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Mother and baby home scandal: rooted in creation of 2 conservative states in Ireland

Mother and Baby vigilFrom the USA to China, from Africa and India to Australia the story of how almost 800 babies and children died in the care of a religious order and the state were buried in a mass grave in Tuam County Galway has captured the media headlines for the last week.

The mother and baby home was run by the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam, County Galway. It was a state regulated institution, and information uncovered through the diligent efforts of local woman Catherine Corless, revealed that 796 babies and children died there over a period of five decades, from the 1920s to 1961.

Corless, who describes herself as a ‘farmer, housewife and gardener’ worked tirelessly to secure details of the babies and children who died in Tuam. She paid €400 to access the Birth and Deaths Register in Galway. Initially she expected to get information on 8 to 10 children but instead was given a list of 796 names of babies and children who died in the Tuam home.

Some were only a few days old. Others were aged between a year and a half and three years of age. The oldest to die was aged nine.

All were buried in a small plot of land in the grounds of the home, including some reportedly in a septic tank.

There has been understandable public outrage. In recent years a succession of distressing reports have revealed the extent of abuse in state institutions run by the Catholic Church.

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, generally known as the Ryan Commission, was published in May 2009. It ran to five volumes and looked at the extent of abuse against children in Irish institutions from 1936.

Most of these related to the system of residential and industrial schools that were run by the Catholic Church under the supervision of the Department of Education and which saw children treated like slaves and prisoners. They were subject to the most horrendous conditions and abuse.

Other reports, including the Ferns Inquiry, the Cloyne Report, the Murphy Report and the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries focused on abuse by Catholic clergy and religious orders.

The Tuam scandal has now shone a light onto the harsh reality of other institutions. Currently efforts are underway to discover whether mother and baby homes also existed in the north and what were conditions like in these.

In Tuam as elsewhere conditions were harsh. Inspector’s reports and firsthand accounts by former residents paint a picture of a brutal and cruel regime in which women and children were treated appallingly.

Records released last week from the Dublin Archdiocese show that the high mortality rate in Tuam also existed in the other homes. In 1933 the mortality rate in Tuam was 35%, or over three times the norm at that time.

In human terms this means that 42 of the 120 children admitted to Tuam in that year died. The mortality rate in Pelletstown was 34%. In Bessborough it was 39%. In Sean Ross Abbey is was 37.5%.

In addition to the mother and baby homes run by Catholic religious orders there was also Bethany Home in Rathgar. It was run by an independent protestant group as an evangelical institution for unmarried mothers and their children. It also took in prostitutes, alcoholics, and young people under 17. Women and young people convicted in the courts were also sent there.

Thus far it has been estimated that 219 children died in Bethany between 1922 when the Home opened and 1949. They were buried in unmarked graves. Some died from marasumus – a form of malnutrition. Conditions in the Catholic run homes were no better.

In an Inspectors report in 1947, which recorded the conditions in Tuam, there is a distressing and disturbing account of life for its residents. Children are described as emaciated and suffering from malnutrition and of having wizened limbs.

In addition to the inhuman treatment endured by residents was added the outrage that some were treated as guinea pigs in vaccine experiments. According to the UCC historian Michael Dwyer 2,051 children from the homes at Bessborough and Roscrea were  used in secret vaccine trials conducted by Burroughs Wellcome – now GlaxoSmithKline. The trials included injecting children with vaccines for diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and polio.

Children in St. Clare’s in Stamullen, in Dunboyne, in St Patrick’s Dublin and in Castlepollard were also used in vaccine trials.

Who gave permission for such actions to be carried out? Did the relevant government department or Minister agree and clear the use of Irish children as guinea pigs? We need an inquiry to find out.

To the shame of all of those responsible the ill-treatment of the children and babies continued beyond their short lives as most were buried in unmarked graves.

On Tuesday the Irish government finally announced the establishment of a Commission of Investigation into mother and baby homes. This is a welcome development but it is vital that the Commission has terms of reference that are comprehensive and allow it to examine all aspects of this issue.

For many citizens there is genuine bewilderment at what has emerged. How could anyone treat mothers and babies in this way? How could the state abdicate its responsibility to citizens?

The root of this shame is to be found in partition and the creation of two conservative states on this island. Both were characterised by economic failure, by emigration, by backwardness on social issues, by inequality and by the failure to protect the most vulnerable of our citizens.

In the north a one party unionist regime dominated politics and institutionalised sectarianism, discrimination and inequality and injustice.

In the south the state that emerged following the civil war was in hock to the Catholic Hierarchy.

Two conservative states ruled by two conservative elites in their own narrow interests. The old colonial system replaced by a neo-colonial one.

It was in these circumstances that the abuses that occurred in the Magdalene Laundries, in Bethany Home, in the residential “Reformatory and Industrial Schools” and in the mother and baby homes occurred.

Report after report has confirmed that for much of its existence the state system for looking after children abused and treated them more like slaves than citizens.

Dáil records show that successive governments knew about the high infant mortality and the poor quality of care in institutions looking after children. They did nothing. As Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin told the Dáil:

There have been attempts to place the blame on wider Irish society because of the deeply conservative social attitudes that dominated in those decades. And it absolutely has to be acknowledged that the social attitudes of those times were disdainful of great numbers of people and cast them out of society.

However, this can be too easily be twisted into a view that since everyone was to blame – no one was to blame. The reality was that there were powerful social and economic forces, powerful men in Church and State, who ruled this society and who ensured that women and children and the poor and the marginalised were kept in their place. Much has changed for the better but much has also yet to change.”

This article first appeared at Léargas


  1. Dan says:

    I support the sisters. The wave of anti-Catholicism has to be stopped.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      This has to be a wind up.

  2. Gerry says:

    This is just the latest scandal to have hit this wretched organisation – first, the Catholic Church is revealed to be the biggest paedophile ring on the planet, and then it surpasses itself with this grisly death of un-named babies and “outcast sinners”….

    More proof, if anyone needs it, of how toxic and murderous religion is once it is given any sort of social, political, economic or cultural power: look at Iraq, Nigeria, Libya, Brunei or even here in Birmingham, Luton and Bradford to see its worst face in action in 2014.

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