We should never be ashamed of our tears, we are told. But in the case of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission’s report, we might be justifiably mortified for the ones that were never shed.
For the babies who were never mourned, and the institutions, State, and society, which pulled the blinds down and built the walls of silence and secrecy to shut mother and infant out.
Some perverse sense of righteousness, which always trumped basic decency or common humanity, was unleashed to destroy thousands of lives. Mothers were forever separated from their babies because of a tyranny of heartless decorum.
It made for a very cold emotional landscape in an avowedly Christian country.
The sweeping tragedy of loss and trauma laid bare in this report is shattering.
So many lives irredeemably broken with the compliance of Church, State and an indifferent society.
The fact the mothers and their children were still frozen out when it came to accessing their past – or trying to reconnect with those stolen from them – decades later, meant the anguish was perpetuated by the State.
For so many of the mothers, this report will have been too late. For others it will have been too little.
The only memories of their children will have been the distant footfalls or fading smiles, kept alive in their hearts. The stories of scarring deprivation, where infant mortality was on such a scale that it was almost treated as routine, will take some time to digest. But this must not be seized upon as another ritual opportunity to use the present as a stick to beat the past, while nothing changes. We don’t need another moment of mass emoting, after which nothing happens.
The commission’s recommendations must be met. Our Ireland of two faces must be scrutinised in all its ugliness. Another official “Sorry” will not suffice. We saw before that, when there was to be compensation and restitution, it came with terms and conditions: gagging clauses and humiliating cross-questioning. Compassion does not work that way.
These mothers and babies were failed most profoundly by those who should have protected them.
Just as we saw in the devastating abuse inquiries.
After an agonising birth, one mother was offered this by way of sympathy: “That’ll teach you after the sins you have committed.” Superficially there was piety and probity. Behind that facade there was monstrous cruelty. Hypersensitive to judgment, society was impervious to moral responsibility.
Our most vulnerable were shamefully betrayed.
As Majella Moynihan, a former garda who has written about her experience of being disciplined after she became pregnant while in the force in 1984, told RTÉ: “I don’t even think an apology is good enough for those women.”
She appealed to the Government to locate the bodies of the children who died. “Find the babies, find the bodies of children who were thrown aside, like dirt. It shouldn’t be too much to ask of a truly contrite State.”