Once again, it has taken international press headlines to make the Government address a dirty little secret the State has been aware of decades.
The horrific discovery of hundreds of children buried in a septic tank at a former home for unmarried mothers in Tuam in Galway merely lit the fuse on a scandal that was hiding in plain sight.
We have heard Government and opposition TDs alike express their horror at these “shocking revelations” and the need to fully investigate the circumstances surrounding the Tuam discovery.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he wanted to know if there are any other baby graves at mother-and-baby homes in other parts of the country.
Had politicians not heard of ‘angel plots’ dotted around the country? Had they not heard of mother-and-baby homes and the unspeakable abuses that occurred in them?
The fact is that infants are buried on the grounds of mother-and-baby homes all around the country. Adopted people and natural parents gather for dignified memorial services at ‘angel plots’ in places such as Bessborough in Cork, Castlepollard in Westmeath, and Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary every year.
Nobody cared in government then.
Nobody in Government cared when 219 unmarked graves of children from the Bethany Homes in Mount Jerome were found.
Mother-and-baby homes were excluded from the Redress Scheme in 2005 as there was “no evidence of systematic or widespread abuse of children in those institutions”.
Tuam is not an incident in isolation, nor is it unusual. Nor is the frighteningly high death rates of children in mother-and-baby homes, or their burial in mass graves. On the death certificates of some of these children, it’s clear that many died of preventable illnesses.
Another word is also prevalent — Marasmus. In layman’s terms — malnutrition.
As this newspaper revealed on Wednesday, the death rates for children in the Sean Ross Abbey home fell below 20% only once between 1930 and 1945, reaching a peak of 42% in 1942, when 73 out of 170 children born there died.
In Bessborough, in that same year, 53 out of 106 children born died — a death rate of 50%. The following year the figure was even higher, with 60 out of 106 children dying.
Was the State aware of this? Absolutely.
In the 1950s, the chief medical officer, Dr James Deeny, shut down Bessborough and later wrote in his memoir in the 1980s: “The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing about it, had accepted the situation and were quite complacent about it.”
The reason is simple. A so-called ‘illegitimate’ child’s life was worth less than a ‘legitimate’ child. The statistics bear it out. Take any year from the 1920s right up to the late 1940s and the death rate for ‘illegitimate’ infants was between three and five times that of ‘legitimate’ children.
Places such as Tuam, Castlepollard, and Bessborough are not the only mother-and-baby homes. There were others — St Patrick’s Home on the Navan Rd in Dublin, St Patrick’s Guild and Temple Hill in Dublin, Ard Mhuire and St Clare’s in Meath, to name just a few.
Like in the Magdalene laundries, women report having been subjected to emotional and physical abuse and having to undertake manual labour while heavily pregnant.
There is evidence that some mother-and-baby homes were established under the auspices of the State, while others received capitation grants towards their running costs. There was also an inspection role for the State in respect of some homes.
For those children who survived, adoption was the only choice. In many cases, these children were adopted illegally and, in some cases, for money. Births were falsified and illegal adoptions facilitated arranged by religious orders. Many other children were subjected to vaccine trials without the consent of their mothers.
Again, this is all known to the State. This Government, like every government before it, has done nothing in terms of granting adopted people and natural mothers the most basic rights.
The Adoption Act of 2010 was introduced to facilitate intercountry adoption. Adopted people and natural mothers were left out in the cold, still without a legal right to a birth certificate or basic medical information.
Former children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald promised tracing and information legislation in 2011. We are still waiting to see a heads of bill. In the Dáil, Ms Fitzgerald categorically said every adoption carried out by the State has been legal.
“All adoptions which the Irish State has been involved in since 1952 have been in line with this [Adoption Act 1952] and subsequent adoption legislation,” she said.
Ms Fitzgerald made the claim despite the fact that no full audit of adoption records held by the HSE or religious adoption agencies has ever been carried out. She confirmed that no such audit is planned.
She also stated that illegal adoptions referred only to illegal birth registrations, which meant the State was not involved as no formal adoption took place.
This is despite the fact that numerous documented cases exist where formal adoption orders were made where the parents of the children were married, in the absence of the consent of the natural mother and where documents were falsified.
Such an audit would be one step in exposing the scale of the mother-and-baby home and illegal adoption scandal.
In 1974, then justice minister Paddy Cooney clearly outlined a forced adoption policy stating that “adoption is better for the illegitimate baby than to be cared for by its mother”.
The solution here is quite simple and an inter-departmental inquiry is not it. Departments at the centre of these issues cannot be allowed to investigate themselves.
A full, entirely independent inquiry into the operation of all mother-and-baby homes, the deaths which occurred there and the scale of illegal and forced adoptions is needed.
It’s also time that the women who went through these institutions and lost their children to death or forced adoption came out of the shadows and demanded justice.
‘If you looked half-way decent, they could get paid for you’
The Tuam mother-and-baby home was rampant with infections, according to a Co Galway man who was born and lived there for five years.
“You picked up everything there. You could be a healthy baby or child and you could get God knows what, tuberculosis the lot,” said John Rodgers.
“I got something in there. I was sick in bed for a year; to this day, I don’t know what it was.”
John says he also remembers children regularly “disappearing” from the home. He didn’t know if they were suddenly fostered out, adopted or had died. He said he had no idea until recently that up to 800 dead babies and children had been “flung in a septic tank” near the home.
He has always considered himself as “one of the lucky ones”, as he was adopted by a kind Irish family.
“It was a lottery there,” he said. “If you looked half-way decent they could get paid for you and you’d be shipped to America or adopted in Ireland. If you were less valuable, scrawny, you could be less fortunate.”
John was adopted by a “good family” in north Galway and eventually emigrated to the UK, where he worked in construction. His mother, from whom he was forcibly separated, was less lucky and was sent to a Magdalene laundry in Galway.
In 2006, he wrote a book, For the Love of my Mother, about “the trauma she went through in the laundry”. He found it hard to get it published but eventually found a publisher in London and landed a six-figure advance.
“Every day after I was born was agony for her, as she knew that at any time, we could be separated,” he said.
His mother eventually escaped from the laundry by scaling its wall with two friends.
When he was 34, John was reunited with his mother, a day he describes as “the greatest of my life”. She had cut off a lock of his hair on the day he was taken from her and kept it in a locket all those years.
“She was so ashamed of her past and didn’t want to talk about it at all,” he said. “But it was so unjust, all these women and children suffering in these homes and in laundries and nothing was done to the men, the fathers of the children.”
Yesterday, John went to the site of the mass grave. “There was such an eerie feeling about the place. I walked around and just felt so unbearably sad that flinging children in a septic tank was the best we could do.”
— Claire O’Sullivan
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