IN A 2010 INTERVIEW, EMMA Donoghue lucidly explicated the literary trope around which Writing the Unspeakable coheres: childhood encounters with an unbearable signifier. According to Donoghue, her novel Room’s extraordinary child’s-eye-view from inside a world-scale sex scandal builds on “painful moments” in earlier child-narrated novels such as Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha: “When the reader deduces something going on between the adults that the child doesn’t understand, though the child is aware that something is missing. . . . Sex is fundamentally a mystery to children, and many adult decisions are motivated by questions of sex. Child narrators who are confused about adult sexuality are particularly useful” (Derbyshire 2010; emphasis added). In other words, Donoghue built Room on a preexisting literary edifice organized around sexually uninitiated juvenile narrators who can see things they have not yet learned not to see. As Donoghue makes clear, such narrators are “particularly useful” for defamiliarizing the “painful moments” their point of view affords, which can fairly be described as otherwise inaccessible glimpses of the sexually scandalous.
Donoghue’s observation highlights the literary device at the heart of our study of children in Irish literary representations of sex scandal. In our earliest collaborative work on representations of child sexual initiation in James Joyce and Kate O’Brien, we began theorizing moments similar to those Donoghue describes.1 We have since discovered that throughout the twentieth century an astonishing number of Irish authors, including Donoghue, have been finding child protagonists “particularly useful” in this way. Indeed, modern and contemporary Irish literature teems with uninitiated innocents who encounter taboo material otherwise representable only in the oral register of the open secret, in the quasi-journalistic genre of “sensational childhood” (Dougherty 2007, 52), and most pervasively, in the culturally influential phenomenon of the child sex scandal.
As we show in this book, the fictional narratives we collectively term literature of child sex scandal emerged in modern Ireland in direct conversation with British and Irish media scandals involving sexual (i.e., moral) threats to youthful innocence.2 This influential literary subgenre is distinguished by uncomprehending child narrators whose point of view narratively reframes events that adults are socialized not to see, constituting them as enigmas—as “something missing”—that both child and reader need to interpret in order to make sense of the narrative as a whole. Since the early twentieth century, Irish authors have been employing and developing the generative (and generational) gap produced through depictions of an enigmatic encounter with something a child can apprehend but cannot understand or name, thereby systematically forcing into view appalling realities that the Irish public was culturally bound not to see.
Thus, in Writing the Unspeakable, we describe and account for the process whereby a loose coalition of modern and contemporary Irish authors collectively developed and built on the above-described literary effect, which, drawing on French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, we term the enigmatic encounter. These authors played a significant role in Ireland’s social development by forcing into public view a whole stratum of disavowed child abuse and exploitation that was otherwise both obscured and enabled by the cordon sanitaire the modern sex scandal produces. In this critical study of several especially seminal works in this subgenre’s development, we offer an account of how Ireland’s literature of child sex scandal helped make possible more open, rational, and democratic public conversations concerning the position of children—and ultimately, other marginalized groups—in Irish society.3 This literature’s influential role is theoretically and ethically worthy of such systematic consideration, as it has documentably helped make publicly discernible the needs and well-being of groups whose experiences had been historically set off limits through the silencing, stigmatizing power of the modern, media-driven moral panic that is sex scandal.4 In Writing the Unspeakable, we offer close critical readings of a series of significant modern Irish coming-of-age novels and short stories, taking advantage of literature’s capacity to simultaneously display the individual and the collective, the psychoanalytic and the social, so as to produce a more nuanced account of the complex interrelations between children’s subjective, lived experience (and its afterlife in the adult psyche) and children’s objective political standing. Our methodology, applied to descriptions of influential child imperilment scandals found in newspapers, historical studies, and literature, reveals a public sphere ardently committed to Irish children’s souls yet piously oblivious to their physical welfare, and comprising individuals who simultaneously knew and did not know that abuse and neglect were inescapable realities for many Irish children.
To unpack this phenomenon of knowing and not knowing, we draw on psychoanalytical theorist Laplanche’s concept of the enigmatic signifier: a constitutive psychic blind spot incurred in a child’s traumatic encounter with adult sexuality. This encounter, which can be neither integrated nor dismissed owing to its simultaneous inscrutability and affective intensity, is experienced by the child as both unbearably shameful and ecstatically pleasurable. Our historically contextualized and psychoanalytically informed readings of literary scandal narratives by six notable modern Irish authors trace their continually reinvented deployments of the enigmatic signifier as a literary device and instrument of social intervention. By placing these texts within a larger counterdiscourse that has forced the taboo topic of child sexual abuse into visibility, we have identified a rich and previously neglected historical archive of psychically and socially disavowed elements of Irish children’s lives and the social world that shaped them.
“WHO MAKE UP A HEAVEN OF OUR MISERY”
The theme of imperiled innocence that would become central to the politics of twentieth-century Irish nationhood can already be found in such classical plotlines as the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Medea’s murder of her children, Cain’s murder of Abel, Solomon’s choice, Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, and Christianity’s central, brutal sacrifice. In the British Isles, however, imperiled innocence reached its cultural apogee in the eighteenth-century gothic and its offspring, melodrama, genres so pervasive that by the turn of the nineteenth century imperilment was implicit in any attractive youth looking sad, scared, or disheveled.
In Britain, the sentimentalization of endangered innocence was coterminous with and paralleled women’s and children’s broad exclusion from factory work by factory owners whose newfound moral discernment appealed to adult male workers by giving their horrible jobs new prestige and their horrible wages new comparative value.5 Arguably extending the eighteenth-century domestication of the child/maternal body-dyad that Ruth Perry describes (1992, 208), newfound national solicitude for poor women and children inspired public rituals dramatizing British society’s protective stance toward its most vulnerable constituents, such as the ones William Blake immortalized in his “Holy Thursday” poems.
In a manner that prefigures the role of innocent children in the consolidation of the twentieth-century Irish nation-state, early imperial Britain created public displays of magnanimity toward rescued or reformed indigents as moral rituals of political consolidation.6 In both of the “Holy Thursday” poems, Blake emphasizes the political nature of such public displays of benevolence. In the Songs of Innocence version, the “aged men wise guardians of the poor” sit “beneath” the orphans on display (Blake 1982, 13), an image that might suggest the humility of these kindly men but that also evokes an audience watching a play, with the orphans as an allegorical tableau vivant, positioned to convey through their very abjection the magnanimity of the Anglo-Protestant state. In the Songs of Experience version, Blake more pointedly delineates the vast ritual of beneficent power that public displays of “rescued” children produce. Blake’s orphans are fed with a “cold and usurous hand” (19–20), a word choice that points to the profit motive, suggesting that the Anglican Church and the British state are invisibly extracting something from the destitute children they spectacularly nurture. As Blake describes it, through an elaborate display of symbolic munificence in a society whose abundant resources they themselves control, the English ruling class makes its goodness, and hence its legitimacy, socially manifest. In the words of “The Chimney Sweeper,” through such actions, powerful adults mount displays of purely apparitional compassion to make “a heaven of [poor children’s] misery” (22–23).
