Guest post: Another chapter of Irish shame and Catholic morality

June 10, 2014 • 12:04 pm

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:
In the eyes of local government officials, the opinions of ‘respectable’ women opinion counted more than that of the family itself; by Sean Lucey, Irish Times

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.

67 thoughts on “Guest post: Another chapter of Irish shame and Catholic morality

  1. As an Irish person, I had a knee-jerk reaction to defend my country of birth when the “Irish Nazis” story appeared here.

    Unfortunately, in this case Ireland fully deserves every ounce of opprobrium heaped in it’s direction. Firstly because Tuam is only scratching the surface of this horror. Other similar ‘care’ homes existed all over the country. Secondly because the State fully colluded with the Church in the application of this odious Catholic doctrine.

    My country is shamed. There can be no mitigation whatsoever.

    1. The country is shamed by this, but I don’t think you need to feel shame for being Irish. There have also been so many Irish people who have shown integrity, bravery and resilience over the years.

      1. I know. Thank you for your nice message. My grandmother for one was a beautiful person — deeply religious, but beautiful. These stories just make me so sad.

  2. Thanks very much. Literally sickening though.

    I recommend the movie Philomena which follows one of these young women, now elderly, in her attempts to contact her son, taken from her for adoption to the US. Heartbreaking performance by Judi Dench (a truly great actress).

    1. Philomena was a surprising good movie to watch and something I recommend for everyone and clearly related to this topic.

      1. Read the book. Takes in how the US (under Reagan) allowed AIDS to go unresearched because it suited the politics of the day to call it god’s punishment for perversion.

    2. When reading about this in the news, I also had to think of the movie “The Magdalene Sisters” by Peter Mullan. It’s very good, and very moving, describing the fate of “fallen” women in so-called asylums (they were also called “laundries”).

      I’m now adding Philomena to my to-see list.

  3. Ahh, the superior morality of the Catholic church. As any casual observer will note, religious morals derived from some superior being, are so inferior to human derived morality that it seems ludicrous to argue any benefit to the former.

    In regard to this article, this did not happen so very long ago. Each generation looks back and thinks, “not in our time.” As many recognize it’s just as possible today, and anyone who discounts or argues that this is in the past is ignorant. No, the ignorance of the religious is just as dangerous now, as then. Hence, stories like this are very relevant to arguments for the end of religion and its crimes against humanity.

    1. Christians support their morality by ignoring or excusing the obvious failures of their morality. That type of thinking is immature and repugnant.

  4. Thanks for the summary, Grania. Jerry told me when I flagged the story to him a couple of days ago that he’d got a correspondent working on it. Nice job – I can’t tell where the joins are between the clear light of day (exposing bad practices in the past) and the dripping vitriol of the godless heathen (as I’m sure you’ll be castigated for even noticing the issue).
    What can I say that the raw facts of the story don’t say themselves? Verily, the behaviour of the churches is one of the best advertisements for freedom from religion that they have made. What a loathsome institution.
    One point of substance – the story I sent to Jerry didn’t mention wet-nursing as a task for the … let’s not mince words … slaves. Does that mean the same in Irish English as it does in British English : the slave, having been separated from her own child, has to give tit, for suck, to the child of the employer?
    That implies that the employer doesn’t have milk to give.
    I accept that there are perfectly valid reasons for some women being unable to nurse their own children (the endless complaints form one sister about cracked nipples being but one medical reason), but I strongly suspect that one major source of demand for such employment would have been the (forced) adoption of the children of the slave women to “good” women … who hadn’t been through the months of hormonal battery needed to turn their tits into milk bars.
    Which squares a very nasty, self-fulfilling circle. One slave gives suck to another slave’s child, both in bondage to a system sponsored by and enforced by the coercive power of the state.
    “Religion poisons everything,” in Hitch’s famous formulation. But even without the religious element, this would have been pretty foul.
    Would you like some vitriol to go with your clear light?

    1. Vitriol is sometimes the only response one can muster. At other times, it is just so saddening that vitriol seems impossible. You should read the report of the midwife’s memoir (the last link in the second-last paragraph).

