The long-awaited Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was released this week. The report is 2,685 pages long, so many who seemed to have pre-written pieces ready go the day of the report might not have had time to absorb or digest its contents.
Much of the commentary around the Mother and Baby homes prior to the publication of the report has been used to create a caricature of evil nuns who set out to torment women and who cared little for the babies born in the institutions. No doubt, just as there were many kind and generous women in the religious orders, there were also some who behaved cruelly. However, this comprehensive report makes the following clear:
1 The mother and baby homes were not a particularly Irish and Catholic phenomenon
Mother and Baby Homes were common across Europe, in the UK and in the Netherlands in particular. In fact, as the report points out, they appeared in Ireland after other countries. “By 1900 mother and baby homes were found in all English-speaking countries, and similar institutions existed in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere. They were generally founded by religious communities/charities and the early homes were run by Protestant charities. Catholics appear to have been slow to establish mother and baby homes, perhaps because members of female religious orders were precluded from involvement with childbirth.” It points out that in Ireland there were Catholic homes, there were Protestant homes and there were a lot of homes run, controlled and paid for by the Local Authorities (ie the government of Ireland). These were called County Homes. The report notes that the Catholic church “did not invent Irish attitudes to prudent marriages or family respectability”.
2 The homes run by the nuns were usually better than the county homes run by the government
The report found that religious run institutions were better maintained and a warmer place than those run and controlled by the local authorities. Conditions were not worse than for most people living in poverty at the time. The report states this in no uncertain terms:
“It is important also to distinguish between mother and baby homes and the county homes. The most accurate information about living conditions comes from the inspections carried out by the Department of Health inspectors, but these only begin in the late 1930s, and not all survive. The available evidence suggests that, while living conditions in the mother and baby homes were basic, there is no indication that they were inadequate by the standards of the time, except in Kilrush and Tuam.”
The report further elaborates “Conditions in the county homes were much worse than in any mother and baby home, with the exceptions of Kilrush and Tuam. In the mid-1920s most had no sanitation, perhaps no running water; heating, where available was by an open fire; food was cooked, badly, often in a different building, so it was cold and even more unpalatable when it reached the women. Many county homes had no place for children to play or space for the women to sit.” Again, the county homes were run by the government.
3 The nuns did not force women into the homes against their will
The assumption that they did is clearly exposed in the report:
“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 (DLGPH), 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.”
In fact, it is clear that many women were turned away from the homes when they arrived seeking a place to stay without the proper paperwork from the Local Authorities.
4. The nuns did not profit from running the homes
The report upends the malicious stereotype of nuns becoming wealthy and living in luxury while women and children suffered.
“The Commission has not seen any evidence that the religious orders who ran the mother and baby homes made a profit from so doing. At various times, it is clear that they struggled to make ends meet and their members were not always paid for their work. This was a particular problem when occupancy levels fell and women stayed for shorter periods. Payments by local authorities were not always on time.”
Reading the report from Tuam in Chapter 15, the detailed efforts of the Bon Secours Sisters to get funds for running, repairs, upgrades – which were regularly turned down help explain why it was so hard to maintain safe., sanitary and health conditions, particularly in the period of the Second World War.
5 The nuns were not generally abusive
The report highlights that the institutions were harsh places but that Ireland was a harsh environment, particularly for women, in first half of the 20th century and that the Homes were, in general no worse than outside the walls.
“The 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. There are a small number of complaints of physical abuse.”
In fact, it was often outside the Homes where the women met with greater bitterness:
“Letters written in the 1970s to Cherish describe hostile comments made by neighbours to women and their families. Women who were transferred from a mother and baby home to maternity hospitals to give birth, for medical reasons, were subjected to unfriendly comments by fellow-patients and their visitors.”
Individual testimonies in the detailed chapters vary but many comment on the kindness and sense of service of the Sisters which seems to be the prevailing tone. One resident who described them as “the kindest and dearest nuns I had the privleg (sic) of knowing’. ‘I am shocked and appalled at the people who falsely accuse the Bon Secours nuns of abusing the children in their care”. Another said that “Sister Gabriel, Bina Rabbitte and Mary Wade (Nurse) showed great concern for sick and dying children”. That said, other testimonies were critical, with another stating:
“My time there was very hard as we were treated so badly. We were never allowed any kind of recreation, no talking was allowed during meal times or when you were in the nursery attending your baby”.
6 The nuns did not work women to the bone as has been widely alleged
This is particularly true for the religious run institutions. The report points out that
“The women worked but they were generally doing the sort of work that they would have done at home”.
The report again highlights the difference between the Mother and Baby Homes and the County Homes run by local authorities, where there were generally unaccompanied children:
“The workload for the women in county homes was of a different magnitude to the mother and baby homes. Unmarried mothers were far outnumbered by children, including older children, and by elderly and incapacitated adults. Most county homes did not employ domestic staff so unmarried women were assigned onerous duties that were essential to the running of these homes. There are many contemporary statements by local officials or matrons insisting that unmarried mothers could not be removed from the county home, because there would be nobody to carry out this work.”
