The Valley of the Squinting Windows Helps Explain Irish Mother and Baby Homes Scandal

It’s pure coincidence that I was reading The Valley of the Squinting Windows (Brinsley MacNamara, 1918) the very week that the Irish Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation report has been published. The report’s revelations are shocking: 9,000 babies died in the homes from the Irish Free State’s foundation in 1922 to 1998; 56,000 mothers were incarcerated (is there any other word that can be used?) within their high walls (they always had high walls); 55,000 babies were born to the world in their unwelcoming and cruel wards. 

Leaving aside the outrage of these homes’ very existence, the detailing in the report of the wicked and inhumane treatment meted out both to the infants and their young, unmarried mothers by the religious orders who ran the homes evokes nothing but rage and sorrow. The death rate among the children in these homes (circa 15%) was multiples of what it was in the outside world. The children (“bastards” in the eyes of the nuns and indeed wider Irish society) were commoditised: essentially sold to adoption agencies and rich American couples. And not even in death were the poor children (both born and unborn) treated as full human beings: in the Tuam “home” up to almost 800 children were not afforded a proper burial – no death certificate, no inquiry, no funeral service, no coffin, no grave, no headstone. They were just dumped into a cistern worthy of Franco’s Spanish Civil War execution squads. You can imagine what cruelties (major and minor) were inflicted on the mothers (“fallen women”) by the black-cloaked, black-hearted so-called religious who ran the homes. 

While we might rightly apportion a large share of the blame for the near dying room regime they presided over to the nuns and the Irish state which approved, inspected and funded these institutions, these homes did not exist in a vacuum: twentieth century Irish society as a whole was complicit in their existence. A read of The Valley of the Squinting Windows brings the society of holy Ireland to life and bears witness to the extreme, fevered religiosity of the time, with its manic focus on sexual purity and the intrinsically sinful and “tragic” nature of womanhood. Taken at face value, the book shows a twentieth century Ireland which was totally under the cosh of a triumphalist, authoritarian, misogynistic, absolutist Roman Catholic Church, and general society, through its submission to this twisted institution was significantly complicit such homes’ existence, giving them carte blanche to operate in as cruel and secretive a manner as they desired and essentially pushing young transgressive women into them.

It is said that one of the most radical tenets of the Christian religion is forgiveness. There is not much in the Old Testament concerning this virtue and the caricature of the Judaism upon which Christianity was built is its eye-for-an-eye nature. While forgiveness (and love) may have been Jesus Christ’s take-home message, the version of Christianity that thrived in Ireland post-Famine and which infuses the pages of The Valley of the Squinting Windows is utterly lacking in either. Every character in the book is mean-spirited, cruel, vindictive and possesses a photographic memory for the slights committed upon them by their neighbours, as well as their neighbours’ faults, peccadillos, and past misdeeds. In the small town of Garradrimna, where the novel is set, everyone is on the lookout for everyone else’s transgressions – prying, peeping, peering, snooping. If someone publicly sins the news is greeted with glee by the gossips of the town (essentially everyone from the alcoholics who rap on the side door of a pub on a Sunday morning to the God-like in his powers parish priest) and the wrongdoings are inscribed into the town’s permanent record, maintained with a gusto by the phalanx of tattlers and curtain twitchers. And so a family’s sins follow them down through the generations, mirrored by the policies of state institutions: children from mother and baby homes could not join the police, for example.

Gossip, of the lowest, nastiest, most insidious type, is the social currency of the town. It appears as if nothing else is discussed in the town bar who was seen with whom down yonder lane “keeping company”, who was brazenly wearing “immodest” clothing at Mass, who was drinking to excess, who was getting “notions”, and which girl is at risk of “getting into trouble” or “demeaning” herself. The juiciest gossip is of a sexual nature, and it is the women concerned upon whose backs the cat-o’-nine-tails of the wagging tongues falls most heavily. Men can behave in the most dastardly ways towards women and get away with it, the exculpation being that men are men – not as wily as the Jezebels in whose hands they are putty. “Fallen” and “ruined” women are literally left holding the baby.

