Cliodhna Buckley BCL (Law and French), LLM (Law and Criminology) breaks down the recent publication of the report of the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes, tracking Ireland’s dark history of abuse and discussing the possibilities for the future. 


On 12th January 2021, Ireland’s pandora-box was once again opened following the publication of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes 1922-1998. The report highlights the suffering and trauma of thousands of women and children who were confined within these institutions, most notably, the high mortality rate of young infants born in them, such as Bessborough in Cork. However, this is not the first time that the world has been horrified by church-state abuse scandals emerging from Ireland’s dark past. 


The Magdalene Laundries and the Mother and Baby Homes were seen as convenient solutions to the culturally-pervasive problem of ‘fallen women’. Until 2013, the Irish State denied involvement in the operation of the Magdalene Laundries, despite irrefutable evidence of government engagement in commercial laundry contracts with the religious orders. Furthermore, the Church received financial contributions from the State to ‘cater’ for women who transgressed social mores. The result? A collusive, mutualistic relationship was formed between Church and State, which engendered a society based on secrecy and conformity.


The recently published 3,000-page report investigating the Mother and Baby Homes has sparked considerable controversy. Mary Lou McDonald TD expressed having “reservations” about the overall findings in the report and Catherine Connolly TD commented on the fact that the Commission drew “incorrect conclusions”. The report also contains several discrepancies, echoing the McAleese Report in 2013 which investigated State involvement in the Magdalene Laundries. 


Both reports claim women entered these institutions “freely”. However, according to Justice for Magdalenes Research, many survivors testified that they were detained in these institutions against their will. Similarly, the Mother and Baby Homes report inaccurately states that there is “no evidence that women were forced to enter mother and baby homes by the church or State authorities”. This finding was published despite overwhelming witness testimony stating the contrary. In addition, several callers to RTÉ Radio One’s Today with Claire Byrne on January 14th denounced the stark contrast between the final published report and the transcripts of their testimonies given to the Commission. 


Nonetheless, the Taoiseach’s reaction to the findings mirrors the governmental response to the McAleese report in 2013. Both occasions saw a State apology issued by the Taoiseach, followed by a proposal to establish a restorative justice scheme. However, the State apology given by the Taoiseach on January 13th, placed considerable emphasis on the role that Irish society played in the perpetuation of these institutions, rather than taking full accountability for the involvement of the government in overseeing them.


Minister Roderic O’Gorman has suggested that the restorative justice scheme will include an ex-gratia financial payment and the availability of medical cards to survivors, which will come into effect in April. This was also proposed by the government in 2013, however, many survivors of the Magdalene Laundries have still not benefited from this particular scheme. Approximately 10,000 women entered the Magdalene Laundries yet, only 802 survivors have received reparation dating from July 2020 according to the Department of Justice. 


The families of the victims of these institutions were also excluded from receiving financial assistance from the government on behalf of their deceased relative(s). Therefore, there is a danger that the government may commit past errors in its treatment of victims of institutional abuse. 


The Mother and Baby Homes report highlights State genuflection to the Church, with Irish society being equally submissive. However, this does not exculpate the role the State played in the operation of these institutions. The State disregarded the constitutional rights of women and children by failing to carry out regular state-inspections within these institutions and its failure to intervene to protect these individuals from harm. The State has an ongoing responsibility to the women and children who have since died and remaining survivors alive today. In 2021, almost two-and-a half decades since the doors of these institutions closed, the survivors and their families are still awaiting justice.

Former President and Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera kissing the ring of the Archbishop of Dublin, Edward Joseph Byrne, Dublin 1933.