Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes 
Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Government of Ireland, 2865 pp., October 2020Show More
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In spring​ 2019 the Irish Decorative Arts and History Museum in Dublin exhibited a number of works by the glass artist Alison Lowry. Curated by Audrey Whitty, (A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths was conceived as a response to the legacy of Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes in Ireland – religious institutions which, together with former workhouses, orphanages and industrial schools, formed the basis of Irish society’s response to unmarried motherhood and the ‘problem’ of illegitimacy throughout most of the 20th century. Lowry’s exhibition featured artefacts such as a 1950 admission form to Tuam Children’s Home, alongside strangely fragile sculptures: ten thousand paper dolls cut from replica five pound notes carrying an image of Catherine McAuley, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy; glass scissors, spectral copies of the heavy iron scissors used to cut the hair of the women and girls who entered the laundries; embroidered sheets.

So light and so heavy, glass offered Lowry an extraordinarily rich medium for confronting this history. An installation entitled Home Babies (2017) consisted of nine glass christening robes suspended in a dark room, where an audio recording played the names of 796 babies and small children who died at the home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961, and for whom burial records have not been found. Lowry used a sandcasting technique that involved building up layers of glue and glass frit on christening gowns that she found in antique shops or on eBay, and finally burning away the fabric in a kiln, leaving a pâte de verre shell. Greyed with soot from the burned-off glue, the robes are ‘ghosts, reminders of our past’. And that is the way they look: things of beauty, the friable dresses appear to be inhabited by bodies that are there and not there at the same time.

Home Babies was completed before the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes published its report on burial practices at the home in Tuam, County Galway. The commission was established by the Irish government in 2015 following the historian Catherine Corless’s revelation that burial certificates relating to nearly eight hundred children who died at Tuam are missing, and the discovery of an unmarked mass grave at the home. Its remit covered fourteen mother and baby homes, both publicly owned and privately run (mainly by Catholic religious organisations, though two Protestant-run homes were included), as well as four state-run county homes that provided facilities for pregnant women before and after birth. The commissioners – Yvonne Murphy, a former circuit court judge who chaired two inquiries into the sexual abuse of children in the dioceses of Dublin (2009) and Cloyne (2011); Mary Daly, a professor of 19th and 20th-century social history, whose work has focused on poverty, emigration and women’s history; and William Duncan, an expert in family law at Trinity College Dublin and one of the authors of The Hague Children’s Conventions – were tasked with reporting on the way the homes were managed, ‘entrance and exit pathways’ for women and children, mortality rates, post-mortem practices, including the use of bodies for anatomical study in hospitals, child welfare, adoption practices, and – in some of the homes – the use of babies for vaccine trials without their mothers’ consent. In April 2019 the commission published its first significant report, which focused on the burial, or the lack of proper burial, of dead babies and children in two of the larger homes, Tuam and Bessborough.

There is a particular irony in the fact that the name Tuam comes from the Latin for ‘tumulus’, or ‘burial mound’. The home was a former workhouse. It was not just an institution for unmarried mothers and their babies: it was opened in 1925 as a children’s home, accepting orphans, children whose parents were married, and homeless families, as well as unmarried mothers. It was under the control of Galway County Council, but operated by the Sisters of Bon Secours, a French order whose mission is to nurse the sick and dying, and who began ministering in Ireland in the mid-19th century. The council made decisions about who entered the home and paid a ‘capitation’ rate for each resident, but the sisters themselves were unpaid. Such homes were a relatively cheap way for councils to discharge their duty to the destitute and to troubled families and unmarried mothers. In 1931 Mayo County Council also began sending families, mothers and children to Tuam, and paid for their board. Among its legal duties, which included the upkeep of the premises, Galway Council was required to keep a register of burials that took place there. None has been found.

The Tuam home closed in 1961. In the late 1970s, when people began moving into the new housing estate on the perimeter of the grounds, a small, walled, memorial garden was dedicated to the babies who died there. But the status of the burial ground is unclear: there are no official records and no evidence that the ground was ever consecrated. The commission undertook a geophysical survey of the site, an archaeological excavation and the carbon dating of samples of human remains found there. And a lot were found. The bodies of babies and young children (possibly even as old as four or five) had been placed inside a ‘chamber’ structure, built from stone and concrete inside part of a disused sewage tank. The structure was probably built in the late 1930s and is divided into twenty underground chambers, each with a removable concrete lid, eighteen of which contained human remains. They appear to have been intended as tanks into which sewage waste could be deposited and were designed to allow liquid to percolate out into the surrounding area. They seem, from soil analysis, to have been used for that purpose for a time. The ‘articulated’ manner in which the bones inside the tanks lie suggests that the bodies were deposited whole and decomposed in situ. The chambers measure more than two metres deep, to the top of the sediment at the base. The chamber openings are too small for an adult to manoeuvre in and out easily, and there certainly isn’t enough space for an adult to climb inside with a ladder, so the evidence suggests that the bodies were dropped into the chambers.

It is true that small infants and young children were often buried without much ceremony in the early years of the 20th century, and not only in Ireland. Stillborn and unbaptised children were not considered fully part of the Christian community and were buried informally in unmarked graves at the edges of graveyards or in cilliní (unconsecrated burial grounds), usually by family members. But baptised children under the age of seven were also in an undecided category. They were understood to be incapable of sin and so did not need intercession for their souls. They could be (and often were) buried without formal ritual. In rural areas in particular, sites of burial were often haphazard and crowded – people were very used to juggling the remains of the dead to fit more in. Stillborn babies were not included in burial registers, but very young children who had been baptised are also under-represented, not only those of the homes.

