Autumn 2011 Lead Article
Mary Lou McDonald; Mary Travers and Mary McArdle
Full text of article by Pól Ó Muirí, Autumn 2011, vol.100, no.399
On Tuesday 7th of June, 2011, Sinn Féin T.D. Mary Lou McDonald, spoke in the Dail on the issue of the Magdalene laundries. She roundly criticised the coalition Government of Fine Gael and Labour for its handling of the matter. The quote is worth giving in detail: “I wish to raise the damning criticism of the State’s failure to protect women who were detained and abused in the Magdalene laundries. This criticism is contained in the United Nations Committee Against Torture report on Ireland. As many as 30,000 women passed through these laundries in the period from 1922 to 1996. The women were held as prisoners and forced to work without pay. They were abused and many of them had their children taken from them. Some became so institutionalised that they could never leave or function outside of the institution. The State was complicit in all of this, chose to look the other way and failed these women. The UN committee recommends that the State should institute a ‘prompt, independent and thorough investigation’. It further states that, in appropriate cases, prosecutions and punishment of the perpetrators should happen and that all victims should obtain redress and have an enforceable right to compensation. Given the scale of the failure of the State in respect of these women, what does the Taoiseach propose to do? When will the Taoiseach act on the recommendations of the UN? When will these women get the recognition, the apology and the compensation they deserve?”
The tone is one of righteous anger and very sure of itself. The words ‘abuse’, ‘complicit’, ‘prosecution’, ‘punishment’, ‘redress,’ ‘compensation’ and ‘apology’ all stand out. Further, McDonald mentions as many as 30,000 women and states baldly “They were abused,” by which one is to understand every single person. It is the sort of blunt political statement that could have been made about many other controversial issues in Irish society over the last number of years. This one, however, had an added significance in that the T.D. criticising the Government is a member of a political party whose former paramilitary wing – the Provisional IRA – had murdered many Irish people – Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, men, women and children – during the recent Troubles in Northern Ireland. They also imprisoned many, against their will and at gunpoint, while carrying out their activities.
The Murder of Mary Travers
McDonald’s words also carried an added charge at the time as Sinn Féin – in the North at least – was embroiled in another row regarding a very real Catholic woman and victim: Mary Travers. Travers, a teacher, was just 22 years old in April 1984 when she was shot dead by members of the Provisionals as she returned from Mass in Belfast with her father, Tom, a magistrate, and her mother, Joan. She was shot in the back and died at the scene. Her father was gravely wounded, but survived and her mother was uninjured – physically, at least – though the IRA also tried to kill her and failed because the gunman’s weapon jammed, twice.
The murder of Mary Travers became an issue when Mary’s sister, Ann, objected to the appointment of Mary McArdle to the post of special advisor to Northern Ireland’s new Culture Minister, Carál Ní Chuilín. McArdle (only 19 at the time) was arrested by the RUC, shortly after the killing, in possession of the murder weapons and was subsequently jailed for life. She was released as part of the Good Friday Agreement, but the gunmen were never convicted of Travers’ murder.
Needless to say, Sinn Féin did not take well to Ann Travers raising the issue of her sister’s killing. The party adopted the well-worn tactics of blaming the media for running with the story; recounting how they themselves had lost loved ones during the conflict; declaring that they would not be dictated to as to who got jobs and offering as little as possible to the Travers’ family by way of explanation. The killing was “wrong” but that was as much as was forthcoming. Carál Ní Chuilín, herself a former IRA prisoner who spent time in gaol with McArdle, said she was ‘privileged’ to have McArdle with her at Stormont, though, ironically, neither joined the IRA to re-establish Stormont! A BBC documentary programme, Spotlight, also established that Mary McArdle had not co-operated with the Historical Enquiries Team, a group set up to examine unsolved killings during the Troubles. Another undoubted part of the republicans’ anger against the story is the fact that the Republican movement likes to think it was something akin to the French Resistance and that all those nationalists – the vast majority at the time – who did not support them were like Petainists. They do not like this simple – and incorrect – narrative to be challenged.
