When I was a young woman, I saved my money from my first year of teaching and left for Ireland the following summer. Young and a bit naive, I simply purchased a one-way ticket for my lifelong dream and flew to Shannon.
My ace in the hole, although I didn’t realize it at the time, was a remote contact. A nun on my school’s staff knew an Irish nun in Florida who had a sister in the west of Ireland. Armed with her phone number, I headed off.
The Irish are known for hospitality, and this young woman became my big sister for my summer adventure, handing me her apartment key in Limerick while she went off to her parents’ farm, guiding me, even introducing me to her sister with whom I ferried off to London.
In the decades since, we’ve remained friends and correspondents.
Inevitably, our chat turns to politics, from the earlier “troubles” in Northern Ireland to the election of Donald Trump.
Sadly, this spring there is this: Ireland is embroiled in yet another tragic scandal that casts a shadow on its revered Catholic past. A mass grave with baby and child remains has been discovered at a former Catholic mother and baby home in western Ireland.
A local historian had located almost 800 death certificates for children who had died at the home between 1925 and its closing in 1961, but no proper burial sites.
A government commission is investigating what had been long-standing rumors.
This follows in the wake of the well-documented revelations of the Magdalene laundries — facilities run by religious orders where “loose” girls or women were confined to hard labor and prisonlike conditions. “Loose” could mean anything from prostitution to unwed motherhood to mere flirtatiousness.
And then there was the 2013 film “Philomena,” based on a book that chronicled one woman’s struggle to find the child who had been taken from her in an Irish mother and child home and adopted out to wealthy Americans without her consent.
“We are all so horrified and ashamed,” wrote my Irish friend, a devoted St. Vincent de Paul volunteer now in her 80s.
In a March entry in the daily devotional “Living Faith,” Eve Tushnet writes, although not referring to the Irish scandal, words that strike me as appropriate here: “Every age has the sins it notices and the sins it chooses to ignore.”
Ireland in the early-to-mid 20th century was obsessed by chastity. The sins that consumed “Holy Ireland,” overwhelmingly, were sexual.
The sins it chose to ignore now seem obvious. It ignored sins against mercy and forgiveness. It ignored a mother’s right to her own child. It sometimes ignored, apparently, the rights of a child to a proper burial if that child were conceived outside the rules. It sinned by tarring women exclusively for behavior that included men.
As an Irish observer wryly commented, “There were no fathers in the Magdalene laundries.”
Catholic Ireland carried this obsession with sex to great heights, but it wasn’t completely alone. Many of us who grew up in the U.S. in the ’60s or ’70s remember a friend being quietly spirited away during the school year, while a boyfriend remained behind. In my public high school, a pregnant teen was expelled from school while her boyfriend became homecoming king.
Ireland, the land of my great-grandparents, remains a wonderful, beloved place. But its latest shame should remind us all to examine the sins we notice and the sins we choose to ignore. It should prompt some soul-searching in all of us. Where am I blind to society’s sin and my own?