Friday, February 21, 2014

The Clinni - Burying a History of Shame

Even today, in this fourteenth year of the 21st Century, many Americans that I encounter view Ireland through a pair of Western Green-tinted Glasses. To them, Ireland is a place of continuing mystical romanticism colored perhaps by what little they know of the place. Years ago, I was filled with the same ignorance. To me, Ireland was - and would always be - a place of quaint churches, villages, and peoples. A pastoral pallet upon which my imagination could roam. It was, I always thought, a peace-loving country hallmarked by tolerance and compassion.

That, of course, isn't the reality. Yes, today Ireland is - for the most part - a country that tolerates diversity and demonstrates compassion to those people less fortunate than themselves. But it wasn't always that way. Not by a long shot. Like any country, Ireland has skeletons in its closet. These deeply kept secrets ('secrets' perhaps is the wrong word. Most are in the public domain. It's just that the Irish don't like talking about them very much. And who can blame them?) are hidden in the recesses of the Irish psyche, buried like the bones of the shamed.

Many of you may have heard about some of these: the Magdalene Laundries, for instance, in which hundreds if not thousands of youngsters were put to work in desperate conditions, there to be subjected to mental and physical abuse including rape and beatings. Or the other recent scandals involving the Catholic Church in which it was discovered that priests had raped and sodomized so many young people. Worse still, the Church was implicated in the cover up of these crimes.

But none of the sins of neglect, abuse, or scandal that I've heard about have affected me as much as those of the Cillini.

The Shame of Those Who Have Forgotten

The Cillini are cemeteries, and very unusual and disturbing ones at that. These are the unconsecrated grounds where the unbaptized were buried and where they still remain. And behind this grave sin - as usual it would seem - is the iron hand of the Irish Catholic Church. To understand the sense of betrayal here, I'm going to write a fictionalized story of one person's tragic experience. Unfortunately, what I write below is based on fact.

Let's call her Mary. She is 20. It is 1970. The year after man landed on the moon. Nixon is still in office. The Viet Nam War still raged. Most Americans enjoyed so many comforts: color television, dishwashers, refrigerators, modern telephone systems - and for most, a sense of safety. But not Mary. Because Mary doesn't live in America. She lives in Ireland.

She lives, in fact, in County Cork, way down south, in a small village by the sea. Her father is a farmer. Her mother a farmer's wife. Mary's schooling ended when she was 16 and she married a year ago to John. Together they hope to build a future: a family. A house. A small bit of land. John hopes to save to buy a trawler so that he can fish for a living. And when they marry it is a grand occasion not only for the happy couple, but for their parents and the entire village as well.

They try for a child. And Mary's prayer is answered when she becomes pregnant. Their joy, they believe, will soon be complete. Mary blooms in the first months of her pregnancy and the excited couple pick names: John Junior if it is a boy. Brigid if they are blessed with a girl.

But as the months go on, Mary becomes sickly. The locals and the parish priest say their prayers. The local doctor frets over her. But there is nothing to be done. And finally, on a dark night of horror, Mary's worst nightmare comes to pass.

Mary goes into labor and through the red-tinged fear of her pain she knows that something is terribly wrong. The priest is called. He gives her Last Rights, just to be sure. She survives. But the baby is still-born. And she knows, even as it leaves her womb, that there is no hope.

The priest hurriedly blesses himself and leaves the room, not wanting to be a participant in something that is so unholy. No kind words for the young woman. No blessing of the small innocent babe. Instead, he hurries into the darkness. John's father comes into the room. With a blunt knife he cuts the umbilical cord. He wraps the small parcel, still warm, in a torn bit of blanket. Now he too hurries from the room.

Mary is not even able to hold the small one before this horrible leaving. She is not told if it is a boy or a girl despite her pleas. Instead, she is ignored. Finally, exhausted, she sleeps.