‘Abuse’, ‘complicit’, ‘prosecution’, ‘punishment’, ‘redress,’ ‘compensation’ and ‘apology’ are all words that could be directed towards the republican movement as regards this murder – and indeed many others. However, that is not how the game is played in Leinster House. Despite the ongoing row, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, gave McDonald a considered reply to her question, saying: “I am sure the Deputy empathises, as I do, in respect of the difficulties, the emotional trauma and the personal difficulties of many of the people involved in the Magdalene laundries and what they went through. The Deputy is also aware that this goes back to before the turn of the last century. The United Nations Committee Against Torture, UNCAT, issued its concluding observations yesterday, 6 June, following Ireland’s first examination in Geneva under Article 19 of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Committee’s concluding observations covered a range of issues: from prisoner conditions to the total prohibition of corporal punishment, the Magdalene laundries, the follow up to the Ryan Report and the processing of applications for refugee status. In its statement, the Committee acknowledged this country’s commitment to engage with it in a constructive manner. The Committee commended Ireland on the detailed written replies supplied by the Irish delegation during the formal hearing examination and on the significant progress made by the authorities in recent years in areas such as the prevention of domestic violence and human trafficking.” (Dáil Debates 7th June 2011)
Had the Taoiseach simply answered McDonald with ‘Mary Travers’ how, one wonders, would she would have reacted? But, of course, there is no mileage in such an approach in politics. Politics is about power. Pragmatism, not principle, is often its truest measure; mileage, not morality; what is possible, not what is necessarily right is what politicians strive after. If both coincide, so much the better; if not, ignore one and go for the other. (This is not, by the way, to pass judgment on the pro and cons of the Magdalene laundries. It is just to note the incongruity of the concerns of one political party and the response of another political party to the same.)
The common wisdom tells us that Travers’ murder is just one of those things that happened in the North – though if one were to say that the Magdalene laundries was just one of those things that happened in the South, one could imagine the outcry. The Taoiseach will not press Sinn Féin on the issue of Mary Travers, because the Good Friday Agreement is supposed to neutralise these issues. This political solution washes clean all past sins – for those in political parties at any rate. Thankfully, the truly appalling violence that was part and parcel of daily life in the North is, for the most part, of the past. The people who were responsible for that violence are, however, very much of the present.
Michael Longley’s famous poem, Ceasefire, in which Priam says “I get down on my knees and do what must be done/And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son” was taken by many as being a very eloquent obituary on the Northern Troubles. Longley drew his inspiration from Greek mythology. Had he turned to Irish mythology, he might well have paused and written an entirely different poem. In Irish mythology, forgiveness is not given; revenge is taken. Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, kills his only son in mortal combat; Conchúr Mac Neasa wipes out Clann Uisneach in a blood feud because he is spurned by Deirdre; Fionn Mac Cumhaill denies his dying friend, Diarmaid, a drink of life-giving water from his own hands. The hard men win out in Irish mythology; the soft (and the women) are buried. Priam would never have made the grade.
It is one of the more perverse characteristics of Irish political life: have a relative who took part in the Easter Rising and people will nod admiringly. Spend a bit of time in Long Kesh and defend the people who murder the Mary Travers of this world and you can still become a T.D. The cult of violence is still with us – the trick is to practise the right kind of violence. Wearing the clothes of a Christian Brother and beating a child will gain you no credence. Support those who put on a balaclava and kill a child (or his father or his mother) and you can still have a political career. After all, a mandate must be respected – even if the dead are not.
‘Connor’s Church’ and Irish violence
A more contemporary reflection on this theme is to be found in Seosamh Mac Grianna’s Teampall Chonchúir (‘Connor’s Church’). Mac Grianna (1900-1990) was from Rann na Feirste in the Donegal Gaeltacht and was politically active in his youth. He took part in the War of Independence (more as a propagandist) and took the Republican side in the Civil War, was captured and interned by Free State forces and went on hunger strike during his incarceration. He was released in the early 1920s and Teampall Chonchúir was published in 1924.
The story is worth repeating in detail and, as it is not available in English, I will ask the reader’s forbearance. Teampall Chonchúir tells the story of Conchúr Óg, whose father is killed by a thief stealing potatoes during one of the bad years that affected rural Ireland. The father, a shop-keeper, is renowned for his generosity, but this does not save him from jealousy and, ultimately, death. The father, reluctantly and with his dying breath, identifies his killer, but Conchúr Óg takes no action against the murderer who, in the best tradition of the folktale, has no luck and dies. (One suspects that the murderer would do much better in contemporary Ireland.)
Years later, the killer’s widow and their young son come into Conchúr’s shop. He gives the widow some alms, but, wracked by hunger, she leaves without her son. Conchúr sees the boy, is seized by the devil and kills him with a spade. He hides the body (‘disappears’ the corpse) in the rafters of his house and does not admit responsibility for his deed. A Mass is said in his house and a drop of blood falls from the ceiling onto the priest’s garments. The rafters are searched and the boy’s body - perfectly preserved – is found. Conchúr admits his guilt and despairs of what he has done. The priest replies: “Ní dhearnadh aon pheaca riamh nach dtig le Dia a mhaitheamh./No sin has ever been committed that God cannot forgive it.”
