We need to fight for the truth about Bethany survivors

WILL there be truth now, or will we go on hiding?

As the memorial stone in Mount Jerome to the 221 babies and young children who died mostly of neglect at the Bethany Home, Rathgar, from 1922 to 1949 is raised this week, that question remains.

Will we be forced to face our State’s complicity in these babies’ deaths when these babies have names and their names are incised in stone for all to see?

The Government refused Bethany survivors redress last year, but it is hoped the stone will re-open the public mind to the question on this question and make the Department of Justice reconsider.

Alan Shatter agreed last year that survivors should have what he sickeningly called a “modest” memorial. After much blood, sweat and tears the department stumped up €25,000 and the survivors’ group thinks the stone is magnificent.

But the big question is whether the stone ends the debate or opens it again. The survivors want justice but the past can’t be bought back. What matters more is truth. What matters is that we the Irish public are forced to look in the face that fact that didn’t care that much if “illegitimate” babies died, whether we were Protestants in Bethany or Catholics in Sean Ross. The Government health inspector Winslow Sterling Berry put it very clearly when he excused the spike of deaths in Bethany in 1939 by saying it was well-known that illegitimate babies were “marasmic.” Which means starving.

The past is another country. But some of this story happened in a past so recent that it is the past of a middle-aged woman like me. Bethany closed in 1972, but one of the Protestant homes to which Bethany babies went, Westbank in Greystones, finally closed in 1998. I went to school with Westbank children because my school kindly waived the fees.

When a Westbank boy was pushed off a train on the way home from school, suffered catastrophic injuries and never returned to school, he was never mentioned again. I don’t believe the incident was reported to the police. He just fell off the face of the earth, because we let him, and it took me 30 years before I asked questions.

Because my beloved best friend was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, I went to the Bray Gospel Hall with the Westbankers. I sang and clapped with them on the beach at Greystones when the Children’s Special Service Mission came to town. But orphans were different and they knew their place. We made sure of that.

Former Westbanker Colleen Anderson is returning to Ireland next Wednesday to play the organ for the multi-denominational service to mark the unveiling of the memorial stone. She remembers “the Bethanys” as an inferior subset within Westbank. In a beautiful phrase, she says she is coming “to be honest for those babies.”

“Being honest” is the challenge which faces us all. To admit, in the light of the European Court of Human Rights judgement in January that the Irish State was reponsible for Louise O’Keeffe’s abuse in a Catholic national school, that it was the Irish State which abused and neglected children, not the Catholic Church. The Irish State, with its particularly painful relationship with colonialism, poverty and mass-starvation, hived off to the churches the care of children which it didn’t want.

This happened for Protestants as well as Catholics and what’s more, Protestants were almost completely ignored thereafter. They were not considered full citizens of this Republic. While some Protestants were slow to accept the legitimacy of the new State, the new State seemed to hope that Protestant children would “go back to where they came from”. That makes the State’s contention that Bethany and Westbank survivors are unworthy of redress because they were not in State care all the more galling.

We can’t change the past but now we can have truth. Colleen Anderson talks of a “Truth and Reconciliation” process for Ireland and she has good reason. Illegally exported from this State, she was adopted by a Brethren family in Scotland, which means she has access to more adoption records than a person adopted in Ireland. Through her Brethren links, she was able to get access to some of her Westbank records a few months ago and found out that her sister was at Westbank while she was but they weren’t told they were related.

Colleen doesn’t know where her sister is. Susan Hobson, are you out there?

We can’t change the past but now we need truth. Westbank’s supremo Adeline Mathers blanked Colleen Anderson as comprehensively as Sister Hildegarde blanked Philomena when she asked about her birth family. But what’s more horrifying is that the HSE-funded PACT, the Protestant Society, handed the Westbank records back to the trustees at the Bray Gospel Hall in 2010, at the same time as Mike Peelo’s 2011 Would You Believe? documentary about the home was in the offing. Those records are now sitting in private houses under the care of people with no professional training to deal with them because our State has chosen not to give our people a right to their own identity.

The Bethany survivors hope next Wednesday’s service at Mount Jerome at 4pm and the unveiling of the stone will force the powers of Church and State to face their responsibilities. But it could be a full-stop instead. There has been a lot of buck-passing already about the service. It’s being led by a Church of Ireland priest, Canon Mark Gardiner, but though virtually every inmate of Bethany was a Church of Ireland member and most were consigned to the home by Church of Ireland priests, though the home was opened by the C of I Archbishop of Dublin and C of I clergy sat on the board, the Church of Ireland’s response so far has been to distance itself.

NEITHER the C of I Archbishop of Dublin nor C of I Primate of All Ireland is attending in person. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin agreed to attend and then cancelled — for which the Church of Ireland can be grateful. “The Church of Ireland has got away with it for 80 years”, says Bethany survivor Derek Leinster. “Now they’re going to be on the same level as Catholics. It’s unthinkable.”

Former inmates and their relations from as far away as Australia are attending as well as many from the UK and the public is invited to attend. Colleen Anderson is thinking of playing Allegri’s Miserere — “Have mercy” — “Because” as she says, “no-one had mercy on those children in their own lives. One hopes they have mercy in heaven.”

One hopes they have, those little souls who, as Anderson says, “probably hardly saw the light of day.” It will be their moment when we stand and pray for them in Mount Jerome.

But then the fight for the right to truth begins. Truth for all, under the laws of this State, whether your parents were married or not. Truth for all, Catholics and Protestants alike. The truth will hurt some people, but without it we are no Republic.

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