Get out your Popescopes and lollipopes, the Pope is in the house

And how things have changed.

This is Phoenix Park in 1979, when the Pope last visited Ireland:


And this is Phoenix Park in 2018:


See the difference there?  The top picture shows what a crowd of 1.25 million looks like.  The bottom picture shows a crowd of 130,000.  There’s plenty of empty space there, because half a million free tickets were snapped up, but less than a third of the expected number turned up.  Perhaps some people were put off by the weather forecast, although it turned out a nice day.  Maybe some couldn’t manage the long walk from the designated drop-off areas.  Certainly anti-Pope protest groups were bagsying as many tickets as they could get their hands on with no intention of coming.

Back in 1979, enthusiasm was such that some enterprising soul invented and sold Popescopes, your own personal periscope to help you get a better view:


Popescopes were not available this time around – possibly because people don’t go for big hair in quite the same way nowadays, so that extra foot isn’t such a big deal – but for the bargain price of just €1.50 you could have this beautiful commemorative lollipop instead:


and who doesn’t love a lollipop?

I’ll tell you who’s not feeling the love at the moment though, and that’s the leadership of the Catholic Church.  In 1979 2.5 million people around Ireland went out of their way to see Pope John Paul II, from a population of 3.4 million.  Last month, the combined total of pilgrims (you’re not an audience if it’s the Pope, you’re pilgrims) who attended the masses was just 175,000 from a population which has risen to 4.7 million.

It wasn’t that everyone else was ignoring the Pope though.  No, no no no. There were plenty of people out looking for his attention.

There was this large crowd, wanting the church to admit to, apologise for and make a serious attempt to redress the large-scale clerical abuse of children and the institutional cover-ups of said abuse – oh, and to stop doing it.


The march ended up at the site of the last Magdalene Laundry which closed in 1996, which isn’t all that long ago really.


Then there were these guys, expressing the novel idea that perhaps a church without abuse would be a good thing.


There was the group who made the already beautiful ha’penny bridge much brighter to publicise their trio of requests: that the clerical abuse scandal be properly acknowledged and dealt with, that women be allowed leadership positions within the Catholic church, and that the church could also please be a bit nicer and more welcoming to the LGBTI community.


It all sounds so reasonable when you put it like that.

The other side of the ha’penny bridge featured a quiet memorial to the victims of abuse by clergy:


and over in Tuam, just a short hop from Knock, the venue for the first Papal mass of the visit, things got seriously real:


I have mentioned the mother and baby home run by the Order of the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam before and we don’t need the gory details again.  On the morning of the nearby Papal mass a silent vigil was held there in memory of the 796 tiny souls whose remains are still on site in a septic tank.  Their names were written on bed sheets and they were represented by tiny pairs of baby shoes as people gathered holding cards with the names of the mothers and babies who never left the home on them.

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For 175,000 pilgrims this Papal visit was a chance to see an icon, a hero perhaps, God’s chosen representative on Earth.  For most of the rest of Ireland, it seems, it fell somewhere along the spectrum from ‘of no interest at all’ to ‘the best chance we’re going to get to be heard by someone with power’ with a smattering of ‘couldn’t they think of anything better to do with €32 million?’ mixed in.

I’m sure the €32 million could have been better spent, because here’s the thing.  Until the church cleans house thoroughly, until it says what 4.7 million (minus 175,000, I guess) people need to hear, there’s no point in it saying anything at all, because nobody’s prepared to listen.  It seems to me that the low turnout to see the Pope, the vote for marriage equality three years ago, the recent abortion referendum result, the fuss over the ownership of the new maternity hospital and the early but audible murmurings about removing schools from church control are symptoms of a popular belief that the church and its teachings have lost all respect and how can it expect otherwise when it is visibly dragging its feet on the issues of bringing known criminals to justice and of doing everything possible to repair the harm done by so many of its members?  Who’s going to listen to lessons about love and kindness and morality and integrity from a bunch of people who have been failing spectacularly in all those areas for decades and who are not yet fronting up and doing what it takes to start a process of healing and reconciliation?

In individual churches across Ireland priests who are good men are surely doing the work of God among their congregations and in their communities.  There is still a living faith.  There is plenty of good there.  There must be.  It’s a shame that’s all overshadowed, and the sad thing is it probably doesn’t need to be.  It doesn’t have to be past the point of no return.

