BOOKS: WE CAN’T SHOVE THIS STORY INTO THE PAST

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Washing the Nation’s Dirty Laundry

By Ursula Quill in the Dublin Review of Books

The rapid modernisation of Ireland in recent years can easily hide the shadow of our very recent past. That modernisation is most notably marked by the introduction of marriage equality, and the repeal of the eighth amendment. These referendums, passed by two-thirds of the population, would have been unthinkable ten years ago. We also find it in our place at the heart of the European Union, giving Ireland a new-found confidence and pride about our status on the world stage as distinct from the United Kingdom. And yet it seems too easy to say that the past is a different country. The ongoing legacy of church- and state-run twentieth century institutions remains to be reconciled and this text is a very welcome addition to that necessary process of reconciliation.

A theme that keeps recurring in Caelainn Hogan’s remarkable book Republic of Shame is the juxtaposition of past and present. How easily things seem to have changed for my generation, and that of Hogan’s, and yet, how recently that change has occurred. Towards the end of the book, Hogan writes of the strange paradox: “It was hard for me and my contemporaries to imagine ourselves into the not-so-distant past of the mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries and the profoundly alien ideas that underpinned them. And yet, many people of our generation were still living with the legacy of the institutions.”

The theme is echoed by Archbishop Eamon Martin, whom the author speaks to after his keynote address at the RDS at the World Meeting of Families. When Hogan asks him about the mother-and-baby homes, he describes them as “a shameful chapter, really, in the life of the church and indeed in the life of the society”, and then he adds: “We can’t put this story into the past and think it never happened, neither can we easily explain it away.” This recognition is welcome from a senior member of the church. The recognition is even stronger from a priest speaking about Tuam, who says of the church “we are at a point when we must be brave”. Hogan is also not seeking any simple explanation for what happened in these institutions. The complexity of that legacy is clearly what compels her to seek the fullest picture of the past.

The reality of such recent transformations is that the past and present live uneasily alongside each other. Indeed, in the short space of time since the publication of this book, three different aspects: the access of adopted persons to their records, the retention of records gathered by commissions of investigation, and the exhumation of the site at Tuam, have been ever-present on the legislative agenda. In large part due to the activism of survivors and relatives of those in institutions, each of these issues has had to be constantly readdressed by the government over the past number of years. The Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016, the Retention of Records Bill 2019, and the Certain Institutional Burials Bill have each brought with them unresolved questions about how to reconcile the past and do justice to those affected by these institutions.

The importance, and as becomes clear, the urgency, of engaging with the very present legacy of these institutions makes it fitting that it is a journalist of Hogan’s calibre who has undertaken this project. When asked what made good journalism, the legendary journalist Carl Bernstein replied: “Good journalism … is a simple matter but difficult to achieve”, consisting of “trying to obtain the best attainable version of the truth”. And the best way of doing that? “Being a good listener.” And? “Listening to source after source after source.” Hogan demonstrates her ability to listen carefully to the stories of those people who share with her, and she acknowledges them as her main source. She weaves their personal memory and narrative throughout the book.

This book is, at its heart, a truth-seeking exercise, and the author does not prejudge who could offer her the truth. Hogan’s openness to her subjects is clearly reciprocated by a general willingness from them to be open with her. Her empathy with those who were most keenly affected, those mothers like Bridget, who were separated from their children, and grown children, like Karl, who are still seeking birth and early years information.

She makes a very clear effort to engage with all involved, including listening to nuns, like the Bon Secours Sisters in Cork, or the Daughters of Charity on Henrietta Street, despite advice many have been given not to speak to journalists. This advice, though well-intentioned, seems misguided. It will inevitably result in a situation where most nuns will have died before they can state their own truth and give their own first-hand perspective on this history. Soon they too will be gone, having taken their truth and their secrets with them to the grave. Her conversations with the nuns who do speak to her therefore make for very compelling reading.

One story which stands out is her conversation with a volunteer in the canteen at Knock the week before Pope Francis’s visit in August 2018. She had approached the man, who asked to be called Jim, to ask for information on the Bon Secours burial plot. When she told him about the book she was writing, he opened up to her, telling her that he had been born in Tuam. She notes that he seemed at ease talking to her about it, despite having never spoken to his children or the other volunteers about it. Her moving description of Jim illustrates the complexity of the relationship between past and present.

Jim kept a copy of his birth certificate in his car, hoping at some stage to trace his mother, and desperately wanting to know if he had a brother or sister. He feels lucky to have been boarded out to a family at the age of six, but fears for the thought of those left behind, deeply affected by the news of the burial site at Tuam. “I’d die a happy man if I knew”, he says, hoping for information about his mother, and then “I’d dearly love to know, had I a brother or a sister?” Jim volunteered at Knock during the pope’s visit, but he would otherwise have chosen to go to the vigil taking place in Tuam, an indication of the complexity of these stories.

Hogan is particularly good at addressing the long complicity of the state in the conditions of the institutions, and endorsing their ongoing existence as a solution to what were seen as social problems of illegitimacy. The McAleese inquiry found that Magdalene women washed the laundry of the state, including of health authorities and hospitals, the National Library, Áras an Uachtaráin, the Electricity Supply Board, Limerick Prison and various government departments. However, as far back as 1926, Dáil debates indicate concern about the conditions, particularly for children in these institutions. Indeed, the Commission on the Relief of the Destitute, Sick and Poor recommended in 1927 that these institutions were not the place for unmarried women or their children. The passage of the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation Orders) Act 1927, indicates that the central concern was how best to hide the shame of being an unmarried mother.

