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Sunday 11 September 2011

Our unlovely peasant traits at the root of our ills

We will be better people for facing up squarely to our unpleasant past, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I reeled at Mary Raftery's revelation that in the 20th Century, per capita, more people were locked up in mental hospitals in Ireland than anywhere else in the world. Our prison population, on the other hand, was tiny.

I don't know why I was surprised. Those who dominated our tribe were mainly peasants, and peasants tend to be cruel and secretive. Read Andrew Forrest's Worse Could Have Happened or Brinsley MacNamara's Valley of the Squinting Windows on the viciousness of Irish rural society: read Guy de Maupassant on similar horrors in France.

Like peasants everywhere, we treated the powerless appallingly and our whole society was imbued with a fear of truth. Did the mighty not tell us that prostitutes, like snakes, had been eradicated from Ireland after independence -- and this at a time when you could see them plying their trade within spitting distance of the Dail? We wanted to believe we were a virtuous people, so if they wouldn't clear off, we sent the troublesome or the nuisances or the people who came between us and a bit of land to institutions officialdom could ignore.

Even Patrick Pearse, who was romantically in love with rural Ireland, hated the way animals and children were treated there and admitted that the Gaeltacht children to whom he gave scholarships to St Enda's were prone to lie. But then, frightened children do lie.

My mother was a game-keeper's daughter with some affection for aspects of the life she escaped, but she left me in no doubt about the harshness of everyday life when she was

a child. Two stories come immediately to mind. I asked her once why she invested no emotion in the stray cats she dutifully fed and she told me of the kitten she was given when she was five and which she loved dearly. After her first day at school, she was told it had been strangled because it was useless.

The second story concerned the neighbouring farmer's daughter, who had a baby out of wedlock. The baby was taken away and, as a punishment, the girl was forced to work in the fields like a man. She was rescued in the end by a sister in America who sent her the fare. And that's a telling point. We complain about emigration, but it was our salvation. We weren't all trapped in tiny, pitiless communities as we would have been in China or India. Many could flee to a kinder and more prosperous world from which they could send money or even new ideas. It's introversion that makes peasant societies so heartless.

I spent summers in rural Cork and loved it, but there was no ignoring the nastiness. The parish priest was a frightful bully who denounced a few of us fashionistas from the altar for wearing trousers (not at Mass, I hasten to add) and he roamed the roads with a blackthorn to beat courting couples out of the ditches. In retrospect, and remembering whispered stories from local children, I can see his point of view. Enforced chastity could seem preferable to what happened on his patch: the 16-year-old brides, the odd corpse of a baby on the neighbouring mountain and the girls who, in their mid-teens, suddenly left the village and went to London.

True, Ireland was better than many places: the Irish Catholic Church didn't approve of honour killings. But it did not major on tolerance or forgiveness, it thought kindness soft-headed and it loathed dissent. Only novelists told the truth publicly, but mostly they did that from abroad and were banned. Do we reflect enough on how many of the writers we venerate now were exiles?

English writers mostly died in their English beds: Irish writers mostly died in England or France. We were blessed with the English language, British radio and, eventually, British television, which forced our unwilling minds to open a little.

Our unwilling minds are being sorely tried by being confronted relentlessly with the bad things we did. But if we are to make good decisions in the future, we need to face our past squarely. It was our unlovely peasant traits that have always brought us low. Greed, selfishness, clannishness, clientelism, a distaste for debate and an aversion to truth killed the Celtic Tiger as surely as such traits sent sane people to asylums because they were inconveniently old or odd or wanted a share of the farm.

What Mary Raftery -- who has done so much to uncover our dirty little secrets -- is exposing in, Behind the Walls, is almost worse than what we learned from her about industrial schools. The children were damaged: psychiatric patients were destroyed. Abandoned and forgotten, they spent their neglected lives in squalor; many were lobotomised or put into insulin-induced comas. These truths are horrible, but we will be better people for facing up to them.

Behind the Walls, RTE One, tomorrow, 9.35pm

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards