Matters began to come to a head initially as a result of the Oscar-nominated film Philomena, which chronicled the experiences of a young Philomena Lee and her son Anthony at the Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home in Tipperary.
The film showed how Philomena and her son were effectively imprisoned for three-and-a-half years before Anthony was trafficked to the US for adoption to a well-off family.
Forty years later, the Sacred Heart Adoption Society, which brokered his “adoption”, deliberately prevented the now high-profile but dying legal expert from reuniting with his mother.
Philomena finally discovered his memorial plaque at the Sean Ross site after a chance viewing of photos of the few private graves allowed there (a privilege paid for in hard cash by Anthony and his surviving partner).
The Government seemed determined to brazen out the relentless storm of similar witness testimony from other mother and baby homes, State maternity hospitals, and private nursing homes.
All retold a similar experience: Incarceration; cruel and demeaning treatment at the hands of home operators, obstetricians, social workers, priests, or solicitors; being frog-marched to an office to forcibly sign relinquishment papers for their children or having their signatures forged, where the pretence of voluntary consent was not even deemed necessary.
Finally, the mothers were cast aside and told to forget they ever had a child.
The storm may have been weathered had it not been for the revelations of historian Catherine Corless, who revealed the catastrophic mortality rates of the Tuam mother and baby home, which saw almost 800 babies and children die at a rate several times higher than the general population and from inexplicable causes.
Her research could not be so quickly diminished, nor could eyewitnesses, where locals recounted the many entry points to an underground network of tunnels — probably a former sewage system — which housed those remains.
Despite the best efforts of the Bon Secours Order to rubbish her findings and protest their ignorance, an international press smelled blood and demanded action.
Unfortunately, the dye was cast before James Reilly assumed his portfolio as the Dáil had rushed to pass a motion calling for an investigation solely into mother and baby homes.
A more considered approach would have been to examine the institutional experiences of unmarried women and their children irrespective of where their human rights were ignored.
Mr Reilly yesterday attempted to fudge the issue, initially claiming no reasonable person could expect all institutions such as children’s homes, infant hospitals, adoption agencies, doctor surgeries, and State maternity hospitals to be included.
The acting secretary general of his department, Elizabeth Canavan — a former chief executive of the Adoption Authority — tried to smooth the creases by saying she hoped the commission could possibly, all going well, fingers crossed, transition into other bodies once the tiniest link is established. All the while ignoring the first and vital paragraph of the terms of reference — “the commission is directed to investigate… the mother and baby homes listed in appendix 1”.
I’d like to hear from the minister on how he can rationalise this to tens of thousands of women and their now adult children, how it remains reasonable to exclude their experiences merely on the labelling of their chamber of horror. The unmarried mothers forced to go away decades ago will not go so readily today.
nSusan Lohan is director of the Adoption Rights Alliance.