Saturday 24 August 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'As Notre Dame blazed, we raked over the embers of our own grim history'

'There was much genuine grief that the Notre-Dame edifice, with all its powerful symbolism, was under assault from some elemental force.' AP Photo/Thierry Mallet
'There was much genuine grief that the Notre-Dame edifice, with all its powerful symbolism, was under assault from some elemental force.' AP Photo/Thierry Mallet

Gerard O'Regan

Raging raw red flames arched towards the Parisian skyline, frightening in their ferocity, striking at the ancient heart of Christian Europe. The most famous cathedral in the world was ablaze. All the while, we in Ireland also gazed at some embers from our own past.

It was a strange few days. There was much genuine grief that the Notre Dame edifice, with all its powerful symbolism, was under assault from some elemental force.

Nearer to home there was yet another chapter in the sorry saga of dead babies disposed of in some unmarked mass grave.

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Reaction to the blaze, which threatened centuries of tradition in the heart of Paris, was remarkable. Believers and non-believers felt something priceless might be lost. It was shared by many in Britain who had no Catholic background or, indeed, who are without any belief in mainstream religion.

For the French it seemed as if this was a threat to the very heart of the Gallic soul. Some stirrings, rooted in a distant memory, could not be contained. Despite its potent tradition of secularism, Catholicism in France, "the eldest daughter of the Church", goes back to the second century.

As the emotional whirlpool stirred by the Notre Dame conflagration grew ever wider, another round of revelations regarding our mother and baby homes emerged. All the while we stumble towards an uncomfortable truth. It wasn't only the nuns who were at fault. Countless others knew, or half knew, what was happening behind walls which could never hold their secrets.

For example, we now know Galway County Council and its officials had a range of responsibilities for the Tuam burial ground. The council owned the site, which was operated by the Sisters. It could influence who entered the home. It funded rates, rent, repairs and insurance for the property. It also paid the salaries of chaplains and medical officers who oversaw its operations. Local authority employees from time to time did work on the site. Yet a cloud of secrecy still hangs over those who were involved.

The Commission into the mother and baby homes continues to confront a veil of silence in many quarters, even with the passing of so many years. Bishops and priests, civil servants and gardaí, TDs and county councillors keep their counsel.

And there are families in various local communities who, for their own reasons, are unwilling to confront the past. It prompted Children's Minister Katherine Zappone to plead with those who know more than they have been willing to say to co-operate with those battling to find a kind of truth.

This in turn provoked Galway councillor Donagh Killilea - with an eye to his local constituents - to take her to task in vehement terms. "It is shameful of the minister to suggest that people are not coming forward with information,'' he said.

However, the evidence is now overwhelming that institutionalised neglect contributed to the deaths of countless children. Their bodies were disposed of in such a degraded manner as to seem incomprehensible from this vantage point. All the while a great silence endures.

"It is hard to believe there are no records and no one can remember,'' said the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, this week. However, it is unfortunate the collective will of the Irish hierarchy cannot be brought to bear on this subject. Here lies much responsibility for still unanswered questions. The ongoing drip-drip of information is causing much damage to the Catholic Church in Ireland. The nuns, according to the Commission, continue to be less than candid about those who were in their care. But it is all too easy to let these religious orders carry the can while so many others harbour their secrets.

Meanwhile, there is limited value in trying to rationalise our mother and baby homes - and how they operated in the dreary and desperate decades from the 1920s to the 1950s - in the context of 2019. There was a brutality in Irish life back then scarcely unimaginable in modern times.

Historical memory was under siege in the Notre Dame blaze. But remnants from other days remind us of a harsh, brutal and unforgiving Ireland. The voiceless and the vulnerable paid a terrible price for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time - to what others judged to be the wrong parents.

Irish Independent

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