At some point in the 20th century history of Ireland, it was decided that the single worst thing you could be was an unmarried mother. It was so bad, in fact, that the words themselves were rarely spoken. Daughters – some of them still of childbearing age today – were warned not to “get into trouble”, or to “ruin your life”.
Where this notion came from, exactly, is shrouded in the annals of time. It is fashionable to blame the Roman Catholic Church. And certainly, in Ireland the gospel was often preached as a harsh and unforgiving tome. But the Church, for all its warnings about hellfire, and brimstone, was never granted the political power to condemn young women to the workhouse – which is what, as yesterday’s report details, our mother and baby homes were. Nor was it ever a crime, by the laws of this state, to be pregnant, and give birth, outside of marriage.
Those who fell pregnant in Ireland were never brought before courts – civil, or religious. They were never accorded, or subject to, due process of law. Many of them were condemned to life sentences, regardless. Not for having sex, or for falling pregnant, but for bringing shame on their family.
Somewhere along the line, we got this notion into our heads that if a young woman had sex with a man, outside of marriage, then she had shamed not only herself, but her mother, and her father, and her brothers, and her sisters, and her grandparents. Somewhere along the line, we decreed, as a society, that the only way for such a family to restore their respectability was to publicly abandon their daughter, to placate the neighbours, and the whisperers, and the people crossing the street to avoid them.
For this kind of culture to emerge, and be sustained, and build itself into a series of prisons for fallen women, every single part of society must be involved. The shopkeepers, who, in parts of Ireland, would not serve the family of a fallen woman; The priests, whose words of denunciation were unchallengeable writ; the politicians, who believed that their country was providing a service of charity. The nuns, who too often, treated newborn, blameless, innocent babies as objects of sin, and kept them away from their mothers.
Not everyone’s crime was equal. For many people, complicity was simply that sense of petty triumph, vindication, and superiority that they felt when they heard that Mrs. Ryan’s eldest had gotten herself into trouble. “That’ll bring her down off her high horse”, they thought, about the prospect of a young girl being condemned by her own mother, or father, to scrub floors and do penance.
And there were other villains, too. The farmers, for example, who greedily and gratefully accepted the labour of institutionalised children, who were paid nothing, and deprived of an education. The men, who whispered into ears that you can’t get pregnant on your first time, and then ran for the hills, or cowered in the face of those who would take away their children.
The report published yesterday is all the better, because it paints that full picture.
It is tempting, when looking back at our recent history, to find someone to blame, and to fixate on that. In some ways, those who seek an apology from the Pope himself are sticking to an old, and catholic, tradition, of seeking absolution. If it was the Pope’s fault, after all, then it was none of our faults. This was done to us, we can say. That’s easier to deal with than the truth, which is that this was done by us.
Not by me, or by you, of course, but by our parents, in some cases, or our grandparents, in other cases, and by our great-grandparents, in almost every case. Many, indeed, most, of our grandparents were admirable, and almost entirely good, people, but the attitudes that led to this report were deeply engrained within them.
And, perhaps, that is understandable. Very few of our grandparents had the education that most of us take for granted today. Virtually none of them had the material wealth that we enjoy. Their good name, and their standing in their communities, and the respect they enjoyed amongst their neighbours, were much more important to them because of that. Today, we live in a very connected world, where there is almost always someone a mouse click away who will not judge us, or who will support us, or who will agree with us. For our grandparents and great-grandparents, no such escape existed. If the community shut you off, you were truly alone.
Standing up against the tribe, and forging your way as an outcast, is not something that appeals to the Irish psyche. For almost all of our history, we have struggled against the outsider, and exiled those who do not put the good of the tribe first. One hundred and eighty years after the famine, we still resent those very few families who took the soup, rather than watch their children starving. To this day, we struggle with the notion of remembering, and commemorating those who fought in the King’s uniform during the first world war. Even today, in our politics, once it has been decreed that it is “time to don the green jersey”, those who speak up in dissent are mistrusted, and eyed with scepticism.
It is harder still to stand up against the tribe when faced with economic ruin. In almost every society, becoming a single mother is associated with poverty, and deprivation, even today. That was even more true in the Ireland that this report covers. For many families brave enough in principle to stand up against the stigma, the mother and baby homes were unavoidable in any case, as an escape from financial ruin. Passing those charity cases – as they were widely, and cruelly, viewed – over to the Church was also a way for politicians to save money. And for young men to escape the financial consequences of a roll in the hay.
There are those who will say, because, of course, we must find a culprit, that this article is one long apologia for the Roman Catholic church. It is not. Many of our readers, no doubt, would like to read such an article. The truth is, though, that many in the Church committed the gravest, and deepest sins, and crimes, against mothers, and babies. Many tried to help, but they, it seems, were swimming against the tide of the culture, both inside, and outside, these homes.
For the sake of those who suffered, and because it is the Christian thing to do, those involved in running these homes should apologise, and do everything within their power to make recompense to the victims.
But they are not alone in that. It is fitting, and right, that the state should apologise, and lead the way in compensating those affected. The state, after all, represents us all. Those who tolerated this were elected by the whispering neighbours, the exploitative farmers, the employers who would not hire the brother of a fallen woman, the nuns and the priests, and the ordinary people whose sole source of pride was that it had happened to someone else, and not to them.
This was a collective national persecution. It deserves collective, national shame.