Catholic West Belfast 1962

The Tuam Babies. What actually can be said? I have almost a kinda immunity to this kinda thing. Eight hundred bodies of children, seemingly buried in a septic tank between the 1920s and 1960s. It numbs me.

Investigations continue. But it looks exactly like it is. Bodies disposed of…bodies deemed “worthless”. The older I get, I despise this world. I can barely watch the News….children begging in the streets of Asja and Africa. Child Labour. There is something haunting about the face of every child I see. Reminding me of my own grandchildren. It is so easy to make a child happy. Why is so much time spent on making children miserable?  “Better that a millstone be placed around their necks…..”. Yes certainly.

The History of Modern Ireland is actually an ongoing search for Respectability and Acceptance. Kept …by British statute…in a place of permanent ignorance, the Irish were and maybe still are…a despised people. Whether its the Oirish jokes of early 1970s England or the self-loathing of 2014 in the Dublin Media…we are hated. Nowadays mostly by ourselves.

Look at the movie “Gangs of New York” to give some kinda impression of where we were in the mid nineteenth century. It is a great personal tragedy that my uncle and father died within a short time of each other (December 1985 and January 1986). Uncle Jackie always said not to look up the family tree. He was only half joking. There is a mid nineteenth century family story….which caused them some embarrassment….and ironically now I look on with admiration…as do my own sons.

It might seem odd now but that Quest for Respectability was led by the Catholic Church. The Nuns who taught girls to cook and sew and set a table. The Christian Brothers who taught boys to read and write. Churchmen like Father Matthew who preached Temperance. And even in USA, those Irish Catholic parlour maids civilised those Irish Catholic railroad workers…and we all learned how to drink cups of tea with our right “pinky finger” politely extended.

Yet maybe our civilised ways began around Independence. Above all, we must show the English and northern unionists that we are RESPECTABLE. So I can kinda understand the  Catholic Church obsessions based on Sin. And the States obsessions based on a more secular notion of Civil Responsibility. And maybe issues such as unmarried pregnancy put the Church and State together….and Mother and Baby Homes sprang up around the country in such places as Tuam in County Galway. And…allegedly eight hundred bodies were buried there between 1921 and 1961.

We are largely an undocumented People. The Penal Laws, Dispossession, Famine makes us that way. We bear names that make us boast of our noble heritage …O’Connor, O’Neill, O’Brien but the truth is that in 2014, we are just six generations away from Destitution.

image I was born in 1952. I have been trying to remember. It seems to me that my first recollection of the Catholic Church was standing on the back of my baby sister’s buggy (or “tansad” as it was called) and waiting for my father and Uncle Jackie to come out of Clonard, the Mens Confraternity night. I recall a dark night, smoke (incense and lights) in the Church and my father and Uncle Jackie lighting up their Gallahers Greens.

But what else do I remember? My fathers “pioneer pin” indicating he had taken the pledge,  the way that he was one of the respectable men, who took up the Church collection, that he went to Mass every morning. That he encouraged me to be an altar boy…respectable and respected.

I became an altar boy in November 1961. The Headmaster at our primary school asked for volunteers or sought out the respectable boys from respectable families and went thru the Latin with us…..”Ad Deum qui Laetificat Juventutum Meam” (to the God who gives Joy to My Youth….see I still havent lost it).

There were four Masses daily at 7am, 8am, 9am and 10am. The first week I served 7am with three others…more experienced…and that “team” did 8am the second week and so on….and I think there were over fifty of us in the parish…..and with Sundays (seven Masses) and nightly confraternities and benedictions ….we were fully occupied.

There was no real input from Laity in those days. Occasionally at 10am we would turn up to find a Funeral Mass or especially after Easter (no Weddings in Lent) a Wedding Mass (and ten shillings shared between us) but the point I am making is that now in 2014, these things are outside normal parish activity.

Anyway in my very first week of being an altar boy, something really strange happened. In those days we had to fast before receiving Holy Communion and my mother was giving me tea and soda bread when I arrived home from 7am Mass. I told my parents I had just seen my first wedding….a wedding at 7am. My mother was interested. Who was the bride? But I didnt know…and my mother was asking me more questions. What was the bride wearing. Well…actually she was wearing blue! Ah….said my mother….but my father intervened. “Dont scandalise the child” he said.

