Thursday 17 October 2019

Why us ... and why here?

What made newly independent Ireland such a fertile ground for the litany of shameful abuse that the Ryan Report has unearthed?

In November 1972, AJ Wallace, a 24-year-old former inmate of Artane Industrial School, who moved to London after his release, wrote a letter to the Taoiseach Jack Lynch:

"It is now eight years since I left the Republic a free individual. Unfortunately for me, I can never forget one day of my 16 years in your country. Your Governments have also made miserable the lives of thousands of unwanted babies within the Republic. I was admitted to an orphanage at the age of two years; at the age of 10 I was transferred to Artane [Industrial] school where I was to stay another six years. I do not intend to put in writing at this very moment the treatment to which helpless children are subject to while in the care of the Irish Catholic authorities. I do not know if it could be possible, but I sure wish I had the opportunity to speak with you personally."

Wallace wrote two follow-up letters in which he pointed out that he had been subjected to "a life of fear and hatred ... in the claws of the Irish Christian Brothers" and was "still suffering from the terrifying effects of my upbringing in Irish Government care." He also referred to "great psychological damage" that had been done to "literally thousands of young people". He finished by insisting "I do believe that if I had a chance to tell my story to members of your Government a great deal of good could be done ... I must be permitted to speak to people who should be concerned with this situation ... the Irish people must know the psychological damage they had subjected these children to".

These letters, held in the National Archives in Dublin, were addressed to the Department of the Taoiseach. It wanted nothing to do with them. It is also quite likely that the letters were regarded by some as the ramblings of a crank who should be ignored.

In light of the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, these letters take on an added significance. Wallace identified the problem -- Church and State collusion to deprive children like him of a childhood -- and a way towards a solution, which would involve the grievances of the victims being heard and acknowledged so that Irish people would be informed of what went on behind the walls of so many of those institutions.

Now we know what went on, in devastating, but necessary detail. It took nearly 40 years for people like Wallace to get an acknowledgement of the pain they suffered. But finding an answer as to why they were subjected to such systematic brutality is more difficult. Was the violation of so many childhoods between the 1930s and the 1970s, the period the Ryan Commission mostly dwells on, uniquely Irish?

Every country has particular class preoccupations, social and religious attitudes and structures of power that can influence that particular society's approach to handling what it regards as social problems.

Historically, all societies have gone through fits of 'moral panic' and have sought to condemn, hide and punish those whom they regard as socially unacceptable. The Irish moral panic was more pronounced and more long lasting than elsewhere. The preferred solution -- to increasingly rely on incarceration without supervision, when such an approach was being abandoned elsewhere -- suited far too many who were obsessed with the visibility of those whose behaviour or existence challenged the notion of the Irish as more chaste, pious and respectable than people elsewhere.

The continued reliance on institutions in Ireland after the creation of the Free State in 1922 was extraordinary. Accounts of abuse in relation to 216 institutions are contained in the Ryan Commission report. The existence of so many institutions was ironic given the social aims of the Irish war of independence. Rhetoric based on improving the manner in which children were treated was an important part of the Irish revolution, with Sinn Féin promising it would make amends for the harshness of Victorian British oppressors. But many of this revolutionary generation betrayed this piety even before independence had been achieved.

WT Cosgrave, Sinn Féin's Minister for Local Government during the period of the revolution, and future President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, wrote the following, in private, about the children in Irish workhouses, the same institutions his party was dedicated to abolishing:

"People reared in workhouses, as you are aware, are no great acquisition to the community and they have no ideas whatsoever of civic responsibilities. As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers. Consequently, it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate."

It would be unfair to single out Cosgrave as being particularly uncharitable; his attitude was typical of many. What is clear is that seeing the impoverished child as a burden is something that was apparent from the early 1920s. Institutionalising the impoverished child was deemed to be the solution to that burden.

Unlike in England, the Irish Catholic Church demanded and retained exceptional control over the running of institutions for Irish children. The English industrial and reformatory school system was reformed when it was decided that if the State funded these institutions it had to have more control than the voluntary groups running them, so it curbed the control of those groups and, by the 1930s, abolished the institutions. There was no such appetite for reform in Ireland and the Church would not countenance any surrender of power.

The State was a willing partner in this and in various other attempts to hide and deny. When the Government investigated issues of sexual abuse and the age of consent in the early 1930s, a Jesuit priest in Tullamore insisted the findings should not be published. His solution, contained in a letter to the Department of Justice, was that: "A judge or two, a lawyer or two, a well-balanced priest or two, an experienced police officer, meeting in private, and all sharing the Catholic view on the moral gravity of sexual offences could give the Government much helpful advice." Many politicians agreed.

Souls, not bodies, were the intense preoccupation and this became overwhelming in a small Catholic country with little tradition of Church opposition and an exaggerated deference towards those deemed to be pillars of the community. There was a casual indifference to everyday violence that would not have been tolerated in other countries. In April 1969, The London Daily Telegraph magazine insisted that in Irish Church schools, students "everyday may endure thrashings which, in England, would be enough to close the school and start an inquiry ... few have the stamina, the ability or the courage to flout their priest by complaining."

The children enduring the thrashings were mostly poor and held in contempt, victims of an invidious Irish snobbery in a country that liked to pretend it was classless.

Many who supposedly had vocations for priestly work clearly did not, and were the very last people who should have been put in charge of children. Forced celibacy, the young age of entry to religious training and single-sex environments compounded the problems and poisoned the atmosphere these men, women and children lived and operated in.

Many of the perpetrators of abuse were victims of another snobbery -- the internal Church pecking order that deemed certain clerics to be more suited to working in industrial schools. There is no doubt that the frustrations they experienced had devastating consequences for the children and, let it be acknowledged, for themselves. They were products of a mixture of large families, thwarted ambitions, segregation of the sexes and lack of economic opportunity, as were the children they took out their frustration on, often in the most sadistic of ways.

There were other priests, who, according to the late novelist John McGahern, "looked and acted as if they came from a line of swaggering, confident men who dominated field and market and whose only culture was cunning, money and brute force. Though they could be violently generous and sentimental at times, in their hearts they despised their own people". Perhaps the biggest irony is that such contempt drove so many victims of brute force to leave for England.

The country that had been regularly denounced as a Godless, immoral land was the same place where many Irish victims found sanctuary. According to evidence given to the Commission, "40pc of former residents of the institutions were in Britain. Most had submerged themselves in a British identity". Most, like AJ Wallace in 1972, felt urgency about getting away from Ireland because of its refusal to treat them like human beings.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD. His new book, Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland will be published in September by Profile Books.

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