The days my door was not opened and I was left alone, I would go to the window and watch the day awake and the village come to life before my yearning eyes. The world was removed from me and I from it. As the years went by my days confined to the room grew more prolonged, lasting at times up to five days without food. Any food was brought by my Father, or by the men that came at night, never by my Mother. I would eagerly and greedily consume whatever was brought unsure if and when the next meal might come. I would be grateful to the giver only sorry that it meant giving of myself in return. Nothing was given freely in that room. Everything came at a price. That was a bitter lesson to learn so early and painfully.
The one person I wanted to come was my Mother but her precious appearances brought with them a bounty and were usually in a drunken stupor. The love I wanted to give was not reciprocated but I craved any attention as better than none. Acknowledgment of my existence in the room meant there was always hope she might love me and I never let go of that hope no matter what happened. No matter what.
The two distinct lights of Ireland were evident and palpable in that room. Clear, crystal sun-filled skies or grey low light days. The Mood of my room changed with the light. On sunny days there was hope and optimism. Anything was possible. On grey days the world seemed like a bleak, lonely place. I rarely thought I would get out of the room and go to places where other children went.
Ireland had two distinct faces. A face of kindness, united families, warm culture, cultural history and celebrations. A country that was welcoming of all newcomers and warmly embraced those of Irish heritage coming back to find their family stories and discover their lineage. Once Irish, always Irish. Indigenous Irish would gladly share history and culture, music and dance, opening their homes to all comers. Family and religion were at the epicenter of any community. Families stayed living together until children either entered Orders or were married, well-meaning parents remained a major influence on children’s lives into adulthood. Poverty and adversity drew families closer together and experiences such as the history of the Great Famine in the 1840’s, uprisings against the British, unemployment and a mainly rural society saw a society develop that was united around the family. In wealthy families, boarding schools and university beckoned. Only the best would do. This was one side of Ireland. This was an Ireland ideal for a child to grow up in.
There was another Ireland, rarely written about and never seen in romanticised fiction or tourist brochures. An Ireland with an underbelly of darkness hidden by the Catholic Church and often as not perpetuated by it. A history of cruelty, abuse and cover-up. The Church was protected above all else. The Priests’ position in the community seen as sacrosanct and above reproach. Any allegations brought forward were quickly squashed and covered up and such abuses ignored, such as the power of the Church and the unquestioning reverence the people had for their local Priest. If incest was confessed in the Confessional on a Saturday, a decade of the Rosary would be demanded by the Priest of the confessor but no report was made to the police. If a parent complained of the cruelty of a nun or priest towards their child, they were quickly hushed by other members of the community or even ostracised. An allegation brought against a priest was hushed and the child often as not punished. If repeated allegations were made the most that might be done would be to move the priest to another Parish but nothing would be made public. It would not be discussed. In 2000 The Commission in Child Abuse was formed to :”The Commission was established on 23 May, 2000, pursuant to the “Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act 2000” and given three primary functions:
- to hear evidence of abuse from persons who allege they suffered abuse in childhood, in institutions, during the period from 1940 or earlier, to the present day;
- to conduct an inquiry into abuse of children in institutions during that period and, where satisfied that abuse occurred, to determine the causes, nature, circumstances and extent of such abuse; and
- to prepare and publish reports on the results of the inquiry and on its recommendations in relation to dealing with the effects of such abuse.
They investigated physical, sexual and emotional abuse and as a recently as March 2017 a mass grave was discovered in Tuam, Co Galway containing the bodies of 800 infants aged 3 months to 7 years at an Industrial School. Other Industrial Schools are now being investigated. Many of these babies would have been from teenage pregnancies resulting from rapes and incest. Many rapes by priests. All this has been proven by the Commission’s rulings.
However, at the time, the shame would be the families’ to bear. The blame would be their secret to hold. There was enormous hypocrisy. Ireland a country of light and dark. Not always safe for a child. All was seen, could be seen, could be observed but chosen to be ignored. Not all children could play innocently and freely. In my room, I experienced the two extremes of Ireland. The two faces of Ireland.
Two streets could be spied from the window meeting at a t-section, one arising from the steep ascent from the beach, the other leading to the epicentre of village life tantalisingly out of sight. To the left of the t-section lay the church and primary school. Weekdays a bell heralded the start of the school day, a world unknown to me. Many hours were spent pondering what might happen in that building. I watched children walking there in the mornings, some siblings walking hand in hand, friends chatting enthusiastically. Parents shepherded neatly presented students for the day, then meandered back from the elusive building with happy noises echoing down the street, rising to my window-framed picture of the world. I had never played with another child but heard them on the beach and in the playground and it sounded chaotic and fun. Laughter rose through the air. Running feet would echo down the street and balls would bounce against walls. Soon now silence would descend. The school bell rings. I know exactly how many times it is going to ring. Six. I count. Yes. Six and a melancholy silence descends as I loose the buoyant and cheerful sounds of children’s voices. She would have come to have let me out of the room by now if she was going to. The children leave the playground and go inside to the building to their day of learning and sharing.