Michael Clifford: Politicians have no excuse not to do the right thing

One primal need of adopted people is access to their birth certificates. The very least they deserve is the application of real political will to expedite that process without further delay
Michael Clifford: Politicians have no excuse not to do the right thing

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and children's minister  Roderic O'Gorman at a briefing on the publication of the report at Government Buildings. Picture: Julien Behal

In November 1969, Hibernia magazine published an interview with “an unmarried mother” who was 23. 

Clare arrived in Dublin from her hometown when she was 20, got into a relationship with an older man, and became pregnant.

The man took off, refused to answer her calls or letters, and sent her £20.

“She gave up her job and went into a home for unmarried mothers,” the article, written by reporter John Feeney, reads. 

“There she was advised that, when the time came, it would be best for her to have the baby adopted; that in her circumstances she could not hope to keep it and bring it up alone."

Clare resisted the pressure and kept her son. 

“In the home, Clare watched the heartbreak of the mothers forced through circumstances to part with their babies.

She says now she can tell an unmarried mother by the desolate look on her face, the deadness in her eyes.” 

Life for a single mother and her baby in the allegedly swinging '60s in Dublin was harsh. Clare had to search long and hard to find accommodation. 

“You can say you’re a widow, but they just look at you. They think you’re a whore and turn you away.” 

Some prospective landlords viewed her as an object fit for sexual exploitation. 

“It was obvious what he was after. In fact, he made it very plain.” 

Eventually, Clare was forced to move in with an eccentric English woman who had been deserted by her husband. The various pressures on her led to a nervous breakdown. She had to move to a smaller room, seek help from St Vincent de Paul, and source foster parents to look after her son.

“On one of her good days, Clare went window shopping in Grafton Street. A young man rattled a collection box at her. ‘Help the old people’ he said. ‘How about helping the unmarried mothers?’ she retorted. 

"He was embarrassed, and backed away apologising. She hasn’t been down Grafton Street since. The fear she knows is irrational prevents her from going out, from leading a normal life. 

It is a fear caused by insecurity and loneliness, by a future without hope.” 

Clare’s decision to keep her child in 1967 was highly unusual. According to the report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation: “In 1967, the number of babies who were adopted in Ireland was equal to 97% of the illegitimate births; this was the highest in the world.” 

Today, we would say that unmarried mothers in that Ireland were “othered” — singled out to be despised as a threat to a prevailing way of life.

Today, the rise of right-wing populism in places like the US has singled out the immigrant to be othered. Donald Trump has overtly promoted and exploited othering. From this side of the Atlantic, we can see how tens of millions have been indoctrinated, even brainwashed, usually through the propaganda tool of social media. 

Up to 80% of the 70m Americans who voted for Trump believe that the election was stolen from him, despite the absence of even a scintilla of evidence. From this side of the Atlantic, such wanton ignorance appears dangerous and completely bizarre.

From this vantage in history, the brainwashing that went on in the Ireland of the 20th century appears dangerous and bizarre. A whole population was indoctrinated in a version of a religion that was primarily concerned with power and control.

Sexuality was the primary instrument of control. Anybody who didn’t conform to the prevailing mores were to be othered as a threat, a source of public scandal.

As the commission report points out: “The only difference between the women in mother and baby homes and their sisters, classmates, and work companions was that they became pregnant while unmarried. 

Their lives were blighted by pregnancy outside of marriage, and the responses of the father of their child, their immediate families and the wider communities.” 

While most of the populace rowed in with the othering of single mothers, the apportioning of blame by the commission is highly questionable. 

Certainly, there was a complete absence of compassion in the State as it was. But even if anybody could see beyond the fog of indoctrination and access human empathy, what were the choices? Take on the Church? Sacrifice your role in the community? Bring scandal on your family and their prospects?

The State, as expressed through elected politicians, did bear responsibility for the appalling treatment of single mothers and their children. These leaders were exclusively men, representing a conservative society in thrall to the power of the Church. 

Many, if not most of them, were brainwashed along with the general population. It’s also true that they were perfectly aware of where their bread was buttered.

Even if any among them were minded to shake off their submissiveness and question the prevailing culture and power, what hope had they of effecting change?

One who did attempt it was Noel Browne, the socialist and Minister for Health in the 1948-51 inter-party government. Browne wanted to introduce a State-funded health programme, known as the mother and child scheme, which was a radical move towards universal healthcare. 

The Church and the medical profession opposed it fiercely, viewing it as a possible drain on their power.

Browne met the all-powerful archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, on Holy Thursday 1951 to see if the Government of the day could have permission to proceed with the matter. 

McQuaid’s version of the meeting had Browne offering an “abject apology” for troubling the bishop on a Church holiday and asking McQuaid “to believe he only wanted to be a good Catholic and to accept fully the Church’s teaching”.

Browne conceded that his plans would not now proceed and, when leaving, again “apologised for all in which he had been faulty”.

Noel Browne was a socialist, a man of courage, willing to sacrifice his political career in an attempt to comfort the most afflicted in society. Yet the times compelled him — an elected representative of the people — to address the archbishop with the obsequiousness of a petrified seminarian. That was the Ireland of the day.

Today, the State is no longer submissive. Today’s leaders have the power to effect reparation to survivors who were born in those so-called homes. 

One primal need of adopted people is access to their birth certificates, the very record of their identity. Surely, in light of all that has gone on, the very least they deserve is the application of real political will to expedite that process without further delay.

The politicians of yesterday may be entitled to plea extenuating circumstances. 

Their successors today have no such excuse not to do the right thing, and they should be grateful that they have the opportunity to do so.

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