Last week, Irish people reacted with horror to the uncovering of the remains of several hundred infants in the underground chambers of Tuam Mother and Baby Home. In less than two weeks, we will take to the streets draped in green, in an alcohol-fuelled celebration of “Irishness”. We will not have much to be proud of. We believe ourselves to be the friendliest nation on earth, our people the most welcoming and fun, but no amount of craic can hide the deep scars in our society.
Some will say that every society has its problems, and fails some of its citizens. But institutions like the Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, and industrial schools are far beyond the normal problems a nation faces. There is no way that they can be excused or brushed over in our national narrative. The official celebrations of the 1916 centenary last year contained little mention of the fact that since the granting of independence in 1922, Ireland has failed its most vulnerable citizens.
Mother and baby homes
“In the 1920s and 1930s, infant mortality rates were 30–50% in mother and baby homes, at a time when the national average was 6–7%.”
Groups advocating on behalf of former inmates of mother and baby homes have called on the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation to conduct similar searches elsewhere. It is likely that Tuam is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what will be uncovered. At any rate, it is clear that Tuam was no exception in its treatment of women and children inhabitants. In the 1920s and 1930s, infant mortality rates were 30–50% in mother and baby homes, at a time when the national average was 6–7%.
A 2012 Primetime documentary revealed that officially authorised vaccination trials took place in mother and baby homes in the 1950s and 1960s. It also revealed that the bodies of 461 dead babies and children from Saint Patrick’s mother and baby home on Navan Road, Dublin, the home where my dad spent the first eight months of his life, were donated to various medical institutions. There is no evidence of their mothers being asked for, or giving, consent.
While the Catholic Church will rightly be castigated for its role in running the institutions, it is important to place equal blame on the Irish State for allowing these institutions to exist and operate in the way they did. Irish society as a whole must take responsibility for the treatment of unmarried mothers and their children. Ordinary Irish people must face blame for turning a blind eye to atrocities occurring in their own communities, and for sending their daughters to these institutions to keep the neighbours from talking.
Being brainwashed by the local priest simply isn’t a good enough excuse. Unmarried mothers were viewed by much of society as dirt, and their children as somehow impure. Unmarried women facing an unplanned pregnancy were treated with gossip and scorn instead of sympathy. It was a status quo that many Irish people were happy to accept, and so the blame extends beyond those who directly ran the mother and baby homes.
“The Irish state still routinely fails its most vulnerable citizens.”
The revelations in Tuam come in the same week that national attention has been focused on the “Grace” case, in which a girl with an intellectual disability remained in a foster home in Waterford for 20 years, until 2009, where there were suspicions of abuse due to HSE failings. The Devine report identified four times when action could have been taken to remove Grace from the home. 47 other children were placed in the home at different points. As the story of Grace reminds us, we cannot draw as strong a line as we would like between the past and the present when we discuss the mother and baby homes.
The Irish state still routinely fails its most vulnerable citizens. The 2014 revelations of the physical abuse of residents of the Áras Attracta care home for adults with intellectual disabilities is another striking example. We still allow asylum seekers to live for years in degrading conditions through the direct provision system. Forcing vulnerable people to live in institutions is far from a thing of the past.
As a society we must be vocal in demanding truth and justice for the former residents of mother and baby homes. We must demand that those directly responsible are held accountable, and that those who suffered are adequately compensated. Hand wringing about how awful the homes were isn’t enough. We must also be equally vocal about abuses taking place today. We can’t allow future generations to look at us and wonder at our complacency, as we do now with the generations that came before us. If we confront failings in our society head on instead of turning a blind eye, then maybe, one day, we will have an Ireland we can finally be proud of.