We’re all to blame for the neglect and deprivation uncovered in St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home run by the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam. All of us, that is, of a certain age who grew up in Ireland.
We didn’t know the details but we lived in a society where such things were possible. That’s what happens when you give up your intellectual or spiritual freedom to an ideology, a dictatorship or a religion.
Is this another attack on Catholicism? Far from it! My uncle was a Columban father, I was a Franciscan altar boy, and I was quite happy in the cozy surety of Catholicism until I came of an age where I began to ask difficult questions. The only answer I ever received was that faith provides all answers.
Still I’ve always had a huge respect and affection for the many religious people who give up so much to help others; the ones who right now must feel real anguish over the Tuam revelations.
The root of our shame comes from two sources: history and a refusal of the Catholic Church in Ireland to deal with human sexuality. It often strikes me as ironic that the Irish people have been afflicted with two branches of Christianity very unsuited to our earthy native character – Jansenist Catholicism and mordant Calvinism.
Both have problems dealing with human sexuality and the physiological issues that inevitably arise at the onset of puberty. Sex was considered “dirty” in the Ireland I grew up in - there was absolutely no discussion of it, except in the sniggering schoolyard. You can be sure that the unfortunate pregnant girls who ended up in these Mother and Baby convents had little idea of the nature of sexuality, let alone its mechanics.
They were banished and segregated because Irish society and the Catholic religion of the time regarded them as shameful.
How did the church get such power? It began with the Great Hunger of the late 1840’s. With 8 million people and a church still reeling from the Penal Laws Catholicism had only nominal control of the country until then. After the cataclysm the survivors were shell shocked – their god had deserted them. A vacuum existed and a patriarchal celibate power structure stepped in and helped renew a devastated civil society – but at a cost.
With the establishment of Maynooth, the Catholic Church and the British government cemented their uneasy alliance. That took care of the difficult Protestant, Charles Stewart Parnell and his unconventional relationship with Katherine O’Shea.
Fast-forward to the children of the striking workers of 1913 who were kept at home in near starvation rather than being sent to the refuge of Protestant English homes.
The brutal Civil War wiped out people like Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows who might have led Ireland into a healthier secular society.
We were left with the Cosgraves and Costellos who never saw a bishop’s ring they didn’t wish to kiss And, of course, the Machiavellian Éamon de Valera who allowed his friend, Dr. John Charles McQuaid, President of Blackrock College, to ghost-write the Irish Constitution of 1937.
Later as Archbishop of Dublin, the same Dr. McQuaid sabotaged Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Act that would have reduced the sky-high Irish infant mortality rate of the 1950’s.
That’s what we grew up under - a Catholic theocracy in an impoverished state. There were few voices raised. My father, an atheistic seaman, once said to me, “What’s the point? They run the show. Just get on with your life.”
And that’s what we did. There was no contraception, no facts of life explained. Girls who got pregnant either took the boat to England or disappeared behind convent walls. Ask no questions, life goes on! There were more pressing matters – like making a living in a stagnant economy where it didn’t matter what you knew, but who you knew.
And now the gruesome truth is out – and you can be sure more is on the way. And awful though these depressing revelations are they’re still for the best, for they will finally allow the Irish people to celebrate their religion as free thinking individuals and not the beaten passive people we once were.