Thursday 18 December 2014

Cop on, the time for collective victimhood has passed

The Tuam babies furore feels less like a healthy expression of questioning than simply wallowing

Published 15/06/2014 | 02:30

A statue of Jesus in the grounds of the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A statue of Jesus in the grounds of the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

If scientists ever invent time travel, the first people into the pod for a trip back to the past should definitely be those who insist that "Nothing Has Changed". There have certainly been a lot of them about recently, in the wake of reports that the remains of 800 babies may have been hidden in a septic tank in the grounds of a mother and baby home in Co Galway.

In their desperation not to allow apologists for Catholic orders to consign questions about the treatment of women safely to the past, many of those commenting on the tragedy of the Tuam babies were to be heard insisting that the plight of women in modern Ireland is just as invidious, and the official attitude to them equally cold, albeit that such negative attitudes are more subtly hidden or fiendishly encoded. They even purported to believe the alleged slowness of the response to the story from both Government and the mainstream media was somehow proof that there was no will to face up to the horrors perpetrated by the church.

First of all, this supposed reluctance to deal with the appalling mistreatment of residents of mother and baby homes is a figment of their imaginations. Of course governments may be less than keen to start down a road which may lead to expensive compensation claims, especially after getting its fingers burned once before over clerical child abuse; and of course officialdom does sometimes have to be prodded into action. But it's only been a few weeks since the story broke through from the low-level awareness which swam around for years into public consciousness. Already the impetus towards a full inquiry is under way.

There was a whole year between the broadcast of the late Mary Raftery's seminal RTE documentary States of Fear in 1999 and the establishment of the Ryan Commission. The gap between Raftery's follow-up programme on child abuse in the Dublin diocese and the start of a commission of inquiry was

even longer. The idea that the few weeks involved in this latest instance were confirmation of some institutional ambivalence about the mistreatment of women and children by nuns was bordering on the offensive. Our politicians may be imperfect, but they're not monsters. There's no reason to believe that they're anything other than disgusted by the treatment of women and children in those years, or that they would want anything other than the full truth to emerge.

Either the people declaring that nothing has changed genuinely believe what they're saying, in which case they're terminally stupid, or else they know it's not true but are intent on saying it anyway, because it sounds like the right sort of thing to say, or because they want to cynically exploit other people's past tragedies in order to push a contemporary agenda, which is even worse.

However punishing the economic downturn has been, the poor and vulnerable are far better looked after than they have ever been in any period of history. Women are freer. Our society is much more open. Children are better cared for. Those who draw spurious comparisons between Then and Now should be forced to take a one- way trip back to Then to get a sense of perspective.

This apparent need to pretend that Ireland today is still in the grip of a malevolent Catholic theocracy, and that government and media alike are afraid to challenge the Church, is not only ridiculous. It risks turning public debate on serious issues into a sort of unseemly competition to see who can make the most outraged noises.

This band of self-righteous demagogues even leapt upon journalists who had the effrontery to point out that the lurid headlines about 800 babies being dumped in a septic tank were based on speculation, not fact. Even the Irish Times was accused of being in thrall to Catholic apologists for publishing an article by Rosita Boland which pointed out, in a very measured and sensitive way, some troubling anomalies in the sensationalist way that the story was being reported by her fellow journalists around the world.

It's not as if the story wasn't harrowing enough as it was. The malnourishment and premature death of hundreds of babies in one home alone, and probably thousands nationwide in other institutions, should be sufficient cause for condemnation of the callous culture which allowed it to happen. It was as if the peddlers of the worst unfounded allegations about the mass murder of children and cover-ups at the highest level, and who were all calling for the UN to start investigating Irish complicity in crimes against humanity, didn't want any part of their conspiracy theory to be undermined because they were committed to it, in its entirety, on an emotional level. Either that or they were just enjoying themselves.

The Irish do seem to have an insatiable appetite for beating themselves up about the past in a way that simply doesn't happen elsewhere. Other countries have their dark secrets. Millions died at the hands of the British Empire, but, outside a clique of handwringing Guardianistas, people in the UK do not seem to regard their own country as uniquely wicked in the way that Irish people routinely do theirs. France doesn't allow its brutal history as a colonialist nation, or the continuing refusal to face up to that past, to stop it celebrating Frenchness.

Maybe they should. Maybe self-examination is no bad thing. But the furore over the Tuam babies doesn't feel like a healthy expression of national questioning. It feels like wallowing.

"Catholic guilt", suggested a friend when this subject arose. Arguably, though that doesn't fully explain why the Irish, as opposed to other Catholic societies, are so prone

to it. It also doesn't explain why it doesn't really feel like guilt. Guilt suggests an acknowledgement of responsibility, whereas the prevailing mood in Ireland right now is one of collective victimhood rather than collective guilt. Rather, they're responding to this tragedy as if it happened to them; as if it is simply another example of their own suffering at the hands of an all-powerful, all-baleful Catholic church.

In that respect, it could be that the populist response to Tuam right now should be seen instead as another manifestation of the familiar Mope (Most Oppressed People Ever) syndrome, whose sufferers derive both self- affirmation and self-gratification from the belief that their pain as Irish people is both "sui generis" and uniquely intense. By lambasting Irish society for its failings, what's being said is not that "we" did this, but rather that it was done to us and there was nothing we could do to stop it. That's why it's so easy to shift into the "Nothing Has Changed" narrative by saying that "they" are still doing it to us.

Either way, we should all cop on. It's not a time for me, me, me. What matters now is coolly and painstakingly establishing the facts. Fake victims are satisfied with their own outrage. Real victims only ever want the truth.

Eilis O'Hanlon

Sunday Independent

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