Saturday, May 01, 1999

Unholy trinity

Unholy trinity

  • States Of Fear (RTE 1, Tuesday)
  • Think Of England (BBC 2, Tuesday)
  • Ready To Wear (BBC 2, Tuesday)
  • Tribute To Jill Dando (BBC 1, Monday)
  • Fair City (RTE 1, Tuesday & Thursday)

John Prior said he was "sadistically sexually abused" on the day he made his First Holy Communion. Barney O'Connell said the Christian Brother in charge of the Artane Boys Band ordered him to strip naked before "grossly molesting" him. The brother, O'Connell added, was literally foaming at the mouth as, demented with desire, he lurched towards orgasm. It was also, by the way, a public assault in front of a classroom of pre-teen boys. We saw old Trom Agus Eadtrom footage of the named brother being nationally celebrated in 1976. Sharon Murphy said: "We used to eat the pigs' food."

Sweet, suffering Jesus! Just think about these things. Pause to ponder these abuses like the people in the new RTE Angelus pause and ponder as the bell tolls. It might be no harm to cease reading and just focus on the vileness of the sadism, sexual abuse and semi-starvation - a most unholy trinity at the heart of the stories recounted by States Of Fear. Oh, there are plenty more stories - equally savage and heinous - but those three contain enough to be getting on with, don't you think?

Mary Raftery's documentary on the industrial schools of Ireland has rightly been splashed on news and features pages, spoken about on radio, heavily promoted on television. In gaining access to Department of Education files, it plundered primary sources for facts and the programme's interviewees furnished remembered accounts from the front lines. Much that a conspiracy of silence had hitherto kept anecdotal, impressionistic and whispered, was given a hard spine. It was Dear Daughter - The Sequel and it was the best home-produced documentary so far this year.

Founded in 1868, the industrial school system grew vast. At its peak, there were 52 such "schools", with almost 7,000 inmates in any year. Easy analogies with gulags, concentration camps and slave labour systems suggest themselves. But there is a danger of a self-defeating and distorting disproportion in such comparisons - a disproportion which risks the charge of anti-clerical inspired exaggeration. So, Artane, Daingean, Letterfrack do not quite chill the marrow like Auschwitz, Dachau or Lubiyanka. But they were thoroughly vile institutions, funded by the State and run by the Church.

Debates on the economics of, and the extent of gross abuse within, the system will remain unresolved. We saw footage of the Archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell defending the Church's historical role in "caring for the destitute". This `justification' was delivered at a graduation day for theology students in November of last year. Well, yes - often the destitute were taken in (and how!) - but the industrial school system wasn't really about care and even if it wasn't always about ruthless, naked profit (slave labour with, in addition, the State paying the Church!) it was about sickening exploitation.

You can go all lefty and sociological and blame the society which spawned and tolerated the vileness. Alternatively, you might view it conservatively and cite individual abuses as mere aberrations from an indisputably severe but seldom sadistic norm. But whatever perspective you view it from - even taking into account the dominant forces and most pressing deprivations of the period - the industrial schools are an Irish 20th century disgrace. "The one good thing about Christmas Day was that there was no sexual abuse on Christmas Day," said another former inmate. Ponder that one if you've finished with the first three.

The programme wondered how such sickness could have been tolerated by the wider society. Poverty, State and Church in collusion, excessively large families, a snob-ridden, at times tyrannical social structure, postcolonial thuggery and sycophancy - all these conspired to create ideal conditions for the vileness to thrive. But hovering above all was a deliberate, medieval construction of God as a fearsome, unquestionable moral-policeman - the superego of Holy Ireland, if you wish. Those unlucky enough to be at the bottom of this ungodly hierarchy - poor, powerless, pounded children - were practically despised.

Don Baker, sent to the Oblate Order's notorious Daingean institution, remembered being served potatoes infested with maggots for his first meal there. He recalled, too, being spread naked on all fours across the bottom steps of a staircase, with a very hefty brother pinning his hands by standing on them, while another clergyman flogged him mercilessly. You might ponder the maggots and the flogging before turning to stories of girls being made to live for days with pigs; children beaten into simpleton states having been caught after a brief escape; children eating grass to quell hunger.

And so it went - horror piled upon horror. Certainly, there was an economic aspect to the system. Allegations were raised that the State grants were very often not spent on the children in, eh, "care". Convincing if not quite conclusive evidence was provided. With hindsight, of course, it's easy to realise that the official project of making Ireland "the greatest little Catholic country on Earth" would, inevitably, have a shadow side. Given the pulverising piety and repressions of the period, there was sure to be a diabolical darkness too.

"They knew what they were doing. In my case they told me that they were `beating the divil' out of me," said former inmate Mary Norris. Satan was a great whipping boy, eh? This was fine television even if didn't quite require the plaintive mood music to prompt you how to feel. The only serious risk with such documentaries is that they can bolster 1990s smugness that abuses have now all but ended. Clearly, the monstrous industrial school system is not as it used to be. But the characteristic piety of the past appears to have been transformed into contemporary complacency. Children are still being bullied, beaten and buggered. Ponder that, if you will.

At the same time as States Of Fear was prompting us to ponder Ireland, a Modern Times special was telling us to Think Of England. Seeking the essence of Englishness, it adopted a largely light-hearted, quirky, "let's-fete-our-eccentricities" approach. Fair enough. Interviews with Little Englanders, English provincials and sundry, stock `eccentrics' produced a programme with a Last Night Of The Proms delusional sentimentality. But, for all that, there was wit and revelation in mining the self-images of cross-sections of the English people.

