When Brinsley MacNamara wrote The Valley of the Squinting Windows, he wasn’t just writing about a small midlands village, but the pervasive obsession with secrecy, sanctity and sex that permeated Irish society for much of the 20th century.
More than anything else, this embraced the question of unmarried mothers and what Enda Kenny called in 2017, our “morbid relationship with what is called respectability”, the very real shame felt in families when someone had a child outside wedlock.
It is tragically ironic that in the end it was not the State, but the Catholic Church that was left holding both the baby and the bathwater.
Now we live in a very different Ireland, one of the wealthiest on the OECD (4th), yet we still flagellate ourselves for the sins of the past. As we look back in horror, we also have to ask what drove the majority of these unfortunates into the arms of ‘Mother Church’.
Sadly the answer is poverty and their families.
The failures involved are being rolled out in another report that outlines the cruelties, injustices and iniquities that were then perpetrated against young mothers and their children when they were at their most vulnerable.
With it will come the rush to judgement, a superficial condemnation of the Catholic Church. But we cannot gloss over the part society played in this shameful solution to the inconvenient dilemma of unmarried mothers.
For some, it was simply poverty. For others, it was a misplaced sense of dishonour brought on by the religious fervour of the time and what ‘the neighbours’ would say and think.
With disapproving families, disappearing fathers and nobody else to turn to, society and State solved the problem with mother and baby homes and orphanages. Successive government ‘outsourced’ the care of unmarried mothers and unwanted (or unaffordable) children to the religious orders.
It wasn’t just an Irish solution to an Irish problem, Britain, the US and many European societies had those same inconvenient issues, though not on the same scale as holy Ireland.
Gazing back from our secular, semi-transparent and well-heeled society, we shouldn’t forget that for most of the last century, secrecy and piety, often false, were paramount family values. The mantra of the time was ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, as people spied on each other for signs of moral weakness.
From villages and towns to city suburbs, religious rules akin to those deployed in extreme Muslim societies today, applied. When a wayward daughter ‘got into trouble’ families overcame the ‘shame’ by hiding her away in a home run by nuns, the boat to England or, for the luckier ones, the ‘safe houses’ of compassionate couples also organised by the church.
It is too easy to look back in anger at previous generations, without trying to understand the dilemmas they faced. For much of the period investigated by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission, large parts of the country verged on what we used to call the ‘third world’.
Many people lived a hand-to-mouth existence, often housed in tenements and small homes where large families lived on top of each other.
Employment was precarious. The safety net of social welfare, widows and unmarried mother allowances, was far in the future.
Through the rear view mirror, it is too easy to point the finger at the stupidity of the moral strictures then in vogue, or the inhumane solutions families found when one of their own went against the prevailing moral code.
It goes without saying that there is no excuse for the vicious, cruel and petty behaviour of some of the so-called ‘religious’ nuns, brothers and priests involved. But there were also many unsung heroes among them. Others were just overwhelmed by what we now call ‘a lack of resources’ and the sheer volume of work they were unprepared and untrained to deal with.
Many of them were also victims, singled out and trapped in a religious life they were often forced into by the poverty of their own background.
The mother and baby homes were mostly situated in old buildings, sanitation was basic and with people crowded together, babies were particularly vulnerable to disease and illnesses when medical care was often crude and basic.
The infant mortality rate looks shocking today, when statistically just 2.3 children died per thousand live births in 2020. In 1916, 81 per thousand died. By 1950 the infant mortality rate was 48 per thousand, and in 1960 it was still at 31 per thousand. Many more children did not survive their first few years, especially in crowded, cramped and inhumane conditions.
The report of the Commission lays out in sordid detail how many women and children were treated in such institutions. But it also finds that the State and church did not force women into the homes – they were brought there by family members who saw no alternative due to poverty or a “misguided” sense of shame.
Those who participated in this perverse culture were living their lives according to the mores of their time, not of ours.
“Church teaching, with its almost exclusive emphasis on sexual morality, was not helpful to such women,” wrote Stephanie Walsh, who took pregnant single mothers into her home at the request of the church. Citing the foundation of Ally in 1965, she adds: “Despite this, it was personnel of the same church who helped change attitudes… In my experience, church women and men provided more assistance to women in need in the 1970s than did the secular community.”
The sad thing is that the good that the religious orders did for centuries in running schools, hospitals and homes for people, nobody else wanted to look after, has been swept away, even before this 3,000-page tome delivered yet another devastating blow to their tattered reputation.