The evidence at Tuam, however, indicates that the bodies were not buried at all. The commission suggests that the concrete lids were too heavy for the sisters to lift by themselves, implying that the bodies were given to someone else to deposit in the chambers. But I suppose it is possible that several sisters together could have lifted the lid, while another let the body fall. The report is careful not to speculate on how the bodies ended up in the chambers, but I find it impossible not to. A baby died in its cot. One of the nuns on duty wrapped it in cloth and gave it to – who? Maybe to a gardener or groundsman, who knew what he was supposed to do with it. Maybe to a nun lower in the hierarchy, a lay sister who worked in the kitchens and was from a poorer family, or was less intellectually able than the nursing sisters of the Bon Secours. It seems likely that all the labour in the home, including burial, would have been organised according to the hierarchies that governed the order. A low-grade nun got low-grade work to do. Maybe the body was given to one of the women who had entered the home when she was young to give birth and who had never left. In the early years of the century many of the larger institutions became, by default, permanent homes for women who had nowhere to go after their babies were born. They worked in the laundries or ‘earned their keep’ as unpaid domestic servants for the rest of their lives.

This hierarchy operated even in death. In April 1955, the campaigning Catholic doctor Halliday Sutherland (an opponent of eugenics and artificial birth control) visited the mother and baby home at Tuam and the Magdalen home in Galway, run by the Sisters of Mercy. He was keen to find out how the homes operated because, he said, he was concerned about the number of Irish women coming to Britain to have their babies: were the conditions of social support so awful in Ireland that girls could not stay at home to give birth? Among other things, he asked the mother superior how long the girls stayed in the Magdalen home. ‘Some stay for life,’ he was told. ‘Most of them are consecrated penitents. Every year there is a service when they may be consecrated. They are much respected by the others. When they die they are buried with the nuns. The others are buried in the common burial ground.’ One of the most revealing aspects of this snippet of conversation is how important the matter of where you got buried was to this mother superior. Respectability and the manner of your burial went together.

The commission established that twelve adult women who were resident at Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork were buried in St Joseph’s Cemetery, Cork, between 1927 and 1985:

The women buried here remained in Bessborough for extended periods working as domestic servants; their deaths were not childbirth related. One woman entered Bessborough in 1922, aged 20 years, and remained there until her death in 1984 – a period of 62 years. Another entered Bessborough in 1924, aged 21 years, and remained there until her death in 1985 – a period of 60 years.

Perhaps it was women like them at Tuam who disposed of the bodies in the chambers. Despite all the evidence, the Sisters of Bon Secours have attempted to claim that the sewage chambers were in fact designed as a form of crypt for the babies. The commission is scathing about this claim, but I wonder whether, through long years of living inside the institution, women might have been able to persuade themselves that the system they knew – nuns and consecrated penitents in individual graves, mothers who died in childbirth in a common plot, babies in the chambers – was natural, even God-given.

Most of the little bones are concentrated on the south side of each chamber in Tuam, where they were washed as the water table fluctuated. The site drains from higher ground in the north to lower ground in the south and south-west. In one of the chambers a baby’s finger bone was found attached to the south wall above the level of the sediment: the body must have floated for some time when the water level was high, butting and bobbing against the wall as it decomposed.

This is one of the many sites associated with Ireland’s architecture of containment that both was and wasn’t there. A 1927 map designates the site a ‘sewage tank’, but by 1975 it was labelled as a ‘burial ground’. People living in the houses nearby certainly regarded it as this, and one couple built a grotto to Our Lady in remembrance of the babies. Several witnesses to the commission recall finding bones when the new housing estate was being built. In the early 1990s a priest wrote to the council on behalf of local residents pointing out that ‘the children’s burial ground in the former home in Tuam’ was ‘in poor condition with bones being exposed quite often as a result of children and animals digging. The residents are quite upset by this sight and are doing everything possible to protect the burial ground and to ensure that it is treated as a hallowed place.’ Despite the fact that references to the ‘old children’s burial ground’ recur in county council minutes, the council (which had control of the home) has denied all knowledge of the burials. What it offers instead are reams of minutes and memos on the problems with the sewage system in Tuam, and the children’s home in particular. There were serious problems with the water supply throughout the time the home was operating and various solutions were tried, all of which were discussed, costed, disputed and minuted in council meetings; the commission has trawled through these minutes in order to work out when the chamber structure was built, and why. Nonetheless, if it were possible to psychoanalyse a county council, one would have to come to the conclusion that all the talk of sewage was a displacement activity. And there are indeed suggestions in the commission report that something was known about the way the sewage chambers were being used fifty years ago. In Department of Health correspondence about the closure of the mother and baby homes there is a handwritten note dating from 1969: ‘Surely the story about the Waterworks is not true? Do M [a section of the Department of Health] get police reports on abandoned dead babies?’

It is of course inconceivable that nothing was known about the way the sewage chambers were being used. It must have been clear to some of the staff at the county council that the babies and children who died at the home were not being buried in the ‘official’ burial grounds in the vicinity. It is hard to imagine a priest officiating over a concrete lid, but the question then arises: were no concerns raised about the lack of funerals? The report is scathing:

The commission is surprised by the lack of knowledge about the burials on the part of Galway County Council and the Sisters of Bon Secours. Galway County Council members and staff must have known something about the manner of burial when the home was in operation. As outlined above, the Board of Health and its sub-committees sometimes held their meetings in the Home. Employees of Galway County Council must have known about the burials. County council employees would have been in the grounds of the home quite frequently as they carried out repairs to the building and possibly also maintained the grounds. It seems very likely that Galway County Council must have been aware of the existence of burials when they were planning the Athenry Road housing scheme in 1969.

