Michael Clifford: Real shame lies with Church, State and society

The publication of the final report Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes shines a light into a dark corner of 20th-century Ireland.
Michael Clifford: Real shame lies with Church, State and society

The report makes clear that the Church is not solely culpable for the regime. But the Catholic church was the primary force in fashioning the mores of the day, particularly in relation to sex and shame. 

Why? Why were these homes set up? Why were young women spirited away behind high walls as if they were a danger to society? Why were their children regarded as unclean embarrassments, destined to a lifelong status of second-class citizens?

The publication of the final report Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes shines a light into a dark corner of 20th-century Ireland.

It officially records the experiences of 56,000 mothers and 57,000 children in 18 of these so-called homes between 1922 and 1998. 

It illustrates the callousness that was dispensed as randomly as blessings both within and outside the institutions.

The report also presents a window into Irish society of the early and middle decades of the last century. 

The view is grotesque. 

How could society have been conditioned to accept such wanton ignorance and cruelty in pursuit of a thin veneer of respectability?

How could parents have felt it necessary to condemn “fallen” daughters to such places? One witness told the commission that her mother had called her a prostitute and a whore. 

“Three of her uncles were priests and her parents were worried about how her pregnancy would affect them,” the report reads.

At yesterday’s press conference, junior minister for children Anne Rabbitte emotionally wondered about the decisions made by parents.

“As a mother, I have to wonder what sort of societal pressure would I have to be under to turn my back on my children,” she said.

How could so many have looked away, preferring not to contemplate what really went on behind the high walls? 

In the 1930s and 40s, the report says, 40% of babies in the institutions died before their first birthday. In 1943, 75% of children born in Bessborough in Cork died in their first year.

The report makes clear that the Church is not solely culpable for the regime.

But the Catholic church was the primary force in fashioning the mores of the day, particularly in relation to sex and shame. 

What is clear from this and other reports is that those who occupied the power centres in civil and political life didn’t have the stomach to challenge the Church when citizens were rendered victims by the prevailing mores.

The State was a democracy, not a theocracy. Nominally, at least. 

Its elected leaders, at national and local level, were answerable to the people. Yet responsibility was abrogated for anything that was of interest to the Church. 

In all these affairs, there was no right or wrong, no civil rights or moral imperative. There was the Church’s way or the highway.

Not that the Catholic hierarchy was keeping a lid on a people bursting to liberalise. Conservatism was ingrained in Irish society, which ensured that civil and political leaders were never going to challenge the tablets of acceptable mores handed down. 

This was also the case in the minority religion of the day which had its own parallel institutions.

So it went from the foundation of the State all the way up to the last decades of the century. 

In 1949, John A Costello was elected Taoiseach of a new coalition government, replacing Eamon DeValera’s Fianna Fáil which had been in situ since 1932. 

One of Costello’s first actions was to assure the Vatican that there was nothing to worry about.

The new leader dispatched a telegram to Pope Pius expressing his wish “to repose at the feet of your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and our devotion to your August person, as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ, and to strive for the attainment of social order in Ireland based on Christian principles.” 

This was too much for the Cabinet secretary of the day, Maurice Moynihan.

“No civil power should declare that it reposed at the feet of the Pope,” he argued.

The new Taoiseach ignored him. 

Unlike the public servant, Costello was directly answerable to the people, to the whims of priests in a Sunday pulpit, to the power of bishops obsessed with sex as the ultimate weapon of control over God’s chosen people. 

Later that year the free state was officially declared a Republic, but real power continued to reside in Rome.

In such a milieu, there was a need for a repository to hide away the aspects of life that were unacceptable to the veneer of holy, Catholic Ireland. 

Even the name of the institutions, mother and baby homes, spoke volumes of the time. The mother was the parent, the culprit, for the conception of this illegitimate baby.

The State subcontracted out the processing of this messy business to church orders, usually nuns whose own sexuality had been repressed since teenage years.

Local authorities, legally owners of the homes, deferred to the views of the orders and went along with whatever was deemed appropriate once it was off their hands.

For instance, the report found that the Galway County Council acceded to the demands of the Bon Secours nuns that children should remain in the Tuam home until boys were five and girls seven years of age, despite the fact it contravened government policy. 

It was easier to turn away and let them at it, rather than question what was going on in that dark societal sump.

So went the collusion between Church and State. In such an environment families were not just willing but eager to condemn fallen daughters to these institutions.

One feature of a totalitarian regime is the elevation of the State over the family unit. 

Party members are encouraged to spy and inform on siblings, parents or children.

In the state that prevailed in this country during those years, parents were only too cognisant of their duties to avoid bringing shame on the family and invoking the wrath of the all-powerful Church. 

Parental love was no match for society’s warped mores. There’s nothing for it but to pack her off into that home to have her bastard child.

The real shame, obvious from today’s vantage, belonged to Church, State and society for condemning young, innocent women to cruel punishment.

It must be hoped that yesterday’s publication is a landmark on the road towards some form of healing for survivors.

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