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Home Uncategorized Unquiet Graves, Unsettled Accounts

Unquiet Graves, Unsettled Accounts

Jeremy Kearney

Coercive Confinement in Post-Independence Ireland: Patients, Prisoners and Penitents, by Eoin O’Sullivan and Ian O’Donnell, Manchester University Press, 320 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-0719095450

Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute
Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute
For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing. – 
Bob Dylan

“They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

I first read these final words of Patrick Pearse’s oration at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa (and maybe learned them off by heart) in an extract from the Exploring English Prose anthology in school in the 1960s. For some reason they have stuck with me ever since, maybe because of the simple rhetorical device of the repetitition “the fools, the fools, the fools” or more likely because of the power of the idea, to my youthful mind, that a country holding graves of the dead could not be at peace without freedom.

I was reminded of this speech again recently by the controversy over the apparent mass grave for dead babies at the mother and baby home run by the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam. Research by a local Galway historian, Catherine Corless, had identified 796 children, from newborn babies to a nine-year-old, who had died in the home between 1925 and 1961 and were probably interred on land nearby. However in this case no Irish revolutionary leader had delivered a passionate eulogy to a large crowd of mourners; instead there was only an empty field and a disused septic tank. This time the public unrest was not because of a lack of political freedom but rather because this revelation highlighted yet again the lack of personal freedom caused by the informal incarceration of many adults and children within Ireland’s system of coercive confinement. This system, which was developed and expanded, as well as funded, by the newly independent Irish Free State, included not only mother and baby homes like the one in Tuam, but also Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, reformatories, county homes and psychiatric hospitals. It is sobering to consider that at the same time as such great suffering and death was experienced by so many Irish citizens during the violence of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War in order to create the Irish Free State as a political entity, a vast institutional edifice of containment was also being built to confine those citizens that O’Sullivan and O’Donnell say were characterised as “the difficult, the disturbed, the deviant and the disengaged”. That these people were mostly women and children and, to a great extent poor, was perhaps predictable, as the moral authority of the Catholic Church decreed that women, particularly younger women, and children were both “risky and at risk” and so had to be locked up, not only to punish and “re-educate” them but also to stop them contaminating the moral ethos of the rest of society. What was constructed was, in fact, a “parallel country”: an institutionalised system of coercive confinement that made up what might be called an Irish “Unfree” State.

As O’Sullivan and O’Donnell demonstrate in their book, the figures for the number confined in different institutions were startling for a country of Ireland’s size. In 1926 there were more children in industrial schools in Ireland than in the whole of England and Wales and strikingly, in 1933 there were 2,500 more girls in industrial schools in Ireland than in Britain. Similarly, in the 1930s, Ireland had the highest rate of psychiatric hospitalisation in Europe. This sector was to outdo even itself in the 1960s when the Commission of Inquiry on Mental Illness reported that the number of in-patients in Ireland “appeared to be the highest in the world”. Clearly, Ireland at that time was the best little country to go mad in.

In relation to mother and baby homes, the recent Report of the Inter-Departmental Group on the homes quotes Earner-Byrne’s research which shows that there were 89,247 “illegitimate” births (to use the language of the time) recorded between 1922 and 1973, although for social stigma reasons this was quite likely to be a low estimate. She has calculated that the infant mortality rate per thousand illegitimate births was at least 3.8 times higher that for other births. Of course, not all of these births (and deaths) were related to mother and baby homes. However, it is estimated that about 35,000 pregnant women were sent to ten mother and baby homes. In relation to the Tuam home it is estimated that deaths of babies there were four to five times that of the general infant population. The Inter-Departmental Report records a quote from an inspector for boarded-out children, Ms Alice Litster, in 1939: “The chance of survival of an illegitimate infant born in the slums and placed with a foster-mother in the slums a few days after birth is greater than that of an infant born in one of our special homes for unmarried mothers.”

Overall, between 1926 and 1951 the average number of people confined in industrial schools, reformatories, Magdalene laundries, county homes, mother and baby homes or mental institutions was 31,500, or one per cent of the population. As Fintan O’Toole has pointed out, even though the Soviet gulag held about 200,000 prisoners, that figure was out of a population of 165 million.

The historian Diarmaid Ferriter suggests that the continuing reliance on institutionalisation in Ireland after the creation of the Free State was “particularly ironic given the social aims of the Irish war of independence”. Not only had the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic pledged a guarantee of “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”, but the Democratic Programme of the first Dáil in 1919 had declared the “right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour” and that “it shall be the first duty of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children”. In reality, as he says, “many of this revolutionary generation betrayed this piety even before independence had been achieved”.

