Catholic Church should set up its own commission of investigation following mother and child home controversy

Opinion: Government commission should be chaired by someone of evident distinction who is not Irish or of Irish extraction


‘Unwed mothers and their infants were an affront to morality. They were spurned and ostracised both by the public relief and charitable institutions.” This statement could well describe the attitude to children born out of wedlock and their mothers in the first half of 20th-century Ireland, an attitude the Tuam scandal has once again painfully brought to our attention. It is taken from the article Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England by Dorothy L Haller.

The New Poor Law of 1834 of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland made all illegitimate children the sole responsibility of the mother, letting the putative father off scot-free, not for the first time. The main reason for amending the previous law was to make the “fallen women” serve as examples to other women and to inspire virtue, thus putting an end to the birth of illegitimate children.

Lord Althorp remarked that making the victims of the seducer’s art maintain their own resulting children is “a boon to the female population”, since, as Haller put it, they “would serve as examples to others and inspire virtue thus putting an end to the birth of illegitimate children”.

This led in time to the malpractice of the so-called baby farmers, women who would solicit as many sickly infants as possible, charge a fee to adopt them and then let them die of thrush brought on by malnutrition. It took various horrors of multiple infanticides at the end of the 19th century before the government intervened. An Act passed in 1897 empowered the local authorities to seek out “baby farms and lying-in houses, to enter homes suspected of abusing children, and to remove those children to a place of safety. It also redefined improper care of infants.” That remained in force up to 1957, according to Haller. Is it still part of Irish law?

Such laws would have been in place when the Irish Free State came into being in 1922. At the time, illegitimate children and their mothers in Ireland were consigned to the workhouses or county homes. According to the Ryan report, the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act 1923 stipulated that one workhouse building in each county be retained as a “county home” in which all the non-medical inmates in the county were lodged. According to the 1928 Report on the County Homes, there were in Ireland “11,000 itinerant beggars . . . including prostitutes and young criminals . . .; a large group of old people...; mentally handicapped people...; lunatics unable to secure admission to the overcrowded district lunatic asylums; unmarried mothers and their so-called illegitimate children; rejects of a disapproving society; and orphaned and abandoned children” (Ryan report Vol IV, 215).

‘A useful and respectable life’

The Irish Times

Why did Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan not mention the county homes in his announcement of the commission of inquiry? Is it because they are so forgotten that no one informed him or his civil servants? Or was it because they were not run by religious orders? Is it is because of the anti-Catholic bias that seems to have clouded the minds of so many otherwise perceptive commentators in the media?

No one denies the often inhuman treatment of women and children in the mother and child homes. But the fact that Bessboro was set up in 1922 by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, indicates prima facie that the Sisters were fundamentally moved by human compassion for such women. What happened later is another question, to be investigated. It is likely that “the nuns” shared a religious motivation similar to that of their Protestant sisters, namely concern to save such “fallen” women from a life of immorality in the hope that they would be thereby led to “a useful and respectable life”.

The Tuam home was, according to the Ryan report, established in 1925 by the local county council. The council, presumably moved by similar benevolent motives, invited the Bon Secours Sisters to run it. These remarkable – and much maligned – women had come to Ireland from France in 1861 to provide “good care” to the sick, rich and poor alike, out of love of God and neighbour. Commentators have implied that the Sisters were in the business for profit and so are now questioning the reliability of the McAleese report that found no evidence with regard to similar claims made in relation to the Magdalene Laundries.

The terms “useful and respectable ” used to describe the motivation for the UK Poor Law’s aim for “fallen women” points to the deeper cultural forces at work in the treatment of such women and their children.

Haller highlighted the rise of (Protestant) Evangelical and (secular) Utilitarian philosophies at the time as the immediate cause of the more rigorous attitude to “fallen” women that resulted in the reform of the law.

Measures of morality

Institutions such as the mother and child homes and the Magdalene Laundries are regarded worldwide as typically Catholic – even though, to the best of my knowledge, they are not to be found in the Catholic nations of Europe or South America. The big question is: how is it that the Irish Catholic Church could drift so far from its moorings? To what extent are similar attitudes to others marginalised in our affluent society still prevalent?

These are profound questions which, I suggest, the Catholic Church should examine by setting up its own commission of investigation rather than singling out the Bon Secours Sisters as scapegoats.

Whichever commission is set up by the Government, it should be chaired by someone of evident distinction who is not Irish or of Irish extraction. We are all so emotionally worked up by all these issues that it is doubtful if we can be objective on these topics. And since we seem to be in a permanent paroxysm of “historical self-flagellation” (Brendan O’Neill), we need the international perspective, to ask the question “why?” and to help us to look at these issues somewhat dispassionately – and avoid prejudicing any possible criminal action that, sadly, may have to be undertaken.

Innocence vs guilt

D Vincent Twomey SVD is author of The End of Irish Catholicism? (Dublin 2003)and Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae (2010)

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