With other news quickly pushing it out of the headlines, it's still worth looking at the revelations coming out of Ireland after a local historian connected the dots about what happened to children of unwed mothers in a local Catholic-run institution. While the original headlines about "800 infant bodies found in a Septic Tank" appear to have conflated some facts in error, the larger story remains intact and possibly even more distressing. The scale of the abuses is apparently widespread, and touches on many more things than just the mothers and their children.
Much more below the Orange Omnilepticon.
For a number of decades, unmarried women who became pregnant in Ireland were 'slut-shamed' to a degree that seems incredible. They were condemned by their communities and families, and sent to Catholic-run institutions where they were effectively treated as criminals and exploited horribly. Their children were removed from them at birth, and in many cases they never saw them again, nor were told what happened to them.
For the children, it now appears their fate was just as appalling. While life in Ireland was difficult enough in those years for ordinary citizens, those children suffered a much higher mortality rate in institutions that were supposedly dedicated to their care. They were systematically ostracized by their 'care' givers, neglected, and abused. Outside scrutiny was minimal, though people had suspicions and hints of what was happening. Further, it has been discovered that over that period the children were also used as guinea pigs for vaccine trials without any consent from their birth mothers or the kind of oversight that should have been done by the government and healthcare authorities.
There are a number of issues that intersect here: the rights of women to control their own lives, the fusion of church and state where the government essentially subcontracted its social responsibilities to the Catholic Church, the role of the church itself in perpetrating and concealing these abuses, the role of major pharmaceutical companies in carrying out vaccine trials on the children, and the abuse, disease and death the children suffered from all this. There are still living victims of this abuse today, and people and institutions that have much to answer for.
I first picked up on the story from Charles P. Pierce over at Esquire, who also linked to a number of related scandals linked to the Roman Catholic Church and its actions in Ireland.
The Republic Of Ireland has been doing a very hard job over the past couple of decades of confronting the awful legacy of having its civil government so closely married to the institutional Roman Catholic Church. For years, the Church was given a free hand in running a great deal of what passed for educational and social-welfare policies in Ireland. The results were almost uniformly authoritarian and almost uniformly godawful, in every sense of that word.emphasis added
Pierce cites chapter and verse of previous scandals (pedophelia, Magdalene Laundries, etc), notes this latest revelation may be even worse (he was right), and connects the dots here in America with the same kind of authoritarian mind sets at work in the War on Women and the efforts to destroy the founding principle of the separation of church and state. (An example Pierce did NOT cite, but which seems apropos.)
The initial reports were based on the work of historian Catherine Corless, who wanted to find out the real stories of the children who had passed through the home.
There is a growing international scandal around the history of The Home, a grim 1840’s workhouse in Tuam in Galway built on seven acres that was taken over in 1925 by the Bon Secours sisters, who turned it into a Mother and Baby home for “fallen women.”As it happens, the 800 babies in a septic tank was not quite the case; apparently local children had discovered the tank some years after the home was abandoned, and had been traumatized by finding skeletons inside - but there was no count of how many were in there. Instead, the reports seized on Corless's work which documented 796 deaths and conflated the facts. Corless herself has been at pains to clarify the story which she rightly points out is horrible enough, regardless of how many children ended up in the tank.
The long abandoned site made headlines around the world this week when it was revealed that a nearby septic tank contained the bodies of up to eight hundred infants and children, secretly buried without coffins or headstones on unconsecrated ground between 1925 and 1961.
Now a local historian has stepped forward to outline the terrible circumstances around so many lost little lives.
Catherine Corless, the local historian and genealogist, remembers the Home Babies well. “They were always segregated to the side of regular classrooms,” Corless tells IrishCentral. “By doing this the nuns telegraphed the message that they were different and that we should keep away from them.
Corless, who lives outside Tuam, has been working for several years on records associated with the former St Mary’s mother-and-baby home in the town. Her research has revealed that 796 children, most of them infants, died between 1925 and 1961, the 36 years that the home, run by Bon Secours, existed.The mortality rate for children in homes like this was higher than the norm, even for a poor country like Ireland.
Between 2011 and 2013 Corless paid €4 each time to get the children’s publicly available death certificates. She says the total cost was €3,184. “If I didn’t do it, nobody else would have done it. I had them all by last September.”
The children’s names, ages, places of birth and causes of death were recorded. The average number of deaths over the 36-year period was just over 22 a year. The information recorded on these State- issued certificates has been seen by The Irish Times; the children are marked as having died variously of tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis and meningitis, among other illnesses.
...No one is challenging Corless’s archival research, which appears to show that nearly 800 babies and children died at the home over a period of 40 years, without burial records. Locals believe that they are buried in an unofficial graveyard at the back of the building, where they have built a small grotto and placed flowers. One expert on health and mortality in Ireland believes that the death rates are much higher than they ought to have been and deserve further investigation. Contemporary debates in Ireland’s parliament reveal that children born out of wedlock in Ireland in the 1920s had a mortality rate five times higher than normal, in part because of semi-deliberate neglect. In some years in some institutions, the mortality rate for such children seems to have been above 50 percent.Corless had wanted to learn more about the lost children of Tuam who were apparently shuffled into the ground sans coffins, ceremony, or markers. The local towns people have since created a memorial of sorts. However her work has had a larger effect, in that it triggered a look at other Catholic homes for unwed mothers. It would seem what happened in Tuam was not exceptional, unfortunately. Official inquiries are being promised.
