Maureen Gaffney: The land of the mother and baby homes

The Mother and Baby Homes report triggers a wash of memories of those grey decades

The writer Thomas Kilroy set his play, Christ Deliver Us! in 1950s Ireland. In it one of the characters, Winnie, is full of wonder about a local swallow hole, where everything that people discarded ended up, and she wonders what would happen if the swallow hole, suddenly like a geyser, threw up everything in a gush.

The swallow holes in Irish social history finally began to gush in the 1970s and 1980s, first in the heartbreaking stories of single mothers, forced adoptions and loveless marriages that poured out of the Gay Byrne Show; later in the Ryan and Murphy reports, and now again in the Final Report of Commission of Investigation Into the Mother And Baby Homes.

This report brings us on a dismal tour of Ireland during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, to the mother and baby homes and county homes in Tuam, Kilrush, Thomastown, Cork, Tipperary, Meath, Westmeath, Donegal and Dublin. It is a geography of desperation.

These are the institutions to which pregnant single women were sent, or admitted themselves because there was nowhere else to go. And rising up from all the stories of what happened in those institutions is a fog of the panicked attempts at secrecy and concealment, and most of all, the stench of shame.

For anyone who lived through the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, the findings in the report trigger a wash of memories and images of those grey decades: the omnipresence of the Catholic Church, its casual power over every nook and cranny of your life, even your the most private thoughts and fantasies.

Irish families proved reluctant to provide succour and support to their unmarried pregnant daughters, mainly because of their overriding preoccupation with respectability

They recall the fear of and distaste for the body, particularly women’s bodies; recounting how some nuns pinned paper hems on small children’s gymslips if they were deemed too short.

I remember as a teenager in the 1960s attending some event during the summer that was held in the garden of the local convent. I was wearing a sleeveless dress, and one otherwise kindly nun put her hand on my arm disapprovingly, murmuring “All that flesh, Maureen, all that flesh”.

The local priest

The Church occupied a pre-eminent place in Ireland and wielded its formidable power with ease. The local priest was often the first person to be contacted by a pregnant woman or her family, and the person who determined her fate. He was frequently involved in trying to persuade the reluctant father-to-be to marry the girl, and then presided over the shotgun marriage. If that was not an option, he contacted the nearest mother and baby home and arranged for the woman to be admitted.

He was often in close contact with the local authorities, and had little difficulty persuading them that a nun should be appointed as matron in the local mother and baby home or the county home.

For their part, the compliant Department of Health contacted the superior of the religious order involved in running the institution and invited her to nominate a suitable successor.

The State and local authorities also deferred to the how the religious orders wanted to deal with the mothers and children in their care. For example, Galway County Council went along with the recommendations of the Bon Secours nuns, who ran Tuam children’s home, that boys should be kept in the home until they reached five, and girls until they were aged seven and a half before they were boarded out, despite official policy to board them out at age two.

This was of a piece with their policy of often keeping the mothers in the homes for two years. These practices were less to do with the welfare of the child or the mother than the opportunity it provided to instil Catholic moral values in both.

I remember my mother recounting how married women of her generation dreaded being asked in Confession the age of their youngest child, and if the child was over two, how they were to avoid becoming pregnant; how after giving birth, women did not attend Mass in the central aisle until they were “churched”, which most women interpreted as some kind of cleansing ceremony after childbirth, as if it were regarded as impure in some way.

In the case of single women who gave birth, that sense of impurity attached to their whole person, making them outcasts. The powerful coalition of Church and State used the treatment of single mothers as a warning to others of their fate if they ignored the strictures that were designed to uphold the rigid conformity and respectability that then passed as Irish moral values. And the stigma of being an unmarried mother was lasting.

For their part, in that era, Irish families proved reluctant to provide succour and support to their unmarried pregnant daughters, mainly because of their overriding preoccupation with respectability and the family’s status in the community.

Fled to Dublin

So the women were forced by them, or at the instigation of the local priest, to go to a mother and baby home, and stay there until a decision was made by them, their families, or the religious authorities as to what to do with the baby.

Some women from the country fled to Dublin to conceal their pregnancy, wandering half-hysterical around the city, or turning up unannounced and heavily pregnant at a mother and baby home. Others travelled to London but often fared no better.

If they contacted Catholic charities they were often sent back to a mother and baby home in Ireland. If they contacted a Protestant agency, they found themselves caught in another furore as the Catholic Church fought the attempts of the agencies to help the women, fearing that they would try to convert the women and their children.

If he had made more than one girl pregnant there was less forgiveness. But for women, it was one stroke and you're out

Those who stayed at home endured their own torments. Some managed to conceal their pregnancy from their families right up to the moment of birth, some so terrified that they left their homes to give birth unassisted and all alone in fields or ditches.

One woman’s mother helped her during the birth at home, baptised the infant, who later died, but failed to register the birth. A soul was secured for the Church, but a citizen of the State was simply “disappeared”.

