9,000 children died at ‘brutally misogynistic’ homes for unmarried mothers in Ireland

Unmarried mothers in Ireland faced a “brutally misogynistic culture” for decades, a minister has said after the publication of a report into the deaths of 9,000 children and babies.

A five-year investigation by a judicial commission of investigation details how the children died in 18 institutions for unmarried mothers and their babies between 1922 and 1998.

The commission’s 3,000-page report confirms that 9,000 babies died – about 15% of all the children who were in the institutions – and a figure far higher than the national mortality rate at the time.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin will make an official state apology to those affected.

The Irish government will also provide financial recognition to the specific groups identified in the report, and push ahead with laws to support excavation, exhumation and, where possible, identification of remains at burial sites.

Additionally, the government has established a counselling support service for survivors, who were given access to it for the first time earlier on Tuesday.

Children’s minister Roderic O’Gorman said the report, which contains 53 government recommendations, makes clear that unmarried mothers faced a “stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture” for decades.

Mother and baby homes were institutions where young pregnant women were sent, often under pressure from local clergy. There, they would give birth and eventually be separated from their children, who were offered up for adoption, sometimes in the United States.

Irish society in the mid-twentieth century was deeply intertwined with the teachings of the Catholic Church, and pregnancies out of wedlock were seen as scandalous.

There were about 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children in the mother and baby homes investigated by the commission.

The greatest number of admissions was in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The commission said: “While mother and baby homes were not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon, the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or county homes in the 20th century was probably the highest in the world.”

The investigation commenced after a local historian discovered the existence of a mass children’s grave at the site of a former home, run by the Bon Secours nuns, in Tuam, Co Galway.

Through painstaking research, Catherine Corless established that 796 children had died at the home, and were interred in chambers in a former sewage tank. Local boys playing at the site had previously discovered human bones under a concrete slab.

The revelation shocked Ireland, and made international headlines. The Irish government was spurred into establishing the commission of inquiry.

Speaking to Sky News at the Tuam site, where the childrens’ remains lie below a memorial garden, Ms Corless said that so many children died due to the attitudes towards unmarried mothers and their babies at the time.

“The Roman Catholic church created this culture of women being in sin if they had a child out of marriage”, she said.

“That was strongly enforced in everyone’s mind at the time, people were afraid of saying anything against the Church or the local priest.

“There was very little respect for illegitimate children at the time – there was a lot of neglect of the babies. I believe with a little bit of hygiene and a little bit of care, a lot of the babies could’ve been saved. It screams of pure neglect.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, over 40% of children in the homes in Ireland were dying before their first birthday.

But the commission found little evidence that politicians or the public were concerned about the children, despite the “appalling level of infant mortality”.

The report said: “The children of Irish unmarried mothers were hidden from the public gaze.

“Infant mortality in general remained high in Ireland until the late 1940s, especially in the inner cities, yet there was no national outcry about this, except among a small number of medical professionals.”

Some of the institutions were owned and run by the local health authorities – the county homes, Pelletstown, Tuam and Kilrush.

Others were owned and run by religious orders, for example the three homes run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary – Bessborough, Sean Ross, Castlepollard (the Sacred Heart homes).

Many were in very poor physical condition. The commission said: “County homes, Kilrush and Tuam had appalling physical conditions.”

Winnifred Carmel Larkin, was born at the Tuam home in 1949, and remained there for five-and-a-half years before being fostered.

She remains angry at how her mother, who she hasn’t seen since she was a baby, was treated.

Ms Larkin said: “Well it’s our holocaust isn’t it? They had the holocaust in Germany but the mother and baby homes were our holocaust.”

She has never seen a photograph of her mother, or knows where she is buried.

“I was horrified,” she said of discovering how mothers were treated at Tuam.

“Horrified that any human being could treat babies and mothers like that. The mothers walked in here and they were sinners. To give birth to a baby is the most previous gift any woman can have.”

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