In liv­ing mem­ory

Our his­tory of in­sti­tu­tional abuse is not going away, and more than a plaque is re­quired to ad­dress it. But how should Ir­ish so­ci­ety and cul­ture in­cor­po­rate the lessons learned?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - ED POWER - WORDS BY EMILIE PINE

Pro­cess­ing the truth about in­sti­tu­tional abuse

What do we do with Ire­land’s in­sti­tu­tional his­tory? Af­ter the re­ports are is­sued, and the apolo­gies made, how should Ir­ish so­ci­ety and cul­ture in­cor­po­rate the lessons learned? Do we choose to re­mem­ber, or to con­sign those events to the dis­tant past so we can for­get?

The threat­ened sale and de­mo­li­tion of the Sis­ters of Char­ity Sean McDermott Street Laun­dry in Dublin (which, in 1996, was the last Mag­dalen laun­dry in Ire­land to close) has pro­voked a range of re­sponses from sur­vivors and other stake­hold­ers. Some ac­tivists ar­gue that the site should be lev­elled and the mem­o­ries of the laun­dry erased, while oth­ers are cam­paign­ing to use the site as a me­mo­rial.

As an aca­demic re­search­ing Ire­land’s his­tory of in­sti­tu­tion­al­is­ing women and chil­dren, I have a di­vided/dou­ble re­sponse. On the one hand, I un­der­stand sur­vivors and oth­ers’ re­sis­tance to the top-down in­sti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion of mem­ory that is typ­i­fied by mon­u­ments, memo­ri­als and plaques. These can close down av­enues of re­mem­ber­ing, rather than ac­tively com­mem­o­rat­ing or re­dress­ing the wrongs that oc­curred.

On the other hand, there is a power to cre­at­ing last­ing and im­pact­ful memo­ri­als, which recog­nise and raise the vis­i­bil­ity of a his­tory of suf­fer­ing.

Which­ever side of the memo­ri­al­is­ing de­bate you find your­self on, one thing is clear – Ire­land’s in­sti­tu­tional his­tory is not going away, and more than a plaque is re­quired to ad­dress this his­tory.

Sur­vivors of these in­sti­tu­tions, from Mag­dalen laun­dries to in­dus­trial schools, have had a long jour­ney to­wards recog­ni­tion. In the 1980s in­di­vid­u­als spoke out, pub­lish­ing nov­els and mem­oirs, try­ing to get their story heard. In the 1990s, plays like Eclipsed by Pa­tri­cia Burke Bro­gan (1992) were key in cre­at­ing an au­di­ence. Bro­gan’s play, first per­formed at the Ed­in­burgh Fringe Fes­ti­val, in­spired pro­duc­ers at Chan­nel 4 to make the doc­u­men­tary Sex in a Cold Cli­mate (1998), which in turn led to Peter Mul­lan’s film The Mag­da­lene Sis­ters (2002).

The Jus­tice for Mag­dalenes cam­paign (based at UCD) fol­lowed, and pres­sure brought by this group and sur­vivors led at last to the McAleese in­ves­ti­ga­tion and Enda Kenny’s apol­ogy. There was a sim­i­lar tra­jec­tory for in­dus­trial schools, with ground-break­ing tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries by Louise Lentin (Dear Daugh­ter, 1996) and Mary Raftery (States of Fear, 1999), along­side the cam­paign­ing of sur­vivors like Man­nix Flynn and Chris­tine Buck­ley, lead­ing to Ber­tie Ah­ern’s apol­ogy in 1999 and the foun­da­tion of the Com­mis­sion to In­quire into Child Abuse in 2000. Though the jour­ney was long, the recog­ni­tion rep­re­sented by State apolo­gies was an im­por­tant land­mark.

How­ever, there are risks em­bed­ded in the in­quiry/re­port/apol­ogy process, in­clud­ing the bi­nary of us and them cre­ated by the lan­guage of apolo­gies (we want to apol­o­gise to them) that main­tains the idea that sur­vivors are some­how dif­fer­ent from “us”. Even us­ing the term “sur­vivor” car­ries the risk of la­belling all the peo­ple who were in­car­cer­ated in these in­sti­tu­tions as vic­tims, as if the ex­pe­ri­ence of vic­tim­i­sa­tion is the only thing that de­fines them.

And there are other prob­lems too. No sin­gle re­port can ad­e­quately rep­re­sent the com­plex­ity of this his­tory, and cer­tainly the re­ports we have do not. The Ryan Re­port on In­dus­trial Schools, for ex­am­ple, does not in­clude any ex­am­i­na­tion of Mag­dalen laun­dries, de­spite girls be­ing trans­ferred be­tween the in­sti­tu­tions. The McAleese re­port is a deeply flawed doc­u­ment, re­ly­ing on, and ac­cept­ing, anec­do­tal ev­i­dence that down­played the abuse the women ex­pe­ri­enced in the

laun­dries, and un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the im­pact of years of slave labour, for which they still re­ceive no pen­sion.

