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Ireland's Mother and Baby Homes

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Shameful Treatment of the Shamed

Thousands of unmarried, pregnant women were placed in the care of Roman Catholic nuns in the 20th century. The “care” fell far short of tender and loving; in fact, it was worse than neglectful as thousands of children died in the homes established to look after them. In the words of Irish documentary maker Mia Mullarkey, the mothers and babies were subjected to “wanton cruelty and trauma.”

Pregnant and unmarried in Ireland meant being a social outcast.

Pregnant and unmarried in Ireland meant being a social outcast.

Contraception Ban in Ireland

In 1930, Pope Pius XI sent out one of his encyclicals, the so-called Casti connubii. In it he wrote “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

The church also taught its congregants that pre-marital purity was blessed by God—immodest dress, dance halls, pubs, and mixed bathing were terrible temptations leading to evil activity.

Although celibate, Pope Pius XI (above) felt fully qualified to make doctrinal statements about relationships and intimacy. His rules ruined the lives of thousands of people.

Although celibate, Pope Pius XI (above) felt fully qualified to make doctrinal statements about relationships and intimacy. His rules ruined the lives of thousands of people.

Beholden to Rome, the Irish government enacted a law in 1935 to ban the importation and sale of condoms and other methods of contraception. Bizarrely, owning and using contraceptives was not made illegal.

There was, of course, a brisk underground trade in such items but not enough to stop all the pregnancies that occur when young folk act on their hormones. Abortions were even more difficult to obtain; travelling outside the country for a termination was the only option.

The admonition to simply refrain from having sex outside marriage has never been much of a success in controlling teen pregnancies. So, youngsters in the family way were shunted off to mother and baby homes in an attempt to avoid the shame and scorn for girls having acted on their impulses.

The ban on contraceptive sales in Ireland was not lifted until 1980.

St. Mary's Mother and Baby Home in Tuam

In 1925, a former workhouse in County Galway was converted into a home for unwed mothers and their babies. It was operated by the Roman Catholic nuns of the Order of Bon Secours. (Bon secours translates to “good help”).

Historian Catherine Corless investigated what happened at the Tuam home. She found that between 1925 and 1961, 796 children, most of them infants, died in the place that was supposed to care for them.

According to The Irish Times the death certificates for the children mostly gave causes as “tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis and meningitis, among other illnesses.”

The infant mortality rates were higher than that in the general population. Journalist Conall Ó Fátharta discovered that in 1944 the infant mortality rate in County Cork’s Bessborough Mother and Baby Home was 82 percent.

At Tuam, the children were buried informally in an area behind the home and Ms. Corless says it's “quite possible” some of them were put into a working septic tank.

(Unfortunately, some media outlets seized on this and sensationalized it with headlines such as The Washington Post's “Bodies of 800 Babies, Long-Dead, Found in Septic Tank at Former Irish Home for Unwed Mothers.”)

After the young mothers gave birth, their babies were taken from them and raised in another part of the home.

Mother and Baby Homes Exposed

Having become quite dilapidated, the Tuam home was closed in 1961, but other institutions remained open until 1998. The high mortality rates were well known to authorities yet nobody saw fit to take action. It wasn't until 2015 that a commission of inquiry was set up. After six years of investigations, the commission delivered its shocking report.

The numbers are stark but don't begin to tell the story. There were 18 homes and they housed 56,000 women and girls, some as young as 12, others in their 40s. These women gave birth to 57,000 children. A total of 9,000 children died in the homes.

CNN reports that “Children who survived were either adopted, fostered, or sent to industrial schools—workhouse-style, church-run institutions where abuse was rampant.”

According to the commission report, “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.”

Site of the mass grave at the Tuam home.

Site of the mass grave at the Tuam home.

The commission reserved some of its harsh criticism for the fathers of the children and the families of the unmarried mothers. These women were often abandoned by the men who got them pregnant as well as their own parents who treated them as pariahs for bringing disgrace on their good names.

The commission wrote that “Many Irish marriages until the 1960s involved an element of match-making and a dowry and these processes were reliant on a family’s respectability. An ‘illegitimate’ birth could destroy the marriage prospects, not just for the woman who had given birth, but for her siblings, hence the pressures to keep it a secret by sending her to a mother and baby home.”

In the homes, the women did the sort of domestic work they might have done at home if they had not been cast out. The commission found there were a few cases of physical abuse although “Many of the women did suffer emotional abuse and were often subject to denigration and derogatory remarks.”

Philomena Lee gave birth to a son in 1951, when she was 18. She had a difficult labor at the Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home where she said the nuns taunted her that the “pain was a punishment for my promiscuity.”

Two Apologies

The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, Micheál Martin issued an apology to the women who suffered under the mother and baby home system, which he called a “profound generational wrong.”

In the Irish Parliament, he said the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was a “moment for us as a society, to recognize a profound failure of empathy, understanding and basic humanity, over a very lengthy period.”

To some of the survivors present he said “I want to emphasize that each of you were in an institution because of the wrongs of others, each of you is blameless . . . We embraced the perverse religious morality and control, judgementalism and moral certainty but shunned our daughters.

“We honoured piety, but failed to show even basic kindness to those who needed it most.

“We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy, and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction.”

In August 2018, Pope Francis visited Ireland and apologized for the Catholic Church's role in the mother and baby institutions. He added “We ask forgiveness for those members of the hierarchy who didn’t take responsibility for this painful situation, and who kept silence.”

Is forgiveness possible?

Mother and Baby Home Conditions

Bonus Factoids

Testimony by some of the women and girls who experienced life and birth in the mother and child homes.

  • Peggy gave birth at 14 in 1956—“I'm here because I did something wrong. I didn't know what sex was or how a baby came out.”
  • Susan was born in a care home in 1954 and was adopted—“My adoptive parents were really strict. I felt I was just there to do housework. And, my adoptive mother, well, she threatened me regularly that if I didn't behave I'd be SENT BACK.”
  • In 1961, Kathleen had a baby boy in a mother and baby home—“I went into a mother and baby home. They were so controlling. They changed my name. They told me that the sins of the mother would be passed on to the child. And, they worked us so hard, like slaves.”
  • Bridget tells her story in 1972—“I'm 17 years old. I became pregnant by my father. I was sent to a home. I was examined by a nurse when I first arrived . . . I had no idea what was going on. When my waters broke, I was so frightened. I didn't even know what labor was . . . I eventually had my daughter and they said you are not fit to be a mother.”

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor