The deeply moving case of Majella Moynihan, predictably channelled public anger towards a “them”, but away from us. This is a recurring phenomenon as searing stories of our past — often an uncomfortably recent one — emerge. It legitimises a false narrative. It perpetuates a sense of powerlessness then, the better to whitewash responsibility now.
There was a “them”, in the sense of an all-male top brass in An Garda Síochána. There was a still very powerful Church, though they don’t seem to have been the villains in this plot. But the morals, I should say the hypocrisy, brutally enforced on Majella Moynihan, was wholly our own.
Men in uniforms embroidered with a lot of braid were the actors in this story. They certainly had more power than either Majella or most others. But the script they enacted wasn’t theirs. It was ours. They have had great powers of agency. But they had no capacity for originality. What they enforced was the order of the day.
They gave the people what they wanted. It’s a bit rich for me now thank you, to be uploading guff onto the airwaves and social media about how awful they were. In their day, they were pillars of the establishment. Why? Morals follow fashion and unmarried mothers, were not the fashion then.
In 1984 the year Majella’s son David was born, I was a 19-year-old student. What I have heard Majella say about her story chimes exactly with what I remember of the times. I am simply amazed that anyone is surprised. Could we be in the middle of an outbreak of mass self-delusion, or this simply the recomposing of a different po-face for another era?
There is a recurring need for indignation. The anathema is a staple of our public conversation. It was unmarried mothers and more before. Now it is about how they were treated, and who did it. Appeasing popular sentiment seldom ends well. We go to the Colosseum, enjoy the spectacle but won’t thank the organisers. There hasn’t yet been a single public outbreak of taking responsibility. We are inoculated against it.
Majella’s pregnancy came only months after passage, with two thirds support from the Irish people, of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. It prohibited any law to allow abortion. In 1986, 63% voted to reject a constitutional amendment to allow divorce. It would be 1990 before the law was changed to enable a charge of rape within marriage be put on the statute books.
Before, a woman had to be battered as well as raped by her husband to warrant a possible charge against her assailant. It was nearly a decade later before homosexuality was decriminalised. That was how it was. More to the point, that was how we wanted it.
I had a lot of fun in the 1980s. In a Dublin that was dirty, scarred by gap-toothed streets as Georgian relics of auld decency were destroyed, a lot was cheap, and there was little that was unavailable. Licensing hours were widely flouted. There was a gay life just out of sight, but deeply cautious about being discovered by anyone unsympathetic.
Sex of all sorts abounded between the unmarried and the adultering. There was really only one rule, and that was “don’t be caught”. Majella Moynihan broke that rule. That is why she was singled out and punished.
The facts, however, give so partial an account of things as they were, as to be almost misleading. In a State born out of violence, the violence of the 1980s in Northern Ireland was intense and brutal. We were a country that on nearly every metric was failing.
Our people were leaving as emigration soared. In the 10 years of the 1980s, 206,000 more people left Ireland than arrived. Unemployment reached 16% in 1986. In 1981, inflation averaged 20%. That declined as the decade went on, but the damage was done. If you were young and feckless, it didn’t matter much. But people were under pressure. Parents were bereaved by emigration. There was a dour determination about the place.
Part of that determination was to ensure, come what may, there were no strays about the place.
You can gussy that up any way you want now, but that was then. It came from the ground up, as well as the top down. If you find the language insensitive and offensive — good. It’s a historical fact. It is not right that it is glossed over. There was a lot of rough language about anyone who didn’t fit the bill, or conform to the normal. The vitriol and canker of the campaign for the Eighth Amendment came out of the shores on the streets and from the gripes in every townland. It ran wild. For Majella the problem was not just that she was caught, her timing was badly off. There was a fetid atmosphere about sex, especially among those who weren’t having a lot.
The 1980s were the heydays and also the end of the controlling impulse that motivated an Irish peasant society since the aftermath of the Famine. As ever less was at stake, the value placed on pseudo-respectability increased. Control of sexuality and fertility was an essential part of economic control over the little that people had. It enforced a standard by with the nonconforming could be othered and judged. All of that, of course, is fully intact now. It is simply the criteria that have changed. That is part of the contour of the reaction to Majella Moynihan’s story.
The question for me is whether Ireland really became modern. Some see a lot of change and I take the point. But the continuity is what impresses me.
The morals have changed completely, but the underlying dynamics of publicly parading virtue continues. Corpus Christi and Pride nearly coincide. One is nearly over as public spectacle. The other is now unrivalled. Both, of course, provide a good day out. But if you strip back the paraphernalia, are they a continuation of essentially the same public service?
I see now that Gay Bryne was the greatest ever Irish revolutionary. The 1980s was the time of Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary. Singing priests were insatiably demanded by adoring female fans. But other women, years later, would put the era in context. I think of Annie Murphy and Terry Keane especially.
They did such damage, I don’t believe Irish hypocrisy can ever fully recover. It was universal secondary education, access to university for some, and most especially television of which Byrne was the master, that insidiously undermined the edifice from within.
It says everything for the aptitude of the Irish people that could change their deepest convictions with such alacrity. Ten years later Majella might have been fine. Twenty, and not an eye would have flickered. But what happened to Majella Moynihan in 1984 happened because we wanted it so.