Monday 15 April 2024

Groomed and assaulted by a Christian Brother: ‘Abuse imprisons you but you can liberate yourself from those chains’

Parzival Presents · The Days of Trees · An Alan Gilsenan Film

During the latter stages of the pandemic, film-maker Alan Gilsenan, sound recordist Bob Brennan and producer Tomás Hardiman travelled to Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick to make a very unusual kind of film. 

“I sometimes wonder,” Gilsenan tells me, “is it really a film at all! It was all so intimate, and you had the sense of being involved in this ongoing and very intense conversation, like therapy nearly, so that at times the film itself felt almost incidental.”

​In The Days of Trees, those conversations slowly circle the elephant in the room — the fact that Hardiman was dealing with the recent realisation that he had been sexually abused by a Christian Brother as a child. He had reached that conclusion in an extraordinary fashion, and while you would expect anger to be his dominant emotion, he instead was on the hunt for closure, and inner peace.

“I’ve known Tomás for a long time,” Gilsenan says. “When we first met, he was the press officer in the Abbey Theatre, and I was directing a play there. Tomás was a good friend and neighbour of Tom Murphy, and I was directing one of Tom’s plays. ​

“Tomás was a very different person then — we were both young, and he was a bit of a wild man in the best sense. Over the years, he persuaded me to make a film about Tom Murphy, but also then later about Ivor Browne, another mutual friend. This film emerged from the Ivor film, really, because it was while we were making Meetings with Ivor that Tomás began to see Ivor in a professional capacity.”

During those sessions with the great psychiatrist, who died earlier this year, Tomás was nudged towards investigating a creeping anxiety that had dogged him since youth. In diaries written when he was a young teenager in Tuam, Tomás had described strange dreams that seemed to involve some sort of traumatic event. With Browne’s help, he resurrected a long-suppressed memory of having been sexually assaulted and abused by a Christian Brother. In doing so, he would now have to learn how to openly deal with it.

“It was odd,” Gilsenan says, “that the place Tomás chose for our trip was actually a religious institution. And it was a very intense thing, because there were just the three of us — myself, Bob Brennan and Tomás — and I mean, we weren’t quite living together, but it almost felt like it. It was very intense and sometimes I felt, in those interviews, many of which happened at night, that I would almost slip into the place of the accuser, or a barrister.

“We were obviously there to make a film but there was an element of a retreat to it as well. There was something beautiful in the music and the prayers and the discipline of that — not even a religious thing necessarily, but we just found that by getting up early, attending matins, it just brought you into an inner place where you could talk about these things. And I have to say the monks in Glenstal, they knew what we were doing, they didn’t ask questions, they didn’t get involved, but they were hugely supportive.”

The Days of Trees is shot in black and white, apart from a few tantalising glimpses of home movies from Tomás’s childhood. He was one of seven children, from a cultural and musical family, grew up in Church View, Tuam and attended the local Christian Brothers’ school. It was there that he was groomed and abused by a charismatic young brother.

His descriptions of the Christian Brothers and their swishing soutanes are compelling, and in the film he recalls the moment when the young brother first arrived and came to meet the class. While he was passing between the desks, young Tomás innocently piped up “What’s your name?”, and would later wonder if he had, in that moment, fatally attracted the abuser’s attention.

He describes bluntly the abuse itself, and yet viewers might be perplexed as to how he managed to suppress these horrible scenarios for so much of his adult life.

“Memory plays curious tricks,” Gilsenan says, “and the film is partly about that — is what we remember true, and how do we suppress memories? There’s always a suspicion when people say, ‘I suppressed that memory but it’s come back to me now’. But I think in this case, it’s absolutely true.

“One of the side effects of abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, is that you don’t trust anything in yourself, and I think that becomes part of the abuse because it removes your sense of self, and your inner conviction. So I was aware that because we knew each other, because we were friends, that I, as the representative of the audience, would have to be tough and ask hard questions. And I quite like the fact that, once or twice in the film, he’s almost annoyed with me.”

As a young man, Hardiman never discussed any of this with anyone. After studying business at Galway, he headed to Canada to become a theatre manager, returned to Dublin to land a dream job at the Abbey, then moved west to manage the Galway Arts Centre, got married and had a child. But all the while there was a dark shadow that would catch up with him.

It was those sessions with Browne that lifted the lid on buried trauma, and in The Days of Trees, he continues his journey by speaking publicly for the first time about what happened.

“What was interesting for me was that Tomás seemed to gain in strength as we filmed,” Gilsenan says. “The first day we started the interview, I asked him about his family and he started to cry, and I was thinking, ‘Jesus, we’re never gonna get through this, we’re only an hour in!’. But in fact, he seemed to grow: over the week, it was almost like he gathered his own strength and clarity in a way we hadn’t seen before.”

Outside, meanwhile, a storm was gathering over Limerick. “We were talking late into the night, and this storm was blowing up outside, and eventually, just as I felt we were getting closer and closer to actually talking in detail about the abuse, there was a power cut. I didn’t want to stop filming because we were kind of on a roll, so I lit a candle and we carried on.”

More than the sadness of it all, the thing that strikes you as you watch is Hardiman’s humanity and dignity.

“He’s a remarkably open person, perhaps because of his experience and how he’s worked through it, and sometimes I would almost feel I had to protect him from himself,” Gilsenan says. “But there are very few people who are so willing to engage with the truth of their life, which he does so honestly, and every time I watch it, I’m always taken aback at how frank he is, how totally committed.”

Although Hardiman and Gilsenan embark on a quixotic trip at the end of the film to the town where his abuser lives, Tomás is adamant that he will not reveal the person’s identity, nor confront him.

“You’d get angry on his behalf, and you really would feel like, let’s drive to the local garda station and put this on the record, and I think what is unusual about Tomás is that he didn’t want to do that, and that his engagement with it is more profound. I mean, anybody is entitled to justice, but it was very interesting that that’s not what he wanted. He wanted to find some peace, some resolution, and even that wasn’t given him.”

In 2016, Hardiman wrote courteous, conciliatory letters to the superior general of the Christian Brothers, and to his abuser, but received no reply.

“He would say that, for him, the legal process, and the process that various religious associations have embarked on with hundreds of people under a guise of reconciliation, that that in a way repeats the abuse, because as soon as you make an accusation, the law has to start accusing you. And this process in Ireland doesn’t happen quickly, so people go through having come out and made the accusation, then spend years and years being tortured by inquisition. Tomás didn’t want any of that.”

Did making the film help him heal?

“I think so, yes. There is something in having your story heard, and heard fully, that I think is healing. Tomás genuinely felt that there was some huge weight lifted, and I think now that the film is coming out, that’ll happen even more. Because this is a story, a weight, a shame even, that he’s had to carry, and he definitely feels liberated by that.

“I remember Ivor Browne saying to him once, not long ago, not long before he died, ‘That’s great now, you’ve told your story, now get on with your life’. I think that’s true. Sometimes we have to own all the things that happened to us, good and bad, and move on and then live. Abuse imprisons you, and by owning and articulating that somehow, you can kind of liberate yourself from those chains.”

‘The Days of Trees’ is in selected cinemas now