Another Dark Chapter from Ireland’s Chequered Past… Report on the Mother and Baby Homes

Catherine Corless, courtesy Laura Hutton,

Eoin Meegan

In 2015 the Irish government established the ‘Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and certain related matters’, following concerns that a septic tank at St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway, might contain the remains of up to 798 babies and infants. The investigation encompassed 14 mother and baby homes, and four county homes. The three-person commission was composed of Judge Yvonne Murphy (chair), Dr William Duncan, and Professor Mary E. Daly. After several interim reports the commission released its final report on January 12th last. The following day Taoiseach Micheál Martin issued an apology on behalf of the Irish people to all who were incarcerated in these institutions.
The report makes harrowing reading. Its stark findings reveal that approximately 56,000 unmarried girls from as young as 12, to women in their 40s, were sent to the 18 institutions investigated.  It is believed a further 25,000 mothers, and even more children were in homes not investigated by the Commission (there were 180 of these institutions in total). It might surprise many that the largest admissions occurred in the 1960s and 70s. The report describes how the profile of the women changed over the years, from the 1950s when they were predominantly domestics or farm workers, to later years when they were often civil servants, professional women and schoolgirls. 
In total 9,000 of the 57,000 children born in these homes between 1922 and 1998 didn’t survive their first year, that’s double the infant mortality rate in the general population.  “The chance of a child born in a mother and baby home surviving until their first birthday, was just over half that of a ‘legitimate’ child who was not in a mother and baby home,” the Report says. It marks the infant mortality rate as the most “disquieting feature of these institutions.”  The major identifiable causes of death were respiratory infections and gastroenteritis. The report is also critical of forced vaccine trials on children between 1934 and 1973 where no consent was obtained or even sought.
Response to the report has been mixed. While acknowledging emotional abuse the Report’s downplaying of any physical or sexual abuse has drawn opprobrium from some civil liberties groups. Considering the accounts of many former inmates of being forced to do manual work, such as scrubbing floors, and having to give birth without the aid of painkillers, while being taunted by nuns that their birth pains were a punishment for their sins, this is hardly surprising. Likewise the Report’s claim of little or no evidence that the women were forced into these institutions by church or State authorities is a little disingenuous to say the least, as without State support they had little other choice.
Susan Lohan, co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance and a member of a dedicated survivors group appointed to advise the government, told RTÉ that the institutions were a “form of social engineering.” She went on to say “state and church worked in concert to ensure that women, unmarried mothers and girls who were deemed to be a threat to the moral tone of the country were incarcerated behind these very high walls to ensure that they would not impact or offend public morality.”
And Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, Tanya Ward said, “This Report sheds light on some of the darkest days of our past. It is an Ireland people wish to forget but the people and stories at the centre of this experience cannot be forgotten. What women went through, cannot be forgotten. What children went through, cannot be forgotten. Thousands and thousands of small children died and were buried in unmarked graves. Becoming pregnant in Ireland when you were unmarried was a terrifying prospect because of how families, society and institutions treated mothers. What is most shocking is how women were treated while giving birth – the utter lack of human dignity that was afforded to them.”
Among its recommendations the Report says that adopted people should have a right to their birth certificates and associated birth information (this is currently not the case), and that there should be a central repository of the records of institutions and adoption societies so that information can be obtained from one place. On the question of redress it recommends financial support (along the lines of remuneration for Magdalene survivors), counselling or enhanced medical cards. The most recent noises from government seem to indicate they are going for the last option. It is hoped that substantial financial redress will be given as well.

As part of his apology Micheál Martin said:
“We embraced a perverse religious morality and control, judgementalism and moral certainty, but shunned our daughters. We honoured piety, but failed to show even basic kindness to those who needed it most. We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy, and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction. To confront the dark and shameful reality which is detailed in this report we must acknowledge it as part of our national history. And for the women and children who were treated so cruelly we must do what we can, to show our deep remorse, understanding and support.”

The Mother and Baby Homes were institutions run by religious organisations, chiefly the Bon Secours, the Daughters of Charity, and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and were part of a system that included the Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools. They came into existence post Independence when the State abdicated responsibility towards its most vulnerable citizens and relegated their care to cold and impersonal religious institutions.  It is a shameful part of our history, of our past, which I have previously referred to in this paper as Ireland’s Auschwitz.
What is urgently needed now is legislation to enable adopted people access to their birth certificates and other sensitive information. There must be no fudge on this on the government’s behalf. The other thing that needs to be urgently addressed is poverty. Around 50% of unmarried mothers still live below the poverty line. Unless, and until we grasp this social nettle we will be betraying our weakest and most vulnerable people all over again. 

