Irish government launches inquiry into former homes

13 June 2014

PA

Joining hands: people sing songs during a march and candlelit vigil on Wednesday, from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to the gates of Dail Eireann on Merrion Square, Dublin, in memory of the Tuam babies 

Joining hands: people sing songs during a march and candlelit vigil on Wednesday, from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs ...

THE Irish Government announced on Tuesday that it was launching a full commission of inquiry into all mother-and-baby homes that existed across the country from the foundation of the State.

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland had already called on the government to establish an independent commission of inquiry into the allegations that 796 babies and young children were buried in a field behind a mother-and-baby home at Tuam, Co. Galway, between 1925 and 1961.

St Mary's, the home at Tuam run by the Bon Secours Sisters, was one of many that housed unmarried mothers. Many of them were in their teens, and were sent there by their parents, owing to the stigma attached to children born out of wedlock, which existed in Ireland until well into the 1970s. They have been compared to the "Magdalene laundries".

The Minister for Children, Charlie Flanagan, said that the remit of the investigation would cover high mortality rates at the homes, burial practices, and secret and illegal adoptions, and would include the Bethany Home, which operated in Dublin between 1921 and 1972, but which was excluded from a government compensation scheme for survivors (News, 21 March 2013).

It was the findings of a local historian, Catherine Corless, who researched the home at Tuam, which drew attention to the existence of the unofficial graveyard. At her own expense, she paid to obtain the children's death certificates, and thus established their identities.

Many children died from diseases such as measles, fits, and oedema, exacerbated by the conditions in which they were living. In an official inspection carried out in 1947, it was found that there was overcrowding: 271 children and 61 mothers were living there at the same time.

It is thought that other such institutions may reveal similar histories, including one at Bessborough, Co. Cork, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, where one former inmate alleges that up to 3000 infants were buried in a similar fashion.

The RC Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, has welcomed the government announcement of a cross-departmental investigation into the burials, but said that the order of sisters responsible for the running of the home in Tuam had a clear moral imperative to act on their responsibilities in the interest of the common good.

"I can only begin to imagine the huge emotional wrench which the mothers suffered in giving up their babies for adoption, or by witnessing their death. The pain and brokenness which they endured is beyond our capacity to understand. It is simply too difficult to comprehend their helplessness and suffering, as they watched their beloved child die," he said.

On national radio on Sunday, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, had requested a fully independent commission of inquiry. He emphasised the importance of separating such an inquiry from Church, State, or any other organisation involved. "There is an entanglement there that goes right through a period of Irish history. It is only an independent person who would be able to do that," he said.

The home at Tuam had its origins as a workhouse for the poor, erected in 1840 on the Dublin Road. After the foundation of the Irish Free State, in 1922, it became the norm for those pregnant outside wedlock, and usually without means, to be housed in "mother-and-baby homes", thus distinguishing these institutions from those that catered for "the respectable poor".

A group of Evangelical Protestants set up the Bethany Home, in Rathgar, an affluent suburb of Dublin. It had an input from clergy of different Reformed Church denominations.

The State has refused to recognise the part it played in the Bethany Home, even though it was inspected regularly by officials; and the complainants are still seeking compensation under the redress scheme afforded to Roman Catholics.

Taoiseach speaks of Church-State relationship. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, this week spoke of a "disturbing symbiosis between Church and State" on the baby-home revelations.

"This is about the kind of country Ireland was, where women, in particular, were the focus of shame and suppression," he told the Dáil (Parliament). He said that the current controversy remained an issue for Ireland "because, if this is not handled properly, then Ireland's soul, in many ways, will lie, like the babies of so many of these mothers, in an unmarked grave".

The Irish Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference publicly apologised on Tuesday for the part played by the Church in the culture of isolation and social ostracisation of unmarried mothers, which the Bishops acknowledged was harsh.

They said in a statement: "We need to find out more about what this period in our social history was really like, and to consider the legacy it has left us as a people. Above all, we need to enable those who were directly affected to receive recognition and appropriate support."

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