At the root of the “Home Babies” scandal in County Galway was a dark reminder of how ruthless and cruel Ireland has been in its treatment of anyone who did not fit the national narrative, the nation’s idealization of itself.
That oppression has by no means ended, as filmmaker and journalist Sinead O’Shea makes clear in a fine article from today’s Guardian newspaper, which delves into shocking allegations that the Irish government arranged for abortions abroad for young women who got pregnant while staying in government homes.
In her hard-hitting piece, below, O’Shea echoes W.H. Auden in her sense of what blighted the nations development in the 20 century: “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”
By failing to grapple adequately with our own broken past, Ireland careened wildly from abused to abuser, a post-colonial horror show both infantalized and infantilizing, where special contempt was reserved for our weakest citizens.
To grow up, to move beyond each crisis that beset us, will require a new era of candid truth telling. That is why her article today is already striking such a chord internationally. - Cahir O'Doherty
In the past couple of weeks Ireland's problem with itself has again become the subject of global headlines.
The institution was run by the clergy and funded by the state to house unmarried mothers, the "untouchables" of Irish life.
Corless remembered the place from her own childhood surrounded by eight-foot walls with "broken bottles on top." There were so-called "home babies" in her school too.
They were, said Corless, kept to "one side of the classroom, arriving and leaving at different times so there would be no interaction with 'ordinary' schoolgirls."
The stories she heard were miserable. Children were fed little more than slops, and illness was rife. The state registration office informed her that 796 babies had died between 1925 and 1961.
None of the babies' names matched any of those in local graveyards. Given their status this was unsurprising. Even in death, illegitimate children could not mix with others.
Eventually, Corless concluded that the babies might be buried in a patch of land where "small skulls" had been found in 1975. By comparing maps she deduced that this might also be the site of a defunct septic tank.
She and a committee then sought contributions to erect a plaque to commemorate the dead children. Although local newspapers and radio stations were contacted, the story got little coverage.
Ireland's mainstream media hardly reacted to the babies story
Months passed. The story was reported by an Irish Sunday newspaper, and there was outrage on social media. But Ireland's mainstream media hardly reacted.
When I first spoke to Corless she was still trying to stimulate more coverage. And then, finally, the story of the Tuam babies was picked up by the foreign media.
By the time I visited Corless in Tuam, her husband was manning the phones because, to use his own phrase, the story had gone "ballistic." Corless spent all day talking to international TV crews.
There cannot be any doubt that the idea of 800 babies being hidden in a septic tank has garnered headlines but there are far bigger themes at play within this story.
For years there have been tales of mass baby graves in Ireland and scandals about the abuse of children, and of women, by both church and state.
Now the latest consensus is that this "new" scandal, the "last" Irish church scandal, be investigated and resolved.
So the Irish people have learned that mortality rates in Tuam were either matched or exceeded by homes elsewhere in the country - at Pelletstown in Cabra, Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, and Bessborough in Cork for example.
A 2011 television news program, recently repeated, proved that babies had been subjected to medical testing without their mothers' permission. It has also been shown that children from poorer families were subject to greater neglect.
The Irish government has now launched an inquiry into what happened in Tuam and at other mother and baby homes. The terms of reference are being discussed.
Perhaps this will be the last church scandal, but it will not be the last deeply shocking scandal in Irish life.
The scandal of 'separated children' ferried abroad for abortions
Consider a related scandal I investigated last year. It began with this conversation.
"Well, you know some were taken abroad for abortions don't you?"
"Did you not?"
"No. How did that happen?"
"Well, you're going to have to find that out yourself. But I was always surprised that it involved so many people, government people and that it never got out."
That person's work for the government had been with "separated children", the term used to describe immigrant children who come to Ireland without parents.
At first I didn't believe this person. Abortion is illegal in Ireland and a deeply controversial subject. Cases involving the taking of minors abroad have attracted huge publicity.
Between 1996 and 2010, separated children had been housed in mixed hostels where they were left unsupervised after 5pm and after weekends. Over 500 children went missing during this period.
I had been told that there had been numerous pregnancies among this group and wanted to know more. The Mary Raftery Journalism Fund (see here) provided finance for my investigation.
The findings were extraordinary. Former care workers revealed that they knew some hostels were worse than others and that they used to send the "strongest" children there. The conditions experienced by pregnant immigrant girls in care were much worse than those experienced by Irish girls in care.
The state health service admitted that they didn't know how many pregnancies had taken place in total. It also confirmed that the initial source was correct. Girls had indeed been taken abroad for abortions. It had been "kept quiet." It was yet another "Irish solution to an Irish problem."
A senior manager told me there had been six instances since 1992. That figure was said to include both Irish and immigrant girls. But, according to information I received, that figure was too low.
My three-part report was aired on successive weeks by RTÉ, the state broadcaster, and I sent a summary of my findings to all the major Irish media outlets.
Little happened. Some said they didn't think there would be enough public interest in the story. That was eight months ago.
The treatment of those immigrant girls shows that many of the attitudes of the past still exist today. It was visible also with the pace of the Tuam story, indifference followed by over-compensation after foreign media had publicized it.
Female sexuality is still feared; poverty is still dehumanized
Ireland remains a society with a deeply small sense of self. It is a sort of weak-minded teenager desperate to keep up with the status quo. It's not what's said. It's who has said it.
Difference is confusing and thus threatening. Female sexuality is still feared. "Nice girls" don't enjoy sex. Poverty continues to be dehumanized. It is commonplace for middle class people to disdain travellers and to describe working class people as "knackers."
Many are now speculating that the treatment of the mentally ill is set to be the subject of another inquiry. The same is predicted for the current system for asylum seekers, direct provision.
State record keeping is still problematic, particularly regarding immigrants and children in care. It is very difficult to engage most Irish people, or its media, on such issues.
The narrative that Ireland presents internationally is that of the cute survivor of British colonization. The reality is that the abused turned abuser a long time ago. Dissent is not welcome.
A polite way to describe Ireland is as a developing culture. Irish business leaders hate that. In fact, Ireland's economic and social problems are similar.
The economy has been built on cronyism, group-think, the double talk of absurdly low corporate tax rates and light touch regulation, the cult of the leader, an over reliance on "strong" international forces. These were the factors that caused the Celtic Tiger to collapse.
This has had consequences for all. It's the same for the system of shame and sexual repression. The impact has not been restricted to its most obvious victims.
Ireland is not just a bad place to be a woman or an immigrant, it's a bad place to be in any way "different." As a result, sadly, it's a bad place to be anyone at all.
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