The Power of Shame

What’s the most powerful human emotion?

You might say fear, since it’s the primal impulse to survive, but you’d be wrong.  You might say anger.  Bah.  That hardly counts as an emotion at all.  Even insects get angry.  Romantics will of course say love, while cynics will say greed, but it’s none of the above.  The most powerful, overwhelming, all-dominating human emotion is shame.  Salman Rushdie set out this concept in his novel of the same name, describing how an entire nation, its people and its beliefs could be defined by shame, and what holds true for a vast population like Pakistan is equally valid for a tiny bunch of disordered famine-survivors like the Irish.

Magdalene graves, Limerick

You think I joke?  You think it’s stretching it a bit to describe us as famine survivors, with our well-fed bellies and our ostentatious  double-breasted houses (even if we are a bit down on our luck these days)?

Think again.  The Irish famine is but a blink away in history and it shaped every last thing about who we are today.  There are few degrees of separation: my grandfather knew many people who lived through the famine.  They swaddled him as a baby and perhaps they bounced him on their bony old knees.  They told him stories in his cot, but one tale they never told was how they survived when so many did not.  This was not a narrative to be passed down the generations, because it carried not one, but two great shames embedded in its broken heart.

The first was the shame of survival and the second was the shame of oppression.

The first gnaws at the soul and uses a different name when it walks out in the daylight.  That name is Guilt.

The second one chews away at the very fabric of our being, because now we know what it is to be nothing.  Now we know what the boot feels like against our neck as we lie in the mud, and we spend the rest of our time on earth in a ceaseless effort to become something again.  The best of us succeed by letting go of the pain, the humiliation, the shame,  finding a place inside themselves where they can live at peace.

Most of us are not that wise and so we live out our days balancing one silence against another, relieved and enraged, angry towards those who shared our pain as much as those who inflicted it, and determined never again to speak of what we know.

A few on the dark side understand the true nature of shame and know even better its antidote: contempt.  Here’s the paradox for them: there is only one path away from shame but it’s both true and false at the same time.  You will no longer feel shame if you stumble on the secret of not feeling anything.  Yet you can do better than this.  If you can feel superior to someone, if you can feel true contempt for some poor wretch, then you are no longer at the very bottom of the shame hierarchy.  You are now one step up.

It was no accident that the old people used to describe certain characters as three ha’pence looking down on a penny.   That’s human nature the world over, but let’s look at Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century.

Crushed.  Demoralised.  Three to four million native Irish speakers removed at a stroke.  Its culture eviscerated by emigration, starvation and disease, thanks to a government in London that believed in tooth-and-claw laissez faire economics.  A government whose only interest was the wealthy merchant classes, and the devil take the hindmost.

In the words of Francis Spaight, a Limerick businessman whose shops continued in business until the 1980s,

I found so great an advantage of getting rid of the pauper population upon my own property that I made every possible exertion to remove them … I consider the failure of the potato crop to be the greatest possible value in one respect in enabling us to carry out the emigration system

We made the mistake of thinking the policy was anti-Irish when it was simply anti-poor, and by making that mistake, we lost the opportunity to throw off the shame of oppression.  Instead, we immersed ourselves in a ferment of resentment when we needed constructive anger and thus we developed our most outstanding national characteristics, self pity and infantilism.

cardinal paul cullenThis Ireland of shame, humiliation, confusion and bad self-esteem was perfect for the arrival of a man like Paul Cullen, Ireland’s first cardinal, who landed in 1850, in all his pomp and importance, while people still starved by the roadside and evictions were rampant as landlords exploited the opportunity to clear their lands of the poor, so that they could consolidate the holdings into the hands of strong Irish farmers willing to breed livestock instead of cultivating grain.  Beef for Britain.

Cullen understood well his status as a prince of the Church and he wasted no time reminding the locals of his power.  The Synod of Thurles attracted thousands from all over the land, by train, by cart, mounted and on foot.  The gentry, of course, commandeered the upper windows to view the procession of clerics in all their glory, an incongruous spectacle at a time when thousands were still dying of starvation  in ditches or of typhoid on trans-Atlantic coffin ships.

These men of Christ were not men of Charity.  Their god was power and Cullen intended to impose it at every opportunity.  The pre-Famine hedonism of the Irish was to be replaced by a rigid ultramontane clericalism with Cullen at its head.  In future, if anyone thought of dancing, there would be a stern young priest standing by to make sure they kept their arms by their side.

Over the next twenty years, Cullen devised every manner of religious trick.  He invented Benediction and the First Fridays.  He insisted that priests should be called Father, not Mister.  He established and supported religious orders throughout the country, populated by young men and women imbued with his new religious fervour.

If anyone didn’t know shame before Cullen arrived, they knew it now, for he brought a new flavour of shame to a people replete with the first two kinds.  Cullen taught the Irish to be ashamed of sex.  To be ashamed of themselves and everything that made them an individual.  As if things weren’t bad enough, Cardinal Paul Cullen made an entire country mentally ill.

