Replicating past mistakes? The Irish government, survivors, and the mother and baby homes report
On January 13 2021 the Irish Taoiseach Michéal Martin made a public apology to the survivors of mother and baby homes. ‘It is the duty of a republic’ he said, ‘to accept parts of our history which are deeply uncomfortable’. Martin’s predecessors made similar apologies. In May 1999, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologised to victims of Industrial Schools, offering ‘a sincere and long overdue apology…for our collective failure to intervene’. In February 2013, Enda Kenny apologised to victims of Magdalen Laundries; ‘I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the government, and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them’. However, for many, these institutions are not simply a thing of the past; their legacy, and the actions of the current government, continue to impact negatively on the lives of survivors.
Mother and baby homes were institutions overseen by the state and the Catholic Church, particularly female religious orders like the Mercy and Bon Secours Sisters. Unmarried pregnant women were sent to the homes – often former workhouses – to have their babies. These women carried out manual labour while pregnant, and their babies were usually put up for adoption. The homes operated between 1922 and 1998. Martin’s apology came the day after the publication of the report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. This judicial commission had been established by the Irish government in 2015 to investigate mother and baby homes. It was a response to research by historian Catherine Corless, which revealed that eight hundred children had been buried in a septic tank on the grounds of a mother and baby home in Tuam, county Galway. The story made international headlines.
The publication of the report in January 2020 was met with shock and horror from the Irish public, and disappointment from survivors. The commission found that the infant mortality rate in the homes far surpassed that of the general population; some 9,000 children died in the homes, composing 15% of all those who entered the institutions. Some homes were worse than others. Bessborough in Cork city was particularly bad. In 1943, three out of every four babies born in the home died. In addition to these harrowing death rates, the committee was unable to locate the burial place of over 800 children who died in Bessborough.
Many of the findings of the committee have been criticised by survivors and campaigners. The commission concluded that women were not forced to enter the homes by the church or state, but rather had no alternative but to do so. In addition, the commission found that ‘while “there is no doubt that women in mother and baby homes were subjected to emotional abuse but there is very little evidence of physical abuse and no evidence of sexual abuse.’ Finally, the commission found no evidence of forced adoption, pointing to the fact that the law allowed a 6 month cooling time after a baby’s initial adoption, where the mother could change her mind. These findings seem to contradict some of the survivors’ accounts published in the report, in which women describe being slapped, and physically abused. Historians have argued that these oral accounts are evidence of physical abuse and should be treated as such. Moreover, survivors, in addition to journalists and researchers like Conall Ó Fátharta and Caelainn Hogan assert there is proof of forced adoptions taking place in the homes, and that regardless of the law, many women were unaware of their rights when being separated from their babies. Additionally, lawyers like Dr Maeve O’Rourke and Dr Mairead Enright have questioned the commissions’ interpretation of the law. The commission’s assertion that there was ‘no evidence of [racial] discrimination’ regarding which children were put up for adoption has also been disputed by the Association of Mixed Race Irish and journalists.
Campaigners and survivors have also criticised the government’s handling of the publication of the report. Many key findings of the report were leaked to the press the weekend before it was published. Additionally, while the minister for children, Roderick O’Gorman, and Martin, were given weeks in advance to read the report before it was published, survivors were only given access to the report a few hours before it was made publicly available. Rather than receiving hardcopies, they were sent an electronic version that required access to the internet to read. Survivors expressed frustration during the week of the 13th, sharing their stories on the radio and in newspapers. They maintain that the government is not listening to them and continues to treat them poorly. Hundreds of survivors still do not have access to their birth certificates or knowledge of their birth parents. A delay in access to this information means that for many, their parents might be dead by the time they find them.
With his apology, Martin sought to turn a page on a dark period of Irish history and move forward. However, according to survivors, the legacy of the mother and baby homes, and the harm they caused, lives on in government institutions which prevent survivors’ accessing their personal information, and in a report that seems to ignore their own accounts of what happened to them.
Figure 1: Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Cork City. Bessboro’, Cork, mother and baby home, IrishMotherBabyHomes, https://www.flickr.com/photos/irishmotherbabyhomes/
Figure 2: Grotto of the Virgin Mary on the grounds of Bessborough. Bessboro’, Cork, mother and baby home, IrishMotherBabyHomes, https://www.flickr.com/photos/irishmotherbabyhomes/