"Being English is all about discipline, doing the right things, no hooliganism," said a Henley Regatta matron from under a hat which could have sheltered the Queen Mary. Other Hooray Henrys and Henriettas agreed that Wimbledon, Lords and, of course, Henley, defined Englishness. Soccer was out, mind. Notwithstanding that soccer attracts and interests a far greater proportion of English people than tennis, cricket or boats, it was out. The Hoorays, as ever, refused to recognise the social and psychological hooliganism implicit in snobbery.

Then there was the middle-aged woman who judged the quality of home-made jams, pies and sponge-cakes. "What?" she snarled, holding a jar of jam to the light, "no date?" The judge insisted that she was "very strict" and that her standards were "very high". The lack of a date meant "instant disqualification". Well played, madam. Well played. "And look at this," she said with contempt, examining another jar of jam, "it's very foggy at the bottom, very foggy". You were left believing that while you'd almost certainly enjoy her cooking, you'd have to balance its merits against any conversation that would be served up with it.

There were self-proclaimed Enoch Powell supporters too. "There's nothing nicer than there is in England. All the beautiful things are in England. All you've got abroad is filth," said one old bloke, as his middle-aged son nodded in agreement. "Yeah . . . and we're feeding too many blacks too," said the dutiful son. "We should send them back." At this, father and son threw their heads back and sniggered. Cut to a middle-England garden fete. The local vicar was celebrating his victory in a competition for growing the longest stalks of rhubarb. He didn't pull his shirt up over his head, Ravenelli-style. But he was pretty pleased, all the same.

In suburbia, couples mowed their lawns and washed their cars. These activities, it seemed, had a ritual as well as a practical aspect. Neatness and cleanliness were, of course, the aims. But social as well as functional statements were being made. The mowers and washers admitted as much. Like the jam-judge, it was all about "standards". Finally, having journeyed from Henley through rural and provincial middle England and onto suburbia, we were landed in inner-city Liverpool before destination Blackpool showed the lumpen English at play.

The Liverpudlians insisted they - and all "North of England" people - are "superior" to the English in the South. In Blackpool, a huge woman (easily a 20-stoner!) saw the cameras and ran towards them. Repeatedly, she performed a half-Ravanelli, lifting her blouse to expose her bra. She was very happy. The programme ended on a railway platform talking to a husband and wife team of trainspotters. They've been spotting for 30 years. "Are you eccentric?" the man was asked. "No," he said, as he readied his notebook to record an approaching train. Thinking Of England was an affectionate, home-movie. English darkness is, like its Irish version, another country altogether.

Equally light-hearted was Ready To Wear: Suit You, Sir, a trawl through the history of post-war British, sartorial fashions for men. We learned that in the 1950s one in four British men got married and buried in a Burton suit (Don't ponder that!). We heard "a leading society hostess" of the period insist that "dreb clothes mean a dreb oitlook". The pronouncement was delivered in a RADA accent - more measured than the Henley braying of Think Of England - but still social continents away from the Liverpool and Blackpool contributions.

On through the gaudy, foppishness of the 1960s, to the cosmic naffness of the 1970s (when plum-coloured, crushed-velvet suits had lapels wide enough for hang-gliding) and into the 1980s. En route, we saw footage of magnificent medallion men, their shirts open to just above the navel and their gleaming medallions cushioned by curly chest hair. Elegance wasn't the word - very definitely not the word. But the 80s had its male "styles" too. Remember those pastel suits worn with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow? The medallion men were, at least, funny.

Frank Bough appeared at one stage wearing a poppy. He was introducing an item on 1970s male fashions. Frank, an unlikely likely lad, has since, of course, fashioned his own kind of notoriety. But perhaps the best snippet of dialogue was in a scene from The Likely Lads. Visiting a unisex hair stylists, one of them bragged that he "uses the same hair conditioner as Malcolm McDonald" (a hirsute, former Newcastle United and Arsenal striker, for the Henley types among you). Using the same hair conditioner as Bobby Charlton would have been less idiotic.

Meanwhile, of course, this was also the week in which BBC presenter Jill Dando was murdered. Her killing has prompted a rash of reflections on the nature and price of fame. As the sunny (The Holiday Programme) but sufficiently serious-minded (Crimewatch) face of the BBC, Ms Dando epitomised an Englishness which the Henley heads could admire and the lumpen types respect. Tribute To Jill Dando was, naturally, a eulogy. But the Crimewatch connection - though it's unlikely to have anything to do with her murder - was an eerie and clarion irony.

Certainly, Jill Dando seemed thoroughly inoffensive and even if, in strictly ethical terms, an argument could be made that her murder was disproportionately covered by the media, there was an understandable unavoidability to the focus. Sad stuff, in a week of sad stuff on television. It did though, reinforce the reality that TV fame - more homely than, say, cinema fame - still conveys an assumed intimacy between star and punter which no other medium can match. Jill Dando was not really central to the lives of all those who mourn but couldn't really have known her. But her TV persona was and she will genuinely be missed. Maybe we should ponder the meaning of that too because the same sentiment that made viewers feel unduly close to her can have its own dark side.

© The Irish Times


Post a Comment

<< Home