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