Monday, 23 June 2014

Should historians feel emotions?

The revelation that nearly 800 Irish children had been 'dumped in a septic tank' at a home for unwed mothers triggered off all the usual feelings about the Irish state and the Catholic church.

It was a state too small, too stunted and at one and the same time too powerful to cleanly manage its moral and economic affairs until light started to be shed into the Republic's nasty, murky corners in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a state far too reliant on the support of that self-same church, which won in return favours of protection and immunity that corrupted each of the people's protectors and representatives in their turn. This much we know - as this blog has shown again and again.

And now this. Irish people everywhere - including members of those ex-pat Irish communities that span the globe - hung their heads a little deeper in shame, or got even more red-faced with anger than they had been already. Industrial schools, Magdalen asylums - haven't we been here far too many times before?

But the way this story was being presented always sounded wrong, somehow - a dissonance that got worse the further one travelled from the original sources. And here's where journalism and history come in. Our first reaction is, quite naturally, one of fury mixed with resignation. Nothing else seems to meet the case when considering this further confirmation of the sins of Irish officialdom in the years when a twisted view of public 'morality' was supposed to be more important than straightforward human decency and humanity.

But with a bit of digging, some of the revelations became a little more complex. The researcher who'd uncovered each and every death certificate objected to the word 'dumped'. And it turns out that what we were talking about here were hundreds of unmarked graves on a site that had previously housed a water tank. 'Dumped in a septic tank' was a sensationalist firework with which to launch a tragic tale of shame, neglect and probably downright abuse. Other details in the reporting were also embroidered, as the Associated Press later admitted.

What actually happened? We don't know. We're not sure what happened at the Tuam home run by the Bon Secours nuns. The records are fragmentary or (apparently) non-existent, though the cause of death usually suggests that our nastier intuitions might one day be proved correct - yet another opportunity for historians to contribute to the public policy process. Barring a full public inquiry (which is just about the least the Irish state could promise), an unedifying period of suspicion, finger-pointing and archive checking probably lies ahead. There was probably terrible mistreatment, ignorance, fear and loathing. But the historian's initial instinct - to look more closely, and more deeply - seems to have been the right one, and the one that motivated local historians' searches in the first place. It's still the right one if we're to do justice to all those children's short lives.

Rage, anger, shame and fury are all parts of human life - as are empathy, hope and (dare we say it?) love. To understand them, you have to feel them. So they must be part of any historian's arsenal - and we feel them in this case more than most. But the first and most important emotion if we want to find out what happened, and then do it justice in law and commemoration? Curiosity. The wish and the urge to find out more, more competently, more accurately, and more precisely.