At midnight, John and his father hurry furtively from the house. They enter a field dotted only with stones - the only markers of those that have been buried and forgotten. John silently holds the dead young one as his father works with a spade. Beyond the field, over a line of trees, John can see the spire of his Church. He tries to forget that what he now holds in his arms will enjoy no Church Baptism. Her name will never be recorded on Church records. Her existence will be quashed as if she never existed. Her name will be struck out because she was never given one. John hides his tears. Together they work. Then lay the parcel in the pit and cover it, as if burying garbage. They place an unmarked rock at its head as if an afterthought.

In the days that follow, Mary begs John, his parents, and her parents to tell her of the location of her wee one. They will not. They can not. Mary is not permitted to talk about her child. She is not permitted to visit its remains. She is not permitted to grieve, at least not publicly. She lives in a world of humiliation, guilt, loneliness, sadness, and denial and her child will never be acknowledged. Not even her best friend can discuss what has happened, for discussion will give the child substance and the child had no substance because it never happened.

Occasionally, secretly and only at night, Mary ventures out to the field. She stands at its edge, examining the many small rocks, wondering which one might hide her child. Her body wracks with grief but she obstinately puts it away, knowing that she will be beaten if she shows it. Knowing that she must keep it a secret. She knows that because only a month ago she asked her husband: "John, I don't know what to call it when I pray. Is it John Junior or is it Brigid?" Her question was met only with the back of his hand and silence.

She never talked about it again. Two years later Mary was diagnosed with depression. Her condition was also met with stony silence. Silence until she eventually cracked under its dark hand; silence until she was placed in a psychiatric unit where she was met with only more silence.

Silence until finally forty years later and on his deathbed, John's guilt also cracked. "It's Brigid," he said. "A small white rock on the left hand side of the field." And after John was buried, after the blessings of the priest and the tears of the villagers, after he had been laid to rest in the well-kept, consecrated cemetery in the company of those that had gone before... months after... Mary finally ventured into the field. Next to a wall, in the corner of the lost field, she found a small white rock overgrown with the tall grass. But her grief was finally given a home, and she blessed the unconsecrated grave of her Brigid with her bright tears. And only days before she died did she finally erect a small plaque hidden deep in the corner of the field, a secret known only to her.

"To Brigid from Mammy. Never forgotten in my heart."

The Horror

What I have written above is fiction but it is all based on fact. Babies born in still-birth or babies who died too young were never baptized, never given final rest, never placed in consecrated grounds. Instead, they were buried in the thousands of Cillini that are dotted throughout the country like Mothers' tears. Once again, the Church turned its back on those to whom it should have shown its greatest compassion.

Today, some within Irish society are recognizing the sin made against these innocent babes and their mothers and many fathers. Some of the Cillin have been rescued. Grass has been tidied. Stones set properly. Crosses erected. Sanctified finally by the Church who had ignored them for so long.

But others, many others, lie abandoned and forgotten, the children placed within them lost for all time. Only their mothers' tears, long since dried, can remember. Such was Ireland and the Irish Catholic Church without the benefit of Green-tinted glasses.

May those days never return.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Just Because the Irish Speak English Doesn't Mean You'll Understand Them

When I first came to Ireland oh so many years ago, I was told the locals spoke English. They do, of course. That happens when you've been occupied by your English-speaking neighbors for a few hundred years. Prior to that they only spoke Irish, one of the many dialects of the Gaelic language. If you come here, don't tell an Irish person that they speak Gaelic because they don't. They speak Irish. In Wales they speak Welsh. In Scotland they speak Scottish. These other languages also have a foundation based in Gaelic but put a Scot, a Welshman, and an Irishman in a room together, ask them to converse in their mother tongues, and they'll barely understand each other.  Which is why most of the time they'll all speak English.

English and Irish are, of course, the official languages of Ireland. And when I stepped off the plane back in 1982 I assumed that I'd have zero trouble conversing with anyone in the country. How wrong I was.

English Irish is different, or can be depending on the words they use, and if you're planning to move or visit here you'd best be warned of this fact. To whit: when I first moved here I was asked by my brother-in-law to accompany him to the local watering hole for a few pints. "Ah, it'll be mighty," he said. But I was busy that day and wasn't sure that I'd have the time. "Fer feck sake, cop on to yerself," he responded, now annoyed. "The craic will be ninety!"