If we accept The Valley of the Squinting Windows to be a true depiction of life in Ireland in the early twentieth century, we can understand from the attitudes described therein both how mother and baby homes came to exist and how thousands of women were driven into them, sometimes of their own volition. Sexuality was bad and dirty. Women were weak and inclined towards sexual immorality and infidelity. Not only was a women’s predilection for sexual misdeeds a risk to herself and the reputation of her family and community, she was a creeping threat to all the men around her, including any other woman’s husband, brother and father – even the parish priest. Women had to be watched. The Valley of the Squinting Windows shows a Stasi-like state where, instead of neighbours monitoring one another’s political orthodoxy, everyone is spying on everyone else’s sexual purity, and with an exaggerated focus on young, unmarried women.

If the community suspected that a young girl was sexually wayward (even holding hands with a boy could fall under this category) there was outrage. Gossip went into overdrive. She and her family would be shunned by neighbours. The priest would denounce her from the alter. Her parents would be spoken to by the priest. Shame would fall on the family. Something would have to be done to remove the girl from the community. Her presence was an insult to all the upstanding, pious folks among whom she lived, a scarring reminder of the sin she had committed. There were a number of options for “disappearing” the girl.

A “fallen” young woman could be packed off to relatives in another part of the country. This was probably the mildest punishment. She would have her baby behind the locked doors and pulled curtains of her aunt, for example. The baby would be raised by the aunt and the girl would slave away on the farm or in some menial job in a nearby town. There were a lot of children, even in my time in the 1980s, whose “mothers” were actually their aunts, and their “sisters” their mothers. 

A fallen woman could take the boat to England to make herself scarce. Even there, these poor souls often could not escape the clutches of the church and ended up giving birth in a church-run institution and having the baby essentially taken from them. So common was this category of girl in England during the middle of the twentieth century that medical and social services had an acronym for her: PFI – pregnant from Ireland.

A pregnant girl could, with the help of the local clergy, be placed in an industrial school. These were church-run prisons where “wicked” boys and girls were incarcerated and made work for their keep. They were often laundries, for example the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Many women, their spirits broken, remained in these homes until old age. Many of the girls released from these homes, having received little or no education in them were signed into indentured servitude with pious “strong farmers”. Many ended up on the streets. 

And then there were the mother and baby homes. Prisons where, as punishment for the sin of extramarital sex, you were locked up until your due date, treated like dirt before, during and after the birth, made give up the baby (which were worth a lot of dollars for the Church) and released, not as a free woman, but a fallen one. 

My mother has told me of a poor, large family in the Turnpike, Ennis, one of the daughters of which fell pregnant outside of marriage. This would have been the 1950s. In spite of the pressure from the Church and the opprobrium of the wider community, the family stood by the girl. She had the baby at home and they helped her raise it in the family’s tiny cabin. My mother tells of nightly visits in the run-up to the baby’s birth by one of the parish’s sternest, most sadistic, most fanatically Catholic priests, urging the family to send the girl and her baby away. The girl and her baby – the result of sexual sin – were a thorn in the side of the holy Church and the good Catholic people of Ennis. The family never relented. How brave they were! How enraged the local clergy must have been at this affront to their power. 

How far we have come. Thankfully, we have prised the claws of the Catholic Church off our backs, and in doing so have allowed a kindness and understanding to flourish within us for the difficulties our fellow human beings can fall into. Sex is no longer a bad thing. Women are more and more equal and not considered the temptresses they were in the age of The Valley of the Squinting Windows. Our society is not perfect: there are still plenty of gossips, plenty of begrudgers only too delighted when their neighbours publicly fail to live up to the morals of the time, a superfluidity of high-minded judgement of others. But if we can place that Christian tenet – forgiveness – at the centre of all we do we and who we are will get to a much kinder place.

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Hidden Fruit

During our summers in Zamora, the kids and I would go with their grandfather in the mornings to his orchard to pick whatever fruit had ripened overnight. There were a couple of fig trees, a couple of cherry trees, plum trees, apples, pears, and peaches. There were also some olive trees, but prising their fruits from their bendy boughs would be something to be done in October. 

You learned quickly that a fig tree was not to be gone near with bare arms or legs. The burrowing itch caused by its rough leaves was not something you ever wanted to experience twice. The cherry tree was a reluctant giver upper of its fruit. No matter how long you spent climbing through its branches, basket in hand, there were always more fat, purple cherries concealing themselves behind leaves or twigs. You eventually had to call time on your systematic, root-and-branch search knowing there were handfuls of fruit still to be collected. Apple, pear and peach gathering was simple: the fruits were big, easy to get at on these highly pruned and trained producers and usually sparse: the harsh Zamoran springs, which could see freezing winds and frosts well into May, were not favourable to bumper harvests of pommes and droops.