  5. The only remedy to any human ill, including (and perhaps especially) faith-based lunacy, is critical thinking and sound reasoning. And which ancient and enduring societal institution is it that most adamantly opposes both critical thinking and reasoning?

  6. I’m reminded of the scene in Lawrence of Arabia when the British General visits the Military hospital in Damascus, after the Arab army has withdrawn and Lawrence is there by himself (more or less).

    My reaction would be the same: Outrageous! in the loudest, most derisive tone possible.

  7. There were almost never any social consequences for the men. In some countries, including England, they could pay a fine. £50 I think. So the wealthy man could buy his way out of sin.

    Religion creates sin where there should be compassion and support, then creates the means for redemption. Women suffer more than men, the poor more than the wealthy etc.

    Religion has nothing to do with morality like rape has nothing to do with sex. It’s about power, and the misuse of it.

    1. Indeed. From the last article linked to in Grania’s story above:

      …Ms Goulding, who was tormented at the injustice of making young mothers suffer when their babies’ fathers were never taken to task by society.

      Then again, she said, most of the fathers did not know if a woman was pregnant, as it would have “been too shameful” for the women to tell them.

      One also wonders how many of those conception events were totally consensual on the woman/girl’s behalf…

      1. I would bet very few. There is also a goodly chance that many of the fathers were the girls’ “fathers” one way or another. “You are sinful little girl. Let me show you the organ of catholic love. Lay down”

  8. It will be interesting to see if the memorial that will eventually be erected will bear a crucifix or some other religious iconography. If the organisers of the memorial agree to it, it would be beyond appalling.

    I truly hope they don’t.

    And if there is some kind of memorial service at the site, I sincerely hope that they do not invite any representative of either the Bon Secours order or the Catholic church. They have no business being near that place ever again.

  9. Well, the good thing about a bad story like this is it can’t get much worse, right?

    In harrowing new information revealed this weekend, the Daily Mail has uncovered medical records that suggest 2,051 children across several Irish care homes were given a diphtheria vaccine from pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome in a suspected illegal drug trial that ran from 1930 to 1936. …

    … Mari Steed, who was born at the Bessborough home in the ’60s, told the Sunday Independent,“We were used as human guinea pigs.”

    What Ireland is only now beginning to fully investigate and understand is a story involving potentially thousands of children who were almost certainly neglected and mistreated, and whose deaths were addressed as a mere trash disposal issue. It is now believed a total of upward of 4,000 children were similarly disposed of in other homes across the country. … This is what the Catholic Church of Ireland is capable of, when it is given free rein over the bodies of its most vulnerable members. And an official inquiry hasn’t even begun. As Michael Dwyer told the Mail this weekend, “What I have found is just the tip of a very large and submerged iceberg.”

      1. Ouch! That was a very deep hole.

        The children abuse case data base seems legit as per cases. But even that started to speculating in mixing sexual abuse with total abuse, and out of court cases with court statistics. (Taken as suggested, they implicate 1 billion children in several places, 10 million known abuse cases which would be 10 % convicted out of 10 % going public. Not credible IMO.)

        And the prosecution stuff is still open I think. If they can prove it, it is proof of human trafficking in children. To add to the slavery described above.

        1. Agreed, the numbers are suspect. The cases of abuse at the Canadian Catholic native residential schools have been well documented though.

      2. I found the source of that deep hole on RationalWiki, since googling was going in circles:

        “The International Tribunal into Crimes of Church and State (or ITCCS) is a one-man blog that pretends to be a tribunal established to enforce common law.[1] Despite claims of being based in Brussels, the whole thing is written in Canada by Kevin D. Annett, a defrocked[2] United Church of Canada minister. …

        Previously, Annett had made his money claiming to represent the interests of native Canadians. Until they told him to damn well stop it.[4][5] …

        Before his press releases about arresting popes, Annett was known for making extensive claims of exposing ritual murder of native children by government schools.”

        [ ]

        Still, the referenced data sheet may be legit. I checked one source (goes to a seemingly legit Wikipedia page), and seem to remember the Swedish few sex abuse cases as they have been mentioned in media.