As you might imagine I was somewhat baffled by his choice of words. What, after all, did he mean by 'cop on'? Why was he swearing at me with his apparently offensive use of the f-word? And why oh why would I ever want to get involved with someone who was telling me that they were involved with crack cocaine and providing me with the price, as if I might be remotely interested?

Calling the local gendarme briefly crossed my mind. But before taking such drastic action I decided to consult my born-and-bred Irish wife. "'Cop on' means to get a handle on things," she said with laughing eyes. "'Craic' means to have fun. 'Up to ninety' means that you'll have a brilliant time. And as to 'feck', well you'd better get used to it is all I can say."

What she meant, I think, was that I'd better learn to speak English the way the Irish do. I had to in order to survive. And if you come here you will too.

The Fun of Irish English

Oh, there are so many differences to Irish English, particularly compared to the American version. Some words the Irish have inherited from England. Others would seem to be unique to this country and the people born and raised here.

Do you need some aspirin? Don't ask for a Pharmacy, rather look for a Chemist. Looking to purchase some French Fries? Then ask for Chips. And if you're looking for Potato Chips, you're really searching for Crisps. 

What happens if someone calls you a Comical Genius like my father-in-law (God Bless him) used to call me? Don't take offence. Rather, recognize that they are bestowing a compliment on you: that you are clever and knowledgeable. But what happens if someone calls you 'Thick'? In that case they are indicating to all and sundry that you're a silly, stupid person, rather as in 'thick as a brick'. And if someone looks you in the eye and calls you a 'Wanker' then be prepared to defend yourself. 

Other Irish English words can cause confusion and even great embarrassment. Assume that you're at work and you happen to be male. A beautiful woman - perhaps your boss - saunters over to your desk searching desperately, urgently for something. Trying to be helpful you ask, "Good morning, Sandra. How can I help?" And she might reply, "Oh, Tom. I need a Rubber. Right now! Do you have one?" 

I warn you: do not assume that she's flirting or somehow hoping to lure you to the nearest closet for a bit of slap and tickle. React inappropriately to this assumed invitation and you might land in jail or be accused of sexual harassment. Her search for a 'Rubber' means, of course, that she is actually looking for an 'Eraser'. So cop on to yourself before you get into hot water. 

Other words can be just as potentially embarrassing. Don't ever tell people that you're using a 'Fanny Pack'. A 'Fanny' is the Irish description for the female genitalia. Is someone looking for a 'Dummy'? Do not assume that they think you stupid. Rather, they are searching for a Baby's Pacifier. Never ask a female friend to 'get your pants on'. 'Pants' are woman's underwear, not trousers.

And as to the f-word: many versions of it pepper local language. It is not meant to cause offence. Hardly! Rather, it is a method to denote great interest or to emphasize a particular point as in: "Ah the fecking fire has gone out!" Or "For feck's sake. Will the rain never end?" Or "Those fecking b*tards, they should have scored a goal an hour ago!" 

The f-word is part of the language here. Take offense at your peril. 

The list of sometimes confusing, sometimes embarrassing, but always interesting Irish English words goes on and on. If you're determined to come to Ireland perhaps its best to talk to someone who has lived here for a bit of linguistic direction. Or, and I'm advertising here, I've compiled a comprehensive list of commonly used Irish English words and phrases in the 2014 edition of my book A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland. Simply click here to go to my Author's page, then ramp down to the Kindle edition of the book. And at only $8.99 for this ebook version, it might save you a great deal of bother before coming here.

Ah go one. Buy one before you end up in the back-of-beyonds, searching for a knob when you should really be looking for a nixer. I'm told the book is Mighty Craic, and I hope you'll agree.

A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland 2014 Kindle Edition Available Now
Want to learn more about living in Ireland? Are you thinking of traveling to Ireland or moving to Ireland? If so, you might consider the purchase of the 2014 Kindle ebook edition of A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland. Now 80,000+ words long, and having sold over 10,000 copies in its various editions, it could make the perfect gift for those interested in this wonderful country. Simply click on any of the links above to purchase this new Kindle version. You can also download various free aps to read this Kindle version on any PC or Mac.