News Comment

Saturday 23 August 2014

Shane Dunphy: A secret tale – my mum's life as a nun

Mother and baby home victims deserve justice, but it is unclear who is to blame

Shane Dunphy

Published 15/06/2014 | 02:30

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OUTSPOKEN: New nun Sister Liz Deasy at St Mary’s Abbey
OUTSPOKEN: New nun Sister Liz Deasy at St Mary’s Abbey

Last week, I read comments by Ireland's newest nun, Sr Liz Deasy, in relation to the revelations about the mother and baby homes, in which she stated that the religious orders are being demonised by the media and the public at large.

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This gave me pause, because I feel a closer affinity to the church, particularly to the brides of Christ, than most.

My mother was a nun, you see.

I found out when I was 21 years old and my mother was in the terminal stages of cancer.

I suppose she was trying to complete any unfinished business between us, because, in the middle of a mundane conversation about the best way to make custard, she asked me, quite out of the blue: "Did I ever tell you about when I was nun?"

Over the next hour, my beloved mother told me the story of how, at 15 years of age, she decided she wished to give her life to God. So she began her novitiate, and was with a Servite (the name she was given at her taking of vows was John Angelo), a teaching order, for 10 years.

Over the past weeks, as news of the mother and baby homes has thrown light on the horrors of those dreadful institutions, I have found myself thinking a great deal about my mother's time in the cloister.

Often my mother spoke of terrible callousness in the way she was raised (she herself started in boarding school at four years of age), although when I put it to her that it was abusive, she always seemed surprised at the suggestion. Corporal punishment was widespread and brutal. Emotional abuse even more so (my maternal Grandfather was a Roman Catholic, while my Grandmother was Church of England – the nuns told my mother that my Nana was hellbound, and that her beliefs were bordering on evil). The regime was one of fear and misery.

I recall a story about a young novice who suffered dreadful homesickness – she would cry in the privacy of her room after lights out. The Mother Superior dealt with this in a typically heartless manner: if this girl (remember, we are talking about a 15-year-old) did not want to sleep, she could use her time productively – she was set to polish the tiles in the hallway with a toothbrush; they were to be sparkling by breakfast time.

My mother listened to the child quietly sobbing as she set about this draconian task. When she was sure the coast was clear (the Mother Superior snored, so it was easy to know she had returned to her slumbers) my mother crept from her bed and told the poor girl to go and rest, while she finished the job for her.

It was the lack of love, the wanton, calculated coldness that prompted my mother to break her vows.

Listening to stories like that made me wonder if cruelty in the Orders was inbuilt – endemic.

And yet we cannot lay the blame for what happened in the Mother and Baby Homes solely at the door of the Bon Secours, or even of the religious in general. As a society we handed full power and responsibility over the children of the poor to the sisters, and never made them accountable until it was too late.

Did their attitudes and actions to their charges reflect the wider view of the communities they lived within? The church certainly likes to project that it sets the moral tone, but sociologists have long said that any church simply magnifies the aspects of our society – the ideas and social mores – we value the most.

So, then, did we influence them in their behaviour? Were their actions – neglectful at best, murderous at worst – a distilled form of how we felt towards the vulnerable individuals they incarcerated?

And if so, how did we get it so wrong?

My mother left the Servites under a cloud of scandal in the late 1960s – she fell in love and had an affair with a priest. It didn't last, and she married my father and moved to Ireland in 1973.

She was a loving, kind, open-hearted woman who had empathy for everyone she met. Yet there was a part of her, I believe, that remained a nun until the day she died. And I find it very hard to see that as a wholly bad thing.

There is darkness and light in us all – the capacity to be the best we can be yet also the potential to do terrible things. It seems that, to some degree at least, the Bon Secours lost their way, and caused a good deal of suffering.

Yet they did so with our blessing, no matter how we would like to shift the blame. The air can be thin on the moral high ground. Someone needs to answer for what happened in Tuam and elsewhere. But who that is remains unclear.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert and author.

Sunday Independent

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