The shocking thing about the latest disclosure of atrocities by the Catholic Church in Ireland is that it is not disclosure at all. Everybody knew. The figure of 9,000 dead babies is clarification of the scale of neglect in the Mother and Baby homes in the Republic and that warrants some dwelling on. This is double the average mortality rate for babies that did not have two parents in that period.
It was worse in the early years of the Irish state and improved as conditions broadly improved for everybody. Nuns, religious sisters, allegedly doing God's work, were so careless in their attention to needy little newborns that they let thousands of them die. The numbers who died and were buried in the grounds of the homes was drawn to our attention by the historian Catherine Corless. She discovered that a patch of land at the site of a home run by the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam, Co Galway was a graveyard for hundreds of lost babies.
There is no forgiveness for that unless from the God they purported to be serving. But neither is it news to the people of Ireland that pregnant girls were shunted aside and regarded as a disgrace to themselves and their families.
That culture produced not just horrible conditions for the girls and babies, but also botched abortions and unhappy enforced marriages.
Neither is it news that members of the religious orders were brutal and petty-minded. All of this is understood within our own family histories, or not far removed from them.
Of course, some people will come back with the claim that the religious weren't all bad and, of course, they weren't, but the same people are unlikely to allow that excuse for the RUC, or the British Army.
Something had gone horribly wrong in Irish society when a supposedly charitable organisation was inflicting such damage. But Ireland had become so accustomed to Church brutality that it allowed it to continue, took it for granted.
People thought themselves to be better Christians themselves when they honoured this Church. That the Church was an affliction is plain from the memoirs of the time, the number of books by Irish writers that describe vicious teachers, cynical abusers and narrow, stunted and petty-minded bishops wielding unreasonable power.
The future historians of Irish culture won't have to dig hard for the evidence. A succession of reports has unfolded some of the stark detail of sexual abuse by religious orders, then by parish clergy and now this.
Add to that the corporal punishment in schools - including primary schools - and you have a sad picture of Ireland of the Welcomes.
And while the shock goes deep, we don't have the excuse that we didn't know. Nobody has.
The homes themselves reported the deaths. Those mass graves were not secret burial grounds. They were not dug at night by torchlight while the world slept, to cover up a secret shame. The nuns were not ashamed. The people who were ashamed were the women giving birth in those homes. They were the ones who were told that they were sinners. They were the ones shunned by their families.
And that is a part of the horror that Micheal Martin was frank about this week, to the annoyance of some. For society did not want these women.
I was born in the 1950s and knew young women of my age who got pregnant in the 1960s and I recall the furtive whispering in corners, lest the children hear. I recall the stories - as in Maureen Boyle's poem Weathervane (overleaf) - of women being sent away and the devices deployed to pretend to the rest of the family and neighbours that they had a job, or were studying in England.
Maureen's poem is based on the experience of a friend who was in such a home in Belfast. She would write a postcard every week to her family and have someone take it to Portrush to post from there, so that the postman would think she was working there. The postman! Because he might gossip with the neighbours.
This dark side of the Catholic Church has deeper meaning still in our northern experience. The allegation from unionists during the years of James Craig and Basil Brooke's premierships that the Catholic Church was a blight on the lives of Irish Catholics and a wielder of power in the southern state was their firmest rebuttal of the invitation to be part of a united Ireland. Home Rule was Rome rule. Well, it was.
Nationalist Ireland never took that unionist concern seriously and saw it as a meaningless excuse. Then, in the 1960s, when Rev Ian Paisley's Protestant Telegraph started publishing lurid stories of abuse by priests, we saw that as malicious fiction.
Probably much of it was. But an intuition lay behind it, that a celibate clergy and a Church that recruited children into celibate religious orders was not going to produce a healthy social outcome.
Later, some in the south saw social reforms, like the legalisation of contraception and divorce, as helping to make the Republic a more genial home for Protestants - one that unionists might be happier to be part of.
And the Republic is now secularising rapidly. Unionists are silent about the reports on abuse and the Mother and Baby homes and that needs explained.
In one sense, they may feel that it is none of their business. They may be wary of berating nationalism for its failure to address Catholic Church power and abuse over decades, lest they later be found to have secrets of their own.
When the reports on abuse by clergy came out, I interviewed Paul Muldoon about it for BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence. Paul is a Pullitzer prize-winning poet from The Moy in Co Armagh.
He pointed to the fact that someone had rebuked the Orange Order for commenting on clerical abuse. He said, they have every right to comment. Any good citizen would. And he wondered if the damage done to Ireland by the Catholic Church wasn’t greater than that inflicted by the British.
But perhaps unionism doesn’t feel that it can cash in any advantage for having been right about the Catholic Church, for it is clear now that those days are over.
The future will test how important the Catholic Church was in deterring unionists from joining the Republic. Some, perhaps most, will retain their objection despite their traditional argument having expired.