One such example is the infamous memo sent in May 1921 by William Cosgrave, who at the time was minister for local government in the underground Dáil Éireann and who would later become the first president of the Free State, to his colleague, Austin Stack, the minister for home affairs. In it, although he was only referring to workhouses, he laid out clearly what was to become the social policy of the new government in relation to its treatment of poor and vulnerable children and adults.

As you are aware, people reared in workhouses are no great acquisition to human society. As a rule, their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers. As a consequence, it would be a decided advantage if they all took into their heads to emigrate. When abroad, they are thrown onto their own responsibilities and have to work whether they like it or not.

As Ferriter points out, Cosgrave’s memo highlights the class bias of the revolutionary generation where “Ireland’s vulnerable children were an inconvenience to the conduct of the campaign of independence”. Although many of those who were able emigrated from Ireland to other countries, those who could not go abroad because of age, disadvantage or disability were forced into a form of internal emigration. This was a place that The Irish Times, responding to the publication of the Ryan Report, described as “a dark hinterland of the State, a parallel country whose existence we have long known but never fully acknowledged. It is a land of pain and shame, of savage cruelty and callous indifference”. This place was in the Irish Free State, but not of it ‑ an unfree state.

However, not only were people confined in this “country” but, as Cosgrave had sugested, they were “forced to work whether they liked it or not”. The mothers in the mother and baby homes did the domestic work, the women in the Magdalene convents sweated in the laundries and children as young as ten were forced to make commercial quantities of rosary beads in Goldenbridge industrial school. In many other industrial schools the children had to work long hours on the farms or in clothes-making or carpentry workshops and in all the institutions the inmates had to do all the domestic work. One of the key differences between those who went abroad to work and those confined in exile in Ireland was that the latter group did not receive pay or recompense of any kind; rather they were seriously abused for their efforts.

It is clear that Cosgrave was not the only member of that government to hold such views. Ernest Blythe, the first finance minister, cut the old age pension in 1924 from ten  shillings to nine shillings a week and also looked into the possibility of “doing away with the national health insurance and labour exchanges, neither of which seemed necessary in the Free State”. Cormac O’Grada records that Blythe’s governmental colleague PJ Burke, the social welfare minister, “supported the cut in the old age pension with the claim that ‘one of the most serious defects of the Irish character is this tendency to dependence of one kind or another’’’. Another minister, Patrick McGilligan, saw no need for such psychological analysis and a few months later commented, “people may have to die in this country and die of starvation”. Although he may not have intended to sound quite so heartless, such comments have a cruel edge to them now that the Ryan Report has recorded many survivors’ stories of constant hunger while incarcerated in industrial schools and, even more tellingly, that some of the death certificates of the babies from the mother and baby homes give the cause of death as marasmus (malnutrition).

Although the financial resources of the Free State were undoubtedly stretched by the need to rebuild the infrastructure of the country after the Civil War, it seems clear that the first Cumann na nGaedheal government gave a very low priority to issues of social welfare. In fact its ideological position and the ministerial statements noted above would not be out of place in the current UK coalition government of David Cameron. In relation to social provision for children and families, the state adopted the classic neoliberal model as described by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine ‑ a troika of privatisation, deregulation and reform (ie dismantling) of welfare services. The first post-independence government basically privatised all family and childcare services (and education) by handing them over to the Catholic Church and its religious orders. So although the government was funding most of these services via capitation grants, it made almost no effort to regulate them in any coherent manner, or if there was regulation it was highly ineffective. When scandals did appear they were either covered up or blamed on the complainant, not the institution. In relation to welfare, as there was little proper social provision or childcare services, there was limited welfare to reform but the government still managed to cut pensions and abolish assistance to the uninsured unemployed. Unfortunately for the population, the first Irish Free State government was neoliberal before its time, when it was neither popular nor profitable.

It is often said that economists believe that nothing counts unless it can be counted and therefore they give little value to the quality of life. However, there are times when to validate a quality of life it is necessary that people are actually counted, and that they are also accounted for. In Galway, Catherine Corless took the time and effort to count the number of dead babies from the Tuam mother and baby home. She paid four euro each for the 796 death certificates at a total personal cost of €3,184. Her work has at least given names and ages to the children. However, the children and their deaths have not yet been accounted for. Indeed it appears that there is not even anyone who knows for sure where the bodies are buried.

These are not the first unquiet graves that have broken the silence of Ireland’s shadow state. In 1993 a mass grave at the High Park Magdalene laundry was uncovered when the land was sold for redevelopment. The bodies were exhumed and cremated and re-buried in Glasnevin cemetery. But again there was miscounting. It emerged that there were twenty-two more bodies in the original grave than the nuns had listed when they applied for permission to exhume them, making a total of 155, and over one-third had never been certified. Some of the women could not be identified and were listed as Magdalene of Lourdes or Magdalene of St Cecilia. They were both numberless and nameless.

