Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation

Last Wednesday Morning a woman who spent time in a Mother & Baby Home, while being interviewed on radio, mentioned a few times during the course of the interview that ‘we are the experts’. I wondered initially what she meant, and then I remembered a quotation that came my way a few years ago: ‘Over recent years there has evolved a movement away from the experience of authority towards the authority of experience’. I suddenly realised that in order to ask what life was like in the Mother and Baby Homes, the people to ask, were not management, or inspectors, but the residents: people who were housed in the homes. The homes were there for them specifically and they can speak with authority about the quality of life there.  Tragically as well, the horrific mortality rate of babies in the homes provides another form of evidence detailing a life-threatening environment in which the most vulnerable of all the residents had to reside. Living witnesses, interviewed in recent days, spoke with authority of reasons as to why they were brought to the homes. Witness statements by many resident mothers, now deceased, are also recorded and published in last Wednesdays report.

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Even though living witnesses were hurt as a result of the report being leaked in one of the national newspapers last Sunday, and secondly receiving an apology by the Taoiseach before the victims had a chance to read or dip into the report itself, I pray that the study, and the series of apologies by Church and State will go some way towards easing the hurt and pain endured by so many of the remaining survivors. The campaign towards gaining full access to rights have not yet been fully realised, especially access to basic information such as birth certificates. Please God, government promises will materialise sooner rather than later.

The report itself is extensive, consisting of 3000 pages, which is an indication of the complex nature of the study. To name but a few specific areas: why women were put into the homes, the social conditions at the time, the moral and cultural mindset of families and communities which caused women to be in the homes, why religious sisters took on roles of management in so many homes, the lack of urgency on the part of State Agencies in providing the necessary funds to improve living conditions.

From a religious, as opposed to a spiritual, viewpoint, two thoughts come to mind. Firstly, the association of sin and shame linked with sexuality as taught by Church at the time aided and abetted a mentality which stifled families and communities from showing a more compassionate response towards unmarried mother, many of whom conceived a child as a result of rape. If the primary principles on which the Church itself was founded were based on respect for the dignity and rights of the individual; tragically an alternative moral code had taken root in which sexuality as a core part of human nature had become tainted.  Conversation pertaining to this precious aspect of human nature was either rarely discussed or found a forum for public discourse in the guise of skittish jokes. From a very early age, sexuality was a taboo subject, which caused unease in the minds of people whenever raised as an issue.

The second thought I have is that, most people at present and in times past who joined the religious orders etc, did so for noble of reasons: namely with the desire to serve others, be that in education, medical care, social services.

So even though for some, attitude towards unmarried mothers might have been tainted and uncaring as acknowledged in the apology by the Bon Secours last Wednesday, most sisters devoted their lives towards serving the residents. The religious orders listed in the report took on the responsibility for managing the homes in response to a desperate need at the time, namely the provision of shelter for women rejected by home and society. Why they accepted a policy of separating the children from their mothers through adoption was cruel, and yet was a practice in keeping with the norm among secular & religious institutions in many other countries.

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Finally, delving into some accounts from the report on the dire structural and unhygienic state of Mother and Baby Homes in the 20s, 30s & 40s, aligned with overcrowding by residents; sisters and staff tried to serve, as best they could against impossible odds.  A remarkable woman, Alice Lister: working as an inspector for the department of public health visiting the institutions for 35 years up to 1957 in an article in one of the papers last Wednesday titled: ‘A rare vice trying valiantly to improve conditions for women and children’ fearlessly reported the overcrowding, poor facilities, criminal lack of medical training in antenatal care and the scarily high rate of infant mortality in many of them. Irish Times Jan 13th 2021

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Even though we have become a ‘modern country’ in many respects, with the quality of care and attention devoted to the vulnerable now of a very high standard, we have to look no further that towards our neighbours across the Atlantic Ocean to note how warped attitudes and deep-rooted beliefs can corrupt the basic rights of people and the fabric of a nation. It is a warning for us to remain vigilant, be prepared to explore our own ‘blind spots’ and prejudices which may prevent us from acknowledging the presence of people still victim to inhumane treatment.

The Mother and Baby Homes report is an extensive and detailed study. Perhaps for some readers it is perceived as being flawed in its interpretation and conclusions on occasion. But it remains a serious and most valuable resource towards enabling us gain insight into why and how so many innocent women and their children were victim to grievous injustices.

The report in available for download online:

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