Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home was just one of numerous Irish orphanages in the mid-20th century. Sean Ross Abbey orphanage © Brian Lockier – Adoption Rights Alliance
The truth emerges at last about the mistreatment of unmarried mothers and their babies in Ireland – but there’s still no explanation for the deaths.
It’s hard to sweep a lot of deaths under the carpet, but that is what happened in Ireland for years. In the mainly (but not exclusively) church-run homes for unmarried women who got pregnant, some 9,000 babies died, according to a terrifying 3,000-word report on eighteen of the institutions over a period of very nearly 80 years. In all, some 56,000 unmarried mothers from all walks of life were sent to these supposed “mother-and-baby” homes, where they were shown little or no compassion, even during the process of giving birth. Indeed, the report claims that the women were treated in an especially heartless way at that point. Being terrified and in great pain was, it seems, in the eyes of the staff not sufficient punishment for the sin of unmarried copulation. Having produced the children, the women were not allowed to keep them; most were put up for adoption – effectively ‘sold’ to childless couples – mainly in the United States. The report places a lot of the blame for the ill treatment of the women on the institutions themselves and the church, but it mainly blames society and the women’s families. According to the report, women actually giving birth were sometimes verbally abused, degraded and even slapped. Unfortunately, the report does not draw any conclusions as to why so many babies and children died, but it led Ireland’s Taoiseach – Prime Minister – Micheál Martin to issue an apology on behalf of the Irish state.
In a statement in the Dáil (Irish Parliament), reacting to the report drawn up by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby homes, Martin said the report illustrated what he described as “a profound failure” of empathy , understanding and compassion over a long period. He told the Dáil that children born outside of marriage had been treated as outcasts, and “this was unforgivable”.
The babies born in the homes, if they survived the ill treatment, were left without information about their births, which became a terrible burden throughout their lives. Many women and children left Ireland because of the stigma and the abuse they faced, much of it from their own close relations. “We honoured piety,” Martin said, “but failed to show even basic kindness to those who needed it most.” Up until 1960, the report revealed, mother-and-baby homes made little or no attempt to save the lives of what were seen as “illegitimate children”, actively reducing their chances of survival. There is no explanation for why so many babies died. At the Cork Bessborough home, which was run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, an order of nuns, 75% of children born in 1943 died before their first birthdays.
“For our part, we want to sincerely apologise to those who did not get the care and support they needed and deserved,” the order said in a statement after the report was published. “It is a matter of great sorrow to us that babies died while under our care. We sincerely regret that so many babies died, particularly in regard to Bessborough in the 1940s. We also want to recognise the dreadful suffering and loss experienced by mothers.” I suppose that old saying “better late than never” springs to mind, although it doesn’t in any way explain the ghastly death rate among the children, too young to be anything other than innocent.
Where were the victims buried? That was a question put to the order by the instigative team but, as the saying goes, “answer came there none”. It’s not that the order didn’t try to help, says the report, it was just that nobody seemed to know. “The burial of infants and children who died while in care has understandably become a matter of immense controversy,” the order said in a statement. “We are distressed and saddened that it is so difficult to prove with legal certainty where many of these infants were buried, especially with regard to Bessborough. We did everything possible including the engagement of a professional historian to assist us in our dealings with the commission on this vitally important matter.”
SUFFER, LITTLE CHILDREN
Talk of mother and baby homes conjures up images of pink cots and blue cots, of knitted shawls and teddy bears. The reality was rather different. In a conservative Catholic country like Ireland, pregnancy out of wedlock was, it seems, an unforgiveable sin. The act of copulation was bad enough but was often overlooked with a knowing wink and a tap of the finger on the side of the nose. With prophylactics hard to come by in Ireland (and strongly condemned by the clergy), a girl needed to be able to count and to understand the consequences of unprotected sex. Some of the mothers mentioned in the report were as young as 12, before worldly awareness has had the chance to become established. An Irish member of the European Parliament used to tell me that the priests were always busy dealing with confessions on a Sunday morning, following a lively and hopefully enjoyable Friday and Saturday evening. He used to give a knowing wink and tap his nose, too. The implication was that non-marital sex was a bit naughty for the grown men in the congregation, much naughtier for the women and beyond the pale if it resulted in a pregnancy. We are left to wonder if the 12-year-olds really understood what was going on or its likely consequences.
