In The Whipping Club, Irish American author Deborah Henry takes us to mid 20th century Ireland where a young woman gives up her half-Jewish son for adoption. What follows is an eye-popping catalogue of shame, mistreatment and abuse. Cahir O'Dohert talks to the author about her debut novel, which has been picked for the Oprah Winfrey Summer Reading List.
When you give away unchecked power to any group, whether it’s your government, your banks or your church, get ready for unforeseen complications.
When there’s no one to stand up to them, it’s simply human nature for the powerful to lord it over the powerless, even when they know better, because the temptations to misbehave are just too seductive, it seems.
It’s clear to most now that the Irish people gave entirely too much of their power to the church in the last century because the abuse scandals that have erupted everywhere seem like they may never come to an end, plaguing the legacy of Catholicism in Ireland.
In every parish and townland a centuries long culture of incontestable dominance gave some of the most sadistic and antisocial personality types free reign for their worst excesses. Protected by their collars or their habits, they preyed on the innocent, and then they shamed or bullied them into silence.
It’s a story so shocking that we need to tell and re-tell it until we have all finally grasped its true warning.
The abuses happened because there was no one to challenge them. Bishops, priests and nuns weren’t subject to the law -- they were the law. They were also the gospel, too, for good measure.
Individually you hadn’t a hope against the might of the church as it stood throughout the last century. The church set the agenda for the entire country. You liked it or else you took the boat or plane.
For Irish American author Deborah Henry, the religious complications of Irish life in the last century are clearly dramatic subject matter, but the question is did she really want to kick over that hornet’s nest?
The Whipping Club (T.S. Poetry Press), her debut novel about a young woman pressured into giving up her half-Jewish son for adoption, took her almost eight years to write.
“I have relatives who change the subject every time I bring up the book’s subject matter,” Henry tells the Irish Voice with a laugh.
“They don’t seem interested. They want to look at the positive. I just decided that would not be for me. I was going to tell the truth. And anyone who does not want to look at the truth I feel sorry for.”
Truth-tellers are every society’s least favorite people, usually. Henry knows this, but it didn’t stop her.
“What I wrote is like a fairytale compared to the actual experiences of the people I interviewed while researching the book. The people who actually went through the Industrial School system or lived in an orphanage told me stories that made my hair stand on end,” Henry says.
“But art is not a retelling of atrocities. I had to find some way to up the level of the writing so that there was some beauty in the telling.”
She has succeeded in her aim. Henry’s debut novel is immensely assured, grabbing the reader from the first page. It’s the kind of debut that publishers dream of, confident, clear and appealing to a wide audience.
Perhaps Henry’s own unique background explains some of the interest the book is generating.
Her mother is a first generation Irish Catholic from the Irish enclave of Woodside in Queens, New York. Growing up she was also very close to her grandmother, who was originally from Portglenone in Co. Antrim.
Although it was a typical Irish family on the surface, her background was far from typical.
“My mother somehow met a Jewish man, which was almost unheard of in the 1950s,” Henry says. “They fell in love and got married and no one came to their wedding from either side of the religious divide. On the Jewish side they thought it was horrendous of my father to bring home this blond bombshell.”
It makes Henry shake her head to think that even in our own lifetime, these marriages were considered horrific.
“It’s so hard to make a connection in this world, let alone fall in love. I often think it’s a miracle anyone gets married,” Henry says.
Half Jewish and half Irish, Henry refers to herself as bilingual.
“I went to the Irish side by marrying a nice Irish Catholic man and I’ve always been close to that side of me. But at the same time I was intrigued to discover there’s a part of Dublin that’s known as Little Jerusalem,” she says.
“When I told my mom I was going to try and write a novel set there she rolled her eyes and said, ‘About all two Jewish people there - all of them?’”
But Henry went over to Ireland to research, and she started to uncover uncanny similarities there to things that were occurring in her book. She knew from the beginning that it would address the history of what happened in Ireland in the last century.