It is the duty of a republic to be willing to hold itself to account. To be willing to confront hard truths – and accept parts of our history which are deeply uncomfortable.
This detailed and highly painful report is a moment for us as a society to recognise a profound failure of empathy, understanding and basic humanity over a very lengthy period.
Its production has been possible because of the depth of courage shown by all those who shared their personal experiences with the Commission.
The report gives survivors what they have been denied for so long: their voice, their individuality, their right to be acknowledged.
Before going into detail about the report it is important to say that it would not have been possible without the steady determination of the former residents, their advocates and researchers who campaigned with them.
I particularly want to acknowledge the critical part played by Catherine Corless whose work at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home site led directly to the establishment of the Commission.
On behalf of the government I want to thank the three Commissioners – the Chair, Judge Yvonne Murphy, Professor Mary Daly, and Dr William Duncan – and their team.
Their Report reveals the dominant role of the churches and their moral code and lays bare the failures of the State.
They have produced the definitive account of how this country responded to the particular needs of single women and their children at a time when they most needed support and protection.
This should have been forthcoming from the fathers of their children, their family and friends, their community and their State, but so often it was not.
The often painful and distressing testimony of many survivors is presented in detail in the report of the confidential committee prepared by the Commission.
Reading the Commission’s findings and the report of the confidential committee the most striking thing is the shame felt by women who became pregnant outside of marriage and the stigma that was so cruelly attached to their children.
Testimonies from the women speak of the pressure to make sure that no one in their locality would find out about their pregnancy.
One speaks of not being allowed to return to school after becoming pregnant because it would bring shame on the school.
Extracts from witness accounts shine a light on the attitudes that women encountered:
I was treated like a second class citizen by my family, society had an obsession with hiding everything
Nobody will want you now” said the mother of a witness, 14-years old when it was discovered that she was pregnant.
Get her put away!” were the words of a father of a 19-year old when told of her pregnancy.
In the earlier decades covered by the report, witness testimony describes how a dearth of sex education often left young women confused and unaware of how and why they had even become pregnant. Some of these pregnancies were as a result of rape and/or incest.
Children born outside of marriage were stigmatised and were treated as outcasts in school and in wider society. Some children who were subsequently boarded-out experienced heartbreaking exploitation, neglect and abuse within the families and communities in which they were placed. This was unforgiveable.
The sense of abandonment felt by many of these children is palpable in the witness accounts. The circumstances of their birth, the arrangements for their early care, the stigma they experienced and the continuing lack of birth information, is a terrible burden in their lives.
Many women, children and fathers left these shores to escape this unfair judgement and life-long prejudice and because they thought it was the only way to protect their families’ reputations.
While many have built good lives for themselves, many did not overcome the impact which these formative experiences had on their lives and may have suffered and struggled with many serious personal problems.
One of the clearest messages of the testimonies in this report is how this treatment of women and children is something which was the direct result of how the State, and how we as a society acted.
The Report presents us with profound questions.
We embraced a perverse religious morality and control, judgementalism and moral certainty, but shunned our daughters.
We honoured piety, but failed to show even basic kindness to those who needed it most.
We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy, and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction.
To confront the dark and shameful reality which is detailed in this report we must acknowledge it as part of our national history.
And for the women and children who were treated so cruelly we must do what we can, to show our deep remorse, understanding and support.
And so, on behalf of the Government, the State and its citizens, I apologise for the profound generational wrong visited upon Irish mothers and their children who ended up in a Mother and Baby Home or a County Home.
As the Commission says plainly – “they should not have been there”.
I apologise for the shame and stigma which they were subjected to and which, for some, remains a burden to this day.
In apologising, I want to emphasise that each of you were in an institution because of the wrongs of others. Each of you is blameless, each of you did nothing wrong and has nothing to be ashamed of.
Each of you deserved so much better.
The lack of respect for your fundamental dignity and rights as mothers and children who spent time in these institutions is humbly acknowledged and deeply regretted.
The Irish State, as the main funding authority for the majority of these institutions, had the ultimate ability to exert control over these institutions, in addition to its duty of care to protect citizens with a robust regulatory and inspection regime.
This authority was not exerted and the State’s duty of care was not upheld.
The State failed you, the mothers and children in these homes.
