“There is always a way to resist.”
PRAY FOR OUR SINNERS documents Sinéad O'Shea's return to her hometown in Navan in search of those who fought against the Catholic Church and discovers the ways in which local people found a way to resist. It is a film of unexpected twists as it chooses to shine a light on those who attempted to stand up to the church in a quiet but deeply moving resistance.
The very recent and vastly dark period in our society when corporal punishment and magdalene laundries were used as ways to control women and children has been documented and recounted in movies like The Magdalene Laundries and books like Caelainn Hogan's Republic of Shame. Rarely is there any sense of hope to be found when the facts are laid out in front of us. Sinéad's compelling documentary tells a hopeful story of gentle heroism and defiance in the face of horror.
Through old friendships and neighbourly connections, we hear previously untold testimonies from Mother and Baby Homes, and stories from within school classrooms about corporal punishment. This personal approach has resulted in a fresh account of how Catholicism wielded such power in Ireland since it gained independence.
How did Sinéad begin working on the piece? "It started in quite an informal way in 2018 when a friend of mine told me about doctor Paddy Randles, who had just passed away. A bench was being erected in his honor at home in Navan. She told me Paddy had a great story, that he had fought against corporal punishment in the town schools, and it had made it into the English newspapers. Some priests at the time had intercepted the newspaper van and thrown the papers into the river." Sinéad got in touch with Mary Randles, Paddy's widow, also a doctor. Mary, who comes across as incredibly eloquent and understated in the documentary, agreed to making a movie, but initially, only spoke about her husband's work on the issue of corporal punishment. "We had been talking every few months or so for awhile, and then the Mother and Baby Home Report came out in 2021. Mary was really agitated about it. She mentioned all of the women herself and Paddy used to hide in their house, and so I asked her to elaborate from there."
The film is centred around the Randles, and three survivors - Norman, Betty and Ethna. Betty, beautiful and softly spoken, is cautious and apprehensive about revealing the horrific details of her experience in the Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home, where she was driven by the local priest, whom she went to for guidance after becoming pregnant. Betty spent six months in the home - which makes her eligible for the smallest amount of redress according to our government, as if this is the best measurement for trauma. Sinéad says: "Betty is very private and still almost ashamed of having even gone to a Mother and Baby Home. The nuns told her every day that she was a sinner, that she was a bad person, that she brought all of this upon herself. She really internalized that."
Norman was nine when he came into Paddy's surgery back in 1969 with a broken arm. His mother asked Paddy if he could write a note to Norman's teacher to request he only hit him on his unbroken arm, rather than the broken one. Sinéad says: "Paddy had just come back from England where he worked for a few years. He thought the children over there were really precocious and a bit annoying initially because they were able to speak for themselves and tell him what was wrong. It was when he came back to Ireland he had a moment of realisation that it was the kids back here who were abnormal for not saying anything." Paddy went to Norman's headmaster to complain about the teacher beating Norman with a rubber hose. The headmaster pulled out a leather strap dotted with metal studs and said, "This is what I use". Sinéad explains how Norman's life was affected. "He really suffered a lot, and even though the corporal punishment law was changed in 1984, which he had a lot to do with by standing up against the system, it was too late for Norman. He ended up leaving school at nine years old."
Among the tales of overwhelming cruelty, there is heroism, courage and resistance to be found. As Sinéad spent more time with Mary, she discovered what an incredible revolutionary she was, and is, in her own right. She opened the first family-planning clinic outside of Dublin in 1975. "Mary had five kids, and when she put them to bed, she would drive up to Dublin and start volunteering in the first rape crisis center that had been built in the Rotunda. That's not even in the film, because she never mentioned it to me - someone only told me about it a couple of weeks ago."
Another memorable and seemingly elusive character in the documentary is local priest at the time, Fr Farrell, who drove Betty to the Mother and Baby Home. As we learn more about him, both from his actions and the words of others, we start to recognise him as quite a nuanced figure. Sinéad says: "I didn't really remember him as a child myself. Initially, after hearing the story about Betty, I thought he must have been some kind of monster. But then I kept meeting people in the town who really liked him - even young people my own age. He did do a lot of good for the town, including setting up the first credit union, and he was known for being a radiant character, full of charisma. People even described him as being a bit like JFK." Not really believing the hype, Sinéad wasn't convinced until she got hold of a video showing Fr Farrell giving a speech before leaving Navan. "The video did change my mind, which is part of the documentary too. People contain multitudes - he did a lot terrible things, and even things he denied later. At the same time, he did a lot of good too." This type of complicated character, Sinéad thinks, is the typical kind of Irish priest. "I think the kind of priest a lot of Irish people know is this person who is not necessarily a monster, not necessarily a brute. They're often just men who have too much power, who can do a lot of good and a lot of bad at the same time."
PRAY FOR OUR SINNERS is directed by Sinéad O’Shea, produced by Sinéad O’Shea and Maya Derrington with Katie Holly serving as executive producer. The film was financed by Screen Ireland. It is currently being shown in Pálás and Omniplex Salthill cinemas.