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Mother and baby home reports reveal litany of abuses

13 February 2021

The recently published reports on the abuses suffered by women and children in clerical run institutions, both north and south, have once again laid bare the extreme nature of the sexual oppression that existed in Ireland over a long period of time.   They also reveal that the legacy of that oppression continues to exert itself today in the lives of those who were directly affected and in Irish society more generally.


"Well it's our holocaust isn't it? They had the holocaust in Germany but the mother and baby homes were our holocaust." Winnifred Carmel Larkin, who was born at the Tuam home in 1949, and remained there for five-and-a-half years before being fostered.
Before we consider the findings of the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters it is worth remembering the sequence of events that preceded its publication.  The most important point to be made is that it was not officialdom – whether clerical or state – that took the initiative on these matters.  They only became the subject of an official inquiry following the public outcry provoked by the publication of research by a local historian about the existence of a mass children’s grave at a former home, run by the Bon Secours nuns, in Tuam, Co Galway.  Catherine Corless established that 796 children had died at the home, and were interred in chambers in a former sewage tank.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters was set up in response to the Tuam revelations.  Its task was to investigate what happened in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes from 1922 to 1998.

The following are headline findings of the Commission’s report.

-  Around 56,000 people -- from girls as young as 12, to women in their 40s -- were sent to the 18 institutions investigated, where some 57,000 children were born

-  9,000 babies died - about 15% of all the children who were in the institutions - and a figure far higher than the national mortality rate at the time.

-  Prior to 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," In the 1930s and 1940s, over 40% of children in the homes died before their first birthday.

- The greatest number of admissions was in the 1960s and early 1970s.

-  Children born in the institutions would often be separated from their mothers and put up for adoption, severing all family ties. (1)

These findings are shocking enough but what is even more shocking are the many oppressive aspects of the mother and baby homes that the report downplays or dismisses.  On the question of adoptions, the report claims that they could not be described as forced as women signed papers and could “withdraw consent at any time”.  This is despite the testimony from survivors that no other option was ever offered or that they were physically separated from their babies.  The report also says there is no evidence of money changing hands for babies despite numerous accounts of adoptive parents from the US giving ‘donations’ to religious orders.

The physical labour carried out by women in the homes is also downplayed with the report claiming that it was “no different’ to the average workload.  Work carried out by pregnant women, and those who had just given birth, included laundry, cleaning, scrubbing, and even cutting turf and timber.   Despite being told by survivors of “useless work” given as punishment claims that some this labour was of a punitive nature is rejected.

The report downplays the level of abuse suffered by women in the homes saying that there was no evidence of physical or sexual abuse.  It also rejects the claim that women suffered as consequence of being denied “pain relief or other medical interventions” during or after labour. (3)

While the Commission report concedes some of the survivors claims about mother and baby homes the conclusions are generally dismissive.  It goes out of its way to reject anything that would point to the criminal liability of state and church or leave religious orders open to claims for financial compensation.  Indeed, it recommends that most women who spent time in the homes should not receive any financial redress.  It muddies the waters over responsibility by attributing what happened in these institutions to a culture of misogyny that prevailed at the time.   This is stated clearly in the executive summary:

 “Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches. However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge — a harsh refuge in some cases — when the families provided no refuge at all.”
In this schema the state and church are almost passive actors - merely satisfying the demands of a bigoted population – rather than the leading promoters and enforcers of sexual oppression.  Another notable element of this is the degree to which liberal feminist concepts such as patriarchy – the proposition that men are primarily responsible for the oppression of women - are used to obscure the institutional nature of these abuses.

This was also the line taken by state and the church in their response to the report.  The Children's minister Roderic O'Gorman said it made clear that unmarried mothers faced a "stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture" for decades.  Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that the report opened “a window onto a deeply misogynistic culture in Ireland over several decades" while Archbishop Eamon Martin said he accepted “that the Church was clearly part of that culture in which people were frequently stigmatized, judged and rejected."  Focusing on a vague notion such as “culture” requires them to accept responsibility only to the most minimal degree.

