Sorrowful mysteries etched into bleeding fingers
Sorrowful mysteries etched into bleeding fingers
By FINTAN O'TOOLE
STRANGELY enough, of all the images in Louis Lentin's superb documentary film on Goldenbridge orphanage, the most disturbing for me was not one of the violent ones - a child deliberately scalded with boiling water or beaten with a club until her whole leg from ankle to hip burst open. We see so much brutality on the screen that most of us, I suppose, have learned how to shield ourselves from it. The really searing image was more mundane and less dramatic. It was the group of middle aged women sitting at their desks in the classroom, re enacting the endless hours they spent from the age of four onwards making rosary beads.
It was terrible because, after 30 years, they could still do it apparently without having to think. They could look into the camera and talk powerfully and coherently, and all the while their hands were working away on their own, the wire strung over one forefinger, a kind of pliers held in the palm, the beads in the other hand. They had to do 60 lots a day after school, stringing together 600 beads, 60 decades of the rosary uttered not with the lips or in the head but in the flesh and bone of raw, trembling fingers.
The prayer's sorrowful mysteries and ascendant sighs, the mourning and weeping in this valley of tears, were, literally, etched into these women's bodies. The wire wore a groove into the top of the finger, so that it sat in an open wound while the children strung it with beads. Sometimes pieces of glass from the beads splintered off into a child's eye. Even now, decades later, if you looked closely at the woman's hand while she spoke and worked, you could see that the inside of her thumb still had the mark of those countless hours of cruel drudgery.
THESE images are much more than memorable - they invade the memory. They change forever and for the worse all sorts of memories that seemed stable and comfortable. I remember the feel of the rosary beads in my mother's gloved hand as I held it on the way to Mass. I remember the white, shiny rosary beads that I got for my first communion. I remember the dull black ones that my great grandmother had wrapped around her joined hands on her death bed. I remember my grandfather's tan coloured beads as he knelt by his bed every night.
And now I have to remember that some of those beads, those symbols of order and goodness, were probably placed by fearful little fingers on pieces of wire resting in the open wounds of children. This, maybe, is the important thing about the current revelations of abuse in Goldenbridge and St Kyran's in the 1950s and 1960s. They affect not just the women who still bear the physical and mental marks, but the whole way in which this society remembers itself. They show us, again, that we do not yet have a stable point of reference even in the very recent past from which to judge where, and who, we are.
One week we are watching on our television screens images of Chinese orphanages. We see small children left in the care of slightly larger ones. We see babies strapped to potties, left to fall over and lie in their own dirt. We watch little ones who have forgotten how to smile, staring into space, rocking back and forth. We rage at the kind of savage neglect that seems possible only in a totalitarian society. We long to take those poor kids from their barbaric world into our civilised one. We call the Chinese ambassador into our parliament to explain herself and her shameful country, knowing for sure that we come from something better.
And then, within weeks, we are shown exactly the same images in our own orphanages, only projected back 35 years. And we don't really have the comfort of looking at the big picture of a nasty looking nun on the front of a tabloid paper and knowing that it is all really just about her. Of course individuals are responsible for their actions. And of course the religious institutions which allowed it to continue has a lot to apologise for. But there is much more to it than that.
Growing up in working class Dublin in the 1960s, there were certain words that carried a dark meaning all of their own - Artane and Letterfrack. One of the things you knew so well that you could never remember actually being told it was that if you were bad you would be sent to one or the other. You knew that they were places for two kinds off skids - bad ones and orphans. And you did not know that there was any real distinction between these two categories. For all practical purposes, there was no real difference between being bad and being an orphan.
IT WAS not accidental, therefore, that the orphanages should be terrible places. One of their functions was to tidy away, out of sight and mind, the human refuse of respectable society. But the other was to act as a deterrent against bad behaviour. Women who were bad would have their babies sent there. Youngsters who were bad would be sent there themselves. The places were cruel not just because there was a nasty nun or even a nasty church, but because part of their job was to be cruel. They were the earthly hell with which we were threatened.
And threats don't really work unless you know in some unclear but unmistakable way, that what you are being threatened with is pretty horrible. If places like Goldenbridge and Artane, Letterfrack and St Kyran's had been full of happiness and ease, the perverted logic of the kind of society we are struggling to emerge from would have seen them as an incentive to moral laxity and delinquent behaviour. That logic was kept in its place not by one bad nun with a big stick but by an awful lot of fools and hypocrites in dog collars and suits. And it was overturned slowly and with enormous effort by men and women working against the odds for political and social change.
These days, with so many battles won, it is easy to indulge in nostalgia for the old certainties and to forget that what was most certain about them was their naked cruelty. It is easy to indulge in liberal self laceration, wondering whether we haven't thrown out the baby with the bathwater. It is easy to be too forgiving of the ignorance, corruption, and viciousness that were so pervasive as to be virtually invisible. But to give in to any of those temptations is to betray the courage, resilience and life giving anger of those whose pain was strung on bits of wire to count out such shameful decades.