The Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home and Ireland’s Unknown Knowns

"Give us your children and we will shape their souls, they said, but it was their bodies they desired"

“Give us your children and we will shape their souls, they said, but it was their bodies they desired”

Once again, light has been cast upon the dark deeds of the Catholic Church, and once again, people are declaring openly that they feel ashamed. The sense of shame is heightened, when not caused, by the fact so little media attention has been devoted to the matter in Ireland, by comparison with the attention it has received elsewhere. I doubt that shame is the predominant feeling, but I can’t know for sure, because lots of people who feel ashamed about things say nothing. It isn’t even, as far as I can see, the predominant voiced reaction either, but it is there, and I am going to start there.

Is shame a natural reaction to what the writer of this excellent piece correctly describes as the ‘re-discovery’ of the ‘796 tiny bodies, squashed into a septic tank’, at the site of the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam?

I don’t think it’s a natural reaction at all, but a reaction formed of habit. I think the reaction derives from the same sense of shame that consigned these children to their short lives of neglect and suffering, and that turned their stigmatised mothers into indentured slaves.

Shame has an isolating, paralysing effect. It emanates from the dread of being in the disapproving gaze of someone else. That someone else may be a vigilant God, or your parents, or your family, the rest of your community or congregation, or even a disapproving and demanding version of yourself.

When people say they feel ashamed at what certain people in the Catholic Church did, or at what certain others failed to do, who is it they feel looking at them? Is it the 796 babies and infants they never met? I find that hard to believe. In fact, I think that when people say vague things like “I am ashamed my country did this”, and leave it at that, they are autonomously reproducing the same kind of moral policing that used to issue directly from the pulpit.

No-one can do anything to ease the suffering of the eight hundred dead children, because they are already dead. People can berate others for failing to say anything, for failing to act at the time, when they knew full well what was going on, but opted to un-know it. Many of those people are safely dead too. And if there were others who tried to do something, however small, well, maybe they are dead too. Or maybe they are too damaged from the experience to tell anyone what happened.

There is a priest in the area where that “home” was located who is suggesting that these were different times. He is saying that “we can’t really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens”.

On one level, this is utterly ridiculous. Not only because most of us are unlikely to ever observe the world through the same lens as a Catholic priest, but also because it isn’t an ancient and indecipherable civilisation we’re talking about here. It is people who were alive at the same time and in the same country as other people we know. And we know from these people that gross cruelty and neglect towards children was seen as wrong.

On another level, though, maybe he has a point. We don’t really know that much about what prevented people from doing anything about it. Did they just accept with a shrug that such cruelty, however awful, was just part of the way things were and that there wasn’t much that could be done about it? It isn’t so long ago, after all that people thought it was normal to beat and brutalise children in school in front of their classmates, and that what is more, it never did them a bit of harm.

There are lots of things that we know, but we can opt to un-know. We know, for example, of children living in Direct Provision living in utter misery. We know there are 375,000 children officially living in deprivation. We know that there are very sick children with essential medical needs whose treatment can be withdrawn on our behalf on little more than a bureaucratic whim, and that the powerful private healthcare industry in Ireland, including the Bon Secours private hospital network is the product of the Catholic Church. We know that the State offers tax breaks to rich executives in the finance industry so they can send their children to the exclusive fee-paying schools -often run by Catholic religious orders- of Ireland’s elite whilst other children have their Special Needs Assistants withdrawn. We know that parents are compelled to place their children in crèches with names such as Little Harvard, where they pay extortionate sums of money only to have their children subjected to violent abuse and degradation, all in the interest of profit. Are these things just part of the way things are too? Is there not much that can be done about it?

Well? The word ‘infant’ means ‘unable to speak’. What prevents those of us who are able to speak from doing something about it? Why do so many people use their powers of speech to enforce the sense that the lethal effects of policies and disciplinary bureaucracies that serve the rich and shred people’s rights are just part of the way things are? Why do so many people go about telling others to keep their heads down, and berate them for being “emotional” or “immature” if they complain? It isn’t as if there are still clerics dressed in black roaming the land, ready to have you locked away and beaten up for deviating from God’s path. Are there?

