Saturday 16 February 2019

Let's keep Fr Mathew's statue on O'Connell Street and get rid of the child abuser instead

William Smith O’Brien’s statue in the centre of Dublin. Photo: Eleanor Keegan
William Smith O’Brien’s statue in the centre of Dublin. Photo: Eleanor Keegan

Terry Prone

If we have to choose between statues in Dublin's most important street, how about we keep the anti-alcohol monk and lose the child abuser?

The choice is being forced upon us by the Luas. In order to let the Luas go where no Luas has gone before, the 124-year old statue of Fr Theobald Mathew, the man who invented the 'pledge', is being uprooted. For good. Or for evil, if you are enthusiastic about Fr Mathew's contribution to Irish life. The statue portrays a slender monk with wavy hair, rosary beads and one of those rope belts, gesturing in an ambivalent way. One hand could be interpreted as him calling the barman for a round, the other, palm down at waist level, looks like he's asking everybody to keep the noise down.

The Railway Procurement Agency is in active discussions with someone in order to find a new home for Fr Mathew. Perhaps those active discussions might include the possibility of removing the child molester from O'Connell Street and substituting the temperance priest.

The child molester is - or was - William Smith O'Brien, one of the leaders of the Young Irelanders in the 19th Century. You'd know by the statue he was born into privilege, and he was, getting his education in Harrow and TCD. Buying first into the nationalist cause and then into violent promulgation of the nationalist cause, he became involved in the inefficient, ineffective and frankly ridiculous 1848 rebellion. As a result, he was sentenced to death for treason, but - the British authorities having more savvy in the 19th Century than they did in the early 20th - had his sentence commuted from hanging, drawing and quartering to the somewhat lesser punishment of deportation to Van Diemen's Land.

So off our young hero goes to Van Diemen's Land, leaving his wife and several children behind him in Ireland.

As it turned out, Van Diemen's Land actually wasn't so bad. He had a little house to himself in what constituted an open prison with a pleasant climate and Sergeant Kevin Lapham from Kildare in charge of him. Lapham was younger than Smith O'Brien and broadminded in his interpretation of what constituted state incarceration.

He looked after him, took him on scenic tours and treated him as something of a celeb. The only thing he couldn't do for him was allow him to post letters without those letters being read for evidence of sedition. This diktat covered letters to Mrs Smith O'Brien, back in Ireland with the kids, and very mean and sad it was, as diktats go. It might be assumed that Mr Smith O'Brien would shrug, decide that all he needed to do was keep his letters clean of rebellious incitement, and all would be well.

That assumption would be wrong, because this was a principled man who simply downed his quill and refused to write to his wife at all. For 10 years, he maintained his principled silence.

Which may not have been that unwelcome to Mrs Smith O'Brien, who was used to letters from her husband, back in the days when he was in Ireland, ticking her off for wanting him at home doing child-minding when he had to be off saving Ireland from the oppressor.

If William Smith O'Brien had shortcomings as a revolutionary and husband, they were as nothing in comparison to his shortcomings as a friend and beneficiary of Lapham's kindness. Two police officers used a telescope to get the evidence which must have destroyed Lapham's life: evidence of Smith O'Brien being sexually serviced by Lapham's 13-year-old daughter. They got busy with the telescope because they had seen him kissing the child on more than one occasion in a way that jarred with them. Their evidence changed how Smith O'Brien was imprisoned from then on, and he obliquely referred to it in his diary, excusing himself (of course) by reference to the frailties of human nature. (Amazing, how people claim to be "only human" when they engage in an activity the majority of humans despise.)

Smith O'Brien's statue shouldn't be taken down because he molested a 13-year-old at a time when children of that age could be married in Ireland.

But if we've a choice between a man who recognised an endemic problem - alcohol abuse - and created a method to put solidarity around sobriety, and a man who bought off a girl he got pregnant before marriage, because she was of the wrong social class, who lectured and later ignored his wife for 10 years and who then, despite being married and despite the kindness of her father, sexually exploited a 13-year-old, Fr Mathew looks like a keeper, rather than Smith O'Brien.

Irish Independent

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