At some point, Christianity here became more about punishment than forgiveness
Published 06/06/2014 | 02:30
Other countries are able to be nostalgic about their past. Britain can have the 'Darling Buds of May', which romanticises rural life in England in the 1950s. 'Call the Midwife' is also set in the 1950s, this time in east London, but it is still fairly nostalgic about the past.
America has lot of films and TV shows that romanticise the 1950s. I don't think we have any. Instead we have lots of films that do the opposite and I think a huge part of the reason is that we are still haunted by the fact that we put so many people into mostly church-run institutions that were often inhuman and dehumanising.
Britain also had its institutions and they were also terrible places. But we seemed to have more of them, we put proportionately more people into them and we kept them open until closer to the present day.
Another example of the awfulness of many of our institutions has just come to light, namely the fact that almost 800 children and babies may have died at a Tuam mother and baby home run by an order of nuns between 1925 and 1961.
Eight hundred deaths means that a child was dying at an average rate of almost one a fortnight for the entire period. That is horrendous.
We have to determine how they died and where they are buried. Notably, the gardai told RTE's Philip Boucher-Hayes concerning the burials at the home itself, a former workhouse: "They are historical burials going back to Famine times, there is no suggestion of any impropriety and there is no garda investigation. Also there is no confirmation from any source that there are there are between 750 and 800 bodies present."
The institutions were partly a response to extreme poverty. Destitute people often ended up in institutions as an alternative to being on the street. Go to a Third World country today and you will find the streets of their towns and cities teeming with children many of whom belong to the sort of gangs depicted by Dickens in 'Oliver Twist'.
Keep those countries in mind and you have a vision of how extreme poverty was in Ireland until fairly recently. In real terms, the Irish economy in 1936 was only one twelfth the size it was in 2007. That means many people were as poor then as some of the worst-off people in some of the worst-off African countries today.
The mortality rates and life expectancy for Irish people were also at Third World levels.
On average in the 1920s, almost 6,500 children aged up to four died annually. In 2010, 316 children in that age group died, a decrease of 95pc. And the population of Ireland was much smaller in the 1920s than it is today.
The Bethany Children's Home was similar to the one in Tuam and to others all over the country. It was also a terrible place as has been highlighted by the tireless work of former resident, Derek Leinster.
It too had a terrible mortality rate and it too had its unmarked graves. One, in Mount Jerome cemetery, had 40 bodies buried in it in 1935 and 1936 alone.
Because it was Protestant-run and there is no extant institution that claims responsibility for it – church or state – it never came under the Residential Institutions Redress Board.
Commenting on the Bethany Home in the Dail in late 2013, Labour party TD and Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Kathleen Lynch said: "The number of children who died at Bethany Home is quite shocking. Unfortunately poverty and disease were commonplace in Ireland up to the 1950s and this was reflected in infant mortality rates. Infant mortality rates in the 1940s were at a level that are hard to comprehend today, about 20 times higher than now and that figure applies across the entire population. For those who were malnourished and subject to disease and a lack of hygiene the figures would have been higher still."
Lynch, responding to a motion from Sinn Fein, concluded her speech: "As I have said earlier the infant mortality rate in Bethany Home was very high by today's standards and children there did suffer from diseases associated with poverty and neglect. However it seems to have been accepted at the time that Bethany Home was run by people with charitable motives.
"Did Bethany Home improve the lot of those who passed through its doors or did it make their lives worse by the standards that existed at the time?
"I am not here to defend those who ran Bethany Home but I am certainly not in a position to condemn them out of hand in the way proposed by Sinn Fein."
This reasoning seems pretty sound and some of it may apply to the home in Tuam. But even if we accept it, at bottom there was still something completely unacceptable about many of these places which is that for all of their ostensible Christianity, they were rarely Christian.
Why didn't the children and adults encounter a proper Christian witness, real love, when they walked through their doors? Why was it impersonal rules and regulations on a good day and cruelty of a sometimes very extreme kind on other days?
I think it was because Christianity in Ireland had by then hardened into something that was all too often more about punishment than mercy and forgiveness. To that extent Christianity in Ireland had become, in the strict meaning of the term, anti-Christ, and the church is still living this down.