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.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Standing up to the tyrannical Sisters of Mercy

Sunday Business Post Reviewed by Dermot Bolger

If conditions in religious run institutions in 20th century Ireland were a badly kept secret, they were only a secret because of people's determination not to know, summed up by the late Brian Lenihan's comment when forced to visit Artane as a young minister: “Get me the fuck out of here'. Even in 1986 when Mavis Arnold and Heather Laskey began to unveil that terrible world in Children of the Poor Clares, their book was savaged or ignored in Ireland. It was 1988 before the public really took notice with the publication of Paddy Doyle's best-selling memoir The God Squad.

Speaking as the publisher of that book, I can testify to the difficulty I had in even finding a printer willing to print it. Times and revelations have moved on since then, with Mary Rafferty's famous television series States of Fear and her book Suffer the Little Children, plus a host of memoirs written by survivors of those institutions which have explored most aspects of daily life behind those walls. So much has been written that there might even be a danger of fatigue when confronted by another memoir that nails its colours firmly to the mast in its subtitle Growing Up Under the Cruel Regime of the Sisters of Mercy.

It is unlikely that many nuns, at whose hands Kathleen O'Malley suffered in Moate in the 1950s, are still alive, but the inheritors of the discredited franchise of Mercy nuns must have felt that O'Malley would surely be the last person to write such a memoir. Firstly, she had a nice middle-class life in England, constructed by her own admission by building a fortress around the shame of her past and creating a fantasy for strangers in which the harsh grind of beatings and starvation behind the high walls of a Mercy convent was replaced by a myth of having been educated in an Irish midlands boarding school.

Secondly, for years whenever she returned to Ireland, O'Malley barely had time to greet the mother who had fought so hard for her and her sisters before rushing down to Moate with presents for the nuns who had mistreated her as if only seeing some kindness in their eyes could imbue her with any sense of self-worth. Frank McCourt uses a nice irony when talking about nothing being more useful to a writer than a miserable Irish childhood, and yet O'Malley makes the point in this moving book (which has no room for irony, merely pain and genuine anger) that her family were never destitute like the McCourts.

O'Malley's mother led an unconventional, hard life as an unmarried mother in Dublin, with some early years of intense poverty. But she had managed to raise her first two children well before marrying and having a third child. When she was suddenly widowed, her first two children were snatched from her by the authorities under a court order for being “destitute'.

Yet if they were destitute, then surely their younger sister - born in wedlock yet living in the same conditions was equally destitute. But initially only the two “illegitimate” daughters had to face the horrors of Goldenbridge, from which starved and beaten they escaped and reached their mother who refused to give them back.

This escape was merely a reprieve. In 1950, aged eight, Kathleen was brutally raped by a neighbour in Bridge Street named Luke McCabe. Kathleen's mother might have kept her daughters had she not determined to press charges. But standing up to demand justice for her raped child gave the state and the NSPCC ammunition to pounce again. This time all three daughter were snatched by the state, brought before a Justice McCarthy and silently taken away to Moate without a chance to say goodbye to their mother who was left running after the police car screaming for her children.

When the Luke McCabe rape trial went ahead, it was a different eight-year-old who gave evidence. The nuns in Moate warned her to say nothing and arrogant barristers like Trant McCarthy (O'Malley is very good at naming names that deserve to be named) demanded to know why she had not cried out more when being raped. It surely never crossed the mind of confident adults in court like Dr Frances Bourke or Dr Bill McGrath or the tyrannical Sister Kevin that half a century later this terrified child (who actually became a magistrate herself) would seek out the court records and judge them in turn.

Childhood Interrupted is a judgment on an Ireland that readily permitted such cruelty. It is a hymn of love and belated vindication for O'Malley's mother. It is also a searingly honest examination of her own traumatised mindset, in the decades when she blocked out the past and viewed the world through the eyes of her abusers, before finally confronting her past in this fine testament, which deliberately leaves a few questions open. We may know more about these institutions, but this is Kathleen O'Malley's own story and no one has more of a right to stand up and be heard.

Dermot Bolger's new novel is The Family on Paradise Pier published by Fourth Estate

Blog Archive