- 25 Jan 21
That’s what we might have been entitled to expect from the Report from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, published last week. So why did the vast document – and the apology issued by the Taoiseach Micheál Martin – leave so many people feeling disappointed and angry?
Mother and Baby homes. Even the name is enough to chill me to the marrow. It is hard to credit from the perspective of 2020, but some fuckers actually thought these were a good idea not so long ago. It makes me sick, even to think about it.
Yet we have to. And we have to do more than just think.
We have to ask: who exactly thought these were a good idea? How? And why? What was the context? What was the cause? What did they achieve? And who benefitted?
This is what it comes down to.
We will not do the right things now if we don’t ask the right questions. And then answer them honestly. The problem with the Report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, published last week, is that it doesn’t do either.
It may have felt momentous to him, when the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil, stood up in the Dáil to make a statement on behalf of the Government in response to the publication of the report. The speech had been carefully crafted. It attempted to strike all the right notes. But it still left a lot of people feeling very angry. Because it didn’t go far enough. Neither, it turns out, did the report itself.
There was some value in what the Taoiseach had to say. The apology he had crafted to those individuals, who suffered the indignities that were foisted on so many in the Mother and Baby homes, was doubtless sincere.
“This detailed and highly painful report is a moment for us as a society to recognise a profound failure of empathy, understanding and basic humanity over a very lengthy period,” he said.
It wasn’t a bad start. But who was responsible for this failure?
“Children born outside of marriage were stigmatised and were treated as outcasts in school and in wider society,” he explained. “Some children who were subsequently boarded-out experienced heartbreaking exploitation, neglect and abuse within the families and communities in which they were placed. This was unforgivable...
“The sense of abandonment felt by many of these children is palpable in the witness accounts. The circumstances of their birth, the arrangements for their early care, the stigma they experienced and the continuing lack of birth information, is a terrible burden in their lives.”
You couldn’t argue with that. Then, Micheál Martin touched on what is the core issue.
“We embraced,” he said, “a 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.”
Suddenly, it is all we, we, we, we, we.
So who is this alleged ‘we’? There is an implication in the use of the word that Irish people are all equally guilty. That everyone participated in the shaming and the brutalisation of women and children – and some fathers too – when they were entitled to be treated as equal citizens in a Republic. That ‘we’ all shunned and rejected pregnant women who were unmarried.
Some of us may have. But ‘we’ didn’t.
For example, under no circumstances would my father, Maurice, have accepted the idea that any child of his might be sent off to a so-called Mother and Baby home to give birth to a girl or boy.
Far too often, the impression is given that there is some form of rocket science involved here. Or something esoteric. There isn’t. Some people did know how to treat others as equals. As independent adults. As individuals who are entitled to live their lives according to their own lights. Or even as women who might need a bit of generosity and help because of having to deal with an unplanned pregnancy.
From the age of 13 or 14, I had a very strong sense that the ‘warped attitude’ described by Micheál Martin was a crock of horseshit. That it was wrong. And that the people who were determined to impose it on me, and on every other youngster I knew, were engaged in a sick and twisted project.
Project Fuck People Up.
I was just a kid, but – I want to exhale this slowly – I knew that the treatment of women in Ireland was appalling. I knew that children were brutalised, beaten up, treated like dirt, and that that this was a scandal in itself.
At the age of 14, I didn’t have the equipment or the language to analyse it – but I knew even then that the authorities in Ireland were profoundly cynical and hypocritical. And I also knew that the obsession with what was thought of as ‘sexual morality’ on the part of those same authorities, and especially the religious ones, was, yes, thoroughly warped.
I didn’t know that paedophilia was rampant, though I had gagged on some of the prurient bullshit I heard from priests and Christian Brothers and had heard stories of kids being sat on knees and fondled. I didn’t know that priests were screwing their housekeepers. But I felt a horrible unease at what I was seeing and hearing, and at the way in which the viruses of guilt and shame were trumpeted from the pulpit and the top of the class alike.
I hated going to school because I could see, every day, the appallingly cruel and often seriously brutal treatment meted out to my class-mates. I knew that this was abusive, that it was wrong.
I didn’t know what the word profound – used by Micheál Martin – meant, but I understood the feeling. This wasn’t just wrong. It was profoundly, terribly, sickeningly wrong. And it was driven by privileged representatives of the Roman Catholic Church – in my case by the Christian Brothers who ran Synge Street CBS. And a blind eye was turned to it – by the State, by politicians, by the Civil Servants and by the teachers’ unions.