The priest sets Conchúr three tasks as a penance. The first is to build a bridge; the second a church and the third to sit in the window of the church, hand outstretched upwards, until a bird of the air lands in his palm and lays an egg. The first two tasks are physical and demanding but he perseveres and builds them. The last, however, is a gift that is not in his giving. He waits seven long years until, finally, “a bright, white bird” lands in his palm, lays her egg and he dies – a happy death.
The story is gruesome and very short: a couple of pages long. A more modern writer would have tried to flesh out the narrative more, but there is a chilling simplicity to Mac Grianna’s approach. Indeed, reading it again, some 90 years after it was first published, one is struck by how relevant it still is. The horror of so much of what we have witnessed in modern Ireland is to be found in it. Conchúr Óg takes revenge not on his father’s killer – whom he knows to be guilty – but on his guiltless child, with a merciless, brutal assault. He knows enough to hide the body and hopes to get away with the crime by ‘disappearing’ the corpse. But the crime is too great to be concealed for ever. A higher power acts and Conchúr’s guilt becomes manifest. And he is guilty. He has killed an innocent. But where Conchúr differs from so many of our contemporary killers is that he knows he possesses an immortal soul; Conchúr believes in the life after this; he knows that he cannot forgive himself simply by admitting his guilt. (And Mac Grianna was no Holy Joe. While in hospital, Mac Grianna was visited by the chaplain who asked him if he wanted to receive Holy Communion on Sunday. “Fuck off!” was Mac Grianna’s reply.)
The penance set by the priest is something that chimes once again to contemporary ears. “Building bridges” was the theme of the McAleese presidency and I am writing this as the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson of the DUP, and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, opened a ‘Peace’ bridge in Derry city. Robinson too attended Mass – his first – after Catholic PSNI officer, Ronan Kerr, was murdered in Omagh by Republicans in April, 2011.
It is the third task, however, that is the one which no one can accomplish on their own. The need to sit, day after day, month after month, year after year, with hand outstretched to the heavens in the hope that a bird of the air will nest in it. It is something that, unaided, would be beyond human endurance. It is simply an impossible task. Any chance that this task be completed successfully is something that depends entirely on God’s intervention.
It is that third task – that final act of the trinity – that the priest sets Conchúr Óg which is the one that most concerns us here. The physical act of turning up somewhere for a service or building something is, essentially, easy. It shows nothing of what is really in the human heart. It is part and parcel of the political lifestyle: turning up at festivals, at GAA or rugby matches, at band parades, at commemorations. It is understandable why politicians do it, though it is often meaningless.
Remember too that Mac Grianna knew the reality of violence, imprisonment, hunger, the stigma of being on the losing side. Yet there is no bombast to his story. There is no sense that the killer’s son deserved what he got; that the action, while ‘wrong,’ was excusable, understandable, just one of those things. Remember too that Mac Grianna is writing in the years after the Civil War – a war in which the political predecessors of Enda Kenny tied IRA prisoners to a land mine in order to kill them; an era in which execution and bloody ambush were common. And let us not forget that de Valera, on the losing side with Mac Grianna, also hanged IRA men when he came to power. And, for a more contemporary generation, there is Charles Haughey and his murky involvement in the Arms Trial; Fine Gael’s Heavy Gang; the Labour Party can follow a thread in its own history back to the Official I.R.A., an organisation that was every bit as efficient (indeed some might argue more efficient) as the Provisionals and there is the mass intimidation of Northern Catholics that was part and parcel of Unionist parties’ approach for many a long year. And we wonder why Christian Brothers and nuns may have mistreated people in their care!
Our Selective Moral Blindness
Both Irish States were born in blood, slaughter and sectarian murder, but the Irish people have the unique talent of being able to put ‘political’ violence in context, while still maintaining their righteous anger against other types of violence. The Catholic Church has developed a very refined Theory of Just War, but those Catholics who went into the IRA (Official and Provisional) had more than enough street-wise philosophers amongst them who were able to replace Aquinas with Andersonstown and recast what a just war might be. (It may be flippant on my part, but I will mention this anyway. Is it not a little odd that commandment “Thou shalt not kill” has been redefined by philosophers to become “Thou shalt not kill – except where the following conditions are met”? “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” has never been amended to provide a Theory of Just Adultery: “My wife let herself go a bit. The other woman offered it to me on a plate. I would have been mad to refuse”).
In a similar vein, I suspect many Catholics would be very surprised – as I once was – to visit a Church of Ireland cathedral and see it bedecked inside with battle standards and flags from British army regiments. It brings to mind a sour little jibe a Republican-minded friend always makes about the Church of Ireland – “The religious wing of the British Army.” His admiration for Presbyterians, however, is unbounded.