As survivor groups and Catholic orders welcome the inquiry [Irish Prime Minister Enda] Kenny bemoaned the fact that unmarried parents and their offspring were treated as “an inferior sub-species.”emphasis added
Kenny spoke in the Dail (Parliament) on Tuesday (June 10) following the announcement that an inquiry would be established. This decision came following the revelation that 796 children were buried in an unmarked grave in what was once a septic tank at the home run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours, in Tuam, County Galway. Records show these children died at the home between 1925 and 1961.
The investigation will examine the high mortality rate across several decades of the 20th century, burial practices, illegal adoptions, and vaccine trials on young children.
It is believed that 3,200 other babies are buried in unmarked graves at three other mother and baby homes in Ireland - Sean Ross Abbey, Tipperary, Bessborough, Co Cork, and Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. Between the 1930s and 1940s the infant mortality rate at these homes was between 30 and 50 percent, far higher than average.
The leader of Ireland’s government said, “This was Ireland of the 1920s to the 1960s. An Ireland that might be portrayed as a glorious and brilliant past, but in its shadows contained all of these personal cases, where people felt ashamed, felt different, were suppressed, dominated and obviously the question of the treatment in the mother and babies homes is a central part of that.”
In addition to the horror stories about deliberate neglect and abuse, and high mortality, further news reports that over the years the children were subjected to vaccine trials - without proper protocols, documentation, or permissions apparently. The practice began as far back as the 1930's.
Scientists secretly vaccinated more than 2,000 children in religious-run homes in suspected illegal drug trials, it emerged today.It is not, however, ancient history, as such trials were still being done some years later.
Old medical records show that 2,051 children and babies in Irish care homes were given a one-shot diphtheria vaccine for international drugs giant Burroughs Wellcome between 1930 and 1936.
There is no evidence that consent was ever sought, nor any records of how many may have died or suffered debilitating side-effects as a result.
The scandal was revealed as Irish premier, Enda Kenny, ordered ministers to see whether there are more mass baby graves after the discovery that 800 infants may be buried in a septic tank outside a former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co. Galway.
The country's ten care homes were said to have participated in the trials, which took place between 1960 and 1976, and involved 298 children. In one of the trials, 80 children became ill after they were accidentally administered a vaccine intended for cattle.emphasis added
No documentation about the trials has ever been published, but an Irish radio programme on Monday alleged wide-scale testing on children.
"My arms and legs were very badly scarred. But when I asked my Mum why she basically said when you arrived your arms were very sore and they were bandaged," said Christy, who was adopted from one of the homes – Bessborough House, in County Cork.
"I didn't know anything about vaccination trials. I've since been to a few doctors and they said they'd never seen anything like it – with so many injections."
The stories (and there are plenty of them) about the young women condemned to these homes, their children, the people of the Catholic Church that ran them, the government that enabled them, the corporations who took advantage of them, and the ordinary people who let this go on for so many years without questioning it or the societal consensus that it grew out of; all of these should be taken as cautionary tales. This kind of horror is not unique to Ireland. It can happen anywhere, when people are placed into groups of unequal status on whatever basis.
This example falls under the heading of the War on Women, because it was overwhelmingly women (and their children) who suffered for the crime of sex outside of marriage - and in many cases it was rape. They were victimized by a misogynistic patriarchy of authoritarianism and arrogance, one that has largely escaped accountability. For the men, it was quite a different story. Where women are in control of their own sexuality, where women have equal status with men, the kind of abuses coming to light in Ireland and found in so many other places are less likely to occur.
The abuses were also enabled by an unholy alliance of church and state, whereby the government abrogated its responsibility and accountability to its citizens over to an organization answerable only to God. (And apparently not all that answerable.) There are indications that the government could have, should have, and did have some idea of what was going on… but it did not act. In the U.S. there are calls coming from those who claim America was meant to be "a Christian Nation", despite clear indications that the Founding Fathers thought keeping government and religion apart was a good idea. Scratch the surface of someone claiming that religion is needed to legitimize government, and odds are underneath you'll find a petty dictator who wants to order people around "Because God says so!"
We can't ignore the class aspects of this either; in an unequal society - and Ireland has been struggling with that for decades - humans are driven by status, and when they don't have much, they seize on what little they have to justify superiority over those they deem to have less, in this case poor, unwed mothers. If it seems like the United States has become a crueler country in the last few decades, growing inequality has a lot to do with that, along with the politics of resentment. It also ties in with the need of people caught up in a society with authoritarian aspects to have scapegoats on which to blame their troubles.
The actions of the pharmaceutical companies in this are also instructive. Those who place blind faith in free markets and the invisible hand for corrective actions to curb bad behavior are living in a dream world. The business of business is to make a profit; there is no inherent morality in that imperative. The children in these homes were vulnerable, and those with responsibility for their welfare failed in their duty. Was there a financial incentive? That's one of the things inquiries may shed light on - though that's not gone well in just the recent past.
Reconciling the past with the present and the future is not going to be easy for Ireland, yet is essential. There are people alive today who were caught up in the worst of this, and the effects will linger on for generations yet if Ireland does not come to terms with them. (In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates lays out how the failure of America to deal with the lasting effects of slavery is still imposing severe consequences on the nation.) It's an ugly, painful process, but necessary.
If you don't know where you're coming from, you don't really know where you're going - or where you may end up again.
For further reading, the three previous posts I did on this topic are here, here, and here. There are some informative comments among them. For those who'd like some more background on this, Philomena is one place to look.