Navigating those questions involved a three-year journey, culminating in a book rich with history, interrogation and emotional intelligence. It is also commendably full of doubt and uncertainty; Scally describes himself as a “grappling Catholic”, not ready to fully let go, seeking to understand rather than just condemn, and the book is all the better for that. He respects Ireland’s “many empathetic, educated and energetic religious”, but he also confronts the scale of the betrayals and the seeming inability of both church and society to come to terms with troubling legacies.
Yet Scally, from the perspective of 20 years of contented exile, looks at Ireland today and asks himself, rightly, though in some shock and much unease, why there are not more signs of trauma. In the years from the foundation of the state in 1922 until well into the 1990s — the last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996 — unspeakable injustices were visited on children, mostly the children of the poor, and young women who had the misfortune to become pregnant outside marriage. Unspeakable, yes, but assuredly it is our duty as Irish people and as human beings, Scally insists, to speak and go on speaking about what happened in our country in those years. As he writes: “Many years of life in Germany have taught me to separate things: the laundries [and, we understand, the abuses in general over the decades] are not my responsibility. But understanding what made these institutions possible, and the consequences of such systematic oppression in the past, consequences that are still palpable now, is my responsibility — and the responsibility of every Irish citizen.”
Yet the nuance of the earlier historical chapters is, perhaps inevitably, less evident when it comes to the catastrophic failures of the Church on sexual and institutional abuse. Scally is impressed by German efforts to come to terms with their Nazi and communist past and thinks Ireland too should have something like a truth and reconciliation commission to deal with the legacy of Catholic Ireland.