I have tried and failed about three times to write this post. It has been really difficult to work out my feelings about the revelations concerning the treatment of mothers and babies in Ireland in the very recent past. As a woman and a mother and indeed as a former single parent myself there is something deeply unnerving and disquieting to learn that your country, the place you live, the place that is rooted deeply in your bones, the place that defines so much of you has been hiding such dark and cruel stories for decades.
I took my youngest daughters to see the movie ‘Philomena’ when it was in cinemas some months back. They are 13 and 15 and their usual choice of movies is a mix of fantasy and American pop culture… Philomena was something very different. But they were both moved and disturbed by the story. What bothered them most was that this was an Irish story and a recent one too.
It is often remarked on how we still love to be told we are great. Only on an Irish chat show will the first question asked of a visiting superstar be “and how are you finding Ireland, do you like it?” Which has to be the stupidest question ever because what do we honestly expect a visiting movie star on a PR trip for their latest movie to say? “Well actually I am very disappointed. I find your country dirty and the standard of service is appalling.” No of course not. They all say “oh I love it. I hope to come back soon and spend more time here.” Our sense of our own wonderfulness established, the interview can continue.
It would be easy at this point to heap all the blame for the cruelty of how single pregnant women and girls were treated at the feet of religious orders. The orders certainly carry a huge burden of responsibility and their callousness should be recorded for posterity. They must be held to account and their track record of intransigence and tight fistedness should not be tolerated for one day longer.
But we must also accept that we all bear responsibility for this dark chapter in our history. It was the families and communities in which these women and girls lived that sent them into the arms of the nuns who were clearly overwhelmed. And it is this complicity, our complicity that will haunt our sense of ourselves for decades to come.
There is little we can do from this remove to heal the hurt caused to the thousands of women whose babies either died or were taken from them for adoption. We cannot rewrite history. But if we don’t learn from it we are likely to repeat the mistakes, the injustices and the cruelty over and over again.
Right now in Ireland adopted people are still having great difficulty in accessing their birth information. We must pressure the government to amend this situation immediately. Today in Ireland Traveller babies have a higher mortality rate than the general population and many Traveller children are living in appalling conditions. Funding to Traveller services was cut by 80% during this period of so called austerity. Next month lone parents are facing another cut in their payments when their youngest child turns seven years of age. Today there are thousands of immigrant families caught in ‘direct provision’ which is having a detrimental effect especially on their children. What are we doing about all these children?
I love this country. We have produced great writing and great music. We have a unique sense of fun and invented ‘the craic’ which is beyond explanation. We are masters of irreverence and have an interesting relationship with authority. We have some of the most stunning scenery on the planet. We have much to be proud of.
But we also have much to be deeply ashamed of. For decades I think our history of colonisation, of being a victim of British dominance has defined us. We were this little nation whose influence has spread all over the world; this little nation who after centuries of failed attempts finally shook off our oppressor and gained our freedom. Weren’t we just wonderful altogether?
We are now coming to terms that we are not quite as wonderful as we thought. Our treatment of Mothers and Babies for most of the twentieth century is surely one of the most shameful episodes in any countries history. And we have no one else to blame. We, as a nation facilitated the church in its abuse of these young women and their babies. Right now we are again turning a blind eye to many injustices which are impacting Irish children. Are we content to continue to allow our Government to unfairly target groups that are vulnerable in the pursuit of financial stability? Are some children once again worth more than others?
The last three weeks have changed fundamentally how I feel about my Irishness. I am still proud to call myself Irish. But I think that feeling of smug self confidence in my nationality, that one that Irish chat show hosts love to reinforce is gone. I can only assume that this is a good thing.