Independent Ireland has an extremely dark side. Events of recent days around the discovery of a mass burial site in a children’s home in Co Galway show this; and also, more hauntingly, they show how unwilling modern Ireland is to admit it and face up to it.
In the early 1920s, the scourge of partition created not one sectarian state on the island of Ireland, but two – in each, not just one, thousands of lives were lost as a result.
Just as the Covenant heralded not a glorious multi-cultural Union but rather a parochial Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people, the Easter Rising heralded not a free and fair Republic but an ugly new theocratic state in which the Catholic Church played many dark roles – including, it turns out, the effective murder of hundreds of children. What kind of sick place was that?
The 1990s and the Celtic Tiger saw Ireland transformed beyond recognition, and not just economically. Everything Irish became cool – Irish music dominated the airwaves, Irish broadcasters and actors dominated the screens, Irish pubs dominated streets from Siberia to South Africa. It was easy to justify Irish history on the basis of modern success.
Yet what was remarkable, as Malachi O’Doherty pointed out, was that the discovery on 800 children’s graves created well within many people’s lifetimes was not the main headline everywhere. On Northern Ireland channels, not averse to covering events in the Republic, the discovery was almost completely ignored. It did not appear to be mentioned on main BBC news at all. It soon slipped off even RTÉ’s front page. There were only some honourable exceptions.
Being generous, perhaps the sheer scale of the horror is too terrible for people to contemplate. However, I’m not sure we should be generous. There does seem to be an alarming feature of modern Irishness which sees fit to point to dark episodes of other countries’ and nations’ histories while utterly ignoring Ireland’s own – even when they are within living memory and there is still time to investigate them thoroughly. To be clear, this was not just some “rogue element”, but one of a multitude of similar horrors in newly independent Ireland to which the Church, the authorities and frankly the people deliberately turned a blind eye.
It is clear that both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland need to find a way to deal with the past – and one in which the interests of the victims, not the perpetrators, come first.