Mary Harney, survivor, artist, activist, interviewed by Elaine Cosgrove

Mary Harney_2014

Mary Harney

Community Educator and Activist, Painter & Decorator, Survivor of an Industrial School

B.A. Human Ecology (College of Atlantic), M.A. in Irish Studies (NUI, Galway)

I met with Mary for lunch upstairs in Griffin’s Café, Galway city on the 11th May to catch-up in general and also to gather her insight into a handful of ‘hot topics’ in Ireland at present. The interview was about 20minutes long.

Mary was back in Ireland for a couple of weeks to seek to further her ongoing and frustrating quest to gain more details about her identity.

Mary was the keynote guest speaker at the 2014 Commencements in College of the Atlantic, Maine. A copy of her inspiring speech—which is essential reading–is available here:  

Elaine Cosgrove

Elaine: Mary, what are your thoughts on the up-coming Marriage Equality Referendum?

Mary: Well, I’ve been reading the material about the upcoming Marriage Equality Referendum and what I’ve been disturbed about most is the campaign posters for the ‘No’ campaign. Everyone’s entitled their opinion, and I’ll fight to the death for people to have the freedom to have that opinion, but I think it’s disingenuous when the campaign poster says: ‘Every Child Deserves a Mother and a Father’, and yet the Irish Government—the history of the government’s interference in that—has left thousands of Irish citizens without the knowledge of who their mothers are and were. That’s one thing; they also left them without the nurturing upbringing of those mothers. We now have thousands of adult elderly people who have had such a traumatic experience without parents, even one parent, because they were denied that parent officially by the Church, and the Government colluded on that. It is very hypocritical because they then put us [the ‘illegitimate’ children] all in institutions—is that what they [the ‘No’ campaign] want when these children can’t be adopted by the (in their eyes) ‘elite’ married, heterosexual people. Is that what they’re asking? What are they going to do with those children? I think that the No campaign are absolutely missing the point, and to bring children into this issue is disgusting. The issue is whether or not people should be married equally, no matter what their gender or who they want to marry—that it should be available to everybody. I think the same thing when the No campaign use the word ‘surrogacy’—these are words that are thrown around very lightly; those of us who suffered under the system of being untied from our mothers are still suffering because fifty years on, I’m still searching for the details of the adoption I’m supposed to have gone through and I cannot get the details from the Irish Govt. They’ve stymied me at every point along the way. I’ve had to fight for every piece of information about my identity, the identity of my mother, due to the nature—the discriminatory nature—and the punitive way these mothers—single mothers—were treated years ago right up to the Seventies. This is not something that is ancient history. The 1970s were not that long ago. The last institution was closed in 1984, so how can they—the No voters—suddenly have a national memory loss? That’s what it amounts to—national amnesia of what was done to the children and that’s why I think the No campaign is disingenuous.

I personally feel that everyone is entitled to their opinion and their vote and that’s a part of being a democracy and a citizen, but to use those tactics to sway people against voting for equality, I think is a disgrace and shame shame shame on the Irish people, and shame shame shame even more so on the Irish Government [for allowing it to happen].

 One of my friends who was campaigning at the weekend had an elderly woman come up in a rage and say, “They should all be lined-up and shot”. Now, that’s exactly what was said about the Jewish people in Germany, resulting in a Holocaust. So, when we begin to do that to our own citizens, that’s the slippery slope down to Fascism and Nazism and I spoke with young people who are not eligible to vote, but who are campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote, and I asked them why they were doing it? And they said, “Because It is right”. Women in Ireland couldn’t vote for years. Men couldn’t vote because they weren’t landed gentry—they didn’t have the property. We’re not doing our children or grandchildren any favours when we do not encourage them to vote, no matter how they vote. The democratic process will be lost and that gives ample opportunity for right-wing governments to succeed.

If the referendum on equality passes, I think it will be with a slight margin, and I think it will be due to the lack of turnout on voting day. I think it will be voter apathy whether it’s ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

 We need to encourage our young people to take part, especially when it comes to electing the next government in 2016, and as the U.K. found on the 7th May, that the vote for the conservatives was probably a vote by default; they were voting against the Labour party and the other parties who made representations that they didn’t keep. And I think it’s the same with the Irish Government. They are making claims that they are going to do things that they do not do—like prosecuting the bankers. How many of them have been sent to jail? How many of them have been thoroughly prosecuted? How many of them have even paid back the money to the Irish people? None. Absolutely none.  It doesn’t bode well for Ireland, as a nation, if we cannot take our place among other nations of the world. The government that they think we deserve. We all know that the European Parliament, in terms of Ireland (even though Ireland voted to stay in it) is crushing trade, crushing creativity. They want us all to conform. Tomatoes have to be a certain centimeter around. You can’t sell unprocessed milk. A duck egg has to be just so much. That kind of conformity takes away our cultural rights, and Ireland as a culture will go under. We’ve thankfully become a diverse nation, but we’re forgetting our heritage, and allowing our citizens to forget it. Mass amnesia? It is that same kind of behaviour I mentioned before.


E: What are your thoughts on remembrance in the current Irish context?  

