Sunday 28 December 2014

Family values in the '40s were not as oppressive as they'd have you believe

Published 29/06/2014 | 02:30

Brendan Behan - caused arguments amongst the Kenny family over his TV appearance.
Brendan Behan - caused arguments amongst the Kenny family over his TV appearance.

Ever since the dreadful report about the Tuam babies was made public, I've been thinking about my family values. A lot of commentary zoned in on what a cruel, dark and oppressive place Ireland was in the years between the 1920s and the 1960s.

How a supine population acted with craven deference to a callous and hard-hearted clergy. How unwed mothers were shamed, purity exalted to an absurd degree and a higher percentage of the population was walled up in asylums than in the Soviet Union. For this state of affairs, the entire culture was to blame.

Were my family really like that? Were these the values they held? I have been "examining my conscience", as they used to say, and trying honestly to search my memory deposit for recollections of shame, darkness, callousness, stigma, oppression. As I was born in the 1940s, the family values from the 1920s and earlier would have been well in place.

I remember a strongly developed sense of shame all right. If you did anything "disedifying" you might shame your family, and then, perhaps, your school. My strongest recollections about shame were family arguments about the writer Brendan Behan. Behan was appearing on British television having taken a drink or ten. The aunts and uncles were appalled that he was "bringing disgrace on the country". The "drunken Irishman" stereotype was a great source of national shame. Most Irish people were respectable and decent, surely, and you wouldn't have seen Patrick Pearse or Joseph Plunkett the worse for the drink.

But I search the memory bank to find shaming references to unwed mothers. Never mentioned. Not a word. Indeed, the word "pregnancy" was never mentioned – my mother thought it a "farmyard" word: only cows and sows were "pregnant". This wasn't just in Ireland. In England, the word "pregnant" wasn't used in print until about 1960 – I once did a research project on the women's magazines of the 1940s and '50s, and "expecting a happy event" was the delicate euphemism. I didn't know there was such a thing as a mother-and-baby home until the 1970s, when a friend of mine entered one for a brief period, to have her child.

Children pick up values by osmosis, hints, looks and sometimes silences. I knew there were things that were disapproved of, because there was a family secret surrounding such a one: an uncle of mine had been divorced. One of the more religious aunts confided it to me in floods of tears. The shame of it!

My mother was more liberal on many matters – she adored Oscar Wilde, and couldn't see any objection to "loving another man" (as an enlightened nun had explained the case to her). Ma didn't approve of divorce, however, and thought it best kept discreet – i.e. secret – though she was willing to make exceptions. She made an exception for Mrs Simpson, who won the heart of the King of England. And Wallis was so chic!

Yes, I suppose purity and virginity were implicitly exalted, especially at convent school, although Dublin 4 also made allowance for eccentrics and "arty" folk. Still, nothing was ever exactly spell-ed out.

The greatest fear that pervaded our family values was the fear of TB. A little boy in our neighbourhood had tuberculosis and he was isolated in a sort of garden shed, literally, until he died.

A neighbour of ours – a wealthy, handsome man with five children – was "riddled" with TB in his thirties. My elder brother visited him one day, bringing him a bottle of stout. The family was distraught – TB was highly contagious, and even though it was beginning to be conquered by the late 1940s, the fears (and the deaths) lingered on.

My younger brother used to come back terribly saddened from Connemara because another child had died in a family he knew there. Eventually, all the children in that afflicted family died.

We heard comical stories from country relatives about fierce priests who beat courting couples out of a ditch with a blackthorn stick, but I'm afraid we thought that only happened among rather crude culchies. We respected the clergy, especially if they were posh Jesuits who spoke of Balzac, but I wouldn't have described the relationship as craven deference.

There were priests in the extended family and there was an element of pride about that, yes. But they were cousins first, and priests, second.

There was, however, a strong sense of "respectability" and "class" implicit in all these family values.

Although I heard a lot about how you must exercise "Christian charity" towards all, there was also a feeling of fear, and an undertone of disdain, towards those who behaved in a "common" way.

Queen Victoria abhorred anything she regarded as "low", and that attitude was perfectly replicated in post-Victorian Ireland. Anything "low" was deplorable, and "lowness" had to be kept in check.

Looking back, I can only assume that this was indeed part of the rejection, and even invisibility, of social problems such as unmarried mothers despatched to disease-ridden mother-and-baby homes. It was, alas, a class issue.

Things have changed. Yet have they? I hear similar, even unkinder, language used today about groups of people not admitted to respectable society. "Scumbags." "Toerags." "The underclass." "Benefit cheats." "Chavs." "Knackers." "Slags."

When another street murder in Dublin was splashed over the front pages of the 'Evening Herald' recently, I expressed dismay at the homicide rate in our capital. "Oh – it's only the criminal classes killing each other," said my companion, lightly. So: "low" people with guns?

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