Can there be any doubt now about the sheer ruthlessness of Eamon de Valera's Ireland?
It was a place where women (and even infants) who didn't fit the national narrative, the pious fairytale the Republic was telling itself, were left to die in isolation or outright neglect in Victorian-era mother and baby homes, as has just been confirmed again by the revelations about the Bessborough home published this week.
The Cork-based mother and baby home had a near 70 percent mortality rate in the 1940s, according to the Cork City archives and the Cork County Medical Officer. Few of the nuns had qualifications to work as nurses, and the state was well aware – the records show – of the constant and “habitual” high child death rate.
So can there be any doubt how Ireland thought of its most vulnerable citizens? Instead of being helped they were punished and exploited. Then they had their children literally taken from them in a process that often left both scarred for life.
People knew that it was going on and they looked the other way. But one man refused to.
In the 1940s when the then Minister for Health James Deeny visited Bessborough he couldn't at first see any reason for the high death rate, until he asked one of the nuns if he could look at the babies’ diapers.
When the diapers were opened, it emerged “the babies and toddlers were sitting in putrefying diarrhea that was being ignored and the nuns wanted it all covered up.”
Deeny wrote: “Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhea, carefully concealed.”
The deaths had been going on for years, he wrote. Nothing had been done. Instead of trying to cure them they simply covered it up. The terrifying truth is that there was no reason to help them.
What kind of life could the illegitimate child of a single mother have had in the Ireland of that time, they must have reasoned? Death probably seemed preferable to a life sentence of shame and isolation.
The nuns complained about Deeny’s meddling to the Dean of Cork, Monsignor Sexton. Then the Bishop of Cork complained to the Papal Nuncio, who went to see Eamon de Valera.
That trail of potentates tells you who was really in charge of Irish affairs at the time. But by the time the complaints reached the Nuncio, Archbishop Robinson, even he had to admit Deeny was right to close Bessborough.
The question is, how did it come to this? How did we allow our idea of what constituted a healthy nation to overrule our own compassion for vulnerable people in need?
The answer is that we stopped seeing them as people and started seeing them as sins. We saw them as distortions of the image we wanted to project about ourselves.
In her shocking memoir "The Light in the Window," published in 1998, the former midwife at Bessborough June Goulding wrote that women who gave birth there were constantly denied pain relief during labor. They were also denied penicillin when they developed painful abscesses from breastfeeding.
Goulding wrote that the nun who ran the labor ward in 1951 – only a few years after Deeny closed the place and fired her predecessor – forbade any “moaning or screaming” during childbirth in her labor ward.
Goulding also wrote that women who were torn during childbirth were never stitched because it was believed by all that they had to “suffer the pain of being torn” to “atone for their sin.”
People slap their foreheads now and ask how we could have been so cruel, but the truth is that fundamentalist mindset has never really left some quarters of official Ireland.
It was that fundamentalist mindset that recently insisted that a young migrant woman who had been raped in her homeland must submit herself for a Caesarian birth performed against her will at just 25 weeks.
The story made the front pages around the world, but in Ireland most people are still shrugging their shoulders. The girl in question was poor, foreign, and unaware of her rights. Her low social status didn’t protect her the way single mothers were once completely unprotected in the last century.
So can there be any doubt about the sheer ruthlessness of modern Ireland now?
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