        The rest, the allegations, is just circling a sink hole of insanity, fed by Annett and some real cases. We’ll see what will float up into the light eventually.

      1. As I remember it when hearing of trials on children and checking it the first time, vaccine’s effect on children is separate trials. (Unless, I think, the vaccine is developed directly for them.)

  10. I can’t say much about the unnecessary suffering, it is so large.

    But I remember I was hard on the catholic church then that entered media. The children’s home was run by roman catholic nuns* (as per the link here), and is (I think from the then news) ordering the local church to cooperate with the investigation. The church that can’t cooperate, or even apologize, when it comes to men and leaders in pedophile collusion can readily cooperate when it comes to businesses organized by their women.

    *Ironically, the organization name Bon Secour means “good help”.

  11. You said that “illegitimate” children were tarred with the brush of their *parents” “misdeeds.” No, it was the women who were held solely responsible for the pregnancy outside of marriage. If not, why weren’t there “homes” for boys who made girls pregnant (as there were not)? I remember sex-segregated classes in public schools, and for catechism–in the US!–that forced upon us girls the idea that “no good girl” had sex before marriage, though they didn’t put it exactly that way. My brother does not remember the same for boys. Though, fairly, he may not have listened and was 8 years younger, when things may have changed. I’m talking about the early 1960s here. I do remember how it was hushed up when a girl who was in my class had an abortion (illegal) and died, at 13.

    1. Dianne, I fear that not much has changed. Particularly when it comes to the double standard. I remember my older sister coming home in tears when she attended mass with a Catholic friend. This was during the late 1980’s, and she said that the Priest scared her so much, made her feel so guilty that she couldn’t hold back tears on the ride home. She was 14 at the time and I remember her asking my mother if she was already doomed to hell because she had kissed her boyfriend. A few years later I attended a basketball camp with about 40 other boys aged 14-17. One of the coaches went off on this rant one day about how we shouldn’t engage in pre-marital sex . . . we basically laughed in his face. The idea, for us, was ludicrous. Boys get to laugh this stuff off, knowing that no one expects us to behave ourselves in such a manner, but girls are made to internalize not just the shame they are made to feel about themselves, but they are also made to deal with al of the shame that men, given license to do so by religion, project back onto them. It wasn’t fair then and its not fair now. But I’ll be damned if it’s still unfair in the future.

    2. Babies born out of wedlock were denied catholic baptism, and burial in consecrated ground when they died. They were despised by good catholics for having been born in sin. So in addition to the mistreatment of both mother and child, the mother got the extra pain of believing that the child she brought into the world would be denied heaven, and spend eternity being tortured. Because god is love and all that.

      1. So, let’s see if we’ve got this straight. Original Sin–you are born in filth, worthy of eternal torment for merely being born. Only through vicarious redemption are you worthy of anything. But, for these babies, even that isn’t enough. Why? For supposedly be born in filth. Faith and reason; not only don’t they mix, they are polar opposites.

  12. Yet another example of religious inspired shame morality causing unimaginable mistreatment of real human beings and, of course, those that are made to bear the suffering are women and women alone. I know the Catholic Church is not synonymous with scholarship in the field of biology, but surely they must have realized that a man got those women pregnant. Where is the opprobrium for him? Of course there is none, because the rules that landed these women in the workhouse aren’t about virtuousness or chastity, they’re about controlling female sexuality. Until we reach a point in which the value of an individual’s personhood is completely disconnected form traditional religion based gender roles and biases, until society learns that character has nothing to do with the way one expresses oneself sexually, little will change and the world is rendered lesser by the oppressive specter of religion and its trespasses.

  13. My dad was born at such a place in Nova Scotia, Canada. His birth mom had him out if wedlock and if you couldn’t pay, they killed the child and buried him or her in a bread box. They were known as bread box babies and when my dad did some research into his past (he was adopted and you quickly have the door slammed in your face as the law protects the privacy of those who give up the child even after they are dead if there are other offspring), the official said he was lucky to have made it out of there alive. He even has papers saying he would be put to work if not adopted. As far as I know this was a government institution. His mother was of English descent (1st generation in Canada) and his father Irish but protestant. We know little else if his biological family.

