The vulnerable suffered unnecessarily before getting answers, writes Nicola Anderson
By rights, they should have been the healthiest children in all the land. There was no logical explanation as to why they should not have been since they were, after all, ‘in care’.
Yet, just a little over a decade after the mother and baby homes system had first been established, the original whistle-blower was already warning of grave catastrophe. As far back as 1939, we knew – but we did not act.
“The chance of survival of an illegitimate infant born in the slums and placed with a foster-mother in the slums a few days after birth, is greater than that of an infant born in one of our special homes for unmarried mothers,” declared Alice Litster, inspector for boarded-out children in the Department of Local Government and Public Health, in her report that year. “
Any infant born in any other circumstances appears to have a better chance of life,” she said, cataloguing all the advantages that should lie on the side of ‘the child institutionally born’. “
Pre-natal care, proper diet, fresh air, sufficient exercise, no arduous work, proper and comfortable clothing, freedom from worry, the services of a skilled doctor, the supervision and attention of a qualified nurse, all should be available and should make for the health of the expectant mother and the birth and survival of a healthy infant… Cleanliness, medical attention, dietetic knowledge, all the human skill may continue to preserve child life should be at hand.
Yet any infant born in any other circumstances appears to have a better chance of life.” It has taken 82 years for Litster’s words to be vindicated and for the authorities to finally acknowledge the misery and sheer cold-blooded cruelty permitted on the watch of their predecessors, hidden in plain sight. Now, at long last, we have in stark black and white, a clear-eyed picture of what these wretched places were like and how the 56,000 women and 57,000 babies, who passed through their doors over the course of their existence, truly suffered.
Published today, the final report from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission makes for sobering reading, showing that in the place of the pre-natal care cited by Litster was neglect, instead of ‘proper diet’ was malnutrition, rather than ‘fresh air’ came incarceration and far than ‘freedom from worry’, the women placed in those institutions were shamefully mocked amid the anguish of their labour and left with life-long trauma.
The Commission finds that 9,000, or one-in-seven of all mother and baby home children died. What Litster said was tragically true – in any other circumstances, they would have had a better chance of life.
Key, is a finding that the State and church did not force women into the homes, noting that they were often brought by parents or family members who saw no alternative due to poverty or a misguided sense of shame.
But, of course, we have long known about this, too.
Even three years before Litster’s report, a British nun was quoted in this newspaper, on December 15, 1936, in a piece about the flight of young Irish pregnant women to England, describing them as “the scapegoats of a tradition of Puritanism that will not admit that things are as they are”.
Litster, again in 1948, spoke out with compassion, referring to children born outside marriage as “infant martyrs of convenience, respectability and fear”.
So it is with the greatest of care and respect for the survivors of the mother and baby homes system that we should read this report by the Commission.
Because we have always known of their suffering but we turned our eyes and did nothing.
It is also worth pondering the fact that while this recent Commission was belatedly set up to investigate the running of these homes, it was, too, another government Commission that led them to be set up in the first place.
In October 1927, the Report of the Commission on the Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor, including the Insane Poor was put before the Oireachtas.
Incidentally, there was just one woman on the board, Senator Jennie Wyse-Power, who had been the first President of Cumann na mBan.
Their report classified unmarried mothers into two separate groups – “those who may be amenable to reform” and those “who for one reason or another are regarded as less hopeful cases”.
It proposed “special institutions” to be set up for both groups. First offenders whom it was felt required ‘firmness’ and ‘discipline’ but possibly also ‘charity’ and ‘sympathy’, were to be sent to mother and baby homes, while repeat offenders were to be sent to county homes and Magdalene asylums.
“To these homes, there should be attached a maternity and probationary department,” the report read, adding that there should be power to “retain women who on admission express their willingness to remain”.
A woman admitted for the first time would be retained for one year, for the second, two years and so on but the Commission said: “Cases whose period or residence is indeterminate should be reviewed annually.”
With the sad benefit of hindsight, we know that this turned out not to be the case in many instances and women could be incarcerated for many years.
The Commission said no woman should be discharged “until she satisfies the board of health that she will be able to provide for her child or children but discretion might be left to the board to allow the woman to take her discharge without taking her child or children if they consider this desirable”.
We know, also, that all too tragically, this did not turn out to be the case and many women were not given a choice when it came to being separated from their babies.
Perhaps amid the heady idealism of the early days of the Free State, the authorities did not think of setting in place checks and balances on the religious orders that would run these institutions because, surely, they would not be necessary?
