Commentary: Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes

By: Sophie Boulter, Staff Writer

As I rummaged through my pockets for three euro to pay for the day’s newspaper, I paused to have a look at the headline. I had only arrived in Ireland a week prior to study at University College Cork, and due to quarantine rules, reading newspapers was essentially all I could do.  

The newspaper’s headline, “Taoiseach Apologises Over Mother and Baby Homes,” gave me a curious feeling of shock without surprise. The unholy trinity of social conservatism, misogyny and abuse that the Catholic Church allowed to continue has led to scandal after scandal. 

Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes were maternity institutions active from 1922 to 1998 which housed unwed mothers and their children.  

Inspired by the conservative social mores of 20th century Ireland, single women were often sent to Mother and Baby Homes by family and religious leaders to give birth to children out of wedlock. These institutions were usually, but not always, maintained by Catholic nuns. 

Until 1987, official legal parlance in Ireland required children born out of wedlock to be registered as “illegitimate,” depriving them of inheritance rights. Mothers of these children were met with social stigma, considered to be “fallen” women. 

The Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was released on Jan. 12, sparking political uproar in Ireland. The Commission found evidence of neglect, misogyny and unsanitary living conditions in these institutions.  

Nine thousand children, constituting 15% of the 57,000 children spread over 18 institutions, died in Mother and Baby Homes.  

Nearly 800 children from a Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway were buried in mass, unmarked graves. This home was run by the Bon Secours Sisters, an order of Catholic nuns. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Far from saving the lives of children deemed “illegitimate,” these homes maintained a death rate “twice that of the national average for ‘illegitimate’ children,” according to the Commission.  

Women giving birth in these homes were subjected to “emotional abuse” especially through “denigration and derogatory remarks.” Many women found giving birth in the institutions to be “traumatic,” especially because the institutions had the authority to take children away from mothers.  

Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin issued an official apology on behalf of the Irish government on Jan. 13.  

“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,” Martin said.  

The Catholic Primate of Ireland Eamon Martin also acknowledged that “the church was clearly part of that culture in which people were frequently stigmatised, judged and rejected.” 

As an American in Ireland, I suppose that this scandal should have felt “new” to me, but it doesn’t. The shaming of women and the mistreatment of children is an aspect of long-term abuse of unchecked authority, common in the Catholic Church for hundreds of years. 

Throughout the 20th century, Irish political and social culture was dominated by the Catholic Church.  

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, a religious and political leader, exercised an outsized influence over politicians and communities. Along with his supporters, McQuaid pushed through legislation which trampled on women’s rights, limited sexual education, and promoted a repressive, skewed form of morality. McQuaid and other leaders within the Catholic Church were also implicated in covering up sexual abuse scandals.  

Ireland eventually turned away from rigid social conservatism in favor of inclusivity and tolerance, especially through its joining of the eventual European Union in 1973, legalization of divorce in 1995, legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 and legalization of abortion in 2018. 

In the past month, many commentators have expressed relief that Ireland is a more tolerant, open country than it was in the past. That said, the rude memories of an oppressive brand of religiosity are not easily forgotten, and many individuals must still live with trauma. 

I hope that America learns from Ireland’s experience. We can turn away from politicians and other leaders who seek to legislate morality, while practicing hypocrisy in their personal lives. We can empower women to make their own sexual and reproductive choices.  

Though if, and hopefully when, the U.S. moves beyond social conservatism, we must also learn from Ireland’s experience of memory and trauma. The women and men abused need more than empty words and false promises of reform. 

Moving on will not be easy, but Ireland shows us that progress is possible.