There are some shining lights among the examples Hogan gives, an indication that the norms of the past did not prevent conscientious and concerned people from seeing the injustice of institutions. For instance, James Deeny, chief medical adviser to the Department of Health, from 1944 to 1950, who wrote in his 1989 memoir To Cure and to Care that he shut down Bessborough Mother and Baby Home upon finding that the infant mortality rate was due to unacceptable levels of poor hygiene. His report was so damning that the papal nuncio at the time agreed with the closure. Hogan wonders if subsequent officials were as scrupulous and effective.

A small number of politicians were willing to stand out from the crowd and question the norms of the day ‑ contrarians, thorns in the side of the governments of the day. When adoption legislation was introduced in 1964, it was a Labour Party senator from Westmeath, Timothy McAuliffe, who criticised the mother and baby home system. He told then minister for justice Charles Haughey that “these girls should be sent to maternity hospitals like every other mother”. He then put forward the radical notion that “these children should have the same rights as every other children”.

Three more Labour Party senators, Michael D Higgins, John Horgan and Mary Robinson, co-sponsored the Illegitimate Children (Maintenance and Succession) Bill 1974. Needless to say, the bill did not pass. Mary Robinson, debating with minister for justice Patrick Cooney in 1976, called on Irish society to “affirm strongly the right of a mother to keep her child, if she wishes to, and encourage and support her in that choice”. It would be more than two decades before the Status of Children Act, 1987 would finally abolish illegitimacy.

During the recent tributes to the late Gay Byrne, the one episode which jarred in the Late Late clips was his 1993 interview with Annie Murphy. It seemed to be the one moment when he did not strike the right note and did not stand the test of time. Hogan recounts how unflappable Annie Murphy was on the show in the face of a hostile studio audience, standing over her story that Bishop Casey was the father of her son. Then that unforgettable exchange, as Gay closed off the interview: “If your son is half as good a man as his father, he won’t be doing too badly,” to which Annie Murphy replied, “I’m not so bad either Mr Byrne.” The unwillingness of Irish society to confront the double standards of a society which punished and judged women was stark.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s state apology was hugely impactful, when he stood in the Dáil in February 2013 and said to the women present that they were “wholly blameless”, stating that “we now know and to our shame they were only ever scrubbing away our nation’s shadow”. President Michael D Higgins echoed this apology in even stronger terms at the Dublin Honours Magdalenes event in Áras an Uachtaráin in June 2018, when he apologised to the women present and said that “the treatment of vulnerable citizens in our industrial and reformatory schools, in the Magdalene laundries and mother-and-baby homes represents a deep stain on Ireland’s past. A stain we can only regard today with great shame, profound regret and horror.”

There is a moment in Chapter 5 of her book when Hogan is talking to Mary Gaffney, a woman who had spent her entire life in institutions, and she notes that “there were moments like that, when she spoke, that I felt the breath catching in my throat and I wanted to tell her I’m sorry. But pity does no one any good.” I found myself thinking a lot of about that sentiment reading the book. The natural response both individually and collectively to the survivors of these institutions, is pity, and indeed the profound regret and horror President Higgins spoke of last year. And many of those survivors have waited their entire lives for an apology, for that moment in the Dáil, or that moment in the Áras, to vindicate them, to have someone tell them “sorry”. But there comes a time when such sympathy outgrows its usefulness. When we, as a nation, need to move beyond pity. The time has now come for action, before it’s too late.

We need to listen to survivors who tell us that the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 and the Retention of Records Bill 2019 need to be improved to provide them with greater access to their own personal information. This represents a bare minimum to satisfy the requirements of transitional justice. Their personal memories matter as part of the history of our state. Survivors and relatives of those in institutions need to be meaningfully consulted with about how their records should be treated. There is also the wider issue of education and research into this dark chapter of our recent history. Understanding the culture that supported such institutions as a way of treating the most vulnerable people in our society. How the state today chooses to engage with its recent past will be the test of how truly modern we have become. It is only by understanding how such a culture existed in Ireland that we can be honest about how we continue to treat the most vulnerable in our society today.

Republic of Shame is an outstanding book written with great empathy and clarity. Hogan gives a platform to voices which have been shamed and silenced over many generations. It makes it clear that the state and religious orders continue to let down those to whom they owe a duty of care. It is all too easy for us to close the shameful chapter in the life of the church and our society and delight in our newly-found place as “a beacon of light in the world”, as Margaret Atwood stated on a recent visit to Ireland. But before we do, we need to reconcile ourselves with the ongoing lived reality of trauma, hurt and betrayal of the most vulnerable people in our society. We need to begin to understand how and why the state, the church and society created, sustained and defended a system that was an affront to human dignity. I can think of no better place to start than with Caelainn Hogan’s Republic of Shame.

Ursula Quill is a parliamentary assistant to Senator Ivana Bacik. She studied Irish, English and Psychology and is now studying at the Bar. She is director of Hist250 and a member of the IIEA Emerging Voices Group.


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