Mother and Baby Home Commission's real impact will be to dissuade future participants

Elaine Loughlin asks, after the disrespect and disdain shown to survivors, why would any victim, witness or person directly involved in any future commissions of investigation come forward?
Mother and Baby Home Commission's real impact will be to dissuade future participants

A stone teddy wipes a tear from their eye near a remembrance plaque and sculpture dedicated to babies who died at Bessborough in Cork City. The survivors of mother and baby homes feel their trauma has not been fully acknowledged and many questions remain unanswered. Photo: Larry Cummins

Also in today's special report:

  • Reaction from three women with links to Cork's Bessborough mother and baby home and from a woman who was born in the same institution.
  • Mother and baby homes: a timeline

'The Truth Must Come Out' read the headline of the Irish Examiner on June 9, 2014.

The words, uttered by the Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin sat above a picture of a young boy staring at the teddies, flowers and mementoes strewn across the railings of Bessborough Mother and Baby Home.

A few days later the Dáil passed a motion recognising the need to establish the facts surrounding the deaths of children at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway, between 1925 and 1961, including the burial of hundreds of children in a septic tank. It led to the eventual establishment of the broader independent Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in February of the following year.

Many hoped this would be the beginning of the end.

Many tears had been shed in the decades before and in the six years since the commission began its work, but still the survivors of mother and baby homes feel their trauma has not been fully acknowledged and many questions remain unanswered.

In fact, right down to the bitter end the survivors have been dragged through the mud time and time again, in recent weeks they learned that their stories had been discarded, only to be found again after sustained lobbying and campaigning.

Today, the commission will officially wind up after much controversy, criticism and a last-ditch motion to have it extended by a year which passed the Dáil earlier this week before being quickly ignored by the Government.

The commission, it must be said, did some good work and the recommendations contained in the 2,865 pages of the final report have all been accepted by the Government.

The focus in recent weeks has been on the destruction of witness testimony provided by 549 people to the confidential committee, which was miraculously retrieved by the commission just days before its term was due to end.

However, one line in Tuesday evening's statement issued by Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman announcing that the recordings had been recovered, stood out.

"The Commission has stated that approximately 80 people have sought for their interview with the confidential committee to be redacted.

"The Commission is now considering how this will be done and has reiterated its commitment to maintain the anonymity of these people."

Of course, time can change a person's outlook, their acceptance of the past and their ability to share a difficult life experience.

But the fact that just 80 of the 550 people who spoke to a confidential committee between 2015 and last year still want to remain anonymous when the files are handed over the the Minister is telling.

We know that the vast bulk of people who provided personal accounts were funnelled through the confidential committee, with only 64 being selected to speak to the main commission of investigation.

We also know the lived experiences of those who were generous enough to come forward to the confidential committee were treated very differently to the group who gave evidence to the commission.

The commission confirmed to the Irish Examiner that stenographers were present in all cases when witnesses gave evidence to the Commission itself. The stenographers took verbatim accounts of all the hearings before the full commission, just as in court cases.

However, there were no stenographers at the confidential committee hearings.

"As is described in the report, notes were taken which were then checked against the recordings. Under the terms of reference, the confidential committee was required to hear witnesses 'as informally as possible' and then to compile a 'report of a general nature'," the commission said.

Why were a small minority of survivors treated as good enough to be fully listened to and properly recorded but a far larger group was deemed as only deserving of a summary report? 

We simply do not know because the law under which commissions of investigations are set up says that detail does not have to be provided.

The 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act allows commissioners to file their report and then "sail off into the sunset" as Sinn Féin TD Kathleen Funchion this week put it, without explaining their actions or findings.

In 2015, when former Irish Examiner journalist Conall Ó Fáthartha asked for details about how witnesses would be handled, he was told that "all aspects of the confidential committee are to be confidential, including its procedures."

In 2016, the Commission acknowledged that some people were "unsure as to the difference between the confidential committee and the investigative committee itself" when it responded in writing to a number of queries submitted by the Clann Project survivors support group.

The letter went on to state "the investigation committee will invite witnesses to give evidence which will add to its body of knowledge of the issues under investigation.

"Not everyone who expresses an interest in giving evidence to the investigation committee will be invited for hearing. The procedures for appearing before the investigation committee are set out in the rules and procedures."

The same letter stated that the commission had decided not to put details of the rules and procedures around the investigation committee up on their website "so as not to dissuade such persons from applying to the confidential committee, which is of a more informal nature."

