TUAM Mother and Baby Home was unlikely to have been the only one in the country where the practice of dumping foetuses and dead babies born out of wedlock took place, given the cruel and unforgiving culture that existed in these institutions across the country, where what happened to the mothers and some of the children amounted to abuse, pure and simple. The savagery that occurred in most of these homes would not be tolerated in today’s world.
While most people would have wondered what really went on inside the walls of these institutions, many of them would have been capable of making a fairly accurate educated guess, but the prevailing culture during the first 50 years of the new State was to hear no evil and see no evil, especially when it came to the Roman Catholic Church, so a blind eye was turned. Upstanding pillars of society, such as priests, doctors and gardaí, surely knew what was going on in these places, but nobody had the courage to expose it or speak out, because those were the repressive times they lived in – a truly dark and shameful era in our history that needs to be fully exposed for what it was in the Commission of Investigation currently taking place, chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave one of his better Dáil speeches about the utter disgrace of what happened in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home before he left for the United States for his St Patrick’s Day jaunt, pulling no punches in decrying both Church and State for failing the vulnerable people that they were supposed to be looking after. Instead, the religious orders involved acted as judge and jury, and sometimes executioner, because of the manner in which they treated those in their care – and they did treat them like dirt.
Christian compassion did not seem to enter the equation as nuns did the bidding of their superiors. There would certainly have been some nice nuns who might not have liked the regime, but they were dispensable too as there was no shortage of religious vocations and, if they did not do what they were told, they were easily replaceable.
Little wonder then that those in charge of institutions like Mother and Baby Homes felt they could do what they liked with impunity. In their eyes, the young ladies who became pregnant outside of marriage were sinners who needed to be punished for their fornication and they regarded the innocent children they gave birth to likewise.
The mothers were made to work hard to punish them and to pay for their keep in these places, while the children who survived were taken away and farmed out for adoption, with money changing hands in some cases to enrich the religious orders. Some children died of malnutrition and illness in these homes where the mortality rates were extremely high and, because they were seen as ‘illegitimate,’ their bodies were buried in pits adjoining the institutions rather than being given a Christian interment in regular graveyards.
The final resting places of hundreds, if not thousands of children who died in such homes needs to be established as far as humanly possible so that the due dignity that was not accorded them in their short lives can be given to them in death. This would also bring some badly-needed closure for relatives.
The research of Tuam historian Catherine Corless, which brought the scandal into the public domain, established that just under 800 children had died at the Bon Secours home there during its lifetime from 1925 to 1961. The discovery of a mass grave beside it confirmed people’s worst fears about how the bodies were, effectively, disposed of.
We should learn more from the second interim report on the Commission of Investigation on Mother and Baby Homes, which is due to be published by the Minister for Children & Youth Affairs, Ms Katherine Zappone, TD, before the end of this month. This Commission is covering all of the country’s Mother and Baby Homes, including Bessborough in Cork.
In places like Tuam, where the Mother and Baby home closed 56 years ago, there are very few of the mothers left, but siblings of many of the babies who died want and deserve answers about where their bodies are buried and why they were treated in such a shameful and undignified manner. What is then needed, beyond establishing the facts, is accountability followed by redress.