Blake’s depictions of poor children as a source of hegemonic legitimation in the consolidating British empire closely anticipate the position in which twentieth-century Irish poor children would find themselves in the consolidating Irish state. During both periods of political transition, while public demonstrations of charity toward vulnerable innocents were reconstituting poor children as moral and symbolic capital, organizations devoted to this rescue work were rapidly reconstituting their beneficiaries as sources of literal profit. Frances Finnegan, in her history of the Magdalene asylums, describes the brawls over prospective penitents that were starting to break out between competing British rescue organizations around the time Blake was composing the “Holy Thursday” poems (2004, 11–12). Portentously, although England’s Magdalene asylums were originally established to provide destitute girls and women with skills to improve their earning power, by Blake’s time they were shamelessly exploiting the gratis labor of their charges. By the early to mid-nineteenth century, religiously-minded entrepreneurs along the lines of Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Brocklehurst were employing an array of strategies for transforming morally endangered or suspect youth from a deficit into an asset.7 Most tellingly, as the symbolic potency of imperiled innocence grew throughout the nineteenth century, particularly once it had become a staple of the New Journalist sex scandal, the representability and even perceptibility of the needs of actual poor children concomitantly declined.8
In Britain, over the course of the nineteenth century, representations of endangered innocence already central to the gothic and realist novels engendered two additional print capitalist genres: first, the melodrama, with its further sentimentalization of imperiled women and children, and subsequently, the late nineteenth century’s New Journalist sex scandal.9 In 1885, W. T. Stead famously originated the modern political sex scandal through a series of articles collectively entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” In his writing itself, and in his articles’ splashy placement in the daily newspaper he edited, the Pall Mall Gazette, Stead sensationally publicized his own purchase, abduction, and involuntary detention of Eliza Armstrong, or “Lily,” a thirteen-year-old gynecologically certified virgin. Stead published the “Maiden Tribute” series laudably aiming to confront the British public with the harsh realities of child prostitution in order to pressure Parliament to raise the age of consent for girls. In this regard, he succeeded, launching a moral panic of unprecedented proportions, in particular among members of the House of Lords who were heretofore complacent about the youthful streetwalkers visibly populating British urban thoroughfares.10 From the standpoint of genre, Stead achieved his social effects by importing into hard journalism the sort of imperiled innocent already familiar to British readers from novels and the stage.
In “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” Stead thus originated a new and powerful journalistic subgenre: the scandal of imperiled innocence. And a nascent conservative Irish Catholic state would establish its moral and institutional supremacy in the early decades of the twentieth century through an adapted version of this very “imperiled child” scandal script. As we shall see, conservative Catholic nationalism deployed powerful, conventional media depictions of children in peril in a manner that both relied on and intensified the consolidation of interlocking church/business/media directorates that would form the basis of what Jim Smith (2007) has termed “Ireland’s architecture of containment.” The Steadian child sex scandal in its first several decades exerted a considerably more consistent and extreme influence in Ireland than it had in either Britain or the United States. Beginning in the later twentieth century, however, the Irish scandal of imperiled innocence shifted radically. Over the long turn of the twenty-first century, Irish feminists, socialists, republicans, and LGBTQ activists began—and are continuing—to make canny use of endangered innocence to discredit the very Irish institutions that had most certainly been making for themselves a heaven of poor children’s misery.
The underlying principle shared between the Anglo-American scandal of imperiled innocence Stead originated and its subsequent Irish offspring is a reliance on the perpetual vulnerability of poor children (and other vulnerable innocents) to exploitation as a renewable resource that can be readily sensationalized (and also neutralized) at will, and in the name of virtually any political cause that a society’s powerful might deem expedient.
Sentimentalized for its precarious innocence, the figure of the child keyed the project of soul-making, on which basis Irish Catholic nationalism, like Anglo-Protestant imperialism, staked its claim to a manipulative, overbearing moral authority over gender norms, sexual expression and the wide-ranging social policies they underwrite.
THE IMPERILED CHILD IN TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY IRELAND
As James Joyce’s earliest fiction delicately but repeatedly indicates, late Victorian Ireland’s educated reading publics were well aware of scandalous disclosures in the British press. Joyce’s child protagonists come of age—as Joyce did—well aware of the “nauseous tides of seductive debauchery” to be found in British newspapers.11 In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus’s companion in the Clongowes infirmary, Athy, speaks knowingly but vaguely of newspaper scandals, and the young Stephen responds to these oblique allusions with a dream that makes clear how much he has already absorbed by osmosis about the Parnell scandal (Joyce 1992b, 25–27).12 Joyce’s eponymous Eveline, as both Katherine Mullin and Anne Fogarty have argued, fears “leaving home” not owing to generally misplaced loyalty but in response to the Irish nationalist press’s various reactions to perceived British (mediated) depravity (Mullin 2003, 56–82; Attridge and Fogarty 2012, 97–106). Yet, although the British, Steadian scandal of imperiled innocence was powerfully affecting Ireland from its inception, the scandal script itself came late to the Irish press.13
Until the time of the Dublin Lockout, which began in September 1913, the vulnerability and suffering of destitute children like “The Maiden Tribute’s” so-called Lily went unmentioned in the Irish media, owing, as Diarmaid Ferriter observes, to the extreme sensitivity of the Irish to any insinuation that “the maternal isle” was “maltreating” her children (2005, 48). Most saliently, at the turn of the twentieth century the Irish nationalist press was still reeling due to its own involuntary part in the ongoing effects of the Great Famine and, little more than a generation later, in the politically and socially cataclysmic fall of Charles Stewart Parnell.14
In the late nineteenth century, the Irish press was operating in a strangely liminal society where, within living memory, over a million men, women, and children had “d[ied] in conditions that would have seemed primitive to a medieval peasant,” while, owing to rapid technological advances, appalling “reports of those deaths could be whisked to Dublin and London . . . in a matter of days” (Morash 2010, 80).15 Already ambiguously situated in a traumatized and guilt-ridden post-Famine society, “the mainstream nationalist press next found itself calamitously entangled in a network of telegraph wires, an informational field in which a [forged] letter published in a London newspaper alleging an Irish politician’s involvement with an American newspaper would become an event that resonated throughout a new trans-Atlantic field” (96).
Culminating in 1890, several media-related Irish shame vectors converged, catalyzed by the series of London newspaper exposés that targeted and finally toppled Parnell, arguably the one Irish nationalist leader ever to have passed the manliness litmus test (Valente 2011, 27–62). Parnell’s unmanning fall and his craven betrayal by his political allies and followers at the instigation of the Irish Catholic Church left behind a post-Parnellite public sphere haunted by sins and failures too shameful to acknowledge and too terrible to forget. This ambient post-Famine, post-Parnellite shame and guilt, in turn, gave rise to the hypersensitivity Ferriter (2005) describes.
Irish newspapers were doing their best to cope in a society that had been slammed with two society-wide affective shock waves. And they increasingly responded—as they tellingly urged Irish housewives to do—by fighting tirelessly against dirt and disorder in newly defined and intensely promoted Irish Catholic spaces of cleanly respectability (Attridge and Fogarty 2012, 102–6).16 The diligent housekeeping and home beautification both promoted and figuratively undertaken by the mainstream nationalist press entailed keeping “well away” from all distressed Irish children, along with anything else that might signify Irish abjection (see Walshe 2011, 12–16). At the same time, clean, well-educated, and well-scrubbed middle-class Catholic children were increasingly set forth as a significant, even valorized newspaper category.17
AT-RISK CHILDREN AS HUMAN SHIELDS IN THE 1913 DUBLIN LOCKOUT
Starting on September 4, 1913, a coordinated initiative by roughly four hundred Dublin employers pointedly threatened the families of organizing workers with starvation by collectively locking out all workers who refused to sign a pledge forswearing membership in Jim Larkin’s powerful syndicalist union, the ITGWU.
