Friday, December 17, 2021

Beannachtai na Nollag!

I don't expect I'm going to be posting again until after Christmas, so I wanted to wish a very happy Christmas to all my readers.

Thank you for reading, for all the comments, for all the prayers, and for all the kindness in general.

And now over to good old Gilbert...

The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected, and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Thank you!

Many thanks to whoever sent me the latest copy of The Brandsma Review! I have been enjoying reading it, especially the discussion on the Church in Germany, whose situation is far more intricate and nuanced than I imagined.

My only personal experience of Catholicism on the European continent was a Sunday Mass in Innsbruck. I was surprised at the size of the congregation (the church was almost full, I seem to remember), given that I had come to think of European Christianity as completely moribund.

I was also very interested by the review of Martin Scorsese's Silence, a film I watched rather reluctantly (all the reviews called it slow-moving and ponderous), but found far more entertaining than I expected.

I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing. Kudos to everybody involved!

Monday, December 13, 2021

Burn, Baby, Burn!

This blog is all about tradition, and it's time for another of this blog's own beloved traditions-- beloved by me, if nobody else!

I give you that timeless Chrismas classic, St. Robert Southwell's Burning Babe! 

Ben Johnson is reputed to have said that he would have gladly destroyed many of his own poems if only he could have written this one. I think it's a little marvel.

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

With God Things Really Do Change

I hope you are all having a rewarding Advent journey. (That sounds a bit corny, but I'll let it stand.) We put up the tree a couple of days ago. We had Christmas songs playing as we decorated it. It seems odd to me that, for such a saturated market, it only takes about two hours to run out of classic Christmas tunes! I'm afraid I am an incorrigible defender of Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade, not to mention Wonderful Christmas Time by Sir Paul. I may have alienated three quarters of my readers just by writing that.

Is there anything more beautiful than a Christmas tree? I'm not sure there is. They seem to combine and reconcile so many opposites; domesticity and collective social experience, art and nature, time and timelessness, convention and creativity, Christianity and paganism, light and darkness, jollity and melancholy, and any number of others.

Well, after praising Slade, I will redeem myself by some spiritual uplift. I very much liked this passage from the homily Pope Francis delivered in Athens, earlier this month:

By calling us to conversion, John [the Baptist] urges us to go “beyond” where we presently are; to go beyond what our instincts tell us and our thoughts register, for reality is much greater than that. It is much greater than our instincts or thoughts. The reality is that God is greater. To be converted, then, means not listening to the things that stifle hope, to those who keep telling us that nothing ever changes in life, the pessimists of all time. It means refusing to believe that we are destined to sink into the mire of mediocrity.  It means not surrendering to our inner fears, which surface especially at times of trial in order to discourage us and tell us that we will not make it, that everything has gone wrong and that becoming saints is not for us. That is not the case, because God is always present. We have to trust him, for he is our beyond, our strength. Everything changes when we give first place to the Lord. That is what conversion is! As far as Christ is concerned, we need only open the door and let him enter in and work his wonders. Just as the desert and the preaching of John were all it took for Christ to come into the world. The Lord asks for nothing more.

Let us ask for the grace to believe that with God things really do change, that he will banish our fears, heal our wounds, turn our arid places into springs of water. Let us ask for the grace of hope, since hope revives our faith and rekindles our charity. It is for this hope that the deserts of today’s world are thirsting.

Happy Advent!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Buy the Brandsma Review!

Any readers in Dublin might consider buying the latest issue of The Brandsma Review, which is now available in the Veritas bookshop in Lower Abbey Street.

I have never actually read this magazine myself (unfortunately), but I've posted for many years on The Irish Catholics Forum, which is a sort of hub for some of those involved in the publication. They are all serious, committed, sane, intelligent Catholics so I have no doubt it's an excellent read.

Producing a magazine is a heroic feat, especially today when everything is online.

If I'm in the vicinity of the Veritas shop, I might buy a copy myself, although to be honest four euro is quite a splurge for me so I might not.

Friday, December 3, 2021

The Marlborough House Saga

I've never really written at length about the Marlborough House saga here, although I've mentioned it in passing. It was perhaps the most dramatic episode in my father's dramatic life. And it remains relevant, because until the day he died he was concerned with having the truth established on the official record. This challenge remains to me and the rest of his family.

I think I'll leave it to my father to explain the story in his own words. This is a letter he wrote to the Minister for Education in 2017.

Dear Minister

I have the distinction of being the only person who worked within the child detention system to have publicly exposed the Dickensian conditions in which children were held in custody, on behalf of the State. And for that I paid a very heavy penalty.

In 1971, I worked as an attendant in Marlborough House, a remand home for boys between the ages of seven and sixteen. (Seven was the age of criminal responsibility in the Republic.)

