“Pray for Our Sinners,” a documentary written and directed by Sinead O’Shea with music by George Brennan had its United States Premiere at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival. The 1 hour and 21 minute film documents the abuse of women and children in Ireland in decades past, perpetrated with the approval of the Catholic church.
The abuse took place in Ireland for literally decades until at least the 1980s.
Sinead O’Shea focused on her own home town of Navan in central Ireland and interviewed women who, as young teenagers, were sent away to mother and baby homes and forced to give up their babies. She interviewed female victims who had suffered this fate when just teenagers, and also spoke with now adult victims of brutality in the schools, suffered as children. Much of her conversation was with Dr. Mary Randle, who, along with her doctor husband, fought against the injustices. One of the topics was the local parish priest of those years, Father Andy Farrell. (It seems that Father Farrell discovered malfeasance in church finances and was spirited out of his post when he reported it.)
In 1921 Ireland earned its independence from England, but by 1937 the Catholic Church had managed to incorporate its beliefs into Irish law. In a country where 91% were church-goers, 6% said they attended occasionally, and only 3% said they never attended church, Ireland had more people institutionalized than any other civilized country. A citizen could be sent to an institution for all manner of misbehavior, as viewed by the church. For instance, if you talked about your feelings you could be declared “hysterical” and put away.
God was everywhere. That was the point. Few women worked. There was a law forbidding women from working after marriage. Women were to be submissive and produce children. However, unwed mothers were shamed into submission and forced to go to mother and baby homes, where the nuns who ran them made it their mission to “punish” the pregnant girls. There were at least 21,000 illegal adoptions from these homes during the era. According to a 2021 study, 9,000 babies and their mothers died in the homes.
Pregnant girls were treated like criminals. Even during delivery, they would be chastised for their bad behavior in becoming pregnant in the first place. Contraception was not available if the doctor did not want the woman to have access; divorce was forbidden. As one former resident of one of the homes said, “Your mail would be read. You were made to wash floors, even when 9 months pregnant. There was no breastfeeding. They wanted to do something to hurt you.”
If women were mistreated, children were also targeted. The Catholic church ran the schools. Corporal punishment was the norm in towns across Ireland. Into this sea of misery a husband and wife doctor team in Navan, Mary and Patrick (“Paddy”) Randle, chose to speak out when others were too cowed to do so.
A 10-year-old boy. Norman, was beaten with a leather hose with metal inserts because he was left-handed. When Paddy Randle found out, he spoke up and demanded that such abuse cease. Twenty children who were brave enough to speak out were gathered. Since the local paper would not tell their story, the “News of the World” in London interviewed the children and ran a story on Sunday, May 4, 1969, under the title “Children Under the Lash.”
When the local priests in Navon learned that the paper was going to run the story, the newspaper was seized as it was entering the city. Norman was kicked out of school by the church authorities at the age of 9 and, even today, he has no papers to document his life in Ireland. He is like a ghost without a country in “Europe’s last theocracy.”
As Dr. Mary Randle described her efforts and those of her now-deceased husband to help the struggling women and children of their small Irish town. She said, “It was like a whole empire designated to punish girls and children.It’s just, yet again, a diminishment of women, how they were treated.”
I am Irish Catholic. My home county in Iowa, the Dubuque diocese, was very Catholic. Back in the sixties, drugstores in Dubuque, Iowa, would not sell the birth control pill to unwed girls. When I was in the hospital, having just given birth in 1968—a married woman, age 23—one of my doctors (who was a devout Catholic) refused my request for a prescription for the pill. He would pass such requests along to his Protestant partner, who had no such reservations.
There are political forces abroad in our land right now who would like nothing better than to deny United State females the right to purchase the birth control pill, because the ability to choose when (or if) to have a child empowers a woman. The immediate battleground is the issue of abortion, but the signs are there that that is just the first stop on the path of the current Conservative Supreme Court.
As for corporal punishment, when I was introduced to my very first classroom in the fall of 1969, a fellow teacher handed me a paddle and instructed me on the “proper” way to use it to paddle misbehaving students. I was appalled. I threw it away immediately. This disciplinary method had been ongoing in the district. If you think nothing like these Irish stories could ever go on in the United States, guess again. You just have to be old enough to have lived it, as I have.
I remember all the pregnant girls in my high school who were “drummed out of the Corps.” Once it was determined that a girl was pregnant out of wedlock, she was banished from attending class. (The boyfriend who had impregnated her suffered no such punishment.) The expectant mother would disappear to a mother and baby home run by the Catholic church. The home would house her until she delivered her child.
As one of the women in the film testifies, “There’s no point in talking about today and then, because it was so different.” Yes, it was. I remember it well. I am saddened to see the same power play(s) being perpetrated upon this generation of women in the United States via the currently red hot abortion issue. It’s done in the interests of refusing to empower women.
The most important decision a woman will make in her lifetime is whether or not to give birth. It will affect every facet of her life from that time forward. It should be her decision, in consultation with her doctors and her family. It should not be legislated or decided by a group of men in Washington, D.C.
Director/Writer Sinead O’Shea does a nice job of painting a picture of yesterday that I lived through and remember only too well. By quoting Dr. Mary Randle (“There is always a way to resist”) and painting a picture of the abuses of the Catholic Church against the weakest among their charges, O’Shea has vividly illustrated how irreparable harm can be done in the name of religion.
The law banning corporal punishment in the schools of Ireland passed in that country in 1984. Divorce is now legal and laws banning women from working are a thing of the past. The attempts to roll back Roe v. Wade in the United States under the cover of religion are ongoing and on the ballot in November.
Another documentary by Sinead O’Shea is 2017’s “A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot.”