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We’ve always abused the poor and unloved

We were told that the report on child abuse in State institutions caused surprise. Don't you believe it. Most of the facts have been long known to the public.

The proliferation of paedophilia came perhaps as a surprise to some people, including myself, but the other aspects of the report were hardly revelatory.

We have long known that children in orphanages are treated badly. They have committed one crime. They are poor. Ours is the most caste-ridden society west of India or west of anywhere. People can look with indifference on the maltreatment of orphans and other abandoned children because they see them as a different species. They do not suffer pain or humiliation as ordinary people do. Thus most of the German nation weren't too worried about the cruelty inflicted by the Nazis on the Jews. The Jews were inferior -- they didn't suffer like ordinary people and, in any case, they deserved punishment.

The Israelis have the same feeling about the Arabs. What does it matter if hundreds of children die in a bomb raid on Gaza. They are Arabs and infinitely inferior . . .

Arthur Koestler was just about the most famous intellectual in the world 50 years ago. He was a Jew and his writings about the Arabs reveal how an intelligent man can be blinded by prejudice.


The perpetrators of child abuse in our society are ordinary people. In the real world outside of the institutions they don't stand out as cruel or prejudiced. They are people just like us.

This caste attitude could be seen all around you in the country of my youth. When a little girl became pregnant, she went down to the river and back to the sea. Her death was recorded as suicide. In my part of Ireland you never heard of people from the middle class committing suicide -- their deaths were recorded as misadventure and so even in death the poor didn't get fair play. The report confined itself to child abuse in State institutions but it could have gone further: when boys reached the age of about 14, they were released as workers to farmers. In most cases they were treated like slaves. The difference was that the slaves in the plantations had the compensation of their own company -- they worked in groups.

There is the story of one little boy who never knew his father or mother. At a certain age he was released into the world to work for a farmer. He was a grand little boy: he was always cheerful, even though sometimes you wondered why. At about the age of 30 he died of pneumonia from working in wet clothes. It didn't help that he was underfed and overworked. I went to his funeral. There were only 11 other people there. We had to send three times for a priest to come to say the prayers at his grave. The priest eventually came in a foul humour and didn't delay in bidding farewell to the dead man.

That story is all too true: it tells you a lot about Irish society. It may be democratic politically but hardly socially. The irony in all the horror inflicted in the institutions is that it was done in Christ's name: the perpetrators thought of themselves as carrying out the work of God or perhaps even thought of themselves as gods.

The reformatories were much the same as the orphanages. Little boys were taken away from their families because of harmless "crimes" and kept in institutions that turned some of them into hardened criminals. The man called The General, Martin Cahill, not unknown to me, used to say: "The mad monks in the bog made me what I am." He was referring to Daingean, a reformatory whose name made the heart turn cold as did Upton, Artane and Letterfrack. Boys came out of those reformatories with a poor opinion of society and saw no reason why they should conform to its laws. Martin Cahill of course was wrong: he was denying free will but there was a grain of truth in what he said.

What can be done about the shame of the reformatories and the orphanages? The mentality of our society is not likely to change overnight. We will go on being caste-ridden until some mental revolution restores a degree of health.

The most appalling example of the caste system was seen in the treatment of young girls who gave birth outside wedlock. In Argentina under the regime of the cruel Colonels you would hear talk about the "disappeared" -- they were young people who, because of their subversive views, were abducted and murdered. They disappeared because their bodies were thrown to the sharks in the South Atlantic.

The girls who disappeared here were sent into the Magdalene laundries. Most of them didn't ever again became part of the world outside. That is now part of the past.


A slightly amusing aspect of our caste system could be seen in rural Ireland. The farmers regarded themselves as a class apart. You could see this most clearly at a big gathering. When it came to lunch time, the woman of the house would say: "Farmers and farmers' sons in the parlour. Servant boys in the kitchen." The joke of all this is that in most cases the food in both places was equally mediocre.

Many farmers in my youth were so ignorant that they addressed people by their surnames. When somebody called me "Houlihan," I treated him the same way. This wasn't supposed to be done. If he had called me "hooligan," I wouldn't mind -- that would be a joke.

Frank McNally in his ever-interesting Irishman's Diary had a fascinating piece recently about the word "hooligan". He said that it generally referred to a rough kind of person but from that class he excluded Con. I am not so sure that he was right. If he looks it up in the Oxford dictionary, he will see the origin of the word "hooligan": it comes from the name of the Irish family called the Houlihans who terrorised the East End of London around the middle of the 18th century.

Fogra: Well done Michael Kinane. I was in Epsom to see his first Derby win on Commander-In-Chief and regret that it wasn't possible to be there to see his third win on Sea The Stars on Saturday