Sunday 28 May 2017

Alan O'Keeffe: 'We have a terrible history of ignoring those who suffered'

Magdalenes’ legal adviser: Barrister Maeve O’Rourke Picture: Damien Eagers
Magdalenes’ legal adviser: Barrister Maeve O’Rourke Picture: Damien Eagers

Alan O'Keeffe

In the graveyard at the Donnybrook Magdalene laundry, there are numerous crosses with no names on them.

"The nuns' graves are marked by these ornate, quite large crosses . . . whereas the Magdalene women are off in the corner with small plain crosses completely different to the nuns and, for a lot of those crosses, there are no names on them," barrister Maeve O'Rourke says.

The legal adviser to the Justice for Magdalenes Research group, she has backed calls to search the old laundry site in Dublin 4 amid concerns some women buried there may not have had their deaths properly recorded.

It's just one issue the Government will have to consider as part of a wider investigation into how unmarried women were treated by the State during some of the darkest moments in our history. Groups representing affected women are seeking an expansion of the remit of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes to include all such institutions that operated in the State.

It comes after the commission last week confirmed a large number of babies' remains were found in what appeared to be a septic tank on the site of the demolished Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co Galway.

The home closed in 1961. Further excavations at other homes have not been ruled out.

The Religious Sisters of Charity, who ran the Donnybrook laundry between 1833 and 1992, have insisted that no women are in unmarked graves - all those who died are properly accounted for, they say.

But suspicions remain, particularly after Dublin City Council senior archaeologist Dr Ruth Johnson stated in a report that it was "possible" that some women could have been buried on land proposed for an apartment development, adjacent to the cemetery. She referred to instances of incomplete record-keeping by these institutions, including the uncovering of a number of bodies in a burial ground adjacent to a Magdalene laundry in Drumcondra in the 1990s which were insufficiently documented.

Maeve O'Rourke says further investigation is needed and that the State needs to consult with affected women who lived in the laundries and mother and baby homes before changes to investigations into the institutions are undertaken.

"I think there is a terrible history of not listening to the very people affected by these issues," she said.

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Children's Minister Katherine Zappone should meet personally with women who have experience of the institutions before deciding on any changes, she added.

And she said legislation should be changed to allow individuals access personal data relating to them which had been provided to the Commission, as well as lifting restrictions on accessing documentation.

There are still too many restrictions for adopted people seeking to learn about their biological parents. It was a "fundamental human right" to fully establish one's own identity.

The Justice for Magdalenes Research group has identified 182 agencies, institutions and individuals who were involved with unmarried mothers and their babies from the turn of the last century to the 1990s. They facilitated the adoption of children, sometimes illegally, as well as arranging for them to be 'boarded out' and taken into families.

They include private nursing homes, Magdalene Laundries, 14 Mother and Baby Homes and county homes, four of which are under scrutiny due to the number of women who passed through their doors.

The 182 have been forwarded to the Commission, and includes individuals who facilitated adoptions such as priests and doctors.

The group believes that as many as 100,000 children may have been taken from their mothers.

The Mother and Baby Homes were established from the 1920s, and were supposed to provide better facilities for unmarried mothers and their children. Prior to this, unmarried mothers went to county homes. The idea was they would be better cared for in dedicated facilities, and so homes in Tuam, Bessborough in Cork and St Patrick's on the Navan Road in Dublin were established, followed by 11 more over the years.

In practice, women continued to be admitted to county homes to have their babies until the 1950s. Archived annual reports from the Department of Health show that in March 1950, there were 29 county homes across the State. They had 9,174 beds, and cot spaces for 552, suggesting they continued in active use until this time by unmarried women.

Many of the Mother and Baby Homes remained in existence throughout the 1980s, with the government providing financial support to seven, totalling more than £850,000 (€1m) in 1986 alone. Most had closed by the late 1990s.

Irish Independent

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