Michael Clifford: Hurt caused by Mother and Baby Homes report must be addressed

The problem with the report published last week is that there are large chunks of it with which many people have great difficulty
Michael Clifford: Hurt caused by Mother and Baby Homes report must be addressed

Something has to be done to address the hurt that the Mother and Baby Homes Report has inflicted – albeit unintentionally - on those who have that lived experience. Picture: Larry Cummins

If the dead could sue, Peggy McCarthy would have an airtight case against the Mother and Baby Homes Commission. 

Peggy died in childbirth in 1946, on the road between Tralee and Killarney. She was 25 years of age and had been refused entry to hospital to give birth in Listowel and then Tralee. 

On both occasions, a nun turned her away because she was unmarried. She died on the way to a hospital in Killarney.

Subsequently, the parish priest in Listowel initially refused entry of her body to the church for the funeral, and only relented when confronted by an angry group of family and friends.

Peggy’s story was told by former journalist Conor Keane in a radio documentary, In Shame, Love, In Shame, two years ago. 

Following the broadcast, Kerry County Council apologised for its role in her untimely and lonely death. The apology was issued through the council’s then chair, Norma Foley, the current Minister for Education.

In a chapter entitled 'Attitudes' in the Mother and Baby Homes report, there is a passing reference to Peggy’s case.

“In 2018, an RTÉ radio documentary told the story of Peggy McCarthy, an unmarried pregnant woman with intellectual disabilities who was refused admission to hospitals in Listowel and Tralee (both in Kerry) in 1946, and died from eclampsia.” 

Peggy McCarthy’s story was told by former journalist Conor Keane in a radio documentary, In Shame, Love, In Shame . File picture: Denis Scannell

Peggy McCarthy’s story was told by former journalist Conor Keane in a radio documentary, In Shame, Love, In Shame . File picture: Denis Scannell

Peggy McCarthy did not have intellectual disabilities. The statement was completely inaccurate. 

The portrayal of her as somebody who was not fully in command of her intellectual faculties throws a different light on her pregnancy and fate. As such it does her memory a grave injustice.

“It is incorrect, 100% inaccurate, inexcusable and unfortunately sloppy,” says Conor Keane. “For me, it shatters my confidence in the report. What else is wrong in it?”

Quite a bit, it would appear. An error here or there in a 3,000-word statutory report is not a hanging offence, even if great hurt can be caused by it. 

The problem with the report published last week is that there are large chunks of it with which many people have great difficulty.

The emphasis on society as being partially culpable for the regime and attitudes that existed in that Ireland has been disputed, but that is a matter of opinion.

What has really caused shock is the palpable anger from people who were born in these homes and gave evidence to the commission, particularly through the committee set up for that purpose. 

The report’s contention that adoptions were not “forced” has caused particular offence in light of witnesses' lived experience. And the handling of testimonies has also been heavily criticised.

As put by Dr Katherine O’Donnell of the Justice for Magdalenes Research in the Irish Examiner last Tuesday: “The most egregious failure of the commission is that it does not know how to treat the testimony of people who so generously spoke to them.”

One who spoke was Noelle Brown, now an adoption rights activist. On the day after the report was published, she told RTÉ that she had to go through hoops to finally get her hands on her testimony. 

 Noelle Brown, artist and adoption rights activist, told RTÉ that she had to go through hoops to finally get her hands on her testimony. Picture: Moya Nolan

Noelle Brown, artist and adoption rights activist, told RTÉ that she had to go through hoops to finally get her hands on her testimony. Picture: Moya Nolan

She put some of the process of taking evidence down to “a box-ticking exercise”, and noticed “10 glaring inaccuracies, starting with that I was raised by my birth parents”.

What can be done about it? For the greater part, major reports such as this are, when published, treated as a tablet sent down from on high, the Gospel, the final word on a subject. 

This attitude informs the vast majority of comment and review that follows.

Then, in the fullness of time, a different view emerges, usually through the intervention of the courts. The most obvious example in this respect was the Planning Tribunal in 2012.

A number of wealthy interests challenged some of the procedures used to compile the tribunal’s report. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that aspects of the report had to be changed and cost orders nullified.

Despite that, the main thrust of the report — that the planning process was hugely corrupted over decades — stood.

The only report to mirror the kind of immediate negative reaction now being directed at the Mother and Baby Homes report was that of the Kerry Babies Tribunal in 1985.

Many disputed the negative conclusions in the report about the conduct of Joanne Hayes and her family.  Journalist Gene Kerrigan wrote a long, forensic analysis in Magill magazine of what the tribunal had got wrong. 

The sole member, Judge Kevin Lynch, responded on the same pages the following month with a defence of his report.

The tribunal had been set up to determine how Ms Hayes and her siblings could have confessed in custody to a murder they couldn’t have committed. 

Yet the outcome simply did not address that and lay much of the blame for the whole affair on the Hayes family.

Just last December, 35 years later, Ms Hayes and her siblings finally got a High Court order to remove all the negative findings about them in the report.

So what to do with this report? Ideally, the members of the commission should publicly set out the thinking behind the content and tone of the report. 

Led by the chair, former judge Yvonne Murphy, their work was extensive and wholly in the public interest.

Ms Murphy was also chair of the commission on sexual abuse in the Dublin diocese, which was praised widely for what it uncovered. 

A willingness to provide context and background into the report currently at issue would provide a welcome footnote to her work.

If Ms Murphy and her fellow members are unwilling to appear before an Oireachtas committee or some other forum, the least that could be expected is a written piece in the media.

Failing that, the Government may well have to act unilaterally. Speaking on the podcast, the leader of the Seanad, Regina Doherty stated that there should be additions to the report in its current form.

“We need another summary alongside the executive summary of one of the women or their representative to write a nuanced, emotionally-led recount of what happened, even one person and their lived experience.

“And anybody who did come forward I believe they should be transcribed verbatim and their account laid alongside the archive (of the report).” 

That would be a start, but it’s only one suggestion. What is clear is that something has to be done to address the hurt that this report has inflicted — albeit unintentionally — on those who have that lived experience. Doing nothing is not an option.

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