It took a quiet spoken amateur historian to bring to light the truths about how far removed from compassion and kindness the mother and baby homes turned out to be.
In Tuam, at the Bon Secours site, Catherine Corless proved the existence of up to 800 bodies of babies and children concealed in tanks and chambers in the ground.
It appears they had not been given the dignity of a Christian burial, even though they had of course been baptised.
It was first a suspicion and then local hushed stories, who told her: “Ah them poor children, them poor children” that drove her to investigate further.
A night course in history that she completed came with the terse instructions: “If you don’t find something, you don’t leave it. You ask why it’s not there. You use ‘why’ a lot.”
Catherine duly did use the word ‘why’ a lot until, finally, she had the undeniable proof in her hands, in the form of birth certificates for the tragic babies of Tuam.
It has taken a long time to uncover the bitter truth about what went on in the mother and baby homes.
While it has come sadly too late for many who passed through their doors, there are still many people today for whom this report is no mere history; this is the story of their childhoods, or a parents’ childhood.
An aunt. A sister. A friend, perhaps. It is deeply personal. And it is searingly painful.
At the age of almost 50, Francis Timmons counts himself as one of the youngest survivors of the mother and baby homes.
He believes there may be up to half a million people in Ireland today who are personally connected in some way or another to the institutions, even without knowing it.
In 1971, his mother, Mary Timmons, gave birth to him at St Kevin’s hospital in Dublin, now St James’.
She had two other sons and also a daughter who died at a young age. Francis was sent to Madonna House in Blackrock but soon after his arrival, the old building was reported as being unsuitable for children and so a new facility was built, with “big promises” made about better care, he said.
Today a councillor with South Dublin County Council, Francis subsequently found records of his mother coming to see him as a toddler and expressing concerns about the state of his arms and the condition he was in.
That is how he found out that he was involved in vaccine trials, he explained.
GlaxoSmithKline confirmed to him as an adult that he had been involved in two trials between 1972 and 1973.
As an older child, Francis said, he was sent to a foster family and was sexually abused in that setting.
When he approached the Sisters of Charity for information about his time in the home, he was told that his records had been destroyed in a fire.
But because he worked in the Salvation Army and worked in social care, he knew how to obtain them.
His mother, who suffered with her mental health, died in 2014 and Francis said he was lucky enough to be there to hold her hand when she died and to tell her that she did ‘nothing wrong’. “The smile on her face,” he said.
“Imagine to be told you’re a sinner and to be called all sorts of names. The damage is so underestimated in Ireland.
“We have such a horrendous record on mental health and suicide and a lot of it stems from the institutions.”
Francis said he finds the term ‘mother and baby homes’ to be deeply offensive because it makes it sound too cosy.
“It sounds like we had a chance to grow and be nurtured. But there was very little of that. Children went to bed starving. They were battered,” he said.
His personal memories of the institution are desolate.
“I have memories of pure sadness. It was cold. Cruel,” he said, adding that he remembers “crying a lot” and going to bed hungry.
“They were getting funding for each child. Mothers should’ve had the best medical care, we should’ve had the best food. The tenements in Dublin were very poor 50 years ago. We should’ve been better than that in the homes – but we weren’t,” he said.
Asked what he hopes will emerge after today’s report, Francis says that sorry is not enough.
“A lot of hurt has been caused over the years,” he said. “We’ve had an apology from Enda, we’ve had an apology from Bertie, we’ll probably have one from Micheál. But the word ‘sorry’ doesn’t mean anything anymore. It only means something when it’s backed up with proper medical help,” he added.
Meanwhile, as a society we have to take this report and learn from it, said Francis, adding that a lot of injustice still remains. Certainly, the saga of the mother and baby homes and its litany of cruelty and injustice, bookended by two Commissions within the space of a century has proven that anything that is swept under the carpet always emerges, no matter how long it takes.
So weary now of the chapters of national shame unfurled by revelation after revelation, are we not finally at the stage where we can say with certainty that we will save other generations the trouble of uncovering our own sordid secrets?
Even today, the infant mortality rate for Traveller children is 3.5 times that of the general population.
And later generations are guaranteed to endure much soul-searching over how we allowed the setting up of the Direct Provision centres, again forcing innocent families to endure institutional settings, despite having done nothing wrong.
We are just as aware of the unpalatable truths of today as we were of unpalatable truths in our past.
Why should the vulnerable again be forced to endure decades of pain before getting answers?