A glimpse back into an Ireland we deny knowing

Sometimes we imagine we are further removed from depravity that we actually are.

And then, without warning, without any reason, we are thrown back into an understanding of what it was like to live back then, in black and white and faded greys.

The Ireland of the eighties was not a pleasant place. For many, the era is defined as that sunny weekend when Ray Houghton scored against England in Stuttgart, but that flash of colour was but a glimpse at the end of an era we now barely recognise.

I remember those days as being permanently wet, lived in black and white in a time where there was no scope for the individual to stand aside from the crowd. The masonic camaraderie of the old boys’ club governed not only in State and Church, but in the condensation-covered shop windows in every small town and village in Ireland; in places where the maintainance of the status quo was paramount.

It was a place where everyone had to know their place and keep to it. Every community we knew had its order, its pecking list, the priest, the guard, the postmaster, the princes of commerce, the sons of the princes of commerce, the sleeeveens on the corner making sure that everyone stayed in their place, behaved; the squinting windows used to police us all, like the panopticon of old.

Thinking back now, it was a suffocatingly nauseating place, of permanent rain and sodden duffle coats, handed down from child to child. A place where school was terrifiying, where you learned the lesson through fear of physical retribution; the leather and the stick and the harsh tongue of humiliation all used to keep you in your place for fear you’d have notions.

I remember on a rare occasion when a teacher was proffered to us for career guidance. The lads from one side of town were in there longer than most for thery had laid before them a wider choice for where life would bring them. I recall being asked what I wanted to do with my life. When I told her that I’d like to write or be a photographer or something like that, she looked at me and said “hmmm, your father’s the bank porter, isn’t he? Wouldn’t it be more in your line now to be thinking about something like that and less of yer notions about writing.”

This was the world in which the small people of Ireland were kept small. Because you knew the odds were against you whatever way you went.

And this was the world that faced Joanne Hayes and her family when circumstance threw them into the limelight. A judiciary that saw them as mildly comedic, characters from the plays that ‘civilised’ society would guffaw at with their Dublin friends when they’d hop along to the Abbey Theatre and watch the works of Synge and O’Casey.

Rural Ireland was there for urban Ireland to laugh at. And Rural Ireland too had its own hierarchy in which it afforded itself the opportunity to laugh at those further down its own pecking order.

If anything comes out of this week’s unexpected trip back to 1984, it is that some restitution will be afforded the Hayes family; that justice or even explanation and sympathy will be found for Baby John and his family; and that the country will never ever let itself down again in the way it did in the many decades up until then.

I hope that we have moved on and become more cognisant of those who are vulnerable among us; and in the main we have, but there is always a danger that we will find that any perceived difference that marks us apart from “Others”, will find its place in policy, in politics, and in the ever so polite discourse that spills out over expensive coffees in modern cafe society.

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