Do you know what A Runner is in Ireland, where I’m from, in the year that I was born?
A Runner is what the other children call a child, a boy or a girl,
who keeps trying to run away
from the institution where they are being held prisoner by priests or by nuns or by ‘brothers’.
I found out what A Runner was at a gathering of artists and
surviving survivors of clerical child abuse in our
National College of Art and Design last year.
We were all there at the invitation of the poet and performance artist
Lisa Marie Johnson to talk to each other about art and survival,
art and memory, art and redemption.
About a lot of stuff I don’t really honestly believe in.
During our conversation I asked the table’s length of surviving survivors
some questions that have perplexed me for a very long time:
Why has nobody taken revenge? Why is it none of you have ever barehandedly
slaughtered a priest or a nun or a brother? Or even arsoned a convent or church?
That more clerics have not been torn to pieces by the adults of the children
they abused is, for me, the great conundrum of modern Irish history, of modern Irish
modern Irish philosophy, of modern Irish culture and identity. Of modern
I think the surviving survivors had been expecting these questions,
or they had been asked them many times before
by friends and relatives,
or these questions were so at home in their own minds
that the answer came automatically
and simultaneously from the half-dozen of them:
Because we are still afraid, they all said.
Because the terror takes root so deep down inside you
when you are small and it grafts itself to your bones
and it splices itself into your cells and it grows as you grow;
although it always grows faster than you
it always weighs more, is always stronger, always taller than you are,
is always there, in a hood and habit, towering over you,
its big fists hammering down like a Brother’s.
The surviving survivors then started to talk about another man,
a regular of their group,
who had not turned up at our meeting
though he had promised the others to come.
I am going to call the missing man Paddy.
Paddy had not been well recently,
not since, on Westland Row,
he had spotted a Brother who had been
one of the chief torturers of his childhood.
Bumping in to that old sadist had brought an awful lot up for Paddy;
all the fear, all the rage, all the hurt, all the despair.
This absent Paddy had been A Runner
the surviving survivors told me.
What’s A Runner? I asked. And they told.
Paddy got caught every time he ran.
Paddy would be half way up the high wall,
(all these theologised borstals had high, blank walls)
or three quarters of the way up,
or struggling to the top and nearly over it,
and a Brother of Christ would catch him by the leg
and yank him back down. Paddy always got caught.
The Brothers had a special way of punishing A Runner
in this vile prison for the innocent. They broke the child’s bone
with a good clatter of a hurley stick,
a weathered one kept handy for the job.
Often it was a wrist they broke,
sometimes an ankle. To make the children crawl. To make them beg.
To make them think twice about attempting to run away again.
But Paddy never stopped trying to run, no matter how many times
his wrist or his ankle got broke.
Freedom was a-beckoning just beyond that wall.
Freedom to be a child like the other children.
Paddy heard laughing and jousting just beyond that wall.
If he could only just make it over the once
Paddy thought he’d have a chance to laugh and play along.
He was that innocent. He was that holy.
He was that much of A Runner,
You had to run away a few times to
get the name of A Runner. You had to show repeatedly
that your desire for freedom was greater than
the fear of broken bones, or of dying.
The clerics often killed children in those places.
They killed them for hate and for rage and they killed them for pleasure.
They killed them with savage beatings
and they buried them hurriedly in unmarked graves
and the Guards ignored it
and the doctor signed the death certificate as accident
and that was that: covered up. Forgotten.
A Runner: the most noble title of my nation.
So much more than Taoiseach, or President, or Saoi.
But we have never been a nation.
Our nation died in 1923 at Ballyseedy.
Swift saw us coming: a no-nation of bonechewers,
a no-nation that dines on the bones of poor children.
Paddy’s aged a lot, the surviving survivors were telling me,
since he had the misfortune to run in to that toxic old goon of a Brother
– still in his frock and all.
He doesn’t come to meetings or take part in social activities with the other
surviving survivors like he used to anymore.
He stays in his bedsit talking to himself
because he can’t run away
Cowering in his bedsit: the cherished one
of all the group,
totem of the uncrushable will to be free
against all odds,
Paddy the Runner:
a shivering snivelling child in his fifties
behind four blank walls
afraid to try climbing over
in case he gets caught.