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Graveyard of the innocents in Tuam 

The clerical state and women's rights then and now

The announcement by an Irish government minister that "significant quantities" of human remains had been discovered at the site of a former mother and baby home in Tuam County Galway has brought official confirmation to claims about the disposal of the bodies of babies and very young children who had died there during the almost forty year period it was in operation. Even to a public who have become accustomed to revelations of abuses perpetuated in Church run institutions the treatment of the women and children in the Tuam home were truly shocking.

These mother and baby homes were places where unmarried pregnant women were sent to give birth. After birth their babies were then taken from them and raised in a separate part of the home by nuns. These children were later given up for adoption, often without the consent of their mothers. The women remained in the home for a year, working unpaid hours to reimburse the nuns for their “services”. This was the standard practice - not just at Tuam - but across all ten of these type of institutions that existed within the state. It is estimated that 35,000 unmarried pregnant women passed through these homes.

Informed by a warped religious dogma that deemed the sexual activity of females outside of marriage to be a sin, these homes were designed as places of punishment rather than care. This punishment came not only upon the women but also their children who were seen as the products of sin and therefore less than human. While forced separation and adoption is shocking even more shocking is the very high death rate of children born into these homes that meant that most never left alive.

At least 6,000 children died in mother and baby homes throughout Ireland. For many the end was an unmarked burial plot within the grounds - their remains disposed with those of numerous others in what can rightly be described as mass graves. For others even death didn’t end the exploitation with hundreds of bodies being sent from the homes to Irish medical colleges. These deaths cannot be accounted for solely by the poverty of that time but rather by the conscious neglect and cruelty that women and their children were subjected to.


It was claims about the nature of the disposal of the remains of almost 800 children at Tuam - that they were dumped in part of the sewage works - that brought attention to that particular home. The Mother and Baby Homes Commission – which supervised the excavations at the Tuam site – was established to investigate these specific claims.

Was is notable is that the investigations around the Tuam home were not driven by the state but by the efforts of local people. These date back to 1975 when two young boys playing in a field where the building had once stood discovered a chamber full of bones. However, no official inquiries followed from this incident. The only acknowledgement that something horrific may have taken place there was the erection of a makeshift memorial.

It was largely down to the persistence of local historian Catherine Corless that the full story of what happened at Tuam came to the attention of the wider public. She had heard the speculation over buried remains at the site and a number of years ago set out to investigate. For the most part her inquiries were met with hostility from both religious orders and public bodies. The Bon Secours sisters – the order that ran the home – told her that they no longer had files or information about Tuam. She tried the Western Health Board, who told her there was no information available. When she tried to access information from Galway County Council, she says she was told that she wasn’t allowed because she didn’t have a university degree. The information only started to emerge when she contacted the registry office in Galway to try to get death certificates for every child who had died at the home. This information confirmed the deaths of almost 800 children there. Using maps of the site as it is today, she also discovered that the place where the bones were found by the two boys in 1975 correlated exactly with where a sewage tank had been located during the building’s workhouse days. In May 2014, the story of Tuam ran on the front page of the Mail on Sunday. In was only after this that the government inquiry got under way.

Cover up

The official response to Tuam – as it has been with other scandals – was the usual handwringing, feigned shock and half apologies. The impression given by government ministers is that it was only recently that they had become aware that such abuses had gone on.

In the case of Tuam we know that that from at least 1975 authorities knew that there were human remains at the site. More generally successive Irish governments knew of the abuses and appalling conditions at church run institutions almost right from the inception of the state. In 1924, the government set up a "Commission on Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor, including the Insane Poor". It report in August 1927 found that one in three "illegitimate children born alive in 1924 died within a year of its birth".

These things were also known about within the Catholic Church. An outspoken critic of these institutions was the County Roscommon born cleric Monsignor Edward Joseph Flanagan who founded the famous Boys Home children’s home in the US. After a visit in 1946 he condemned Ireland’s industrial schools and the poor treatment of orphans and those born outside of marriage. He was castigated by the Irish church and government for doing so.


