News Gerard O'Regan

Friday 22 August 2014

An illegitimate child could sink a family further into poverty

Published 07/06/2014 | 02:30

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Saint Peter's square in Rome
Saint Peter's square in Rome

There was a time in rural Ireland when the amount of money donated by individuals and families to various Catholic Church collections was read out from the altar by the local priest at Sunday Mass.

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As the priest intoned his way through the names, listing whether they gave five shillings, 10 shillings, one pound, or even the odd five pounds, it was a public affirmation of where people were placed in the social hierarchy. Those financially better off were obviously near the top of the contributions list, those doing not too badly in the middle, and the really hard done by somewhere near the bottom.

So when it came to monies for Christmas or Easter Dues, or whatever the awesome power of unquestioned Irish Catholicism expected at the time, everybody knew and accepted their place. This was determined by their economic circumstances. And it would be unmarried mothers from the five shillings – or less – contributions figure, who would most likely end up in places like the converted Famine workhouse run by the nuns in Tuam, now at the centre of international controversy.

Those who want to get their heads round the fact that the bodies of nearly 800 babies and young children were seemingly disposed of in such shocking circumstances need to transport themselves back to the Ireland we had from the 1920s to the 1960s. It is absolutely pointless, when trying to understand the motives of the nuns involved, applying the norms of this more affluent, mainly secular, better informed age, to the psychological rigidity of Ireland back then.

Those children and their mothers were treated with a harshness almost beyond belief when viewed from the perspective of 2014. But the reasons why it happened are complicated and multi-layered. They are to do with views at the time on social class, land and money, underpinned by an overwhelming fear as to what "illegitimacy'' could wreak on families. Broadly speaking, if you were down the social hierarchy, and became an unmarried mother, the Catholic Church, and society at large, determined you and the child had to be removed from the mainstream of Irish life. As has been well documented, there were also undertones, promulgated by the Church, and agreed to by the mass of the population, that atonement would have to be made for one of the most grievous sins it was possible to commit at the time. There certainly could be no happiness, contentment, or resolution, for all concerned. The mother would have to suffer – and be seen to suffer – and by extension the child also.

Apart from priests and nuns a huge swathe of Irish public opinion would have agreed with those sentiments. For a profound fear stalked the country, over the sense of shame, and possible financial ruin, that could be brought about having an unmarried mother in the family,

In rural areas there was a terror that an "illegitimate child" could disrupt carefully orchestrated inheritance practices. To keep the holding viable, and poverty at bay, only one person could succeed to the farm, usually the eldest son.

A post-Famine folk memory of hunger, poverty, and dispossession still haunted much of the Irish psyche. There was a belief that no matter what happened, there could be no breaking away from the rigidity of accepted social norms. For example, between the 1920s and the 1950s we had one of the lowest marriage rates in the developed world. For many people marriage was not a viable economic proposition. Emigration was the other safety valve for getting rid of many of those who were unemployed.

The urban poor also realised that apart altogether from an overwhelming sense of shame arising from what was called illegitimacy, it would also sink many families into even deeper poverty.

So religious orders such as the nuns in Tuam took it upon themselves to look after the children of these women who had deviated from a hardline social consensus. But they too shared the prejudices and fears of the wider population. The mothers and babies in their care were looked down on – essentially regarded as a threat to society. That was a belief shared by nearly everybody else in the grand scheme of things. What would happen if this kind of behaviour was to spread?

This meant a vast conspiracy of self-interested silence continued. The priests, the nuns, the gardai, the doctors, nurses, the farmers, the employers, the civil servants, the community leaders, all adopted a policy of asking no questions, and looking the other way. That was Ireland then for many people. It was harsh, judgmental, unyielding, hypocritical, fearful, and wrapped in a cloak of mass Catholic piety.

But now there is a tendency to rush to judgment against those nuns who were in the front line – doing what they believed the majority of Irish people wanted them to do. There certainly seems to have been little Christianity in this most Catholic of homes. Maybe that was the ultimate tragedy. It was supposed to be a last refuge for the defeated and the vulnerable but it failed them – all too often with unthinking cruelty.

Gerard O'Regan

Irish Independent

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