Thursday, 17 May 2012


Reports hit the media in Northern Ireland, and David Cameron, British Prime Minister in London (51 degrees North, 0 degrees West) expresses regret about it, that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the police service before the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), have retained organs, tissues and body parts of individuals injured or killed in crime incidents. A skull was mentioned in the list of items. 

A church bell rang out across the city and I noticed a smell for the first time. The hospital smell. Formaldehyde. Bleach. Flowers wilting. Starched bed-sheets. Death. I lifted the sheet of paper and read Teresa's details, then a list. Whole brain. Lungs. Kidneys. Tissue samples: pancreas, spleen. Dates were noted and the phrase 'Retained Pathology Department'. 

This action by the RUC echoes a similar action of organ retention by medical authorities.

'There are a number of....Teresa is one of a number of ca...children whose organs were retained. For medical and scientific purposes. Like the others, Teresa has helped our diagnostic work over the years.'
This broke my vow of silence.
'We have no problem with that. But you should have told us. You should have asked us.'

The relationship between powerful institutions and citizens is complex. As for the individual who is representing the institution, who is also a citizen, at what point does s/he call 'halt!'?

He stood up. All the others had sat. A restless man, I could see that. A man used to moving. A man who acted, who took decisions and made things happen. He accepted the Chairwoman’s assertion that there would be public consultations. He explained certain – 'unwelcome' – practices as being historical, as being part of the way we did things then, more a case of ‘custom and practice’ than of policy. And then one of the two women who had come in late stood up and interrupted him.
'But nobody asked,' she said. Clear as day. A trumpet blast remark that stilled the room. One of those moments when the heartbeat of the world skips because something resonant has been said. 

In the face of the citizen in the institution, the one who blithely and successfully operates the institutional practice, the victim of the derogations of those institutions - Police, Medical, Church (the recent obfuscations by Cardinal Brady regarding his role in the un-monitored interrogation of teenage boys and his subsequent rise to  high office in his institution are relevant here), Education, Justice – reaches for the resonant moment and asks the searing question and offers dissent as a creative act of revelation.

‘Look, it says they’re reviewing procedures. People who agreed to have post-mortems may not have agreed to ...organ...organ retention.’
‘So what did we bury?’
Families experience an emotional roller-coaster as the news of this RUC organ retention comes out. Some of them may face a second funeral. A second walk to a grave. A further heart-searing approach to the lip of eternity.

'How do you walk away from a child’s grave?’
Slowly. Falteringly. In bowed and beaten procession through the sodden headstones, looking over the city. There, the walls circling and enfolding. There, the spires insolent and tremulous. There, the river, ominous and leaden. There, the chimney stacks of the factories and the plants, pluming and grey.
And here am I, tumbling inside myself, being led away, powerless and amazed.
There is no way to walk away from a child’s grave. You stand there forever. 

A Sudden Sun: novel; Dave Duggan; Guildhall Press; 2012

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