Friday 20 April 2018

A voice for the unheard

Mary Raftery

The fundamental goodness of people is not something upon which one expects Mary Raftery to dwell in the short break she takes from editing her latest television series Behind the Walls, a history of Irish psychiatric hospitals. She mentions, but only briefly, that the stories told to her in this series and 12 years ago, in States of Fear, can haunt her dreams, but she places greater emphasis, somewhat surprisingly, on the uplifting nature of her work.

"The most refreshing thing about what I do is the fact of how good people are," Raftery says. "It's amazing to see how they are fundamentally driven to help others, and that they will do so by revealing themselves and their adversities and their challenges. And it's wonderful. You really do see the best of people."

Of course, Raftery has encountered the worst of people, too. States of Fear, broadcast on RTE in 1999, cracked open the issue of institutional child abuse. She was responsible for the 2002 Prime Time programme Cardinal Secrets, which explosively revealed how the Church and gardai had both ignored reports of abuse, and she is now about to open our eyes to how we made medical cases of many, many Irish people who were not mad, but often simply didn't fit in. Raftery's working life has, for the most part, been about tragedy and suffering, and people's ability to ignore and deny it, but ask her what her work is about and she will say it's about stories. It is, she says, about letting people tell their stories, allowing them to speak and actually listening to them, with a view to helping others. She has taken flak and abuse for this focus, and not everyone has thanked her, but it is to people's stories that Raftery is drawn back again and again, and giving voice to an unheard Ireland has become her defining work.

When she was a child, Raftery's family moved around a lot, according to which country her father was assigned by the diplomatic service. One of four children, she says it was an enjoyable life, where you learned to adapt and to accept change without difficulty. They were Irish, but outside Ireland, which may help in some way her ability to take a step back and regard the place coolly and rationally in her work. They returned here when Raftery was 12 and settled for the sake of the children's secondary education. "I think my father took that decision carefully, because at that stage it was either a case of put us into boarding school, which is what a lot of families ended up doing, or else go away on his own," she says. "So he made the decision to stay here, and it was a sacrifice, I think, on his part, because that was how you got promoted; you went where they sent you."

Mary settled easily into Ireland, and did well at school, going on to study engineering at UCD. "And ended up doing a lot less engineering than I should have and getting a lot more involved with the students' union and the student newspaper," she says. That involvement, then, led her into journalism, with InDublin, Magill and various newspapers.

The industrial schools and the children who had suffered in them first came to Raftery's attention in the early Eighties. She was writing a piece on the first heroin crisis in Dublin and came across one particular Dublin inner city criminal family. "It transpired that almost every one of them was in an industrial school," says Raftery. This fact stuck in her mind, she explains, because the family was so unusual in that it wasn't just one rotten apple who was destroying a community, who was dealing to friends, neighbours and neighbours' children; killing them slowly, apparently without conscience -- it was almost the whole family and she wondered what had twisted them so. "If someone does something awful, you have to wonder what made them that way," she says.

From then on, she collected and collated information, building a picture of a world that people either knew nothing about or didn't want to know about, or, worse, just didn't want to accept existed. By the mid-Nineties, and as a producer in RTE, she was ready to make a programme, but it would be a slow project to get off the ground. The documentary Dear Daughter, made by Louis Lentin, "opened it up and took the first backlash, the brunt of it", and then, despite some opposition, it was time to make States of Fear.

While the Dublin inner-city family brought Raftery to the subject of industrial schools, it was her work on health magazine programme Check Up that brought her to the means of telling the stories of States of Fear, that she continued through Cardinal Secrets and, now, Behind the Walls, which goes back over a century and explores how, in Ireland, for a long time, being mentally ill or simply being an inconvenience could have you locked away for life.

Raftery joined RTE in 1984, and she laughs today, reflecting on her 24-year-old self, who sat down for her interview and "harangued" the panel about everything they were doing wrong with the public broadcaster. For the most part, she worked in current affairs, on Today Tonight and in its incarnation as Prime Time, but Check Up taught her a huge amount about life and about the power of allowing people to trust you with their stories.

"Aside from States of Fear, Check Up was the most valuable thing I did in RTE," she says. "It was a programme talking to people about adversity, and, in this case, it happened to be about their health, but it could have been anything, really. And it treated people like the experts in their own lives, and people responded to that. To my mind, there's nothing people want to hear more than other people's stories of the challenges they've faced and how they've dealt with them. It's the only way to approach television, I think. And while there's an investigative and analytical aspect to all of that, and the key is getting the balance right, but the most powerful thing is the story."

