Saturday 18 August 2018

Trapped by the curse of Mother Ireland

Fiction: The Cruelty Men, Emer Martin, Lilliput Press, €15.99

Emer Martin captures the terror and fear experienced by children when the Cruelty Men came calling
Emer Martin captures the terror and fear experienced by children when the Cruelty Men came calling
The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin

Anne Cunningham

It's an irony uniquely Irish, that those who worked for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Ireland were once known as the Cruelty Men. These were the brown-shirted officials, usually retired teachers and gardai, who herded children into the many orphanages and industrial schools across the country, with the help and indeed the blessing of the clergy. It's also worth noting that very few of the children captured and incarcerated were, in fact, orphans.

These Cruelty Men loom large in Emer Martin's saga of the Irish-speaking O'Connell family from Bolus Head in Kerry, transferred under the terms of the Land League to a smallholding in Rathcairn, County Meath.

Their mother stays in Kerry to deliver her imminent baby, intending to travel to Meath afterwards. But she never shows up. And when their father returns to Kerry to find out what's happened, he disappears, too. The family's eldest, Mary, is just 10 years old and charged with the responsibility of the farm, the home and the other children, ever watchful in case the Cruelty Men should appear.

They don't mix well with the other Gaeltacht settlers as most of those are from Galway and Mayo - their spoken Irish is very different from Mary's, and she must keep her family circumstances as hidden as possible. Their only ally is a local bachelor farmer, Patsey, who does his best to keep an eye out for the family but eventually the Cruelty Men arrive, along with the parish priest. The children are picked off, one by one, and sent to different hellholes.

Mary herself escapes into domestic service as does one of the older sisters, Maeve. But while Mary ends up with a benign family, Maeve does not. And Maeve's indomitable spirit is to be her undoing.

I finished reading this book just before the broadcast of RTE's disturbing documentary No Country for Women, a factual feature taking no poetic licence. And the facts revealed were every bit as disturbing as the stories within this work of fiction.

According to Martin, the most horrifying scenes in her novel were actually gleaned from testimony given by those who suffered in these institutions - the mother-and-baby homes, the Magdalene laundries, the industrial schools like Letterfrack and Artane and probably the most feared of all; the huge mental institutions like Grangegorman in Dublin and St Loman's in Mullingar.

This fictional family saga is based on sickening, terrifying personal histories. And therein lies its impact.

There is a kind of counter-narrative working throughout the novel where Mother Ireland is depicted as a bitter old hag. She speaks, through various allusions to ancient myths, about the revenge she is planning for centuries of violation.

These passages don't work as effectively as they may have in a different setting, I felt. But strangely it is Ireland's women and children who suffer the hag's curses, not the foreign invaders and certainly not the Church. And maybe that's Emer Martin's point.

Ireland has never been a country for women, or for many of its children. The evidence lingers all around us, the statistics show that the poorest families in our post-Tiger era are those of single parents. And meanwhile the walking wounded are still among us, the broken Magdalenes, the long-time mental patients and those sold off by the nuns to the highest bidders. The veracity and authenticity of this novel appear to be without question.

Mother Ireland indeed.

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