Today I am struggling with vivid flashbacks of my time in Ireland in the 1970’s when I was incarcerated in a room as part of a paedophile ring and only let out periodically in my parent’s Hotel in a seaside village on the east coast. It is taking me back to the west of the village, Cill Dara which lead to more houses and cottages lining both sides of the road. The cottages lead straight onto the street but the houses had neat front gardens with loose stone walls, with each stone carefully fitted into its place to provide a secure structure to enclose the well-kept garden.
Some gardens had dogs in them that eagerly bounded up to the front gate to greet you as you passed pass, desperate for a pat or hello and acknowledgment. Only one gate had a sign that said: “Madraí Rabhaidh” (“Warning Dogs”). Those dogs were not friendly but rather ran at the gate and barked incessantly until the passerby had moved on. The owners of those houses were friendly but not the house with the sign. His name was Mr. McChoill and he was a native Gaeilge speaker and widower, living on his own in his two storey house with a garden of four meticulously kept rose garden beds and manicured lawn. He could be seen sitting at his downstairs window, lace curtains parted, malevolently staring out of the window at anyone who had the temerity to pass by his gate. Women on their way to Mass or School walked slightly faster as they passed his house. Children not so fast. It was fun apparently to make Mr. McChoill’s dogs bark behind their locked gate. The game was to make McChoill rise from his window seat and bang on the window pane, shooing the children away. An adult nearby admonished the children saying “Sure, leave the poor dogs alone there. What harm are they doing you? You are only upsetting the poor man. About your business now, or I’ll be telling your Mam and Da about you and your wouldn’t want that now would you? Off to Scoil with ye”. The children just laughed and skip or run off on their way.
I used to see Mr. McChoill walking to the post office at the other end of the village, always on his own. He was a tall, erect man only ever so slightly stooped with age. A shock of thick wavy grey hair adorned his crown oiled neatly back shoulder length though trimmed, well-kept. He wore a long tweed coat and scarf in winter with a Tam o’shanter accentuating his gracious carriage. In summer he wore a light sports jacket. Always smartly turned out he stood apart and you could not but notice he was separate from the villagers. He went once a week on a Friday carrying a letter in one hand and his walking stick in the other, the dogs dutifully walking in front of him. They were not mixture dogs like so many of the village dogs but purebreds, Scotties I think the same as Scottie and Westies I used to see pictures of on the Black and White Whiskey bottle in the bar. I sometimes wondered what Mr. McChoill really saw from his window. Did he see me as I wandered the streets on my own? Did he ever wonder why I was never with the other children or going to school? Did he notice me at all or was his just another unseeing adult eye?
Six houses past Mr. McChoill’s house was the School and Church. They occupied the largest area in the village. The school was one level of brick with a pitched, slate roof and a small bell tower to the left of the wooden front door whose bell loudly heralded the start and end of each school day. It was a two-roomed schoolhouse with two teachers. In each room were wood burning stoves for heat in the freezing, damp Irish winters. Long, tall windows, six on each wall graced both rooms. Desks were shared in threes with the heavy Oak bench attached and immovably fixed to the floor by black wrought iron legs. There were inkwells in each division of the desk and three lids revealing a box into which books could be deposited. I never attended the school as a student, but one quiet Autumn Saturday when I was about 10, I snuck past Mr. McChoill’s house, the other five houses, entered the school playground and finding the door open entered the first classroom. To my shock there was a young fair-headed woman with her hair tied up atop her head, sitting at the top table. “Hello”, she said cheerfully. “Come in”.
I was transfixed to the spot. “It’s okay”, she said gently, “I know who you are. You are Mr. and Mrs. Fado’s, daughter. Come and look around. See if you like it. You might want to come”. I looked around and drank in the room, with the tall ceiling and rows of many desks, three across. So many children must come here. I did not speak to her. I was not allowed to speak to people. On the desk in front of her was a round ball blue and green in colour with some brown patches. It was balanced on a flat bottom and had a half piece of metal supporting it. Fascinated, I walked up, touched it and it moved. I pulled my hand quickly away. “It’s okay. “That’s what it does, it spins. It’s called a globe and it represents the earth. Here, I’ll show you Ireland”, the softly spoken lady said. She magically spun the ball around and pointed to a small green shape, surrounded by water, besides a bigger green long shape and said that the small shape was Ireland, the longer shape was England !!! Wow I thought. So that’s what they look like. I had heard of England from my sister Pip who lived there. To see where she lived was so exciting. The lady asked me my name. I cannot say that. No, I must not talk so I ran away as fast as I could, but I never forgot what she said and her simple kindness. I never knew her name but she noticed me. She knew who I was.
The Church loomed over the Schoolhouse, three times its size. I never entered the Church until I was sixteen. It’s impression on me then was profound and perplexing. It had beautiful stained glass windows through which multicoloured light flowed with pictures of Saints, Mary, God, Jesus and the Apostles. They told the story of Our Lord. His journey through Jerusalem and across Galilee, his liaisons with the Apostles and Mary Magdalene and other sinners. The Ten Commandments. All depicted through the stained glassed windows, the skilled craftsman interpreting the stories evocatively and often painfully. The apparent violence, conflict, bloodshed, and brutality co-existed in such beauty in the house of God. Why? What was the message to the Worshipper?
Wooden pews were rowed up from the entrance to the Altar, four rows across. Around the walls were twelve pictures. Indubitably sad pictures depicting the twelve Stations of the Cross, the journey Our Lord took through the streets of Jerusalem on his way to being crucified. Indescribably dismal, melancholic and heartbreaking for anyone who dared to openly engage with them. The altar was huge and opulent with enormous gold candelabras holding candles waiting to be lit at the next Mass. Large bouquets of flowers adorned the altar supplied, I later learned, by my parents each week. Then suddenly I saw Him. Suspending in free air from invisible lines from the high ceiling down from above the altar. Jesus on a wooden cross, his hands and feet nailed to the foot of the Cross, bleeding. Atop his head was a crown of thorns pressed into his head and forehead. Blood was gushing forth, flowing down his pale face. His face was pained and in agony. Who could cause such pain to a Man? What had he done to deserve such a violent death? I had two long years in which I found out. Two agonising years when I paid for what happened to Jesus.
Two long years when I acted as an altar girl and stood every Sunday on that altar and question is what is seen and not discussed intentionally ignored or purposely overlooked? Is one childhood more valued than another? Is the person who ignores a child as culpable as any perpetrator? What constitutes a stolen childhood? All questions that may never be answered or resolved. The ancient African proverb of it takes a village to raise a child seems noble and with it an unspoken protectiveness. One that should engender trust in one’s neighbours and family. Life is richer when you are part of a network of friends and family, a neighbourhood. Surely it must be. Why would it not be? Under what circumstances was a child not be safer in a village that sees all? Ask yourself that question. Under what precedence do you judge that you do not see? Where everyone knows your name, and a safe place to raise a family. Is that the advantage of bringing up a child in a village? Obviously, I had done something so evil it had made me and my pain invisible. Surely the punishment was to be over soon and I was to be released from my sin. Surely soon. I was invisible.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to ignore one.