Comment: Revisionism on mother and baby report must not be allowed

The most egregious failure of the Commission is it does not know how to treat the testimony of people who so generously spoke to them, writes Katherine O’Donnell
Comment: Revisionism on mother and baby report must not be allowed

The report from the Commission of Investigation fails to adequately address the present ongoing legacy and current issues in the lives lived by tens of thousands of people who are directly affected by our closed and secret adoption system. File photo: Andy Newman

It is difficult to read the Report of the Mother and Baby Home Commission, the detail of multiple traumas is often overwhelming. 

However, the report is also difficult to read because of its failure to present a coherent interpretation of the evidence of this recent history. 

In failing to write a history, the report also fails to adequately address the present ongoing legacy and current issues in the lives lived by tens of thousands of people who are directly affected by our closed and secret adoption system.

Catherine Connolly TD has noted "the writing is unprofessional and amateurish in parts". The poor standard of writing certainly adds to the reader’s difficulty.

Many chapters read like a hodge-podge of random notes; quotes, assertions, factoids, with an unsettling lack of reference citations.

However, the report’s main difficulty is the lack of definition given to concepts that we might have assumed were being investigated. For example: "Illegitimacy was widely regretted and disowned [sic] in most countries in the early and mid-twentieth century". 

Later in the report "illegitimacy" is clearly defined in relation to unwed mothers. 

However, the Commission does far less well with "forced", a concept introduced and dismissed in the following manner: "There is no evidence that women were forced to enter mother and baby homes by the church or State authorities. Most women had no alternative".

The concept of trafficking is solely defined by a witness to the commission: "I certainly didn’t see any evidence of vast sums of money being passed over, you know parents being groomed to have children in order to … for prospective adoptive parents". 

The word "trafficking" is used a mere six times in the 3,000-page report, and that is when the authors dismiss how "trafficking" appears in media reports. 

Racial discrimination is also routinely dismissed despite copious evidence in the report that mother and baby homes were not, in fact, institutions uniquely free of racism. 

Sometimes the contradiction is evident within one sentence: "While there is no direct evidence of different treatment or institutionalised racism in the records, a number of sources suggest that individuals may have had a negative bias".

The Committee’s Executive Summary declares that there is "no evidence of systematic discrimination" in relation to children or mothers with disabilities but a few sentences later it states that: "The Commission heard no representations by or on behalf of people with disabilities who were probably the most badly affected by being in institutions".

It seems a pity that the Commission did not actively solicit these testimonies.

The report makes no attempt to discuss power as a system: how it is gained, used and lost. Chapter 9 comes closest to providing such an analysis with a rather random assemblage of quotes excerpted from other scholars’ work. 

The authors seem to have no ability to discuss hegemony – that is how people are born into and brought up in cultural systems where their opportunities to be informed and make decisions are tightly controlled and severely limited by those in power.

Remarkably, despite an inability to discuss power systems, there are strong assertions of culpability – fathers, families, and society are to blame. 

The Executive Summary is clear that there would have been no unwed mothers if only men could have been found to marry them: "In the early and mid-20th century the Irish marriage rate was the lowest in the western world and there is an extensive literature in fiction and non-fiction about the reluctance of Irish bachelors to marry". 

The most egregious failure of the Commission is that it simply does not know how to treat the testimony of the people who so generously spoke to them. The case of the mishandling of Noelle Browne’s testimony, as she outlined publicly, leads us to doubt the administration of the Commission. 

It is also disconcerting in an official report to hear a steady refrain of the words "probably" and "possible". 

These speculative qualifiers are used both to undermine the statement of a witness or to excuse actions of public officials (such as in fleeting references to criminal offences as the falsification of birth certs).

Of course we should not be surprised at this treatment, this Commission after all met none of the internationally accepted practices of a Human Rights investigation. 

It appears its focus was merely to present the State with a plausible narrative of its (in)actions. As Conrad J. Bryan of the Mixed Race Irish Association says, Irish state commissions prefer to investigate institutional buildings rather than the people within them.

The report of the confidential committee represented the 550 people who gave testimony by choosing some short phrases or quotes from each (anonymous) person, making a collage of them, under roughly chronological and thematic headings. 

As Catherine Connolly remarks, the style is to end each section with a counter-balancing "positive note".

However, the introduction to the report does not pull its punches in how it views and frames the testimony: declaring it has "concerns about the contamination of some evidence. A number of witnesses gave evidence that was clearly incorrect". 

Shards of testimonies are presented mostly without much comment. We might feel thankful for this silence given how cruel the editorialising is. 

Under the heading “Tracing” which gives such a lot of evidence of how it has been made impossible by church/state agencies for so many to find each other, the Report cannot help but state: "The Committee did encounter a few who, having successfully traced birth families, subsequently rued not paying attention to the adage: 'be careful what you wish for'".

Katherine O'Donnell, History of Ideas, UCD School of Philosophy and member of Justice for Magdalenes Research. "The report is also difficult to read because of its failure to present a coherent interpretation of the evidence of this recent history."
Katherine O'Donnell, History of Ideas, UCD School of Philosophy and member of Justice for Magdalenes Research. "The report is also difficult to read because of its failure to present a coherent interpretation of the evidence of this recent history."

Revisionism, a dominant school of Irish historiography, sought to temper Irish nationalist versions of history. It became particularly influential during the ‘Troubles’ due to its usefulness in cooling anti-Imperial, pro-Republican passions and keeping our partitioned island politically stable. 

Perhaps it is no surprise then that historians of this ilk have had a privileged place at the table of the Irish establishment. 

The Report of the Mother and Baby Homes reads like a report from that school: motivated by concerns to protect the State and further disrespecting people who have been routinely shamed by the powerful, yet who still with dignity, ask for recognition and justice.

  • Associate Prof. Katherine O’Donnell, History of Ideas, UCD School of Philosophy and is a member of Justice for Magdalenes Research

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