The mother-and-baby homes received state aid while the public at large turned a blind eye whilst nursing a “serves them right” attitude. One of the homes is alleged to have contained what the nuns called “the reject room”, where mixed race or disabled babies were largely left, unloved and malnourished, sometimes beaten or simply dragged around by one limb, according to the unsubstantiated allegation of one witness.
The Sisters of Bon Secours, who ran a mother-and-baby home in a former ‘workhouse for the destitute’ at Tuam in County Galway, has surprised Ireland by issuing an apology, although not everyone is convinced that it’s heart-felt. In a statement, the nursing order of nuns admitted that they had “failed to respect the inherent dignity of the women and children who were housed at Tuam between 1922 and 1998”. The remains of hundreds of children were discovered at Tuam in 2017, crammed into a chamber of a septic tank. The nuns were supposed to care for people but it’s clear from the report that they didn’t, or not enough. It would be wrong to heap all the blame on the religious orders, although I’m not sure how they squared their religious beliefs with cruelty towards frightened young women and babies. The women were sent there by their families to avoid “bringing shame” upon them. Having a baby out of wedlock can bring disgrace while suffering long hours of hard physical work and occasional beatings during a pregnancy can apparently bring redemption. It’s a funny old world.
Now I don’t want to drag religion into this but given the subject matter I can’t avoid it. According to Matthew’s Gospel (19:14 in the King James version of the New Testament), Jesus was upset when his disciples tried to shoo away some small children trying to get near while he was talking. He is quoted as saying “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” One assumes the nuns believed that to be the literal truth; so how did they so misinterpret it that they inserted a comma that turned it into an order: “Suffer, little children”. And suffer they did. In the previous chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as having said: “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” How did that verse get so totally overlooked? We may never know. Clearly the nuns had no fear of drowning. Incidentally, according to the Qur’an, Mohammed had quite a lot to say about parenthood and instructed everyone to respect their mother, described by the prophet as the most important person in anyone’s life.
The aim of the whole Mother-and-baby home exercise seems to have been not to save the children or their long-suffering mothers but to sweep under the carpet any hint of sexual impropriety in a strictly Catholic and extremely conservative country, although I must point out that a handful of the homes were run by Protestant groups or by the State, and conditions seem to have been no better there. During the first official papal visit to Ireland in almost forty years in 2018, Pope Francis begged forgiveness for the mother-and-baby homes scandal. Meanwhile, the Taoiseach has promised financial help to certain survivors’ groups as well as promising to work with survivors and their representatives to oversee a national memorial. There will also be changes to the education curriculum. The best way of ensuring history doesn’t repeat itself is to ensure that everyone knows exactly what happened in the first place.
Ireland has plenty of experience of punishing girls and women for the crime of getting pregnant. Interestingly, if not surprisingly, the punishment did not extend to the men who had got them into that condition. Who can forget the so-called Magdalene Laundries, where girls could be sent on from one of the mother-and-baby homes, or by a social worker or the Gardaí (police). The ‘laundries’ existed from the time the Irish Free State was created in 1922 until 1996 and, in them, some 10,000 young women (that could be an under-estimate) were subjected to long hours of unpaid labour. Some of the places were actually laundries or carried out sewing tasks for money, although the women who did the work never saw any of it. On arrival, everything was taken from them, starting with their names. They were given numbers they had to remember and drab uniforms. Their hair was cut very short and there was a rule of silence. The women were not supposed to form friendships. After 1922, the Magdalene Laundries were operated by four religious orders – the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters – in ten different locations around Ireland. They sound like quite shocking misnomers.
