Mutton Island at dawn

Mutton Island at dawn

Monday, June 5, 2017

Whatever happened to the compassion of the Irish?

Between 1847 and 1850, a hundred ships set sail from Galway Bay. Their ‘cargo’ included some of the most impoverished humans on the planet at the time and many of those who dreamed of starting new lives in Boston on Brooklyn never survived to see the other side.    
Protesting against Direct Provision in Ireland

The story of our ‘Coffin Ships’ is one of the most troubling in Ireland’s painful history. Impoverished people, fleeing starvation and persecution by the British Empire, counted themselves lucky if they had the fare for the long voyage across the Atlantic.

No doubt, many of them cried tears of despair upon leaving family members behind. In those days, a ticket to America was only one-way and many lived for 50 or 60 years without ever getting a chance to return to their homeland.

For those people, the prospect of a decent, peaceful life seemed impossible in their homeland. The crops had failed, their British masters showed no mercy or compassion, and they dreamed of just having enough to survive on when they got to the ‘New World’.

Behind them, thousands were starving, including a six year old girl called Celia Griffin, whose distressed family walked into Galway in search of “relief” in 1847. The nuns tried to help her, to provide her with food, but Celia died on a roadside.

She was too far gone.

Many of those who embarked on the Famine Ships from Galway Bay would have passed by little children like Celia, starving on the roadsides, on their way to America and their hardship gave them a steely determination to succeed in the New World.

The Ireland they left behind was a place where the natives faced religious and economic persecution.

In the previous century, Catholics had been denied the right to vote and the Irish language could only be taught in “illegal” hedge schools.

The terrible poverty of the 19th century and our centuries-long struggle for independence has meant that Irish people are universally popular across the globe, especially among the downtrodden who take inspiration from our long struggle.

Hard to believe now that the Choctaw people of North America, despite facing huge oppression themselves by colonisers, were so taken by the plight of the Irish people that they raised $170 to send to Ireland to ease their suffering in the year little Celia died, 1847.

That would be a pretty substantial amount of money these days and their generous gesture has been commemorated forever with a sculpture which was erected in the town of Midleton, Co Cork, two years ago.

The Celia Griffin Memorial Park on the shores of Galway Bay

Only 16 years after the Choctaws themselves were forced off their land by US President Andrew Jackson – leading to a 500-mile trek to Oklahoma, known as the 'Trail of Tears' – this was an extraordinary act of generosity by Native Americans who had so little themselves.

In Ireland, we always tend to pride ourselves on rooting for the underdogs. In his acclaimed 1997 Pulitzer-prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt wrote of how the impoverished  children in his native Limerick in the 1940s would always cheer for the ‘Red Indians’ as they were being slaughtered by the ‘Cowboys’ in Hollywood Westerns.

In the cinema, the Irish children would hoot and holler for the Native Americans on the big screen, perhaps with some subconscious awareness of how those people had helped their own during Ireland’s darkest days.

I thought about the Choctaw Nation and Angela’s Ashes last week when I wrote a piece for about Ireland’s notorious Direct Provision system.

Direct Provision is the system the Irish Government uses to process the cases of asylum-seekers, who often spend up to seven or eight years living in former hotels or hostels as they wait for their cases to be processed.

These people live on €19.10 per week and their voices are rarely, if ever, heard on the Irish media.

They are afraid of repercussions for speaking out, either from the Irish authorities or from criminals or political forces in their own countries.

Campainging for a better world for everyo
It took me six weeks to set up the interviews with two of the asylum-seekers. They were extremely fearful of speaking out and didn’t want their real names to be used.

We couldn’t meet in the centre where they share their lives with so many others from a wide variety of countries, so I suggested the back of a pub which I knew would be quiet on a weekday afternoon.

One of them didn’t turn up. And I was really annoyed. I sat in the pub waiting for almost an hour, thinking this had possibly never happened to me in 25 years of journalism.

I texted her a few times, to no avail. I felt she had let me down.

Later that night, I received an apologetic text from her daughter. She had been taken on a day’s training programme at short notice by the Irish authorities and didn’t have any credit to send me a text message to cancel the interview.

So she agreed to turn up the next day and was actually 30 minutes early for our interview.

I had no idea what story she had before our interview began, as I had never met her before.

I didn’t know that she had been praying in a Church in northern Nigeria when Islamic terrorists from Boko Haram broke in and shot most of the people dead.

I didn’t know she had been taken prisoner and managed to escape after making up a story about needing to go to the toilet out in the bush.

I didn’t know that the woman who brought her and her daughter to Ireland has been trying to take €50,000 from her, money she clearly doesn’t have.

I don’t know if her life would be any better if she had tried to stay in Nigeria and maybe move to another location, away from Boko Haram, with her three sons

Instead of living in a tiny, grotty former hotel room with her daughter, with no right to work, for months or even years on end.

But I do know I saw genuine fear and despair, even terror, in her eyes.

I do know that it was painful and uncomfortable for her to talk about her life, as she’s used to putting on a brave face for her daughter.

I was taken aback by how upset and how lacking in hope she was.

And yet she was grateful, because at least she shares her room with her own daughter - whereas others in the centre have to share small bedrooms with two or three others from other countries, without even the benefit of a shared language.

And then I read some comments on social media sites. About how she should go straight back to Africa, or how I must have been a fool to believe a woman I met in an Irish pub (an interview in a venue I chose, which took weeks to set up, by the way).

And I wondered what had happened to the famous compassion of the Irish, supposedly the poster boys and girls for underdogs all across the globe.

Judging by 90% of the comments on social media sites, the Irish in America have lost all of the compassion which saw the Choctaw send money they didn’t have all the way across the world to people in distress in a far-off, strange land.                                                  

A protest against the 17-year old Direct Provision system

In a way, it helped me to understand why the 50,000 ‘illegal’ Irish in the United States are now getting so little support from established, older Irish-American communities in Trump’s America.

The Chinese have a saying that an ambitious horse never returns to its old stable.

Perhaps the Irish, on both sides of the Atlantic, have forgotten where they came from when it comes to dealing with people fleeing war, terror, persecution, and famine across the globe.

