‘Mother and Baby’ Scandal Rings in Debate Over Irish TV Prayer

A marker on a wall commemorates children buried on the grounds of the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, a nun-run institution in County Galway, Ireland, where unwed mothers and their children were housed in brutal conditions. Hundreds of children were allegedly buried on the site, many inside a sewage tank, after dying of neglect, malnutrition and disease. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

DUBLIN (AFP) — The one-minute of Catholic prayer that precedes the main news on Irish state television is an everyday reminder of the traditional place of the church in the country.

But last week “The Angelus” struck a discordant note.

A six-year inquiry concluded that tens of thousands of girls, women and their “illegitimate” offspring were brutally siloed in church and state institutions over seven decades up to 1998.

A 3,000-page report detailed harrowing testimony from survivors abused by religious orders, separated from their children and burdened with a lifetime of shame in the latest scandal to soil the church in Ireland.

For some, “The Angelus” — a mainstay of Irish broadcasting — was an unwelcome reminder of the prominent space reserved for the Catholic faith in a society now busy reckoning with its past misdeeds.

As news of the “mother and baby home” report broke, many on Twitter baulked at the presentation of prayer before RTE’s evening news bulletin and a new petition was opened to remove it for good.

“It’s time Ireland moved past its dark past of church and state being so intrinsically linked,” reads the petition, which has 4,000 signatories.

Like clockwork

“The Angelus” has been broadcast nearly every day since 1950 on Raidio Teilifis Eireann (RTE) — first by radio and then on television.

On radio, the minute is marked at midday and 6 p.m. local by 18 peals of bells, symbolizing the incarnation of Christ.

On television, it is broadcast once daily at 6 p.m.

Starting in 1962, the bell sounds were played from a tape accompanied by images of Old Master paintings relating to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

Such is the precedence of the prayer that Ireland’s RTE evening news show is known as the “Six One” — so-named for starting one minute past the top of the hour, on conclusion of the prayer.

“I think we’re ready to have the 6 o’clock news at 6pm,” tweeted Sinn Fein lawmaker Louise O’Reilly on Wednesday.

Evolving Angelus 

In recent years, Ireland has emerged from under the historic influence of the Catholic Church.

A 2018 referendum overturned some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe and in December 2019 a largely symbolic constitutional ban on blasphemy was removed from the constitution.

As Ireland has evolved so too has The Angelus. 

In 2009 a “new look Angelus” was unveiled, featuring “seven visual reflections” of characters ranging from a Zambian office worker to a working fisherman.

In 2015 a new set of films hit the air similarly designed to be “conducive to prayer or reflection for people of all faiths and none”.

A sample film shows a man crafting a sand sculpture of a pair of outstretched hands cradling a dove in a tranquil garden.

The scene is juxtaposed with images of bustling traffic.

Though religion is not overtly referenced, the film is overlaid with the peal of 18 bells and still referred to as “The Angelus.”

Symbolic status

Earlier in 2015, RTE acknowledged the divisive role the broadcast plays in Ireland’s evolving public consciousness.

“For some, the reflective slot… is as much part of Ireland’s unique cultural identity as the harp on your passport,” a spokesman said.

“For others, it is an anachronism — a reminder of more homogeneously and observantly Christian times.”

RTE said in a statement that recent polling revealed 68 percent of the public favoured keeping it on the air.

However “The Angelus” issue is regularly rehashed in the forums of public debate — social media, newspaper letter pages and competing broadcast shows.

In the main, it is cited as a proxy for a wider issue — the looming historic role the state-sanctioned church has held in Irish society.

As Ireland opens up to a growing reckoning with the role of the church, the sound of the bells ring with ever greater significance.

In 2018, Irish Times columnist Laura Kennedy said “the friction was palpable” hearing the bells broadcast after news of the historic vote to overturn the abortion ban.

“As always, there were the Angelus bells,” she wrote, “reminding us all of an Ireland that no longer exists in anything but theory, but that we are still paying for.”


by Joe STENSON
© Agence France-Presse

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