s a lovely man but he only has a one bedroom flat and it wasn’t sustainable.’ END

    • Sorry, I’m not clear on the point that you’re making is? Do you mean to draw attention to her own role in ending up in that position or the media commentary on it?

      • I am highlighting the media commentary / reporting which varies in background content and thereby influences the public reaction.

        • Ah ok. Yes it does influence public reaction, but it really is astonishing that people are actively seeking out ways in which they can make it more her *fault* than anyone else’s.

        • emm so personal responsibility is just something men carry

        • @hardybloke – So you’re saying that it’s her own fault, and what? She and her children should be left to live in a car?


        • No as Mr Niall Boylan says
          She chose to to move into her car good for her but she shouldn’t be allowed to force that choice upon her children

        • @hardybloke – She “chose” to move in to her car because she felt unsafe in the house she had been in. Do you not think that says something? That a woman would feel safer in her car with children than in a house?

          I hope you never fall on hard times and need to seek housing or assistance from the state.

        • I probably wouldn’t get it as a man, note number of male homeless
          PS you don’t know the full story she didn’t pay her rent and got kicked out
          Thats how life works

        • @hardybloke – Nobody on this page is saying that if you were homeless that you shouldn’t get assistance. The point is anyone who is homeless, regardless of gender, should be giving assistance.

          You don’t know the full story either. And the lack of humanity being displayed towards her by people like you, is grotesque.

        • Life’s tough sorry love
          The facts are clear

          Don’t see a blog post from you complaining about how many are discriminated against when it comes to social housing

        • @hardybloke – Of course they care about it. Maybe if you cared about it too perhaps you’d go off and write something about men and homelessness instead of spending your time lurking anonymously in the comments section of a blog on feminism and women’s issues – to berate a woman for not writing about men.


        • #whatabouthemenz

          sums up the hatred that feminism has for men

        • @hardybloke

          “Privileged gender” – Lol.

      • @hardybloke – It never fails to entertain me when I write something about a situation a woman is in and then Fedora Fans like yourself come back with “WHAT ABOUT THE MEN?”

        Again; homelessness is bad, regardless of gender.

        • Yeah but no one cares about the disproportionate amount of homeless men. None of whom decided to become homeless to put pressure on the state to give into their demands
          It always about the women the privileged gender and you know it

        • In other words, homelessness is a predominantly male issue. In an article about gender and homelessness, you’ve completely ignored this, and thus further contributed to the idea that homeless women are a cause for concern, but homeless men aren’t.

        • My earlier comment seems to have been lost while the new one has been accepted. Please delete both or allow both. – N

        • @Navin –

          You’ve clearly failed to understand my replies to previous comments of that nature. I suggest you read them again.

        • This blog shows you how science disagrees with your selfish ideology

          Feminism a cancer of academia

      • all objective evidence proves that yes females are the privileged gender
        see life expectancy, disability, work related deaths, poverty and homelessness, healthcare, criminal justice system, family law, university places, among many more

        • @hardybloke – There is so much facepalm worthy stuff in there, I’m genuinely at a loss as to where to start. I presume you’re getting your “objective evidence” from some MRA website?

          Family law? Yeah, women who’ve been victims of domestic violence are so super privileged they get custody of their kids. Yeah, that’s privilege in action. Right there. Healthcare? Yep, dying from an unsafe abortion or pregnancy related condition. Now *that’s* privilege.

        • MRA????
          No life love has shown me this
          Yes fathers are denied the right to see their children in many cases
          There are no screening programs for illness that kill men such as MIs, AAA, CRC
          and saying that being denied the right to kill a fetus on demand is a form of oppression then I guess you are deluded to believe that adult women come over every other human in the world

        • @hardybloke – Stop calling me ‘love.’ I am not your ‘love’ and it isn’t endearing. It’s just patronising.

          It is very rare for a father to be denied complete access to his children by the courts unless he’s done something absolutely heinous.