In the ensuing Lockout, food became profoundly politicized, with “Catholic and Protestant food kitchens [competing] to win souls by feeding the starving” (Yeates 2001, 34). By mid-October, moved by her own observations of starving children foraging through garbage piles, British socialist and union sympathizer Dora Montefiore was organizing what she termed a campaign to “Save the Kiddies.” Using her valuable connections, she arranged for the first of what were meant to be several designated ships that would transport the children of locked-out workers to temporary foster homes with sympathetic British families.
In the third week of October 1913, Dublin’s Archbishop Walsh took the church’s long-established unwillingness to relinquish prerogatives regarding children to new extremes when he blasted the Save the Kiddies scheme from the pages of both Irish nationalist daily newspapers.18 The formula Walsh employed—one the nationalist press was to make its own—was that Irish children were better off dead than exposed to any worldview outside of that authorized by the Catholic Church (McDiarmid 2004, 141). Walsh’s statement opened the floodgates: political cartoons and newspaper commentary commenced stridently to accuse those workers who refused to sign Martin Murphy’s pledge of starving their own children and to laud the Irish Catholic Church as the children’s heroic savior. Walsh’s updated scandal of imperiled innocence, which equated the succor of starving children with perversion, directed torrents of public outrage, akin to those Stead had incited through the “Maiden Tribute” scandal, toward the children’s would-be rescuers.19
In the bare-knuckled ideological brawl that ensued, children’s exquisitely vulnerable souls came to epitomize everything that Dublin business owners and the Irish Catholic Church believed socialist syndicalism endangered. As Padraig Yeates reports, the “less than generous response of the city’s middle classes to the hardship of workers was partly due to Larkin’s promotion of the ‘Dublin kiddies’ scheme” (2001, 34).20 Effectively speaking for the Irish Catholic Church, Walsh radically modified what had been a moderately sympathetic stance toward locked-out workers in response to the ostensible religious dangers implicit in Montefiore’s plan. Walsh’s representations of innocent Irish children threatened with unspeakable perversion and the ultimate child abuse—perpetual damnation—powerfully conveyed to the Irish mainstream the intolerable threat to Irish innocence posed by “godless” labor, socialist, and feminist initiatives.
On October 22, 1913, hundreds of parents and activists attempting to see workers’ children onto the first transport ship bound for Liverpool were set upon by priests, police, and organized lay Catholics determined to unsave, or countersave, those same children. Montefiore and even some parents were formally charged with kidnapping. Only a few children made it onto the ship, and “the supply of children rapidly dried up when the Murphyite press began publishing the names and addresses of parents” (Yeates 2000, 34). The nationalist press ascribed all this mayhem to the workers, who were accused not only of widespread child abduction but also of unprovoked assaults on members of the police and the clergy. Thus, over the course of the Dublin Strike and Lockout, from September 1913 through the strike’s final collapse in February 1914, the church’s position in mainstream Irish nationalism as the rightful arbiter of Irish children’s well-being was firmly established.21 As we shall see, the new emphasis in Irish public discourse on children’s well-being as exclusively defined by the religious affiliation of their guardians was to influence profoundly both the institutional and moral infrastructure of the modern Irish state.
What might reasonably be termed the 1913 clerical “Campaign to Starve the Kiddies” would be only the first in a series of national controversies demonizing anyone who sought to improve the welfare of children, women, or both, or conversely demonizing both women and children who showed symptoms of resisting the church’s beneficent attention. Such controversies would resurface across the decades, from the 1913 Lockout to the 1931 Carrigan Report to the defeat by impassioned lay Catholics of the Mother and Child Scheme in the early 1950s. A pattern of public exposés decrying ostensible threats either to children or to the Irish Catholic Church (and hence to the nation’s spiritual purity) incontrovertibly established the church’s sovereignty over Irish Catholic youth.22 In the process, a newly unified church-media-government complex came into being.
THE CHILDREN OF THE NATION
The year 1913 thus saw the effective fulfillment of the Irish Catholic clergy’s long-standing efforts to establish itself as speaking for the Irish people as a whole and to eliminate or discredit all competing ideologies in Ireland. Out of the chaos of the strike and its subsequent collapse emerged a vastly empowered Irish Catholic Church that increasingly presented itself as the future Irish state in utero.23
Immediately after the post-Treaty Irish Civil War (June 1922–May 1923), what we term a new moral episteme was further shaped in surprising ways by the nascent state’s and nationalist media’s emphasis on a caste of culpable children whose corruption posed a threat to Irish society’s inherent purity. Poor juveniles, whom Walsh had originally sensationalized as probable victims of ideological (and subliminally, other forms of) perversion, were transformed into scandal perpetrators who themselves posed a threat to Ireland’s high moral standing, now symbolically vested in adults—especially in Irish men. Through a series of shocking reports, documentaries, and scholarly studies, an ever-clearer picture of this period is now emerging, detailing the abuse and the commodification of babies and juveniles of both sexes in early to midcentury Irish orphanages and industrial schools, and of course, at the hands of those clergy and lay people who used the rituals of the church to groom their victims. While Ireland’s dominant scandal culture up to the time of the 1992 Bishop Casey scandal focused obsessively on girls and women as sex scandal perpetrators, and gradually as scandal victims, the archival record shows clearly that in Ireland’s architecture of containment, both boys and girls suffered terribly.24
The church’s enhanced claim to be the only legitimate arbiter of Irish national interests palpably foreclosed the space in which representations of the material needs or interests of children could be articulated in the new Irish state. Even in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars—his aggressive critique of the nationalism animating the Easter Rising—the central emblem of the plight of poor children, Mollser (the play’s doomed slum child), is devoid of particularity, serving far more as an allegory in death than as a living representative of the everyday experiences of slum children.
However, as we will show, this pervasive allegorization of the child was significantly contested by Irish modernists like James Joyce and Kate O’Brien and, starting around midcentury, in the hyperrealism of Edna O’Brien and John McGahern.25 This pattern of literary contestation was then taken up by far more writers and creatives than we can possibly credit: hundreds have engaged in a collective transtemporal project of restoring to the poor or otherwise abjected child—and thereby indirectly to all the constituencies that Ireland’s war on children had rendered voiceless—the embodied subjectivity that the scandal of imperiled innocence took from them.26
Throughout the decades of the Irish Catholic Church’s closest alignment with Irish nationalism, the Irish media, and the Irish state, children were conceived of as empty vessels whose virtually coterminous spiritual and sexual purity was absolutely secured by the church’s social and moral oversight. Those children, young women, and the disabled, who could not be construed as healthy, well-cared-for embodiments of Catholic purity, were effectively criminalized and shunted into Catholic institutions that served as pressure-release valves within Ireland’s architecture of containment. Over time, these institutions swelled with sexually suspect girls, insubordinate children of impoverished families, and babies whose visible presence in their birth communities would have threatened the symbolic purity so crucial to the national imaginary. While the teeming ranks of Ireland’s discarded minors fortified the church’s finances and social clout, these arrangements also served to reduce some of the vast social and economic stress imposed on the ordinary Catholic citizen-subject in what Tom Inglis terms “the Irish Catholic habitus” (2008, 250).
