Tuesday 18 June 2019

Loss of a mother led to social stigma and split up of families

Family often suffered a second 'social' death which saw children being placed in Nazareth House

John Michael Murphy

The loss of a mother was the overwhelming reason why boys entered Nazareth House, Sligo in the 1920s and 1930s.

The brutal power of an illegitimacy stigma was recently brought home to me when a former Sligo Nazareth Homeboy told me that his mother took the boat to England on the very day of his birth in Sligo Hospital and never initiated contact with him again.

Another illegitimate Nazareth Homeboy, Staff Sergeant Paddy Baker, relates how he carried the illegitimacy stigma lifelong:

"The thought of having neither father nor mother and the stigma of being born in the workhouse has made a very strong impression on me particularly during my adolescent years.

"I kept this secret within me during my 28 years in the British Army. I daren't tell anyone about it for fear they would laugh at me and their laugh would have killed me," he said.

There were many other reasons why children in similar predicaments managed to avoid separation from their families.

Children taken into care in Ireland, Britain and indeed elsewhere, in early half of the 20th century, came overwhelmingly from the poorest and most deprived sections of society.

That still applies today. Yet the vast majority of children in poor families do not come into care. Poverty may compromise a family's ability to care for their children, but other factors, and critical life events, are usually necessary before the family structure and cohesion collapses.

The overwhelming reason why Nazareth House 'Homeboys' came into care was, as was described at the time, "loss of mother".

There were two types of 'death' that led to separation of mother and child. The first was the actual physical death of the mother.

The second was the social 'death' that resulted from the then prevailing attitudes to illegitimacy. Both 'deaths' proved critical for most families affected by them, but not all families disintegrated and collapsed.

Care of children at this period, especially young children, was almost exclusively carried out by women. Very few men had any competency in child rearing or domestic household management.

Work, including extended seasonal work in mainland Britain, meant that fathers were fully occupied in providing the material wherewithal for their family.

If their wife died and they did not remarry, a number of the fathers 'cut and ran', placing the children in care for the whole of their childhoods while they 'took the boat' or joined the British Army.

In several instances a whole sibling group of boys was placed in care for the whole of their childhoods by the father, but then removed together when the youngest child reached school leaving age, and then taken to America.

There are a few instances, too, where a young mother, single or recently widowed, put the child(ren) into care while she went to England to pursue a career (nursing was common), to remarry and to rear a new family.

She would contribute to her sons' care costs, in effect using Nazareth House rather like a middle class mother might use an English public school, with her sons in care obtaining a secondary education at Summerhill College.

Support from extended families was the most critical factor that prevented children coming into care. That included sometimes dispersing some of the children to grandparents and other relations.

What I would describe as a 'double-shift of parenting' was a common feature of working class extended family life in both Britain and Ireland. A mother, when her childrearing days were over, still feeling the maternal instinct, would rear one (sometimes more) of her grandchildren.

If the child's mother died the grandmother would continue to rear that child while the other children might be placed in care.

Where a widower who did not remarry had daughters at home old enough to provide substitute care of the younger siblings many families managed to cling together, especially if also receiving extended or neighbourly support.

Whether a widower who remarried put his first wife's children in care often depended on the attitude of his new wife.

It was not uncommon for the new wife to want to 'clear the decks' and rear only her own children, with the deceased wife's 'cuckoo in the nest children' either taken into care, or dispersed to extended family, or both.

Where the death of the young mother was from tuberculosis this markedly increased the chance of family collapse, resulting in long-term care for the remaining children. (The severe weight loss where the disease appeared to 'consume' the patient led to its more common name of consumption).

Consumption was endemic in Ireland and a major cause of death in the first part of the 20th Century.

Ireland's 2.8 per 1,000 death rate compared with that of 2.2 in Scotland and 1.8 in England and Wales.

One person in every 200 in the age range 25-34 (peak childbearing years) died of consumption in Ireland.

The very word engendered terror and panic. Superstition and ignorance about the causes and spread of the disease led to families afflicted with it enduring a form of social leprosy.

The normal family and community support to the bereaved father was much less likely to be available if the mother had died from consumption, and the taint and stigma carried over to her children.

The very word was avoided lest its utterance infect the speaker.

The actual disease of consumption and the perceived social 'disease' of illegitimacy each resulted in a greatly increased likelihood that the children affected would end up in care.

The pregnant unmarried mother's family sense of shame and stigma, allied to Irish society's fear of this problem becoming 'contagious', commonly resulted in the mother-to-be being removed from the community into Religious Order Care Institutions.

There a combination of 'advice' from family members, clergy, religious and sometimes social workers would generally result in the mother 'agreeing' to let go of her child.

Next week in The Sligo Champion: 'Loss of mother; life irretrievably changed'.

We explore how the vast majority of Nazareth Homeboys were in care there because of the actual or the 'social' death of their mothers, how they coped with this loss throughout their care and adult lives.

Sligo Champion