What the heck is wrong with the Irish?
Why do Irish people do horrible things like starve little babies and bury them in mass graves?
Should we be cautious when we are in the presence of Irish people?
Should Irish people be sent to re-education classes where they can learn how to be more humane?
Until we quarantine the Irish and discover why they are so screwed up, should Irish people be excluded from sensitive careers like doctor or teacher?
Should the Irish be forced to pay restitution?
When we meet Irish people, should we shame them? "Oh, so you are one of those people who likes to starve babies and bury them in mass graves. Shame. I am better than you … and I have my eye on you, you … you Irish person!"
If the Irish resist our shaming, should we point out to them that only a beast would defend atrocities against babies, which Irish people, being who they are, commit as an expression of their true identity?
Are you laughing? Do you think what I'm saying is ridiculous? If so, why?
I'm Polish-American. In 2001, Princeton scholar Jan Tomasz Gross published a book, "Neighbors," about an atrocity committed by Poles during World War II. For the next year I was bombarded with shaming and reprimands. I was born after World War II, in the US. No matter. I was Polish; I was guilty.
German friends can report similar stories, only more extreme. Ever since WW II, many people assume that there is something German about atrocity. They assume that only Germans could do bad things like what the Nazis did – that only German culture could produce Nazism.
As a kid, growing up with Polak jokes, I envied the Irish. To Americans in the twentieth and twenty-first century, Irishness is seen as warm and fuzzy, cuddly, soft focus, romantic, bucolic, poetic, musical, mystical, and peaceful. John Ford's "The Quiet Man," "Oh Danny Boy," "The Chieftains," "Celtic Women," Sinead O'Connor, Enya, William Butler Yeats, Saint Patrick's Day parades and a very, very aggressively marketed tourism industry all contribute to Ireland's excellent PR.
No one would ever associate Irish identity with atrocity, in the way that Polish identity was easily associated with atrocity, or in the way that African American identity is associated with criminality or in the way that Jewish identity is associated with financial fraud.
Recently a mass grave was discovered in Tuam, County Galway, Ireland. It is said to contain the bodies of almost eight hundred children who died over the course of 36 years in a Catholic-run institution, The Home.
This scanty information has taken on a life of its own.
Anti-Catholic haters were distastefully eager to jump on this information as if it were a winning lottery ticket. You'd think that they had spent their whole lives defending poor children. Of course they hadn't – somehow they were all oblivious to child camel jockeys in the Gulf States, or the dancing boys of Afghanistan, or child marriage in Yemen, or American children who die even while they are under the auspices of child protective services. These folks were only interested in atrocities that Catholics were alleged to have committed against children.
"I ALWAYS TOLD YOU THAT CATHOLICS WERE NO GOOD!" they said. "See? See? Catholics murder little babies. See? See? Catholics should be brought up before the world court on war crimes!" they said.
In my own small way I resisted this stereotyping of Catholics as murderers of little babies. I blogged my objection to the stereotyping. A prominent blogger, Andrew Sullivan, linked to and quoted my blog. You can read about that here.
I received an avalanche of hate mail, some of which I posted, some of which I did not post.
The gist of the hate mail – You are a Catholic, and you, like all Catholics, murder little babies. You are evil and you must suffer.
It's interesting to me as a scholar of stereotyping that in all this ugliness and tragedy, those rushing to stereotype have stereotyped Catholics and Catholicism, but not Irish people and Irishness.
Mind – I oppose all stereotyping. Look – anyone, of any ethnicity, could be a drug dealer, a street criminal, a financial fraud, a murderer of babies. These are human crimes, not crimes limited by identity.
But the human mind does struggle to make sense of ugliness, and stereotyping is the product of our attempt to understand.
It's interesting to me that in this struggle, stereotypers insisted that the murder of babies is a Catholic thing, not an Irish thing.
I've been Catholic all my life. It has never occurred to me that murdering babies and dumping them in mass graves is something we Catholics do.
Some argue that the Church is guilty because the Church condemned illegitimate births.
