GHOULISHLY moralising on reports that the remains of almost 800 babies had been flung into a septic tank at a mother and baby home run by the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam, our esteemed Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, seemed unaware of the ironic significance of what he was saying.
‘We dug deeply to bury our compassion and mercy,’ he declared. ‘No nuns broke into our homes to take our children – we gave them up. We gave them up because of our morbid and perverse pursuit for respectability.’
But who is the ‘we’ that Kenny is talking about? Does it include the organisation that he leads?
The plain people of Ireland stand in awe at the dramatic blurb from his Blueshirt scriptwriters, but the historical fact is that Kenny’s political forbears, in conjunction with professional dissemblers in Fianna Fáil, helped fabricate the context in which the cruelty in Ireland’s mother and baby homes took place.
The Establishment politicos – from WT Cosgrave to De Valera – who enthusiastically promoted Ireland as a Catholic and morally-pure country did so knowing that they were enshrining an obscurantist and narrow Catholic moral code as the law of the land.
The result was that for decades the moral conduct of the people took precedence over welfare. Indeed so appreciative were FG-FF politicos of ecclesiastical advice in the running of the country that they entrusted to the Catholic Church the task of ensuring individuals and entire communities adhered publicly to an oppressive code of morality and manners.
Hence the application of the Censorship of Films Act, 1923 (amended in 1970 and now largely irrelevant) and the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929 (which although still in force was substantially amended in 1967); plus the bizarre warnings from bishops on the moral hazards facing young people after local dances on a Sunday night. Old timers will remember the priests in the 1960s from the Macroom area who patrolled boreens, rooting out the courting couples.
The truth is that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were complicit in enabling the Catholic Church rule the roost in matters of health, education and social welfare. Indeed, until the Late Late Show invented sex (‘There was no sex in Ireland before television,’ said Oliver J Flanagan, Fine Gael TD) and Bishop Eamon Casey fathered a son, the only ideological topic of significance that concerned Church and State was the equation of public morality with sexual morality.
And into that cesspit of clerical-FG-FF humbug fell the ‘unmarried mothers’ – regarded then as pariahs who transgressed the moral code in much the same way as prostitutes and who were especially perceived by the FG middle class as immoral people.
In the eyes of Catholic Ireland and of the party political outfits, sex before marriage was a mortal sin and an illegitimate child was living proof of a girl’s depravity. Worse still, to keep the child and parade him or her in public was an affront to ‘respectability and morality.’
Unmarried women were dumped in mother and baby houses similar to those in Tuam and Bessborough. The argument was made that, if the regime in those places was severe ,at least shelter that the mother would not have got in her own home was provided.
Once committed by parents, doctor or priest, the unfortunate girl was hidden from society. Concealed too were the consequences of her actions. And, with the nuns’ assistance, the ‘sinner’ was open to reform and to the strong probability of no more illegitimate children.
As far as the State was concerned, religious orders were the best agency for putting the offender back on the straight and narrow. Better still, there was no overt government involvement and no State-imposed legal rules and regulations other than perfunctory recommendations.
In other words, in the effort to preserve the image of a morally-pure country, Fine Gael and its political chums in Fianna Fáil grossly ignored their responsibility of care to unmarried mothers and children.
Loyalty to Church
Fine Gael hypocrisy began as early as 1919 when the party’s future leader, WT Cosgrave, vigorously opposed a provision in Sinn Fein’s first constitution for State-sponsored medicine and welfare for children.
Jump forward to 1974, and to the social change that was on its way, and we see Fine Gael introducing a family planning bill that WT Cosgrave’s son, Liam Cosgrave, voted against on moral grounds!
Grovelling was par for the course and, in 1948, the first decision of the Fine Gael dominated inter-party government was to send a telegram to the Pope affirming the government’s willingness ‘to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and our devotion to Your August Person, as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ and to strive for the attainment of a social order in Ireland based on Christian principles.’
Two years later when Dr Noel Browne introduced legislation for post-natal support for mothers and babies, the Catholic hierarchy condemned the proposal. Again it was a Fine Gael Taoiseach, John A Costello, who obsequiously bent the knee: ‘I am an Irishman second, and I am a Catholic first, and I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of the hierarchy and the church to which I belong.’
And, that was that!
Even Brendan Corish, Labour Party leader from 1960 to 1977, declared he was a Catholic first and an Irishman second. What’s more, during a conversation in a meeting room in Castle Street, Cork, the ‘Seventies will be Socialist’ hero privately revealed to this scribe that he also was a proud member of the Knights of Columbanus!
And then things changed. In a tsunami of secularism that has lasted from the early Eighties to the present day, Catholicism as a definition of Irishness took a battering. As if by magic, the power and effectiveness of bishops and priests disappeared, as did the legislative protection for moral stances on contraception, censorship, and divorce.
Commentator Tom Inglis describes the current situation as follows: ‘the Catholic Church no longer acts as a sacred canopy for social, political and economic life. Religious life has become increasingly differentiated from the rest of social life, privatised and compartmentalised into specific times, places and contexts. At the same time, the influence of the Church over the State, the media, the public sphere and civil society in general has declined.’
Although the horrors of Tuam have to be approached within the context of the decline and fall of the Irish Catholic Church, let’s not forget either the historical complicity of Fine Gael in the events. The time has come for that party to acknowledge its role and its responsibility in the demonisation of whole sections of Irish society – and for less of Kenny’s sanctimonious cant!