‘It wasn’t just priests or politicians who kept Catholic Ireland alive. It was also us, the Irish people’
Marie Collins, survivor of clerical child abuse: “Looking back is alright if you’re only looking back at others. But if you have to look back at yourself, that is the hardest thing.”
It is Christmas Eve Mass in St Monica’s Catholic Church in Edenmore, on Dublin’s northside. Around me are more memories than people.
So much has changed since I was an altar boy here in the late 1980s: the dwindling, ageing congregation and the appearance of the long, functional building. It was built in 1966 as a temporary church, but by the 1990s it had become permanent. Inside, roof tiles were added and the carpet tiles removed, replaced by a more luxurious pink carpet and blond wood pews.
By the time of the last big renovation in 1998, however, the rot had already set in. The midnight Mass is now at 8pm. What was once long and candlelit is now like a visit to a fast-food restaurant: fluorescent-lit, in and out in 35 minutes – including a three-minute homily.
As I leave, Christmas obligation fulfilled, I wonder if I’m being unfairly harsh. After all, the choir, though diminished, is still singing. Or has my time-lapse emigrant’s gaze simply sharpened my perception of the decline?
It’s a different place to the church where I learned how to keep the charcoal and incense burning in the thurible and where I pocketed discreet tips after weddings. And where, serving funeral Masses for countless strangers, I found comfort in the rhythmic recitation “Receive her soul and present her to God the most high”.
St Monica’s is not special-looking, but it was a special place to me. So when did it all begin to fall apart?
In 1997 I was spending a J1 summer in New York when my younger brother wrote to me for the first – and to date last – time. In his excited scrawl, he wrote: “Fr McGennis is on the front of the Evening Herald!”
He meant Paul McGennis, a priest in our parish whose child-abusing past had finally caught up with him. One of his first victims, Marie Collins, has since become the eloquent public face of the clerical abuse survivor movement.
McGennis went through several trials and served time in prison. Yet, for us in St Monica’s, Fr McGennis simply vanished. There was no public discussion about him, and my parents remember no public discussion since. Other parishes took the same ostrich approach, I gather, setting us on the path to the second round of the clerical abuse scandal: exposure of the cover-up.
We know what followed: recriminations, resignations, reports that still shock in their detail. The previous government attacked the Vatican and closed the embassy to the Holy See, now reopened. After several passes – identifying perpetrators and enablers – the clerical abuse drama has faded away. And yet there is so much unfinished business.
When I think of Fr McGennis, I don’t remember anything sinister. I recall a balding, shy man with thick glasses who mumbled through Mass but delivered thoughtful, high-end homilies. His deconstruction of the gospels fascinated me and, for the first time, married in my head concepts that rarely coexist in Irish churches: Catholicism and intellectualism.
After his conviction, however, other memories began to bubble up. Of how his house – and his car – were always filled with neighbourhood children. That seemed odd to me as a teenager, yet I shrugged it off. As far as I know, no one challenged him on this.
How many of us, as John Banville put it, knew but didn’t know? Saw but didn’t see? How many people in Ireland, I wonder, still nurse a silent sense of unease that their small piece of the clerical abuse puzzle, had it been shared, might have prevented bad things happening to others?
It is 20 years since McGennis vanished in disgrace, and St Monica’s has been in decline ever since. Altar servers are a thing of the past, even at Christmas Mass. And there is no time or space in a 35-minute express lane service for reflection on the Catholic faith, or on Catholic Ireland.
Whatever happened to Catholic Ireland, anyway? A century ago Yeats told us how romantic Ireland was dead and gone, and with O’Leary in the grave. But where is Catholic Ireland’s grave? Was it even buried? Who attended the funeral? How did Catholic Ireland live, work, collapse?
For years I’ve carried around with me these unanswered questions about our national phantom. A while back they bubbled to the surface in the unlikeliest of places: a Berlin museum dedicated to the history of the vanished East Germany.
Standing before photographs showing members of the socialist state’s many mass organisations, marching around in sweaty uniforms, it was easy to feel superior for having escaped such a fate.
Then I thought of the Catholic boy scouts, the sweaty altar boy gear, the priests in polyester. Squinting my eyes, images of May Day marches in East Berlin looked quite like images of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress or the 1979 papal visit. And how familiar to someone raised in Catholic Ireland the negative aspects of East Germany highlighted in the museum: a closed, conservative, narrow society with enormous social pressure to conform.
