Nearly forty years ago I was in a production of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials in the seventeenth century. It's a forensic exploration of individual and communal disaster, set in a community riven by unspoken jealousies, resentment and sexual tensions, which is eventually destroyed from within by the morbid effect of mass hysteria. This weekend I've been thinking about it a lot.
The story broke eleven days ago with screamer headlines about child abuse: at the time of the alleged offence the age of consent in Northern Ireland was sixteen so the crime, if it was committed, was rape not paedophilia; unsurprisingly, public opinion hasn't been impressed by that technicality. In the past week the question of what did or didn't happen to Maíria Cahill has been complicated by farther allegations about the involvement of Gerry Adams, president of Ireland's Sinn Féin political party and a TD (member of the Irish parliament) since the 2011 general election. Maíria Cahill claims that at the time of the alleged kangaroo court Adams was aware of its proceedings and that, after its investigation was concluded, he spoke to her about it. Adams claims that he wasn't and he didn't.
The claims and counter claims continue. Cahill has been accused of consensual sex with the man whom she claims to have raped her. Adams' political career is said to be in jeopardy. Senior figures in the Irish government have been accused of turning the alleged rape of a teenager into an opportunity for party political point-scoring. And Maíria Cahill is currently coping with unspeakable levels of cyberabuse, in what she's referred to as an 'online campaign of vilification'. On Saturday she tweeted a link to an interview in which she claims that she's had to move home four times and fears for her safety.
I hope the next investigation of Maíria Cahill's case will be be advised by professionals who recognise and can deal with the fact that she's already been subjected to two nightmares. I'd like to add my voice to all those raised in outrage at the cruel abuse she's currently being subjected to online. I don't think I've anything useful to add to the current speculation about her allegations of a crime and cover up which has implications that extend beyond the experience of one individual into the political and moral heart of the nation. But what I do think, having read and listened to a rising tide of commentary in online fora and on radio phone-ins, is that Arthur Miller's play contains a significant warning which has direct relevance to Ireland in the coming weeks.
Miller's dramatisation of the dynamics of the Salem witch hunt charts the social and physical destruction of a community which comes to believe in the possibility of impossible levels of evil in its midst. It seems to me that - encouraged by rising levels of political and social frustration and exacerbated by the unfolding story of Maíria Cahill - a particularly vocal element in Irish public opinion is heading the same way. Over the last few days I've seen and heard repeated dismissals of the Irish police force, social services, politicians and religious institutions as intrinsically and irredeemably corrupt. Logically, it's simply not possible that every politician and public servant in each of Ireland's institutions is, and has a for a long time, been part of an institutional abuse of power of which every citizen has been aware. The assertion ought to be laughable.Yet the combination of an atavistic horror of paedophilia, the perception that corrupt bankers and politicians have gone unpunished, and widespread resentment of increased taxation appears to have produced a willingness to accept it as the truth.
What's asserted is that Maíria Cahill's allegations are unsurprising. Ireland, we're told, is riddled with rapists and paedophiles, always has been. And the same rapists and paedophiles are hand in glove with the guards and the politicians and the social workers and the priests and the whole pack of devious shysters in high places who cover up for them. And haven't we all known the truth of it all along?
It's deeply disturbing to think that there may be criminal collusion, inefficiency and cowardice in high places. But what frightens me more is the morbid mental laziness of a mind that's prepared to assume that everyone is evil. It frightens me because, ultimately, it's a doomsday scenario. Who can benefit from this passive aggressive dismissal of all possibility of worth? What hope is there for justice if the next sixteen year old rape victim believes it's pointless to report the crime? What hope have we for a better society if the next generation of potential police officers and social workers are too cynical, or scared of ridicule, to apply for the job? What chance is there for inspiration, aspiration or improved moral standards in Irish politics if decent individuals who want to serve their communities have to run the gauntlet of an electorate that smears their motives before they've had a chance to prove their worth?
And what of the honest, hard-working individuals in public service today? They're there. We've all encountered them. They're not perfect but they haven't made a pact with the devil. What they may do, however, if we're not careful, is throw their hands up in despair and leave us to our smug determination to believe the worst of ourselves and everyone around us.
I remember a conversation after a rehearsal of The Crucible when the cast sat round in a coffeeshop trying to imagine a contemporary community buying into a mindset which inevitably would destroy it from within. Being young, we concluded that the psychology of the Salem witch hunt belonged to the seventeenth century and that people knew better now. In doing so, we sidestepped the fact that Miller wrote the play in the 1950s as an allegory of McCarthyism in the US. I think it also has resonance in Ireland in 2014.