Bethany House was set up in 1921 to provide a place where Protestant “fallen women” could hide their shame and deliver their babies away from the outraged glare of public view. But Bethany House was much more than just a place to hide pregnant girls, and much more than simply an adoption factory for childless Protestant couples in Northern Ireland and in Britain.
Bethany House sits at the nexus of many threads, linking modern-day loyalist prancing, Famine souperism, the ludicrous Orange Order and profound intolerance of the worst evangelical kind.
The common factor is something called the Irish Church Missions, though that has only been its name since 2002. Before that, it was known as the Irish Church Missions to Roman Catholics, and it was set up in 1849, right in the middle of the Famine by Church of England members, with a view to converting Irish Catholics. It didn’t get off to a great start, interpreting the Famine as God’s judgement on the Irish who clung to the heretical Catholic beliefs. It has also been accused of souperism, the practice whereby starving famine victims were offered soup only if they renounced their Catholicism. This may have been true, though the ICM denies it, but the English evangelists were a very divisive influence among the Irish Anglican clergy, many of whom went to extremes to save lives, as did many landlords, it has to be said, though that isn’t to deny that many more of them saw the famine as a great blessing.
To quote Francis Spaight, a Limerick merchant whose business survived until recently,
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.
The Irish Church Missions took the same view as did Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury and the man responsible for the complete failure of famine relief in Ireland due to his religiously-formed analysis of the catastrophe: a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence.
These people were not Christian in the sense that Jesus would have understood it, but in an entirely more rigid and robotic way, much as the newly-empowered Roman Catholic cadres were at the same time under the new invigorating influence of Cardinal Paul Cullen. The two rival churches were equally puritanical, equally judgemental and, as time would tell, equally ruthless in dealing with the poor and the vulnerable.
The main purpose of the ICM was proselytising, not hunger relief, and to that end, they set up many orphanages in Conamara, one of which, in Letterfrack, later fell into the hands of the Christian Brothers, who operated it for many years as an industrial school and living hell for poor young boys. Unfortunately for the ICM, it had one major weakness, and that weakness was its founder, the Reverend Andrew Dallas, a swivel-eyed anti-Catholic lunatic, heartily detested by Catholics and Irish Anglicans alike. Eventually, Dallas’s insane rantings led to a break with the more moderate Irish Society, a Protestant organisation dedicated to delivering scripture to the Irish in their native language.
In the end, Dallas tired of the West and the ICM moved its focus to Dublin, where this mad but compelling priest found favour with many rich patrons, including the Guinness family, a genuinely benevolent, if paternalistic, employer and the famous Mrs Smyly, noted evangeliser, with whom he opened homes and ragged schools throughout the city. Now the ICM was moving into the patch of rival firms, most notably the Society of St Vincent de Paul, a French Catholic religious-based charity with branches in Ireland, but persisted nevertheless in spreading the Scripture delusion among the poor.
Dallas died in 1869, but the mission he founded lived on, eventually attracting one Thomas Hammond in 1895. Hammond went on to become Superintendent of the Mission in 1919, a role he fulfilled until 1936, and in 1921 was instrumental in setting up the Bethany Home. Hammond later went on to become Grand Master of the Orange Order in New South Wales.
Mortality rates in Bethany Home were disturbingly high, for reasons as yet not explained, though it seems to have had the same sort of grim, joyless management as the worst of the corresponding Catholic institutions. Managing committee members signed a doctrinal pledge confirming the utter depravity of human nature and the eternal punishment of the wicked. Hettie Walker, the residential secretary who presided over this centre of fun for thirty years, had previously been a travelling evangelical preacher and held views not unlike latter-day Catholic lunatics such as Mena Cribben.
God-fearing folk though the managing committee were, they weren’t immune to human failings including avarice. With its Blackhall Place premises subject to a compulsory purchase order, Bethany House needed a new building, and committee member Joseph Walker had the very thing, at Orwell Road, Rathgar, for a trifling £3,000. Never mind that an independent valuation assessed the house at £2,000, Mr Walker got his money and left the books in a sorry mess as a result. Catholics, it seems, weren’t the only ones with their snouts in the trough.
The consequences were tough. Hettie, apparently, was more interested in saving souls than saving lives, and with all the cutbacks, infant mortalities in the home increased alarmingly. Children were removed from the home suffering from whooping cough, rickets, purulent conjunctivits and scalding. In 1934, four children died at Bethany Home. The following year, 29 died and it wasn’t until 1948, when the government finally decided to subvent the home that deaths fell to the sort of levels one might expect for the time.
The officials overseeing the health of the inmates seem to have been motivated more by religious than professional concerns. Dr Winslow Sterling Berry, the deputy chief medical adviser, visited the home three times and wrote a number of highly critical reports that he edited over and over, including changing the description of a child from dying to very low. In the end, the scientist Berry concluded that illegitimate children are delicate from birth. Was this because Berry was a Protestant or because he was a civil servant dedicated to maintaining the status quo of government doctrine? Certainly, he seems to have been personally repelled by the evangelical nature of the home, and was instrumental in forcing them to drop their policy of proselytising, but he still acquiesced in the neglect of children.
Who can tell why that was? Both Berry and the nurse assessing the home, also a Protestant, seem to have been working to the prevailing policy, seen at the time as non-sectarian, that Catholics should be abused by Catholics and Protestants abused by Protestants, but in his heart, I suspect that Berry, an intelligent man, had profound misgivings about his failure to act.
But let’s return to the common thread: the Irish Church Missions and evangelical Christianity.
Today, they continue their mission, though they seem to have abandoned their attempts to convert Roman Catholics, possibly because there are few enough people left who believe in any religion. They also seem to have given up on hating single mothers, since that’s not the kind of opprobrium supported by society any longer and now they’ve refocussed their vitriol on homosexuals, as we saw recently with evangelical Christians haranguing the annual Gay Pride march in Limerick.
There’s a nasty group calling itself Reform Ireland, listing among its aims the following:
doctrinal and moral error, especially bearing in mind the rightness of sexual intercourse within heterosexual marriage and the wrongness of such activity both outside it and in all its homosexual forms
Interestingly, the chair of Reform Ireland, Rev Eddie Coulter, former Rector of Milltown, Co. Armagh is also the present superintendent of Irish Christian Missions, while the treasurer, Alan McCann, is a chaplain to the Orange Order.
So there you go. The Orange Order, busy at work in the South, denouncing our gays and converting us from one brand of lunacy to another, slightly nuttier version, but with added secret handshakes and bowler hats.
I wonder what they think of suggestions that William of Orange was gay, not to mention that he was backed by the Pope?