Fr Kevin Hegarty
Last Tuesday another bleak chapter in the social and religious history of modern Ireland was revealed with the publication of the 3,000 page report of the Commission of investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. In the last 15 years there have been State reports on clerical sexual abuse in the dioceses of Ferns, Dublin and Cloyne, the Magdalene Laundries and the industrial schools. Collectively they have unlocked a chamber of horrors in the basement of Catholic Ireland.
Behind the statistics of child and teenage pregnancies, high infant mortality and adoptions without meaningful consent, in the latest report, lies a litany of broken lives.
Up to the 1980s, Ireland was a cold house of Siberian asperity for unmarried mothers. They were usually deserted by the fathers of their children, rejected by their families, spurned by their neighbours and condemned from church pulpits. The harsh assessment of James F Cassidy in 1922 held true for several decades:
“Wherever a child is from outside wedlock, so shocked is public sense by the very unusual occurrence, that it brands with an irreparable stigma and to a large extent, excommunicates the woman guilty of the crime.”
Most of the ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ in Judge Murphy’s report were run by Catholic religious orders. What happened in these institutions is a stark deviation from the compassionate words and actions of Jesus Christ.
In ‘Church and State in modern Ireland 1923-79’, John Whyte documents how the Catholic moral code became enshrined in the laws of the new Irish State between 1923 and 1937. The ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ were a consequence of this collaboration. Underlying their operation was a toxic fusion of a puritanical sexual morality and misogyny.
In the 1920s, Catholic Bishops were obsessed by their perception of a serious decline in sexual morality. In a pastoral letter in 1927, Archbishop Gilmartin of Tuam proclaimed as follows:
“In recent years the dangerous occasions of sin had been multiplied. The old Irish dances had been discarded for foreign importations, which according to all accounts, lent themselves not so much to rhythm as to low sensuality. The actual hours of sleep had been turned into hours of debasing pleasure. Company keeping under the stars of night had succeeded in too many places to the good old Irish custom of visiting, chatting and story telling from one house to another, with the Rosary to bring all home in due time. Parental control had been relaxed and fashions bordering on indecency had become common place, while bad books, papers and pictures were finding their way into remote country places.”
Church leaders tended to blame women for the decline in sexual morality. The editor of the ‘Irish Ecclesiastical Record’ published in Maynooth stated in 1926 that there “has been in recent years a deplorable lowering of the standard of mortality all over the world, and with it has come a laxity in that maidenly decorum in dress and in conduct which is the greatest safe guard of female virtue… it cannot be denied that bowing before the tyranny of present day fashions, women and girls in our towns and cities frequently dress in a way that is calculated to arouse the basest passions, and it is against this that we wish to protest.”
More disturbingly Bishop O’Doherty of Galway went against women. In a sermon in 1924, after deploring the ‘craze’ for dancing, he advised fathers that ‘if your girls do no obey you, if they are not in at the hours appointed, lay the lash upon their backs. That was the good old system and should be the system today’.
A contemporary observer ruefully noted that for ‘lovers to walk the roadside in rural Ireland when the average priest was abroad was a perilous adventure’. The Mother and Baby Homes report should not be allowed to become a short media wonder. It requires a comprehensive response, based on restorative justice, from the State and the Catholic Church.
In her posthumous collection ‘The Historians’, the poet Eavan Boland explores ways in which the hidden history of women can significantly revise our sense of the past. In ‘Eviction’, she wrote of her grandmother being served with an eviction notice in the early 20th century when Irish revolutionary fervour was fermenting:
A woman leaves a courtroom in tears.
A nation is rising to the light.
History notes the second, not the first.
In Judge Murphy’s report, the tears of the women in the Mother and Baby Homes have entered the national historical narrative, and are not to be forgotten.