President pays tribute to work of historian in Tuam babies case

Higgins refers to ‘dark shadows’ in past towards women and ‘illegitimate babies’

A heated exchange in the Dáil between the Taoiseach and Independent TD Catherine Connolly ensued after Connolly claimed he was insulting the women of Ireland. Video: Oireachtas

 

The work of historian Catherine Corless in gathering information about child deaths at the Tuam mother and baby home has helped to blow open “the blocked doors of a hidden Ireland”, Michael D Higgins has said.

The President said Ms Corless’s work had put a light on how unmarried mothers and “illegitimate babies” were treated in the past.

Addressing a gathering to mark International Women’s Day, Mr Higgins cited “dark shadows that hang over our meeting” arising from the revelations of what happened in Tuam.

He said Ms Corless had “continued to ask the questions that are important if we are to face the truth of what prevailed”. Her work, he added, was “blowing open the blocked doors of a hidden Ireland”.

Mr Higgins said the State should ensure “the rightful questions put by women who had direct experiences of institutions” are answered.

He also welcomed the Government’s decision to set up a commission of investigation to examine the alleged abuse of an intellectually disabled young woman named “Grace” at a foster home in the southeast.

And he drew applause when he welcomed the decision to recognise the Travelling community as an ethnic group.

Angry circumstances

Mr Higgins said he and his wife, Sabina, frequently had Traveller women and children visit their home to discuss issues of housing and health – “in circumstances that still make me angry when I look back at how they were treated”.

Without mentioning the United States by name, the President referred to a “worrying surge of unapologetic sexism and the undermining of women’s rights in one of the most advanced democracies”.

He said the eradication of domestic violence was the responsibility of men as well as women, and he encouraged men to become vocal “about their intolerance of such physical, psychological and sexual aggression against women”.

The President also expressed his sorrow at the death of a pregnant woman and three children in a fire at a domestic violence shelter in Clondalkin, Dublin. They died after the blaze at a step-down facility run by the charity Sonas.

Mr Higgins said four representatives of Sonas had been due at Áras an Uachtaráin for the International Women’s Day event.

“All our hearts must go out to these women and children.”