Thursday 17 January 2019

Tuam scandal: We must look into every dark corner of our past to avoid any repeat

The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mari Steed

Behind all the hyperbole, the rhetoric, and sensationalist reporting on Tuam; behind even Taoiseach Enda Kenny's own "chamber of horrors" language, lies a bigger story. Not just of Tuam, but of mother and baby homes, county homes and other institutions across Ireland. Surely you know the tale.

It's not the story of where thousands of children were buried. Of course, that should all be investigated and we hope the resolution is forthcoming for the families concerned.

But the "where" part of the story has been a salacious distraction. It distracts from Catherine Corless's faultless work and left her to become the scapegoat for apologists everywhere - a situation for which they owe her a sincere apology. It distracts the public from understanding the real questions: how and why did these children die?

And why did they die at five times the national infant mortality rate? Especially in homes where there were working farms, with produce and meat sold to local markets. How does a child die of malnutrition in homes touted as "far better than the county homes"?

Yet many of us are living, and giving voice to those who cannot. We understand why we were marginalised, 'othered'. Tens of thousands of us - adopted, boarded out, institutionalised.

We've been living and investigating the wide history behind Tuam for decades. Friday's statement by the Commission of Inquiry wasn't a shock for many of us: it was confirmation of what we've known not only for the last two years, but 20 years. It's our narrative.

And those narratives cross oceans, affect nearly every household in Ireland in one shape or another, and involve the complicity of a State and Church, and a public taught those "important ways" in which we didn't quite measure up.

We're the secrets whispered about at wakes. We're the grainy old photo tucked in the wallet of a heartbroken woman who cries secretly every night, but cannot admit to the photo. We're the hushed-up offspring of TDs, clergy, businessmen and more. We're the ones refused access to our own identities and full equality under law.

A statutory commission is now trying to slog its way through those testimonies and evidence - nearly a century's documenting of those "important ways" in which children were separated from their families, often illegally, and often at their peril.

One hopes it has the will to look into every dark corner, and reflect back an honest, historical narrative. Anything less - another McAleese report - will only serve to prove we've learnt nothing. One also hopes that the forthcoming Adoption Information and Tracing Bill will give us long-denied rights. Rights our counterparts in the UK have enjoyed since 1976, and unbelievably, the sky hasn't fallen in there.

Of the many pieces of dirty carpet needing ripping up in Ireland, we are perhaps the largest and dirtiest. But it needs done if we are to ever move forward as a nation, and one that truly cherishes its children equally. In 1943, the same year that Éamon de Valera delivered his infamous St Patrick's Day poetic waxings on "the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age", 68pc of the infants born in Bessborough that year died.

We need to face our past and not repeat it. We need to face the citizens who still live it, and give them answers and dignity. As we celebrate International Women's Day 2017, and its motto #BeBoldForChange, let's drop the timidity and be bold not only for change, but for truth.

Mari Steed is US coordinator of the Adoption Rights Alliance, Ireland, and Ireland co-founder and committee director of Justice for Magdalenes Research

Irish Independent

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