Monday 30 June 2014

The Roots of the Tuam Revelations

           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 √Čamon 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.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Happy Birthday Nick Drake!

 A friend first pointed it out to me in the 70’s – an appreciation that appeared on the back page of the Village Voice every November.  Nothing fancy – just a plain “Nick Drake 1948-1974, thank you for the music.”

Back then very few people had even heard his name.  I had - through listening to John Peel play his incandescent songs on BBC Radio.  Still, I only possessed one of his albums, the debut, Five Leaves Left.  It’s funny, I can remember the cover so well – green bordered with a picture of a willowy young man looking out from an attic window.

I had to be in a certain mood to play it – besides there were times when you just wouldn’t want Nick in the room – especially if you thought someone with you wouldn’t appreciate him.  If it was someone you were romantically involved with – you especially thought twice about it - supposing they didn’t like Nick, then what?  One of them had to go and I well knew which one.  I can summon up that mood and a lot of other old feelings by just thinking of that album cover and the songs within.

Nick Drake’s music was enigmatic – deep and churning but deceptively calm on the surface.  It never seems to date, perhaps, because he captured a mood, rather than a time and place.

His other two albums, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon are no less enthralling.  They too evoke the same mood.  He died in 1974 – a failure, in his own eyes at any rate.  He is now best known in the US for a Volkswagen ad but you can hear his influence on a multitude of artists.  Many of them are attracted to his essence – none grasp it.  All three of his albums sold less than 5000 copies in his lifetime.  But obviously each person who bought one treasured it and the mood it identified; then passed on the word.  Incredibly, his three albums keep getting better with time.

The memorial in the Voice eventually stopped.  Did the admirer die, move on, move out of New York?  I watched the back page of the Voice for a couple of years and then I too moved on.  Just another New York oddity that I rarely give thought to, until Saturday mornings on Celtic Crush when I play Nick. 

It never seemed like morning music to me back in the day – I rarely listened to it before midnight.  But Nick Drake’s songs have become timeless and hourless – much like the man himself.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Brooklyn Jesuit Prep - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

            If there was an age of reason, and one of anxiety, few would argue that we are now enmeshed in an age of income inequality. Tomes have been filled with controversial solutions, and then there’s the old-fashioned way – changing lives one by solitary one – that’s what I witnessed in Brooklyn Jesuit Prep.

I had gone there at the behest of Fr. Vin Biagi, SJ who told me this small middle school in Crown Heights had almost gone under a year previously and needed a hand.

            The first thing that strikes you about BJP is the sense of calmness. There are only 37 boys and 42 girls in grades 6 through 8; but it’s more than that – the quiet purpose that ripples around the classrooms and down the polished corridors is almost palpable. 

All students are African-American, Caribbean-American or Hispanic – groups that often have trouble graduating from high school, are chronically under-employed and thus destined to linger on the lower rungs of the income ladder. Yet each of these 79 students at BJP is a star on the rise.

These kids are not skimmed from the top academic or intellectual percentiles; what they do have in common is that 87% qualify for the Federal Free Lunch Program – the average family income is $27,600. The belief at BJP is that all children deserve an opportunity to fulfill their potential.

You hear echoes in the classrooms of St. Ignatius and the Berrigan Brothers – Fathers Dan and Phil - all curried by a dash of the Catholic activism of Dorothy Day; but the prime influence is a belief in the magic of the written word to transform young lives by allowing them to dream and imagine.

It’s not that you won’t see computers but BJP recognizes that these are mere tools for learning, and that content is key. Not only are books at the core of the curriculum but each student is encouraged to regularly read one of their own choosing and time is provided each busy day for this private pursuit.

Parents are asked to pay $75 a month for ten months of the year along with an extra $200 that sends a kid on a leadership course to Fairfield University for the month of July. There they take classes in the morning while the rest of the day is devoted to outdoors activities. Video games are left at home while cell phones are returned to students on two evenings a week – but only for family calls.

The principal, Brian Chap, is quiet, intense and self-effacing. You can tell that when urban disorder roils his students’ lives, he is a rock of support. It often takes a couple of years to get students up to grade level but all BJP kids go on to post-secondary education and are often the catalyst in breaking the unrelenting cycle of poverty that afflicts so many local families.

Patricia Gauvey, was a volunteer librarian, who became unpaid president of BJP last year when it seemed as if the school would go under. She’s tireless, voluble and irrepressible, and has that unique drive and fortitude of the ex-nun who refuses to admit defeat.

BJP survived and thrived this year, and has just about enough bucks to reopen again in the fall. The board is very supportive and the school has many well-wishers, but this miracle in Crown Heights can use your help.

Maybe you can sponsor a kid, or expand their world for a summer month in Fairfield University; or perhaps you can donate $75 to help a cash-strapped parent with a month’s tuition.

Even better go out to BJP where you will meet Kwesi, a most impressive 8th grader whose dream came true when recently accepted to Xavier High School.  Or have a word with Brianni who will melt your heart when she tells you, “I can’t explain how much I love this school.”

That’s not surprising when you consider that BJP tracks each graduate through high school and college and steps in with financial and other support when needed.

A very special tree is growing in Crown Heights. Its roots are transforming many lives. In this age of grinding income inequality, Brooklyn Jesuit Prep is making a difference. You can too!  560 Sterling Place, Brooklyn, NY  11238  718-638-5884