Earlier this year, I wrote for The Irish Times about the passing of a Magdalene survivor who lived here in the United States. She suffered ill health in her final years. Friends had lobbied on her behalf for health care entitlements offered through the State's Magdalene restorative justice scheme. Unfortunately, those benefits never materialised.
But, in her last months she appreciated the help received from a social worker affiliated with an Irish immigration centre in the mid-west. I had reached out to Boston’s Consul General, who in turn contacted her colleague in Chicago, who in turn reached out to that city’s Irish Immigrant Support group, who made the social worker available, despite the fact that the she lived out of state.
He helped the survivor to identify a supplementary health insurance policy. And, that insurance policy proved crucial in covering significant end-of-life medical expenses and protecting her modest nest-egg-the balance of the lump-sum redress payment she had received from the Irish State, and ear-marked to pay for the repatriation of her ashes for burial in her mother’s grave back home.
Not long after she passed, I was invited to speak about the Magdalen Laundries to the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers' (CIIC) social services subcommittee, comprised of social workers with vast experience serving Irish immigrant communities in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and New York. Two facts stand out from that conversation.
None of the participants knew about the Magdalen redress scheme. They had received no instructions, no guide explaining benefits, no application procedures. This despite the fact that Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald assured the Dáil in April 2015 that an "information note" about the scheme was distributed the previous October via Ireland's consulates abroad. Somewhere along the line, communication broke down.
The group refuted the idea that the 11 US-residents who had applied to the scheme at the time (out of a total of 802 applicants) was the sum-total of Magdalen survivors living in the US. How would survivors know about it, they asked? Why wasn’t the scheme advertised here in the US?
In the months since that conversation, individual CIIC centres such as those in Seattle, Chicago and New York have circulated information about the Magdalen redress scheme on their websites, and published information in their monthly newsletters. Just this week, Boston's Irish Pastoral Center announced in the Boston Irish Reporter that it is available to assist survivors and family members with questions about the scheme.
It remains to be seen what, if any, impact these outreach efforts will bring. But, at least the information is now in the public arena. Sadly, it may prove too little, too late for Magdalen survivors, given the relatively small numbers remaining and their age profile.
Why tell this story now? In part, it draws attention to the shortcomings of the Magdalen scheme. And, in part, for the lessons it obliges us to learn in terms of including Ireland’s diaspora as part of the Government’s ongoing Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, established almost two years ago.
Why has it yet to advertise its work here in the United States?
The lack of outreach is notable given the 2,200 Irish infants adopted by US families between the late 1940s and the early 1970s; Ireland's so-called "Banished Babies". And, it is remarkable because many women who gave birth in these institutions emigrated to escape the shame and stigma attached to what Philomena Lee has called the "sin" of having a child outside of marriage. Philomena left for England, but it is likely other women reestablished their lives here in the US.
The Commission emerged, in part, as a response to revelations surrounding the deaths of hundreds of infants at the former Sisters of the Bon Secours Home in Tuam, Co Galway. But Tuam is just one of some 179 institutions and individuals involved with unmarried mothers and their children after 1922-the Commission is currently investigating 18 institutions, including four sample County Homes. Consequently, there are concerns already about its ability to produce a report that does full justice to these aspects of Ireland's history.
Can the report be comprehensive if the Commission neglects to advertise and solicit testimony from impacted individuals here in the US? Or, does the fact that, in the past, Ireland exported “illegitimate” infants for adoption and exiled unmarried mothers as embodiments of shame mean that we can again turn our backs on their lived experience in the present?
What outreach, if any, is envisioned to ensure that potential witnesses are made aware of their opportunity to contribute to the Commission’s work, to share their testimony and have their experience acknowledged as part of an official State narrative?
The Commission’s website invites such contributions. Its “Terms of Reference” clarify that invitation stipulating a commitment to investigate the “procedures that were in place to obtain consent from mothers in respect of adoption” and the “typical pathways experienced by single women and their children on leaving the different types of such institutions including the role played by other institutions (eg adoption societies, homes for infants or children and Magdalen laundries).”
But, how is Ireland’s diaspora supposed to learn that their participation is welcome?
The Commission might, for example, advertise its work in Irish American media outlets-print, radio, and digital-something that happened as part of the Residential Institutions Redress Board. Ireland’s US embassy and consulates might disseminate information via Irish immigration and pastoral centres, civic and other cultural organisations in their catchment areas. Does the Commission view “outreach” as part of its responsibility? If not, whose responsibility is it?
Ireland’s diaspora conceals the nation’s “disappeared”. We know from the Ryan and McAleese Reports, and elsewhere, that many of Ireland’s most vulnerable citizens suppressed the legacy of institutional experience at home as they attempted to create new lives elsewhere-children who grew up in industrial and reformatory schools, men and women confined for periods in the nation’s mental hospitals, women escaping from the Magdalen laundries, and unmarried mothers burdened by the shame of giving birth in a mother and baby home, and babies banished abroad.
In 2013, the Government sponsored the Gathering, an initiative inviting the nation’s diaspora to return home for “family reunions and clan gatherings”. Surely, as a society, we are obliged not to be found wanting in reaching out and inviting Ireland’s unmarried mothers and now adult adopted children to participate in the ongoing Commission of Investigation?
James M Smith is associate professor in the English department at Boston College. He is author of Ireland's Magdalen Laundries and the Nation's Architecture of Containment, and a member of JFM Research.