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Explained: What is Ireland’s mother and baby homes controversy?

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin has apologised for the country's mother and baby homes, where thousands of unmarried mothers and their children were cruelly treated from the 1920s to the 1990s. What happened at these homes?

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 15, 2021 10:37:30 am
A detail view of some of the victims names hanging from a tree at the Tuam graveyard where the bodies of 796 babies were uncovered at the site of a former Catholic Church-run Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, in Tuam, Ireland, January 12, 2021. (Reuters Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne)

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin on Wednesday apologised and expressed remorse for the country’s mother and baby homes, where thousands of unmarried women and their children were cruelly treated from the 1920s to the 1990s.

The apology came after the publication of a long-awaited report into the functioning of these institutions on Tuesday, which found an “appalling level of infant mortality” at 18 such homes that were investigated. The facilities — most of them run by the Roman Catholic Church — housed women who became pregnant out of wedlock, including victims of rape and incest, and also worked as orphanages and adoption centres.

As per the report, around 15 per cent of all children who lived at the homes during the period — roughly 9,000 — died due to brutal living conditions.

Speaking in the Irish parliament, Martin said, “On behalf of the government, the state and its citizens, I apologise for the profound generational wrong visited upon Irish mothers and their children who ended up in a Mother and Baby Home or a County Home.

“I apologise for the shame and stigma which they were subjected to and which, for some, remains a burden to this day,” Martin said. “The state failed you.”

What happened at Ireland’s mother and baby homes?

In 2012, amateur historian Catherine Corless published an article about a closed down mother and baby institution in the western town of Tuam which had been owned by the local county council, but was run by the Bon Secours Sisters, an international order of Catholic nuns. Corless wrote about the high rate of infant deaths while the home was functioning between 1925 and 1961, and questioned why there were no records about where the babies were buried.

Two years later, further reporting about the Tuam home by The Irish Mail on Sunday revealed that up to 800 infants were secretly buried in a “mass grave” at the institution. The news story sparked outrage both in Ireland as well as internationally.

Then, in June 2014, the Irish government formed an investigative commission to look into 18 mother and baby homes around the country. The team examined living conditions at the homes from 1922, when the Irish state was founded, until 1998, when the last of the facilities was closed down. The investigation covered the causes of infant mortality, burial conditions, whether mothers could give free consent for their children to be adopted, as well as probing the allegations of unethical vaccine trials carried out on residents.

Baby shoes hang from a wall at the Tuam graveyard. (Reuters Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne)

What did the commission find out about Tuam?

In 2017, the commission discovered “significant quantities of human remains” at the Tuam site, prompting Ireland’s then-PM Enda Kenny to describe the place as a “chamber of horrors”.

In 2019, the team said in an interim report that 802 children died at the Tuam home during the 36 years that it was running, and were buried in a chamber structure from around 1937 that was “likely to be related to the treatment/containment of sewage and/or waste water”. The report also said that it “seems likely that the burials were conducted on the instructions” of the Bon Secours Sisters.

Reacting to the report, the Bon Secours Sisters said they were “shocked and devastated” by the findings, and apologised “unreservedly” for what had happened to the children.

The same report revealed another shocking finding — that over 900 children had died while residing at another mother and baby home in the southwest city of Cork, and that it was unknown where the vast majority of them were buried.

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The final enquiry report

The commission released its final report this year on January 12, days after a leaked copy found its way to the press, exposing some of the Catholic Church’s most serious abuses in the country.

It found that between 1922 and 1998, some 56,000 women and 57,000 children resided in the 18 homes that were investigated, and around 9,000 or roughly 15 per cent of the children died — about double the national average. At one home in Cork, the proportion of children who died before the age of one in 1943 was as high as 75 per cent.

Denise Gormley and her daughter Rosa, 7, pay their respects at the Tuam graveyard. (Reuters Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne)

The enquiry did not find evidence of sexual abuse, but recorded cruelty, neglect and callousness at the institutions. The 2,865-page report also details the number of children that were separated from mothers and were adopted outside Ireland, mostly in the United States. Children were also the subject to vaccine trials; they were given diphtheria, polio, measles and rubella shots without their consent.

“In the years before 1960, mother and baby homes did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival,” the report states. It also adds that the women and children “should not have been in the institutions” at all.

It quotes anonymous testimony from residents, who compared the homes to prisons where the nuns verbally abused them, calling them “sinners” and “spawn of Satan”. As per the report, women suffered through painful labours without getting access to any pain relief. Some of the girls who were admitted to the homes were as young as 12.

The commission has made 53 recommendations, including compensation and memorialisation, the BBC reported.

Reactions in Ireland

It has been alleged that the children were mistreated because they were born to mothers out of wedlock, and many at the time saw both the children and their mothers as a stain on Ireland’s conservative Catholic roots, the latter being called “fallen women”.

The Irish government reacted to the report by saying the country had a “stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture”, and PM Martin called it “dark, difficult and shameful chapter” of Ireland’s history.

Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheal Martin made a formal apology on behalf of the Irish state for the deaths of thousands of infants and other abuses in church-run homes for unmarried women and their babies. (John Thys/ Pool via AP, File)

Archbishop Eamon Martin, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, also apologised “unreservedly” to the survivors of the homes, while acknowledging the role that the Church played in the country’s culture in which “people were frequently stigmatised, judged and rejected”.

“I believe the Church must continue to acknowledge before the Lord and before others, its part in sustaining what the report describes as a ‘harsh… cold and uncaring atmosphere’,” the cleric said.

The Bon Secours religious order also extended its “profound apologies” to those who suffered at Tuam.

Another religious order, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, which ran some of the facilities, also expressed “great sorrow”.

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