With the revelations regarding Tuam and elsewhere (and in particular the experiences of mothers and the children they lost on recent Livelines of all places) one obvious thing is how so much of the cruelty was an open secret, swept under the carpet in a compliant, deferential, society. While the scale or whole picture might not have been obvious at the time it seems to have been clear that there was a lot going on under the surface that people either ignored or worse, approved of.
Everyone has a touchstone text or two (used in the broad, Leaving Cert sense, it might be a poem, song, essay, book or film). Learning about the time of the mother and baby ‘homes’ has reminded me that one of mine is a 1957 article ‘Ireland…and where does she stand?’ authored by American academic John V. Kelleher for the journal Foreign Affairs.
Rather than a ‘Quiet Man’ Kelleher was an Irish American without a rose tinted view of the aul sod.
Kelleher nailed the reasons for Ireland’s poverty and backwardness at the time, so obvious to those looking in, and one cannot help but ask how much has changed. He saw clientelism, an obsession with who-you-know, the power of the connected Catholic hierarchy, weak local government, suspicion and an obsession with the farm vote at the expense of urbanity as rife. Another key issue was a prevalence of paternalism, not compassion, amongst the political class.
On the emigration problem we still have not properly acknowledged, never mind stemmed, he wrote:
Instead of vocal discontent there is silent emigration; and in what emigration leaves behind there is apathy below and smugness above… Emigration is a comment, silent but explicit, on every Irish condition.
I find it hard to disagree with Kelleher’s contention that emigration then, as well as now, is not just economic – many see the self inflicted issues the country has, can’t see a way out of it and know that even in boom times the fundamentals might not change.
He cited a US report on the weakness of Irish exports which identified another trait we try to play down that goes back to the isle of saints and scholars myth: smugness.
There is a persistent illusion concerning the superior quality of the Irish product. This, of course, is not shared by people of experience, but it permeates the general atmosphere nonetheless
It didn’t have to be thus then and it doesn’t now. Like Kelleher said:
Ireland has no right to be sick. If we compare its resources with those of other small Western European countries, and its population with what those have to support, one can hardly avoid deciding that Irish ills are largely psychosomatic.
All this reminds me of one line my mind often returns to: Captain James Kelly’s epitaph taken from Psalm 146. We have never gotten to the bottom (maybe deliberately) of the events in 1969 that saw him disgraced. Kelly was certainly controversial and for example I don’t agree his support of the politics of Kevin Boland’s Aontacht Éireann. What I can’t quarrel with is the hard lessons he learned and something that ‘whistle blowers’ like Kelleher had recognised about Ireland over a decade earlier. Too much deference to myths, legends or leaders who in the end will hang you out to dry – or worse.
Put not your trust in princes.
PS: For me another keystone text (sticking with the biblical theme) is ‘Sins of the Father’ by Conor McCabe which forensically sets out the political economic and social decisions (some misguided, some borne of ideology or a messiah complex) which undermine the idea of a sustainable republic (small r, in the purest sense of the word). If national myths are you thing Hobsbawm’s Invention of Tradition is fascinating too.