Elaine Loughlin: Fear of Church and State forced families to abandon their own

Mother and baby homes were supposed to provide refuge but the women, some of whom were victims of rape, were treated like dangerous wild animals
Elaine Loughlin: Fear of Church and State forced families to abandon their own

One of the cards on the teddy bears laid at the gates of Bessborough during the Bessborough Mother and Baby Support Group memorial service in Cork. Picture: Provision

What sort of brutally oppressive and coercive society must exist for a mother to believe the only option she has is to shun her own daughter?

The personal accounts of mother and baby home survivors who slept in crowded dormitories, who scrubbed flights of stairs while heavily pregnant, and who were taunted while giving birth makes for harrowing reading.

But the fear that gripped every home and forced people to make inhumane choices, which undoubtedly tore families apart and shaped our society for generations, is the constant thread that weaves through the 2,865 pages of the final report of the Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation.

One line in the executive summary also stands out: 

The institutions under investigation provided a refuge — a harsh refuge in some cases — when the families provided no refuge at all.

The word refuge is defined as "a place that gives protection or shelter from danger, trouble, unhappiness" by the Cambridge Dictionary, our mother and baby homes were the antitheses to that description.

Suggesting that the Church and State were solving the problem rather than actually being the root cause is remarkable, worse still is the fact that much of the blame is pointed directly at the families.

"All women suffered serious discrimination. Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment. Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families."

The report goes on to say that the treatment of women by their families was "contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the Church and State".

The level of control Church and State had over people's minds and bodies cannot be underestimated when apportioning blame and identifying responsibility.

Time and time again words like "offender" and "inmate" are used to describe women whose only crime was to become pregnant out of wedlock. 

The language used turned them into criminals and at a time when piety to the teachings of the Church often took precedence over common sense and compassion what were families to do only turn these offenders in?

These women, some of whom had been the victims of rape, were treated like dangerous wild animals, incarcerated behind high walls and denied compassion.

With Church and State working almost as one, local authorities often deferred to the views of the religious orders that ran mother and baby homes or to the views of the diocesan bishop.

 Teddy bears at the gates of Bessborough during a memorial service in Cork.
Teddy bears at the gates of Bessborough during a memorial service in Cork.

When it was suggested that the Tuam Mother and Baby Home be moved to a site on the outskirts of Galway in the 1950s, the archbishop dismissed the council’s plans as he said was essential that such women were kept in "a place that is quiet, remote and surrounded by high boundary walls".

"In many cases, they are on the look-out to get in touch with men, and some of them cannot repress their excitement even when a man comes to the Home to deliver a message... the only thing that prevents their leaving is the strict supervision and boundary walls," the archbishop told the local authority.

The report details how the institutions had the power to micro-manage the lives of Irish citizens.

Social workers attached to English charities, where women often fled to in a bid to hide their terrible secret, frequently contacted the woman’s parish priest — one file notes that they were doing so to "find out the family background".

In 1947 Fr Murray of the Rotunda Girls’ Aid Society explained that he tried to help "a decent class of girl, a first offender, whose fall was due mainly to ignorance or weakness".

He explained that foster parents were also keen to know that the mother came from a “good family".

A shop assistant was described as a "lovely girl, nicely mannered" and St Patrick’s Guild agreed to accept her baby "after a month or two". 

By contrast, another expectant mother was described as an "ordinary working-class girl".

But the authorities washed their hands of the issue when it was convenient to do so. 

The Commission found that the high rate of mortality was the "most disquieting feature" in these institutions. 

Childhood deaths at mother and baby homes
Childhood deaths at mother and baby homes

Between 1945 and 1946, the death rate was almost twice that of the national average for 'illegitimate' children, local and national authorities knew this and yet little changed.

The desperation to preserve secrecy is palpable in the case files.

When an unmarried mother discovered she was pregnant the common response was to flee in the hope of concealing her pregnancy. Women who confided in one or more family members were often encouraged to leave home, the Commission found.

Women often provided false names, incorrect home addresses or personal stories that turned out to be untrue when they turned up to mother and baby homes looking for shelter.

One mother who gave birth in Holles Street was then transferred with her baby to the county home. But her mother was determined that she should not stay there as they had "a lot of cousins" in the town where the home was.

This was just one of many examples of women who were eager not to go to a certain mother and baby home because a cousin or another girl from the parish was there. 

Many who lived in rural areas found themselves taking on lonely journeys aboard buses, trains, or boats bound for Dublin or the UK as they desperately tried to keep the scandal away from the prying eyes of the village.

The accounts show the stifling oppression that existed in Ireland and pressure to conform to the teachings of the Church which the State in turn promoted.

Even after 1973 when the unmarried mothers' allowance was introduced, the report found evidence that many women were not aware of this State support and continued to be pressurised from families and the staff of mother and baby homes to put their children up for adoption.

Acknowledging the report, which will take some time to fully digest, Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman said its publican is "an expression of truth".

"For decades, Irish society was defined by its silence, and, in that, its complicity in what was done to some of our most vulnerable citizens. With its publication, we are affirming that their stories and their truth will be heard, acknowledged and understood.” 

While vulnerable women were shown the door by their families, the full truth of the role the State and the Church had in pushing them into the cold, and keeping them there, must always be acknowledged.

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