    1. That’s awful. Did they get rid of the kids via neglect or was it even more heinous? Did your dad ever embrace Catholicism? Sorry for the nosiness, I just wonder since I’ve seen believers stay devout through much worse.

      1. Here is a brief summary at this link. It was run by Seventh Day Adventists (which I didn’t know until now). Funny, my mom detests them as her Anglican family got saved by them and therefore infiltrated the family with horribly oppressive ideas.

        My dad’s adoptive family (the MacPherson’s) raised him as a Baptist. Through marriage with Irish Catholic immigrants (my great aunt) and his own adoptive mother (my grandmother) who was Catholic (her family immigrated to Canada during the potato famine) he was exposed to Catholicism. It is why I have Catholic relatives now. But, my dad hated going to Sunday school and hated religion so was an atheist putting up with it. This is why I was raised as an atheist.

        1. I’ll definitely check out the book and/or movie. I can definitely relate somewhat to your family dynamic. I’ve been married over a decade and got married in the Catholic Church. For the most part, even then my wife and I were Christmas/Easter Catholics and it’s only a few years ago after we had kids that ironically, in an attempt to “return to the faith” and justify it that I really started thinking about things and realized not only the utter nonsense of it all, but really fully came to grips with the evil religion causes (well, maybe not yet fully as I continue to find documented evidence of things like the Butterbox Babies). At least, I’m to the point where nothing surprises me anymore.

          Unfortunately, my parents have gone the complete opposite way, only becoming more devout as they age. My dad was ordained a Deacon just a couple of years ago. I don’t really bring up religious topics with them, but I’m glad to see my oldest son is already asking critical questions when he hears Bible passages. He even told me a few weeks ago that “this Yahweh is pretty crazy.” Needless to say I wouldn’t have gotten away with this growing up. My grandfather was an atheist (that’s what the South Pacific in WWII will do to you) and much of my childhood was spent saying rosaries and novenas for his eternal salvation. So yeah, basically religion in my family was something that was done, not discussed. I’ll stop rambling now as this is straying way off topic.

    2. I meant to say “butter box”. I wrote this on the train at the end of the day so my brain and fingers weren’t listening to one another.

  14. And then the cases, too, of mothers’

    i) missing, boat children absconded to western Australia documented here:

    and ii) taken / absconded children to assimilate them away from those evil women into truly christian environs: .

    Both: christian religions’ instigated / poisoned.

    About female human beings: the control of all of them thereof with dominion and power over: .N.O.T. at all different in christian religions’ environments than in the patriarchal / androcentric islamic / muslim ones.

    In .ALL. aspects of life, the same: CONTROL those .wicked. .witchy. .wimminz.


  15. Thank you, Grania.

    Growing up in the 50’s, in Portland, OR, I remember an “older” (high school age, I imagine) neighbor girl being shunted off to one of these homes and never mentioned again.

    Later, in the 60’s, the younger sister of one my best friends was mysteriously sent away “on vacation.” She, at least, returned with her baby, sometime later, to the complete shock of the new aunt.

    In high school there was always talk about “those girls”–you knew who they were–who tended to disappear inexplicably as well. These stories were not just limited to Catholics.

    That’s the era present-day conservatives look back on with such fondness…

    It’s still the case that the brunt of the opprobrium is borne by the girl (most are hardly yet women). A girl in my son’s high school was ostracized for giving birth; if the father was even known, I have no idea, but there would have been no repercussions, and perhaps bragging rights in some circles, for him.

    That was 10 years ago. I now see stories about obviously pregnant girls attending high school–indeed, there was one at my daughter’s high school–so I guess that’s progress…

  16. Just to arouse everyone’s justified rage and disgust even more, I recommend having a look at the testimony regarding the rape of children given by Robert Carlson, the Archbishop of St Louis, about a month ago. He is a liar tout court, and utterly shameless and cowardly – lacking in any kind of moral virtues. A soft-spoken, fraudulent thug. You can see the video on Ophelia Benson’s blog, Butterflies and Wheels, or Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo.

