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Tim Pat Coogan

How Ireland has failed to learn lessons from Famine

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Tim Pat Coogan

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Irish Church child abuse a horror legacy of unwanted Famine children

 This year’s National Famine Commemoration ceremony at Skibbereen was dignified, efficient, moving.

We stood under the Irish flag, beside a detachment from our own army as ambassadors from all over the world, accredited to a sovereign Irish Republic laid wreaths on the site of a mass grave wherein lie the remains of some 12,500 victims of An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger.

The wreath-layers came from the US, the UK, Kenya, Latvia, China, Korea, Hungary, Iran, Canada, Australia, Russia and many other places. Both the cemetery itself and the high ring road above it were thronged . A healthy, well dressed crowd had come to pay its respects to the dead, to the wellsprings of our diaspora.

Around us May blossom, lush green grasses and the strong flowing River Ilen sparkled their approval at our reverence. It was a mood and a moment in which optimism soared free from sadness.

History whispered a comforting word in my ear: If we could travel through the famine to this moment of universal recognition we can pass through the far lesser trauma of the present economic crisis. But, as I listened to the speeches, admirably brief and felicitous as these were, another voice began to whisper uneasily at the back of my head:

“This is all too sanitised. The trauma is being filtered out.”

No word of how and why the famine happened. Not even a moral drawn. For example how might the lessons of Irish starvation in the midst of plenty be applied to the Third World to-day? There was of course no word of blame.

The political reason for this reticence was understandable. It is hoped that following next year’s National Commemoration ceremony in Mayo, that in 2011 there will be a Commemoration across the Border in the Six Counties. Many Unionists still see the Famine as simply another excuse for Fenians to hold yet another flag-waving parade, forgetting that death did not discriminate amongst Catholics and Protestants when starvation and fever descended on Ulster during An Gorta Mor..

Dublin decision-takers hope that the mere fact of holding even the most low-keyed ceremony north of the border will somehow advance reconciliation. Perhaps it will.

But I grow increasingly weary of denial. It was denial by the decision-takers that we were in an unsustainable property bubble that so horrifically compounded the effect on Ireland of the world credit crisis. It was denial by both Christ and Caesar that led to the Ryan Report on the sadism and sexual aberration which has made a sick joke of the term,  "The Island of Saints and Scholars."

And, as everyone now knows, it was denial of responsibility that led to the much-criticized deal whereby the Church sought to close the books on the scandal by forced the State to accept a mere 127 million euro for its share of liability whereas that of the State has since grown to 1.3 billion and climbing.

Commenting on the deal a well-known Dubliner, given to gallows humour commented: "They didn’t pay their whack." Heartless, but, if ever there was a true word spoken in jest that was it. For what people do not generally realisz is the fact that that the Church did not in fact hand over 127 million euro.

The deal was in in three parts. In one, cash was apparently handed over, but how much one can not say with certainty. The second part of the deal consisted of a transfer of Church property to the State. But some of this property turned out to have legal complexities attached, consisting for example of lands left to the Church for specific purposes, the building of a school, perhaps a church or a hospital.

But the third part was the really malodorous component: Having beaten and buggered children entrusted to its care the Church now charged for the counselling services it provided for the rehabilitation of its victims. These services were solemnly included in the settlement as a payment.

We have not heard the end of this sorry saga, A little late in the day, public opinion, with the politicians trailing in its wake, is calling for a revisiting of this despicable settlement, concluded on its last day in power, on the eve of a general election, by an out-going Fianna Fail government.

However, whatever the outcome of the public’s outburst of indignation over Ryan I’m afraid that I have to say there is probably worse to come. Of my knowledge, as they say, I am aware that a report into deviance amongst the clergy of the Dublin Archdiocese is nearing publication.

As an indication of its contents it may be told that when he received it, the reforming Archbishop Dermot Martin was so shocked by its contents, some of which had led to his being appointed in place of Cardinal Desmond Connell, that he called the priests of the Archdiocese together and told them that after reading it he felt like climbing into a bottle of whiskey. He warned his clergy that there must be no attempt at cover-ups, no defences, just sincere expressions of apology and of sorrow.

Archbishop Dermot is a man of Dublin, not of denial. Would that there were more like him in Ireland in the ranks of both Christ and Caesar. In subsequent columns I hope to show how the famine affected Irish psychology and how the power of the church, which the famine did so much to buttress, over reached itself to arrive at its present situation in Ireland

Tim Pat Coogan’s Web site is http://www.timpatcoogan.com

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