RTÉ Documentary on One: Death of 25-year-old Peggy McCarthy, February 1946
If you're too busy to listen to it, here's a synopsis of sorts:
One of ten children, Peggy McCarthy worked as a domestic servant for local farming families. At 25, in the summer of 1945, she became pregnant following a local dance (as an old man recounts the dances, 'and this field out here is the courting field, and they say it's responsible for many a man getting the boat for Holyhead in the morning'). Her boyfriend, also from north Kerry, went to England for work ostensibly in order to provide for her but never returned. As was the norm.
On 10 February 1946 Peggy McCarthy went into labour at her home in the outskirts of Listowel, with her mother and a local midwife beside her. However, when she needed extra medical help she had to go to Listowel hospital. A local taxi driver named John Guerin brought her there where, despite pleas from Guerin that her life was in serious danger, she was refused admittance because she conceived a child out of wedlock. Sweet Christ almighty. Let that one sink in about that Christian god and that Christian charity. Our very own Papist Taliban, and they had the state's finances and power behind them. 'The person who refused her admittance then was a nun employed by Kerry County Council who looked after the medical matters in Kerry. The only rule, the only rule - and she was following regulations - was that she couldn't accept the mother because she was an unmarried mother whereas she could accept any other mother who was married.'
In a rapidly deteriorating condition, Peggy and John Guerin were told to go to Tralee, some 27km away by road in 1946. When they finally arrived in St Catherine's hospital in Tralee, and now at death's door, another nun met them and said under no account could they allow her admittance to the hospital. Peggy was told then to go to 'the Union' hospital in Killarney, a further 34km away, 'which was considered to be a more suitable place for her equals'. A historian comes on to explain three things:
1) all hospitals were funded by the Irish state in the form of Kerry County Council;
2) the hospitals were managed by the RCC in alliance with KCC;
3) because an unmarried mother was seen as 'contaminated' it would be unforgivable in the Ireland of 1946 to allow her inside the door of 'respectable' hospitals no matter what the situation was, and consequently she must go to the designated hospital for "fallen" women in Killarney. No debate. No exceptions.
Peggy appears to have made it to Killarney, where she gave birth to a baby girl named Breda, but Peggy herself died shortly after. So the taxi driver, John Guerin, had one final journey back to Listowel - with Peggy's coffin on a bed of straw on the top of his car. When he arrived back to Peggy's local Catholic Church the gates were not merely closed, but locked. They went to the chapel in the local convent, and the same thing. It transpired that the local RCC priest, 66-year-old Canon Patrick Brennan, had decided she could not be given a Christian mass in any of the parish's churches, or a Christian burial in consecrated ground. As the narrator puts the consequences of this, 'In 1946 this was tantamount to locking the gates to heaven to the young mother.'
A crowd had been gathered to pay their respects and as the taxi remained at the locked gate with the girl's body in the coffin on the roof, John Guerin, the taxi driver, got incensed, broke down the gate and managed to get many of the locals to stand alongside him against the ignorant Roman Catholic mullah - an extremely rare event in 1940s Ireland. The priest refused outright to have such a person in his church, so suggested she go to the chapel connected to the Listowel hospital that had refused her first. There, she got a wake but not a funeral mass. She was then. finally, given a Christian burial in an isolated corner of St Michael's cemetery in Listowel.
Now, an old man is saying that Peggy McCarthy's case was extremely unusual because unlike so many others she had people who made a stand for her and risked eternal damnation and whatever other bollocksology was in it. He instances a cowhand who slept not in a house but in a barn and couldn't take life anymore so took his own life in the local river, and the RCC refused outright to give him either a Christian mass or burial because he had committed something called a "mortal sin" by taking his own life.
The historian points out that the people who rose up against the RCC in 1946 were not the middle class in Listowel but rather the same social class as the McCarthys - the small farmers and poorer families in the area. And the RCC and the Irish state weren't finished with pushing the McCarthy family about yet. Peggy's child, Breda, had been born with a serious intellectual difficulty and was raised by Peggy's parents as their own child. 18 years after Peggy died, Peggy's mother died in 1964. A RCC priest knocked on the door and the upshot was that Breda was brought to a Magdalene laundry in Limerick to be "looked after" (to work). She was subsequently transferred to a variety of laundries in Dublin where she was kept to work until the 1990s. As of 2018 she is now in care.
----------------------------------------------Words fail me on what completely savage bastards Irish conservatism produced in 1946. And any of us who have read Máiréad Ní Ghráda's very brave and controversial play An Triail (1964) know this was far from an occasional event. Rather, what happened Peggy McCarthy happened in almost every parish in Ireland to countless "fallen women" (invariably from poorer families) while the lads got the boat never to return again. This sort of societal impulse to control and contain "radical"/"alternative"/"dissenting" views or behaviours doesn't just disappear; rather, the mob tends to find new targets, new scapegoats. Who are the pariahs of Irish society in 2018, and who are the thugs and bullies of Irish society in 2018? Or will we only be able to answer that in 70 years time?