Shunning Part I

There’s been a lot of talk lately in the blogosphere corners I frequent on shunning. It has prompted me to write a few thoughts on what shunning means to me personally. 
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.

The nuns rather reminded me of the TV advert of the ghost of death who on one stormy blizzard night knocks on the door of one Mrs. O’Connor. The ghost beckons to her to come along, that it was waiting for her. Fortunately for the blind aged woman, she saw not his black skeleton hooded demeanour and decided not to go with him, saying that she was busy cooking Xmas mince pies. Or – when the nuns came to the Rec hall on an annual basis to watch a film. Their black robes matched perfectly with the black cloths that covered the windows. Before the film reel was turned and children sat there in the pitch darkness there was an eerie ghostly feeling, as the black-attired aliens in the hall of horrors were totally invisible, but if the blood-red painted walls could speak – would whisper to them of the constant violent daily beatings that occurred there when the nuns in charge were out sight and sipping tea in the convent.

The nuns were never allowed to have any personal interaction with GB child inmates. The latter were totally shunned. The parents used Goldenbridge and other industrial “schools” as weapon phrases to frighten children in their homes – if they were bold. “Now, if you don’t behave properly we’ll send you to the nuns at Goldenbridge.” The threats invariably worked, as no child wanted to be seen dead by anyone in an unfriendly Dickensian, cold, dark dank institution.

Shunning happens when groups form solidarity with each other. It happens to religious groups and tightly knit organisations and communities. The intended targets are seen as enemies. Goldenbridge child inmates were easy shunning targets because the defenceless humble targets had nobody to look out for them. Period! Children in the nearby ‘outside’ national school in the same grounds had been warned by the nuns that they were not to glance at or dare to speak to children from GB industrial school. Woe betide them if they chanced to do so. That also included children who might have been connected to the inmates in a familial way. There was a stigma attached to children who were deemed the lowest of the lowest by Irish society. Think Untouchables [Dalits.]

I think that I make assumptions about people SHUNNING me, because of looking through a very disturbed emotional lens. I do know that I’ve the propensity to get triggers, and because of these triggers everything can get super-heightened and writing can become disproportionately illogical and irrational. Think confirmation bias. It creeps into a lot of stuff. I think it comes into play a lot and perhaps distorts reality. I don’t, however, know how to fix the distortions. Rational thinking just goes out the door when there are trigger factors involved. Someone known to me put it to me succinctly:  “you read backward from the intensity of your emotions to the (imagined) malice of other people. The more you hurt, the more malicious they are. Everybody does that, but you do it in an exaggerated way.” Yes, that pinpoints it exactly. It has to do with tremendous feelings of inferiority from the past. The template for this was laid in Goldenbridge, and it forever replays the same old “you will never amount to anything” spiel that was perpetually flung at child inmates. The lack of feeling validated eternally encompasses my very being.

I know that I’ve been immensely scarred by an excruciatingly painful childhood spent in a Victorian child prison refuge. All my memories are of so much torturous acts.

For example: 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. The children were forced to put index finger on lips for long durations. 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.

The vivid cruel Goldenbridge childhood memories that I relate to, where horrendous cruelty and shunning were ever present natural occurrences, still dreadfully haunt me. They come very strongly into play on a regular basis. It takes very little for them to be sparked off. The holding back – and not reacting to them is sometimes a full-time job.

Shunning Part 2 Scrawny pigeon

I remember years ago during lunch-hour from my job at the specialised Metallurgical library at Carton House Terrace in London– strolling around nearby St. James’ Park. I stood for a long while watching the pigeons being fed by various people, including myself. There was one particular scrawny pigeon who, instead of vying for the nuts and the like that were strewn on the ground, had decided to constantly chase the other birds away, so that they wouldn’t get all the rich pickings. Alas, the worn out scraggy pigeon was doing itself a terrible injustice. Indeed, it was its own worst enemy, because, if it had any wit at all it would have joined in gathering the nuts, instead of defeating the object by daftly chasing away the other pigeons, who were clearly benefitting greatly from the bird feed. However, I could empathise with the scrawny pigeon so much, as it clearly had no insight. If it had it would have been as self-seeking and cunning as the rest of the pigeons and thought of itself in a flawless commonsensical way. The scrawny pigeon’s actions reminded me of all the negative energy I have wasted going after assumed shunning sources. It’s uninspiring to think of all the negative energy that’s harboured in the brain, with all the good energy gone to waste. Just like the klutzy pigeon too it’s chasing away at the wrong sources.

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.

Here’s an example of the shunning of a pregnant young woman in Granard – not very far from Ballyjamesduff – and the dire consequences that unfolded because of having lived in a town that shunned girls and women who bore children out-of-wedlock.

