A Commission of Investigation has established that some 9,000 babies and children died over eight decades in Irish ‘Mother and Baby’ homes, but a limited report and an official State apology have only increased demands for full redress for a history of murderous neglect and misogyny.
Around 56,000 people – from girls as young as 12, to women in their 40s – were sent to the 18 institutions investigated, where some 57,000 children were born, according to the report.
One in seven of those children never left the homes alive, yet no alarm was raised by the State over the high mortality rates.
The homes run by both Catholic and Protestant religious orders accommodated pregnant women before their newborn babies were removed for potential adoption, mainly to the USA.
With the support of the state and aided by a culture of taboo, the homes and orphanages facilitated hidden abuses in a manner similar to the infamous Magdalene Laundries until they eventually closed, the last closing in 1998.
Dotted around the island of Ireland, they came to public attention thanks to the harrowing discovery of a mass grave of babies and infants near one home in Tuam, County Galway by local folk historian Catherine Corless in 2012.
In response to the outcry over Corless’s work, a Commission of Investigation was set up in and its final report was published this week. However, it was controversially leaked last Sunday in a clear damage limitation exercise.
The report called the infant mortality rates the most “disquieting feature of these institutions” and said nothing was done, even though it was “known to local and national authorities” and was “recorded in official publications”.
Prior to 1960, mother and baby homes “did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival,” it said.
The survivors of the homes have criticised the final report as incomplete, a cop-out, and worse. They also say it has not brought the closure or solace they wanted.
The Coalition of Mother And Baby Home Survivors, an umbrella group, said it had “mixed feelings” over what it termed a “truly shocking” but “incomplete report”.
They said there was “strong evidence of physical and emotional abuse” and that “women were made to scrub floors and stairs and treated as slave labour and were also treated appallingly while in childbirth by denial of doctors, medical equipment and painkilling drugs”.
The group said the report ignores the larger issue of the forced separation of single mothers and their babies and that the suggestion that what occurred was due to “societal failures” is a “cop out”.
They added: “It is clear from the report that the mothers and children in the homes suffered gross breaches of their human rights; in fact what occurred was downright criminal.”
Speaking on RTÉ radio, Catherine Corless said the initial response from survivors to the report has been one of disappointment and that the report “skimmed over” the issue of illegal adoptions.
“We need to know what happened [with] all the deaths,” she said, adding she wanted to know if the full report would delve into who was responsible for discarding the bodies of babies and toddlers in a sewage area in Tuam.
Ms Corless also said an apology from the religious orders at local level and the Church – including possibly from the Vatican – was required, as many survivors are upset at the idea that all of society was to blame.
One victim, Philomena Lee, said Ireland must ensure that the atrocities carried out at such institutions are never repeated, saying the country owes it to both survivors and those who have died.
Lee was sent to Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home in Co Tipperary in 1952 when she was pregnant and her son was later adopted without her consent.
Her life story was made into an award-winning film, Philomena, in 2013.
Recalling her own experience, Lee said: “I endured a very painful, breech birth and was taunted by the nuns, who said that my pain was a punishment for my promiscuity; they even told the other girls, to get down on their knees and pray for me as I might not survive.”
She said her son Anthony, now known as Michael Hess, “was selected for trafficking to America without my knowledge or consent”.
“Shortly after his third birthday, he was suddenly taken by the nuns along with his best friend, Mary, and sent off to Shannon Airport to fly to the US for a new life, with strangers, when he had never before left my side or even the grounds of Sean Ross Abbey.”
She said her grief was “devastating”.
“It broke my heart all over again when I discovered that Anthony had returned many times to Sean Ross Abbey, looking for word of me, only to be told by the nuns that I could not be traced and that in any case, I had abandoned him when he was a few days old…
“Anthony would ultimately die, without hearing from the nuns that they knew exactly where I was was and most cruelly, without telling him, that he and I had lived together for three years, that I had loved him and without telling him that it was my dearest wish to find him, hold him and tell him how much I loved him.
“I also wanted this for my daughter Jane and my son Kevin, who were desperate to know their elder brother.”
Lee and her family worked with the Adoption Rights Alliance to find out information about Anthony, and established the Philomena Project in 2014 to help other families affected.
But it is still not clear what tangible actions the 26 County state will ultimately take, or whether the authorities in the North will even undertake an investigation.
The Dublin government has mentioned the possibility of “financial recognition” to the specific groups identified in the report, and promised to support exhumation of remains at burial sites, but has not met demands for detailed research into events on behalf of each of the victims.
In his response, Taoiseach Micheal Martin said: “On behalf of the government, the state and its citizens, I apologise for the profound generational wrong visited upon Irish mothers and their children who ended up in a mother and baby home or a county home.
“As the commission says plainly - ‘they should not have been there’.”
“I apologise for the shame and stigma which they were subjected to and which, for some, remains a burden to this day.
“In apologising, I want to emphasise that each of you were in an institution because of the wrongs of others. Each of you is blameless, each of you did nothing wrong and has nothing to be ashamed of. Each of you deserved so much better.”