This last point is a sting­ing irony – be­cause re­ports are back­wards look­ing, they do not call upon (or force) present gov­ern­ments to do more than apol­o­gise for past gov­ern­men­tal fail­ings. The in­quiry and re­port sys­tem may iden­tify the need to change, but their pub­li­ca­tion func­tions as a sub­sti­tute for change.

The pub­li­ca­tion of a State re­port, though it can pro­voke huge pub­lic re­sponses, is in­tended to rep­re­sent the clo­sure of that chap­ter of his­tory, rather than chang­ing, for ex­am­ple, prac­tices of care for the vul­ner­a­ble. There are still in­sti­tu­tions, and in­sti­tu­tional at­ti­tudes, in Ire­land that pe­nalise the vul­ner­a­ble, from men­tal health in­sti­tu­tions to Di­rect Pro­vi­sion Cen­tres. Struc­tural cal­lous­ness to­wards those who so­ci­ety wants to ig­nore has not gone away. Re­ports, with their sin­gle fo­cus, do not make these kinds of eth­i­cal con­nec­tions.

All of this is to say that the ques­tion of how to treat our col­lec­tive past, and how to cre­ate a re­spon­si­ble and eth­i­cal col­lec­tive mem­ory that can bring ben­e­fits to peo­ple in the present, has yet to be re­solved.

Wit­ness­ing his­tory

So what can we do? Faced with re­ports like the Ryan Re­port (a whop­ping 2,600 pages), it can feel like an im­pos­si­ble task to en­gage mean­ing­fully with this his­tory. But, as an aca­demic work­ing in this field, I feel the re­spon­si­bil­ity keenly. We must not look away. In­stead, we need to find new ways of wit­ness­ing this his­tory, even if it is a be­lated act of wit­ness­ing.

It was fic­tion, mem­oir, theatre, film and tele­vi­sion that led, and shamed, the Ir­ish State (both the gov­ern­ment and cit­i­zens) into recog­nis­ing this his­tory in the first place. And post-re­ports, cul­tural re­sponses re­main vi­tal if, as a so­ci­ety, we are to process this his­tory.

In 2009, Mary Raftery was com­mis­sioned by the Abbey Theatre to com­pile No Es­cape, first per­formed at the Pea­cock in 2010, only a year af­ter the Ryan Re­port’s pub­li­ca­tion. That ver­ba­tim play used the words of the re­port it­self, per­formed by ac­tors, to pow­er­fully show an au­di­ence the per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences be­hind the re­port’s of­fi­cial-speak. The Abbey staged the play as part of a se­ries en­ti­tled The Dark­est

Cor­ner, along­side the 1961 play by Richard John­son, The Ev­i­dence I Shall Give, and Man­nix Flynn’s one-man show James X (orig­i­nally pro­duced in 2003), both plays tes­ti­fy­ing not only to ex­pe­ri­ences of in­sti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion, but also re­but­ting the idea that no­body knew these abuses were oc­cur­ring. The fol­low­ing year Bro­kentalk­ers pro­duced

The Blue Boy, a mov­ing and provoca­tive show, blend­ing his­tory, bi­og­ra­phy, mu­sic and dance. Through the jagged and repet­i­tive dance, the chore­og­ra­phy sug­gested a layer of trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence be­yond the abil­ity of lan­guage to con­vey. It re­mains one of the most pow­er­ful cul­tural re­sponses to the Ryan Re­port. More re­cently Theatre Club’s We Don’t Know What’s

Buried Here (2018) staged a roar of protest at the sale of Sean McDermott Street Laun­dry.

Cul­ture is a space that can tell sto­ries, that is in­di­vid­ual rather than gen­eral, that can fore­ground em­pa­thy, that can be open-ended and adap­tive, that can cope with con­tra­dic­tions. Cul­ture can how­ever be ephemeral – I can tell you all about the im­pact that ANU Pro­duc­tion’s show Laun­dry made on me when I saw it at the Dublin Theatre Fes­ti­val in 2011, but that won’t much help you if you weren’t there and didn’t see it your­self.

Sites of Con­science is an ini­tia­tive that might help us think about how to more per­ma­nently memo­ri­alise this past. The Par­ra­matta Girls In­dus­trial School in Aus­tralia is one such ex­am­ple. Like the Sean McDermott Street Laun­dry, the build­ing was threat­ened with de­mo­li­tion but cam­paign­ers se­cured the space as a per­ma­nent me­mo­rial and ex­hi­bi­tion space, of­fi­cially recog­nised as a National Her­itage site. This is one op­tion that Dublin City Coun­cil may want to con­sider.

But what if you can­not ac­cess the site it­self, but you want to en­gage with this past? What other ways are there of memo­ri­al­is­ing and wit­ness­ing our past?