The Pope did make some apologies, but apologies aren’t enough.  Every priest and every nun who committed a crime needs to be held to account for it through the civil justice system.  Every priest and every nun who knew that abuse was happening and ignored or enabled it needs to be held to account.  That’s a tall order.  Three of the cardinals who were supposed to be accompanying Pope Francis to Ireland pulled out – or were pulled out – because they have all been accused of knowingly sheltering abusers.  Maybe there won’t be many high-ranking Catholics left.  Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Then, they need to pay their outstanding torture bills.  It seems obvious.

They would also need to throw their considerable resources behind an all-out, balls-to-the-wall effort to repair the damage that was done by the decades of abuse, to survivors and families of those who didn’t survive. They would locate all the babies who were sold and adopted without consent from the mother and baby homes and give families the opportunity to be reunited.  They would unseal all birth, adoption and death records that are being withheld.  They would provide any and all financial support necessary to try to repair the physical and emotional damage done to abuse victims, mothers whose children were taken, children whose mothers were taken, and symphysiotomy patients. They would dig up the grounds of all the former homes, laundries and industrial schools where people are buried, identify them all and give them decent dignified re-burials.  They would go through all their records, work out the exact amount of money that was made from the baby trafficking, and give it all back.

They would give serious thought to the idea that if the church got rid of the requirement that priests be celibate for life, and accepted women as having valuable contributions to make in leadership, the whole enterprise might become far more healthy and functional and relevant.

They would be humble.  They would prioritise serving the people of Ireland through the healing process rather than controlling them. They would become fully transparent.

It would be a massive job.  It would take years and cost plenty.  But it could be done.  It’s not impossible.  Maybe then there could be some forgiveness, some peace for the people still suffering.  Maybe the next Pope’s visit could be about God, about all the good things that Christianity has to offer. Maybe the focus could be on what he does say rather than what he doesn’t, on hope not shame.  We could all be out there with our Popescopes and our lollipopes to cheer on God’s main man as he does his thing.  By the grace of God – and the many people now rising up to demand better –  anything is possible.







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The Politician With The Loaf Of Bread On His Head

Every now and then a politician does something dumb.  It’s just human nature, of course, and the rest of us are just lucky that we don’t have people watching and recording everything that we do and say, waiting for a slip-up.  In New Zealand when a politician is caught out buying ridiculously expensive boxer shorts on expenses, donating a painting to a charity auction and just assuming that everyone will realise that she’s far too busy running the country to have painted it herself, or indulging their ponytail-pulling fetish, we roll our eyes and say, really?  What were they thinking?  That’s a bit off.  We’re not, as a rule, overly exercised about it because they tend to be excesses of ego, maybe blurring a line a little bit, but nothing to create a real scandal.  Some are worse than others, of course.  Metiria Turei admitted to benefit fraud, which put her clearly over a line, although in what I would consider a fairly minor way, and it turned out to be a career-limiting move.

When someone in the public eye does something stupid here it tends to have far more serious consequences because the country has a history of violence and terrorism that people have not forgotten.  There are people still hurting; the families of the Disappeared, for example.  The Disappeared are a group of eighteen people, all Catholics, who, well, disappeared during the 70s and 80s.  They were abducted, killed and hidden during the Troubles, mostly by the Provisional IRA.  One was a widowed mother of ten, taken from her home in front of her children.  Over the years various ex-IRA members and others have revealed the locations of most of the bodies, but four are still missing.  They have families who would like to know, and there are people out there who do know.  The Troubles officially ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but not all the wounds have healed.

Meet Barry McElduff, the (now ex-) Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone in Northern Ireland.


In his local dairy he made a video of himself wandering around with a loaf of bread on his head and posted it to social media, as you do.  He should have thought this one through, though, because not only did it turn out to be a career-limiting move, it also caused deep, deep hurt and offense.

In the early seventies Northern Ireland was a battleground.  The UK security forces were carrying out regular searches and raids and the various Republican groups were trying to get them out of Ireland by attacking and killing them in the hope that they would give up and go home.  The SAS was operating covertly and the IRA had been infiltrated.  In 1975 a truce was negotiated between the security forces, who would stop the raids, and the IRA, who would stop attacking them.  There were dissenters on both sides, however, and during the year that the truce lasted, sectarian killings rose.  Loyalists – mainly Protestants, who were loyal to the UK – were worried that the UK would withdraw from Northern Ireland so they attacked Catholics, killing 120 in 1975 alone, in the hope of provoking the IRA to retaliate and break the truce.  Most of the dead were civilians.  The IRA began to lose control of its members and various paramilitary groups formed, carrying out their own raids on security forces.  From more recent enquiries we now know that the Loyalist groups included police officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment.