The Sisters of Bon Secours continued to live and work in Tuam until 2001. They must have been aware of the building works which were carried out on the Children’s Home site in the 1970s.

The commission considers that there must be people in Tuam and the surrounding area who know more about the burial arrangements and who did not come forward with the information. It is, of course, still possible for them to come forward.

People​ are not talking in Tuam, and they are not talking in Cork. Infant mortality rates were high at Tuam, in some years twice as high as in other homes. (In 1947, 49 babies were born there and a further 30 children under the age of one were admitted; more than a quarter of babies died that year.) The Bethany Home in Dublin, founded in 1922 by a Protestant evangelical group, also had a frighteningly high death rate in the 1940s, though the Bethany babies were at least properly buried. But the home with the worst infant mortality rate was Bessborough in Cork, where over the twenty years between 1934 and 1953 ‘in the region of 25 per cent’ of babies died – five times the rate for Ireland in 1950. In 1944 the newly appointed chief medical adviser for the Republic of Ireland, James Deeny, tried to close the home because in the previous year 180 babies had been born there and 100 had died. There is a gruesome passage in the commission’s final report which sheds some light on these deaths. In January 1945, Deeny investigated the conditions at Bessborough:

He ‘found the institution to be well maintained, perfectly equipped, and seemingly suitably staffed for the present maternity work’. The institution was ‘spotlessly clean’ and the rooms reserved for storing milk and preparing infant formula also passed the inspection. He decided to examine the infants, ‘owing to the appalling infant mortality’, and when he had stripped the infants he discovered that the vast majority had excoriated buttocks due to a failure to change their nappies sufficiently; some infants had septic sores. Many had bowel infections. He concluded that there was ‘heavy infection of the home with some organism which is transmitted from child to child’. He claimed that the mother superior was completely unaware of the conditions in the nursery: ‘The clean counterpanes on the cots etc satisfied her and she had little or no knowledge of what was hidden below.’ The incident revealed ‘gross ignorance on the part of the sister responsible. No person with even a smattering of knowledge of child health would allow such a state of affairs to continue’.

Bessborough opened as a mother and baby home in 1922, in a Georgian house on 150 acres in Blackrock, to the south-east of Cork City. It was owned and run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (also, initially, a French order) and its remit – as recommended by the Cork Board of Guardians, which was responsible for the poor law union – was to remove unmarried mothers from workhouses. The grounds were subsequently enlarged to 200 acres, and in 1930 a maternity ward was built so that women who entered the home no longer had their babies in Cork District Hospital (known as St Finbarr’s), but on the Bessborough estate itself. The home took in unmarried expectant mothers and women who had recently given birth from all over Ireland, paid for by local health authorities. It also accepted private fee-paying unmarried mothers. Until 1946, when the rules changed, a considerable number of these private patients, willingly or under family pressure, discharged themselves from Bessborough after giving birth, leaving their babies awaiting informal adoption or boarding out through the Catholic Women’s Aid Society. Infant mortality was highest among those babies whose mothers had left the home, and who seem to have been routinely neglected. From the mid-1950s onwards, another adoption agency, St Anne’s, brought unmarried expectant mothers back from the United Kingdom to have their babies at Bessborough, from where they would be adopted. All these different organisations – St Finbarr’s, the Catholic Women’s Aid Society, St Anne’s and Bessborough itself – had responsibility for the burial of children who died under their care. Private burial grounds were not legally required to keep records of burials, but canon law did require records to be kept. Yet there are almost no burial records at all.

Given the extraordinarily high mortality rates, the involvement of adoption agencies and the absence of records, it is no surprise that many people believe some of the babies did not die, but were ‘sold’ for adoption. The report did not find evidence for a trade in live babies from Bessborough, although this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and critics, including the campaigning journalist Conall Ó Fátharta, question the commission’s conclusions. But it does suggest that whatever did happen there, ‘economies’ were at the back of it. During the 1920s Bessborough’s dead babies (or some of them) were buried in the ‘Poor Ground’ section of St Joseph’s Cemetery in Cork, at the cost of ten shillings each, which the congregation had to recoup from the health authority responsible for the child’s maintenance. It was expensive, and a hassle, and it would have been cheaper and easier to bury them on public assistance in the Cork District Cemetery at Carr’s Hill, a former famine ground. And perhaps that is where they are, though no burial register has been found to prove it. Or perhaps they are buried in unconsecrated ground somewhere on the Bessborough estate. That would have been the cheapest way of dealing with the problem, and was the way things were dealt with at Tuam.

At Tuam there are bones, but no burial ground. At Bessborough it is the other way round. There is a burial ground, but no bones. Inside the estate there is a small plot, which was opened in 1956 for members of the order:

It seems to have been assumed by former residents and advocacy groups that this is also where the children who died in Bessborough are buried as there are occasional meetings and commemoration ceremonies held there. The vast majority of children who died in Bessborough are not buried there; it seems that only one child is buried there. More than nine hundred children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from Bessborough. Despite very extensive inquiries and searches, the commission has been able to establish the burial place of only 64 children. The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who owned and ran Bessborough do not know where the other children are buried.