But whatever their faults, the Irish mothers of pregnant single women were often better at dealing with the situation than their fathers. Some were kept in the dark by their wives who feared their response, and when they were told often erupted in rage and insisted that their daughters be dispatched to a mother and baby home to protect the name of the family.

Many of the men who made the women pregnant were even worse. They commonly denied paternity, or promised to marry them but then emigrated or disappeared.

In a small and intimate society like Ireland, people were adept at “placing” people, in knowing their seed, breed and generation. They remembered who had children out of wedlock, who was “illegitimate”, and two generations on, they also remembered that about their children and their grandchildren.

“Wasn’t she the girl that had the baby before she was married?” was usually the opening to an extended conversation about what had become of her and her child. Any later attempt by the women to try to leave her past behind, or worse, to assume what were considered airs and graces, was condemned harshly.

‘Sowing his wild oats’

In contrast, references to the man who had made the woman pregnant were usually brief, or dismissed as him sowing his wild oats before he settled down. If he had made more than one girl pregnant there was less forgiveness. But for women, it was one stroke and you’re out.

There was always a lot of talk in Ireland about how skilled the Catholic Church was in instilling guilt. If you were particularly susceptible to scruples, guilt could develop into anguished self-blame. Some were so crippled by anticipated guilt that they stifled every impulse to pleasure except for the most anodyne.

We have to be vigilant, to keep reminding ourselves that the appalling suffering and abuse of the past happened under our very noses

But the Church was also pretty good at instilling shame too. Shame is a more primitive, a feeling of being exposed, stripped naked, degraded. Shame evokes the most fundamental of all human fears – of being isolated and abandoned by others – cast out the group to which you belong and left to fend on your own. Unlike guilt, which is about something you did wrong, shame is distress about your whole self, an attack on your core identity, and the resulting distress is more total, more overwhelming, triggering an urge to hide and melt away. And that’s what a lot of single Irish women felt, and sometimes did, when they fell pregnant.

The shame that they and their families felt was what motivated their fierce desire for concealment. Even years after, some women lived in dread that their secret would be exposed. One woman who was contacted by an agency wrote to them to beg that they would not contact her husband:

“(H)e does not know about this as I could not tell him. He was in England at the time and I went through it on my own. I could not tell anyone then, I can’t tell anyone now. I am going through this on my own now. I was promised that no contact would be made. I am in a terrible dark place with no way out. This is putting me over the edge and I pray every day that it is all a nightmare and maybe Jesus will get me out of it. Please help me, I am desperate now. I was promised there would be no contact. I have nowhere to turn but to kill myself I can’t tell anyone.”

Guilt and shame

The toxic mix of guilt and shame was not cost free. It put people at high risk of developing chronic anxiety or depression, compulsions, harsh self-criticism, and a desperate need for approval. It made it hard to separate out what they themselves wanted to do from and what others wanted them to do.

The resulting confusion often wore them down, or induced a debilitating passivity. In an era when there was little or no prospect of receiving psychotherapy, some took to their beds, complaining of debilitating fatigue or vague ailments. They were “bad with their nerves” in the idiom of the time.

It took a long time before this accumulation of private and communal cruelties were worked out of the Irish system. But it is only by mining down through that impacted rock of personal suffering that we can see the broken reality of a very recent past. That is the only and best way of learning lessons from our failures in compassion.

The publication of this report on mother and baby homes opens up an opportunity to build a new perception of ourselves, with a fuller recognition of our own weaknesses and vulnerability. It is a chance to articulate a better set of values, to renew faith in our capacity to redefine who we are and what constitutes  a good society.

We know now about the enormous interconnectedness of things, and the theory that some seemingly trivial things like the flapping of a butterfly’s wing in one corner of the universe can create a raging storm in a far flung place. So too with the human community.

The casual insult, the indifferent looking away from an injustice, most of all the public shaming of someone vulnerable can launch a cascade of fear, rage and despair that can distort a whole society.

So we have to be vigilant, to keep reminding ourselves that the appalling suffering and abuse of the past happened under our very noses. And despite our undoubted progress it could happen again, disguised in a new form, or by a new self-righteousness or set of rationalisations.

The poet WH Auden understood this human failing. In his wonderful poem Musée des Beaux Arts, he uses Bruegel’s painting of Icarus falling from the sky with everyone turning away from the disaster because they had things to do and places to go.

So too, we can’t turn away from any other suffering and injustice that is happening around us. Instead, we have to make have sure that when someone, anyone, is falling out of the sky, it is an important failure for us all.

Dr Maureen Gaffney is a clinical psychologist and author of Flourishing: How to Achieve A Deeper Sense Of Well-Being, Meaning And Purpose - Even When Facing Adversity (Penguin 2011). Her new book, Your One Wild And Precious Life will be published later this year