State has history of turning blind eye, Joan Burton tells Humbert School

Ireland refused to see or hear when it came to hiding women, children in institutions, Tanaiste says

 Tánaiste Joan Burton. Photograph: Alan Betson

Tánaiste Joan Burton. Photograph: Alan Betson


The Irish State refused to see or hear when it came to “Ireland’s long and torrid history of hiding women and children in institutions”, Tánaiste Joan Burton said last night.

Speaking at the opening of the 28th annual Humbert School in Ballina, Ms Burton called on the Catholic church to preserve all records still in its care relating to these institutions.

Ms Burton said the church had a key role to play, both in changing attitudes and in preserving records . While many records had been passed to the HSE she believed there were “large gaps” and as these were the stories of people – single mothers and babies born in homes – they should be maintained and archived.

Speaking on the theme of accountability in public life, the Minister for Social Protection said we could have all the accountability mechanisms we wanted, but they would be of limited value if not acted on by those in power, including the government of the day.

“Ireland’s long and torrid history of hiding women and children in institutions is a glaring example,” she said.

She said there were loud and clear warnings about what was happening in many of these institutions in the years and decades after their establishment.

Citing the recent inter-departmental report on mother-and-baby homes, she said a 1939 inspector’s report had pointed out that an “illegitimate” child born in the slums had a better chance of survival that an infant born in a mother-and-baby home. In that year inspector Alice Lister had expressed grave doubts about the wisdom of referring women to these homes so long as no attempt was made to explore the abnormally high death rate.

“The babies were dying like flies,” Ms Burton said.

Stressing that the reality of these institutions were “open secrets” in many communities, the Tánaiste said the infant mortality rate at the Bessborough mother-and-baby home in Cork stood at 68 per cent in 1943, according to documents recently revealed by the Irish Examiner .

Ms Burton pointed out that in 1970 a District Judge had questioned the legal validity of sending girls to Magdalene laundries and convents. Young women were unaware of their rights and could remain in the laundries for long periods and become, in the process, unfit for re-emergence into society, Judge Eileen Kennedy found.

“It is difficult to know what more evidence the State needed that this was wrong – yet the State refused to see or hear,” she said. “We also know that many middle-class women ended up in psychiatric hospital.”

The Tánaiste said the Government had acted decisively to address a grievous historic wrong, putting in place a redress scheme for the Magdalene survivors and announcing a commission of investigation into mother-and-baby homes.