We collected our harvest in old baskets which had been in use since the girls’ grandfather was a child himself. Then we would lay the baskets on a hand cart which my father-in-law had made himself, was rightly proud of and which gave true meaning to the word “multifunctional”. It could be used for levering a timber beam off the ground just as easily as for bringing billy cans of water to bone-dry eras, where the almond trees screamed for relief. When my father-in-law had secured the baskets of fruit to the cart with a series of intricate (to an unnecessary degree, in my opinion) knots and criss-crossings of old rope, it was time to cover up our harvest. This I also found unnecessary and even objectionable.

“Why do we have to hide the fruit?” I asked him the first time I saw him drawing old sheets and blankets across the cart, tarpaulin-like, and tying these down with just as much elaborate care as the he had the baskets themselves.

“It makes life easier,” he said. Noting my incomprehension, he continued: “Why does this orchard have walls higher than a man can climb?”

“To keep people out,” I offered.

“Partly,” he said. “But it also keeps these out.” 

He pointed at his eyes.

As I turned the handcart to face the orchard’s heavy corrugated steel gate, I told him I didn’t get it. Another example in the long list of a townie not understanding the ways of country people. How does the expression go? You can learn to live in a the city in three weeks, but it can take you thirty years to learn how to live in a village.

“People won’t covet what they can’t see.” To reinforce his point, he placed a strong, leathery hand on the handcart and tugged at one of the blankets.

Out on the street waiting for him to lock up, I stood back from the handcart, allowing the girls to each take a side for pushing on the short journey to the other end of the village. Its wheels spun in the dust when they engaged, its frame squeaking in protest and the baskets creaking in their concealment. Staying close at hand in case my strength would be needed to help the cart over a rut or pothole, I thought more about what the girls’ grandfather was saying. If the neighbours you happened across on your journey through the village knew you were transporting a few kilos of figs, cherries and plums they would – what?

“You see,” explained my father-in-law. “You might meet Fulanito. He’d look down at the fruit and tell how wonderful your figs look. The next thing, you’d have to offer him some. And then Menganito would appear. He’d want some plums. And some apples for the grandson. And a couple of pears for the aunt who’s sick in hospital. And before you know it, you’re arriving home with three quarters of your fruit gone.”

“Yeah, but aren’t we supposed to share?” I countered, mindful that the girls were listening and that we had always tried to teach them that sharing was caring.

“I’m all for sharing,” he replied. “If you do the calculations, you’ll find that I personally won’t benefit from more than, say, five per cent of what we’ve just picked, even though I bought all the trees, nurtured them from when they were saplings, pruned them, fertilised them, kept them free from blights and plagues. The girls will get some, their mother, their grandmother, their three aunts, their cousins, Celsa, Tika, Angelines – friends and family. And I don’t mind that one bit. My family and my friends are welcome to all the fruit from that orchard, even if I never see a bite. But random people we bump into on these dusty old roads . . .”

I nodded and thought in silence about what he had said. The girls chatted and sang as the wheels of the handcard growled their way over the pebbles and sand that lightly coated the streets’ concrete, accompanying the sounds of early morning village life; chattering sparrows and chirping swallows, tractors setting off for the fields, women singing as they hung the washing in their back yards.

“And if you gave Fulanito or Menganito some fruit today, they’d be lining up tomorrow for more, along with all the people they’d told I was giving it away. I know how this village is. Much better if for all they know I’ve got a dead cat under those blankets.”

Posted in Life, Spain | Tagged | 2 Comments

Drowning Ducks and Growing Dwarves: Expressions of Being Overcome by Bad Luck

I heard an expression the other day that I’d never heard before. It was in the context of the Irish football manager Stephen Kenny’s run of bad luck. Not only has his team not won a match in the last eight attempts and gone eleven hours without a goal, but he has become embroiled in a controversy about a “motivational” video he played before Ireland’s recent match against England: some of the content is being reported as being anti-English, verging on the racist. For this match against England, Kenny was only able to call on thirteen of his first-team squad. The rest had to withdraw from duty due to positive tests for coronavirus. A sports reporter on the morning news said of the manager that “if he had ducks, they’d drown.”