It would be wrong to overstate parallels. Ireland was not a socialist dictatorship that walled in its citizens and shot anyone who tried to leave. Yet Ireland’s efforts to go solo a century ago saw it enter a pact with the Catholic Church. The church provided the fledgling state with schools, hospitals and more in exchange for ideological conformity.
Despite crucial differences, both East Germany and Catholic Ireland exerted control over its citizens with institutions and ideology so powerful that they prolonged the states’ existence long after the majority had stopped believing.
Yet, of the two countries, only Germany is making a methodical effort to come to terms with its recent past. There are countless museums and foundations offering exhibitions, publications and events that put the former East in its social, historical and cultural context. Berlin’s state-run museum performs a remarkable task: posing questions that turn the mirror on visitors.
During my visit, I watched visitors from former East Germany as they progressed through the exhibition, going from nostalgic sighs and outraged scoffs to quiet reflection on a bigger issue: how oppressive regimes survive through compliance, both active and passive.
Is it not time, I asked myself as I left, to address this bigger issue in Ireland? But where would you begin? Where would a curious foreign visitor – or just a young Irish person – go to learn about Catholic Ireland? Apart from a few history books and media archives, where can one learn about the last iteration of our republic, and the ideological, opportunistic, incestuous compliance that kept it alive?
In Dublin you can visit a famine ship, a writer’s museum, a science museum, a Jewish museum. Is it by accident or design that Catholic Ireland has been disappeared?
Many will point to the well-documented story of Catholic Ireland’s decline and fall, of dozens of studies into horrific industrial schools and the unspeakable suffering of clerical child sex abuse survivors. These are all crucial parts of the story.
But our narrative to date has one major blind spot: it consistently misses the wood for the trees. It ignores “us” to focus on “them”. That is because it remains a taboo to suggest that it wasn’t just the priests or the politicians who kept Catholic Ireland alive for so long. It was also us, the Irish people.
But times and attitudes can change, if we want them to. Since East Germany vanished in 1990, three distinct periods have followed. The first post-unification decade was filled with the business of regime change, of wrongs to be righted, of administration to be reorganised. It was an exhausting business and, by the turn of the century, East Germans understandably needed a breather. They embraced a new “not everything in East Germany was bad” attitude of so-called ostalgia, typified by the hit film Goodbye, Lenin!
There are now signs that this debate is shifting into a third phase. As pertinent to Catholic Ireland as East Germany, the pressing question here is no longer why the regime ended, but why it persisted. And, just as importantly, how much of the state’s longevity was imposed from above, and how much was supported from below.
Surveilling the Stasi
Driving this debate is Roland Jahn, an East German dissident expelled to West Germany, where he worked as a journalist and documented the 1989 revolution. Today Jahn is the third custodian of the foundation that manages the Stasi secret police archives. For a quarter-century this institution has helped people understand – in both abstract and in very personal terms – the cost of the Stasi’s blanket surveillance system.
When he attends events now, Jahn says he senses a new question hanging in the air. It no longer involves East Germany’s perpetrators and victim groups – small, significant minorities – but the remaining majority of conformists: ordinary people who made small and large compromises to avoid attention and lead a quiet life.
What, he wonders, did these ordinary East Germans do and not do to keep a system alive long after, inside, they had broken with it?
In his memoir, Wir Angepassten (We Conformists), Jahn writes about his own life and the chance occurrences and random decisions that saw even him – a venerated dissident and future enemy of the state – walk the path of everyday compromise. “What consequences did that have for the whole, for the functioning of the dictatorship? What is my part in this dictatorship?” Jahn asks of himself.
These are searching questions, and many ordinary former East Germans still fear the consequences of being open about their own everyday compromises and conformity. But Jahn and others are gently nudging on the debate.
So where is the debate in the country formerly known as Catholic Ireland? It rarely goes beyond bad-tempered finger-pointing by two small camps. On one side, church apologists warn of the dangers of hindsight; on the other, the anti-clerical brigade still whirl their rhetorical machetes. Each round of the debate, such as it is, concludes in another stalemate. And, all the while, the majority of one-time Mass- attending Irish (former) Catholics remain silent.
Perhaps the silence, broken by occasional emoting on radio phone-in shows, is because most Irish people secretly couldn’t care less about clerical abuse or industrial schools. The Ryan report flags a history of public apathy towards revelations about industrial schools. Michael Viney wrote extensively of these institutions in this newspaper in 1966 but, half a century on, he says it was hard to judge reader reaction “because there was so little of it”.
None of this comes as a surprise to Marie Collins, who was abused aged 12 by Paul McGennis. In the two decades since she went public, Collins says she has never encountered any great appetite by Irish people to examine themselves, and whether their timid conformity prolonged the life of Catholic Ireland.
