Posted: 2021-02-20

For a country as intertwined with organised religion as Ireland has been for centuries, it would be misguided to let the Church off the hook



THE Taoiseach Micheál Martin's formal apology regarding the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes seemed genuine. Nevertheless it did not fully address the true relationship between Church and State in setting up and running these barbaric institutions. 


These so-called caring homes condemned tens of thousands of unmarried mothers and their babies to callousness and cruelty in mainly Catholic institutions, though a small number were Protestant. The figures produced by the Commission are staggering. About 56,000 women and 57,000 children were placed or born into the homes from 1922 to 1998. Other countries did have similar institutions but the per capita numbers in Ireland were probably the highest in the world, the Commission found. 


The report estimated 9,000 children, 15% of the total, died – an appalling infant mortality rate that was about double the national average. Neglect, poor food and extreme austerity all played a part. Instead of saving the lives of children deemed illegitimate, the homes as stated in the report “significantly reduced their prospects of survival”.


The institutions in which women were incarcerated were de facto asylums and the individual women were referred to as ‘inmates’. They regularly received dehumanising treatment (they had their hair cut and were told: “you are here for your sins”) and fanatical religious intimidation (“God doesn't want you, you’re dirt”). This is just a small example of the horrific victimisation that women in the mother and baby homes suffered.


Controversy has arisen because the Commission said that responsibility for the system lay mainly with the fathers of the children and families of the women who sought to hide them from view and that women were not forced into homes but many had no alternative. It is distasteful to suggest that responsibility for the way these women –some as young as 12 years old – were ostracised and condemned rests ‘mainly’ with the men who impregnated them.


Amnesty International and women and survivors groups have challenged this view and the other attribution to the amorphous abstraction known as the ‘wider Irish society’ as dangerous deflections. By doing so it locates the blame on the victims’ personal behaviour and welfare and ignores the role of tribal norms, social scapegoating and the overarching power structure of the Catholic Church which controlled morality within Irish society.


For a country as intertwined with organised religion as Ireland has been for centuries, it would be misguided to let the Church off the hook


Interestingly, Michael Foucault, the French philosopher, viewed societies such as Ireland as dominated by organised religion. Those who most offended the sensibilities of the status quo were simply sent away, permanently to be sequestered from an otherwise vulnerable populace. 


For a country as intertwined with organised religion as Ireland has been for centuries, it would be misguided to let the Church off the hook. And yet here is what the report has to say about the influence of religion on social attitudes: “The Catholic Church did not invent Irish attitudes to prudent marriages or family respectability”. This assertion is unbelievable and formulated without evidence, it seems to imply that there was no such influence at all? Are we to take it that it was ‘Irish attitudes’ that shaped the views of the church, and not the other way round?

What happened in the homes was not a ‘massive societal failure’. What occurred was but an aspect of the newly established State which was profoundly anti-women both in its laws and in its culture. Out of it emerged the Mother and Baby Homes. While it was wrong for families and others to send vulnerable unmarried pregnant girls to be incarcerated, the homes were handsomely paid for by the taxpayers of Ireland. The nuns and Protestant women who administered them on behalf of the State were not entitled to deprive the young girls of their legal and constitutional rights and the right to be treated with dignity and respect.


What must not be overlooked is the fact that the Government, the Catholic Church and Protestant churches ran the Homes together hand in glove. What they did represents a damning indictment of church and state. They jointly bear legal responsibility for the ill-treatment and abuse and the gross breach of human rights that occurred in the homes.


Sadly, Mother and Baby Home survivors have criticised the Commission of Investigation’s Final Report as incomplete, a cop-out and worse. They also say that it has not brought closure or the solace they wanted.


The Taoiseach's apology is just not good enough. What is required is a full criminal investigation and the assets of the institutions sequestered for the benefit of the survivors.


While this article focuses on the events in the Irish Republic it is important to mention the recent findings in a report by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and the Ulster University. It highlighted similar inhuman practices to which mothers and babies were subjected in near-identical institutions in Northern Ireland. 


This has prompted the UN Committee Against Torture and the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women to recommend that the government in Northern Ireland establish an inquiry into abuses in such institutions.   


Roger Kelly February 2021