Farewell to the land of shame

Laying flowers for the Magdalenes in Galway



It can be very empowering when the marginalised, the denigrated, and the shamed overcome their fear and find their voices.

In a quiet Galway graveyard last year, I heard an amazing man tell a heartbreaking truth with unbelievable conviction and power in his voice.

Where, he wanted to know, was his little sister?

Why was nobody giving him any answers?

It brought tears to many an eye to hear him speak his truth. I stood there, stunned in admiration, listening to a man who had been told he was worthless for much of his life.

Born into a horrible institution, fostered out to a family who beat and abused him; dealing with the terrible stigma of being branded as “illegitimate” as he set off on his journey through life.

And now, late in life, he had found out that he had a little sister who may or may not have been buried in a septic tank.

I marvelled at the conviction in the voice of a man who had found love and become a good father against all the odds, despite rather than because of a land which proclaimed to cherish all of its children equally ... while it branded some of them “bastards”, the cruellest label of all.

In the same graveyard this year, I heard an amazing woman find her voice.

She wanted to know why she had been locked up for years, even though she had committed no crime.

She wanted to know why she worked as a slave for nuns in a laundry, within a two minute walk of the beating heart of an Irish city.

Why was she imprisoned?

Why was she forgotten by the world outside?

Why? Why? Why?

And, in case we wanted to blame the nuns, she reminded us of a girl, a fellow inmate, who managed to persuade a workman to sneak a letter out to her sister in affluent Salthill.

The man thought he was doing the poor girl a favour.

So he delivered the letter to her family home.
    
Remembering the 796 Tuam Babies



It was a desperate plea for help, to be rescued from this life of slavery. Instead, she was beaten black and blue, and bullied by the nuns for months for daring to make contact with the outside world.

As soon as she had received the letter, her sister had contacted the nuns. She let it be known that she never wanted to hear from her again.

She had brought shame to the family. She had no sister, she was told.

The poor woman was distraught for months afterwards, if not for the rest of her life. The trauma of being locked up in an institution was only compounded by being rejected for a second time by her own family in caring, 'Catholic' Ireland.

This country owes a massive apology to these two individuals; and to so many women, elderly now, who were locked in institutions for the terrible crime of bringing a child into the ‘Land of Saints and Scholars’.

Yet it continues to fight them, to deny them the redress they are owed.

Funny, how I never see the prominent ‘Vote No’ campaigners in my area attend the poignant annual ceremony of remembrance for the Magdalene Laundry women in Galway each February.

They express such concern for the sanctity of human life, but don't seem so concerned with showing compassion for those who were victimised or had their lives ruined by the land of shame.

But the time has come . . .

The voiceless are finding their voices now.

Their testimonials are so, so painful, and they remind us of an appalling past when our nation shamed its own women.

If you became pregnant outside marriage, you were locked up for a year before your baby was taken from you. Forever.

If your baby died, he or she may have been buried in a septic tank. Or – and you may never know because there are no 'official' records – the child was adopted, illegally, by a ‘good’ couple in the United States.

If, God forbid, you were unlucky enough to become pregnant for a second time, you were branded a “repeat offender”.

Even though you may have been raped, or totally innocent to the ways of the world after being incarcerated in a Mother and Baby Home.

This was the land which locked up women for a year and confiscated their babies for the ‘crime’ of having a baby outside marriage.

It locked them up for two years if they were unfortunate enough to become pregnant for a second time.

It was unimaginable how badly this country treated these women and their “illegitimate” children, treating them as second class citizens when they attended 'normal' schools or locking them up in harsh Industrial Schools, where abuse was rife and nobody heard their cries of despair.

Compassion was nowhere to be found.   

                                
Savita: her death made headlines all across the globe









This is the land that told us sex was sinful, that the most natural thing in the world was somehow shameful, and that a pregnant daughter or sister was the biggest shame a “respectable” Irish family could face.

It's the land which stopped a teenage rape victim from travelling to the UK, because our constitutional ban on abortion put the rights of the unborn child on an equal footing as that of a traumatised teenage girl.

No wonder so many of us buried ourselves in alcohol, suppressing the natural Irish joy for life, and that alcohol abuse led to risky behaviour and yet more crisis pregnancies.

During my own university days, I had no idea that a group of women I was friendly with were so brave.

They were the first generation of ordinary Irish women who dared to bring their children up as single mothers. Had they become pregnant just a decade before, they could have been seized from their own homes in the dead of night and locked up in Mother and Baby Homes.

Perhaps the women themselves, struggling to juggle motherhood, work, and college, did not even realise how ground-breaking they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This is the land that told an Indian woman in distress that “This is a Catholic country” when she was denied the health care she was crying out for at my local hospital.

The death of Savita Halappanavar at University Hospital Galway led to a huge outpouring of grief in my city, a beautiful candlelight vigil in Eyre Square, and the start of a movement for change.

It is the land which told hundreds of women there was nothing it could do for them when they received a terrible diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

Arlette Lyons of Terminations for Medical Reasons (TFMR)
has spoken bravely of her harrowing journey to the UK



They found there was a special section in Liverpool Women’s Hospital just for Irish women, who made the same lonely journey knowing that the child they desperately wanted had no chance of survival.

This is the land which banned books by the likes of John McGahern and Edna O’Brien, which seem so innocent now but were seen as “controversial” because they dared to explore issues of sexuality in a place gripped by guilt and shame.

This land had the power to destroy a writer’s livelihood, or force him or her into emigration, for daring to explore issues which seem so tame to the modern reader.

It’s a land where priests had the power to name and shame single mothers from the pulpits, or could collude with Gardai to drag them from their beds at dawn, never to be seen in their homes and villages again.

It’s a land which had the power to force the resignation of a Government Minister for daring to try to introduce a mother and child healthcare system.

It would have greatly enhanced the ability of single mothers to bring up their own children, rather than being locked up in horrible institutions.

Dr Noel Browne, forced to resign in 1950, was way ahead of his time. His radical measure was seen as too much of a threat to the power structures in Irish society at the time.

It’s a land which has exported so many of its problems. As a much younger man, I met so many wonderful but troubled Irish people in Britain who had fled their native land, branded as “illegitimate”, beaten or abused, and many dealing with addiction issues brought about by so much pain.

In 2018, Ireland is still exporting its ‘problems’ in terms of so many women with crisis pregnancies from every one of the 26 counties who travel to the UK for terminations every day, week, and year.

But those women are finding their voices now.

In recent weeks, they have shown incredible bravery to face the TV cameras or radio microphones and tell the stories of the crises they faced and the obstacles they overcame. How they had to sneak away, like criminals, to another country because of our nation's shame.

They have faced hostility and derision from the kind of people who once locked unmarried mothers up in Mother and Baby Homes. But they have faced their detractors with dignity, because they believe that Ireland needs to change.

None of the women who formed Terminations for Medical Reasons (TFMR) six years ago wants to see another woman go through the agony and pain of facing the loneliest of journeys, on a plane load of revellers heading over to Liverpool for the weekend.

Not many people I know want to see a widespread “culture” of abortion in this country.

Nobody I knows believes in the concept of "social abortion" which has been repeated as a mantra over the past few weeks.

But we do have compassion for women in crisis and we sure as hell want an end to this land of shame.


Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook: http://facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia




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