WINDOWS ON THE PAST
I wrote last time about Europe and the impact four decades of EU membership has had.
Three things recently have demonstrated just how much Ireland has changed. The first is the newly released report on the Magdalen Laundries. The other two relate to books I was asked to review, one fiction, one non-fiction.
The Magdalen Laundries were run by several Orders of Nuns throughout Ireland for most of the Twentieth Century, the last closing only in 1997. Their heyday was up to the 1970s. The laundry workers were exclusively women and girls who were housed on the premises, were unpaid and subject to a strict regime including long silences and much prayer. Originally they were intended for “ fallen women”, i.e. prostitutes or single women who became pregnant at a time when single parenting was frowned upon and many of the women ostracised, even by their own families.
Later, girls from broken homes or who were judged to be disruptive were lodged in the laundries. Considerable numbers of minors or adolescents were sent to the homes by their families. Myths abounded, particularly against the background of revelations of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic religious which surfaced in the 1980s, culminating in several reports which detailed the dreadful physical, sexual and emotional abuse meted out to children in state financed institutions and orphanages.
The Government commissioned a working group of civil servants to ascertain the level of state involvement in the laundries, including whether the state had sent girls in its care into what were in effect workhouses. Its report, still being digested as I write, though less awful than had been anticipated, exposed yet another sad aspect of Irish society in the last century.
Some (8%) had certainly been committed by the state, quite often in the belief that the laundries were a better alternative to prison, but, for most inmates, entry had been “voluntary”, prompted by family, friends, or do gooders, and they had, in theory been free to leave at any time. The problem was that no one appears to have made this clear to the women involved, and while typically the period spent at what was in effect hard labour was around seven months, many women spent years incarcerated, some becoming institutionalised, and many more emotionally scarred and unprepared for life outside.
The report is there to be read. The point to register is that the laundries could never happen in today’s Ireland. They represent yet another example of the failure of the Irish state for most of the last century, by commission or omission, to look out for some of its most vulnerable charges. Ireland was not a place for the marginalised to find state support. And, arguably, official policy (or lack of it) reflected the popular view; out of sight, out of mind- someone else’s problem.
An interesting portrait of the background to that vanished Ireland can be found in the recently released atmospheric thriller, “ City of Shadows” by Michael Russell. Set in the Dublin of the 1930s, the story opens with John McCormack singing at the 1932 Eucharistic Congress Mass in the Phoenix Park in 1932, an event widely regarded as the high point of resurgent Catholicism in 20th Century Ireland. There are particularly evocative scenes of the Dublin of the time.
The book offers fascinating insights into Irish society and the politics of the newly independent state at a time when the institutions of state were still bedding down and democracy was under threat. De Valera, Eoin O’Duffy and the Blue Shirts, the Broy Harriers, are all there, with constant reminders that the civil war was in the very recent past and that violence still lurked just below the surface.
The powerful and all pervasive influence of the Catholic Church, exercised through devices such as the Ne Temere decree and supported by the activities of its right wing civilian supporters, dominated the scene, while under the surface there was another Ireland, with a covert gay scene and cupboard skeletons of many, epitomised in an abortion clinic, fashionably located, for the rich and powerful. The book even has a visit to a Magdalen laundry.
A no less revealing screenshot of that Ireland is to be found in a very different new book, “Suddenly, While Abroad,” which traces the misfortunes of a group of Irish merchant seamen, captured by the Nazis during the early part of the Second World War when the British vessels they were sailing on were sunk. Sub-titled” Hitler’s Irish Slaves” the book narrates how and why the 32 seamen were segregated out from thousands of captive civilian sailors to be pressurised into working for the Nazis. When they stubbornly refused they were eventually handed over to the SS and sent to a concentration/labour camp near Bremen in North Germany, to be worked as slaves until the war ended.
The book does not make for easy reading. Over 50% of the 100,000 sent to the Neuengamme camps died there and the atrocities committed against the Russian, Jewish and Polish inmates, including some children sent by Mengele for experiments, are stomach churning and beggar belief. Five of the Irish died – four from typhus. The other, William Hutchinson Knox, from Dun Laoghaire, aged 59, a relative of the author, died in the Farge concentration camp in March 1945 after five years in captivity, following an operation, performed without anaesthetic, with four of his Irish comrades holding him down.
The War was a titanic struggle which saw the German war machine eventually overcome, at enormous human cost, by a coalition of most of the world powers. We know the imperfect world that emerged from it. This book, with its nightmarish accounts, offers a glimpse of what might have been had the Nazis won.
Ireland managed to stay neutral in the conflict, ultimately because she was peripheral to the war aims and interests of the combatants. This neutrality, while it definitely had a pro-allied bias, with tens of thousands of Irish serving in the British army, is now presented as the ultimate affirmation of Irish sovereignty and independence.
But one facet of it was a stultifying censorship regime, which kept most Irish in ignorance of what was happening. Post war, there were many holocaust deniers to be heard. The official line regarding army deserters, many of whom joined the British army, was to prosecute, punish financially and blacklist from future state employment many thousands under the “Starvation Order.”
Irish neutrality may not have helped the merchant seamen’s plight. It certainly led to them being singled out as a group; some Nazis believed that many Irish were anti-British and arguably took it out on the sailors when they refused to serve. They were denied consular access for a long time and efforts to repatriate them – as happened with some other “neutral” seamen – came to nothing. When the survivors returned to Ireland they were ignored and remain unrecognised. While the book is critical of Irish government inaction, there were probably practical limits to what could be achieved in dealing with a criminal regime in the throes of collapse. But again, like the Magdalens, this took place in the past – another country. It would not happen today.