Two women reached out to me after I wrote my blog posts about Andy Halpin’s sexual harassment of me at the National Museum of Ireland. Their accounts demonstrate the pattern of how this man preys on women in the workplace.
Caragh Smyth’s experience was 1998-1999, and Nina Vodstrup Andersen’s was in 2008. My experience was 2004-2005. It is also reported that a fourth woman, an intern at the time, complained as recently as 2016, and I know that there were others.
Caragh and Nina have since formally complained to the National Museum. Their stories are below.
Caragh Smyth’s account tells me that Andy regularly used her computer on lunch break to look up soft porn sites about tall women and Valkyrie, at her quiet, basement lab desk at the Museum in Kildare Street.
Just as he did with my computer every day at my desk in Collins Barracks.
Disturbingly, Caragh also describes an incident that is chillingly reminiscent of what he did to me:
“I was working on a project to produce educational CDs of the Egyptian collection at the time, sometime around 98/99. I was standing in the middle of the shared office talking to my boss and an Egyptologist from the British museum. I was mid sentence, when Andy walked past, arms swinging, and brushed his fingertips across my ass. As usual, something that could be easily explained away as an accident. And of course, a situation where I felt like I couldn’t react or do anything, mid-sentence with a BM bigwig and my boss (who I have utmost regard for).
But what clarified it in my mind and made it so obvious that he knew exactly what he was doing, was that he did it again a few minutes later. The exact same brisk walk by, arms swinging, fingertips brushing off my ass while I was mid sentence. Hey, we’ve all accidentally brushed past someone at some point, but there’s no way it would happen a second time. You go SO far around them the next time that there isn’t a chance of it happening again!”
Caragh’s description of this incident made my skin crawl, and demonstrates a pattern that shows conscious and deliberate abuse of power and calculated physical harassment by Andy Halpin. Caragh also hit on a crucial element of Andy’s behaviour: that it made women doubt themselves, so much so that they mostly did not speak up:
“I have to admit, I do actually feel a bit silly writing this all down because it sounds so insignificant, particularly in comparison to others, but I guess that was the genius of Andy’s harassment — subtle, apparently insignificant, in the “you’re being melodramatic” realm. He knew we were young, fresh out of college, on internships or short-term contracts, and therefore vulnerable.
I eventually left the Museum when I was 25 and changed careers entirely. But one other thing I remember is someone from the Museum called me a while after I’d left. Apparently, an intern had reported a member of staff. The incident was described to me without naming any names and I was asked whether I knew who it might be. I immediately named Andy, correctly, and then described what had happened to me. I was asked why I’d never complained at the time, so I just explained what I said above. We were vulnerable, wanted to renew our contracts, and he was chillingly calculating in how subtle he was, so we felt we wouldn’t be believed.”
This last shows that Caragh did feedback to Museum staff what happened to her, even if it was after she’d left.
Caragh apologised to me for what I’d gone through: that made me cry. I felt so angry that another woman had to feel she should apologise to me for what I’d gone through, when she’d gone through it too. She wondered maybe if she had complained, would it have prevented it happening to me.
It makes me wring my hands to realise: what good would it have done if she had complained at the time, or if anyone else this happened to had complained? It was known. It wouldn’t have prevented it happening to me. Because I complained, and yet still it happened to Nina Vodstrup Andersen.
Nina’s Vodstrup Andersen’s story of her experience of working at the National Museum of Ireland as a whole makes for uncomfortable reading:
“At the age of 23, I moved from my native Denmark to Ireland to take up an unpaid internship in the National Museum of Ireland. At that time, I was finishing my Bachelor’s Degree in medieval archaeology and museology at the University of Aarhus, and this degree required that we students complete an internship in a museum to gain experience. The notion struck me that, rather than just applying at any of the small regional museum in Denmark, why not reach for the stars? So in a fit of youthful audacity, I sent off an application to the NMI. I never really expected to hear back.
When I got the invitation to take up an internship with the NMI from July 2007, I felt thunderstruck by the sheer amount of good luck that had come my way. I packed my bag and set off for Dublin. One my first day of work, I was awestruck by the collections, the building itself, its history, the sheer amount of learning and research centred there, and I had to pinch myself that I’d been given this opportunity to briefly enter such a world.
I was given a little desk in the basement, the storage area, and I loved it. I adored the work. Every day, I got to handle artefacts, to do work that no bachelor-student has any right to even dream of. My supervisor in the Antiquities Division was the best boss I’ve ever had, before or since. I’m still in awe of how much confidence and trust he placed in me, a hapless young immigrant. And I want to preface the following by saying that I worked with so many good people at the museum whose kindness, patience and good humour remain a fond memory for me to this day.
But I quickly sensed that there were dark and uncomfortable undercurrents within the museum. A fearful sense of hierarchy seemed to loom over everyone, and there was a stifling sense of rivalry and antipathy between some departments and others, none of which I could comprehend.
Tea breaks were an almost ritualistic part of the day in the museum. I never enjoyed sitting in the lofty cafeteria with all the staff in this sometimes strange, needling atmosphere. So I went outside to sit on the benches and drink take-away coffees and chat with the other young interns, or the attendants. One day, one of the attendants looked at me and said gravely that I shouldn’t be out there with them. ‘You’re hanging around with the wrong crowd,’ he said, ‘you should be in there with the higher-ups, and make sure to sit at the right table.’ My unnerving sense that I didn’t understand the workings of the place grew, and I felt bewildered and lost in the organisation as a whole, despite all the kindness of my supervisor.
More troublingly, there was a pervasive culture of what some might prefer to call ‘banter’, but which to me felt horrendously inappropriate and frankly perverse. Just a few examples. One attendant kept singing Nina, Pretty Ballerina every time I walked past. Another sidled up to me to muse about what he thought my preferred mode of sexual contact might be. ‘I bet you like to just lie there, being caressed,’ he said. A researcher from Collins Barracks told me, for some unknown reason, ‘you know, you’re just too pretty for your own good.’ Another time, the director himself, Patrick Wallace, cornered me in one of the dim, narrow passages deep in the storage basement. He was leering maliciously at me as he asked why I was spending so much time with my supervisor. ‘Are you having an affair with him,’ he asked, drawing out the word in a tone of voice laden with sexual glee. ‘I know you,’ he said, wagging his finger and winking, ‘you Scandinavians are all the same…’ And with that, he strode off.
But at least none of them ever touched me.
None, except Andy Halpin.
I worked with him only once, as I and a small group of other young interns were rearranging a skeleton on display in the Viking exhibition. He singled me out for inoffensive little jokes, and he kept laughing and repeating some of my words in a delighted sing-song voice and bumping into my shoulder a little. I thought it strange that such a senior member of staff would take delight in talking to a mere intern, and his manner was almost like that of a flirting adolescent. But I passed it off as friendliness and reminded myself that as a recent immigrant, I had to expect some cultural differences.
Sometimes, I’d have to pass through Andy Halpin’s office on my way elsewhere. He’d occasionally look up and exclaim “Nina!” with such exuberance. I found it a little odd, but amidst all the other occasional strange behaviour at the museum, didn’t give it much thought.
Then came the museum Christmas party of 2007. As an intern, I was delighted to be invited. The dinner party took place in a fancy restaurant in Merrion Row. We were all seated on benches along a long table. Suddenly, without having noticed, I found myself sitting next to Andy Halpin, with him on my right side. I thought that a bit strange, since we didn’t work together. It was a snug fit to seat everyone around the table. Not long into the dinner, Andy Halpin leaned forward, speaking to someone far on his right. At that moment, I felt his hand clasp my thigh under the table, squeezing, just over my knee. I sat there like a pillar of salt. This is a decade ago, and I can still so clearly recall his fingers pressing into my flesh. What really struck me was that he wasn’t even looking at me. He was turned away, speaking to someone else. It seemed to me like a practiced, calculated move.
I never told anyone about that incident. Frankly, it didn’t even occur to me to report it, just as it had never occurred to me to report how uncomfortable I’d been with the creepy remarks made by some of the attendants and by Patrick Wallace, whose stature in the museum seemed to me like that of a capricious, malevolent demigod. In the atmosphere of casual sexual ‘banter’ among some – but not all – museum staff, I honestly thought that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. Besides, I was an unpaid volunteer, and Andy Halpin a senior and respected member of staff. And quite apart from that, I thought I would appear either insane or downright evil if I complained about someone who’d seemed so friendly towards me the whole time.
