This is a photo of two of my five children – twins a boy and a girl. It was taken almost thirty years ago and I cannot begin to imagine someone forcing me to part with either of them. Yet they were born at a time when a ‘home’ for unmarried mothers was still in operation. An excerpt from an article in the Irish Examiner written by Claire O’Sullivan tells us about it:
Adoption Rights Alliance Co-Founder, Susan Lohan said that the Tuam scandal is not isolated and that mother-and-baby homes in Ireland were known to have high mortality rates.
In his 1989 book To Cure and To Care — Memoirs of a Chief Medical Officer, former Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health James Deeny spoke of his concerns at the inordinately high child death rates at Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork.
He estimated that 100 out of 180 babies born at the home for unmarried mothers, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, died in one year.
“Dr Deeny was so concerned that he travelled to Cork to visit the home,” said Ms Lohan. “Initially he couldn’t see any reason for the high death rate but then asked one of the nuns if he could look at the babies’ nappies.
“When the nappies were opened, it emerged the babies and toddlers were sitting in putrefying diarrhoea that was being ignored and the nuns wanted it all covered up.”
Ms Lohan said it is widely believed that many children who died in the homes had health and disability needs that were not addressed, or suffered generalised neglect.
Dr Deeny had Bessborough closed temporarily in the 1950s but it reopened and was a home for single mothers until the 1980s.
With the discovery of hundreds of children’s bodies in a mass grave comes the public outrage that should have happened many years ago. Those with the power to force young women to give up their children for adoption had no compassion or sensitivity whatsoever. The most vulnerable in Irish society were being exploited and punished and left to deal with the consequences of other people’s prejudices and so-called piety, many carrying emotional scars for the rest of their lives. I have been hearing all week from different people in my locality who have had relatives who suffered in the past at the hands of those in charge of Mother and Baby ‘Institutions’ (I refuse to call them ‘Homes’ which is the official title they go by).
A friend told me how her husband’s sister was sent to one institution in a city not too far from where we live. She was young, pregnant and unmarried. Her baby daughter was adopted and she spent the rest of her life looking for her. In time she moved to England and settled there. Ten years ago my friend’s family received a letter from a woman who said that she was looking for her birth mother and believed she may be related to them. Unfortunately, the poor woman had died, never knowing that her daughter was also searching for her. As it turned out, mother and daughter had lived just two streets apart in England but never knew. They may have even passed each other on the street. If those records had been made available to that woman before she died at least they would have met and shared some time together before it was too late.
Another woman I was told about, had to stay in the institution where her daughter was born for a year, as an unpaid domestic servant and when she was released they kept her baby. She found work and had to pay a sum of money regularly to those running the institution where her child was being held. That little girl was sent out to work in various places until she was twelve years old, when her mother eventually managed to get her out.
There is an innate desire in many of us to learn about our roots. Whenever I find a missing relative to add to my family tree, after months of searching on genealogy sites, I get a great sense of belonging and connection, even though that person may be a distant relative who died many years before. How particularly meaningful must it be to find the woman who gave birth to you, especially if she is still alive? If she has spent a long time searching for you, too, then you both feel truly blessed. I hope the records that have been kept hidden for so long will now become accessible to those who need and deserve to see them.
Nothing can take the hurt away or repair the damage of what went on in those draconian institutions, but the fact that it happened should be acknowledged and apologies forthcoming. Where compensation is due it should be paid. Those innocent children and their oppressed mothers need to be vindicated of the reproach and degradation that the society of the day heaped upon them.
Here is a link to the synopsis Catherine Corless wrote about her research on the mass grave in Tuam that contained almost 800 children. Mother and Baby Homes
Link to Irish Examiner reporter Claire O’Sullivan’s article.