By the early 1950s, the charge of child imperilment could be potently deployed even against a Catholic political leader who was unambiguously championing children’s welfare. Noël Browne, Ireland’s second minister for health (1948–51), became a high-profile casualty of his own determined efforts to combat Ireland’s soaring child and infant mortality. The church objected to Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme lest it open the door to Irish Catholics having access to medical (especially gynecological) care from sources outside the church’s purview. A Trinity-trained MD who went into politics specifically to fight the ravages of tuberculosis, Browne was forced from office through the back-door machinations of the church leadership, which had in public continually asserted its neutrality toward Browne’s initiative. Browne accepted his inevitable defeat, but he did not go quietly. In his resignation statement, he told the Dáil that “the [Catholic Church] hierarchy has informed the government that they must regard the mother and child scheme proposed by me as opposed to Catholic social teaching,” and that he had been informed by the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, “that Catholic social teaching and Catholic moral teaching were one and the same thing.” Thus, Browne explained, as a good Catholic, he had no option but to resign because the church had now made its position unambiguously clear: the Mother and Child Scheme was immoral.27
As this last example, and indeed the above cultural history as a whole makes clear, the very idea of imperiled childhood innocence allowed for considerable moral, political, and definitional leverage that extended far beyond the material welfare of actual children, and indeed often had little or nothing to do with children at all. In keeping with this politically cynical instrumentalization of victimage, the most effectively spectacular “innocent children” have typically been those who become the object of (our) collective solicitude when their vulnerability is abruptly, sensationally revealed as ascribable to some unthinkable external threat, whether foreign, supernatural, or unspeakably depraved. From the diabolical white slave trade made public by Stead’s “Maiden Tribute” series, to the Irish Catholic media campaign linking trade union activity to child abduction, child endangerment has regularly been attributed to some individual or group other, whose exile from the approved social order would reinforce the prevailing power structure.
Since the 1990s, the Irish mainstream has increasingly come to see the mid-century nationalist church/state axis as likewise inexplicably alien. Nonetheless, as Moira Maguire (2009) has shown in Precarious Childhood, significant evidence exists to document a surprisingly high degree of complacency on the part of the Irish people with respect to the church’s openly extreme treatment of specific women, children, and babies in perceived violation of Ireland’s moral episteme.28 Ultimately and importantly, the absolute nature of ecclesiastical authority allowed the Irish Catholic Church and its followers to define the nation’s moral episteme to suit themselves. In a representational environment defined by censorship, direct ecclesiastical control over education and other social services, and indirect control over the media and political and legal processes, the Irish Catholic Church and its functionaries eventually accumulated more than enough rope to hang themselves in the eyes of an appalled, if unconsciously complicit, Irish public. Crucially, Ireland’s growing rejection of the church’s strictures in response to the very scandal conventions that had previously reinforced them has ameliorated, but by no means resolved, the threats to children’s well-being posed by the child sex scandal. Such an awakening could not have occurred without the mediating role played by a broad front of Irish authors and public intellectuals whose novels, short stories, and literary criticism were too greatly admired by readers and scholars beyond Ireland to be feasibly suppressed within Ireland.
Conversely, the Irish child sex scandals of the late twentieth century proved to be so explosive precisely because they revealed the main threat to Ireland’s youth to be decisively internal—internal to Ireland, internal to respectable Catholic society, and, most unsettling of all, internal to the very agencies ostensibly most concerned to protect childhood innocence. Under these circumstances, the moral and political leverage that scandal had afforded the dominant institutions of Irish society could be, and were, turned against them.
Contemporary Irish sex scandal has taken its seismic force from its tendency to upset rather than stabilize the ideological applecart. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the hegemonic position of the Irish Catholic Church began to visibly give way when the indifference of both church officials and the broader Irish public to the welfare of minors was made palpable through a series of child sex scandals in which the terms victim and victimization began to be defined in new ways. In 1984, fifteen-year-old Ann Lovett died in childbirth, along with her newborn infant, at the grotto of the Virgin Mary in Granard. She had carried a pregnancy to term without anyone in her piously Catholic community intervening to help her or, indeed, her baby once it was born. In the same year, the discovery of a dead infant in County Kerry led to the prosecution of a woman deemed to be the mother/murderer that continued even after she proved her own baby had been stillborn. The determined prosecuting tribunal, evidently fixated on the bereft mother’s guilt as a woman who had had extramarital sex, theorized that she might have had two different babies from different fathers within a short period (Conrad 2004, 86). The new legibility of such cases in the mid-1980s was most proximately indebted to the courageous work of Irish feminists, who since the 1960s had been organizing tirelessly to connect the teachings of the Catholic Church to the fates of such women and babies. However, both the arguments that Irish feminists made and the capacity of some portion of the Irish populace to make even limited sense of these arguments strongly relied on an alternate moral vocabulary and an alternate ethical lens that were being largely supplied by Irish authors.
By the early 1990s, the high price that some Irish women and children had been paying to subsidize the nation’s surface appearance of Catholic piety was becoming apparent, still largely through scandals involving wronged girls and women. In February 1992, the so-called X case began to make headlines after fourteen-year-old Girl X traveled with her parents to London to terminate a pregnancy resulting from her rape by a family friend who had been sexually abusing her for years. Before the abortion could take place, she was ordered to return to Ireland in strict obedience to the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution (Conrad 2004, 102).
In May 1992, Irish Times headlines rightly treated Father Eamonn Casey’s sudden resignation as Bishop of Galway as a de facto admission that he had had an affair and fathered a child with Annie Murphy, an American. Only in 1993, when Murphy published Forbidden Fruit: The True Story of My Love Affair with Ireland’s Most Powerful Bishop, did the Irish reading public learn that Casey had sought to involuntarily confine Murphy in an Irish convent and force her to give up his child for adoption. For the powerful and sexually conservative Casey, who was fully prepared to treat Murphy like any other erring Magdalene, this solution was clearly standard operating procedure. Also in 1993, a mass grave in which 133 Magdalenes who had been incarcerated for life by Dublin’s Sisters of Charity was unexpectedly unearthed, bringing to widespread attention the previously unacknowledged scale and intensity with which sexually erring or suspect women had been extrajudicially incarcerated and exploited in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries.
Illicit heterosexual conduct had been the dominant theme of Irish scandal culture since the early days of the Irish republic, but these particular stories exploded on contact with that scandal culture, forcing a virtual reversal in the moral force field that bourgeois nationalism had long enforced. A long-established tradition of media silence concerning the abuse of children and cases of ecclesiastical hypocrisy gradually gave way as a virtual avalanche of long-suppressed clerical abuse surged into public view. By 1994, the public attitude toward the Irish Catholic Church and its long-accepted prerogatives was detectably shifting. In this year, the Irish press began to report on the Irish state’s ongoing failure to extradite Northern Irish Tridentine priest Fr. Brendan Smyth back to Northern Ireland, where he was to face charges relating to his molestation of seventeen boys and girls (a small fraction of the enormous number of children Smyth molested over the course of four decades).
Understandably, Taoiseach Albert Reynolds’s coalition Fianna Fáil–Labour Party government hewed to the established terms of the post-Treaty church-state alliance, dragging its heels, backing the voraciously pedophilic priest, and counting on the Irish Church hierarchy’s power to protect them in return. And for the first time it was the Reynolds government, Smyth, and the church-state system they represented, rather than a panoply of socialists, feminists, and labor unionists, whom the Irish media and Irish audiences would see as endangering innocent children. In the end, the coalition government collapsed, and Smyth died in prison.
