THE MEDIA FUROR THAT SURROUNDED the 2014 disclosure of the names of the 796 orphans disposed of and forgotten by Ireland’s Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Galway, is just one of the latest in a series of international scandals over the abuse and exploitation of children that dates back to the late nineteenth century. These scandals have involved child labor, homelessness, and malnutrition; children sold as brides or as sex slaves; physical and emotional abuse in schools, prisons, detention facilities, and refugee camps; sexual abuse by priests, family members, and neighbors; and child victims of war and gun violence.
At a minimum, the inexorability with which one “imperiled child” scandal is followed by yet another raises the question of why, if modern societies are as concerned about children’s well-being as they profess, so many of the world’s children remain, in the words of Anne Enright’s protagonist in The Gathering, “manifestly of little account” (2007, 236; emphasis in original). In a mass-mediated world in which public opinion on many issues is routinely and powerfully influenced by representations of children at risk, why are the lives of so many children as precarious as ever? Furthermore, if children’s status has not been improved by more than a century of scandals calling attention to children at risk, how have these scandals affected children, and why?
The Child Sex Scandal and Modern Irish Literature: Writing the Unspeakable suggests answers to these timely and urgent questions by applying the filter of psychoanalytic theory to modern and contemporary literary representations of scandals of child imperilment in Ireland. Moving beyond the indisputable conclusion that such scandals are at times deployed cynically to manipulate public opinion, our inquiry asks what it is in the human psyche that makes us not only susceptible to such cynical manipulations but also liable to misdirect our outrage even when legitimately outrageous abuses of children are brought to light.
In Writing the Unspeakable, we examine influential literary depictions of childhood sexual initiation, consciously organized in relation to influential Irish sex scandals, to find out how and why the strong reactions stirred up by scandalous accounts of betrayed youthful innocents so often reaffirm rather than challenge a society’s complacent belief in its collective commitment to children and their welfare. Revisiting key turning points in what Tom Inglis (1998) describes as the rise and fall of the Irish Catholic Church’s “moral monopoly,” we apply our training in theories of representation to produce a more nuanced and holistic reading of metonymic media depictions of endangered juveniles. By broadening our reading of these scandals to include their literary afterlives, we aim to produce a representationally, politically, and psychoanalytically sophisticated account of how a series of sensational media representations of child endangerment precipitated a series of moral adjustments in Ireland that successfully directed the public’s aroused sense of militant protectiveness toward state, institutional, or movement-defined objects.
As Moira J. Maguire and other historians make clear, the new moral frameworks that Irish media consumers periodically embraced in response to media outcries aligning children’s imperative needs with those of the state, the Catholic Church and its prelates, business owners, or various political movements were seldom at odds with their own self-interest. It is beyond dispute that the Catholic Church and its various institutions and officials—Magdalene laundries, orphanages and industrial schools, mother-and-baby homes, and pedophilic clerics—were especially notorious for perpetrating violence against children and especially venal in concealing it. But it is no less true that the atrocities did not begin, and the cover-ups did not terminate, in convents, homes, or sacristies. As Maguire observes, “People at all levels of Irish society often acted out of little more than self-interest and self-preservation, especially when it came to the treatment of poor, illegitimate, and abused children” (2009). Yet clearly the Irish people did not consciously think of their treatment of poor, illegitimate, and abused children as based on self-interest or self-preservation. Rather, sensational media accounts of horrific threats posed either to or by such children lent a very persuasive veneer of altruism to an array of now infamous institutions and measures and to all but the most anomalous acts of self-interest and self-preservation.
