The ‘fake news’ about Tuam: Sean Moncrieff blows a gasket

Radio Review: Newstalk host takes Catholic Leaguer Bill Donohue to task over claim of baby mass grave ‘myth’ and ‘hoax’

Sean Moncrieff: runs out of patience with Bill Donohue’s declaration that “there’s no such thing as a mass grave” at the Tuam mother and baby home

Sean Moncrieff: runs out of patience with Bill Donohue’s declaration that “there’s no such thing as a mass grave” at the Tuam mother and baby home

 

How many angels can dance on the head of the pin? Once upon a time this was the pressing question that supposedly preoccupied the finest minds of the church. Of course, things have moved on. When would-be defenders of the faith want to play hair-splitting word games these days the question is about how many infant bodies constitute a mass grave. 

As the country reels, again, at revelations about the human remains discovered on the site of Tuam’s mother-and-baby home Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) hears from a man who seeks to put the whole business in perspective. Bill Donohue, president of the US-based Catholic League, says that the coverage of the Tuam home is, you guessed it, fake news.

The basis for this staggering assertion is the statement that the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation had uncovered “significant” quantities of remains.

Donohue insists that “significant” differs from “huge”, a metric that presumably might permit the use of the term “mass grave” in news reports. This egregious misuse of words outrages him more than the idea of dead children being tossed into the ground with no trace of dignity: “The big story, which is a lie, is that there’s no such thing as a mass grave.”

Donohue, holding forth in the blowhard manner so beloved of American right-wing talkshow hosts, offers little evidence. He dismissively “deals with” Catherine Corless, the local historian who first uncovered the scandal, asking why she says 800 children are interred on the Tuam grounds. Moncrieff replies that she uncovered the death certificates but nobody knew where they were buried. “That’s exactly my point,” Donohue says triumphantly. “She didn’t find a mass grave.”

Verbal distortion

For a man so concerned with the finer points of language – “I’m very careful in my words,” he says – Donohue is pretty fond of verbal distortion himself. He says scientists are “laughing” at the idea that so many bodies could be disposed of in a septic tank; Moncrieff clarifies that one academic has merely said that the chamber in question should be termed a “burial vault”. “Not much laughter there,” the presenter adds, with uncharacteristic venom. Undeterred, Donohue describes the reports of mass graves as a myth and a hoax. 

Moncrieff eventually has enough. “For God’s sake, man,” the host exclaims, “do you know how laughable this is, what you’re saying?” In truth it’s a mild reaction to a vile performance from someone apparently more worried about “anti-Catholicism in the west” than the suffering of the vulnerable under the church’s care.

Of course, while Donohue’s views on the Tuam scandal are extreme, they are thankfully rare, in Ireland at least. Moncrieff plays a clip of Corless suggesting that Donohue is just looking for hype; it could be said that, for all the host’s indignation at his  guest, he still gives him a platform for his opinions. But it’s a valuable item nonetheless, a prime example of how in this era of “alternative facts” people can deny inconvenient, not to say horrific, truths by hammering away at one small point to the detriment of the bigger picture.

Moncrieff, who has been getting his mojo back of late, may have given up talking about Donald Trump for Lent, but it’s a vivid snapshot of the post-Trump world.

Grim tales

Anyone in any doubt about the reality of Tuam only has to turn on the radio for vivid rebuttal. The airwaves are thick with grim tales of life and death in church institutions, in Tuam and elsewhere.

Today with Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) carries the painful testimony of PJ Haverty, who was born in the Tuam home. He recalls being openly called a “bastard” and a “thing” by priests and passersby alike. 

As well as his personal experiences, Haverty says that the local priest told his mother’s family to keep her indoors after she became pregnant, as she was a bad influence. She lived in the mother-and-baby home for a year after PJ was born but was told to leave, to stop her bonding with her son. In later life he tracked his mother down in London, although in her frail mental state she denied at their last meeting that he was her son. It’s a distressing portrait of a society where, as has been remarked, everything that wasn’t mandatory was forbidden.

Later on in the programme its reporter Brian O’Connell talks to Gabrielle, who speaks damningly of her time at the Magdalene laundry on Sean MacDermott Street, calling it a hellhole”

Meanwhile, Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) hears from Carmel, an English woman whose mother gave birth to a son in the Bessborough mother-and-baby home, in 1960, only for him to die soon afterwards. She was told of his death only after he was buried. As to where he lies, nobody knows. Carmel says a nun originally told her mother that he was buried, unmarked, in the “Little Angels plot” – mainly used for nuns, as it happens – but that the nun had since said this was untrue. Carmel’s mother remains “devastated”, her desire to be buried alongside her son seeming ever more futile.

These stories are broadcast with little additional commentary, for obvious reasons; the distressing experiences speak for themselves. But it is striking how many of the voices have English accents, be they children of women who went through the institutions or those who endured them at first hand. If you managed to survive such places, you “wanted to get the hell out of Ireland”, as Gabrielle puts it. 

Thus was an Ireland kept morally safe for decades. Of course, we don’t export our inconvenient problems across the water any more. Plus ça change, and all that.

Moment of the Week: Ray of hope for women

To mark International Women’s Day Ray D’Arcy (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) interviews the cast of an all-women episode of the TV soap Fair City. He promises to lobby radio bosses for a woman to host his show, and others, next International Women’s Day. “You can take it as a given that this time next year it will be an all-female line-up on RTÉ Radio 1.” For one day only, of course. Still, it’s the thought that counts.

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