Ever since the scandal of 796 babies buried in the Tuam Mother and Baby home broke slowly in dribs and drabs I've felt like Alice going down the rabbit hole. Each piece of research that I do or read about leads on to an often more horrible piece of evidence surfacing. I am glad that the government have set up their inquiry into the Mother and Baby Homes, I hope it will be as full, frank, transparent and honest as possible and I hope that it will be of some comfort for survivors and their loved ones.
Last week TV3 broadcast a documentary about the Mother and Baby Homes titled A Secret Buried: The Mother and Baby Scandal. I'm going to do a run down of the programme for some twitter followers who are unable to access it from outside of Ireland but anyone in Ireland I would urge you to have a look at it on the 3Player here: A Secret Buried.
As an aside when I sat to re-watch the programme again today to take some notes it was with a certain sense of irony that I heard the bong of the Angelus bells ringing from the local Catholic church through my open balcony door. The second viewing was no less harrowing than my first. Dr. Lindsey Earner Byrne (Professor of History and Archives, University College Dublin) gave a run down of the establishment of the Irish Free State, the workhouses residual from when the country was a part of Britain were converted to County Homes. These County Homes then consisted mostly of poverty stricken people with no ability to work and also contained significant numbers of unmarried women and their babies. Dr. Diarmuid Ferriter (Professor of Modern Irish History, University College Dublin) further elaborates that the state and the church classified the poor into certain categories. There was the 'respectable' or 'deserving' poor and then there was the unmarried mothers classified as 'offenders', 'hardened sinners' and so on. These women it was thought must be kept separate for fear of having a "contagion effect" on public morals. They must also be kept somewhere as both Church and State had a fear of these women travelling to our more liberal neighbour,England and perish the thought that their children might be adopted into 'English, Protestant hands'. In 1924, Séamus Burke, the then Minister for Local Government and Public Health wrote to the Bishop of Waterford, Dr Bernard Hackett on the need to take unmarried mothers out of the County Homes, he said: "both for their own benefit" and in the interests of what he called "the respectable poor who are compelled to seek its shelter, so that there should be no undesirable associations connected with it". Thus began the establishment of Mother and Baby Homes.
Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance outlined some of the conditions of these women and girls who were considered "inmates" in such homes at the time. There would be high walls, big gates, isolated from the wider community so that they would not give the idea that pre-marital sex was normal. The women surrendered their own clothes on entry and wore shapeless uncomfortable uniforms. They were given new names and forbidden to tell the other women their real name. Some of them would have had their hair cut tight or shaved. All of these measures were designed to rob these girls and women of their identity and spirit and ultimately to break them down.
As a result of the stigma at the time many survivors still feel shame today and are unwilling to speak publicly. "Veronica" outlined her experience anonymously to the programme, she gave birth in a Mother and Baby Home in 1971 and her daughter was taken from her. "Veronica" wasn't told about her baby's death and burial until long after the fact. She rang the hospital from a public phone one day and the nurse told her "your baby was in a very bad condition when she arrived here and she only lasted two days". "Veronica" still carries the weight of those days although she knows what happened was wrong. She says it is "desperate (to be) put down as somebody bad, when you're not."
St Mary's Mother and Baby Home operated in Tuam, Co. Galway from 1925 to 1961 by the Bons Secours nuns was the starting point for the breaking story a number of weeks ago. JP Rodgers was born there in 1947 and he speaks about his experiences of being "forcibly separated (from his mother) by Church and State" when he was one year old. Rodgers was kept in Tuam until he was about five and a half or six. He states that it was a lottery how you would get out of the home between fostering, adoption, malnutrition or sold. He was not reunited with his birth mother until he was thirty-four years old and described it as "probably the greatest day" of his whole life. Rodgers said that when he met with his mother she had kept a lock of his hair that she cut on the day they were forcibly separated she spoke of being stigmatised as a 'fallen woman' and branded 'evil' and ostracised as a threat to society. He also tellingly notes that "the men were never ostracised or accused of anything".
In the 1970's the Tuam Mother and Baby Home was demolished to make way for a housing estate. Frankie Hopkins speaks of when he was a boy at the time uncovering the tank filled with little skeletons. A couple of days later the boys were told never to go back to the site, a priest was called to bless the area and no more would be spoken about it. There was a shrine carefully kept and maintained by local people. Catherine Corless, the historian who was instrumental in bringing this mass grave of children to light purchased the 796 death certificates of the babies and children at a cost of over €3000. The children died at a rate of about twenty-two a year of TB, measles, malnutrition etc. No one appeared to know where they were buried. JP Rodgers speaks about it as he realises he may have been one of the 'lucky' ones and rightly asks "Do (those children) not deserve something better?"
This leads to a question mark over all of the Mother and Baby institutions. Nobody in the State appears to know where the bodies of these children are in a case of disposal rather than burial.
I'll leave this post here as it's turning out to be quite long and tomorrow I'll resume with A Secret Burial's detailing of the Bessborough and Bethany Mother and Baby Homes, the vaccine trials that were done on babies and children in those homes and the adoption and sale of some of those children.