Ellie O'Byrne: Ireland still marginalises the non-traditional family

The abhorrent concept of “illegitimacy” was used as permission to exclude and abuse
Ellie O'Byrne: Ireland still marginalises the non-traditional family

As the child of unmarried parents in the 1980s, Ellie O'Byrne experienced some of the abhorrent concept of illegitimacy firmly entrenched in the values of what was still Catholic Ireland.

Amongst the painful conversations of this past couple of weeks regarding the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has been the commentary of disbelief that the attitudes that led to Ireland institutionalising more pregnant women than any other country in the world lasted for so long and ended so recently.

But I believe it. As the child of unmarried parents in the 1980s, I even experienced some of it first-hand. The abhorrent concept of illegitimacy was firmly entrenched in the values of what was still Catholic Ireland.

My parents were unmarried throughout my childhood, only tying the knot when I was 15. It was a solid relationship, still is to this day; their decision not to wed was derived from anti-authoritarianism and an insistence that their relationship was not defined by church or state.

We were always going to be a bit different: how could we not, with my parents’ utter disregard for convention? My English mother with her breastfeeding, her veg-growing, her handmade clothes and wild tangle of curls (she loathes the term “hippie” but it sometimes sticks, sorry mum!). My Republican dad with his hunger-striker-era long hair and beard.

All around us, different groups continue to be marginalised, silenced and discriminated against at an institutional level

Growing up in Cobh until the age of six, I have unpleasant memories of early school days involving nuns: asking with increasing urgency to use the toilet, and being refused until I wet myself, waddling home in wet knickers with my mortified sister dragging me by the hand.

Ellie O'Byrne whose parents were unmarried throughout her childhood, only tying the knot when she was 15.Picture: Mostafa Darwish

Ellie O'Byrne whose parents were unmarried throughout her childhood, only tying the knot when she was 15.Picture: Mostafa Darwish

Being stood in the corner and told I had stolen a book that I knew I couldn’t possibly have stolen.

I can’t link these memories directly to having unmarried parents, but there was a general sense that we were different, and that this was bad. There was permission there, from these adult women, for other children to single us out or pick on us.

We left Cobh and moved to Cork city. When I was eight or nine, in religion class, the priest asked our class to raise their hands if their parents were married: my best friend, who was being raised by a single mum, and I kept our hands down. The priest made us stand up and told the class we were going to hell because our parents were sinners. I was baffled rather than frightened, and never told my parents. My friend was more upset, and did tell her mum, and mercifully a complaint ensued. This was around 1989.

Other memories: being ushered back into the car when a Connemara guest-house owner spotted my mother’s bare ring-finger and refused to issue my parents a shared room. I seem to remember my fuming father muttering “bloody narrowminded” and gesturing at us, his three children, saying to my mother: “I mean, it’s a bit late, isn’t it?!” We roared off in our beat-up Opel Record and found another place to stay. That must have been 1990, or even ’91.

These are tiny trivial things of course, nothing in comparison to the experiences of survivors being aired this week.

For decades after the founding of the Irish state, to be illegitimate was to be a second-class citizen at best, to be neglected, abused and subjected to medical experimentation at worst. All I experienced was the dying echoes of this reprehensible system of division.

We read that “illegitimate” children were twice as likely to die in a Mother and Baby Home than in broader society, forcing the Commission’s report to conclude in its executive summary that the homes “appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival.” This flies in the face of Micheál Martin’s repeated emphasis on fathers and families, on a nebulous and non-liable “society” or “Republic” in his broadcast apology. Society did better – twice as well – at keeping these children alive than the eminently nameable, liable, definable entities charged with their care in such huge numbers.

The lukewarm response to Micheál Martin’s “profound generational wrong” speech reflects that most are not happy to lay this to rest, to just say that Ireland was different back then. Survivors want and deserve accountability, disclosure, closure.

But it’s not an either/or situation. The sought state and institutional accountability can and should be accompanied by soul-searching in broader society, because lessons can be learned today.

The nuns themselves, the doctors, priests and civil servants who made decisions, were not divorced from society. Nuns were daughters too, sometimes from impoverished rural backgrounds, raised in ignorance and fear and shame that clouded their empathy for other women.

I grew up keenly aware that Irish society was laden with a tacit acceptance that some people just....suffered. And that it was probably best not to think or talk about it too much, and that that’s just how things were. And that by labelling a group as somehow “other,” their experiences were more easily ignored.

All around us, different groups continue to be marginalised, silenced and discriminated against at an institutional level.

The contemporary reality that children raised by single parent families are disadvantaged, and the idea this is somehow normal or inevitable, has its roots in the “illegitimacy” mindset.

While we are all caught up in attempts to “homeschool” for the rest of January, spare a thought for the 2,642 homeless Irish children who are battling the odds to try to keep their education going in emergency accommodation.

You’ll find that quite a lot of them are in single parent families; while around 25% of families are headed up by a single parent, 60% of homeless families have a lone parent, according to Focus Ireland.

School closures are disproportionately disadvantaging the families that are already struggling, and lone parent families are 2.5 times more likely to be suffering income poverty than other families. Last week I interviewed single mothers whose careers are irreparably damaged by their inability to perform the magic trick of being both bread-winner and homeschooling full-time mother at the same time.

Of course, lots of people will say these things are inevitable, a function of how the world works. Talk radio shows are full of them, Twitter is full of them.

The placid complacency that this is how the world works, and that how the world works can’t possibly be changed, was with us throughout the 76 years the Mother and Baby homes were in operation. And it’s still with us today.

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