Tuesday 18 June 2019

Her young age made her life's achievements all the more extraordinary

Our national treasures are few and far between, and as far as the public is concerned finding one among the ranks of the journalism profession would be virtually impossible.

However, the honourable exception to that is Mary Raftery. This is a woman who will, in the future, be writ large in our history books as someone whose contribution to our society, through her journalism, has been immeasurable.

Her life was cut short this week by illness at 54, and her young age made her achievements, and contribution to Irish life, all the more incredible. She was the most important journalist of her generation.

She exposed the extent of the appalling abuse of children in the care of the State and the Catholic Church to which they had been entrusted. But crucially, the manner in which she did so ensures, I believe, that this can never happen again.

Unlike many of us journalists, she made a real difference, her work made some important things change permanently and for the better.

There was so much to admire about Mary. I didn't know her well personally, however I admired her hugely as a journalist. In fact you didn't need to know her well to recognise her integrity and extraordinary determination. It shone through in her work.

It's commonplace now for the journalist to become almost as important as the story, that a writer or broadcaster would share their motivation and experience to put it in "context" for the reader or viewer.

But this was never the case with Mary. She was responsible for some of the most high-profile journalism in Ireland over the past decade or so, but there were a very significant number of people who would not have known her name.

Not for her the high-profile weekend interview with Marian Finucane to discuss her reasons for doing the work she did, or perhaps to talk about issues from her own background which may have informed her approach to her work. No, it was always about the story and about giving the story maximum impact.

Her close friend Sheila Ahern, who worked with her as a researcher, said at her funeral service that in the run-up to States of Fear being broadcast in 1999 Mary came into the office one day and told her to pack up the programme tapes, that they were going home.

The reason for this was that RTE management was insisting the programme not go out until the graveyard slot of 11pm. But Mary insisted right back that this was simply not going to be the case.

She knew she had unearthed a monstrous injustice with what had gone on in these industrial schools and that if it did not get a good slot, and make a huge impact from the beginning, it would not do proper justice to the victims. In the end a compromise was reached and it was decided that the first part would be aired in a slot just after the 9pm news. The rest, as they say, is history.

Her dedication was most recently shown on her last programme on the history of our psychiatric hospitals, Behind the Walls, broadcast last September. She worked on it from her hospital bed.

Mary's husband David, in his speech at the humanist funeral service in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, said people often wondered what drove Mary in her journalism. A significant part of this drive came from her political outlook and her respect for human rights.

He also spoke of his wife's amazing confidence, even when she was a young student when they first met in UCD.

The journalist Fintan O'Toole, who also spoke, remembered a story Mary herself told at her father's funeral. She spoke of how as a young girl she would stand on the steps of the stairs at home and fall down into her father's arms, daring to rise up a step each time because of that wonderful trust that only young children can have in a parent. They know they will be caught.

This, he explained, was why she was so affected by the stories of those (in state-run institutions) who had had that relationship of trust with their guardians betrayed.

One of the most impressive things about Mary was how long she stuck with this story. Clearly, covering stories of abuse as a journalist is nothing compared to the reality of being abused as a child, but nonetheless it is emotionally harrowing. This would particularly be the case if, as Mary did, you made painstaking efforts to avoid re-victimising those victims in how you told their stories.

So if you saw Mary coming on Prime Time, or any other current affairs programme, you knew she had an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject and that she would nail anyone trying to wriggle out of responsibility with a quietly spoken but deadly accuracy and marshalling of facts.

One of the songs sung at her funeral service which had everyone smiling and singing along was You Are My Sunshine, but it was the recording of Bob Dylan singing Forever Young which seemed so apt.

Mary and David would sing it in the car to their son Ben when he was a baby. Mary would probably have been uncomfortable with too much being read into some of the lyrics but it's impossible to listen and not think them appropriate.

"May you grow up to be righteous,

May you grow up to be true,

May you always know the truth,

And see the lights surrounding you,

May you always be courageous,

Stand upright and be strong,

May you stay forever young."

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