Breda O’Brien: Fallen men never toiled in a laundry

Tuam scandal shows the vice most characteristic of any age is often dressed up as virtue

CS Lewis's Screwtape Letters are written from the perspective of a senior devil, Screwtape, who is instructing a junior devil on how to best to distract potential Christians from the danger of becoming real Christians.

His advice is subtle, yet simple. “We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic . . . Cruel ages are put on their guard against sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against respectability, lecherous ones against puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make liberalism the prime bogey.”

Every generation is to be directed to avoid the vice to which it is least likely to succumb and encouraged to practise a version of the virtue that most resembles the vice the devils wish to spread. (So, for example, the readers who are already thinking about taking to Twitter to decry my idiocy for writing about devils are perhaps being carefully steered towards the kind of fundamentalist thinking that cannot recognise when a writer is not being literal but metaphorical. However, given that one editor wearily used to inform me there is no typeface for irony, perhaps I should make it clear that I do not think my critics are possessed by the devil.)

Right up until the early 1980s, Ireland seems to have been inhabited by puritans being carefully warned by Screwtape to guard against lechery.


Sexually active

Being sexually active outside marriage and, in particular, conceiving a child outside marriage, was punished by social disapproval, usually directed against women.

Take James Connolly. When 15-year-old Mary Ellen Murphy was sentenced to a month's custody during the 1913 Lockout because she had struck another woman and called her a "scab", she was too young to be put in jail.

She was sent to High Park Convent in Drumcondra, where there was a reformatory and a Magdalene Laundry on the same site.

Connolly protested bitterly, pointing out that “when that girl was sent into that institution her character was foully besmirched and a damnable outrage committed”.

He declared indignantly that “girls of the reformatory were in the same chapel with the fallen women and in view of them, a partition only dividing them”.

Although Connolly declared in 1908 that he had not practised his faith in 15 years and had not a tincture of faith left, he still saw it as abominable that a fiery young striker should be in such close proximity to “fallen women”.

Fallen men, oddly enough, were not to be found toiling in the laundry next door.

Ireland only introduced an unmarried mother’s allowance in 1973. At the time, a mother keeping her child was almost unheard of.

When in 1974 senator Mary Robinson brought forward a Bill to get rid of illegitimacy, she quoted at length and with great approval from astatement of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference objecting to the discriminatory treatment of children outside of marriage.

She welcomed the bishops’ proposals as an important contribution to family law in Ireland.

However, it was not until 1984 and the Status of Children Act that illegitimacy was abolished.

This era fears being under the thrall of the Catholic Church, at a time when the church never had less influence.

A previous age feared being too soft on unmarried mothers and thus managed to avoid any danger of developing a really Christian attitude towards them.

This is not in any way to legitimise the way in which women and children were treated in the Ireland of the past. I stand over what I wrote in 2014 about the Tuam babies case.

“Their mothers were just expected to forget about them, to continue on as if they never carried them under their hearts for nine months. It should go without saying that anyone who knows anything about this tragedy should immediately reveal any information that they have.

“There are other unmarked graves around the country and they should be investigated, too, to see if, even at this late stage, some reparation can be made for the way Irish society ostracised and neglected single mothers and their babies.”

Obsessed with purity

But a bit of humility and perspective would not go astray. Ireland of the past was obsessed with purity in a way that had the interesting side-effect of managing to protect property rights and allow many men to evade their responsibilities.

The past was often a cruel and intolerant place, but it would not have seemed that way to people who agreed with its values and who were not the victims of the cruelty.

The most characteristic vice of any age is dressed up as a virtue, and almost by definition, is invisible to the culture at large.

What is the characteristic vice of this society that will seem utterly shocking to future generations but is a badge of virtue today? We condemn the mores of the past, forgetting that this age, too, has its areas of darkness, intolerance and neglect that are being ignored with equal fervour.