The Irish reflex of looking the other way when you’re not directly implicated may be a consequence of colonialism, or it might be universal human nature.
If you spend your whole life bracing for the hammer to fall you might want to pretend it isn’t happening when it hits your neighbor instead of you. How else to explain Ireland’s shocking code of silence when it comes to the decades long abuses perpetrated by the state and religious orders against our own children?
It’s become a cliché for generations of Irish people who lived through those years to claim they had no idea what was going on. That claim rings as hollow as the ones made by wives and families of former concentration camp guards during World War II, though. Willful ignorance is not actual ignorance.
Decade after decade unruly young working class Irish boys with no one to protect their wellbeing were sent to brutal Victorian era industrial schools up and down the country.
High spirited girls were abandoned to the modern day slavery of the Magdalene laundries, and terrified children came home to their parents with tales of inappropriate priests, yet for generations all of their claims were absorbed by the wall of silence and shame that had been carefully placed between them and their own agency, taking away every opportunity for justice or redress.
It wasn’t just that something bad had happened to them. They discovered that the Irish state and religious authorities had made the idea of discussing the abuse so taboo that they found they couldn’t even raise their voices in their own defense.
It does something to people, justice denied. It disavows the abuse they suffered. It’s a further form of abuse itself, in fact.
You don’t need to tell that to Gerard Mannix Flynn, the writer and performer of James X, the shocking and often immensely powerful testament of one of Ireland’s forgotten boys directed by film star Gabriel Byrne and now playing at 45 Bleecker Theater in New York.
Flynn had his childhood (and most of his life) stolen from him by the serial abusers of the notorious St. Joseph’s Industrial School in remote rural Letterfrack, Co. Galway.
Opened in 1887 and run by the Christian Brothers, the mountain of evidence concerning sexual abuse and severe physical punishments meted out there was continually dismissed by both church and state in a damage limitation exercise. Authorities still looked the other way, even when evidence suggested the shockingly high number of fatalities of young boys at the school amounted to homicides rather than head colds.
In James X Flynn, who has campaigned against the sexual and physical abuse of the religious orders since the eighties, long before Irish officials took up his call, has elected to deliver a semi-autobiographical account of the actual horrors he experienced, perhaps out of a reflexive need to maintain some distance between himself and what he lived through.
Watching the play, you don’t begrudge him any of the choices he makes onstage, but that’s not to say that James X doesn’t have some thematic inconsistencies that distract rather than illuminate.
A device revealed late in the play turns Flynn into an unreliable narrator, a dangerous development in a play that stands as a testament to social truths.
Although the audience completely understands Flynn’s distancing tactic -- multiple clarifying references to the effect that decades of abuse had on Flynn’s mental health leave us in no doubt -- even so, it’s a disorientating exercise in a play that otherwise leaves no room for misinterpretation.