At Christmas of 1971, the staff of the House had cleared the pleace of all detainees in order that they might hold a Christmas party in the Home. They achieved this every Christmas with the cooperation of the Gardai. I made an excuse not to attend the party; they, my co-workers, were not the sort of party-goers with whom I would wish to celebrate Christmas.

On St. Stephen's Day of that year a Garda called to my flat in Ballymun with a request that I call down to Marlborough House and meet with the Matron of the House.

When I called on that elderly lady I was met with a woman who was in a near-panic. She told me that the Gardai in Limerick had sent a boy of twelve or thirteen to the House, thus disrupting the revelry. She said that members of the staff had taken the boy from his bed in the early hours of the morning, tied him to a pot-bellied stove (not to burn him, simply to make him sweat) then brough him outside to the rough ground, and had given him 'the clatters' at the back of the garden. She knew that they were threatening to repeat the performance that very night and worried that they would do the boy serious damage.

She asked me would I assist her in getting the boy out of the House that night. I readily agreed.

That night I reported for duty and found only the Matron and the boy in residence. Later that night the Head Attendant arrived, blindingly drunk, and after threatening the lad, returned to his upstairs flat.

Later that night I left the House and walked a short distance up the street, the matron released the boy from the front door of her flat and I met him, and took him to my flat in Ballymun, while my wife Patricia and my sister M------- took him in charge.

Next morning I told the lad that Patricia and M------- would bring him to Heuston Station and Muareen would put him on the Limerick train. I advised him to go to the Garda station once he arrived in Limerick, and show the Gardai there the damage that had been done to his face (a detail I forgot until my sister reminded me that his eye was badly damaged) and let the Gardai take it from there. The young lad did just that, though not in Limerick, he left the train at an earlier station and went into the Garda Station in that town.

The morning after the 'escape', two officials from the Department of Education arrived at Marlborough House to interview the staff. When my turn came to be questioned I pre-empted their queries by at once admitting my part in the matter. The interview ended there.

Word came later that day that the boy was once again in police custody. The other attendants, who had gathered for a Council of War, were positively salivating at the prisoner being returned to Marlborough House and the threats that filled the air were bloodcurdling. Not, surprisingly, because the boy had escaped, but because in doing so he had taken the Chief Superintendent's keys.

When I had met the lad the previous night he had at once handed me those keys, explaining that he had gone up to the drunken man's room and taken the keys from his bedside table in order that he might create the impression that he had escaped through his own efforts and thus avoid having the blame attached to the Matron and myself.

The courage and the honour of a young boy who had never had much of a chance in life. I felt humbled.

Listening to the threats I know at once that the only way I could protect the boy was to go public. And I know that the best chance I had of doing so was to go to the two ladies who were responsible for the Women's Page in The Irish Press: Mary Kenny and Rosita Sweetman. I was right.

After a night spent in argument with the newspaper's lawyers, the story appeared in the next morning/s edition of the paper.

That night I received a call (by Garda messenger? Probably) telling me to report to Marlborough House at once.

On arriving at the House, I was ushered into the dormitory and the door was locked behind me. The Chief Superintendent, three sheets in the wind, was standing at a writing bureau. He at once offered me two thousand pounds if I would retract my story, following which he would retire from the Civil Service and sue The Irish Press. I refused.

He opened the desk and produced a small revolver, placing it on the desk. He did not threaten me with the gun, but it sat there on the desk as, or so it seemed to me, a symbol of where the power lay.

Believe it or not, but I was held in that room for well over an hour, during which time he became ever more maudlin and kept on repeating the same phrase: "You can change the inscription on a monument, but you can't change the monument". Its meaning eluded me then, it eludes me still.

For the next few weeks I became something of a minor cause celebre. Newspaper articles, letters to the editor, questions in Dáil Éireann. When Dr. John O'Connell carried on a debate with the Minister for Education Padraig Faulkner, as to his justification for my sacking. All of which was crowned by the hour-long interview with Bill O'Herlihy on the flagship RTE Seven Days programme.

A Peadar Kelly support group was formed, consisting of journalists, legal people, trade unionists, and religious, which began picketing Marlborough House. After a few days of which the Superintendent, in a fit of choleric rage, sacked me on the spot. My sacking, which up to that point had been provisional, was now reality.

(I may be in error on the chronology of these events, but they all occurred within the space of a hectic few weeks.)

I was invited by letter to a meeting with officials at the Department's Headquarters. When I arrived I was ushered into the gate lodge, the door locked behind me, and I was confronted by two very large detectives.

Without very much preamble, I was given the ultimatum: "Recant publicly or you will face a jail term of four years for having broken the Official Secrets Act."

I told them that I had in my possession a copy of a letter from the Superintendent of Marlborough House to the Minister of Education in which he requested permission to build an interrogation room at the rear of the House. A room that would be sound-proofed and fenced in with barbed wire. This for the questioning of boys between the ages of seven and sixteen who were on remand.

