Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Wednesday, June 16, 1999

Home truths about our dishonest past

Sunday Independent May 16th 1999

Dermot Bolger believes poetry will come but if only we can resolve the unspoken quarrel within ourselves

I WENT to a Christian Brothers school. One in name at least. The principal and two teachers were brothers, but times had moved on and it was a 95 per cent lay staff. One didn't feel frightened of those decent and human if occasionally ineffective Brothers. Any violence there was came from lay teachers, young, passing through and with chips on their shoulders.

But in my first year, a remarkable thing happened. A Brother who had seemed an animalistic thug, obviously mentally unstable, returned from Africa. Aghast at changes, he appeared during maths or history lessons to kidnap us and march us up to the hall, where he made us sing hymns, jumping down to viciously attack any child he felt lacked religious fervour.

Here ends my total history of clerical abuse.

Within weeks, he was recognised as a danger and an embarrassment and shipped off. The remaining Brothers might have preferred me to become a GAA star, but did everything to encourage me to become a writer to the extent that when I wrote articles opposing much of what they stood for, one said, ``I don't support what you say but I support your right to say it.''

Looking back, the story doesn't end there.

Where did that Brother come from and where was he sent? Was he allowed near boys again?

Back then, it didn't concern me. There was just relief than a deranged man was removed from exercising control. Because at 13, I knew his control was absolute. He had power over the teachers that he interrupted and power that I knew no outside authority, be they parents, police or courts, could touch. Politicians and clerics wringing their hands on television and denying they ever knew what happened in industrial schools and elsewhere are either imbeciles or liars (to themselves as much as others).

I was a quiet, well-bred child, never in trouble. But, by the age of 12, I knew implicitly almost every detail of that reign of terror. Fellow Finglasman Professor Colbert Kearney has described seeing boys he knew emerge from institutions utterly changed, with something killed inside them. I never knew such boys, yet the street telegraph meant I was abreast of that regime.

Anyone who didn't know, either didn't want to know or didn't want to admit to themselves that they knew. Recently, I encountered a middle-aged group of ex-students from one school, furious at printed remarks by another former pupil about an unnamed teacher.

Having vented their indignation about the ex-pupil, they proceeded to reminisce about schooldays, each regaling the others with tales of the same teacher far more explicit than the printed story they'd condemned.

This type of doublethink forms part of what we are as a nation.

That the Government is now establishing a ``truth commission'' to formally drag into the light the truth about institutional childhoods is a huge step forward and a tribute to Mary Raftery.

But its findings will, in essence, tell us what we already knew and didn't want to know.

Every society survives through an ever-changing collective amnesia. Germans still claim they didn't know and Serbs will do likewise. We don't want to hear details of kneecappings that could rock our fragile illusion of peace. Elderly Swedes shake their heads at the present controversy over forced sterilisation of unmarried women there, who became pregnant during our own Magdalen Laundries period, and ask how is it a scandal when it was an open secret that everyone knew.

The most interesting newspaper letter I've read all week came from former Editor Brian Quinn.

He wrote: ``It was with mounting shame that I viewed Mary Raftery's States of Fear. Journalists of the 1940s and 1950s had their suspicions of industrial schools. Even in a climate of acceptance that Brothers and nuns were beyond repute, we should have tried harder to find out the real truth. In the defence of journalists of that time, we would not have been believed, and managements and editors would never have held out against a massed attack by the all-powerful Irish Catholic Church. From first-hand experience I witnessed one of the worst of the Christian Brothers break into the office of the manager and demand that a court case that mentioned Artane should not be used. Those requests should have alerted journalists to start inquiries into what was happening in Artane. That we did not is a heavy burden.

Journalists of that time were trapped in a carefully designed plot that mixed lies with official evasion and ecclesiastical terror. Nevertheless, I for one believe that we allowed cowardice to rule.''

This rare honesty has been lacking not only in Church responses but in the attitude of Irish society.

In 1988, I was given the manuscript of Paddy Doyle's classic autobiography, The God Squad, which certain other Irish publishers had declined. When I decided to publish, the publishers which then printed all my company's books, refused to print it. The only book I could find to confirm Paddy's accounts of inhuman beatings at the hands of nuns was The Children of the Poor Clares, published in Belfast (and generally ignored here) after 15 Southern publishers rejected it. Mavis Arnold and her co-author encountered open hostility while researching it in Cavan.

The God Squad sold hugely. After 1988, nobody had the right not to know any more. The nun who mainly assaulted Paddy Doyle was insane and known to be so by locals who took no action until she was eventually locked up. What could they have done? To stand against the consensus (as Brian Quinn honourably states) takes moral courage and would probably have been futile, though Noel Browne and Austin Clarke stand out with honour.

But that doesn't mean it shouldn't have been done by people in all walks of life.

Magdalen Laundries and industrial schools (with children regarded as criminals for having parents in the poverty trap) didn't exist in limbo. Washing came in, slave labour was hired out. Many people knew it was against their interests to question the system. And in truth, most Irish people felt the inmates deserved what they got.

Whether the Church likes it or not, its decent (silently acquiescent) ranks were infested with paedophiles whose actions and immunity Frederick West could only have gasped at.

The fate of Norbertine Fr Bruno Mulvihill (who tried to blow the whistle on Brendan Smyth, and was almost as hated as Smyth was by many within the Order) shows what happened to those who didn't acquiesce. Estranged from his Order, by the time of the UTV expose of his superiors' inaction, he was surviving by selling encyclopaedias.

The fate of the once-popular broadcaster Bill Long (whose radio career has been virtually non-existent since his famous Thought for the Day remarks) is also a lesson for those who publicly confront the truism that good lay teachers covered up for bad. I've yet to hear teachers' unions discuss those thugs who lurked in their ranks, no more than I've heard garda representative bodies apologise for regimes of violence in certain 1980s Dublin stations that shocked many decent guards.

Our ``one in, all in'' culture still exists.

People talk of a dying Church, but I'm not convinced. Stripped of arrogance and authoritarian power and forced to earn respect, I see it as potentially the start of a better Church. A Church fit to ask questions of others once it has asked questions of itself. It may require the retirement of various bishops, but its day will come.

The suggested millennium monument shouldn't be a triumphalist one of Christ, but a stone erected to those who suffered untold horror inflicted in Christ's name.

Yeats said, ``From the quarrel with others we create rhetoric, from the quarrel with ourselves we create poetry.'' It's time for rhetoric to end and painful poetry to start.