Cullen taught the Irish people self-hatred, while at the same time elevating the vanguard of contempt to the centre of influence with the support and approval of the London government.  Whatever kept the people passive suited their agenda.  The Magdalene asylums thrived under Cullen’s reign, as the various orders of nuns blossomed and the Irish sense of self-worth declined, to be replaced by a rigidly-applied set of Catholic rules, based on a hatred of sex.

It’s no surprise that Cullen was so successful in his efforts to establish clericalism in Ireland after the Famine.  He provided a means of sublimation and he also provided a displacement activity to a nation so baffled by its own subjugation and so horrified at what neighbour had done to neighbour, that nobody had either answers or even words to explain.

Instead of thinking clearly about the horrors that had occurred in living memory, our forebears now had the easy escape route into unthinking piety, the option of religious mantras like the Rosary instead of difficult choices like confronting what had happened.

It was a false route out of our collective shame, but it was seductive and it worked.

For those who needed the vindictive solution, the Magdalene Laundries provided the answer, because here was a repository of human beings  who had been dehumanised and who were easy to feel contempt for.  Shame had its antidote in these places for anyone with a craving to feel contempt, as most of these nuns did.

As a child, I never understood why my mother disliked nuns so much.  I didn’t know what she meant when she used the word frustrated to describe them, but of course I see it clearly now and at the same time I feel less inclined to judge.  Yes, it’s true that the nuns were emotionally cruel.  It’s true that they humiliated and dominated their prisoners, but then you have to ask the overwhelming question: what were their stories?

Taken at the age of twelve or thirteen, before puberty, soaked in Cullen’s Catholic ideology, infused with a puritanical loathing of the body and driven mad by the requirement to suppress their own desires as they grew into maturity, is it conceivable that some of them would not have become bitter, twisted and cruel?

What is a Magdalene laundry if not a place where an emotionally-damaged nation can put all its shame and forget about it?

The story of the Magdalenes is the story of Ireland from the 1850s to the present day and if we approach it properly, it offers us the therapeutic opportunity to really look at ourselves and see what made us who we are.  If we use that opportunity well, we might even be able to work out how to escape the evil inflicted by Cullen and go back to the sort of people we used to be.  The people we pretend to be in all our tourist literature.




The Magdalene Laundries Scandal

The Magdalene Laundries

Government Statement on Magdalene Laundries

Silence from self-described pro-life groups about mass grave of 800 babies 



29 thoughts on “The Power of Shame

  1. Bock,

    The need for public discourse on the past is undeniable, but it’s difficult to see who is going to initiate or shape such discussions. Irish politics is so dysfunctional that there are few politicians capable of, or inclined to, leading a process of reflection and who else is there with the platform necessary to command an audience?

    Instead of debate we have sound bytes and phone-ins. It is depressing.

  2. ”It’s no accident that Cullen was so successful in his efforts to establish clericalism in Ireland after the Famine. He provided a means of sublimation and he also provided a displacement activity to a nation so baffled by its own subjugation and so horrified at what neighbour had done to neighbour, that nobody had either answers or even words to explain.”

    A precise sentence that should be at the begining of any conversations that should now take place on how what was always known and always deflected. There are may ‘Irishisms such as ‘ that was they way it was’ that have previously served to mute any progress in just calling it what it is, systematic abuse of power facilitated by some warped sense of maintaining the institutionalised image of the Irish family.

  3. Congratulations Bock. You have threaded so many complex subjects with great accuracy and given good insight into the historical background of the Irish psyche. A fine, well written article.

    Interestingly, while involved in contributing interactive information systems on Irish traditional music, I learned that after the famine, Irish music disappeared across the countryside for a full generation thereafter (up to approx. 1880).

    Allegedly, The CIA did some kind of a study that estimated that where a nation looses greater than 10% of it’s population, the psychological scarring is across the population and passed on through the generations.

  4. I never thought of you as a moral coward Bock until now.
    The whitewash of a report into the Magdalene laundries comes
    out and you insert your head up an historical sphincter.
    Shame on you.
    Why did you not call attention to Enda’s clinging on to the fact that
    there was no sexual abuse?
    Nobody had mentioned sexual abuse.
    Every childrens home attracts predators.
    Surely communities of vulnerable women would
    attract predators. It’s only “shame” that has prevented women from
    speaking out.
    This whole affair will be swept under the carpet because the people
    who aught to be fulminating choose to look the wrong way and
    disguise their deliberate myopia with some shoddy existential angsty shite.

  5. I, as an eighteen year old young man, had reason to attend and be among the women of the Good Shepherd laundry in the eighties. I delivered and collected laundry as part of my first ever job. I saw old ladies in their eighties, all of whom I later discovered, had been there since birth, rocking back & forth at the calendars, a machine which both dried and ironed sheets and the like.As they rocked, they ‘sang’ the rosary in time with the noise of the machine. Old ladies, brainwashed, working, it was all they knew. I got to know some of the ‘newer’ inmates. They told me their stories. By this time the laundry had been taken over by a commercial enterprise, who employed outside workers, but most of the work was still done by the inmates. ‘Martina’, who became a friend of mine, told me this new employer payed the nuns 60 quid each for a weeks work from the girls, of which they received 6 quid (punts? at the time.)

