Survivors need more than redress — they need care and respect too

THESE are the terrible words of a Bethany Home survivor to fellow survivor Derek Leinster, who has for many years led the campaign for redress.

There are only 20 known survivors of this all-purpose Protestant internment camp, in which some babies were born, some children were reared and some women offenders were held.

Most of the survivors bear emotional scars, many bear physical scars. Bethany was a kind of “Dying Rooms” facility for unwanted babies particularly between 1922 and 1949. Between 1935 and 1936, 40 babies died, an average of two a month from a baby population of 19.

In 2010 the unmarked graves of 219 Bethany babies were found in Mount Jerome cemetery by academic Niall Meehan. Other babies simply vanished, with no name and no trace. No, I don’t believe they vanished. I believe they can talk to us if we listen. I don’t believe these beautiful, innocent lives can just be snuffed out. Their voices tell us that every baby who is born deserves an equal chance of living a dignified life.

The overall infant mortality rate in the 1930s was 7%, though of course you would expect it to be far lower in an institution than in the homes of the poor. In Bethany it peaked at about 10%. The babies died of starvation, neglect and infectious disease. A good inspection would have found all this out and put it right..

But the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Winslow Stirling Berry, chose not to find against the home. He inspected it three times in 1939 and stated, “The institution is very well kept... It is well recognised that a large number of illegitimate children are delicate and marasmic.” Marasmic is another word for starved.

Derek Leinster just about escaped with his life. In 1944, when increased State funding finally ended the Dying Rooms regime, he was transferred to Cork Street Hospital with whooping cough, diphtheria and gastroenteritis. He struggles with life-long illness, not helped by a brutal “adoption” regime, which saw him working as a child labourer on the land. His arms are still scarred by the marks of the bushsaw.

Fellow survivor Noeleen Belton was “adopted” by elderly rural Protestants who worked her like a slave but never told her she wasn’t their child. Survivor Patrick Anderson McQuoid crafted his own escape from his “adoptive” home by living in a tree house. And by the way, his real name was Cecil but he was always described as “Paddy from the home”.

These are stories which make me feel physically sick. How dare the Government decide, as it did last week, that Bethany Home survivors do not deserve redress, “a decision based on an examination of the human suffering involved and no other criteria.” How dare they examine the level of human suffering involved here and find it lacking? They have not “walked the walk”. They can’t imagine what it is “not to be loved as a child.”

How can they hear these tales of children suffering and not want to reach out and help? How can they hear of babies dying needlessly and not want to honour their tiny lives with a formal apology and redress? This is why: they’re scared to because they think it would cost too much. The Government fears that granting the Bethany redress would open the door to the survivors of mother and baby homes.

Bethany was not a mother and baby home.

Eileen Macken was born in another home and came to Bethany to be reared. There were often twice as many babies as mothers at Bethany and it was described by the State as a “children’s home” in 1938.

Bethany kids did not go to industrial schools. This was because they were Protestants and there were none for them. Bethany was a multi-purpose Protestant institution and the slave trade designated “adoption” was just a cheaper form of industrial school for Protestants.

As the journalist Mary Raftery wrote in 2004, the Bethany survivors have been discriminated against twice: once in their care are babies and children and again, in terms of redress. But there is more to it than that. There is also a huge problem in the whole concept of redress. Because full redress there can never be. The huge gaping holes in these survivors lives can’t be filled with money.

They need and deserve care. The best medical care money can buy. The best psychiatric care, if they need it. They often need and always deserve housing and proper pensions. Then again, is there any elderly or medically disabled person in our society who does not deserve all of these?

But survivors of abuse need something more. They need their hurt to be understood. They need their hurt to be felt. This is why the Taoiseach’s apology to the Magdalenes — so long in coming — mattered so much. The problem is that we started to see money as the metric of how much the State felt survivors’ pain. Because that’s how we started the demeaning carry-on of working out who was hurt most. And that is why the Bethanys were so grossly insulted last week by a Government spokesman saying they hadn’t suffered enough to deserve redress.

That is why Victor Stevenson, a survivor of the appalling Westbank Home in Greystones, may get no apology from the State, which at least knew he was there. The home was run by the Plymouth Brethren and hope of getting redress from them is faint. So he is deemed not to have suffered at all. Although he was suffering so much that as a tiny child he jumped off a stage in a Gospel Hall in the North, ran into the crowd and gripped the trousered leg of the stranger who, by a miracle, became his adoptive father.

Even if the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland liquidated all their property, the hard truth is that the present does not have enough money to repay every single debt from the past. Think of all the groups of people whose lives were blighted by State neglect.

Think of the girls forced to give up babies for adoption. Think of those babies, denied the love of their birth mothers. Think of the women who are destitute now because the Marriage Bar forced them to give up jobs they loved. Think of the thousands and thousands of elderly Irish citizens whose lives are blighted now by poor healthcare and poor education when they were children.

I know this is controversial, but I think we need to move away from confusing redress with apology. What there must be, instead, is total respect. Let no Irish government ever again say to people who have suffered as the Bethany survivors, that, on balance, they have not suffered enough.

They need a full and sincere apology from this State. They need good State pensions, housing, if necessary and the best medical care available.

All the Protestant denominations who were involved in the running and use of Bethany — led by the Church of Ireland — need to get off the fence. And those poor dead babies buried in Mount Jerome deserve a memorial which is not “modest” as the Government suggests, but so beautiful and striking that it ensures we never, ever forget them.

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