A Reckoning with History

The report into the Mother and Baby Homes is an attempt to blame society for the oppression inflicted by the church and state on Irish women and children

No time was wasted last week in blaming the public for how the church and state treated women and children in the Mother and Baby Homes. By the second paragraph of the Executive Summary of the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, the deflection had begun. The report warns society was “cold and harsh for women”, especially women who had children outside of wedlock. Their “harsh treatment”, the report argues, “rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families”. 

During the period the report covers, Ireland’s very own gulag system was operated by the church in conjunction with the state. Mother and Baby Homes, Industrial Schools, and the psychiatric hospital complex were all part of a network of mass confinement. In these places the authorities could place out of sight and out of mind those they believed to be impure or simply a nuisance. 

Yes, Ireland was a deeply patriarchal and oppressive society in which women were seen as second-class citizens and treated as such. In many ways it still is. But putting the blame for this and the mass confinement of women and children solely at the feet of a society under the thumb of the Catholic hierarchy in league with a state dominated by two political parties is obscenely wrong. And it’s deeply offensive to survivors of these institutions. 

Whitewashing the past

The report was supposed to be an accounting of what happened in the Mother and Baby Homes. Perhaps we expected too much. 

Instead we’ve been left with a report that Ireland’s reactionary Catholics see as a gift as it exculpates them and their beloved church of old. This is despite the fact that even the report itself points out “the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or county homes in the twentieth century was probably the highest in the world”. Apparently this is the ideal Irish society. 

Also ideal for said Catholics was the high death rate in the homes. During the 1930s and 1940s more than 40% of children born to unmarried women and girls in the Mother and Baby Homes died. In Bessborough, 75% of the children born there in 1943 died within their first year. In Tuam in 1927 one health worker noted that the death rate was “appalling”. 

David Quinn, director of the Catholic apologist Iona Institute and long-time contributor to Ireland’s broadsheets, opined on Twitter that the report made “excellent reading”. 

The government postponed reform of this system of confinement when infant mortality rates began to fall in the 1940s. But it also decided to ignore the issue because it “would have involved fraught negotiations with religious congregations and members of the Catholic Hierarchy”. Tensions like this between church and state were not uncommon. 

When the Sisters of Mercy in Tuam wanted to appoint one of their own as matron Clare County Council, which owned and governed the home, baulked at the idea. The sister in question had no nursing qualifications. So, in response, the Sisters of Mercy simply ended their involvement in Tuam. In Bessborough in the 1940s the report described the sister in charge there as “incompetent”.

Funding confinement

One important aspect of the report that people seem to have overlooked is the issue of funding. The report states that the commission saw no evidence that the religious orders turned a profit from running the homes. 

Local authorities funded their operation via a capitation grant paid to the church. In many cases the nuns running the homes were also salaried employees of the relevant local authority.

One comparable area worth looking at in terms of funding are the Industrial Schools.

As with the Mother and Baby Homes, tensions existed between church and state here. The religious orders also ran these and, like the Mother and Baby Homes, also received funding via capitation grants.

In their book Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools, Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan highlighted that the capitation grant “was a major contributory factor to the massive number of children contained in the schools”.

In the 1950s the religious orders sent a “deluge of correspondence” to the government “begging to be sent more children”. The reason for this was that the courts began to condemn less children to the schools. As a result, “the religious orders were most concerned at the impact of this on the income of the schools”. 

The government had offered an increase in funding in return for greater accountability. But this was turned down by the orders. Due to heavy lobbying and pressure the government eventually gave them the extra funding anyway. Raftery and O’Sullivan wrote:

It is clear that they deemed religious control of the schools to be more important than additional money for the children in their care. As a consequence, it is reasonable to argue that their constant pleas of poverty to excuse the often appalling conditions in their industrial schools can be treated with a degree of cynicism.

We should apply a similar level of cynicism when it comes to the conditions of the Mother and Baby Homes. 

No evidence of donations, until there is

Other issues with the report are even more egregious. Survivors told the commission of being forced to put their children up for adoption or of not being fully aware of the options available to them at the time. The report tackles this by stating that yes, survivors said “their consent was not full, free and informed”. And they submitted evidence to that end. But, in spite of this, the report declares “there is no evidence that this was their view at the time of the adoption”. 

Survivors of the homes who were adopted by foreign families also told the commission of “large sums of money” being given to the religious orders for the adoptions. In keeping with the tone of the report, it’s written that these assertions “are impossible to prove and impossible to disprove”. 

But literally one paragraph later the report notes that it wasn’t illegal or unethical for adoptive families to make such donations. More importantly, it also reveals the evidence indicates “donations were being made”. And in the case of one Mother and Baby Home, its records “contain a reference to a substantial donation by an American man” who adopted two girls from the same institution.

How these obvious contradictions can be squared is only perceptible to the authors of the report. 

What’s next?

While the report lays out the horrific living conditions and discrimination that women and children had to live under, it did its best to dilute the guilt. All members of Irish society were responsible. And if everyone’s guilty, then, nobody is. For the church and state that’s a win. 

But public reaction to the report has been nothing short of apoplectic. Our leaders, apparently realising the fury they’ve unleashed, appear to be backing away from completely endorsing its findings. Minister for children Roderic O’Gorman has said there does indeed appear to be evidence of forced adoptions. 

What comes next depends on the pressure people put on the government and the religious orders. The latter have largely escaped being held accountable. And the former has lurched from crisis to crisis entirely as a result of nothing but its own incompetence and callousness. 

For now the most important thing is to amplify the voices and stories of the survivors. We must ensure that they don’t get left behind by a government fond of swiftly moving past any problems it doesn’t want to deal with. And they must be allowed full access to their birth records. 

Irish history is full of tragedy and oppression. Sometimes it came from the hands of the coloniser. But in this case, some of the worst crimes committed against us were carried out by powerful forces indigenous to Ireland. Reckoning with this history is a duty we can’t afford to shirk. And we must make our former oppressors understand that justice will be done no matter what and no matter how long it takes.