‘Mother and baby homes’ were institutions created with the purpose of housing women who became pregnant outside of marriage. As we can imagine, in the 20th century, with Ireland being a predominantly Catholic country, this was undoubtedly considered socially unacceptable. Moreover, it called for the removal of these women from everyday life, keeping them hidden from prying eyes.
However, as we’ll see, these institutions, often run by orders of Catholic nuns, were not only used as “shelters” for women in vulnerable situations, who were often ostracised by Irish society and their families.
Tuam, County Galway, besides being one of the most mediatized cases, was home to one of the Mother and Baby Homes, run by the Bon Secours Sisters. It started functioning as such in 1925, only closing almost forty years later, in 1961, mainly due to its poor conditions. This is just one of the many Mother and Baby Homes, also known as Magdalene Laundries, where 35.000 “fallen women ‘’ were sent to “secretly” have their children.
In 1975, after the prior beginning of construction work of a housing project in 1972, two young boys found skeletal remains in a concrete structure in the location of the former Tuam home. At the time, given the famine period in Ireland between 1845/49, these were dismissed as part of a famine-era grave, and later a memorial garden with a Catholic shrine was erected in memory of the victims.
However, in 2012, an amateur historian named Catherine Corless published an article in a local journal entitled “The Home”, detailing the poor living conditions in Tuam’s Magdalen Laundry. She found that children and their mothers in this home lived in bad conditions and, along with other factors such as various diseases, this led to a high child mortality rate.
It’s obviously important to acknowledge that in this period Ireland had a high infant mortality rate. The problem, however, is found in the fact that there are no records of the burials of these babies. In her search to uncover the seemingly foggy circumstances of these events, Corless was only able to find records of burial sites of two cases out of 796.
In 2014, consequently, when news of a possible mass grave of up to 800 children broke out, the Irish government ordered the creation of a nationwide commission of investigation of these homes. Inquiries were made concerning general causes of death, burial arrangements, and participation in vaccine trials for diseases such as diphtheria, polio, measles, and rubella that were carried out without consent.
Additionally, they were also responsible for the investigation of the adoption processes that occurred over a 76-year period, counting from 1922, the founding year of the Irish state, until 1998. As such, from the beginning, children were separated from their mothers at birth, and raised by nuns elsewhere in the asylum until they were adopted.
Adoption was illegal in Ireland until 1953. However, there was a significant trade in the export of Irish babies, mainly to America after World War II. In this matter, the report found no statutory regulations for the foreign adoptions of 1,638 children. Mike Milotte, an Irish journalist, reports in his book Banished Babies, that these unofficial adoptions were arranged by Catholic organisations in both countries. Moreover, the prospective parents were required to be Catholic and no “mixed” marriages were allowed.
There is also the issue of consent from the mothers to these adoptions. Many were coerced. For example, one witness tells how she was locked in a room and told she would only leave after signing the adoption papers for her baby. Others simply never saw their children again, never even signing any papers.
With searches in the Tuam site beginning in 2016, and coming to fruition on March 4th, 2017, the established commission confirmed that during the excavations “significant quantities of human remains” were found, ranging in age from premature babes to three year old toddlers who died during the extent of time this home operated.
Finally, in 2021, the inquiry led to the conclusion that 9,000 children died in the 18 institutions under investigation - about 15% of all the children in these homes. Even so, some aren’t satisfied. The Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors claimed that this report ignored the larger issue concerning the forced separation of single mothers and their children.
Yet, women and young girls were not the only victims of this policy of ‘containment’ as James M. Smith puts it in his analysis of “Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and The Nation’s Architecture of Containment”. State reports later showed that children who were victims of institutional and clerical child sexual abuse were also incarcerated in these institutions and locked away from the public eye. Moreover, illegitimacy and infanticide were also reasons for the exclusion of society.
