2007 - 2022

Patriarchy Theocracy and Tragedy: the Dark Shadow of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes

Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes Commission Report: a mirror held up to the power of dominance, socialised diffidence and our own need to ‘de-link’ and connect.

On the 5 February 1984, people across Ireland – and throughout that worldly ‘other’ Ireland – the diaspora of millions living in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Cardiff, New York, and right across the mapped circuit of the globe – read of the death of 15 year old Ann Lovett, and of her not-even-moments born, baby son, in Granard, County Longford, under the shade of a grotto shrine, like so many in Ireland, dedicated to Mary, both mother of God, and virgin; known to many Irish, in a kind of intimate-distancing, as ‘Our Lady’. I recall my own 15-year-old self, reading the story in the pages of the Leinster Express and The Kerryman. These were our ‘glocal’ newspapers, bought every Sunday by my Irish migrant parents – living at that time in London – between attending mass; reciting their rosary prayers, and sitting down to a dinner of boiled ham, cabbage and spuds. This tricolor feast of green, white, and rose-gold scented the streets of our home-away-from-home neighbourhood of fellow Irish patriots. We were all, together, suspended in the between-ness of being, in the sparsely descriptive language of the present day, economic migrants, settling for a time unspecified outwith the pale. Our culture – imbibed through novenas, nuns, and nights of porter and Powers whiskey, and singing from the back pages of the Ireland’s Own magazine – was an intense and heady distillation through nostalgia of the Ireland of our parent’s childhoods. It was an Ireland in large part created out of the union of church and state – the consummation of a particular relationship between morality and legislature in the precarity of the third decade of the twentieth century.

I remember the affective flow of furious, adolescent empathy as I pored over this story of a girl giving birth, in solitude, in the interminable Spring rain of an Irish Midlands town, with only a pair of scissors stashed into her pocket to cut the cord of nine months sustaining between her own body and that of her child. Like me, Ann was a convent schoolgirl, born in 1968, to parents who, themselves, had been born into the renovation of a becoming Republic, captained by Éamon de Valera, Taoiseach from 1937 – 1948. And like me, I imagined, in my own girl’s heart-mind, that for Ann, that the one thing more terrible than enduring labour and giving birth for the first time, alone, and of losing her hold on that life, for herself and her newborn – poured out into a rain soaked road under the fixed, and distant, gaze of a statue – was to admit to being pregnant and unmarried.

In this last week, approaching the anniversary of Ann and her son’s shared and lonely deaths – recounted in this recent article from the Irish Times – I have minded them both, while following news of the release of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation’s report, describing the containment of pregnant women and girls, and the births; confinements; dispersal into uncharted adoptions, and the too many deaths of their children in these religious and county run homes. The pitiful conditions of these homes-away-from-homes were also set up by ‘Ireland’s Own’ – the polity that was generated in that union between a domiciled Roman Catholic Church and the governance of the Irish State – and continued to be upheld by them until 1998. These were conditions that Ann, herself, might reasonably have expected to experience, were her pregnancy to have become a public admission – both through her own volition, and, in that environment of the entangling of ethics; morality, and large government, through that of her family and community.

In considering how it can be that a family, and the wider kith and kin of a small town would not notice the pregnancy of one of their own, I looked to why my own engagement with these lives had been so urgent. It seems to us now – in these islands to the east of Ireland – in present-day Scotland, that we are separated by the undeniable physicality of the Irish sea. And yet, for millennia this water has been a road of ‘community transmission’ – to use phrase now commonplace in this time of pandemic.