The expression reminded me of a similar, though much less politically correct expression in Spanish – si pongo un circo, me crecen los enanos. The meaning of this is: if I started a circus my dwarves would grow. It is often shortened to me crecen los enanos – the dwarves are growing on me.

As a Spanish speaker, I am not comfortable using me crecen los enanos. It harks back to a day when a strong element of circuses was the freak show. Dwarves were freaks, so what better place to poke fun at them, be fascinated/repulsed by them and enjoy an aul’ gawk than in the context of a circus. Dwarves’ (the more acceptable expression is “little person” or “person of short stature”) participation in circuses dehumanised them, rendered their worth to society nothing more than as a source of amusement for the rest of us. I haven’t been to a circus since I was a child. I find their cruelty to and exploitation of animals disturbing and refuse to support them with my entrance fee. I hope people of short stature are no longer degraded in the big top.

The difference between these two expressions, which both convey the frustration of an endless run of bad luck, reflects the difference between anglophone and Hispanic culture. The use of the language of respect and inclusion has gained far more ground in anglophone than in Hispanic culture. The agenda in anglophone countries has been driven by academia in the United States and takes a few years to trickle down to the less exalted layers of society. It then spreads across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to other English-speaking countries. In my time living in Spain I found that trendy PC ideas (for wont of a better term) arrived into Spanish a couple of years after the Irish and British press had done their two page spreads on them. When hygge was all the rage in the UK, I couldn’t find a single person in Spain who knew what it was. Maybe it’s gonna be the Spanish Christmas theme of 2021!

I wonder when the penny will drop regarding growing dwarves.

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Jasper the Hedgehog

It seems like our estate is plagued with hedgehogs at the moment. Sightings of them are rife, to the extent that you are almost guaranteed to see one of these cute little creatures scuttling along the verges and shrub beds if you go for a walk anytime between dusk and midnight. Last year, there were quite a few reports of encounters in our estate, but nothing like this year. Back then, the breaking of ground for house building in a series of fields right beside our estate was blamed for driving the resident hedgehogs (and foxes) in search of a new habitat. While building continues at this site, no further habitat has been destroyed since last winter. My own guess is that the mildness of recent winters, this summer’s lengthy heatwave, the current abundance of berries and nuts and the lateness of the coming of autumn have all conspired to give rise to a local explosion in hedgehog numbers. Hedgehogs tend to go into a fever of activity during this pre-hibernation time of the year in order to forage for sufficient calories to get them through the winter.

I had the unenviable task of picking up two hedgehog corpses in the past couple of weeks. The first cadaver was on the main entryway into the estate and looked like it had been hit by a car just before first light. Without being too gruesome, there was no doubt that this poor spiky was the victim of a road accident. The second little fella was lying belly up on one of the community lawns just inside the estate. If he had been hit by a car, then the blow had not been immediately lethal, as had been the case with hedgehog number 1, and the poor devil had managed to crawl to the refuge of the grass. As I lifted the creature into a black plastic bag, I could find no evidence of trauma. I just hope he (for I can confirm that it was a he) didn’t suffer. I also hope that an infection or poisoning wasn’t the cause of death. If I find another such upturned hedgehog corpse, I will bring it to the vet for a post-mortem. There was somebody in our locale leaving out poisoned meat for cats last year – perhaps they are at it again.

As well as our estate being a hotbed for hedgehog sightings, our own garden is something of an erinaceous ground zero right now, with a little fella having taken up residence there sometime this week. The human members of our household knew nothing of our guest until alerted by Archie the cockalier. The pooch had been acting strangely for a few days, continually asking to be let out into the garden and then acting like a speed freak when out there, tearing around the place with his nose glued to the ground, sniffing frantically here, rooting maniacally amongst the fallen leaves there. It must be his hormones, we thought (Archie is entering adolescence). Or the full moonOr a cat.

Until his excited barking at ten at night drew my daughter out to see what the matter was.

“Come quick,” she said. “Archie has cornered a hedgehog!”

And there we saw it. A ball of spikes in the corner of our tiny back lawn, Archie’s tail going nineteen to the dozen. The ball wasn’t for moving and Archie was confused.

