Tuesday 19 February 2019

Midnight in the back gardens of Tuam

As the Tuam scandal unfolds, we should pause to consider all the mothers of lost babies, says Miriam O'Callaghan

Local schoolgirls pay their respects at the site of the mothers and babies home unmarked grave in Tuam, Co Galway. Photo: Andy Newman. Photo: Andy Newman
Local schoolgirls pay their respects at the site of the mothers and babies home unmarked grave in Tuam, Co Galway. Photo: Andy Newman. Photo: Andy Newman

Miriam O'Callaghan

Twenty years ago, when my son was a new baby, I saw a 'dead' woman talking on TV. She talked of how she returned to the nursery after her day in the laundry. Of how she stood there, bursting with milk and madness, because her unweaned son had been taken away by the nuns. Of how she never stopped looking for him. Of how even though he could be a father and grandfather himself, she would still know him anywhere, because of his smell. Perfect mother logic.

The credits showed the dead woman had died again before the programme was aired.

That night I walked and fed my colicky boy, thinking of this woman and her boy, feeling distracted and blessed.

Last week what the Taoiseach referred to as the unholy "sepulchre" in Tuam was back in the headlines. When the news first broke, it was all the more disturbing because, as a nation, we seemed to receive it so undisturbed: that in suburbia, social history and lower carboniferous limestone, were 796 human fossils, formed by illness or neglect, madness or propriety, faith or control.

But as we interrogate the spiritual descendants of the Brides of Christ at Tuam, any public inquiry must take good account of who we were as a society from the 1920s to the 1960s, the decades of the Disappeared. Because by and large, it is we, the people, who gave up our daughters.

It is we, the people, who betrayed workers of tantric miracles who 'got themselves into trouble'.

It is we, the people, mortified by the innate 'perversion' of our sexuality - in that we had one at all - either gave silent thanks 'there but for the grace of God', or unleashed our hottest, holiest revulsion when we saw it exposed in another.

In our cock-crow proclamation of our abject Catholicism, we denied the essence of our difficult Christianity. And what kind of religion was it that could dismantle the most fundamental relationship of all - that of a parent and their child - and do so in two generations?

In that strange geology of what we were told was 'faith', the strata were kept separate and intact: conformity and compassion. The 'sanctity of human life' was locked within igneous marriage. There would be no seepage, leakage into 'illegitimacy'. Such life was social, spiritual, physical detritus.

As we await the details of the short lives and possibly-long deaths of the so-called Home Babies, it's time to consider their mothers - and all the mothers - who lost their children, not from personal carelessness, but society's pitilessness. They were straps, hussies, fools, easy, fallen, caught.

For years, I've listened to the voices of the Dispossessed. Different women with disparate stories, yet all the same in being dumbfounded, disbelieving at the size of the formula that atomised their lives: the prefix 'Un'.

'Un-fit', 'Un-suitable', 'Un-reliable', 'Un-desirable'.

All because they were 'Un-married'. A state so heinous, it saw their children removed from them, to be gifted or sold to what were described to them as "proper mothers". Their "proper" status rooted, not in conception or capacity, or inviolable love or DNA, but conferred sacramentally, and therefore societally, by Catholic marriage.

Certainly, many women were happy, even relieved, to give their children up for adoption into loving homes.

Equally certainly, many adoptive parents moved heaven and earth - or at least their agents - to help their adopted children find their birth mothers. The children who were sold by the Church with the collusion of the State - or vice versa - are another matter entirely.

The religious men and women were busy collecting pennies for the souls of the Black Babies. They were collecting hundreds, thousands, of pounds for the bodies of the White Babies.

But the term 'birth mother' is itself problematic, because it has become almost pejorative. It reduces, even trivialises motherhood, by confining it to the discreet acts of labour and birth. In functioning to dilute that most fundamental life connection - between a mother and her child - the term 'birth-mother' has become a social salve. It supplies a face-saving context for society's collusion in the removal of thousands of children from perfectly-loving, perfectly-capable, perfectly-annihilated women.

'Birth mother' is the amnesic sedation for how time and again, propriety and piety conspired to define a 'motherhood', that in theory, began and ended with the birth of a child, but in practice, within the human heart, lasted a lifetime, the affected women grieving not just the loss of their son or daughter, but mourning their motherhood itself.

The former TD Anne Ferris pointed out last week that even if a mother is reunited with her child in adulthood, she has still, and always, lost her baby.

Throughout the generational assault on motherhood, we began the sly concoction and veneration of the Irish Mammy. The woman with the soft, white buttocks on the hard, polished pew, out in her Jackie O pillbox hat or black mantilla and bullet-proof tights to be 'churched'. She was the citizen of a Buntus Cainte Ireland, that saw her and put her and kept her sa chistin, where de Valera, President Kennedy, the Sacred Heart and the famous Italians Pacelli, Roncalli and Montini inspected her from the walls, as she performed or recovered from, her wifely and motherly duties, in her constitutional 'proper haunt', the home.

