Punishment fell on women while men got on with the rest of their lives, writes Nicola Anderson
In the harrowing personal stories of how desperate Irish women were forced to enter through the unwelcoming doors of mother and baby homes, their partners in pregnancy are cast as mere bit players.
The men at the heart of this wide-ranging tragedy that spanned decades feature merely as the shadowy instigators of misfortune, before being allowed to disappear into the backdrop, unseen and largely untraceable.
In a deeply conservative Ireland that pre-dated contraception and where parish priests sometimes turned up at dance halls to ensure couples were not dancing too closely, punishment fell on the woman for falling pregnant and for falling to safeguard her chastity.
The attitudes of the time allowed the fathers of their children, meanwhile, to seize, or be granted, permission to get on with the rest of their lives; in parallel with the suffering of the woman and child, who were left to deal with the devastating, life-long consequences.
‘Respectability’ trumped all. Becoming a mother ‘outside wedlock’ carried stigma. Being an ‘illegitimate child’ carried stigma. Becoming a father outside wedlock is not even an expression with which we are familiar .
We are left with just the briefest of descriptions of these nameless men, whom the report does not even refer to as ‘fathers’ but rather, in the legally precise language of such academic studies, as ‘putative fathers’. It is a term that is, notably, far less emotive than ‘mothers’ and ‘babies’.
Still, we do learn some details about the men who lie silently at the heart of the mother and baby homes saga, amid a litany of briefly described back stories of the women confined there.
And certainly in some cases, the details hint of tragedy on both sides and of men who were sometimes not given the choice but to give up their loved one and child.
Most files record information about putative fathers, though not the names, the Commission tells us. “They were farmers’ sons, labourers, factory workers, commercial travellers, plus an occasional married man or older man,” it states.
During the ‘Emergency’, some were men who were in the military service in Ireland or Britain, including members of the American or Canadian forces. One woman named a German prisoner of war who was held in Ireland.
One case that speaks volumes of the double standards at play in the Ireland of that time is of a woman who fell pregnant by a TD in 1933.
Notes from the institution speak snidely of how she had turned up at Leinster House, saying: “A TD is responsible for her trouble. She had been going to Leinster House and creating scenes there, trying to see him.” A porter at Leinster House had directed her to Regina Coeli, a hostel for homeless and unmarried mothers.
The women were not encouraged to share their personal stories with others in these institutions, we are told – and here, the tone of the report is one of regret, because such sharing of common circumstances might well have proved consoling.
Of course we know that heartbreak about their situation and how they had ended up in such a place was often bitterly combined with romantic devastation in the majority of cases. But the stern record-keepers of such places had no truck with romance and so the details are sketchy. But sometimes, the women simply did not wish to tell. It was, perhaps, just too painful.
The Commission sounds almost wistful as it says: “One of the serious shortcomings of the material available to the Commission is the absence of the mothers’ voices from the time they were pregnant and making decisions about their children and the shortage of contemporary information about their lives, the circumstances of their pregnancy and the attitudes of family and putative fathers.” Many pregnant women went to England, as did many of the putative fathers, we are told, with some men fleeing there to avoid the “anger and retribution” of the woman’s family and local community.
“Emigration also meant they could avoid interrogation by local authority officials and demands for a contribution towards the cost of maintaining mother and child,” the report adds.
Even reading between the lines, we can sense the individual heartbreak of each desperate situation.
“Stories of men accompanying a pregnant girlfriend to England having promised to marry her, only to abandon her there, are all too common.”
We hear of the cattle dealer who gave his pregnant girlfriend £50. Of the woman who went to England, believing she was pregnant and was followed by her boyfriend. She turned out not to be pregnant – but became pregnant in England.
And of the 17-year-old girl who had been “completely taken in” by the father of her child, “who has since had to marry another girl”.
In another case, a wedding had been arranged three months earlier, but on the eve of the wedding the groom absconded to England.
Then there was the farm labourer who followed the mother of his unborn child to England, apparently anxious they marry, only to change his mind. She returned to Ireland and ended up in either Castlepollard or Bessborough, the report reveals.
And when the daughter of a small farmer in Kerry announced that she was pregnant, the putative father, a local farmer “said he was sorry, but he had a girl in America whom he intended to marry”.
Sometimes marriage was agreed as the ideal solution to the difficulty and the Commission notes that sometimes plans for the woman’s admission to a home were dropped.
However, in one situation the man was willing to marry but would not accept the baby – an indication, the report says, “of the stigma associated with fathering a child outside marriage”.
Another woman was engaged to marry a man who was not the father of her baby and while her fiancé was aware of the pregnancy, he would not take the baby and neither would her family. In this case, the authorities hoped to arrange an adoption “fairly quickly”.
Some families saw legal pressure as the solution, with several files recording that the father of the putative father “would not agree to marriage, matter in the hands of a solicitor”.
One pregnant woman who went to England disclosed that the father of her child was a temporary national teacher in her home parish – the parish priest met the young man, but he refused to marry her. “It is unlikely that he secured a permanent post in that parish,” the report drily comments.
When an Irish woman working in England became engaged to the father of her future child – an RAF officer – her parents made contact with him independently and discovered he was married.
On the other hand, we have the cases where the woman’s parents were utterly opposed to marriage, with the Commission telling us these are “at least as common” as reports that her parents were trying to arrange one. These cases speak of tragedy on both sides, with the widowed mother of one pregnant woman dismissing the putative father as “a featherhead” and wouldn’t agree to their marriage.
In one situation, neither set of parents would agree to the marriage of a pregnant woman to a man who was unemployed and unwell – probably from t uberculosis, the report comments, adding that TB was a common reason for families to refuse to marriage.
And there was the woman who was living with a widower who was the father of her child. They had arranged to marry and had bought a wedding dress and furniture, but she was now unwilling to marry him “as he has begun to ill- treat her”.
Social distinctions between families could prevent couples from marrying, the report tells us, reminding us that matchmaking and dowries had not yet disappeared in rural Ireland.
While it also tells us that in the early and mid-20th century the Irish marriage rate was the lowest in the western world, with an extensive literature in fiction and non- fiction about the reluctance of Irish bachelors to marry. “It seems possible the proportion of men who married their pregnant girlfriend may have been lower than elsewhere,” the Commission says of this country, which was still a land of match made marriages and economic deprivation.
An ‘illegitimate birth’ might affect the inheritance of a family farm or even the family’s standing in the community, it said.