Historical Memory 3: The Past and Ireland’s Uncomfortable Present

by Dick Edelstein

The notion of historical memory has to do with the ways in which social groups and nations construct and identify with particular narratives about historical periods or events. This is the third in a series of four articles on this topic. The first two can be found here. In the first I discussed the treatment of archival information on Spanish Civil War casualties and victims, and the activities related to that issue undertaken by the Spanish NGO Innovation & Human Rights. In the second I examined the activities of Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon, a collective that worked to redress the exclusion of Irish women writers from the historical record. The present article is not the final one, as I previously announced, because my topic became too broad to fit comfortably in a single piece. In the concluding column, which will be published here in four weeks, I will consider various manifestations in Spain of the issue of historical memory, and I will discuss the perennial conflict between the need to remember and the need to forget, as well as conflicts that arise when different groups appeal to the right to remember.

In this article I discuss several of the embarrassingly large number of recent situations in Ireland in which the issue of historical memory has irrupted into the news and the public awareness. Besides the Fired! movement and the previously discussed Waking the Feminists campaign, these occurrences include the exploitation and abuse of unwed mothers at the Magdalene Laundries, the secret burial of babies in Tuam, the Roman Catholic church cover-up of sexual abuse by priests and nuns, and perennial issues related to British colonial oppression and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently expressed support for a proposal to end the investigation and criminal prosecutions for incidents that occurred during the Troubles before April 1998, a statute of limitations that would that would apply equally to British military veterans and ex-paramilitaries. In defense of his stance, Johnson told MPs that members of the British armed services, now in their 70s and 80s, “continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions” relating to their conduct in Northern Ireland. Irish head of government Micheál Martin, promptly responded – in agreement with the major Irish political parties, north and south – that all bereaved families should have access to an effective investigation and to a process of justice, regardless of the perpetrators.

Irish President Michael D. Higgins, the former Irish Labour Party leader, recently published an opinion on “ethical remembrance” in the British newspaper the Guardian. Higgins reminded British people of their country’s colonialist and imperialist past and discussed the current implications of that legacy. He asserted that all parties could benefit from an honest examination of their shared history:

A feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history will not help us to forge a better future together. The complex events we recall and commemorate during this time are integral to the story that has shaped our nations, in all their diversity. They are, however, events to be remembered and understood, respecting the fact that different perspectives exist. In doing this, we can facilitate a more authentic interpretation not only of our shared history but also of post-sectarian possibilities for the future.

President Higgins cited measures his office is taking to help Irish citizens acknowledge issues arising from the historical relationship between the two countries:

As President of Ireland, I have been engaging with our citizens in an exercise of ethical remembering of this period. This is not only to allow us to understand more fully the complexities of those times. It is also to allow us to recognise the reverberations of that past for our societies today and for our relationships with each other and our neighbours.

Higgins observed that, “class, gender, religion, democracy, language, culture and violence all played important roles, and all were intertwined with British imperialist rule in Ireland”, and added “only by remembering complex, uncomfortable aspects of Britain and Ireland’s shared history can we forge a better future.” He argued for acknowledging that different, informed perspectives on the same events exist and concluded that acceptance of this reality can help us avoid the fool’s errand of trying to agree on a single unifying narrative of the past.

At the current conjuncture, when social changes are being fueled by global and existential crises, progress depends on an honest scrutiny of past events, and we are seeing a tidal wave of demands for such an examination coming from activists around the world who advocate for the social and economic inclusion of marginalized groups. While the President’s article addresses issues arising from Ireland’s colonial past and the sectarian struggle in the North, its message applies equally to a number of recent domestic issues that have arisen from reverberations of past events.

The exploitation and abuse of thousands of women in the Magdalene Laundries, which came into the public eye in the early 1990s, left Ireland shocked by the exposure of the callous abuse over a period of several decades perpetrated by nuns in collusion with the Irish authorities, an occurrence which was subsequently minimized and denied by both church and government when the human rights abuses came to light. Here is how the Irish Times reported it: “When the mass grave in Donnybrook was discovered, the 155 unmarked graves touched off a scandal that exposed the extent and horrors of the Magdalene laundries.” As women came forward to share their experiences of being held against their will in restrictive religious workhouses, the Irish public reacted with a double dose of outrage: anger about the events that had occurred, and outrage at the callous official disregard for the memory of those who had suffered and for the pain this knowledge was now inflicting on the families of victims.

During the 20th century, thousands of Irish women were incarcerated in Magdalene institutions run primarily by Roman Catholic religious orders and obliged to work in laundries without pay or benefits. In giving birth to children outside of wedlock, their offense was to have violated the highly discriminatory sexual norms enforced by Irish society at that time. Despite the violation of the women’s human rights, the Irish government colluded with their detention and was complicit in their treatment. In 2011, a group called Justice for Magdalenes presented a case to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, arguing that the Irish government’s failure to deal with the abuse amounted to continuing degrading treatment in violation of the Convention Against Torture and that the state had failed to promptly investigate “a more than 70-year system of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of women and girls in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries.”

The story of the Magdalene Laundries never really went away since it gave rise to a number of unresolved issues, so it was still reverberating in the public consciousness when in March 2017 Ireland was once again shocked by the discovery that, between 1925 and 1961, the bodies of 796 babies and young children had been thrown into a cistern at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway. Catherine Corless, the local historian who exposed the scandal, complained to Irish legislators that nothing had been done to exhume the bodies after her research came to light despite expressions of “shock and horror” from the Government and the President. Instead, the site had been returned to its original condition. As with the Magdalene Laundries scandal, the authorities initially showed unimaginable insensitivity and cruelty towards affected families.

The generalized public scandal in recent decades involving sexual abuse by clergy has been a worldwide occurrence, but it has had special significance in Ireland, where the moral tone of the entire country since independence had been set by the Catholic church, which – despite its outstanding record of abuse, malfeasance and misguidance – still enjoys a virtual monopoly on primary education. No, I’m not kidding. The fox is still guarding the henhouse.

When Pope Francis came to visit in August 2018, Irish people were expecting a sincere apology because of his reputation for sympathy towards a number of liberal causes. But surprisingly, no sufficiently firm apology was forthcoming. His comments were characterized by the press as too little too late. Some 80,000 people came to meet him in Phoenix Park, while a 1979 papal visit by Pope John Paul II drew one-and-a-quarter million, one-third of Ireland’s population. The numbers clearly signify a sea change in the Irish body politic.

Irish people greatly value their heritage and culture, and throughout most of the country’s history many of them had little else. Today things are very different as Irish prosperity in the Republic puts the floundering UK to shame and is leaving formerly industrious Northern Ireland in the shade.