FERGUS FINLAY: The State and society colluded to treat vulnerable women as criminals

I HAVE tossed and turned at night since I heard about Tuam. Like many of us, I’ve found it impossible to come to terms with the horrifying, shaming discovery of hundreds of babies in an unmarked grave, robbed of their lives and even, in the end, of their identities.

It seems like an inexplicable moment, a moment when we have plumbed the depths of man’s inhumanity. And then I met a woman in the street. She recognised me, I guess, and stopped to talk to me about Tuam. I think she found me incoherent, because I couldn’t offer any answer as to why and how such a thing could happen.

But she was able to point me towards part of the answer. She introduced herself as Ciara Breathnach, a historian in Trinity College. Later that day she sent me some articles, co-written with Eunan O’Halpin, and I’ll come back to them later. But, she said, if I wanted to know how official Ireland organised these things, I should go to the archives of the Houses of the Oireachtas, and there I’d find the expression of our attitude in official policy.

And there indeed it was. You can go yourself to the Oireachtas website, and if you dig around a bit you’ll find a report entitled The Report of the Commission on the Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor, including the Insane Poor. It was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas on October 11, 1927.

It was written, at the behest of the government of the day, by a committee of no doubt worthy men, and one woman, an independent Senator called Jenny Wyse-Power. There was a monsignor on the committee, and a reverend, and several TDs and senators. They thought, no doubt, they were there to do good.

Their report not only reflected the attitudes of the time, but set the tone for future policy. There is an entire chapter in the report that deals with unmarried mothers and their children. It identifies two classes of unmarried mother – those who “may be amenable to reform”, and “less hopeful cases”.

The unmarried mothers amenable to reform are to be dealt with, the report recommends, through a mixture of firmness and discipline. This should be blended with some sympathy and charity. But that can only be given when a true estimate of the character of “each girl and young woman” has been made by those in charge.

The treatment of these cases shouldn’t be too tied up with regulations, and health authorities should be given absolute discretion to pay voluntary agencies to look after them. Throughout the report, the women are described as “fallen”, and the numbers who have fallen more than once are identified with care.

The report goes on to recommend that women who seek relief during pregnancy should be detained for a year in special “homes”, those pregnant a second time for two years, and any woman who became pregnant more often than that should be detained for an indeterminate period, more or less at the discretion of the health authority. There are some women identified by the report as being “most degraded” who have the potential to become sources of “evil, danger, or expense” to the community. All of the women should be made to work to earn their keep in the homes.

According to the report, all the children born in these circumstances should be “boarded out” wherever possible. It’s only if that is “impracticable” that they should be left with their mothers. According to the report, “the boarded out child is normally, perhaps, not at a disadvantage compared with the children of the decent class of labourer”. If all else fails, the report says, the child should be sent to an industrial school — and the law should be changed to allow that to happen without the inconvenience of a judicial procedure.

There is more in this vein. The commissioners, for example, acknowledge that there is a much higher death rate among “illegitimate children”. The main reason? “The illegitimate child, being the proof of the mother’s shame is, in most cases, sought to be hidden at all costs” — and that’s why they fall victim of various undesirable outcomes.

In summary, it’s a shocking report to read through the lens of today. But it sheds a huge amount of light on why terrible things started to happen then, and went on for decades.

The thing about it is, I should have known all this. We all should. We all find it easier though to blame the callousness or cruelty of individuals, or particular religious orders, or the Church. But if we’re going to inquire into what happened, and why it happened, that’s not enough, not by a long way.

The reason for that is that none of this should really come as a surprise to us. Diarmuid Ferriter and other historians have written about all this in detail. In looking for more information on the past I came across a readily available Master’s thesis on the web called Unmarried Mothers: The Legislative Context in Ireland, 1921–79, by Ann–Marie Graham, which contains huge detail. And one of the papers Ciara Breathnach sent me is a complex and thorough study of the extraordinary phenomenon of unknown infant deaths in Ireland from 1916-1932.

SO THERE must be an enquiry. It must set out to find out how many children died and why they died. We must do whatever is possible now to restore to them the dignity, at the very least, of a name and an identity. We must seek a way to remember and to confront the terrible things that were done to young women, because our society chose to criminalise them.

But let’s not try to find too easy a scapegoat. For sure, religious orders and individuals did what they did in the name of some repressed, authoritarian and twisted version of their own ethos. But they also did it because Irish society wanted actively to stigmatise young vulnerable women, and to hide them from decent folk. We gave licence for everything that was done. Our state colluded. Public policy suggested that it was OK to treat people as criminals although they had committed no crime.

And if we’re going to have an enquiry now, let it be all encompassing. It must have judicial powers, but we must also ask people like Ciara Breathnach and Diarmuid Ferriter to be a fundamental part of any enquiry, shedding the clearest light possible on the past. Let’s make every bit of paper available, and look at every aspect of institutionalisation (The institutional treatment of people with intellectual disabilities and psychiatric illnesses is another huge aspect of this scandal).

And let’s learn lessons. While we’re enquiring into the past, let’s hold a mirror up to our present. There are institutions still in Ireland — the direct provision system we apply to anyone seeking asylum in Ireland, for instance, can degrade women and children still. We are still capable of regarding people as unworthy of the dignity and respect we demand for ourselves. Until that changes, we ought to think long and hard about who gets to throw the first stone.

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