In 2010, researcher Niall Meehan from Griffith College discovered that there was an unmarked grave in Mount Jerome cemetery where 222 children, who had died at the nearby Protestant Bethany Home in Rathgar between 1922 and 1949, were buried. He also took the time to go through the burial register in order to count the number and find out the names of the children from the home who were buried there. Rightly, an investigation of the circumstances of the children’s deaths at the Bethany Home is also to be included in the remit of Commission of Investigation into mother and baby homes.

Even in relation to its systems of supposed care, the Irish state has been very poor at accounting for those it is responsible for. Paul Michael Garrett has written about the confusion that existed over the number of deaths of children in the care of the State between 2000 and 2010. Initially the figure was presented as twenty children but this then increased to twenty-three, then thirty-seven and shortly afterwards, 188. By December 2010 the press were reporting that the actual figure had risen to 199. A report in The Irish Times in 2010 records one HSE manager stating that “assembling the numbers on the deaths of children was difficult because it involved checking manual records and relying on the local knowledge of social workers”. But how can the death of a child in state care be an individual and local matter? This lack of knowledge of how many deaths of children have taken place while in the care of the state was not due to individual incompetence or negligence. It was due to a culture of care-lessness. As Garrett says, the children and young people who died in state care are “emblematic of those who have no recognised part in the social order: literally those, given the state’s palpable failure to generate accurate data until 2012, who do not ‘count’.” Belatedly, the State has responded to these inadequacies and the Independent Child Review Group and the National Review Panel have had responsibility for counting, investigating and responding to cases of child deaths and serious injury.

Yet this piecemeal and reactive approach to institutional abuse and unaccounted deaths makes it highly likely that other historical scandals will emerge. The public psychiatric hospitals are one of the last institutional systems that have not yet been investigated. It is worth noting that the Catholic Church had no particular involvement in these institutions but they were fully the responsibility of the state. In terms of the number of inmates these were the biggest institutions in the state and at their peak in 1958 the hospitals had an in-patient population of over 21,000 (742 per 100,000) or over two-thirds of those in institutional care in the country. O’Sullivan and O’Donnell state that “around one in twenty patients died each year from a variety of ailments such as tuberculosis, influenza and malignant tumours”; a small number also killed themselves or others. Considering that these patients were in care in hospital and that generally they had psychiatric problems rather than physical illnesses, this is a significant percentage. Whether all these deaths were fully certified and the deceased individually buried is not clear. Undoubtedly, there will have to be a reckoning in relation to these institutions.

As a result of the furore over the revelations of the babiess deaths at the Tuam home, the government has announced the setting up of a commission of investigation to be led by Judge Yvonne Murphy. When the motion setting up the commission was debated in the Dáil there were calls to make its remit much wider than the mother and baby homes and to include the Magdalene Laundries, informal and illegal adoptions and the issue of vaccine trials on children, which had been excluded from the Ryan Report. These issues have not yet been fully decided.

Over the last twenty years there have been many personal survivor accounts of incarceration in institutions run by the Church and State, but if there is to be a full accounting of the psychological, emotional and financial cost of years of coercive confinement then there needs to be a full settlement of all accounts involved in these institutional establishments of whatever kind. On the creditor side, there has been some acknowledgement of the involuntary investments of the victims and survivors but there is much more to be resolved. However, on the debtor side, few debts, either punitive or financial, have been paid. The Irish unfree state was fifty years in the making and involved thousands of religious personnel and state employees, as well as extensive financial resources. It is possible it may take a similar length of time and the same level of resources to undo this legacy and provide justice to the survivors. While Ireland holds these uncounted and unaccounted for graves, the survivors of Ireland’s unfree state may find it hard to be at peace.



DCYA (2014) Report of the Inter-Departmental Group on Mother and Baby Homes. Dublin: Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
Ferriter, D, (2005) The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000. London: Profile Books.
Garrett, PM (2014) “‘The Children not Counted’: Reports on the deaths of children in the Republic of Ireland”. Critical and Radical Social Work, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 23-41.
The Irish Times, May 21st, 2009
Klein, N (2008) The Shock Doctrine. London: Penguin.
Ó Gráda, C (1997) A Rocky Road: The Irish economy since the 1920s. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Jeremy Kearney recently retired from the University of Sunderland, where for a considerable period he was head of applied social studies. He also worked as a youth worker and social worker in Ireland and then in the UK. He currently researches and writes on risk, childcare and child protection and his co-edited book Constructing Risky Identities in Policy and Practice was published last year by Palgrave Macmillan.



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