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pray for our sinners

'Here's a group who risked everything for others, but didn't tell anyone about it'

We speak to the director of a new film about a ‘quiet resistance’ against the Catholic Church in Navan.

HEROES DON’T ALWAYS advertise that they are heroes. Those that do might not really be the heroes they think they are. 

In Irish filmmaker Sinéad O’Shea’s new documentary, Pray for Our Sinners, those responsible for heroic things clearly didn’t see themselves as such. To them, their acts of resistance were quiet acts, not done for attention but because they were the right things to do.

O’Shea’s previous documentary, the acclaimed A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot (2817), told the story of paramilitary groups in Derry, and the legacy of the Troubles for the youth of Northern Ireland.

In Pray for Our Sinners, in cinemas from 21 April, the journalist and filmmaker turns the lens on her hometown, Navan, and a number of people who quietly but effectively pushed back against the control of the Catholic Church in people’s personal lives.

The documentary, filmed during the Covid period, is a moving and hopeful look at the experiences of four people – three women and one man – in Navan.

We meet Mary Randles, an unassuming but open-hearted doctor who, along with her husband Paddy Randles, played a pivotal role in assisting and supporting women sent to mother-and-baby homes; providing people with contraception when it was banned in Ireland; and even helping one woman to rescue her child when she was being sent to be adopted.

That woman was Betty, who is also featured. Pregnant outside of marriage, she was sent to a mother-and-baby home to give birth. So too was another interviewee, Ethna, who refused to do what was expected of her and did not agree to have her daughter adopted.

The fourth interviewee is Norman, who as a young boy suffered severe corporal punishment in the classroom. He was helped by Dr Paddy Randles to speak out about what was happening, and in turn their actions helped contribute to a successful movement calling for corporal punishment – the sanctioned hitting of children by their teachers – to be banned. But due to this, he had to leave school at the age of nine, and speaks to O’Shea about the damage the situation caused him on a personal level. 

Church and State

All four wouldn’t refer to themselves as brave, as heroes, or as doing anything notable. But their personal actions taken together display a microcosm of Ireland’s relationship with Catholicism – from the deeply enmeshed church and State, to the pressures put on individuals to conform.

When O’Shea was growing up in Navan, she had no idea about the stories of the people she ended up interviewing. A friend of hers, Sinéad Maguire, a former Mayor of Navan, told her: “I think you should look into the Randles for your next film.” O’Shea didn’t know who the Randles were, but at the time Maguire was involved in campaigning for a bench to be installed in Navan town centre in Paddy Randle’s memory.

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“I thought it was a really brilliant story, but I wasn’t sure if you could get a whole feature documentary out of that,” recalled O’Shea when she learned more about the Randles and their involvement in campaigning against corporal punishment. “But I thought I’d go and meet Dr Mary anyway. She was exactly as she in the film – just very delightful. Very self-effacing and modest and funny. But so self-effacing that actually, she just didn’t mention anything she had done through the years.”

The pair would go on to meet up regularly, and mainly spoke about Paddy’s involvement in the fight against corporal punishment. O’Shea applied for development funding from Screen Ireland and decided to shoot interviews with Mary and Norman on this topic. Then the mother-and-baby home report came out in 2021. 

“I said ‘Mary, this is really shocking, isn’t it?’ And she said, ‘I know, because we were in so many mother-and-baby homes’,” said O’Shea. “It just gradually came out that they [Paddy and Mary] had hidden all these women from mother-and-baby homes, that they had rescued babies who had been kidnapped from maternity hospitals; that Paddy had even loaned his car to this man who wanted to visit his partner in a mother-and-baby home.”

Gradually, O’Shea discovered more of Mary and her husband’s story, like how they had helped people with contraception, and abortion advice. 

It eventually emerged “that they had actually spearheaded a whole resistance – but they would never have used that term. They would think that was really grandiose,” said O’Shea.

“Even that aspect, I really loved it. Because I do feel nowadays people who attend a protest pontificate about it on social media – and here’s a whole group of people who genuinely risked everything for others, who didn’t even think to tell anyone about it, and certainly wouldn’t have put a name on it.

I just thought that was so beautiful and so striking. So I really wanted to celebrate both the resistance and the modesty of their resistance.

Documentary making

The process of making the documentary was swift, but not without its challenges. Documentary-making on a small budget is always going to be rife with challenges as it is, but due to Covid there were issues with finding crew, while the editing process stretched on across nine months. O’Shea didn’t pay herself during the making of the film. And yet overall, the film was relatively quickly made, and it feels particularly timely. 

“It was worth it in an artistic way,” said O’Shea. “It was a real struggle, from a production perspective – but I do think it’s worth it, it is a good document of something.”

O’Shea’s own relationship with Navan and the church is a thread running through the film. Initially, she didn’t include herself at all. She was advised by her co-producer to add herself in, but refused, but when André Singer, a fellow documentary producer who has worked with Werner Herzog, also advised her to include herself, she changed her mind. She realised they were both right: it made sense to include herself, even if it was difficult for her.

“That was like pulling teeth. Everything else was so easy to do. I really felt so self-conscious. But I think it would have been odd not to acknowledge it,” she said.

Reflecting on her own relationship with the Catholic Church, O’Shea said she has “quite mixed feelings”. “In some ways, I think it can be a privilege to grow up in a religious environment, because you do have this relationship with religious text that is I think very sophisticated for children in some ways. And then you have this constant engagement with morality and ethics.”

She went to a “very rural” primary school which she was “very lucky” to go to, and has fond memories of the kids running around singing hymns. “We were just genuinely very happy, very aware of God. It was really only later that I found out about the misdeeds of the church. I felt… I always felt the patriarchy of Ireland, without knowing any of the words for it,” she told The Journal. “I was always very conscious of what I could say or do, even as a little girl, which is obviously an offshoot of Catholicism, but Catholicism I had much less of an issue with, part from maybe finding mass quite boring.”

By focusing on her hometown and the issues inherent in parts of it, is she nervous about the response? The screening is on 18 April in Navan, which will be a “big day”, she says. Her two sisters live in the town. “So far the feedback has been very positive. There was a minibus of people who came down from Navan to the screening in Dublin. I’d say there’ll be people watching the film, who will be like, ‘oh, dear, this is a bit of a hatchet job’. But then I think by the time you get to the end of it, you’ll see it’s quite nuanced… and that there is actually a lot to celebrate here.” She’s gotten several messages from people telling her about things that the Randles did for them. 

Gaining power

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What does she hope people get out of the film? “I really don’t think it serves as a condemnation of the church, but I do think it issues a warning against any entity gaining too much power,” said O’Shea. “The church was completely facilitated by the State. And so that was a very dysfunctional relationship, and that really didn’t work. So I think we need to be quite vigilant about that.”

“Still, obviously, these things are not remotely in the past – there’s still thousands of children [who were in mother-and-baby homes] unaccounted for. There’s still issues for people who’ve been adopted. There’s huge issues around education. 

“So I suppose it serves as a warning against that kind of Church-State collusion. I would hope it also suggests that we should just be wary of any kind of power grab and we should be vigilant of any groupthink – because it’s possible to have groupthink no matter what your ideology.”

Pray for our Sinners is in cinemas from 21 April.  

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