Irish society is colluding in its own destruction


CAN A country die of shame? Probably not – but Ireland is making a good effort. Ours is a society colluding in its own destruction. We go along with the outrageous expropriation of public wealth and the imposition of stupid cruelties because, at some level, we are convinced that “we” deserve it.

Shame can be a very good thing – a lot of shameless people in Ireland could do with a large dose of it. But the psychiatrist Garrett O’Connor usefully distinguishes “healthy shame” from “malignant shame”: “Healthy shame becomes malignant when it . . . is used as a weapon by individuals or groups in authority to control or manipulate the actions and attitudes of those under their power . . .

“Malignant shame, more than a simple emotion, is an identity: a more or less permanent state of low self-esteem that causes even successful persons to experience themselves as being unworthy . . . Thus, abuse victims often remain passive in the face of punishment because they suspect that the rage and criticism of their perpetrator is both accurate and justified.”

This is an eerily accurate diagnosis of the collective passivity of Irish citizens. We are the victims of an obvious outrage – forced to beggar ourselves to pay off debts that “we” never incurred. But we are unable to respond to this attack because we suspect that we deserve it.

We screwed up the best chance for sustainable prosperity Ireland has ever had. We escaped the historic legacy of poverty and failure and then sleep-walked right back into the mire. Our only hope is to be good, to take our medicine, to win back the approval of those we let down – the markets, the Germans.

I was thinking about this kind of shame the other night because I was at an event to mark the 40th anniversary of an Irish organisation that had the guts to confront and banish it. Forty years ago in Ireland, about the worst thing that could happen to a family was that one of its unmarried daughters became pregnant. It was a hideous disgrace for the girl herself and for her parents. And this shame was enormously effective in making people feel powerless.

Under the spell of shame, people did things we now regard as almost inexplicable. They savaged themselves. Fathers drove the daughters they had loved to mother-and-baby homes, dropped them at the gate and told them never to contact home again.

Healthy young women gave birth to babies, bonded with them and then signed away all rights to contact with those babies when, as was almost always the case, they were sent for adoption. People put up with pain that wrecked their lives. Why? Because they were convinced that they deserved it. It was the family’s fault that it had raised a hussy. It was the girl’s fault that she had not guarded her virginity. This was the power of malignant shame – the power to make people feel powerless.

And then, 40 years ago, a small group of young single mothers decided they were, in fact, not ashamed of themselves. Maura Richards, Colette O’Neill, Aileen Mulhern, Evelyn Forde, Aileen Kelly, Nuala Feric, Mary Liddy, Mary Kerrigan, Annette Hunter Evans and others came out of the shadows, presented themselves to television and newspapers, held public meetings and founded Cherish (now called One Family).

Over the next decade, this simple act of being visible and unashamed revolutionised public attitudes to children born out of wedlock. The vile concept of illegitimacy was formally banished (though it still lurks in odd corners of the law – one of the most important reasons to support the children’s rights referendum).

Women suddenly realised that they had the power of choice after all – including the power to keep their babies. Their parents realised that they didn’t have to destroy their own families by cutting off their daughters and ignoring their “bastard” grandchildren. Family life in Ireland was immensely enriched by the simple realisation that no one should ever be ashamed of a child.

One could say that these young women took on the system, but that, in fact, is relatively unimportant. What they really took on was the tyrant inside their own heads – the tyrant of malignant shame. That’s where the courage lies – in facing down the enemy within, the voice that tells you that you should slink off to hide your shame in shadows and silence. Slay that monster and previously impossible things become inevitable.

If young women could find that courage in the much more difficult circumstances of 1972, why can’t the Government find it now? There is a simple truth – we can’t pay the money. Ireland cannot pay back the promissory note for Anglo Irish Bank and Nationwide and it cannot bear the weight of the other bondholder bailouts.

But our leaders are bizarrely ashamed to say so. They flee instead into their own form of denial, the fairytale of the “Celtic comeback”. It would do them, and us, a lot of good if they spent a few hours with the women who founded Cherish and asked them how they learned to be unashamed.

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