The interview ended abruptly with the threat that I would never again work in a job where government could prevent my employment.

That threat held good as late as 1985 when a local committee invited me to manage a 'Teamwork' scheme for young boys and girls aged eighteen plus. The Department Official in charge of the Teamwork scheme, Mr. ***** ********, sought an informal meeting with the local committee in Ballymun Shopping Centre (outdoors!). There he told them that he had been instructed by his superiors that Peadar Kelly was not to be given the job, but he intended ignoring that instruction and hiring me. Which he did. That year-long scheme was a success.

For many years I wrote to successive Ministers for Justice and Education, requesting that my sacking be investigated, without any joy. Then when I broadened my appeal to other public representatives, Jim Higgins MEP persuaded Batt O'Keeffe, then Minister for Education, to open up a departmental inquiry. The letter I enclose is the result of the inquiry.

Padraig Faulkner, Education Minister at the time

Padraig Faulkner, Minister for Education at the time

I felt that I had achieved as much as I could when I received that letter until, a mere few weeks later, the Dunne Inquiry [actually, the Ryan Report] was published. It contained the outrageous suggestion that the boy had been helped to escape from Marlborough House by "two drunken attendants". That lie is now on the public record.

I would ask you to read the account of the Marlborough House incident in the Dunne Report to confirm what I say.

I am now making a claim for unfair dismissal. I trust that you will make a decision in accordance with the facts. And in making that decision I would ask you to consider my claim in light of the facts (they were never disputed by anyone) and by looking through the file on Marlborough House which you have at your command. In addition I add the following.

An in-house inquiry of my case at the time of the incident found that there was no complaint about my work before that fateful night.

I was sacked on the spot without notice of any kind and an army motorcycle rider arrived at my flat with my P45 and backpay before I even arrived home after my sacking.

If there were even the least vestige of justification for my sacking then it would be necessary to explain away the following.

Why did a group of professional people (all of whom have had their reputations enhanced sinec 1972) form a support group to protest at my sacking?

Why did a leading politician, namely, Dr. John O'Connell, persist in protesting against my sacking in the chambers of Dáil Éireann?

Dr. John O'Connell

Why did RTE devote two programmes of the prestigious Seven Days current affairs in my sacking?

Why is it that the two women who used the Women's Page in The Irish Press to expose the dreadful conditions inside Marlborough House all those years ago, both of whom are still earning a living with the pen-- all still supportive of my claim? Why indeed?

I appreciate that you are a relative newcomer to the Irish political scene and thus are unlikely to be familiar with the events of which I write and so I am relying on you to appoint a member of your staff to examine, from the records, the truth of my account.

It has been a long and frustrating journey from the events of 1972 to the present. A bewilderingly long search for justice. If this letter meets with no success then I am not sure how I proceed from here.

One thing I know is that at the age of 77, and with four medical conditions, I am not likely to be a recipient of the Presidential centennial bonus. [He died two years later.]

I leave my claim in your hands.

Yours respectfully

Peadar Kelly

The Neglect of a Centenary

Monday is the centenary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was the birth of what eventually became the Republic of Ireland. The two major political parties in Ireland originated in different attitudes to the Treaty. It led to a brief but bloody Civil War whose tremors were felt for decades later. Even though the Civil War was brutal there were acts of tremendous sacrifice and idealism on both sides. For instance, Erskine Childers, the head of propaganda on the Anti-Treaty side, shaking the hands of all the members of his firing squad before he was executed, and getting his son to promise to do the same thing when he grew up (which he did).

Astonishingly, this centenary has been almost completely ignored in Ireland. I'm sure there will be a flurry of lectures and ceremonies and documentaries this week, but that's really nothing in comparison to the historic importance of the event. There surely should have been a whole year of discussion and commemoration. I'll admit it crept up on me, too.

People will point to Covid, but I don't think it's Covid. I think it's a profound anti-nationalism and globalism which pervades our whole political, media and other classes.

This historical amnesia is really depressing. The two great themes of Irish history are the religious question and the "national question". Generations of Irish people cherished the aspiration for an independent Ireland, a distinctive Ireland. Not only did many people die for it, but many, many people worked for it their whole lives, not just in the political arena but also in the cultural sphere-- reviving the Irish language, Irish sports and music, and so forth.

I can't believe the indifference of today's Irish to this heritage. Surely SOME appreciation of it is appropriate. Even if you think armed rebellion was a mistake (a very reasonable position), whatever attitude you take towards 1916 or the War of Independence or anything else, it baffles me that today's Irish can be so dismissive of the whole subject.

After the abortion referendum I heard quite a few Irish conservatives essentially renouncing their Irishness. I don't think it works like that, though. A nation is like a family and even when you profoundly disagree, you are still family. And yes, my Catholicism is far more important to me than my Irishness, but that doesn't mean the latter should be UNimportant. Religion and nationality are different things.