  17. Actually, I think it was Andrew Sullivan’s blog ‘The Daily Dish’, and not Josh Marshall’s; good for Sullivan for taking the matter up, but how he can remain attached to that appalling institution I fail to understand.

  18. If you want to be disgusted, read some of the catholic blogs on patheos. The nuns were kind and Tuam was a model home. It turns out that it may be an exaggeration that 800 babies were buried in a septic tank, in fact it might not have been a septic tank, and some of the babies might be buried in different unmarked graves. So, by great powers of deduction, this is PROOF that everything was sweetness and light. Oh, and my favorite, the stigma placed on these poor girls was the fault of”society”. Religion played no role in creating the stigma.

    1. Yes, the apologists are jaw-droppingly awful.

      The 796 death certificates are real. How many of them were put into the tank is unknown, and Catherine Corless has never claimed to know.

      Her point is that nearly 800 children died in the “care” of this Home because they did not receive the food or medical care that they needed.

    2. It’s justifications like these that make discussion impossible. My father is a Catholic Deacon. I’m not sure how this came up recently, but we were discussing the pedophilia problem. He “corrected” me saying it’s not pedophilia that is the problem, but ephebophilia. I actually had to go look that word up. Anyhow, the reason for using this term instead was that it isn’t a pedophilia problem, it’s a gay problem because many of the abused had reached sexual maturity and labeling it pedophilia is a liberal media attack on the Church. I pretty much just dropped the conversation then after pointing out that this is a distinction without a difference. How in the world can views like this possibly be reasoned with?

      1. You’re a good son to drop it. I would’ve said, “dad, just so you know, when you say things like that, you sound like Vladimir Putin”. I’m sure your dad would not like that comparison. My dad would probably laugh about it.

      2. I had a catholic friend who tried to explain to me that celibacy really only means not getting married, so priests didn’t violate their vows when they fathered children. She was a smart lady until she rediscovered catholicism.

        1. Hmmm…a priest once told me that I had “severed my relationship with God” when I confessed to masturbating when I was a teenager. I guess had I been ordained and had the Holy Spirit come unto me, it’d have been a different matter?

  19. When there is a universe of interesting ‘science’ to explore, why do the religious focus instead on sin, sin, sin? I am beginning to wonder if belief in religion addles people’s brains?

  20. I have a hunch that Ireland is the European country that is “losing its religion” faster than any other.
    After the fiddling-priests scandal and the refused-abortion-case outrage this is another reason why that would be the case. Another nail in the coffin? Let’s hope so.

    The Irish have long known about these homes as well as the related Magdalene Laundries, and the current generations totally abhor that past (I know because my in-laws are Irish).

    1. That depends on how you define losing religion.
      The churches are largely empty on Sunday and most people pay no attention at all to what the Church instructs its to members do, assuming they even know what the Church teaches in the first place. Apathy is probably the dominant feeling about religion.

      However, in the last census 84% of people in Ireland self-identified as Catholic; most of them are comfortable with maintaining the status quo of baptism & first communion (which gets prepared for in school during normal teaching hours) of their kids; as well as apparently comfortable for the Church to retain its ownership of tax-payer-financed hospitals and schools. Worst of all, politicians are afraid of upsetting the status quo and drag their feet when it comes to reforming old draconian laws that have the Church’s grubby fingerprints all over them (divorce, abortion, religious oaths in public office. etc.)

      1. The priest in my parish growing up was from Mullingar, Ireland. Looking back on it, I’ve wondered whether he wasn’t an atheist himself. His homilies often consisted of jokes and references to Notre Dame football and my parents constantly complained about how liberal he was. I actually quite enjoyed Masses with him, as he’d often have us in and out in 35 minutes, especially when football was on. I suspect that it’s not only the laity, but many clergy members who just go along to get along. This was well prior to Dan Barker’s Clergy Project, and that at least provides a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence that there’s many clergy members who simply don’t buy into this stuff.

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