A public inquiry is now essential to establish facts of Tuam mother and baby home

Opinion: Wider issues of ‘adoption’ and treatment of children in homes must be looked at

The infants’ graveyard at the mother and baby home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary.  Photograph:  Niall Carson/PA

The infants’ graveyard at the mother and baby home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Tue, Jun 10, 2014, 00:01

It is difficult now to imagine how it must have felt to be a young woman in Ireland in the 19th or 20th century and to find yourself pregnant and unmarried. Your news would not be greeted with joy, by anyone.

You would feel the anger and disappointment of your family. If you were desperate, you might try and hide your pregnancy and attempt to give birth without assistance and then dispose of the infant’s body.

In the early 20th century, a local priest might be informed of your situation and would recommend placement in a mother and baby home. You might enter the workhouse to have your baby. If your family had money they might pay for a place in a private home where your shame could be hidden. Or you could go to England and have your baby there.

Imagine the anxiety of having to tell your parents you were pregnant, the accusations, the arguments, the tears, the shame, the fear the neighbours might find out, the loss of face that would follow, the gossip and the scandal.

Even in 1980s Ireland, there were friends of mine who, pregnant out of wedlock, married rather than bring “shame” to their families. The idealisation of motherhood was a significant feature of the rhetoric of politicians and the churches in the Irish Free State. All western societies from the 1920s saw women’s duty to the state best carried out through marriage and motherhood. However, motherhood was accepted only within the context of marriage.

In Ireland, unmarried mothers brought shame to the nation and to their families, and they were problematic to the notion of an Ireland that was pure and sexually innocent. The apparent rise in illegitimacy rates during the 1920s was attributed to a loss of parental control and responsibility during the period of the War of Independence and the Civil War. That control, it was argued at the time, had never been restored. Moral laxity was seen as the result of the prevalence of “commercialised dancehalls, picture houses . . . and the opportunities afforded by the misuse of motor cars for luring girls”.

The workhouse was the chief refuge for many women who found themselves pregnant outside marriage. Workhouses were officially abolished in 1925 and became county homes, but many unmarried mothers still used them, and were more likely to take their babies home with them.

Homes and asylums

A large number of charitable organisations and institutions, some established in the 19th century but surviving into the mid to late 20th century, dealt with unmarried mothers. These included the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society of Ireland. The Magdalen Asylum in Leeson Street in Dublin catered for Protestant unmarried mothers, as did the Bethany Home in Rathgar, and the Nursery Rescue Home in Templeogue. Some of these were non-residential charities and they either fostered out babies or had them adopted.

In the private sphere, for those families who sought and could afford anonymity, there were lodging houses where women could reside until their confinement.

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