Last Tuesday, like many people across Ireland, I was shocked to read an article detailing the findings of the report of the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes. The Irish Examiner published an article summarising the findings of the report, which I will include a link to at the bottom of this article. I am not going to discuss the fine details of the report, the figures speak for themselves; instead, I wish to focus on what this report says about our present and how we can learn from this painful chapter in Irish history.
I first became aware of the mother and baby homes circa 2013. This was the year that the story about the 800 dead babies in Tuam first became widespread public knowledge and I think the film Philomena starring Judy Dench came out around this time as well. Of course, I only truly came to understand the seriousness of the situation as I grew older, yet for some reason the mother and baby homes have always interested me. I read books about them, namely The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, which the film Philomena is based on and also The Adoption Machine by Paul Jude Redmond, a fascinating account of not only the homes themselves but the story of the survivors who exposed the horrors of the homes to the wider public.
I think part of the reason why the mother and baby homes have always interested me, is that I have always felt somewhat of a personal connection to them. Giving my family circumstances, had I been born fifty years ago, there is a likelihood that I would have been born in one of those homes. I could have been one of those babies, my mother could have been one of those women. I do not mean to make this situation about myself, but when discuss the horrific statistics and the shear numbers of people dead, we can sometimes get lost in numbers and forget the people they represent. According to a 2016 Irish Times Article, in 2015 the odds of a child in Ireland being born out of wedlock were four in ten. That means four in ten babies could have been born in those homes if it were not for the kindly intervention of time.
There would be very little reason for the government releasing this report if we, as a society, did not take responsibility for what happened and collectively agree to learn from this dark period. Of course the biggest culprit in all of this was the Catholic Church. Defenders of the Catholic Church might argue that it was the fault of Irish society for creating such an inhospitable climate for women who had children out of wedlock. Yet we all know that such an inhospitable climate would never have existed if it were not for the Catholic Church and the control they once had over the Irish State. Yet, while the church is slowly losing its grip on Irish society, according to the Department of Education and Skills, 96% of primary schools are still owned or under the patronage of the church. Personally, I find it baffling that an organisation that has done so much harm to our children is allowed to educate them. People can try to defend the church all they wish, but we must ask ourselves if dead women and children are a worthy price for any benefit the church might have brought to Irish people.
The Irish government must also take responsibility. What kind of government allows for their own citizens to suffer under their watch. Irish people often gawk at the US, how it still has not atoned for aspects of its racist past, such as slavery, Jim Crow Laws and the genocide of Native Americans. In my opinion, Ireland is similar, in that we must atone for our deeply misogynistic past. An apology speech is not enough Micheál Martin. The survivors must be paid reparations, we must atone. We must show them the kind of care and compassion that they never received in those horrid institutions.
There is also the matter of modern issues we must come to grips with in society, namely Direct Provision. I have already written an article about why it is a system that must go and I mention it here because it definitely has a few parallels with the mother and baby homes. Besides some practical similarities, both the hotels and the homes are a reflection on Irish society. To be specific, they show our lack of compassion to those who need it most. Like the unmarried mothers, with Direct Provision we cast innocent refugees aside, we hide them in plain view and we do our best to pretend they are not there. We do not give them adequate shelter, we do not treat them with empathy and we do not relieve their suffering.
Thank you reader for coming this far, I know this article is long and I appreciate you sticking with it. I would like to finish up by saying, if cruel tragedies have any purpose, it should be to make society kinder. Part of the reason why the recent acts of domestic terrorism in the US Capitol building sparked such outrage is because we know the consequences of fascism. We know the consequences of a lack of compassion, the government’s report details it clearly. If we want to prevent this from happening again, we must punish those responsible and prove ourselves to be better than those who came before. We must not let there be a need for a report to come out fifty years from now, detailing the horrors of Direct Provision.
Link to Irish Examiner article: