Troubling questions raised by the dead from Mother and Baby Homes

With the publication this week of the fifth interim report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, the disturbing spectre of the dead who were confined in those institutions of shame and segregation continues to haunt us.

Although the women and infants who died in those institutions were among Ireland’s ‘disappeared’, they have reappeared at the centre of contemporary Irish public life.

Although dead, they are giving rise to troubling questions that won’t go away about how to understand, prevent and commemorate the everyday forms of violence that resulted in them having lives and deaths that did not matter.

They are questioning some of the stories we tell about ourselves, including that in Ireland family bonds are highly valued, and that we do funerals very well.

The alternative stories they tell are about a collective willingness to sacrifice certain women and their offspring to maintain the myths surrounding the patriarchal family, and the power and economic relations it upholds.

It is important to remember that severe punishment for the transgression of the family referred to as (the thankfully now legally abolished status of) ‘illegitimacy’, predates the reign of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Histories of the Foundling Hospitals established in Ireland in the late 1700s record extremely high mortality rates and cruelty that extended to the branding of children. We have a long history of deaths that are not grievable.

In the early 1950s, 1% of the population of Ireland endured a social death through confinement in asylums, industrial schools, laundries and other such institutions.

But beginning in 1993 with public disquiet about the exhumation of the remains of women (and possibly their children) who had been incarcerated in one of Dublin’s Magdalene Laundries, these once socially, but now biologically dead, have returned, demanding public attention.

Catherine Corless
Catherine Corless

Catherine Corless’ unsettling historical research into the dead from the ‘Home’ at Tuam has resulted in ‘Tuam’ becoming a byword for the uncared-for dead in the sites of many other former Mother and Baby Homes that are only now beginning to be investigated.

Examination of the burial arrangements for those who died in these institutions has proven to be considerably more difficult and demanding than originally anticipated.

The repeated extensions of the timeframe for the final report of the Commission of Investigation is evidence of the refusal of the confined dead to move from being centre stage in Irish public life.

The dead from the so-called Mother and Baby homes are also raising troubling questions about the use of the bodies of the socially and biologically dead by universities, and particularly medical schools.

As noted in the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation interim report, between 1920 and 1977, the bodies of more than 950 children (many of whom were identified as ‘illegitimate’) who died in these homes and other such institutions were sent to three Dublin medical schools as ‘anatomical subjects’.

The Commission did not find any evidence that children were used for anatomical studies in University College Cork, but there is extensive archival evidence that tells us that the dead bodies of people confined in asylums, workhouses and other institutions feature prominently in the history of its medical school.

A contemporary ethical quandary facing many medical schools in Ireland, and internationally, is what should be done with the many ‘medical specimens’ once displayed in their now outmoded anatomy museums.

Some Irish universities still have substantial remnants of these museums, almost all of whom were obtained without consent.

Amongst these collections are also colonial trophies, such as an ‘Inka head’ that features in the University College Cork archives and that was included in the animal or natural history museum.

The 2005 Madden Report on Post Mortem Practice and Procedures, published in the aftermath of the 1990s organ retentions scandal and the recommendations of which are only now being brought into law, recommended that specimens retained in medical museums for teaching purposes should be maintained as a ‘valuable educational resource’.

This approach to the dead - transferred from Mother and Baby Homes to universities and transformed into ‘anatomical subjects’ is surely to be questioned.

A UCC-based study called Living Well with the Dead in Contemporary Ireland is attempting to respond to the fundamental questions being raised by Ireland’s confined dead.

Our use of the phrase ‘living well with the dead’ alludes to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s ethical challenge to ‘learn to live with ghosts’, based on an understanding of justice that extends beyond responsibility to the living present, to those who are not yet born or who are already dead.

On May 10 next, it will host a Thinkery on Living Well with the Confined Dead, a forum for the exploration of new ways of thinking and asking new questions, rather than refining existing answers, about living well with the dead.

The event will feature contributions from members of Justice for Magdalenes and the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Oral History Project.

Órla O’Donovan is a lecturer in the School of Applied Social Studies in University College Cork.

More on this topic

Commission refusing to clarify questions over death registers for Bessborough Mother and Baby Home

Bethany Home survivors disappointed over Government's refusal to extend 'fast track’ redress scheme

Zappone declines to give deadline for publication of report into illegal birth registrations

Mother and Baby Homes Commission called on to release details of buried children

More in this Section

Boris and Trump show us the PR tactics that work

Government buying absolution from our climate sins

Combined approach to road safety needed

Donaldson complaints are hard to swallow


Appliance of science: Why does your stomach rumble?

We can overcome with historical unification of mankind

Tolerance for a rural way of life

Exploding stars put humans in upright positions

More From The Irish Examiner