The powerful sentiments aroused by accounts of children in danger are firmly rooted in protective instincts that are sincere, worthy, and to some extent biologically hardwired. By its nature, however, the scandal of imperiled innocence constitutes any abuse it discloses as axiomatically other, as distinct in its very unthinkability from the time or place of the scandal’s enlightened public. Accordingly, even media accounts of child abuse uncovered by irreproachably motivated researchers, activists, or officials inspire little public will to identify and insure against analogous contemporary abuses. For instance, in 2014 local historian Catherine Corless released to the media the names and ages of the orphans of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home dumped on waste ground in County Galway from the 1940s through the 1960s. The Irish public was suitably horrified, yet the resulting scandal failed to translate into public indignation concerning the comparable conditions of Irish-born children of immigrants institutionalized in contemporary Ireland under the notoriously harsh “direct provision” system. So long as the Irish media relies on the conventions of the imperiled child scandal when covering harm done to children, such news stories will continue to emphasize these events’ distance from the Irish public’s current stipulated state of good sense and goodwill, and Ireland, like many modern societies around the globe, will remain as deeply in thrall to the child scandal’s moralizing rationalizations as ever.1
Scholars of newspaper and media studies, social historians, and queer theorists before us have scrutinized media coverage, legal records, case studies, interviews, advertising, and journal entries to investigate how allegations of harm to children can empower the already powerful, often at children’s expense. While we build on these earlier insights, our literary source materials uniquely capture the earnestness and the unconscious self-concern that are inevitably conjoined in scandals of abused youth. As a nation whose values and institutions have been shaped by child-related scandals dating back to the origins of the modern media scandal, Ireland has produced a wealth of fictional narratives on the subject, which provide the rich primary-source materials for our investigation.
Figure 0.1. “The ‘spider web’ of Tuam could touch anywhere.” A memorial commemorating the discarded lives and bodies of 796 infants and children from the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. The Irish Examiner, July 27, 2018. © Eamon Ward.
This study originated in a series of essays we coauthored on child sexual initiation in the works of James Joyce and Kate O’Brien. Our collaborative work evolved into the present book as we became increasingly aware of how many of modern Ireland’s most highly regarded and influential literary narratives depict sex scandals as seen through the eyes of children. In the course of our work, we discovered a widespread, long-established subgenre that we term the literature of scandal, which appears to have significantly influenced not only modern Irish literature but also the larger Irish public sphere. The literature of scandal has exerted this influence, we argue, by making the culturally taboo visible, placing the reader in the position of an uninitiated child experiencing something both horrible and compelling that she cannot comprehend but that the reader can. By slowing down and demystifying the usual slam-bang immediacy of scandals of violated innocence, the literature of scandal has been a consequential participant in a broader public discourse in Ireland concerning outrages against children.
In our introduction, we map the generative context of the Irish literature of scandal by describing how the British trope of child imperilment took on a new and socially decisive form in early twentieth-century Ireland. In the first two of the introduction’s six sections, we describe the sentimentalization of poor women and children in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and the role of the scandal of imperiled innocence in the emergence of the New Journalism in Britain. In our third and fourth sections, we analyze the ensuing contribution of the New Journalist child sex scandal to Irish media coverage of the 1913 “Campaign to Save the Kiddies.” Here we also show how the Irish child imperilment scandal reinforced the broad sexualized shaming of irreligion and dissent that provided the nascent Irish state with a powerful means to quell the class and regional conflicts that often spell disaster for newly decolonized nations. The introduction concludes by outlining the psychoanalytic implications of each of these developments. Here we explain how our psychoanalytic framework serves to articulate the historical contexts for modern Ireland’s distinctive literary portrayals of child sexual abuse with the experience of reading and responding to this pervasive yet pervasively denied form of harm. We set forth, in broad strokes, how a rigorously psychoanalytic critical lens makes evident the specific and indispensable contribution Irish literature has made to Irish society’s now-ongoing reckoning with this long-hidden corruption.
In chapter 1, “‘An Iridescence Difficult to Account For’: Sexual Initiation in Joyce’s Fiction of Development,” we present the central theoretical framework of the study: Jean Laplanche’s concept of the enigmatic signifier and its reference to ambiguous or coded sexual messages that elicit a traumatic enjoyment in children, permanently shaping their psychic subjectivity. We borrow this construct to argue that in twentieth-century Ireland, the vulnerability and trauma of children operated as a collective enigmatic signifier imbued with unspeakable appeal and saturated with shame, both personal and collective. Our research reveals that the enigmatic signifiers that mediate the seduction of specific boys in Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) also mediate the seduction of the reader by these narratives.
Our second chapter, “Between (Open) Secret and Enigma: Kate O’Brien, The Land of Spices, and the Stylistic Invention of Lesbian (In)visibility,” examines the literary strategy by which O’Brien’s novel undoes and reties the entangled, obscure knot conjoining sexual desire, trauma, and the shaming and silencing effects of scandal. As a sexually nonconforming Catholic intellectual, O’Brien depicts and narratively enacts the ad hoc flexibility and moral responsiveness that were contingently accessible in the world in which she came of age. That world’s oral networks of girls and women, we argue, provided her with a publicly accessible purchase on the enigmatic signifier, through which she could convey an alternative account of erotic desire and interpersonal ethics.
