Rural Ireland is a sinister place. On the surface, small villages are fantastic. A sense of community, everyone knowing everyone else, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, a real pride of place and a sense of shared history that binds people together.
But there is a sinister side to village life.
The very ‘shared history’ that binds people can tear them apart, and ‘community’ can quickly turn to pure parochialism when something goes wrong. Our own village has a 200 year old feud between neighbouring families – one of whose ancestors shopped the other to the local squire for republican activities in the 1700s, causing his execution. Every time there is drink taken the feud reappears.
There are three Irish writers who have illustrated this dichotomy beautifully; Martin McDonagh, in his brilliant Leenane trilogy; Pat McCabe, in the Butcher Boy and other work; and John B. Keane, the legendary playwright and raconteur whose epic work The Field showed off rural Ireland at its darkest; a village divided by greed, power, corruption and parochialism.
Keane’s home town of Listowel, Co Kerry, this week became the epicentre of a scandal involving a sexual assault and a town divided between victim and accused. While everyone is innocent until proven guilty – especially in such a serious case, where a man’s reputation will be destroyed if wrongly accused – the accused in this case, Danny Foley, has been convicted of a serious and violent sexual assault. But his conviction, with a unanimous jury and a hefty sentence (for this type of offence) did not convince his supporters.
50 of them, mostly middle aged and older men, queued up to shake his hand after he was convicted. They included his local parish priest.
This procession of shame took place in the courtroom where the victim was sitting, appalled and humiliated. Although her anonymity has been respected by the media, as is their legal obligation, Listowel is a small place, and the whole town knows her identity.
The town is reportedly split between her family and that of the convicted sex offender, whose parish priest said he “doesn’t have an abusive bone in his body”. Well, I’m sorry, Fr Sheehy, but he does. A court of law has found that he does. And by claiming otherwise, you are accusing the victim of wasting police time, perjury, and slander.
She is being shunned; refused service in pubs and shops as if she were the criminal.
While there are other issues here about treatment of women and our attitudes towards sexual crime, the clear implication of this case is that our history over the past few years – Magdalen laundries, clerical and other sexual abuse, domestic violence and terrorism all kept secret to look after ‘our own’ – have taught us absolutely nothing about what it means to be a society.
The shock and disgust apparent at the revelations of the Murphy and Cloyne investigations into religious institutions can be no more than posturing, if we have not taken the lessons of the reports to heart; there can be no more turning a blind eye, no more defence of the indefensible and no more defiance of the rule of law where it happens to apply to somebody we know. Bishop Donal Murray has (finally) acknowledged this last rule and resigned, but only after a fight.
The banking and political scandals that have been rocking this country – ‘Seanie’ Fitz, ‘Fingers’ Fingleton and their blatant disregard for the law, and a number of corrupt politicians who continue to get elected despite defrauding their constituents and everybody else – are a less emotive but just as fundamental symptom of our appalling lack of perspective when it comes to application of the law, and of basic moral standards.
This is a small country; everyone knows everyone. That’s what makes Ireland a welcoming and warm country, but it’s also what made it corrupt, immoral and backward when Keane wrote The Field.
Whatever our developments over the past few years, cases like this one in Listowel show that this Ireland has not disappeared.
UPDATE: The priest has resigned http://www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/kerry-priest-who-shook-hand-of-sex-offender-leaves-parish-438821.html