Unlike Tuam, which closed in 1961, the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home continued to operate until 1998. Members of the congregation claimed not to know where the children might be buried. The commission states that it ‘finds this very difficult to comprehend as Bessborough was a mother and baby home for the duration of the period covered by the commission (1922-98) and the congregation was involved with it for all of this time. The commission finds it very difficult to understand that no member of the congregation was able to say where the children who died in Bessborough are buried.’ But perhaps forgetting where babies were buried is a way of forgetting that they died. One sister who lived at the home for fifty years between 1948 and 1998 could not recall the deaths of any children at all during that time, although 31 children died there between 1950 and 1960 alone. Her name is given as the informant on a number of death certificates. It is a powerful act of erasure. No grave, no baby. No baby, no grave.

As in Tuam, so in Bessborough. There must be people who know more, but they have not come forward. In the absence of people willing to say what they know, or even to know what they know, the commission has had to fall back on archival research and on science: geophysics, osteoarchaeology and carbon dating. Six bone samples from babies who had died before the age of one were taken from the chambers at Tuam and sent for carbon analysis.

‘Decay of Carbon-14 occurs at a constant rate,’ the report explains. ‘Between 1955 and 1963 atomic bomb testing doubled the amount of Carbon-14 in our atmosphere. Any bones containing the higher levels of Carbon-14 must have been born in the nuclear era which, from atmospheric records maintained, is considered to be after 1955. Following an international nuclear test ban treaty, the atmospheric concentration of Carbon-14 has gradually reduced starting around 1963/64.’

‘Short-lived samples’ (in other words dead babies, rather than dead adults) with more Carbon-14 than Carbon-12 must have been alive after 1955. The Carbon-14 levels in two of the six samples date the babies’ deaths to the nuclear age, specifically between 1957 and 1959. Do we call it an irony when the scales of human destruction come together in this way? The death of a baby in Galway, and the wholesale technological annihilation of peoples.

Earlier this year​ the commission published its final report and wound up its business. The report runs to nearly three thousand pages and includes a detailed social history of the background to the institutions and their development during the 20th century, not least changing attitudes towards unmarried mothers and illegitimate children. There are separate accounts of each of the homes that fell under the commission’s remit: the numbers of women and children who entered them; institutional finances; the role of county councils, the Department of Health and religious congregations in governance; the conditions in the homes and the way they altered over the years; and testimony from religious sisters, medical staff, mothers and sometimes children about their experiences in the homes. There are chapters on issues such as adoption practices and vaccine trials, further discussion of infant mortality and burial practices, and a ‘confidential committee’ report outlining the evidence given by more than five hundred women, children, relatives and other interested people.

Unlike the burials report, which was critical of the county councils and religious orders and impatient with their professions of ignorance, this vast agglomeration of stories and information largely exculpates the church and the Irish state. Except in relation to the extremely high infant mortality rates, which the report repeatedly describes as ‘the most disquieting feature of these institutions’, the authorities that ran the homes are on the whole given a pass. Blame for the way that Irish women who became pregnant outside marriage were treated is apportioned first to the men who got them pregnant, and then to their parents:

Ireland was a cold harsh environment for many, probably the majority, of its residents during the earlier half of the period under remit. It was especially cold and harsh for women. All women suffered serious discrimination. Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment. Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to and condoned by the institutions of the state and the churches. However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when the families provided no refuge at all.

This remarkable statement from the executive summary is reinforced throughout the report: ‘The only difference between the women in mother and baby homes and their sisters, classmates and work companions was that they became pregnant while unmarried. Their lives were blighted by pregnancy outside marriage, and the responses of the father of their child, their immediate families and the wider community.’ And: ‘Women were admitted to mother and baby homes and county homes because they failed to secure the support of their family and the father of their child. They were forced to leave home, and seek a place where they could stay without having to pay. Many were destitute.’ Elsewhere the report goes further, arguing that women’s memories of being compelled to enter a home by the local priest, or pressured to give up a child for adoption by the nuns, are largely misapprehensions:

There is no evidence that women were forced to enter mother and baby homes by the church or state authorities. Most women had no alternative. Many pregnant single women contacted the Department of Local Government and Public Health, later the Department of Health, their local health authority, or a Catholic charity seeking assistance because they had nowhere to go and no money. Women were brought to mother and baby homes by their parents or other family members without being consulted as to their destination.

These findings have been met with outrage. Individuals who gave statements and affidavits have spoken of hurt, and incredulity, over the way their evidence has been treated. Recollections of cruelty at the hands of nuns, forced labour, illegal birth registrations and pressure to consent to adoption have at best been ignored, at worst treated with scepticism, and occasionally disbelief. At one point the commission notes its concern over the ‘contamination’ of some of the evidence given to the confidential committee, ‘because of meetings with other residents and inaccurate media coverage’. In January, Catherine Connolly, an Independent TD for Galway West, spoke twice in the Dáil on behalf of survivors (their own term), condemning the report. The Seanad leader, Regina Doherty, called for an independent review of the report, and regretted that it had been accepted by the government. In February Yvonne Murphy declined an invitation to come before the Oireachtas Committee on Children to discuss the report’s language and methodology, and to answer allegations that a number of its conclusions contradicted the survivors’ testimony. Last month, five former residents of the homes brought a legal challenge against the minister for children, the attorney general and the Irish government, aimed at quashing parts of the report. They argue that their evidence has been misrepresented and their fundamental rights breached. One of them is Philomena Lee, whose fifty-year search for her son – adopted from Sean Ross Abbey Mother and Baby Home by an American couple when he was three, after she signed a release document she didn’t fully understand – was dramatised in the film Philomena (2013).