BENDING THE LAW
There are organisations seeking to help the victims of this awful practice, which itself seems surprising for a basically good-natured country. After all, many Irish people turn a largely blind eye to minor offences, such as distilling poitín, the traditional but – until relatively recently – illegal Irish spirit. It is most often (but not quite always) pronounced potcheen. The name comes from the Irish word ‘pota’, which means small pot, and the liquor can be distilled from barley, corn, sugar beet, whey, molasses or potatoes, although the potatoes cannot have been involved when it was first produced, allegedly back in the 6th century. An Irish friend who worked in Brussels told me that whenever she went home to her village she knew of a particular wall with one loose stone. If someone put the right amount of money behind the stone they could come back a couple of days later and find a bottle of poitín there. She never knew who produced it.
Poitín was made illegal in the 17th century, mainly because it was farm-produced, its small still and barrels easy to hide, so that it was difficult for the British authorities to tax the stuff. Remember, Ireland was still a part of the British empire back then. Poitín was only legalised in 1997. And it’s still illegal in the north of Ireland. However, even when it was illegal to make or sell it in the Republic, I was able to buy a bottle in a duty-free shop in Poland. Let’s face it, poitín is what an American would call ‘hooch’: rough alcohol, although in this enlightened age, it’s not so rough. Today, it’s mainly made from potatoes but the varying quality harmed its recovery until the EU granted it the protection of Geographical Indicator status in 2008. “It’s inextricably linked to Irish culture and pride, as it’s hard to separate the two,” says Pádraic Ó Griallais, founder and director of the Micil Distillery in Connemara, “It was a drink that small farmers made that could help them pay the British landlords’ rent….It was a way for the Irish people to express their irreverence towards the colonial British Empire.” And to get drunk, of course. Incidentally, most of the poitín available to on-line purchasers today ranges from 50o to 90o proof, mainly 90o. It’s not a drink to take lightly. So, although it was acceptable behaviour to get totally legless on a traditional spirit that it was illegal to make or own, getting pregnant was seen as a terrible sin that would bring shame on the family. This is a strange example of double standards but also of sex discrimination: men who ‘play around’ are just a bit mischievous (nod, nod, wink, wink) but girls who do are wicked. No, I don’t understand it either.
The wickedness that went on at these ‘mother-and-baby homes’ is now coming out, somewhat belatedly, and mainly thanks to relentless campaigner Catherine Corless. The truth has been emerging in small pieces. The 5th interim report into Tuam, for instance, which was published in March 2019, revealed that 802 children had died at the home over a period of 36 years. Additionally, 12 mothers had died, mainly from complications arising from childbirth.
The Commission that carried out the investigation said that contrary to reports in the popular press, the human remains found there in 2016-17 were not in a sewage tank but in a specially constructed underground facility with 20 chambers, built inside a large decommissioned sewage tank, probably in or around 1937. So the popular papers were not so far out. The investigators have not established with any certainty the purpose of the structure, although they believe it was likely to have been something to do with the treatment or containment of sewage or waste water. I reckon that means the papers were right, don’t you? How on earth was this allowed to go on when the government knew about the homes and the standard of care being given to mothers and babies, just because the women were not married. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland) was very clear about that. “We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy,” he told the Dáil, “and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction.” Indeed they were, instantly separated from the babies to which they had just given birth and forbidden ever to speak to them or hold them.
THE NOT-SO-SWINGING 60s
For the Irish government, the hope is that at last the terrible scandal of the way in which unmarried mothers and their babies were treated can be brought to a close, even though some questions remain to be answered. “All women suffered serious discrimination,” says the executive summary to the long official report about what went on. “Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment. Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches.” The women suffered not only the pains of childbirth, accompanied by accusatory and unsympathetic staff, but also the humiliation, long hours of heavy work and, of course, separation from their babies. The fathers suffered nothing at all.
According to the summary, “There were about 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children in the mother and baby homes and county homes investigated by the Commission. The greatest number of admissions was in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is likely that there were a further 25,000 unmarried mothers and a larger number of children in the county homes which were not investigated; admissions to county homes were largely pre-1960. While mother and baby homes were not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon, the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or county homes in the twentieth century was probably the highest in the world.
