Writer and Author

Tag: Artane Industrial School

Once Again Words are Not Enough

I’ve hesitated writing about the Tuam babies case. It’s not that I don’t feel strongly about it. It’s not that I’m afraid to write about it.  It’s just that I will simply be one voice in many and surely this is a case where words mean very little unless something can be done about the attitudes that bring us back here again and again and again.

If you’re not familiar with the story, and I’m sure there are plenty who still won’t be, it’s this. On May 24th the Irish Mail on Sunday broke the story. There followed the predictable social media outrage, the even more predictable empty words from those who allowed it to happen, the absolutely inevitable lack of action. Most things don’t happen here until the international press get the sniff of a story and sure enough, once thematter appeared in the Washington Post it really started being talked about.

So what happened? It’s a simple enough story. In Tuam, in County Galway, there used to be a home for Mothers and Babies. It stood on the site of an old workhouse and was run by the sistesr of the Bon Secours order. In this home, between the 1920s and the 1960s 800 babies and young children died. But that’s not it. It’s not that 800 dead over 40 or so years means an average of around 2 a month which might to the casual observer seem a wee bit on the high side. If that was all we would no doubt have already been mollified by those who would drag in every measles outbreak, every flu epidemic, every cholera, typhoid and diphtheria outbreak to cast a swathe through the Irish population in the last two centuries, to make the point that sometimes children die, sometimes a lot of children die. Life they would tell us,  is a fragile thing and you can blame germs, or poverty, or ignorance to tidy away the significant numbers of dead babies of times past.

But that’s not it.

The problem with these 800 babies is that there is a good chance some or all of them ended up disposed of with no care or reverence, thrown in a septic tank.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment. They were disposed of in a septic tank. Not buried in a euphemistically called “angel plot” for the unbaptised. Not placed gently in a little white coffin and honoured with flowers and favourite toys. These children were thrown where you would throw rubbish, in an empty concrete tank that had once held the workhouse’s sewage. There have been suggestions that many of the children who died were the sick, the weak and the disabled, left in what amounted to Dying Rooms to die a slow, sad death of malnutrition and avoidable illness. That these children were left because they were not as lucrative as the healthy children who could be sold to childless couples.

Already there have been those who have denied this. There are those who say that the only indication that there were bones in that septic tank were two small boys who investigated a crack in a concrete slab in the 60s and discovered a horror. There are those who are no doubt hoping that the bones turn out to belong to dogs or rats or sheep – if they are ever exhumed. If anyone bothers to try to find out what happened.

We need to focus on that septic tank because it doesn’t matter if there aren’t 800 babies there. If just one bone of one child is in there it tells us something we should never forget. It means that the body of at least one child was treated like rubbish, was denied the basic funerary rites that we have turned towards as a species since neanderthal times. It means that a child’s body was treated like a dead dog – and perhaps that dog would actually have had more care taken of it. It means that someone turned their back on the most basic human compassion, fought what is surely an instinctive need to treat the dead gently. If there is more than one child’s bone, if there are the dozen’s, hundreds, that have been described then that is an image from a scene of war. That is the piles of bodies in a concentration camp, the smoking piles of war dead. That is humanity lost.

Since the story broke the similar stories have come thick and fast. Just as when the first reports disclosed clerical sex abuse or the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries. There’s never a shortage of stories like that in Ireland. This country has a very, very dark past. Each time a story like this has been told it has caused outrage, anger and disgust. Each time there have been the harrowing first person narratives of what life was like in hell. Each time the Church has responded with platitudes and empty apologies that have never been followed up with action. Each time the apologists have gathered to sweep the dirt back under the now irredeemably bumpy rug. Each time, once a suitable period of chagrin has been observed the Church has sulked about anti-religious agendas and shut their doors yet again.

We don’t know what will happen yet with this. At this stage we don’t even know exactly what the situation is. Until things are clarified, and possibly even then, there will be those who ignore the absolute truth that has been staring us in the face for far too long. RTE journalist Philip Boucher Hayes has outlined what evidence is already available here and Catherine Corless, the local historian whose tireless work brought this story out into the open has put this summary of her findings on Facebook. These are both accounts that can be trusted. This is not a delusion, this is not an exaggeration. If one bone of one child found it’s way into that disused septic tank that is too much. This is not something we should look away from and this is not something we should allow to fade into the past.

