Ireland’s break with its Catholic past incomplete, says Sally Rooney

Irish Times [Dublin, Ireland]

September 12, 2021

By Derek Scally

Author says unanswered questions remain regarding the treatment of women

Best-selling author Sally Rooney says modern Ireland’s secular pivot away from the Catholic era is incomplete, with unfinished business about why society locked up pregnant women they viewed as “undesirable members of Irish society”.

Rooney was asked by Der Spiegel magazine if she had endured pushback against her books from Ireland’s “Catholic milieu” similar to that endured in the past by Sinéad O’Connor.

In 1992 the singer was blacklisted after she tore up picture of Pope John Paul II on live US television in protest at clerical sexual abuse, and Catholic institutional structures she said enabled religious prey on children.

Rooney recalled how, as a result, O’Connor was “ostracised in the cultural and social life of Ireland” in the 1990s.

“She was seen as dangerous, at the same time she was very brave and right!” she told Der Spiegel. “People portrayed her as some kind of madwoman for saying things that we now all know are true.”

Rooney said that hostile culture of Catholic Ireland had “suddenly vanished”. A majority in Ireland now support marriage equality and abortion and view the Catholic church as an “irrelevant” institution that should stay out of discussions about political and civil life.

Asked why things had changed so quickly, Rooney cited clerical abuse revelations before suggesting that “deep connections cannot be severed so quickly”.

“In the past they were so deep that people were silent, even though they knew that there were structures of abuse in Catholic institutions, not only internally, behind closed doors, but also by definition,” she said. “The people knew what the Magdalene Laundries were there for: as homes to which women who lived sexually self-determined lives were admitted.”

The author told the German magazine how Irish people “knew that illegitimate children died in mother-child homes”.

Her remarks echo a key, controversial finding of January’s final report into Ireland’s mother and baby homes. It suggested religious-run residential homes often provided refuge for pregnant women from a prevalent “cold, harsh environment” in Irish society.

Unmarried pregnant women faced widespread prejudice and hostility at the time, the report found, often lead by their own families but supported and condoned by church-state institutions.

After its publication, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the report’s findings “lay bare the failings of the State” and provided “a moment for us as a society to recognise a profound failure of empathy, understanding and basic humanity over a very lengthy period”.

Independent Galway West TD, Catherine Connolly, disagreed, telling the Dail: “I am not responsible. My family was not responsible. The people I know were not responsible.”

For Sally Rooney, Ireland’s residential homes “were basically institutions of punishment for undesirable members of the Irish society”.

In a wide-ranging interview to promote her new novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You”, Rooney said she struggled with the fame thrust on her as a best-selling writer.

“I don’t want to be a public person,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I had published everything under a pseudonym,” she said. “But obviously I haven’t – and here I am!”