The underlying message was clear: no one gave a shit about kids. They were not worth protecting. And yet, they thought it was worth ramming a disgustingly screwed-up view of the world, and of morality, down our throats.
I was not alone in sensing that power in Irish society was exerted in a rotten, perverse and sadistic manner. How could I be? All over Ireland, there were people who recognised the disgraceful prevailing hypocrisy. Who campaigned to end corporal punishment. Who started to press for the availability of contraception. Who set up the Irish Family Planning Association and the Well Woman Clinic. Who wanted to enable Irish people to enjoy a positive, healthy sex life irrespective of their marital status. And who wanted, where children were conceived outside marriage, not to have those children burdened by being defined as ‘illegitimate’ and treated as second-class – or more accurately as tenth-class – citizens. Who didn’t want to see children being wantonly abused.
Every step of the way, these reformers were resisted by the Church authorities. And what the bishops and the clergy had to say was given a weight and authority by those in power politically that it never once, in any way, merited.
If I knew this, or felt it deeply, at the age of 13, 14 or 15, why the fuck did the people charged with running the country not see it and act on it? The truth is that some of them did indeed see it – and decided to stay schtum.
“To confront the dark and shameful reality which is detailed in this report,” Micheal Martin said in his speech, “we must acknowledge it as part of our national history.”
This much is true. It is part of our national history. Just as Donald Trump and his appalling Presidency are now, unambiguously and irretrievably, part of the history of the United States of America.
In relation to Trump, people have started to identify those who were complicit both in his rise to power, and in the way he systematically set about undermining trust in the democratic system. In Trump’s case, there is an intensifying focus on the appeasers. On those people who knowingly went along with the abuses and the hypocrisy and the lies. Who created the conditions in which all manner of viciousness, mendaciousness and plain evil might be given free rein.
Well, precisely the same questions have to be asked in relation to the Mother and Baby homes. Who was the Trump of that era in Ireland? Who were his stormtroopers? And who were the appeasers, the people who went along with the campaign when they could see its appalling consequences?
Who knew that children were dying in extraordinary numbers? Who saw the effect on women, and on families, and failed dismally to do anything about it? Who played the sneaky, dishonest role of Mitch McConnell? Who was the more brazen, bullying Mike Pompeo of the era of Roman Catholic dominance of Irish politics, Irish society and Irish institutions?
Finally, the apology.
“And for the women and children who were treated so cruelly we must do what we can, to show our deep remorse, understanding and support,” Micheál Martin said. “And so, on behalf of the Government, the State and its citizens, I apologise for the profound generational wrong visited upon Irish mothers and their children who ended up in a Mother and Baby Home or a County Home.”
Reading this, it is impossible not to see it as an attempt to suggest that we were all complicit. That we were all guilty.
There is an old dictum: if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. The same applies here. If everyone is guilty then nobody is guilty.
The same lack of rigour comes through in the totally inadequate, legalistic approach taken by the authors of the Report.
– Like the assertion that is impossible to prove that children were sold. What did they expect to find? A load of bills? And receipts? A flyer offering ‘One child for sale: £3,000’. People paid. But it was done in that insidious, say-nothing way beloved of religious orders looking for donations.
– Like the assertion that there was no evidence of discrimination in relation to mixed-race children. Sure. No one said, ‘There’s no way you’ll want this kid because he/ she is black’ – or not in writing anyway. But the evidence is there in the numbers.
“I was in Pelletstown during the 1960s,” Conrad Bryan of the Association of Mixed Race Irish told RTÉ, “and the report says virtually 100% of illegitimate children were adopted. Of the majority of the mixed-race children in Pelletstown, only 48% were adopted. Now if that isn’t racism, can somebody explain to me what is racism?”
It is also there in the testimonies of mixed-race survivors. “It just appears that the testimony we’ve given has basically not been believed,” Conrad Bryan concluded.
No wonder a lot of people are angry.
Micheál Martin is a decent, honourable man and he means well. But it seems far too convenient, coming from the leader of the party that was the dominant force in politics in Ireland since the mid-1920s, to suggest that this was Ireland and we were all in the muck together.
The Taoiseach would have been much better to have acknowledged the failures of successive politicians and governments. And the failure of many public servants. He’d have been much better to admit that the party he leads consistently bowed to the dictats of the archbishops and bishops of the Catholic Church. And to say clearly: this will not happen ever again.