The problem, the huge problem, with this is not simply that it is yet another account of a past full of unimaginable cruelty and heartlessness, it is because these attitudes have not been left in the past. The attitudes that allowed these things to happen that keep coming to light, that keep shocking us, the attitudes that dismissed life so absolutely are still here and they are all around us.

When a story like this breaks there are still those who deny it ever happened, who accuse the people who have brought the latest horror to light, of attacking the Church. The newspapers will still ask the local bishop what he thinks, will still listen to the response. The investigation will move slowly unless it gets indefinitely postponed while yet another inquiry creaks forward toothlessly. A lot of columnists will write elegant phrases about how hard the past was before moving on to the next outrage. Social media will get outraged for a while until the next thing turns up. Months down the road there will be a report or an investigation where more details come from the mouths of the victims. Outrage, disgust once again – until the next time.

Has the heart of the country really changed from the time when families were so soaked in catholic guilt that they would turn their back on their own? Isn’t it still a lot easier to listen to what those in power tell us to do than to stand up and demand change? Isn’t such deference hardwired into jaded souls so that certain views still have weight when they should have been resigned to the past.

It’s buried deep but there is still a checklist that weeds the good from the bad, a rigid code that places each of us in one pile or another. If you don’t check the right boxes you are bad, unsaveable, lost. In a mindset based on black and white, good and evil, ours and their,s that line is drawn deep. In my teens and early 20s I first noticed it. Because I was an “outsider” I could never be a good girl. I’ve seen what that does to the attitudes of the guys who were too sure in the discos we called nightclubs. I’ve seen it in the sneers from a certain type of dark-clad granny who would slowly look me up and down on the bus, making me blush and feel like dirt. That was what they meant to do. I was on the other side of the line. There would be no crossing over. I’m not comparing a few slights to what went on in the various homes but I recognise it.

Having a line like that is a dangerous thing as history never fails to show us. Lines like that destroy empathy. Lines like that cause genocide, brutality, slavery. We don’t even need to look to the world for proof of that. There’s ample evidence at home.

As long as that deference is there then so is the line. It goes deeper than prejudice, it’s the difference between black and white. It is hard wired into this country and it’s something that needs to be fought if  the ground is ever going to be kicked over and humanity restored. As long as that line is there people find it easier to assume that those who have been hurt will lie – as the Irish Times managed to point out when talking about the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag (which I’ll return to another time). As long as it’s there the voiceless will never have a voice and the sins of the past will never be truly repaired.

 

The Importance of Remembering

This weekend past I visited the graves of forgotten women. It’s something see I do now and again when I can. It started when I was in the early days of researching this current book. There’s a gravesite in Glasnevin Cemetery, unmarked and unnoticed among the more haphazard stones of a century ago that belongs to one of the women I’m writing about. I know that Maria Kirwan bought the plot DX39 and the one beside it a couple of years before she died. I know that in September 1852 she was laid to rest there, only to be dug up a month later when the police investigation into her death got going.

I know that the grave was waterlogged that grim October day, that the new O’Connell tower was under construction, that the part of the graveyard she inhabits is known as the Dublin section, not quite as posh as the Garden section but classy enough for the good burghers of Dublin town who paid handsomely for headstones for their dearly beloved that left the reader in no doubt about the wealth of the mourners and the success of their businesses on such and such a street. Maria doesn’t have a stone. After her untimely death there was no one to buy one. Her husband didn’t care, too busy with the family he had built behind her back, her mother was too in thrall to the husband that had killed her, taking his money and speaking in his defence. Her brother had left for a new life in America and her doting father was dead. The victim often disappears in a murder case but that bare patch of ground is such a stark reminder of the anonymity of death. I know she’s down there but you can only find her if you know where to look.

I look at Maria’s face every time I sit down at my desk, she’s the subject of one of her husband’s sketches that I’ve copied and pinned at eye level to keep me focused on the task at hand. But every now and then I pay her a visit too. Sometimes I take flowers but every time I stop for a moment to think of her, or at least the version of her that now lives in my book. It started as a focusing exercise, a way of grounding myself to the characters I’m writing but now I pop in if I’m passing Glasnevin cemetery. Her grave reminds me that I’m writing about real women, that even though I’m imagining their story their pain was real, their lives and deaths were real. This is the hinterland of fiction, with its ghosts and phantoms. I have to keep one foot in the real world and be respectful of the historical fact.

