Warped worldview led to Tuam horror
In Catholic Ireland violence and sadism came easily to those who ran orphanages, writes John-Paul McCarthy
Nothing illuminates quite like an Irish scandal. The nightmarish discovery of hundreds of babies' bodies in the mother-and-child home at Tuam encouraged elements within the "pro-life" faction to reach back for the playbook they used during the barbaric death of Savita Halappanavar for want of an abortion that would have been her constitutional right in nearly every major hospital in western Europe.
The Pro-Life Campaign told the Irish Examiner on Friday that Tuam was "at a very early stage", an admonition that lost much of its power when read through the prism of the parallel Bessborough home horror-show in Cork. (This dungeon-type place denied poor women and girls pain relief during delivery, as well as postpartum stitches and penicillin).
Never one to miss a populist trick then, Gerry Adams invoked these scandals as part of an argument about a united Ireland. Partition in 1920 supposedly delivered the South into the hands of the Catholic Church to the extent that it excised most of the non-catholic population from the Free State.
Those who laboured through Adams' full meditation on the corrupt alliance between partitionists and bullying clerics must have been struck by his characteristic contempt for the intelligence of his readers.
This relatively recent anti-clerical slant in his rhetoric is hard to square with some well-known facts. Readers may recall Sean O'Callaghan's argument in his powerful book, The Informer, that the "Provisional IRA were in reality representative of the Catholic 'defender' tradition. Republicanism traditionally spoke of uniting Catholic, Protestant and dissenter under the common name of Irishmen, yet the Provisional IRA used a parochial house to induct local men into the IRA. Young, largely uneducated country lads were brought to their priests' house at night to be sworn in ... "
It is a sad day indeed for the Republic of Ireland when the architects of the Calvary-style H-Block hunger strikes can pose unmolested as champions of secular pluralism.
Tuam and Bessborough attack us in our deepest integrity because these places still remain hard to fathom for younger people, especially those who may have been duped by the skilful publicity offensive organised by the serving Pope.
In order to understand how these kinds of places came to anchor themselves for so long in our national life, it is important to keep three aspects of Roman Catholicism in mind.
Firstly, there is the relationship between physical violence and Catholic culture to consider. The historian Tom Dunne recently analysed this issue with sensitivity and restraint in his book Rebellions, a memoir in part of his experiences as a Christian Brother in various schools in the Fifties and Sixties. He noted that so many of the people sent to man the orphanages, the industrial schools and the laundries were themselves deeply damaged members of the clerical orders.
Violence, criminal neglect, and even forms of institutional sadism came naturally to these dregs and wrecks.
Secondly then, there is the particular challenge of the child itself to the religious mind. The British social historian EP Thompson wrote chillingly about this challenge in The Making of the English Working Class when he spoke of Methodism's sick and "peculiarly strong conviction as to the aboriginal sinfulness of the child".
Dunne plotted the way this conviction also infected Irish Catholic thinking in recent decades. Only a culture so warped and encumbered by these prejudices could have filled mass infant graves in Tuam and elsewhere.
It is important to remember here too that Catholicism has never really hidden its hatred for the way most people live and interact with each other, that is to say for life as life is lived, unexpected pregnancies included.
The previous Pope, Prof Ratzinger, never ceased to insist publicly and at great length that Catholicism was at war with the modern world, and that it existed to force people to respect what he liked to call "the voice of nature", as defined by elderly virgins in congress assembled.
Our clerics have always lacked this admirable (and wholly German) candour.
In the last 20 years, we have been told that the Catholic social clauses in our Constitution were socially progressive antidotes to the kind of robber-baron capitalism that destroyed pre-war Europe. Tuam and Bessborough show us again they were no such thing, rather proof positive that the law-making process itself had been captured by Cardinal Cullen's heirs.
The third important issue then concerns the lack of State supervision. Catholicism has always been as much a critique of the political state as it was of Protestantism or atheism. And Irish Catholicism always had an antagonistic relationship with the British state since the Reformation, something that carried over after independence. Clerically administered institutions gobbled up taxpayers' money, but always looked down on attempts at state invigilation.
Sean de Freine caught this imperious mindset in his Saoirse Gan So in 1960 when he scrutinised the Catholic fixation with "prophetic pioneering minorities or shock-minorities..." who set the moral standards for everyone else without appeal.
This is the worldview that built these places and helped them flourish.