“The death rate among infants in mother and baby homes was almost twice that of the national average for children born outside of marriage,” Micheál Martin said. “A total of about 9,000 children died in the institutions under investigation – about 15% of all the children who were in their care.”
It is an astonishing figure. Fifteen fucking per cent.
“It is deeply distressing to note,” he added, “that the very high mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications. However, there is little or no evidence of State intervention in response to these chilling statistics.”
There is a reason. The sneering, condescending view of children born to unmarried mothers was that “it is known that they are not constitutionally as strong” as other children. This was the religious view. This was the Roman Catholic view. That they were congenitally inferior as a result of being the products of an immoral act.
Why would you want to bother saving them when they became sick? Why would you want to bother giving them a proper burial? Why would you not just dump their tiny bodies in the sewage system. The world is better off without them, because they too would be likely to do the same immoral things as their mothers.
That was the attitude that led to the ghastly dumping of bodies that happened in the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam.
On mothers and babies, Micheál Martin will be familiar with the controversy that erupted when the bishops attacked the then Minister for Health, Noel Browne, for attempting to introduce the Mother and Child Scheme in 1950. That bill would have established the equivalent of the NHS in Ireland, but the bishops and the Irish Medical Organisation were having none of it.
As the controversy raged, a letter from Dr. James Staunton, Bishop of Ferns, was read to Noel Browne by the then-Archbishop of Dublin, John McQuaid:
“…They [the Archbishops and bishops] feel bound by their office to consider whether the proposals are in accordance with Catholic moral teaching,” Noel Browne was told. And the letter went on: “Doctors trained in institutions in which we have no confidence may be appointed as medical officers... and may give gynaecological care not in accordance with Catholic principles.”
By April 1951, Noel Browne had been forced to resign as Minister for Health. Even he accepted the Bishops’ right to intervene.
The momentum – driven by good public servants and embraced by the more progressive politicians – was towards a health system that would treat people equally and be available to all. The doctors opposed it as a vested interest. The Church opposed it to stop women being pointed in the direction of contraception.
“In the personal testimonies of how many women ended up in these institutions, the Priest, the Doctor and the Nun loom large,” Micheál Martin said. “The sense of oppression, even at this distance, is overwhelming.”
This, of course, really is the nub of the matter. And it takes us back to the questions raised at the outset here: who thought these mother and baby homes were a good idea? How? And why? What was the context? What was the cause? What did they achieve? And who benefitted?
Fundamentally, this was about power. It was about the relentless campaign waged by the Roman Catholic Church to penetrate and control all of the key areas of public life in Ireland. They wanted to control education, based on the old Jesuit saw: “Give me the boy for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” Except they wanted the first seventeen years, just to be sure.
They wanted to control health. They wanted to control hospitals. And they wanted in particular to control the maternity hospitals. And to control sex.
I could go on. There was no aspect of Irish life that they did not attempt to own and control, in their desire to create a single-religion, Theocratic State in Ireland. And they almost succeeded. In the 1971 Census, 94% of the entire population were claimed to identify as Catholic.
To be clear, I am not saying that other religions would not have been capable of producing a similar result – Protestant-run Mother and Baby homes were also rotten – but it was the malign influence of institutional Catholicism which led directly to the vast majority of the terrible abuses which happened in the Mother and Baby Homes.
Institutional Catholicism was a poison, injected into the Irish body politic by the agents of the Vatican. Yes, our politicians have to share the blame: they should never have bent the knee. Our public servants too. But it happened primarily because of the toxic influence exerted by the Catholic Church in post-independence Ireland – and the gross misogyny which was then and still is at the centre of its teachings.
It is time to end that influence by a complete reform of the educational system from Primary school upwards. And, while we’re at it, to do whatever is necessary to wrest ownership and control of the National Maternity Hospital from the Church, religious orders or their proxies.
And it is also time for the orders that ran the Mother and Baby homes to make full and proper restitution, along with the State, for the part they played in the disgraceful abuse of the people placed in their care.
Micheál Martin will be aware of the shocking sweetheart deal done in 2002 by the Fianna Fáil Minister for Education Michael Woods with 18 religious orders involved in the Child Sex Abuse scandal, when he let them off with a payment of just €128million out of a total cost estimated at over €1.3billion. He may not have been helped by the legalistic positioning of the Report, but as Taoiseach, Micheál Martin’s job is to ensure that on this occasion, the religious orders make the maximum possible contribution. Nothing less will do.