Mother and baby home documents should not be ‘sealed’
It denies access to survivors and historians for an unreasonable length of time
Undated photo of the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photograph: PA
Why are archives important? Because they are evidence of events in the past that give us some certainty about what happened, if used intelligently and carefully. In the era of “fake news” and the supremacy of opinion over fact, archives are a bulwark against mischievous or uninformed attempts to rewrite history. We need to value, cherish and understand them.
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and certain related matters was established in 2015, with an extensive remit to examine entry and exit patterns of women and children in 15 mother and baby homes and four county homes; care arrangements for them in these institutions; mortality and post-mortem practices; the extent of compliance with relevant regulatory and ethical standards of the time of systemic vaccine trials carried out in some of the institutions; and adoption issues relating to children born in them. The commission was also tasked to provide “a literature-based academic social history module to establish an objective and comprehensive historical analysis of significant matters”.
After several extensions to its original timeframe, the commission is now due to present its report to Government at the end of this month, after almost six years in gestation. As a result, the issue of the disposition of its extensive archive now has to be dealt with.
I watched much of the Seanad debate on Friday on the Bill to secure the records of the commission. It was an interesting and well-informed debate, and the Minister concerned, Roderic O’Gorman, was receptive and responsive to the points made.
He agreed to ask the commission to consult those whom they have interviewed, to try to ascertain their individual wishes as to the confidentiality of their records, both those from the institutions and other agencies, and those created by the commission. That is very important; the reason we are back again in an area of controversy and concern about the records of vulnerable and badly treated citizens is that they have been consistently treated with a lack of respect which diminishes their choices and rightly makes them angry and sad.
The most important records consulted by the commission are obviously the registers listing women and children in the institutions under scrutiny, all of which are now in the custody of Tusla, in a plethora of different locations, which does not inspire confidence in their long-term preservation. The commission must also have consulted departmental records, local authority records, diocesan records, possibly records from British and US archives and, crucially, the administrative records of the congregations which ran these homes with the full blessing of the State.
The most basic rules of the practice of history require
that archival documents cited in any publication can be accessed by others
The index to these records, helpfully described in the Seanad by the Minister, could, if prepared properly, be a crucial guide to the sources consulted in the course of preparing this (allegedly 4,000-page) report.
It must provide the maximum possible information about these sources and, in particular, the archival references to each record consulted. While we can expect the commission to provide, as required, a comprehensive contextual history of “significant matters” as part of its report, this will not, and should not, be the only history based on these sources.
The most basic rules of the practice of history require that archival documents cited in any publication can be accessed by others, so that the assertions made can be tested by others having recourse to the original documents. If the commission does not provide proper archival references for the documents it saw, including those emanating from the religious congregations, any history written in this report cannot be verified.
And that brings me to the archive itself. This will be a hugely important newly created archive, bringing together material from all of the agencies involved in the operations of the mother and baby homes.
These records will supplement the testimony given by survivors to the commission, and the commission’s own records of its operations and practices.
All of these records must be preserved together, in a proper environment to ensure their physical integrity, and catalogued to ensure access by all who need to see them. (The index could form the basis for such a catalogue.) There is no reason why administrative records from the congregations, the diocesan authorities, government departments and local authorities cannot be made available now; many of them will be over 30 years old (the current access rule prescribed by the National Archives Act of 1986, shortly to move to 20 years) and they will reveal the structures and thinking underlying these homes, without compromising the privacy of survivors. “Sealing” these records for 30 years makes no sense, and denies access to survivors and historians for an unreasonable length of time.
The database of the many thousands of women and children who resided, almost all unwillingly, in these homes is also a hugely valuable record, newly created from these disparate sources. It will, of course, be of most interest to survivors and their relatives, and they must be facilitated to see any record which has a bearing on their own pasts and identities.
We have a chance to learn from the mistakes made with regard to the archives of the Ryan and McAleese inquiries
It may also be possible to create an anonymised version for use by historians to explore further the systems which operated in the homes, with full regard to the privacy of survivors and relatives.
I don’t know whether the National Archives has been consulted with regard to the disposition of this extremely valuable archive. It is the statutory body with responsibility for the State’s archives, and should have useful guidance to offer on how to deal with the archive, in line with archival best practice.
We have a chance to learn from the mistakes made with regard to the archives of the Ryan and McAleese inquiries (in the first case threatened with destruction, latterly modified to “sealing” for 75 years, and in the second dispersed back to the agencies that created them), and create a best practice model for an archive of great national and international significance, of interest to survivors and their relatives, historians, and citizens who want to understand this country’s troubled history of forced incarceration of women and children.
Catriona Crowe is former head of special projects the National Archives of Ireland.