1975 was a bad year for Northern Ireland.  In July, Loyalists stopped a van at a fake military checkpoint and, after a time bomb they were trying to put inside went off early, shot five musicians who were travelling home to Dublin after playing a gig.  Four of the gunmen were serving British army soldiers.  In September five Protestant civilians were shot in a village hall and a week before Christmas five Catholic civilians were killed and twenty-six injured in two pub bombings involving several police officers and a serving army officer.  A week later three more Protestant civilians were killed in another pub bombing, and four days after that loyalist gunmen burst into the homes of two Catholic families and shot three people dead in each.  Again, police officers and a British army officer were involved.

Northern Ireland is a very small place.  It’s not like all the violence was happening ‘somewhere else’ – wherever you were, you would have cause to be worried.  Can you imagine going about your daily business, taking the kids to school, doing the shopping, wondering whether today is the day that the next car is blown up, or the next family shot in their own home, and whether it’ll be you or yours? I can’t, but this is how people lived, and it wasn’t very long ago, and it’s not forgotten.

On January 5 1976 a van carrying twelve textile workers home from work was stopped on a rural road by a man in military uniform.  They assumed it was one of the standard stop-and-search checkpoints regularly carried out by the British army.  As the van stopped, eleven gunmen came from behind a hedge.  They ordered the men to line up outside the van.  They asked which man was the Catholic.  The one Catholic identified himself and was told to run and not look back.  The other men were shot at close range with automatic rifles.  136 rounds were fired in less than a minute.  Then the gunmen walked away.

One man survived, despite being shot 18 times.  Ten died.  The Provisional IRA were later found to be responsible, and there is some evidence pointing to one of the gunmen having been a British agent.  More troops and security forces were sent to County Armargh and the sectarian leaders came under more pressure than ever before to stop the violence.  This event became known as the Kingsmill Massacre, and it was the last in the series of tit-for-tat killings in the area.  A retaliation attack was planned to take place in a local primary school, but it was cancelled because the leadership deemed it ‘morally unacceptable’, and because they suspected that the member who suggested it was a double agent working for British Military Intelligence whose agenda was to provoke a civil war.

Nobody has ever been charged in relation to the Kingsmill Massacre.  It’s still a live issue from time to time.  As recently as 2012, a proposed ‘March for Justice’ for the victims’ relatives was planned, opposed, allowed then postponed after one of the organisers received threats that he would be shot and his church burnt if it went ahead.

And then, on the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmill Massacre, our friend MP McElduff put a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head, videoed himself acting like a dick in his local dairy, and put it on Twitter.  ‘What was he thinking?’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.  He apologised, but there’s no coming back from seemingly publicly mocking the cold-blooded killing of ten innocent people.  He was suspended from his post, then resigned.

Mr McElduff is a stand-up comedian in his spare time.  Perhaps it’s his day job now.  He claims he was just trying to be funny.  In 1992 he was arrested and given a suspended sentence for ‘assisting the IRA in the false imprisonment of a suspected police informer’, which is a nice clean way of saying that he helped abduct somebody for the purpose of torturing information out of them.  When you have a history like that, I’d say you should be pretty careful about what you call funny.  It certainly seems that nobody else was laughing.

There are people in Ireland, North and South, still living with the grief of losing family members to sectarian violence.  Some of these victims were killed by people who should have been protecting them – soldiers and police officers.  Many of the perpetrators have never been punished, and were in fact protected at the highest levels.  Losing a loved one is bad enough; knowing there will never be justice because it was done by the people who control these things must be incredibly hard to live with.  Perhaps Mr McElduff really did just grab the nearest bread loaf to hand and the fact that it was the Kingsmill brand, on the Kingsmill Massacre anniversary, was a tragic coincidence.  I don’t know.  I think the real moral here is, try not to be a dick, and if you really can’t hep yourself, at least don’t record it and put it out there in the world where it could potentially hurt someone.







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