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The past is a foreign country, thankfully

Second Reading

The past is a foreign country, thankfully


Fr Kevin Hegarty

For anyone who has knowledge of recent Irish Catholic history, the revelations about mother and baby homes in Tuam and elsewhere can hardly be surprising. In the early decades of independent Ireland, Conservative nationalist and Catholicism colluded in creating the ethos of the new state.
John McGahern who lived through much of it, has written: “it was as if suddenly the heavenly world of all eternity had been placed down on the twenty six counties, administered by the Church and the new class who had done well out of independence”.
From the 1920s to the 1960s Irish Catholic bishops were obsessed with enforcing a narrow sexual morality.
Dancing was frowned upon. Archbishop Gilmartin of Tuam in 1926, lamented the importation of dances which “lent themselves not so much to rhythm as to low sensuality”. He claimed that “company keeping under the stars of night had succeeded in too many places to the good old Irish custom of visiting, chatting and story-telling from one house to another, with the rosary to bring all home in due time”.
Parental discipline had slipped. Gilmartin’s colleague, Dr O’Doherty of Galway, in a disturbing statement, encouraged fathers to physically chastise daughters who did not arrive home after dances, at the appointed time: “If your girls do not obey you, if they are not in at the hours appointed, lay the lash upon their backs. That was the good old system and that should be the system today”.
As a result dances often took place under the baleful supervision of clerics. One man who endured this mental torture wrote that he had “more fun and freedom at a Corpus Christi procession in Esker”!
Women who became pregnant outside marriage were a particular focus of criticism and condemnation in those years.
Catholic clerics, in their zeal to create a kind of sexless utopia, neglected the compassion of Jesus Christ, poignantly telescoped in his encounter with the woman caught in adultery and her torturers.
Liam O’Flaherty’s terrifying story, “The Outcast”, dramatises an anguished meeting of a priest and an unmarried mother.
Kitty Mannion, having been sacked from her job, pleads for help from the parish priest: “Have pity on me Father, have pity on me child”. The priest spoke, “you are a housemaid at Mr Burke’s, the solicitor”, “I was Father but he dismissed me this morning, I have no place to go. They’re afraid to take me in the village for fear ye might...Oh Father, I don’t mind about mesel but me child”.
“Who is the father of yer child woman?”. Her lips quivered. Tears rolled down her cheek. She did not speak. “Ha, he cried arrogantly, ”I thought so, obstinate slut. I have noticed you this long while. I knew you were drifting. The menace to my parish that a serpent like you...out with it... let me know who has aided you in your sin, name him”.
“I can’t” she moaned hysterically. I can’t Father. There was more than one man. I don’t know who”. “Stop wretch”, screamed the priest, seizing his head with both hands. “Silence, I command you”. The child began to whimper.
The priest’s face was livid. He drew in a deep breath to regain control of himself. Then he stretched his right hand to the door with the forefinger pointed.
“Go”, he thundered, in a melancholy voice. “Be gone from me accursed one. Be gone with the child of your abomination. Be gone”.
The story ends with the young woman drowning herself and her child in the local lake.
Conservative Catholic apologists may like to dismiss O’Flaherty’s story as a figment of his fertile  anti-Catholic imagination. However, the prosaic regulations of a 1934 clergy conference in the archdiocese of Tuam reveal a similar message of condemnation and exclusion. It stated:
“Whenever an illegitimate birth occurs in a parish, and is publicly known, the scandal ought to be denounced without mentioning names, with a view to calling the guilty to repentance and as a deterrent to others. The denunciation ought to be in sorrow more than in anger and the preacher ought to point to the scandal as a grave sin against the sacrament of matrimony and against the sixth commandment, as a degradation of the soul, as a disgrace to the family, as a sin against the good name of the locality.
Not only is the general permission given, but a direction is also give to make this denunciation. In a special case, after consultation with the Archbishop, the matter may be deferred for a time. But in every case the scandal is to be immediately referred to the Archbishop”.
This regulation remained in force until the 1950’s.
As the novelist, LP Hartley has written: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”. Thankfully.