'It's hard to celebrate Irishness in the face of recent revelations'

Hilary Fannin: 'We were the chosen ones but St Patrick did not protect the babies who died at Tuam’

“We were the chosen ones, that’s all we really needed to know. We were St Patrick’s good little mice, on whom he bestowed his sweet smile.”

“We were the chosen ones, that’s all we really needed to know. We were St Patrick’s good little mice, on whom he bestowed his sweet smile.”

 

Top of the morning to you! May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows your dead! May the pale moon rise above your green mountain, and sure aren’t you right there, Michael, aren’t you right!

Happy St Patrick’s Day, folks (she says with as much sincerity as she can muster). I’m not a great fan of the occasion. Somehow the mind-numbing boredom of being enmeshed in layers of damp humanity on O’Connell Street, circa 1969, staring at the back of someone’s sensible overcoat, while cruel winds bit and marching bands I couldn’t possibly see paraded up and down the drizzling thoroughfare, has never quite left me. 

And yes, you’re right, in recent years St Patrick’s Festival has been utterly transformed. The puppets and parades, the stunningly lovely greening of the city, the bands and exhibitions, the music and art, the funfair, the food, has lifted the event out of a boggy morass of wilting shamrock and weatherbeaten leprechauns, painting our towns and cities with a palette that extends far beyond 40 shades of green. And to have achieved that change, to have progressed from a mournful meander to a Mardi Gras (despite the inclement weather) is no mean feat.

Like iron medicines or cod liver oil, dutifully freezing your tiny knees off for a glimpse of a spangled majorette was, when I was a child, a vaguely unpalatable but apparently entirely necessary experience, and now, decades later, like a wary old dog sniffing around under a pungent lamp-post, I pick up on an ancient scent. It is a fragrance of blunt, colourless, straitjacketed compliance, which the St Patrick’s Day parade of old seemed to feed on, to emanate.

Baby bones

It’s a great festival now, oh yes, but I find myself resistant to its embrace, churlishly oppositional to its invitation to celebrate Ireland and Irishness. I struggle to erase those pictures of Army bands and poor pale flute-playing boys and goose-pimpled majorettes strutting their stuff under a khaki sky. Despite its obvious and very real attractions, I’m not anticipating getting into the swing of things this year either. 

I’m not alone, I know, in finding it difficult to feel celebratory in the face of recent revelations. 

It’s tempting to imagine that in the light of what we now know about our shared history, about bunkers full of baby bones and vulnerable children being left withering in apparently abusive accommodations, that good old snake-banishing St Patrick, the man with the crozier, the daddy of us island-dwellers, might look down on Erin’s green valley with his head between his hands and weep big, salty, saintly tears of despair. 

“Dear saint, may thy children resist unto death;

May their strength be in meekness, in penance their prayer,

Their banner the cross which they glory to bear.”

Strange to think that we stood in school halls and auditoriums the length and breadth of this country and sang that hymn to St Patrick every year, nervously trying to remember those complicated words while some nice lady from the parish tucked her handbag under the piano stool and banged out the chords on the dusty joanna. 

Strange language

Funny now to remember our small mouths opening and closing on words that can’t have made sense to any of us. Odd to think that we were compelled by the wimpled nuns to unfurl that strange language from our innocent mouths, while our knee-socks cascaded around our ankles and our noses ran and our hairbands twisted and the banana skins in our empty lunch boxes blackened.

What did it mean? What did the words mean? We were the chosen ones, that’s all we really needed to know. We were St Patrick’s good little mice, on whom he bestowed his sweet smile. We wouldn’t get bitten by an asp, or strangled by a boa constrictor or swallowed whole by a python. Not us. But there were so many more of us that Patrick, that dear, inefficient saint of our isle, didn’t protect. So many Annies, Mary-Kates, Brendans, Jameses, Eileens, Matthews, Julias, Josephs, Johns – just some of the names of the 796 infants and toddlers (at the time of writing) who we know died at the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam between 1925 and 1960. I read them before I sat down to write this column.

“Their banner the cross which they glory to bear.”

It’s St Patrick’s Day. Maybe not today, maybe in the years to come, this day will live up to its promise. Maybe this will be the day for the living to commemorate our innocent dead.

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