There can be no doubt that the commissioners knew what they were doing when they couched their findings as they did. Disagreements over the weight given to different kinds of evidence had been brewing for some time. In October 2018 the Clann Project – a group campaigning for the rights of adoptees and of the mothers and children resident in these institutions – publicly queried the terms of the commission, arguing that they were insufficient to uncover the truth about Ireland’s ‘systematic institutionalisation and separation of unmarried mothers and their children’. It also made clear its suspicion of ‘history’ as a route to understanding:

The Clann Project understands the importance of context … it is relevant to understand societal attitudes at the time the homes, agencies and institutions were in operation so, to this extent, the social history module that the commission is to produce is important.

However, it is not acceptable for the operation of the mother and baby homes, other institutions and the adoption system to be excused as simply being reflective of attitudes at the time and any temptation to use the social history module for the purpose of obfuscating the continuing harms that people suffer and the obligations to address these harms should be firmly resisted.

It’s disturbing when historical research into the recent past appears to clash with experience. What’s gone wrong? For the past three months I have been slowly reading my way through the report, averaging between fifty and eighty pages each day. I haven’t been able to manage much more, not only because the details are distressing but because they are intractable. I’ve been getting my head round the differences between the way the homes were run in the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s; the complicated systems of finance, often entailing county councils trying to recoup as much as possible from other councils, or from the families of the mothers; the placing of children ‘at nurse’ and boarding out, two forms of fostering, each with its own arcane financial rules; the battles between congregations, bishops and the Department of Local Government and Public Health over employing nuns with midwifery and nursing qualifications; the sisters who were paid and the sisters who weren’t; the impact of the shift in funding from partly local to fully national taxation in 1947; disputes over capitation rates; the particularly onerous unpaid work of the mothers in the county homes (the former workhouses); sleeping arrangements; nursery furniture; diet; inspection reports; adoption consent forms; distinctions between those deemed ‘first offenders’ who could be catered for in mother and baby homes, and the worst off, in Tuam and the Kilrush Mother and Baby Home, and in the county homes. The rape of children and young women, the sick and neglected babies, the loved babies whose mothers were completely unprepared for their adoption: it’s complex and detailed research of real historical depth. But it is not – or not only – what was wanted.

Here are some of the things I learned. Between Irish independence in 1922 and 1998, when the last of the institutions closed, they were home to 56,000 unmarried mothers, ranging from 12-year-old girls to women in their forties; 5616 of the residents were under the age of 18. The commission reports that it has ‘not seen evidence’ of police involvement in the cases of underage pregnancy. The proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or county homes in the 20th century was probably the highest in the world – but this is not the only Irish anomaly. Irish women also stayed longer in these homes than their European counterparts, with the longest stays in the 1940s and 1950s, when they averaged more than a year.

Two-year stays were initially recommended as providing mothers with the best chance of spiritual ‘reformation’. Women who had a second child were regarded as incapable of reform, and were sent to a Magdalen home or a county home. The mother and baby institutions were conceived as places of moral welfare for ‘first offenders’, and the rehabilitation process involved mothers caring for their own children. According to the report, ‘there is no indication that any thought was given to the emotional consequences for mother or child of having a mother care for her infant only for them to part when the child was one or two years old.’ Or three, like Philomena Lee’s son. Some priests advised that first offenders should be ‘deeply impressed with sin’, since their natural feelings of shame and disgrace would soon pass. Others regarded the homes as glorified but necessary prisons. When a new site on the outskirts of Galway was being considered for the Tuam home in the late 1950s, the local archbishop made his objections plain:

Anyone who has experience of the workings of a home for unmarried mothers will tell you that such a home must be in a place that is quiet, remote and surrounded by high boundary walls … In many cases they are on the look-out to get in touch with men, and some of them cannot repress their excitement even when a man comes to the home to deliver a message … Many of these unmarried mothers are anxious to get off without delay. The only thing that prevents their leaving is the strict supervision and boundary walls … in some cases it has been known that attempts were made from outside to get at the inmates.

Yes, this was said in the late 1950s. Statements by women who entered the homes in the 1960s and 1970s suggest that these attitudes lingered for a very long time. There are multiple accounts of pain relief being refused to women in labour by nuns who taunted that they were now ‘paying’ for their ‘pleasure’. As one 17-year-old who gave birth at Bessborough in the mid-1970s described it, ‘We had committed a mortal sin and we were unclean and the only way to atone for your sin of becoming pregnant was to pray and pray and pray for forgiveness. That was the overriding feel of it.’ The confidential committee heard from many women that ‘however young, however badly injured physically or psychologically by rape or incest a resident was, how she fell pregnant didn’t matter. The nuns and the nurses in the homes showed very little empathy and understanding and the women were there to atone for their sins.’

Survivors’ groups have argued that the long stays are also evidence that the homes were money-making enterprises. Women had to pay for their release, and if they could not they were condemned to unpaid labour in the homes. The commission disputes this, arguing that the homes did not make a profit and that the payments should be understood in the context of council finances. They were intended to support children who were fostered out after their mothers left the home; if a mother took her child she could leave at any time, without paying a fee. But most mothers were stuck. They had nowhere to take their children, because most of their families were unwilling to accept them. And, until 1973, when the Unmarried Mother’s Allowance was finally introduced, the state provided no other form of assistance.

The Irish state’s failure to provide financial support amounted to a form of interdiction against single motherhood. And as the commission points out, its change of heart wasn’t driven by concern for the mothers and their children: ‘By the 1970s … the Catholic Church was more sympathetic towards unmarried mothers than in earlier times, because a growing number of single Irish pregnant women were opting to have abortions in Britain.’ This meant, among other things, that women were allowed to discharge themselves more quickly from the homes. But this introduces another anomaly. Admissions to the homes reached a peak in the 1960s and 1970s, ‘though by that time most mother and baby homes in other countries had closed’. The commission interprets this as evidence that the stigma of illegitimacy was slow to fade in Irish society, but it is just as clearly evidence of the continuing failure of the state to help lone mothers.

