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.)

Cherishing all the children, one unmarked grave at a time

Image

Image

Irish Mail on Sunday, 25th of May 2014

“Cherish all the children equally” is a defining Irish shibboleth, enshrined in Ireland’s Proclamation of Independence. It is one of our highest aspirations and, like most of the things we Irish hold dearest, it is build on a solid foundation of utter hypocrisy.

Cherish all the children? By all available evidence, we Irish don’t even like children. I’ve written about this before and I’m sure I will again. Ireland really is no country for small children.

The Irish Mail on Sunday reports that up to eight hundred children may be buried in an unmarked mass grave in Tuam, Co Galway, on the former grounds of an institution known locally as “The Home”. (Local knowledge says that there is no “may” about this.) Run by the Bon Secours nuns, “The Home”, which had previously been a workhouse, operated between 1926 and 1961 and over the years housed thousands of unmarried mothers and their “illegitimate” children.

Alison O’Reilly reports in the Mail that the causes of death for “as many as 796 children” included “malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia”. The children, some as small as babies, were interred, without the benefit of a coffin, in what is described as “a concrete tank” and “a water tank”. It would only be marginally more disrespectful to those poor kids if their bodies had been dumped in what I first suspected it was, namely a septic tank.

In 2014, a housing estate covers the land. There are real homes there now, proper homes where families live and children play. I hope it’s a happy place.

Expect to see the usual contortionist contextualising from the Irish Catholic and the Iona “Institute” as the Defenders of the Faith trot out their well-practised “few bad apples” lines. “The vast majority of Catholic institutions did great good for Irish children,” they’ll tell us if this ever makes it to Prime Time. They’ll wring their hands and drip sweet insincerity that times were different then and nobody knew how bad it was, as they are again “silenced” in their weekly columns in the Irish Times and the Irish Independent but the simple truth is they’ll be lying.

We knew. We just didn’t care.

In 1946 the internationally-acclaimed hero of “Boys Town”, Roscommon-born Father Edward Flanagan, visited the land of his birth. Flanagan, who had become a reluctant celebrity since the 1938 smash hit film starring Spencer Tracey immortalised him, had founded Boys Town in 1917 as a centre of education and shelter for poor and neglected boys in Omaha, Nebraska. His philosophy was built around a simple and powerful belief: “There is no such thing as a bad boy”.

father_flanagan

Father Edward Flanagan with some of the boys of Boys Town

There were no fences around Boys Town because Father Flanagan said “This is a home. You do not wall in members of your own family.” Flanagan treated the boys in his care with compassion and respect and his kindness showed such success that he became known as “the world’s foremost expert on boys’ training and youth care.”

Father Flanagan was horrified by what he saw here, denouncing Ireland’s treatment of children in Church and State care as “a scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong”.

Flanagan told a public gathering in Cork’s Savoy Cinema: “You are the people who permit your children and the children of your communities to go into these institutions of punishment. You can do something about it.” Calling Ireland’s penal institutions “a disgrace to the nation,” he said “I do not believe that a child can be reformed by lock and key and bars, or that fear can ever develop a child’s character.”

Nobody listened. The then Minister for Justice, Gerald Boland, dismissed in the Dáil Father Flanagan’s reports of children beaten with “the cat o’ nine tails, the rod, and the fist”.

“I was not disposed to take any notice of what Monsignor Flanagan said while he was in this country,” Boland told the House, “because his statements were so exaggerated that I did not think people would attach any importance to them.”

Nobody listened.

But we’ve changed now, seventy years later, of course. We’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and we really do cherish all the children now, don’t we?

Well, we’ve just had the European and Local Elections and turnout was high, by our standards, as 57% of the electorate went to the polls to administer to the Government a well-earned kick in the arse. Compare that to the turnout for the Children’s Rights Referendum of 2012. For all our guff about cherishing children and for all our crocodile tears, when we were offered the chance to enshrine in the Constitution the rights of children, only 33.5% of us could be bothered to vote.

That says it all.

Back home in the US, Father Flanagan addressed his Irish countrymen and women:

“What you need over there is to have someone shake you loose from your smugness and satisfaction and set an example by punishing those who are guilty of cruelty, ignorance and neglect of their duties in high places . . . I wonder what God’s judgment will be with reference to those who hold the deposit of faith and who fail in their God-given stewardship of little children.”

Donal O’Keeffe.

Postscript. The Journal has picked up on the story. I was wrong. It was a septic tank. The Bon Secours nuns, the brides of Christ, dumped the bodies of 800 children, who died in their so-called care, in a septic tank.

Wednesday 28th of May 2014: Many thanks to Philip Boucher-Hayes, who featured the story of the Tuam babies on Liveline. Listen here.

A clear picture emerges. Mothers incarcerated until they signed over their babies, healthy children sold to wealthy Americans and disabled infants abandoned in “Dying Rooms”, their bodies dumped in a septic tank.

To quote Bob Dylan, “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do”.

Saturday 31st May 2014: My column in thejournal.ie: “Mass grave ‘filled to the brim with tiny bones and skulls’ shows how we cherish children

Breda O’Brien and the Singing Priests

turner-singing-priests

 

Breda O’Brien, with characteristic tone-deafness, seems very upset that more people are not upset at Martyn Turner’s “singing priests” cartoon. She bemoans “the satire of ‘singing priests’, given the best-known singing priests are humble men who raise phenomenal amounts of money for charity.”

Really? Without in any way questioning the good faith of “singing priests” as a whole, I would like to point out to Ms O’Brien that for people who follow the news and who might worry more about the safety of children and less about the reputation of their religion, by far the best-known “singing priest” is the Elvis impersonator Father Tony Walsh.

In December 2010, Father Walsh was sentenced to a total of 123 years in prison for child abuse. In reality, he is serving those sentences concurrently and could be out in ten years’ time. Following Walsh’s sentencing, the previously-withheld Chapter 19 of the Murphy Report was published. Its introduction read: “Fr Tony Walsh is probably the most notorious child sexual abuser to have come to the attention of the Commission… His pattern of behaviour is such that it is likely that he has abused hundreds of children.”

A psychiatrist who treated Walsh in 1988 warned “Tony Walsh is extremely compulsive – there have been an awful lot of children involved. He is a very disturbed man. He is always going to be dangerous. He could not be let near schools, children, Confession without a grille…”

In 2012, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin apologised to the victims of the “singing priest”. “The Archdiocese of Dublin failed these children,” he said. “It was too slow in recognising that Tony Walsh was a predatory paedophile.

“I can only unreservedly apologise to the victims of this man for what they endured and for the way in which the diocese failed them.”

On the issue of the seal of the Confessional, Ms O’Brien goes on to say that “The Samaritans have a similar commitment to never revealing anything their callers talk about, but no one pillories them.”

I’m open to correction on this, but I’m pretty sure that the Samaritans never covered up or facilitated wholesale child abuse by members of the Samaritans.

Donal O’Keeffe

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.