The Irish communities making their worlding here were bound by the connective threads, and inter-generational flow, of a pervasive culture and historicity, that, along with the institution of the Mother and Baby Homes – founded also in Scotland and England – has accompanied their flitting, and becoming and belonging across these waters. Included in this transnational wave of belonging, are traits and behaviours that were cultivated through Ireland’s postcolonial condition – a need to enact exceptionalism and differentiate from an instantiation of ‘Britain’, or more specifically, the imperial environment. This identity-building was vulnerable to reifying a pastiche coloniality. The new republic had not yet had the time or process to mature into the de-colonial thinking that activist academic, Walter Mignolo, describes as a ‘pluri-versal’ way of knowing; the kind of knowing that is needed for assembling more just, and therefore, more sustainable futures. For Mignolo, it is the sustenance of connectivity between all people – sharing and reflecting upon different, and also comparable, empathetic experiences, in a worldly, decolonial intent – that enables us to participate in ‘an epistemology [de-linking] from the tyranny of abstract universals’ [1]. To cultivate freedom with all folk, is to disentangle from the paradigm of dominant power that, from early modernity, has colonised the ways we produce and value knowledge, and whose knowledges; experiences, and voices are valued and heard. Among such abstractions, Mignolo includes those ideological traditions espoused in Christianity, Marxism and libertarianism that have been mobilised by the hegemony as totalising worldviews.

The particular vulnerability of twentieth century Ireland – likely generated by the perceived ‘unusuability’ of its colonial past – did not facilitate this ‘de-linking’ from the cultural and intellectual influences of this dominant paradigm. Pasts, undeliberated, because they are painful; complex; nuanced, and so consigned to the oubliette of public life, are not disappeared. They linger, ghosting our communities, and societies, and our future worlding. The non-reflexive suspension of key, formative aspects in the historicity of Irish people, trapped like relict wasp, preserved in amber, sustained the residue of imperium suspended in the expressions of a patriarchal society, still burdened, and burdening its members, with the weighty, unconscious power of internalised subjugation. Sociologist Avery Gordon has written about such haunting and its being a way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known; when the apparently ‘over and done with’ come alive.[2]

For Ann Lovett; for the mothers and children in Tuam; Bessborough; Stranorlar, and the 15 other institutions investigated for the Commission’s report, and for the descendants of Irish people, scattered throughout the diaspora, this burden metastasised as the specific fear of ‘bringing shame’. For the people that gave service to the idea that women and children could be institutionalised as they entered the life passage of birthing, this fear was valorised through an interpretation of a particular anthropology in Christian thinking, which Richard Holloway, former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, has identified as ‘the crushing idea that, simply by being born, human beings inherit a sinful, fallen nature, like a congenital virus that can only be remedied by extraordinary methods’[3]. In a state seeking to impose its ‘Own’ order across the uncertainty of change, it seems that the transmission of this viral fear inundated the still present embodying of the spaces of subordination created in the difficult past.

In the days following the joint funeral of Ann, and her posthumously named baby, Pat, the people of Granard, and of Ireland, more generally, constellated around one poignant question – ‘how could this have happened, here?’. This same question has underpinned the reeling-keening reflex throughout contemporary Irish society, following the revelations of the living and dying, and cursory burying of 798 children at the home in Tuam. The names of each of these children have also been broadcast posthumously, through the vigilance and painstaking research of historian Catherine Corless, who grew up in Tuam, alongside the home, and whose ontology of commitment to the absent presence of these buried lives and stories has been a catalyst for the mandating of the Commission.

I am sharing these personal reflections, invoked by this recent, further opening-out of the experiences of thousands women and children across the expanses of Irish society in the mid to late twentieth century, not to deflect from the apparently casually incompassionate, and – in the words of the Dáil’s elected representative for Galway West, Catherine Connelly – ‘inhumane’ aggressions inflicted upon those who found themselves the subjects of the state’s solution to a constructed and then widely socialised problem. In truth, their stories are not mine to tell. Their voices still need to be encouraged, to be articulated apart from what Deputy Connelly has identified as a banalisation of the narrative in the report itself. Rather, I hope to share a connective perspective and an invitation to continue making connections; to propose that we understand these specific treatments of particular Irish women and children as examples of a global structural and systemic ‘othering’ – the isolation and marginalisation of specific groups of people to expedite constructivist, reductive and populist readings and applications of ideologies. These girls and women became pregnant in a variety of contexts including denial of access to knowledge, statutory rape, incest, and – we must acknowledge – through the generative gift of love itself. They were institutionalised within the paradigm of the mass socialisation of an idea that was germinated in a milieu where food, land, opportunity, and, it seems, the choice to be in the relationality of love, itself, were experienced as scarce resources. When we look now at a system that allowed for the poverty of compassion around these mothers and their children, I believe that we are also looking at a universally relatable phenomena – the social dispersal of pain.

