Driving from Belfast to Galway in 1987, there was no obvious route. Some suggested driving down to Dublin and taking the main road; others said it was better to go across country, the distance being shorter and the traffic being lighter. The latter option brought an arrival on a Friday lunchtime at the town of Granard in Co Longford. The name of the town had been overheard in conversations among Northern Unionists and Orangemen. In January 1984, a fifteen year old girl in the town had died after giving birth to her child at a grotto to the Virgin Mary; they believed that this was the sort of thing that happened in ‘Catholic Ireland’.
The town was a gentle place; nothing like the images spun across the border. It was hard to reconcile the friendliness of country people with thoughts of the awful deaths of a teenage girl and her infant, a girl who felt herself so alone that her baby died in the churchyard and that she died in hospital from the loss of blood and exposure.
Listening to this morning’s Marian Finnucane programme on RTE radio, the tragic death of Ann Lovett was revisited. Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly was recalling her days a journalist and talked of the coverage of the Granard story. Emily O’Reilly believed the story far more complex than a girl reacting to the atmosphere created by the pro-life referendum, but Marian Finnucane was definitive in her view, ‘Holy Catholic Ireland would have shunned her’.
It was hard not to imagine the Northern voices from the ’80s saying, ‘There you are, we told you so’.
But anyone who lived in Ireland in the 80s would know that the Northern perception was but one small part of the story. The drive that had brought an lunchtime arrival in Granard finished in Connemara, in a place and a community far removed from the sectarianism and the violence of the North.
Listening to a conservative Roman Catholic bishop speaking last Sunday, his words were challenging. He believed that the way forward was not through rushed change and reform, but staying to face the pain. It was a reaction to those in his church who wanted to draw a line under the past and do everything differently. Whatever disagreements one might have with his conservative line, there was an integrity in a belief that there should be no escaping the opprobium, the hostility and the anger of Irish people.
To believe one can ‘draw a line’ under the suffering inflicted and move on, as if it were some company that had embarked upon a bad business venture, is a concept that must be deeply painful to victims and which achieves nothing to rebuild trust or standing within communities.
The fact that in 2012 the Ann Lovett story still has the power to command prolonged discussion on a prime time radio shows the pain is still there to be faced. ‘Holy Catholic Ireland’ was deeply flawed, but it had also a capacity for community, generosity and friendship rarely to be encountered elsewhere.
If the church does not stay to face the pain caused by its wrongdoing, it is hard to see what other vehicle there will be to sustain the good things that are possible.