Gina Menzies: 'Concealing pain of past will stop us reaching for a better future'
'The past is a foreign country." The opening line from LP Hartley's novel 'The Go-Between' continues, "they do things differently there". In the novel, a 13-year-old boy discovers an old diary and begins to piece together a suppressed past. He discovers that things were not as he had believed.
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has not had the benefit of a single diary but has had to piece together information from a multitude of incomplete documents and has had the added complication of silence from those who could assist.
Ongoing revelations from the Fifth Interim Report of Commission challenge us with a similar question - things were not as we had believed. Is it enough to say our attitudes and values have changed and the past is just that, a foreign unrecognisable country?
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Ireland's suppressed past has slowly and painfully revealed cruel and inhumane facts about the abuse of children and their mothers in Magdalene laundries, and mother and baby homes. This is a past we would prefer had not existed, a past where we know now, women, young boys and girls were sexually and physically abused by those in positions of authority, where young women and their babies were punished by the Church and society for stepping outside the conventions surrounding pregnancy and motherhood.
The statistics uncovered by the report make for gruesome reading. It describes the inadequacy of the information coming from the religious orders running the mother and baby homes as "speculative, misleading and inaccurate". How can it be that 900 children from the Bessborough home in Cork have no burial record? 802 children in Galway are "most likely buried in a structure built within a sewage tank" and 1,000 children in Tipperary are buried where?
Dignity in death is a very basic human value that is completely missing from the accounts of these "resting places". When human beings are dehumanised, they are treated inhumanely in life and in death. The legacy of concentration camps in Nazi Germany is a constant reminder of man's inhumanity to man.
Church and society in 20th-century Ireland colluded in shameful attitudes towards women who became pregnant outside marriage. It suited the Catholic Church's negative teachings on human sexuality and degrading of motherhood to hide young girls and their pregnancies from a society only too happy to conform to such practices. The importance of maintaining the outward veneer of respectability in keeping with Catholic teaching on sexual morality was placed before Christian care and human kindness.
How do we respond to this legacy? We cannot discard the past. We inherit the dark as well as the light. We live in the present, but the past is everywhere. Many of the humane achievements of today have come from an awareness of past attitudes.
Only in 1987, thanks to the efforts of Cherish (now the One Family agency), which began campaigning in 1972, and minister Nuala Fennell's persistence was the legal status of illegitimacy removed along with the stigma that went with it. This stigma contributed hugely to the uncharitable treatment of women and their babies. It is incomprehensible for a younger generation to believe that once there was an Ireland where little babies arrived into the world with labels like 'illegitimacy'.
We now have The Children First Act (2015) pioneered by minister Frances Fitzgerald, the first minister for children and youth affairs, and the establishment of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.
The welfare of children has become central to government policy. Mandated persons providing services for children have statutory obligations to report abuse of any kind. Corporal punishment is no longer permitted. The Catholic Church also has established excellent child protection systems for children. But much remains to be done in and by the Church. Diarmuid Martin, Dublin's Archbishop, having read the report, indignantly asks: "What went wrong to give rise to a situation in which children within the Church of Jesus Christ were not cared for with scrupulous dignity in life and death?"
Only with total open disclosure of past wrongs can we reach for a better future. The findings in the latest report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes indicate that we are still some way from the total truth of this dark legacy. Collusion between Church and State have brought us here and it is time for both to act together, no matter how painful, to reveal all the documentation available at State level and to provide appropriate conditions for truth telling.
Saying sorry is never enough. Real conversion, real change, comes with the insight that all was not well and that society needs collectively to accept responsibility for the past and its consequences today.
Silence is not golden, and continued silence only perpetuates the pain from the past. Resurrection and reconciliation cannot take place unless the evil is named and acknowledged.
Like the protagonist in 'The Go-Between', all the pieces need to be out together: continued concealment serves no one.