Interview first published in June 2009

The recently published Ryan Report was a shocking indictment of institutional child abuse in Ireland. But a decade earlier, the RTÉ TV series States of Fear opened a Pandora’s box. Donal O’Donoghue meets the woman behind the landmark programme, Mary Raftery.

There’s no assigned doorbell and the office is a largely empty space. But if Mary Raftery has yet to set up base in Dublin city centre, the award-winning documentary-maker and journalist anticipates the day the shelves will groan with the weight of files and history.

But right now the furnishings are meagre: a couple of chairs and a table bearing a laptop, a mobile phone and bottle of juice. Coincidentally, or maybe not, Raftery’s neighbours are Saffron Pictures, makers of the award-winning Whistleblower, a drama based on the Lourdes Hospital scandal. Ten years after making the TV series States of Fear, Raftery remains best-known as someone who blew the whistle on institutional child abuse in this country. She is still asking the hard questions.

Mary Raftery is a bright woman, curious, clever and precise. “Don’t hold me to that”, she says, when exact statistics are not immediately to hand, but she’s not afraid to point the finger.

You can easily imagine her as a perky young student interrogating hapless teachers or questioning the rules of engagement. ‘Why?’ she says is the most significant word in the journalist’s arsenal and it is one she has employed to sometimes devastating effect in a journalism career that stretches back to 1982.

That was after leaving University College Dublin, where she didn’t complete a degree in Engineering, but did found Bulletin magazine and made waves as a student union officer. Her first job was with In Dublin, where under the mentorship of Features Editor Colm Tóibín (“probably the greatest influence on my career as a journalist”) she penned her first proper article about the lack of proper breathing apparatus for Dublin Fire Brigade. Her investigation sparked an investigation: a good fire was lit and a journalist was born.

For someone who has made her name as a maker of hard-hitting documentaries and articles, Mary Raftery is a bit of surprise in person. Softer than you might imagine and less combative than her work might suggest, there is nonetheless steel in her soul.
As a teenager, she was introduced to the writings of Walter Scott by her parents and subsequently read every single Scott novel (these days she is partial to the nautical novels of Patrick O’Brien and plans to re-read the entire corpus soon). That is how she is. If she likes an author she will seek out and read every other work.

In her journalism she is also like a terrier with a bone, trawling three continents (Ireland, Canada and Australia) as she documented cases of abuse by the Christian Brothers and tracked cases of institutional child abuse long before her 1999 TV series, States of Fear, blew the lid off the pressure cooker.

On the morning we met, the Christian Brothers were front page news. It was reported that as recently as May 15, five days before the publication of the Ryan Report, the Order was denying any abuse in institutions run by them. Was Mary Raftery surprised by this? She shakes her head.

Since the publication of the Commission’s report, Raftery has been prominent on radio and in print, sought out for her analysis and perspective. On Morning Ireland and in her Irish Times column, she warned against treating the findings as things of the past. She lists the ways people chose to evade, deny or excuse the scale and severity of the abuse. ‘It’s all in the past. Sure they were only doing their best. The State didn’t give them any money. The children would have been left on the side of the road’.

“What I was about in States of Fear was locking all those doors, methodically, rigorously and remorselessly”, she says. “I knew that if I let one door open, everyone would have gone through that door.”

In 1999, States of Fear, a shocking exposé of abuse in Ireland’s industrial schools through the 1950s and 1960s, shook the country to its foundations. The fall-out was immediate and dramatic. “It was like being in the middle of a maelstrom”, she says of the RTÉ series that lead eventually to the Ryan Commission. Raftery (who was helped by researcher Sheila Ahern) was praised but also pilloried.

“There was a sustained assault from a small cohort of conservative Catholics”, she says. “I was accused of having a whole rake of agendas which were not to do with industrial schools.” ‘Anti-Catholic!’ was the most frequent and vehement charge. “They stated that my entire determination was to attack the Catholic Church in every possible way, shape or form.” So how did she answer that? “It just wasn’t true”, she says now. “Many people forget that when you’re making a programme like this, the bottom line is that you are only a journalist. You just go where the story leads you.”

