“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, County Galway Home for five and a half years told the Joe Duffy Show this week.
Ward believes he was comparatively lucky, he was fostered by a family in 1947, but no adult he encountered 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.
The unwed mothers of the homes were simply not valued and neither were their children. The statistics make this plain. The death rate for “illegitimate” Irish children was between three and five times that of “legitimate” children from the 1920’s through the late 1940’s.
The truth is they were sent to these places to keep them hidden from sight. As with all penitentiaries it was less about protecting them and more about protecting us.
But 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.
What Ireland did with the help and instruction of the religious orders in the twentieth century was to remove love and responsibility from each man's actions, by replacing them with judgment and condemnation.
The society they created together is what we’re looking at now.
We know now that tens of thousands of Irishmen abandoned the women they impregnated and the child that was the result, over and over again, for most of the the 20 century.
They did this without injury to their livelihoods or reputations. They discovered they could walk between the raindrops, so they did.
But for Irish women - and their children - it was another story. They became the focus of a lifelong, religiously inspired shame that marked their lives.
The lopsidedness of this response really needs to be remarked upon. It’s not as if we’re so far removed from those times.
It’s probably not for nothing that the Catholic Church offered Irish women a spectral figure of unobtainable purity to aspire to without hope of attaining.
The purity and perfection of the Virgin Mother was supernatural after all. Even her name was a blatant contradiction, being both a biological impossibility and a daily reminder of how far you’d fall short.
You couldn’t win for losing. Perhaps that was the point.
Then through the ritual of baptism a man would wash away your bodily impurity, the impurity that was your body and your means of conception.
Your water broke giving life, but the far more important water of the baptism font broke over the head of your infant, a symbolic birth into the life of the church presided over by a man. There was no job you could perform that men could not do better. In the Ireland of the 20 century there was no aspect of the natural world that could not be completely turned on its head by religious ideology.
The results of all this growing religious fanaticism were always predictable to our best writers and poets, but we never listened to them.
Instead we let the church elevate virginity and purity to the point where they actually stopped being a virtue and instead became a vice. If you possessed them you were comparatively safe, if you did not possess them you could be disappeared into a Magdalene penitentiary and there would be no one to lament your fate.
It was inevitable that the unspeakable shame that was attached to the mother would be attached to the child. We already have multiple eyewitness accounts to confirm this.
Women disappeared, children disappeared, by the tens of thousands, for decades, into those disastrous gulags. Anyone who thinks this story will soon blow over had not been paying attention.
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