News Carol Hunt

Sunday 31 August 2014

Collusion of community, religion and State spawned true horrors

Politicians ignore graves of dead babies yet protect the right to life of the unborn

Carol Hunt

Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30

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STIGMA: The interior of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin’s north inner city. Nuns of orders who ran these institutions complain that they are being blamed for meeting a need in society. Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire

"The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are." Maya Angelou

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It was like something from a Stephen King horror film. In broad daylight, outside the High Court in Lahore, Pakistan, Farzana Parveen was stoned to death by members of her own family in full view of a crowd of onlookers – including members of the police force. Her unborn baby died with her. Even worse, her widower admitted to murdering his first wife but, as he was forgiven by her family, Pakistan's 'blood laws' ensured he escaped justice – just as Farzana's killers probably will. Yes, I know, it's horrific, barbaric and obscene. But thousands of these 'honour killings' occur each year in religion- based cultures. This is what happens when communities, clerics and the state collude to control female behaviour.

We had news of our own Stephen King horror story last week in Ireland. One which also involved allegedly 'wanton women', dead babies and the collusion of community and country. What? You though we were different, did you? You thought wrong.

It was nigh on 40 years ago when Barry Sweeney and Francis Hopkins, playing in a field in Tuam, found a tank with a cracked concrete lid, threw some stones at it and were "shocked when they opened it up and found that it was full, up to the brim of "little bones, little skulls".

Gothic horror it may have been for those young boys – but not a story in itself. "Cillini", or children's burial grounds, date from the early Christian era in Ireland and hundreds, thousands perhaps, are to found all over the country. They are sites where still-born or unbaptised children were buried, usually in shame, between dusk and dawn. It was said that the souls of these babies were cursed to carry a candle forever after in Limbo. Awful, I know, but that, as they say, was the culture of the times.

Thankfully Limbo was abolished in 2007 by Benedict XVI – which is great news for babies who have been born and died since then, but not so good for all those souls committed there during its previous 800 years of existence.

Dead babies were, sadly, a fact of life for many families up until the early 20th century. And, with the high child mortality rates of previous centuries and the devastation of the Famine still evident, it was concluded locally that the septic tank full of baby bones, found by those two young boys, must have been a mass Famine grave.

And there it would have ended if it hadn't been for some dogged research by local historian Catherine Corless. The septic tank was on the grounds of a 'Mother and Baby' home which had been run between 1925 and the Sixties. Going through the records, Corless discovered the death certificates for 796 babies who had died there, and by doing a cross-check of cemetery archives, she realised that there was no grave for them – bar the septic tank. Further investigation showed that some of the children kept in the home were described by local health officials as being; "pot-bellied", "emaciated", and "fragile" with "flesh hanging loosely on limbs". The worrying condition of these children was well known to health authorities – though in 1961 an article in the Connaught Tribune detailing complaints about the sudden death of a four-year-old child at the home has the local TD wanting it discussed privately as "publicity of this kind is not good for the country".

In an interview with Philip Boucher Hayes last week, Catherine Corless explained why these dead babies would not have been buried in family graves.

"Those mothers were sent in by their families," she said.

"They [the families] would probably have told their neighbours that she had gone to England, whereas she would have gone into the Mother and Baby home. And those families didn't allow these mothers home again – such was the stigma on unmarried mothers at that time – and I said to myself that it was very, very unlikely ... that they [the family] would take a dead child."

Why would they? When they hadn't wanted it when it was alive? And this didn't happen to just the poor and destitute. The more socially ambitious and "genteel" the family, the quicker the pregnant daughter would be whisked into a home and the existence of a child denied. (But no doubt they described themselves as 'pro-life' and 'deplored abortion'.) This, as we say, was the culture of our times.

Nuns of orders who ran these institutions complain that they are being blamed for filling "a need in society". "All the shame of the era is being dumped on the religious orders ... the sins of society are being placed on us," said an anonymous nun to interviewer Claire McCormack, last year.

And while there is absolutely no excuse for the cruelty, degradation and sheer inhumanity suffered by many of the women who were forced to work in these homes, there's no arguing that the orders are not solely to blame. Everybody knew what was going on. Everyone colluded. The nuns insist that they took in these women because of what was outside – "even if a woman did escape and jump the walls she still wasn't free from the stigma because the stigma was in society. It was a whole society thing. It wasn't just because they were in the Magdalene."

This is what happens when religious ideology is accepted by the State as a means of controlling sections of the population. This is what happens when an entire population

and their leaders sacrifice their ability to think critically, to use their judgement and remember their humanity. This is what happens in a country where politicians are duped into ignoring mass graves of dead babies while they support referendums to protect the life of the 'unborn'.

But that was then and this is now, and things have changed utterly since then, haven't they?

I suspect that if you ask the mothers who are forced to carry babies with fatal foetal abnormalities to term, or to travel to a foreign country to have those babies and then have to leave them behind without a burial, may not agree with you. Or teachers who have to hide their sexuality because it goes against the ethos of our State-funded schools.

And in 20 years or so, we will look back, shake our heads in wonder and say, "Ah, but that was the culture of the times."

Twitter: @carolmhunt

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