What did they do with the rest of their lives, all those absconded fathers? That question has been on my mind on and off in the months since I stood in a small field in Tuam, Co. Galway in Ireland at the start of this summer.
As the world now knows, that small field contains the final remains of 798 forgotten children. They were non-people from the moment of their conception and they have remained so in all the years after their deaths. There isn’t an official marker anywhere to record that they lived and died.
Instead, all the reporting focused on the experiences of the expectant mothers who had been treated like they were radioactive by the church and state. People were appalled to learn about what had happened to them.
But far less thought was given to all the absconded fathers, tens of thousands of them as it turned out, who had abandoned the women they impregnated (and the child that was the result) without any injury to their livelihoods or reputations.
The shame that fanned out to cover the women and their innocent children always ended at their feet, but the men escaped comment and condemnation, every time.
The lopsidedness of this situation deserves further comment, because what happened to those mothers and babies was still happening within our own lifetimes.
Standing in the corner of that field in Tuam now is a statue of the Virgin Mary, the figure of unobtainable purity the church taught Irish women they could aspire to but never hope attain.
You can never be a Virgin Mother, but she could. It seemed poignant to me that those women and their children should be remembered by a deity who’s presence was an unavoidable comment on how far they had fallen themselves.
Some took comfort from her familiar presence, but others felt it was like a cork placed on top of a geyser.
For me it felt like both simultaneously. The Irish traditionally like to hedge their bets.
But the absence that I felt most keenly, then and now, was the absence of men.
It is not natural for a man not to love. It is not natural for a child to be told that he or she has no father. It is not natural to separate families because you object to the manner in which they came to be.
You actually have to teach people how to tear up their natural bonds. You have to assure them that it’s all in service to a greater good.
The tragedy of Ireland in the 20th century is that there were so many people who were willing to participate in this lesson.
At the time virginity and purity were valued and even fetishized. If you possessed them you were comparatively safe, but if you did not possess them you could be disappeared into a Magdalene penitentiary, where your own parents would be the first to turn the key.
Tens of thousands of Irish women and children disappeared for years, and often forever into those disastrous gulags. That’s the kind of legacy that haunts the footsteps of a nation. If you think this story ended this summer you have not been paying attention.
But where were the fathers? Did they sit alone in pubs ruminating in silence over their shameful secret? Or did they walk away without a second thought?
What did they tell themselves in all the years that followed? Were they marked for life themselves by what had happened?
“When you went to school they would say ‘You have no father or mother’ and that was very hurtful,” Tom Ward, 72, who lived in the Tuam, home for five and a half years told the Joe Duffy Show the week I visited Ireland.
Ward believed he was comparatively lucky because a family fostered him in 1947, but no Irish adult he encountered in those days ever let him forget his place.
“The teachers, doctors, priests, they all looked down on us. We were only a number but things have changed, thanks be to God,” he added.
In every Irish town and village there was a man who was a secret father. Did he care about what had happened, or was he relieved not to be implicated?
Did he ever think of the woman? Did he think about their child? Or had he handed over his conscience and his heart to people he believed were better equipped to know what to do with them?