Ireland’s institutions were not refuges for women

Abby Wallace reflects on the shocking findings of the recently released Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. It told of an Ireland which cast aside young, unmarried women with children as the ultimate outcasts in a seemingly sacrosanct society which could do no wrong.

Like many young women across Ireland and Northern Ireland, I watched in horror as the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was made public this week. What made it harder to understand was that despite detailing deaths of thousands of infants, forced adoption, emotional abuse and distressing conditions, the report describes the institutions as ‘refuges’.

The site of Tuam Mother and Baby Home, in County Galway, where 35,000 women gave birth between 1925-1961. The Irish Times

The report examined 1.3 million documents and 195 hearings from the period 1922-1998. It states that the church and state ‘contributed’ to a culture of discrimination against women, while primary responsibility lay with families and fathers.

The shift in blame undermines the fact that, for the most part of the twentieth century, strict power allegiances between church and state ignited and accelerated a climate in which there was no room for anything other than the norms they projected. Within this, female reproductive norms weredistorted into something villain, and elite, male-dominated institutions continued to intrude on a process which was simultaneously personal and entirely normal, one in which they had no place.

Judgemental decision making from the top down and pressurewithin the relationship was squeezed out onto a society in which women were made the most vulnerable. The report acknowledges that births were traumatic, made worse by the fact that young women (80% of the 56,000 women examined were between the ages of 18-29 in the period under question) were unaware and uneducated. State officials and religious orders isolated the most vulnerable women in an environment they neither understood nor were prepared for. 

In 1951, the government swept plans for a ‘Mother and Child service’ to the side, under pressure from then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. The same allegiance meant contraceptives were not legalised until 1985, divorce in 1995 and the right to an abortion, 2018.

The party to which the Taoiseach belongs is the same party which was divided over this right in 2018. The same religious orders who claim to uphold the ‘right to life’ allowed 9000 infants, 15% of children born in the homes, to die and thousands more to be unknowingly redistributed. 

The report’s dismissing the fact of forced adoptions or entry into homes by instead describing that women had no choice is an insulting way of papering over the lack of empathy or tolerance of pregnant women. State and church allegiancecreated this intolerance, and families and communities became complicit. In a report from The Irish Times this week, one social worker recounted passing on the news of a young girl’s pregnancy to her mother, to which she responded, ‘‘I would prefer if you had told me she had cancer.”

The last year examined by the report is 1998. My older brother was born in 1995, he is confident in himself, assured in an identity he has never had to question. It pains me to think there could be young adults of a similar age, searching for details of their birth and their mother, who could have then been not much older than me. 

The Indivisible Connection Between Church and State in Ireland: One of the fathers of the Irish ‘Revolution’ from 1916 until 1923, Fianna Fáil Taoiseach and future President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, kneeling and kissing the hand of senior Catholic clergy. De Valera would go on to legally cement this ‘special relationship’ in the 1937 Irish Constitution. Prior to the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the Catholic Church was the moral bastion to which official Nationalist Ireland adhered. The Catholic Church conveniently took over the financial ‘burden’ of welfare services in Ireland. The State was only too happy to permit this, as the new government attempted to found a functioning state from the rubble of war and Revolution. PD

Amnesty has estimated than on top of 18 homes examined in Ireland, over a dozen homes housing more than 7500 womenexisted in Northern Ireland. The results of research carried out by Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University are due before the Executive this month. 

The conclusions drawn from the report undermine the severity of conditions women were subject to, yet it is the only deeply researched source of information. Responsibility lies with the Irish government, and the Northern Irish executive upon the release of its commissioned research, to transform acknowledgement into action. 

A victim-focused redress scheme should include a commitment to procuring access to birth certificates and documentation for anyone searching for their biological mother. Another cycle of state apologies and a collection of funds is not enough. Instead of shifting the blame to an intangible society, the government should work with victims and families of victims to knock down legislative barriers to accessing these documents. 

The religious order who ran the Bessborough home last year sold part of the site for €6.85 million, handed over the rest to the HSE and has since pledged a greater amount to the redress project. The government need to use both money and information secured from sites like this for a scheme that is both accessible and personal to every individual. This means; researching adoption certificates and health documentation, funding family compensation schemes and prioritising the welfare of individuals affected by hiring qualified professionals. 

Immediate action should be accompanied by transparency. Above all, there should be empathy and time to listen to stories so that these chapters can be closed. Maybe then, we can say that we live in a society where it is slightly easier to be a woman.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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