/How a God-fearing Ireland shamed, abandoned and punished its ‘fallen’ women and girls

How a God-fearing Ireland shamed, abandoned and punished its ‘fallen’ women and girls

IRELAND WAS A God-fearing nation for much of the 20th Century, some people argue it still is.

But the level of influence and power exerted by the Catholic Church in decades gone by is hard to fathom at times.

Those days often seem long gone but, every now and then, we get a stark reminder of how recent they were and the repercussions they still have.

The long-awaited final report on the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation was published today.

The document, spanning 2,865 pages and over five years in the making, details the experiences of women and children who lived in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes between 1922 and 1998.

It confirmed that about 9,000 children died in the 18 homes under investigation – about 15% of all the children who were in the institutions. It also explored how women ended up in the institutions and how they were treated while there. 

The report notes: “While mother and baby homes were not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon, the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or county homes in the twentieth century was probably the highest in the world.”

There were about 56,000 women and about 57,000 children in the mother and baby homes and county homes investigated by the Commission. The greatest number of admissions was in the 1960s and early 1970s.

It is likely there were a further 25,000 women and a larger number of children in the county homes which were not investigated; admissions to county homes were largely pre-1960.

Many had to take part in forced labour and their children were taken from them without their consent.

The final report included several references to something we already knew about Ireland.

For many years the worst thing you could do wasn’t commit rape, incest or murder – ‘falling’ pregnant out of marriage was much, much worse. And it had to be punished. 

These ‘fallen’ women and girls brought shames to themselves, their families, their parish – or so the story goes. They carried so much shame there was none left for the men and boys, sometimes their rapists, who got them pregnant.

Tens of thousands of them were sent to mother and baby homes or similar institutions to have their baby in secret and atone for their sins.

People trusted, or feared, the Church so much that their daughters were handed over almost without question. A priest or nun would be called upon – or take it upon themselves – to ‘fix’ the problem and hide the source.

According to the testimonies of some women, such was the trust, or fear, people had in priests, some also doubled up as gynaecologists.

An internal exam by a priest

One survivor recalled how, at the age of 16, she was in a relationship and became pregnant. She didn’t realise she was pregnant until she was seven months along.

She told her boyfriend, who told his mother, who was friendly with the local priest. She was then taken to the priest’s house, by both sets of parents.

The report notes: “She told the Committee that he examined her internally, taking 45 minutes about it, saying that he ‘needed to establish whether (she) had been sexually active for a while’ – because if she had, he said, she ‘would not be accepted into a mother and baby home’.”

According to this woman, her mother called her “a prostitute and a whore”.

The report noted that three of her uncles were priests and her parents were worried about how her pregnancy would affect them.

Both sets of parents were also very concerned, she said, about how “an unmarried pregnancy” would affect the careers of the witness’s brothers: ‘Everyone was being thought of but me’.

At all costs, Ireland had to protect its men.  The Taoiseach put a name on that today: misogyny. This is what it looks like.

Her words were among the many, many harrowing testimonies contained in the report. They paint a picture of how women were shamed, stigmatised, punished and ‘othered’.

‘We were othered’

Micheál Martin said the report “opens a window into a deeply misogynistic culture in Ireland”. The Commission may have opened a window, but the door of the institution was firmly locked.

Mary Harney, who was born in the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork in 1949 and spent several years in the Good Shepherd Industrial School, says she feels a mix of “anxiety, anger and here we go again” about the report’s publication. 

Mary says women like her mother were “stigmatised in order to ‘other’ them”, so they were viewed as different to other people.

Referencing the work of political theorist Hannah Arendt, who spoke out about stigmatisation, Mary says the method of stigmatisation used in such institutions was that “you create them as fallen women and you then isolate them for the good of the morals of society”. 

The women’s children, people like Mary, were stigmatised too – by being labelled “illegitimate” and not afforded the same rights as others.

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Mary Harney pictured in the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Cork, circa 1955.

Source: Mary Harney

Many people were complicit in propping up the system that abused these women and children, but ultimately Mary thinks the buck stops with the State.

“The Constitution of Ireland protected the family big time – Article 41 protected family life – and yet at the same time, the State destroyed the lives of over 162,000 people.

“You cannot claim the moral high ground when you do that. Society was complicit, there is no doubt about that.

There is no doubt about the religious authorities and society, the social workers, the county councils, the doctors, they were all complicit. But the ultimate responsibility belonged to the State, the State could have stopped it at any time.

Many survivors are critical of the fact the Commission says its found “no evidence that women were forced to enter the homes by the Church or State”. This is not the case, survivors argue, saying the same was true in relation to gardaí.

“They took people back to those homes, the Church transported women from England back to Bessborough to have their children. How can they say they were not involved in putting these women into these places? ‘Oh, it was their parents and it was society and it was the County Council.’

“Yes, but who maintains them in there? The Church. And if a woman ran away she was brought back by the guards,” Mary notes.

She says the stance that women “didn’t understand that they were free to leave” is insulting and inaccurate.

“Do not insult me or my mother. Do not insult my mother. Do you think any woman would have stayed there if she was free to leave?”

‘Who gave anybody the right to lock me up?’

Terri Harrison gave birth to a son in the St Patrick’s institution on the Navan Road in Dublin in 1973 when she was 18.

She was pregnant and living London but was “kidnapped” by nuns and brought back to Ireland to have her baby.

Now 66, she is still trying to find her son.