It may be that contraception (which was illegal in Ireland between 1935 and 1979, and afterwards hard to access) would have made more difference to the women who ended up in the homes than an Unmarried Mother’s Allowance. But after reading page after page of accounts by women and girls who were raped, or had no idea how they got pregnant, or even that they were pregnant, I’m not so sure. (For some of these children, serially abused and raped by relatives, the mother and baby homes were indeed a refuge, for a time.) And perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the women’s suffering was caused by the men who got them pregnant, by their families, or by the institutions themselves. The state had a duty to protect them, whoever was causing them harm. It is true that most other Western countries in the mid-20th century left religious organisations to deal with their unmarried mothers and illegitimate children. That it happened elsewhere doesn’t make it right, and the commission doesn’t contend that it does. But the historical framework leads them to concentrate on the atypical (the high death rates and the missing burials) rather than to ask whether the system itself violated the human rights of women and children.

Like​ other hostile environments, this one was enforced through convoluted bureaucratic machinery – something that comes into focus only when you follow the money. For about the first five hundred pages of the report my eyes glazed over whenever complex financial accounting structures were explained. I was looking for experience, not maths and the minutiae of county council administrative rules. But these rules, and the way they were enforced, were key to the experience of mothers and children. Nobody wanted to take financial responsibility for them. County councillors complained that the burden on ratepayers was too great (mother and baby homes were too comfortable and too expensive) and women should be sent to county homes, where they would work for their keep. Councils bickered over who was liable for maintenance: the mother might live in Roscommon, say, but wasn’t the baby conceived in Sligo? (This isn’t a joke.) As late as the 1960s, county council functionaries (I choose the word deliberately) routinely contacted the families of adult unmarried mothers – even those who had been assured that their pregnancy would be kept confidential – to try to get them to contribute to costs. It is true that for much of the 20th century Irish exchequers were frequently empty; and the refusal of financial support to the needy isn’t a uniquely Irish political phenomenon. But what was added to the mix in Ireland was lethal. Catholic social teaching held that the rights of the family were ‘inalienable’ – even if that family was a lone, destitute mother, she was unable to abjure her rights and responsibilities, even to the state. She had to pay for her child even if she couldn’t pay. Mothers were caught inside a twisted logic which held that because they could not support their children, they must be imprisoned with them.

I can’t work out exactly why I find it so unutterably sad, in this great catalogue of sadnesses, that if a mother was unable to pay for her child to be cared for, the child had a better chance of survival. Of the 57,000 children born in the homes investigated by the commission about 9000 children (approximately 15 per cent) died. But a much higher percentage of those who died were born to private patients, who were able to pay their way out and who left their children in the inadequate care of the sisters in the homes. At Bessborough, 21 per cent of babies born to private patients died, though they accounted for only 9 per cent of admissions. As the report puts it, ‘in the years before 1960 mother and baby homes did not save the lives of “illegitimate” children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival. The very high mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications.’

The inalienable family logic was also the cause of the country’s late acceptance of adoption legislation. When, in 1951, the attorney general explained the legal objections to formal adoption, he did so in terms of the ‘inalienable’ rights of the family:

if the word ‘inalienable’ is to be given any meaning at all, it may mean that no mother of an illegitimate child can alienate her right and duty to provide according to her means for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of her child. In other words if she cannot allow her child to be irrevocably adopted can the state pass legislation enabling her to do so?

This was quite apart from the problem that a Catholic baby might be adopted by a non-Catholic: ‘How can any Catholic logically demand or permit any legislation which would endanger the soul of a single child?’ I suppose if you really believe that you are condemning a child to excommunication from God’s family for all eternity this might make sense. But beliefs like these condemned children in Ireland to lifetimes of misery. It was fear of the ‘wrong sort’ of adoption that lay behind the forced repatriation of women who travelled to England to have their babies or of Irish women who were living in England when they got pregnant – a human rights violation if ever there was one. As the commission puts it, ‘the main motivation behind the British and Irish Catholic charities who were involved in repatriating Irish women from Britain, either pregnant or with their new-born infant, was to prevent these children being “lost” to Catholicism through adoption into Protestant families.’

And the fate of these children in Ireland? Some ended up in industrial schools, institutions for destitute children and orphans run by Catholic orders, in which, as the 2009 Ryan Commission established, physical, sexual and emotional abuse was endemic. Boarding out sometimes amounted to baby farming, as foster parents maximised their income from subsistence payments. Since payments for children ‘at nurse’ ceased when a child reached five, it was all too common for foster parents to return them to industrial schools at that age. They weren’t necessarily worse off in these schools: in 1957 one boarded-out child was discovered to be sleeping in an outhouse used to store potatoes. One witness to the commission recalled eating breakfast with his foster family, but every other meal, including Christmas dinner, he ate on his own in the back kitchen. There are stories of beatings and sexual abuse. When boarded-out children reached the age of fifteen they could be ‘hired out’, and several local authorities sent them to work in public laundries for no pay. In 1954 the Sisters of Mercy in Navan tried to maintain that a 15-year-old girl who was operating heavy laundry machines in return for her keep was in training, as though they were running a school for domestic economy. Some of these children may have been born to mothers who worked for years without pay in county homes, as payment in kind for their children being kept in foster care. None of this came free: mothers had to pay for their children to be uncared for.

