Sunday 21 July 2019

We can't purge our soiled legacy but we can acknowledge the good

Retrospection allows us to ignore the fact that there were people who were trying to make a difference

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson

Mary Leland

The young woman ahead of me in the queue to print out digital photographs was arranging the imposition of a Father's Day message across the image of her smiling baby. The words read: 'My Daddy is a Great Bastard!'

Oh no, I thought, stemming my instant urge to intervene, to say that surely she should rethink the wording, surely she didn't want to put such a phrase into the mouth of her infant. I hesitated, because I remembered Mary Robinson. With the memory came the names of Nuala Fennell and Catherine McGuinness, and once at home came the search for that debate in the Senate in January of 1987. It's a long debate, with worthwhile contributions from other senators as well, but the driven logic of a series of amendments to the Status of Children Act came from Senator Mary Robinson, Senator Catherine McGuinness and TD Nuala Fennell, first Minister of State for Women's Affairs in the government led by Garret FitzGerald. What that Act ensured was the removal of any legal discrimination and the equalisation of the rights of children regardless of the status of their parents at the time of their birth.

Which goes to show, I think, that the half-hidden miseries of the mother-and-baby homes and the family outcasts of Ireland were getting attention from people who could – and did – make a difference. It also goes to show what remarkably short memories we have in this country. The national instinct seems to be one of immediately embracing victimhood, almost of rejoicing in shattering stories of abuse, neglect and downright cruelty. Yet no-one winces, for example, when Sinn Fein expresses its outrage at the institutionalised treatment of women and children, as if the name of Jean McConville had never been heard. Short memories, so no-one remembers the establishment of Cherish (led by Maura O'Dea Richards, with Mary Robinson as its first President) in 1972 and its success in achieving the Unmarried Mothers' Allowance in 1973.

There are terrible stories to be told and to be heard and respected. Sometimes these suggest such bewildering contempt for the law – and there were laws to protect unmarried women and their children – and such a resistance to compassion that they induce a lasting sadness that Ireland was and maybe remains what James Joyce called the old sow that eats her own farrow. Religious orders whose members were monsters of indifference while professing a devotion to Christ. Priests ruling entire communities as if the law itself was an instrument of the Catholic Church, enforcing such social acquiescence that families outlawed their own offspring (if they were female, that is). Clergy devouring the children condemned to their institutional care through rape, brutality and malnutrition. Thwarted lives and injustices so multiple and in those days so furtive that they cannot be annealed.

It is useless to pretend now that this history, this legacy of soiled containment described by James M Smith of Boston College in his 2004 essay on 'The Politics of Sexual Knowledge' as Ireland's architecture of confinement, can be purged. Calls for compensation seem both self-serving and unattainable, for how can we retrieve the dead? All we can do is attempt to balance that history with its parallel, with what was also happening in Ireland.

This is where the absence of memory, or perhaps of curiosity or even, dare one say it, of education, fails us. To absolve that deficit we retreat to retrospection, as if to say that had we been there at the time, had this been a society in which we might play a part, it would have been different. That indignant fantasy allows us ignore the fact that there were people there at the time trying, and sometimes succeeding, to make things different. Some took the flamboyant route: I remember the impact of seeing Vanessa Redgrave who refused to hide her unmarried pregnancy and strode about London as radiant as Cleopatra. Remember Mary Holland, and her campaign for abortion rights? Remember Fr James Good – yes, my goodness, a Catholic priest exiled for his support of the right to practise contraception in marriage and challenged for his efforts on reform of the adoption laws?

Any catalogue of reformed or new legislation can make dreary reading if the context of these efforts is uncharted territory. But it isn't. There are maps to guide even the least investigative of us. Among these campaigns, those of Cherish, where Senator Mary Henry succeeded Mary Robinson as President and which is now merged with Gingerbread Ireland as One Family, are the most immediately pertinent to the current passion for redress.

And before these later developments,the State itself was not irredeemably misogynistic. There was, for example, the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation orders) Act of 1930 which intended to "make provision for the imposition on the father of an illegitimate child of the obligation to contribute to the support or otherwise in respect to such child and for the enforcement of such obligation".

The order, which also applied to the real and personal estate of the father as a civil debt and would be payable until the child reached 16 or beyond if found unfit for any employment, had a comprehensive definition of the mother. She would be a person who is with child, or has been delivered of an illegitimate child, that is any single woman, or widow, or any married woman living separate from her husband, or any married woman not living separate from her husband who, before her marriage, was delivered of an illegitimate child.

The laws were there; the parliamentary records reveal the arguments, legal and political, defining and redefining the rights and obligations of parents and children caught in the Babel of illegitimacy. A judgment expressed the opinion that a mother had the natural right to the custody of her child, a right upheld both by the Constitution and by the Guardianship of Infants Act of 1964; statutory provisions making the mother the guardian of her illegitimate child. But there's always the rider: "However, these rights ... are neither inalienable nor imprescriptible ... they can be alienated or transferred in whole or in part."

Ireland was at least catching up on its own legislative inquisitions such as the Carrigan Report of 1931, whose findings on child sexual abuse were so startling, and whose recommendations of best practice as deployed in England were so politically unwelcome, that the report was never published or acted upon.

A section of our society saw itself as above the law and able to ignore it unless challenged. There were court cases, but not enough to awaken the dispossessed to awareness of their rights. Society censored itself. Among those who had an awareness of human entitlement and dignity was a man whose heart-breaking story, told on radio last week, spoke of an Ireland dominated by those who know best. After a long wait his wife had become pregnant with twins, but this joy was quenched with the news that both babies had died in the womb. After their delivery the father, in his anguish, tried to arrange their burial in his family plot. The local priest said he could not officiate because the twin boys, born dead, had not been baptised, although their father had pleaded the case of Baptism of Desire. When he asked if he could bury his children himself, the priest said he would not stand in the way.

The father then went to engage a monument carver to inscribe the names of the boys on the family headstone, and this was agreed. But not before the mother of the stone-mason felt she had the authority to contact the father herself and advise him that such an inscription would not be suitable: the infants had not been baptised. That was one Ireland; the other lived quietly beside it, for when the pitiful burden was brought to the cemetery the father found a crowd of at least 300 people waiting to share the rite of burial with him.

These are not tales from another world. They are stories only from other years, years when young women went into convents as nuns, often as unwanted at home as their sorrier sisters and becoming prisoners themselves. But in telling these stories we should include the debates on the Status of Children Act of 1987 and the appreciation "on both sides of the house that the word 'illegitimate' had gone from our legislation, that the concept is no longer part of our law..."

So: out of the emotional maelstrom of the last few weeks let us at least acknowledge that thanks to Mary Robinson, Catherine McGuinness and Nuala Fennell, a word of isolating social abuse has attained the status of affection. It's ok (even if not to my personal taste) to tell Daddy that he is "a great bastard".

Sunday Independent

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