Failure to offer a head on a platter behind savaging of mother and baby report

Advocacy groups expected therapeutic judgment – but got home truths instead

That same voluntary theocracy which saw families reject their pregnant daughters, also sent their sons to be priests aged eight, and daughters with no vocations to be nuns. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

That same voluntary theocracy which saw families reject their pregnant daughters, also sent their sons to be priests aged eight, and daughters with no vocations to be nuns. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes offered this country the potential for catharsis. A stain on our psyche since Independence would have been purged with pity for the 9,000 babies who died in the 18 homes investigated by the commission; pity also for the mothers, tormented in childbirth and “verbally insulted, degraded, even slapped”.

Our souls would have been cleansed with terror at our own hand in putting women and children in institutions which, prior to 1960, “did not save the lives of illegitimate children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced prospects of their survival.”

It didn’t happen. No commission or tribunal of inquiry has ever been as vilified as the mother and baby homes commission has been since its report was published in January.

Critics now want the report “repudiated”. Nothing less than an auto-da-fé by Judge Yvonne Murphy, Prof Mary Daly and Dr William Duncan will do.

They demand that the commissioners, like some wanton bankers during the “crash”, explain themselves before an Oireachtas committee (some members of which admitted to not having read it before rushing to judgment).

Added to that lapse in parliamentary integrity is Alan Kelly’s indecent proposal that the report be set aside because one member of the commission spoke about it at an online academic event. Kelly was a member of the government which set the terms of reference to which the commission faithfully adhered. The investigation had to be “objective, rigorous, thorough”.

These strictures clearly informed the conclusion that it “could neither prove nor disprove” claims of “baby trafficking” – a decision which catalysed much of the excoriation.

Brave judge

It will be a very brave judge who chairs a commission of enquiry for some time to come. Why was the work of Judge Murphy and her colleagues thus savaged? The problem clearly arose from the fact that there were some 30 advocacy groups, who expected therapeutic judgement.

But the commission refused to make a finding of one clear perpetrator. Instead, over almost 3,000 painstaking pages of historiography and victim statements, the indictment is societal.

Judge Murphy’s letter to the Oireachtas is succinct: “The women should never have been in the institutions but should have been at home with their families.”

They weren’t. And it is this implication of mass complicity by Irish society in the mother and baby homes scandal which angered the critics.

The report charts a history of inhumanity towards unmarried mothers and babies which long predates this State and church. The poet Philip Larkin has a line which epitomises it: “Something to do with violence, A long way back.”

Chapter 3 of the report quotes historian Kenneth Connell, who, “drawing mainly on evidence given to an inquiry during the 1830s”, recorded comments by contemporary witnesses about illegitimacy. A woman who gave birth outside marriage was “despised by her equals”; she was “slighted and shunned by all her former acquaintances”, her “stain” was “never forgotten”; it weighed on her family for 20 years – “ashamed of her and embittered by the disgrace she brought on the family, they turned her adrift”. Pregnant single women were often dismissed by their employers.

Cold-blooded badland

Prof Joe Lee’s The Modernisation of Irish Society paints a picture of this cold-blooded badland: “The average Irish peasant takes unto himself a wife with... as steady a nerve as if buying a cow at Ballinasloe Fair. The integrity of the family was ruthlessly sacrificed, generation after generation... to the rationale of the economic calculus. Priests and parsons, products and prisoners of the same society, dutifully sanctified this mercenary ethos.”

Consolidation of land (the mercenary ethos) demanded celibacy; sex outside marriage was transgressive; women and their babies paid the price.

We did it to ourselves because we cared more about land than about love. We cared more about hierarchy than any human heart.

Irish theocracy was voluntary. Writers such as Frenchman Paul Dubois who came to Ireland in the early 1900s, were struck by “the enormous crowds of people who fill the churches in the towns, the men as numerous as the women... all kneeling on the flagstones, without a sound or gesture, as though petrified in prayer”.

Nobody forced it on us. That same voluntary theocracy which saw families reject their pregnant daughters, also sent their sons to be priests aged eight, and daughters with no vocations to be nuns.

By confronting our complicity, the commission is not exonerating any institutions. Not the church, which had total control of a tax-funded sectarian education policy for most of the century; not the State, which cravenly submitted major issues – the early versions of the new constitution in 1937 – for clerical approval.

It is not exonerating our society either. Because there’s no healing without home truths.

Anne Harris is a former editor of the Sunday Independent

This article was amended on June 29th, 2021

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