Dev's green-tinted Utopia suddenly looks a very dark place for comely maidens
Published 11/06/2014 | 02:30
Comely maidens. Oh the bitter irony. This shining ideal of Irish womanhood high-stepped their way into the Dail chamber yesterday, red curly hair flying, emerald-green eyes shining, precious virtue intact.
The Taoiseach was invoking the famous phrase attributed to Eamon de Valera as he announced the setting-up of a statutory inquiry into Ireland's mother-and-baby homes.
"It's not about a situation of comely maidens dancing at crossroads. This is an issue for Ireland today, to deal with now," he told Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin.
Of course, Dev never used those precise words at all. In his green-tinted vision of Irish Utopia, delivered via a radio address on St Patrick's Day 1943, he conjured up a fair land "whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens".
So far, so blissful – until those happy maidens fell pregnant outside wedlock. Then the twin hammers of God and State fell upon them with a vengeance. The cosy homesteads vanished, to be replaced by those grim citadels of despair and shame, mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene Laundries. And all-too often, the children of these women didn't romp. They didn't grow old or sturdy enough to romp, as their tiny lives succumbed to disease, malnutrition and death, or they were torn from their mothers and banished abroad. Or had needles full of poison stuck in their little bodies for the greater good of science.
And inevitably, though dark decades, quiet patches of Dev's verdant countryside slowly filled up with their discarded bones.
There really was only one road for this Government to take, once the horrifying, heart-wrenching story of the Tuam babies burst through the crumbling walls of secrecy that surrounded their forgotten corpses like a concrete shroud.
By lunchtime, Children's Minister Charlie Flanagan was confirming that an independent statutory inquiry into the mother-and-baby homes would be set up without any of the usual foot-dragging and prevarication that generally precedes such a decision.
But this, as he said, was "a very dark period in our history".
Nor would the inquiry be confined to the home in Tuam, where the remains of 796 infants are believed to be buried. "Mother-and-baby homes across the State" would be included in the eventual scope of the investigation, he explained.
Moreover, it would involve a raft of government departments – Health, Environment, Justice, the Office of Public Works, the Taoiseach's and Tanaiste's departments. And of course, it would require the co-operation of the Catholic Church, and Charlie called on the clergy to make available any documents as required.
During Leaders' Questions in the Dail, the Taoiseach was equally eager to underline how seriously this was being taken by his Government. His voice was nothing short of sepulchral as he laid out the gravity of the undertaking.
"This is about examining a period when women, particularly young women, were silent and were silenced. It was an extraordinary time when the women of Ireland, mna na hEireann, and poor women especially, were held up to a particularly high and callous account. It is not an exaggeration to say that in many cases their treatment, and that of their babies, was an abomination," he told the chamber. "In that regard, this inquiry will consider a time when there was a disturbing symbiosis between church and State".
In reality, it is far more complicated than that. For decades it wasn't just the church and the State, but the gardai and the judiciary and to some extent the families, neighbours and communities who unleashed silent, bloodless moral pogroms – ethic cleansing, one could say – on these 'fallen women'.
But this isn't a case of the past being a distant and different country – Ireland's more recent history is also littered with victims of ethic cleansing, women who found themselves in the eye of a moralistic storm, from Anne Lovett to Joanne Hayes to the 14-year-old in the X Case.
No matter what terms of reference this inquiry will stretch well beyond a mass grave in Co Galway, and further still past other possible mother-and-baby homes across the country.
It's about something fundamental. How women who didn't conform to the ethics dictated by the status quo were punished, and how the shadow of their so-called sin blighted the lives of their sons and daughters.
As this journey into a very Irish heart of darkness begins, it's not the happy maidens of Dev's imaginings who are at the crossroads now.
We all are.