Sunday 13 October 2019

Silence and tears on a grim journey through evil deeds

Lise Hand

THE bright sunshine beamed through the glass dome, suffusing the Dail chamber with light. But on the floor of the House, and in the public gallery above, grief, remorse and anger cast a long dark shadow over the sunlit room.

Usually the Dail proceedings on a Thursday morning are punctuated with rowdy and rambunctious banter during the order of business. But then this wasn't a usual session in the lower House of the Oireachtas -- it was the first day of a two-day debate on the horrendous findings of the Ryan report into child abuse. There were no political shenanigans yesterday, just a grim sense of unity among deputies on all sides of the chamber as they set off on a bleak journey.

For this was a return back into Ireland's far too recent past, a bone-chilling, harrowing but entirely appropriate and necessary revisit of the dreadful, dark deeds perpetrated on the most vulnerable and helpless members of our society.

And if any of the deputies needed reminding that mere lip-service would not suffice in their acknowledgment of the heart-breaking litany of horrors which rampaged unchecked behind the walls of the institutions, all they had to do was raise their eyes to the public gallery, where sat Michael O'Brien, former Fianna Fail councillor and survivor of sexual abuse in an industrial school in Clonmel.

Michael recently vented his rage on television, excoriating Transport Minister Noel Dempsey on RTE's 'Questions and Answers', but yesterday he sat quietly in the gallery, shedding bitter tears while Enda Kenny delivered his moving speech. The confidence debate on Tuesday and Wednesday may have been little more than a set-piece of political theatre, but there were no dramatics or theatrics yesterday as deputies on all sides struggled to find suitable words to apply to this dark Irish tragedy.

The Taoiseach opened the debate with an apology to the 165,000 victims who passed through 216 gates, into hells of the State's making.

"On behalf of the State and of all citizens of the State, the Government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue," he said.

'The catalogue of horror and terror that was visited over many years on children in the care of religious congregations, placed there by the State, is appalling beyond belief. It is made even more appalling, if that is possible, by the fact that those who perpetrated the abuse had promised to uphold and practise the gospel of love and belonged to congregations founded to serve the very noblest ideals," he continued sombrely.

"The congregations should have loved them and the State should have cared about them. Neither did."

Enda Kenny, often criticised as being a wooden performer in the Dail, spoke with deep compassion.

"We are as a country haunted by the Great Famine. We wonder at the inhumanity shown to the starving, a century and a half ago. We should all be haunted by what Ryan has found out. Because he has revealed a Great Famine of compassion. A plague of deliberate, relentless cruelty," he stated, as above him Michael O'Brien wept. The Fine Gael leader reflected the bewilderment felt by so many that such evil stalked Ireland for so long, and until so recently.

"Some of us read the Bronte's accounts of what their powers-that-be did to orphans. We were horrified. It gave us bad dreams. But it was fiction. That was the great thing. It was fiction. It hadn't happened. Not really. And certainly not in Ireland. Now, we know different. Now, we know, courtesy of the Ryan Commission, that, within living memory and within our own country, we visited comparable horrors on our children. Let us not hide behind euphemisms. This was not just 'failure to protect'. This was torture, pure and simple."

There were some political attacks during the debate. Ruairi Quinn said that every attempt he has made to discover the ownership of schools by religious orders, has been repeatedly thwarted.

"Either officials in the Department are members of secret societies such as the Knights of St Columbanus and Opus Dei and have taken it upon themselves to protect the interests of these clerical orders at this point in time in this year of 2009 or, alternatively, the minister is politically incompetent and incapable of managing the Department of Education and Science," charged the Labour deputy.

And among the torrent of words, emotions sometimes bubbled to the surface.

During his address, Noel Dempsey struggled to keep his composure as he described a meeting with a group of survivors. He fell silent as he gathered himself to continue, and in a way this silence was particularly eloquent.

Sometimes words just aren't enough.

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