I am related to Catholics who were conceived outside of wedlock. These people received Catholic christenings and are adults now and have never been stigmatized by anyone, including priests.
I lived in the Central African Republic. Most of my students were the product of unions outside of official wedlock. I socialized with the local priests and attended mass and I never heard anyone talk about illegitimacy. We talked about the heat, we talked about malaria, we talked about mangos and bodily parasites, we talked about intertribal warfare. We never talked about out-of-wedlock births.
What's the variable here? Ireland. What was it about Ireland that it was so adamantly opposed to out-of-wedlock births?
I think of Nepal, a Hindu and Buddhist nation, where I also lived.
My friend Mike was a teacher in an upper caste Hindu village called Chapakot.
An unmarried village girl in Chapakot had sexual relations with an unmarried village boy. Their assignations occurred in a rice paddy. The girl became pregnant. She reported this to the village boy during one of their assignations. He stabbed the girl multiple times. He left her for dead. She survived. The entire village urged the girl to marry the boy.
Now, you may rush to judge and stereotype. Oh, what horrible people those Nepalis are / what horrible people Hindus are / what horrible people Brahmins are …
But suppose you stop with the stereotyping and try to *understand.*
Why would people do this? People just like you?
One possible explanation. Chapakot is a subsistence, agricultural, tightly knit, highly religious, ceremonial, and ritualized society. Everyone depends on everyone else. There is no margin for error. Starvation is always a very real option. In order to receive enough calories to survive, everyone has to play his or her part in a previously agreed upon drama. There is no room to color outside the lines.
Take your eyes off your kids, and you kids could be eaten by a jackal or a tiger. Don't cooperate with the rice transplantation on the day it must occur, and lose your year's crop. It takes two to raise a child, and if you don't have a husband and a father for that child, that child will become a drag on the entire community.
Produce a child out of ritualized and community orchestrated relations, agreements, ties and commitments, and throw the entire community out of whack.
I think that that is why the villagers of Chapakot did something that would be unthinkable to us in fat, comfortable, modern America – I think that is why they urged a girl to marry the father of her child, a boy who had attempted to stab her to death. I don't think they are demons.
I think these kinds of ties may help us to understand the mass grave in Tuam. Saying, "That mass grave is Catholic and Catholics are bad" is a hateful, ignorant, and exploitative thing to say, and no one should be allowed to get away with it, any more than anyone should be allowed to get away with insisting that blacks are criminals and that Jews are cheats and that Germans must be assumed to be Nazis from now till the end of time.
Our warm and cuddly, rose colored glasses take on Irish identity deludes us.
We should know what the Potato Famine was. It wasn't a few people going hungry cause one crop food wasn't tasty one year. The Potato Famine was a hideous manmade atrocity affecting millions of people at a time when Ireland was exporting enough food to feed the million who died and the other million who emigrated, crashing Ireland's population by a fifth to a quarter. Perhaps we should rename the Potato Famine as the English and Anglo-Irish genocide of Irish peasants. The word "genocide" tends to get more attention than the word "famine."
Ireland is a land of great tragedy. Great tragedy doesn't always bring out the warm and cuddly in people.
It's a measure of how all pervasive and wrong the warm and cuddly version of Irishness is in the US that many Americans embraced, respected, and donated money to the IRA. The IRA devolved into a brutal criminal and terrorist organization. Even so, Americans donated, convinced they were giving cash to noble freedom fighters.
The mass grave at Tuam deserves to be understood. It deserves to be understood for Irish people, for Catholics, for the victims themselves, and for children being abused *today.* Abused by Catholics, by non-Catholics, by the entire spectrum of the human family. We all have dirty hands when it comes to child abuse.
These shameless and mindless attempts by anti-Catholics to exploit the mass grave at Tuam in their anti-Catholic campaign is hideously immoral and intellectually indefensible.
The Irish Times reports that the "Eight Hundred Babies in a Septic Tank" headline may be false. Read their story "Tuam mother and baby home: the trouble with the septic tank story Catherine Corless’s research revealed that 796 children died at St Mary’s. She now says the nature of their burial has been widely misrepresented" here.