Many foster parents provided loving and supportive homes, but all the evidence suggests that this was more by accident than local authority design. Fostering was set up to meet the needs of the foster parents, not the child, and it is in this context that the commission states unequivocally that it ‘has no doubt that, whatever the shortcomings of the legal adoption system, it was preferable to placing children in industrial schools or to boarding out or placing at nurse’.

Hardly contentious, you may think, yet the discussion in the report of ‘the shortcomings’ of the adoption system, and the way it operated, is precisely what has caused so much distress. The commission’s interpretation of history and the women’s accounts of their experiences appear to lose touch with each other entirely on the matter of forced adoption. The commission states that it found ‘very little evidence’ of coercion, but to arrive at that finding it took a narrowly legalistic approach not only to evidence, but to consent. It admits this:

The commission has received evidence from some mothers who signed forms consenting to adoption because they had no alternative, because of family circumstances and/or insufficient means to support a baby. Some of this cohort of women are of the opinion that their consent was not full, free and informed. However, with the exception of a small number of legal cases, there is no evidence that this was their view at the time of the adoption.

They back up this sterile conclusion with a long and detailed account of adoption legislation, including examples of consent forms women signed (and sometimes, according to their own evidence, didn’t sign). There is plenty of evidence in the report of mothers being asked to sign forms that were not explained to them, and one gruelling testimony from a girl who was told to sign under a name that wasn’t her own. She had to ask her mother how to spell it. There is no possibility that her child can trace her, because her own identity isn’t revealed in the adoption papers. But even if we assume mothers did understand the forms, given the pressure from all sides (families, priests, nuns and, later in the period, social workers), and the lack of social and financial support for the lone mother, is it really possible to call this full, free and informed consent? The commission’s investigation has established that most (though certainly not all) domestic adoptions were legally valid – but what does that tell us, other than that the law was not designed to help its own citizens? In effect the law facilitated the abuse of those mothers, many of them children themselves, who could not understand what was happening to them, and had no grasp of what it would mean, to sever their connection to their children.

Mothers speak of the ‘unspeakable damage’ that has been caused; children talk of ‘lifelong feelings of isolation and abandonment’. And although it doesn’t quite count as evidence on a par with other kinds of evidence, the report is eloquent on their anguish. ‘On top of the treatment they received at the hands of their carers, many mothers told the committee that their most searing memory of their time in a mother and baby home was that of the screams of women looking [out of] a window, through which she could see her child being driven away to a destination unknown; for many, there had not been a chance to say goodbye.’

Legal arguments and consent forms can tell us a great deal about the way Irish society managed the problem of unmarried motherhood, but they can’t help us understand what these women and their children endured, and they can’t tell us about continuing harm. Many of the mother and baby home residents were able to make new lives; some feel grateful for the refuge the homes afforded them. Children adopted by loving parents have thrived. But others experienced a kind of damage that isn’t solved by time alone. We don’t outgrow interdependence.

It is probably better to let the women speak for themselves, however. Here are just a few accounts, chosen from hundreds.

I think of my baby as having been kidnapped.

I’ve grieved the loss of my family, even though they’re not dead.

They would have sent us out to buy an outfit in a shop in Cork. So the baby would wear the outfit you have bought him when he was going to be adopted. That was the outfit that was going to be given, put the baby in to be handed over to the parents. So you can imagine going into Cork City, buying a little suit, knowing that the suit that you were buying was what he was actually going to be given away in. The thinking behind it is just horrendous.

I still have nightmares of that car. You know what the car looks like? I think my father used to call them Model T because he was mad into cars. I can still see this woman going off in this black Model T from the front of Bessborough with my baby.

The night he was born they put me in a ward with other mothers and family were coming in and loving their new little arrivals naturally and I can see myself in the bed, it was just in the door, on the right-hand side, and I was able to turn my face to the wall. I was absolutely distraught. So, I was crying so much they took me back out and they brought me back down to a side room of some kind but I just – oh my heart was broken. I just, the whole night I just moaned for him … moaned for him all night. The loss of him … I was just heartbroken. I was absolutely heartbroken.

Some of the homes​ were in large 19th-century institutional buildings; others, like Bessborough and Castlepollard, in Georgian mansions. There’s a melancholy vignette from the early 1930s of a Mrs Crofts, a senior inspector at the Department of Health, driving a couple of sisters from the Congregation of Mercy around the country with an architect, to decide which of the Anglo-Irish Big Houses then up for sale was best suited to the care and reformation of unmarried mothers. They chose Kinturk House, built by the Pollards of Castlepollard between 1760 and 1820, and extended it in the late 1930s with a series of Brutalist add-ons, including a chapel worthy of Mussolini, designed by the Dublin architect Thomas Joseph Cullen. These buildings are monuments to what has been called Ireland’s ‘architecture of containment’. Some of them are still in use housing asylum seekers and their children, who are confined and segregated from the communities around them, and from everyday life.

Given Ireland’s long history of confining ‘problem’ citizens in institutions, the emphasis in Irish historiography on containment makes logical sense. But it may also blind us to the underlying logic of the system – one the comparison to asylum seekers reveals. Unmarried mothers and their children were not, or not only, kept in, but cast out. Like refugees, they were forced from their own communities, and although the story of how that happened can help us track the involvement of families and communities, it also starkly reveals the failures of the state. The Irish government divested itself of responsibility for its own citizens, and cast them on the mercy (not the justice) of religious institutions. In effect it rendered them stateless.

