There has been considerable outrage and cries of ‘shame’, and perhaps not without reason. It seems a little unfair, however, that today’s public can heap such opprobrium on nuns who were asked by Irish society to take on this task when it was Irish society — families and courts — who sent these girls to mother and baby homes in the first place because they did not want them around.
It seems equally unfair to specifically blame the Catholic Church, considering such homes operated under similar, or worse, conditions in the Protestant UK.
It would be more honest to acknowledge these homes, along with workhouses and Magdalene laundries, came into existence precisely because of a new middle-class that emerged in Victorian times and craved ‘respectability’ above all else. The Free State continued to operate what it had inherited from the Empire after 1922. Insofar as ‘religion’ had any role, it was because it came to be another expression of the brand of ‘respectability’ so beloved of the Victorian bourgeoisie.
Whilst decrying past attitudes, a cursory glance at any opinion forums of today will also reveal a degree of antipathy towards single mothers. Whereas Victorian middle-class ‘religious’ morality may have played a role in the past, today’s antipathy is rooted in baser motives — sheer economic miserliness.
Many are deeply resentful about supporting single mothers through taxes and welfare payments. Underlying these economic arguments are also thinly-veiled secular moral ones: single mothers tend to be portrayed as workshy, fraudulent, lazy and unhealthy.
If one is not willing to contribute to the welfare of such mothers and one thinks their condition somehow reprehensible, how can one decry past behaviour towards them, or claim to be so very different to past generations?