I remember hearing the artist Robert Ballagh suggest that we drop the term ‘United Ireland’ and substitute something like ‘An Agreed Ireland’. His reason? There are certain trigger words that send people into defensive mode or sometimes a little bit mad, and all clear thinking on the subject flies out the window.
He has a point. Take a term that’s in the news at present: mass grave. There’s no logical reason for assuming that a mass grave contains the remains of people who were illegally killed and then buried, but the term has that connotation. Maybe that’s the reason so many people, particularly in the south of Ireland, are filled with outrage at the discovery of the remains of some 800 infants in a home run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours in Tuam Co Galway. The infants were buried there over a period between 1925 and 1961.
The fact that the burials took place over a 35-year period diminishes the sense of horror just a little – the image of 800 small bodies being dumped together is removed. But only a little. Read the newspapers and you’ll find articles and letters condemning this terrible act and saying that a thorough-going inquiry should be launched in Tuam and throughout Ireland.
Homes like the Bon Secours in Tuam were for young unmarried women who were pregnant. They went to these homes to have their babies because society then saw it as totally shaming for a woman to give birth outside wedlock. The nuns, it’s reasonable to say, took in those whom the rest of society rejected. Except that a particular statistic causes alarm bells to ring: the instances of child mortality – within a few months of birth – were five times higher in these homes than in the general population. It’s hard not to conclude that these women and their babies didn’t receive the care they should have. However, a woman who’s done research into these matters was on RTÉ’s Prime Time last night making the point that, because of the numbers of babies in these homes and because of the rows of cots in which they lay, disease in one quickly travelled the length of the ward and became the disease, sometimes fatal, of all.
The death of anyone is an irreparable loss. The death of an infant is uniquely heart-breaking. But it seems to me we need to step round the trigger words and deal with the facts of this case.
If the homes were seen as grim places, they were grim places created by the state and run by the nuns; so blame for conditions rests with the society of the time.
We have no evidence that these babies were allowed to die through lack of care, even though the mortality rate in the homes was so horribly high.
Pregnant women went to these places to have their baby because the society in which they lived damned them for having had sexual relations outside marriage. The Catholic Church denounced them too, but it was a denunciation totally supported by the society generally.
Another way of talking about mass graves might be “people buried together”. We bury people together nowadays – in family plots, for example – and such burials are seen as compassionate rather than heartless. Behind the notion of mass graves is the notion that the dead bodies of these infants were treated without respect.
It is true that we traditionally show respect to the corpse. But is that not something we do for ourselves rather than the dead person? When you’re dead, you are beyond everything – disrespect, respect, well-tended grave, sewage pit – to the dead person none of this matters. I know a man who is conventional in most things but who says he doesn’t care if they put him in a plastic bag and dump it in Belfast Lough when he dies – it won’t matter to him. We have developed burial rituals in order to console ourselves, not to help the dead person, because we can’t.
There’s the well-worn danger that we’ll judge this event from the past by the standards of the present. People cluck-cluck their tongues about the ostracising of unmarried mothers in those days. If they had been living at the time, are they quite sure they wouldn’t have accepted society’s attitude then and cluck-clucked with the best of them?
Final thought. Which makes more sense, to mount inquiries into the manner of burial of the dead or to strive to create a society that respects and supports the living? I think I know what Father Peter McVerry would say to that.