Catholic Church should set up its own commission of investigation following mother and child home controversy

Opinion: Government commission should be chaired by someone of evident distinction who is not Irish or of Irish extraction

‘The Tuam Home was, according to the Ryan Report, established in 1925 by the local county council. The council, presumably moved by similar benevolent motives, invited in the Bon Secours Sisters to run it.’ Above, the site of a grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

‘The Tuam Home was, according to the Ryan Report, established in 1925 by the local county council. The council, presumably moved by similar benevolent motives, invited in the Bon Secours Sisters to run it.’ Above, the site of a grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Thu, Jun 19, 2014, 00:01

‘Unwed mothers and their infants were an affront to morality. They were spurned and ostracised both by the public relief and charitable institutions.” This statement could well describe the attitude to children born out of wedlock and their mothers in the first half of 20th-century Ireland, an attitude the Tuam scandal has once again painfully brought to our attention. It is taken from the article Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England by Dorothy L Haller.

The New Poor Law of 1834 of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland made all illegitimate children the sole responsibility of the mother, letting the putative father off scot-free, not for the first time. The main reason for amending the previous law was to make the “fallen women” serve as examples to other women and to inspire virtue, thus putting an end to the birth of illegitimate children.

Lord Althorp remarked that making the victims of the seducer’s art maintain their own resulting children is “a boon to the female population”, since, as Haller put it, they “would serve as examples to others and inspire virtue thus putting an end to the birth of illegitimate children”.

This led in time to the malpractice of the so-called baby farmers, women who would solicit as many sickly infants as possible, charge a fee to adopt them and then let them die of thrush brought on by malnutrition. It took various horrors of multiple infanticides at the end of the 19th century before the government intervened. An Act passed in 1897 empowered the local authorities to seek out “baby farms and lying-in houses, to enter homes suspected of abusing children, and to remove those children to a place of safety. It also redefined improper care of infants.” That remained in force up to 1957, according to Haller. Is it still part of Irish law?

Such laws would have been in place when the Irish Free State came into being in 1922. At the time, illegitimate children and their mothers in Ireland were consigned to the workhouses or county homes. According to the Ryan report, the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act 1923 stipulated that one workhouse building in each county be retained as a “county home” in which all the non-medical inmates in the county were lodged. According to the 1928 Report on the County Homes, there were in Ireland “11,000 itinerant beggars . . . including prostitutes and young criminals . . .; a large group of old people...; mentally handicapped people...; lunatics unable to secure admission to the overcrowded district lunatic asylums; unmarried mothers and their so-called illegitimate children; rejects of a disapproving society; and orphaned and abandoned children” (Ryan report Vol IV, 215).

‘A useful and respectable life’

The undesirability of having mothers and their children in county homes was recognised, according to the Ryan report, and so “in the 1920s and the 1930s the policy was implemented for providing ‘mother and baby’ homes for unmarried women who were having children for the first time. These were reserved for young mothers who were ‘fallen’ once only and thus, presumably, were likely to be ‘influenced towards a useful and respectable life’.” Those who had second or third children were left in the county homes. They were evidently considered beyond recovery. According to Seán Lucey (The Irish Times, June 10th) “. . . 70 per cent of lone and single mothers and their children ended up in these institutions throughout the 20th century”.

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