In a post-colonial Ireland – itself experiencing still the birthing pangs of individuation as a nation, and calculating the economic costs and psycho-cultural labour of maintaining the long view of attaining independence from Britain – it was the unwed mothers and their babies who were applied like lint to the fissuring; absorbing a society-wide experience akin to what Australian Professor of Sustainability, Glenn Albrecht has characterised as ‘Solastalgia’. This pain through lack of solace, is, Albrecht argues, unlike nostalgia the ‘homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home … is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment’[4]. To see the in the granular detail of other’s lives, the connections to our own reality; as it were, a perspective offered by the cosmological mirror of imagination and empathy that unites all living beings, is not a deflection – nor the glib reflex of false equivalence – but, rather a way of deepening our reflection upon the particularities of each one.

In this mirroring, as the names of the children and parents and the Mother and Baby institutions reported upon last week, are recovered and recalled, we might ask, along with the people of Ann Lovett’s Granard, ‘how could this have happened?’. We might, also, find ourselves in reflexive self-preservation, calling out ‘it could never happen here’. But it has, in all our ‘heres’, including in the so-named asylums that, in regions throughout Scotland, operated as social oubliettes for the keeping out of sight and mind of ‘them’: people with intellectual disabilities, neuro diversity, and countless other conditions and ways of being that were characterised as aberrant. It continues to happen in the marginalisation of contemporary asylum seekers and the de-personalisation, including disenfranchisement, of all who are currently migrating and settling and, together, looking for becoming and belonging in the Scotland we are today – highlighted in aspects of the work of researchers in Scotland including Philomena de Lima, Katerina Strani-Jefferson and Lina Fadel. There is a call to us all in Catherine Connelly’s plea, directed to her fellows in the Dáil Éireann. It is an invocation to desist from naturalising, and turning into social truths, popularist values formed without giving time to pluralised debate, the dialogue that enables meaningful engagement of thought and action.

Such collaboratively deliberated thinking and acting is based on developing the kind of critical attentiveness modelled by Tuam’s Catherine Corless. Such a practice is an education in attention with and for all people, including with ourselves. As European and Scottish ethnologist Ulrich Kockel proposes, this learning comes from quickening our interest in people’s actions, and their contexts of environment and historicity[5] – the way people understand themselves as having pasts, in this present, and in the futures these understandings are shaping. Edinburgh-based and Whalsay-formed anthropologist, A. P. Cohen, calls this knowing how to know, ‘appropriate knowledge’[6]. It is a concept far from the appropriative power of omniscience that dominates the worldview of societies that, as Mary Ratfery[7] wrote of twentieth century Ireland – and most of the world – are governed through a ‘dangerous reality’ that in positioning some of its members as inferior, a society inculcates diffidence to the way they are treated. This diffidence also inures us to awareness, attentiveness and vigilance concerning who is visible, and who is made invisible, in our societies.

To understand how forming values influences behaviours, decision-making and consequences, we need to seek out out the lived experiences of people who appear to be ‘not us’. And we need also to make strange what has become all too familiar, naturalised, facing into our own individual, community, and national historicity, including the hauntings we might prefer to remain invisible, silenced, and indeed, buried. Understanding where we are, and we how got here does not mean giving ourselves up to versions of history that will appropriate us in a grasp of ‘pastness’. What it can be is a process of recovery, a rigorous concern to identify; know appropriately, and practice the intention of de-linking from the harmful entanglements that persist in our present – those abstractions that distract us from connection and from realising futures that are just and sustaining, in a Scotland, and in a world, where all lives are can be welcomed, named, and ‘let leave to live’[8].



