The recently published report into mother and baby homes is the latest investigation into institutions that together constituted what we have described as a network of "coercive confinement" in Ireland.
This also included prisons, reformatory and industrial schools, psychiatric hospitals, county homes (former workhouses), and Magdalene laundries.
Yet the largest part of this landscape of confinement – institutions run by the State, particularly psychiatric hospitals – has gone unexamined.
The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, chaired by Justice Seán Ryan, estimated that 42,000 children passed through orphanages, reformatory and industrial schools between the 1930s and the 1970s. Former pupils gave evidence of the physical and sexual abuse they had experienced.
To comprehend the history of coercive confinement requires taking account of the complex inter-relationships between the family, State and church(es)
The commission found the Catholic religious orders, which ran the vast majority of the schools, colluded in covering up abuse and the Department of Education, responsible for monitoring them, was “deferential and submissive” to the religious orders, with its inspection regimes “fundamentally flawed and incapable of being effective”.
A committee chaired by then senator Martin McAleese investigated the Magdalene laundries. Also run by Catholic orders, an estimated 10,000 women were kept working in unpaid labour in harsh conditions, sometimes for years. They entered via the criminal justice system, from industrial schools, mother and baby homes or other institutions, through self-admission, or having been sent there by their families.
While mother and baby homes were not unique to Ireland, the number of women who entered them and their longevity makes them distinctive from similar institutions elsewhere. The report states: “It is probable that the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were in mother and baby homes was the highest in the world.”
The same observation can be made of other places of coercive confinement. For example, by the mid-1920s there were more children held within the industrial schools system in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State than in England and Wales. A 1966 report on the future of psychiatric hospitals claimed the number of patients detained involuntarily in Ireland "appears to be the highest in the world".
The mother and baby homes report set out the role played by families in sustaining the system. Some have criticised this emphasis, but it cannot be summarily dismissed.
To comprehend the history of coercive confinement requires taking account of the complex inter-relationships between the family, State and church(es). The injustices of these institutions cannot be laid at the door of the church and State alone.
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes report focuses chiefly on institutions managed by Catholic or Protestant religious bodies, and these have drawn the most comment.
A notable example is the mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, where an unmarked mass grave of hundreds of infants was identified and for which the home's operators, the Sisters of Bon Secours, have finally apologised.
But conditions in the four county homes administered by local authorities examined in the report were significantly worse than in the mother and baby homes. In addition, those in county homes had to carry out unpleasant work for which they were not paid.
In 1950, as well as the 8,585 people in county homes, there were 18,677 people in psychiatric hospitals, 469 in prison and 52 in borstal – all institutions managed by the State.
By comparison, there were 6,588 children in reformatory and industrial schools, about 1,000 women in Magdalene laundries, and in the region of 430 women in mother and baby homes.
A few of the toilets had been liberally sprinkled with Jeyes fluid and I never thought it could smell so sweet
In other words, more than three-quarters of those coercively confined were held in State-run institutions, often in dreadful conditions.
Lack of scrutiny
Psychiatric hospitals, the single greatest contributor to coercive confinement in mid-20th century Ireland where tens of thousands were involuntarily detained over the decades, have not been subjected to any detailed scrutiny.
Available records reveal that conditions and quality of care were often appalling. An official visiting St Finan's Psychiatric Hospital in Killarney in 1963 described an overpowering stench and toilets that were "nauseating with deeply pitted floors and lavatory bowls broken and cracked. There were no doors and no seats. A few of the toilets had been liberally sprinkled with Jeyes fluid and I never thought it could smell so sweet."
An inquiry into the treatment of psychiatric patients is required to correct the view that cruelty and abuse of power were the preserve of the religious orders. It would reveal the uncomfortable extent to which families and government bodies were enmeshed in a system of coercive confinement, the legacy of which continues to reverberate today.
This article is republished from The Conversation