I’m not feeling so proud to be Irish this St Patrick’s Day
Watching the Tuam news unfold from Australia is shocking, but not surprising
Schoolchildren paying their respects at a shrine in Tuam, Co Galway, erected in memory of up to 800 children who were allegedly buried at the site of the former home for unmarried mothers run by nuns. Photograph: Paul Faith/Getty Images
As the annual celebration of Irish Catholicism and nationalism - St Patrick’s Day - looms large, we hardly need reminding that Irish Catholicism is floundering. As a one-time seminarian, it gives me no satisfaction to make such a statement.
The “Babies dumped in septic tank” headline has been widely reported here in the Australian media. The specific veracity of that statement hardly matters. For many of my Australian friends, those clandestine burials are unbelievable.
Perhaps it is still possible for us Irish at home and abroad to don our green this week and keep our gaze firmly on the parades and marching bands in all their finery, and the other shenanigans that invariably mark St Patrick’s Day around the world.
We’d do well to enjoy the “craic” and toast our patron saint. At the end of the night, we can always belt out a hearty rendition of The Fields of Athenry or perhaps even a couple of The Pogues’ ballads, before we all stumble off home again, until next year.
The spectacle of a politically wounded Enda Kenny traipsing off to the US with a handful of shamrocks doesn’t leave this Irish emigrant feeling all warm and fuzzy, especially in light of the Tuam revelations. In this era of fake news, perhaps the poor old shamrock needs to be consigned to the fake category - or at least be mothballed until some future date, when things may be a little less grim on the ecclesiastical front. Anyhow, it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump displaying Enda’s offering in a prominent place in The White House. But if Enda manages to make a pitch for the “undocumented” well I guess that’s something.
The slow-burn revelations emerging from Tuam, though hardly surprising, are gut-wrenching all the same, and they usher in yet another damning chapter in the atrophy of Ireland’s Catholic Church. In some respects, this demise could hardly be further from the myth or otherwise of St Patrick igniting the flame of Christianity on the Hill of Slane.
It’s almost unfathomable now to imagine how Irish Catholicism can dust itself off and clamber anywhere close to its former position on the mountain again.
St Patrick’s Day, in contemporary times, has always been a curious amalgam of religion and celebration, and dare I say, tomfoolery. We Irish have always been so adept at tomfoolery, especially abroad.
March 17th is one of the busiest days for many pubs throughout Australia. The Irish diaspora is well established all over this sunburnt land. It’s not uncommon for watering holes here to erect temporary outdoor fencing for safety reasons to limit the number of patrons, such are the popularity of these venues. On March 17th, it seems almost everyone assumes honorary Irish status. Politicians across the political spectrum are invariably and dutifully filmed downing a Guinness or a green beer.
St Patrick’s Day in Australia heralds the imminent arrival of cooler weather as we edge to our autumn solstice. Here in rural Tasmania where I live, it’s the time of year to stock up on winter firewood and to stow away the beach gear. It’s also time to bunker down, to retrieve warmer clothing and to prepare for winter. Snakes are still lurking around our chicken coop and compost bins, but you’d be hard pressed to find any shamrocks around these parts. An abundance of marsupials keep everything well shorn in the paddocks. For me, St Pat’s Day is just another day.
But I’ll be thinking of Ireland still, and keeping an eye on how Tuam plays out. We haven’t got to the end of this story. Perhaps we’re even still at the prologue. It’s telling that some of the secrets of Tuam have been exposed by the tenacious efforts of Catherine Corless. Perhaps this too may be indicative of a shift in the patriarchy that has so long been in the ascendancy in Ireland.
Going away, as so many of us have chosen to do, doesn’t mean we no longer care about what’s happening in Ireland. Far from it. If anything, we never forget. After all, part of us never quite leaves. Our past will always be lodged in our psyche.
Tuam represents an opportunity to prise apart the oppressive fog of those bygone times and expose the draconian measures and methods that blanketed our way of living for so long. If nothing else, it’ll be a start. I suspect even St Patrick would agree.