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
Who are these people who attend charity balls? They must be peculiar creatures indeed, who squeeze themselves with nary a squirm of embarrassment into their obscenely expensive designer gowns and tuxedos, as they parade down the red carpets to do their bit for the less fortunate. What, if anything, goes through their minds as they sip champagne and nibble canapes in aid of the dying, the abused and the maimed, secure in the knowledge that these latter know their place and will never intrude to spoil the fun?
The charity balls are usually the major events in the social calendars of the great, the good and the rich of Irish society. They get to dress up, show off their wealth, and rub shoulders with their own kind, all in a good cause, of course. Newspapers and celebrity magazines feed off the events with lavish displays of photographs. A line of text is usually appended giving the amount raised for charity. A warm glow pervades the air at the gorgeous goodness of it all.
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. A third tells us that she keeps the clothes she likes, but the rest she gives away to one of her “cleaning ladies” (note the plural).
These women are a step up on the ladies who lunch, soldiering socially as they do for charity. And it is certainly true that their efforts raise very substantial sums of money for organisations which might otherwise either not survive or have to curtail the services they provide. The charities concerned are rightly grateful for their efforts, as indeed no doubt are the direct beneficiaries of their bounty.
Looking at the area as a whole, though, a few salient features emerge. In general, the charities which benefit from the balls tend to be the less controversial, those which devote themselves to healthcare or medical research, rather than any which seek to effect fundamental change within society. Giving money to a hospital or a hospice through a charity ball does not threaten the status quo. It does not challenge the fairness of a society where some people get to shop for designer gear in New York and Paris while others die homeless on Dublin’s streets, outside the glitz and the glamour. Nor does it in any way tackle the fact that hospitals and hospices are in desperate need of this charity as a direct result of the disgraceful underfunding by the State.
Such challenges to the way we order this society, entailing as they would the espousal, for instance, of increasing taxes on the wealthy, would most likely be anathema to the charity ball constituency.
They are the contents of company boardrooms and their spouses, the shareholders of Ireland, and those much-caressed creatures the entrepreneurs. They are the kind of people who approve, for instance, of the Irish Ferries approach towards maximising profit. They might decry the boot-boy tactics, but you certainly won’t find many of them protesting against that company’s actions on the streets of Dublin tomorrow. Organising a charity do, to help the victims of the untrammelled pursuit of wealth, would be more their style.
Charity is, and has always been, the easy outlet for the beneficiaries of our inequitable society, who may from time to time feel sorry for the less fortunate. Vehicles for the distribution of largesse were in the past very much the territory of the churches and served to keep the poor in their place by instilling feelings of both gratitude and insecurity.
The emphasis was on charity and generosity rather than on the rights of people to services. The charity ball is the shiny, modern, secular replacement, complete with its fringe benefits of networking and securing business contacts. One sales recruitment firm has even singled out the charity ball (together with the golf club) as a most profitable arena in which to do business.
But, like their church-bound predecessors, today’s charity fundraisers are also predicated on the principle that the poor and the downtrodden will always be with us.
Nothing about them has the slightest intention of shaking the comfortable notion that there will forever be an unlimited supply of those in need of our generosity, which in turn allows us to surround ourselves with an aura of virtue as we dance the night away.
Restoring dignity to Magdalenes August 21st, 2003
Exactly 10 years ago, a firm of Dublin undertakers began a mass exhumation in Drumcondra. As far as they were concerned, the papers were all in order: 133 bodies were to be dug up and ferried to Glasnevin Cemetery, where they would be cremated. It was a small burial plot, with the graves unmarked except for a few plain black crosses. Not exactly a run-of-the-mill job for the undertakers, but not that unusual either. It was only when they discovered 22 additional bodies that alarm bells began ringing. This was a burial site for Magdalenes, women who had effectively been locked up for most of their lives, working for no wages in High Park convent, one of the largest and oldest Magdalene laundries in the country.
By the early 1990s, the laundry had closed and the nuns – the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge – were selling their land to housing developers. The nuns had gambled and lost on the stock exchange and needed cash. The snag was the graveyard for the Magdalene women who had died in their service was on the land they had sold. So the good sisters did a deal with the developers that each would pay half the cost to clear the land of the remains. To exhume a grave, you need an exhumation licence from the Department of the Environment. The nuns were granted such a licence for 133 bodies buried at the High Park plot. The list of names they provided to the department makes for interesting reading.
Twenty-three of the women are listed under the heading “quasi-religious name” – the nuns admitted that they did not know their real names. They called them Magdalene of St Cecilia, Magdalene of Lourdes, Magdalene of St Teresa and so on. Another woman had only a first name.The nuns told the department that as they had no names, death certificates for these 24 women could not be produced. The department raised no objection, despite the fact that some of the women had died as recently as the late 1960s. The nuns also said that there were no death certs for a further 34 women. These women at least had names. But the cause and date of death for most of them are listed as “not known”. Some of these women died as recently as the mid-1970s.
It is a criminal offence to fail to register a death that occurs on your premises. This is normally done by a relative. In the case of the Magdalene women, it was the legal duty of the nuns to register their deaths. It would appear that for at least 58 of these women, the nuns failed to do so. And then there were the additional 22 bodies discovered by the undertakers. All work on the graves had to cease immediately, as these remains were not covered by the exhumation licence. What the Department of the Environment then did beggars belief.
Rather than halting proceedings to investigate, they simply put through an additional licence to allow the nuns to remove all bodies from the graveyard. They didn’t even ask if anyone knew the identities of the extra 22. All but one of the bodies were cremated, destroying any possibility of future identifications. The nuns had been informed that the cost of reburying the remains intact would be considerable, and so they went for the cheaper option.
Until 20 years ago, cremation was forbidden by Catholic Church canon law. Even today it is frowned on as undesirable. Canon 1176 now “earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained”.
None of this cut much ice with the High Park nuns. Cremation proceeded smoothly, despite the fact that the State was fully aware that more than half the deaths of those exhumed had never been certified. The ashes were interred in a plot in Glasnevin. A headstone with a list of names now marks the grave. However, a comparison of the names and dates on that headstone and the list supplied by the nuns to the Department of the Environment is startling. Only 27 of the names and dates coincide.
So either the list of names given to the department to obtain the exhumation licence was substantially false, or the names on the Glasnevin gravestone bear little relation to the identities of those actually buried there.
Last Easter, I asked the nuns at High Park to explain all of this. They chose not to respond to any of the 19 detailed questions I put to them.
Instead, earlier this week, they issued a statement claiming that the exhumation was carried out in order to provide the women with a permanent resting place. Their concern to respect the dead Magdalene women is no doubt touching. But might perhaps the Minister for Justice be concerned enough to investigate so many unexplained and unregistered deaths? And who will care enough to restore to these women the dignity of their real names – something the nuns stripped ruthlessly from them in life?
It is surely the duty of the State to return some respect to these, its citizens, whom it deserted so comprehensively both in life and in death.