Ireland is in a special place in relation to the Catholic Church. The bishops had enormous influence on society and government through the 20th century.
The Church controlled much of education and healthcare. In the Republic, it even campaigned against social welfare for mothers, arguing that provision for babies could not be the state’s responsibility. They helped frame a constitution in which a woman’s place was in the home. Having been through all that, it is inconceivable that the country would go back.
Irish nationalism has been so intrinsically bound up with the Catholic Church that IRA memorials even still feature the rosary, but no Sinn Fein leader now is going to pay reverence
to the Church in the way their predecessors did.
And this is significant, because in other parts of the world — even in the United States — radical patriotic nationalistic movements are tending towards moralistic politics and seeking Catholic Church endorsement.
So, Donald Trump argues against abortion and appoints a conservative Catholic, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court.
It is inconceivable now that nationalism would turn moralistic in Ireland and that’s because we’ve already been through that and come out the other end.
Anne Applebaum’s new book, The Twilight of Democracy, traces how nationalistic movements in Spain, Poland, the US and elsewhere are motivated by Housea desire to return to an uncomplicated moral social order in which homosexuality and abortion were regarded as vile.
Movements like that have no problem with a bishop whispering in the ear of a president.
That won’t happen in Ireland again. But how far have we moved if northern Protestants feel inhibited from commenting on the damage done to this society and to their neighbours by the Catholic clergy and religious orders?
Are they not even tempted to congratulate themselves for having spared the Catholics in the north the worst of Church excesses?
Or will it come out that, even under unionism in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the Church was allowed fiefdom over the faithful?
In the Republic, the hard question is: who allowed it to happen? And the answer includes the fathers and mothers of those pregnant girls, who rejected them, motivated no doubt by a harsh morality promoted by the same Church that bemoaned having to clean up the mess.
In the north, when the picture becomes clear — and the pressure is on for an inquiry — will unionists wonder if they conceded too much to the Church, allowing it to do things its own way.
Or will they think it so distant from their own history that it is none of their business?
This poem is based on the true story of a punishment meted out to a young woman in the convent on Carolan Road, at the top of the Ormeau Road, where she went to have her baby in the 1970s.
The convent where she gave her baby up was opposite what is now a housing development.
I posted this poem on Twitter on the day that the report on the Mother and Baby homes in the south was published and the range of responses showed that this institution was very much a part of Belfast. People remembered being taken to visit women there, going to collect family laundry and being fussed over by the nuns, the fact that the women washed the linen of Belfast’s hotels and in some cases remembered their own time there. By Maureen Boyle
Your love, Lord reaches to heaven
your truth to the skies.
I am on the roof this breezy day,
In the sixth month of my pregnancy,
Picking off the moss and lichen and tossing them
In soft bouquets to the ground.
Above me are the chimneys —
Their stacks the colour of sand
And round the tops, circles of hearts
Opening... to the sky.
I am a billowing blown crow
In my dark work clothes
And this is punishment for vanity.
For finding my face in a bucket of blue
Sister brought me up the back stairs.
The slates I clean are greens and shell-greys
that turn dark ink-blue in rain.
Today is a weather-breeder
The nuns say, presaging a storm,
So I am here to clean the way
And the rain will wash the loosened moss
In green runnels when it comes.
I am as high as the monkey puzzle,
Its open branches wide smiles
At the level of my eye, arms outstretched —
As if they’d catch me.
Down below is the road I will walk
My baby across to give him away
He, in a big dicky-up pram,
Me, all dressed. Every Monday
The nuns take me to the parlour
To write a card telling everyone
Who needs to know: that I am well,
That the sea is wild, that I am working hard,
That I miss them, when all the while:
I’m sitting at an oak table —
The smell of polish heavy in the air,
The grandmother clock ticking nearby,
Dry spider plants on the windowsills
And a sad-eyed Mary hanging her head
In the corner. They take a lot of trouble
With the cards. The gardener runs them
Up to Portrush and posts them there
So that the stamp’s right, so that the postman
Can tell everyone I’m grand
And it’s not just my parents’ word on it.
I talk to my baby up here.
We’re not supposed to but the wind
Takes the words away.
They say Our Lady had no pain
In either the making or getting of God
And she was allowed to keep him.
I’d have liked mine to have an angel for a father —
He’d have been light on me.
I mind my Granny saying
that when the midwife helping Mary
Put her hand in to touch
It withered away.
Who’ll help me when the time comes?
It’ll be one of them and I think I’d love
To have that power to wither their hands.
My hands are cold; the first raindrops splashing
On the slate. The red bricks of the walls burn
In the dying sun’s colour and the birds have gone,
Taking the little offerings of moss and lichen.
They’ll line their nests with them.
Weather Vane is from the collection The Work of a Winter, published by Arlen House