It can be easy to view the pervasive culture that shunned women when they were at their most vulnerable as very clear-cut.
Ireland, in our not-too-distant past, was a place where Church and State governed through fear, fed off people’s shame, and colluded to ostracise those who didn’t follow a strict set of social rules.
It was a cruel and heartless country that placed the clergy in an untouchable and unchallengeable position.
And so, when Fr Andy Farrell’s name was mentioned in a documentary currently airing in cinemas around the country, my stomach did a nauseous flip.
Fr Farrell was the man who restored our beautiful French gothic-style church, created a new parish centre, was instrumental in the development of a community nursing home, and was involved in meals on wheels.
He was the man on the altar when I made my confirmation.
But now Fr Farrell was being revealed on screen as a man who personally escorted at least one young woman to mother and baby home — literally driving her out of her community at a time when she most needed family support.
Unlike written accounts and reports, which committed to paper can be very black and white, people are nuanced and multifaceted.
We all have elements of good and bad within us.
While not excusing the wrongs that were inflicted, it does perhaps explain why society allowed a system that sent women away in shame to persist as long as it did.
Pray for Our Sinners
tells the incredible story of married couple Mary and Paddy Randles, who as GPs in Navan, Co Meath, stood up against the accepted norms of corporal punishment in schools and who took many women destined for mother and baby institutions into their own family home.
Their fight against an “empire designated to punishing girls”, came at significant personal and professional expense.
The powerful documentary by Sinéad O’Shea features the story of Betty who, at the age of 18, was rescued from Sean Ross Abbey by the Randles.
The personal testimony of the survivors of mother and baby homes screams its way out from the pages of the Commission of Investigation published in early 2021.
Those who were sent to Sean Ross, in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, spoke of being constantly hungry during their time there and recounted being alone and unsupported as they gave birth.
“They actually tied me, because I was in pain, I thought I am going to die,” one woman told the Commission.
“It was absolutely horrific, but anyhow once it is over and I was told I suppose, this will teach you, offer it up for the sins you committed and all that.”
A second mother who was sent to Sean Ross recalled how she was forced to “go down on my knees” to publicly apologise to a nun. This was “just another part of the humiliation and shame” she was subjected to every day.
Another survivor told of how incoming and outgoing letters were censored.
She wrote to her aunt complaining about the food and one of the nuns read her letter in the dining room and then made her eat it.
How could Fr Farrell, the charismatic man who did so much good and was so well got in the parishes he served in, have bundled a heavily pregnant teenager off to such an institution?
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, O’Shea herself asked: “When you look back you just go, wow, why did we accept all of that? It was really that idea of a goldfish that doesn’t know it’s swimming in water.
It was a system that was so total, it was completely impenetrable.”
Maggie Lyng, who was adopted through St Patrick’s Guild Adoption Society, also knew Fr Farrell.
He was the priest she asked to marry her and as a carer working in the nursing home he was instrumental in establishing, she looked after him in his final years.
“Fr Farrell wouldn’t have been any way unusual in his parish, he wouldn’t have been different in Dun Laoghaire or Kinsale, I mean any priest would have been the man who the mothers would have brought their fallen daughters to or the daughters themselves ended up on the door.
“He was no more or no less different to priests in any parish in Ireland at that time.
He was a good man, but a bad man, There are complexities to the issues.”
Institutions including mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries, and industrial schools continued to exist even when people, and more importantly, the State, knew that the treatment of those who were condemned to them was unacceptable.
But standing up against such practices must have been seen as almost impossible in many cases when it meant going against the powerful parish priest who was supporting the community in other ways.
People undoubtedly remained silent as they also knew there would be consequences for speaking up.
For Paddy Randles, confronting the local priest about the appalling level of physical violence being doled out on schoolchildren resulted in patients deserting his practice overnight.
The couple received letters warning them to leave Navan, were called out from the pulpit at Mass, and were forced to move their children to schools in Dublin.
This was a route that clearly would not have been an option for most.
“We were all so scared of each other,” O’Shea said of this time in Ireland’s history.
It was this contagious fear.
“The State was too poor to finance a lot of things, so they were outsourcing everything to the Church, and then the Church got to insist on their way of doing things.”
The revelations contained in the film about Fr Farrell are now seen as a missed opportunity for Lyng, who was born in a baby home in Temple Hill in Dublin and who only learned in 2012 after years of battling for her information that her birth name was in fact Alison Gallagher.
“If I had known, I would have the opportunity to ask him about bringing girls to mother and baby homes,” she said this week.
Perhaps he and other members of the clergy believed they were providing a social service?
Perhaps they thought they were protecting young women from scandal and stigmatisation?
Perhaps they believed that girls who fell pregnant outside of wedlock needed to be punished?
Maybe clerics blindly accepted it as ‘the way it was’.
But did they have any niggle of their wrongdoing, did they in later years regret their personal involvement in what ultimately was needless suffering and pain that split families up? We cannot know.
The Church has never answered these questions. As an organisation, it continues to try to wash its hands of a system that it operated with the full support of the State.
Up until very recently, adoptees, including Lyng, were denied access to their only birth certs and other personal information.
The religious congregations that operated mother and baby homes continue to drag their heels on contributing to a redress scheme for those who gave birth or were born in such institutions.
More than two years after the final report of the Commission of Investigation, we have no indication of what amount, if any, these orders will contribute to the €800m redress scheme.
In this context, it is easy to see the Church as a callous entity that continues to prioritise self-preservation over any sort of atonement.
But the people within these orders were often not so black and white.