794 babies in a septic tank. This headline has been circulating all over the media in recent weeks. Staff writer Máirín-Rua Ní Aodha speaks to Fiona Ryan, Cork City Councillor and campaigner for separation of church and state on the discovery of the bodies and the ongoing scandal.
Ireland’s history with the church
This dependence on church wealth meant there was a large exchange of power, as these services were entirely under church control. “As part of this exchange the morals and ideals of the church were adopted by the state”. The respected status of the church among the Irish government and society mean that their actions were rarely scrutinised.
However, Cllr Ryan does not believe that the government were unaware of the abuses within church services. She explains: “The only reason the Mother and Baby homes existed is because the government allowed it and endorsed it. The political parties that were in power at the time are still in government today. The hand wringing and crocodile tears we see in the Dáil today are just a sign of the current government denying their party’s history of complicity.”
Life in the Mother and Baby Home
“When women tried to escape [from the homes] they were escorted back by staff.”
All reports present a very grim life for residents of the home. Accounts from survivors paint an even darker picture of woman and children being completely dehumanised.
Most women entered the homes after enormous pressure from families and in some cases against their own will. Cllr Ryan elaborates: “Shelia Burn, a survivor of the homes spoke to me of her experience. She was under enormous pressure from her family and the parish priest. She reluctantly entered the home and began working in a laundry. Despite being heavily pregnant she was forced to carry out heavy manual labour. She also worked long hours cleaning. This was only the beginning of the exploitation. She later discovered her father was paying £100 pounds per month, an extortionate amount at the time [the early 1960s] to the convent. So not only was the church benefitting from free labour and profits from the adoption process, they were earning enormous sums from some of the women’s families too.”
Day to day life in the home was dull and exhausting for the women. Fiona adds “Women in the institutions were infantalised. They were offered no education or means of improving themselves. They were set menial tasks such as cleaning and attending the gardens. This set up suited the institutes as it meant they were entirely self sufficient. By eliminating the need for outside staff they isolated the woman and it allowed the abuses to be carried out in secret.”
Life outside of the homes was difficult for these women, pregnancy outside of marriage was seen as an unforgivable sin, as one survivor stated: “ It was the greatest shame I could have brought on my family.” Women in the homes were often admitted by their families with the clear instructions to never return home. The fate of the woman really depended on class and the support available from her family. Women from poorer backgrounds were usually totally cut of and the women were under the complete control of the staff. When some of them tried to escape they were forcibly escorted back to the home by staff.
The children of these women, or ‘home babies’ as they were known were equally ostracised. Catherine Corless, the historian responsible for discovering the death records for the Tuam home had personal experience growing up with these children. She describes how “teachers in school used the [children from the home] as a threat to the rest of us. If you were behaving badly they’d tell you to behave yourself or they’d put you sitting next to a home baby.”
She also described how the children were kept separate from their classmates by “[being] brought down later in the morning and leaving early in the afternoon. At lunchtime the rest of us were not encouraged to play with them.”
Prejudice against these women and children was so ingrained in society that Catherine even tells of herself and her classmates playing cruel jokes on their ‘illegitimate classmates’. “ To my personal shame I remember playing what I thought was a prank on a girl from the home. I wrapped up an empty sweet wrapper and gave it to her, she took it eagerly. I didn’t realise that these children lived such miserable lives that is was possibly the first time that she’s ever been given a treat.”
The role of the church today
“People don’t realise the extent of the church’s influence today. In many hospitals it’s a legal requirement to have a Bishop on the board of management.”
Ireland’s attitude towards the church has changed drastically. However, the church is responsible for funding and running the majority of healthcare and education services. Fiona emphasizes that “ Special needs education services in Ireland are still run by the church. Families looking for support have nowhere else to turn as these are the only services available.”
Our healthcare system is still regulated by the church, Fiona gives a recent example: “There was a priest, Fr Kevin Doran, in the Mater hospital who was vocal in his objections to a lung transplant treatment as it meant that the woman receiving it would need to use contraception before the procedure.” Fr Doran has since resigned due to changes in Ireland’s abortion laws, a clause being added that a pregnancy could be terminated if there was a risk of suicide in the mother. It is still a legal requirement to have a Bishop on the board of management of hospitals.
The church has also been heavily involved in political campaigns, the Marriage Equality referendum and the referendum to repeal the Eighth being examples. Fiona admits that freedom of speech is very important. She believes that the church has the right to their opinions and the right to express them. However, she also thinks the hypocrisy of their campaigns is pretty obvious.
“The church emphasize the importance of freedom of speech but are using their vast wealth to interfere in political matters. They are also attempting to silence those that oppose them by suggesting that all discussions and debates are in breach of broadcasting laws unless their is someone to speak on the conservative side. Ray D’Arcy hosted a show where Irish women spoke of their experiences travelling abroad for an abortion. How can you have an opposing speaker on this when it’s a personal experience?”
Fiona hopes to see a further separation of state from church as Ireland’s population becomes increasingly progressive. She has spoken with many victims of mother and baby homes in her constituency and will continue to support their pursuit for justice. Her efforts echo the ethos of Frank McCourt, “I admire certain priest and nuns who go off on their own and do God’s work…but as far as the institution of the church is concerned, I think it’s despicable.”