Fergus Finlay


Instead of cheering Pope in Phoenix Park we should stand with Peggy

Shame was the base and the root of the Church’s power. But not their shame... but of their victims, writes Fergus Finlay

Instead of cheering Pope in Phoenix Park we should stand with Peggy

There is only one place to be next Sunday, while Pope Francis is in the Phoenix Park. I hope to stand with many others in the Garden of Remembrance, in solidarity with the victims and survivors of the Catholic Church’s abuse.

It’s an event organised by Colm O’Gorman and others. Its message is that there is a need to stand for a different truth, a truth that won’t be found in the Phoenix Park.

I’ve marched for survivors of institutional abuse in the past. I’ve stood alongside them and tried to work with them. I’ve seen that the pain sometimes never ends.

But this time I’ll be standing in solidarity with two women I’ve never met. Indeed, to my shame, I heard about them for the first time only this past weekend.

I’m indebted to Conor Keane, whose gripping and intensely moving documentary about these two women I heard on RTÉ radio on Saturday called Shame, Love, In Shame.

It was the most revealing story about how we treated people — about how the Catholic Church treated people — I’ve ever heard.

Forty-eight hours after hearing it, I can’t get some of the images out of my mind. When I tried to describe the documentary to my wife, I found that I couldn’t speak without almost breaking down.

Colm O’Gorman
Colm O’Gorman

Peggy McCarthy was a girl of 18 years who lived in Listowel and became pregnant. When her time came to give birth, a midwife came to her home. But there were complications, and a hackney cab, driven by a man called John Guerin, was called to take her to hospital.

She was in pain, so he drove as fast as he could to Listowel Hospital, only to discover that they would not admit her. So he drove on to Tralee, and was again refused admission.

By the time he got to Killarney, a further 20 miles away over the roads of the time (this was 1946) Peggy had reached a point where she could not survive, and she died giving birth.

He arrived back in Listowel the following day, with a coffin strapped to the roof of his cab, and tried to bring it to the local church. But the canon, Listowel’s dominant priest, had chained and locked the gates of the church against her.

As the word spread in the town, people gathered, and forced their way into the church to try to give Peggy a Christian burial. Again the canon refused, and eventually Peggy was waked and buried in the small chapel that was part of the local hospital.

Her crime, the reason the Church wouldn’t give her a funeral after she had died in childbirth in agonising pain, was that she hadn’t been married when she became pregnant.

But Peggy had given birth to a baby, a little girl called Breda. Eventually, Peggy’s parents decided to raise her as their own, and for the next 18 years, as she grew, Breda knew her grandparents only as mam and dad.

Breda was diagnosed with a mild intellectual disability as a child, but that didn’t stop her growing up happy, surrounded by friends. When she was 18, her “mam” died.

Almost immediately, a priest came to the house, and told her grandfather, who was elderly, that he could not look after Breda, and she would have to go into care. And overnight, she disappeared from Listowel, and from the lives of those who knew her.

Breda spent the rest of her adult life in a succession of Magdalene Laundries, because she was the daughter born out of wedlock. For 50 years, she was punished by her church — and obviously with the casual connivance of her state — for the circumstances of her lonely birth.

Magdalene laundries file photo
Magdalene laundries file photo

As far as I could tell from the documentary, Breda is still alive, institutionalised after a life of toil and suffering, and living in a religious-run care home. Her neighbours and cousins in Listowel weren’t told for years what had happened to her.

But when they found out, they began to visit her regularly, and eventually were able to fulfil her only wish — a trip back to Listowel.

On the trip they brought her to the cemetery where her grandparents are buried — the ones she’d always known as mam and dad. Beneath their names on the headstone was Peggy’s name.

When she saw it, she turned to her friends and whispered “Peggy was my real mam, wasn’t she?” Peggy’s story has also been told in a play called Solo Run, written by Tony Guerin, the son of the hackney driver that terrible night.

And she and Breda are remembered in a powerful, heart-breaking song written by the Kerry writer Seán McCarthy, who it turns out was Peggy’s older brother.

The song is called, In Shame Love in Shame (you can find it on YouTube, and one of its verses goes like this): “Now hush little darling we soon will be there/ A blanket of love will surround you with care/ No vile tongues will whisper, you will never feel pain/ Hear the Nightingale crying in shame love in shame.”

Shame? Whose shame? And why? A little girl forced to die in shame. A girl with a disability forced to live and be punished in shame. Is that it really?

It’s nonsense, isn’t it? Cruel and brutal nonsense. The shame belongs to the Catholic Church. People talk about the culture of the time, about the mores of the time. But it was the Church that imposed that culture. It was essential to its power.

They used shame to exert control. Shame was the base and the root of the Church’s power. But not their shame. The shame of their victims.

Not once in either of their lives did Peggy or Breda McCarthy do anything to warrant the shame heaped on them. The abuse they suffered may not have had the character of the physical, sexual and emotional abuse heaped on others.

But 50 years of being ostracised from everyone you loved, never knowing what you did to deserve it, but instead being allowed to grow old, feeling worthless and unvalued – isn’t it hard to conceive of abuse worse than that?

That’s why there’s nothing to celebrate in the Phoenix Park next week. As an institution the Church does not deserve to be allowed to admit shame and move on. It should live in shame for all it has done to innocent people.

It should be asking itself, day after day and in public, how does it make reparation, how does it root out the corruption within, corruption still evident today. It couldn’t be clearer that the leaders of the Catholic Church want to manage the fallout from abuse, not to root out the abuse, the abusers, and those who cover it up.

That’s the debt owed to everyone who has been abused. It can’t be paid by bowing the head in the Phoenix Park, or by cheering Pope Francis like some kind of superstar. We need to stand in solidarity with those who survived and those who didn’t.

We need to demand real truth and real change, a final end to corruption. And we’ll never do that in the Phoenix Park.

Listen to the full RTÉ Radio 1 documentary Shame, Love, In Shame here.

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