Though maybe not as strident this has continued to be the pattern. The political class have continued to defend the Catholic Church. Though there have been almost 30 inquiries into institutional child abuse cases over the past two decades there has been no attempt to call the Church or any of the religious orders to account or remove them from their role in the provision of public services. For example, the Bon Secours - the order that ran the Tuam home – boast on their website of being ’ the largest independent [private] hospital group in Ireland with over 2000 staff and 350 leading consultants.’ One aspect of recent press reports has been stories about the number of public services run by charities, often with religious connections, and the level of corruption and theft that has seen donations designed to help children flowing into the pockets of appointees.

The government focus has instead been on minimising the liabilities faced by these groups. We see this in arrangements covering financial compensation for victims of abuse. Following the publication of the Ryan report in 2009, religious groups offered €352.6 million towards the abuse costs. But this was later reduced to €192.8 million, and of this, only €96.1 million has so far been realised. This means that of the entire costs of the abuse, religious organisations have so far paid just under 14%.  The government minister Richard Bruton recently admitted that the Irish State had no legal mechanism to compel them to pay more.

The other defence of the Catholic Church by politicians is the claim that society in general was responsible for the abuses that took place thereby minimising the responsibility of any particular institution or group. It is the thrust of the claim by Enda Kenny that;

“no nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children. We gave them up to what we convinced ourselves was the nuns’ care”.

But this is a complete distortion of the historical facts. No one volunteered to go into industrial schools or Magdalene Laundries. No mothers volunteered to go into homes to give birth and then have their babies taken from them. It completely ignores the coercive system that imposed this upon people and the collusion between Church and state that kept it going. Clergy, local council officials, judges, the police and politicians and civil servants, were all active participants in this system.

The biggest deception of all is that the abuses against women and children in Ireland have ceased. Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil; “We had better deal with this now,” “because if we do not some other Taoiseach will be standing here in 20 years, saying, ‘If only we knew then,’ ‘If only we had done then.’ But they did know about Tuam and did nothing. And likewise they know about the abuses of today and are doing nothing.

Today’s abuses

Not only is the Irish state not dealing with the abuses that occurred in the past, it is not dealing with the abuses that are present and ongoing. The conditions that created the Tuam mother and baby home scandal continue today in the form of unaccountable authorities, distorted priorities and warped ideology. Those who thought that church control was a thing of the past had a rude awakening when they found that a new maternity hospital was to be handed over to the nuns, who control a vast private medical empire in Ireland.

While much of this is the result of class prejudice religious dogma still plays a significant role. We see this clearly in the severe legal restrictions on reproductive rights and the treatment of women within the health service. The most recent high profile example of this was the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. She died at University Hospital Galway due to complications of a septic miscarriage after being denied an abortion. When Savita asked why the medical staff could not perform the procedure she was told it was because Ireland was “a Catholic country”. Another horrific case was that of the brain-dead woman, who was 18 weeks pregnant, being kept alive on a life support machine by medics who feared that if she was allowed to die they could be prosecuted under abortion laws. These cases may be extreme but everyday within the health and social care sector Irish women are being adversely affected by decisions and procedures and that are influenced by religious dogma.

The other dogma that women and children suffer under is a class prejudice that owes more to the Troika than the Trinity. While there has always been class oppression and class inequality in Ireland, intensified by the counterrevolution represented by the victory of the Free State forces in the civil war, this has been intensified significantly by the adoption of the Troika’s bailout programme. It is woman and children - disproportionally amongst the poorest must vulnerable sections of society - who have felt that greatest impact of the assault on wages, working conditions and on public services while the wealth of the Irish elite has reached new levels,

Over the period of the economic downturn and the so called recovery the number of children classified as living in “consistent poverty” has almost doubled. A combination of falling incomes and budget cuts means that more and more low income parents are relying on deteriorating public services to meet their children’s basic health needs, exacerbating inequalities in health and life expectancy. Cuts to welfare payments, which are presented as a means to “activate” lone parents into the labour market, have actually reduced the incomes of lone parents who are already in employment. They make up a significant part of that rapidly expanding section of the population which has become known as the “working poor”.

Another pressure pressing down upon low income families are the rising costs associated with housing which are fuelling the housing crisis and homelessness. The number of homeless adults and children has reached a new high with about 2,400 children living in emergency accommodation. For children in these circumstances their experience of home is living in a single room with their parents, nowhere to cook and eat, no room to play indoors, and no safe place to go outside.

