Romantic Ireland's well and truly dead and gone

  • Niall Hunter, Editor

What need you, being come to sense,

But fumble in a greasy till,

And add the halfpence to the pence

And prayer to shivering prayer, until

You have dried the marrow from the bone?

For men were born to pray and save

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone…

(September 1913 - William Butler Yeats)

We have again been forced to come to terms with yet another depressing delineation of our shameful dysfunctionality as a State and a society since our glorious independence 87 years ago.

One of the conclusions of Judge Yvonne Murphy’s damning report could easily be applied to many of the other scandals that have emerged in Irish life in recent decades.

The Dublin Archdiocese, we are told, in neglecting to do anything effective about, and it could be argued, practically encouraging clerical sex abuse, was preoccupied with: “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church and the preservation of its assets.”

In this neglect it was aided and abetted by the neglect and moral cowardice of the usual suspects, the State authorities.

Yeats’ poem shed some prescient light on the new Irish ruling oligarchy emerging at the time, focusing in this instance on the rising and grasping merchant class.

Our homegrown oligarchy has been dominated by an authoritarian Catholic Church, aided and abetted by the higher professional, merchant and political classes, with all these groups interlocked and interwoven in a chain of power and influence over all aspects of people’s daily lives.

Many members of this power elite have been allowed to act with impunity in feathering their nests, exercising disproportionate power, and ignoring gross abuses of this power, all the while lecturing us lesser mortals on our duties and responsibilities.

Yes, all countries have oligarchies of one sort or another, but in very few democracies has this exercise of power had such widespread and tragic consequences as we have seen in our tarnished emerald isle.

The hypocrisy and malfeasance continued through the apparently more enlightened times from the 1960s onwards. Yeats could indeed in 1913, have been providing a pen portrait of the banking classes in 2009 which would not be entirely dissimilar from the “robber barons” of his day.

However, the most extreme manifestation of this misuse of power in Irish society has been abuse and in some cases torture, of children, either in institutions or in priests' everyday “pastoral” work.

Ireland’s confessional, authoritarian State structure in the 20th century is sometimes compared to the rule of Salazar in Portugal or Franco in Spain.

This argument is often countered by those who point out that we were, unlike these regimes, a democracy, and we didn’t torture or incarcerate those we wanted put out of the way or deny freedom of speech.

Well, for torture and incarceration, how about the State incarcerating children in institutions and allowing them to be abused physically and sexually, in addition to allowing others to abuse children outside these hellholes?

As regards democracy, how about newly-elected Taoisigh and Ministers in the 1940s pledging fealty and loyalty to the Catholic hierarchy, with all the problems that type of spinelessness caused?

Or more recently, how about the Government doing a deal with Catholic religious orders limiting the amount of compensation they would have to pay out for child abuse in institutions?

As for freedom of speech, how about strict censorship or banning of practically all literature until relatively recently?

Here are some “highlights" of our flawed democracy over the past 60 years or so. Some of these examples are quite recent:

*Physical and sexual child abuse by religious and others within and outside institutions, much of which was covered up and ignored by the Church and State authorities.

*Abuse and unnecessary damage to patients, usually women, in hospitals, many of them religious-run, followed by cover-ups.

*Until relatively recently, a level of censorship akin to that of your average fascist dictatorship.

*The Kerry Babies and Ann Lovett cases.

*The scuppering of the Mother and Child Scheme at the behest of the hierarchy.

*Retention of deceased child patients’ organs without permission. This, while not on a scale with other scandals, was typical of the arrogance of the healthcare oligarchy at the time.

*Anachronistic, long-running bans on contraception and divorce.

*Political corruption/ banking incompetence and malfeasance followed by the usual cover-ups.

*Persistent failures to deal with the social and healthcare problems caused by poverty in our society. This is obviously not helped by the fact that the State cannot anymore allow poor children to be kept out of sight in institutions.

*Certain procedures/treatments, eg sterilisation, amniocentesis, not permitted in Catholic hospitals.

*Inequity in our healthcare system, which unfortunately, didn't stop in the 1970s.

*A culture of secrecy about pretty much everything, which prevails to this day.

Among many stomach-churning passages in the Murphy report is an account of how Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, a figure who would not have been too out of place at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, did nothing about one of two priest chaplains who abused child patients at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin. In the 1960s and 1970s.

This particular priest took photos of the private parts of children. Mc Quaid knew about all of this, but callously did nothing, thereby putting further patients at risk.

Amazingly, or perhaps not so, many used to tremble in the presence of such moral giants as “The Most Reverend John C McQuaid DD, Lord Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland” and his ilk. Tellingly, McQuaid was Chairman of Crumlin Hospital at the time, and the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin continues to be chairman of this hospital.

While the decency of the current incumbent in the Archbishopric cannot be denied, surely the time has now come to end the remaining vestiges of the power the Church exercises over publicly-funded healthcare and education.

Surely any remaining moral right the princes of the church have to influence policy in these areas is now well and truly gone.

Church ownership and involvement in running major institutions over many decades, and the willingness of the political classes to let them do so while ignoring their authoritarian attitudes and many excesses, has been a feature of our deeply flawed democracy over the years.

And surely the old “sure we wouldn’t have had hospitals, education etc  back then without them” argument at this stage, however partially true it may be, is now largely redundant and cannot be used as an excuse for crimes or the cover-up of such crimes.

And you can only take the “Those were different times and people were less questioning” argument so far. The logical extension of this argument is to say until fairly recently, child abuse and torture was regarded as a normal part of everyday Irish life and was encouraged.

How that ties in with the tenets of devout faith is not entirely clear, unless you are talking about the middle ages.

And let us also dispense with another shibboleth. That the trangressions of a minority (and it seems to have been a very substantial minority) should not be allowed sully the praiseworthy work of good priests and members of religious orders.

While you cannot but sympathise with those good people being tarred with same brush as abusers through no fault of their own, this argument leads to uncertain moral ground.

It can set you down the path of accepting the continuing influence of an unelected oligarchy in the running of our public and social services with all the inherent continuing potential for abuses of this power and influence.

Also, it has to be asked, how many current priests and religious knew about others abusing but did nothing about it?

The Murphy report raised a very serious question about whether the Catholic Church in its current form and structures should have a continuing major role in significant aspects of life of Ireland.

This is a debate that is very relevant as we decide what way the structures of our State should be run in future.

And there will always be the nagging doubt over whether our current State authorities and political class will strengthen child protection, given the mess they have made of many aspects of health and social care and the economy.

Perhaps, you could argue we get the power elites we deserve. Are they a mirror of the worst aspects of ourselves?

Well, perhaps yes and no.

One of the few chinks of light in the Murphy report is what it says about the moral courage and decency of those who were abused and who came forward:

“The Commission has been impressed by the extraordinary charity shown by complainants and their families towards offenders. It is very clear to the Commission that complainants and their families frequently behaved in a much more Christian and charitable way than the Church authorities did. Many indeed expressed concern for the welfare of the priest(s) concerned.”

That one paragraph says it all really. Perhaps there is hope for us as we venture into very uncertain and difficult times.

(Read more on the Murphy Commission report here )

See also - "Time for the Church to move out of healthcare?"


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