In her second statement in the Dáil on the commission report, Catherine Connolly quoted Hannah Arendt on the question of collective German guilt for the Holocaust: ‘Where all are guilty none is.’ Connolly was objecting to what she implied was government spin suggesting that rather than the church (‘with the politicians playing a subservient role’), it was ‘society’ that was to blame. Arendt argued that wrongs occur through the actions of individuals. If everybody is deemed guilty then not only do people risk nothing by acknowledging guilt (in fact, it becomes a self-regarding exercise), but the culpability of particular individuals is masked. It appears as if injustice is inevitable, beyond our control. Ironically, the idea of collective guilt enables personal irresponsibility.

But Connolly went further. ‘You’re saying here today that we are all responsible. I am not responsible, my family was not responsible, the people I know were not responsible.’ Arendt would disagree. Her critique was directed towards conceptions of collective guilt, not collective responsibility. On the contrary, she held that citizens must be held politically responsible for the harm done by their states, even if they cannot be blamed for them (because blame implies guilt). Through passive acceptance of the suffering of others, if not active collusion, we all bear responsibility for state injustices – even if we were born after them, since we have inherited the benefits, as well as the harms. And without acknowledgment of our collective political responsibility, we cannot reconcile ourselves to the evils of the past.

The Irish government chose not to frame the commission’s remit in terms of human rights, and it is depressingly clear that the reason was that it would cost too much. The report recommends that eligibility for financial redress should be limited to those women who lived in the homes before 1973 (when the Unmarried Mother’s Allowance was introduced) and to those who stayed for more than six months, which was the norm in other countries. It does not recommend financial redress for those whose claims relate to forced adoption (whether mothers or children) or coercion to enter the homes. Rather than ask whether mothers were subject to inhumane and degrading treatment the government steered the commission to ask instead whether mothers did or didn’t have a worse time than women incarcerated in Magdalen laundries, or children abused in industrial schools. So, for example, it states: ‘Conditions were regimented and institutional especially in the larger institutions and particularly before the 1970s but there is no evidence of the sort of gross abuse that occurred in industrial schools.’ Reparations are judged according to a sliding scale of harms because otherwise the cost of redress schemes might get out of hand. More damaging still is the commission’s seeming failure to honour the good faith of survivors’ testimonies.

But the historical analysis it provides could be the starting point for a genuinely radical debate on Irish collective responsibility. It should not – it must not – be the case that recognising the harms done by religious institutions, and the state that made use of them, becomes a way of letting the rest of us off the hook: the men who fecked off to England rather than pay for their children (one of them was my uncle); the parents who rejected their children and grandchildren (one of them was my grandmother); the people who turned a blind eye to the women in the homes and the children boarded out or sent to the industrial schools (some of them were my relatives). I am responsible. My family was responsible. People I know were responsible. And some of them were also to blame.

Arendt argued that the most highly bureaucratised societies were the most likely to facilitate citizens’ abdication of responsibility. As people perform their various, disconnected roles in an organisation they are relieved of their responsibility for the whole, and we end up with ‘rule by nobody’. So it may be worth considering another Irish anomaly. For much of the 20th century the Irish population was probably the most institutionalised in the world. It had not only the highest admission rate to mother and baby homes in Europe, but by far the largest percentage of the population in psychiatric hospitals. Then there are the numbers institutionalised in the church. In the mid-1960s one in ten Irish children entered a religious life, as priests, monks or nuns. Some seminaries took children from their parents at the age of eleven. Add to this reformatories, industrial schools, boarding schools, boarding out: to a unique extent Irish children were not at home with their parents, and this is before we account for the impact of emigration. Like the women sent to mother and baby homes most Irish emigrants were young adults, but a child doesn’t stop being somebody’s child when they reach adulthood. Arguably the rhetoric of the Irish family was a smokescreen for the absence of the family as a private sphere of emotional and affective ties.

There is plenty of evidence in the commission report of children being instrumentalised by their parents, as well as by the institutions that usurped the parents’ role. The adoptees and the women whose babies were wrenched from them before they understood what was happening know this better than anyone. Irish literature of the 20th century has been trying to alert us to this for years: Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’, Beckett’s Not I and All That Fall (‘Did you ever wish to kill a child?), McGahern’s The Barracks, Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place (which features one daughter sent to a mother and baby home in Dublin, and another who is sexually abused by a priest and becomes a nun to spite her parents for their collusion), Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire. Or I think of the furious submission by the playwright M.J. Molloy to the Commission on Emigration in the early 1950s, when he accused Irish parents of selling their children to England, for the sake of the remittances.

We don’t have to look far to find evidence of the failure of collective responsibility in Ireland in the 20th century, and the task should be to acknowledge it and examine the historical forces that got us into this mess. In the late 19th century the Catholic Church in Ireland was the beneficiary of a kind of institutional division of labour, with the Home Rule Party conceding education, welfare and health to the clerics – most of civil society, minus arts and culture. The church consolidated its power through an alliance with the family, and one of the consequences has been a shaky division between the public institution of the church and the private institution of the family. But it won’t do to lay the blame for all this at the door of the church. The institutionalisation of Irish life robbed people of much of their autonomy and rendered many of them powerless. But it didn’t absolve them of responsibility.

The extremely high rates of infant mortality and the practice of discarding the bodies of babies and children in disused septic tanks are ‘the most disquieting features’ of this history not because they are the most exceptional or the most clear-cut in terms of apportioning blame, which is what the commission suggests. It is because they point to the underlying truth of this history, which is that the Irish church and state, with the passive acceptance and sometimes active collusion of Irish families, was willing to sacrifice its own children – of whatever age – for what it considered to be survival.

Listen to Clair Wills discuss this and her more recent piece on Netherne Asylum on the LRB Podcast.

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