The former Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in 2019. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Report shines partial light

This week the Commission of Investigation’s Mother and Baby Homes Report was finally released.

There’s almost 3,000 pages and the report found an “appalling level of infant mortality” at mother-and-baby homes and that 9,000 children died in these institutions.

The commission spent five years investigating 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes during the period of 1922 and 1998. There were other such institutions too.

Bessborough in Cork features heavily. The report found that 923 children and eight women died there.

The institution operated between 1922 and 1998, where 9,768 women gave birth to 8,938 children.

The report found that three out of four babies born in Bessborough in 1943 died. That’s 75 per cent!

The report also found no evidence of gross abuse as in industrial schools and not much physical abuse. Despite this, the testimony of many witnesses do reveal physical abuse.

Philomena Lee’s son was born in a mother and baby home in Roscrea. Her son was forcibly taken from her and sent to the US for adoption in the 1950s. Her powerful piece is on page 14 of the paper and I urge you to read it. She says that she suffered physical and mental abuse in a mother and baby home.

Speaking on Tuesday, An Taoiseach Micheál Martin says that the report describes “a dark, difficult and shameful chapter of very recent Irish history. The regime described in the report wasn't imposed on us, by any foreign power. We did this to ourselves as a society. We treated women exceptionally badly, we treated children exceptionally badly,” he said.

Is it fair to blame society in general for the injustices suffered by all these women and their children? The unpaid labour, the abuse, the forced adoptions?

It is true that for the majority of the twentieth century, the Republic allowed the Catholic Church to dictate the social, education and health policies of the State to a very unhealthy degree.

The church has apologised and the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who operated Bessborough released a statement on Tuesday. It said that they were invited by local authorities to open a mother and baby home in Cork in the early 1920s.

“Irish society demanded that many unmarried women would have their babies in secret. Some religious communities provided a service in response to these societal norms and demands, driven by the secrecy and shame which surrounded pregnancy out of wedlock.

“It is a matter of great sorrow to us that babies died while under our care. We sincerely regret that so many babies died particularly in regard to Bessborough in the 1940s. We also want to recognise the dreadful suffering and loss experienced by mothers. Our thoughts today are mainly with the thousands of women who were taken, sent or driven by societal and family pressure to have their babies in secret in mother and baby homes.” Is this good enough?

More from this Topic