PSYCHOANALYZING THE ENIGMA OF SEXUALIZED INNOCENCE
While any turnabout whereby the shepherd becomes the wolf is ironic, even counterintuitive, it is also, from a psychoanalytic point of view, anything but inexplicable. Insofar as sexuality, constituted as the foremost threat to Catholic youth, remains at the same time a radically if problematically constitutive element of subjectivity, it cannot be finally squelched or purged. Any attempt to do so, whether by sacramental dispensation, state censorship, vows of celibacy, reproductive imperatives, institutional sanctions, ascetic regimens, or shaming rituals, can only fuel, shape, and ultimately solidify further displaced modalities of sexual expression. This might, indeed, be termed the first law of psychoanalysis. Further, because desire itself is mobilized by the signifier, the symbolic nexus between subjects and the social order to which they belong, the displacement of sexuality attendant to its suppression affects not only the parties under restriction—in this case, the imperiled innocents—but also the restricting parties and agencies. Hence, we might express the following as an indispensable corollary to the first law of psychoanalysis: the policing of eroticism inevitably becomes an erotic and an eroticizing activity all its own, whether voyeuristic, sadistic, or narcissistically self-aggrandizing. Having assumed (in every sense) a nearly absolute, sometimes divinely appointed authority, including a pretense to mastery over the vagaries of sexuality itself, certain officials and associates of Irish Catholic institutions wound up eroticizing the sanctified powers and the entitled sanctity with which they had been invested. That is to say, even as the authority to protect innocence was consciously “taken” (in the sense of both “construed” and “appropriated”), sexual license and gratification were likewise unconsciously taken (again in both senses) as that sanctified authority’s prerogative.
We can see this reflexive turn of erotic energy in the disavowed jouissance, the enjoyment in disgust, at work in those agents’, often clerics’, judgments concerning the perceived sexual delinquency of those under their charge and in the brutal disciplining of those marked as sexually corrupted—whether by internment, chastisement, forced labor, stigmatization, mutilation, some combination thereof, or by the implicit encouragement of the wider populace to engage in cognate acts of moralizing abuse, from ostracism to confinement. We also see this sort of reflexive turn in individual mentors’ (clerical and otherwise) grooming for sexual seduction and abuse of those minors and spiritual dependents under their tutelage. Finally, we see just this sort of reflexive turn illustrated in Sebastian Barry’s tour de force, The Secret Scripture, where “savage” nuns beat the sexual errancy out of the poorer girls “with every ounce of energy in their bodies,” a practice that just exudes the exorbitant release of libidinal energy (2008, 90).29
As this example intimates, the officers of the Catholic Church are especially liable to the reflexive turn we have theorized. In representing the always equivocal signifiers of divine law and purpose, in channeling the always projected will of God, the Catholic clergy occupy an equivocal position of their own, wherein the ineluctably phantasmatic aspect of religious faith could slip unnoticed into the religious, faith-based legitimation of personal fantasy. Predicated on an identification with the received canons of sanctity, the clerical exceptionalism endemic to the church-state complex of Ireland could easily induce a sense of exception, or exemption, from the binding force of those same canons.30 Put another way, the different strains of the church fathers’ (and brothers’ and sisters’) desire could and sometimes did inform and/or distort, infuse and/or contaminate, supplement and/or supplant the particular expressions of the sovereign demand they supposedly relayed as deputies of the Godhead. In conceiving themselves as representatives and instruments of divine will, members of the clergy in particular run the risk of enlisting the deity, unconsciously or not, as the guarantor of their own occluded desires. By extension—and here is where the real danger lies—they risk positioning their young pastoral wards as instrumental objects of their own disavowed wishes, under color of rendering them instruments of God’s will as well. What is more, the surpassing authority they enjoy for the faithful can (and often does) create a similar confusion on the part of their spiritual followers.31
Although the grounds for mystifying the impetus and misrecognizing the implications of child sexual abuse are especially prevalent within the morally authoritative walls of the Irish Catholic Church, it would be inaccurate and unfair to suggest that such infractions are the sole province of church institutions. To the contrary, as Maguire argues, the connivance at, complicity with, and even commission of child sexploitation radiated through every quarter of Irish society. But owing to the preeminence of the church as moral arbiter and political power broker, the entire scandal can be laid, as well-known abuse survivor and advocate Colm O’Gorman contends, at the doorstep of that conjoined national edifice, the virtual, postindependence Catholic theocracy (Maher and Littleton 2010, 8). The site of intensive and extensive ethno-identification under de Valera, this virtual theocracy was consolidated in law (the Constitution of 1937), in actual governance (the partnership of the church and state apparatus), and in the ideology of the everyday (instilled in practices of childhood education, adolescent supervision, and adult surveillance; Inglis 1998, 10–13).
Given the finely calibrated hierarchy of church organization, its circumambient role in normative regulation and the social welfare apparatus of an impoverished nation, and the extremely localized (not to say personalized) exercise of power in the ranks of both the clergy and the laity, Irish theocracy functioned as a network of Foucaultian micropower, its top-down impetus at once diffused and enhanced via a dense mesh of disciplinary, tutelary, and pedagogical relationships. Like any such microcircuit, on Michel Foucault’s (1980) account, this one operates not on a strictly repressive basis (all appearances to the contrary) but through an alternating and symbiotic current of constraint and provocation, the inhibition and implantation of desire. This current manifests itself, of course, in the structural oscillation between scandals of oppression (the Lovett and Kerry baby cases) and scandals of predation (the Brendan Smyth case and the Ferns Diocese scandal) and in the combination of oppression and predation in single episodes such as the X case. Most tellingly, it manifests in the way erotic energies feed on the practices and rituals of correction throughout the entire system. For in the attempt to confine and canalize the unruly longings of its charges and dependents, the regulatory machinery of the Irish church wound up saturating certain sites of disciplinary constraint and purgation—orphanages, industrial schools, convents, rectories, laundries, and “homes” both public and private—with the very libidinal stirrings it sought to tame.32 The recursive arc of this libidinal economy comprehended more than the illicit romances of popular bishops or the serial abuses of rogue priests. Rather, it extends along a continuum that comprises not only these overt sexual acts, but an entire repertoire of avidly punitive cruelty whose erotic undercurrents cannot be ignored. Indeed, these are cruelties often associated with the most infamous sexual predators: the corporal punishment administered to children of industrial schools and the inmates of Magdalene laundries; the long-term forced imprisonment of these same populations, with mandatory labor superadded; forced childbirth, even following rape; the extravagant shaming and ostracism of “wayward” girls; the sexual exploitation of minors of both sexes; the forced appropriation, commodification, and mistreatment of the offspring of unsanctioned couplings—an entire jouissance of coercion enacted under the sign of moral correction.
