Conall Ó Fátharta: Narrative of report on mother and baby homes needs to be challenged

Much has been made already of the basis for the conclusions of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, its choice of language and tone, and the discrepancy between the testimony and lived experience of the women and the report’s conclusions
Conall Ó Fátharta: Narrative of report on mother and baby homes needs to be challenged

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

The word “narrative” was used a lot this past week. How it’s set, controlled, and shaped. 

Last Sunday, the nation awoke to the inevitable political leaking of the main findings of the long-awaited final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. Along with the expected headline figures around infant mortality, the media coverage outlined the commission’s view that the State and Church did not force women into the institutions.

In its view, responsibility for the “harsh” treatment women suffered in mother and baby homes rested “with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families”.

“It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches. However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge — a harsh refuge in some cases — when the families provided no refuge at all,” states the executive summary.

In the Dáil that same day, Taoiseach Micheál Martin echoed this view. 

Visceral reaction

The reaction was visceral. The women had heard this before. Often whispered behind their backs. Having lived it, the women did not accept this view of how power operated in Ireland. They were not alone.

The Government’s special rapporteur on child protection, Professor Conor O’Mahony, agreed, pointing out that “a society does not collectively decide to banish its daughters and grandchildren to incarceration, mistreatment, exile and even death unless powerful forces [in this case, the Church and the State] urge and facilitate such action”.

“From a human rights law perspective: once the State knew that the rights of women and children were being violated or at risk of being violated, and failed to take reasonable steps to stop or prevent such violations, State responsibility is engaged,” he said.

The public also agreed. By Wednesday, the Taoiseach’s apology highlighted the State’s culpability more forcefully, pointing out that, as the main funding authority for the institutions, it had the ultimate ability to exert control over these institutions, in addition to its duty of care to protect citizens with a robust regulatory and inspection regime.

“This authority was not exerted and the State’s duty of care was not upheld,” he said. "The State failed you, the mothers and children in these homes."

The women and children who were in these institutions have not waited five years for this report. They have waited decades, generations.

The report runs to thousands of pages. The commission had unprecedented access to records and resources, far beyond that of any academic or media outlet.

Year by year, the names of the babies who died in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home. May they rest in peace.

[diframe=0.54]https://datastudio.google.com/embed/reporting/cb54bcfb-d2b4-4c3c-8bb5-2eb1b2b00908/page/1IHwB[/diframe]

Open to challenge

All narratives are open to challenge. Much has been made already of the basis for the commission’s conclusions, its choice of language and tone, and the discrepancy between the testimony and lived experience of the women and the report’s conclusions.

Whether or not it is the “definitive” account of this period of Irish history, as the Taoiseach claims, is for the survivors themselves, historians, and others to decide. It will take months, not days or weeks.

For that to happen, the era of sealing records and redacting personal records needs to end. We need a redress scheme that does not value cost control over survivor rights, but rather one that embraces those who suffered rather than re-traumatises them.

The only way to get past these issues is to face them head-on, in a transparent manner. As we learned this week, all narratives should be open to challenge and scrutiny, even those of a State inquiry.

Jackie Foley* knows about the difficulties adopted people and natural mothers face accessing their own records. Her case was reported in this newspaper on December 3, 2018.

Jackie spent years gathering a paper trail to prove what happened to her when she found herself in the Bessborough mother and baby home as a pregnant teenager in 1974.

She was just 16 when she signed a consent form to have her son adopted. She didn’t sign her own name. Instead, under instruction from a nun, and in the presence of a solicitor and her mother, she was forced to write a different name — Micheline Power* — a woman who does not exist. Because it was not her own name, she remembered asking how to spell it before she signed the form.

As a result, all of the documentation created in the wake of this act — including her son’s baptism certificate, birth certificate, and indeed the adoption order itself — were created on the basis of these false identities. All of this is documented.

In short, Jackie’s memory is borne out by the records. Her records. Her other overwhelming memory around the day she was told to sign the consent form was fear. 

“I was terrified,” she said. "I remember my behind twitching and sticking my knees together to stop my ass twitching. 

And that was it. I was put into the car and brought home. I don’t remember anyone saying to me: 'You’re signing a baby away. You are never going to see your baby again.' Nobody ever explained anything to me."

The Supreme Court judgment in G v An Bord Uchtála is a key ruling on what constitutes a valid consent. It states that “a consent motivated by fear, stress, or anxiety ... does not constitute a valid consent”.

In 2017, Tusla staff handling Jackie’s case were instructed in emails not to refer to situations like hers as “illegal”, but instead as “possible illegal registrations”. 

Reference is made to having to “hold our powder” because “that stuff is FOI’able ... and it could be used against us if someone takes a case”. 

A stone Teddy wiping a tear from its eye is placed near a remembrance plaque and sculpture dedicated to babies who died at Bessborough. Picture: Larry Cummins

A stone Teddy wiping a tear from its eye is placed near a remembrance plaque and sculpture dedicated to babies who died at Bessborough. Picture: Larry Cummins

In its recommendations, the commission noted that criticism of how Tusla — by the people who engage its services to access their personal information — was “unfair and misplaced”.

Jackie’s experience is noted in the report of the confidential committee of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission.

It states: “A witness had to ask for assistance, when she was unable to spell the Christian name, when she was ‘told’ to write it on the document she was given to sign. 

"Having become pregnant at the age of 15, she told the committee that her baby was registered for adoption under false names, both Christian and surname, her name also inserted incorrectly, none having any connection to the real names. These ‘made-up names’ were used, she was told at the time, so that she could not be traceable as having had a child; a subterfuge, she said, that had been at the behest of her mother and aunt. 

"She returned to the home in 2004 in search of information, to be told that ‘no baby boy’ had been born in the home on that date. 

When she mentioned to the two nuns who were talking to her about having had to sign the false names on the documents to facilitate her son’s adoption, the response was that ‘they didn’t know what she was talking about,’ and ‘bundled her out the door’. 

"This witness concluded this section of her evidence by saying to the committee: ‘There was a crime committed by the nuns because they registered me and my baby in another name’, adding that she had also reported the matter to the Gardaí.” 

A statue in the burial grounds of deceased nuns, beside the folly in Bessborough. The location of child graves at the site has never been established. Picture: Larry Cummins

A statue in the burial grounds of deceased nuns, beside the folly in Bessborough. The location of child graves at the site has never been established. Picture: Larry Cummins

In the main report, the commission concluded that it “has not seen evidence of illegal registration of births which occurred in the mother and baby homes and county homes under investigation. Of course it is not possible to say that this did not occur, but neither the institutional records nor the Department of Health records reveal any such evidence”. 

Jackie said she spoke with the committee for around two hours, but that it did not ask to see or copy any of the records she had with her in two boxes.

If it had, the commission’s narrative may have looked a little different.

* This name was changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Conall Ó Fátharta is a lecturer in journalism in NUIG and a former reporter with the Irish Examiner. He has written extensively on these issues since 2010.

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