Summer in Ireland reveals some painful truths

This island is stuffed full of secrets. Not that we in the south have much to be smug about


This is my last letter of the summer; but as I have no rustic whimsy to impart, this will be more like "Keane's Original Melancholy Miscellany".

This is my last letter of the summer; but as I have no rustic whimsy to impart, this will be more like "Keane's Original Melancholy Miscellany".

Here in Ardmore the doleful hours have descended. The village is emptying out. In a week it will have been returned to the sole custody of the locals. The summer houses are being cleaned out and shuttered up, the caravan park which swarmed with children has only a few scattered families clinging to the sleeves of a dying season.

The new school term in Ireland begins on Monday. Neither parents or children want to go back to Cork or Dublin or Clonmel. I do not blame them. Everything is ending.

I am trampling on my own sadness. The end of summer always leaves me struggling. As a child it represented a limbo land - the last days of security in a small cottage with my grandmother before I had to return to the sadness of my father's house. Each year the same loss, accumulating until it became something that seemed immutable. Now in adult life it returns unbidden. We may leave behind the people and circumstance of childhood, but not so easily the feelings they engendered.

So you find me in a blue country. A gale kicked in earlier in the week, all low cloud and spuming seas and rich in symbols if you were looking for them. The body of a young porpoise washed up in Boat Cove. It was bleached white by the sea and starting to rot, rolling back and forth in the tide. On such days the sea throws waves over the storm wall, drenching anybody unfortunate enough to be passing by. I was caught this week and thoroughly soaked.

Perhaps it is simply my own mood, but I sense a sharpening in the natural world too. In the garden a few days back, I heard a loud screeching noise. I went to investigate and found a stoat with a young rabbit in its jaws. The stoat was trying to drag its prey into the bushes. I never imagined a rabbit could make so much noise. I threw a stone and the stoat dropped its prey and vanished into the hedgerow. I congratulated myself, but later my friends berated me.

"You interfered with the natural world. That stoat was probably stalking the rabbit for hours," one said. My friends of course live in the country. I am a sentimental part-timer blind to the Hobbesian truths that lurk in the dense hedgerows.

The storm was quite beautiful, but the wind rattling the cottage windows at night was full of foreboding. Soon enough, I knew, I would be heading to Iraq and after that to Rwanda.

A new year of conflict is beginning. I have never regarded January as the beginning of a new year; for me the year starts in September, and in the final days of August I fall to speculating on what rough beasts are now slouching into life across the world, their "hour come round at last".

Nothing in the big picture looks like getting better. In Iraq it goes from bad to worse. Ditto the Middle East and much of Africa. As for Asia its a mixed picture, but with India, Pakistan and North Korea all nuclear-capable, there is plenty to be afraid of. The world is in deeper trouble now than it has been in half a century. There are forces on the rise which will keep us fighting for decades.

There is not much to console one on the Irish political scene either. While I was walking the stormy beaches of Ardmore, a small piece of our island history was being revealed on a strand further east. The big news here was the discovery of the body of a woman who was murdered by the IRA in 1972.

Mrs Jean McConville was the mother of 10 children and had been accused of spying by the Provisionals. With their customary regard for human rights, the IRA dispatched a death squad, à la Pinochet or Galtieri, and used a shotgun to execute the mother of 10. For 30 years her children searched for a body. Then a man walking a beach on the east coast a few days ago came across some human remains in a shallow grave. Several of the McConville children came to the scene. One of Jean's sons recognised his mother's cardigan as the one she wore the day the IRA took her away.

The papers tried to get Gerry Adams to comment, but he was away on holiday on another part of the Irish coast. Sinn Fein said it wouldn't help the family to speculate about the discovery. Such concern on the part of Sinn Fein may or may not mean anything to the grieving McConvilles. They still wait for a detailed explanation of what happened to their mother. Who took her away, who pulled the trigger, who buried the body. Questions that only associates of Mr Adams, by many accounts a prominent figure in the Belfast IRA at the time, can accurately answer. I doubt they ever will.

This island is stuffed full of secrets. We make our peace on buried secrets. Not that we in the south have too much to be smug about. The disposal of women's bodies is news down here as well. The bodies were not those of murder victims. In fact we have no idea how they died because they belonged to a despised and neglected caste. They were girls who had children outside of marriage, girls who were "pretty" or deemed by the official custodians of virtue to be "loose" or in moral danger. They were the women who were committed to the Magdalen Laundry in Dublin during the dark days of the cleritocracy in our little Republic.

Back in the early Nineties the nuns who ran the laundry - it was a virtual prison for many of the women sent there -- needed to sell land to raise funds. That meant disinterring the bodies of 155 women who died while working there. But of the total there were 22 women for whom there were no death certificates. There were no names. There was no record of how they died. Yet even in the 1990s nobody saw fit to launch an investigation. The women were anonymous and they did not matter.

I remember suggesting here that Ireland - north and south - needed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as in South Africa and Chile. At the time, a few readers wrote to me suggesting I had lost my marbles. What was I thinking? The national character would never embrace such a far-reaching proposal. There was too much that was best left hidden.

Think of the pain that would be inflicted on those whose wounds had yet to heal, and the various bodies involved in inflicting pain in our past would never co-operate. Time passed and public pressure forced the government and church authorities in the south to begin investigations into clerical abuses. There is now growing pressure for an investigation into the missing women of the Magdalen Laundry. The south is making slow progress.

But up north there is still strong resistance to the imperative of truth telling. That is likely to remain the case for as long as a political solution remains elusive. In Ulster we were talking about pain of a different kind conducted in an atmosphere of war. But a day must come when the killers of Jean McConville find a way to tell her family the truth. Not just those killers, but all those who took part in death squads, on every side. Until this happens, the past will remain our eternal melancholy season.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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