By David Hennessy
The Irish government is running out of time to finally do the decent thing and allow contact between mothers and the children they were forced to give up for adoption – before they die of old age and in torment and guilt, according to one of the groups at the heart of the issue.
Susan Lohan of Adoption Rights Alliance told The Irish World many mothers have been left unable to even explain to their sons or daughters that they did not abandon them by choice.
Ireland’s harsh attitudes to unwed mothers and hostility to women’s rights for most of the last century led to thousands of women – and, in many cases, their children – flee the notorious ‘mother and child’ homes and Magdalene Laundries as soon as they could to make new lives in this country.
Last week Ireland’s Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan announced an inquiry into the by now notorious mass children’s grave in Tuam, Co. Galway. But Mr. Flanagan said he wanted to be careful that the inquiry’s scope did not become unfeasibly wide-ranging.
Details have yet to be agreed or announced but he promised the inquiry would focus on mother and baby homes across Ireland and not be restricted to the Bon Secours site in Tuam. It would, he said, examine the issues of the high mortality rates, burial practices, the legal circumstances around adoptions and the question of conducting of clinical trials.
But he, and the Irish government, are resisting calls to allow the inquiry a sweeping remit to examine the treatment of women, and single mothers, throughout Irish society and hospitals as well as in the Magdalene Laundries.
Susan Lohan told The Irish World: “These issues are not in the past. The abuse of these women and children continues to this day because of the degree to which they are prevented in making contact with one another again.
“So many of the natural mothers of these homes and private homes as well still believe that they committed some sort of sin and that they should feel ashamed and now that they’re looking at the whole matter with fresh eyes, they’re feeling guilty all over again and thinking: ‘How could I have let this happen? How could I have let these people take my child?’
“And then you have adopted people who have grown up with the narrative that they were abandoned by their mothers, that their mothers didn’t care for them.”
The Adoption Rights Alliance has welcomed the announcement of an inquiry but, when further details are announced, would like to see the inquiry’s scope including Magdalene Laundries, the county homes in addition to the mother and baby homes.
“It’s got to include not just mother and baby homes but also the county homes, the Bethany homes, the Magdalene Laundries, all of these institutions that were involved in the incarceration of unmarried pregnant women or just poor women.
“It needs to be a very, very wide scope because otherwise we will have a drip feed of allegations and appalling histories for the next decade. I think it’s very telling that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has called for a comprehensive investigation into all matters and his call was echoed by the bishops of Tuam and Galway. I think when the most secretive organisation on the planet calls for an extensive investigation, the game is up and Charlie Flanagan, the Minister for Children, needs to take note of that.”
Susan reiterated her feelings that an international expert could take charge of the inquiry to eliminate bias, and suggests someone from Australia as Australia has effectively dealt with their country’s forced adoption policy between the 1950s and 1970s and its effects, with then Prime Minister Julia Gillard apologising formally last year.
“I think with the best will in the world, any commission members would be affected by that (news coverage of almost 800 children being discovered in the Tuam septic tank) because we all have our tribal loyalties in this country and because the great and good of Irish society are totally implicated in all of this- We’re talking about doctors, solicitors, midwives, coroners, senior public servants across a myriad of departments. I am convinced they will bring a bias to the table. That has to be carefully managed. We have been asking for a meeting with Charlie Flanagan, he hasn’t yet responded.
“It’s still early days to talk about memorials but that would be an essential part of the process but evidence gathering, fact finding and then justice comes first.”
Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea will be among the homes the inquiry focuses on. It was this abbey and the story of Philomena Lee that inspired the film, Philomena: “In Philomena Lee’s case, her son Anthony was told that his mother had abandoned him aged two weeks. The fact that they felt it necessary to lie to him when he came back looking for his mother, to me that demonstrates all too clearly the extent to which they knew what they had done was so dreadful. If they were still convinced that what they had done was okay, they wouldn’t have lied. They would have said: ‘Yes, we thought we were doing the best thing for you’. They couldn’t stand over what they had done.
“These women have felt the torment and the distress all of their lives and the opportunity to meet their children or explain that they didn’t want to give their children away, the healing potential of that alone is enormous. And I think for adopted people to understand that they were not abandoned is also very healing.
“For the nation’s own health, we need to be very conversant of how state and church in concert have been responsible for so many human rights abuses and we must set up oversight bodies to ensure that never happens again.”
Susan and Adoption Rights Alliance are getting increasingly contacted by marital children of women who spent time in these homes and want to meet their half siblings which further illustrates that the issue is very current and important for a lot of families.
Following the inquiry into abuse in Ireland’s industrial schools and the inquiry into the Magdalene asylums for “fallen women”, the revelations of the harsh conditions endured by both women and children in the mother and baby homes tell a harsh story of Irish society up until the latter part of the last century.
“I heard a quote last week that at one point the Irish state incarcerated more of its citizens than the former Soviet Union.
“We have a habit of locking away and making invisible those people we either despise or we just can’t tolerate so the very, very poor, the physically and mentally unwell and for particular attention, women who have children out of marriage.
“With regard to the psychiatric homes, I think one would discover that a great many of the women in those places are in fact victims of the mother and baby home system. I would have a couple of psychiatric nurses in my acquaintance and they say it is just harrowing to see a 70 or 80 year old woman hug a baby doll and trying to nurse it to sleep. I suspect that’s where many of the women ended up after their spirits were utterly broken.
“We must be the greatest hypocrites on the planet. If people had spent more time caring for these vulnerable groups instead of on their knees in some blinking church, we would have been a better nation. I don’t know what has brought about this brutality, no idea. This all happened since the formation of the state, so much for cherishing all the children of the state equally.
“Anything less than a complete drains up approach (to the inquiry) would be meaningless, we would just have to re-visit it in another five years. Groups such as our own have the stamina, we have been doing this for 13, 14 years now, we won’t be going away.”