State turned its back on these infants in life, it must not do so again in death
Published 05/06/2014 | 02:30
The dead children were thrown aside, the way a piece of rubbish is scrapped. Dumped in a septic tank. No coffins for the tiny bodies in their plain shrouds, no headstones to mark the place where they lay. Pets are buried with more dignity. But those scraps of humanity were treated carelessly, as though best forgotten. As inconvenient in death as in life.
The septic tank babies, almost 800 children born to unmarried mothers in a home in Co Galway, remind us of an Ireland we might prefer to forget. Except forgetting would be another act of betrayal.
Their bones are crying out to the living. In justice, they deserve a State-sponsored investigation into their deaths. And they are due a memorial, with their names listed on it, to restore some of the dignity denied to them. In life, the State abandoned its responsibility to these babies. In death, it cannot abdicate responsibility a second time. It has a duty to act, and quickly.
Perhaps some weariness can be detected in public attitudes to the emergence of yet another dirty secret from the past. The Catholic Church's tough stance on 'fallen' women is no surprise, nor is the State's failure to protect either unmarried mothers or their children. But the shocking element unfolding here springs from the cause of death – for a significant number, malnutrition is listed on their death certificates – and in the volume of bodies. This is a mass grave containing some 796 children aged between a few days and nine years. Times were difficult in the early decades of the State, but not so gruelling that children had to die of hunger. That's down to neglect and underfunding. It is convenient to blame the nuns in Tuam, and elsewhere, for what happened in such homes. Condemnation has been shrill. But at least the Bon Secours sisters put a roof over the heads of mothers and their children when they ran the home between 1926 and 1961.
Unlike the fathers who washed their hands of any involvement in the pregnancies. Unlike the families who turned pregnant women out on the street. Unlike the State which part-funded mother and baby homes but refused to accept any responsibility for the way they were run. Who else was prepared to take in the women? Their options were few. And let us not forget that rape and incest are part of this story, too. How many of these women, some of them just girls, castigated as sinners were sinned against by family members? The smug piety which characterised official Ireland preferred to keep the women out of sight, out of mind. The same applied to the so-called fruits of the women's sin. It was never a man's sin.
Religious mindsets shaped social mindsets, shaped government mindsets. People at various levels of society turned a blind eye to how mother and baby homes operated. The septic tank arrangement may not have been widely known, but members of the community knew about the vulnerability of those who were housed in such institutions.
Staff in the homes must have seen how the children were treated. Doctors and nurses in attendance must have seen. Priests paying visits must have seen. Public officials conducting inspections must have seen. Some (not many) spoke out – and were ignored. Widespread discrimination against unwed mothers and illegitimate children allowed it to happen. So, too, did the habit of deference to the Catholic Church, and to other forms of authority.
But let's not rush to point the finger at religious institutions alone. Blame can be shared. Relatives could have taken the children's bodies and laid them to rest in the family plot. Indeed, families could have kept pregnant daughters at home, or allowed them to return with their babies after the birth.
A nationwide pattern is visible in such uncompromising attitudes: the insistence with which official Ireland treated unmarried mothers as shameful, and allowed men to escape the consequences of their sexual behaviour. This week, the spotlight falls on the home in Tuam. Next week, it could be any town in Ireland. And while attractive or healthy babies were sold to well-heeled adoptive parents, ailing children were left to sink or swim in cash-starved institutions where they would know little love and much neglect. Survival of the fittest: the State's policy was Darwinian.
As early as 1934, a Dail debate noted that one in three babies born outside marriage died within their first year – five times the national rate. TDs concluded these children were uncared for – but nothing was done. In 1944, a health board inspection reported overcrowding and neglect, with babies "fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated". It evokes images from the Famine, but this was within living memory.
Credit is due to local historian Catherine Corless, who has shone a light on the Tuam home, and others, by extension. She has done the State some service. It begs the question whether other mass graves exist; on the balance of probabilities, the answer must be yes.
And what of the painful forced adoptions associated with this period? The Adoption Rights Alliance is calling for a full audit of adoption files, no matter how voluminous, and there is no excuse for further delay. Not least because many women separated from their children are now elderly, or verging on it. The mother and baby homes to which they were once consigned are closed, but cannot be forgotten – they represent an element of social history crying out for inclusion on the school syllabus. Remembering is a form of justice.
As for those 796 innocents, the septic tank babies: I hope their remains are not exhumed, but are allowed to rest in peace.
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