The report of the Commission is a device to draw a line under this scandal.  This is revealed most clearly in the efforts of the government to close off the possibility of further investigations.  In October, the government passed a law promising to seal the Commission's archive from survivors and the public for 30 years. Days later, the government changed its position, saying survivors of the homes were legally entitled to access their personal data.  Despite this apparent U-turn survivors' rights groups claim the government - and state agencies including the child and family agency, Tusla - are still restricting access to their own records.  The agency is still routinely denying survivors - particularly adopted people - access to their own personal information, their birth certificates, their identities, and even their ethnicities.  It has also been revealed that the audio recordings of witnesses who gave evidence to the inquiry have been deleted.

It is no surprise that the reaction of survivors and their supporters to the report has been largely negative.  Catherine Corless, the historian whose research prompted the investigation, said she felt “completely deflated”.  While the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors, said the report was 'truly shocking' but 'fundamentally incomplete'.  The group said it was a 'cop out' to blame what happened on the prevailing social attitudes at the time, saying the government and church should be held responsible.

Familiar pattern

The official response to the mother and baby home scandal follows the pattern we have seen with other similar scandals over the years.  It begins with denial and obstruction; is followed by a severely limited inquiry and report; and ends with insincere apologies.  This was the case in 1999 when Taoiseach Bertie Ahern issued a state apology to the victims of abuse in religious-run institutions that were supposed to care for truants, troubled children and those convicted of minor criminal misdemeanours.  In 2013, it was the turn of Enda Kenny to apologise.  This time it was to the 10,000 victims of abuse at the Magdalene Laundries where, over a period of 74 years, unmarried mothers and their children were subjected to forced labour.  The report into that scandal found that almost 1,000 were found to have been buried in the grounds of the institutions and that some spent most of their lives working in slave-like conditions.  And now, in 2020, current Taoiseach Michéal Martin offers yet another apology to women for their treatment at the hands of Church and State.

What is missing in all of these is any notion that the perpetrators of such abuses, whether they be individuals or institutions, should be held to account.  A quote from one of survivors of a mother and baby home that headed this article compares the institutional abuse suffered by women and children to the Holocaust.  Yet, unlike the Holocaust, the victims of the crimes committed in Ireland have not seen anything resembling justice.  Instead, they are told to be satisfied with half-baked investigations and half-hearted apologies.

Counter revolution

Why is this the case?  Why does the response to these scandals always fall short of what should be reasonably be expected?  The answer to this lies in the nature of the Irish state that came into existence in 1922.  It was established on the back of the defeat of the national revolution and, from its inception, was a bulwark of reaction.

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.  The reliance on the Church reflected the weakness of the Irish state in terms of public resources but it also the political and ideological imperative to combat the emergence of anything - no matter how modest – that pointed towards socialism and women’s rights.  This was seen in the 1940’s in the fierce response to the Mother and Child Scheme – a proposal from the health minister Noel Browne to introduce elements of state-run health service to Ireland.   It was also seen in the persistent opposition of the Church to anything that would have given women greater control over their lives such as child maintenance, divorce, contraception and abortion.

It is true that many of these battles on women’s rights have advanced and that Ireland, in terms of how people think and behave, is no longer a Catholic country.   However, 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 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.

The other major plank of the Irish counter revolution – alongside sexual and class oppression – was its hostility to Republicanism.  The Irish state was – and continues to be - a bulwark of partition.  A critical point here is that partition is not running on some parallel track to these other forms of oppression but rather has been instrumental in reinforcing them.   This is what comes out clearly in the recently published report on the abuses that took place clerical run institutions within the northern state.


The report into mother and baby homes (and also Magdalene laundries) in the north was commissioned by the Stormont Executive in the wake of the revelations in the south.  It also followed on from an inquiry into historical institutional abuse which covered abuse of children under 18 who lived in children’s homes, borstals, training schools, juvenile justice centres, hospitals and orphanages.