The age range of women admitted to the homes is considerable, from just 12 years old to women in their forties, although most – 80%, the report says – were aged between 18 and 29. It seems that 11.4% – a total of around 5,616 – were under 18, the legal age of consent in Ireland. It is claimed, although it remains to be proved, that the Gardaí were routinely notified of pregnancies in underage women. The number of admissions of girls under the age of 18 rose sharply in the early 1960s and stayed high for the next couple of decades. Under-18s made up almost a quarter of all admissions at one home at Ard Mhuire in Dunboyne, which operated from 1955 to 1991 and which had the highest proportion of minors aged between 12 and 16.
The profiles of the women in mother and baby homes changed over the decades, too, according to the report, mirroring changes in the lives of Irish women. To begin with, most of the women who were admitted were domestic servants or farm workers or else they were carrying out unpaid domestic work in the family home. Later on, though, more of the women were clerical workers, civil servants, professional women and schoolgirls or college students. There is no evidence that women were forced to enter mother and baby homes by the church or State authorities, the report claims. Most women had no alternative, though, which is tantamount to compulsion.
There is still no official reason for the exceptionally high mortality rate, mostly affecting children in their first year of life. It seems most likely to have been a simple – if inexcusable – lack of care. Even outside the homes, the death rate was higher for illegitimate children than for those born within wedlock, but it was higher still in the mother-and-baby homes. There, in the years 1945-46, the mortality rate for infants was almost twice the Irish national average for illegitimate children. As the report admits, “In the years before 1960, mother and baby homes did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival. The very high mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications.” But, as we now know, nothing was done about them, even as the bodies were being concealed without the rite of extreme unction, which, according to the Roman Catholic faith, should be administered to the dying, I’m told.
There were different types of institutions, run in a variety of different ways, with a variety of financial arrangements and practices, says the Executive Summary. “Some were owned and run by the local health authorities – the county homes, Pelletstown, Tuam and Kilrush. Others were owned and run by religious orders, for example, the three homes run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary – Bessborough, Sean Ross, Castlepollard (the Sacred Heart homes). They are often described as ‘extern’ homes or ‘special’ homes. Regina Coeli hostel was run by the Legion of Mary and it differed from the other large homes in that it aimed to keep mothers and children together (a rarity indeed). The Bethany Home was founded by a Protestant evangelical group.” In other words, don’t just blame the nuns. Conditions inside the homes, including sanitary conditions, were generally very poor but the report says that “County homes, Kilrush and Tuam had appalling physical conditions”. It may help account for that astounding death rate.
INDIFFERENCE AS A FORM OF ABUSE
The women received little public sympathy. Those who were transferred from a mother and baby home to an ordinary maternity hospital to give birth for medical reasons, were most often subjected to unfriendly comments by fellow-patients and their visitors. “Mother and baby homes were greatly superior to the county homes,” says the Executive Summary, “where, until the 1960s, many unmarried mothers and their children were resident. Conditions in the county homes were generally very poor; this, of course, was also true for the other residents who were mainly older people and people with disabilities. The women in county homes have been largely forgotten. They included women on a second or subsequent pregnancy and women from the poorest families. County homes admitted women with special needs, mental health problems, venereal disease or a criminal conviction, who would be rejected by a number of mother and baby homes. They also accommodated children who had special needs, including the children of married families. The accommodation and care given to these children in county homes was grossly inadequate; some of the descriptions are extremely distressing.”
Ireland’s nationalist party, Sinn Féin, has criticised not only the report but also the way in which it was leaked to a newspaper prior to publication. “At the very least survivors need to see some level of accountability,” said Kathleen Funchion, TD (it stands for Teachta Dála, or member of the Dáil) the party’s spokesperson on children’s affairs, “whatever follow-up is made, they’re not going to ever see people prosecuted or in jail for the offences against them over the years and the very least they need to see now is accountability that it’s not acceptable to leak their information and personal stories in such an insensitive manner.”
She wants the Gardaí (state police force of the Irish Republic) to investigate the leak, as well as the criminally poor treatment of the women and babies who experienced life in the homes. The leak came about after the Irish government talked about “sealing” the records away back in October. Now, however, victims of abuse in the homes have found their very personal stories plastered across the pages of the newspapers, causing more pain. Since the leak, Taoiseach Martin has been inundated with letters from survivors who don’t want to see their horror stories buried in state archives for 30 years, with the Taoiseach’s office receiving a petition bearing almost 3,000 signatures. Women who suffered in the homes and the children who survived have spoken of their anger at being expected to wait three more decades to access the records. Martin’s mailbox included letters from supporters of his Fianna Fáil party, saying they would never vote that way again unless the decision was reversed. “Don’t hope it will go away,” was the warning, “Women don’t forget.” The other parties in the coalition, Fine Gael and the Greens have received similar warnings, prompting some of them to accuse other parties of organising troll attacks. “Nope. The campaign was conceived of by Dr Maeve O’Rourke, Katherine O’Donnell and myself (and paid for by Justice for Magdalene’s Research),” said Mother and Baby Homes campaigner Claire McGettrick in a Tweet. “Sinn Féin had no role in its operation. We are very grateful for the support we have received from the opposition and it is our policy to work with all parties and none.”
Other opposition parties have been compelled to reject attacks on them for criticising the very strange legislation, which sends all the records to Tulsa for 30 years. Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns said that opposition politicians had raised amendments that had been suggested by survivor groups. “They had extremely simple requests to have guaranteed access to their own information and for an index of the archive for transparency, these requests were ignored,” she said. “For government TDs to double down on their defence of this unlawful policy is baffling. This is not a political issue, this is a human rights issue. Yes, there are a few extremists online, but the vast majority of the thousands of messages I have received and seen on social media are civil and are just seeking truth.
There is real anger and hurt out there, and the government parties brushing that aside compounds the suffering for survivors of the most awful human rights abuse at the hands of the State,” she added. Others agree that the contents of the long-awaited report could and should have been revealed to the victims before it was made public. “Not alone had they the Report for months and failed to give it to survivors before release,” claimed International Socialist Alternative (ISA), “they’ve attempted to turn reality on its head with a narrative that it was society that was to blame for the misogyny and cruelty, with the state and church only reflecting back, not being the source of it.” ISA also point out that the report plays down the responsibility of church and state, blaming ‘family and society’ instead, as well as playing down the suffering of women forced to carry out heavy work while pregnant or shortly after giving birth. One woman who gave birth at one of the more caring homes (a relative rarity) commented that a priest who was conducting mass in the chapel gave a sermon to all the mainly unmarried young mothers in which he said condoms are “evil” and “the work of the devil”. Not the most sensitive subject to pick, perhaps, however strongly he felt about the issue.
“The State fundamentally failed to support the vulnerable of society and ignored the voices of those we should have listened to,” wrote Robert Troy a Fianna Fáil TD on his website.
“The State needs to and will listen to the experiences and concerns of survivors. There can be no more ‘State knows best’ approach. We will not shy away, either in taking responsibility for what happened, or in responding to the report.”
That’s good news, but in a strangely topical turn of events, it has been revealed that the mothers and babies in the homes were used as guinea pigs in trials of vaccines in the past. “The Commission identified a total of seven vaccine trials which took place in the institutions under investigation in the period 1934-1973 and has identified a number of the children involved,” said Fine Gael senator Mary Seery-Kearney.
“It is clear that the trials were not compliant with the relevant regulatory and ethical standards of the time as consent was not obtained from either the mothers of the children or their guardians and the necessary licences were not in place.” I know it sounds a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted but it seems that a lot more horses could still be preparing to bolt.
“These trials all involved either the Wellcome Foundation or Glaxo Laboratories, companies which are today part of the pharmaceutical corporation – GlaxoSmithKline,” the Senator said. One assumes that the people of Ireland won’t have to wait thirty years to find out what happened there.
It was the 19th century Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott who wrote “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive.” It is proving to be very true for the Irish government, its main political parties, the Irish state, An Garda Síochána (the police), various churches and religious orders, and, of course, members of the public who have disparaged girls who “got into trouble”.
For a staunchly Catholic country, there is another saying they should bear in mind: “There but for the grace of God go I.”