Beyond shocking the conscience, such violations, being the outgrowth of unconscious dynamics, all but defy rational explanation. It is accordingly difficult to get past one’s initial moral outrage and condemnation to perform a more in-depth and dispassionate analysis, especially if one takes at all seriously the claims to godliness lodged by many of the individual perpetrators, by the church institutions, and by the Irish nation itself, “where the faith and piety of our people are unquestioned” (Long 1950, 12). Here, literature has a crucial function to perform in confronting, interrogating, and dissecting the psychosocial complexities of Ireland’s child sex scandal culture. Literature, we contend, has the capacity to form an unconscious reserve of history, what Bruce Fink calls the “censored chapters” of an approved narrative—in this case, a collective or ethnonational script (1995, 6). The novels we will be unpacking discharge this office by deploying what Walter Benjamin calls the “art of using allegory inconspicuously”—that is, as a cloaking device flush with the production of legible semiotic possibility, admitting and balking simultaneously the identification of its object (1998, 191). The strategic engagement with this “irreducible component of any text,” as Paul de Man has it, enables these novels to serve as repositories of difficult, traumatic, and scandalous historical truths disclosed under the guard of Freudian disavowal—that is, to answer the knowing/not-knowing of the open secret with the saying/not-saying of muted revelation (1979, 77). In allegories of this sociopolitical stripe, represented scenarios—say, of child sexual predation—may, but need not, be taken to bear a specific historical reference and may, but need not, be understood as exemplifying a chronic social or institutional pathology; explicit witness to historical outrages against children may be borne, but in a fictive and therefore explicitly nontestimonial framework; and scandalous stories with a factual basis but without a factual warrant are retailed. In this fashion, literature records truths otherwise inaccessible to communal consciousness by way of figural practices that to some degree veil or leaven them. These novels traffic, we would say, in the enigmatic signifiers of the Real, signifiers that particularly suit them to the task of exploring the “hidden Ireland” of child sexual abuse.
Insofar as literary narratives form an unconscious reserve for real-time historical scripts, they remain, of course, a part of those very scripts—interleaved, ambiguously redacted passages in the margins of that history. Occupying such a position denies literature the possibility of distanced reflection on any factual referent of its allegory and precludes it from serving as an analyst of the collective symptoms it surveys. But it does not altogether deny literature—and herein lies a conundrum in need of theoretical elaboration—the capacity for critical and even therapeutic reflection. Without the power to perform a collective (psycho-)analysis of the national and sectarian pathologies it addresses, modern Irish fiction nevertheless has been able to open and hold open the possibility of such a collective analysis.
To illustrate by way of an earlier example, Barry’s The Secret Scripture contains a neat allegory of this power dynamic, along with the sort of displacements that serve to disguise it. Upon the death of her disgraced father, the protagonist, a then-sixteen-year-old Roseanne, is visited by the parish priest, Father Gaunt, who proposes to see her provided for by way of an arranged marriage to Joe Brady, a corpulent fifty-year-old man who took her father’s job. When Roseanne replies, “You’d have me marry an old man?” (2008, 94), the priest explains that Roseanne has received a gift from God, her sexual appeal (though he hems and haws about the term and settles on “beauty”), which allows him to make this advantageous, if precipitous, match. When Roseanne still resists, Gaunt deems that same quality, now unnamed, as a danger, a “temptation” to the “boys of Sligo.” Thus, Roseanne’s endowments are a supreme good, a “gift from God,” so long as Gaunt enjoys the power to dispose of them (the original French meaning of the term jouissance is “rights over property”), but they deteriorate into evil should he fail to command that power. In other words, Father Gaunt seeks to possess Roseanne’s body sexually by a form of remote control that would maintain the appearance of perfect, celibate self-denial. Not surprisingly, Father Gaunt’s efforts to despoil Roseanne’s reputation later in the novel seem undermotivated except as the revenge of the jilted. That the more directly spurned lover, Joe Brady, subsequently endeavors to take possession of Roseanne’s body sexually by raping her—and then explicitly justifies the attempt as vengeance for her refusal of his advances—positions the two men as doppelgänger figures, each wanting to control Roseanne in his own way: one through the violence of (theocratic) law and one with a violence surpassing law altogether; one a priested pimp, one a rapist john; one the image of muscular Christianity (trim, athletic, and self-restrained, “Gaunt” his allegorical name), one a figure of diabolical excess (by way of his corpulent body and “swollen penis”; 105). But most importantly, the one serves the other as his agent, with profoundly allegorical implications: the authoritative figure of sexual repression, in concentrating libidinal energy around his authority to institute such repression, advances the cause within himself and his circle of sexual violence against the disempowered.
Although dramatically enhanced in literary texts by reason of their public availability, this capacity for immanent traumatic reflection is not specific to literature, nor was it first identified in aesthetic or cultural discourse. It is, rather, a paradox native to psychoanalysis—one of the great paradoxes of psychoanalysis—that traumatic manifestations and symptomatic formations constitute, in and of themselves, modes of reflection on their prompts and determinants. The object of psychotherapy is already (if not always) an agent of psychotherapy. Building on Sigmund Freud’s notion of infantile sexual theory, Laplanche (1999) observes that analytical theory at its most general level (notably the theory of the drive) should show us how, in what conditions, with what results, with what failures, and with what costs the subject theorizes or metabolizes the enigmas that are posed to it from the outset by interhuman communication. Analytic theory is in this respect a metatheory in relation to the fundamental theorization that all human beings carry out, not primarily in order to appropriate nature but to bind anxiety in relation to the trauma that is the enigma (Laplanche 1999, 135).
For Laplanche, to be a subject at all is to be the subject of an always traumatic because enigmatic sexuality, and his point in the observation noted above is that there always resides a distinct if fugitive mental phase between the traumatic experience and its symptomatic reflexes on one side, and the psychoanalytic interpretation and traversal of the revealed fantasy on the other. This phenomenological interval Laplanche likens to a “fundamental theorization,” an interlude wherein reflection inheres in the very traumatic, enigmatic experience to be reflected on. While such reflection stops short of theoretical analysis proper (what Laplanche christens “metatheory”), which entails the elaboration of a coherent, generalizable paradigm, it does “metabolize the enigma” of the experience by rehearsing it on other terms, representing it anew, and, in thus binding the trauma, it prepares the enigma for interpretive clarification and resolution. These novels, with their generic capacity for inconspicuous allegory, perform this function on the ethnonational stage, treating the traumatic realities of material dispossession, racial abjection, and cultural deracination in exemplary portrayals that bind the resulting affective distress for critical analysis. If anything, certain touchstones of modern Irish literature (including Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Land of Spices, The Country Girls Trilogy, The Long Falling, In the Woods, and The Gathering) offer a still more precise literary version of the “fundamental theorization” delineated by Laplanche. They both specify the universally traumatic nature of sexuality in a series of historically based sexual abuses and allegorize historically based sexual abuses in narratives implicating the universally traumatic nature of sexuality. The enabling mechanism of such “fundamental theorization” is the vehicle of traumatic sexualization itself, which Laplanche terms the “enigmatic signifier” (1997, 653–65).
