Things Left Unspoken

Recently, I have been watching an excellent four part documentary on Ireland entitled Muide Eire (We are Ireland).  The series concentrates on the representation of Ireland and the Irish in film and television. It is wide in scope, considering such topics as the stereotyping of the Irish as a bunch of God fearing drunks on the one hand to our relationship with the land. Nationalism, religion, land and drink are like footprints on the sand of the collective Irish memory in that they leave their traces. The scars of the nation’s colonised past run deep in the Irish psyche. The dark side of the psyche was under the spotlight in the episode entitled Smacht (Control) and it really hit a nerve. This episode was concerned with the relationship between screen and society and, at a personal level, it was difficult to watch.

Why? Because it dealt with the things left unspoken. These are the parts of history that skulk Grendel-like in the dark margins of historiography. It dealt with the ways in which Irish society treats women, children, the poor and the emigrant. It probed the way history has, at least until very recently, shied away from the uncomfortable truth. It highlighted the ways in which the words of equality and fairness that our founding fathers and mothers hoped we would bring to life at the moment we broke from empire have proved to be nothing more than ephemera.

 Through film and television these ephemeral words are confronted by the vision and viewpoint of the camera. The cold hard gaze penetrates, illuminates and commentates on the dark corners and the truth behind the lie. Films such as Song for a Raggy Boy, H-3 and Kings show the complexity of Irish life from our politics to our relationships. Abortion was covered by Margo Harkin in Hush-a-Bye Baby she stated that when she addressed the audience at the premiere in Dublin she said ‘We all know women who have had this experience’. She was met by silence. Kings shone a light on the emigrant experience and in particular the ‘navvies’ of London. Again, we were in the domain of the voiceless, the forgotten Irish. As one character said ‘we are no longer Irish, no longer Connemara men. We are something else, we are Paddies’.

There is no doubt that confronting the past is difficult. History writers often focus their eye on the movers and shakers of history and in the process forget the hoi polloi. Social history, and in turn the experience of the men and women at its core, is often seen as problematic. They often don’t conform to a countries narrative. Historians often ask: ‘Where are the sources? How can we say, with any degree of certainty, that the individual experienced what they claim to have experienced?’ My answer is: yes, there are difficulties but we must find a way to make sure these experiences are not forgotten. We have a duty to write and to show, both in a factual and fictional way, to make sure that we remember, no matter how distressing.

 And distressing it was. The reason I found it difficult to watch was because of the violence that was committed to children in our little republic. In particular there was a film called Our Boys about the way in which schoolboys were beaten in a school run by Christian Brothers. It was made in 1981 but such was the subject matter that it wasn’t shown till 1991. The director Cathal Black stated that he wished it was shown in it’s time as it had lost some of its impact when watched out of context. Again, things left unspoken. Dark corners left unilluminated due to fear that we would have to confront the darker sides of our nature.

Going to school in 1980s Ireland I had reason to see that darker side. I went to school after they had banned hitting children but it still occurred. Some teachers knew who to hit. They would pick on boys that had family problems or those whose parents didn’t have the words to complain to the school authorities. I remember when I was nine I saw a fully grown man drag one of my classmates across tables. Another time a teacher threw a twelve year old boy against a sink and his crime?  It was to look at a skin mag. I was never hit but what I remember most was the fear. For most of my primary education I was terrified of doing something wrong. I could never admit I was bad at maths because I was afraid I would be ridiculed. Thinking back now what I hated most was the way those in authority misused their power. Unfortunately, what I witnessed was all very minor stuff to what would be uncovered in 1990s Ireland. But watching that documentary made me realise all the little boys that were hurt under our watch. Perfidious Albion wasn’t to blame here. All the hurt of things left unspoken. The screen becomes a mirror reflecting the ambivalence of our society towards those that were the weakest let us hope that in these testing times we never forget the lessons of history.

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  1. This is excellent. You are so right. We will never hear or read a social history that does not conform to the national narrative. However, I think the recent revelations and repercussions regarding the abuse of children in this state is something that will now be woven into our nation’s narrative regardless of those who would rather we forgot and would, as you say, prefer to continue placing the blame somewhere else.

  2. It would be remiss of me not to mention that Muide Eire was shown on the Irish language channel TG4

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