Marie-Therese has a powerful article about shunning at ur-B&W. She has extended and corrosive experience of being shunned, starting with the nightmare of life in the industrial “school” in Dublin where she was imprisoned from childhood through adolescence.
The very thought of the word absolutely sends shivers down my spine. Shunning is indicative of pure ruthless social rejection, a thing I grew up with in Goldenbridge. I also associate it with children who were very friendly with each other in the institution, who, alas, were severely mocked and jeered and separated from each other by staff. The latter called them ‘love birds’ then castigated and shunned them. There were also children who were different from others, and they too were deliberately avoided by other children and not allowed to associate with the group. Goldenbridge children, who did not know the meaning of mother or father figures, should not have been targeted in a shunning manner by grown-ups, whose sole responsibility was to act in loco parentis. It was the antithesis of any kind of loving parenting or caring guardianship. The children who turned their backs on other children, however, were only doing what they had seen those in charge doing all the time. It was learned behaviour. A warped environment begets warped behaviour. Mother and father figures are most important in children’s lives and deprivation of them was punishment enough, without having the added burden of being shunned by grown-ups. Mother and father words meant nothing to institutionalised inmates…excepting that they were words synonymous with beatings, whereby children had hollered out those very words…’O Mammy…O Daddy’ after a big thick shiny polished bark of a tree was rained down heavily by the nun in charge after the children had spent hours on a cold landing awaiting said floggings. Child inmates were also prevented from knowing or [O1] speaking to the nuns in the convent. The latter were just like aliens from another planet. When child inmates dared to look back at them sitting in their personal convent chapel pews, with black hooded heads completely hidden and matching black gown trails sprawling all over the aisles, they were invariably told by the nun who caught them to go and wait on the dreaded cold landing for punishment.
There was always so much punishment. The Ryan Report has many chapters on the subject.
I have vivid recollections of sumptuous scraps of Marietta biscuits, soldier crusts of toast, and particles of cake from St. Ita’s staff table, that had been placed in an aluminium sieve by minor staff, and each day methodically flung out of the corridor window that faced directly into the sunless prison yard ground. Child inmates flung themselves to the ground and fiercely grabbed at the luscious leavings. The ‘scraps’ were as regular as clockwork, so inmates eagerly awaited them, as the scraps by the inmates had been considered as rare sumptuous food items. Inmates, who never had toast to eat, would gobble down the black burnt bits, as if they were expensive oysters. Dog-fights ensued. Some inmates snatched not only the gorgeous tasty scraps, but also the hair on the heads – the little that was left, anyway, – after-all getting heads shorn and cut short was the norm – of some inmates, and locked themselves into each other for a half an hour or so, at any given time, as they were so enraged at each other for getting the best scraps. The staff thought theses scenarios were hilarious. They thrived on inmates being vicious towards each other.
I also remember on rare occasions such as feast-days when child inmates sitting on hard benches in the REC (euphemistically known as “the wreck” because of the savage beatings that regularly occurred there by staff members when the nuns were up praying in the convent) were given two or three bulls-eye sweets. If a dislike by a staff member to a particular child occurred, with the shiny silver mirrored can with delicate handle the nasty staff member would bypass that child, and the one sitting next to it got extra sweets, to rub it in even more. The horrible staff member – hugging the can – would then glide along the benches with a smirk on her face. It not only caused terrible tension in the child who was left sweet-less but also to the rest of the onlookers who wondered whether they were going to suffer the same ignominious despicable fate. Shunning innocent children was normal behaviour.
At first blush that perhaps doesn’t look like shunning as such, but in fact it is. Children who aren’t shunned aren’t treated that way. The children were treated that way because they were so thoroughly, comprehensively, horribly shunned, by the staff, the nuns, the chursh, the state – which allowed the church to brutalize them that way – and all of Ireland, which knew they were there and turned a cold hard blind eye. It’s only shunned children who can be thrown scraps as a joke for adults. It’s only shunned children that an adult will torture over sweets.
When I returned to Ireland from Birmingham in the mid-eighties I resided in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan. It is a small rural town in the province of Ulster, which now comprises fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. Its claim to fame is Father Brendan Smyth, who was a notorious paedophile – who in the early nineties almost brought the Irish government to its knees because of the child abuse scandals. In this community I experienced shunning on a gargantuan scale by a certain section of that close-knit society. I put the shunning down to not having had any proper place, or family status, and due to being friendly with an unmarried mother, who by large swathes of the community was forever shunned. Some townies would cross the other side of the main street to avoid her. I saw it on so many occasions and was absolutely infuriated with their low-down ignorant behaviour. Think fallen woman! She had become hardened to all the hostility she grew up with in the town and was aware of the two-faced shenanigans of some specific insular folk. The same community that mostly never spoke out about alleged heinous crimes of the priest for fear of offending the religious. The hypocrisy knew no bounds.
I also lived in a bed-sit and was frowned upon by snootier elements of the town. They were wont to steer clear of those less fortunate. Survival of the fittest! The things as they were must always be maintained to keep their superior status – one mustn’t let one’s self be contaminated by the mere riff-raff who wandered out of nowhere into town, and even worse still, a returning emigrant. I was “a blow-in.” In small towns everyone must know everyone else’s business. They have to know one’s intergenerational antecedents. My Goldenbridge institutional past was a well-kept secret. I had never spoken to a sinner in my entire life about my childhood. In fact, I had spent my entire time in England concocting stories about a family that never existed. I created them to suit the occasion. A lot of survivors of industrial “schools” would know exactly what I’m talking about here, as they would have resorted to similar survival tactics. I was completely unaware of the trap I was falling into upon deciding to live in a wee town in “the valley of the squinting windows.” My mother and her husband had lived three miles away in the country, so I fell naturally into that situation. Besides, I never would have dreamt of going to live in Dublin, as I was actually afraid of any association connected to Goldenbridge. It actually took me ten years to come to terms with facing Dublin. To this day I still cannot go back to the industrial “school” area. I thought I was safe in a small town, but no, not at all. The opposite.
There was a particular incident where I went to an audition to join The Frolics Musical Society. A whole group of people who were known to me by sight was in full conversation on my arrival to the audition. There was suddenly utter silence when I entered the room. One person even got up from her seat to move away from me, when I sat down in the chair beside her. I was so mortified that I quietly went into the loo and disappeared. I know that I was in a bad place with respect of familial problems, and it might have shown in my demeanour. I thought that by entering into a hobby that I was very interested in, that it would bring me out of myself, and help me to get back on my feet. I was gobsmacked, as the amount of courage it took me to even contemplate on going there, knowing that a lot of them would not even bid me the time of day on the street was devastating to the psyche. I just didn’t have the emotional skills to turn it around and change things, as such emotional energy had until then been drained because of having to continually cover up about my past.