There are suggestions sometimes that a truth and reconciliation commission, similar to that in South Africa, would help the process of healing in Ireland. Given the massive costs of inquiries and tribunals that have been held in this country, and their general failure to produce any results, it would seem wise to question whether an Irish truth commission would achieve anything, other than letting people tell their own story. But perhaps allowing people to tell their story is an important thing to do, even if it does cost the nation money.
Telling one’s story can be important in healing memories. It was a realization that came to me in an exchange of emails with friends about school days.
Our school was a special one for people with asthma and frail health. It was not cheap, back in the mid-1970s, fees were around £2,000 a year, as much as a working man was earning. Fees were paid by local authorities, who deemed a special education necessary because each of us had missed so much time at ordinary schools.
The school was run by fundamentalist Christians who regarded it as their duty to educate us in their faith. Morning assemblies, evening epilogues, worship twice every Sunday, no opportunity was missed to preach to us their version of the Christian Gospel. Their work was presented to us as charitable, we were reminded of the generosity of those who had established the trust that had founded the school; there was never any reference to the fact that it was the taxes of working people that were funding the whole operation.
In the first decade after leaving, I had a very benign view of the school, I might not have agreed with their theology, but they sought to do the best they could. Thirty years after leaving, it is hard to be so sanguine.
I recall no real physical abuse, the odd staff member might have been over-enthusiastic in punishments, but there was nothing systematic in the way that occurred in some Irish schools. There was persistent bullying, to which the staff mostly turned a blind eye, as was normal in the 1970s. More seriously, there was an ongoing emotional and psychological battering. Staff considered it reasonable to have strange and arbitrary rules – I once had to clean the gym for three days because a friend lent me his football boots to play in a match. They considered it reasonable to subject us to a borstal-like regime. They considered it reasonable to constantly preach a version of Christianity that regarded even most Christians as doomed to eternal damnation.
If it had not been for a saintly few, who I remember as Christians despite their theology, it would have been an intolerable experience.
A friend in England told me that she had learned to forgive people, otherwise it would be very difficult to get up every morning. Perhaps she is right and that one should simply forgive and let go; I was clever enough to mostly evade, avoid and get around the excesses of the regime, but I remember boys with terror in their eyes. Perhaps, I thought, a chance at the truth would not have been a bad thing.
If truth is important to memories of a small long-closed school; might not it help a country filled with memories of violence, violence that extends from the words and the hands of teachers to the murders of the paramilitaries?