May 24, 2009
By Tom McGurk
In the closing months of World War II, as the Allied and Soviet armies pushed towards Berlin, driving the defeated German armies before them, they began to discover the Nazi concentration camps. These varied from work camps to extermination camps, and what they found there changed the way we view our civilisation.
Even battle-hardened soldiers who had fought their way across Europe were staggered by what they saw. Almost immediately, the liberators felt a compelling need to tell the story, so that what they had witnessed would not be treated as just more war propaganda.
They filmed the dreadful scenes, and those terrible images, mostly in black and white, remain forever as a testament to what evil fanaticism and intolerance could engender even in a cultured European state. But the liberators did something else too.
They rounded up the German people from villages and towns and brought them into the camps to see what their country had done. It became, perhaps, the defining moment in 20th century German history. Afterwards, the essential truth about the wickedness of Nazism could never seriously be challenged.
What it achieved was to establish the importance of bearing witness, and the supremacy of truth. Forever after, the testimony of the survivors could neither be disputed nor undermined. The scale of the brutality and inhumanity in concentration camps cannot, of course, be compared to what was uncovered last week in the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which was chaired Mr Justice Sean Ryan.
But there is one important link: just as the death camps’ neighbours saw for themselves in 1945 what had been going on inside the often huge compounds, the report in 2009 has allowed all of us to see for ourselves what our society inflicted on the children of the nation. How can it not have changed our perceptions of this state since independence?
Our social history may require rewriting.
We knew these institutions were grim places and those who, for example, were day pupils in Christian Brothers’ schools were well aware of the rough justice they resorted to daily in plain sight. The reality of child abuse inside the walls of industrial schools and other institutions has been known for many years, but the Ryan Report has revealed organised degradation and misery on a scale hardly imaginable - a gulag of suffering.
The statistics alone are extraordinary. For more than 60 years, some 8,000 religious were involved in the maltreatment of 35,000 children in 261 institutions with - in the end - nearly 1,500 former inmates making the most serious allegations.
The small print of this story is compelling: the ritual humiliations, the beatings, the hunger, the cold and the lice, the forced slave labour and failed educational attempts, the organised bullying, the contempt and the endless psychological brutalising, the persistent beating and sexual abuse.
Ryan catalogues a horror story that feels like it belongs to the dark ages. Is this the Ireland we shared?
But what is also compelling is the total failure of all the institutions of state and society to reach out to end this misery. This includes the doctors, judges, policemen, teachers, priests, solicitors, civil servants and others who, down the years, facilitated and chose meekly to follow the system unquestioningly. And what of the contempt Irish society had for these children whose common connection was essentially their poverty? Magdalene Institute for girls
Ryan has exposed, as never before, the deep class hatred of working people and the rural poor that permeated the state, the government and its agencies, as well as the Catholic Church down the years.
If post-independence Ireland unleashed a social-climbing competition, institutionalised children seem to have functioned for some as the lowest step on the ladder. These little ones were to be hated, apparently, because they had committed the new crime of having nothing. Class prejudice, and the deep dysfunctionality of the post-colonial era when the Catholic Church took over as the dominant establishment, sealed their fate.
These children were the flotsam and jetsam of societal failure in the state’s first half century - the generations of emigration and unemployment, the crisis of alcohol abuse and homelessness. To be poor or illegitimate, as it was called, or an orphan, or abandoned, was somehow seen as a crime by those whose job it was to care for these children. Adopting behaviour that would not have been out of place in the pages of Dickens, they never ceased to remind their victims of it.
If you try to analyse the punishments these regimes inflicted, or to probe the brutality for logic, it all seems underscored with some bizarre interpretation of Catholic social teaching: physical punishment and then prayer, notions of evil and badness and, in the swinging straps and fists, some grotesque concept of original sin.
Underpinning it all, as Ryan shows, was the contempt and hatred these religious had for the children in their care.
What was that about? What was it in the state of these children that so exercised the fury and brutality of their religious minders? Why did they despise them so much? Was it because they were poor, orphaned, unwanted, abandoned?
And who were these young Irish men and women who operated this terrible regime? In some ways, they too were products of the same system as their victims. Many of the brothers and some of the nuns were poor and poorly educated. They came from working or lower middle classes and most were recruited as immature and impressionable boys and girls.
In an age of poverty and unemployment, the religious orders offered a job, food and a bed for life, and it offered status they could never have achieved otherwise.
Once such young people became part of the religious system, they sensed an immunity from the laws that bound others and felt they belonged to a superior sacerdotal caste. It’s time we admitted it - the mindset, with its narrow focus on sin and punishment was that of an Irish Taliban.
In his poem Bye, Child, Seamus Heaney remembers the ‘‘little henhouse boy’’ who was locked away for years in the garden by his ashamed mother. The closing lines are redolent of the commission’s report:
But now you speak at last. With a remote mime of something beyond patience, Your gaping wordless proof of Lunar distances Travelled beyond love.
Records of abuse - female witnesses
Ryan report - male witnesses