Over coffee in Dublin’s Clarence Hotel, she says I am the first person to ever ask her about this.
“I don’t know if it’s because, if we looked, what we saw we wouldn’t like,” she says. “It is easy enough to blame a perpetrator and not want the blame to go further, because it is uncomfortable to look back and see how we were so controlled by the church in many areas of society. People didn’t think for themselves, or feel they could think.”
Any debate about Catholic Ireland needs to put front and centre its unique circumstances and culture, in particular a clergy who believed they were not only above the people but above civil and criminal law.
But UCD’s Marie Keenan warns that isolating perpetrators and their deeds risks a “truncated meaning-making process”. In her 2012 study Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organizational Culture, Keenan describes the process of “outing” perpetrators, isolating them and putting them through the courts and the court of public opinion. After this process it is easy to bring the dialogue to a close, she warns, by ignoring the emotional and contextual factors that gave rise to sexual abuse.
By focusing on “them”, she says, “we” can feel morally righteous by ignoring “us”.
“We cease being curious, searching for co-operative means of creating a liveable future together,” she writes. “We simply go on with life as usual . . . until the next atrocity.”
Both clerical abuse experts and survivors warn of how our clerical abuse debate, by accident or design, isolated the perpetrators and their crimes to avoid a wider discussion about the Irish State and its conformist citizens. After decades locking away our “fallen” women to life sentences in Magdalene laundries, is it possible we quickly repurposed this architecture of shame-containment for the “fallen” institution” that is the Catholic Church?
Just as those Magdalene women were our sisters, the abusing priests and their enabling bishops were and are our brothers. Similarly, as uncomfortable as it is to accept, Ireland’s Catholic population was not replaced overnight by a new population of post-Catholics, of no relation to the sometimes fearful, sometimes vindictive people who helped sustain a system many now find problematic.
Jahn writes of East Germans and the Stasi: “You didn’t have to believe in the party, you just needed to pretend you did.” That sounds familiar to a population of former Mass-goers: you went to avoid problems, to prevent unnecessary social tension.
East Germany and clerical Ireland were very different places in one sense, yet similar in another: both were conservative, conformist states sustained well past their best-before date by fear – but also by small compromises made by ordinary people.
“We have injured ourselves as people,” argues Jahn in his book, speaking to fellow East Germans. “We should talk about it, otherwise there is no chance for healing.”
As Ireland moves from remembering the 1916 Rising to the subsequent battles over independence, the time has come to locate and exhume the shallow, unmarked grave of Catholic Ireland. The cause of death has been established, but we still need to discuss the reasons – positive and negative – behind its long life.
Irish people may have replaced Sunday Mass with Sunday shopping but, for good or ill, centuries of Catholic faith remains deep in our bone marrow. Fetishising property, food, facial hair or single-source coffee are all poor distractions from a deeper truth: we are a post-Catholic people adrift, unsure of our values because we are in denial about our past and our own role in it.
So perhaps it’s time for this nation of talkers to become a land of listeners. For younger generations to listen to – without judging – older generations who faced very different choices and pressures. Or reaching out to the priests and nuns who, after a life of community service, face an old age of isolation and clan liability over the sins of a few.
This is not about relativising the perpetrators and their guilt. This is about embracing the whole truth. We all saw and didn’t see back in old Catholic Ireland. We all made compromises, big and small, to conform or to rebel. Condemning others’ behaviour then is no excuse for ignoring one’s own past even now.
It’s funny, in a way, to look in on Ireland from Berlin and think of the contradiction that was our old, clerical republic. But is it any more ludicrous a contradiction than the “anti-fascist protection barrier” – the official name for the Berlin Wall? Both have been toppled, but while Germany peruses the ruins, we dither. Catholic Ireland was not just them, it is us.
For clerical abuse survivors such as Marie Collins, the prevailing, blinkered view of our shared Catholic past bodes ill for our future. People tire of hearing of child abuse, she says, yet child abuse still affects up as many as one in four of the population.
“Looking at yourself now in your community, ask: are there things happening now, as happened then, that I’m not seeing, not even trying to see?” she says. “Looking back is all right if you’re only looking back at others. But if you have to look back at yourself, that is the hardest thing.”
Do you have a story of Catholic Ireland you’d like to share? Something you saw at the time but didn’t say? A lingering memory of the controlling mechanism and how you responded to it? Or a confession – of complicity or failure – you want to get off your shoulders? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Where requested, your anonymity will be protected
The Irish Times
26 January 2016