I'm sure I'm not the only one who, upon seeing the dramatic splash screaming "800 BABIES" in the Irish Daily Mail, stared at it incredulously. It took days for it to sink in, as I tried to find out more. I think it's a version of this personal process that unfolded as a collective, national one.
Journalists who stuttered on this "story" will contextualise it on a news agenda that was coming out the other side of a rollicking election, and the implosion of the Labour Party leadership. The news came from an unfamiliar source, a local historian compiling research. The initial break came in a local newspaper, not a blockbuster Prime Time or an Irish Times front page.
It all happened so long ago. The facts were scant. They were allegations. Tread softly, I’d imagine news editors thought, because this seems so big – surely we would have known about it before? We still don’t know all of the facts, but we know the context. We all know by osmosis the horrors committed in this State. It’s oral history. We all heard our parents talk about dodgy priests, creepy buildings at the top of the town and babies not deserving of burial in consecrated ground, its soil fertilised with hypocrisy.
‘A different time’
The temptation is to say that was then and this is now. That it was a “different time”. And if we’re being honest, we have to hold a certain amount of sympathy for that narrative. Ireland is emerging from a sociopolitical structure that was theocratic. The bowed heads, the women smuggled into big buildings with slamming doors, the muttered prayers, the screams of labour, the dying cries of children, the chugging of rented cars from Americans buying babies. The silent, devious cruelty of nuns and priests emboldened by an even more deafening silence of a public, police and politics visibly guided by a hand of God with dirt under its fingernails.
We recognise this old Ireland because it’s not just in the past, it’s just beneath the surface. Its echoes are in the baritone verdicts of judges who allow rapists to pay their way out of custodial sentences. Its echoes are in the tannoy systems at airport departure gates as pregnant women, fumbling with their boarding cards, make the journey to the UK for an abortion because our own State won’t afford them the rights to their own bodies and their own reproductive choices. All of this is about sexual shame and blame, condemning women. We haven’t got over that yet.
I’m not one for quoting Donald Rumsfeld, but we should be careful about the visceral nature of our reaction to these “unknown knowns” about children and babies and mass graves. Part of our reaction is an empowered one that wants to confront the past head-on in a way our parents and grandparents didn’t, to solve it, to do justice and thus to free ourselves from it, so our shame won’t be inherited any more. But another part of that amplified reaction also denies us the perspective of now.
While the Archdiocese of Tuam shies away from knowledge in this instance, and while the Bon Secours nuns recruit the services of a public relations firm, and while politicians actually take the lead in calling for both State and Garda inquiries, we have transferred one past version of cruelty driven by religious dogma and sexism, to a present version driven by othering and – there’s no getting around this – racism.
Direct provision, the Orwellian term for institutions where asylum seekers are contained, is cruel and unfair. It denies people respect and freedom, and it needs to end. At the National Women’s Council agm on Friday, I met a young woman campaigning for the eradication of direct provision, “In 10 years’ time some taoiseach is going to stand up and apologise for direct provision,” she said as we chatted outside. “We don’t want an apology then. We want action now.”
We know about the present
The excuse for the past was that it was a different time and that “no one really knew”. Well this is the present, and we bloody well do know about the injustice of direct provision. In Ireland 4,278 asylum seekers live in direct provision centres, of whom 1,590 are children. Could you live on €19.10 a week? Could your children live on €9.60 a week? What if you were not allowed cook or have food in your own rooms? What if you were prohibited from working? What if you had no voice? We are treating those in direct provision, people just like us but born in other parts of the world, as subhuman.
We should ask ourselves: how on Earth can we collude in such a system through silence, when we know well the crippling shame that our old State and religious institutions brought on this country? If the past is prologue, then surely it’s not just about coming to terms with it. It’s not just about freeing ourselves from it so we can do justice, forgive and move on. It’s about learning from it, and acting on it right now.