I have no idea whether the women I spoke to last week have a right to stay in Ireland or not. But I do know that their voices need to be heard, without keyboard warriors who know nothing about their circumstances shouting out that they should be sent straight back "home".

Imagine how much worse life would have been for our 19th century emigrants if racists at the ferryports sent them straight back home.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and Digital Storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Check out his Facebook page here

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Welcome to the wonderful 'Regime Radio'!

Welcome to ‘Regime Radio’ … right here on your dial every Saturday and Sunday morning.

Giving you all the information you need to know your place in this big, bad world.
You know you should 'rat' on your neighbour, you
really should ... for the greater good!

 . . . First up this morning we have a Government Minister to tell us about his campaign against welfare fraud. The frightening underclass among us are ripping us off for millions and he wants you to “rat out” your neighbour if you see him going on holidays or buying a new car.

Funny that he doesn’t have statistics to back up his claim that welfare cheats are milking the system or that he’s launched his hate campaign against the poor just when he’s aiming, too, to become leader of our land.

And we won’t bother asking him about banker fraud, because we don’t get “sexy radio” out of that kind of white collar crime.

 . . . Now, next up in the studio we have a ‘Senator’ from outside the Pale. And not just any old Senator, but a former successful businessman, until he went bust, who will tell us all about the wonderful committee he chairs.

He’s a great man to talk, this Senator, especially about himself and his wonderful political connections.

What we forget to mention, though, is that he wasn’t actually elected to the Senate by ordinary or normal people like you, dear listener. After failing to win a popular vote, by a complete miracle he was nominated by the leader of a party who bankrupt the country a few years ago.

But we don’t talk about things like that here on Regime Radio!

Or we won’t talk about his old company, and how it survived for so long on subsidies from that same – once disgraced, but now resurgent – political party.

Sure, they are on the way back, we’ve completely forgotten that they brought the country to its knees, and so is our wonderful Senator.

And we only back winners here on Regime Radio!

 . . . Next up we have a wonderful former Government Minister. Wonderful, because he likes the sound of his own voice so much we have no problem inviting him onto the radio, to talk about anything at any time.

We only back winners ... here on 'Regime Radio'!
He’s from deepest Tipperary where they know a lot about the kind of neck it takes to get to the top in Irish politics.

He’ll tell you how he did this and he did that, and he was the first person to raise this or that issue in the Dail. We love big egos here, to match our massive salaries on your favourite Regime Radio!

We won’t ask him much about how his party collapsed after turning their backs on the working class or how one of his colleagues referred to the poor among us as “the f---ing dregs”.

We try to be positive here on ‘Regime Radio’!

 . . . And now we have a communications expert, who will laugh and joke about how she prepares her political clients for grillings on this very type of show.

She’ll defend the indefensible, as long as the price is right. Mind you, she might storm out of the studio if we ask the wrong question. She won't let us talk about nasty religious orders, who have refused to compensate abuse victims after causing them decades of pain. They're great clients, you see, and she's coached them on how to avoid pesky questions.

But, sure, we wouldn’t want to ruin your weekend morning by talking about such horrible issues here on the wonderful, positive 'Regime Radio'!

 . . . And now we have another Senator, a superb male expert on female bodies. We won’t talk about the fact that he was “elected” by a tiny pool of University graduates, or the fact that his beloved Institute seems to have been on the radio more times than we’ve had hot dinners this year.

He’ll give you the courage of his convictions and, sure, if he’s not available this Saturday we will replace him with another member of his Institute who bemoans the biased “liberal” media while she writes a national newspaper column every week.

 . . . We have a special guest this week, a senior Garda officer. We won’t ask her about the corruption, the smears, or the fabrication of evidence which has undermined your faith in the Irish police force; instead, we will guarantee her the easiest interview she’s had since she entered the service at Templemore.

Let's not talk about the viciosu smears, which almost ruined the
life of an honest whistleblower. Sure, it'd ruin the dinner!

. . . And we’ve time for one more superstar, a “celebrity” guest from the heart of Dublin 4. She’ll remind you how insignificant your little life is out there on the West coast, you consequential little peasant, as she gives us “the goss” on “celebrities” you’ve never heard of.

We’ll celebrate the pending arrival of the summer, loike, with our tales of the hardship of camping in the VIP section of a sold-out music festival. There’s no mixing with the plebs for us, here, when we have such access to the stars on ‘Regime Radio’!

There’s no better way of feeling like an outsider in your own land than listening to a lovely group of South Dublin people gossip about other South Dublin people.

Just to remind you how “out of the loop” you truly are down there in darkest Donegal or gloomy Galway.

If you are lucky, yes really lucky, we might have a time slot to feature one of our colleagues just up the corridor, after nailing him or her in the ‘Regime Radio’ canteen. There’s hardly a Saturday or Sunday goes by that we don’t interview one of our own colleagues, just to justify all the money you spend on the licence fee.

We are so glad to bring this dizzying array of high profile guests to you here on ‘Regime Radio’ every Saturday and Sunday. It’s such a stressful job that we have to take about ten weeks holidays a year.

. . . Of course, if you want to find out more about our wonderful station, you might learn more by looking at the people we WON’T put on the show this week or any week in the near future!

 . . . You won’t hear from the young mother from Cork who walked all the way to Dublin because she wants to use medical cannabis to treat her daughter’s severe form of epilepsy.

Her seizures stopped when she got access to medicinal cannabis, but her mother was made to feel like a criminal when she was forced to import the drug from overseas. We can’t have anyone who challenges the law of the land contaminating your little West of Ireland minds!

 . . . You won’t hear from the bank executive turned whistleblower who reported breaches in liquidity to the central bank a year before the nation’s entire banking system collapsed. He might just have saved the State a few billion euros if anyone in authority actually listened to him back in 2007.

He wants to know why no action was taken to deal with his concerns, or why the State contrived with developers and bankers to help out a rotten banking system in a ‘bailout’ which resulted in a cost of billions of euros to the Irish taxpayer.