M: The Irish Government fought and deliberated to lead Ireland away from the laws of England. The oppression was resurrected as soon as we became a free nation. What did we do? We incarcerated people in our own version of concentration camps. Then, we introduced the country to the power of religion that has never been so oppressive in any other country (in the EU) except for Spain during the inquisition; that kind of oppression where an Archbishop is sent the Bills of parliament to voice what he thought about them. This was a Government elected for the people, by the people. Why did his voice become more than the people of Ireland? Why was it allowed to happen? The proposed Health Care Scheme for Mothers and Children in 1950, when Dr. Noel Browne was in, would have gone through if it’d not been for Archbishop McQuaid’s opposition, and the Government of the People allowed this to happen. We became totally subject to the rule of Rome.

The current Government says, ‘Look at us.’ This kind-of badge that says, ‘Look how progressive we are. Look how much we listen to the People,’ and in some sense that can act as almost like a shield against the recent past—what happened in Ireland in the past. The Irish Government has not put right what has happened.

 E: It strikes me that there is a dearth of proper acknowledgment and recognition of the past atrocities, in light of the proposed remembrance of 1916 . The level of money that is going into that and remembrance, and there’s so much that is not being remembered or acknowledged. The survivors who have to fight to get the compensation they are entitled to. There is so much disparity between what’s in vogue to remember—remembrance tourism of sorts—and what should be justifiably remembered…

 M: Yes, we are teaching the children what to remember rather than teaching a balanced history of Ireland. We are planting selective memory.

Whoever said—and I’m paraphrasing—‘those who do not learn from history is destined to repeat themselves’. And so when we get away from history, then we get away from the nature of war, we don’t understand war, we don’t understand poverty, we don’t understand civil rights. We close all that kind-of critical learning down. And we dumb it down even in the classroom today.

When I was learning, it was what the English did to the Irish—that was my history, but Ireland has a much richer history of good and of bad. It is the whole sum of its parts that makes the identity of Ireland now. This cow toeing to the European government, and being in huge debt to the IMF (the International Monetary Foundation), is not good for a small country like ours – we cannot bear the weight. We are slowly but surely losing our identity.

 E: How do you feel that the victims of Institutional Abuse and the injustice of their treatment should be properly acknowledged, and remembered?

 M: I think it needs to be a far bigger part of social history and the history of religions in Ireland, which is not much discussed because of the dominant one. We need to talk more about that and the influence on a democratically elected government. Why did it happen? People ask why did the Holocaust happen? Well, people stood by and let it. That’s the same question for why did this [institutional abuse] happen? Because the Irish Government rejected almost every rule from the British, except the rule where it incarcerated its own people. That one they kept, and they whine why did they do it? We know that it was the Church’s influence over marginalising the woman who had a child outside of wedlock—she was considered to be a ‘fallen’ woman. A woman who had a child out of wedlock twice was considered to be ‘irredeemable’—this is the word that the Church used to describe this woman. Now, to call a woman ‘irredeemable’, and then to have the power to incarcerate that woman in a laundry, a Magdalene Laundry, for the rest of her life was shameful. There was no law that put these women in there.

There was a system in the Brehon Laws in Ireland. There were three major parts attached to Justice—providing justice to those who were wronged. First part was confession, where a person confessed or admitted to their agency in a wrongdoing. Second was to make recompense. The third was forgiveness from the Tribe. So the offender admitted their crime, they confessed to it. The Judge—or brithim—the Brehon placed a fine, or a punishment if you like, on that offender with all of the Tribe to witness it, and then the Tribe forgave (unless it was murder).  There was a coming-together of the People to bear witness to this admittance of guilt, and then to forgive. Now, if the Irish Government had done that (as the offender) and there had been a coming-together of the Irish people, then what the judiciary suggested as compensation would have been much better off out in the open—in public witness. What in fact happened was that the recommended reparation was geared so that they re-victimised the victims. Only the victims were to be psychoanalysed before they could go on to the Commission or the Compensation Fund board—not the perpetrators. No. No, they weren’t called to do that. So imagine, as way of framing it, that the government of Germany was paying reparations to the victims of the Holocaust, and it starts going around to the victims saying, ‘Well, tell us about everything that happened. Justify why we should compensate you? And then, while we’re at it, go get yourself evaluated by a Psychiatrist. We want to know what it did to you.’ The Irish Government did not say, ‘This happened. This is how we’re going to make amends to you, and we are not going to demean you, humiliate you, or put you through the ringer in any way.’ That would have been the Brehon way, but the way we did it in Ireland after the Ryan Report was re-victimisation all over again.

 E: Thinking about one basic principle of counseling practice, whereby the client is facilitated where they are at in the present moment of their life, without entering into a forced dialogue about the past—listening without blame or judgment.  This treatment of the Institutional abuse survivors goes against that principle; this whole notion of a ‘Vision of Change’ in terms of mental health care policy and so on.

 M: Yes. They made it an adversarial process, and then they re-introduced the second round, in that the compensatory money was ‘granted’ by the religious orders and once again, in a third instance where the compensatory money set aside for the People who had been in the industrial schools and the institutions, is only released on a means-testing basis.

I have suggested to them [the Compensation Fund] that they look at other histories of the world—for example, the cases of the countries where you had the Disappeared. The governments in those South American countries gave pensions for life to the people who had lost their mothers, husbands, brothers, sisters, and children, as well as compensation. They didn’t question the horror—or seek to ‘means-test’ it. You had to prove it by just giving the dates and the names of those who had disappeared. In Ireland, those details weren’t even necessary; the Government already has the name of every single person that had ever been in an institution or industrial school on file.

 E: We had to leave the interview at this point as Mary had to catch a bus, and I had to return to work. Mary lives in Maine with her partner, Margy, and their two dogs. Mary is currently writing a memoir.

Elaine Cosgrove