Moving Forward Must Involve Heavy Retrospection

Robert Nesirky reflects on a last injustice for the institutionalised whom Ireland failed.


Opening a folder can be an intensely intimate affair, as those in the social care field will understand. When reading a personal file, a life is seen lying between the hole-punched pages and printed lines of psychologist reports and care plans. In broad strokes, someone has created an image of a person within those documents.

Broad strokes – the most apt description of these files, as there is always more to a person than can possibly be documented.

Yet for some, these documents are all that remain. For thousands of individuals, there are now, lying dusty and forgotten, files which are the summation of their horrific experience in Irish social care institutions of recent history. Due to the isolated nature of their lives within these institutions, they were often not afforded the opportunity to leave their mark on the world. Their lives were tales of dehumanisation, which are now contained within these files as the only record of both their existence and Irish society failing them.

‘Time to Move On from Congregated Settings’ – published in June 2011, this national policy document spelled the end for Irish social care within a congregated setting. While welcomed, a consequence of these institutions reshaping and renovating will be the inevitable unearthing, and likely discarding, of these personal and historical documents.

Too often, Ireland has swept its darker moments under the carpet; this is an opportunity to pay respects to those who suffered at the state’s and state-sponsored institutions’ hands. The state, social care professionals and residents of this country must act fast to preserve these documents.

A national archive of recovered records would serve multiple purposes.

It would mean access to the reality of lives within these institutions. This would act as a barrier to prevent our standards from relapsing, removing the ability for rose-tinted nostalgia to tempt institutional congregated care back into our psyche as an acceptable form of care.

Having an archive will also help Ireland to let it sink in that these are the tragedies and stories of Irish people from not too long ago. Many readers may be related to someone who lived and died within an institution. With an accessible archive, it will be possible to identify relatives and to humanise the victims.

There are no confidentiality issues; the people within these files are long dead – let’s ensure their stories live on in some form. It is now our responsibility to implement a program which prevents these records being left in a landfill and to instead ensure they are treated appropriately and respectfully.

Time is sensitive, stakeholders need to be gathered and the department needs to be lobbied before documents are carelessly discarded.

These files hold the stories of our past and our mistakes. They are also powerful tools. As social care standards progress, they could act as a reminder of what happens when regulation is replaced with faith, religious or blind, in institutions.

Or, they could lie in a landfill, these victims finding themselves discarded once more.

Robert Nesirky.