mind numbing numbers

It’s no secret that Catholic Ireland was a harsh place. It is no secret that child abuse was covered up. It is no secret that unmarried pregnant women were often abandoned by families and the state, and placed in institutions run by the church. We have long known that those responsible for such places claimed to run them from a moral high ground, while selling babies for adoption to the United States and treating the women as, well, I haven’t the words or the knowledge to give their situation its due weight.

I think of those girls and women as slaves. Slaves to misogyny and misplaced authority.

The authority that hid my aunt in a cupboard when the bishop was coming to the school, because her collar was frayed. Our family was large and poor, so the nuns thought the cupboard was the right place for that child. My grandmother, a indomitable force of nature, subsequently put them right. She’d dealt with the self righteous before, and would do so again.

The horror tales from that time- that is, my lifetime & probably yours- seem to have no end.

I’m struggling at the minute to process the latest, unlikely to be the last.

The remains of 796 babies and children were found. In a specially converted septic tank, in Tuam, Co Galway.

Human children, babies, disposed of like shit.

They were born out of wedlock, not christened, and therefore not belonging to ‘God’. The 796 children (and who knows how many more?) were not deemed worthy of care, respect or love. They were Sin incarnate, so nobody looked after them. They died of disease and malnutrition and their wee remains were dumped in a septic tank in a field beside the institution.

image from: http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2012/03/20/irish-catholic-church-leaders-were-negligent-about-abuse-vatican-report-says/
image from: http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2012/03/20/irish-catholic-church-leaders-were-negligent-about-abuse-vatican-report-says/

Where was God?

Those poor, abandoned, children.

Their poor, abandoned mothers slaving to atone for their ‘sin’ of getting pregnant. Their ‘sin’ of birthing a child outside the ‘sanctity of marriage’.

Martina Devlin writes powerfully in the Irish Independent.

 Times were difficult in the early decades of the State, but not so gruelling that children had to die of hunger. That’s down to neglect and underfunding. It is convenient to blame the nuns in Tuam, and elsewhere, for what happened in such homes. Condemnation has been shrill. But at least the Bon Secours sisters put a roof over the heads of mothers and their children when they ran the home between 1926 and 1961.

Unlike the fathers who washed their hands of any involvement in the pregnancies. Unlike the families who turned pregnant women out on the street. Unlike the State which part-funded mother and baby homes but refused to accept any responsibility for the way they were run. Who else was prepared to take in the women? Their options were few. And let us not forget that rape and incest are part of this story, too. How many of these women, some of them just girls, castigated as sinners were sinned against by family members? The smug piety which characterised official Ireland preferred to keep the women out of sight, out of mind. The same applied to the so-called fruits of the women’s sin. It was never a man’s sin.

Religious mindsets shaped social mindsets, shaped government mindsets. People at various levels of society turned a blind eye to how mother and baby homes operated. The septic tank arrangement may not have been widely known, but members of the community knew about the vulnerability of those who were housed in such institutions.

Staff in the homes must have seen how the children were treated. Doctors and nurses in attendance must have seen. Priests paying visits must have seen. Public officials conducting inspections must have seen. Some (not many) spoke out – and were ignored. Widespread discrimination against unwed mothers and illegitimate children allowed it to happen. So, too, did the habit of deference to the Catholic Church, and to other forms of authority.But let’s not rush to point the finger at religious institutions alone.

Blame can be shared. Relatives could have taken the children’s bodies and laid them to rest in the family plot. Indeed, families could have kept pregnant daughters at home, or allowed them to return with their babies after the birth.

A nationwide pattern is visible in such uncompromising attitudes: the insistence with which official Ireland treated unmarried mothers as shameful, and allowed men to escape the consequences of their sexual behaviour. This week, the spotlight falls on the home in Tuam. Next week, it could be any town in Ireland. And while attractive or healthy babies were sold to well-heeled adoptive parents, ailing children were left to sink or swim in cash-starved institutions where they would know little love and much neglect. Survival of the fittest: the State’s policy was Darwinian.

As early as 1934, a Dail debate noted that one in three babies born outside marriage died within their first year – five times the national rate. TDs concluded these children were uncared for – but nothing was done. In 1944, a health board inspection reported overcrowding and neglect, with babies “fragile, pot-bellied and emaciated”. It evokes images from the Famine, but this was within living memory.

796 children. Dumped as waste.

How many more?

If your mind can deal with it, see Tuam Babies: the evidence for further information



7 thoughts on “mind numbing numbers

  1. They discovered the grave in 1975. The parish priest came and said some prayers, then they covered them up again. This is how we do things in Ireland, a nation tranquillised by prayer.

  2. I’ve bookmarked this post to come back and read the articles you’ve shared, Fiona. It’s late here and I’m headed to bed…I can’t read them before trying to sleep. This is really dreadful and hard to fathom on any level. I think most of our countries have similar atrocities, but not all have come to light. The thought of how those mother’s must have suffered and I can’t even think about the suffering of babies. Like I said…I’ll read tomorrow. ox

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