Evening Echo column: Is it the last days of Holy Catholic Ireland?

Donal O’Keeffe reflects on how many began to decide that they were better qualified to judge morality than their Church was.

It’s odd to realise that what you thought of as current affairs is now history. I recently tweeted about the Kerry Babies case of 1984. I soon discovered that a lot of people had never heard of the Kerry Babies.

Those were extraordinary times, the beginning of the last days of Holy Catholic Ireland. It didn’t seem it then, a year since the “pro-life” movement had forced supine politicians, and citizens too, to enshrine in our Constitution the disastrous 8th amendment which, as Mary Robinson predicted, accidentally caused the limited introduction of abortion in Ireland.

Legalised abortion was never on our agenda, certainly not in the early 1980’s, but with the spectres of contraception, divorce and homosexuality looming, our Catholic fundamentalists saw an open goal. This was their show of strength, their bulwark against the liberal onslaught.

The frantic men and women with plastic rosary beads and placards of aborted foetuses were triumphant but this was to be the last year (please God) that Ireland’s crawthumpers would truly be in command.

The 1984 Kerry Babies story was astonishing even for those of us alive when Ireland was a lot more a dark version of Craggy Island than it is now. A baby was found, stabbed to death, on White Strand, Cahirciveen on the April 14 1984. The Gardaí and DPP decided a distressed young woman whose own baby had died was the murderer.

Following lengthy interrogations, she and her family gave elaborately-detailed confessions to events which they later retracted and denied the contents of. Those confessions raised such concerns that they led to a tribunal of investigation.

This wasn’t the only grotesque tragedy Ireland saw that year.

A girl called Ann Lovett died after giving birth at a grotto to the Blessed Virgin. Kind and decent people took to the airwaves, horrified by what was happening in their country. Months later, similar statues to the one which watched Ann Lovett’s death would be the focus of national religious hysteria. Rosary rallies the length and breadth of the country venerated “moving” statues, flickered by neon bulbs and haunted by moths.

God love us.

The past wouldn’t 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 later, the 15th Amendment would be passed by the slimmest of majorities.)

The future was 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 to have fathered a child in the US. The story went off like a bomb and it was a body blow to the Irish Catholic Church’s authority.

1992 was the year too 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.

1993 saw homosexuality decriminalised in Ireland, thanks in no small way to the work of David Norris. The upcoming referendum on marriage equality will be divisive and its result is far from a foregone conclusion but look how far we’ve come in 21 years.

In 1994, mishandling of the extradition of the paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth brought down the Fianna Fáil/Labour government. Smyth’s monstrosity and the sheer scale of the Church’s cover-up of his evil would prove the last straw for many Ioyal and decent Catholics. For those who decided to stay Catholic, Smyth represented the point at which many began to decide that they were better qualified to judge morality than their Church was.

Friends born since these events sometimes say they see little of relevance in events which happened before or during their childhoods. Perhaps one needs to have lived through modern Irish history to understand or appreciate its relevance to the Ireland of today.

Perhaps history is, as James Joyce said, “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. Or maybe youth is wasted on the wrong people. Maybe Elvis Costello was right, too: “I am the genuine thing, but to you it’s just history.”

A final thought. I called 1992 a turning point. That November, a woman called Christine Buckley spoke on Gay Byrne’s radio show about the abuse she suffered while growing up in Dublin’s Goldenbridge Industrial School. She would, by sheer force of will, literally change the course of Irish history.

She was laid to rest on March 13 and the congregation, including President Higgins and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, heard that Christine Buckley’s legacy is not that abuse victims are now listened to, but that they are believed.

(This first appeared in the Evening Echo, March 27th, 2014.)

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