So the bride in November 1961 who wore blue at 7am Mass was a “scandal”. Either she was pregnant or it was a mixed marriage. Either way, not to be discussed in front of the altar-boy child. Not…respectable.

I search my memory now, looking for more clues. I am lucky. I might make “intellectual” decisions but I really have nothing against the Church. In those days some of the parish priests were nice…some unpleasant in the way of middle aged bachelors. And certainly, it is impossible to live to my age without crossing swords with some. And without having cause to be grateful to some.

But what could we really have known of orphanages back then. From 1957 to 1963, I gave twopence every day to the “Black Babies” collection, a term that embarrasses most people of my generation and the money went to Africa. But in Lent every year, the money went to the “White Babies” in the orphanage. Of course then our understanding of the word “orphan” was very limited.

But we cared about the Third World and Orphans. My sister and I regularly begged our impoverished parents to adopt a child. The Catholic newspaper, “The Universe” carried weekly adverts from agencies. And local people…good caring people did adopt children. The couples were often childless and it was a curious coincidence that many couples conceived their own child after adopting one.

And every Saturday morning two nuns came to our street. And we gave three pence (a thrupenny bit) to them. We lived in #24 and told them that the next Catholic house was #42.

But what else COULD I have known?

I have a cousin who is a nun (a teacher in USA) for over fifty years. She is very liberal- minded. I have a cousin, who (originally in England and now a short distance from me) who has been a priest for over fifty years. He is very conservative. But what could he have known or heard?

There is I suspect a degree of Arrogance that stems from Respectability. A Nun and a Priest …visible evidence of Social Mobility…is valued on the maternal side of my family…and handy for weddings and funerals.

My Uncle Joe, the father of my priestly cousin was arrogant. The priestly cousin is in a wedding photograph above this computer…he was best man at my parents wedding. But I recall Uncle Joe rebuked my father for referring to hhis best man by his first name. “Its FATHER Thomas to you”.

I must emphasise that my cousin, while liking his priestly detachment is not in any way arrogant. But even if priests dont place themselves on pedestals …people do it for them.

Yet I struggle for clarity on how it was then….from the orphaned neighbours that my Granny guaranteed would never go into care (because my Grannys history made her unusually compassionate).

Both my paternal grandmother and my mother had an obsession with orphanages and “homes” and “workhouses”. While seemingly my granny saved people from that, my mother seemed to know things. We had a neighbour called Mick. My mother knew him as a child. He had been an orphan, hired out it seems to local farmers for cheap labour. My mother was scathing about such things. In the 1970s, a local business collected toys for the Catholic orphanage. As a single man, I looked on it as the right thing to do…as well as an investment in my own salvation. We were obsessed with our own mortality in West Belfast in the 1970s.

One Christmas, I missed the deadline for bringing toys to the collection centre and I brought some toy directly to the Orphanage. The nun seemed….detached. No real engagement but the only time, I have ever been in such a place. A friend who worked briefly as a care assistant left because she found it joyless and restrictive.

And yet….I cant help thinking about the neighbours children, who were routinely taken into care in the 1960s. In those days, neighbours threw out bread to feed pigeons and it would lie on the ground…and these kids would chase the pigeons and take the bread. And it embarrrassed the Catholic neighbours ….that this dysfunctional family were letting themselves and US down in front of the Protestants. Occasionally the Police were called. More often the Priest was called. And occasionally the children were taken away. Yet if the Childrens Home was “joyless”, surely it gave more hope to those starving  kids than fighting pigeons for bread on dirty streets.

And we knew of the “Home for Bad Boys”….the juvenile reform school. In those days, it was at Milltown at the side of Milltown Cemetry. The shell of the building stood long after it was closed and rebuilt at Andersonstown. Am I really recollecting correctly if I recall some kinda annual parade with the “Bad Boys Band” marching down the Falls Road? Was it Christmas week?