True enough, Ireland’s media establishment –which is closely intertwined with structures of financial, economic and political power- has devoted little attention to these dark secrets to date. When it does give the matter more focus, as it eventually will, given the strength of public feeling, it will do so in a way that minimises the impact to the aforementioned structures. It will shield these structures from critical scrutiny, just as it always does. Some fitting and tasteful tombstone will be forged, so that the past can get a decent burial. One reporter at the public broadcaster yesterday divulged –does he have their ear?- that the markets will be pleased that Michael Noonan the steady operator would be remaining in situ after his recent treatment for a cancerous growth. Why would institutions that exalt public “maturity”, that is, submission to the rule of the markets, day in day out, be inclined to care about poor dead children? This “maturity” at its most basic, when it takes on the intended form of self-policing, means betraying the child you once were, and getting with the programme.

I have a question for you. What kind of radical transformation of society would be needed so that what is kept uppermost in the public mind by media institutions is not what ‘the markets’ think, but what will happen to the 375,000 children living in deprivation?

This kind of question stems from precisely the kind of thought that is treated as the highest form of immaturity. For all the cant –and wilful misreading, given that the Proclamation’s remarks about children concern citizens of a democratic country, not children per se- in relation to ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’, betrayal of children is considered one of the highest public virtues in Ireland, from the perspective of power.

That brings me back to the matter of shame. Shame, as I said above, is by no means a natural reaction to anything. It comes from habit fostered by particular social structures, and, perhaps principally among these in Ireland, the Catholic Church.

But there are other habits –ways of thinking, ways of reacting when confronted with some apparently august authority- that endure and thrive too. If we are genuinely interested in the welfare of children, we ought to start daring to think and speak about the ways we are imprisoned by those habits, the institutions that still shape them, and, crucially, how to break them.


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6 responses to “The Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home and Ireland’s Unknown Knowns

  1. Are we going to get the truth about what happened here? We know the RC church was into a baby-selling racket. Were these dead children ones with health defects who had no market value? I suppose they wouldn’t give them back to the mothers because people would have noticed only healthy children got adopted.

  2. Excellent post and excellent sentiment; how we break those habits, ideologies and institutions is a key concern.
    “For most of us, the knowledge provided by our common historical perspective is so embedded within ourselves and our own culture … that we have not conceptualized the need to question the history/knowledge that we “know””
    An ongoing reticence, within wider Irish political and social discourse, to question the knowledge that we know leaves our potential to progress beyond the status quo at an impasse.

  3. Donal Leader

    Thank you for this insightful article. I know the priest who is the spokesperson on the issue in Tuam. He is a good and and humane person who comes from a family where compassion was a core value. But that is neither here nor there. The current Ken Loach film, Jimmy’s Hall, demonstrates only too well the nexus of social, religious and political forces at work in the Ireland of the period in question. Shame, then, was a social and political weapon. It still is. It seems to serve prevailing ideologies best. Uncovering the truth will serve us best. And that is a long way off.

  4. As for the ‘different times’ defence, … the Roscommon-born Irish-American priest, Father Flanagan, who founded the ‘Boys Town’ homes in America came to Europe after WWII to see what could be done for war-orphans. He came ‘home’ to Ireland and publicly denounced the ‘homes’ in Ireland and the way they were run. That was the most famous priest in the world at that time PUBLICLY denouncing what we were doing back in the 1940s. No decent human beings ever thought this way of behaving was right and proper and moral. But decent humans did allow others to put it into institultionalised practice which … they then followed. ‘Different times’ has the worrying consequence of suggesting we in our modern society are not capable of making the same mistakes. Rather this should shake us ALL to the core and remind us to be on our guard against the moral laziness and cowardice that results in actions that we later try and disguise as acts of ‘evil’ or ‘ignorance’.

  5. Another nuanced, insightful piece on the Tuam babies – in the absence of an engaged and responsible print and television media, the more ordinary voices that speak up, the better. I am particularly drawn to your points about the financial markets and the notion of ‘maturity’. I see terrible parallels between what happened at Tuam and what is happening right now, all around this country. If Ireland has slipped the leash of the Roman Catholic Church, it was to embrace a new secular master: the banks. Fear of retribution? Check. Silence about ‘getting into trouble’? Check. Shame? Check. Fear of discovery and rejection by our local community? Check. Looking the other way and pretending everything is fine, that whoever is in trouble deserved it, broke the rules, were stupid? Check. We are living through Tuam, right now, and in another 50 years an aghast citizenry will point to these times and ask why did no-one speak out, why did no-one help, why did no-one care? Ireland appears to be singularly lacking in ‘maturity’, always looking for a higher power to bend the knee to – an abdication of the responsibility to face and decide our own future. Until we have the courage to do that, our past, present and future will be Tuam.

  6. Thomas Scheff’s work is vital to put context on what is going on. Check this and more:

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