What's going on in the Irish baby homes investigation?

I just read about the new report that was released this week. But the accounts I read are pretty dry and are avoiding any speculation. And they’re probably directed at Irish readers who have been following this story and are aware of the subtext and context. So I’m wondering what’s going on.

Is this just a case of gross neglect? Or are there suspicions that the deaths were intentional? Is there a feeling that the one home that’s been the focus of this investigation is the tip of a much larger iceberg? Is the anger directly mostly at the home or is it directed outwards to the church and/or government for overlooking this problem? Is this seen mostly as a historical issue or are there aspects that are still going on today?

A quick overview of the issue.

Just to add to the mix the book and movie Philomena.

AIUI, it is perceived as a systemic issue of neglect and emotional (bordering on physical) abuse, but it’s for others closer to it to amplify.

Also related : The Magdalene Sisters, about the convent laundries like where Philomena ended up.

I do think it’s a historic thing, but it was definitely not an isolated thing.

It’s an acute embarrassment for the Irish government, but more so for the Irish Catholic Hierarchy who (at the very least) turned a blind eye.

…for the Irish Catholic Hierarchy who (at the very least) were complicit.

Corrected that for you.

It’s only an embarrassment as the facts (and they are probably only very superficial facts) are coming to light.

Bear in mind the Irish Government, from the founding of the Free State (December 1922) right through the declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1949 through to the late 80s (and probably early 90s, no idea, I GTF out) delegated all of this ‘social care’ to the Catholic church - and there’s been enough said about the ‘excesses’ of that august body in the past few years.

Bear in mind that this is not about abusive priests, but about the appalling treatment of unmarried mothers and their children (aka. harlots and bastards) by nuns.

This goes some way towards answering the OP’s specific questions:


I think I read somewhere that there may also be questions to be raised about similar homes in Northern Ireland (where there likely wouldn’t have been very different attitudes in the Unionist government)

It’s such a big topic to try to answer in a message board post. It’s like somebody asking “what’s the story with race relations in the US?”

You had some specific questions. The investigation didn’t focus on one home but on all the institutions. The death rate in the homes was very high because of neglect and poor conditions. The anger (such as it is - sadness is probably a more prevalent emotion) is directed at our society that saw fit to incarcerate women and children in such conditions, at the families of the young women who sent them away, at the fathers of the babies who faced no consequences (including in cases of abuse or rape), at the nuns who ran the homes and were often cold-hearted or cruel, at the religious orders that took babies and sold them for illegal adoption, at the government that outsourced its responsibilities to the churches, and at the collusion of church and state that allowed people who had committed no crime to be forcibly incarcerated and forced to work without pay, often for life.

This is entirely a historical issue, albeit one that affects many people alive today. Irish society has changed almost beyond recognition during my lifetime, in many ways for the better. That is not to say that it was all bad then - it wasn’t - or that it is perfect now - it’s not.

One more thing I think is worth saying, although it’s straying well outside the scope of GQ. It’s true that mid-20th-century Ireland was very religious and people’s behaviour was very constrained by strict social mores. There was undeniably a lot of shame and secrets. However, my experience is that even the most devout Catholics of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation were extremely compassionate and always tried to help and support people who transgressed the strict social mores in one way or another, whether it was a drinking problem, a mental illness, or an unwanted pregnancy. They were strict in the abstract, but kind in the specific. Not all unmarried mothers ended up sent away to homes. Modern individualistic society can be cruel in its own way - people are more free to act, speak and think as they wish, but if you go off the rails, the family and social structures may not be there to catch you.

Could you elaborate on this bit? Are you saying unmarried mothers were punished with incarceration and forced labor?

Effectively, yes. There was no sentence handed down in court. But young women who had been admitted to the homes and attempted to escape by jumping over the wall were returned to the homes by Gardaí and would face being punished by the nuns on their return.

My understanding (and I am not Irish) is that it was more of a social thing than an actual legal process. An unmarried woman who got pregnant was looked on as an outcast by her community. Her family would send her away, nobody would socialize with her, nobody would giver her a job or a place to live, and there were no government services to take care of her or her child. So she would have to go live in a institution run by the church; these were the only places in Ireland where an unmarried pregnant woman (or a single mother with a child) could go and survive.

On a related subject, guess what year abortions were legalized in Ireland?



This is my first and only reminder: This is GQ. Keep your responses to the facts of the matter.

Then as the OP, can I request a change of forum? Now that the basic facts have been established, I feel the discussion is more suited to Great Debates.

OK, done.

Here’s Joni’s take on the subject. From 1994.

Joni Mitchell - The Magdalene Laundries (Live Toronto 1994) - YouTube

As a point of comparison, not so long ago I was watching a Danish-French-Polish co-production drama which involved an international baby-trafficking racket centred around just such a Church-run home in Poland. Since it was a fiction, I have no idea how representative of reality it was, but the fact that it could be imagined suggests similar things have happened in Poland, which was and for all I know still is even more Catholic-influenced than Ireland.