The authorities have never explained why they didn’t act on his urgent warnings. He hasn’t worked for years, but his voice is not the kind we want to hear to challenge the cosy consensus here on ‘Regime Radio’.

Our readers don't really want to hear about the mum
in Direct Provision who couldn't afford a taxi at UHG
 . . . We won’t hear from the mother who carried her child home from a Galway hospital last week, because she couldn’t afford a taxi on her weekly allowance of €19.10.

We don’t want to upset your dinner by discussing the terrible Direct Provision system – not while we are highlighting the plight of “our own” undocumented Irish fearing for their lives that Donald Trump will expel them from the United States – here on ‘Regime Radio’.

 . . . And we won’t hear from the single mother who has been living in a hotel with her daughter for a year, because the homelessness crisis might also upset our listeners as they prepare their weekend dinners here  on your favourite radio show.

 . . . Or the teenager who was hauled out of his bed at dawn for daring to sit down in front of a Minister’s car during a protest in Dublin. He’s too articulate, too angry, too intelligent and too much of a threat to the widespread view that those awful Irish Water protesters are nothing more than the “sinister fringe”.

Sometimes, you see, you learn more about what’s going on in the real Ireland by looking at the stories we don’t feature here on your beloved ‘Regime Radio’.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and Digital Storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Check out his Facebook page here He admits to having a sense of humour and denies being a member of the "sinister fringe"

Monday, May 8, 2017

Rediscovering our magical past at Uisneach

How joyful and deeply symbolic it seemed to see the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, stand with 1,500 people from all over Ireland in a Co Westmeath field on Saturday night.

In one day, we got to see two different Irelands. The one of suspicion, conformity, and fear which was reflected in an allegation of blasphemy which sent shock waves across the world; and the wondrous joy of our ancient customs which came alive on a high plateau.
The Hill of Usineach, as seen from a drone on Saturday night
Photo by Declan Murray, @Skylab

Of course, we weren’t just in any old field. It was here at the Hill of Uisneach, the very heart of Ireland, that our ancestors used to congregate in their thousands every year to celebrate the onset of summer.

Representatives of all the Irish provinces came together at this magical place to light a huge symbolic fire on this plateau 600 feet above sea level where all four provinces, and 20 counties, can be seen on a clear day.

On Saturday, farmers, Druids, Shamen, healers, Christians, non-believers, and the simply curious from all four corners of the land – and some from much further afield – congregated to witness the lighting of the huge fire under a moonlit sky.

As MC Ruairi McKiernan joyfully announced, President Higgins was the first political leader in 1,000 years to light the flame on a sacred hill whose significance had been almost forgotten for generations of Irish people.

After spending two or three hours mingling with the joyous crowd, it felt like a truly emotional reawakening to the joys and wonders of the beautiful culture of our ancestors.

The President’s visit had been scheduled for weeks or even months in advance, but what a significant day, week, and month President Higgins chose to illuminate the sky on the sacred hill.

Earlier the same day, the entire western world was reeling from the news that British comedian Stephen Fry was being investigated by the Gardai for alleged blasphemy.

What had he said to cause so much controversy? On a television show about faith on national broadcaster RTE, he had told host Gay Byrne that he did not respect a God who could cause so much injustice and pain in the world.

“I’d say ‘Bone cancer in children, what’s that about?’,” he said. “How dare you create a world in which there is so much misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

Hardly earth-shattering stuff, but enough for an anonymous man in Co Clare to report Fry to his local Gardai for blasphemy after watching the TV programme, The Meaning of Life, in February 2015.

On Saturday night, I sat beside a Shaman from Wexford, who regaled me with tales of the wonders of the pre-Christian Irish, and she expressed shock that Ireland had blasphemy laws which date from as recently as 2009.

President Michael D. Higgins lit the flame
on the sacred hill. Photo: Verona McQuaid
What kind of State would consider a criminal investigation and a possible €25,000 fine for a man whose only alleged “crime” was to ask what kind of a god would create a world so full of injustice and pain?

It was hard to believe a British TV star with a love of Ireland, a man who has campaigned in support of our native language, was facing an investigation for criminal blasphemy in 21st century Ireland.

I felt almost embarrassed to be Irish when I was asked about the case by a couple of New Zealanders at the lake near the top of the hill.

In the same week, our TDs (Members of Parliament) voted to retain the daily prayer before Dail sittings by 97 votes to 18. They had rejected a Sinn Fein motion to replace the divisive prayer with 60 seconds of silent reflection.

These same politicians are now wondering whether a United Ireland is on the cards in the uncertain future brought about by the Brexit vote in Britain last year.

The Dail vote and the blasphemy case had forced people to question whether Ireland really was a welcoming place for Muslims, Buddhists, or non-believers in 2017.

So now members of our national parliament can face expulsion for refusing to stand and observe a prayer which ends with the words “Through Christ Our Lord, Amen”.

Hardly a vote which reflects a modern, pluralist, multi-racial state, or an incentive for one million Unionists to join what used to be referred to as a “priest-ridden” state south of the border in the post-Brexit world.

Attending the fire ceremony in the heart of
ancient Ireland. Photo by Verona MQuaid

In the same month, we have seen ownership of the National Maternity Hospital being given over to an order of nuns who have yet to adequately compensate victims of clerical abuse.

And, here in Galway, people are still getting over the shock of last month’s confirmation that 796 “illegitimate” babies may have been buried in unmarked graves.

Nobody knows how many are buried there, or how many may have been shipped off to the US for adoption, because the Bon Secours nuns did not see fit to dignify their burial grounds with their names or some small gesture to remember their short lives.

If Ireland needs to embrace all tribes and people are to live together in harmony in an uncertain post-Brexit 21st century, we could start by learning from our past.

On Saturday, I found myself going back in time by about 2,500 or 3,000 years and, along with hundreds of others, awakening to the joys and wonders of our own indigenous culture.

And wondering why the teachers hardly ever talked about the Hill of Uisneach, and its hugely important place in the Irish psyche, during my days in a Catholic school in the 1980s.
There was a magical atmosphere at the Bealtaine celebrations
which date back thousands of years. Photo by Verona McQuaid

Irish myths and legends almost died with our native language and it’s to the huge credit of local guides like Marty Mulligan and Justin Moffatt that we are beginning to rediscover the wonders of our past.