“The only thing that’s good that came out today is the fact that we’re being acknowledged at last. Mothers who were locked away and lived with their silent grief will now have the opportunity to be able to talk about it and cry about it. And that’s something.”

After the webinar some survivors attended with the Taoiseach and Minister Roderic O’Gorman this afternoon, Terri contacted some women who weren’t part of the call – women in their 70s and 80s who waited decades to be told “you did nothing wrong”.

Terri has mixed feeling about the webinar and whether or not the attitudes of government towards survivors have changed.

“There was kind of compassion, but to me it was like something that was very staged, very contrived, very polished, very sanitised, and very much so shifting blame onto parents.

I was abducted from London, put on the plane and brought back to this country and imprisoned in Bessborough and then I escaped got put into Pat’s, but it was no parent or anybody, it was the Catholic Church.

She says many other women faced the same fate – they were not in the homes of their own free will or that of their parents.

Terri says she has asked the same question for many years but “I’ve never got an answer”.

“And the question is, who gave anybody the right to lock me up? Nobody. I’ll answer that.

“Today is a prime example of shifting accountability. This is not about blame, this is about acknowledgement. This is about openness and transparency and allowing people to be able to open up about it and for people to learn about us. And then we can start to heal.”

‘Your bastard child’

James Russell (58) was born in St Patrick’s institution on the Navan Road in 1962 “to a young petrified mother who under pressure from the Church and society had no choice but to be there”.

His grandmother and a neighbour signed them out of the home, he believes, in return for a fee. His mother, Kathleen, had been kept away from him in the institution and struggled to bond with him.

She moved to England and James was “given to childless neighbours to raise as their son”. He says they were “good people” but took him out of school at 13 years of age so he could take up full-time work in a factory, “handing most of my earnings up”.

James saw his mother over the years but they were never close, she was always “cold” and he couldn’t understand why.

He says he went on to have “a happy, fulfilled life”, counting himself lucky. He got married and had two daughters, while his mother went on to have two other children.

“She was a good mother to them and that kind of made it even worse. I was thinking, ‘What was wrong with me?’ I couldn’t figure it out.

“You have your own children and you love them so much you can’t understand how somebody could feel like that towards their child.”

When his mother was dying from cancer in 2011, James travelled to England to see her and asked why she left him in Ireland and treated him the way she did.

“She told me that when she was forced into going into the home, she was immediately separated from me after my birth.

Up until then she had been conditioned to feel grateful for the sanctuary of the home as she had committed a terrible sin in having sex outside of marriage and they would take care of the bastard child that she would have. Those were the words they used. Basically, ‘we’ll clean up your mess’.

“She said that she was unable to bond with me due to the separation and trauma that she was going through. She apologised and said that she did love me before she died.

“It was a too late for me, I needed to hear this as a young child needed to hear, not as a 48 year old man.”

James says he rarely speaks about his experience but wanted to share his story after the report came out today to show “how lives have been affected in many ways from these inhumane homes”.

He says many other people suffered more than he did but his story shows, even if you were only briefly in an institution, the whole course of your life was changed and impacted forever.

“I blamed her all those years, which you would, you feel rejected. It was only when she was dying that I understood where she was coming from and how [the nuns] totally programmed her to break the bond.”

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Different survivors want different things on foot of the publication of the report – for Mary, the most important aspect is getting access to records such as her birth and medical information.

She says she and others are used to promises and platitude, now they want action.

“This is what we are used to, this is what we expect and this is what crushes us everytime. You know, people have been asking me today how am I feeling and I want to say: What do you think I’m feeling? It’s a mixture of anxiety, anger, here we go again, it’s the same old same old.

“How long will I have to do this work for justice? I’m thinking to myself there won’t be a time when I can retire from working for justice for the people who were institutionalised in Ireland. I don’t see it, when I can put my hands up and say I’m retiring from this because we achieved to set out to achieve.”

Terri says the main positive from today is that more people will be able to speak about their experiences without shame.

“We’ve waited too long to be able to talk about it. To have what happened to us acknowledged is something, it gave us some hope.”

Terri says if the government doesn’t follow through on promises for redress, and medical and other supports for survivors, the Irish people will hold them to account.

“I’m very hopeful because I realised today, and it really hit me very hard, that every change we have made – and there have been great changes in this country – is all down to the Irish people, not the government, not the church, not the EU, us, Irish people.

“I am going to do everything in my power to get the people behind us today to give us back our dignity and respect and above all to treat us like proper human beings.”

Whether or not Ireland learns the lessons of the past, time will tell. 

The government’s narrative is that the State, the Church and society all need to shoulder some blame – which, it could be argued, is fair. But if everyone is to blame, no one is. 

The Taoiseach said that religious organisations who ran the institutions should make an apology to survivors and also “make a contribution“ towards a redress scheme. Some orders have released statements today – containing varying degrees of contrition.

Survivors have been among those to point out that the Church still owes financial compensation to people impacted by previous reports into institutional abuse, so some are not holding out much hope in this regard.

For many, financial redress was never the main goal and still isn’t – it’s about accountability, a State apology and an attempt to right some of the heinous wrongs.

“You know we go in with not a lot of hope and we come out with a glimmer of hope,” Mary says of today.

“But we also have the expectation of here we go again. How many times do we have to take this? How many times do we have to do this?”

The State is the one who must atone for its sins now.

Information on counselling services can be read here.

We’ve been covering what’s in the final report all day – on the site and on Twitter (follow @orlaryan  and @conalthomas for updates). If you or a relative spent time in a mother and baby home or county home and would like to share your experience, please email [email protected] or [email protected].