Una Mullally: Will Ireland’s ‘dark chapters’ ever come to an end?

From the Magdalene laundries to illegal adoptions and psychiatric homes, it’s time to properly tackle the legacy of our culture of institutionalisation and incarceration

Members of the public wait outside the Mansion House in Dublin to greet survivors of the Magdalene laundries. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Members of the public wait outside the Mansion House in Dublin to greet survivors of the Magdalene laundries. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

In the last three years, we’ve had two hugely significant referendums which passed due to people talking to each other. The power of conversation and education dominated the marriage equality and Eighth Amendment referendum campaigns. Such was the willingness of the Irish public to engage with the facts, that in both instances, misinformation was rejected. People spoke. People listened. Now it’s time to talk about other things. 

In the aftermath of the abortion referendum, the tide started to come in. Outside the Mansion House, hundreds of people spontaneously gathered, crying, to welcome women incarcerated in Magdalene laundries to an event in their honour. Then details of illegal adoptions began to emerge, these known knowns. We call these things “dark chapters”, yet we never seem to be able to truly close them. 

It’s time for our society to properly address our legacy. We need to establish a truth and reconciliation model for a proper national conversation that exposes the reality of our terrible past, offers those who were affected by it an opportunity to speak and be heard, give us a chance to properly confront and reconcile the past – with consequences – allow us to heal, and then finally, finally, move on.

How many times can we talk about Ireland’s dark past as if it’s some kind of discombobulated entity floating in the distance? It resides in us all, and we have to deal with it. When you hold untreated emotional pain and trauma, it doesn’t go away. That is what we have been doing for decades as a nation. We know we have to talk about these things, and in recent years we have shown the type of maturity that indicates we can do so without shame, with courage, and acknowledge collectively that silence is damaging and needs to be broken.

Fintan O’Toole previously wrote about Damien Brennan’s book Asylums, Mental Health Care and the Irish 1800-2010. In 1955 there were 710 psychiatric beds in Ireland per 100,000 people. In the same year, as the Soviet Union was dealing with the aftermath of Stalin’s reign, that nation had 617 psychiatric beds per 100,000 people. At the recent Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas in Carlow, where myself and O’Toole were speaking on a panel, he raised another statistic, that one in 100 Irish people was incarcerated when you take into account the high rate of incarceration in mental hospitals, along with industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, and Mother and Baby Homes.

People would say ‘he’s gone to Ballinasloe’, and everyone knew what that meant.

What were we doing to one and other, and why? Is there a family in the State that does not have a story that relates to these dark acts of incarceration or banishment?

Disappearances

After the talk in Borris, my mother told me a story of a common scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s when she was growing up in Ballinasloe, in Galway, where the massive x-shaped St Brigid’s Psychiatric Hospital was located. “When we were going to school, we used to see them in the back of a lorry,” she said, “standing in the back of it, 15 or 20 men, and they were going up to the woods to cut down trees and chop wood, that’s what we were told. They were patients in the mental hospital. They looked expressionless, just standing in the lorry. I can still see their faces. Like everything else back then, people were put in there who weren’t mentally ill. People were put in there for disputes over land. It served the whole of Galway. It was a huge employer. People would say ‘he’s gone to Ballinasloe’, and everyone knew what that meant.”

For many people, Galway place-names became shorthand for suffering: Ballinasloe, Tuam, Letterfrack, not to mention the industrial schools in Renmore, Loughrea, Clifden and Salthill. That’s just one county. Slave labour. Kidnapping. Trafficking. Torture. Abuse. Can we talk about this now? This happened.

While there have been inquiries, reports and commissions, such as the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse established in 1999, many of the conversations and statements have happened behind closed doors and have been heavily filtered. These attempts at investigation and redress have also been fragmented. We need to zoom out now, and look at the bigger picture. This was a culture, a power structure and a system, and it needs to be addressed as such. We cannot just blame this on whatever government was in power or on the Catholic Church and religious orders, although they both colluded to create the structures under which people suffered so terribly. We need to also confront our own families who collaborated in “disappearing” people into homes, hospitals, and institutions. 

Healing together

I don’t think anyone will ever forget Michael O’Brien on Questions and Answers , when he confronted Brian Lenihan about the abuse he experienced in industrial schools. This was a man simply telling his story and exposing his pain. It was a jolt through the country because it was a truth. We need a forum where that happens en masse, with a broad terms of reference. Then we can heal together. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 was an attempt to heal the country post-apartheid, and offer rehabilitation to victims of human rights violations. The hearings were broadcast on television and radio. The reconciliation aspect is crucial too. These mechanisms are not perfect, but they are better than doing nothing. 

Given the vast array of human rights violations that Ireland’s culture of institutionalisation and incarceration perpetrated, we have to tackle this past as a whole made up of multitudes, not just chip the occasional bit off when another “scandal” arises. We know so many things, and we occasionally share them in whispers, but we need to create the forum for these things to be said, heard, for there to be real consequences and help, and maybe then, we’ll get somewhere near closure. 

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