Justin and Marty run regular tours of the hill throughout the year and organised a spectacular Bealtaine Festival on Saturday night. It seemed only fitting that the President of Ireland was in attendance to be reminded of our island’s spiritual past.

Our ancestors lit huge fires on this particular hill for centuries and it sent a shiver down many a spine to see President Higgins march up the torch-lit hill before illuminating the huge bonfire which had been assembled for days beforehand.

A huge, joyous roar erupted from the crowd, accompanied by hypnotic Shamanic drumming which gave us a real taste of what the atmosphere must have been like up on the hill hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

According to the Book of Invasions, the first Bealtaine fire was kindled by a Druid called Mide, at Uisneach, the navel or centre point of Ireland.

As the fire blazed, four of us sneaked off in the moonlight to the Cat Stone, a 20 foot tall limestone boulder which is said to be the burial place of the Danann Goddess, Eriu, who gave her name to Ireland.

Touching the stone, it felt really emotional to connect with the ancestors at the place where representatives of Ireland’s five provinces (Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Ulster, and Mide) used to meet up to settle their disputes and pass new laws.

The Cat Stone was known as the access point or entrance to Mide, Ireland’s ancient and almost-forgotten fifth province. Mide is now part of Leinster, incorporating counties Meath and Westmeath.

There’s a ringfort, walkways, and an ancient road towards the Hill of Tara spread around the scenic grounds and it was truly magical to stand there in wonder and mingle with friendly people from all over Ireland and beyond on Saturday night.

Visitors to Uisneach are captivated by the hill's connection
to Ireland's pre-Christian past.

In the semi-darkness, a few hundred feet from the huge bonfire, we walked through the field where the wonderful game of hurling was invented. 

It was here the men of the ancient provinces learned to settle their differences with sticks and a ball in perhaps the fastest game in the world.

The Bealtaine festival doesn’t feature any big bands, mad drinking sessions, corporate sponsors, or litter louts, but its mixture of frantic drummers, beautiful singers, and whirling dancers in majestic costumes, really seemed to connect us in an emotional way with our mystical past.

And it seemed really appropriate that our President, himself a poet and a lover of our ancient games, was there to light the fire in this year of all years.

By reconnecting with our magical and mystical ancestors, perhaps we can also discover a future Ireland we can all be proud of, where all sorts of people mix together in joy and harmony in celebration of the wonders of our land.

Uisneach is a place of wonder and joy. So many people commented to me about the magical energy around the site on Saturday night.

It felt as though we were rediscovering a lost past, in a land in which people came together to celebrate their love of stories and song, and somehow, together, all 1,500 of us were coming home.

The Cat Stone: said to be the burial ground of the goddess, Eiru,
who gave her name to what is now called Ireland.

Guided tours of the Hill of Uisneach take place every Wednesday to Sunday. Tours commence from the public car park at 1pm. To book a tour in advance, please check out the website Please note that the sacred site is not open to the public at other times, as it is a private working farm. The guides, Justin Moffatt and Marty Mulligan, are out of this world!

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. To hire a content writer or a social media expert, contact Ciaran via his Facebook page

Here's a feature on Uisneach I wrote for in March:

Monday, April 24, 2017

Hey, Enda - is it really such a long way to Tuam?

A beautiful ceremony of rememberance to honour the Tuam Babies
was held in Salthill, Co Galway, last night. 
I met an extraordinary man last night, only he doesn’t really believe he’s so extraordinary.

In recent months, he has found a voice he never realised he had. Now in his 60s, he has learned how to tell his story and speak out against injustice.

He spent much of his childhood in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, a place which is now notorious all over the world.

It took him an awful long time to learn to love and take care of himself.

It’s not easy to care about yourself when you are told you are inferior to others.

When you walk to school in hobnail boots and you are forced to sit apart from the rest of the class.

When you are beaten for the most minor transgressions, not given enough food, and branded with labels like “home baby” and, worse, “illegitimate”, because your mother committed a terrible crime just by bringing you into the world.

It didn't even matter if your mother was raped, or terrified to reveal the identity of the father. That's just the way it was in those days.

It’s not easy to let go of that kind of baggage, especially when you live in a rural community.

Oh, look, there’s your man, the “home baby”. The one who was adopted because his mother, shockingly, never got married, or the one who arrived late and didn’t smell too good at school.

It’s the kind of baggage you carry with you well into adulthood, if you ever manage to shake it off at all.

Like when you go to the dance and the girl who was so friendly last week never wants to look your way or speak to you again. She’s heard the rumours or been warned off, you’ve been branded.

There's no way in the wide world you would ever be allowed darken the door of her family home.

Or when you go to the pub and you realise that nobody else there tonight has been classed as “illegitimate”. You might just feel like drowning your sorrows or, worse, finding a way of permanently ending the pain.

As many did, but we will never know, because the true level of suicide was another thing the Irish State was very good at covering up in those dark days.

He told me what it was like to feel inferior in a rural community in North Galway, to feel that he was not worthy of finding a wife because society had told him all through his youth that he didn't deserve to be loved like everyone else.
Historian Catherine Corless: her tireless research on behalf of
the Tuam Babies has allowed survivors to find their voice

And, yet, in recent months his life has changed.

He has begun to find his voice. The global headlines generated by the “Tuam Babies” scandal have allowed him to talk about his sense of injustice and even do media interviews for the first time.

He wants justice for the 796 and he wants people to listen. He’s full of praise for Catherine Corless, the local historian who first told the world the truth about what happened in that terrible home.

By making it clear that the truth about the "Tuam Babies" was worth fighting for, she made him see the value in his own life.

He says he’s one of the lucky ones, because eventually he was shipped out to a lovely foster home.

His childhood was not all bad, although he can’t say the same for many of his old friends and contemporaries.

In Tuam, he has helped to set up and organize a support group for survivors. They find great comfort from meeting up and talking and healing, and he’s found that he of all people has the gift of being able to express their pain.

