Mother and Baby Home survivors failed by our state once again

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deepthi suresh stand news

9th March 2021


The release of the long awaited mother and baby report earlier this year has been utterly harrowing. 9,000 babies died in the 18 institutions investigated, which is 1 in 7 of all children born. Roughly 56,000 mothers gave birth in these institutions up until they closed in 1998. The report, while informative, has been laced with controversies and miscommunication. Having autonomy over one’s body and one’s choices is a personal freedom we may take for granted. Yet in the not so distant past women were degraded, abused and shamed in institutions that sought to conceal them and separate them from society.


Arch Bishop Gillmartin of Tuam quoted in the Sunday Independent 1925 stated that ‘The future of the country is bound up with the dignity and the purity of Irish women.’ Women’s potential impurity formed a threat to the formation of Ireland’s identity. Women’s bodies and their sexuality were scrutinised and shamed by a patriotic, pure, catholic nation. The Commission’s report into the Mother and Baby Homes is a blatant concealment of the fact that women were under the thumb of the Church and the State. As Fergus Finlay stated in his piece for the examiner on the report, ‘The Catholic Church ruled us — formed our attitudes, told us what we were allowed to think. And politics was supine in front of the Church — not on its knees but on its belly.’


The findings the commission have drawn from the report are utterly abhorrent. It is stated that women were not ‘incarcerated’ and were ‘always free to leave’. However in the same paragraph the commission states that ‘most had no money and nowhere to go’. The contradictory nature of these statements are discrediting the suffering of the women who had no choice and no voices at this time. The belittlement and misogyny these women faced is repugnant. For the commission to state that they had to carry out work which they ‘would have had to do at home’ is presumptuous and degrading. Furthermore, it is found that women in some institutions such as Sean Ross had to carry out work ‘that would be considered unsuitable to women’. Again the language here is sexist and discriminatory. It leaves one to wonder whether we have really changed our attitudes towards the place of women in society. There is blatant disregard for the abuse of residents which has been described as ‘minor in comparison to the evidence of physical abuse documented in the Ryan Report’ [source]. The commission finds no evidence of abuse of children in county homes yet proceeds to describe unsafe sleeping arrangements where infants shared wards or even beds with adults.


There was very little evidence found in the report that children were forcibly taken for adoption. Yet the commission states in the same sentence that ‘mothers did not have much choice.’ 97 % of ‘illegitimate’ babies born were sent for adoption in 1967 alone, the highest rate in the world at this time. If we were to look at a 1920s departmental inspector report into Pelletstown in Dublin it is stated that there was a ‘system of baby farming indulged’ for ‘an immediate monetary consideration.’ This report is included in the commission alongside evidence that one of the main complaints from mothers in this institution was having had ‘no choice but to place their children for adoption’. Legal adoption was not introduced in Ireland until 1953 and even after that women had little choice in the matter.


There are numerous heart-rendering examples of this is from the video dramatization of some of the survivors’ stories from the report. A 14 year old girl, Peggy, who became pregnant in 1956, did not know what sex was or what conception involved. She was told she had had her fun and this was her payment. She never gave permission for her child to be adopted. Her child was taken to America. An 18-year-old girl in the 1970’s describes being told by a priest that she should go to a mother and baby home and give her baby up for adoption to ‘avoid causing embarrassment to her family’. When she arrived at the mother and baby home, she was examined by two members of staff who told her that girls like her ‘could have anything’. One witness in the 1960’s describes being harassed by a priest who ordered her and her daughter into his car and drove them to a mother and baby home where she was locked in a room and was threatened to sign adoption papers. With the intervention of her father, she was eventually released but the priest continued to harass the family, threatening guardianship procedures against them. ‘Part of me died the day my son was taken. I became a sad, empty shell of a girl’, said another witness. PJ Haverty was a resident of Tuam mother and baby home for seven years before being fostered. In his interview for The Irish Times in 2018 he described the cruel mistreatment of his mother, how they made her leave the home a few days after giving birth and denied her access to her child. He describes how she returned to the home every day for five and a half years in an attempt to reclaim him, only to be told that he was to be fostered out. For the commission to conclude that there was no evidence of women being forced to give their children up for adoption is a travesty of justice. To quote Catherine Connolly TD, ‘we either believe the women or we don’t.’


Another finding the commission drew from their research is that there was ‘no evidence of discrimination’ in relation to decisions made about adoption or fostering of mixed-race children and children with disabilities. However, the commission uses the terms ‘casual and unthinking racism’ as well as ‘negative bias’ to describe the treatment of mixed-race children. Terminology used in the documentation of 237 mixed raced residents of Pelletstown institution is unacceptable, with phrases such as ‘half caste’, ‘coloured’ and ‘sallow’ being used. Doctors who certified children for adoption often also used derogatory statements to describe such children. Examples include ‘Unfit for adoption on account of colour only.’ And ‘Healthy. Half caste child. On account of above will be unfit for adoption.’ The records of St Anne’s Adoption society, Cork in 1956 state that ‘where the child is coloured, adoption is practically impossible.’


In the earlier decades of the investigation it is found that degrees of intellectual disabilities were classified as ‘idiot’, ‘imbeciles’ and ‘feeble minded’. The Commission identified 941 institutional records of women in Pelletstown and Bessborough where it is noted that they had a mental illness or intellectual disability. Dr. Meaghar, master of Holles Street maternity hospital in the 1970’s wrote about being often asked about whether psychiatric conditions were ‘transmissible’. He also noted that the general consensus was that children with a physical or mental disability should not be adopted even though in his words, ‘these are the children that clearly need the best adoptive home’. A 1968 Sunday Independent report stated that ‘only coloured children’ were ‘available’ for adoption as almost every ‘eligible’ child found a home in 1967. The fact that the commission concluded that racism and disability did not lead to discrimination in the placement of children for adoption or fostering is contradictory to the evidence published in their report. Spokesperson for a group representing mix-raced children in Ireland, Conrad Bryan has spoken up about the inaccuracy of this finding stating ‘the testimony we’ve given has basically not been believed’. The victims of such discriminatory abuse have been invalidated and insulted by a report which was meant to enlighten and empower them.


“The commission found that where babies died in the mother and baby homes while their mother was in the institution, ‘it is possible that she knew the burial arrangements or would have been told if she had asked and that no other family member is entitled to this information.’ This is a disgusting attempt to continue concealing information.”


The lack of information surrounding the burials of the 9,000 children who died in these institutions is reprehensible. In the early to mid-19th Century many deceased infants were sent to be dissected for medical research. It was legal for ‘unclaimed bodies’ to be used in medical research under the Anatomy Act 1832. The medical colleges who took the deceased from workhouses, mother and baby homes and so on had to inform the Department of Health each time they took a body. Sally Mulready spoke on Prime Time in 2014 about her brother John who died at 2 months old in St. Patricks, Navan Road in 1948 of ‘inanition’ or ‘failure to thrive’. John was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in 1950, 2 years after his death. He had been taken for medical research as an anatomic subject to Trinity Anatomy House. Sally says that her mother Sheila was more than likely unaware of this and did not give consent. From 1940-1965 in Dublin alone 460 infants who died in mother and baby homes were dissected for medical research.


The commission found that where babies died in the mother and baby homes while their mother was in the institution, ‘it is possible that she knew the burial arrangements or would have been told if she had asked and that no other family member is entitled to this information.’ This is a disgusting attempt to continue concealing information, dismissing the rights of the survivors and their families to information that will help them to piece together parts of their lives that have been missing for decades. The case of Tuam is particularly horrific. In 1975 historian Catherine Corless sought to find out more about the burials of children who died in the home from 1925-1961. No records were available in the public library. Upon questioning some locals she was told a story about skeletal remains being uncovered by children in the 1970s in a disused septic tank in a nearby housing estate, marked only by stones. Nearly 800 infants died in Tuam and there is no burial records for them. Only two were buried in their family plots and a significant amount of the remaining children were buried in a mass grave. Others born in the Tuam home were also potentially illegally trafficked. Peter Mulryan, who lived in Tuam until he was four and a half is still awaiting answers about his sister Marian who ‘died from convulsions’ in 1954. There were no records to prove that a doctor confirmed her death and there is no burial information. There is still so much information missing and still so much accountability lacking. The survivors need to be heard, recognised and vindicated by all culpable parties.


Possibly the most disgraceful finding of the report is the preposterous notion that ‘the institutions provided a refuge.’ The Irish Free State was born in 1921 and aimed to adopt a new, unique culture of conservatism and ‘purity’. The church preached about the importance of pre-marital virginity and warned of the ‘sexual dangers’ of dance halls, immodest dress, mixed bathing and other sources of perceived ‘temptation’. There was a contraceptive ban which was not fully lifted until 1985, when people could finally purchase condoms and spermicides without a prescription which had previously been required under The Family Planning Act 1979. Divorce was illegal in Ireland until 1996. There was a heavy catholic influence in politics and there was strict censorship including the prohibition of discussions about abortion, birth control and blasphemy. The Kilkenny Conference of the 1970’s poignantly conveys the control the church. The conference aimed to establish an Irish equivalent to the New Covenant United Methodist Church (NCUMC); a single organisation with representation from all parties involved in providing for single mothers and their children. Fr John Charles McQuaid, who had a heavy influence over the State at the time highly opposed the formation of a nondenominational organisation. Fr Barrett alleged that the Kilkenny conference was conceived by people who ‘lacked experience’ and whose views differed substantially from the ideas of the Catholic Church. His accusations were wrong; they were trained social workers, many of whom had worked with unmarried mothers. They aimed for co-operation and expansion of resources, not to overrule the authority of the Church.


