Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Mother and baby homes report is the story of us as a nation

Helen Shaw: This was not about a few rogue bad apples. This was systemic in Irish society

In pre-Covid-19 days I was standing at the bus stop on the Navan Road one morning, waiting for the No 37, when an older, agitated woman kept asking me when the bus was coming. Her eyesight was bad, she said, and she couldn’t read the digital display. I asked her if she was all right. “I spent too long around here when I was a young one,” she said, gesturing toward a housing estate. I knew what she meant. The estate of fine houses is the old site of the Pelletstown/Navan Road mother and baby home. “The memories are bad,” she said, reaching out and gripping my hand. She’d been born there and stayed there. She was physically upset now, shaking. A public health eye appointment had brought her back to Ashtown but she just wanted to get away. “I don’t think about them days much, but this is bringing it all back.”

In the wake of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, many of us have been brought back into our very recent past and a dark, national story of institutional cruelty and abuse. Another jigsaw piece in the horror puzzle, from children’s homes to Magdalene laundries, has been fitted into place. Another apology and another crude calculation of compensation. Another incomplete excavation of the harsh making of modern Ireland.

There is little restoration in a process that takes six years, costs €11.5 million, and yet leaves survivors outside the door when it is leaked and released

In the litany of thousands of dead babies, denied mothers and deeply scarred lives, we know this is not our “foreign country” past. Every family has an oral story. A friend who discovered her birth mother was the single “aunt” who went to England. Another who spent her life looking for her birth mother, only to find her just before she died. The teenage girl “next door” who disappeared to England, leaving her child to be adopted, having told no one. Or the one who was adopted, now haunted by the unknown.

Profound trauma

It’s a profound trauma that’s been unearthed in these institutions, buried in our national body as much as the soil. And no detached apology nor monetary fund alone can heal it. Only bringing things into the light, out of the shadows of closed rooms and closed files, can do that.


Words matter, compassion counts. For all the lawyers working with the commission, I wish there had been just one brilliant factual writer, who could have shaped this burial shroud, these bloody records and echoing screams into stories with their humanity intact. Instead we have thoughtless phrases that wound, like “refuge”, a legal quibbling about “incarcerated” and “forced”, and the accountants’ view that everything ended once the unmarried mothers’ allowance came in 1973. There’s even an unsupported line that the Eighth Amendment in 1983 created more public tolerance towards unmarried women.

The commission’s report often reads like a blunt instrument of legal balance and detached historical listing. If it cannot be proven in a court of law it cannot be accepted; if there are no documents we doubt the testimony of survivors. There is little restoration in a process that takes six years, costs €11.5 million, and yet leaves survivors outside the door when it is leaked and released. No inclusion, no printed copies for those who were interviewed, no audio summary for those, like the woman at the bus stop, who can hardly see.

Many of the women who gave birth may be dead, the fathers of their children unknown, but their grandchildren want to know their own full story

At the heart of this story, and that of the other institutional abuses, is a conservative, patriarchal, nationalist society, tightly controlled by the structures of church and State (and after 1932 this is overwhelmingly Catholic in ethos), ensuring that those who had power maintained power, and where class, status and wealth defined value, even human value.


This is not a story of a few rogue nuns or bad apples, although they were there. It is systemic. Yes, many fathers did walk away from responsibility. Yes, some families drove their daughters into homes. But this existed in a political and social economy that thrived in this order, and that saw “illegitimate” children and unmarried mothers as less than, as other, and stood by when mortality soared in the 1940s, or when women died from backstreet abortions.

What will heal? Opening records, funding family restoration projects, using archivists and DNA, and supported by qualified counsellors. Ultimately listening to, and hearing the lived experience of those shaped and bent by this social order. Many of the women who gave birth may be dead, the fathers of their children unknown, but their grandchildren want to know their own full story.

There’s been too much talking in the dark, closed and confidential files, secrets and silences. We need to stop papering over the scars with tokens or thinking pain vanishes when we build expensive houses on the site. We need to publicly commemorate and honour the victims (Paris has put the names of Jewish children handed over to Nazis under Vichy France on the street walls), and ultimately learn how to build a human rights-based Republic.

And that means change. We can’t blame the church today for why only 3 per cent of Travellers live beyond 65, or why some children have spent a decade in direct provision, or why our prison population is predominantly from the poorest part of society, or why homeless deaths rose by 35 per cent last year.

Flawed as it is, the commission’s report offers us an opportunity to see ourselves in the picture it reveals of Ireland and suggests, if we’re listening, our ownership of the present and future.

Helen Shaw is the founder of digital media company Athena Media. She is a former managing director of RTÉ Radio