Will we ever learn from past mistakes?

I have a flavour of the Dublin Festival of History coming up on www.westcorkfm.ie next month. The annual event, which runs from October 1 for three weeks serves up feast of historical events; from talks to walks, panel discussions to screenings and all for free, thanks to Dublin City council and a brilliant team of event organisers. I also have an interview with the founder of the festival – Brendan Teeling, who is the deputy city librarian. The festival always culminates with their marquee event in the Printworks, Dublin Castle. Set in an ambient yet massive auditorium, some of the best national and international historians deliver their latest dishes, which demonstrates once more that history is not a stagnant product but a malleable art that always demands fresh thinking, unique ideas and new research. 

This is highlighted by professor Frank McDonough who features on the next History Show, on westcorkfm.ie. Professor MacDonagh’s lecture was based on new research about Hitler’s rise between 1933-39. Another Hitler book I hear you say? What’s more to say? Well patently a lot more after spending an hour enthralled by McDonough’s content and delivery. The professor examined the idea which most of us hold – that of Hitler as the architect of evil policies, which his Nazi party used to brainwashed the German people into believing. At the war tribunal trials after the conflict, many in the chain of command expounded the futility of challenging Hitler’s ideas, swearing that his policies were followed out of orders or fear. We all understand that his brand of anti-Semitism went beyond the traditional cultural suspicions and hatred of Jewish people that was already embedded right across Europe and not just Germany. MacDonagh refused to accept that a people who had one of the greatest economies in the world and produced some of the great cultural icons such as Beethoven and Brecht could be so easily fooled. He explains in his interview that, far from being led, the SS epitomised this master race world view. The common perception is that the SS were a kind of simple thuggish street fighter that Hitler unleashed. The frightening thing that McDonough unveils is that 33 percent of these men had PhD’s. They had come from some of the best schools and universities and believed hold-heartily in their superior status and therefore in what they were doing. The SS were willing people, not thugs moulded to reflect the myopic ravings of a megalomaniac, bent on shaping the world in his own image. Hitler’s brand of anti-Semitism was a unifying force where likeminded groupings could fester, grow, and be united under one umbrella. When the German economy under Hilter’s watch, went into boom time and his expansion of German lands was achieved before 1939 without shedding a drop of foreign blood, was there a call to question him? His final solution was yet to be unleashed to the world and having anti-Semitic policies were no strangers in the other great European powers of France and Germany. McDonough digs down into this nitty gritty to escape older narratives that the Versailles Treaty caused World War Two. He explains that too many other factors happen to allow that to be the reason, and while he doesn’t deny its influence and admits it’s an important structure to frame Hitler’s rise, there are so many things that happen in twenty years that have more impact and relevance. Quite adroitly, he teased his audience saying the admissions officer who refused Hitler admission into the artist conservatory in Vienna, is to blame for World War Two! His point being, is to examine where and how far back do you go to find your answers? Sometimes historians look for links in the past to justify how things transpired. Dig deeper to the contemporary times of the period you are investigating.

The most harrowing yet heartfelt lecture I heard over the weekend was more of a contemporary history. The author of ‘Republic of Shame’ Caelainn Hogan, spoke about her investigation of the State and religious orders’ handling of mothers and babies in the notorious institutions that blighted our people and our country. This collusion between church and state was one of the countries darkest chapters and sadly, it still has not been resolved fully today, despite a contrite apology from Enda Kenny to the women in the Magdalene laundries and others, a few years back. To this day, we were told, women looking for their children and vice versa, can still no longer get access to information that may reunite them after their forced abduction. The Tuam baby scandal, which led to the discovery of the babies in the sceptic tanks, remains un-investigated and unresolved. The harrowing part of the lecture came in the guise of two people who participated in the talk; a mother whose child was forcibly taken from her in the institution, and a man who was one of the babies who was ‘given’ away. Both spoke with passion and pain about their experiences from the podium. Terri was only an eighteen-year-old girl, pregnant and living in London in 1973, when the Catholic Crusade of Rescue Society came to the UK and forcibly took her home before detaining her in an institution, where she had her child. Within days the baby was taken. Not only did the State know this went on – it colluded in it. She spoke of the hundreds, maybe thousands of babies sold to America, so the religious orders could profit from it. Forty-six years on, Terri still can’t find her child. 

And if we wonder whatever happened to the children, just listen to Peter’s story. He was given away at the age of four-and-a-half to an old woman. It was in rural west of Ireland, a house that had no electricity or water. In his own words he was treated as a slave on the farm working twelve hours a day. The fifty-year-old bachelor son who lived on the farm used to beat him mercilessly for reasons he does not know to this day. One heart-breaking story, revealed how that man gathered him up in a canvas bag when he was five to bring the terrified boy to the bog to drown him in a bog hole – such psychological torture – only to dump him out on the road. It wasn’t until he was an adult himself and was getting married, that he found his mother. After years of trying to find her in vain, his need for a birth certificate for his marriage, unlocked his past. A priest in Galway had to reveal who his mother was. To his dismay, his mother, then 65, was still in the institution, broken by a life she had been forced to live. ‘Republic of Shame’ is the book. And while the current focus of a lot of history is on the centenaries of 1916, the War of Independence, and Ireland’s fight to become a republic, we should reflect on the republic they gave us. Freedom from the clutches of our foreign oppressor only to be delivered into the hands of another. ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá,’ they promised. Will the survivors of these institutions have their day? And before we all get too comfortable and say that would never occur today – have a closer look at our current times. Today it’s called Direct Provision. We’ll look back and sigh and imagine how awful it was to keep human beings in those conditions.

And the historians of the future will ask, ‘why did we let it happen?’ 

Listen in every fortnight on Saturdays, or listen back to previous podcasts of the show, all at www.westcorkfm.ie

Kieran Doyle

Kieran Doyle is a playwright, a historian & author, and the produce of the History Show on http://westcorkfm.ie

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