When Ireland’s Fiction Laureate, novelist Anne Enright, (above) gave a lecture in late November with the title “Giving Voice: Antigone and the Dishonoured Dead”, the unwary might have believed she was going to talk about Greek tragedy in general, and Sophocles’ play, Antigone, specifically.
But the real subject of Enright’s lecture lay in the dis-honouring of the dead that is at the heart of the play. (Briefly, the plot goes as follows: Creon, the ruler of Thebes, dishonours the body of his nephew, Polynices, by refusing to allow his burial. The untended corpse is used as a warning to other potential enemies of the state. Creon decrees that Polynices must lie “unwept and unburied”, until his sister, Antigone, decides to ignore Creon’s edict and buries him. Her actions lead to her own execution.)
So far, so Greek.
But Enright brought the theme of dishonour back home to the Irish context. It made her lecture a gripping and, it has to be said, an uncomfortable experience. (I mean this in a good way.) For this was a sustained and thoughtful polemic on the legacy of institutional child sexual abuse in Ireland. And for the audience in Cork, where I heard Enright’s lecture, many of the references were very close to home ─ the Bessborough mother and baby home, the Sunday’s Well convent.
Enright’s focus was less on the living victims of child abuse, than the dead ones. The 796 babies and children who died in the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961, whose bodies are unaccounted for; the bodies of 22 anonymous Magdalenes exhumed at High Park convent in Drumcondra, Dublin, where more than one third of the 155 deaths were uncertified; the 102 babies who died in the Mother and Baby home in Bessborough, Cork in 1944 – a death rate of 82 per cent ─ of which only 76 are recorded officially.
Where are these missing children? Where are they buried and why is there no record of them?
In this season of centenary commemorations, Enright tellingly compared the treatment of these dead with the state funeral accorded to Thomas Kent, one of the 1916 signatories, last September. Kent’s body was exhumed from the yard of Cork Prison and reinterred with full honours in the family plot in Castlelyons, where the Taoiseach gave the graveside oration.
Enright’s brief as Ireland’s inaugural Fiction Laureate is to promote Irish literature nationally and internationally. But her first public engagement has given a clear signal that she intends not to confine herself to Ireland’s literary identity. What a pity then that the Irish media chose to ignore her lecture almost entirely. True, there wasn’t anything “new” in it. These facts have all been laid out in the public sphere before. (Enright paid tribute to two women who have been been tireless in their efforts in this regard – local historian Catherine Corless and the late journalist, Mary Raftery.)
What was new was Enright’s collation and patterning of the facts into a powerful testament to the forgotten dead. Lest we forget.
The full text of Enright’s lecture has been published in the London Review of Books. While welcome, its publication there speaks of another kind of burial, in an English literary graveyard. It can be accessed at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n24/anne-enright/antigone-in-galway