Sunday 26 October 2014

changing lives in the archives

Catriona Crowe grew up up in the 1960s and, in keeping with the times, wanted to do as little as possible but, as Emily Hourican discovered, she turned into a formidable activist and campaigner, using our history as her principle weapon

'I had no ambitions at all," says Catriona Crowe, activist, academic, formidable intellectual. Head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland, manager of the Irish Census Online Project, editor of Dublin 1911 and much more besides, she nevertheless says: "I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and if you came of age in the 1960s, your ambition was to do as little as possible, to hang out." Then she adds with satisfaction: "I did that for a while."

"At UCD, I just thought I'd like to listen to a lot of music, drink too much, generally misbehave and have a nice time." But she also got a degree in English and history; "probably the most useless degree, but the one all the best people do," she laughs.

Despite being a fan of what she describes as the Anthony Cronin school of thought -- "he says most people's lives are the result of drift; things just happen" -- there are clearly a couple of precise guiding principles to Catriona's path through life. There is a thread of what we might call activism, but to her is simply a natural belief in the rights of people -- access to housing, education, information, dignity in both life and death -- that started very young and has run through everything she has done. She might have made some compromises along the way -- "I refused to buy a house until very late, on the grounds that property is theft" -- but, from the time she read Marx and Engels as a schoolgirl, certain things have been set in stone. "I decided at 16 that I was never going to get married, and that I was in favour of overcoming class distinction in whatever way I could."

These were lofty and determined aspirations, but not particularly unusual for that age, when ideology can be as intoxicating as alcopops. What is unusual is that Catriona stuck by these convictions. A 32-year romance with Padraig O'Faolain, artist and Abbey Theatre stage doorman, never led to marriage, although she was at his side at the tragic end to his life, and remains devastated by the loss.

Her initial awakening of consciousness came as a scholarship girl in Sion Hill. "My father was a civil servant; my parents could have paid for me, but with great sacrifice. I knew I had to win a scholarship, so I was the best little girl in the whole school in primary. In fact, I won three scholarships -- one to Sion Hill, one to Mount Anville, and one to Sandymount High, where I really wanted to go because there were boys, but my parents wouldn't let me. So they sent me to Sion Hill, where I got a very good education. But I understood very quickly that some of the nuns pitied me because I was a lower form of life, a scholarship girl. One of them took me aside to say, 'Tell your mother if there's any problem with indoor shoes, not to worry, we have some spare.' I thought that was a gross insult. I swore I would never tell my mother."

It was that sophisticated, sensitive perception of her mother's sense of pride that led Catriona to Marx, Engels and a life-long belief in fairness and respect. Later, it would be love. She and Padraig moved to a basement flat on Mountjoy Square, where they were involved in a busy, idealistic group centred around Tony Gregory, and engaged in trying to regenerate the inner city.

"We were living cheek by jowl with the old tenements. These were gradually being cleared out, people moved to places like Blanchardstown. We knew it would be a disaster, that they would fracture families and communities."

These were heady days, of good-natured activism and sociability built around belief in better. "It's lovely protesting, marching, being dragged off by the cops," says Catriona. "And there was a lot of social stuff with it. We were very cool and had no money at all; it was great. In 1982, we had a festival that lasted the month of July. We had U2 playing on the Pramsheds down in Sheriff Street, the Atrix on a derelict site, a fantastic folk concert in Grangegorman, art exhibitions with people like Brian Maguire. It was tremendous."

Catriona seems to look back on this intense time without regret. What was initially a kind of group effort for inner-city regeneration, transmuted into more individual efforts with quite specific objectives.

Her step into the limelight, after which she became a sought-after commentator, happened as a result of her beliefs in basic human rights. In this case, the rights of women who had given up their children for adoption, often under duress, and the rights of those children to understand more about their backgrounds.

Christmas Eve 1995. Catriona was looking through papers from the Irish embassy in Washington as part of the National Archives Act, which Catriona helped into being, "when I noticed a file dealing with Irish children adopted in America. I had heard a woman on the radio a few weeks earlier, Maggie Butler, who described coming to Ireland from America to try to find her birth mother. She couldn't get any information anywhere. I hadn't thought much about the issue before, but it struck me then that she had an absolute right to know. Anyway, I thought about Maggie when I saw the file, and I thought, 'that could be useful to someone like her. I must remember to flag it'." Come February, Maggie Butler was on the radio yet again, still with no information, and Catriona went looking deeper.

"I found the original headquarters file, and through that, 1800 individual case files, dealing with children adopted between 1948 and 1969. There was a load of information about the prospective adoptive parents -- the kind of people they were, who they were recommended by, an emphasis on Catholicism. The only thing relating to the birth mother on each file was this heartbreaking form she had signed, which gave a name and address, and said that she undertook never to try to contact her child again."

Knowing that the existence of the files had to be made public -- "it's not that they were hidden, just that no one knew to come looking" -- Catriona suggested to the Department of Foreign Affairs that an announcement be made. She also warned her contact, "remember -- there are women all over the country terrified that this information is going to come out. The birth mothers, who may have hidden the secret for years and years." Some days later, a front-page piece in the paper announced 'Department of Foreign Affairs discovers adoption files', which incensed Catriona. "I thought, 'to hell with that, they didn't discover them, we did'." The same morning, she arrived at work to find Joe Duffy, then a reporter with The Gay Byrne Show, waiting for her. "He said, 'is this your gig?' I said Yes. 'Will you talk to Gay?' I said 'sure', even though I'd never been on radio in my life, and I was quite nervous of public speaking."

Her contact in Foreign Affairs later told her that Dick Spring was in his car, listening to Catriona on the radio, and responded by saying, 'I think that's what you call a snooker.'

The discovery turned into a major three-day event, and Catriona was even on 60 Minutes in the States. "It was an amazing day when I walked down those stairs and saw all those files," she says now. "You never know when something like that is going to come up in your life and change it. And it did change it. I became much more media friendly and savvy, and I tried to use it for some useful ends -- particularly to promote archives."

Working out how to handle the media was, she says, "a very severe learning curve. I did it by myself." What drove her was quite simple; "I am passionate about archives, and passionate about social change." And so it is that she can be equally committed to, say, the SAOL Project, of which she is chairperson; a rehabilitation and education project for women in the north inner city with addiction issues and their children, and the free availability of archival material online. She has just overseen the online launch of the Bureau of Military History, the oral history of the Irish revolution.

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