It’s not supposed to just stay there, you could almost hear Archie thinking. I’m barking at it.

But the ball abided. Immobile. Rock-like. Frozen as if by a basilisk’s gaze. And, in spite of a couple of paw-prods from the pooch, it continued not to move a muscle. In the silences between Archie’s barks it could be heard issuing a strange, Yoda-like growl.

“I think it’s not too happy with Archie being around it,” my daughter said.

I suggested we all go in and leave the hedgehog scuttle to safety. We dragged a very reluctant cockalier away from the growler and, once inside, my daughter said: “I’m going to call it Jasper. It has a ring to it.”

And Jasper has abided – not immobile, but in our garden. We think he has made his home under our garden shed. Archie has gotten used to the hedgehog’s presence now, only giving the area around the shed the odd sniff if he’s bored. We may not see Jasper for a while. It’s high time he and his ilk went into hibernation. The weather has taken a turn for the worst these last few nights, with the first frosts of the year falling, so this may be the signal for Jasper to put his PJs on. I hope when he wakes up that he stays with us and sees to all the slugs and snails that have been eating my strawberries this year. That would make him a very welcome guest!

PS: My daughter’s tie-dye shop is running a sale right now. She’s asked me for a free ad!

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The Best Gifts Come in Small Parcels

Sometimes the universe gives you a little gift, which, no matter how bad things are, lifts you out of the bleak mood you may have been experiencing. The gift can be as simple as a ray of dawn sunshine piercing the grey clouds, a scattering of ruddy leaves beneath an autumnal tree, as unexpected as a smile from a stranger, or something turning out right that you feared may not have (I’m a research scientist, so it’s pretty much par for the course that most of what I do doesn’t work!). I received all these gifts one morning this week and – do you know what? – a rain-soaked Tuesday morning which followed a poor night’s sleep suddenly took on a completely different aspect. And I thought to myself: these gifts are always there, I should be more open to them.

Let’s put our cards on the table straight out: I don’t believe in the universe as a force or an energy, or as a sentient, benevolent power that rights wrongs, rewards goodness, puts banana skins under the feet of baddies, and cushions the falls of goodies. I am a scientist and materialist – I do not credit the existence of spiritual matter or energies, be these astral, spiritual, psychic or karmic. If these are ever measured and quantified, I will then start to believe in them but for now . . . For me, the universe is an ever-expanding space which contains all the matter pertaining to this dimension. But as a linguistic tool, a hook to hang my thoughts on, I do use the concept of the universe as gift-giver.

One way of seeking to live a happy life is through achievement and the accumulation of the trappings of success – titles, qualifications, promotions, mansions, top-of-the-range cars, jewels, clothes, phones. The list is endless. There is a great emphasis in today’s society on being successful. You have to be the best you can be in your career, domestic life, relationships. You have to manage your appearance, mental health, even your attitudes. Any slippage and you’re a nobody, a failure. But don’t worry: there’s a whole industry there to help you climb back up to perfection. They’re on heavy rotation on the radio, TV, YouTube, TikTok and a multitude of other platforms. Fitness gurus, mental health gurus, mindfulness senseis, fat busters, financial sorter-outers, tidiness goddesses, domestic perfectionistas. Just hand over your cash and they will lead you back to winning ways again.

But there is another way: living in the moment and taking the small things that life, the universe and everything gives you. Forget about achievements and status. Forget about being a winner or a loser. Forget about looking at the day as a series of to-do items to be ticked off. Forget about your day being a stepping stone to greater things. Think of every day as a journey, where instead of the destination (objectives, goals, outputs) being the focus, the journey itself is the thing to be relished. If the routine, everyday things life are the bricks, then the small surprises, chinks of joy and beauty are the mortar that hold it all together.

It’s a matter of being open to the universe’s gifts. Allow yourself to get into the habit of stopping and pausing and taking a moment to look around and think about the beauty and wonder of the world. It is everywhere. It is all around you. It could be the way a birch leaf dances in the wind, a play of light on the dashboard of your car, the small of freshly baked bread. Take these small gifts, enjoy them, let them warm you, smile at their beauty and simplicity.

Wonder at the small things, and the big stuff will take care of itself. The best gifts come in small parcels.

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