We look back 90 years, 60 years, 40 years, 30 years and judge by today’s standards and think “what an awful lot,” but we are little better. If it is right – and it is – to raise concerns about those who have passed through industrial schools, orphanages and laundries in the near and distant past then, equally, it is right to be concerned about those who have survived a loss, in the most brutal circumstances, in more recent times. The relatives of those killed by the British State or its agencies, by Republican or Loyalist paramilitaries, deserve more than empty words. They deserve more than a simple – if perhaps heartfelt – “it is just one of those things”. As Ann Travers noted during that Spotlight programme: “There is no set time on grief.” And how much greater must that grief be in circumstances when a loved one was killed deliberately and without warning: the young girl killed by a plastic bullet; the taxi-man shot in his cab; the manager gunned downed in his office.
Why does our political system raise its voice in defence of one set of victims and ignore others? Why is one act of violence regarded as ‘political’ and, in the long term, excused – celebrated – put in context (and definitively in the past) while the other is just ‘criminal’ and pursued relentlessly? And that is not to say that the ‘merely’ criminal should not be pursued where possible. Why is there this fundamental failure to recognise just how fragile life is and just how serious a matter it is to take a life? How much longer can we fail to recognise that the damage that our attitude to ‘political’ killing does to us as a society? How can we really accept ‘moral’ leadership from our politicians, when our political system – North and South – is so deeply tainted by blood for nigh on a hundred years? And that is not to say that there have not been individual politicians who have shown great moral courage and leadership on these issues.
And that lack of moral leadership also pertains to international relations. Father Tony Flannery, CSsR, writes about taking part in a march to protest against the war in Iraq: “I believe that our government took a very practical decision. To object to the war, and particularly the American use of Shannon, would have run the risk of some of these companies pulling out of Ireland. This could have serious effects on our economy. Since prosperity is the ultimate objective, nothing could be allowed to put it in jeopardy. And so, despite some bland and ultimately meaningless public statements to the contrary, we have in fact supported a war that is now clearly seen to be unjust, oppressive, and resulting in the destruction of a society and the death of countless thousands of people. And the voice of protest is almost silent. Even the Green Party has now become complicit. What price prosperity? What price power?” (Fragments of Reality: Collected Writings; Columba Press, 2008; page 79)
Perhaps it is no surprise that death in Baghdad is such a little thing to our political caste; death in Belfast has hardened its heart already. Do not expect a palm raised to heaven in penance anytime soon!
An after word: this essay has just been completed as the report into Cloyne has been published. The political and public reaction is one of horror at the (lack of) handling of allegations of sexual abuse in the diocese. The Fine Gael TD, Charlie Flanagan, has called for the expulsion of the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has announced: “The law of the land shall not be stopped by crozier, or collar”. Legislation is to be introduced to make it a crime not to report sexual abuse even in the confessional. There is no talk about compelling former members of the IRA to co-operate with the Historical Enquiries Team or expelling TDs if they don’t. There is no talk of expelling the British Ambassador for his country’s role in the killing of Catholics in the North (and cover-ups thereof). Nor is there any talk about expelling the American Ambassador for his country’s (mis)use of the Shannon stopover or the killing of countless Iraqi and Afghanistan civilians (including children) by American and British forces in the two wars in those countries.
In the North, the First Minister, Peter Robinson (Democratic Unionist Party), and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness (SF) have addressed Cloyne too. McGuinness says that there is ‘compelling argument’ to investigate all Church dioceses in the North. (The Northern bishops say they will co-operate with any investigation.) McGuinness is a former IRA leader in Derry and has consistently refused to be drawn on controversial killings by that organisation in the city. His party too has been involved in a number of controversies other the killing of young nationalists by members of the Republican movement. The latest killing was that of Paul Quinn in 2007. He was 21 when kidnapped from his local area in South Armagh, imprisoned and beaten to death by a gang. The family believe members of the IRA were responsible for his murder.
Northern Catholics will, no doubt, be overjoyed that the DUP is now interested in their children, having, for so many years, indulged in anti-Catholic bigotry and stoked the fires of hatred towards the parents and grandparents of those same children. The DUP would probably argue that such abuse was ‘political’ – or perhaps they would argue that it was not actually ‘abuse’, but just part of the political process in the North.
The Catholic Bishops of Ireland, having received the Cloyne report in July, announced that they will consider it at their next meeting in September! Given that Bishop Magee’s actions have resulted in great anger amongst victims of sexual abuse and among many ordinary practising Catholics for his inexplicable failure, it is simply astounding to observe the tardy response of the bishops. Is it too cruel to say that Irish Catholics are lambs lead by sheep?
And, finally, the case of Mary Travers has slipped off the political agenda in both jurisdictions. Once again.
Pól Ó Muirí is an Irish Times journalist.