by Grania Spingies
Some days ago, Jerry published a piece on the Pope’s importuning of married couples to reproduce rather than acquiring pets. The word that I noticed more than anything else was “married,” although I suspect that many didn’t even see it, so irrelevant and archaic now is the concept of legitimate births. As an ex-Catholic, I do notice these things. The Catholic Church has very clear definitions of what constitutes an illegitimate child, and there were very serious consequences for those who found themselves in this category.
One harrowing example has made headlines since The Irish Mail on Sunday featured the findings of historian Catherine Corless. While researching the former Mother and Baby Home, Corless discovered the death certificates of almost 800 babies. But the story goes back much further—to 1975, when boys playing in a field found a lot of skeletons in what has been described as an abandoned septic tank. Virtually nothing was done at the time other than a local priest saying Mass at the site. The story has only now gained attention because of a fund-raising effort by locals wanting to build a memorial to the dead children.
The death certificates show that the children died of malnutrition and disease. Government records going back to the 1930s show that it was an acknowledged fact that “illegitimate” children had an abnormally high death rate: up to five times higher than their “legitimate” counterparts. However, this was not unique to the Tuam Home in Galway. Historian Dr Lindsey Earner-Byrne notes that even in the 1930s the death rates in these sorts of Homes was “undesirably high”.
Women and children who found themselves in these homes were literally at the mercy of their guardians, utterly powerless to free themselves even though most of them were guilty of no crime at all. Not even the pleas of their families could procure their freedom:
Unless a woman who had been handed over to such an institution had access to substantial money, she could expect to be made to work for two to three years as a wet-nurse and laborer, partly to repay the supposed debt of their “keep”, and partly as a punishment for the offense of being pregnant outside of marriage. In a great many cases, mothers were forced to sign their babies over for adoption.
The Limerick City Library Local Studies Team have put together an archive of newspaper clippings which documents that the government of the day was very much in league with the religious orders in setting up, funding and running of these places. The clippings need to read to be believed. The chief concern appears always to be money, followed by concerns about morality. Is £26 too much to pay for the upkeep of a baby per year? How could decent married women share a hospital ward with shameless fallen women who gave birth out of wedlock? How cheaply can we buy those coffins?
And of course, there were worries about what to do with these women afterwards.
The point is that society knew, and to an extent condoned and supported, these Homes. They did this because they believed that sex outside of marriage was a sin and that children born outside of marriage were the product of sin, tarnished by the transgressions of their parents. In spite of the constant wrangling about adequately financing the Homes, children died from malnutrition and disease in numbers far exceeding statistics for those outside these institutions. And apparently, nobody cared very much.
But, as writer Donal O’Keeffe points out, even by the standard of the times the ill-treatment of children in Irish institutions was shocking to some people. Father Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, publicly spoke of the homes as disgraceful. The then Irish Minister for Justice utterly dismissed Flanagan’s comments as exaggerated and unimportant. With such prominent public authorities showing complete indifference to the plight of those suffering under this regime, it is no surprise that nothing was done about the abuses and neglect that ran rampant in Homes and Workhouses run by various religious orders.
If possible, listen to this interview with a survivor of one of these homes. It’s heart-breaking to hear, but nothing we feel can come close to the mental torture this brave woman endured.
If there is any good news that can be derived from this story, it’s that the Irish government has now asked for a full investigation of Tuam’s Mother and Baby Home and others institutions like it. This is essential, if for no other reason than to affirm the dignity of those who survived those places, and to keep alive their memory as a way of ensuring that Catholic morality never again can sanction such behavior, or the forced and illegal adoptions, alleged non-voluntary medical experimentation, and trauma associated with such places.
One question must be asked. How could a supposedly civilize society condone such vilification and abuse of children and unmarried mothers, allowing it to go unquestioned? I am not sure I have the answer, but I am pretty sure it begins with a religion teaching that only children born within a marriage are legitimate, and that sex outside of marriage is a sin.