Ireland, since 1984: “But to you it’s just history”

Sometimes I feel very old. Which I personally think isn’t very fair, mainly because on the inside I usually think I’m about 28 or so. But that said, there’s no escaping the fact that on the outside I’m very much not. And, if I’m honest, I’m getting less 28 on the inside by the day too.

Anyway. What’s put me thinking this way was Vincent Browne’s Irish Times column on the Garda Whistleblowers saga a while back. There has been, Browne wrote, (and it’s worth reading), “a history of malpractice and persistent abuse of legal powers given to An Garda Síochána, abuse aided by some Garda commissioners and ministers for justice who seemed, at times, to have wilfully ignored clear evidence. It was aided further by a cynical media, eager to retain ‘inside lines’ to Garda tip-offs, and aided also, at times, by a compliant judiciary”.

Of course, what got to me was Vincent’s line “Older readers will no doubt recall the Kerry Babies case of 1984–” I tweeted the link with that remark, adding the jokey comment “writes Vincent Browne depressingly” and soon discovered that a lot of people who are not perhaps “older readers” had either not heard of the Kerry Babies story at all or only knew of it peripherally. It’s something that happens to everyone, I should imagine, when you realise suddenly that what you remember as current affairs is now filed under “History”. But 1984 was thirty years ago, even if its events are still relevant in the Ireland of 2014.

Those were extraordinary times, and I think in many ways the beginning of the last days of Holy Catholic Ireland. It didn’t seem it then, though. It had been only a year since the “pro-life” movement had forced supine politicians, yes and citizens too, to enshrine in our Constitution the disastrously simplistic 8th amendment which, as Mary Robinson had predicted at the time, accidentally resulted, three decades later, in the limited legalisation of abortion in Ireland.

Our right-wing Catholic conservatives had decided that, with the spectres of contraception, divorce and, God help us, homosexuality looming, they needed a big win and they needed it fast. Abortion was never likely to be legalised in Ireland, certainly not in the early 1980’s, but as far as our Catholic fundamentalists were concerned, abortion was an open goal. This was to be their show of strength, their bulwark against the onslaught of liberalism. The frantic men and women with their plastic rosary beads and placards of aborted foetuses were triumphant and it seemed the Ireland of John Charles McQuaid was again in the ascendant but, regardless of appearances, this was to be the last year (please God) that Ireland’s crawthumpers would truly to be in command.

Again, it didn’t seem so at the time and Ireland would remain for a long time a very strange and sinister place.

1984 dawned but Eric Blair would hardly have imagined what happened next. The Kerry Babies story was quite astonishing, even then, even for those of us who were alive at a time when Ireland was a lot more like a dark version of Craggy Island than it is now. A baby was found, stabbed to death, on White Strand, Cahirciveen, Co Kerry on the 14th of April 1984. The resultant Garda investigation and prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that a distressed young woman whose own baby, a different baby as it turned out, had died, was the murderer.

Following lengthy interrogations by the hard men in the Murder Squad, the suspect and her family gave elaborately detailed confessions to events which, it turned out, had never actually happened.  Those confessions were proven to be so flawed that they led to a tribunal of investigation, which was itself, to be frank, quite farcical. Here’s your primer, courtesy of those good folks at Wikipedia. I would really recommend that you read Gene Kerrigan’s superb account of the story here.

The Kerry Babies incident was not the only grotesque tragedy which Ireland would see in this year, or which would highlight so clearly that the old order was about to change. A young girl called Ann Lovett died that year, after giving birth at a grotto to the Blessed Virgin. Gay Byrne and Marian Finucane all-but invented social media in Ireland then, with RTÉ Radio giving voice to kind, decent and horrified Irish (and mostly Catholic) people appalled by what was happening in their country. Coincidentally, only months later, similar statues to the one which blankly watched Ann Lovett bleed out in a field would be the focus of a national religious hysteria. Rosary rallies occurred the length and breadth of the country to venerate “moving” statues, crudely-painted concrete idols illuminated by neon bulbs and haunted by moths. God love us.

