Mother and Baby Homes - an indictment of an entire society

15 Jan 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 15 Jan 2021

The Final Report of the Mother and Baby Commission was published this week. It is profoundly disturbing. Both church and state have apologised for their role. But the report is also an indictment of an entire society. 

Media coverage and comment has concentrated, quite rightly, on the appallingly high death rates of infants in mother and baby homes. But we should also be examining how they got there in the first place.

The report finds no evidence that women were forced to enter them by the church or state authorities. It concludes: “Most women had no alternative. Women were brought to mother and baby homes by their parents or other family members without being consulted as to their destination.”

Put more bluntly they did not have the support, financial or otherwise of their family and the father of the child. “They were forced to leave home, and seek a place where they could stay without having to pay. Many were destitute. Women who feared the consequences of their pregnancy becoming known to their family and neighbours entered mother and baby homes to protect their privacy. Some travelled to Britain, for the same reason.”

In the homes there was little kindness shown to the women, and no counselling for the heartbreak of being rejected by their family and the father of their child. Those who had to be transferred to maternity hospitals for medical reasons were often subjected to hostile comments from fellow-patients and their visitors.

Ireland was not unique with regards to public attitudes to illegitimacy but there were social factors in the country that made for very stringent codes of sexual relations.

Until the middle of the last century the marriage rate in Ireland was the lowest in the western world – and people married later. A major driver for this in rural areas was a wish to preserve family farms. Indeed the report cites instances of males still unable to marry even after the death of both parents because non-inheriting siblings still lived in the family home.

During the period covered by the report approximately one in four adults aged 45 and older were unmarried and evidence suggests that only a minority of single adults were sexually active. At various stages during the years from the 1920s to the early 1960s fears were expressed about the low marriage rate and the reluctance of Irish men to marry.

Therefore society depended on the celibacy of a large proportion of the population. The very presence of unmarried mothers and their children was an affront to all understanding of family and morality. Per the report: “Premarital sex was identified with ‘the debased conduct of the lower ranks of the landless and disreputable of the countryside, the labourers of the towns, the runaways, remnants of broken households.’”

The report states: “There is also the question of a family’s standing in the community. Many Irish marriages until the 1960s involved an element of match-making and a dowry and these processes were reliant on a family’s respectability. An ‘illegitimate’ birth could destroy the marriage prospects, not just for the woman who had given birth, but for her siblings, hence the pressures to keep it a secret by sending her to a mother and baby home.

The report has this to say about the relationship between the Catholic Church, the State and respectability: “The Catholic church did not invent Irish attitudes to prudent marriages or family respectability; however, it reinforced them through church teachings that emphasised the importance of pre-marital purity and the sexual dangers associated with dance halls, immodest dress, mixed bathing and other sources of ‘temptation’.”

When the Irish Free State was established in the 1920s, it set out to demonstrate its moral purity. The report states: “There was a strong alignment of views between church and State, resulting in legislation against contraception, divorce, censorship of cinema and publications that was bolstered by church sermons.”

The desire for secrecy around pregnancy also explains why so many young women left Ireland for Britain to give birth. This was so common that British charities and local authorities coined the term PFI (pregnant from Ireland) to describe them. The Commission was unable to find any other instance where substantial numbers of pregnant single women fled their country. Later generations of women made the same journey for abortions after this was legalised in Britain in 1967.

Unfortunately for those who entered Britain the treatment they received there was often appalling. The section in the report devoted to this is very difficult to read. Many arrived only to find that as they had not been working in the country they could not get support on the NHS. British charities resisted their presence and pressured the Irish hierarchy and government to repatriate them, often exposing their identities – and secrets – in the process.

British social services and Catholic charities went even further: they even returned babies born in Britain to Ireland.

This practice surfaced in the British tabloid press in 1968 when the People ran a story under the headline: ‘AMAZING TRAFFIC IN BABIES EXPOSED’. It told the story of an Irish mother who had gone to Ireland to reclaim her child who had been sent to Ireland for adoption by Westminster city council. She found him in a “baby farm” in Donabate. The People claimed that there were nine babies in the house, and they quoted the foster mother: ‘I like to have a good selection here…so that when people come they have a few to choose from for adoption’.

The paper described the conditions as appalling. “The stench was awful. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling. And cots were covered in dirt. In one battered pink cot was an 18 month old coloured boy lying on a torn and pitted foam mattress. There were no sheets on the mattress and the only covering was a tiny piece of blanket in one corner. A six-month old baby was in a cramped Moses-type basket. Another in a carry cot inside an ordinary cot, had his own sick all over his clothes. It had caked dry on him.”

Adoption was only legalised in Ireland in 1953. Before then the vast majority of children ended up in other institutions such as the notorious industrial schools or were boarded or nursed out.

The report states: “There is evidence that local authorities commonly selected foster families for boarded out children to meet the needs/wishes of the foster parent rather than those of the child. Children were boarded out in impoverished households, where the monthly fee was regarded as a source of household income, rather than money to provide for the child. Farmers and other self-employed people often treated a foster child as a source of unpaid labour and for that reason they preferred older children. Children were placed with older unmarried women, or in households consisting of an elderly brother and sister, where there was little understanding of a child’s needs. Elderly women living alone regarded a foster child as a companion and an unpaid servant or carer. Some children were sent to remote parishes where the numbers on the national school roll were low, in the hope of preventing the loss of a teacher.”

Many children were well treated, many others were not. Some were grossly exploited as free labour on farms, others were badly fed, kept from school, subjected to beatings and hired out to others.

 The report provides testimony from some children and the day-to-day discrimination that they received is horrifying. “He said that he and other foster children were last in line when Christmas presents were given to local children, and they only received colouring pens, drawing paper and some sweets. In one foster home this man ate breakfast with the family, but he ate all the other meals, including Christmas dinner, separately in a ‘back kitchen’. One man described himself as ‘an outcast’. Several witnesses mention ill-treatment at school; left out of sports; physically abused ‘mainly by the other children’; ‘children picked on you all the time…the dreaded “B’ word”; taunted that their mother and father had not wanted them.”

The report is very long, but it is very important and it is crucial that we acknowledge that the suffering inflicted on unmarried mothers and their children was not just the responsibility of church and state but of all of society. They were abandoned by their own families, by the fathers of the children, by the communities that they came from, expelled from a country they sought shelter in, the children were often exploited by those they were boarded with and although this happened in the past for all those involved the pain of having been cast out and abandoned lingers on.

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