Ireland in the 20th century contained not one rotten little state, but two

The impact of this month’s Mother and Baby Homes report came home to me personally through texts from my two daughters, both proud Irish-speaking feminists in their early thirties. “I felt deeply sad and sick to my stomach”, said one. “I’ve never felt so ashamed of this country,” said the other.

As so often, the horror of it was best articulated by Fintan O’Toole. He wrote about “the reign of terror” suffered by the young pregnant women and the “culture of fear which fused the physical and the spiritual, the social and the religious, into a single, overwhelming system of domination.” O’Toole has absolutely no doubt where the main guilt lay. “That power, for the vast majority of us, was wielded by one institution and one institution only: the Catholic Church.”

In 1969 London-based, Dublin-born journalist Alan Bestic quoted the words of a Catholic social worker about unmarried pregnant Irish girls in England:”The fear in these girls has to be seen to be believed. It is only by endless gentleness that we can persuade them that going back [to Ireland] to have their baby wouldn’t be so awful. What sort of society do you have in Ireland that puts the girls into this state?”

O’Toole tries to answer this question, acknowledging “the cruelty of Irish society, its obsessions with respectability and property, its misogyny and its snobbery, its endless capacity (honed by generations of mass emigration) to make its own realities disappear. But the driving force of this cruelty was spiritual terrorism. The sum of all fears was the dread of perdition. It was within this orbit that, as [Edna] O’Brien put it, the female body was ‘blackened by the fear of sin’. There was no such thing as ‘society’ as distinct from this domination of damnation, no neutral State beyond its reach. It pervaded everything and invaded each of our bodies. The brutal institutions of social control – industrial schools, Magdalen asylums and mother and baby homes – were the outward signs of this inward terror.”1

In the words of the great Leitrim writer John McGahern, who was driven from his job as a teacher at the instigation of the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid: “In that country, individual thought and speech were discouraged…By 1950, against the whole spirit of the 1916 Proclamation, the State had become a theocracy in all but name. The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand… The breaking of pelvic bones took place during difficult births in hospitals because it was thought to be be more in conformity with Catholic teaching than Caesarean section, presumably because it was considered more ‘natural’. Minorities were deprived of the right to divorce. Learning Irish was seen as a means of keeping much foreign corrupting influence out.”

Meanwhile the country was so impoverished that in the 1950s half a million people were forced to emigrate, most of them to England. It was an irony beyond irony that this was precisely the time the Irish government chose to mount an utterly futile international campaign to end partition. Little wonder that Northern Protestants, snug in their own bigoted, anti-Catholic statelet, scoffed at this attempt to incorporate them into such a Catholic-run dystopia.

And weren’t they right? The truth is that the Republic of Ireland in the middle decades of the last century was a rotten little place, antipathetic to women, children and anybody who deviated from the path of obedience to the all-powerful Church and its servants in an inward-looking and impecunious ‘ourselves alone’ State. We have been told repeatedly what a dreadful place Northern Ireland was for the 70 years between the 1920s and the 1990s. After the seemingly endless series of recent reports into Catholic Church-related abuses of the weak, the poor and the deviant, it is surely time to confess that the independent Irish State wasn’t much better. And this is not at all to deny that similar abuses – rooted in the Victorian and post-Victorian age’s cruel attitudes to such people – also took place in the North or in Protestant-run homes in the South like Dublin’s Bethany Home.

So what are the lessons of this for those of us who would like one day to see the peoples of Ireland coming together in one constitutional arrangement? It would be easy to dismiss all these scandals as the product of a dark and bygone age, which has now triumphantly passed as the popular votes in the same sex marriage and abortion referenda have turned the present-day republic into one of Europe’s most liberal societies. However the Catholic Church, much diminished but still powerful, continues to wield huge influence – often now through clever trust arrangements – over many of the country’s hospitals and more than 90% of its schools. In the same week that the Mother and Baby Homes report was published, the former master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr Peter Boylan, outlined in a letter to the Irish Times how that hospital in its brand-new form would be taken over by one of several “private Vatican controlled entities beyond the reach of the State.”2

And the Republic is not exactly a land flowing with milk and honey (despite the astonishing finding of a UN survey last month that it is now the country with the second highest quality of life in the world – after Norway – when measured by income, education, health and length of life). It is one of the most unequal societies in Europe before progressive tax and welfare systems equalise those divisions considerably. It has shocking levels of child poverty, hospital waiting lists, mental illness, social housing shortages and homelessness. The Direct Provision system for asylum-seekers is a national scandal. After the Covid-19 pandemic is over – in common with many other smaller countries – it will face gargantuan and near-unsustainable levels of debt.