He doesn’t want much, he says. Just some recognition that a terrible wrong was done to him and the other children in homes around the country, in the name of the Irish State.

It would help if those in authority would reply to his letters or answer their phones.

For months, since the start of the year, he’s been trying to get the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to come and visit his little group of survivors down in Tuam.

It wouldn’t be a huge burden on the Taoiseach, the Irish Prime Minister, to take a little detour from the road to Castlebar on his way home some weekend.

Just to sit with the survivors and to hear their stories, the stories they were afraid to tell for most of their adult lives.

But when he rings the phone goes dead. Or a faceless official makes a non-committal promise that he or she will get back in touch. But never does.

He knows the abuse, the denigration, the labelling didn’t happen on the current Taoiseach’s watch, but it was done to him and his friends with the collusion of the Irish State.

It wiped out his self-esteem, to the extent that he could not hold his head high in the local pub, and he just wants to sit in a room with a few other survivors and tell the Taoiseach what that was like.

How he didn’t kill himself or drown himself in drink.

He wants some acknowledgment of the pain that he and others went through and the huge transformation he had to go through to be able to stand and talk to a reporter in a Galway park on a Sunday evening.

His friend had a little sister he never knew about, who may or may not have been buried in a septic tank. He’d love the Taoiseach to come to Tuam and just listen to their honest words.

They are not going to be able to turn back time, but it might help the healing process if the most powerful people in the land sat and listened and acknowledged the hurt caused.

He watched a new scandal erupt in Dublin last week, involving nuns who have been awarded a national hospital despite their refusal to pay adequate compensation to the victims of childhood abuse.
A beautiful ceremony to remember the 'Tuam Babies' took
place at the Circle of Life, Salthill, last night. 

He watched the Taoiseach visit the White House last month and give a wonderful lecture about immigration to US President Donald Trump.

And wondered how he could make his way across the Atlantic to Washington, but not sit in his car and take a short trip down to Tuam.

After more than half a century of pain and needless shame, is that asking too much?

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook

Read my earlier blog about Catherine Corless, The Quiet Determination of a Modern Irish Hero,

Hire a content writer or 'ghost' blogger:

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The tireless determination of a modern Irish hero

Sometimes the darkest story has to be brought to light, no matter how sad or distressing that story might be or how uncomfortable it makes people feel afterwards.

When I visited Cambodia almost 15 years ago, I took in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum near the centre of Phnom Penh. This nondescript secondary school, in the middle of the city, was transformed into a grotesque concentration camp in the 1970s and as I walked around it my eyes filled with tears.

My Galway friend and I toured the museum at the same time as a distressed Cambodian couple from a provincial town, who were visiting the capital for the first time.
No visitor ever forgets the murdered
children of Tuol Sleng in Cambodia

Overwhelmed by all the photos of the former inmates, virtually all of whom had terror in their eyes, we hugged each other movingly at the exit gates.

We spoke no Khmer, they spoke little English, but our common humanity meant there was no need for words.

Most of the inmates were children and there were hundreds of distressing photos of them, staring at their interrogators in terror, dotted around the museum.

How, we wondered, could human beings inflict such suffering on fellow human beings?

A few hours later, we stood in the middle of the Cheung Ek Killing Fields, a few miles outside the capital. It was here that the murderous Pol Pot regime killed so many of their own people between 1975 and 1979.

Many of them had been transferred to Cheung Ek from Tuol Sleng, where they were killed by a strike to the head. Mass graves containing almost 9,000 bodies were discovered there following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

We were told they were beaten across the head with sticks before being thrown into the graves, because bullets were too precious or expensive to be wasted on the peasants of Cambodia.

As we stood there in silence, my friend said the whole place felt eerily familiar. The lack of birdsong, the complete and utter silence of the place, reminded him of Auschwitz, a place he had visited the previous year.

We learned a life-long lesson that day, about the cheap price that can be put on a human life by those in positions of power.

As a journalist, I wondered about the first reporters to visit Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. How important it was to tell the story of a regime which began to treat its own people as less than human. It was a distressing story, but it needed to be told.

Little did either of us imagine that a decade and a half later we would find out about ‘killing fields’ of our own, less than an hour north of our home city.

Catherine Corless: a quiet but brave modern Irish hero
It might seem crass to compare the killing fields of Cambodia to the 796 babies who are now believed to have been buried in mass graves in Tuam, but in both cases it was so important to shine a light on the darkness and to remind ourselves of man’s inhumanity to man.

It’s so important to tell the truth, especially when barriers are put in your way or people wish you would just go away.

Which is why I think Catherine Corless is a national treasure. If it wasn’t for Catherine we would never have heard of the “Tuam Babies” and if she’d accepted the barriers placed in her way their story would never have been told.

When she tried to find out how many babies died at the Mother and Baby Home, she was ridiculed by people in authority for not being a “real” historian.

Even last week, after her worst fears had been confirmed by the Commission of Inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes, Catherine was still facing flak from detractors who refused to face the facts uncovered by her investigations.

Take Bill Donohue of the conservative Catholic League in the United States, who earns a salary in excess of €400,000 per year. Instead of thanking Catherine for shining a light on a dark period in Ireland’s history, he slammed the Galway woman last week.

“Contrary to what virtually all news reports have said, Corless is not a historian,” he said. “She not only does not have a Ph.D. in history, she doesn't have an undergraduate degree. She is a typist . . .

“This does not mean she is dumb – many secretaries are brighter than the professors they serve. Nor does this disqualify her from making a contribution to historical events. But she is no historian.”

Tuol Sleng: where an ordinary secondary school
was converted into a concentration camp
Catherine Corless faced the same type of prejudice in her long quest to find out the truth of what happened to the Tuam babies.

She had attended school with children from the Mother and Baby Home and, even as a youngster, was appalled by how badly the children were treated by society in general.

They were “illegitimate”, deprived and forced to sit apart from the other pupils in Tuam. They weren’t worthy of consideration as human beings.

Her interest in the site rose when she heard the story of how two young boys came upon what appeared to be a mass grave while playing on waste ground in the 1970s.

