The findings of the Irish Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes

In the opening sentence of the executive summary of the final report from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, it notes that “The story of mother and baby homes in Ireland is complex and its nuances cannot be easily captured in a summary.”

The Commission’s Terms of Reference covered a span of 76 years, from 1922 to 1998 and it found that the experience of woman and children in these homes in the 1920’s was very different to those were admitted in the 1990s.

The Commission found that during the earlier years of that time period, Ireland was a cold and hard environment for many of its people; but it was especially cold and hard for women.

Greater hardship again was visited on women during this period who had children outside of marriage. It is the view of the Commission that the fathers of these children and the women’s own immediate families bore much of the responsibility for this greater hardship, while at the same time the Commission found that these circumstances were further exacerbated by the approach adopted by the state and churches.

The Commission said that these women’s “… lives were blighted by pregnancies outside of marriage and the responses of the father of their child, their immediate families and the wider community.”

Change came slowly and the main drivers in effecting change for these women and their children was the introduction of free post primary education in the 1960s and the introduction of the Unmarried Mother’s Allowance in 1973, which was the first time the Irish State made a direct payment to a woman who was not married, to support and enable her to raise her child in the community.

The Commission’s report found the following:-

  • That there were about 56,000 women and 57,000 children in the mother and baby homes and county homes, the greatest number of admissions was in the 1960s and early 1970s.
  • In the years before 1960 mother and baby homes did not save the lives of “illegitimate” children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival.
  • The women who were admitted to mother and baby homes ranged between girls from the ages of 12 and women in their 40s.
  • 80% were aged between 18 and 29 years.
  • 5,616 women or 11.4% of the total for whom information about their age was available, were under 18 years of age.
  • While mother and baby homes were not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon, the proportion of Irish mothers that were admitted to mother-and-baby homes or county homes was probably the highest in the world.
  • Some pregnancies were the result of rape; some women had mental health problems and others had an intellectual disability.
  • The Commission found that women were admitted to mother and baby homes and county homes because they failed to secure the support of their family and the father of their child, they had nowhere else to go “…many were destitute”.
  • The Commission states that there was no evidence that the women were forced into mother and baby homes by Church or State authorities and it went on to say that many were taken to these homes by their parents and other family members without ever being consulted and/or told where they were going.
  • The Commission found that the vast majority of children born in the institutions investigated were “illegitimate”, and because of this, experienced discrimination for most of their lives. It also noted that the greater majority of the children born in these institutions had no memory of their time there although some stayed in the institutions after their mothers had left and a small number remained in these institutions until they were seven.
  • The Commission found that these women and their children should never have been in these institutions.
  • While there was no evidence of the sort of awful abuse that had previously been reported in respect of industrial schools in Ireland, the Commission found that there was only a small number of complaints of physical abuse, however, many of the women suffered emotional abuse and were often subject to denigration and derogatory remarks. The Commission found that the institutions were cold and uncaring and many of the women experienced significant trauma in childbirth as a result of this atmosphere.
  • The Commission also reported that it found no evidence that the Roman Catholic hierarchy played a role in the day-to-day running of mother and baby homes but if a religious congregation wished to open one of these institutions they required the permission of the Diocesan Bishop to do so. The Commission saw no evidence that the religious orders, who ran the mother and baby homes, made a profit from doing so.
  • The Commission noted that Ireland was the second-last country in Western Europe to legislate for adoption and that concerns that state-regulated adoption would result in Roman Catholic children being adopted by parents of a different religion were a factor in delaying the introduction of legal adoption in Ireland until 1952.
  • The Commission reported that the most disturbing feature of these institutions was the very high rate of infant mortality (first year of life), while the death rate among “illegitimate” children was always higher than it was among “legitimate” children, it was higher again in these institutions. A total of 9,000 children, about 15% of all the children in the institutions investigated died. The Commission went on to clarify that these very high mortality rates were known to local authorities and national government at the time and were recorded in various official publications, but despite that no action was taken.

In another blog later this week we will look at the recommendations made by the Commission and how it is hoped that they might be achieved.

Written by Katrina Gray at BLM katrina.gray@blmlawcom

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