If shame has gone, why do we use secret abortions in England to preserve the myth of holy Ireland?

Opinion: In an Irish Times article in 1964, Michael Viney referred to ‘the secret-service mother-and-baby homes’ run by religious orders in Ireland

The Irish psychosis whose latest expression is thousands of dead babies in unmarked graves is a compound of four elements: superiority, shame, cruelty and exclusion. The Taoiseach last week called the deaths of those children “yet another element of our country’s past”. Are we so sure that these forces are not also our country’s present?

The superiority complex in Irish society came from the desperate need of an insecure middle class to have someone to look down on, an inferior Other against which to define its own respectability.

In 1943, the Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers compiled a well-meaning memorandum on children in institutions. It noted of those in mother-and-baby homes that “These illegitimate children start with a handicap. Owing to the circumstances of their birth, their heredity, the state of mind of the mother before birth, their liability to hereditary disease and mental weakness, we do not get, and we should not expect to get, the large percentage of healthy vigorous babies we get in normal circumstances. This was noticeable in the institutions we visited.”

These were humane and compassionate reformers. And it seemed obvious to them that children born out of wedlock would be physically and mentally weak and that “we should not expect” them to be normally healthy.


Sense of inferiority

A Catholic priest writing in the

Irish Ecclesiastical Record

in 1922 under the pen-name Sagart, actually objected to the establishment of mother-and-baby homes, not on the grounds that they were horribly oppressive in principle, but that they might let unmarried mothers lose their proper sense of inferiority.

The homes would “bring these poor girls into touch with each other, a thing which experience shows to be very harmful. They feel that [they] are ‘all in the same boat’ and are inevitably led to ‘compare notes’ and talk of their experiences. Each will thus have borne in on her mind the impression that her case is not extraordinary, and that many girls of seemingly unblemished reputation are no better than herself.” He need not have worried, of course – the regime in the homes ensured that the women would have no illusions of normality.

The institutional church, meanwhile, was a giant factory for the mass production of shame and secrecy. It was the Irish secret service. In an article in The Irish Times in 1964, Michael Viney referred to "the secret-service mother-and-baby homes" run by religious orders in Ireland.

The metaphor was not strained. Viney quoted the mother superior of a home he visited as telling him that the young women never set foot outside of the grounds: “They’d rather put up with a toothache than risk a visit to the dentist in the town, where they might just meet someone who would recognise them.”

The church’s genius was that it both generated the shame and controlled the secrets that resulted from it.

The third element was cruelty – conscious and deliberate cruelty, aimed at the creation of fear. Catholic Ireland locked up in mental hospitals, industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and mother-and- baby homes an astonishing 1 per cent of its entire population. The cruelty of these places was not accidental. “Sagart” regretted the unfortunate fact that too many Irish unmarried mothers led lives of misery in England – not because they suffered but because such “sufferings, borne as they are in a far-off place, have little of a deterrent effect on the girls of her neighbourhood”. Catholic Ireland needed the deterrent of suffering in the big walled buildings.

Psychosis of emigration

The final element was the psychosis of mass emigration that accustomed society to absences, exclusions, holes in the fabric of reality. Viney reported that the homes had well-run systems for sending letters from inmates to London – they were then posted back to the young woman’s family with British stamps, as if from an accommodation address in England.

The mother-and-baby homes were a form of internal exile. But Ireland’s biggest mother-and-baby home was always England: in the four years between 1950 and 1953, 1,693 Irish unmarried mothers applied for help to the Crusade of Rescue in the Catholic diocese of Westminster alone.

We’re less crude about them now, but all of these factors persist. The winners in Irish society still think the losers are a different breed. If shame has gone, why do we use secret abortions in England to preserve the myth of holy Ireland? Cruelty and fear survive: the law of the land still says that a teacher in a Catholic school can be sacked without redress for getting pregnant outside marriage. Contempt for poor children is thriving – one third of our children currently live in deprivation. If you think we don’t treat vulnerable children as “deterrents” any more, have a look at the system for asylum seekers. And of course, we’ve reverted to the use of mass emigration as the solution to our social problems. The past has yet to pass.