IF we did not deprive them of life, we deprived them of their identity. That is the hard truth about our relationship with “illegitimate” children which Stephen Frears’s film Philomena makes us face.
Some years we killed half of the “illegitimate” babies we got our hands on. In 1930, the year the Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home opened in Roscrea, 60 babies died out of a total of 120. That’s an infant mortality rate of 50%, more than four times higher than in the general population.
You would have to have to close our eyes very tightly if you were trying to deny that the death of those so-called “illegitimate” babies was a policy.
In all, a quarter of babies born outside marriage in the 1930s in Ireland died before their first birthdays. These were infant death rates from the 17th century.
In the 1940s, the infant death rate for Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Co Cork, was 44.6%, for Sean Ross, 33.7% and for Castlepolland, Co Weatmeath, 9.1%. In the mid-1940s there was a year in which out of 180 babies born at Bessborough, 100 died.
We had made a decision as a society to liquidate a high proportion of these infants. They were a destabilising force and we didn’t know what to do with them. So we let them die.
There was nothing new about this policy. It had been tried and tested all over Europe. Some foundling hospitals reported death rates of up to 90%. Joseph Robins’s brilliant study of children thrown on charity from 1700 to 1900, The Lost Children, quotes this evidence from the Dublin Foundling Hospital in the 1700s: “Between burial days, the dead infants accumulated and the porter stated that he had buried as many as 13 at one time. So frequent were the burials that the field was completely bare of grass.”
The difference between us and the others is how we kept at it. Blame a history of poverty and a mortal fear of having extra mouths to feed if you will. What you can’t deny is that we maintained an industrial process for killing babies we didn’t want.
That’s one of the most shocking conclusions in Philomena. When the terrified 18-year-old’s baby presents in a breach position, Frears makes clear that the senior nun who is present blithely accepts the baby’s inevitable death — and perhaps Philomena’s too. It is the teenage Sister Annunciata who fights for the baby’s life. Motherless like Philomena, she had been corralled for the convent by a visiting “nun-catcher” but had kept her humanity intact.
Anthony is born, a gloriously healthy baby. He would be 61 now, if he had not died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995. He had a well-paid job in the Republican administration in the US and could afford a nice headstone for his grave in Sean Ross. If he had died at birth his grave would probably not even have been marked.
We have to dig up these fields full of babies’ bones. We have to ascertain, as far as modern means will allow, how many babies are buried in the grounds of mother and baby homes, when they were buried and what age they were when they died . Then we need to erect a cross or a headstone for every last one.
We must not forget these babies. If we do, we are complicit in their deaths.
The killing fields are not the preserve of any particular denomination. The 219 infants who died in the Protestant Bethany home in Rathgar between 1922 and 1949 died for exactly the same reasons. The unmarked Bethany graves are in Mount Jerome and survivors are desperately trying to raise a measly €6,000 for a memorial. When what we need, really, are 219 memorials.
The McAleese report into the Magdalene laundries was focussed on the issue of redress for the women. It didn’t focus on the deaths of babies. It didn’t concern itself with the Bethany Home. We need a process which attempts to count the babies who died, and shouldn’t have.
And as for the babies who lived? The rage by most of us who have seen Philomena at the fact that the Sean Ross convent deliberately kept her son Anthony from reuniting from his mother before he died, must force action.
It is vital that the new adoption bill which the Government is promising this year ensures all adoption records are held by a single State agency. It was only in the last three years that the Protestant Adoption Society PACT handed back the records of former inmates of the notorious Westbank Home in Greystones, Co Wicklow, to the trustees of that very home. PACT claimed it had no legal right to keep them.
I’ll tell you the only people with a right to those records — the people whose records they are. The constitutional right to privacy needs to be smashed if it keeps people from knowing who they are. What we need, instead, is a constitutional right to your own identity and it is shameful that this was not put forward under the Children’s Referendum.
It is clear from the book on which Philomena is based that Anthony Lee/Michael Hess might not have contracted AIDS if he had been reunited with his mother. Self-loathing drove him to test his partner’s loyalty with drug and drink-fuelled sado-masochistic binges. By contrast, Manus O’Riordan has come forward in recent days to speak of his wife Annette, who was also born in Sean Ross a year after Anthony Lee and forcibly separated from her mother, but who defeated the convent’s efforts to prevent her finding her birth family.
For the first time, says her husband, she was among people who were like herself. Two weeks before her death earlier this year, she brought her children and grandchildren to spend an afternoon with her birth family which was, says O’Riordan, “snatching a moment from paradise”.
Annette, who was the founding editor of Local Authority News and Environmental Management Ireland for a quarter of a century, believed what adopted people needed were practical changes to give them a right to their identity. This need is clear from the adoptee connect website which is full of heart-rending entries, like this one: “Born February 24th, 1969. Female. I believe I was born in St Patrick’s on the Navan Road, Dublin. Do you know who I am?”
Yet we are still prepared to refuse women like this their own birth certificates because their birth mothers have not given their consent. And cruelly force them to sit poring over birth records in the General Registrar’s Office trying to answer the basic question: who am I?
Philomena will be seen all over the world and may garner an Oscar for Judi Dench. The critics will be asking what has changed in Ireland? The answer is — a lot. But a hell of a lot more has to change, and fast, if more innocent victims like Anthony Lee/Michael Hess are not to go to their graves without knowing who gave them life.
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