According to Laplanche, parental or authority figures impart the energies of their own repressed desires and compromise formations to children in ambiguous psychic messages that take the form of enigmatic signifiers. This introduction of (adult) sexuality into the child’s life horizon elicits a traumatic jouissance that furnishes the necessary condition of his or her accession to subjectivity. The vehicle of this traumatic enjoyment is precisely the signifier’s enigmatic quality, which conveys a sensory or affective power exceeding its capacity for determinant meaning or function. Jouissance occupies the material lining of the signifier (the acoustics of the word, timbre of the voice, sheen of the image) as an occult zone of undecidability, wherein the vicissitudes of unconscious parental desire touch and translate into the turbulent libidinal awakening of the child.33
At the same time, the eroticized occult penumbra of the signifier exists only insofar as it is propped on or attached to the potential for meaning or functionality—the everyday purpose of signification—and the articulation of jouissance in the enigmatic penumbra of the sign allows those specific contents and objects to take on sexual appeal, resonance, and power. The obverse holds as well: the contingent but requisite attachment of traumatic jouissance to vehicles of determinate meaning and valence entails that every experience thereof comes with the potential to be, in G. W. F. Hegel’s phrase, “reflected into itself,” to be or to become a locus of conscious attention and consideration (1977, 13). While the jouissance borne by the enigmatic signifier can lead, like any trauma, to psychic overload, shutdown, and repression, this very insertion in a signifying chain turns that traumatic enjoyment into a potential object of immanent reflection for the subject. With its post-Jamesian renderings of psychic interiority, modern Irish literature was poised to capitalize on this opportunity. The uncertainties and mystifications that sexualize juvenile experience in the texts we have cited simultaneously constitute occasions and catalysts for the juvenile protagonists to speculate on and wrestle with that experience. Representational strategies in such novels as Down by the River (E. O’Brien 1997) or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce 1992b) are designed to highlight the dwelling in the enigmatic signifier and the hermeneutical binding of the anxiety aroused thereby.
In what follows, we provide a detailed examination of how featured twentieth- and twenty-first-century Irish novelists mobilized enigmatic signifiers to explore the mysteries of sexual initiation, seduction, and abuse. Not coincidentally, the figures we have been looking at are also exponents of the most sophisticated techniques for recording these feints and illuminations of consciousness: the use of unreliable and undecided narration, interior monologue, and, above all, subtle modes of free indirect discourse; all serve to position those traumatic enigmatic signifiers as textual kernels of immanent reflection.
To take matters a step further, unlike a journalistic account, which presumes an existential ground outside of its effect on the reader, literary fiction depends for its very being on the relationship between the depicted scenario and the transferential identification of the reader with its several elements (identification with identification). Tapping into this relationship, the texts studied here consistently syncopate the unfolding of the action so as to replicate for the reader an abstracted version of the experience of the enigmatic signifier as both affective or erotic trauma and hermeneutical lure. They thereby place the reader alongside the protagonist, as it were, nudging us to supply the “metatheory” that will confirm, correct, or elucidate the “fundamental theorization” in the text. Following this method, allegories or exemplary fictions of sexual exploitation utilize their structural condition of disavowal to immerse the reader on an individual, personal basis within a larger social and institutional pathology that itself unfolds on a person-by-person basis, at the very point where individual subjectivity is formed.
In the wake of the Irish Catholic theocracy’s abrupt shift from the position of rescuer to that of persecutor in Ireland’s national scandal framework, a key problem remained for supporters of alternate systems of public ethics and care. The long history of representations of children as imperiled innocents was what had made them such low-hanging fruit in the first place and such an easily misrepresented and easily spoken-for constituency on which to forge a power base, not to mention easy figures around which to weave elaborate fantasies. It is with such motivating and self-fulfilling fantasies—sexual, moral, and political, and on all sides of the issue—that our object texts and our readings concern themselves.
1. See Valente and Backus (2009); Backus and Valente (2012, 48–68); Backus and Valente (2013, 55–73).
2. These fictional narratives reflect the efforts of several Irish authors over a period of decades to challenge the morally coercive powers of the media scandals, moral outrages, and government reports we term the child sex scandal. The child sex scandal co-implicates three categories—sex, children, and a threat or moral violation. These may include subliminally eroticized representations of physical and emotional cruelty or neglect of children, whether as justifiable punishment, protection, or horrifying abuse. They may also thematize the sexualized punishment of errant girls and women, especially through the forcible transfer of their infants or children to adoptive and foster families or orphanages. The child sex scandal can range from cases of infanticide to overt child sexual abuse. The literature we discussed here touches on all these variants and more; what they have in common is the capacity to confront the scandal consumers/observers with their own far-from-disinterested placement in the operations of the child scandal, and thus push individual readers and Irish society to think from outside the moral episteme the child sex scandal serves to maintain when considering the needs and vulnerabilities of all Ireland’s children.
3. As Jago Morrison and Susan Watkins note in the introduction to their Scandalous Fictions: The Twentieth-Century Novel in the Public Sphere, “one of the fascinating and provocative features of the novel in the course of its development has been its capacity to test the boundaries between the ostensibly separate spheres of public and private life” (2006, 3). The introduction and the volume’s collected essays cover many of the diverse ways in which the novel, “an unruly or irresponsible form, . . . is also a mobile and plastic form” by closely attending to an array of stances the novel might allow a writer to take up with respect to “extremely determinate responsibilities before socio-political or ideological bodies” (12). In Writing the Unspeakable, we do not mean to imply that the pattern we trace is the only significant way that the novels we foreground might represent important sites—either disrupting or negotiating “cultural mores, social identity, and collective memory” (3). We would argue, rather, that over time the particular pattern we trace has had a recognizable impact on the Irish public sphere by influencing what is deemed scandalous and by determining how the outrage that child sex scandal continues to generate is collectively understood.
4. In other words, we are starting from the widely accepted presumption that (at least in Ireland’s version of “the strange, lurid, and disgusting images [merging] media and popular reactions” (Herdt 2009, 1–2) characteristic of late-capitalist sex scandals) Gilbert Herdt’s observation that moral panics, at their worst, completely occlude the humanity of their designated “folk devils” pertains equally to this scandal genre’s innocent “folk victims” (2009, 1–2). As Herdt describes the effect of a full-blown moral panic on its designated folk devils, “in the worst cases, the rights of these persons are qualified or revoked, undermining citizenship and threatening democracy” (2). By “citizenship,” Herdt explains, he means “the full rights, entitlements, and opportunity structures that support household security and wellbeing” (2). The modern moral panic we term, alternatively, the child sex scandal or the scandal of imperiled innocence, strips its designated victims of social standing and social legibility just as it does its folk devils—and, indeed, it sets up its folk victims for ready conversion into folk devils, and, sometimes, vice versa.
5. Child labor laws began in 1788 and came to maturity with the Factory Act of 1833. See Armstrong and Tennenhouse (1989, 229–78).
6. For further discussion of Victorian representations of the child, see Potter (2003), Makdisi (2014, 66), and especially Colley (1992, 226–27). Starting in the eighteenth century, the drama of the economically vulnerable and thus morally suspect woman’s restoration to innocence is increasingly popularized or specularized by the Magdalene societies as a kind of living enactment of social melodrama.
7. “Up until the turn of the twentieth century, religious Magdalene laundries, no matter where they resided (France, Ireland, England, etc.) were, more often than not, labor abusive institutions organized under the rhetoric of spiritual reform, but run under the realities of material profit” (McCarthy 2010, 181).
8. For works that explore in detail the dynamics that can push adult actions taken on behalf of children in directions that in fact harm children, see Levine (2002), Lancaster (2011, 8–9), and Herdt (2009, 12–13). Even dedicated child rescuers are prone to unconsciously select from and frame available data in a manner that will most sensationally promote their own (or their constituency’s) interests. “Noble cause corruption” is a useful term for describing the ways in which even well-balanced and well-intentioned adults can wind up colluding with baseless accusations of child victimization—even to the extent of distorting or fabricating testimony and to the detriment of the very children they seek to protect. See Grometstein (2010).
