There is a biblical saying that the sins of the fathers are laid upon the children (Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Rarely have the sins of the fathers been so extensively scrutinised in an official report as in the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, published last month by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.
The report spans the years 1922-1998. Among its conclusions is that a primary responsibility for the plight of the children and their unmarried mothers rests with the fathers who evaded their parental responsibilities. The proportion of Irish men who acknowledged paternity was low. Few contributed to the maintenance of their so called “illegitimate” child or acknowledged their existence. Few single women had the financial resources to raise a child without the support of their family or the father of their child.
As most of the unmarried mothers’ families declined to support them, the children, along with their mothers, were abandoned to the mercy of a struggling state. The state, in large part, outsourced its responsibility to religious congregations who ran mother and baby homes. There, instead of compassion and empathy, the mothers and children encountered harsh treatment, cruelty and shame.
Among the report’s many disturbing findings is the appalling level of infant mortality. Some 9,000 children died in the homes, about 15 per cent of all those who entered them. In the years 1945-46, the death rate among infants in mother and baby homes was almost twice that of the national average for “illegitimate” children.
Although the commission concludes that responsibility rests mainly with the fathers of the children and the mothers’ immediate families, President Higgins has joined with survivors and some historians in saying that State and Church “bear a heavy responsibility” for the violation of fundamental rights of women and children in mother and baby homes.
It is the State that is charged with safeguarding the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens, and it is the State that must bear primary responsibility for failing to provide appropriate supports for these tens of thousands of young women and their children. It is important, too, to recognise, and with what consequences, how a newly independent State was captured by a judgemental, authoritarian version of church/State relations that sought to be the sole and ultimate arbiter of morality.
The high rate of infant mortality raised serious questions about the homes: their large size, unqualified staff and inadequate staffing levels, poor management, and the limitations on the local and national authorities’ willingness and capacity to implement reforms.
Although the first report of the registrar general of the Irish Free State highlighted the appalling excess mortality of children born to unmarried mothers and subsequent Department of Local Government and Public Health reports noted the fact, the commission found little evidence that politicians or the public were concerned about these children.
In fact, although there were very few women members of the Oireachtas until the 1980s, women TDs and senators did endeavour to empower unmarried mothers and to improve the lot of their children. The percentage of women members of the Oireachtas did not rise above about 4 per cent until 1981, when numbers began gradually to increase.
In 1923, Senator Eileen Costello attempted to delete legislation refusing public assistance to unmarried mothers who refused to enter homes:
The lines I wish to have omitted read ‘Persons in Class (b) [unmarried mothers] who refuse to enter such institutions [Magdalen Asylums or some other homes] as may be selected shall not be allowed under any circumstances to become chargeable to the public rates.’ … In the preamble to the Bill it is stated it is to enable poor persons requiring relief to be relieved, but it seems that an exception is to be made in the case of unmarried mothers who, it is stated, are on no account to be chargeable to the rates if they will not go into a Magdalen Asylum. I think that under no circumstances could a County Authority get rid of its responsibility to a person who is destitute and in need of help.
(Official Report Seanad Éireann, vol. 1,21 March 1923, Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Bill, 1923, col. 548).
Unmarried mothers would have to wait until 1973 for the introduction of the Unmarried Mother’s Allowance. This was the first time a direct state payment was available to assist an unmarried woman to rear her child.
Senator Costello, along with Senators Jennie Wyse Power, Kathleen Browne, Kathleen Clarke and Ellen Desart, supported the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation Orders) Bill,1929. This was designed to improve the status of unmarried mothers by providing the mother with the right to seek financial maintenance from the father for the upkeep of her child. Some senators referred to the hardships facing unmarried mothers, which, in some cases, impelled them to infanticide.
The debate in the Dáil was remarkable for the attention given to the dilemma facing the putative father. Unmarried mothers were described as “hardened sinners”. The Minister, James FitzGerald-Kenney, spoke of the “considerable number of immoral women in the world”.
Sadly, the commission notes that while mothers gained the right to apply for maintenance under the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation) Orders Act 1930, it generally proved impossible to secure the necessary evidence.
The commission observes that some of the pregnancies were the result of rape; that some women had mental health difficulties or an intellectual disability.
Senators Wyse Power, Clarke, Browne and Costello in 1934 supported a proposal to raise the age of consent from fifteen to eighteen in case of indecent or sexual assault. They argued that it would provide greater protection for girls and women. The proposal was rejected by the government.
The commission notes that there is no evidence that unmarried mothers were ever discussed at cabinet during the first fifty years after independence. It is worth observing that there were no women members of cabinet during the first fifty years after independence.
In the Dáil, Deputy Bridget Mary Rice (1938-1954) was concerned about reports of Americans’ adoption of children from the homes. Because of the lack of regulation of adoptions at the time, there was a concern that people could shop for children. She pressed for legislation until the introduction of legal adoption in 1953.
Deputy Maureen O’Carroll (1954-1957) campaigned to have the status of illegitimacy eliminated from the birth certificates of children born to unmarried parents. In 1956 she raised in the Dáil her anxieties that Irish children were being adopted illegally to the United States.
I was given the information that in the last three years 523 such children have left this country with a view to adoption in the USA. Five hundred and twenty-three is an appalling figure in view of the circumstances.
She had no objection to children being adopted by US families as they would “not have to go through life in this country with the stigma they normally have to bear”. “But,” she added, “I do not see why it should have to be done in an illegal manner.” (Dáil Éireann Adjournment Debate, July 18th, 1956).
In 1972 Senator Mary Robinson introduced the first bill to make contraceptives available in the Republic, the Family Planning Bill 1973. She received hate mail for introducing the bill, which was defeated. Robinson also introduced the Illegitimate Children (Maintenance and Succession) Bill 1974, with the aim of removing the severe inequalities affecting these children. This bill did not receive political party support and was withdrawn.
The courageous efforts of these women politicians raise the question as to whether better representation of women in parliament and government could have resulted in better conditions for unmarried mothers and their children.
Maedhbh McNamara is the author of Women in parliament: Ireland 1918-2000 (Dublin, Wolfhound, 2000) and A woman’s place is in the Cabinet:1919-2019 (Sea Dog Books, 2020), available at Choice Publishing. http://www.choicepublishing.ie/index_files/maedhbhmcnamara.htm
The Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes is available online at https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/d4b3d-final-report-of-the-commission-of-investigation-into-mother-and-baby-homes/