How the Mother and Baby Homes Report came into existence – and what we’ve learned

The newly published report on mother and baby homes follows previous reports on Ireland’s institutional abuses, and is every bit as harrowing

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation Report, which was completed in the latter half of 2020, has just been released, and is one of many investigative reports into historic Irish institutional abuse completed in the last few decades. The reports have largely been born out of the public’s, and particularly survivors’, will to reveal what happened behind the closed doors of institutions that were dotted everywhere on Ireland’s landscape and to seek justice for those whose lives were harrowingly affected. While these abuses are considered “historic”, the pain inflicted and repercussions continue to impact survivors, their families, and Irish society.

These abuses have been investigated in other institutions. The Ryan Report revealed the experience of child abuse within industrial schools and reformatories, and the McAleese Report revealed direct State involvement in the Magdalene Laundry institutions where women of all ages experienced torture and forced labour. The Justice for Magdalene Campaign took up their case with the United Nations in which they ruled a human rights violation and requested an apology from the Irish government and the development of a compensation scheme for the survivors. They received an apology from Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2013 in which he called the abuses a “national shame”.

The history of mother and baby homes starts around the 19th century, where Ireland was under the English Poor Law system and the only form of welfare provided was the workhouse. The harsh workhouse regime was designed to deter the poor from seeking help, to avoid dependency and encourage them to work. During a time of great destitution and seasonal unemployment, many struggled with poverty.

At the time, it was thought that those who were in the depths of poverty could also be likely fall victim to “immoral” and “irreligious” behaviour such as drunkenness and inappropriate sexual relations. Religious orders, both Protestant and Catholic, formed institutions focusing on the alleviation of the poor and targeted those who were considered “fallen” and in need of reform. These institutions took the form of orphanages, asylums and mother and baby homes.

The idea of reform was integral to the Catholic church ethos in these institutions, where women and children who were considered susceptible to misbehaviours were segregated from the rest of society and were to adhere to strict regimes that included prayer, education, sometimes work, and very often maltreatment and abuse.

Through the harsh times of the Famine and into the 20th century, many destitute, single or young pregnant women were dependent on the homes for a place to live during their pregnancy and birth. However, the stark reality for many of the women was permanent separation from their children through adoption.

As Ireland gained independence and asserted its Irish identity with the Catholic Church, these institutions prevailed, and the Catholic moral ethos became stricter not only in the Church but also in Irish society. Unmarried pregnant women carried a heavy burden of stigma in society and the mother and baby homes were being increasingly used for them to hide or to be hidden.

Their children carried the burden also of “illegitimacy”. They were regularly sent to industrial schools, or, from the 1950s, adopted. The Committee found that the women who entered mother and baby homes within 1922-1998 were of different backgrounds and some of the pregnancies “were the result of rape; some women had mental health problems, some had an intellectual disability”.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was set up after Catherine Corless, a local historian, reported in 2014 the possibility of a mass grave of infants buried beneath a housing estate in Tuam. Corless inquired about the deaths and burials of babies at Tuam Mother and Baby Home run by the Bon Secours Sisters, and found that the registry numbers didn’t quite add up.

The Commission was set up to investigate fourteen mother and baby homes and four county homes around the country, including the Denny House Eglington Road which was formerly a Magdalene Home on Lower Leeson St; Bessborough House in Cork; and the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. Their investigation focused on the residents and burial arrangements of the babies and mothers who died within these homes.

After completing a test excavation at Tuam early on in the investigation, they found a large structure divided into chambers alongside a septic tank. Within these chambers a significant presence of human remains was discovered. Tests of these remains confirmed they were of children and babies below the age of two or three and dated them to the 1950s and 60s during which the mother and baby home was operating. However, the Commission states that there is a lack of evidence to point these burials to the mother and baby home. 

Around 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children were investigated by the Committee, with the report stating that “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”. It says that around 9,000 children died in these institutions and “in the years before 1960 mother and baby homes did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival.”

The Commission also looked into the vaccine trials that were performed on many children within the mother and baby homes by the Wellcome Foundation throughout the 20th century. According to the report, a total of 13 trials, with another suspected but not confirmed, took place between 1922 and 1998.  The medical company completed trialling within many unidentified residential institutions at the time, which included industrial schools, orphanages and mother and baby homes. The report found that seven of these trials were completed in the institutions under investigation.

The vaccines that were tested on babies and children included diphtheria, polio, rubella along with the three-in-one vaccine – whooping cough, diptheria and tetanus – in which it was noted many children had adverse effects. This later resulted in the Best v Wellcome case in the 1990s where the Supreme Court decided negligence on the three-in-one vaccine causing brain damage to many children.

 The discoveries of the Commission of Investigation on Mother and Baby Homes are as harrowing as previous reports on institutional abuses in Ireland. The response from the government was regret and redress for those reports, and Taoiseach Micheál Martin is expected to make an apology in the Dáil in the wake of this one. It is long overdue.