The Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, which documented disproportionate incidences of deaths and disease in Irish mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998, was published this week. The commission was set up in 2015 after the discovery of around eight hundred unmarked burial plots on the site of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway. It found that around nine thousand children died in the eighteen homes under investigation. The mortality rate, around 15 per cent, was almost twice what it was for ‘illegitimate’ children in wider society. The children died from respiratory infections and gastroenteritis, from diphtheria and typhoid. They died in homes that were overcrowded, where there were large, shared dormitories and nurseries, where privacy was impossible, where cots were crammed together, sometimes only a foot apart.
Nobody expected this outcome, least of all Sinn Féin. The party leadership thought they’d struggle to hold onto some of the seats they won in 2016. Last year’s local and European elections saw Sinn Féin lose two of its three MEPs and nearly half of its councillors. Because of its defensive strategy, which seemed prudent when the election was called, the party won’t have a seat share that matches its vote: the Irish electoral system has multi-seat constituencies, and in many places Sinn Féin could have taken a second seat if it had run more than one candidate. They won’t make that mistake again.
As the United Kingdom drifts towards a hard Brexit, the media are strangely quiet about the significance of the Common Travel Area (CTA) between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Under this longstanding arrangement, which ought to continue even if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, all British citizens who were born in the UK have the right to live, work, receive health care, access education and vote in Ireland, and Irish citizens enjoy the reciprocal rights in the UK.
Every June since 2014, campaigners have held a vigil at the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home on the outskirts of Cork city. They gather around a semi-ruined folly at the back of the nuns’ small graveyard, with its neat rows of crosses, and hang balloons, light tealights, sing songs, read out poetry. There are no marked graves for the children who died at Bessborough. A plaque remembers ‘all babies who died before or shortly after birth’.
In 1979, as he celebrated a Youth Mass at Ballybrit Racecourse, Co. Galway, Pope John Paul II told the young people of Ireland that he loved them. It was a significant moment, and, for a time, it emboldened an authoritarian Irish Catholic Church. It was also the beginning of the end.
Father Brian McKevitt delivered the homily at Knock Basilica in County Mayo on Sunday. The service was billed as an All Ireland Act of Reparation, a communal act of repentance on behalf of those of us who voted Yes in the referendum on 25 May. Ireland, Fr McKevitt said, has become a ‘pro-choice’ society, where people have decided that either God does not exist or is irrelevant, and are making their own decisions about what is right or wrong. ‘I will go to Mass on Sunday, if I choose,’ he said. ‘I will stay with my spouse, if I choose. I will look after my children, if I choose. I will marry a person of the same sex, if I choose. I will even end the life of an unborn child, if I choose.’
When Michael Noonan, the finance minister in Ireland’s outgoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition, said that ‘party allegiances are reverting back to what was the norm over the years,’ he might as well have been clicking his heels together and murmuring ‘there’s no place like home.’ The 2016 general election marked another stage in the disruption of the old political order, leaving Irish politics more fragmented and unpredictable than ever before.
I should like to apologise to Brigid O’Duffy (née Davis), who served in the Irish Citizen Army during the Easter Rising in 1916 but did not see her military pension until 1937. Her pension application (MSP34REF20583 in the recently digitised Military Service Pensions Collection) is date-stamped December 1936 by the Department of Defence. The files of 433 other women have also been unveiled.
It was meant to be the day on which normal service was resumed. Having followed the path of economic virtue mapped out by Draghi, Merkel and the IMF, Ireland’s governing parties would reap the rewards at the ballot box. Failing that, a strong performance by Fianna Fáil would show that the inherent conservatism of the Irish people had reasserted itself, as they lurched from one centre-right party to another and back again.
‘Enlightenment does not produce tolerance; tolerance is the result of boredom,’ Quentin Crisp said in 1968, when asked about changing social attitudes towards homosexuals. ‘The facts have to be repeated over and over and over, and in the end people say: "All right, so you’re queer. Just talk about something else." And then the work is done.’ It seemed that the moment of peak boredom had come for gay people in Ireland in their fight for equal marriage rights. With a referendum timetabled for early 2015, and the government getting behind the ‘Yes’ campaign following strong recommendations from the Constitutional Convention, gay rights campaigners seem confident, if not complacent, about a change in the law. But they haven’t won yet. Catholic pressure groups are campaigning against gay marriage. The Irish Times commentator John Waters called it ‘a satire’. ‘It’s not that they want to get married,’ he wrote, ‘they want to destroy the institution of marriage because they’re envious of it.’ The drag performer Rory O’Neill said on the Saturday Night Show last month that attitudes such as Waters’s represent a ‘subtle homophobia’.
Irish politicians have spent the last few years telling anyone who cares to listen that ‘Ireland is not Greece,' but in some respects the country appears only too keen to imitate its fellow PIG. As soon as the news about 'Maria' made international headlines, concerned citizens were on the look-out for blonde-haired children living with Roma families; two children who matched the profile were taken into care by police in Dublin and Athlone before you could say ‘witch-hunt’.
I was rung by the radio about thirty minutes after hearing the news of Seamus’s death, and the interviewer reminded me about ‘Room to Rhyme’, the poetry and music sessions across small towns in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s or early 1970s, paid for by the Arts Council of NI and featuring Seamus Heaney, Davy Hammond and Michael Longley. If I had not been prompted, I might not even have mentioned it, I was so thrown by the prospect of having to think about what I would like to say about Seamus at fifteen minutes’ notice, and had some difficulty in mastering my emotions as I spoke. Since then, the memories have been flooding back. I think I went only to a handful of the Room to Rhyme sessions – the first one, perhaps, to report on it for the Irish Times, the others just to follow the magic. For me it was also an introduction to Northern Ireland, which few Irish journalists, or indeed few denizens of the Republic of any stripe, were able to enjoy during the 1960s.
Last March there was an explosion at a semi-detached house on the Gleann Riada estate in Longford, seventy miles north-west of Dublin. The blast – which blew out the sitting-room window and left a hole in a ground floor wall – was caused by methane that had accumulated underneath the property. The two men who rented it were in the kitchen. In October, Ireland’s Health Service Executive said that Gleann Riada was ‘unsafe’ and called for ‘necessary and immediate remedial work’. Residents were told not to light fires and to keep their windows open.
Earlier this month, Providence Resources announced that an oil field at Barryroe, off the coast of Cork, is expected to yield 280 million barrels. The company’s CEO, Tony O’Reilly Jr, the son of the media mogul, told the Today programme that this was ‘very good news for Providence shareholders and the Irish economy’. The first part of his statement is undoubtedly true: Providence’s share price rose sharply on the back of the Barryroe news. That Ireland’s economy will benefit is much less likely.
On Wednesday afternoon, excerpts from a speech by the Irish finance minister Michael Noonan to the Bloomberg Ireland Economic Summit in Dublin, purportedly copied from the Irish Times website, appeared on PoliticalWorld.org. The contributor, PaddyJoe, accused the newspaper of removing a paragraph from an earlier version of the story, in which Noonan, speaking about the Irish government’s ability to secure a ‘Yes’ vote in the upcoming referendum on the European fiscal compact, was apparently quoted as saying:
For a country that appears to show no great regard for highbrows, Ireland has had its fair share of intellectuals in government office, from Justin Keating and Conor Cruise O’Brien in the 1970s to Michael D. Higgins and Martin Mansergh more recently. Yet none rose as far as Garret FitzGerald, the two-term taoiseach who died yesterday. FitzGerald began his career as an academic economist before entering the Dáil and assuming leadership of Fine Gael, and never quite lost his donnish air.
Large-scale electoral meltdowns are relatively rare. In Italy in 1994 the Christian Democrats went from having been the biggest party in every election since the late 1940s to virtual wipe-out. In Spain in 1982 the Union of the Democratic Centre, which had dominated the first parliament after the transition to democracy, fell from 168 seats to just 12, and effectively ceased to exist. The biggest single defeat for any party was probably that of the Progressive Conservatives in Canada in 1993, who fell from 151 seats to just two, though they later recovered. By all accounts, Fianna Fáil, the ruling party in Ireland, is facing electoral meltdown on Friday.
When the Swedish furniture giant IKEA decided to build one of its cavernous stores in Dublin, Ireland’s property boom was at its extravagant peak. By the time of the grand opening at Ballymun on 27 July – there was a log-cutting ceremony – thousands of unsold apartments stood empty within a few miles of the place. Yet the slump hasn’t put a stop to IKEA’s gallop. On the first morning of business, a few hundred people turned up before it opened, hoping to be the first to get their hands on the self-assembly bookshelves. So far, on average, 15,000 people have crossed its threshold every day. The canteen served 137,000 Scandinavian meatballs in one week.
There seems to be one clear message from last Friday's voting in Ireland: people liked their Celtic Tiger, and now that it's gone, they want somebody to pay. Elections for the European Parliament were held alongside local council polls, and there were a couple of Dublin by-elections thrown in for good measure, so the opportunities to stick it to the ruling coalition were delightfully varied. Fianna Fáil had an awful day, their worst since the 1920s. They were overtaken by Fine Gael on a national scale, but the details of the defeat must have made it particularly galling for Ireland's one-time vote-harvesting machine.