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The Trout by Peter Cunningham: fishing for truth of clerical abuse

Two issues lie at the heart of The Trout. The first is elusive childhood memory; the second is the ability of whole societies to deny the evidence of their eyes.

As adults, we all know the moments when we suddenly smell something, or taste something, or see or hear something, and for the tiniest second a memory floats up from our deep unconscious. It’s like a spark from a deep, deep cave. But we can’t grasp it, can’t keep it – and then it’s gone, just as our dreams defy our attempts to hold on to them. We are left with a feeling that we have just encountered something which we know intimately – that is part of us – and yet we don’t know what it is. We know it, yet we don’t know it. We may, also for a nano-second, think, I’ll ask my mother – but my mother has not been there for years. We are left in this tantalising state of being on the brink of something that we know is very important for us, and yet is utterly unobtainable.

In some cases – and this is what happens in The Trout – that tiny memory is so strong that it governs us. It can even terrify us. Alex, a man in late middle age, has been assailed by such flashes of memory all his adult life. His memory is horrifying. Alex thinks that as a young boy he murdered someone. But he does not know who, or why, or when.

Denying that what we see is actually happening

In Germany in the 1930s, even though people could see in plain sight was happening to the Jews, they were able to convince themselves that it was not happening. Decent, ordinary people, who saw their neighbours being rounded up and loaded like cattle into wagons, were able to contradict the evidence of their eyes. Subsequently they would deny that such events ever happened.


In Ireland, in the eight and more decades following independence, the treatment and management of vulnerable children was shameful. More than 35,000 Irish children were, for various reasons, sent into a network of church-run industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages and hostels, where extensive abuse was then carried out by those in charge. 35,000 children.

Whether from a blind acquiescence to a powerful and domineering Catholic Church, or from an inbuilt powerlessness when it came to confronting authority, Irish people failed to act on the evidence of their eyes. A massive, collective lack of consciousness seized two or three Irish generations. Hypnotised by the power of religion, they allowed the unspeakable crimes taking place against children to go unchecked on the basis that they did not know these crimes were taking place. Wedged in the grip of a complex far more powerful than their common sense or moral compass, they did nothing.

The church, which was part of this culture, actively nurtured it. The fact that hundreds of priests had abused thousands of children – many of them with mental disabilities – could not have been a secret. When the heat eventually came – when the general consciousness began to rise and the scale of these crimes started to emerge – the reaction of the Church was indicative of a defensive mindset established over centuries.


One of the many reports commissioned by the Government into the abuse of children in Ireland by Catholic clergy stated that highly-placed clerics, including the then archbishop of Dublin, subsequently a cardinal, had lied to successive tribunals, inquiries and police investigations about their knowledge of the activities of pedophile priests in their dioceses. Priests known to the church as deviants had been moved quietly to other parishes, and let loose again on children; but when asked by the civil authorities whether this had happened, the church’s highest officers said that it had not.

Faced subsequently with the incontrovertible evidence of their own lies, these churchmen then explained that their untrue responses were justified by the doctrine of mental reservation. Using this convoluted legerdemain, a priest can tell a lie while at the same time internally correcting it, on the basis that God knows the true story and therefore one has not really lied.

I decided to tell the story of a monstrous crime that takes place, almost casually, at a time of suppressed consciousness in Ireland. I set The Trout in the beautiful hinterland of my own south-east, in the midst of rivers and hills, streams and valleys I know so well, in a simple place populated by good people whose knowledge – whose consciousness of the truth – lies submerged deep beneath the surface. It remains there for decades, until one day, against all the odds, it bursts upwards out of the depths and into the daylight, where it hangs, dazzling, refusing to be ignored any more, like a beautiful, shimmering trout.

Posted in The Irish Times, 18th August 2016

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham