By Padraig Colman
There was a little flurry of controversy when it was reported that the newly ensconced President Biden had removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. Biden knows his Irish history (his roots are in County Mayo and County Louth) and is unlikely to share an Englishman’s regard for Churchill. My father was born in County Cork but served in the British army on D-Day. The last thing he smelt was rotting corpses on the Normandy beaches. Despite taking the King’s shilling, he was a patriotic Irishman and often reminded me that it was Churchill as Home Secretary who sent the Black and Tans into Ireland. I recently re-watched Ken Loach’s powerful film about the Irish fight for independence, ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’. We see the Tans pulling out fingernails with pliers, beating a 17-year-old boy to death in front of his mother for saying his name in Irish, homes being burnt to the ground. This is what Churchill is remembered for in Ireland.
Unfortunately, brutality continued after the British left. Many of the rebels dreamt of a new society guaranteeing equality and justice. It did not happen. Idealism became intransigence, brother turned against brother in a futile and bloody civil war. The fledgling State created a dark place in the process of trying to prove its respectability. The Catholic Church consolidated its power; the Irish Free State lost freedom and became a totalitarian and repressive society. Writer Sean O’Faolain described Ireland in the 1930s as ‘a dreary Eden’. It was far from paradise for most people and it was particularly harsh for unmarried mothers.
The first report of the registrar general of the Irish Free State highlighted the appalling excess mortality of children born to unmarried mothers. A Department of Justice memorandum in 1930 said that “many unfortunate mothers are denied the shelter of their own families” and many women were subjected to abuse, poverty, incest and alcoholism.
I wrote in these pages back in June 2014 about a mass grave being found in Tuam in County Galway. The Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours is a Roman Catholic religious congregation for nursing whose stated object is to care for patients from all socio-economic groups. The congregation’s motto is ‘Good Help to Those in Need.’ The congregation’s foundress, Josephine Potel, was born in 1799 in the small rural village of Becordel, France. In 1861, Ireland – which was still suffering the consequences of the Potato Famine – became the Sisters’ first foreign foundation. The Bon Secours Sisters ran the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. The home hit the international headlines following allegations that the bodies of up to 800 children were dumped in a septic tank.
The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation submitted its final report to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration & Youth on 30 October 2020. The report was published on 12 January 2021. The Commission investigated 18 institutions and the report is 3,000 pages long. Some 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children passed through the homes during the period examined by the commission, 1920-98. 25,000 more women and a larger number of children were likely to have been in homes that were not examined by the commission.
In all, 15 per cent of the approximately 57,000 children who were in the 18 institutions, investigated by the Commission died during their time there. Nine thousand children died in Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes between 1922 and 1998. 75.19 per cent of all babies admitted to or born in the home at Bessborough in Cork in 1943 died in infancy. The highest mortality rate of all of the homes was in the Sean Ross Home (1931 - 1969) at Roscrea, Co Tipperary where 1,090 infants out of 6,079 died – 79 per cent of them between 1932 and 1947. “Sean Ross had a much higher incidence of mortality from major infectious diseases, such as diphtheria and typhoid, than any other mother and baby home.” The report attributed this to “the transfer of mothers to the local fever hospital, where they worked as unpaid nurses, and their return to Sean Ross, where they appear to have transmitted infection to their child.” The Commission said, “No publicity was given to the fact that in some years during the 1930s and 1940s over 40 per cent of ‘illegitimate’ children were dying before their first birthday” in the homes.
“The high level of infant mortality in the Tuam Children’s Home did not feature at meetings of Galway County Council, though Tuam was under the control of the local authority and it held its meetings in the Children’s Home.” There were ‘many references’ to the Tuam Home in meetings of the council but “none refer to the health or mortality of the children”. Between 1921 and 1961 (when it closed), 978 children died in the Tuam Home, 80 per cent under one year, 67 per cent between one and six months. Three-quarters died in the 1930s and 1940s, with 1943 to 1947 the worst years.
The report finds no single reason for the excessive infant mortality. Most of the mothers “were poor” and “their diet during pregnancy would have lacked essential nutrients, and this may have been exacerbated by efforts to conceal the pregnancy.” It was also the case the “many women were admitted in the final weeks of pregnancy, some arrived following the birth of their child.” In the homes “overcrowding probably contributed to excess infant mortality.” The “large size of most of the homes, the large infant nurseries, with cots crammed together – sometimes only one foot apart – served to spread infection. There was an absence of infection control; a failure to isolate mothers and children who were being admitted, until they were proven not to carry an infectious disease.”
The Taoiseach, in making his apology suggested that the scandal was a product of a country dead and gone, an oppressive theocracy nothing like today’s secular and liberal nation. The report is not just critical of the institutions themselves but of Irish society. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter asks: “Who engineered and promoted the culture that made ‘immediate families’ act so uncharitably? Surely there are clues in the vitriol that emanated from the altar. The violence of the language used about these women was remarkable in its unvarnished hatred. “
I can recall the coercive power of the church in the 1950s. As Fintan O’Toole puts it: “This culture of fear fused the physical and the spiritual, the social and the religious, into a single, overwhelming system of domination. Authority was so absolute because it operated seamlessly in the soul and in the world.” There was no escape.
Archbishop McQuaid was typical of the brutal bully boys of the church. A report found that his handling of sex abuse complaints in his diocese was “aimed at the avoidance of scandal and showed no concern for the welfare of children”. When asked in 1965 if the Irish Catholic Church was obsessed with sex, he responded: “No. There is probably a saner attitude to sex in this country than almost anywhere else. Family life is stable, women are respected, and vocations are esteemed.”