7 Poverty and small mindedness were the reasons that women had to resort to entering the homes
While the social mores may have been influenced by religion to an extent where there was a stigma attached to having children out of wedlock, the report highlights that the predominant reasons, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, for seeking to enter a home, was poverty.
“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. Women who feared the consequences of their pregnancy becoming known to their family and neighbours entered mother and baby homes to protect their privacy.”
However, it is also important to note that despite the grinding poverty of the people in the first half of the century, most births outside marriage – described at the time using the ugly phrase ‘illegitimate’ – did not take place in mother and baby homes.
8 Infant mortality was shocking mostly because of poverty and overcrowding, not deliberate neglect by the nuns
Another question the report is unable to answer clearly is the high levels of mortality in the institutions but direction is given on close reading of the report. Infant mortality for the institutions was high, and the report comment that it was most disquieting that it was well known to local authorities. Infant mortality for ‘illegitimate’ children in the homes was twice as high as for those outside and which was higher again than the national average – though there were pockets and periods of very high infant mortality in places such as inner-city Dublin in the first half of the 20th century. Infant mortality peaked in the 1940s in the homes in parallel with spikes in in infant mortality and infectious diseases in Dublin city during those years. Infant mortality in the homes reduced considerably after the 1940s and by the 1960s it was lower than the national mortality rate for ‘illegitimate’ children. The report notes explicitly that:
“there is little evidence that politicians or the public were concerned about these children. No publicity was given to the fact that in some years during the 1930s and 1940s, over 40% of ‘illegitimate’ children were dying before their first birthday in mother and baby homes.”
It should be noted that doctors, nurses and social workers raised concerns and often tried very hard to have these concerns heard. Women coming to the institutions were generally from the poorest demographics, suffering from poorer nutrition and education to take care of their children.
Reflective of covid-19 today, communicable diseases were a concern and efforts were made to reduce the impact of illnesses such as measles and gastroenteritis, but in overcrowded and underfunded facilities this was difficult to do – with religious order struggling to elicit funds from the Local Authorities tasked with maintaining and running them. Also, of note from Tuam was, similar to the County Homes, there were many unaccompanied children, often from the poorest families or with disabilities and already in a difficult situation. These children did not have their mothers with them and were much more vulnerable. The accusations of callous neglect are not substantiated by the Report in any manner but rather it points to carers trying to do their best where no one else cared. Could things have been better? Undoubtedly. How? It is not so simple.
The preface to the report outlines where the Commission sees blame for the whole situation to lie: “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.”
Ireland was a poor country, conditions were harsh – and the harshness certainly contributed to the social mores that evolved with economic improvements. All one has to do is translate the past to current situation in many developing countries. Girls that become pregnant in Sierra Leone (and other countries) in today’s world are not allowed continue in school, for example. Residential institutions – mainly run by the religious – are commonplace because the many women and children have nowhere else to go. Many well-meaning volunteers from Ireland spend summers in these places helping out. They are overcrowded, the facilities are poor; often they get no state support but are dependent on assistance from overseas or from former residents. They could be better but making things better is not an easy thing to do. Social and political change takes time. What are those women and children to do while they wait for advocacy groups to change the political will? Will those that feel they are giving their lives to provide some relief to those in these difficult situations be vilified in future as their country develops and looks back in time? It feels like that would be an injustice.
It all sounds very familiar – but for all the imperfections, no one would describe the places or those running them as we now describe the Mother and Baby Homes and the Religious who felt they were dedicating their lives to a vocation in early 20th century Ireland. The social, financial, governance situation in these countries cannot be fixed with a magic wand; the institutions offer the best of limited options for many of the women and children. The societies are not necessarily cold or uncaring but a product of a complex intermingling of circumstances primarily underpinned by the state of the economy – there is no welfare state, there is no functioning tax system, there is not a lot of wealth to be drawn down and governance is poor beyond the administrative level. Many people live subsistence lives and often the choice is a very hard one for the mothers and children (and also for their families) if it is a case of them finding somewhere they will get food and shelter – with the institutions having better conditions than they would likely find in their homestead. Many rural families face the same pressure of unproductive land and ever-decreasing smallholdings that affected Ireland in the early 20th century.
The story is a complex one as it was in Ireland, yet the trope of the Catholic bogeyman remains, even after a rigorous independent report makes clear that such a simple denigrating of the Religious is not only misguided but downright false. For many that are talking about the report, the information within it seems to be of no concern. Labour leader Alan Kelly who demands the religious institutions are held responsible for redress seems to want to hold today’s religious accountable while ignoring the responsibilities of local government. Is the County Manager in Galway today vilified for holding a post that in the past had responsibility for these institutions? Do we now say all local authorities are evil and cruel as is repeatedly claimed about the Religious orders? Richard Boyd Barrett calls the report a whitewash.
As Orwell observed, ‘we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality.’
The solid reality should be found in this report. For most, their assumptions and prejudices remain unchecked.