Saturday 22 October 2016

Speak truth to power and banish abuse from society

Published 24/02/2013 | 04:00

Oscar Wilde says no man is rich enough to buy back his past. Some cannot resist the temptation. And I would do the same if I could buy back the part of my past during which I failed to make an RTE film about the Irish gulags of the Magdalene Laundries.

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The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996. By that time all of us born before 1966 were over 30 years old. Old enough for our children to ask: Why did you stay silent? Why did you not speak truth to power?

How could those of us working in the media not know what was going on in the industrial schools and Magdalene Laundries? And if we did know, why did we not do something about it? Let me start with what we knew.

Growing up in Cork in the Fifties, I was vaguely aware that there were some institutions for orphans and others for bad boys and girls. A few adults would speak critically, but cryptically, about beatings by brothers and nuns and with cursory pity about the rough regime in these places.

But back in the Fifties every national school had at least one cruel teacher, and most had rough regimes. A teacher in my local school was a legend because of his daily sadistic beatings of boys whose parents lacked the social clout to challenge him. Cruelty and class were woven into the very fabric of our lives, and seldom spoken about.

The chief source of the silence, however, was the social consensus that all things sexual were sinful. As Diarmaid Ferriter's Occasions of Sin reminds us, Irish society was sick when it came to sex. The Roman Catholic Church bears the brunt of responsibility for creating that pathology.

Given the social control of the Catholic Church it was not surprising so few spoke truth to power. Even so, I had less excuse than most. Because my mother had befriended a maid, whom I shall call Bridey, an unmarried mother who had been in the Bessborough mother-and-child home.

Bridey was no passive victim. She had willingly given her child up for adoption, got herself out of Bessborough, and worked as a jobbing maid to keep herself in Woodbine cigarettes and cheap nylons. A cheerful soul, she laughed more than she cried.

But Bridey had seen some bad things, and heard a lot more. She knew that most of the pious women for whom she worked did not want to hear anything bad about nuns. So she was grateful my mother gave her a good hearing.

Like all young boys I listened for taboo topics. So I could guess what girls like Bridey were going through. And yet, as a teenager, I only got worked up about the suffering of Pearse and his comrades. Like most of my generation, I felt the sufferings of those ghostly girls were somehow part of the natural order.

My mother, Margaret Beirne, never accepted their sufferings as natural. A natural peasant radical from rural Roscommon, she spoke continually and caustically about two subjects: class distinction and clerical abuse of power. The road to hell, she would regularly remind her large brood, is paved with the heads of priests.

Although she had only a national school education, my mother's main reading matter consisted of the Bible, Shakespeare – and Ireland's Own. The latter was her last link to rural Roscommon, which she had left at the age of 15 to work in Cork as a bar maid. This daily diet of Old Testament, Othello and Irish folklore gave her a firm theoretical grip on human nature.

At the same time, her early life in rural Roscommon furnished her with many practical examples of servility. She was particularly sharp about the part played by cash and class in the life of the clergy. And on wet winter afternoons she would regale her large brood with blackly comic stories on the subject.

One of her funniest was about a visit home in the Thirties by a local IRA man, whom I shall call Kelly, who had left hurriedly for America after the Civil War, done well for himself during prohibition, but in the process became a bit too fond of his product, and was seldom sober. During his legendary visit he wore a white suit from whose pockets he liberally dispensed whiskey to his thirsty followers and dollars to the local parish priest at the church collection.

One Sunday morning at Mass the priest fumbled to find the correct tabernacle key. Kelly, swaying above him in the small gallery, produced a huge bunch of keys and flung them down on the altar slurring: "Try one of these father!" The congregation held its breath and waited for the priest to call down bolts from heaven.

But instead – and here my mother acted out his motions in a manner that caused us to cry with laughter – the priest turned to the gallery, half- bowed with a deferential smile, bobbed his head, swished his backside, picked up the keys and pretended to try them in the tabernacle.

My mother's mordant parables about the stratagems of servility were life lessons I have never forgotten. To this day, when I watch people bob and swish to wealth and power, I think of the priest on the altar picking up Kelly's bunch of keys. And I am never surprised when they surrender their soul.

These life lessons also gave me a feel for the dynamics of class struggle during the War of Independence. They were fleshed out by men like the late Michael Guthrie, a former IRA man, then a forestry worker, with whom Brendan O hEither and myself would drink in Tadgh O hAragain's pub in Ennistymon during the late Sixties.

Michael was then the only man I had met, outside Dublin left-wing circles, who proudly proclaimed himself both a socialist and an atheist. Like many atheists, Michael seemed to know the Bible backwards. Its rich intonations and his naturally deep voice made him a compelling raconteur when he spoke about class politics during the War of Independence.


Michael recalled how the column officers, mostly strong farmers' sons, went missing on the morning of one planned attack. I can still recall the sound of his deep and sarcastic sonorous voice: "The day of the ambush dawned wet and cold, and with the dawn came the stories from the sons of the farmers: 'I have hay to save, cattle to milk, I married a wife. . .' So it was left to the labourers to go out and face the Tans."

Looking back over my life I realise how seldom I have seen what the Quakers call "speaking truth to power". In practice, when class and wealth conspire to conceal the truth, most people come up with urban versions of having hay to save, cattle to milk, or having married a wife. Confronted by coercive and corrosive power both individuals and societies settle for silence.

That servile silence destroys a society as surely as it destroys an individual. That is why the best tribute to the Magdalene women would be to identify current abuses of privilege or wealth in contemporary Irish society, summon our courage to the sticking point, and, like them, speak truth to power.

Irish Independent

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