Lights on Shame: A Commission in Ireland Reveals the Weight of Stigma

Francesca Mele
Tuam, Galway. The site represented the “Tuam babies” controversy
Source: BBC (REUTERS/CLODAGH KILCOYNE)

On January 12th, an appalling report was released in Ireland concerning a dreadful situation of unwed women and their children in Mother and Babies Homes between 1922-1998 when the Commission of Investigation revealed the abuses the residents suffered.

As the report mentions these homes, which were previously workhouses established under the Poor Relief Act of 1838, can be found in almost every county. In the past, the workhouses aimed to offer support to poor, disadvantaged people, hosting the elderly, homeless, and single mothers and their babies.

Furthermore, these workhouses became hosting institutions for women with children born outside of marriage. Some pregnancies were the result of rape, some had mental health issues, and others ended up there in order to avoid judgment from their community and the family. The women admitted to the workhouses were between 18 and 40 years old, with younger women between the ages of 18 and 29 constituting 80% of the makeup.

In the period examined by the Commission, about 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children were counted, but the number is believed to be higher by approximately 25,000 more women and children.

The members of the three-person Commission were (from left to right): Professor Mary E. Daly, Judge Yvonne Murphy (chairperson), Dr William Duncan.
Source: BBC

THE INSTITUTIONS

According to the report, there were two types of institutions, governmental and religious. In the case of governmental institutions, local authorities were responsible for running costs, maintenance, and major improvements. Staff was employed by the local authority, which financed the institutions through local rates via a property tax. In the case of religious institutions, mother and baby homes were private institutions run by religious congregations or charities.

Most mother and baby homes in other countries were run by religious organizations and the religious salvation of mothers and children was central to their mission.”

Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, para. 49

Ultimately, local and regional governments played a role in the tacit acceptance of these organizations. The First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster recognized the silence the victims were forced into and welcomed the report as the first step “to bring the truth into the open”.

We made them feel guilty and ashamed.

Archbishop Eamon Martin

Archbishop Eamon Martin, leader of the Irish Catholic Church, condemned the treatment of vulnerable pregnant women. He expressed a feeling of embarrassment for what “we in the Church contributed to, and bolstered, that culture of concealment, condemnation, and self-righteousness. For that I am truly sorry and ask the forgiveness of survivors“.

THE SUFFERANCE AND THE STIGMA

Even if the report claims that “there is a small number of complaints of physical abuse” (Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, para. 15), it also recognizes that women underwent arduous work for which they should have been paid.

Many of the women did suffer emotional abuse and were often subject to denigration and derogatory remarks. It appears that there was little kindness shown to them and this was particularly the case when they were giving birth.”

Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, para. 16

The trauma was worse for “women whose pregnancy had devastated their normal life and resulted in their removal from home, family, and friends” (Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, para. 17). Children also suffered discrimination since they were seen as “illegitimate”. After 1953, when adoption was legalized, a new opportunity instead of entering the vicious, dead-end circle of other institutions became possible for them. Furthermore, “the high rate of infant mortality (first year of life) in Irish mother and baby homes is probably the most disquieting feature of these institutions” (Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, para. 229).

Alarmingly, authorities were aware of this data, but because the concept of “illegitimacy” was highly stigmatized because it signified a breach of honor for the family and the woman involved. This destroyed the perspectives of marriage for the woman directly involved, and for her siblings as well.

Tuam, site of a previous home where a mass grave of children and babies was found
Source: BBC

OUTCOMES

Last but not least, among the findings, the Commission reported:
1) The death of almost 9,000 children, approximately 15% of all the children who were in the institutions;
2) The death of 200 mothers;
3) A total of seven vaccine trials inside the institutions under investigation in the period 1934-1973; the Commission has identified a significant number of the children involved (Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, respectively, para. 12, 243, 248).

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was dissolved on February 28th, but not without criticism. One of the critiques made was that its dissolution might create an obstacle for the survivors in seeking justice and opposing the report’s outcome. Last but not least, audio recordings of witnesses who had knowledge of the mother and baby homes were deleted. Of the children who died between 1922-1998 (76 years), the Commission could not find burial records or graves of everyone.

• How can we bring about justice for the crimes committed almost one century ago that lasted for so long?
• What is the role of “stigma” in initiating discriminatory processes?
• How can the government make amends for the tacit discriminatory system that lasted almost 80 years?


Further Readings

Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes

BBC News – 13 Jan, 2021

The Irish Times – 26 Jan, 2021

The Irish Times – 18 Jun, 2014

BBC News – 18 Feb, 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *