Time to face the past with courage

MAYA ANGELOU, the American writer who died recently wrote ‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived but if faced with courage need not be lived again’.

Yesterday, Judge Yvonne Murphy, who has previously chaired inquiries on clerical sexual abuse was given with the task of facing one of the darkest episodes of Irish history, infant mortality rates in Irish mother and baby homes.

Criticisms from the UN Committee on Torture about the outcomes of previous investigations, specifically those into the Magdalene Laundries and victims of symphysiotomy suggest that these investigations have not faced these controversies with courage. They criticise the lack of statutory powers to compel witnesses and retrieve information by investigating committees.

They highlight the absence of adequate reparation and most importantly, the lack of accountability from either Church and State in assuming responsibility for what happened. In terms of the McAleese report on the Magdalene Laundries, they are critical of the weight given to the views of religious order representatives compared to the marginal treatment of the experiences of survivors.

Judge Murphy will have to address these concerns in establishing the terms of reference for the new inquiry. Minister James Reilly indicates that the terms of reference will come before the Dáil after the summer recess. He also published the Report of the Inter-Departmental Group of Mother and Baby Homes which will inform these terms of reference.

A close reading of the report indicates some good and bad news for campaigners. The Tuam home, as well as other Catholic and Protestant mother and baby homes, will be included in its remit. The inclusion of the Bethany Home is important as it highlights that the repressive attitudes to unmarried mothers were not just the preserve of Catholic religious, but pervaded across Irish society at the time. It is less clear whether the Commission will address the experience of women and children in institutions such as County homes.

The report outlines some of the information already available on the three key themes of infant deaths, forced adoption and vaccine trials. Explaining the considerable disparity between the infant mortality rate of 56% in the mother and baby homes compared to the 15% rate in the overall population will have to be the Commission’s first priority.

Despite a brief outline of the causes of deaths in the Tuam home, the personal testimony of health workers who worked in these homes at the time suggests much deeper investigation is required. In his book To Cure and To Care (Glendale, 1989) James Deeny, a chief medical advisor who inspected the Bessborough mother and baby home recounts how: “I took a notion and stripped all the babies and unusually for a chief medical advisor, examined them. Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up.”

It is less clear how the Commission will deal with the question of clinical trials, the remains of infants being transferred to university anatomy departments and forced adoptions. It is also uncertain how questions of accountability and reparation will be dealt with in light of UN criticisms of previous reports.

When the Taoiseach Enda Kenny originally announced that an inquiry would be established, he expressed the hope that its approach would not be overly legalistic. The concerns raised about the costs of previous inquiries is acknowledged in the report as is the necessity to include the voices of survivors which suggests that some lessons have been learned.

However, there is one aspect of the Mother and Baby Homes issue that isn’t discussed in any depth: They were homes originally established by a society which wished to hide away the inconvenient and shameful consequences of its own destructive and repressive sexual morality.

The original impetus for this report was research by historian Catherine Corless and the campaign by the Tuam Graveyard Committee to create a small permanent memorial to the Tuam Babies on the original site of the home. The question of how to treat mass graves is an issue which must be confronted by this Commission.

Ireland has a poor record in maintaining the sites of Famine mass graves. However, there are many examples throughout the world of societies that have found ways to mark and commemorate mass graves in a way that ensures that the past is faced with courage and that future generations never forget.

Dr Niamh Hourigan is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Sociology and Philosophy, University College Cork.

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