I’m almost afraid to write this post. Which means that I must write it.
For the last week there’s been growing outrage at the discovery of the bodies of children and babies who died between 1925 and 1961 in a mother and baby home in Tuam, Ireland, under the care of the Bon Secours nuns, and are said to have been disposed of in a septic tank. This is the latest in a series of disclosures about the appalling treatment of women and children committed to the care of religious orders with the sanction of the Irish state. In a generation shaken by current recession and contemporary financial and political corruption stories, fury about this new evidence of past depravity is increasingly being directed at the apparent hypocrisy and inhumanity of the parents and grandparents in previous generations who ‘must have known’.
Because there were, of course, people who knew. The families of the women and girls who were consigned to virtual prisons to hide the perceived shame of their pregnancies and illegitimate children. The individual nuns, priests and brothers who abused those in their care. The politicians and civil servants who allowed and supported the system.The members of the police force who assisted in tracking down escapees from institutions where effectively they were used as slave labour. The medical professionals who attended the inmates. Those who allegedly failed to register deaths lawfully. And whoever it was that carried those dead bodies to their graves in Tuam, and to all the other graves up and down the country where adults, children and infants were buried without decency or respect.
In a statement on the revelations about the Bon Secours Home in Tuam, Fr. Fintan Monaghan, secretary of the Tuam archdiocese, has said that he supposes “we can't really judge the past from our point of view” Because that statement’s emanated from a church source, it’s easy to dismiss it as a despicable attempt to justify a culture of abuse. And perhaps it is. But it’s also true. And despite the fact that we’ve heard it from the spokesman of a Church that’s forfeited all right to moral authority on this matter, it mustn’t be excluded from the informed, compassionate debate about the setting up and development of the Irish state which, in my view, Ireland is desperately in need of.
Whoever the statement’s made by, the fact remains that we can’t judge the past from our own point of view if our own point of view is uninformed. Nor can we understand or learn from it. To do that – and we have a responsibility to do that – we must study what happened in the past in its context. Otherwise we’ll simply add more layers to the lies and misinformation that we need to strip away.
I see little difference between the old myth that portrayed Ireland as an island of saints and scholars and the new myth that portrays our parents and grandparents as hypocritical, priest-ridden snivellers. Each myth is as dangerous as the other because neither expresses the whole truth and both are rooted in complacency. I don’t know if the whole truth about anything can ever really be revealed. But I do know that to achieve any kind of justice for those abused victims and survivors, we’ve got to sweep away all lies, question all soundbite assumptions that masquerade as history, and engage in something far more dynamic than blame.
Of course people knew about the Magdalene Laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes and the Industrial Schools. And, just as there were different levels of active cruelty or criminality, there were different levels of knowledge. The task of understanding those different levels, and what each meant in terms of responsibility and culpability, begs so many questions that it’s hard to find a starting point. Maybe when a society’s been poleaxed by communal shame and blame the best way forward is for its members to seek individual starting points of their own.
Here’s mine. I knew about the Magdalene Laundries. There were two near where I grew up in Dublin in the 1950s and 60s. And another – or perhaps a Mother and Baby Home like the one in Tuam – round the corner from my granny’s house in Wexford. I doubt if I ever made many enquiries about them but I do remember being told as a child that they were refuges for poor girls who were in trouble and needed help. I was told that by my mother. I believe that she believed it to be true. I know that when she was desperately seeking home care for my elderly granny, who’d otherwise have had to be institutionalised, she went to the nuns down in Wexford for advice and two gentle, friendly girls were sent round each day to help granny with the housework and the shopping. I know that they were paid by the hour because I remember tensions about the strain it put on the family budget. Looking back now, I doubt if they ever saw a penny of their wages. I don’t know if my mother knew that then but I suspect that if she did she might have said it was fair enough, since the nuns were feeding and clothing the girls, finding them work and giving them shelter.
If my mother did think that I don’t blame her. She lived at a time when jobs were prized and food, clothes and shelter weren’t easy to come by. Nor do I think she should have checked up on where the wages went, or asked to see the girls’ accommodation. She’d had no negative experience of nuns in her own life; she had five children at home, a husband whose work took him to the other side of the country, and no way of making arrangements for her ageing mother except physically to get on a train and travel from Dublin to Wexford. Life in Ireland was like that then. People were grateful to turn to the Church for help in practical as well as spiritual matters, largely because they had few other safety nets. We need to understand why that was so. Otherwise we’re in danger of wallowing in recriminations till the point when we tire of the story and sweep it back under the carpet.
My parents’ generation was born before the 1916 Rising and grew up during the War of Independence and the Civil War, bloody conflicts which cast long, traumatic shadows. As young adults they lived through the maelstrom of possibilities attendant on the setting up of the state, one of which was potential descent into social chaos. An economic war with England crippled Ireland’s emerging economy until 1938.My parents' married life began in a battered, exhausted, impoverished society which was protected from the worst horrors of the Second World War by Ireland’s neutrality – a policy which also condemned Irish society to both isolation and isolationism. The combination of political isolationism at home and authoritarianism in the Vatican resulted in widespread censorship in Irish arts and journalism. Ireland’s rural poverty was extreme and its urban slums were notorious. TB and Polio were rife. Infant mortality was high. The country’s infrastructure was underdeveloped and underfunded. Both education and medicine continued to be underpinned by Church schools and hospitals. Jobs were scarce and, from the setting up of the state to the 1960s, spiralling levels of emigration and economic migrancy were steadily undermining both community and family life.
This was the climate in which the Catholic Church gained what we now know to be a deeply unhealthy influence on the working of the state. And it was a climate in which society’s perception of both the Church and its functions in society were very different from what they are today. The support of the Church of Rome had made a huge difference in the fight for Irish independence. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries religious orders provided healthcare, education, and, therefore, opportunities for advancement for thousands of men and women who would otherwise have lived and died in poverty. In the early years of Ireland’s independence, religious societies like the St. Vincent de Paul provided financial and social services which the state couldn’t afford. None of this justifies the arrogance, cruelty, ignorance, and perversion of Christian values which led to the horrors of places like the Bon Secours Home in Tuam. None of it changes the ghastliness of the Church’s continued arrogance, insensitivity and apparent contempt for the rule of law. But nor does that ghastliness cancel out facts. If the majority of Irish people had an exaggerated regard for the Church, at least some of that regard was rooted in a justifiable sense that the religious orders had supported them, practically and spiritually, across centuries of colonial neglect.
When I sat down at my computer I was almost afraid to write this. I wanted to join the wave of outrage, not to swim against it. I was afraid that anything positive I said about Fr. Monaghan‘s statement would read as an endorsement of a Church whose continued claims to moral authority I despise. I still fear that. But there’s more. I’m ashamed to say that on my walk to school I looked through iron railings at girls and women in lumpy overalls and never thought to ask myself why their gate was always locked. And I’m wrenched by the thought that Lizzie, one of my granny’s gentle helpers, took my teddy bear ‘home’ one night to make a new frock for him out of scraps of yellow brocade.