In Italy last week on a break, it took me a moment to realize what the hotel owner was talking about when we were chatting after I had checked in.
"The babies -- what a sad event," he said. "But in Italy too we had such things. The church ..." he sighed, shaking his head and shrugging at me in understanding and sympathy.
Two things struck me about this. It was an indication of how the appalling story of the remains of hundreds of babies found at the former unmarried mothers and babies home in Tuam in Co. Galway had traveled. We were staying in a small town in northern Italy, not somewhere you expect to be up to speed on news from Ireland.
But the graphic and shocking story had made the Italian newspapers, complete with references to skeletons of babies uncovered "in a septic tank."
On that basis, it's probably accurate to say that the story went around the globe. And it is extremely damaging to the image of Ireland, exposing the cruelty and hypocrisy of our recent past for the whole world to see.
The other thing that struck me was the way my host immediately pinned the blame on the Catholic Church, and as an elderly Italian that institution is one he would know a good deal about.
In Italy and Spain, like in Ireland, the church had enormous power and influence 50 years ago. Terrible things were done in the name of the church by both it and the repressive societies it dominated.
This new scandal makes it seem like there is no end to the damage which the Catholic Church has been implicated in in Ireland.
In the last two decades we have had the exposes of what went on in orphanages and in Magdalene laundries, both run by religious orders on behalf of the state. We have also learned about the rampant sexual abuse of children and the way the bishops shielded the priest perpetrators, the priority always being to protect the church rather than the victims.
The aftermath of these revelations is still with us and we are still working through that. Investigations into abuse in some areas have still to be undertaken.
But there was a general feeling recently that we had uncovered most of the awful things that had been done in our recent past involving the church. Now we know different.
The mothers and babies homes that operated around the country is a new sector we had forgotten and which we must now examine.
It seems extraordinary that after all the other investigations that have been going on, somehow we missed this. Now, belatedly, the government is setting up an inquiry into all the mother and baby homes, not just the one in Tuam.
In fact we would still not have known about this except for the work of a local historian in Tuam, Catherine Corless, who had heard about the deaths in the home and decided to investigate. And because of the memories of two local men who remembered playing as kids in a small field behind where the home once stood and seeing bones in a space beneath a concrete slab.
It was the work of Corless, not the authorities or the police, that has brought this matter to public attention, revealing that 796 babies and young children died at the mother and baby home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961.
There were 10 of these mother and baby homes spread around Ireland at the time and they all had an incredibly high mortality rate, varying from 30 to 50 percent and sometimes even higher. Tuam was not the worst.
Of course this was the era before effective vaccination programs and antibiotics and other drugs. But the death rate in these homes was around five times that among babies and young children in the general population. Yet no one in Ireland shouted stop.
Or almost no one. The chief medical officer in Ireland in the 1940s, Dr. James Deeny, closed down the mother and baby home in Bessborough in Cork when the death rate there was over 50 percent. Deeny personally inspected the place and discovered that the children had skin infections and severe diarrhea, all carefully covered up for his visit.
The deaths had been going on for years and the staff were "quite complacent about it," he wrote later in his memoir. He sacked the matron, a nun, got rid of the local medical officer and ordered that the buildings be disinfected.
When the home reopened the death rate in subsequent years was down to levels that were normal for the time. And the reaction of the authorities?
Bishop Lucey of Cork complained to the Papal Nuncio, and the Nuncio complained to the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera, the founding father of the nation who had a habit of sinking to his knees to kiss the ring of every bishop he met.
The scale of this national scandal -- how many babies died -- is still not clear. We do know, however, that an estimated 35,000 unmarried mothers spent time in the 10 mother and baby homes around the country in the decades in question.
That is why the government has decided to establish a commission of inquiry into all of the mother and baby homes, not just the one in Tuam. Another former home in Castlepollard in Westmeath, for example, is estimated to hold the remains of over 3,000 babies.
This is all a highly emotive issue and the horror and shame has been heightened by the image of babies being "dumped in a septic tank,” as some news reports about the Tuam home suggested. (And it was that horrific image that propelled the story around the world.)
It's far more likely that the so-called septic tank was in fact a shaft burial vault, a common method of burial used by institutions years ago. The large concrete headstone slab placed on top of such burial shafts could be removed when needed to allow additional burials.
Many institutions like maternity hospitals and orphanages across Europe had such communal burial vaults for stillborn babies and infants who died soon after birth. These vaults sometimes were within the grounds of the institution and sometimes in a nearby field.
This seems appalling to us now, but we have to remember that the remains of stillborn babies or deceased infants or unbaptized babies were not usually given back to parents in those days.
The easy reaction to all of this, of course, is to heap blame on the Catholic Church and the religious orders once again, and that is not something we have shied from doing in this column. But the more we learn from these scandals, the clearer it is that the blame needs to be spread much wider.
Irish society as a whole at the time was deeply hypocritical, even sick, and turned a deliberate blind eye to what was happening in the institutions. The fact is that the pregnant unmarried young women and the babies who ended up in institutions were put their by their own families.
De Valera, sinking to his knees to kiss a bishop's ring, was symptomatic of how Irish society operated at the time and the absolute obeisance shown to the Catholic Church and its perverse views on sexuality.
The suffocating Ireland of the time was a land in which anything of a sexual nature outside marriage was treated with horror and anger and seen as deeply shameful.
As a result, the lives of so many people -- not just those in institutions -- were damaged by the twisted teachings of the church on sex, on masturbation, purity, "company-keeping," "impure thoughts," and all the other nonsense.
Behind the facade of Holy Catholic Ireland in the first four or five decades of our newly independent state was an ugly hidden reality. Behind all the daily Communions, the weekly Confessions, the Masses, the devotions, the First Fridays, the family rosaries, the Children of Mary, the Sodalities, and all the rest of the mumbo jumbo, young unmarried women who got pregnant were being removed from society because they had brought "shame" on their families and might "give scandal" to their neighbors.The nuns who ran the mothers and babies homes where many of these young women ended up were doing both God's work, as they saw it, and the state's work, since some refuge had to be provided for these "unfortunates."
The funding the state provided was woefully inadequate, which is one reason why these overcrowded institutions, riddled with infections and short of proper nutrition, became death camps for so many babies.This was to some degree deliberate. There was a strong punitive aspect to how both the church and the Irish state ran these institutions, with life on the inside deliberately made hard and the inmates made to feel a crippling sense of shame and encouraged to repent.
These days we are horrified by beatings, acid attacks and "honor killings" in Muslim countries designed to keep women in line with a particular code of morality. But Ireland in the very recent past had its own code and a similarly repressive mindset.
We may not have stoned women to death, but we incarcerated them in awful conditions and took away their babies, destroying lives and creating great suffering. We had our own Taliban of the Tabernacle.
And before anyone thinks we are way past all that now, we need to remember that the latest figures show that at least 10 Irish women EVERY DAY are leaving this country because they cannot get pregnancy terminations in Ireland.
We're far too holy for any of that abortion stuff they have in the U.K. and Europe, you see.