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The Ideal and the real in Modern Irish History

The Ideal and the Real in Irish History      Gerry OShea

 Every country has a story told by its own citizens that marks it as different, setting it apart in some way from other places, usually highlighting positive aspects of the country’s culture or geography or tradition.

For the first sixty years or so after independence in 1922, the Irish story promulgated by church and state was that the country had emerged from hundreds of years of abuse and denigration by a foreign  power, but now that the Irish had their freedom the real character of the population emerged – noble and religious people, living a simple but wholesome lifestyle, very different from the pagan country next door.

Eamonn De Valera, who was prime minister for about half of the years we are talking about, added to this positive image of Irish life when he engaged in some idyllic imaginings in 1943, praising the image of “comely maidens dancing on the village green.”

Frank Duff the founder and driving force behind the Legion of Mary, a strong evangelical group of committed Catholics whose influence extended to almost every parish in Ireland and is still an important part of some dioceses in more than 170 countries.

One of their main charitable works involves pairs of Legion members visiting families at home to provide pastoral and prayerful advice from a Catholic perspective.

In these visitations in Dublin they found many households living in terrible conditions. They were shocked to discover widespread prostitution – especially in an area north of the city called Monto - involving poor women who were trapped in communities that offered few prospects for betterment.

 Duff was alarmed by the extent of the suffering in these areas where the lack of financial means went hand in hand with unemployment, physical maltreatment of women and alcohol abuse. Not surprisingly, he discovered hundreds of young women making a few pounds by walking the streets enticingly in more prosperous parts of the city.

He approved a long, written probe of life in Monto for the widely-read Legion monthly publication called Maria Legionis, a magazine that is still a staple in some Catholic homes worldwide. He stressed that the main purpose of this literary expose centered on demanding that the political leaders deal with the many poor and abandoned communities in Dublin.

 Archbishop McQuaid, who headed up the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin and was acknowledged as the most powerful man in Ireland in those years, heard about the Legion project and gave instructions that the Monto article was not to be published.

Duff, a profoundly devout man, argued vehemently that he had a moral obligation to reveal the sad plight of these poor women prostitutes eking out a living as best they could in the sub-standard conditions that prevailed in the many tenement dwellings around Dublin. McQuaid waved the finger of total power and inevitably Duff and Maria Legionis did not run the article.

For the indomitable church leader in the capital, the image of holy Catholic Ireland had to be preserved. That was the story that must be told to visitors and indeed among the local people as well. There was no place for sordid tales about prostitution in the back lanes of his city that would seriously blemish the myth of universal Irish purity.

The treatment of boys in more than fifty so-called industrial schools located in all parts of Ireland provides another horrifying example of covering up serious maltreatment of children by various orders of priests and Brothers. The Ryan Commission sat for ten years looking at relevant documentation and hearing from some of the victims before publishing a final, damning report about this shameful matter in 2009.

 The catalogue of credible allegations of abuse in these schools included frequent beatings and rapes, subjection of boys to naked punishment in public, children forced into oral sex, and extra harsh treatment for boys after failed rape attempts by Brothers.

Keats’ words in Ode to a Nightingale come to mind in contemplating this pandemic of vice and misery perpetrated by clerics wearing Roman collars: Here where men sit and hear each other groan  --- where youth grows specter thin and dies,  where but to think is to be full of sorrow.

 This behavior suffered by the most vulnerable children in society, by young people stripped of all power and with no adult in their corner is the most sickening part of the voluminous Ryan Report – and, along with similar treatment of young women by nuns in Magdalen “homes,” is surely the saddest narrative of modern Irish history.

How was this allowed to go on for so many years? How could the Irish Christian Brothers and other orders as well allow an epidemic of such corrupt and blatantly unchristian behavior? How could the political leaders totally disregard the solemn commitment in the 1916 Proclamation to cherish all the children of the nation equally? How hollow are the claims of a noble and high-minded Irish culture?

In the early 1930’s, the Carrigan Committee comprising representatives of the elite of church and state was appointed with a similar remit to the Ryan Commission, to examine the treatment of children in Ireland back then. They were especially worried about young boys engaging in paid sexual activity in the streets of Dublin, Cork and other big population centers.

 Their research revealed major problems that cried out for radical changes in the treatment of minors, including in industrial schools.

However, the report which is now easily available in the National Archives of Ireland, was suppressed because the leaders at the time felt that the fragile, fledgling state could not deal with the truth about the extent of child abuse in the country and, especially the molestation by representatives of the Catholic Church.

They believed that publishing this information would completely undermine the mythology of noble behavior and aspirations that underpinned the new state in those vulnerable times nearly a hundred years ago.

Their reasoning in the context of Irish culture in the 1930’s was understandable but very mistaken. It allowed the horrific abuse of the most vulnerable children to remain hidden and thus continue for another forty years. Suppressing the Carrigan Report gave the green light to the clerical abusers and put off the day of full reckoning until the Ryan investigation.

Justice was delayed in the name of promoting the myth of Irish perfection that the leaders at that time chose to protect.


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