The report brings a considerable amount of previously unknown information into the public domain.
It has exposed the truth, once hidden, to reveal significant failures of the State, the Churches and of society.
Women were admitted to mother and baby homes and county homes because no supports were forthcoming from any other quarter.
They were forced to leave home, and seek a place where they could stay without having to pay.
Many were destitute.
In the personal testimonies of how many women ended up in these institutions, the Priest, the Doctor and the Nun loom large.
The sense of oppression, even at this distance, is overwhelming.
Women, terrified by the consequences of their pregnancy becoming known to their family and neighbours entered mother and baby homes to protect their secret.
And the pressure to maintain this secret added insult to injury and was a large part of the mother’s trauma.
Conditions in the homes varied. Before the 1960s living conditions in many private Irish households were generally poor. In the congregated settings of Mother and Baby Homes poor sanitary conditions had much more serious consequences for disease and infection control.
County homes as well as Kilrush and Tuam are identified as having appalling conditions. Conditions in other mother and baby homes were better and improved over time.
Many of the women suffered emotional abuse and were often subject to denigration and derogatory remarks from the religious, with little kindness shown, especially when giving birth.
The overall picture is of a hard, cold and uncaring environment.
One of the most disquieting features of the report is that up until 1960 mother and baby homes appear to have significantly reduced the prospects of survival of children.
The death rate among infants in mother and baby homes was almost twice that of the national average for children born outside of marriage. A total of about 9,000 children died in the institutions under investigation – about 15% of all the children who were in their care.
It is deeply distressing to note that the very high mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications.
However, there is little or no evidence of State intervention in response to these chilling statistics. In fact, a number of reports actually identifying the problems were not acted on.
I know it will be a disappointment that the report does not answer all the deeply personal questions on the burial arrangements for many of the children who died in these institutions – in many cases the burial location remains unknown.
There are no records for a number of the large institutions where significant numbers of infants are known to have died – including Tuam, Bessborough, Castlepollard and Sean Ross. While this is difficult, options for dignified remembrance and memorialisation will be implemented where this is not already the case.
While women may not have been strictly legally forced to enter these homes, the fact is that most had no alternative, especially those who did not have the support of their family or independent financial means.
Overall, the Commission concludes that Ireland was a cold and harsh environment for the majority of its residents during the earlier half of the period under investigation.
It was especially cold and harsh for women. All women suffered serious discrimination. Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment.
Emerging from the survivor stories are the horrific accounts of rape, either perpetrated within families or by someone within a woman’s community. This led ultimately to entry into a Mother and Baby Home where the woman bore a social stigma but there was no accountability for the men responsible, and the agencies of the State showed little or no interest in addressing these crimes.
The Commission acknowledges the additional impact which a lack of knowledge and understanding had on the treatment and outcomes of mothers and children with different racial and cultural heritage, those who faced mental health challenges, or those with physical and intellectual disabilities.
Such discriminatory attitudes exacerbated the shame and stigma felt by some of our most vulnerable citizens, especially where opportunities for non-institutional placement of children were restricted by an unjust belief that they were unsuitable for placement with families.
While context is essential to our proper understanding of this chapter of our history, it does not lessen what happened or diminish the responsibility of Church and State for the failures laid bare in what we have learned.
For much of the period covered by the Commission, women as a group and regardless of age or class were systematically discriminated against in relation to employment, family law, and social welfare, solely because of their gender.
Children were similarly unequal, and none more so than those who were cruelly labelled ‘illegitimate’.
I share deeply the Commission’s unequivocal view, that the existence of the status of “illegitimacy” until 1987 in this country “was an egregious breach of human rights”. This was a huge injustice and blighted the lives of many.
It is a sad truth that the history of human kind, even to today, has largely been defined by a failure to acknowledge and vindicate the rights and status of women and the labelling of those who failed to conform to social norms.
We cannot account for what happened elsewhere, but we can and must do so for what happened in our country.
Response of the Government
An apology on its own is not enough.
We, collectively in this House, will be judged by our actions. Actions always speak louder than words.
The Government accepts and will respond to all of the recommendations made by the Commission, and this response will centre on four pillars of Recognition, Remembrance, Records and Restorative Recognition.
Recognition begins with this apology and will be followed by commitments to national and local memorialisation and commemoration.