This week saw judges and some commentators line up to warn against any extension of the mother and baby home commission.

Such a move, they said, might discourage other judges from taking on a paid position on any future commissions of investigation. But after the disrespect and disdain shown to the survivors, who should have always been the main concern, the real question is why would a victim, witness or person directly involved in any future commissions of investigation come forward to speak when they see how the survivors of mother and baby homes have been treated?

Case studies

by Aine Kenny

Ann O'Gorman: 'We have to move on from it now and get justice'

Ann O'Gorman, who lives in Limerick, gave birth to a baby girl named Evelyn in Cork's Bessborough mother and baby home when she was 17 years old.

She says she heard her baby cry, but she passed out and when she woke up three days later she was told her daughter passed away.

She is still trying to find the grave of her baby girl.

Now that the Commission of Investigation has finished, Ms O'Gorman says the most important thing for her is closure.

She wants to ensure that all of the babies and children who died in the mother and baby homes have properly marked graves. "There are some mothers who are getting older now, and they need to find their babies.

"My baby is in Bessborough. I know some people are very hurt about the report, but we have to move on from it now and get justice.

 Ann O'Gorman, who is still looking for her daughter's grave more than 50 years after giving birth to her. Photo: Brendan Gleeson

Ann O'Gorman, who is still looking for her daughter's grave more than 50 years after giving birth to her. Photo: Brendan Gleeson

"My story is horrific, it wasn't mentioned in the report but I will just have to get over that."

She says the whole process has been very difficult for survivors. "I am 68 this year. All of my years of crying, but I know my daughter was not adopted out, I have the birth and death cert."

She adds that there are many women who will never speak about their experience. "They might have married, and their husbands don't know. It's heartbreaking."

She said the support for the Repeal the Seal movement, which was begun by adoptee rights group Aitheantas, was overwhelming. 

"The Irish people are good, they came out in their thousands to support us and now they know how horrific it was. We don't want this to happen to our grandchildren, we don't want history to repeat itself."

Noelle Brown: 'The only positive has been the public's support'

Noelle Brown was born in Cork's Bessborough mother and baby home in 1965. She was adopted when she was eight weeks old.

For 17 years, from 2002 to 2019, she struggled to access information about her birth parents and only managed to trace them through DNA testing.

However, by the time she found them, both her birth mother and father had passed away.

 Noelle Brown, artist and adoption rights activist, whose birth mother and father had passed away before she found them. Photo: Moya Nolan

Noelle Brown, artist and adoption rights activist, whose birth mother and father had passed away before she found them. Photo: Moya Nolan

"We went in there in good faith and trusted the commission to do its job. It's hard to sit down and give your testimony," she says.

Ms Brown adds that when she was called and asked if she would like her name redacted in the final report, she asked for her transcripts. "Nobody told me that full transcripts from the confidential committee did not exist, or that the recordings were going to be deleted.

"When I pushed for a transcript, I got a couple of pages of 222 questions that had some boxes ticked, and some of my testimony was contained in these boxes, and there were glaring inaccuracies."

Ms Brown adds that she received a piece of paper at the start of the process, explaining how the confidential committee would work. "It said there would be recordings, but it does not say they would be deleted."

She feels that survivors have been treated with "utter disrespect" and says it is "disgraceful" that they had to mount a campaign to retrieve the recorded testimonies.

She adds that the commission's report will form part of Ireland's history, despite the fact survivors say it is not reflective of their lived experiences. "There's been no acknowledgment that survivors have been hurt... the only positive has been the public's support."

Rosemary Adaser: 'The omissions of this report cannot be allowed to stand as the historic truth'

Rosemary Adaser was born to a Ghanaian doctor father and an Irish mother. She grew up in St Joseph's industrial school in Kilkenny, where she was subjected to horrific physical abuse and racial discrimination.

When she was 17, she gave birth to a baby boy and he was sent to Bessborough in Cork.

In its final report, the commission said it did not find systematic discrimination against women and children based on their race.

Rosemary Adaser identified at least nine examples of systemic racism in these institutions.

Rosemary Adaser identified at least nine examples of systemic racism in these institutions.

Ms Adaser says this is completely at odds with the lived experiences of mixed race children and mothers who were in these institutions.

Upon reading the report, she identified at least nine examples of systemic racism. "I just find it staggering that they declared there was no systemic racism. I implored the commission to get people in Ireland who were well-versed on the issue of racism, they didn't do this.

