Commission on Mother and Baby Homes

PaulConnaughton-2-150x150

Dáil Éireann, 21 January 2015

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this motion.

As the centenary of the issuing of the 1916 Proclamation approaches and the stated aim of that Proclamation that a new Irish Republic of ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’, there are few examples of how the reality of life in the Republic failed to live up to the ideals of the signatories of that Proclamation more stark than the treatment of single mothers and their babies.

In reviewing the first century of the Republic’s existence, rather than self-congratulatory commemorations, it is perhaps more fitting that we examine the conditions and regime that pertained in the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam and other such homes with a view to gaining a full understanding of how the country’s most vulnerable children were treated, both in life and in death.

The work of local historian Catherine Corless in terms of identifying the burial site of children who died in the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961 has raised serious questions about the operation of the home, but has raised wider questions about the treatment of the women who went to that home and other such homes to have their babies, the care they received and the care, or lack of care, that the children born there received.

The emergence of this story has once again called into question society’s unquestioning attitude as to what went on behind the various high-walled institutions around the country. However, this story has also raised many painful memories for mothers whose children were born in that home and children born there and those who spent part of their childhood in that setting.

I have met with many mothers whose babies were born in that home. Many yearn for closure and welcome the current Commission and have confidence in those appointed to investigate this matter. For others, it has reignited a period in their lives that they have buried and they are fearful that old wounds will be reopened. I have spoken to mothers who had children in that home as teenagers and whose other children are unaware of their elder sibling. I have also spoken to people born in that home who have no idea who their parents are or were.

The people who spent time in this institution in Tuam and those born there need as much information as possible and the report of this Commission will be an important marker in terms of answers. I welcome the fact that Judge Yvonne Murphy has agreed to chair the Commission and also welcome the appointment of an international legal expert on child protection and adoption, Dr. William Duncan and History Professor Mary Daly. The range of expertise will be necessary and welcome in dealing with the many cases that will emerge and the many stories and testimonies that will be heard in coming months.

The report of this Commission will tell us much about Ireland in the 20th century and underline the fact that we must strive for greater equality in 21st century Ireland. I welcome also the fact that Ireland is now prepared to examine dark areas of its past. Recent years have seen much work done in this respect, be it the treatment of inmates of industrial schools or Magdalene laundries. That spirit of questioning what went on behind those high walls is a hugely important question and the most important testimonies are those from the people who were inside the high walls, which in turn raise important questions for wider society about its acceptance of such conditions and its willingness to go along with the invisibility of those incarcerated behind those high walls, both during and after their incarceration.

1916 will be an important year for commemorations and perhaps we should also remember that it is the 45th anniversary of this process of questioning what went on behind those high walls. It was 1971 when Hanna Greally’s book ‘Bird’s Nest Soup’ was published. A 19-year-old Hanna went into St. Loman’s in Mullingar for ‘a rest’ and was to remain there detained against her will for 20 years. Her courage in telling her story foreshadowed much of the testimony we heard in recent years from survivors of industrial schools and laundries and that thread will continue with the appointment of this Commission, which will help establish the facts surrounding deaths in the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam and the condition generally in other mother and baby homes in the state in that era.

In conclusion I would like to thank local historian Catherine Corless for her work in raising this issue. I would also like to thank the many women I have met in recent months who shared their stories of their experience in the home and the men and women who were born there who also shared their stories.

The work of this Commission is particularly important for survivors, but it will also inform wider society on what it was like for many to live in 1940s or 1950s Ireland and go some way towards telling the stories of many hundreds of children who never had the opportunity of living in that era, the children who were certainly not cherished by the Irish Republic and a society which did not see them as equals.