The views and wishes of former residents will be paramount and all commemoration will be led by them.
A broad suite of memorialisation, educational and research commitments will support national reflection and enduring remembrance. Future generations will learn of Mother and Baby Homes and of the experiences of former residents, particularly as told through their own words.
With regard to records, the Government is committed to introducing information and tracing legislation as a priority.
Access to one’s own identity is a basic right.
We will also be advancing a range of related actions to support access to personal information and to ensure appropriate and sensitive archiving of institutional records.
Finally, turning to Restorative Recognition.
Similar to the Magdalenes, an enhanced medical card will be given to former residents of a Mother and Baby Home or County Home.
This is in addition to counselling, which is immediately available to all former residents, and patient liaison support services, which will be available to all former residents.
The Government will also design a scheme of Restorative Recognition for former residents and an Interdepartmental Group will report back to Government on this as soon as possible.
All of these commitments will be advanced in a survivor-centred manner, with ongoing communication and engagement as plans are developed and implemented.
Learning from our Past as we Face our Future
As a nation, it is important to understand and accept the failings of our past; important but not sufficient. We must also learn from them.
We have adopted national and international laws which oblige us to follow a different, more humane and right-based approach.
There is in place and being further developed a wide range of social services completely absent for much of our history.
Under Minister O’Gorman, we have a Government Department dedicated to children, to equality and to working across Government and society to promote and uphold the rights of all people.
The Citizens’ Assembly is examining further measures to address structural inequalities in relation to gender. It is looking in particular at how we can support and respond to the needs of those with caring responsibilities.
Through our laws and policies, our systems, structures and services, our actions and our words, we must always seek to create a more just society, grounded in respect, diversity, tolerance and equality.
Continued investment in education, especially for those at the margins and the most vulnerable, is the surest way of making sure that we do not repeat the past.
Similarly, we must learn the lesson that institutionalisation, creates power structures and abuses of power and must never again be an option for our country.
Throughout this report former residents talk of a feeling of shame for the situation they found themselves in.
The shame was not theirs – it was ours.
It was our shame that we did not show them the respect and compassion which we as a country owed them.
It remains our shame.
I want to reassure survivors, their families and the country, that this Government is determined to act on all the recommendations of the Report and to deliver the legislative change necessary to at least start to heal the wounds that endure.
Speech of the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar T.D., Statement on the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes
This Report is the story of a buried past, uncovering buried lives, and a buried truth. In some areas it confirms what was long suspected, in other parts it reveals a more nuanced, and more challenging narrative.
The Commission of Investigation has spent many years finding the truth so we can now begin to provide some measure of healing and reconciliation and above all make restitution.
As a country, we owe a debt to Judge Yvonne Murphy and her expert team, to the survivors who provided testimony, and also to the work of people who brought the issue of mother and baby institutions to the fore.
A special mention must be made of Catherine Corless, whose painstaking scholarship and humble compassion lit the candle, that allowed us to re-open and read this dark chapter of our history.
As Tanáiste, as a former Taoiseach, and as a member of the Government that established this Commission, I want to offer my own apology to the children who were hidden away, treated as a commodity, or as second-class citizens and to the mothers who for whom there was no other option but to give up their child.
They may have consented but it was not free and informal consent in the way we understand that concept today.
I think this Report ‘shames Irish society entire’. Woman pregnant outside of marriage, some very young, some victims of rape, were not supported by their families or by the father of the child.
They were forced to turn to the Church and State for refuge, and while they got a refuge it was a cold and often cruel one. Church and State ran these homes together, operating hand in glove, equally culpable, and did so with the full knowledge and acquiescence of wider society.
Church and State re-enforced social prejudice and judgement when they should have tried to change it.
For too many years Ireland was a cold house for children born outside of marriage. This Report exposes the chilling consequences of such a mindset. Too many children were seen as a stain on society, but the truth is that it was our society that was deeply stained. As the Report shows, this was a stifling, oppressive and deeply misogynistic culture. A cold house for most of its people.
It’s shocking to read that more than 9,000 babies died in these institutions but in some ways it is more shocking that this is not a revelation. The statistics were known at the time. It was known that children in Mother and Baby institutions were more likely to die in infancy than other children, including other children born outside of marriage. There was no public outcry, no Dáil debates or motions, no media inquiries or interest.