The negative feedback Raftery received in the wake of States of Fear was nothing to the criticism flung at her after she published a number of articles challenging the 2004 Citizenship Referendum. Hate mail (some of her columns were returned smeared in excrement) were posted to her Irish Times desk. The letters’ spidery, almost incoherent rage, shocked her. “It was really vicious stuff,” she says. “The attention has now shifted from a reactionary Catholic thing to a really racist position. I found that response interesting. Writing about the rights of refugees generates a lot more hate mail than writing about the Catholic Church.”

If Raftery is one of the most insistent voices over the past decade, she has also had her critics. Some have accused her of being too black and white, that in Mary Raferty’s world, the victims are 100 per cent right and the institutions are 100 per cent wrong. History, she could argue, has proved her largely and horrifyingly right. But if she questions others, she also relentlessly questions herself, seeking that appropriate balance for the investigative journalist and film-maker.

“There is always a difficulty in terms of the concept of balance when it comes to child abuse”, she says. “How exactly do you balance a programme on child abuse? Do you go and talk with the abusers? So that is a difficult thing. But in a TV programme you are presenting the audience with a set of arguments and asking them to make up their minds.”

As a child, Mary Raftery was always asking questions: curious about the world, how it worked and who worked it. Because her father, Adrian, worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs, her early life was peripatetic: five years in Washington, three years in Dublin (Clonskeagh) and three years in Paris before finally settling in Dublin (Goatstown) at the age of twelve.

Her mother, Ita, who later returned to a career in teaching (after studying the HDip) was a major influence, but being a middle child exerted its own weight. “I think that middle children are blessed with a certain stoicism”, she says and laughs. “We are not the favoured first or the pet last. We just get on with it which is the best way to be.”

Schooling was also nomadic. In Dublin she hopped, skipped and jumped from primary school at the Sacred Heart Nuns, Leeson Street to Mount Anville and Pembroke School, which was supplemented by classes at the all boys’ St Conleth’s.

Despite her comfortable upbringing, Raftery never felt at home in the gilded groves of Mount Anville, where the 12-year-old regularly clashed with authority, constantly asking why and penning an infamous essay on the notorious Pope Julius II. Eventually, her parents decided to move her to Pembroke School, where in her fifth year she and another girl became the first female students to study (maths and physics) at the all-male St Conleth’s. This lead to Engineering at UCD, where her instinctive journalism took over. If she took anything from science, it was a rigour that was to prove crucial in her later work.

How much did States of Fear change Raftery’s life? “That’s difficult to say”, she says. “The response to the programme was so huge that for a while people didn’t know what to do with me in RTÉ. I was in a sort of limbo.”

At the end of that year, 1999, she co-authored, Suffer Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools with Eoin O’Sullivan and within two years had completed a two-part documentary on the Christian Brothers. A year later, she made Cardinal Secrets which lead to the Dublin Inquiry. She describes these three programmes as a sort of trilogy, two of which lead to commissions of inquiry. In 2002, she left RTÉ. “There were a load of reasons, most of them to do with family”, she says. “But I also wanted the freedom to pursue things outside. If you are working for RTÉ, you can be limited in what you can write outside of RTÉ.”

Today, Raftery operates as a gun-for-hire. She writes a regular column for the Irish Times, has lectured in journalism at DCU and also teaches media studies at NUI Maynooth. The last TV programme she made was a 2008 Prime Time Special on the HSE. “It was called ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and I used Alice in Wonderland as a metaphor for the HSE”, she says and smiles. “It started out life looking at the Health Service and ended by looking at the meaning of life.”

For her, TV remains the hottest and most attractive, medium. “If you want to ask people to look at issues, you really need to be in television”, she says. So she is working on her next project, a venture with Saffron Pictures that is in the very early stages and has yet to be commissioned. “It is a three-part documentary, another exposé of mid-20th century Ireland”, she says.

The curiosity of the young pupil still burns brightly. “If you lose the sense of questioning as a journalist, you lose your way”, she says. “That curiosity keeps dragging me back and it’s not good enough that you know, you have to tell everybody else. That’s the show-off. And in a way, all journalists are show-offs.”

Donal O'Donoghue