Exploring the zeitgeist through fiction. The Tuam babies horror.

Exploring the zeitgeist


Ireland is weary and worn out with scandal.  Layer after layer of our onion-skinned history is being painfully, sometimes grudgingly, ripped off in the full glare of the world’s media.   Day after day more horrors are revealed about our relatively recent past: Clerical sexual abuse, not only on a wide scale, but horribly, catastrophically and systematically hidden and covered up;  Violence and abuse of young children in huge industrial schools, our equivalent of Borstal, their sole crime usually being that of poverty.  And this week, finally in the glare of the spotlight, almost four decades after first coming to light, the awful spectre of a mass grave of young children and infants, buried unceremoniously in an unmarked pit in a Mother and baby home in County Galway.   Unavoidable now is the certainty of more such discoveries to come at the other institutions where destitute “fallen” women were delivered of their children in the harsh climates of the early decades of our fledgling republic.


It is of little value to say that these discoveries are relics of a different time.  It is pointless to contend that identical and similar abuses occurred all over the world and are occurring still.  It is not enough to blame these past crimes on the undoubted power and dominance of the Catholic Church, not only because the women in the Anglican-run Bethany Home fared no better, and their children also either died, were forcibly adopted or lived with stigma all their lives.  But more importantly, it is not enough to blame the Catholic Church alone, because doing so provides this generation with an easy- out.  Irish people are, either formally or by default, leaving the Catholic Church in their droves; the pews are empty, the choirs silent, the elderly priests hobble around the altar unassisted by altar servers or deacons, and because of this, we feel that we have escaped from the thrall of the evil, malevolent, monolithic institution that brutalised our society.     


While I cannot, and certainly have no wish to, deny the enormous culpability of the Christian Churches, and the Catholic Church in particular, for their participation in what are nothing less than crimes of the greatest severity, it is time that Ireland as a whole woke up to its complicity in these crimes.


The evidence abounds.  Young women either entered these homes at the insistence of their families, or voluntarily through absolute lack of choice due to lack of support.  To carry an unorthodox pregnancy to term meant stigma, poverty, destitution and abandonment.  Double standards of shocking proportions.  I have yet to hear of a man being incarcerated for his sexual activities outside marriage, or for participating in the rapes and incests and non-consensual sexual relations that created many of these pregnancies.   Report after report emphasizes the utter lack of realistic options for these young women.

If you don’t wish to plough through hundreds of pages of legal reportage, and who would, you might sample a taste of Ireland’s society through fiction.

Niamh Boyce’s 2013 novel, The Herbalist, is a powerful indictment of the hypocrisy and secrecy and lies and deceit that characterised the Ireland of those times.  She is a writer with a firm grasp on the zeitgeist;  this is a book that one might have expected to see written after the horrific revelations of last week.   The Herbalist   http://www.amazon.co.uk/Herbalist-Niamh-Boyce/dp/1844883043

In her novel, Boyce also refers glancingly to a behaviour that, in modern European history, does seem to be singularly Irish; that of forcibly incarcerating nuisance women in mental asylums with no more than the nod of a head from her an authority figure, often her own father, and the agreement of a general practitioner.   At one point, I have heard an eminent historian declare, Ireland had more women committed to asylums for no crime whatsoever, than Stalinist Russia.  For a deeper fictional window into this horrific practice see Sebastian Barry’s award-winner, The Secret Scripture.  


And bear in mind, while reading, that some of those innocent, and wholly sane, young women remained incarcerated up until recent years, too institutionalised to be returned to society.


What’s the point of this essay?  I don’t really know myself, yet.  It’s far too early and far too premature to claim to have learned everything that there is to be learned from the horrors unfolding.  I may change my mind.  I refine and change my opinions with each new piece of information that comes along.  I don’t claim to have any special insight into these horrors. 

I just want us all to realise that blaming the Churches, the State, the Judicial system, the poverty of the times mustn’t allow us to close our eyes to the pathology at the heart of the Irish Family.  The “Scream quietly, so the neighbours don’t hear you” mentality.  The façade of decency.  The family structure that in 1918 allowed and indeed howled for the public burning of the seminal novel of the Irish family “The Valley of the Squinting Windows” and physically drove its author Brindsley Sheridan from his home in a small village in Meath into permanent exile.  http://books.google.ie/books?id=tr1XPwAACAAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s


Don’t allow yourself to think that this is an attitude wholly consigned to the past.  Every time you hear a decent, respectable member of society talking about “knackers” you’re reliving it.  When you hear people publically opining that women and children who have escaped here from wartorn regions, and who are subsisting on €19.10 per week in a single room in a hostel, are spongers, you’re reliving it.   It’s so much easier to blame it on them, because otherwise we might have to ask whether the problem is with us.

