The Tuam “babies in the septic tank” scandal and the media hysteria which culminated in the Government’s frantic announcement of an statutory inquiry into mother and baby homes show how carefully we choose what we remember and when.
It is four long years since the academic Niall Meehan found records which led to 222 unmarked graves of babies and young children who died in the Protestant-run Bethany home in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar.
Last July survivors of the home were refused redress by this Government, a decision which the Government said was “based on an examination of the human suffering involved and no other criteria.” Alan Shatter told the survivors that the State would pay for a “modest” memorial to those 222 innocents who died of exactly the same causes — infection and hunger — as the Tuam babies.
Just two short months ago the memorial was raised in Mount Jerome bearing the names of 222 babies and young children. The “revelation” about the 800 baby deaths was made by Niall Meehan to the entire audience of media and public representatives who were at the service.
The information about a mortality rate for “illegitimate” babies sometimes four and six times as high as that of “legitimate” babies in the early and mid-twentieth century has been raised by many historians and picked over by many writers, including me. I wrote in this newspaper last November, “You would have to close your eyes very tightly if you were trying to deny that the deaths of these so-called illegitimate children was a policy.”
It seems no-one gave a tosser until a newspaper provided the story with the only enemy worth having: the Catholic Church. There has been hardly a mention of the Protestant Bethany Home babies because they ruin the story. We’ve got to blame the Catholic Church because it’s a safe dump for anything we don’t like about our history. The reason for the lack of care shown to “illegitimate” babies is ludicrously put down to “Catholic morality”, as if morals ever evolved outside their economic context.
The Bethany and Tuam deaths are identical because their social and economic contexts were identical. Ireland was a poor country and during the previous century the population had halved. People carried the memory of Famine babies starving in their mothers’ arms.
All societies have since the dawn of time “eliminated” babies they feel they cannot support in order to redistribute to those they can. During the Stone Age the human population remained quite static and many anthropologists believe this was achieved through infanticide. Nowadays we abort babies we feel we can’t support, and although there are sometimes medical and emotional reasons for this decision, I would argue that deep down it is more often economic.
Since the early 1970s our State has supported lone parents. Before that the problem with “illegitimate” children was that they had no father to support them and if they had looked for inheritance rights they would have destabilised the established economic order. As the economies of nation-states developed, most sought to protect their stability by establishing foundling hospitals in which many or most of the “illegitimate” children died.
The Dublin Foundling Hospital which was established by Royal Charter had a death rate of over 90% in the 19th century, as Joseph Robins records in his brilliant study of Irish children living on charity, The Lost Children: a Study of Charity Children in Ireland, 1700-1900 (Institute of Public Administration). If this book were reissued now we might begin to get some perspective and some historical context to the Tuam babies episode.
At the Dublin Foundling Hospital, the gate porter had the duty of disposing of the bodies of the dead infants, as Joseph Robins writes:
“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 one time. Wrapped in grey blankets, the bodies were taken to a field at the back of the hospital and interred there. So frequent were the burials that the field was completely bare of grass.”
If the infants were nursed out they usually fared no better, with wet-nurses routinely neglecting or killing them. Sometimes they substituted the babies for others and so the practice of “branding” the foundlings began, but even still they were often killed, and on one occasion a mass grave of 13 branded infants was found. If the nurses were paid in advance for nursing they often soaked the dead babies in water to bloat them out and satisfy the authorities they had fed them for longer than they had.
I would argue that in Ireland we continued the institutionalisation of unmarried mothers and their children for longer than most because our economy was static and our Famine history made us terrified of having extra mouths to feed. And though it is tempting to see the appalling death rates in Mother and Baby homes as an inevitable legacy of poverty and institutionalisation, there is sadly more to it than that.
IN THIS telling extract from his book, To Cure and To Care (Glendale, 1989), chief medical adviser James Deeny recalls inspecting the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork, where there was an unusually high mortality rate, in 1944, and finding it looked “well-run and spotlessly clean.” But he went further:
“I could not make out what was wrong; at last I took a notion and stripped all the babies and unusually for a chief medical adviser, examined them. Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up… Without any legal authority, I closed the place down and 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.”
It seems likely that the nuns allowed the deaths to continue and covered them up because they were no different than the rest of society in wanting the babies to “disappear”. But the State colluded. And behind the State was the wider society which believed its economic future would be enhanced by the elimination of these babies.
One can only hope that the inquiry is comprehensive. One can only hope that Bethany is included on the same terms as Catholic homes. But the hard fact will always remain that we did not care about dead Protestant babies until the rest of the world said they cared about the Catholic ones.
Which is another way of saying we only cared about the dead babies who told us what we wanted to hear.