So maybe it is time to be a little self-reflective and lay off on the drumbeat announcements that Irish unity is inevitable and just around the corner after one or two Border Polls over the next decade (and will be the solution to all our problems). Maybe we should work for some more years to make our republic a more decent, equal and inclusive society, respectful of other cultures besides our own Irish nationalist one, before expecting Northerners to want to cast aside their Britishness (and fine British institutions like the National Health Service) to come in with us.

It cost the wealthy Germans two trillion euros for new infrastructure alone to help unite their country, with an overwhelming majority of people in favour of that outcome, very few against and people prepared to put up with significant tax increases to bring it about peacefully and harmoniously. Will we be able to muster a quarter of that sum to do the same for our country, when something like a sixth of the population – and half of the population of the present Northern Ireland – will be bitterly opposed to it (and a small number may be prepared to use violence to resist it)? And when we refuse to pay even a small but environmentally urgent water tax?

Is the message from Sinn Fein and other ‘advanced’ nationalists that we want a much closer relationship with the North for the good of all the people of the island, and are prepared to work over a period of time towards complex constitutional and other arrangements (building on the extremely complex Good Friday Agreement) to that end? Or is it rather that once we get the narrowest of narrow wins in a Border Poll, the historic British-imposed wrong of partition will be ended and we will have a unitary state that effectively takes over the North? That is what the Irish political establishment was endlessly demanding for much of the bad old 20th century (read Clare O’Halloran’s seminal book, Partition and the Limits of Irish Nationalism, if you doubt me). Despite their sometimes honeyed words, it seems to me that what Sinn Fein is offering is little different. And to judge by the brazenness of many Sinn Feiners in Belfast these days – supremely confident that tiocfaidh ár lá – their attitudes have not changed one iota. ‘The boot will soon be on the other foot’ is what that strutting confidence says to me.

1 ‘Spiritual terrorism created world of mother and baby homes’, 19 January

2 ‘State and church and healthcare’, Letters to the Editor, 15 January

This entry was posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland in the 20th century contained not one rotten little state, but two

  1. Colm MAguire says:

    Sharp and accurate

  2. Sean O'Sullivan says:

    Telling it as it was, Andy. But there have been huge improvements in Irish society over the last decade or so, to such an extent that many of the younger generation today must find it hard to believe just how bad and rotten things were. Having been borne during the ‘war’ years I lived through much of that rottenness, inhumanity and cruelty. In discussing with Czechs when I first came to their beautiful country I was able to argue that we in Ireland also had a dictatorial stalinist monster, except ours lived in Rome, not in Moscow. Organisationally, everything was comparable, the total control of all of the pillars of social and economic life, the domination, the bigotted and violent intolerance of ‘dissidents’. Most depressing of all however, is the almost total acceptance of the Irish of this degrading and depressing regime. Very few questioned it, and those brave souls who did were quickly got rid off (as effectively as the poor little babies in the Tuam septic tank). I seem to remember that a Leitrim guy was actually expelled from the country for being a ‘communist’!

    Sinn Fein will not succeed in their aim – a border poll will not deliver them the sectarian outcome they cannot help but crave. But both societies growing up north and south on this island will grow ever closer with time – they have far too much in common to do otherwise. The younger generation are much better educated and travelled to tolerate any other outcome.

    As to the concept of a ‘United Ireland’ I have been re-reading an excellent account of the foundation and operation of the Irish Franciscan monastery in Prague in the 17th and 18th centuries. What struck me particularly was the way the governing power of the monastery had to be shared amongst those from each of the four provinces, and the dissension that arose (regularly!) when proportions got out of balance! I was reminded that a ‘united Ireland’ was a political construct only ever achieved by English intervention and never before. Ireland had been disunited geologically for millions of years, and politically long before Cuchulainn. Makes you wonder!

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