Recently, I was tut-tutting about the spate of recent dog attacks on unsupervised children with tragic consequences when a friend briskly interrupted me.  “Nonsense Orla,” she barked, “Statistically speaking, a child is much safer alone with a dog than with an uncle.”  My hackles raised immediately. “That’s my brothers you’re talking about!” I snapped.  And that’s the problem isn’t it?  It’s never my brother, is it?




Valley of the squinting windows http://books.google.ie/books?id=tr1XPwAACAAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s


The Herbalist   http://www.amazon.co.uk/Herbalist-Niamh-Boyce/dp/1844883043


Secret Scripture   http://www.amazon.co.uk/Secret-Scripture-Sebastian-Barry/dp/0571215297 


  1. Thanks for a really thoughtful piece Orla – like you, I am constantly refining my views on this most recently highlighted horror, though the basic facts have been well known for decades – we should probably have worked it out by now.

    I agree with much of your analysis, and believe we need a mature, objective and above all, honest examination of the society that allowed this to happen. It remains a societal problem that will take a great deal of collective humility to get to the bottom of.

    I don’t think however that it’s possible to separate the role of the Christian churches in Irish society in the first half of the 20th century from the well-described ‘pathology at the heart of the Irish family’. Yes, in what we regard as a normal world, individuals, families should have spoken up. They should have stood up against what was blatantly, viscerally wrong. They should have taken responsibility.

    I remember my Grandmother as a regular if not particularly devout churchgoer, who to my enormous amusement as a child, described nuns as ‘those bitches’ at the least provocation. It was only long after her death I learned why. As a young woman in the 1930s, she went to the parish priest and the Gardaí to complain about the treatment of other young women, her contemporaries, who were incarcerated in the local convent. Everyone knew they were being made to work for nothing, ritually humiliated and undernourished right there under the nose of small town Ireland. My Grandmother was told to keep her beak out, warnings laden with ominous undertones of consequences if she didn’t. As the mother of young children herself, all of whom required schooling, she said no more. Should she have kicked up a fuss? Started a campaign? Marched on the Dáil? Perhaps. But I admire her for the little she tried to do and don’t blame her for feeling helpless and doing no more. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done any different in the circumstances. This story was told to me by my own Mother, who didn’t see anything particularly odd about it – she knew her Mother was a ‘strong character’, a bit of a maverick in her own small way – but was she going to take on ‘the Establishment’? – Not even my formidable Grandmother was able for that fight.

    Though I find it difficult to dissect the continuum between church and state, it would hard to overestimate the pervasiveness of the Catholic Church in 1930’s Ireland, where the Church was the zeitgeist. It was the overwhelmingly dominant force in Irish society; the intellectual and monetary powerhouse of the State and the shaper of moral and legal frameworks within which the faithful resided. And people were faithful to their church’s teaching – the then prevailing interpretation of Catholicism.

    In 21st Century Ireland, Catholics largely choose a pragmatic approach, where faith coexists happily alongside sins like birth control, sex before marriage and homosexuality. And by and large, the church plays along with this new, relaxed approach, in part I hope because many of the current hierarchy are possessed of humanity and common sense, and even the hardliners see that insistence on strict adherence to the church’s doctrine simply loses them souls to agnosticism.

    In 1930’s, even 1960’s Ireland, the Catholic Church was the family. It dictated your life from birth (get the child baptized quickly for fear of the dreaded limbo), to your social habits (Down with Jazz), the parlour (Station Masses), your bedroom and your deathbed. The church was not a place you went for an hour on Sunday or a concept, the principles of which were a loose guide to life – it was right there, up front and integral to every act, public or private. Almost impossible to imagine now, but true.

    Many would argue that the Church and State were interchangeable concepts in those days, but that lets off the hook those Irish lay people in positions of power who did nothing to stand up for the vulnerable. Instead, alongside the bishops, they took to the high moral ground with gusto and together they ostracised anyone who tried to defy the powerful, intertwined duo. I’m sure there were many more like my Grandmother who tried and failed.

    Education and exposure to the outside world has probably helped build a national self-confidence and equipped Irish people with the ability to discern rather than simply accept. To make up their own minds about right and wrong. And yes, I accept that the Catholic Church is largely to be thanked for that same education. The authors of their own downfall? Perhaps. Though I don’t think keeping the population ignorant was any more an option as the world moved on around this little island. I have no desire to demonise individual members of the Church (though the cap fits well in some cases). A lot of the foot soldiers – the soldiers of Christ, were probably themselves victims of a society that decided where best to put them. Some of the many nuns that taught me were bonkers, one or two strong, intelligent women were true role models but most were rather sad misfits existing in a bizarre world into which I’m fairly sure they had been pushed. But the hierarchy, the men at the top of the pile who made the rules and preached fire and brimstone, those men I find it harder to forgive.

