Friday, June 12, 2009

The Ryan Report and our National Shame

It is a relief to hear our teachtaí dála or members of parliament at one on something, and not engaging in their continual bickering and exchange of verbal abuse with one another.  I fully agree with the importance of opposition within the democratic system, but of recent years mud slinging has replaced honest debate and quite often one hears little more than the ad hominem arguments of our politicians being repeated on our news.  What a pity that it takes a revelation of such horrific proportions as the Ryan Report to bring them to some shared concern.  It is high time our elected members of parliament stopped fighting like cats and got their act together to save our economy which is now practically in shreds and the laughing stock of the civilised world.

The Rights of the Child

Those working in any of the non governmental organizations (NGOs) or charities will not be surprised that the rights of the child are/were never taken seriously in this country, or indeed any country for that matter.  Indeed, the poor were and are never taken seriously in any country anywhere in the world.  To be poor is a great “sin” in any capitalist system.  And then to be poor and young is surely a greater “sin” again.  And further, it is surely unimaginable how one would describe the situation of a young person who is both poor and orphaned.  Such a person is nothing short of a bloody nuisance to the accumulation of wealth which is the right of every citizen in society.  In short, they are a scar on the body politic.  Obviously, I’m being sarcastic in the previous few lines, but the truth of it is that the poor were and are never taken seriously, and to be poor, young and orphaned in a society which sees the acquisition of wealth and status as its primary aim is surely to be almost invisible.

As I write these lines, the two-day debate in the Dáil on the Ryan Report is coming to an end.  All of the debaters are good, and quite rightly animated and at one at the lack of seriousness with which we take the rights of children in this State.  The fault lies with us as a nation and as a State.  One speaker acknowledged the fact that one brave TD brought to the Dáil the scandalous mistreatment or physical abuse of one orphan in one of the religious institutions in 1954, but this fell on deaf ears all around the assembled members of parliament.  In other words – out of sight, out of mind.  Poor orphans were not worth the concern of the State.  That is the context in which we have to put the Ryan Report.  Yes indeed, the Religious Orders that ran these institutions must be brought to book.  Yes, any members of these Religious Orders, who are still alive and accused of any heinous crimes must be brought to justice in a court of law.  This all goes without saying.  However, to scapegoat the Religious Orders for the failures of the State is in itself a denial of our guilt as a Nation and as a People.  Like the German Nation after the World War II we have to face up to our guilt.

They say the past is another country, and indeed it is.  I remember the sixties in Dublin city – I was born in 1958.  It seems a strange country to me now at this distance.  I attended a Christian Brothers School called St Canice’s on the North Circular Road. The sixties in Ballybough and North Strand were poor indeed, and rough and bleak in the extreme.  All of the teachers who taught me were good and some, indeed, were brilliant.  I became a teacher as a result of their excellent tuition and inspiration.  However, the sixties were cruel times and I remember my older brother telling me how boys who were less intelligent and/or badly behaved were dealt with.  They were thrashed with a leather – a small implement of punishment made of leather straps sewn together and sometimes containing a strip of steel between its layers.

Some fellow teachers and I were discussing education in the sixties in Ireland recently, and we came up with the following points.  One gentleman said he remembered the lay teachers at his Christian Brother run secondary school as being far more violent towards pupils than their religious counterparts.  Several of us agreed with this.  Another, who had attended a Diocesan Boarding School in the West of Ireland, remembered some of the priests and lay staff there as absolutely vicious.  In other words, even in the normal everyday boys schools of the sixties and seventies life was harsh to say the least, brutal and brutalising to tell the truth.  That’s why corporal punishment was eventually banned in 1981.  In all of this, the boys or pupils were very much second class citizens and their points of view were never taken seriously.  In short, the rights of the child never counted for anything in our system of education.  Then, by extrapolation, the rights of the child never counted for anything in society in general.

It’s at this point that I’d like to mention a recent article on the Ryan Report by the great Con Houlihan, one of my favourite journalists.  It’s well I remember reading his erudite column in The Irish Press when I was a young boy and later a young teacher.  His wonderful column was called Tributaries.  What a pity those columns were never collected and published in book form. Con writes beautifully on his chosen field, i.e., sports, but Con is a learned man, a former teacher and a Ph.D.  Anyway, I will quote his recent article in The Evening Herald here:

Wednesday June 10 2009

We were told that the report on child abuse in State institutions caused surprise. Don't you believe it. Most of the facts have been long known to the public.

The proliferation of paedophilia came perhaps as a surprise to some people, including myself, but the other aspects of the report were hardly revelatory.

We have long known that children in orphanages are treated badly. They have committed one crime. They are poor. Ours is the most caste-ridden society west of India or west of anywhere. People can look with indifference on the maltreatment of orphans and other abandoned children because they see them as a different species. They do not suffer pain or humiliation as ordinary people do. Thus most of the German nation weren't too worried about the cruelty inflicted by the Nazis on the Jews. The Jews were inferior -- they didn't suffer like ordinary people and, in any case, they deserved punishment…


The perpetrators of child abuse in our society are ordinary people. In the real world outside of the institutions they don't stand out as cruel or prejudiced. They are people just like us.

This caste attitude could be seen all around you in the country of my youth. When a little girl became pregnant, she went down to the river and back to the sea. Her death was recorded as suicide. In my part of Ireland you never heard of people from the middle class committing suicide -- their deaths were recorded as misadventure and so even in death the poor didn't get fair play. The report confined itself to child abuse in State institutions but it could have gone further: when boys reached the age of about 14, they were released as workers to farmers. In most cases they were treated like slaves. The difference was that the slaves in the plantations had the compensation of their own company -- they worked in groups.

There is the story of one little boy who never knew his father or mother. At a certain age he was released into the world to work for a farmer. He was a grand little boy: he was always cheerful, even though sometimes you wondered why. At about the age of 30 he died of pneumonia from working in wet clothes. It didn't help that he was underfed and overworked. I went to his funeral. There were only 11 other people there. We had to send three times for a priest to come to say the prayers at his grave. The priest eventually came in a foul humour and didn't delay in bidding farewell to the dead man…

The reformatories were much the same as the orphanages. Little boys were taken away from their families because of harmless "crimes" and kept in institutions that turned some of them into hardened criminals. The man called The General, Martin Cahill, not unknown to me, used to say: "The mad monks in the bog made me what I am." He was referring to Daingean, a reformatory whose name made the heart turn cold as did Upton, Artane and Letterfrack. Boys came out of those reformatories with a poor opinion of society and saw no reason why they should conform to its laws. Martin Cahill of course was wrong: he was denying free will but there was a grain of truth in what he said.

What can be done about the shame of the reformatories and the orphanages? The mentality of our society is not likely to change overnight. We will go on being caste-ridden until some mental revolution restores a degree of health.

The most appalling example of the caste system was seen in the treatment of young girls who gave birth outside wedlock. In Argentina under the regime of the cruel Colonels you would hear talk about the "disappeared" -- they were young people who, because of their subversive views, were abducted and murdered. They disappeared because their bodies were thrown to the sharks in the South Atlantic.

The girls who disappeared here were sent into the Magdalene laundries. Most of them didn't ever again became part of the world outside. That is now part of the past.

I have edited the above, but I would encourage any interested reader to read the full article here: Houlihan on Ryan Also if you are interested in other reflections on what Freud might make of Ryan in this blog see here: Freud on Ryan.

Above a picture of Michelangelo's Slave in the Louvre, Paris.

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