We are disingenuous if we believe that secrets are buried in Tuam

Controlling population by brutal means has been the norm in the world since the dawn of time, writes Victoria White.

We are disingenuous if we believe that secrets are buried in Tuam

WHAT I can’t take is the shock and the awe. You would honestly think we had no idea those babies’ bodies were there.

Now we’re into a full-scale excavation in an effort to “find out what happened to those babies” as if we don’t already know exactly what happened to them.

Their families threw their mothers out. The nuns took them in. Bad and all as the convents were, some of them were still kinder to those mothers than the outside world.

The nuns didn’t starve the babies. They just didn’t look after them well enough. And the rest of society didn’t care, to the point of condoning the death rate.

That is hardly surprising as there is hardly a townland in the country which didn’t have its “lisheen” for burying unbaptised babies. Have a look at a few ordnance survey maps, you’ll see them marked clearly.

They were separated and excluded. This was because the babies had no fathers to feed them and we didn’t know who else would. Even in the early twentieth century, we remembered Famine. We feared “uncontrolled” breeding because at a primal level we feared hunger.

Our primary motives were always economic, as they always are in every society. Sure, we dressed our economic motives up in religious ones, whether Catholic or Protestant. The 222 babies who died in Dublin’s Protestant Bethany Home between 1922 and 1949 and lie in unmarked graves discovered by academic Niall Meehan in 2010 died from exactly the same causes as the Tuam babies.

I compared the records for 1936, a “bumper” year for child deaths and the only difference between the homes was that there was an epidemic of measles in Tuam accounting for 21 of 48 deaths. There were 29 deaths that year in the Bethany, with no measles.

Religion was never, ever, the real reason for a death rate four and more times higher for “illegitimate” as for “legitimate” babies. The protests planned outside facilities of the Bon Secours order tomorrow are hopelessly misdirected and will only upset innocent users of the services.

But this is Ireland, where a narrow focus on our own history, particularly in relation to the Catholic Church, goes uninterrogated. An international perspective has been entirely lacking from the coverage of the discovery of the mass grave of infants in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. You would think Ireland was the only place that “illegitimate” babies had met early deaths and were buried unceremoniously.

When controlling the population by such brutal means has been the norm in the world since the dawn of time. Stone Age Man maintained a stable population for centuries by practising wide-spread infanticide. The primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy sees the foundling hospitals established to deal with the deluge of abandoned babies right up to the early twentieth century all over Europe as a development of this Stone Age impulse. The death rate in the hospitals was between two-thirds and 80 percent, accounting for millions of babies.

The idea that Ireland was different is wholly dismissed by a reading of Joseph Robins’ unflinching history of children thrown on charity in Ireland from 1700 to 1900, The Lost Children (1980).

“Every Irish politician should read this book”, said former Health Minister Barry Desmond in his autobiography, but I guess none of them did or their successors wouldn’t be so surprised by the discoveries in Tuam.

This is how Robins describes burials in the 19th century at the Dublin Foundling Hospital which was established by Royal Charter and often had a death rate of 90 percent:

“For the sake of convenience burials were confined to three days a week. Between burial days, the dead infants accumulated and the porter stated that he had buried as many as thirteen at a time. Wrapped in grey blankets, the bodies were taken to a field at the back of the hospital and interred there.” “Boarding out”, instituted by well-meaning reformers, saw Dublin babies going to wet-nurses who killed them as quickly as the hospital. Some wet nurses soaked corpses in water in an effort to prove they had fed the babies for longer than they did.

And the city went about its business. Most Dubliners would probably have claimed not to know about the Foundling hospital, and if they did, to believe it had the highest standards.

Most of us see only what we want to see. Very few see what they don’t want to see and work for change. Joseph Robins, a reforming senior official in the Department of Health, was one of these few. James Deeny, Chief Medical Officer from 1944 to 1950, was another.

The autobiography of this devout Catholic contains a description of how he reduced the needless deaths at Cork’s Bessborough Home in 1944 and answers most of the questions we have about Tuam: “I took a notion and stripped all the babies and unusually for a Chief Medical Officer, examined them. Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up…. I closed the place down, sacked the matron, a nun, and also got rid of the medical officer. The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing about it, had accepted the situation and were quite complacent about it.”

This is the kind of action which changes lives, not protesting outside hospitals decades after the protagonists have died. What we need, in response to Tuam, is the courage to see what we don’t want to see now.

How much easier is it to find yourself pregnant and on your own in today’s Ireland? Powerful change has been made by the lone parents’ allowances brought in since 1970 but the lobby group SPARKS says children of lone parents are 340 percent more likely to suffer poverty than children in two-parent families in today’s Ireland.

For many, the only rational route out of their situation is an abortion in England where it is legal up to six months’ gestation. US obstetrician Dr. Anthony Levatino addressed the Citizen’s Assembly at the weekend, describing as particularly “ghastly and grim” the 100 second trimester abortions he carried out, including the necessary counting of body parts to make sure the whole baby was extracted.

The parts were incinerated. There will be no mass graves to exclaim over from the safe distance of half a century.

We need to see now what we don’t want to see. I’m not writing this in support of a ban on abortion. The abortion of so many healthy babies from healthy young mothers is just today’s consequence of our continued refusal to unconditionally welcome babies, no matter what their circumstances are.

In early to mid-twentieth century Tuam, there was the excuse of poverty. Today, we have no excuse.

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