ALISON O'CONNOR: It’s time to stop pretending and to allow abortion in Ireland

NOBODY can accuse us Irish of lacking when it comes to expressing our "public outrage".

No siree, we are well able to don that cap when the occasion calls for it, just as it has over the last few weeks as we have recalled the horror of Irish mother and baby homes.

Of course it matters that there are possibly up to 800 babies buried in a mass grave in Tuam, Co Galway, and it is even more horrendous if some of them are laid to rest in a septic tank (although we have no proof of this). But to say this issue has been hiding in plain sight for us as a society presents an inaccurate picture. More accurately it has been dangling under our noses for decades, but we chose not to tap into our easily exercised outrage until we were presented with a suitable fall guy, or in this case gals — those heartless and horrible nuns.

I feel I have made a masterful effort to get across all the horrible and heart breaking detail, and yet there are aspects and particular details that remain confusing and will only be cleared up by an investigation. In time to come some of the journalism surrounding this sorry saga will make for interesting academic study.

In this instance the journalism — good and bad — has been catching up with the academic world on the issue. It’s quite clear this is an area that has been massively researched, with a wealth of detail available and we’ve heard it very well laid out in recent times.

Of course there were mentions of these places from time to time over the years, but the fact of mother and baby homes seemed to be simply accepted by us, as for years we had accepted the industrial schools, and the Magdalen laundries. Then the 800 babies and the septic tank story broke and the outrage button was pushed.

It has been heartbreaking listening to the stories of these young women and their babies but also to hear the figures (available for decades) of the number of babies that died, and conditions in the home. One of the stories that has remained with me is that of midwife June Goulding who worked at Bessborough in Cork for a year from 1951. She wrote a book The Light in the Window, published in 1998, about it.

Excerpts from the book were carried in an article in this newspaper last Friday where she spoke of women being forced to give birth in near silence, the denial of pain relief during birth and the refusal to stitch women who had been torn during birth.

She recalled seeing a young girl with a suppurating (discharging pus) abscess trying to feed a tiny infant, but being told that no pain relief or antibiotics were to be given to these fallen women. It’s the human condition to immediately relate to the awful experiences of others when you have some knowledge of them yourself. But as someone who had stitches after two births, and nearly had a nervous breakdown trying to master breastfeeding, I read these details and felt them viscerally. It’s impossible to imagine human beings interacting with each other at such a savage level.

Each time I see that black and white RTE news footage of row upon row of babies in cots in an institutional setting I want to cry at the idea that those tiny infants lay there with even their most basic needs for nourishment being unmet, not to mention affection. It immediately makes me think of my own children at that age.

But on the evidence of what I already know about industrial schools and Magdalen laundries how can I legitimately describe myself as surprised by most of this. It’s taken us some time but we have slowly been making our way through these scandals, and we’ve arrived at the treatment of society’s most vulnerable — expectant mothers and infant babies. It’s ok to be shocked, in fact it’s almost mandatory, showing that despite all the previous details we have been exposed to, we have not lost our sense of empathy.

The Government has made all the right noises but it should be even less surprised than the rest of us and must have had this issue well flagged by civil servants who would have recognised it as the next scandal to unfold in Irish society. In fact the timing, just after the elections drubbing, and with the GSOC controversy re-emerging, has proven politically fortuitous.

But where do we go from here? This week a friend forwarded me a link to a piece written by Catriona Crowe, head of special projects and manager of the Irish Census Online Project at the National Archives. It was a programme note for a Druid Theatre production of John B Keane’s Big Maggie in 2011.

“The Irish family has been”, she wrote “and in some cases continues to be, a dark place for some of its inhabitants. Illuminating and valuable work has been done over the last 20 years on the abuse of our citizens by two of our most powerful institutions, church and state. That the family, the most fundamental institution of all, needs exploration of a similar kind is underlined by horrific cases like the recent Roscommon incest case, and the continuing lack of any constitutional rights for children.”

As an aside, we have had the Children’s Referendum since that time. It was passed in November 2012 (with a third of voters bothering to turn out) but its effects remain unenforced because of a court challenge.

Crowe wrote of how a consequence of the alliance of Church and rural families was a distorted sense of sexual respectability, which had its most obvious expression in familial rejection of young women who became pregnant outside marriage.

“When looking at the background files on the foreign adoption of Irish children between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, I came across a letter from a young woman who had been brought, pregnant, to Castlepollard mother and baby home by her father in the 1950s.

Before she got out of the car he said to her: “Take a good look at me now, because you’ll never see me again.” And she never did. That level of cruelty and abandonment does not come from nowhere; this girl threatened her family’s respectability and the marriage prospects of her siblings, and she had to be utterly cast out.”

CROWE wrote that the acute understanding of the dark side of the Irish family which has been offered to us by our writers, particularly our playwrights, needs to be augmented by honest civic discussion and scholarly research.

I totally agree. But I’ve given it much thought in recent days and wondered how do we heal and mature ourselves as a society, standing as we do just one generation away from those dark times. One of the obvious things would be for us to opt for honesty and to take responsibility for the Irish girls and women, who remain, for whatever reason, stigmatised by pregnancy and who are forced to travel abroad for abortions.

Between 1980 and 2012, at least 154,573 women living in Ireland have travelled to England and Wales to access safe abortion services.

It’s unpalatable, and there is little joy in proposing it, but one of the best ways we could sort ourselves out and face up to, and learn from, our past treatment of these young women would be to allow abortion in Ireland. It’s time for all the pretending to stop.

* To read Catriona Crowe’s full note, click here



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