- Re-reading the Ryan Report:Witnessing via and Close and Distant Reading
In the days following the publication of the Final Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (2009), also known as the Ryan Report, there was widespread national and international public reaction to the conclusions of the report that over the course of nine decades abuse had been severe and systemic in the Irish residential-institution system for children run by the religious congregations of the Catholic church.1 In the New York Times John Banville reflected:
Everyone knew. When the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse issued its report this week after nine years of investigation, the Irish collectively threw up their hands in horror, asking that question we have heard so often from so many parts of the world throughout the past century: How could it happen?
Surely the systematic cruelty visited upon hundreds of thousands of children incarcerated in state institutions in this country from 1914 to 2000, the period covered by the inquiry, but particularly from 1930 until 1990, would have been prevented if enough right-thinking people had been aware of what was going on? Well, no. Because everyone knew.2
This essay considers Banville's statement that "everyone knew," rereading the Ryan Report to analyze what people knew and, crucially, how they knew. Using a combination of close- and distant-reading [End Page 198] techniques made possible by the transformation of the report into a searchable database that can be analyzed by using methods developed in the digital humanities, the authors show that "right-thinking people" were "aware of what was going on," but that this awareness did not translate into action because of how this awareness was mediated and communicated. To function as an ethical witness is not just to see or know something, but to act with compassion in response to what is being seen. Yet this new history shows us that such compassion was almost entirely lacking. On the face of it, the publication of the Ryan Report and its public impact might suggest that this chapter of Irish history can finally be closed with the acknowledgment that "no one can say that they don't know about it." Yet the reality of the situation may be somewhat different, as the sheer bulk of the report (some 2,600 pages) makes it one of the least read, though one of the most important, texts in Irish history.
The Ryan Report
In May 1999 the Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologized to people who had suffered abuse while resident in the system of residential institutions for children in Ireland. Ahern stated: "On behalf of the state and of all the citizens of the state, the government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue." This apology was issued just hours before the final episode of Mary Raftery's television series States of Fear (screened on RTÉ), which uncovered and presented many stories of abuse of children within the childcare system.3 This series followed other impactful cultural responses to the history of child abuse in Ireland, notably Louis Lentin's documentary Dear Daughter and the follow-up Prime Time program of the same name, both screened by RTÉ2 in 1996.4
On foot of these exposés of abuse the Irish government finally decided [End Page 199] to act, and following Ahern's official apology it established the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, or CICA (2000), and the Residential Institutions Redress Board, or RIRB (2002).5 In 2009, after nine years of investigation under the leadership of Judge Sean Ryan, who headed the commission starting in 2003, CICA issued its report.6
The Ryan Report found conclusively that over the course of seventy years the system of residential institutions, run by the orders of the Catholic church and funded and overseen by the departments of education, health, and justice, had constituted an emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive system in which thousands...