This weekend I brought two bunches of flowers. There was another grave I wanted to visit. Actually in Glasnevin there are a number of graves I’d like to place flowers on, just a gentle nod to say I’ve noticed, just an acknowledgement of their story, their passing, a nod of solidarity as one human being to another, a nod to say they are not forgotten. There’s the Millennium Plot, in the somewhat grim mass grave section, this is where they bury those who died alone. Who had no one to mark their passing, on the street, in a bedsit wherever. It’s all too easy to slip through the cracks in this world we live in now, just look at poor Joyce Vincent, subject of the 2011 film Dreams of a Life, who wasn’t discovered for three years after her death, the television still playing for her skeleton when she was found. It’s a very modern fear, that lonely forgotten death, even if it is nothing new.  We should all pay more attention to those around us. Maybe stopping at the Millennium Plot would remind us that.

But this weekend the extra flowers weren’t for them. Last week former presidential spouse Senator Martin McAleese’s report into the Magdalen Laundries was published. It got a rather mixed reception. While it did find beyond doubt was that the Irish State had indeed routinely sent women into the infamous Magdalen Laundries, it also took the word of the religious orders about the word of the women who had come forward to describe their experiences. Lets not forget that these laundries were the sweat shops that provided the grand hotels with nice starched linen, the crisp white tablecloths of State banquets, that kept wayward girls and women off the streets in the days when the female sex were viewed as dangerous and crushable. These were places where the courts sent female convicts, where families sent their rebellious women folk, the receptacle where the destitute and the desperate ended up, in some occasions sent there by those they had approached to help including, staggeringly, the Red Cross, The Simon Community and the Samaritans. Over the past seven days we have watched the Taoiseach stumble his way round a non-apology, the religious orders who ran the homes try to tell the women who had suffered under their care that they just hadn’t fully appreciated the experience in the spirit it was intended and the women who were there still waiting for proper recognition of what they’ve been through.

These workhouses were no different from the grim places of terror that haunted the Famine weakened. They were run with the same pious ruthlessness that calmly discussed in the 1840s how they could make a handy buck from the sale of the bodies piling up within their walls if they sold them to the anatomists. We think of workhouses as fossils, relics from an unrecognisably brutal time when life was cheap and brutal. But the Magdalen Laundries continued into the 20th Century. They continued past the formation of a new State, they continued until the last one closed it’s doors in the 1990s. You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats it’s weakest. What do these stories, and these, say about Ireland?

It’s not good enough to say that times were different. Times are always different from what passed before. This was a brutal thing done by religious orders who should have shown more compassion, a State that should have shown more concern for it’s citizens and a people that should have cared more about their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. Sadly the Magdalens aren’t an isolated tale of a section of society ill-treated by those who had a duty of care. We’ve already heard of the Industrial Schools, the Orphanages, the Asylums. modern Irish history is littered with the weak and vulnerable being treated like inconvenient rubbish by those who should have done better. We should at least have the honesty to say that if you didn’t decry the system you allowed it, you condoned it, you are just as liable. It’s easy to feel that it’s just all too much, that the constant revelations over the past couple of decades are threatening to overwhelm you in a wave of intolerable injustice. But you can’t turn away, not this time. When the decision was made to deal with the vulnerable by pushing them out of sight out of mind and turning a blind eye no one came out well. It’s a shame the whole country has to take their part in. It should never have happened, but it did. It should never happen again, but it will.

So that’s where I brought my bunch of flowers.

Flowers in front of the Magdalene memorial in Glasnevin Cemetary

 

This stone stands in the car park of Glasnevin Cemetery, commemorating nameless women whose sins went with them to the grave. It’s not the only Magdalen stone in the Graveyard. There are others and still more in graveyards around the country. Then there are the buildings were we locked away those that couldn’t look after themselves, or that didn’t fit in. None of it should be forgotten. This is a part of Ireland’s history that is still a part of our present. We need to remember the truth, the reality of what happened and why it happened and watch for that brutality and nip it in the bud. Maria’s grave helps keep my fiction rooted in fact. I’d like the other flowers to do something similar. I’ll keep leaving flowers and you never know it might catch on, perhaps one day it’ll be as big a trend as the padlocks that hang from the Ha’penny Bridge to honour teenage love. Something that will get people talking, asking questions and will keep the memory of all this stuff alive. It’s our duty to remember or it will keep happening because no lessons will ever be learnt.

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