Ireland’s ‘mother and baby home’ scandal explained

The scandal over “mother and baby homes” has cast a dark shadow over Ireland’s recent past, and culminated on Wednesday with a formal state apology.

– What were they? –

“Mother and baby homes” were institutions where women pregnant outside of wedlock were siloed by society, the state and the Catholic church, which has historically held an iron grip on Irish attitudes.

Women gave birth to their children at the homes and mother and child were then separated, often through adoption.

Homes were run in various ways — some funded and managed by local health authorities and others by Catholic religious orders. 

Often church and state worked in tandem to run the homes, which still operated in Ireland as recently as 1998.

According to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (CIMBH) report, published on Tuesday, 56,000 unmarried women and 57,000 children passed through 18 such homes over 76 years.

– What were conditions like? –

Women and children’s experiences varied vastly depending on the home they stayed at and the time of residence, as Ireland’s attitudes to unmarried women evolved.

Earlier “county homes” — general poorhouses which took in pregnant women — had “appalling physical conditions”, the CIMBH found.

In homes expressly for unwed women and their “illegitimate” children, mothers reportedly suffered emotional abuse in a “cold and seemingly uncaring” environment.

Children suffered a high mortality rate at all the homes. According to the CIMBH, 15 per cent — some 9,000 — died.

Unregulated vaccine trials were also conducted on children.

The scale of human experience is difficult to grasp.

But the CIMBH report documents harrowing testimony from residents abandoned by family and society, subject to gruelling treatment and outright neglect by agents of the church and state.

– Why is this happening now? –

The CIMBH was formed in 2015 after a local historian uncovered evidence of a mass unmarked burial site at one such home in the west-coast town of Tuam.

Catherine Corless produced evidence that 796 children, from newborns to a nine-year-old, died at the home, run by the Bon Secours Roman Catholic order of nuns, between 1925 and 1961.

There are no burial records for the children, leading many to believe a mass grave in a disused septic tank discovered in 1975 near the home was the children’s final resting place.

When her research hit newspapers, the vivid metaphor for Ireland’s treatment of “illegitimate” children sparked outrage and prompted a larger state-backed investigation.

Plans are currently underway to excavate the site at Tuam.

– What do survivors think? –

Survivors naturally vary in their response to the CIMBH report — which runs to 3,000 pages — and the resulting state apology.

However there has been criticism that the inquiry has minimised the role which the state and church played in the scandal.

The CIMBH report said there was no evidence women entered homes or gave up children under duress in most cases. It said many had “no alternative”.

However some survivors believe the circumstances of pressure placed on the women by the church and state were tantamount to duress.

“The families were pressurised by church and state,” Paul Redmond, chair of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors, told AFP.

“It was official policy in this country right up to 1974 to essentially separate single mothers and their children.”

There has also been criticism that the inquiry did not dive into a detailed investigation of adoption practices and its decision to investigate only 18 homes.

– What happens next? –

In his statement on Wednesday Martin said “an apology on its own is not enough”.

He said the state will undertake memorialisation and commemorative efforts which will be led by former residents.

He pledged that counselling would be made available to all former residents alongside services allowing them to access personal records of their time at the homes.

Survivors have called for the event to be integrated into Irish education curricula.

Financial redress has also been discussed, with Irish Labour Party leader Alan Kelly suggesting legislation could be used to seize funds from religious institutions for a state compensation effort.