I feel any problems that exist in Poland can’t run as deep as the ones in Ireland apparently did. The communist regime which ran Poland for several decades would have had no problem denouncing a religious institution. So any problems involving Catholic baby homes would have had to develop fairly recently.

I think it goes back to the writing on the Irish Constitution in 1938 that gave a special recognition of the Catholic Church. The debate over this was influenced by the constitutions of states where there was a Catholic influence at that time, notably Poland. The specific references to religion were removed in an Amendment of 1972, but the influence of the Catholic church in Ireland and its connection with the state remained very deep, with Catholic institutions providing education, health care and social care sevices.

That close connection between Church and State is probably why the dysfunctional character of some of these institutions was allowed to persist for so long without state intervention.

Institutions can and do go wrong and fail. They can betray the principals on which they were founded and can become the refuge of abusers who use the authority they are given to exploit those in their care. Institutional abuse is not uncommon, it happens everywhere and there needs to be ways to hold them to account. But in the case of Ireland, reforms were held back by the political link between the Church and power structures of the State.

The exposure of this scandal is a sign of the remarkable changes in the culture and politics of Ireland in the past few decades. It used to be such a deeply conservative culture, inward looking, religious and quite poor. Today it is a very different country.

It is an unpleasant business to uncover the sort of abuse that was so prevalent and seek redress for the victims. But it is neccessary, and a sign of the very mature debate that is taking place in Ireland about the reform of its Constitution, to remove anachronistic artifacts and make it better reflect the culture of a progressive, modern state.

Conspicuously fixing this sort of institutional failure and putting in checks and balances is something that every country needs to do from time to time.

The full story of the Magalene Institutions has been painstakingly documented:

To be fair, abusers managed to find their way into too many institutions in the UK, of all denominations and none, much of the full extent of which has only recently been seriously and anywhere near fully investiggated. And social disapproval and pressure to give up a child for adoption applied to unmarried mothers in the UK until getting into the 60s, irrespective of religious denomination.

I think most countries have their fair share of dirty laundry when it comes to how they deal with social problems. The UK has had some pretty bad cases related to institutional failure that have provided a haven for abusers and oppressive regimes.

Sadly when these scandals emerge, the reaction is often a painful reluctance to investigate and sometimes cover ups that make the whole process a long tortuous saga that ends up years later in legal case and eventually an official report to inform future policy and stopping the same situation from happening again.

There has to be a better way.

It is certainly true that the prevailing culture often tacitly tolerates abuses. Some institutions are quite revered because of the good work they do and the transgressions of some the holders of offices within those institutions are quietly ignored because of that. If they are rotten at the top, it can work all the way through unchecked. Schools, army, police, prisons, childrens homes, hospitals, homes for the elderly, religous institutions, there have been so many cases. The work these institutions do is important so when they go wrong, they need to be fixed or they can do more harm than good.

It would, of course, be better if they are prevented from going wrong by proactive monitoring and investigations of reports of abuse. But balancing the interests of the institution and its important work, against the protection of the victims in its care who have been abused. So often it has been the institution and the abusers it shelters who have been prioritised. Moreover, the priorities are dictated not only by the dynamics within the institution, but also what is going on outside. These places don’t exist in isolation and there is the politics.

In the UK there is the rumbling scandal of female children in care being neglected and abused. Well meaning social workers, policemen and local politicians had other fish to fry rather and deal with difficult teenagers who get involved and are exploited by local criminals. That neglect was well known, but it was not seen as a priority that would become a concern to the authorities. They take their cue from the communities they serve. These kids were not born bad, they came from broken homes and had little parenting.

So it was in Ireland with the baby homes scandal. People in authority certainly knew what was going on, but they considered the interests of the institutions to have priority. In that regards they had the tacit support of the community. Where were the marches, the protests, the demonstrations? It was accepted to some extent.

That these scandals become scandals seems to happen when the culture changes and the accepted balance of moral priorities is challenged and institutions begin to lose authority and support because they no longer fit the purpose they were intended to serve. A gap that grows and widens.

In Ireland they had the Magdalene laundries as an institition to provide a home for these girls with unwanted pregnancies. In the UK they had childrens homes run by local athorities for such girls and these failed in different way. They were not oppressive like the laundries, but they were neglectful and a series of scandals has emerged about the actitivies of gangs of local criminals who abused and trafficked these teenagers under the noses of the authorities.

A common factor seems to be amount of resources devoted to addressing these social problems. A system of slave labour in laundries of Ireland or a lax regime in an under resourced home provided by a local authorities with big social work case loads?

Social problems are often difficult deal with but these two very different solutions seem to have resulted in two types of failure.