Church and State
On Wednesday, the National Public Health Emergency Team announced 63 deaths linked to Covid-19 in the Irish Republic, the second highest daily total of the pandemic. Delivering the news, the chief medical officer urged the public to draw on their reserves of resilience. ‘The best way that we can all support one another now is to stay apart,’ he said. Some members of Irish society will find his advice impossible to follow.
Residents of nursing homes often live close-quartered in premises with shared common spaces and bathrooms; sometimes even bedrooms. Those in Direct Provision centres – former hostels, hotels and convents where people seeking asylum are given bed, board and a small weekly allowance while their applications are processed – share kitchens and bathrooms. There can be three or four single people to one bedroom. Last spring and summer, the virus spread rapidly in these places. With numbers now higher than ever in the community, there’s little reason to hope the situation is any better in these settings.
The Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, which documented disproportionate incidences of deaths and disease in Irish mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998, was published this week. The commission was set up in 2015 after the discovery of around eight hundred unmarked burial plots on the site of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway. It found that around nine thousand children died in the eighteen homes under investigation. The mortality rate, around 15 per cent, was almost twice what it was for ‘illegitimate’ children in wider society. The children died from respiratory infections and gastroenteritis, from diphtheria and typhoid. They died in homes that were overcrowded, where there were large, shared dormitories and nurseries, where privacy was impossible, where cots were crammed together, sometimes only a foot apart.
The Commission appears aghast at the ‘appalling’ numbers of deaths, ascribing them to ‘a general indifference’ to those born in the homes. But it disputes survivor accounts of forced adoptions, insisting that young mothers gave written consent that was ‘full, free and informed’. And it argues that responsibility for their treatment rests ‘mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families’. If the church and state supported and contributed to a ‘harsh, cold environment’ for unmarried pregnant women, they nonetheless offered them a refuge, the commission says, when their families offered them no refuge at all.
Yet it is the Irish state, cringing before the Catholic church, that has long facilitated the warehousing of its most vulnerable. James Smith, in Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (2007), noted the range of interconnected institutions: industrial and reformatory schools, mental asylums, adoption agencies, Magdalene Laundries, and the mother and baby homes. The incarcerated included ‘illegitimate’ and abandoned children, orphans, the sexually promiscuous, the socially transgressive, or those who were simply ‘in the way’. ‘In a still decolonising society,’ Smith writes, ‘those citizens guilty of such “crimes” contradicted the prescribed national narrative that emphasised conformity, valued community over the individual, and esteemed conservative Catholic moral values.’ Women’s families drove them to the mother and baby homes, but it was the church and the state that made the communal response possible.
On Wednesday, the taoiseach apologised to those who suffered in the homes. ‘Each of you is blameless,’ Micheál Martin told them. Just over twenty years ago, Bertie Ahern told residents of industrial schools they had been ‘gravely wronged’. In 2013, Enda Kenny cried as he said sorry to women from the Magdalene Laundries. The remorse is sincere. Yet there is no official memorial to those who were coercively confined by the state. Their history is not taught in schools. The Tuam Babies’ site has not yet been excavated; there are plans to build apartments at a former mother and baby home in Cork. In 2018, only a last-minute intervention by Dublin city councillors stopped the sale to a Japanese hotel chain of the last Magdalene Laundry in state ownership. Reports have called for new models of care as alternatives to nursing homes. The cruelty of the Direct Provision system has been highlighted. Apologies for the past must confront its legacy in the present.