There are countries where the past never dies, it is not even past, as William Faulkner wrote. Ireland is one of them. Five years after an infuriatingly slow investigation for the victims and devastating for all of society, the final official report on the orphanages and residences of single mothers has exposed black on white, in more than 3,000 pages, the cruelty, ostracism and abandonment to the that thousands of women disowned by a society suffocated by the Catholic morality prevailing for decades were subjected, babies arbitrarily given to other families and deaths hidden from the public record. The Prime Minister, Michéal Martin, will apologize to all of them this Wednesday in Parliament.
It all started in the scariest way possible. Catherine Corless, a local historian from Tuam, in the west of the island, became interested in the rumors that for years spoke of a mass grave with human remains. The maps did not show him a burial site, but a sewage tank. It was his tenacity, and not the help of the nuns of the Bon Secours Orphanage (Good Help, in French), which led to the discovery, in twenty makeshift crypts, of a large number of bones with a development of between nine months and three years. Corless calculated that between 1925 and 1961 (when the place, known to parishioners as The Home, the house), 796 babies had died, without keeping track of their burial. “I thought at first that the authorities would take the matter seriously, until I realized that I was totally alone and no one was going to help me,” the historian told the newspaper at the time. The Irish Times.
Judge Yvonne Murphy took charge of the investigative commission in 2015, and the first thing she did was visit the Tuam mass grave. The result is the portrait of a society that stigmatized single mothers and children born out of wedlock and looked the other way as orphanages offered cruelty and shame to those they took in and doubled down as irregular adoption agencies.
The commission’s report, which for five years has been offering Irish public opinion preliminary advances, has been as devastating as if it had taken Irish society by surprise. And he has not wanted to place the blame, as has happened in other historical reviews, on the Catholic Church. It has been a collective knock on parents who disregarded their offspring, families who repudiated pregnant women and a society that, as a whole, tolerated these practices that the State and local parishes supported and maintained.
There were about 56,000 single mothers and 57,000 minors who passed through these institutions during the period examined by the commission, between 1920 and 1998. Or, at least, the experts have reached that figure, although they themselves calculate that there were at least 25,000 more women and a good number of minors.
It is public institutions, to a greater extent than those managed by religious orders, that fare worse in the report. The physical conditions in which mothers and children lived were “appalling”, but hardly any cases of sexual violence or physical abuse are reported. Only constant emotional abuse and even labor exploitation of the residents of those homes. They were not created to offer refuge to women, but to safeguard the honor of their families. “His mother called him a bitch and a prostitute. Three of her uncles were priests, and her parents were very concerned about how her pregnancy could affect their ecclesiastical careers, ”says the report, the statement of one of the hundreds of victims who have agreed to tell their story.
The Irish Government has pledged to provide financial aid and financial compensation to all the specific groups recognized by the report, as well as to provide legal support for future excavations, exhumations and identification of the remains of the mass graves that are located. “The report clearly reflects that single mothers suffered from an oppressive, brutal and suffocating misogynist culture,” said Irish Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman. Many of the children were given, without legal formalities or controls, for adoption, to Irish, English and even American families. Among the recommendations of the commission’s report is the need for all those adults who were adopted at the time to be able to access information about their biological mothers. Current Irish law makes it significantly difficult to exercise what, according to the report, is a human right of the highest order: the right to one’s identity. Experts even propose that a national referendum be held, if necessary, to amend the laws.
However, the report, more focused on proven facts, recommendations and possible solutions than on a moral judgment that Irish society has been making for decades on its own, refuses to use the term ‘forced adoptions’, despite the request of some of the groups affected by those practices. “Little evidence has been found that children were forcibly taken from their mothers,” he concludes, while admitting that these same mothers “did not have much choice.”
The past in Ireland, and its eternal slab, does not filter so much in its public debate through an ideological sieve – even if the left is the most determined to rescue it and confront it – as through the attribution of blame. Because the reality reflected in the report is that of a poor State that left all these women and minors completely helpless, and to a great extent, some Catholic institutions that offered them an alternative of compassion, as they understood it. I repudiate and protect the untouchables as a result of a social morality completely dominated by the Catholic Church.
9,000 minors died in 76 years
Of all the aspects investigated and analyzed by the Commission for the Investigation of Shelters, the most “alarming”, the report points out, is the number of minors who died during their first year of residence in orphanages. “During the years 1945 and 1946 alone, the infant mortality rate in these institutions was double the national average of the country for illegitimate children.”
Illegitimate is the term used by the report, because that was the illegal expression in Ireland until 1987 to refer to babies born out of wedlock. Of the 57,000 minors investigated by the commission, in at least 18 reception centers, 15% died. That is to say, about 9,000 children in a country where, in the early 1950s, the infant mortality rate was 2.15%.
Most of the deaths, the research notes, were the result of respiratory infections and gastroenteritis. Despite the fact that, in the Irish media, references have been made on numerous occasions to possible cases of malnutrition, “this term is rather indicative that the minor was unable to grow and get ahead, but due to medical conditions he / she was not diagnosed, according to medical experts ”.
The number of deaths during their first year would be explained, says the commission, because “most of the mothers were poor; her diet during pregnancy was very poor, and all this aggravated by her constant efforts to hide her pregnancy from society ”.