The stories told in States of Fear were its power, and huge credit is due to Raftery for helping them to be told and for shouldering the backlash that followed. She knew it would come, of course. "It was cataclysmic and it was like being in the eye of a hurricane, because there had never been any [revelation] like that before," she says. "The scale was monumental. The Church came back, of course, and they used their pet commentators and there was an assault on the series. I knew when I made the programme that I'd have to be accessible to talk about it, because there wasn't a stable of experts, it was original research, but I didn't think it would go on and on. I didn't think I'd have to do it to the degree I have, or for as long as I have."

"They were calling me a Nazi, citing blood libel, a whole stable of them," she continues. "But there's absolute silence from those quarters since the Ryan Report." Later in the interview, Raftery declines to comment on whether she has or has ever had religious faith, having learned that anything can be twisted in an attempt to prove agenda on her part. "And it's not relevant," she adds. "What's relevant is that I was raised a Catholic. I couldn't do what I do if I wasn't raised a Catholic. You need to be able to understand what drives people and how the Church works and the mechanics of denial, which we're all very good at."

Raftery left RTE in 2002 to become a freelance filmmaker and journalist. The decision to leave secure work didn't come easily, but it was necessary, she says. "My son was 10 at the time, and in current affairs, you just couldn't be as flexible as I needed. But I never regretted the decision. I started writing as well as making programmes and it worked out well."

As she was "dragged back" always to current affairs in RTE, Raftery several years ago found herself drawn to the history of Ireland's mental health services, which has become the two-part Behind the Walls.

"What we did in Ireland for most of the 20th Century, anyway, is that we locked people up in hospitals," she says, returning to our capacity for denial." Any kind of misdemeanour, anyone who didn't quite fit in. I'm not saying everyone in psychiatric care was completely sane, but who is?"

She goes on to outline two very significant statistics. First is that in the 20th Century, Ireland had more people committed, per capita, than anywhere else in the world, with the Soviet Union coming second and, at least, Raftery says, they bothered with show trials.

"We just bundled them in, with 21,000 people locked up in the Fifties," she says.

The other statistic is that Ireland had a huge number of single people in the last century, with three-quarters of men listed as single at one point and two out of three women. So, there were single people who were wanted off the land or out of the family home.

"Put those stats together and you get a lot of inconvenient people," she says. "And it's alarming how little it took to get you committed. Any sexual manifestation; people were put away for masturbation. Forever. Love, jealousy, seduction; Cork had the highest incidence of these, all good reasons for committal. There was one woman whose cause of insanity was listed as 'husband in California'."

One story she cites, from the end of the 19th Century, was not unusual for the time. A sister who wanted to marry was told by her betrothed that if her brother wasn't shifted off the farm, then there would be no wedding. The sister had her brother committed, but when he was found to be sane and sent home, she stabbed herself in the leg, had him branded a "dangerous lunatic" and sent off to the asylum again, where he died, a fortnight later, of dysentery.

Raftery points out, too, that until the Thirties, Forties or Fifties, there were no real treatments for people with mental problems, they were just herded together, and even later, treatments such as insulin comas and early ECT were very experimental and regularly ill-fated. "Lobotomy was pretty common," says Raftery. "Dr Ivor Browne says in the programme that from the Forties to the Sixties, huge parts of Grangegorman were silenced by lobotomy.

"And a big story in the second programme concerns a group of women who were sexually abused in the latter end of the 20th Century, by a doctor in one of these hospitals. One doctor, but other people knew about the abuse and said nothing. And there's no more lethal combination than a psychiatrist and a sexual predator, because they can play with your mind and, in this case, they can heavily medicate. These women were denied justice, because this man died two weeks before he came to trial, but they are amazing women. And what unfolds through them is what's really significant in these programmes; it's people's sense of powerlessness and being made powerless."

It's disempowered people about whom Raftery cares. It is to them she listens. It is their voices she amplifies and makes heard. And which she defends, as is often her role. It's not something she shies away from, either, even if, from time to time, she might wish the focus to turn elsewhere. "I don't relish that aspect of the work," Raftery says. "I make programmes. And I try to stay away, but I always get dragged back.

"But I do it because the work is worthwhile doing. And what it comes down to is that the most important thing you can do is to give a voice to people who have been silenced. And what I think is what else would I be doing?"

Behind the Walls is showing on RTE One tomorrow at 9.35pm (part one), and Monday, September 12 (part two)

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