News Gene Kerrigan

Thursday 2 October 2014

Merely human waste to be disposed of

We need to know why the death rate among 'illegitimate' children was so high

Published 08/06/2014 | 02:30

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Illustration by Tom Halliday

How come hundreds of children died in the care of a Catholic Church institution in Tuam? And how come some – if not all – of them were disposed of like spoiled fruit? Dumped beside a septic tank. Why did it happen?

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What do we know about this country that might explain how such a thing could happen?

And let's leave aside the unbearable thought that there were more – many more – children, in other locations, who had similarly short lives and who were disposed of with similar lack of human dignity.

It didn't just happen. It wasn't just bad management. It took years of organisation, strategies of intimidation and control. And, let's face it, it took a citizenry steeped in fear and reverence.

A population that was deferential. People who did what they were told. People who didn't dare ask questions.

Not, of course, that dumping the bodies of almost 800 kids near a septic tank was the object of the exercise – that was just a byproduct. Just some human waste that had to be tucked away in a suitable place.

It was about sex and power. It was about the right of the Church to do whatever it thought necessary to preserve its domain. It stemmed from a hierarchy of old men who were obsessed with sex.

The Church was very conscious of its need to dominate. Never to serve – to dominate. People were leaving the land, for instance, moving to the capital.

In Dublin, the smelly old tenements were being closed down. The city was spreading, new estates were going up. If the Catholic Church was to preserve its social and political dominance, it needed to follow its flock.

Under the leadership of the legendary Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, between 1940 and 1965 the Church built no fewer than 34 churches in Dublin.

These weren't pretty little places of spiritual reflection – they were massive structures that physically and psychologically dominated their surroundings.

These buildings did not say, 'Come in here for solace' – as any church of any faith might say. They said, 'We are your masters.'

In a period of world war, cold war, unemployment and emigration, the fabulously wealthy Catholic Church invested in its future.

In exchange for continued loyalty and total deference, it offered reassurance. It continued to supply the free labour of its loyal foot-soldiers, the nuns and brothers, in exchange for control of education and health. It was an offer a deferential State was delighted to accept.

On Sundays, those massive churches were packed solid, wall to wall, from the first Mass at 7.30am to the last at 12.30. The Church marshalled its lay people into Sodalities and Confraternities (in Limerick city, then with a population of 50,000, there were 10,000 Confraternity members).

These were run with ruthless discipline. One senior member of the Confraternity in Limerick, for instance, recommended that the priest walk down the aisle, choose a pew at random and stare down the row – just to intimidate parishioners, who would wonder what they had done wrong.

Regular expulsions for trivial matters sharpened the edge of guilt and fear in the awed people on whom the Confraternities thrived.

The Church was in that period at the height of its power. It could do whatever it wanted. When you have a docile citizenry; an obedient political regime; academics who know which backsides to kiss; and a politically appointed judiciary, you can shape a society in your own image.

Which is what the bishops did.

And, as always, sex was their fixation. They laid down rules on who could have sex, and in what circumstances. To breach those rules was not merely to commit a sin – it was to risk social shaming.

These men were suspicious of everything, and in the Forties their dirty minds even caused them to effect a ban on tampons. When they found out how the newly invented tampon was to be used, they gave the matter deep thought. They then, being men of the world, concluded that a tampon "could harmfully stimulate young girls at an impressionable age".

They contacted the appropriate politician and tampons vanished from the shelves.

As late as 1999, one of Ireland's most admirable people was publicly labelled a "common slut" by a priest. She had a baby and wasn't married. She had sex outside the rules. By then, even the most devout Catholics had had enough – and the priest had to withdraw the word "slut".

In short, the "mother and baby" homes didn't just pop up because someone thought them a good idea. They were a product of a puritanical, shaming, abusive hierarchy of power.

The bishops' Ireland was a pious country in which unapproved sex didn't happen. The women who got pregnant outside marriage, and who by their existence undermined the image of piety, had to be hidden away.

And the children born of unapproved activities weren't real children. The word used was "illegitimate". They were children, but they were not legitimate children. So they were usually taken away from their mothers and hidden away.

A seemingly high proportion appears to have died young. And, when a baby who wasn't legitimate died, an appropriate method of disposal had to be found.

No one, we must assume, set out to slaughter the children. They died, we must assume, of illness, poverty and perhaps some succumbed to the neglect that goes along with contempt. But there is evidence of a very high rate of death among such children, compared with children living "legitimate" lives. We need to know why that was.

The quality of care – and in particular medical care – may be central.

In the country shaped by the unrestrained power of the bishops, children were beaten and exploited. Paedophiles groped and raped, were caught and were moved on to fresh pastures, again and again and again. Just a small percentage of priests and brothers, true – but almost the entire Church establishment covered up their crimes.

Again, what mattered more than anything was that the truth should not be allowed undermine the image of piety, and control, on which Church power was based. The future of the Church depended on that. And the future of anyone counted for little against that. Never mind the future of a child who wasn't considered legitimate.

McQuaid promised: "No change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives." He was wrong. The next quarter century was one of questioning and change – social, sexual, economic – and the influence of the Church waned somewhat.

Then came the decades of self-destruction. The crimes and the cover-ups seeped out. The citizenry grew sickened. They moved away from the Church. The habit of deference, however, lingered.

History leaves its mark. And our history has been one of deference. To the British Empire. To the Bishops. To our European masters. To the bankers and their handmaidens.

Comedian Tommy Tiernan was on John Murray's radio show recently, and he said: "Genetically, historically, we're so used to putting up with bad management and mistreatment that we kinda, there's something in us that thinks we deserve it." And he quoted writer Pat McCabe: "We have backs that are aching for the lash."

Given the timidity of the Irish public on so many issues, when faced with aggressive power, it's hard to argue with that.

Sunday Independent

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