The all-seeing eye: the cruel gaze of Church and State

There were always two parallel Irelands. I have tried in ‘The Cruelty Men’ to document both

Emer Martin: It was as if the characters were the voices of the forgotten, flowing in a rage through the fragmented ruins of our past

Emer Martin: It was as if the characters were the voices of the forgotten, flowing in a rage through the fragmented ruins of our past

 

Ireland was once a panopticon. There was a point where someone was always watching and everyone could be observed. A panopticon is that popular prison design where a guard can stand in the centre and have a 360-degree view of all that is going on. Kilmainham Jail is the perfect example. When people claim that they had no idea of what was happening to the 1 per cent of our population who were institutionalised within living history this is not entirely disingenuous, but has something to do with those who were in the central position and thus controlling the gaze.

There were always two Irelands running parallel to each other, and I have tried in my book The Cruelty Men to document both. The Lyons family are from the comfortable, somewhat idyllic Ireland of blackberry picking and poker games and sing songs with the solicitors, the sergeants, and the school principals. In contrast, there is the housekeeper, Mary, who has walked barefoot out of the Meath Gaeltacht as a landless daughter. She comes from an Ireland where women, children and the poor were preyed upon by a church and State system – fused together – that insisted on control over every aspect of their lives, until even their own children had to be sacrificed into this all-seeing merciless system of literal incarceration. Mary’s siblings are scooped up by the notorious cruelty men and sent to the big house in Mullingar, the industrial schools and the laundries while the family children serve as altar boys in the church and socialise with the affable parish priest.

While writing this book, I used to drop my kids off to Cullmullen National School in Drumree and then go for a run from the Tower of Leprosy to the Yellow Steeple by the great Norman ruins. Before returning to a studio I had rented on the Sullivans’ farm, I would dip my hands into the fast flow of the Boyne in the hope the river would give me something in the way of flow and inspiration. I was seven years writing this book and the voices kept on coming, rising up from both testimonials and personal stories from everyone I spoke to about the laundries and the industrial schools and the asylums. So many people told me their stark stories, it was clear no family was untouched. So why did people claim they did not know? And why did so many people’s lives seem not to have mattered to others?

This book is about those two Irelands and the tensions between the powerful and the powerless. For my research I not only listened to those in my community, but I also read the reports and testimonials that were being compiled and released. Sometimes driving back to the studio I would pull over and listen to those calling into the Joe Duffy show, their voices breaking from raw pain as they finally got a chance to tell what had happened to a country that had always known but had never listened.

There is a tradition among the First Nations people in the US that stories are medicine for the soul. I believe there is truth to this

I couldn’t write from the point of view of a single person or even from a single point in time. There are many voices in this book as there were so many affected. Women, children and the poor were the most targeted. The book is not the story of one person or one group alone. It came to me as a chorus to reflect the multitude of stories untold. What struck me about the survivors was that all of them said that the incarceration and abuse wasn’t the worst thing they went through. It was the fact that their voices were stolen and their stories not heeded. All of them just wanted to be heard, all of them just wanted to be believed. There is a tradition among the First Nations people in the US that stories are medicine for the soul. I believe there is truth to this. I felt compelled to write this book although it was the most arduous work I’ve ever written. It took me the guts of a decade. Once I started writing the characters come alive to my touch. It was as if they were the voices of the forgotten themselves, flowing in a rage through the fragmented ruins of our past.

There was another key aspect of the hurt, and that was that people living in tight knit close communities still pretended they did not know. Many in this panopticon Ireland claim that they had no idea of what was going on, but the reality is that the poor knew exactly what was happening as did the Church and State who had that all-seeing view. Ignatius, one of the characters in my book, when leaving the industrial school and living on the streets of Dublin is confronted by the youngest of the Lyons family Teresa, nicknamed ‘Baby’. She asks him why he didn’t come back to the family when released. He tells her: “When have the well fed ever understood the hungry?” Ignatius has told them time and again what is happening in the school yet no one is inclined to pay attention; indeed they accuse him of fabrication.

Panopticons may be efficient designs for prisons, but for societies those who control the gaze control everything. What’s done is done. We won’t get all those lives back, but we can compensate those who are still alive and bear witness to their suffering. Their endurance and bravery inspired this book and I offer it up to them. To move to a more open, diverse, inclusive country we need to heal. We need to dedicate ourselves to finally bringing civilisation to this land. Furthermore, we need to understand that civilisation is not blind loyalty to our narrow birth tribe and its rigid hierarchies. Rather, true civilisation is realising that all tribes and every member of those tribes are interconnected and that these tribes are ever changing and expanding. For instance, the new migrants to our country need a voice too. We need to remain vigilant in contemporary Ireland so that power does not remain concentrated in the hands of a small group that stands in the centre of a suffocating, trapped society, but rather power is diffused throughout all of the people and mindful of the land itself. We need an Ireland where everyone – women, children and the poor – are never stripped of their voices again.
The Cruelty Men is published by Lilliput Press

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