Mother and Baby Homes: Now we must pay the price for our wilful silence

Homes provided a refuge, however harsh, when there was nowhere else for the women to go

The huge report, which runs to some 3,000 pages, is a scathing indictment of the institutions it examined. Taoiseach Micheál Martin says its findings have revealed a "dark, difficult and shameful chapter of very recent Irish history". Video: Pool/PA

 

As we contend with the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the world, it might be argued that the last thing the Irish people need right now is a grim, detailed reminder of what was done in this country to our most vulnerable women and children.

It was in the past. It was a foreign country. It was the Ireland of 50 years and more ago, but justice demands that we now act to cosset with care its survivors, those women and men among us from that awful era. We must clear away all obstacles to their right to information concerning their identity and ensure their remaining days are spent in comfort.

Reflecting on those 76 years from 1922 to 1998, over which it investigated the 18 institutions, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation report said “there was great change in that period: massive improvements in living conditions and attitudes to religion and morals. The experience of women and children in the 1920s was vastly different from the experience in the 1990s, regardless of where they lived.”

But what of those first decades of this State up to the 1970s when “there was no evidence that unmarried mothers were ever discussed at Cabinet during the first 50 years after Independence”.

Responsibility for that harsh treatment rested 'mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families'

Then, when even “the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or county homes in the 20th century was probably the highest in the world”.

Then, when as many as 9,000 children died in the homes, “about 15 per cent of all the children who were in the institutions” and when this was “known to local and national authorities at the time”, as “recorded in official publications”.

Such wilful silence continued up to 1973 when the Unmarried Mothers Allowance “was passed without comment by any TD in Dáil Éireann” and the event “attracted no attention in local or national newspapers”. They dared not speak its name.

It was writer Sean O’Faolain who in the 1930s described Ireland as “a dreary Eden”. If so, it was for the very few. The commission was less impressed with this state of that period.

“Ireland was a cold harsh environment for many, probably the majority of its residents during the earlier half of the period under remit”. It was “especially cold and harsh for women. All women suffered serious discrimination. Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment.”

Responsibility for that harsh treatment rested “mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and Church,” it said.

‘Filthy modern tide’

Such a dark place was the outcome of a fledgling state trying to prove its unique respectability while “thrown upon this filthy modern tide”, in Yeats’s words.

In Britain they were known as PFIs, pregnant from Ireland, and the treatment of some of them was 'inhumane'

It was spurred on in this creation by a combination of late Victorian prudery, a Catholicism wedded to obsessive rigidity on matters of sexual morality, and rural economics of post-Famine farming patterns. These meant that, instead of sub-dividing holdings, the land went to just one son and usually only when his parents died.

It meant Ireland, for much of those early decades of this State’s existence, had the lowest marriage rate in the western world and that when couples married they did so later in life.

Of the fathers, the report said that in Ireland, “it seems possible the proportion of men who married their pregnant girlfriend may have been lower than elsewhere”. These men “often disappeared on hearing of the woman’s pregnancy”.

The proportion of Irishmen who acknowledged paternity was low by international standards and few contributed to the maintenance of the child or recognised its existence.

However, as the commission reported, “for the first half of the century many would have been unable to do so because they were farm labourers or unpaid workers on family farms or in family businesses”.

Few of those women are alive today and those who were in such homes after 1973 will not be eligible for redress

The women were trapped. Many who fled to Britain were returned to Ireland against their wishes by Catholic charities. Despite which, as the report found, “there is no other known instance where substantial numbers of pregnant single women fled their country”.

In Britain they were known as PFIs, pregnant from Ireland, and the treatment of some of them was “inhumane and occasionally it placed them at medical risk”.

Refuge

In the context the mother and baby homes, even the county homes, provided a refuge, however harsh, when there was nowhere else for the women to go.

Few of those women are alive today and those who were in such homes after 1973 will not be eligible for redress as conditions were different and the Unmarried Mothers Allowance was introduced that year.

Those who were children in some of the institutions, which the commission believed should have been included among those deemed eligible by the Residential Institutions Redress Board, will receive redress.

The commission believed the State had an obligation not to discriminate between people in similar situations so, as financial redress had been awarded to people who had been in comparable residential institutions for children or in Magdalene laundries, it should also be available to people who had been in the homes.

In that context the commission made a pertinent observation. It pointed out that “financial redress for past wrongs involved the present generation paying for the wrongs of an earlier generation and it could be argued that this is unfair”.

It is not unfair where survivors of the mother and baby homes are concerned but we do need to ask how far back does this or any generations’ responsibility for past wrongs extend?

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