This time, the issue of mother and baby homes must be addressed

Even the story of Philomena Lee, as recounted in the film starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, did not stir the national conscience to action

The Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, which was a home from 1930 to 1970. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, which was a home from 1930 to 1970. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

Eighteen years ago, on May 11th, 1996, Padraig O’Morain wrote in this newspaper about a woman he called Eileen, whose baby was taken from her in a mother-and-baby home and sent to the US for adoption.

It followed an announcement the previous month by Dick Spring, who was at the time the tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs, that files on the adoption of Irish babies in the US had been found. It was said this offered hope that birth mothers and children taken from them for adoption could meet again.

We’ve had four statutory reports since then on the abuses of children, and the McAleese report on the Magdalene laundries, but no investigation into mother-and-baby homes.

Even the deeply moving story of Philomena Lee, as recounted in the film ‘Philomena’ last year, did not stir the national conscience to action.

This latest story from Tuam has been reported around the world since it broke, two weeks ago. What brought global attention to the Co Galway town was the figure of 796 children who had died at St Mary’s in Tuam, between 1925 and 1961, and the words “septic tank”. The image of children being disposed of so barbarically outraged people across the globe.

How the remains of children were disposed of has become secondary; attention has shifted to the homes themselves and the mothers and children who lived in them. This time it has to be addressed, for the sake of all surviving mothers and children who spent time in these institutions.

According to the Ryan report, “in the 1920s and 30s the policy was implemented of providing ‘mother and baby’ homes for unmarried women who were having children for the first time. These were reserved for young mothers who had ‘fallen’ once only and thus were likely to be ‘influenced towards a useful and respectable life’.”

A 1928 department of local government report stated that “about eight ‘mother and child’ homes were set up for unmarried mothers giving birth for the first time. In 1922 the Sacred Heart Home in Bessboro, Co Cork, managed by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, was opened. Similar homes were established by the same Order in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, in 1930 and Castlepollard, Co Meath, in 1935.”

It continued, “The Sisters of Charity of St Vincent De Paul opened a similar institution on the Navan Road, in Dublin, in 1918 and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd opened a home in Dunboyne, Co Meath, in 1955. In addition, three special homes were provided by local authorities themselves in Tuam, Co Galway, Kilrish, Co Clare and Pelletstown in Co Dublin.”

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