Do They Think We’re Eejits?: A Selection of The Irish Times Columns 2003-2009, by Mary Raftery
The late investigative journalist Mary Raftery turned a spotlight on Ireland’s powerful vested interests – and did it with unshakable calm, old-fashioned charm and unswerving determination
Do They Think We're Eejits? A Selection of The Irish Times columns 2003-2009
The Irish Times
The last time I heard Mary Raftery on the radio, she was taking grief m a canon lawyer. He was telling her that Cardinal Brady had no responsibility to report crimes of sex abuse to the police. When Mary referred to “misprision of felony”, a now defunct Irish law requiring such reporting, the priest told her petulantly that she had mispronounced the word misprision. His was a petty but revealing performance, an unseemly flouncing of clerical skirts that this woman had dared to measure the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church by the moral standards the rest of us observe. Mary stayed calm.
Mary always stayed calm. It was one of her greatest strengths. Those expecting a hissing virago were often nonplussed by the old-fashioned charm of that very sweet smile. No matter what happened, Mary kept her head.
I remember well sitting in on an RTÉ Today Tonight programme conference with a representative from the legal department. He was so terrified of the programme Mary had prepared on the fraudulent activities of the property tycoon Patrick Gallagher that he wanted to scrap it all. She had evidence, later backed up by the tribunals, that Gallagher had illegally used depositors’ money from a bank he owned to fund the then taoiseach, Charlie Haughey.
As the hapless executive flailed at her programme like a panicked housewife trying to put out a kitchen fire, Mary smiled patiently and forced him to agree the portions of the programme that could go out. She then set about salvaging what she could before airtime that night. No histrionics, no recriminations. Just calm courtesy and steely determination.
Real investigative reporters are a breed apart. Secrets, by their nature, are buried deep. It takes time and persistence and patience to dislodge them. There are no quick and easy returns, and much of the time the reporter is working out of the limelight and away from the glamour of breaking news. I’m not suggesting that investigative reporters have no ego. Of course they have, and Mary Raftery was no exception. But theirs is a lonely job. The guardians of the secret will fight right down to the courts, and that involves time and money, commodities that media bosses are reluctant to part with. Society often doesn’t want to believe what it is being told, because it must accept some of the blame. And what may be personally most difficult is that your colleagues get bored with you. They start urging you to move on, not to limit your career by becoming pigeonholed.
Mary, when I worked with her at RTÉ in the 1980s and 1990s, was a respected producer, viewed as one of those likely to rise to senior management in the station. That she chose instead to stick with her investigative work, particularly the long years of slog involved in getting on air her two path-breaking programmes – States of Fear , about the institutional abuse of children, and Cardinal Secrets , about the clerical abuse of children – is a measure of her commitment. Too many of us in journalism flit on to the next story. Mary never lost faith with the people whose story she told.
And when you think about it, what she did was breathtaking. She held – and forced the State, through public inquiries, to hold – the most powerful institution in this country to account. Those programmes helped to change forever the status of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. They made possible, at least, the building of a civic society in which no person or body is above the law of this land.
Even though Mary Raftery’s name is now chiefly associated with her programmes on abuse of children, she turned that calm inner eye on everything that affected daily life. As Fintan O’Toole points out in his introduction to this series of columns and essays published in The Irish Times between 2003 and 2009, she started university as an engineer, and, even though she never finished, it is easy to see throughout this book an engineer’s eye for the underlying structure of a society, and its weaknesses. That X-ray eye is what keeps her observations relevant even today. The structures she describes are fatally distorted because they have had to accommodate the requirements of so many vested interests.
And she turns a spotlight on so many of those powerful interests: doctors protecting themselves to the detriment of psychiatric patients or, as in the case of Michael Neary, pregnant women; a church that prefers to keep young women ignorant of the functioning of their own bodies; drug companies wanting to sponsor RTÉ’s health programmes; farmers’ groups campaigning against the EU water directive providing for safe drinking water for Irish citizens; an order of nuns that didn’t even bother to remember the names of many of the Magdalene women who died in their care, or to register their deaths; a State preferring to squander millions of taxpayers’ money fighting the parents of autistic children through the courts instead of providing those children with a proper education; a State refusing, and continuing, even now, to refuse, therapeutic abortion for pregnant Irish women with foetal abnormalities, pregnancies that can never result in a viable birth.
Most of these pieces were written before 2008, before the scales fell from our eyes about the true nature of the Irish boom. It’s a tribute to the clarity of Mary’s world view that hardly a word needs to be changed today. Certainly, apart from a rather pious piece about national anthems – but then I love the Marseillaise and Amhrán na bhFiann – I wouldn’t change a word.
Few of us as journalists can claim that we made a difference. Mary Raftery did, particularly to the lives of those abuse victims whose stories she helped to tell. But this collection achieves something else. It is a handbook for the active citizen, the sort of active, questioning citizen who has always been discouraged in our culture of obedience, of rote-learning, of craven consensus, a culture that has prompted the title of this book: Do They Think We’re Eejits?
Eh, yeah. I’m afraid they do.
Olivia O’Leary is a journalist and broadcaster.