Can Ireland ever recover?

25Jun09

Back from a few days in Ireland, seeing friends in Dublin and Kilkenny. The weather was great after a bumpy start – there’s something strange about Dublin airport. It always seems to be a few degrees colder than the rest of the country. Maybe it’s a special acclimatisation zone put on by Bord Failte. You come out of the terminal building all full of excitement about mystical Ireland of the pints and the chat, stand downwind of 50 unhappy smokers, feel the mood wear off a bit and finally give in and put on everything you packed. By the time you’ve warmed up – usually somewhere around Santry – you’re grateful for anything that isn’t sleet. It’s all about managing expectations.

This was my first trip back since before Christmas and I was appalled by the change. Not by the crashing economy or corrupt politicians, since that’s a portrait of home too. No, there’s a sadness, a grief that I have never seen, and I heard the reason for it in almost every conversation I had. It’s the Ryan report about the ill-treatment of children in institutions run by the Catholic church.

The report itself contains horrifying stories; the media has been full of them and they are punishing to hear, but the real psychological damage is because the state and the citizens connived to cover the horror. Ordinary people ‘knew’ what was going on in those places. Not the scale, dear God, not the scale, but many people knew that something wasn’t right, that those places were harsh – and the guilt is killing everyone now. Even I, a foreigner there, knew that Artane and Letterfrack were horrible; since the film came out we all knew that the Magdalene laundries were places of undeserved punishment. But no one seemed to consider that those famously terrible places – closed now for many years – might be part of a much larger, ongoing pattern. No one seemed to consider it, despite the fact that those children were standing among us, tugging our sleeves and calling for help.

In fairness, those institutions were exposed and closed in the 1990s. The stories came out, books were published and documentaries screened, but the utter moral bankruptcy of the system, the church’s refusal to acknowledge that it had done wrong, and the complicity of government and individuals have poisoned the country. Coming as it does on top of stories of fraud, incompetence and monumental folly, not to mention financial ruin, the Ryan report has broken the country’s spirit and brought it close to despair.

The only way the Catholic church can be punished, since it seems to have no moral sense that anything is wrong, is financially. And it won’t even accept that. The government allowed the church authorities to name their recompense! What criminals are permitted to choose their penalty?

The rules have changed. Rip up the agreement, throw the pieces in their face, tell them that the fine is 20 times their piddling offer, that the culprits will go to jail, prise their fingers off the throat of education and inform them that the Pope and all his bishops, cardinals and bellringers need to come to Ireland on their knees to pray for the people’s forgiveness. Then, maybe, the country can begin to get on with regaining its true self, its kindness and laughter that I still love.

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