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Damning Verdict: mother and baby homes reported

CW: sexual assault

The words used by Irish Taoiseach Michaeál Martin to describe Ireland’s most shameful history: a “profound, generational wrong”. This week, a judicial commission of investigation has published a long-overdue, 2,865-page report that goes some way in laying bare the disgusting nature of Ireland’s mother and baby homes.

Active until 1998, these institutions condemned unmarried mothers and their babies to unspeakable cruelty at the hands of the Catholic Church, the Irish state, and society as a whole.

The misogyny and perverted attitude concerning female sexuality that motivated such behaviour cannot be condoned, with this report (finally) going some way in beginning to make amends.

The victimisation of the societally deemed, ‘fallen woman’, can be traced back to the Victorian era, in which unmarried women who became pregnant were considered ‘tainted’ by the unforgiving religious and social forces at work at the time. It was by no means a phenomenon limited to Ireland, with other institutions existing in countries such as Britain. However, the proportion of unmarried mothers sent to homes in Ireland was likely the highest in the world.

About 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children were found to have lived in the homes investigated in the report, with the mothers and children being subjected to extreme forms of emotional abuse and relentless work by the nuns charged with overseeing the institutions. This in addition to having their own names stripped from them and being given “house names”.

One former resident at a home in Sean Ross detailed the “horrific” childbirth experience, describing her own labour in which she was told that her pain was penitence for the sins she committed.

Another woman recounted that she was sent to a home in Pelletstown in the mid-1950s after being raped by a priest.

Furthermore, the report estimated that 9,000 children, 15% of the total, died as a result of neglect and limited food, with this infant mortality rate being double Ireland’s national average for the period. The report concluded that these homes “significantly reduced” the “prospects of survival” for children regarded as legally illegitimate in the twentieth century. It is a testament to the callousness prevalent in Irish society at the time that such appalling institutions were the only kind of ‘refuge’ afforded to unmarried mothers.

Naturally, the reaction across the country to such repelling findings has been outrage and shame. Yet many are wary of hailing this report as a victory too soon. In truth, the assertion in the report that women were not physically forced into the institutions by Church and State has placed liability on families, fathers and society. Yet the Catholic Church is highly culpable for spreading a culture of fear regarding female sexuality and inherently misogynistic teachings that led to such institutions being considered an option for women to begin with.

Moreover, the Taoiseach’s depiction of these events as a ‘generational wrong’ is a disappointing attempt by the government to shift responsibility to a bygone era, when in fact the warped behaviour directed at women in the twentieth century still pervades Irish society today, even when the stranglehold of the Church has substantially decreased. This is particularly prevalent in the Irish state’s approach to sexual assault and abuse; of sex offences reported to the Gardaí, only 16% end up in Court, while the conviction rate is even lower at 5%. Further research has indicated that one in five women in Ireland will experience some form of sexual violence as adults.

Reparations for the past must surely go further than mere compensation for its victims; the Irish State must above all ensure that in righting its previous wrongs, they carry this forward with a fundamental change in the behaviour and treatment directed at the current and future women of Ireland.

Image: Mass grave at Bon Seccours mother and baby home, Galway via Wikimedia Commons