Recently I reviewed Gordon Lynch’s The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach (Oxford, 2012). I agreed with Lynch’s argument that a broadly defined ‘sociology of the sacred’ can help us to identify what’s of utmost importance morally, existentially, emotionally, etc. (in other words, ‘sacred’) in modern societies. The sacred may include – but is not limited to –institutional religions.
Given the interests of my readers on the island of Ireland, I indicated that I would return to this book to devote further attention to a chapter called:
‘Dominant and Subjugated Sacred Forms: Interpreting the Systemic Abuse and Neglect of Children in the Irish Industrial School System.’
Lynch is interested in ‘how such systemic abuse and neglect were possible in a system regulated and funded by the state and run by mainstream religious institutions’ (p. 63).
The most common explanations, he observes, have been:
- It was the most financially expedient system for both the state and the church, and attempts at reform were ‘resisted by Catholic institutions, which wished to preserve their power and status within Irish society’ (p. 63). Lynch identifies this interpretation with Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan’s States of Fear documentary and book, Suffer the Little Children.
- To claim that people simply did not know about the abuse. Lynch’s chapter contains plenty of evidence that people with power did know (these sections make for some of the most harrowing and depressing reading).
- To make an ‘episodic’ distinction between how the rights of children and what constitutes abuse were thought about in the past, and how they are thought about now. Again, Lynch disputes that this is a valid move, writing: ‘… the claim that child abuse was not a concept understood until recently, while correct to some degree in terms of awareness of the extent and psychological consequences of abuse, obscures the fact that the sexual and physical abuse of children was already subject to criminal law and that modern discourses of child welfare were increasingly widespread in Atlantic societies by the start of the twentieth century’ (p. 65).
While there may be something valid in each of these explanations, for Lynch the more compelling explanation is found in the way the sacred value of ‘the care of children’ was subordinated to ‘the sacrality of the Irish Catholic nation.’
To put it in more emotive or theological language than Lynch uses, Irish children were sacrificed to the ‘god’ of the Irish nation — which could be considered a form of ‘idolatry.’
The historic fusion of Irishness with Catholicism, in a context of colonialism and oppression, is a fairly well-established phenomenon, although there were always some cracks in Irish Catholic identity and more diversity below the surface than the guardians of the Irish Catholic nation were willing to admit.
Lynch details how church and state functioned together to construct a symbolic image of the Irish Catholic nation as morally and sexually pure, an image so powerful that the abuses carried out in the industrial schools would have seemed simply unbelievable.
This allowed the abuses to be rather easily denied and hidden by powerful politicians and clergy. To challenge the system would have been to challenge the purity and morality of the Irish nation itself. As Lynch puts it,
‘…the refusal of politicians like Sean Moylan publicly to countenance the harm being doing through the industrial school system reflected a desire, however strategic or reflexive, to protect the sacred form of the Irish Catholic nation from the taint of moral scandal’ (p. 70).
For Lynch, it was not until the 1960s and following decades, when the identification of Irishness with Catholicism began to break down and more cosmopolitan forms of Irishness emerged, that it became possible for people to recognize, let alone discuss, the abuses.
The overwhelming nature of the Irish nation as a sacred form is well-illustrated in Lynch’s description of the case of Fr Edward Flanagan.
Fr Flanagan was an American priest and expert on children’s education who toured Ireland in the 1940s and was appalled at the conditions in the industrial schools. When Fr Flanagan attempted to challenge the authorities, he was denounced as untruthful and misinformed by politicians and clerics, and in the letters pages of the Irish Times. Lynch’s analysis is worth quoting at length:
‘The sacred form of the Irish Catholic nation was so closely bound to the legitimation of the practices of both the state and the religious orders that to present a strong moral challenge against those practices was to impute the sanctity of the nation itself. Flanagan addressed this directly by making clear his view that the conditions in penal institutions in Ireland should indeed be regarded as a shame and disgrace to a ‘Christian Catholic people’.
… The context of Flanagan’s intervention was such that, while some of his audience were clearly ready to experience conditions in the residential schools as shameful, this was not sufficiently widespread to produce a sustained protest movement. Instead, commitment to the sacrality of the Irish Catholic nation meant that it was possible either to reject Flanagan’s views as a failure to see the true nature of children under original sin as ‘vicious little savages’, or simply to say that Flanagan’s comments implied such profound moral failings in institutions at the heart of the Catholic nation that they could not possibly be true’ (p. 79).
Lynch’s explanation for the abuses in Irish industrial schools serves as a useful case to illustrate the theory behind his ‘sociology of the sacred.’ But it also offers a challenge to people on the island of Ireland today.
It is too easy to congratulate ourselves on how ‘cosmopolitan’ the Irish have become and believe that such abuses will never happen again. But this makes it too easy to locate the abuse in the past, when there are still those among us who are suffering its effects.
And it makes it too easy for us to avoid asking: ‘who today is being sacrificed for the sake of the Irish nation?’
(Image: Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, sourced on Flickr by PPCC Antifa)