Head of the family.
Survivors of clerical abuse don’t come much more hard-headed than Paddy Doyle. The 58-year-old’s skull is a mechanical marvel of screws, staples and titanium plates, an armoured helmet of metal and bone.
One of Doyle’s most prized possessions is a cranial scan that reveals what he believes is cast-iron evidence of a succession of experimental surgeries illicitly conducted on his brain while he was a ward of the state. “It’d make a great cover for a book,” he declared, holding the x-ray up to the light. “It should be called Screwed!
With a provocative blend of black humour and cold fury, Doyle offered a guided tour of his head in Flesh & Blood, an impressively unflinching series that explores how familial ties can choke as well as bind.
While deeply disturbed about the hardware that was inserted into his skull, Doyle is even more alarmed by the nuts and bolts that were removed from his consciousness. Institutionalised at the age of four, he grew up knowing little about his parents and was misled about the fate of the man he mistakenly believed was his father.
Doyle’s mother died from breast cancer. One afternoon five weeks later, Doyle was playing at the family homestead in Wexford with his two-year-old sister Ann when he saw his “father” dangling from a tree. It was 9pm before the children were removed from the scene of the suicide.
The Doyles had relatives in Ireland and England who were eager to raise them, but these prospective guardians were deemed unsuitable – either too old or too English – by the civic authorities, which claimed superior knowledge about what was best for all concerned.
Like many children who’d committed the unforgivable crime of being poor, the pair were brought to court and sentenced to detention at the state’s pleasure. Doyle was sent to St Michael’s Industrial School, County Waterford; Ann to an orphanage in Wexford. Nobody at either institution bothered to explain to them what had happened.
Despite the intensive television focus on institutional abuse that has followed the Ryan’s reports publication, Flesh & Blood succeeded in finding new angles on a story that threatens to become wearingly over familiar. Much of the recent coverage has depicted abusive clerics as crazed thugs who flogged and degraded kids for personal gratification. However, this programme showed there was often method to the sadists’ madness.
As well as beating manners, deference and piety into children they regarded as, at best, riffraff and, at worst, demon seeds, many clerics sought to beat the sinfulness out of them. It was a battle for hearts and minds in which the aggressors were prepared to destroy the youngsters in order to save them.
When Doyle was overheard saying he’d seen his dad hanging from a tree, he was stripped and thrashed by nuns who told him he’d repent in hell if he repeated this outrageous lie. Christian people, they insisted, didn’t kill themselves.
At eight, Doyle developed a muscular disorder that left him with uncontrollable tremors, and contorted his legs and feet. It was then the so-called Sisters of Mercy effectively surrendered him to the medical experimenters, in the apparent hope that the quacks would have better luck uncurling his twisted limbs than they’d had straightening out his misshapen soul.
Having found a public voice decades ago, Doyle is further down the road towards brokering a tolerable accommodation with his past than most of the abuse survivors who have only latterly emerged from the shadows. He assumed national prominence during the late 1980’s when he published The God Squad, a vivid autobiography that exposed the reality of life in church-run residential institutions before it was socially or politically acceptable to do so.
Stubbornly unsentimental, Doyle channels his anger into activism but refuses to relinquish the right to be angry. He enjoys being an awkward customer. Having suffered from information deprivation, he seems compelled to undermine pretence of any kind. While speaking to reporter Mick Peelo, for example, he couldn’t resist breaking the fourth wall and remind viewers there was an unseen crew behind the camera.
Flesh & Blood concentrated primarily on his relationship with Ann and the tensions created by his headstrong determination to uncover the truth of his parentage.
Since the early 1990s, Doyle has investigated rumours that his mother had an affair and that he and Ann had different fathers.
The programme established that the affair probably took place but, using a DNA test, demonstrated beyond doubt that he and Ann are full siblings. Both were delighted by the news. Their family history may infuriate and sadden them but they’re still immensely relieved to have one.
Liam Fay, Sunday Times 19th July 2009
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