I continued working at the museum till May 2008. Some time later, I returned for a visit. In the lobby, by complete coincidence, was Andy Halpin. He came hurrying towards me with a big smile, hugged me quickly, clasped my face and planted a big wet kiss on my cheek. I felt invaded by this overly familiar way of greeting. But all I did was freeze and smile stiffly, like some ingrained reflex.
I filed all of this away for years – the grab, the uninvited kiss, the gross comments made by others at the museum. Just part of the ugliness you have to deal with in life, I told myself. I wanted to think of myself as a young researcher, not a ‘pretty ballerina’ who was ‘having an affair with her boss’ and ‘just liked to lie there and be caressed,’ and who was there for a little casual grab or kiss. But when news broke of the horrific treatment meted out against Adrienne Corless, I decided to finally tell my story in support of her.
One detail in the reporting that struck me was that Halpin may have some particular fascination with tall girls and women. I’m 5”9.
My story is hardly the most harrowing account ever given of workplace harassment. But it is one example of the many, many, many small ways that a certain type of man, unchecked by conscience or fear of sanctions, can casually strangle the self-esteem and ambition of women just starting out in the workplace.”
Violating the dignity of women as a game
Nina’s account made me feel sick. This horrible, predatory, and so-called senior man groped her thigh under the table, at a Department Christmas dinner, whilst talking to someone the other side of her. So subtle, and yet so devastating: this repulsive man who knowingly abuses his little bit of seniority in such a way that made her feel she couldn’t speak up. Just like that time Mr Halpin jabbed his left thumb in my right buttock, twice in quick succession, even though I very dramatically moved away from him the first time (he shuffled along the radiator he was sitting on so he could still reach me the second time) he kept talking animatedly as if nothing had happened.
It’s what he did every time he appropriated unwanted physical contact towards me: he would keep on talking, whilst looking in the other direction. That time, I glared at him and made no interaction with his chattering, about organizing the Viking excavations stores. I was too stunned to find the words to protest, and this man was carrying on as if everything was as normal.
Maybe I was too embarrassed to use the words about touching my ass. In fact, it appalls me right now to write it: the violation of my dignity. I remember so clearly that it was about 3PM: not yet time to go home, but I went home anyway rather than suffer the rest of the afternoon in a small shared office with him. Rather in shellshock, I gathered up my things. He watched me and asked me aggressively: “are you all right?” “No,” and I signed off, sickened for the day.
I examine this to emphasise how hard it was to speak up: and how this man knows to play to that. He did the very same thing to Caragh: arms swinging, brushed his fingertips off her, that time in company, where he knew she wouldn’t speak up.
And though I’m glad I complained about Halpin, for the record at least, I am beyond dismayed that my complaint did nothing to protect other women: as Nina’s account testifies, and as does the account of a FOURTH woman, as recently as 2016 according to this report. I am in no doubt that the systems in place by the Museum, with their Civil Service disciplinary code, are not worth the paper they are written on, and are much more about pen-pushing tickboxing than they are about protecting staff from predatory men and other abusers of power.
I went through the channels, I did what was right. Anyone I had confided in an official sense had sympathized with me, told me this happened before, and that people had complained informally, but that nothing could be done about him until somebody made a formal complaint.
So I did. And for what?
I genuinely thought he at least stood a chance of being fired: he was not fired.
He received the softest possible reprimand. A veritable slap on the wrist that I can tell you knocked no wind out of Mr Halpin’s sails: those two years came and went, and throughout it and beyond he continued to sexually harass women just as he always had. Belatedly, the National Museum of Ireland suspended him on foot of my blog post in 2017, and he is now suing them. It seems possible that he will be paid off handsomely for what he did to me and to other women. I’ll wrestle with having to make peace with that.
In spite of repeated reportings, formal and informal, the workplace systems in place have enabled this man’s predatory behaviours towards women to continue and to flourish.
The systems must be completely torn down.
This blog post is based on a long post published originally by Grace Dyas on her blog in January.
- Museum employee ‘obsessed with tall women with long legs’