Above all, though, the sanctity of the Irish Mammy was signified by her gold ring and a marriage cert that put the necessary nine months between the aisle and the labour ward. The latter being a place where some highly-intelligent women thought they'd be reading magazines up to the time their "Delivery Number would come up", imminent motherhood signalled by a starched, smiling nurse, straight from Hospitals Sweeps or the Ladybird Library.

When good Mrs McCarthy left the delivery abattoir with her bundle of joy, thus began her sanctifying motherhood.

For Miss McCarthy of the Uns, the abattoir business was only beginning: if she was lucky, with the removal of her child to another good woman, and if she was not, to an institution where the moral vivisectionists awaited the tiny, beautiful result of her wantonness.

There is not a mother in the country whose heart doesn't squeeze at the thought of the bodies of 796 children, uncoffined, disposed of in what is reported to be a septic tank, at one of the social septic tanks of those decades, 796 small causes of heartbreak to their mothers, 796 huge sources of shame and damage to us as a country, because we made 'Christian' marriage the prerequisite for accepted and acceptable motherhood.

But even now we are not done. I believe there is a residual suspicion of mothers and their mothering of their children. Last week, I was stopped at Dublin Airport with my daughter because her surname is different to mine. The Garda at immigration was perfectly polite when he asked if I could prove my daughter was, in fact, my own.

It would have been rude of me to ask him to open his eyes - unfortunately for her, she is a mini-me - something that is noted regularly, sometimes sweetly, by immigration police at every other European airport we use. Nor could I offer a DNA sample or flash a re-opened Caesarean scar.

All of which I should have done to the gobshite at Dublin immigration a few years ago, who left the child shaking when her mother could not produce the birth cert she is not legally required to carry. Yes, I checked immediately with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Regardless of name, no Irish mother with an Irish passport is obliged to carry a birth cert for her children. And if we really want to prevent trafficking, why not put both parents' names on the passports of every child under 18? Or is that deemed excessive? Is it that culturally, mothers cannot be trusted, though we give birth to our children we must be verified, legitimised by a man's name, we are still suspect, still chattel?

And what about the mothers at the homes? How many of those girls and women died of shock, grief, malpractice, mistreatment, terror, neglect, fear, blood loss, butchery, infection? What medical personnel oversaw their treatment? Did the good sisters invite in medics who were knights of the Church to manage ante-natal care and delivery?

Apart from the kindertransport to America, was there a disproportionately high level of adoption of these mothers' children by the 'caring' professionals?

At the time the Tuam scandal first broke, I read the archbishop's reaction. He was horrified. Still is. The Church had a "definitive responsibility", but the treatment of the mothers and babies is "a challenge for society to reflect on and repent for".

There was the insinuation this was the religious women's fault, not the men's. As we start to wake up to the lives and deaths of the Tuam mothers and children, it's worth remembering that despite the archbishop's remarks, the sisters of the Bon Secours, or any other nuns, didn't go postal. Nuns couldn't breathe or menstruate without the canonical say-so. These Unholy Women weren't defending their islands of brutality from the onslaught of the Holy Men, armed now with their bargepole concern, 'horror' and urge for 'repentance'.

But how is society to 'repent' for the Church's fear and control that pursued the people beyond death itself? How can it 'repent' for giving up its most basic Christianity - compassion and kindness - so it could uphold, and be seen to, its 'respectability', its abject 'obedience' in previous waves of 'moral panic'.

Far from 'repenting', I believe society is only just recovering from those decades; from the impeccable symbiosis of Church and State that is the context for the cruelty at Tuam and elsewhere. It was a fear and control where the all-male leaders of democratic Ireland prostrated themselves, physically and metaphorically, before the all-male Princes of the Church, or the minor clerical aristocrats.

Fear and control that saw the refusniks pilloried, black-listed, obstructed in their careers, ostracised by society. Fear and control that categorised pregnancy outside marriage as 'an offence', with the 'offender' prone to 'relapse'. Fear and control that saw the Legion of Mary function as a probation service in a 'modern', democratic society. Fear and control that saw raw boys in black suits and with shocking haircuts, have daughters taken from devoted widowers, 'put away' into laundries or homes, since in their puerile yet all-powerful clerical opinion, it was not good for a father to be in such close physical proximity to his girls.

All this from a young fella deconstructed by the psychological savagery of clerical 'formation', abandoned by his own family, beaming beatifically because they had the priest in the family. The holy terror.

This Lent, if you go to the sepulchre, there is no stone rolled back, no shroud, no angel. What there is though, is a weight. Heavy, leaden.

Sunday Independent

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