Where do you start? Where do you find words to describe the scale of human tragedy? “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
We sit in our sheltered bubbles, believing that our lives are for the most part comfortable. We nod to strangers in the street, passing words of greeting. We wake each morning, making our way through the time we are given with as much love and hope as we can. We believe that our Government, Health Services, Gardai and those that guide us in more spiritual matters, might possess humanity, humility and empathy. “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
We go about our daily rituals, convincing ourselves that our nation is a progressive, peaceful and a special place to live. We might even believe that this country cherishes all children, as was promised on that Easter day in 1916. “Bread, soup – these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time.”
And then all of these notions are laid bare. Our sheltered bubbles crack, shattering our illusions. The strangers keep secrets we could not begin to understand. Our Government conspires to inflict pain and suffering on the poorest in society. Our Health Services fail the weakest, while reports into unimaginable abuses are kept under lock and key. Our police seem unable or unwilling to pursue the perpetrators of these horrors. Our spiritual leaders express mental reservation and wring their hands, deflecting from their own failings, and we open our daily papers once again and read ever more revelations of evil.
But, say some commentators, this was how it was and we have moved on. We should not judge, we should not strain ourselves to investigate these historic happenings. That sort of thing doesn’t happen now, and what good does it do to persecute and prosecute old men and old women. It wasn’t a cess-pit. It might have been consecrated. We cannot apply modern sensibilities to history. We should confine these things to the past, the workhouses, the mother and baby homes, the priests moved from parish to parish. “Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.”
Maybe we have moved on, but I cannot compartmentalise my feelings so easily. Right now, a mother is walking to Dublin to secure access to drugs that could help her child. An inquiry into the abuse of a disabled girl is being set up, and we will wait twelve months for it to report. These are not historic happenings. They affect people who are alive today, and so do the stories of babies in a concrete grave.
The quotes in this piece are from Holocaust survivors. I cannot ever draw comparisons between that horror and what happened in Tuam, but the words of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel seem to carry more truth than anything I have heard from our own leaders.
And as for us? These final lines should be our watchwords. “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”