The stigma attached to illegitimacy was not exclusively Catholic

My father’s story is evidence it was a product of a universally shared social outlook

‘Protestants were no more likely to put out welcome banners for an illegitimate baby than Catholics.’ Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

‘Protestants were no more likely to put out welcome banners for an illegitimate baby than Catholics.’ Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

 

My father was handed over a shop counter by his aunt when he was a day old. The shop in question was a Protestant draper’s, run by a man called Sam Ford; the aunt was also Protestant – and this is relevant. So when my great-aunt was unable to persuade a Protestant institution to take the baby from her, she stopped off in Arklow on the way home to Ballycanew, where her brother was a respectable postmaster. There she put her basket (shades of Lady Bracknell here) on the counter and said wearily, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this baby.” Fortunately, the shop assistant (a Catholic) was there to help. “My sister doesn’t have a baby”, she said. “She’ll take him”.

So off she ran to fetch my grandmother, who took the child, tucked under her cardigan and raised him as her own. The grateful postmaster would send sheets of stamps every so often by way of child maintenance.

This story sounds improbable but it is quite true; things were, as we are constantly reminded, different in Ireland in the decades before the second World War. Illegitimate babies were a source of shame and stigma to their mothers and their families. Certainly the speed with which my father was despatched suggests as much. And adoption arrangements were strikingly informal.

But the point about it is that my father’s birth family was Protestant. He was a product – or a victim – of a society that took a dim view of extramarital pregnancy. But that view was not exclusively Catholic; it was common to both religious communities in Ireland. Indeed there was a further sectarian dimension to his situation since his mother’s family assumed, incorrectly, that his father was a Catholic. But the point remains.

In the wake of the publication of last week’s report into the mother and baby homes there has been national outrage at the treatment of unmarried women, and the institution the pundits hold squarely to blame is the Catholic Church. But my father’s situation was evidence that the stigma attached to illegitimacy was not exclusively Catholic; it was a product of a social outlook that was universally shared. Protestants were no more likely to put out welcome banners for an illegitimate baby than Catholics.

For my father, adoption was a good thing, and certainly preferable to living in an institution such as a county home

Indeed, last week’s report does mention two Protestant institutions as well as four county homes not run by religious orders. And although my family tradition was that my father’s aunt tried to pass him off to the Countess of Wicklow hospital, I wonder whether in fact it was one of those two orphanages. All the interested parties are dead; there’s no way of knowing. But his fate does cast light on another aspect of the report – or rather, the reaction to the report.

The assumption behind much of the commentary is that it was a misfortune amounting to tragedy that the children of the unmarried mothers were adopted. And in those cases where the mother would have been glad of the chance to raise the child, that was true. But it is at least possible that adoption was a good outcome or a better outcome, for some of the children.

Certainly my father’s adoptive family were poor; my grandfather was a sailor and his exceptionally varied and colourful career did not translate into a steady income. But my grandmother (my father’s adoptive mother) doted on the baby and he grew up in a home which was very happy. He and his sister (who was also adopted; her parents were from a travelling theatrical troupe from Northern Ireland – I am really not making this up) lived in mutual affection and good humour. For my father, adoption was a good thing, and certainly preferable to living in an institution such as a county home.

He did get in touch with his birth mother, though he never found out who his natural father was. She went onto have a family of her own. In saying that illegitimacy was regarded as a problem by others than Catholics, I am not of course saying anything new; Jane Robinson’s book, In the Family Way, outlines the way that unmarried mothers were treated in Britain until the 1960s, and while there wasn’t the Magdalene laundries aspect to their fate, they too were regarded as a problem.

And this brings me to the unsayable aspect of the national response to the mother and baby home report. The Taoiseach, in making his apology for the nation, intimated that the scandal was a product of an old unregenerate Ireland with an oppressive religious mindset, setting that Ireland up in implicit contrast to the present secular and liberal nation. But in contemporary Ireland there are different kinds of exclusion. Some of the children of the institutions might well, in our time, have been kept by their mothers and grown up without stigma. But not all of the pregnancies were welcome and there would be a different outcome for many of them. My father was not a wanted child – that is, by his family – but he did at least get to be born. He might not now.

Melanie McDonagh is writer at large for the Evening Standard

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