I have been ex­plor­ing this ques­tion for the past two years with the In­dus­trial Mem­o­ries team at UCD, with sup­port and fund­ing from the Ir­ish Re­search Coun­cil. To­gether with pro­ject Fel­low Dr Su­san Leavy and co-in­ves­ti­ga­tor Prof Mark Keane, I be­lieve the Ryan Re­port, for all its flaws and lim­i­ta­tions, is one of the most im­por­tant pub­li­ca­tions in the his­tory of the State, and yet it is also one of the least read. And this mat­ters – read­ing this his­tory is our only way to ac­cess the truth about what hap­pened.

And so we have built In­dus­trial Mem­o­ries as a dig­i­tal plat­form for ex­plor­ing the his­tory of Ir­ish in­dus­trial schools. The aim of the web­site is to give visi­tors mul­ti­ple ways of en­gag­ing with tes­ti­mony and act­ing as wit­nesses.

Our first step in 2016 was to digi­tise the text of the re­port, and then to “read” it dif­fer­ently us­ing ma­chine learn­ing and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tools to pro­duce new find­ings. With clear vi­su­al­i­sa­tions we show, for the first time, the ac­tive net­works be­hind the in­dus­trial schools. This gives us a pic­ture of how abusers were trans­ferred be­tween schools. And we can also see how peo­ple within the sys­tem com­mu­ni­cated, in­clud­ing par­ents, the re­li­gious staff, and the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. These vi­su­al­i­sa­tions nail the lie that peo­ple – and the gov­ern­ment – did not know what was hap­pen­ing in the in­sti­tu­tions.

We have also cre­ated a dy­namic search func­tion, so that peo­ple can search the Ryan Re­port for the very first time. And there is now a “Peo­ple Direc­tory” so that the staff and sur­round­ing fig­ures can, fi­nally, be iden­ti­fied by readers (though we have had to main­tain their pseu­do­nyms).

We also know that the his­tory of these in­sti­tu­tions is not just about facts and fig­ures, it’s about ex­pe­ri­ences and mem­o­ries. To give a sense of what it was like to be in­car­cer­ated in one of these places, to­gether with his­to­rian Maeve Casserly, com­poser Tom Lane and pro­gram­mer Mick O’Brien, we have cre­ated an au­dio tour of Gold­en­bridge girls’ school, fea­tur­ing ac­tors read­ing ver­ba­tim witness tes­ti­mony from the re­port. We also worked with artist John Buck­ley to cre­ate a vir­tual tour of one of the boys’ schools, Car­riglea, bet­ter known today as Dún Laoghaire In­sti­tute of Art, De­sign and Tech­nol­ogy. Both can be down­loaded freely from our web­site.

The In­dus­trial Mem­o­ries plat­form is for any­one who thinks they could know this his­tory a lit­tle bet­ter, but doesn’t know where to start. We hope that in cre­at­ing new in­ter­faces for ac­cess­ing this his­tory we have made it avail­able to a new au­di­ence. Au­di­ences count be­cause the decades of abuse that chil­dren in Ire­land suf­fered was not the re­sult of a “few bad ap­ples” but be­cause so many peo­ple looked away from a sys­tem of cru­elty.

So where does this leave us now? Per­haps the most com­pelling ques­tion about how to treat the dark parts of Ire­land’s past is this: What is our goal in re­mem­ber­ing?

Per­haps we can learn some­thing from the #MeToo cam­paign, which has used the ex­plo­sive power of col­lec­tive mem­ory to il­lu­mi­nate much larger hi­er­ar­chies of power. And per­haps we can also learn from that move­ment the ne­ces­sity of trans­form­ing raised con­scious­ness into real ac­tion.

Be­ing a witness is not an in­ert or pas­sive role, wait­ing to be told what to think. Wit­nesses are the source of protest. The threat­ened de­mo­li­tion of the Sean McDermott Street Laun­dry has pro­voked an out­pour­ing of both emo­tional and crit­i­cal re­sponses about how the laun­dries, and other carceral in­sti­tu­tions in Ire­land, are memo­ri­alised.

Ire­land is near­ing the end of its “Decade of Cen­te­nar­ies”. If we have learned any­thing from this pe­riod of look­ing back, it is that we need not just to re­mem­ber but to re­flect on how we re­mem­ber. It’s time to de­cide what we are going to do with this his­tory, for good.

It was fic­tion, mem­oir, theatre, film and tele­vi­sion that led, and shamed, the Ir­ish State (both the gov­ern­ment and cit­i­zens) into recog­nis­ing this his­tory in the first place. And postre­ports, cul­tural re­sponses re­main vi­tal if, as a so­ci­ety, we are to process this his­tory


From left: A plaque ded­i­cated to Mag­dalen laun­dry sur­vivors in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin; Ger­ard Man­nix Flynn, whose 2003 show James X was an im­por­tant mile­stone in shin­ing a light on in­sti­tu­tional abuse; An un­dated pho­to­graph of young girls at work...

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