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“We have, obviously, erred totally on the side of believing the women concerned in the first instance”: Reflections on the Irish State response to Oral Histories of Institutional Abuse Survivors

Professor Katherine O’Donnell (University College Dublin)


FREE event – registration required (use form below)

Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Merrion Square, Dublin

Reception to follow the lecture


John Banville, writing after the final report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) in 2009, described the culture that had enabled the endemic sexual, physical abuse and systemic neglect of children in Irish State-licensed/religious-run residential institutions thus:

Never tell, never acknowledge, that was the unspoken watchword. Everyone knew, but no one said.

Amid all the reaction to these terrible revelations, I have heard no one address the question of what it means, in this context, to know. Human beings – human beings everywhere, not just in Ireland  – have a remarkable ability to entertain simultaneously any number of contradictory propositions. Perfectly decent people can know a thing and at the same time not know it.

This lecture examines the Irish State’s response to residential institutional abuse through the reports that were commissioned ostensibly to investigate the atrocities. These reports demonstrate that there are distinct and wilful practices evident in constructing an officially sanctioned ignorance which might explain, at least in part, how people can both know and not know the atrocities that systematically occur in their society. I argue that oral histories are among our best bulwarks against this wilful ignorance and that privileging the voices of survivors as expert knowledge provides us with the best epistemological practice in terms of both accounting for the human rights abuses, designing restorative justice schemes and working to put in place guarantees that these abuses will not reoccur.

Katherine O’Donnell is Professor of the History of Ideas at UCD School of Philosophy, University College. She has published widely on the history of gender and sexuality, as well as on Irish intellectual and literary history particularly in the eighteenth century. Professor O’Donnell has been collecting oral histories of survivors and witnesses of Ireland’s Magdalene institutions since 2010, currently 97 respondents have participated in this project. In 2018 she facilitated a formal ‘Listening Exercise’ during the Dublin Honours Magdalenes event which consisted of twenty-six round-table group discussions with 147 participants. She is a member of Justice for Magdalenes Research and has been a co-awardee of a number of both academic and public-impact prizes for this work.

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