Poverty rates of lone parents show our historical disregard for children

The British state, in the UK and Ireland, had done little more than exterminate ‘unwanted’ babies, writes Victoria White.

Poverty rates of lone parents show our historical disregard for children

SINCE the news came about of the “significant” human remains in Tuam we’ve had 13 days of mindless commentary and dire journalism — the main thrust of which is the Catholic Church murdered babies in their hundreds and stashed them in the sewerage system because their mothers had “sinned”.

Mention of the Protestant Bethany Home, which had the same death rate, causes the needle to lift momentarily before it dives back into its well-worn groove: The awful, awful Catholic Church. This was “our own little Holocaust”, to quote the Irish Mirror.

RTÉ’s The Late Debate presenter Cormac Ó hEadhra asked the panel on successive nights if the site should be “sealed off as a crime scene”.

The Irish Times ran a major article on “Irish scandals” as if these are different from scandals of other nationalities.

Oh yes, we’re different! UCD history professor, Diarmuid Ferriter told Claire Byrne Live when the story broke that we had, at the foundation of the State, an obsession with purity which he has called “unique”.

I’m only a poor hackette, not a university professor, but I think we should have a squint at other countries, starting with the country across the water which shares our language and much of our culture.

Donning my journalist’s flak jacket, I did an internet search. That wasn’t the end of it, either. I took a book out from the library and I bought another. I read them. Two whole books.

And I can confirm that the death rate for “illegitimate” babies in Ireland in 1939 was more than twice that of the UK (193 per 1,000 as opposed to 90 per 1,000). Which was terrible.

We were a far poorer country than the UK was then. The overall infant mortality rate in the UK was 54.6 per 1,000 in the 1930s whereas ours fluctuated around 74 per 1,000.

In the UK, the organisation involved in the war effort massively improved infant mortality which was tumbling by 1945 whereas ours spiked to 83 per 1,000.

Our mother and baby homes were similar to those in the UK in many ways but they were much worse than UK ones for infant mortality in the mid-century.

The biggest difference between the countries was surely the National Insurance Maternity Benefit, brought in in the UK (from 1911) and National Assistance (from 1948) which mostly paid the cost of the care. In Ireland the homes were largely self-supporting.

In both jurisdictions mother and baby homes were regarded as a step forward because they allowed mothers and babies to stay together.

Before mother and baby homes, unwed mothers in the UK whose families would not help them had two options: the workhouses, where in 1920 nearly 3,000 unwed mothers were held, or the lunatic asylums.

The UK National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child, a forerunner of Gingerbread, promoted mother and baby homes, which were mainly run by the religious organisations such as the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the Salvation Army.

By 1958 there were still four times as many charitably-run mother and baby homes than state ones in the UK, and one in five younger unwed mothers availed of them.

“Charitably-run” is a loose term in this case.

The Salvation Army’s homes were said to be the most penitential, with the women wearing uniforms, working in laundries or doing “exquisite embroidery”, even in the 1950s.

However some Catholic and Church of England homes were, in the words of researchers Pat Thane and Tanya Evans, “comparable.” Some were gentle and liberal, including Catholic ones.

“Charitable” organisations such as Barnardos and the Salvation Army sent thousands of “unwanted” babies abroad from the UK for adoption or hard labour just as they were from Ireland, and this trade continued from the UK until the late 1960s. Barnardos sent 24,000 to Canada between 1880 and 1914 alone.

But the truth was that the British state, in the UK and Ireland, had done little more than exterminate “unwanted” babies until the churches and voluntary agencies stepped in.

In Ireland this outrage was compounded by the determination of the State that the few kids who survived should be Protestant. Joseph Robins details in The Lost Children how in the 19th century children who had been “boarded out” were ripped away from their adoptive family homes after a few years and brought back to the workhouses for fear they’d become Catholics.

You can’t really blame the churches for the treatment of babies born out of wedlock. The reason the tradition of care for “illegitimate” babies began was that Christianity believed every child had a soul and so churches became the respository for babies which would previously have been abandoned on the side of the road.

This is where the expression being thrown “on the parish” comes from. And parishioners resented the cost. Robins gives an account of parishes secretly moving babies to other parishes in the middle of the night. It has always come down to money.

Who would support babies, if not their fathers? This is a question which has still not been fully answered, either here or in the UK, as the poverty rates for lone parents show.

A partial answer is the One Parent Family Payment, the forerunner of which was an allowance for unmarried mothers achieved by Labour’s Frank Cluskey when in coalition with Fine Gael in 1973.

While in the early part of the century the difference between the UK and Ireland can be summarised as “30 years”, we converged more and more quickly as the century moved on. On the question of a special payment for single parents, we moved ahead of the UK, which only conceded a special Child Benefit payment to single parents in 1977: 50p.

Lone parents in Ireland have not faced the political lash they have had in the UK, where Conservative MP John Redwood, suggested in 1997 that single mothers should give their children up for adoption to preserve “family values”.

Ironically, during the last Government, it was Labour’s Joan Burton who moved to abolish the OPFP for mothers of children over seven years, though in the UK a similar move was watered down when it was “discovered” that you couldn’t do a day’s work inside school hours.

Neither country does well by single parents or their kids. Whether you put this down to Protestantism, Catholicism or the ruthless husbandry of property which built the British Empire is your choice.

What’s certain is that we will never answer the question of the single parent by banning the Angelus.

Or continuing to pretend that the parenting of a defenceless child is not a job which requires payment.

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