She knew the site had been used as a Mother and Baby Home from 1925 to 1961 and when she began her research six years ago all she wanted to discover was how many babies had died there during that period.

Catherine imagined that ten or maybe 20 babies had lost their lives at the home, never imagining that the true figure was almost 800.

But she came across so many barriers in her quest for the truth. When she approached the Bon Secours order, who operated the home, they diverted her to a communications agency who did anything but communicate.

They gave Catherine a swift, terse reply, indicating they had no records from all their years of running the Tuam home.

She described the response of the Bon Secours, even after she was vindicated last month, as “callous and cold”.

Catherine Corless has built a replica of the infamous
Tuam Home in her living room outside the town

When she approached Galway County Council, they wanted nothing to do with Catherine or the local committee who wanted to erect a plaque to commemorate the dead babies.

“I know Galway County Council tried to put a halt to every effort that we made. The first hurdle to overcome was when we formed a committee. This was before I had any idea of the extent of the hardship the mothers and children went through. I simply wanted to put up a plaque, to name the children, with Theresa Kelly,” she told me recently.

“We had to approach Galway County Council because they own the land, the housing estate, there. They weren’t forthcoming at all. They said no, you can’t be doing that. They didn’t want the plaque. They came up with every excuse as far as I was concerned."

In Tuam, local business people expressed hostility to Catherine’s research. They didn’t want to delve into the home’s murky past or to acknowledge that Ireland had a terrible history in terms of how it treated its most vulnerable children. They wished Catherine would go away.

Only for one sympathetic woman in the Births, Marriages and Deaths office in Galway, Catherine Corless might never have discovered the true number of “Tuam Babies” or opened up a much-needed national debate about how badly Ireland treated its own children.

Catherine refused to accept the doors which were slammed in her face or the repeated assertion by people within the Catholic Church that the past was a different country and should be left untouched.

That attitude extends to the difficulties survivors of institutional abuse have experienced in seeking adequate compensation.

Catherine has been overwhelmed by the correspondece
from survivors of institutions across Ireland
In recent months, Catherine has met so many survivors who tell her that, at last, she has given them a voice after so many years of feeling that they were second class citizens because they were “illegitimate” and had grown up as “home babies”.

People claimed she wasn’t a “real” historian, even though no “real” historian has done anything to approach Catherine’s tireless work in exposing Ireland’s darkest secrets from the past century.

“My argument was that it was not that long ago, that the survivors are still around, and that it’s still the same Church and State. The survivors are still very much alive so you can’t say it’s in the past, they are all around us, they are hurting and we have to do something for them,” she said recently.

Catherine told me things which seem incredible to modern ears, such as getting pregnant for a second time being described as a “second offence” for young mothers who were separated from their children and bundled into Magdalene Laundries across the land.

All she cared about was finding truth and justice for the dead babies and their families, despite the indifference or downright hostility of the authorities.

“The whole sadness of Tuam is in the way they used a former sewage area as a burial vault. It seemed to be just the final insult to the poor little children,” she said.

“I felt more angry than emotional. Throughout my life I have seen injustice all around me. I’m very, very empathetic towards people who haven’t a say. I feel anger at the Church for trying to dismiss what we were trying to say.

“ It was mainly the upper class people in Tuam who didn’t want us doing what we were doing. Some shop-keepers and businessmen felt we were putting a blight on Tuam. How can you portray Tuam in all its glory when all that horror is there?”

Of course, Catherine’s story was not just about Tuam. It’s about a country in which a lethal cocktail of poverty and religious dogma meant that some people could be seen as less than human  and locked up in prisons for the “crime” of having a baby outside marriage.

Remembering the women who were locked up in the
Magdalene Laundries in Galway last month

As blogger Izzy Kamikaze put it so succinctly in her blog three years ago, Church, State, communities and families all played their part in the massive tragedy of Ireland’s institutional past.

They young mothers who were imprisoned from the 1920s to the 1960s would not have been incarcerated without the complicity of their families and their communities.

“When all the secrets are told, nobody is going to come out of it smelling of roses. It is very sad that we seem to be more interested in how these children were buried than in their miserable lives, or the pain still being experienced by the bereaved mothers and the adopted children severed from their histories,” she wrote.

And if Catherine Corless had not persevered with her research in the face of hostility and derision, we might never have known about the 796 Tuam babies and their unmarked graves.

Or opened up a debate about how appallingly the Irish nation treated its most vulnerable children.

And that’s why Catherine is a modern Irish hero.

* A short vigil of remembrance for all the babies who died in institutions across Ireland will take place at the Circle of Life garden in Salthill, Galway, on Sunday, April 23 (7pm). It's being run by First Light, who used to be known as the Irish Sudden Infant Death Association. There will be music, poetry, and song All are welcome. 

A previous blog about a dignified ceremony in Galway to remember the Magdalene Laundry women:

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Joyous faces in the Galway rain

So what does it mean to be Irish?

And what’s the best way to celebrate on our national holiday?        

Awaiting the parade in the Galway wind and rain

Those questions hit me on a strange St Patrick’s Day this year, when I took in my city’s rain-swept parade, attended the funeral of an old friend’s sister, and somehow managed to survive a night as possibly the only sober person in a crowded Galway pub.

Is the best way to celebrate being Irish to get absolutely hammered, as so many did on our national holiday?

Friends in the service industries tell me they hate to work on this particular day.

The stereotype of the "drunken Irish" has become such a cliche that Amazon even tried to sell an offensive green 'Drunk Lives Matter' t-shirt this year.

In one fell swoop, they managed to insult the entire Irish race and the black people in the United States who have genuine grievances with the racist elements of their country's police.

I've long since given up on hard drinking on March 17, as it can be alarming to walk through Galway city centre in the evening and to see so many drunken "zombies" milling about the place.

And, normally, I'd give the parade a miss if the weather was foul.

But this year there were lessons to be learned from the way thousands of people made the most of atrocious conditions to celebrate our national holiday.

To be honest, like many people, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my native land. For most of my adult life, I have fantasised about leaving the cold and wet island behind in order to live in a place with a warmer, more welcoming climate.

