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  • "Disremembrance":Joyce and Irish Protestant Institutions
  • Mary Burke (bio)

The dominance of Catholicism following independence in Ireland has led to the assumption that all institutions for the vulnerable were run by clergy of that denomination, though numerous Protestant asylums for women and children operated from the colonial era. Indeed, Smyly, a trust with roots in the Famine period, still operates today. Recent accounts of historical mistreatment within Catholic establishments create the misleading impression of an intrinsic connection between Irish Catholicism and child abuse, with little consideration of what may have occurred in otherwise affiliated institutions. Beginning with the nineteenth century, this essay queries conditions in certain Protestant-run establishments and explores the underexamined role played by the post–World War II Protestant-managed adoption system within the unregulated and illegal trade in Irish adoptees. In considering assumptions that allowed non-Catholic institutional abuse of women and children to escape scrutiny and to remain absent from current redress schemes, this essay turns to an array of sources: investigative journalism, memoir, historical scholarship, and James Joyce's encyclopedic fictional evocations of Dublin.

Antagonistic Protestant-Catholic relations in colonial nineteenth-century Ireland siloed the inner workings of what were considered "rival" institutions, undoubtedly to the detriment of vulnerable internees of charitable establishments of both denominations. The sectarian tensions that culminated in the 1921 partition of Ireland shaped a charitable scene that "divvied up" vulnerable citizens according to religion, with sectarianism surviving south of the border under a guise of Protestant "difference" that helped to maintain the invisibility of abuses within Protestant institutions. The perception of Irish Protestants as colonial holdovers who were less than full citizens of a de facto "Catholic republic" further facilitated the overlooking of that denomination's participation in institutional abuse. This essay [End Page 201] argues that mistreatment in Protestant institutions for women and children has been ignored rather than hidden, and further suggests that Ireland has been told over and over about such abuses, but seems surprised at each reminder. I have searched for a term to encompass the paradox that Ireland has repeatedly forgotten revelations regarding abuses in Protestant institutions. The word that occurs is "disremember," a dialect term meaning "to forget," but that I use here to refer to a continual failure to recall something of which one has been repeatedly reminded.

Joyce and Dublin's "Disremembrance"

In James Joyce's complex and interconnected oeuvre bookending this essay, the memory of abuses in Protestant-run institutions arguably operates at multiple registers that recognize the working of disremembrance at a societal and even personal level. Moreover, as evidenced by the contemporary state's disregard for survivors of abuse at Dublin's Bethany Child and Mother Home (1921–72) and other non-Catholic institutional settings, this disremembrance continues in Ireland. Joyce's Dubliners (1914) audits the varieties of degradation to which women and children are subjected and for which no common vocabulary existed in Edwardian Ireland: clerical abuse in "The Sisters," child sexual endangerment in "An Encounter," a father's beating of a child in "Counterparts," and conditions in the Protestant, lay-managed Dublin by Lamplight Laundry for "penitent females" that employs Maria in "Clay."

In a 1906 letter Joyce assesses the hypocrisy of such institutions when he acknowledges his own disremembrance in making use of the cheap service that the real laundry of that name offered Dublin's male citizens—the very cohort whose exploitation of prostitutes led to female incarceration and the unpaid labor that residents of Magdalen homes provided:

The meaning of Dublin by Lamplight Laundry? That is the name of the laundry at Ballsbridge, of which the story treats. It is run by a society of Protestant spinsters, widows, and childless women—I expect—as a Magdalen's home. The phrase Dublin by Lamplight means that Dublin by lamplight is a wicked place full of wicked and lost women whom a kindly committee gather together for the good [End Page 202] work of washing my dirty shirts. I like the phrase because it is a gentle way of putting it.1

Joyce's descriptions of the internees and their workplace as "wicked" and of the committee as "kindly" and "good...


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