Monday 20 November 2017

Books: Articles of faith in the power of journalism

Great Irish Reportage Edited by John Horgan Penguin Ireland, €32

BREAKING THE SILENCE: film and documentary producer Mary Raftery — who co-wrote the 1999 book ‘Suffer the Little Children’ — Fintan O’Toole, columnist and drama critic, and Joseph O’Connor. Photos: Tony Gavin, David Conachy, Gerry Mooney
BREAKING THE SILENCE: film and documentary producer Mary Raftery — who co-wrote the 1999 book ‘Suffer the Little Children’ — Fintan O’Toole, columnist and drama critic, and Joseph O’Connor. Photos: Tony Gavin, David Conachy, Gerry Mooney

John Paul O'Malley

In 1984, during a brief stint in opposition, Charles Haughey granted an interview to Hot Press magazine. At one stage of the article he compares Ireland's conservative political system as having its roots in the old Gaelic clan/ chieftain system.

Fourteen years later, President Mary McAleese, in an interview published in Magill -- which was recorded a year before she was elected -- pointed out that not "one single organ of the state" was willing to stand up and speak out against corruption, and alter the course of history when Haughey served as Taoiseach.

Of the 57 articles presented in this excellent anthology of Irish journalism, I select these two specifically because both of them say something very profound about the inherent flaws of our political system: which has failed to evolve in a cohesive way since the Free State was established in 1922.

The editor of this book, John Horgan, states in his introduction that he isn't attempting to shadow a history of Ireland, from 1922 to the present day, by presenting these articles in one single volume.

This is certainly true. And the diverse range of writers he has chosen to include here solidifies this point. However, when one reads this book in its entirety, a lack of progression, in each respective decade, seems to be a reoccurring theme. The poisonous nature of the Catholic Church has much to answer for in this respect.

In 1958, Hubert Butler gives a thoughtful analyses of the boycott from local Catholics of Protestant businesses in Fethard-on-Sea, Co Wexford. This exercise in bigotry began when a woman chose to bring her children up in the Protestant faith, even though she was from a mixed marriage. Butler argues that this segregated incident has all the classic behavioural symptoms of a totalitarian society.

In Mary Raftery and Eoin O' Sullivan's 1999 book, Suffer Little Children -- which is presented in extract form here -- both authors analyse how powerful members of the clergy coerced the Irish people into a code of silence: in order to carry out depraved acts of physical and sexual abuse of children, on an industrial scale, over a number of decades.

Reading this chilling, yet excellent piece of journalism, immediately made me think of Edmund Burke's quote, written two centuries earlier, which states that "the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing".

In an article entitled "Dev's People", written in 1989, Fintan O'Toole travels to Bruree, in Co Limerick, to visit the place where Ireland's most influential political figure of the 20th Century grew up.

The loyalty a member of the local Fianna Fail cumann describes here has the defining characteristics of subservient cultish-party-worship, which usually tends to take place in fascist and communist societies, and not in a functioning democracy.

"No matter what Dev did or what he said, [it] didn't matter. He was right, always right. It was never questioned ... Dev led and everyone followed," says the local man with pride and nostalgia.

Not all pieces presented here are directly related to Irish politics and culture. There are war reports from Buchenwald, Afghanistan, The Falklands, and Sarajevo. And lighthearted features, from the likes of Myles na gCopaleen and Joseph O' Connor, inject a much needed boost of humour amongst all the political analysis and philosophical soul searching.

If there is one consistency to every decade documented here -- with the exception of the early noughties -- it's the looming presence of emigration: that eats away at the nation's development like an incurable batch of cancerous cells.

The articles in the closing pages of this book, which document the tragic fate of Ireland's financial ruin since 2008, delineate a country at its most significant crisis since the founding of the state.

In such times, the need for brave individuals to believe in the power of the words they write is essential. Despite changes in the media landscape in recent years from advancements in technology, it appears as if that hunger from journalists, to question, inspire, and hold those who we democratically elect to accountability, is as strong as ever.

Irish Independent

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