Yet can it be any surprise that mothers and babies died in Mother and Baby Homes? Can it be any surprise that adults trying to trace their birth mothers find that their mother was called “Mary Murphy”. Can it be a surprise that barely documented babies were taken to USA by Aer Lingus staff to be adopted there?

Can it be any surprise that there are still elderly institutionalised women in Ireland….survivors and to the credit of often elderly apologetic nuns, they are looked after with more dignity now? Can it be any surprise that the survivors of orphanages and “bad boys homes” end up on the streets?

And yet there was something dark about those days for us all. Corporal Punishment was an everyday occurrence in Irish schools. Parents in the 1950s and 1960s routinely handed their children over to be beaten…on a daily basis. Even those macho men who belong to that “it never did me any harm” school of thought, would not put their own children thru that in the 1970s and 1980s.

When did everything just …change. I am tempted to say that it was the Summer of Love in 1967 but of course it wasnt. There was just something about the 1960s that changed everything. Whether it was the Beatles, Carnaby Street, Bob Dylan, Mary Quant, Twiggy, Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock, the Pill or the Vatican Council…there is a strange fault-line which marks the Old World (that I was born into) and a New World.

Of course, I was a teen and unformed and…uninformed. My recollection is that we talked about everything…and yet the World of the Tuam Babies is a world, I only know thru odd recollections and snippets of conversation.

I DO understand that things changed.

But I dont understand how things changed with barely a look back and left people of my generation in a virtual state of ignorance. Rather like scandalising the 9 year old altar boy in 1961, there was no need to scandalise the 15 year old schoolboy in 1967. Lets just change and forget the Past. Bury it with the babies.

Of course things have changed. The 1970s Church that I knew was an oasis of Peace in a troubled City. Pastoral care in the Catholic schools of the my sons past and my grandsons present are amazing. All of the scandals seem to relate to the Past and all worsened by cover up and lies.

Thats the REAL SHOCK. We were not respectable after all. And a lot of people of my age would say that having reached a peak in the 1970s and 1980s that Irish Respectability is in decline. There are people in Belfast living an almost feral existence. It would shock my father and Uncle Jackie. That West Belfast Catholic Respectability has gone backwards. Children going to school have poo conversational skills and poor concentration and disinterested parents.

Back to the Future. Back to Strumpet City (Dublin) or Oliver Twist (London). As few priests and nuns now as there was in early nineteenth century (just after Penal Laws were abolished). Then French nuns come in to Ireland to teach respectability. Now its more likely to be a Polish priest who reminds the adults and children how to behave when they make a rare visit to the Church for a Christening.

An acceptance of “street drinking” and cheap booze. And of course …drugs.

Yet I am not sure that it is unique to Ireland. Other ethnic groups have struggled for Freedom, for Respectability and against “Jim Crow” laws for Acceptance. They fought the Stereotype. And those of a certain generation get shocked when the hard-won Respectability is rejected. And Oppressors smirk.

I can take the Documentaries about Magdalen laundries. It is part of our History. But…..The documentaries….and the movies like “Philomena” and TV series like “Quirke” paint a picture of Ireland that is shocking…more so because its true.

I have never felt comfortable with a lazy stereotype of the Irish. All my adult life, I have rejected the patronising, foreign notion that as an Irishman, I must feel “oppressed, depressed, repressed and suppressed”. That I must be pitied. Now….there is a slightly new narrative that we are all of those things and that we did it to ourselves.

I dont know how we get out of this.

I dont know how to confound the English (and their letsgetalongerist allies in the north of Ireland and their West Briton Quislings in the South of Ireland) that we are not a child-like race, who could not cope with Freedom.



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14 Responses to Catholic West Belfast 1962

  1. pippakin says:

    Great post! I must think about it

  2. John,
    A cracking, thought provoking and insightful post. Many thanks. But what in heaven’s name have we letsgetalongerists done to deserve your stereotyping and consistent opprobrium? Are we the bad guys? Why?

