Wednesday 19 December 2018

The Tuam Babies case: An inhumanity born of despair

Emer O'Kelly

'HOW did they become like that?" somebody asked me. There was a kind of horrified wonder in the voice: the subject was that of the nuns and the 800 bodies of children said to be found by a septic tank at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home run from 1925 until 1961 by the Good Shepherd Sisters.

There seems to be a particular strain of iron inhumanity in a section of the men and women, particularly the women, who donned religious garb over the years to become servants of Jesus Christ, God Made Man, founder of Christianity, the faith and way of life which claims to base itself on compassion and forgiveness.

It has always seemed to be the form of religion which mattered in successful conversion in Ireland: observance of apparent piety, asking no questions, and accepting ignominy, suffering, and deprivation, to be "offered up" in the hope of reward after death. To stray publicly in a world of oppressed ignorance where sex was the only sin, could have only one response: the abandonment of a child by her parents to her "shame", and ritual retribution from women who themselves had seen their own womanhood wither on the vine as enforced brides of Christ. Add the sin of poverty to the mix, and the recipe becomes toxic.

Many of the women attracted to the religious life had learned to sublimate the gentler emotions. Hunger was ever-present in a largely agrarian society even in comparatively prosperous times (when compared with famine years).

Middle-class women joined the religious orders founded on mainland Europe, the Sacred Heart Sisters, the Dominicans, who in turn delivered education to the middle-classes. It was the orders of Irish origin, Mercy Sisters, Sisters of Charity, and others, which catered for the daughters of the desperately poor and uneducated, as novices and as pupils; and in turn they engaged in the "corporal works of mercy" among those as poor as they had been outside the convent walls.

Such women probably believed they had a "vocation", and the church was happy to encourage them in the belief. But perhaps they knew that their vocation was in reality a desperate escape from dire poverty. For some, bitterness provided a drive to punish the world which had denied them its joy and warmth. In the outside world, their families basked in the admiring approval of having a nun in the family, a kind of umbrella ticket to eternal paradise. And maybe they, too, had a sub-conscious sense of earthly relief: the daughter who had been a financial burden was off their hands. There seems little other explanation for the extraordinary, almost relentless regime of harshness and cruelty towards the helpless which marked so many of the institutions run by the religious orders.

It is not an excuse, but perhaps, it may just be an explanation.

Sunday Independent

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