For there before the two lads lay the half-naked figure of fifteen years of age Ann Lovett, whimpering in shock and pain, gritting her teeth through tears, delirious and mumbling. Beside Ann, in a pool of blood, lay her stillborn baby boy who she had just delivered, alone and unaided, there, below the statue of the Virgin. Beside the dead child lay its placenta severed from Ann’s body by a pair of scissors she had carried around in her school bag for several weeks now, in preparation for this very event.

Read more: A History of Sexuality In Ireland [2]: The Nineteen Eighties

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.

Related: Ballyjamesduff Co.Cavan Revisited

Shunning Part 3

To this day I carry the residue of shame that stems from shunning that was relentlessly piled on me by all as a child in Goldenbridge. I get paranoid thinking that parts of the blogosphere that I frequent are out to shun me, in the same way that happened to me in Goldenbridge. I become convinced that if bloggers don’t interact with me personally, well, it certainly has to do with me not being intellectually good enough for their Interwebs presence.

Children in Goldenbridge industrial “school” should not have been shunned, as they had to already withstand being shunned by their mere incarceration. It should have been the practice of caregivers to embrace them and not to have continually sent them to Coventry. They suffered enough punishment.

I hold very strong views on shunning because of my past institutional upbringing and a whole young life of feeling shunned by the world. So I feel fit to talk about the negative consequences of this dastardly practice that is so common with religious. I know too of many religious people themselves who were on the receiving end of shunning when they decided in the past to leave religious life. They had given their lives to God and in one fell swoop because they started to disbelieve were cast asunder and shunned for the rest of their lives. They had to face an alien world all on their own without support from the religious. Yet, they’d previously devoted their entire lives to religious life and given up everything. Eaten bread is soon forgotten. There was also a recent case of an elderly priest, Father Bob, in Australia, who was cast aside and shunned by the church and asked to leave his dwellings because he spoke out on child sex abuse issues.

The religious from all persuasions have a lot to answer for the way that they shun children and adults alike. The religious who practice shunning should have not messed around with the delicate nature of human beings. They had no right to separate children and adults from their loved ones. The legacy of separating children from their parents and denying the former any knowledge of their familial backgrounds has specifically done irreversible damage to those sent into the industrial school system in the past inIreland. The nuns were more concerned about their own image that they denied children the love of their parents.

There was one particular incident of Goldenbridge twins, who were denied knowing who their family was by a nun because the nuns did not want disgrace blighting the good image of the Mercy order. It transpired that the head-honcho nun was a friend of two aunties belonging to the twins, as both of the former were also Sisters of Mercy. The head-honcho denied the twins the right to know their mother because of shame attached to a sister of the aunties because of having had the twins out-of-wedlock. For fifty years the nun in charge flatly refused to tell the twins anything about themselves, despite the constant pleading and suffering. It was only revealed when the nun was threatened by someone – with the interest of the twins at heart – with legal action. This occurred at the outset of the commission to inquire into child institutional abuse. What a despicable act.

Shunning Conclusion

As I pointed out at the outset, my personal experiences vis-à-vis shunning harks back to my long childhood incarceration years at Goldenbridge. I know that I must be extra mindful not to blame the world out there because of the tremendously damaging wrongdoing by a society that was far too closed-minded and ignorant to care about the impressive fragile minds of children. I soaked up the shunning. I soaked up the rejection. I soaked up the harshness of my surroundings, with not a moral compass to guide me along the way. I had no compass to steer me in the right direction, as do those who grow up in normal home-loving families mostly take for granted. I don’t know how to fix the distortions implanted in the brain at a time when the mind was like a sponge soaking and absorbing all. However, I do know that being cognisant of a propensity for confirmation bias towards the world at large, I must intermittently stretch my elastic wristband to alert me to the predilection I have for negative thinking and steer the mind into a more positive direction. The onus is on me not to be a target for shunning. As a child I was helpless to turn it around, but now as an older adult I must become aware that I DO have the power to turn it around.

Ultimately to reiterate: I was very alert all those years ago to the scrawny pigeon’s immense deprivation, when it took a fit of squawking at all the other pigeons in sight – with the sole intention of deterring them from consuming the nuts that were laid out in sight. It was thoroughly absorbed in seeking out the wrong sources to the detriment of its own need. I should have noted and learned from that experience, and not have applied similar maladaptive principles throughout life. Nevertheless, there is no point in dwelling negatively on it, as hindsight is 20/20. On a more positive note to finish – I’m now at the critical thinking stage of adult literacy learning, and because of this, it is now incumbent on me to examine the unexamined with a fine tooth-comb. The past was yesterday, and it is gone forever. I can invoke it at will, though, and choose to dwell on the parts that cause me to shudder and the like, such as thinking that the world is out to get me and shun me. Or I can become as wise as the pigeons that got all the nourishing nuts and begin to thrive on expressing myself in a more encouraging way. It behooves me to learn that the encumbrance is no longer mine to bear.

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