In my earlier posts this week on sexual predation on boys (Tue) and bullying young women (Thu) at work, I feel I've been supported by Alan Moore's contention that writing about the darkness (Wed) in our souls is better than not writing about it. Exorcism is partly about exposing evil to light and scrutiny, so that we can walk away from it. The title of yesterday's post "Nobody Died" tries to put the bullying and humiliation to which those young women were subjected into some perspective. Nobody condones what happened to them but frankly it could have been worse. Two related horror stories are coincidentally in the headlines this week.
Louise O’Keeffe was finally vindicated in her claim at the European Court of Human Rights
that the Irish state was culpably negligent in failing to protect her, as a 9-year-old scrap, from inhuman and degrading abuse from the Principal at her National School in Co Cork in 1973. The State, terrified of the financial implications of setting such a precedent, had fought her every step of the way, hiring expensive lawyers to weasel their way out of their responsibility to cherish the vulnerable in our society. Or, contrariwise, sensibly trying to set limits on the amount for which we the tax-payers should be liable for the sins of other citizens. I think I lean towards the latter, not to save me money - I can spare some of that - but because making The State responsible for sorting out all our problems makes us less willing to take responsibility for them ourselves. The State becomes The Somebody Else who will deal with the weeping child, or the drunk in the doorway, or Kitty Genovese being beaten to death in full hearing of 50 people in an apartment complex in New York.
Synchronously we have had a week of verbatim reports on what it was like growing up in a pair of orphanages in Derry. The terms of engagement for the Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry are to allow the victims of abuse in such institutions to be heard, in public. The stories are grim. The nuns, impervious to irony, used to scrub down the tiny sinners for whom they were responsible with Jaysus (Jeyes/Jesus geddit) Fluid, a concoction used by normal people to clean floors and toilets. But a couple of nights ago, an old chap who long ago escaped from Termonbacca to England and got married, returned to be heard. After detailling his sad and sordid tale, he reflected that some of the nuns must have been deranged and that, as such, deserved our compassion "Sure, we were only there for a few years, they were there for a life-time".
It is not only the prisoners who grow coarse and hardened from corporal
punishment, but those as well who perpetrate the act or are present to
witness it. -Anton Chekhov.
Today, as I'm sure will manifest itself later in the wider Irish media, is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Ann Lovett and her stillborn child. Ann was a child herself - not yet 16, but she was full-term pregnant. Unable or unwilling to seek appropriate help, she mitched off school and went up the hill to the grotto with a pair of scissors and delivered her baby boy in the rain under the sightless eyes of a statue of the mother of Jesus. She herself died of exposure and blood-loss a few hours later. The questions of who knew the girl, and who knew she was pregnant have never been resolved. There are three 15 minute films on youtube which look at the story in more measured terms than the tabloid press at the time which facing a wall of silence from Ann's family and neighbours, Ten years later we were driving back from Leitrim one Sunday evening and passed through Granard. It was hard to look at the plain people of the town going through the last of their weekend without asking those questions. Which was absurd because it could have happened in any small town in Ireland at that time. Indeed I know of one case almost exactly parallel except for the deaths that happened in another Wintery town in Ireland about ten years before.
In 2004 I went on a long walk through Spain to declutter and clear the ould head. On two consecutive days in La Rioja, after I had been walking for several weeks, I met three young men trudging separately through a slough of despond having lost the plot of their Camino. They had travelled a long way to the start of their walking dream, had overcome the torment of blisters and aching joints but were now broken-hearted. I did what I could to patch up these boys by talking about courage, about using mindfulness to sustain their trek and by giving each a big hug. Maybe, just maybe, that might have urged them past the next train station and escape from their despair back home to a sense of failure that would dog their lives forever. I was only able to do this for them because having been close to the abyss myself, I could recognise it in someone else: but only in the hypersensitized atmosphere of the Camino de Santiago. In ordinary life, like you, I choose to make invisible those things that are too distressing to deal with.
Enough compassion to see yourself in another might, just might, have opened the eyes of a teacher, an aunt, an adult friend to see young Ann in her fullness. We may weep now.