The New York Times - May 22, 2009
by John Banville | Op-Ed Contributor
Dublin -- EVERYONE knew. When the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse issued its report this week, after nine years of investigation, the Irish collectively threw up their hands in horror, asking that question we have heard so often, from so many parts of the world, throughout the past century: How could it happen?
Surely the systematic cruelty visited upon hundreds of thousands of children incarcerated in state institutions in this country from 1914 to 2000, the period covered by the inquiry, but particularly from 1930 until 1990, would have been prevented if enough right-thinking people had been aware of what was going on? Well, no. Because everyone knew.
I grew up in the 1950s, in Wexford, a small town on the southeast coast of Ireland. It was not a bad place in which to be young, if you came from a “respectable” family — which mainly meant not being poor — and had parents who were responsible and loving, as I had. The schools I attended were run by the Christian Brothers and, later, by diocesan priests. It helped to be good at one’s lessons, for then one evaded the more severe punishments which teachers reserved for the “duffers” in the class.
I remember one such duffer in particular. I shall call him Duffy. We were, I suppose, 9 or 10 at the time, and most of us by then had learned to read and write. Not Duffy, who was isolated from the rest of us and put to sit at a desk by himself, where he labored hour after hour transcribing the alphabet and simple words into his copybook.
Now and then our teacher would lift up Duffy’s work by one corner and display it to the class, inviting us in a tone of amused irony to admire “Duffy’s blots.” I have never forgotten Duffy’s expression on these occasions, a mingling of shame, sorrow and inarticulate rage. Often on the way home from school Duffy would waylay me and punch me and knock me down. Why would he not? I was top of the class, he was bottom; I was teacher’s pet, he was teacher’s victim and plaything.
I did not tell my parents about Duffy, about the humiliations that were piled on him daily in class or how he regularly vented his anger on me afterward. In the same way, I did not tell them of the beatings we were all subjected to by some of our teachers, with leather strap, cane or even fists. One did not bring home tales out of school. If we had, they would probably not have been listened to. The times were harsh, money was scarce and had to be worked hard for, and our task as children was to bear up and keep our mouths shut.
In time there grew up between Duffy and me a kind of awful intimacy, a very pale version of that which is said frequently to develop between a torture victim and the torturer. I saw the logic of Duffy’s position: his daily torments at the hands of his teacher must be avenged somehow. W. H. Auden, that wise old owl, puts it perfectly, as so often:
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Well, not evil, not really. That was being done elsewhere, in places like the one that Duffy ended up in, Letterfrack Industrial School in Connemara, a far-off and isolated place where, according to the commission’s report, “those people who chose to abuse boys physically and sexually were able to do so for longer periods of time, because they could escape detection and punishment” and where violence “was practically a means of communication.”
One wants to believe that the abusers were those to whom evil had been done, which would go some way to accounting for their deeds. But then, one wants to believe, and disbelieve, all sorts of things, and so did our parents.
When I read the newspaper accounts of the commission’s findings — the report itself is more than 2,000 pages long — I found myself thinking again of Duffy, and the sweaty pact of silence that developed between us. It was an echo of that silence which, like the snow in Joyce’s story “The Dead,” was general all over Ireland, in those days. Never tell, never acknowledge, that was the unspoken watchword. Everyone knew, but no one said.
Amid all the reaction to these terrible revelations, I have heard no one address the question of what it means, in this context, to know. Human beings — human beings everywhere, not just in Ireland — have a remarkable ability to entertain simultaneously any number of contradictory propositions. Perfectly decent people can know a thing and at the same time not know it. Think of Turkey and the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century, think of Germany and the Jews in the 1940s, think of Bosnia and Rwanda in our own time.
Ireland from 1930 to the late 1990s was a closed state, ruled — the word is not too strong — by an all-powerful Catholic Church with the connivance of politicians and, indeed, the populace as a whole, with some honorable exceptions. The doctrine of original sin was ingrained in us from our earliest years, and we borrowed from Protestantism the concepts of the elect and the unelect. If children were sent to orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories, it must be because they were destined for it, and must belong there. What happened to them within those unscalable walls was no concern of ours.
We knew, and did not know. That is our shame today.
John Banville is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Sea.”
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