The ideology behind mother and baby homes glorified religious salvation, domesticated training and prayer and penance for mothers ‘sins’. For instance Galway County Council excluded unmarried mothers from the central hospital as they apparently deterred ‘respectable’ women. Kilkenny, in the same fashion sent unmarried mothers to Thomastown hospital, clearly discriminating against them [explain discrimination]. Mother and Baby Homes were not mentioned in cabinet during the first 50 years of The Irish Free State. The institutions had no qualified social workers or counsellors until the 1970s. In the earlier years in particular the Department of Health favoured persuasion over compulsion with regards to improving the shocking living conditions of mother and baby homes. They had the power to inspect the places where children were born and cared for after birth, under the 1934 Maternity Homes Act. The power to prosecute lay with the local authorities and no home was ever prosecuted for their negligence and abuse. Up until the 1960’s these homes survival rates did not increase, they reduced. This was known to both national and local authorities and was recorded in official publications. Major shortcomings were revealed by DLGPH (Who?) in the 1940s in Bessborough and yet closing the home was never considered.


Societal attitudes stem from the Government of the time. The economy was run with conservatism, there was slow economic development meaning people, particularly women, were more dependent on their parents as jobs were scarce in the 1940’s. Crude laws around the use of contraception meant that families were large, the largest in the developed world at this time. The men who impregnated these women contributed nothing to their livelihoods and failed to respect stand up for them. Yet society, shaped by the state and the church, both governed by men, never put the blame on the fathers. They were guarded and protected and told that the women were the ones who had committed the ‘crimes’. In 1972 a mother and baby home survivor, Bridget, was raped by her father. She relays her horrendous experience of labour and how the nun’s mistreated her cruelly, remarking, ‘if you lay down with dogs you’ll get flees.’


Societal attitudes shifted in the 1980’s. Most Mother and Baby Homes had closed by the 1970’s internationally. There was a shift towards modernism and acceptance of new attitudes (towards illegitimate births?) with the introduction of TV in the 1960’s. This continued to evolve in Ireland with the broadcasting of seemingly controversial Late Late Show interviews and programmes such as ‘Women Today’ airing in the late 1970’s. Society was changing and the level of control the church had was dwindling. Cherish was formed in 1973 by a group of single mothers, led by Maura O’Dea Richards, to help other mothers in the same situation. Tragedies such as fifteen year old Ann Lovet’s death while giving birth next to a grotto in 1984, forced the issues of the Mother and Baby Homes to be brought to light. In 1973 an unmarried mothers allowance was introduced. The status of illegitimacy was removed in 1987. The Last Mother and Baby Homes closed in 1998.


The commission’s report has failed these women. They were utterly neglected by the State, by the Church and by the institutions that purported to protect them while abusing them, concealing them and shaming them. The way in which unmarried mothers and their children were treated in the last century is unscrupulous. They deserve justice, sincerity and a commitment to giving them the answers about their past which they should rightfully know. 550 survivors bravely told their stories on video for the report, these reports have now been deleted by the commission. This is unjust, unfair and unacceptable. Specific groups decided by an interdepartmental group will receive compensation. A form of enhanced medical card will be provided to residents who stayed in the homes for 6 months or more. The Heads of a bill for the advancement of information and tracing legislation are being worked on. New laws will be drafted to provide access to birth and early life information for all survivors including those adopted. There are plans for original files and documents to be publicly accessible in a national memorial and in record centres as well as a number of scholarships in memory of all the children who died in the institutions. Draft legislation is currently being considered by the Oireachtas Children’s Committee around the excavation of burial sites, such as Tuam in order to identify every child and rebury them respectfully. These changes are welcome and necessary, but they need to come into effect sooner rather than later, to avoid extending the pain of the survivors any longer. ‘The conditions we were in were worse than prisoners. Prisoners have rights but we had no rights at all.’ Resident A.


Art by Eimear O’Dwyer

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