Ireland's tragic saga must end
In a State apology to the women of the Magdalene laundries in 2013, Enda Kenny said that just as the State had accepted its direct involvement, society too had its responsibility to bear. He believed that he spoke for all when he said that we had put away these women "because for too many years we put away our conscience". People, he said, swapped personal scruples for a solid public apparatus that kept them in tune and in step with a sense of what was 'proper behaviour' or the 'appropriate view' according to a moral code that was fostered at the time, particularly in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. "We lived with the damaging idea that what was desirable and acceptable in the eyes of the Church and the State was the same and interchangeable," he said.
The recent discovery of a significant number of remains at what was a mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, and the grim expectation that further finds will follow at other such homes around the country, is the latest unfolding in the same story which was not unknown then, but was deeply hidden, buried if you like, in the secret chambers of the nation's often cruel and twisted heart. We are reminded of a scene from Tom Murphy's extraordinary play Bailegangaire. "Another story," protests Mary when Dolly plans to explain away an "illegitimate" child: "Oh the saga will go on."
The saga is ongoing until the full truth is known, if never quite fully reconciled. In that sense, Murphy's play is a profound part of the national narrative, in the words of Mommo, which has become a litany of "misfortunes", of "fields haunted by infants", which made for grim if unspoken news then and it does now, with an essential difference in this so-called modern Ireland, which is that it must be spoken of loudly, and then louder still.
The historical record shows that what we might call 'institutional Christianity' was an important part of the social fabric throughout western societies during the industrialisation age; in most cases, such as in Ireland, until well into the 20th Century, that period referred to by Enda Kenny as the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Indeed, its significance grew as the early disruptive effects of industrialisation became more pronounced. In general terms, therefore, the strengthening influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland at that time was not as far out of step with elsewhere as we often tend to think or are led to believe. In Ireland, though, despite the church's advance, there was undoubtedly something closed and defensive about its ethos. In many ways, it was this all-pervasive ethos that was "interchangeable" as referred to by Enda Kenny.
It is tempting to believe that Ireland has changed to reveal a more open and embracing society. In many ways, of course, the country has. Ireland today is a vastly different place from Ireland up to the 1950s, indeed Ireland of the 1980s. The negative influence of the Catholic Church has also waned, as its often positive functions have been downplayed or airbrushed entirely. But as that other outrage, related to a young woman called 'Grace' continues to unfold too, we are left to question whether that with which the State has replaced the social functions left to the church is in a position to hand-wring now or to throw stones. All of this informs us that as the country takes its first tentative steps into another disruptive era, the post-industrial digital age, that the State and a still defensive Catholic Church, and society in general, must finally mature into their respective but separate roles of responsibility, because if they fail to do so, and as Tom Murphy has warned, the saga will go on.