Ireland’s child death shame: blame the past, ignore the present?
Last week the Irish government published a 2,865 page report about dismal conditions in mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998. The report found that about 9,000 children died, which was about 15 percent of the 57,000 children who passed through the institutions. Most of the children had been born out of wedlock – “illegitimate”, in the parlance of the time.
The levels of mortality were “appalling”, the report said, for the rate was far in far in excess of children brought up by their own parents.
Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Mícheál Martin, who made a formal apology to survivors of the homes, said the report shed light on a “a dark, difficult and shameful chapter of very recent Irish history”. “This detailed and highly painful report,” he told the Dáil (Parliament), “is a moment for us as a society to recognise a profound failure of empathy, understanding and basic humanity over a lengthy period.”
The inquiry was launched in the wake of an outcry over the remains of almost 800 children which were found buried in an unofficial graveyard in the grounds of a Catholic mother and baby home in Tuam in County Galway in 2014. It had operated between 1925 and 1961.
Government records reveal that the mortality rate for children at the homes -- which also housed rape victims and mothers as young as 12 -- were more than five times that of those born to married parents.
According to critics, the high mortality rate was symptomatic of institutional abuse and neglect towards the unmarried mothers, who were treated harshly in a traditionally Catholic country.
Ireland's Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman commented: “The report makes clear that for decades, Ireland had a stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture ... A pervasive stigmatisation of unmarried mothers and their children robbed those individuals of their agency and sometimes their future.”
The Taoiseach’s remarks were just as stinging: “We embraced a perverse religious morality and control, judgementalism and moral certainty, but we 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.”
While government records show that children in the homes died from illnesses like tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, and influenza, at least they were not deliberately killed – unlike today, with the legalisation of abortion in Ireland.
Under the new law, 6,666 unborn children were robbed of their futures in 2019 under Ireland’s new abortion law. But with the lack of press interest in the subject, it looks like another scandal is being swept under the carpet to be disinterred by future generations – if, that is, those future generations get to be born.
The Irish homes were run mainly by Catholic nuns, although one was run by Protestant evangelical group, and others were state-run. The Catholic element featured in the 2013 Oscar-nominated film Philomena, starring Judi Dench, which followed the failed efforts of Philomena Lee to find a son she was forced to give up as an unwed teenager.
This was indeed a tragic tale. But the women who are now forced to resort to the abortion clinics will never be able to find their children – and it is unlikely that anyone will ever make a film about their experiences.
That much is certain: the Church of today will be suitably punished for the sins of yesterday, even though today, standards of childcare (post-birth, at least) are so much higher that a single smack administered by parents before the age of three is now being blamed for mental health and behaviour problems in the teenage years. Even harsh parenting like sending a child to their room has a similar effect.
It is easy to blame the Church in a desperately poor country for the shortcomings of the Irish child welfare system, because there is no one else to blame. The Church was the Irish child welfare system -- and it was a lot cheaper to run than a state welfare system.
As for the British, up until the 1930s our child welfare system was the responsibility of local parishes, operating through those well-known centres of care and compassion, the workhouses.
My own father and his family spent time in one of these establishments in the 1920s – one of his little sisters died there – and also in a variety of children’s homes. At the time they were all seen as enlightened asylums for orphans and children abandoned by their parents. Nowadays they would be seen as horrifyingly cruel, although it is highly unlikely that anyone will take the trouble to launch an inquiry into them.
Since the workhouses disappeared, Britain’s state-run childcare system has had its fair share of scandals. Despite the fact that when we legalised abortion in the 1960s, campaigners claimed that it would address the problem of unwed mothers and child abuse. But we now have record numbers of abortions, as well as record numbers of children in care.
There will be no compensation offered to women who have suffered the irreparable damage caused by abortion. One Irish woman, Anna Corrigan, whose two brothers died at the home for unmarried mothers in Tuam, said that her “heart is breaking for every survivor.” That’s only natural. But sadly, after abortion, there are no survivors, or very few – and when they do survive, it is seen not as a blessing, but as evidence of a botched procedure.
The Irish people feel shame over the deaths in those children’s homes. But it seems the predominant feeling radiating from their Government is one not of shame but of a smug superiority over Christianity, its historical record tarnished by child cruelty.
The implication is that today’s secular authorities have nothing to be ashamed of. But although cruelty against children is always something to be ashamed of, the even greater shame – and the even greater cruelty - is that it is now legal to kill them before birth.
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