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Cooney Has At Least Posed Right Question

Irish Times, 26 November 1999, by Fintan O'Toole

When I was a small boy, I once served Mass for the then archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. I was struck by the unexpected warmth of this formidable figure when he came to visit us boys in the sacristy after Mass. After we had knelt to kiss his ring, he spent a while talking to us, patting us on the cheeks and head, giving us money. Though we were terrified of him, he seemed genuinely fond of our company.

In the midst of the recent controversy over the allegations in John Cooney's new book that John Charles McQuaid had an unhealthy sexual interest in young boys, I began to interrogate that old memory. Was it just an innocent encounter with a nice old man who was privately more at ease with children than his stern public demeanour would suggest? Or must all such memories now be lit with the sinister glow of corruption?

The answer, tentative and paradoxical though it must be, is probably "yes" in both cases. Certainly, John Cooney's suggestions are not backed by anything approaching an acceptable level of historical evidence. But at the same time anyone reading another book published this week has to acknowledge that everything we know about the history of the State has to be reexamined from the bleak perspective of its most vulnerable children.

Suffer The Little Children, Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan's sombre, heart-stopping and indispensable follow-up to the television series States of Fear, makes the conventional historians' framework for assessing this society since independence plainly inadequate.

Suppose, for example, that I were to write that independent Ireland had concentration camps or gulags, or that child slavery was practised here within living memory. A judicious historian would conclude that I was unbelievably ignorant, and a sane reader would reckon that I had become so intoxicated with my own rhetoric as to be seriously unhinged.

But the phrase "child slavery" does appear in relation to Irish industrial schools in 1947 in letters cited in Suffer The Little Children, describing them as places "where little children become a great army of child slavery in workshops, making money for the institutions that give them a little food, a little clothing, very little recreation and a doubtful education". So do comparisons of that system to the evils of Nazism: "We have punished the Nazis for their sins against society . . . I wonder what God's judgment will be with reference to those who hold the deposit of faith and who fail in their Godgiven stewardship of little children?"

But these, surely, are the over-the-top rantings of an embittered enemy of the church? On the contrary, they are the words of one of the greatest Irish Catholics of the century, Monsignor Edward Flanagan, founder of the Boys' Town residential care centre in Nebraska.

Father Flanagan, who came from Co Galway, was so distressed by what he knew of the Irish system, including a case of a child, Gerard Fogarty, who was flogged with a cat-o'-nine-tails at the Christian Brothers' industrial school in Glin, Co Limerick, that he tried to launch a full investigation of his own. For his pains, he was roundly denounced in the Dail by the then minister for justice, Gerry Boland, and by James Dillon of Fine Gael and by an editorial in the Irish Press. But it will be clear to anyone reading Suffer The Little Children that his use of the term "child slavery" and his invocation of the concentration camps was not unjustified.

This has profound implications for the way we conceive of modern Irish history. For all the superb work of recent historians, it has not occurred to any of them that a central part of their task is to account for the creation and maintenance, between 1922 and 1970, of a system for the enslavement of children in which dreadful physical abuse was applied as a matter of course, and in which rape and torture could be committed with impunity.

EVEN now, moreover, the task of writing such a history remains almost impossible. The Department of Justice has not released its files. Key parts of the Department of Education files are missing. And the archives of the religious orders which ran the system remain closed, except when selective details are used to try to discredit those who want to reveal the truth.

Yet, without being able to account for the child gulags, central aspects of modern Irish history remain obscure and a figure like John Charles McQuaid is inexplicable. As the most powerful churchman of the era, and with enormous influence over secular politics, he bears a huge responsibility for a system whose consequences are still being suffered.

Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan quote, for example, the case of Father Paul McGennis, convicted in 1997 for the sexual abuse of two young girls in the 1960s. It emerged in court that in 1960 McGennis had sent pornographic photographs of children to be developed in England. The laboratory to which the material was sent contacted the Garda. And what did the Garda do? They contacted John Charles McQuaid. The archbishop therefore knew that one of his priests was almost certainly an active paedophile. His response was to call McGennis to his office and arrange for him to have "treatment". The seriousness of this intervention can be judged from the fact that McGennis continued to work as a priest and to prey on children.

How is a historian supposed to account adequately for a fact like this? Speculating about the nature of John Charles McQuaid's sexuality, as John Cooney does, may not be the right answer. But John Cooney at least managed, as no historian has done, to pose the right question.

Since one of the first tasks of this society in the new millennium will be listening to the survivors of the industrial schools in the Commission to Inquire into Childhood Abuse, the professional historians' responsibility surely does not end with scolding him for his improper use of sources. It must continue on to the much more difficult task of creating an interpretation of the development of our society that genuinely acknowledges the fact that the Church, the State and the media collaborated in the perpetration and concealment of horrific crimes. Historians have to develop a language for discussing 20th-century Ireland in which words like "slavery", "concentration camp" and "torture" are not exotic imports but belong in the vernacular.

Fintan O'Toole can be contacted at