Inquiry faces daunting task unravelling the truth behind mother and baby homes

As many as 35,000 unmarried mothers spent time in homes run by religious orders

In May 1999 then taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced plans for a statutory inquiry into the mistreatment of children in reformatories and industrial schools.

The decision was welcomed as a genuine effort to shine a light on a very dark period of Irish history. But within months, the enormity of the task began to emerge to those involved in the process.

Ryan report Three years later, the judge appointed to head the inquiry had resigned . A key avenue of inquiry into the issue of vaccine trials had sunk into a legal quagmire. And the air was

rank with accusations of lack of co-operation from government departments and rows over issues such as compensation.


It was a decade before the statutory inquiry’s report – the Ryan report – eventually emerged into the light of day.

It’s a reminder that the decision by the Government to establish a commission of inquiry into the mother and baby homes is the easy bit. Attempting to draw together the complex strands woven into this period of Irish life – such as infant mortality, burial arrangements, vaccine trials, forced adoptions and social attitudes – will prove far more daunting.

Setting terms of reference will pose a test for the Coalition.

Already there is pressure to widen the scope of the inquiry. Campaigners have called for the Magdalene Laundries to be included on the basis that an inter-departmental inquiry into these settings was unable to establish the full truth.

There will also be many who will argue that county homes and workhouses are also vital to forming an accurate picture of what occurred.

In addition, the potential scale of the investigation is only beginning to emerge. In all, it is estimated that some 35,000 unmarried mothers spent time in one of the 10 homes run by religious orders in Ireland.

As for burials, we know that 796 infants died at the Tuam home run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours. But other homes such as Castlepollard are estimated to hold the remains of up to 3,200 babies.

In the area of vaccine trials, fresh data suggest that at least 3,000 children in 24 residential institutions and up to 40,000 children among the general child population were administered experimental vaccines.

Issues such as the co-operation of witnesses, compensation, accessibility of records and costs will likely emerge.

Compelling witnesses The forthcoming inquiry into mother and baby homes will be established under the the Commission of Investigations Act 2004, which at least offers a more efficient approach than a tribunal of inquiry. Moreover,

it will be entitled to compel witnesses to give evidence.

It can also direct a person to provide documents relating to the matter under investigation.

Minister for Children Charles Flanagan has hinted that the chair may be a non-legal and non-judicial person. He also said that the commission would have recourse to the expertise of historians, social historians and archivists.

But even though we feel we know all about this dark chapter of our social history, there are few details on the precise nature of women’s and children’s experiences inside these homes, or the power structures used by society to confine them.

It is only by piecing together the fragments of their experiences that we can begin to develop a full picture of the complexity of forces which existed to punish women who were deemed to have broken the rules of society.