. . . and the woman who brought it
into the light

It is largely thanks to one woman, Galway amateur historian Catherine Corless that the mother and baby scandal came to light.
As a child Catherine Corless recalls playing with the children from the Tuam home and attending primary school with them.  She remembers the nuns’ coldness towards the children, which marked them out, silently, but effectively as different from the other schoolchildren. Nuns threatened pupils that if they misbehaved they would be put beside a ‘home’ child in class. “They openly displayed that these children were different. It was an open form of humiliation. They were born illegitimate, therefore they were bad,” she said. In school the nuns largely ignored the children from the homes, like they had decided in advance they didn’t have a future.
These memories prompted Catherine to write an article for the Journal of the Old Tuam Society. The anomaly she uncovered was that there were 798 death records of children who died in the home but no burial records. All evidence seemed to lead to a mass grave on a site on the grounds of the former home, which was believed to be a famine grave. However, Corless had her doubts and an Ordnance Survey map suggested instead that the grave might be a septic tank. Without access to academic resources she spent weeks pouring over records in libraries, churches, and council offices, tirelessly examining every piece of evidence. She approached the Bon Secours for more information but was met with stony silence. Her article, which turned out to be the catalyst for the investigation, ended with the ominous question: were these dead babies for whom there were no death records buried in the septic tank?
Initially Corless’s story received muted interest, until 2014 when the Irish Mail on Sunday broke the story, giving it front page coverage. After that everything changed and the story went viral in the US and around the world. By now a momentum had started that was unstoppable. In the Dáil the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: “For their trouble, we took their babies and gifted them, sold them, trafficked them, starved them, neglected them or denied them to the point of their disappearance from our hearts, our sight, our country and, in the case of Tuam and possibly other places, from life itself.”
An evacuation of the site in Tuam carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 uncovered multiple human remains in an underground structure divided into 20 chambers, in what appeared to be, in the Commission’s estimation, a sewage tank. The investigation confirmed that they died during the time when the property was used as a mother and baby home, between the 1920s and the 1950s,  and that they were not famine remains as had previously been thought, vindicating Corless.
In May 2018, Tusla referred 126 files to the Commission regarding births that had been falsely registered by St Patrick’s Guild adoption agency. In a press release, the then Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said: “We have known about the practice of incorrect registrations for many years, but it has been extremely difficult to identify and prove in individual cases because of the deliberate failure of those involved to keep records. However, Tusla has found clear evidence in the case of some records previously held by St Patrick’s Guild.”  That followed reports in the media of falsification of death certificates to facilitate children being “brokered” for adoption, and of letters sent to parents asking for money for the upkeep of some children who had already been discharged or had died. Prior to 1953 when adoptions became legal here children born in these homes were sent to industrial schools or to ‘foster’ homes. 
The report states that “the commission has not been able to find burial records for the majority of the children who died in the institutions under investigation,” and is critical of religious institutions, specifically Bessborough and Tuam, for not being forthcoming in providing these records. Further, it states it is aware of at least one mother who was given the incorrect information as regards the burial of her child. On the question of forced or illegal adoptions the report is more vague, merely stating, “many allegations have been made that large sums of money were given to the institutions and agencies in Ireland that arranged foreign adoptions. Such allegations are impossible to prove and impossible to disprove.”  
As well as tenaciously searching for the truth Corless took a principled stand on behalf of the survivors, fighting against considerable local opposition for a full exhumation of the site, as well as refusing to attend a reception for Pope Francis when he visited here.  President Michael D. Higgins said of her: “She has demonstrated not only courage and perseverance but a remarkable commitment to uncovering the truth, to historical truth and to moral truth. All of us in this republic owe a debt of gratitude to Catherine for what was an extraordinary act of civic virtue.”
Indeed we all owe Catherine Corless a huge debt of gratitude for her tireless work and unremitting search for the truth. In the end we are all at fault for the horrible treatment, systemic and cruel that was visited upon these young women and children, but none more so than the State whose duty of care was set aside, and the institutions who ignored Christ’s words whom they claim to be following, to pursue their own strange and perverted ideology. Let’s hope this brings some closure to this sad chapter in our nation’s history.