Our third chapter addresses the scandal reflected on and given in turn by Edna O’Brien’s first novel, The Country Girls. We are particularly concerned to examine how Caithleen Brady’s juvenile development is keyed to the symbiotic relationship between overt physical and coded sexual abuse, and then again between both forms of child abuse and the predatory eroticization of young girls like her in the rural community of her adolescence. Her compulsion to repeat as well as repair the unconscious sexual elements of her family trauma, which are retroactively ignited by her father’s proprietary violence, leaves her prey to a series of likewise abusive yet socially approved paternal surrogates. O’Brien illustrates how this process of normalized predatory acculturation deflects and obscures the more dissident or queer aspects of Caithleen’s sexual disposition, long overlooked in the readings of this bildungsroman. Among its other aims, chapter 3 looks to refute the impression of O’Brien’s early work as aggressively heterocentric.
In chapter 4, “‘From the Pits and Ditches Where People Have Fallen’: Sex Scandal and the Reinvention of the Irish Public Sphere in Keith Ridgway’s The Long Falling,” we examine how a prominent child imperilment scandal, the so-called X case, forced significant changes in certain aspects of the Irish public sphere while encountering insuperable resistance in others. The period’s more accessible but still radically restricted public sphere is emblematized in the novel in the person of Sean, a gay Irishman and established Dublin-based journalist whose power to designate what is news and what is not is pivotal to the narrative. In his novel, we argue, Ridgway transforms the X of the X case into a national enigmatic signifier, which he calls “a new symbol . . . the enigmatic figure, the cross fallen sideways” (175).
In chapter 5, “Retrofitting Ireland’s Architecture of Containment in Tana French’s In the Woods,” we analyze how French pushes the implications of the enigmatic signifier to a logical extreme in order to examine the violent psychopathology of everyday Irish life. As we demonstrate, the realist surface of In the Woods (2007) is distorted by frightening glimpses of a supernatural, predatory, archaic Other, which corresponds to a fantastic and appalling childhood trauma that resists explanation. At the same time, French meticulously analogizes these elements of gothic detective fiction to the operation of the masculinist, neoliberal forces of postindependence Catholic nationalism. In French’s hands, a social critique of child sexual abuse thus dovetails with a representation of child sexual abuse as social critique.
In chapter 6, “‘Roaring Inside Me’: The Enigma of Sexual Violence in The Gathering,” we analyze Enright’s lauded contribution to the tradition of uncomprehending child narrators in the Irish literature of scandal. As we show, The Gathering (2007) mimetically reproduces the elisions, gaps, and doubts that are the legacy of severe childhood trauma in a way that also thwarts the reader’s attempts to definitively identify an individual perpetrator. Enright’s narrator, Veronica, speaks simultaneously as an individual and as a personification of the Irish public sphere, observing that “over the next twenty years, the world around us changed and I remembered [a scene of abuse]. But I never would have made that shift on my own—if I hadn’t been listening to the radio, and reading the paper, and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people’s homes” (172–73).
Our focus on the literature of scandal allows us to transcend narrow disciplinary boundaries by examining ways in which literature both complexly incorporates and effectively interacts with other discourses. Through our psychoanalytic readings of selected twentieth- and twenty-first-century short stories and novels, we are able to give an original and nuanced account of how early to mid-twentieth-century Irish scandals of imperiled innocence emphasized children’s purported moral and religious well-being to the exclusion of their physical and emotional security, thereby profoundly and destructively influencing the social infrastructure and moral priorities of the modern Irish state. And through our close examination of the influence of these texts within the larger Irish culture, we describe the contribution that many of Ireland’s authors, far more of them than we are able to include, have made to democratizing the Irish nation along generational lines.
We hope our findings will prove valuable and generative for those current and future scholars in a range of disciplines who will continue to explore the relationship between intensely felt and widely accepted moral frameworks and the capacity (or incapacity) of modern mass-mediated societies to generate solutions to the real problems that afflict real children.
1. In the summer of 2014, local and international media consumers reacted with horror to the exhumation of 796 skeletons of babies and children buried years ago without ceremony by the nuns of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. Conversely and contemporaneously, there was minimal media coverage in that same summer of immigrant children who had been held in Irish refugee camps for over three years.