Friday 23 March 2018

'It's distortion of history' - locals call for statue dedicated to Sisters of Mercy to be removed

Statue erected in Ennis in 2011 has sparked heavy debate among locals in Co Clare (Photo: Barry Wrafter)
Statue erected in Ennis in 2011 has sparked heavy debate among locals in Co Clare (Photo: Barry Wrafter)

Cillian Sherlock

A statue erected in Ennis in 2011 has now sparked heavy debate among locals.

The statue is dedicated to the Sisters of Mercy and is located near the site of a former industrial school.

However, in the wake of the Ryan Report many locals think the statue should be removed.

Local Brian McMahon told RTÉ’s Liveline the statue which depicts a nun, mother and baby is a "distortion of history".

"Given what we know of the Sisters of Mercy and the widespread abuse in industry schools, I find it very inappropriate," he said.

Brian said he was born into a mother and baby home.

"Imagine if there was a statue put up in Tuam about the Bon Secours Sisters. I physically want to get sick when I see it or I want to go at it with a sledgehammer but I’m not going to do that," he continued.

"I think it is very arrogant. The Sisters of Mercy profited from this apparatus were children were obtained and abused. We have a sanitisation of history.

"It’s distortion of history.

"It’s totally ridiculous. We know what happened. We know what the Sisters of Mercy were involved in. There’s truth and there’s lies. This is a distortion of truth," he added.

In a Liveline programme fully dedicated the issue, Noel Crowley of the Ennis Culture Initiative said the good work the Sisters of Mercy did can’t be forgotten.

Noel, who commissioned the statue, said he was granted planning permission to place it on the wall of the site which is now a museum.

He said the Sisters of Mercy were aware of the plans to erect the statue but he did not consult with local Ennis people or local media.

"We gave our plans to the Urban Council," he said, adding that there were no objections.

"You can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

"They did tremendous work in Ennis. They were invited in by parishioners and were educating 400 young children who would not have been educated because they were too poor.

"You have to acknowledge the good work that was done as well as complain about the bad things," Noel added.

He said there was no denying the abuse but the statue was to commemorate what he said was good work done by the Sisters of Mercy.

He added that there was another memorial to the victims of abuse in Ennis.

Noel said the local Tidy Towns Committee gave a financial contribution but the rest was raised by the Ennis Culture Initiative.

He said a "normal person" would approach the museum from another direction to avoid offence.

"There’s about three different ways to approach it. The normal person’s reaction would be to use the other two ways."

The sculptor of the statue joined the Joe Duffy hosted show to raise his own opinion.

Barry Wrafter, a sculptor in Ennis, said the commission wouldn’t be his chosen subject.

"It wouldn’t be my chosen subject. I’d call it insipid but work is work for an artist," he said.

He did not put a name on the statue and has it down as simply "Sisters of Mercy sculpture".

Barry said another commission by the Ennis Urban Council was advertised at the same time to make a sculpture commemorating the victims of industrial schools but that fell through.

He questioned the timing of Noel’s commission.

"It’s a bit of a coincidence. It was at the exact same time. The timing is very strange," he added.

He also said that he found it difficult to work with Noel while Noel said the reverse was also true.

Caller Mary Ronayne defended Barry as she is an artist herself.

"I worked as an artist in Germany and we were commissioned to redesign a very nasty ex-Nazi war camp. It was commissioned by Austrian government to change the whole energy of what went on there where very many young boys were killed," she told Liveline.

She believes statue should be removed as "it’s too hurtful."

"I’m actually quite offended by the gentleman who commissioned the statue. He has a dismissive attitude."

However, not everyone who called in agreed the statue should be removed.

Joe O’Sullivan argued that there should be more such statues.

"There should be a statue in every town in the country. I admit the conditions were harsh but the contributions the religious orders have made in this country are underrepresented," he said.

"Of course there was abuse. We can’t deny that. If there was 10% abused there was 90% success," he added.

Niall Fitzgibbon also agreed with Noel and Joe.

"I think it should stay. It creates dialogue of what was good and bad at the time. I don’t think they should take it out. I was witness and victim to some of that bad," he said.

Noel said he was thankful to the religious orders that raised him when his mother couldn’t.

"I was fed 3 times a day. I was educated up to a certain point and my health was looked after up to a certain point," he said.

Noel said he went into St Theresa’s in Blackrock at 1957 after his father died and his mother could not take care of him and brother while sustaining her new mortgage.

"By and large the people were good. I didn’t always want to thank them but I do now. It enabled my mother to get some work and some money to keep a roof over her head until she remarried.

"She managed to keep the house until then," Noel said.

He didn’t deny there was abuse or cruelty and said he experienced it himself.

"Not everyone can move on at the same time and some of them won’t ever move on. There were really good people and most of them were," he said.

"Some of the cruelness was inflicted on me. It was people losing their tempers. It’s everywhere, it’s not just in institutions.

"I had a lot of issues to deal with after it. I’m still trying to deal with stuff but people who didn’t go through institutions didn’t have it easy either," he added.

Noel said there were also probably abandonment issues affecting him too but he added that he didn’t know how things were for her after her father’s death.

"We did discuss it. Not in the same detail that I would have liked now. She told us through the years why she had to do it. I didn’t always accept it but through counselling I’ve began to understand and I probably would have done the same thing. What was she to do?" he said.

He thought the statue was a positive thing.

"I think it’s good. I would agree with people with an opposing opinion but I would have to say they looked after me as well," Noel added.

However, a woman named Catherine said the statue had to go.

"There was a rotten fiasco of child abuse. I agree this statue has to go. Ennis is a small town in rural Ireland. The catholic church is very prominent here. Putting these statues and plaques in public spaces sanitising the subject is horrific," she said.

"There should be a low that nothing be erected after the Ryan report," she added.

"The Sisters of Mercy did no good for Ireland. None whatsoever. They traded in children," Catherine said.

Nora Donnelly said that while she knew ‘horrible things were going on’ she considered the Mercy Sisters as "brave and stalwart”.

"The Mercy Sisters have been hung, drawn and quartered and the floor has been wiped with them. I know a lot of Mercy Sisters for being brave, stalwart and imaginative women.

"I saw them in Ennis and Ennistymon. I saw them feeding them. I saw spirit of kindness and caring," she said.

Another woman named Mary also told the Liveline show that she was "delighted and proud" the work of the nuns was being recognised.

"The children were well dressed and well looked after. The nuns did everything and anything for them. I’m delighted and very proud to be in Ennis. The good that has been in those people has been recognised at last," she said.

Siobhán Ni Bhuachalla argued that the Sisters of Mercy did no good in Ireland.

"They didn’t do any good in educating children. They only educated them on the back of the most unfortunate children and used them as slaves," she said.

She said she experienced it first hand in Tipperary.

"I was one of those slaves. They were being paid by the state per head for us poor orphans," she added.

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