    I don’t confine my criticism to the Irish condition or the Catholic Church particularly – yes, it embodied the tyranny under which this country survived, but other countries experienced similar social forces. True, the church did not have quite the stranglehold in other countries that witnessed similar abuse and marginalisation of the vulnerable – Victorian England was arguably just as harsh as early 20th century Ireland. There too, Christian churches were at play, albeit perhaps at a more subtle level. England had its fair share of mother and baby homes, also church run, also filled with young women from families of the poor and/or faithful. I do think a comparative analysis with other societies might help us understand what happened in Ireland – not excuse it, but maybe point to common ground and how best to analyse, learn and move on from our past.

    Are we a better society now? Definitely.
    Have we dealt with the past? We’re beginning to.
    Is 21st century Ireland within an ass’s roar of perfect? Most definitely not.

    2014 Ireland is further from 1930, even 1970, than most people can even begin to imagine. But it’s real to many people who are still alive and are still dealing with their personal pasts in their own ways. As you can see, I still don’t have all the answers, in fact I have many, many more questions than answers. And that’s from someone who’s given this more thought than most; not surprising given that I was born in one of those notorious Mother and Baby Homes. But that’s another story…..

    • Trish, that’s not a “comment”, that’s an essay and a beautifully written, cogent one at that. And every word in your post is true and incontrovertible. I described the effect of the Catholic Church on Irish society during and after the foundation of the state as brutalising, monolithic and malevolent and i stand by every word of that.
      My real concern though is that while we may leave the Church, leaving Ireland a largely secular society, and while we focus our attention on what are usually described to me as “that band of paedos and child-rapists” (implying that by my continued membership of the Church i am not much better than a pander) we will miss the point. Pulling out a splintered thorn removes the inciting cause of the septicaemia, but we still need antibiotics to cure the disease. The mysogyny and patriarchy of the Irish family still needs investigating and remedying, regardless of whether the populace no longer goes to Mass.
      Women and children in Ireland currently, are nowhere in as much risk as they are at home, and that has always been the case. Domestic violence and sexual violence is still as prevalent as ever, maybe more so. The impoverishment of women parenting alone is still often pretty extreme. The decent treatment of elderly people appears to be a thing of the past.
      Are patriarchy and mysogyny by-products of the rule of the Catholic Church in Ireland? I would say that they definitely are, but it will take a lot more than stopping attendance at Mass to cure our “pathological family dynamic”.

      a final word in relation to nuns. Ireland had a relatively “normal” per capita population of nuns until the famine. then, in a society with too few men, and where unmarried women were pariahs and considered a worthless drain upon the family, the adoption of the religious life soared to totally disproportionate levels, and the concept of a “true vocation” went out the window. In 1905, in a bid to combat a real issue of widespread infanticide of “illegitimate” infants, the Churches were asked to provide mother and baby homes. Some of the nuns were kind and loving. some were strict and harsh. some were sadistic monsters who worked within a regime which placed no constraints on their monstrous behaviour. But of only one thing can we be sure, when it comes to nuns…. never in Ireland’s history did a Catholic (or Anglican) nun impregnate a vulnerable woman or child and then turn her back on the mother and progeny. That proud boast must go to the men of Ireland.

  2. At the risk of turning this into a mutual appreciation society – I totally agree with every word you write Orla.

  3. “In her novel, Boyce also refers glancingly to a behaviour that, in modern European history, does seem to be singularly Irish; that of forcibly incarcerating nuisance women in mental asylums with no more than the nod of a head from her an authority figure, often her own father, and the agreement of a general practitioner.”

    Really? And what about Sweden where women were forcibly sterilized even for the complaint of a neighbor?
    “Between 1934 and 1976, when the Sterilisation Act was finally repealed, 62,000 people, 90 percent of them women, were sterilised. 15-year-old teenagers were sterilised for “crimes” such as going to dance halls…”
    The majority of these women were brought in mental asylums and the sterilization was the price they paid to exit. The official motivation of the sterilization was often “unhealthy sexual appetite”.

    Frankly I can not understand why the Irish want to describe themselves worse than others.

    • Hi domy thanks for reading and replying. What a sad tale from Sweden. I certainly don’t think the Irish have a monopoly on suffering or on misogynistic patriarchal cruelty. My main concern while writing wasto address a common perception here which is that getting the church out of people’s personal lives will cure all our problems. If only it were that simple. And I am aware that the threat of the asylum was used to control women world wide. A pop culture example is the recent film where Angelina Jolie was committed for crossing the new York police. In Ireland, as in Sweden, the practices continued in to very recent years. I never claimed to be an expert. I am proud to be Irish, I don’t think we are worse than anyone else. We do need a better understanding of our history though.

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