As a young man in London in the late 1980s, I revelled the experience of leaving the confines and constraints of home behind. London offered freedom, wildness, and a multi-cultural environment which seemed alien compared to the confines of ‘Catholic’ Ireland.

Try telling people now that it was impossible to buy a condom or to get a divorce in the Ireland of my youth. That repressive country felt like a different planet from the one that voted for Marriage Equality in May 2015.

A view of the parade
by Turlough Moore
I experienced long breaks in places like Australia, Egypt, Spain and Thailand, and loved the experience of holidaying or scuba diving in hot climates.

I fantasised so much about moving to hot countries, I almost wished my life away.

If you decide in November that you are going to hate the next five months of your life then - guess what! - that invariably becomes your truth.

You don't make any room for joy on a winter's afternoon down by the Salthill prom.

Wanderlust, of course, is part of who we are. I have friends from Galway who are scattered all over the world.

They have made new lives in the US, UK, Australia, Norway, and Thailand, because they never saw their futures back home on the wet and windy rock.

In 2010, during a gap year, I lived out my ‘Bucket List’. A full year away from Ireland brought me unbrldled joy, the chance to live and work in Thailand and Nicaragua, and left me with a real sense of doom and gloom upon my return.

So I have to admit I had one of those dark days of the soul when I opened the curtains on Friday morning. I cursed the dark, grey sky and found myself wishing I hadn’t agreed to cover the Galway St Patrick’s Day Parade for a national newspaper.

It was with dread that I made my way to Eyre Square, wishing I could just close the curtains, put on a fire, and spend the day at home. But work is work, especially for a freelancer!

And there was a valuable lesson to be learned.

All around me were smiling people, making the most of the driving wind and miserable rain. Tourists and locals alike were determined to enjoy themselves, even though the rational side of any human being would say it was no day for an outdoor parade.

It was amazing to see such good humour among the 1,000 poor participants who were soaked to the skin as they approached the end of the parade route.

I didn’t see a single person cry or complain, although a politician joked to me that the Town Crier “must be crying now” with the kind irreverence and good humour us Irish can take for granted at times.

Could you imagine a British MP joking with an English journalist with such informal ‘craic’ in his voice as he sat outside in the cold and rain?

Given our country’s terrible relationship with alcohol – and how downright messy St Patrick’s Night can become – it felt so fitting to me that a young man who has battled alcoholism and addiction was the guest of honour at the Galway parade.

The weather was simply awful, but it was great for me to meet Gavan Hennigan for the first time.

This young man from Knocknacarra rowed solo across the Atlantic earlier this year and showed plenty of good humour as he surveyed the one hour parade from the viewing stand.

“If you can put up with conditions like this, that’s the best training you can get!” joked the extreme athlete in the relentless rain.

“The conditions are pretty tough. It’s as bad as it is out in the middle of the Atlantic, nearly. I think it’s incredible that so many people came out to enjoy the parade today, given the conditions.”

Gavan has been overwhelmed by the welcome he has received in his native Galway since completing his solo row.

What a role model he has become for the children of his native city. Gavan hit rock bottom in his late teens and early 20s, but he has shown us all what can be done with determination and the will to turn his life around.

“I was kind of worried that a lot of people wouldn’t know who I was, but a lot of kids were shouting out my name as I made my way through the city today. Overall, the reception has just been incredible since I got back,” he said.

Following Gavan at the head of the parade were the Galway 2020 activists who secured European Capital of Culture status for the city and the Let’s Get Galway Growing network, whose community-based projects played a key role in securing the prestigious Green Leaf 2017 designation.

There's no rain like Galway rain .... !
The awful weather failed to dampen the spirits of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, the oldest military company in the United States and one of three visiting groups from overseas.

Some of the more colourful floats were provided by representatives of the city’s ethnic communities, including a fantastic red and yellow dragon from the Irish Chinese Society.

The Galway Traveller Movement celebrated their recent designation as a minority ethnic group, while That’s Life Gamelan Players highlighted the wonders of performance theatre for people with special needs.

The most magical moment of the day came when a young man with special needs brought a giant love heart up to the politicians in the viewing platform, and then decided not to share his love with them.

That simple, wild, irreverent gesture prompted a huge ironic cheer.

Representatives of the city’s Filipino, Polish, South African, and Indian communities underlined just how multicultural my city has become, and every one of them seemed to be genuinely thrilled to be representing their communities in the driving rain and near gale-force winds.

I was amazed by the salsa dancers. They revelled in showing off their slick dance moves on the street in conditions which must have been totally off-putting for most of them. And they went through their dance moves with huge, beaming smiles.

There was a special round of applause for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association, who marched behind a banner which proclaimed ‘Love for All, Hatred for None’.

“I haven’t seen the parade in years, because I’ve been away gallivanting on adventures, but the first thing that jumped out at me today was the diversity of the communities here in Galway. It’s great to see it,” Gavan told me afterwards.

It was a relief when the parade ended, I have to admit, and a joy to get home to put on a hot drink and change my clothes.

But it was still so uplifting to see the joy on so many faces on a horrible day in my native Galway, the kind of day which would normally make me fantasise about moving to sunnier climes.

The drunken steretype: one of the more offensive t-shirts
on sale in the USA to mark St Patrick's Day
Each and every one of the 1,000 participants in the parade, and the thousands watching them pass by, taught me a lesson about acceptance.

You can wish your life away, dreaming of beaches and sunnier climes, or you can leave the house with a smile on your face and celebrate the joy each new day can bring.

Attitude is so important and the people in Galway city centre on Friday could teach a cynic a thing or two about making the most of life in horrible conditions.

And that’s how I will remember a joyful St Patrick’s Day, 2017.

The true spirit of the Irish is in the beaming faces who embraced a  communal event despite in the rain, not in the scenes of drunkenness in the crowded pubs hours after the parade had ended.


Earlier blog post: Banned from the land that made us refugees ....

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Monday, March 6, 2017

Remembering the 'Maggies'

It is hard for people of my generation, or those younger than us, to imagine the terrible stigma which was attached to single motherhood in 20th century Ireland.

