The woman who opened our eyes
Mary Raftery. photographs: matt kavanagh, rté
Uncovering buried bodies: the former High Park convent. photographs: matt kavanagh, rté
Mary Raftery was the most important journalist of the past 30 years. The work of the late documentary-maker changed Ireland, significantly and for the better, as explained in this introduction to a new ‘Irish Times’ collection of her columns, two of which appear below
Mary Raftery, who died far too young in 2012, was unquestionably the most important Irish journalist of the past 30 years. The best journalists hope they might manage to reflect with reasonable accuracy the society they inhabit. Mary Raftery didn’t just reflect society; she changed Ireland, significantly and for the better.
The paradox of her work is that she made the place more decent and civilised largely by showing it the indecent and uncivilised sides of itself. She was an old-fashioned optimist who believed that the truth, however frightful, makes us free.
Mary Raftery was born in Dublin in 1957, spent part of her childhood abroad (her father was a diplomat), excelled in maths, physics and music and went to University College Dublin in 1975 to study the then almost exclusively male subject of engineering.
She first appeared in The Irish Times in 1977, when its education correspondent Christina Murphy interviewed her because she had been elected as the first female full-time officer of the students’ union: “Mary Raftery is 19 years old, she looks about 14 and she goes about her job in a manner which makes you think she might be 25.”
She never went back to finish her degree and instead began to work as a freelance journalist, first for In Dublin magazine and later for Magill.
In 1984 she went to work as a television producer for RTÉ, where she made investigative programmes for Today Tonight (later Prime Time) and the pioneering health series Check Up. It was typical of her tenacity and courage that, at Today Tonight, she produced the first documentary evidence of a truth that every Irish journalist knew but none could prove: that Charles Haughey was on the take. She found, in a receiver’s report on Patrick Gallagher’s failed property and banking empire, reference to a payment Gallagher made to Haughey.
Not for the first or last time, she had to battle through legal obstacles to tell the public what she had discovered: RTÉ “ruled that we should exclude all reference to money handed out to Haughey by Gallagher from our programme exposing the latter’s fraudulent activities”.
From early on, Mary Raftery’s career was the embodiment of Lord Northcliffe’s famous definition: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”
The stories of appalling abuse of children in industrial schools that became the explosive States of Fear series were not the classic stuff of investigative journalism, in that they were not secret. The institutions in which the abuse occurred were not hidden: they loomed over many Irish towns. About 170,000 children had been through those institutions, and almost all of them had experienced or witnessed systematic cruelty.
So much has gone wrong at RTÉ and the BBC in trying to tell stories of child abuse that States of Fear and Cardinal Secrets, the two key documentaries on abuse and cover-up within the Irish Catholic Church, now seem even more remarkable in their clarity, precision and unimpeachable accuracy.
What is more remarkable still is that this exemplary professionalism was at the service of the simple, instinctive emotions of compassion for people.
These were personal, not just professional, qualities. Mary Raftery was a very private person, but she spoke once about her memory of being a very little girl, jumping off the stairs at home into her father’s arms. She would go up another step higher and jump again, completely sure that he would be there to catch her. It was an image of what every child should have: the confidence that comes from unquestioning trust.
One might speculate that this memory drove her on, that because she had emerged from her own childhood armoured with this confidence and comfort, she could not abide the thought of such trust being abused and betrayed.
What made this impulse so potent was Mary Raftery’s unique mix of steeliness and tact. She was uncompromising in her attitude to those who had abused power but extremely sensitive to the dignity of those who had been abused.
That kindness is everywhere in a new collection of columns, written for The Irish Times between 2003 and 2007. Almost of all of them are about matters of public policy – official decisions or systems or sometimes simply official ignorance and neglect – or of corporate or institutional irresponsibility.
What makes the columns so compelling, long after the original occasion for their publication has passed, is that their touchstones are not statistics or abstractions but deep human emotions and impulses: sadness, grief, memory, oblivion, justice.
The standard by which everything is measured in Mary Raftery’s columns is the way it affects so-called ordinary lives, especially those at the bottom of the heap: the disabled man in the sheltered workshop, the prisoner in vile conditions, the child at the mercy of a chaotic care system, the person with a mental illness stuck in a Dickensian hospital.
The columns cast an acutely sceptical eye on the values of the time, not least as expressed in The Irish Times itself (and reprinted on this page, right): “In a fashion article in this newspaper a few weeks ago featuring charity ball organisers, one said that her ideal charity event is Elton John’s, with its concept of wearing as many diamonds as possible. Another spoke of the downside of € 2,000 designer gowns – once you wear them to a ball, it’s very hard to wear them again to another event. She assured us, however, that she does get two to three years out of an Armani outfit.”
These vignettes have a certain rueful humour now, but they remind us that there are many different ways in which a society can lie to itself.
Dangerous ignorance can be created by overly mighty churches or overly greedy secular elites. It can manifest itself in unspeakable darkness or in crass glamour. But, whatever form it takes, it has seldom had a more potent enemy than Mary Raftery.
Dancing night away for charity December 8th, 2005