Our sins of failure as testimonies shelved again



This week the lurch of combined anger and incredulity I felt over the Commission Report on Mother & Baby Homes ignited again. I was dismayed by the 2021 report which was criticised for its inadequacies, including the failure to report hundreds of testimonies given by survivors. Following public outcry, a review of the testimonies was promised. This has now been shelved by Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman in favour of an alternative ‘initiative’ without consultation with those representing survivors.

The suffering and institutional mistreatment of women and children has been discounted yet again and decisions about them once more taken, over their heads and behind closed doors.

“We are being eradicated from history,” says Clodagh Malone, Chair of the Coalition of Mother &Baby Home Survivors (CMABS), who was born in the St Patrick’s Mother 7 Baby Home, 0n Dublin’s Navan Road. “We are not surprised that we are at the bottom of the pile compared with the Magdalene laundries and the industrial schools.”

The three-member commission was set up in 2015 to examine practices in Mother & Baby Homes between 1922 and 1998 following the discovery of 800 bodies of children in unmarked graves at the Bon Secours Mother & Baby Home in Tuam, Co Galway. The report found that around 9,000 children (one in every seven. that is twice the national infant mortality) had died in the 18 institutions included in the investigation and the report also confirmed that children had been used for medical experiments.

But it failed to deal with issues such as forced adoption, forced labour and involuntary detention as well as excluding and misreporting testimonies of hundreds of survivors.

Minister O’Gorman’s ‘initiative’ would encourage survivors to tell their stories afresh or to have their original testimonies used for inclusion in records at a National Centre for Research and Remembrance in a future site at a former home in Sean MacDermott Street, Dublin  This initiative will take years to complete. Meantime, more and more of the elderly surviving mothers will die before justice is done.

“They should have got it right the first time; the Commission didn’t tell the truth,” says Clodagh Malone. “What people want now is a proper apology and redress. A lot of survivors were retraumatised after giving testimonies’ this is a community of extremely vulnerable people. These women just want a few bob to bury themselves.”

The findings of the commission were also criticised by outgoing children’s rapporteur Professor Conor O’Mahoney in his annual report. His views, made independently of the Ministry for Children, dealt with human rights issues, and said the commission had downplayed the question of forced labour whereas he had found quite a significant level of forced labour.

He also disagreed with the commission’s view that the women were not incarcerated in the homes and found that the definition of the deprivation of liberty was met in quite a number of cases in the homes.

Meanwhile, CMABS want to see a lifting of the rule on the Government’s proposals for redress, which excludes children who were in mother & baby homes for less than six months. “We want to have equality among survivors. Many of them feel guilty that others are being treated differently,” says Ms Malone.

One of the ongoing sources of distress for survivors has been the difficulty or denial in accessing birth and early life records. The story of a mother’s search for her son was poignantly portrayed in the 2013 film Philomena with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. From October, the Birth and Information and Tracing Act will give survivors a right to their information and establish a contact register.

Clodagh Malone runs a ‘search angel’ to locate birth certificates for survivors seeking redress. But she caytions survivors finding out about their origins: ”It may be the toughest day of their lives.” Records, she says, may sometimes reveal instances of pregnancies resulting from rape, incest or clerical abuse.

We should know more about how the rest of those stories went. The commission heard testimonies from several hundred survivors, a tiny fraction of the estimated 75,000 women and the 66,000 of the children who survived, who were in homes until they closed in 1998.

Those women and their children were the victims of the punitive attitudes which prevailed against unmarried mothers at the time. They were failed by families, partners, Church and State in a way which today is seen as a shameful chapter in our history. We shouldn’t fail them again by shelving  the truth of their stories.

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