Nearly 9,000 children died in 'brutally misogynistic' homes for unmarried mums

A new report has concluded that up to 9,000 children died in Irish ‘mother and baby homes’ in what’s been described as ‘a dark, difficult and shameful chapter’ of recent history.

The Commission of Investigation inquiry exposed ‘a stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture’ in the country during the 20th century, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman said upon its publication.

Five years ago the commission was set up to investigate the ‘true horror’ of 18 homes which operated between 1922 and 1998 for women who had become pregnant outside of marriage. 

Around 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children were residents at the homes in total during this period, most of whom had no other choice. 

The report found evidence of widespread emotional abuse with women often subjected to denigration and derogatory remarks.

Some of the pregnancies were the result of rape while some women had mental health problems and some had an intellectual disability.

Staff – many of whom were Catholic nuns – offered little sympathy or counselling, despite many of the women having been rejected by their family or the father of their child. 

The homes didn’t employ any qualified social workers until the 1970s and women were dissuaded from discussing their stories with fellow residents, the report found. Conditions were said to have improved in later decades. 

The commission said the high rate of infant mortality was a ‘disquieting’ feature. In the years 1945-46, the death rate among infants in mother and baby homes was almost twice that of the national average for ‘illegitimate’ children.

A total of about 9,000 children died in the institutions under investigation – about 15% of all the children who were in the institutions.

The commission said: ‘In the years before 1960 mother and baby homes did not save the lives of “illegitimate” children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival.

‘The very high mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications.’

In the early decades most women who were admitted to the institutions were domestic servants or farm workers or they were carrying out unpaid domestic work in their family home.

In later years, however, many of the women were clerical workers, civil servants, professional women and schoolgirls or third-level students.

Conditions inside the institutions were said to be terrible. The Tuam home in 1959 – which accommodated over 200 children – was said to be lacking in the most basic sanitary facilities.

The commission said: ‘The children’s rooms – which were almost devoid of toys – were heated either by open fires or portable radiators that were filled with hot water.’

In a statement responding to the report’s publication, the Government said it would consider the findings in the ‘weeks and months ahead.’

It will aim to develop an action plan centred on eight specific issues: A survivor-centred approach, an apology, access to personal information, archiving and databases, memorialisation, restorative recognition and dignified burial.

The Government has established a counselling support service for survivors, who were given access to it for the first time earlier on Tuesday.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said the report describes ‘a dark, difficult and shameful chapter of very recent Irish history’.

‘It holds up a mirror to aspects of our past, which are painful and difficult, and from the present-day perspective, often hard to comprehend,’ he said.

He added: ‘While this report will obviously have the most direct impact on survivors and their families, it presents all of Irish society with profound questions.

‘What has been described in this report wasn’t imposed on us by any foreign power. We did this to ourselves, as a society.

‘We treated women badly, we treated children especially badly. We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy. Young mothers and their sons and daughters paid a terrible price for that dysfunction.’

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