The deterioration of public services has had a particularity adverse effect on children with disabilities who are being denied assistance because of long delays in having their needs assessed. Thousands wait years for interventions such as speech and language therapy. Despite the enactment of disability legislation a decade ago that was supposed to replace charity with rights parents are still having to battle to secure the most basic services for their children.

Undoubtedly the worst example of the poor treatment of children by the Irish state is within the asylum system. Under the direct-provision regime 1,600 children have grown up in overcrowded communal accommodation and been subjected to permanent poverty and isolation from wider society. What is particularly obscene about these conditions is that they have been deliberately designed to be oppressive in order to deter asylum seekers. Is this really so far removed from the mindset that created mother-and-baby homes, industrial schools and Magdalene laundries?

This picture of Ireland of a state that is hostile to women was confirmed recently in a report from a UN Committee on Ireland’s record on women’s human rights. For the first time in a decade, the Irish State was examined under CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). That the Republic of Ireland was ranked between Jordan and Ukraine in relation to the protection of women’s human rights immediately gave an indication of its poor record. The UN report identified 58 aspects of Irish life and legislation that “adversely affect women” and prevent them from enjoying “human rights and freedoms”. It highlighted women in direct provision, those with disabilities, Travellers and others, as being at risk of social exclusion. It also singled out the Eighth Amendment, saying that it “unduly restricts access to abortion” and called for a constitutional referendum on the issue.


The assumption underlying the recommendations in the UN report - which is largely shared by the left - is that conditions for women in Ireland can be improved through reforms. This begs the question of why has there have been no significant reforms - particularly in relation to abortion rights.

Various court judgements and laws give the appearance of reform but in reality have keep the blanket ban on abortion largely intact. Despite the passage of legislation in 2013 we had a case of a suicidal rape victim being force fed and subjected to a caesarean section. The only area that has been liberalised in relation to abortion is the right to travel. Even this right to travel isn’t universal, with reports that a number of female asylum seekers who wanted to travel to the UK for an abortion were forced to carry on with their pregnancies.

The experience over the last twenty years - of the public outcries, spontaneous mass movements and the political response to them - demonstrate the impossibility of gradual reform in regard the role of the Catholic Church in the delivery of public services or the closely related issue of abortion. So while mobilisations around calls for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment are useful in raising political awareness and should be supported, even a successful campaign would not guarantee the achievement of abortion rights.

Clerical state

The fundamental reason for the failure of reform is not the nature of the law but the nature of the state. In a liberal democratic state there can be reforms in relation to a range of women’s rights - we can see the liberalisation that has taken place in the countries of Western Europe and North America since the 1960s. Though reform would not have happened without struggle it could be accommodated by these states.

The problem with the Irish state is that while it is democratic in form (parliament, courts, constitution etc) it is anti-democratic in nature. It came into existence on the back of the defeat of the democratic struggle. The conservative counter revolution which took place was reflected in the special status afforded to the doctrine of the Catholic Church and the control religious orders were given over public services such as education and health. This is why we describe Ireland as a clerical state.

While the liberal assumption that we are living in a post-Catholic Ireland may be true in terms of public attitudes and behaviour - institutionally and politically the clerical state is still very much in place. It has been the foundation of capitalist rule in Ireland and there is no indication that any significant section of the Irish capitalist class is moving away from that. The defence of the religious orders by successive Irish governments in the face of so many revelations about the abuses that have been perpetrated clearly shows this bond between Church and State is still intact.

There is also no indication that reform is going to be forced on Ireland from the outside. Membership of the EU and the presence of multinational capital within the state have not had the liberalising affect that many would have expected. This highlights the other key feature of the Irish state - its complete subordination to imperialism. The various imperialist powers will not push for reforms that could destabilise a state that is serving their interests so faithfully. We have seen this in the complete disregard of the rights of women and children by the Troika when it comes to the implementation of its austerity programme. As has been shown above it is women and children who have been the hardest hit. While capitalism may promote rights as its ideology in practice it is the class interest that always prevails.


Within the current framework of the Irish state reform in relation to women’s rights is very limited. In relation to abortion it is impossible.

The class nature of Irish society - and its domination by imperialism - means that the struggle for women’s rights is bound up with the broader struggle for democratic rights and for socialism that can only be led by the working class. In Ireland the struggle for women's rights - because it can only be advanced in opposition to capitalism and imperialism - truly has revolutionary potential.


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