The research that formed the basis of the report was conducted by a panel of academics from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University under the leadership of a former senior police officer.  It examined eight mother and baby homes, a number of former workhouses, four Magdalene Laundries and sought personal testimony from women and children with "lived experience" of the institutions.   The period covered was between 1922 and 1990.  The last mother-and-baby institution closed in 1990; and the last Magdalene laundry in 1984.  This timescale reinforces the sense what is revealed in the report is not just “historical” but also within the lifetime of most people who are alive today.

The following are the main findings of the report:

- At least 10,500 women were sent to homes between 1922 and 1990, although the figure is likely to be much higher because records were not complete for all the institutions.  Numbers of entrants peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before a rapid reduction in the 1980s.

- Around a third of those admitted were aged under 19 and most were aged between 20 and 29. The youngest was 12, and the oldest 44.

- Many thousands of unmarried women also gave birth in workhouses between 1922 and 1948 but these records could not be explored in-depth "given the research timescale".

- Some of the women had been the victims of rape or incest, although the crimes were not always reported. Some victims were sent to work in a Magdalene laundry after they gave birth.

- Women in the homes reported having to clean, polish floors and launder clothes late into their pregnancies. The report found that they were required to undertake tough chores late into pregnancy and had little preparation for childbirth.

- Some women said staff were "unsympathetic and sometimes cruel". They said they had to give birth alone in hospital, with no visitors, and felt they were "judged morally" by medical staff.

- Several women, particularly younger mothers, described "predatory sexual behaviour" in either the homes or in a maternity hospital. (1)

The report also touched on the issue of adoptions referencing testimony from women and girls who were separated from their children.  It found that recently as the 1980s, new-born babies were being forcibly taken from their mothers and given up for adoption by nuns.   There is evidence that a number of babies were moved from mother-and-baby homes in the North to baby homes in the South and were then adopted there, the USA and Britain.

Despite extensive research the report admitted that some questions about adoption and infant mortality rates remained unanswered.  This related to the panel to not having the legal powers to access records and instead relying on the co-operation of the institutions.  That there are unanswered questions on such critical question suggests that full co-operation wasn’t forthcoming.  It also highlights in the insincerity of the appeal by Archbishop Martin for anyone with information on what happened to women and children at the homes to "lift the lid on this stark reality and let the glaring light of truth shine in".

Given the sectarian structure of the northern state it might appear odd that Catholic run institutions were able to operate with such impunity.  However, that would be to misunderstand the nature how sectarianism operates.  The northern state could accommodate “Catholic rights” and the ceding of control over health and education to religious orders.  This dovetailed with the Unionist policy of segregation. It also created a conservative bulwark within the Catholic population who were invested in the status quo.  What cannot be accommodated by the northern state is civil rights and equality.  Such demands strike at the heart of sectarianism and have proved to be profoundly destabilising.


Its clear that the current investigations and the official responses in regard to the litany of abuses against women and children are wholly inadequate.  We therefore support the demands of victims and their descendants for further investigations and proper restitution.  This would mean opening state and clerical records to examination and making religious organisations criminally and financially liable for their past actions.  But we also have to recognise that the continued existence of the clerical state structure is the biggest impediment to the victims in their quest for justice.   That is why socialists – in support of victims – must also go beyond the immediate issue to make the more general demand for the complete removal of religious orders (and religious dogma) from education, health and social services.   This (alongside opposition to partition) is an essential part of a programme for the working class that overturns the legacy of counter revolution and liberates the Irish people.

(1)  Ireland's 'brutally misogynistic culture' saw the death of 9,000 children in mother and baby homes, report finds
Mother and Baby Homes: State and society turned blind eye to thousands of deaths

(2)  Mother & Baby Homes Report a Whitewash — But Church and State Are Guilty!
(3)  Rape and incest victims and girl as young as 12 sent to mother and baby homes

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