By Gerry O’Shea
The recent official report on Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland was the third in a dismal trifecta dealing with the shocking abuse of young people in state institutions during the sixty years after the foundation of the Irish state in 1922.
The first investigation, The Murphy Report in 2009, covered alleged sexual abuse of children by clergy between 1975 and 2004 and the failure to address it and to report it to the gardaí. The Ryan report in the same year had investigated child abuse in all Irish institutions for children and laid out in stark detail how boys were maltreated in sixty industrial schools throughout Ireland. The physical and sexual abuse in these schools, many of them run by Christian Brothers, was described as systematic and endemic. About 120,000 children passed through these schools over the hundred years of their existence.
Magdalene Laundries, sometimes called asylums, were the subject of another investigation. These institutions were founded in England in the 19th century to provide some help for ‘fallen women’. They spread to the US and to Ireland and were continued there as part of the penal system in the new state after independence. Prostitutes as well as women deemed troublesome or sexually seductive were forced to work under harsh conditions for no pay in religious-run laundries.
A committee headed by Senator Martin McAleese, husband of the former Irish President, issued a report on these asylums in February 2013 which pointed out the failings of church and state in supporting and condoning the serious abuse of vulnerable young females in these places where there wasn’t even a pretense of counselling or rehabilitation. Around 30,000 Irishwomen were confined in these institutions before they were shut down in 1996.
The system got the approval of church and state in 1927. They were set up to deal with a growing problem of ‘illegitimacy’. Pregnant women were sent to these homes to give birth, and unless they could pay a substantial sum of 100 pounds for their care while confined, they were forced to work for two years for a buyout of their debt. Many of the babies were adopted, with over 2000 going to American families between 1950 and 1980. After the publication of the McAleese Report in 2013, the prime minister at that time, Enda Kenny, apologized profusely to those incarcerated in these institutions and announced a system of compensation for the victims.
While ill-treatment of the women and high infant mortality were part of the scene in the Protestant-run Bethany Home in Dublin, the overwhelming majority of the Irish Mother and Baby homes were under the control of orders of Catholic nuns.
The report dispels the claim that the women were compelled to go to a ‘home’ to have their babies. In this telling, we are to imagine that they knocked freely on the door of the institution because they were no longer welcome at home where an out-of-wedlock birth was considered a disgrace.
The Mother and Baby Homes Commission , which took over five years to compile, points the finger of blame in a few directions.
In the culture of the time, the father, considered the boss of the household in a patriarchal society, felt compelled to do his duty by barring his umarried pregnant daughter from living with the family. Considerations of familial love wilted when faced with the condemnation of neighbors, community and church.
In stating that the young woman was not forced to live in one of these homes, the authors of the report gave little weight to the fact that nobody else wanted her; she was shunned like a pariah in her community. Where was she to go? She had no real choice.
Investigative journalist, the late Mary Rafferty, who did trojan work in removing the curtains that hid the real story of life in those places, pointed out that rape was not unusual in Ireland; in addition, some of the women’s knowledge of their own bodies was rudimentary.
The Irish government certainly has to bear its share of blame for funding these so-called homes without demanding humane standards. In abandoning the most vulnerable in Irish society they reneged completely on the governing philosophy that Pearse and Connolly stated clearly in the 1916 Proclamation: that an idealised new republic would cherish all the children of the nation equally. Mocking, bitter words in the light of what successive Irish governments approved for vulnerable children.
Nuns from various orders ran these Mother and Baby Homes. They were responsible for the culture and programs designed for the girls and women. The inmates worked without pay, in silence, laundering and ironing clothes for some of the most prestigious companies in the country. They were treated as nobodies who had to be dealt with firmly so that they would complete their tasks, bringing profit to the religious orders.
How can we explain this behavior from Sisters who chose to devote their lives working for good in a community? They all had intense spiritual training in the practice of the Christian virtues during their mandated novitiate years. The teaching in the New Testament is abundantly clear in Matthew 25, ‘whatever you do to one of the least of my brethren you do to me.’ Compassion is not an optional extra for Christians and certainly should not be for Catholic nuns.
In 2014, local Galway historian, Catherine Corless, published her research into the high child mortality rates at the Mother and Baby Home in the town of Tuam, near where she lives. Three years later, a government commission confirmed her findings: almost 800 children in this institution run by the Bon Secours Sisters had died of malnutrition and neglect. To add insult to injury they were mostly buried in an unmarked grave, located in a septic tank.
Following the publication of the Commission of Investigation’s report on Mother and Baby Homes, Joe Duffy, a long-time, popular talk radio host in Dublin, interviewed a woman named Mary Fitzgerald who spent years in the Bessborough Home in County Cork. About 800 babies or young children from this place were buried but the records of only 64 have been found. Bessborough is located in a beautiful estate and along with two other similar institutions in Castlepollard, County Westmeath and Roscrea in County Tipperary were operated by an order with the elaborate name of The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
Mary Fitzgerald was dropped off with the nuns in Bessborough after she was forcibly impregnated at age thirteen. Her parents wanted their daughter to remain with them through her ordeal but the nearby hospital refused, at the behest of a local priest, to accommodate her birth. Her baby daughter was put up for adoption. That happened not in De Valera’s Ireland in the 1950s but in relatively recent times – 1977 to be exact.
Commenting to Joe Duffy, Mary focused not only on her own powerlessness but also her family’s. The narrow-minded whims of the Catholic clergy were rarely opposed. In Ms McCarthy’s perceptive words, ‘the power they had over people was mind-boggling.’
The stories from the industrial schools and the Magdalene asylums and the Mother and Baby Homes bring a sense of deep shame to Irish people.
Gerry O’Shea worked as a teacher and counsellor in Dublin and New York. A former President of the Kerry Association of NY, he is one of the founders of HOPe – hope-charity.org – a non-sectarian charity that supports worthy projects in the Developing World. He lives in Yonkers, NY, where he is featured regularly in the local Irish papers. He blogs at wemustbetalking.com