          Just because there are no screening programmes for men for certain conditions doesn’t mean that feminists or women don’t want them to exist, so your point is irrelevant.

          People should be equal. A foetus is not a person. Women who are pregnant should be free to decide whether to continue their pregnancy or not. If you don’t accept that then you don’t believe in equality (no surprise there though). Simple as.

        • A fetus, note medical spelling, is a human being. It might not meet your criteria for personhood but your criteria are selected for the purpose of denying the fetus rights. A kin to the dehumanization of black people etc in the past

          Using terms like #whataboutthemenz highlights how mens issues such as equal custody rights to children and screaning progrmammes are mocked by society in general and feminists in particular


        • “Foetus” is the spelling used in law here. The fact that you’re cribbing about the spelling just emphasises the lack of substance in your argument. The foetus meets very few people’s criteria for personhood aside from religious fundamentalists and misogynists; there’s a reason you don’t get Child Benefit for being pregnant – because it’s not a person.

          Equating abortion to dehumanisation of POC just demonstrates how you know nothing about either issue.

          Using #whataboutthemenz is a shorthand for telling MRAs where to go.
          Where exactly is this mocking of men in general society that you speak of? It doesn’t exist.

          And I won’t be told to ‘check my privilege’ by a misogynist.

        • I loved the way you censor and still prely to my comments
          You are a horrible human being
          A true prejudiced disgusting human like any racist that ever existed

  4. Bashing the poor, sick, old age pensioners, and the disabled is the new fashion amongst the upper class of our society. Often being referred to as parasites, leeches or spongers. This is a scary all time low that our society has reached as far as compassion and empathy goes. The most educated among us are sometimes the most ignorant. I hope this woman finds a home. Peoples hearts have become hard and so they have closed themselves to having any charity.

  5. @hardybloke

    I’m not reading your blog. I looked at the title of the posts and it looks like complete anti-woman drivel. You appear to have three posts. None of which, unsurprisingly, are about the tragedy of the homelessness of men which you berated me for not writing about earlier.

    Now, trot on. I’m sure your fedora needs dusting or something.

  6. Well said Stephanie.. what a nasty piece of work he is

  7. Pingback: Little Pigs Cheer as Wolf Blows their House Down | Self Certified

  8. “Women do the lion‘s share of unpaid household and care work. But it isn’t considered ‘work’ because there are no wages, it’s just what women do….Caring for three small children in the back of a car isn’t valued because it is unpaid labour, although it is probably fair to say that if those who condemned Sabrina were forced to do it, they would think it was pretty hard work indeed.”

    A USA, 58-year-old, low-income, agnostic, 34-year-married, father of several (now-all-adult) children here.
    I agree that someone in Sabrina’s plight deserves compassionate consideration.

    But, if someone — woman or man — CHOOSES to have children, a choice which, although biologically-driven is nevertheless within most humans’ ability to control and is therefore not unavoidable, then that person has also chosen to accept all the hard work involved in childcare. Society, however, economically values only hard work which produces goods and services which are in some way exchangeable,consumable, or usable. If I work long and hard at something which has no marketable aspect, say, at some personal hobby, society does not value my hard work as anything more than “just what a person who chooses that hobby does”, not even if I devote an entire life of hard work to doing it.

    Humanity faces no present nor near-future danger of extinction due to lack of births, and our world and its resources might even well-benefit from a substantially-reduced population; further, effective contraception is accessible in developed countries. So, yielding to our biological instinct to want and bear children is avoidable and unnecessary. My choice to bear children under those conditions is rationally then, a self-serving indulgence.

    So, if I’ve willfully chosen the avoidable and unnecessary hard work of childcare, is society and/or government in any way OBLIGATED to assist me in it in any way? And, perhaps more importantly, is society/government obligated to value that hard work created by yielding to my own selfish desire for children, as being anything other than “just what a woman or man who chooses to have children does”?


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