A beautiful ceremony in Bohermore yesterd
It’s only now we are waking up to what a terrible institution the Roman Catholic Church was and the awful, disgusting, inhumane ways in which some religious orders and individuals treated some of the most vulnerable members in our society.

There was no joy, no sense of fun or adventure, in post-colonisation Ireland. Beautiful people were locked up for decades because the most natural thing imaginable, having sex, was turned into a dirty, rotten crime.

The children of single mothers were branded as “illegitimate” and “bastards”, leading to the kind of terrible attitudes which allowed 796 of them to be buried in a septic tank in a so-called ‘mother and baby’ home in Tuam.

They were seen as less than human, the devil’s spawn, and harsh treatment of them was seen as the norm.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, during my University days, I had quite a few friends who were single mums. I don’t think I – or even they – realised what amazing ground-breakers they were in terms of social change in Ireland. Had they been born a decade earlier, they might have been incarcerated for life by nuns.

How guilty were Irish families – and all of Irish society in general – for allowing young women to be stolen from them, locked up for life while their children somehow ‘disappeared’?

Well, we remembered those women in Galway yesterday.

How strangely appropriate – and deeply poignant – that an event had been organized to honour the women of the Magdalen Laundry in Galway yesterday of all Sundays.

The event took on a whole new significance following the shock revelations about the discovery of the bodies of 796 babies in a decommissioned septic tank less than an hour up the road, in Tuam.

About 100 people took part in the moving ceremony in which the names of each of the women buried in Bohermore Cemetery were called out before flowers were placed on their shared graves.

The Flowers for Magdalenes event was planned weeks in advance to give a dignity in death which had been denied in life to the Galway women who had been imprisoned in the city centre laundry.

Until the closure of the laundry in 1984, ‘fallen’ women who became pregnant outside marriage were locked up and forced to work in the premises in the heart of Galway City.

The Magdalen Asylum, as it was known, was run by the Sisters of Mercy from 1845 until its closure. There were 41 such institutions across Ireland in the late 1800s.

Placing flowers on the shared graves of the Magdalene women
Women who became pregnant outside marriage were taken away from their families and placed in the laundries, along with their “illegitimate” children.

They were separated from the children, many of whom were moved to another institution across the city, called St Anne’s. If they were not given up for adoption, they were allowed to see their children once a year.

The inmates, known as ‘Maggies’, had to wear ‘penitence caps’, large boots, and heavy skirts down to their ankles. They worked in the laundry and slept in dormitories. They were never allowed out of the Forster Street premises.

The last resident died in the laundry in 1995, just one year prior to its closure, and Sunday’s remembrance ceremony was attended by women and adult children who had been confined to the home.

It was really moving to hear graveside testimonials from a former Magdalene Laundry resident, a woman who worked there as a teenager, and a man who had been sent there with his single mother.

The sixth annual 'Flowers for Magdalenes' event
took place at a Galway graveyard yesterday

One 70-year old lady, who left a comment on my Facebook page, summed up the heartbreak we experienced as we listened to the stories being shared by former residents and their adult children.

“I cried today for those women. I thought about the time after your baby is born,” wrote Mary Lyons.

“I thought about how you wanted to be treated as the most precious woman in the world as you had carried and produced this other little human being.

“You wanted warm baths, comfortable clothes, plenty of sanitary stuff and loads of praise.

“But not in the Magdalene Laundry. No, you had to swelter in the heat of a laundry where you washed and ironed the clothes of the rich and the linen from the local hotels.

“Why? Because the Catholic Church had such a hold on everyone, they fostered the idea that sex outside marriage was worse than if you committed murder.”

As Mary pointed out, there was a huge irony in young women being locked up and made to feel guilty by religious people who participated in, or covered up, the terrible abuse of Irish children.

Yesterday, former resident Peter Mulryan broke down in tears as he recalled his difficult childhood in a home and how he used to look up at the stars and dream of another life as a youngster.                                                          

Mr Mulryan has taken a High Court action in order to obtain information about a baby sister he never knew from Tusla, the Irish child and family agency.

"It's an insult the way these women are buried in on top of each other,” he said, as he surveyed the shared graves at Bohermore.

Mr Mulryan said he had never been able to trace his little sister. For years, he didn’t know if she had been buried in the mass grave in Tuam, as he believed she had been confined there, or whether she had managed to escape and make a new life in the United States. 

He has since found out the truth.

“My sister was buried in that so-called grave, that septic tank, in Tuam," he said. “She was only nine months old."

He was given a huge round of applause for his bravery, as was a former Magdalene Laundry resident who described how harsh life was for the women in the Galway facility.

“I knew many of these women here,” she said, with tears in her eyes, looking out over the graves.                                                                            
It was the biggest attendance yet at this annual event

Another lady, who worked there as a 13-year old, said she wanted to re-assure family members present that the lay staff who worked there – apart from the nuns – had treated the women well.

Flowers were laid on each of the graves and afterwards poet Sarah Clancy and singer Caroline Stanley dedicated a poem and a song to the Magdalenes.

Sarah read an angry poem, ‘A Prayer to St Bridget’. You can view Sarah's poem here.

One of the organisers, Ann Irwin, said she was taken aback by the numbers who attended the sixth annual Flowers for Magdalenes event at the graveyard. Only three women attended in the first year.

“What happened on Friday was totally coincidental, but it was important that we provided an opportunity for people to congregate and to tell their incredibly poignant stories,” she said.

“The stories that people told this year were nothing but heart-breaking, really. People have told their stories before, but not to such an extent. They were so beautiful and so brave to tell their tragic stories.”

She said it was important to call out the names of each of the women out loud, to give them a dignity which had been denied them in life.                 

It was a poignant, emotional ceremony in Galway
“It was important that everybody said their names together. It was important to hear the testimonials of survivors and that these things are said,” she added.

Ms Irwin said it was important not to forget how women and children had been treated when they were confined to the Magdalene laundries all across Ireland.

“It’s a very, very recent history, but it’s a history we have swept under the carpet to such an extent. If it wasn’t for events such as today, people would turn a blind eye. It’s so important to keep it on the agenda and not to forget these women.”

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can check out his Facebook page here

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