These were second class citizens, lesser mortals, to be treated as such, perhaps for their whole lives, solely due to the circumstance of their conception and birth. It was a conspiracy of shame and silence and cruelty.
I particularly feel for the children who were ‘boarded out’. This was not fostering as we know it today. While there were exceptions, children boarded out were not raised as one of the family; boys were used as unpaid farm labour and girls as carers or servants. Their interests were not put first or second. Their education unimportant. This was profoundly wrong and they continue to suffer for it today,
The survivors of the Mother and Baby institutions alongside the survivors of industrial schools constitute Ireland’s stolen generation.
As a society, we stole from them the lives they should have had:
1. raised by their mothers,
2. in their own communities,
3. known to their fathers,
4. brought up to believe they were as good as anyone else and could grow up to be anyone they wanted to be.
It is late in the day, but now is our opportunity to make restitution on behalf of the generations that preceded us.
The means by which we do so should be guided by the men and women who survived these institutions. They should be given time to read and reflect on the Report and they should inform us as to the next steps.
The Commission in its recommendations points the way: a formal State apology, appropriate memorialisation, better access to health services and counselling, and housing, access to records and information about themselves including birth certificates and medical records, financial recognition along the lines of similar schemes, a repository to archive all of the documents relating to residential institutions, assistance with advocacy. And, we should not forget the survivors now living overseas and in Northern Ireland where inquiries are less advanced.
This Report teaches us that when good people believe bad things about others then terrible actions can be rationalised away. There are lessons here for us as a society and a State today. A meaningful response has to go beyond denouncing the horrors of the past from the safety of the present.
A meaningful response must match words with actions,
- by making restitution for the suffering that occurred,
- by attempting to right the injustices, and
- by taking meaningful steps to change our culture and our attitudes, especially towards children and women.
People want to know their own truth, to find the part of themselves that for too long was forbidden or secret.
This Commission was an excavation into our past, and it succeeded in uncovering part of our collective history and heritage. What we now know is compelling and crying out for resolution. As a Government we will do everything we can to provide it.
Today is a day of atonement, when we express our horror and sorrow at the story of Ireland told in this Report, when we promise to do right by those who suffered.
In doing so, we should not lose sight of the more hopeful story that is told in the Commission’s report as well.
It tells the story of a country that has changed and progressed, that got better, kinder and more compassionate, more loving, less judgmental and less misogynistic as the years passed.
The flatlets and houses of the 1980s and 1990s were different to the Mother and Baby institutions of the 1950s or 1960s and the County Homes and Workhouses that preceded them.
The Commission tells a story of enormous change. This is a story of social progress as the years and decades moved on:
- legal adoption;
- free secondary school education;
- sex education;
- social welfare payments for lone parents which gave them real options;
- the introduction of free healthcare for pregnant women and new-borns;
- changing attitudes to sexual morality and personal freedoms;
- a less deferential view of the Church and a more questioning attitude to the State;
- legalised contraception;
- the right to divorce and remarry;
- the slow but steady dismantling of the architecture of patriarchy;
- huge improvements in maternity care and neonatal care leading to a situation whereby death in pregnancy or in the early years of life is exceptionally rare;
- the Children’s Rights amendment;
- early years education;
- new laws and new attitudes to consent and domestic violence;
- Children First and the introduction of mandatory reporting of child abuse,
- decongregation of residential institutions for people with disabilities or mental illness in favour of community living.
We should not be afraid or embarrassed to reflect on how much we have changed as a society, how far we have come. Doing do does not belittle in any way the maltreatment and experiences of women and children in the Mother and Baby institutions. Rather, it re-inforces them.
The fact that today’s standards are better is not an excuse for the standards of the past nor should we think that our standards should not be raised further.
As we read this Report – both hopeful and shameful – it should spur us on now to do better in the years to come, not just for women and children who survived the mother and baby institutions, but also for the women and children of today and of the future.
Today we understand a little better the tears that were shed over many decades, by those who were judged so harshly, by those who had their human rights taken away. We cannot change that past, but we can rededicate ourselves to giving people their truth, recognising the hurt and damage that was caused, saying sorry and making amends.
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