Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Irish allowed abuse to persist

Our capacity for double-think allowed abuse to persist
Tue, Jun 02, 2009
The contradictory attitudes towards brutality in Ireland expose a strange and disturbing tendency, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
WE KNOW that the systematic atrocities of the industrial school system came from the dark and violent side of Irish life. They were expressions of its screwed-up, hysterical relationship to power and authority, to sex and the body and to class and status.
There is a certain bleak comfort in this knowledge, for we can consign it all to a more ignorant, church-dominated past.
But what if, as well as expressing the dark side of our culture, the savagery was also enabled by one of the richer aspects of that culture?
For if you stand back from it, what you see in this history of organised sadism is not just the distortions of power, sex and class. It is also the special Irish capacity for double-think.
Double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s, asked by Seán Ó Faoláin if she believed in the little people, who replied “I do not, sir, but they’re there”.
This habit of mind probably accounts for the Irish talent for artistic invention, and also for the Irish sense of humour.
But does it also account for the sickness that allowed the system of child slavery and torture to thrive for so long?
If you look back on what passed for public discourse about this system when it was still going strong, it’s impossible not to be struck by the co-existence of two contradictory attitudes: (a) the system is not brutal at all and (b) its whole purpose is to be brutal.
The first of these attitudes manifested itself in levels of denial that would be funny if their consequences were not so horrific.
As late as 1976, for example, we find Sheila Killanin, president of the ISPCC, reporting a common public reaction to the organisation: “There is no cruelty to children in Ireland.”
In 1964, Michael Viney, a brilliant journalist who was soon to play a crucial role in opening up the industrial schools to systematic public scrutiny, could write in The Irish Times that “I accept that the lingering public image of industrial schools as Dickensian institutions is unwarranted and even, as one official put it to me, ‘they are often superior to the better secondary schools’”.
In 1965, Bryan W Roche, who put himself forward as a semi-official spokesman for the orders who ran Letterfrack and Daingean wrote: “The public have crazy ideas about industrial schools. They imagine beatings dished out as part of the day’s routine . . . In fact the cane has not been used on the hands or the backsides of those youngsters three times in the last six months.
“The walls [in Daingean] are not designed to prevent escapes. They are kept because of the shelter they give the playgrounds from the winds . . . There are no such walls in Letterfrack. Escapes do not worry the Brothers. They are seldom attempted . . . The Brothers are pleased that the schools have been highlighted and want the public to know more about them by calling and seeing for themselves.”
Yet, alongside propaganda like this that would have made Pravda blush a deeper red, there was the perception that these institutions were indeed “Dickensian”, that beatings were routine and that this was, moreover, a good thing.
In 1946, when the founder of Boys Town in Nebraska, Fr Edward Flanagan, visited his native Ireland and dared to suggest that “your institutions are not all noble, particularly your borstals, which are a disgrace”, he was roundly attacked in the Dáil by Gerry Boland and John Dillon.
In the letters pages of The Irish Times there was relatively little sympathy for Flanagan, whose warnings, had they been heeded, could have saved 25 years of continued abuse.
Strikingly, the attacks on Flanagan took the form, not of denials that the industrial schools were brutal, but of insistence that they ought to be so. One P O’Reilly, for example, wrote that the point of the institutions for the inmates was to “make their time in detention so unpleasant that they will never risk incarceration again”. As he explained: “Through original sin, children are naturally vicious little savages and it needs a rigorous discipline, with fear as a wholesome deterrent, to mould them into decent citizens”.
An “old teacher” agreed: “In a lifetime of teaching I always found that fear is the only deterrent for young or old . . . In my years of teaching, I found only one -ology effective with the young: that was stickology, not psychology.”
We did not believe in the terror, but knew it was there. The culture that could hold in its head at the same time the “truth” that the industrial schools were simply lovely, and the “truth” that they were properly brutal, was the same one that could believe that Charlie Haughey was a crook and a patriot. It could believe that property prices would rise forever even when it knew they wouldn’t, or that we could have low taxes and great public services.
Is that capacity for double-think a thing of the past? Yes and no.
© 2009 The Irish Times


Janet Green said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janet Green said...

Institutional child abuse related to the catholic church have become widespread. It's absolutely horrifying, and the recent stories about Ireland mirror the experiences of Aboriginal people in Canada who were forced into abusive, christian-run residential schools for more than 100 years. The damage from that is incalculable.

But I would like to point out another form of pervasive child abuse, but one that does not get much attention. This is child abuse in good, christian, protestant homes.

I come from an evangelical background - my dad was a christian pastor. I am now 45 years old, so I think attitudes have changed somewhat. But not enough.

I was abused, physical, emotionally, and sexually by my parents. They would beat me, often for no reason, and the rationalization was that as long as they didn't kill me, it was ok. Killing me would be wrong, I guess. Anything short of that is just discipline. There was also molestation by my dad in the form of peeking through the crack in my bedroom door, "accidentally" walking into the bathroom when I was taking a bath, and touching my mom's breasts right in front of me and leering at me.

I attribute this to several things. One, the bible encourages corporal punishment. In fact, the OT recommends death for a disobedient child. Two, original sin. Because a child is deeply evil due to adam and eve, even if you beat a child for no reason you gotta know that the kid was sinning somehow. The concept of love, nurture, encouragement, praise, etc. was missed entirely. They beat me to save my soul, or something like that.

I also attribute it to very evil men who set themselves up as god's leaders. In particular, James Dobson. He wrote a book advocating the beating of children between the ages of 18 months and 12 years. Anything outside of that would be bad, I guess. Mom and dad gave this guy money and followed his teachings.

Re the sexual abuse, I have two comments to make. One, that when normal sexual drive is oppressed, the result is guilt, frustration, and ultimately perversion. Christians make a big deal about sex, and I think many of them are obsessed with it. But they can't admit it - they just bottle it up as long as they can. Then it comes out in terrible ways like pedophelia.

The second thing about sexual abuse and religion is that christianity teaches that jesus saves us. We don't save ourselves. Therefore, when someone has a mental illness or problem, they go to jesus instead of getting to the root of it and getting past it. Christians just bottle it up and trust jesus.

These are some of the reasons why I believe christianity is very linked to not only child abuse, but rape and murder as well. This is borne out by serial killers, most of which come from christian homes, the high violent crime rate in "red" states; the high crime rate of religious countries as compared with more secular countries like Sweden, etc.

I am now, finally, an atheist. I wasted far too many years in fear and guilt as a christian. Now these things are very clear to me, and I'm so grateful I saw the light!