9. For melodrama and the nineteenth-century public sphere, see Soderlund (2013, 24–36), Walkowitz (1992, 85–102), Cvetkovich (1992, 97–127), and Hinton (1999, 7–12).
10. For examples of the abundant scholarship on W. T. Stead, the New Journalism, and the “Maiden Tribute” scandal, see Walkowitz (1992, 81–134), Mullin (2003, 56–82), and Soderlund (2013, 24–66). See also Steele’s essay in Steele and de Nie (2014), Brake (2005), Backus (2013, 61–73), Eckley (2007), Ferriter (2009, 38–39), and Malone (1999).
11. This wonderfully telling phrase is taken from the title of Stephanie Rains’s 2015 overview of the symbiotic relationship in turn-of-the-century Ireland among the Irish purity movement, the scandal-fixated British newspapers, and an Irish print industry pleased to piously promote its own wholesome output as a virtuous Irish alternative to British depravity.
12. See Attridge and Fogarty (2012) for a discussion of the ways in which Joyce responds to the scandal-reactive “household hints” columns in the Irish Homestead, which urge Irish women to take up their role in ridding Ireland of a residual and clearly British, media-imposed shame connected with dirt, animals in the home, untidiness, and so on. Fogarty and Attridge share Mullin’s (2003) observation that “Eveline” rebuts the Irish Homestead’s treatment of British scandal representations as a reliable index of two different kinds of risk—one associated with leaving Ireland altogether (Mullin) and one associated with women “leaving home” in a more philosophical sense.
13. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Irish nationalist newspapers were content to interpret British journalists’ accounts of endangered innocents in London and Manchester as evidence of Britain’s moral depravity rather than its moral vigilance. See Rains (2015).
14. Seamus Deane (1995) found repeated references to shame in connection with the Irish language and culture among post-Famine rural dwellers’ accounts of the Famine. Further, in The Myth of Manliness, Joseph Valente compellingly describes how the British quality of manliness, once enthroned as the sole and indispensable hallmark of male acceptability, slipped like quicksilver through the grasp of Irish men who sought to speak on Ireland’s behalf (2011, 1–25).
15. During and following the 1846–51 Great Famine, Irish people whose lives had remained undisrupted by the storm of agony and death that raged across much of Ireland would have experienced survivor guilt unprecedented in degree and kind, owing to Ireland’s rapidly developing media networks. Christopher Morash vividly conveys neighborly voyeurism through an 1847 newspaper passage describing the virtual hellscape an imagined reader on a train from Dublin to Cork might see, surrounded by “another world,” in which “mothers [are] carrying about dead infants in their arms until they were putrid,” perhaps in hopes that this horrible sight might “wring charity from the callous townspeople” (2010, 79).
16. For an overarching theory of literal cleanliness as expressive of moral purity, see Douglas (1966).
17. The Irish nationalist media reacted to British scandal journalism by gloatingly identifying England with the immoral excesses its newspapers exposed. It meanwhile posited Ireland as vice-ridden England’s polar opposite, a society where innocents, principally virginal young women, were axiomatically safe—providing they stayed put (Mullin 2003, 73–75). As Ríona Nic Congáil (2009) has shown in her essay on the Fireside Club, the Irish nationalist media did begin to acknowledge some children during this period, but it did so by showcasing the well-being and achievements of Catholic Ireland’s most prosperous children, who were depicted as representative of Ireland’s children as a whole. See also Bobotis (2006).
18. The two mainstream Irish nationalist dailies were the Freeman’s Journal and William Martin Murphy’s Irish Independent.
19. Walsh’s inflammatory denunciation used terms familiar from the vocabulary of the New Journalist sex scandal, including innocence, exposure, and vulnerability, as well as perversion, to convert a plan to preserve children’s lives into a sinister and vaguely sexualized abduction scenario. By framing Montefiore’s plan as a scandal of imperiled innocence, Walsh and other influential Catholic leaders had found the means to speak out decisively in favor of the high rates of child mortality that the Lockout was on course to precipitate.
20. In a modifying clause that clarifies why he finds Jim Larkin to have been ill advised in supporting this plan, Yeates notes that its originator, Dora Montefiore, was “a member of a prominent liberal Jewish family” (2001, 34).
21. By recasting as innocents Irish children who had previously been treated as a kind of urban wildlife, the Irish Catholic Church used this episode to assert absolute moral sovereignty over Irish Catholic children. The church’s account of what constituted child imperilment allowed employers to prevent internationalist networks from effectively supporting the striking workers, thus leveling a very serious blow against syndicalism across Europe. The church thus secured its dominant position and ensured the mutually reinforcing relationship of the Catholic Church and employers in the new Irish state.
22. As Fintan O’Toole argues, in “the years between 1922 and 1958 . . . the public rhetoric of the state was filled with this notion of an ideal innocence,” and the presumption that “the Irish people, like innocent children liable to corruption from every side, were in need of protection” (2009).
23. This institution’s social powers were exercised through a huge network of social service institutions comprising orphanages, hospitals, asylums, primary schools, and secondary schools, as well as the parish churches and convents that performed many state functions, such as feeding and caring for the local poor. See McDiarmid (2005, 127).
24. Jim Smith, in particular, has produced a detailed overview of the fledgling state’s seizure of institutional control in the form of industrial and reformatory schools and Magdalene laundries, as well as a more general, society-wide intimidation of women and, as we would emphasize, of children. Smith sums up this Irish containment culture as concealing sexual crime while simultaneously sexualizing the women and children unfortunate enough to fall victim to society’s moral proscriptions (2007, 4).
25. For decades, however, owing to the Irish state’s notoriously hair-trigger system of censorship, the most effective such writers were not allowed a hearing in the Irish Symbolic Order. A historically consistent pattern emerges of the most pointed literary scandals either being censored outright or, as was the case with all of Joyce’s writings, simply not being admitted.
26. As Jane Elizabeth Dougherty (2007) has pointed out, Irish girlhood has been effaced in modern Irish literature, far more so than Irish boyhood. As Dougherty noted in a private interview, from the 1920s through the 1990s the effacement of Irish girlhood was an effect caused in part by the double bind of a girl’s position at the intersection of two allegorically overloaded subject positions, those of child and of woman.
27. See “A First-Person Account of Mother and Child Row,” Connacht Tribune, November 21, 1986, 10.
28. For a discussion of Irish society’s acceptance of these strictures, see also Maguire and Ó Cinnéide (2005).
29. See also the scene of a nun’s wild release of rage into extreme and indiscriminate violence in response to Caithleen and Baba’s note in the cloakroom in Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (1960, 105–6).
30. Beginning with Freud’s Totem and Taboo and continuing in the ethics of Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, one lesson of psychoanalysis has been the close psychic kinship between the father of the law and the father beyond the law, the père du jouir. See Freud (1950, 140–46).
31. As Inglis writes in Moral Monopoly, “The habitus, embodied in the home, school and church, produces specific Catholic ways of being religious and ethical. Through these practices, people can attain religious capital by being a spiritually and ethically good person. . . . Being a good Catholic legitimates whatever economic, political, social and cultural capital already accumulated” (1998, 11).
32. As if to exemplify this dynamic, the Piarist order of seventeenth-century Rome made the preaching of sexual repression central to its teachings and stooped in short order to acts of child sexual abuse so conspicuous that after years of cover-up by the church hierarchy, the pope felt compelled to disband the order (Rigert 2008, 88–89).
33. See Valente and Backus (2009, 527–28).