An inquiry into the operation of mother and baby homes in Ireland should establish precisely what happened in those institutions; the level of approval and support they received from State agencies and Catholic Church authorities and whether the lurid headlines of recent weeks have any basis in fact. Unmarried mothers and their children experienced cruel and deliberate discrimination. But to what extent did social rejection facilitate forced adoptions, improper vaccine trials, avoidable deaths and the heartless disposal of small bodies?
The painstaking work of local historian Catherine Corless drew public attention on the deaths of 796 children who died at a mother and baby home in Tuam Co Galway, between 1925 and 1961. Her efforts, over a number of years, including paying for copies of publicly available death certificates, were designed to ensure that every dead child from the home should be remembered by name on a formal burial plaque.
Reports that the bodies of 800 children were “dumped in a septic tank” did not come from her. But they dominated political discourse; broadened the debate and drew attention to an unhealthy symbiotic relationship that existed between church and State during those years, including many working in health services.
The surprising thing about the Tuam disclosures is that we are surprised. Modern Ireland has an amazing capacity for self-induced amnesia. The systemic abuses that took place in industrial schools, mental hospitals, county homes and laundries were well documented but largely ignored.
Historians have written about the staggeringly high mortality rates in some mother and child homes. In some homes – Tuam had a relatively good record – the death rate varied from between 30 and 50 per cent. Elsewhere, it depended on where you were born. In 1934, the national infant mortality rate was highest in Dublin, followed by other cities and was lowest in Mayo, at 5.4 per cent.
Dáil debates took place at a time when one in every two infants at homes in Cork and Tipperary were dying. Very little happened. These were the offspring of so-called “fallen women”, shunned by their families, ostracised by society and regarded as dangerous vectors of sinful behaviour. In a society where property ownership was all, they were a burden.
The Government has instituted a preliminary investigation and the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has supported the establishment of an independent commission. Learning from the past can be a disturbing process. It involves an examination of failures and the acceptance of hurtful conclusions. It means making amends for past societal wrongs. It should establish why certain things happened, rather than heap blame on those who implemented policy. An examination of current discriminatory practices would also help. As a society, we have an uncomfortable road to travel.