Wednesday 26 June 2019

Church isn't the only one with questions to answer on mother-and-baby home scandal

A statue of Jesus at Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary, a mother-and-baby home
A statue of Jesus at Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary, a mother-and-baby home

The establishment of a Commission of Investigation into the mother-and-baby home scandal is welcome, but the church is not the only body with questions to answer.

For the past number of weeks there have been ubiquitous expressions of shock, surprise and revulsion from church leaders, politicians and the public at the horrifying stories emanating from mother-and-baby homes.

Tales of ostracised women incarcerated for years, newborn babies being torn from their hands and children being raised in Dickensian, disease-ridden conditions leading to mortality rates that were five times higher than the national average.

But these institutions did not operate in a vacuum and the depredations suffered by women and children, locked up behind their walls, have been a matter of public record for many decades.

As far back as 1927, the Poor Law Commission divided unmarried mothers into two distinct classes – "those considered amenable to reform and the less hopeful cases".

Both classes of women were considered dangerous, almost seditious – a threat to the Catholic foundations of the State.

The 1931 Carrigan Report noted that "illegitimacy must be regarded as one of the principal causes of the species of crime and vice" and said it was "an evil" that was spreading throughout the country.

The authors reported that clerical, lay and official witnesses were unanimous in their view that "degeneration in the standard of social conduct has taken place in recent years".

One priest, John Flanagan from Fairview in Dublin, blamed dance halls and "the opportunities afforded by the misuse of motor cars for luring girls".

He said: "Conduct that in other countries is confined to brothels is to be seen without let or hindrance on our public road."

Another priest from Limerick claimed that public indecency was "rampant in defiance of priests and police".

However, the most startling claim of the report was the "alarming" increase in sexual crime and the "large number of cases of criminal interference with girls and children from 16 years downwards, including many cases of children under 10 years".

As an explanation it proffered the following heresy: "In this country the children of the poorer classes are less protected than in Great Britain."

Because of that finding, the government of W T Cosgrave, which had commissioned the report, never published it. It didn't want to know.

Priests were not the only ones to spew venom and vitriol at unmarried mothers. Most were pariahs in their families and their communities.

Historian Liam Hogan has unearthed reports from the late 1920s in which local politicians in Galway gripe about unmarried mothers using the same maternity ward as married women.

"Married women will not seek admission to the maternity hospital so long as unmarried mothers are allowed to use any room in that department, no matter whether isolated or not," said one, demanding a maternity unit be built at the Tuam mother-and-baby home.

In 1947, a Health Inspectors' report described children at the Tuam institution as "emaciated", "flesh hanging loosely on limbs" and "mentally defective".

If children survived, they were ostracised because they inherited an indelible stain of shame from their amoral mothers.

One former "inmate" in Tuam has recounted how children attending the local school arrived 10 minutes late and left 10 minutes early so they didn't mingle with their "legitimate" classmates.

In effect, Ireland operated a caste system, in which those who strayed from the strict moral mores of the time were deemed subhuman – reviled, debased and ignored.

This authoritarian Puritanism resulted in 30,000 women labouring in Magdalene laundries, an unknown number confined to both mother-and-baby homes and county homes, while their children were institutionalised, subjected to forced adoptions, the victims of medical experiments, raped and abused.

For those who perished, which included 61pc of the children admitted to Bessboro in 1943, we don't even know where some are buried or how many are entombed in mass graves.

Meanwhile, around the same time, de Valera was making speeches about an idyllic Ireland "whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of . . . the romping of sturdy children".

The plight of children in these homes was rarely mentioned in polite society. They were invisible, unmentionable.

In fact, the only concern articulated by politicians in Galway about children in the Tuam centre was the perceived high cost of their maintenance.

In the Dail, TDs were outraged at the prospect of "illegitimate" children being given children's allowance as it would "encourage the women of the country to have nothing but illegitimate children" – arguments that are rehashed today when benefits for single mothers are denigrated.

For politicians and the public, overt signs of Catholic piety were prized far more than any actual acts of Christianity.

So, by all means, let's have a comprehensive investigation into yet another state scandal.

But let's not pretend we didn't know what was going on.


Colette Browne

Irish Independent

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