The past would not surrender its grip on Ireland too easily. In 1985, Garret FitzGerald‘s “constitutional crusade” suffered a severe set-back when the first divorce referendum was rejected by a margin of 63.5%. (Ten years after that, the 15th Amendment would eventually be passed but only by the slimmest of majorities. Just to be contrarian, I will note that you never hear Irish liberals moaning about that particular referendum do-over.)

The future might have been knocking on Ireland’s door, but it was to be a long time until the turning point of 1992, when the hugely popular Bishop Eamon Casey was revealed by the Irish Times to have fathered a child over in Amerikay. We are used now to Father Ted’s Bishop Brennan and “How’s the son?” “He means the Son of God, Your Grace” but at the time the story went off like a bomb.

Casey’s media profile was probably only rivalled by that of Fr Michael Cleary, a man who, as it turned out, himself harboured a similar secret. Casey’s exposure as a man who had fathered a child and who had misappropriated funds to finance that child’s upbringing (“That money was merely resting in my account!”) served as a body blow to the Irish Catholic Church’s iron-clad authority.

1992 was the same year that the X-Case convulsed the country. A 14 year old girl, raped and impregnated by her neighbour, was effectively imprisoned in Ireland, lest she travel to Britain for an abortion. I will take to my grave the memory of the Martyn Turner cartoon which so perfectly encapsulated a national tragedy and a particularly Irish scandal. I was on a date that day and all we spoke about was this story. I imagine that younger readers will picture a scene from “Quirke” now.. x case Much more would happen in 1992, and I’ll come to that in a moment, but from this distance, from here in the future, dates and times tend to blur but mood is in some ways easier to evoke and that was the year, to my recollection, that the atmosphere in Ireland began to change.

1993 saw homosexuality finally decriminalised in Ireland and when Senator David Norris goes to his grave (hopefully sometime in the 22nd century) his life’s work will be celebrated as that of an Irish patriot who, for all his human failings, changed his country permanently and for the better. The upcoming referendum on marriage equality will be incredibly divisive and its result is far from a foregone conclusion but still. Look how far we’ve come in twenty-one years.

In 1994, the Irish government’s mishandling of the extradition of the paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth brought down the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition government. Smyth’s monstrosity and the sheer scale of the Church’s cover-up of his evil, when finally it came to light, was to prove the last straw for many Ioyal and decent Catholics. Even for those who decided to stay with their Church, Brendan Smyth represented a clear break and a point at which Irish Catholics began to decide that they were better qualified to judge morality than their Church was.

I sometimes hear friends who were born since these events say that they see little of relevance in events which happened before or during their childhoods. Most recently, when a friend who is a scientist at Oxford University and who really is 28 said that to me on Facebook, another friend, a journalist who is more a contemporary of mine, commented that perhaps one needs to have lived through modern Irish history to understand or appreciate its relevance to the Ireland of today.

And maybe that’s fair enough. Maybe many think of history, perhaps even recent history, as Stephen Dedalus did, “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. Or maybe youth is wasted on the wrong people. And maybe Elvis Costello was right, too. “Well I am the genuine thing,” sang Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus in ‘Pony Street‘, “But to you it’s just history.”

Donal O’Keeffe

One postscript. I mentioned 1992 being a turning point. In November of that year, a woman called Christine Buckley spoke to Gay Byrne on his radio show about her experience of abuse while growing up in Dublin’s Goldenbridge Industrial School. This was not the last that Ireland would hear from a woman who, by sheer force of will, would literally change the course of Irish history. She was laid to rest on Thursday the 13th of March 2014 and the funeral congregation, which included President Michael D. Higgins and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, heard that Christine Buckley’s legacy is not just that the victims of abuse are now listened to, but that they are believed.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.