My father was a teenager when "The Quiet Man" was shot. He saw some of the filming at the Ballyglunin train station, which is on the outskirts of Tuam and just over the stone fence on the family farm.
One of the earliest and fondest memories he has centers around catching shillings on the train tracks that John Wayne threw out to himself and the other star-struck local kids on the set.
There is a cruel irony that "The Quiet Man," the most beloved movie in Irish culture, would be filmed in and around Tuam, a town that kept quiet about burying babies in the backyard even while the movie was being made.
The horrific news reports out of the town that is home to my richest childhood memories are so hard to bear that I have no interest in rehashing them here in this space. But there are some key omissions in the narrative that are worth calling out.
In following this story, I haven’t really seen or heard anyone address the termites in the floorboard of Irish DNA that made the very existence of a home for unwed mothers and babies necessary in the first place.
What no one is saying is that the Irish culture of looking good in front of the neighbors built every brick in that slice of hell on earth within Tuam, and the conditions of overcrowding occurred because the demand to hide the perceived “family embarrassment” overwhelmed the nuns.
By dropping their frightened and disowned daughters at the gate, the parents were asking the nuns to bury the problem. Who is to blame if the good Sisters of Bon Secours (that’s French for “good health,” by the way) carried out their customers’ commands in the most literal sense?
No one is talking about how it takes a village to hide something of this magnitude. I’m sure the home reached outside the walls for people to deliver milk, turf and food, making the thousands of people serving homes like this one culpable in these crimes by their silence.
Indeed, it is easy to imagine those people damning the young girls in their judgments and smugly making the sign of the cross at the gate, thanking their Maker that their own daughters would never put their family through any red-faced shame in the village.
Yes, some of the Irish news outlets, reacting to the understandable public outrage, are rightly calling for a church investigation into the deaths that occurred for decades at the home for unwed mothers run by the Bon Secours nuns in Tuam. With their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, the Irish around the world are now the villagers at the gates of the Catholic Church with their keyboards being the equivalent of pitchforks and torches. It is easier to do that than to look inward and measure our own cultural character flaws that created this scourge on our race.
As an Irish American, I have some experience of that on my shores. I remember vividly how a family friend of ours sent a daughter to a semester away at college when she found herself “in the family way.”
The girl had a son by herself and then worked off the baby weight as part of her brother’s landscaping business to ensure she was fit and trim in September like nothing ever happened. We didn’t find out about it until decades later, when the son emerged triumphant a few years back with a blue ribbon in a Manhattan one-act play festival for telling his life story in a humorous way.
Every Irish artist, writer, poet, or songwriter ever produced on Erin’s soil or abroad has had to break free of some flavor of looking good for the neighbors throughout their lives, including this one.
Some in my family would shun my “Shamrocks” books because they allegedly embarrassed our good name (um…hello? We’re Farraghers, not Mandelas!)
I’ve long given up any suffering over it and I‘ve come to the conclusion that to become an Irish American writer is to give up being Irish.
Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn said he broadly supports calls for a full inquiry into all mother-and-baby homes but then tried to downplay the blight that’s making the entire nation look pitiful on the world stage.
"These things need to be looked at in the context of their time,” he said.
Seriously, dude? What happened is that the remains of 800 children were unceremoniously buried in the backyard. How can you mistake that for anything other than an atrocity and a total breakdown in humanity?
It is early goings in the scandal; I get that. I don’t have the strength and level of faith to raise my hand and make the sign of the cross at the moment but when and if I get there, I will pray that Ireland transforms this obsession with looking good into something that resembles authenticity and dignity for the human spirit.
Mike Farragher’s books of essays on Irish American perspectives can be found on www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com