"How would white middle-class people understand the impact of structural racism? They also have no lived experience of this trauma."

She adds that as part of her testimony, she explained that mixed race children and disabled children were put together in the 'reject ward' and no effort was made to have them adopted.

She asked the commission to deal with the two forms of discrimination separately. "In the report, they have put mixed race children and disabled children together again. The irony."

Ms Adaser adds that many survivors feel like they just weren't believed. "If there is ever another commission of investigation again, I doubt survivors will come forward."

She wants to see a judicial review into the report. "The omissions of this report cannot be allowed to stand as the historic truth about these institutions."

Mother and baby homes: A timeline

1765 Ireland's longest surviving mother and baby home, the Magdalen Asylum, which later became known as Denny House, was founded. It finally closed in 1994.

1906 The Vice-Regal Commission on Poor Law Reform suggested the establishment of mother and baby homes to cater for unmarried mothers. However, the establishment of these homes in Ireland was slow at the start. Until the opening of Pelletstown in 1919, there were only two small homes that provided accommodation for unmarried mothers and their children: the Magdalen Asylum and St Gerard’s which was run by St Patrick’s Guild.

1921 The Children's Home for Children and Unmarried Women was established in Glenamaddy, Co Galway. It relocated to a former workhouse Tuam in 1925 and was run by the Bon Secours Sisters.

1922 Bessborough mother and baby home was opened. A total of 932 infants died in the home, however, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who ran it could not say where the vast majority of these babies are buried. 

“The Commission finds it very hard to believe that there is no one in that congregation who does not have some knowledge of the burial places of the children,” the final report stated.

1931 The Legitimacy Act was passed, This act allowed children to be legitimised if their parents got married within 10 months of the child's birth.

1949 The interdepartmental committee on the reconstruction and replacement of county homes was established.

1967 The number of babies who were adopted in Ireland was equal to 97% of the illegitimate births, this was the highest in the world. By 1980 this had fallen to 37% and to less than 9% by 1990.

1973 The Unmarried Mother's Allowance was introduced. However, the commission report found evidence that many women were not aware of this State support and continued to be pressured from families and the staff of mother and baby homes to put their children up for adoption.

1980 A total of 552 babies were born to women who were in mother and baby homes. This was higher than the 498 in 1950 or the 456 in 1960.

1987 The Status of Children Act abolished the status of 'illegitimacy'.

1994 Zoei Bonny was two days old when she died on Wednesday, August 10, 1994. 

She was the last baby to be registered as dying in the care of Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork. The home closed in 1999.

2012 After years of research into the history of the Tuam mother and baby home, amateur historian Catherine Corless published an article entitled "The Home" in a local history journal. She detailed the poor living conditions inside the institution and the "staggering number of children who lost their lives in the home" between 1925 and 1961. It leads her to further investigate where 798 children who died at the Tuam home were buried.

June 2014 The Government announced it would establish a statutory commission of investigation into mother and baby homes. Announcing the move, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny said babies born to unmarried parents were treated as "an inferior sub-species" for decades in Ireland.

January 2015 Cabinet signed off on terms of reference for the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters. Judge Yvonne Murphy, Dr William Duncan and Professor Mary E Daly were tasked with providing a full account of what happened to women and children in these homes during the period 1922 to 1998.

October 2016 The commission of investigation carried out test excavations at the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam.

4 March, 2017 The commission confirmed that "significant quantities of human remains" had been found during excavations at the site in Tuam and says it is "shocked" by the discovery.

February 2018 The commission appealed to the public for information about the burials of a "large number of children who died while resident" in Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork.

October 2018 Then Children's Minister Katherine Zappone announced plans for a forensic excavation of the Tuam site, saying the remains of each child will be exhumed, identified and given a "respectful" reburial. Draft legislation to allow for this, and the possible exhumation of remains at other sites, is currently being considered by the Oireachtas Children's Committee.

October 2020 Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman brought forward his controversial mother and baby homes Bill which would prevent data collected by the commission from being destroyed. However, it would see the commission archive of documents and testimony transferred to him but kept under lock and key for 30 years. The move sparked the repeal the seal campaign by adoptee rights group Aitheantas.

12 January, 2021 The publication of the final report of the inquiry into mother and baby homes is described as a "landmark moment for the Irish state". However, survivors, campaigners and some politicians are critical of the report and say it does not reflect the lived experiences of those who gave birth or were born in these institutions.

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