16 Dec 2010

Banned 1960s Irish novel was first to deal with taboo of child abuse, while church and state were shielding perpetrators

The Irish Times - July 26, 2010

McGahern 'first to take child abuse out of dark'


SUMMER SCHOOL: JOHN McGAHERN was the first person in Irish literature to write about the taboo of child abuse but he paid a heavy price for being an early whistleblower, a seminar in the writer’s honour heard at the weekend.

Prof Pat Dolan of NUI Galway said that in his early writings in the 1960s, McGahern had named child abuse and had “stopped the secrecy”.

He said it was very ironic that we now know from the Ryan report that the church and State “which acted against him” in the controversy surrounding the novel The Dark , were at the very time the book was banned, shielding perpetrators.

Prof Dolan, the Unesco chair in Children Youth and Civic Engagement at NUIG, also revealed that after reading The Dark as a young childcare worker, he was alerted to the reality of child abuse to such an extent that he became suspicious of and reported a man who was many decades later named in the Ryan report.

In 1979, I was 21 and working as a very young child care worker in a children’s home and I knew nothing about child abuse,” said the Dublin-born academic. He said that by coincidence a flatmate had a copy of The Dark which was rumoured to be “a dirty book” and he read it and was shocked at the portrayal of child abuse.

As a direct result he became suspicious of a man who used to regularly bring children on outings out of the home and despite the fact that the children denied there had been any abuse, he made a complaint to local gardaí. Some 16 years later the man was brought before the courts.

“John McGahern alerted something in me and I am grateful to him for that,” said Prof Dolan, who said he never told the writer about this despite meeting him once.

Prof Dolan said that in The Dark , McGahern had detailed incest as well as horrific physical abuse by a father to a son.

Describing McGahern as “intentionally or not, an early advocate and hero for social justice for children”. The childcare expert said one had to be careful about speculating whether any of the incidents portrayed in McGahern’s writings came from his own life. “We do not know that and to me it is irrelevant. The point is he named it.” Prof Dolan said that the key issue surrounding child abuse was secrecy “and in 1965 John stopped the secrecy”.

Pointing out that The Dark was banned and McGahern subsequently dismissed, he added: “Look at the price he paid.” In a lecture at Aughawillan parish hall, close to the spot where the writer’s mother died and where he and she are laid to rest, Prof Dolan said McGahern had never got the credit he deserved for providing the first written testament of child abuse in Ireland. “He deserves to be honoured for that.”

In a subsequent open-floor discussion about the impact of McGahern’s breaking this taboo, especially in his own community, one local woman said there probably had been tension. Her older sister had a copy of The Dark on top of a wardrobe and she had read it but there was a certain mystery or silence surrounding it and “it was not talked about openly.”

She added it had probably been difficult for the writer who “said things people did not want to hear” when the easy thing, if you wanted to fit in, was to always agree with people and say “aragh you are right”.

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