Mother and baby homes were symptoms of a traumatised society after Civil War

Opinion: Conflict became particularly ruthless after Michael Collins was shot in an ambush, 92 years ago this month

‘Instead of using the Treaty as a stepping-stone to the republic, as Michael Collins (above) argued, we descended into civil war.’ Photograph:  Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

‘Instead of using the Treaty as a stepping-stone to the republic, as Michael Collins (above) argued, we descended into civil war.’ Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images


The 1916 Proclamation is our charter of liberty. Yet there was a disconnection between its noble aspirations and the realities of life in the new State, as the latest sordid chapter to emerge from our past, regarding mother and baby homes, reminds us. Fratricidal strife severed the link.

Instead of using the Treaty as a stepping-stone to the republic, as Michael Collins argued, we descended into civil war. With the poet’s capacity to distil truth from fact, Yeats wrote in Meditations in Time of Civil War: “We had fed the heart on fantasies,/ The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;/ More substance in our enmities/ Than in our love . . .”

The conflict became particularly ruthless after Collins was shot. Atrocities were committed on both sides. Society was stained with violence and remained bitterly divided long after hostilities ended in 1923. We achieved statehood but failed to create a new society. It was not the state envisaged by those leaders – now dead – who had vowed to “cherish all the children of the nation equally”. The carnival of reaction predicted by Connolly irrupted, with institutionalised discrimination in the North and unbridled clerical power in the South.


Pearse’s literary executor, Desmond Ryan, wrote: Beneath the debris of the Civil War “the spirit of the Irish revolution was buried. It was the hour of reaction, of the place-hunter, the intriguer, the hopeless, the mediocre, the superstitious . . . . Never had the pride and self-respect of a nation been so deeply wounded.” The historian Alice Stopford Green said after Collins’s death: “Our progress can be no longer along the hills of high adventure, but on the level ground where men less gifted must needs travel.”

The vacuum created by the eclipse of civic republicanism was filled by an authoritarian church. Although a relatively modernised society, Ireland was predominantly agrarian and poor. A destructive civil war left us poorer still. Limited resources were spent on restoring basic infrastructure; the institutional church was left in charge of schools, hospitals and a rudimentary welfare system.

Women were for the most part sidelined in the Free State. It was a religious but unspiritual society, which made a mockery of Christ’s compassion for the marginalised and outcast. Many young people became dedicated missionaries, however, leaving a country that was scared of beauty and truth and had a crippled notion of goodness.

Regarding the revival of Irish, the scholar patriot Edward MacLysaght said the Treaty split “resulted in our throwing away what may prove to have been the last chance” of saving Irish as a vernacular language. “The split blew that spirit to atoms as surely as the explosion at the Four Courts made dust of the archives in the Public Record Office.”

When Fianna Fáil gained power in 1932, Maud Gonne MacBride asked the education minister, Thomas Derrig, to have a copy of the Proclamation hung in every school. He replied that he could not do so as (clerical) “managers might object and it would cost money”.

In 1941 Harry Gleeson was hanged for a crime he did not commit. His counsel, Seán MacBride, said a conspiracy of silence in Tipperary protected the killers of Mary McCarthy, who had given birth to seven children by different fathers. MacBride suggested she was the “victim of a perverted sense of morality bred by a civilisation which, nominally based on Christianity”, lacked most of its essentials.


On the night of June 17th, 1922, as the country lurched towards civil war, five armed and masked men entered the home of a herdsman in north Clare. The moonlighters’ purpose was intimidation but in the melee they shot dead Margaret Kilmartin, a mother of nine children. Her husband, Stephen, was a member of Sinn Féin and most likely involved in the Carron Herdsmen’s Union, which challenged the authority of landowners. Four years later four “respectable men of the farming class” were charged with her murder. A search in the National Archives and among the files of the local press proved inconclusive. Apparently the case was dropped. Eventually, the last member of Mrs Kilmartin’s family provided the missing information (when I interviewed her shortly before her death). “It was the priests got them off,” she revealed. This scandalous abuse of clerical power is a paradigm on post-Civil War Ireland.

The mother and baby homes were symptoms of a traumatised society.

Dr Brendan Ó Cathaoir is a historian and journalist

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