Mother and baby home inquiry must examine our culture of concealment
Despite previous State reports, such homes have not received scrutiny
The Sacred Heart Home opened in Bessborough, Co Cork, in 1922, managed by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. Cormac O’Tuama, looks at teddies and flowers placed outside the gates of Bessborough during a memorial service on Sunday. Photograph: Provision
Until recent decades, the landscape was dotted with institutions where unmarried women were consigned to give birth in conditions of shame, secrecy and hardship.
But even though we feel we know all about this dark chapter of Ireland’s social history, we have few details on the precise nature of women’s and children’s experiences inside these homes, or the power structures used by society to confine them.
There have been four statutory reports into the abuses of children, and a Government inquiry into the Magdalene laundries, but no investigation into mother and baby homes.
We have some fragments, courtesy of valuable work by historians, journalists and the memoirs of those consigned to these institutions.
The creation of mother and baby homes was a policy which, ironically, started out as a way of creating a more humane alternative to the overcrowded workhouse.
In the early years of Irish independence, dismantling the workhouse – and all the colonial baggage it entailed – became a priority. In reality, many were simply renamed as “county homes” and continued as before.
In 1922 the Sacred Heart Home in Bessborough, Co Cork, managed by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, was opened.
Similar homes were established by the same order in Roscrea and Castlepollard in the 1930s. Other institutions – known as auxiliary homes – opened in Tuam, Pelletstown and Kilrush, all of which formed part of the country’s culture of concealment.
The nuns who worked in these homes believed that they were doing what was best for the women and their children. But conditions in many cases were deplorable, with alarming infant mortality rates.
Women were generally made to feel a crippling sense of shame. Those on their first extramarital pregnancy were referred to as “first-time offenders”. Specific mother and baby homes were often set aside for their use.
These women were judged capable of reform and their children were considered most suitable for adoption.
Other institutions – usually the county home – were reserved for “recidivists”, or those deemed beyond saving. The criminal language extended to their children, many of whom were committed by the courts to industrial schools.
Social class and money often determined how women were treated. June Goulding, in her book The Light in the Window, provided chilling details of how those with the least money suffered most.
During the 1950s, she worked as a nurse for nine months at Bessborough.
She recounted how women could leave within weeks of giving birth if they paid £100 to the nuns, a substantial sum at the time. Otherwise, they had to spend two years working to pay off their keep. Elsewhere, their “sentence” could be up to three years.
Michael Viney explored many of these issues in a groundbreaking series in The Irish Times in 1964.
He captured how the social, political and religious climate of the time conspired to brush these issues under the carpet.
“If you go besmirching the name of Irish womanhood, you won’t be forgiven,” he was warned by one doctor, while he researched the week-long series, “No Birthright”.
It was reprinted as a booklet and became a text for sociology students in UCD.
The heartbreaking testimony of mothers – still crippled with grief at being forced to give their children up for adoption – surfaced again in the 1990s and 2000s, through studies such as Mike Milotte’s Banished Babies and Mary Raftery’s and Eoin O’Sullivan’s Suffer The Little Children.
While we have confronted much of the abuse of children through the Murphy and Ryan reports, the examination of mother and baby homes never received the full glare of the State.
As well as an inquiry into the conditions mothers and babies were forced to endure, it now seems likely any State investigation will extend into other murky practices linked to these institutions, such as forced adoptions and vaccine trials. Tackling even one of these areas is likely to be a complex and lengthy task.
There remain in Ireland many women – and children – for whom such an investigation would serve as a long overdue recognition of their suffering.
It is only by piecing together the fragments of their experiences that we can begin to develop a full picture of the complexity of arrangements – social, religious and political – which existed to punish women who were deemed to have broken the rules of society.