[1] Mignolo, W. (2007) ‘Introduction’, Cultural Studies, 21(2-3), 155-167.

[2] Gordon, A. F. (2008) Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.165f.

[3] Holloway, R. (1999) Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics. Edinburgh: Canongate, p.46f.

[4] Albrecht, G., Sartore, G.M., Connor, L., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Kelly, B., Stain, H., Tonna, A. and Pollard, G. (2007) ‘ Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change’, Australasian psychiatry, 15(sup1), S95-S98.

[5] Kockel, U. (2007) ‘Reflexive Traditions and Heritage Production’, in Kockel, U. and Nic Craith, M. (eds.) Cultural Heritages as Reflexive Traditions, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 19–33.

[6] Cohen, A. P. (1993) ‘Segmentary knowledge: a Whalsay sketch’, in Hobart, M. (ed.) An anthropological critique of development: The growth of ignorance, London: Routledge, 31-42.

[7] Raftery, M. and O’Sullivan, E. (1999) Suffer the little children: The inside story of Ireland’s industrial schools, Dublin: New Island Books.

[8] Shepherd, N. Shepherd (2008) The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland, Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

Comments (7)

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      1. Edward Andrews says:

        I got the implication that both Ann and her sister who also committed suicide were being abused perhaps by priests.
        What interested me was that while in the South it was the Catholic Church which called the shots, the situation was exactly the same in the North. OK there were subtle differences between the two denominations but actually effectively the result was the same (except we had the option of the use of Contraception, and the import of Contraceptives “for personal use” was a God send to many a student.
        I was in Dublin 68 -70 at Trinity coming from the North.

  1. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Every last nail and pain of glass in the construction of Maynooth College in the late 19th Century, was bought-and-paid-for by the imperial British state. The inevitable theocratisation of social-services, staffed by non-remunerated, ill-informed priests and nuns, was as much of a convenience to the imperial power as it was to the consolidation of the authority and position of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    I read the Irish Times article, another description of a terror state. The question of why so many people collude in such a terror state (not specific to Catholic Ireland, but it keeps coming up as an example) is for me unresolved, although the various kinds of hypocrisy that support it may be widely known within British cultures and at some level understood to benefit people at upper levels within the patriarchal hierarchies. I think the lack of pluralised public debate is both symptom and cause. Yet in the case of Catholic Ireland (in the institutionalised sense) there is also a supernatural element to terror (just as in some brimstone-fond strongholds of Protestant Scotland).

    I read Catholic priest Joe McDonald’s account in Why the Irish Church Deserves to Die, but found it oh-too-gentle a critique, although it surely made some relevant points. I am not one to let the British Empire off the hook for anything, but I cannot see direct colonial culpability here. The Irish establishment was still taking Papal commands when this had gone out of fashion right around the world, colonised or otherwise.

    The problem with the establishment Christian (perhaps Abrahamic) mindset is that (at some level) the Other must be judged: these are universalist commands. Criticisms of actual patriarchal Christian societies generally note that no single standard of judgement applies, including victim-blaming and immunity for certain kinds of people no matter how vile and known their behaviours are. I also have to wonder, not that our modern consumer-capitalist society is in any way sustainable, how sustainable 9-children families are. It seems a cruel perversity that a society which claims to hold human life to be sacred inflicts so much misery on human lives, and apparently reserves so much hatred for informed choices, when informed choice would seem the ideal expression of significant humanity.

  3. Anne Cafolla says:

    Powerful and thoughtful piece detailing the darkest part of our shared history which must be consigned to history, never to be repeated. We must expunge this mindset once and for all; in the words of my 92yr old Irish mother, “the word illegitimate must be immediately removed from the dictionary and our vocabulary.”

  4. Joop van der Laan says:

    I get the impression these sad cases are about good and evil, channeled through societal ignorance and indifference on a large scale. The blame game seems trite, lazy, partisan and definitely misleading. Let’s remember Solzhenitsyn.

    “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained”

    ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

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