Was 'society' really to blame for what happened in mother and baby homes?

In a society that asserted a morally superior national identity through conformity, the price of going against the consensus was high
Was 'society' really to blame for what happened in mother and baby homes?

Those without political, economic or social power had very few options and much to fear. For so many Irish babies it meant death. Picture: Brian Lawless

How do you talk about society in the context of widespread systemic abuse of the people and children who experienced Ireland’s mother and baby institutions? What was society’s role? 

As the Dáil debated the Report of the Commission of Mother and Baby Homes this week, fundamental questions about the responsibilities of state and society, and what we mean by these terms, have been raised. Michael Moynihan TD asserted: "We believed, society believed, that some human beings were lesser than others." 

But how do we understand the ‘we’ in Irish society? Did every individual implied by the ‘we’ have the same power? How was people’s capacity to decide their own futures, or that of their family members, shaped by their position in that society?

There is no denying ‘society’ as a collective played a role

The most obvious manifestation of that truth is the very fact of these institutions at all — there would have been no need for them had it been possible for all women and children to remain in private homes. One of the few people to come out well from this history was Alice Litster, who inspected institutions for the State between 1922 and 1957. 

She spent much of her professional life pushing against the official neglect that resulted in the death of babies born there. While she reserved her most damning criticism for the State and churches, she also frequently indicted ‘society’. 

Lindsey Earner-Byrne, the incoming professor of Irish Gender History at University College Cork. It is only in examining personal encounters with the State and institutions that we will understand the nature of power in society, and the role of class, gender and race, in shaping the past and the present.

Lindsey Earner-Byrne, the incoming professor of Irish Gender History at University College Cork. It is only in examining personal encounters with the State and institutions that we will understand the nature of power in society, and the role of class, gender and race, in shaping the past and the present.

In 1948, she wrote of the choices facing women pregnant outside marriage: ‘If she wishes to keep her baby, and rear it herself, the hand of Society is against her here. In England, she will be able to find employment in which she will be allowed to keep her child with her… how many employers in Éire will take the baby as well as the mother?’ 

This was a rhetorical question.

She concluded her report describing three babies ‘found abandoned’ in various locations in Dublin, as the ‘infant martyrs of convenience, respectability and fear.’ This last sentence offers clues to understanding Irish society and the operation of power. 

Institutions represented ‘convenience’ but for whom? What was respectability and who controlled it? What was the fear and who felt it?

A key feature of the ideologies of both unionism and nationalism that prevailed in the two states on the island was their ability to smother differences at the ballot box. Religion was a handmaid to both. 

The churches acted as arbiters and agents of respectability, and while keenly sensitive to gradations of class and gender, this inequality and misogyny was often well covered by separate Catholic and Protestant umbrellas. In the Republic of Ireland, a tale of a 26-county ‘we’ that could be incorporated under a Catholic and nationalist banner was potent.

Mrs B and her daughter

The strength of the ‘we’ was reflected in the absence of a language around class or any interrogation of who actually wielded power on a daily basis. The story of Mrs B’s fight to keep her daughter and her daughter’s two children born outside marriage is illustrative here. 

Mrs B was the mother of 14 children and lived in Dublin’s tenements. Her eldest daughter had a baby girl in 1933. Desperate to save both from an institution, on the advice of her local priest, Mrs B brought the child up as her own. 

When, in 1936, her daughter gave birth to a baby boy, Mrs B’s husband insisted both mother and baby leave the family home. Mrs B supported her daughter in taking an affiliation case against the father for financial support. This failed when her key witness died in an accident. 

She then wrote in desperation to the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin 1937, seeking his help. She explained: "Nowhere will give her help…I am not able to do anything for her as my youngest is 12 months old. 

There seems to be no one will give her a kind word... 

"And now she has not any friend in the world to give her a cup of tea only myself and if I turn her out with her children (God) knows what would be her end.’ 

Mrs B’s daughter and both of her grandchildren ended up in institutions.

It is worth taking a minute to think about Mrs B’s life and the extraordinary lengths she went to keep her daughter in the family. Had she not documented her struggle in a letter, history would not know of her struggle to confront the notions of respectability that isolated her daughter and the convenience and fear that ultimately banished her. 

She was unable to keep her daughter and grandchildren in the family because she had limited social and economic power.

Carole Holohan, lecturer in Modern Irish History at Trinity College Dublin. Listening to survivors’ testimony and having access to archives and records is essential to that process.

Carole Holohan, lecturer in Modern Irish History at Trinity College Dublin. Listening to survivors’ testimony and having access to archives and records is essential to that process.

Sources like Mrs B’s letter and the oral evidence from survivors reveal a wide variety of experiences that compel us to question the ‘we’ of Irish society and to acknowledge the inequality and discriminatory practices that shaped and misshaped the lives of many within it. 

It is only in examining personal encounters with the State and institutions that we will understand the nature of power in society, and the role of class, gender and race, in shaping the past and the present. Listening to survivors’ testimony and having access to archives and records is essential to that process.

Mother and baby homes represented a point of interaction between the individual, families, the State, and its institutions. It is here, in this moment, that we can better understand what we mean by society. 

It is, of course, all of these components combined, and more. Some had power and influence and other responded as best they could to that power and influence.

In a society that asserted a morally superior national identity through conformity, the price of going against the consensus was high. Those without political, economic or social power had very few options and much to fear. It could mean losing your job, it could mean social isolation, it could mean the loss of your liberty, and for so many Irish babies it meant death.

  • Lindsey Earner-Byrne is the incoming professor of Irish gender history at University College Cork. Carole Holohan is a lecturer in Modern Irish History at Trinity College Dublin.

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