    • Thank you.
      As to letsgetalongerism…I am a letsgetalongerist myself.
      I strongly object to the parasites who have no real policy other an “getting along” and benefitting disproportionaetly in the Media and in Academia and Government.
      UUP 90,000 votes 16 MLAs. 1 Executive seat.
      SDLP 90,000 votes. 14 MLAs . 1 Executive seat..
      Alliance 50,000 votes 8 MLAs. 2 Executive seats.

      A gerrymander. A disgrace.

  3. Teri says:

    Thank you, Jude. That was not only a thought provoking post but one that brought back very similar memories to me. My memories are not of how things were in Ireland at that time but of how things were in Scotland then too. I believe it was the same through the whole UK. I don’t know if it’s any consolation to you, but it is not just Ireland’s shame, but the shame of Scotland and I suspect of many other places too.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you.
      Not just England, Scotland either.
      A few weeks ago I was talking to a Dutch person who was telling me some stuff about children born in WW2. German fathers.
      And I am told USA not much different.

  4. And in France after WW2 the children of German fathers stood a fair chance of being removed from their mothers and put into an institution…

    • Yes…and I think I am right in saying that one of the girls from ABBA was actually born in Norway of a German father. And several Norwegian babies were sent to Sweden.

  5. wolfe tone says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking.
    Every one of us must share the shame that these scandals occurred in our country and in our name whether we condoned it or not. I believe also that these activities were allowed to continue as the victims were deemed not worthy to be afforded to be treated with decency because they came from disadvantaged backgrounds……ie snobbery played a huge part.
    We in the present day however cant shake our heads and pretend that that mentality doesnt exist today. There may not be the institutions today to lock away the underclasses if you like, but there are still people who would look down their noses at others.
    The way we treat our most vulnerable ie kids,the elderly and the disabled, who perhaps havnt the money to pay for their own care can be shameful indeed. The recent revelations of abuses in elderly care homes is an example. It saddens me to see elderly people wasting away whatever time they may have left in this life because relatives are too busy or are not facilitated to care for them themselves. I am not knocking the decent carers out there but the sheer thought of existing in one of these homes fills me with dread, in fact i would also view them kind of like prisons. Our elderly deserve the right to smile and have a bit of fun and these places just evoke sadness.
    We as a society have accepted that firing people into these places is the norm and no guilt should we feel if the occupants are enduring sadness in them. We as a society have allowed our elderly to be viewed as a commodity.
    Maggie Thatcher whiled away her remaining years in a 5 star hotel being cared for by a team of personal carers, a care home wasnt good enough for her and yet the tramp oversaw the privatisation of elderly care during her regime.
    And as for the young kids put into care? Well there are numerous stories of how dreadful some of these places are but i wont go into just now.
    I guess what i am trying to say is although we have managed to shut down those abusive institutions of years ago, we could still do a lot better in improving the standard of living of our most vulnerable today. To ignore this reality would indeed be shameful as well.

    • Thank you.
      I cant agree that “we” should have any shame that this happened.
      That would be like saying that modern Germans are responsible for Hitler.
      That is self-loathing.
      I do however agree 100 per cent with you on the treatment of the elderly in modern times. This is a scandal for which apologies will be made in fifty years time.
      more broadly we should be doing something about slavery, Third World, Famine. These things are happening on “our watch” and thats more shameful.

  6. wolfe tone says:

    When i refer to the ‘shame’ i was implying that if/when we airbrush what happened or make excuses for the people who committed abuse or simply allow it to be wished away and permit the organisations involved to escape rigorous scrutiny, then that indeed would be shameful. I dont loathe myself that much ; )

  7. Gavin Jameson says:

    A bath load of extreme self pitying introspective.
    Maybe you are still not old enough or ever will be to understand that none of this is particularly Irish or of Ireland.
    I was born and bred in London, and can assure you that your experience of how kids were treated, were mine in England.
    I was schooled not in a RC system but a Anglican comprehensive, first years of!
    Corporal punishment and abuse of children was systemic, fundamental part of Britain! As I guess it was in many if not every other country in the most part of the 20th Century.
    The real pathetic thing here is, worse things go on today for millions of children across the world.
    The real ;point of learning here is, it is gone time you but most especially the desperate and
    desperately bias politicos who cherry pick your posts for approval, Stop pretending you care a damn!

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