‘Respectable’ woman’s opinion counted for more than poor family by local government official
Voice of the female subject to the committal to Bessborough was not heard at all
The details of this case, buried in the local authority records of Kerry County Council, demonstrate the complex dynamics and social forces that led to so many women entering and remaining in mother and baby homes in independent Ireland such as the Tuam mother and baby home which is the focus of the current controversy.
Local decision-making on why women were committed and their length of stay was influenced by a range of factors, including fear of the woman’s potential relapse and the threat that she posed to the local community, and the potential reputational damage to the institution. Social and class bias was even more apparent as demonstrated in the concerns over the perceived character of the parents.
Furthermore, the opinion of the “respectable” woman was sought over the financially poor parents by the local government official. The voice of the female subject to the committal to Bessborough, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not heard at all in the records of this case.
Along with the influence of religious authorities, deeply entrenched social, gender and moral prejudices prevailed among officials and many within society, particularly those considered respectable, which helped to create the wider societal and cultural environment in which institutions such as mother and baby homes existed.
With the increasing likelihood of an inquiry into mother and baby homes in response to the Tuam controversy, this case demonstrates that local and central government archival evidence – largely in the hands of the State – has the potential to unravel the complex place these institutions held within local society and communities, particularly during the early decades of independence for when limited oral testimony survives.
Furthermore, the potential inquiry has to be as comprehensive as possible and include other institutions that “unmarried women” and their children were in: county homes – former workhouses which were multifunctional welfare/health care institutions – remain ignored in the current debates although 70 per cent of lone and single mothers and their children ended up in these institutions throughout the 20th century.
Finally, recent events have further demonstrated the importance of Irish social history, particularly in light of the on-going “Decade of Commemorations” which remain largely focused on political events.
Dr Seán Lucey is an historian based in Queen’s University Belfast. His next book The End of the Irish Poor Law? Welfare and Healthcare Reform in Revolutionary and Independent Ireland is forthcoming with Manchester University Press.