  6. The ones who walk away from Omelas – by Ursula Le Guin. Your comments, Bock, about somewhere a nation can put all its shame is reminiscent of this story about the humiliation of the powerless in order that the rest might live a charmed life.

  7. I enjoyed reading your article…
    I said it before & I’ll metion it again..
    The Catholic Religious Sections in Ireland, are all under the one flag..
    They are no different from any other other cult in this land…

  8. This is a very fine piece of writing and analysis of the Irish condition. The line were you mention 3-4 million native Irish speakers removed at a stroke is so stark. It was an effective genocide. I’ve always wondered why my (late) grandparents really didn’t want to recall stories they’d heard about the famine. It was a brush it under the carpet affair. Imagine the awful things people saw, did. Every one of us has an ancestor that survived it. I imagine the tales of how they managed this aren’t so pleasant

  9. Thank you Bock. I couldn’t articulate so well what you have done. Of course the Famine (extermination) and the Laundries and all of it are tightly linked. Our people were completely traumatized and still are, see the old faces around what’s left of the church and the young vomiting into the gutters of a fancy pub.

    I’ve linked to you on my blog today, I hope you don’t mind.


  10. Well Bock, that’s probably one of your best articles yet. I applaud your moral courage for writing it. It’s time for this nation and this people to move on. The Catholic church will never atone for what it helped to do, so let’s just be done with them. I can say this without a trace of irony, even as someone who believes in god, because it’s been apparent for quite some time that their business has little to do with him. Accepting what happened, understanding why and how it happened, and then recognising the echoes of it in our modern culture so that we can rid ourselves of that legacy, is the only way forward.

  11. Sometimes your comments infuriate me, sometimes they irk me, sometimes they make me laugh out loud but tonight you have made me cry. Beautifully written yet, rightfully, caustically scathing. As a child I met and saw these ladies every day having spent 16 years in the “care” of the Good Shepherd Convent. We were not allowed to use the front door of the new residential unit on Clare Street so had to come in and out of the large laundry gates on Pennywell Road. As I child I never questioned their presence, they were in all honesty like nans and aunts to me. Gerty in the nun’s kitchen would always give me a cake, a bun or a slice of bread and butter, Ionie was constantly looking for cigarette butts, Maggie loved to sing and dance, Martina a lively character, Eileen would chat away to herself and then remember I was there – I remember them with warmth and some with fear (those who had retreated so much from the world, I viewed them as insane when in fact that was their only form of self preservation). I never questioned their presence, they were my norm – I feel honoured they were a part of my daily life. I often reflect that I left “care” after 16 years with only two black bin liners – now I feel so lucky as my sentence was minute in comparison to theirs. I fear the similarity between this and the bogus Redress Board – a fleeting moment in time, no accountability with mere insincere condolences and empty words from those who were aware, had the ability to change things but chose instead to turn a blind eye.

  12. From reading some of the oral histories of the Great Famine many people believed that there was some sort of divine providence behind the crop failures.

    While this in and of itself wasn’t that unusual–the mid-19th century being a simpler time when science was just beginning to answer the big questions–an interesting pattern appears to show among the stories as to how the people were being punished for waste and greed.

    A typical example being stories of farmers who brought potatoes to market dumping their unsold stock in a ditch rather then hauling the spuds back home.

    An early example of Catholic guilt?

  13. Bock, I don’t think you could have described how we have come to be what we are and who we are, any more clearly. I think this is a stunning piece of writing, thank you.

  14. Fantastic. I have been waiting for some kind of comment on the whole diseased society recently, rather that the whole focus on Enda saying sorry, the focus on someone to blame. Well done. Contentious, opinionated, emotional, passionate, all the things I love about this site

  15. Diarmuid said: “…The line were you mention 3-4 million native Irish speakers removed at a stroke is so stark. It was an effective genocide..”

    I think was also referring to the rapid transition to the English language post-famine.

  16. A powerful piece of writing. I find it difficult to swallow the arguments that all of Irish society was to blame for the culture of containment so readily promoted by those in power, that is the Catholic hierarchy and the state. Certainly the ethical code that allowed (poor, working class) unmarried mothers to be locked up was part and parcel of the established Church and their hold on Irish people as the sole arbiter of society’s moral values. It was taught from above, in the schools and from the pulpit, in concert with bourgeois attitudes which appreciated the value in policing the so-called underclass. The rot was certainly in train by the time Cardinal Cullen assumed the archbishopric of Dublin. He saw no problem in working with the authorities in London, and of course, the British saw much of value in Cullen’s moral agenda. The fact that the famine removed people of ‘surplus value’ either by emigration or starvation and was in truth welcomed by the powers-that-be remains an uncomfortable heritage that Irish people still have yet to fully grasp.

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