James M. Smith, once again, argues that this ‘culture of containment’ is a consequence of the then emerging national identity of Ireland. In addition, the necessity for Irish society to conform to the idea of ‘community over the individual’ and ‘Catholic moral values’ acted as a catalyst in the collusion of church, state, and, inevitably, society on this matter. As a matter of fact, even though the Church ran many of Ireland’s social services, and the institutions were run mainly by nuns, the Mother and Baby homes received state funding.
Life in these institutions consisted of a strict regime of prayer, silence, and work in a laundry, and what was once a project of rehabilitation and reform, mainly turned into punitive action. Relatives and anonymous testimonies alleged many babies were mistreated because they were born to unmarried mothers. Moreover, there are reports of verbal abuse perpetrated by nuns, being addressed as “sinners” and “spawns of Satan”.
In these homes, according to government records, the mortality rate for children born from these ‘fallen women’ was often more than five times higher than those born to married parents. We can, once again, discuss the naturally high mortality rate of the time, and the non-existent vaccines which could’ve saved thousands of children, but we can not ignore the conditions in which these people were held in.
During the Commission’s investigation, for example, some of the mothers in the homes reported “having to do physically exhausting work up to the verge of giving birth, or very soon after (as little as two or three days) immediately afterwards (…)”. This was not only cruel but a potential health risk to these women given that while cleaning “post-birth stitches [burst], flooding the floor with blood”. Moreover, nuns would often “re-dirty” the surfaces that had been cleaned, forcing them to repeat tasks.
The children that resulted from sex out of wedlock, were also victims of this kind of abuse. Some accounts tell a story of neglect.
“I was locked into a dark room for a day, or sometimes two”, “I was never sent to school”, “I used to wet the bed at night, and every morning, the nun would hit me before she grabbed my left ear (…). Doctors told me that my ear suffered permanent damage.”, “[We] were the product of an evil union and being made to suffer for the sins of your parents.”
Interestingly, one survivor voices what many might think of this situation, “I wonder how they could be so cruel to little children in a religious country.” Indeed, why?
Even though it’s crucial to understand society’s role in these events, we must also question ‘was it society that conditioned the Church’s attitude, or the other way around?’. This is what the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation had to say about the influence of religion on social attitudes:
The Catholic Church did not invent Irish attitudes to prudent marriages or family respectability.
It seems impossible to think that a deeply intertwined country, like Ireland, with the Catholic Church, could escape its prejudices and attitudes concerning these issues. Thus, the Commission’s final report came as a disappointment to many, mainly, because it failed to acknowledge the fault that Church and State had in these people’s suffering, concluding “responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families.”
Communities trusted the clerical body to help them, but the only answer they had, came in the form of shaming and ostracization. Nuns and priests, the main actors in this tragedy, were representatives of the Church, and they acted in a way that perpetuated harmful ideas such as sexual immorality and social exclusion.
The reality is that the Catholic Church has repeatedly been caught red handed when it comes to its participation in systematic abuse and oppression, whilst upholding a deeply misogynistic culture. The need to maintain a ‘pure’ and unrealistic status quo, alongside its ‘moral authority’, gave way to thousands of children being separated from their mothers and vice versa; conditioning any actions that might have been taken to truly help them. All this while there was no discrimination when it came to ‘fallen women’, disregarding victims of paedophilia, rape and incest.
We also know that this isn’t a particular or unique phenomenon to Ireland, nor is it exclusive to the Catholic Church. But we do know that they were one of the main perpetrators of these events, seeing that most were Church-run homes.
Moreover, the relation between Church and State, and their shared interests, also allowed for legislation against contraception, divorce, and censorship to be put in place. Therefore, we might recognize that the stigma revolving around marriage and sex, were far more brutal than any consequence “moral impurity” could have had.
Thus, when looking at these institutions that undoubtedly ruined entire lives on the assumption that the victims led a ‘sinful’ and condemnable conduct, what can we take from the known sins of the Church?