An unholy legacy: the Mother and Baby Homes report reminds Ireland that the Catholic Church has blood on its hands


On the 12th of January 2021 the Irish government published the 3000-page final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, their hand having been forced by the leaking of the report to media outlets. The Commission was established in 2015 to provide a full account of what happened to vulnerable women and children in these homes which were run in collaboration between the Catholic Church and the State, between 1922 and 1998. For those unfamiliar with the design and purpose of these homes, they were sites to which unmarried, pregnant women were sent to give birth and be ‘reformed’. In many cases the babies were taken from their mothers to be adopted by Catholic families, often with financial transactions involved. 

The misogyny and gender cost of these homes has come to light in the last decade in media and cultural production alike. The film Philomena (2013) is one example, centring on a woman’s 50-year search for her son who had been taken from her and forcibly adopted. One of the most revealing and harrowing aspects of this new report is the number of young children who died in these homes. It focuses on eighteen such institutions across the Republic of Ireland (Northern Ireland still awaits the findings of its own report) and has found that around 9000 children (about 15% of the total) died in the homes investigated, in unclear circumstances relating to poor living conditions, malnutrition and neglect. 

Often these children were buried in unmarked and unconsecrated grounds, and it was the particularly shocking revelation in the Bon Secours sisters’ home in Tuam, County Galway in 2014 that provoked the setting up of the enquiry: up to 800 bodies of children were dumped in septic tanks between the 1920s and 1960s. Disgusting, unholy acts were committed by an institution masquerading as a place of God, with the backing of a fledging state too weak, too unwilling, to do anything about it.

The executive summary of the report states: “It must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when families provided no refuge at all.” This is a subtle shifting of culpability back onto society, but in this period Irish society was inseparable from its Catholic internalisation. 

Politician Catherine Connolly spoke out against this in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) in the wake of the release of the report: ‘I find the narrative disturbing…We either believe women or we don’t.’ Even as the State tries to make repairs for a century of harm, it cannot escape the circle of misogyny and blame-shifting. 

The report also states that women’s entrance into the homes was unforced, and that there exists no evidence of forced adoption, both statements directly contradicting those given by several of the female victims who passed through the home doors. The reality of what went on in these ‘homes’ are indicative of what was endemic female suppression in Ireland, with numerous other limitations such as a strict ban on contraception until 1985, an employment marriage bar, no property rights, no access to abortion, and no divorce. Article 41 of the 1937 Irish constitution stated that the nation:

‘recognises by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved […] The State shall therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties at home.’

Was the placing of more than 190,000 women and children in these institutions during the course of the 20thcentury the endeavour the Irish state promised to undertake? In many cases the State and Church even deprived women of fulfilling their role of mother, against their will. Elaine Feeney’s piece in The Guardian directed me to the Tuam Oral History Project at the National University of Ireland in Galway, the key aim of which is ‘to enable the survivors of the Tuam institution and their families to tell their own life stories, in the way that they want them to be told.’ It has a podcast I would recommend to anyone trying to get to grips with the true nature of this dark part of Irish history.

Former president of Ireland, and Catholic, Mary McAleese, has expressed her surprise at the ‘speed and humility’ of the apologies offered by bishops and religious orders following the publication of the report. A church that has been tip-toeing around admission of culpability for the last few decades has now had a very powerful wake-up call. It demonstrates that in the newly born Irish Republic, and for a long time after, there existed a distorted perspective of the value of human life, such that the most helpless and innocent in our society were left to die and vulnerable women were cruelly treated. It was a most unholy matrimony between Church and State. 

Irish Taoiseach, Mícheál Martin, has said that the report describes a ‘dark, difficult and shameful chapter’ in Irish history. However, we should not fool ourselves into thinking such a chapter has reached its conclusion and the question marks that remain in relation to the tone of the report’s findings are exemplary of this. The lack of surprise by the mistreatment of women committed by the Church is telling; the Catholic Church’s attitudes to the female half of the population are still stuck in the past – for any Catholic woman this is not new information. What does shock us all is that women only a generation older than myself could have found themselves in one of these homes, the last one being closed in 1997, and that the language we use in relation to these women is still imbued with the same sexist assumptions. It begs the question where were the men in all of this?

In a letter to the Irish Times, Dr Diarmuid O’Gráda eloquently reflected the horrific reality of the Mother and Baby homes: 

‘religious perversion of gender relations actually began before childbirth, in the notion that human births are less than immaculate. After a woman gave birth the Catholic priest required her to endure a church cleansing… [These homes] reflected the age-old insistence on making “fallen” women subterranean creatures.’

In addition to the national scale of the network of homes, the length of time this went on for is demonstrative of the pervasion and accepted nature of misogyny and abuse in Irish society. This was not a mere blip on the timeline, nor was this the story of a rogue facility. It will take longer than a five-year investigation to undo the extent of the harm both for the victims involved and for Ireland’s national psyche.

What the report facilitates is long-overdue justice to the women, children and families affected by these corrupt institutions, with the Commission having made 53 recommendations, including compensation and memorialisation. But we must ask ourselves, what tangible progress can be made on the back of such horrific revelations? It is the greatest argument for secularisation we’ve ever had, and the saddest. The Church may have lost its iron grip on Ireland’s government, but as former president, Mary McAleese, shrewdly points out, 90% of primary school children and 60% of second-level students still attend Catholic schools in the Republic today. Catholicism continues to be present in Irish lives beyond going to church on Sunday. Private faith is one thing, but entrusting an institution stained by the blood of women and children with educating Ireland’s tomorrow, our future, is morally questionable, to say the least. 

If the Repeal the 8th movement felt like a step forward for Irish women, the current storm around the Mother and Baby homes scandal has thrown the nation five steps back. We can but hope that the national soul-searching provoked by this necessary report will ultimately prevent a repeat of such horrors and act as the impetus to further change and progress. The Church’s voice may have determined our past, but women’s voices must henceforth ring loudest.

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