The Report into Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes: Bad history

Yesterday the Irish government published the Executive Summary of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. It begins with the following statement:

The story of mother and baby homes in Ireland is complex and its nuances cannot easily be captured in a summary.

Well indeed. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from trying. And if anything, they end up proving themselves right — the writers of the report seem to have found their task so difficult as to have singularly failed in their efforts.

For example, here is another statement from their opening page (my emphasis):

Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment. Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families.

It is extremely bizarre — if not distasteful — to assert that “responsibility” for the way these women, some of whom were as young as 12 years old, were ostracised and condemned rests “mainly” with the men who impregnated them.

How about those who did the ostracising and condemning?

Remember the “harsh treatment” these women received. They were incarcerated in de facto asylums, where they were referred to as “inmates”. They were forced to endure appalling physical conditions (“‘the women ate their meals squatting on the floor’…The food ‘was often adulterated or unfit for consumption'”), dehumanising treatment (“on admission her clothes were removed, her hair was cut, and she was told: ‘You’re here for your sins’”), institutionalised misogyny (“she was physically examined by two members of staff ‘to check for diseases: girls like you could have anything'”), and fanatical religious intimidation (“God doesn’t want you. You’re dirt”).

Their children were kept in conditions that were hazardous in the extreme. The infant mortality rate was staggering, twice that of the general population. Some 15% of all children kept in these homes never left them alive. It is a matter of global news that the bodies of many of these dead babies were disposed of with callous disregard for human dignity, dropped haphazardly into septic tanks, for example, rather than being interred in accordance with the law.

The women were forced into hard labour, with little apparent purpose other than to make them suffer:

“…they were frequently and very closely supervised by a nun, some of whom would slap or punch them if they were judged not to be working hard or fast enough. Several witnesses from separate mother and baby homes told the Committee that the nun would deliberately ‘re-dirty’ the cleaned surfaces. One related how she had just finished mopping a long corridor when the nun upended her bucket of dirty water and ordered: ‘now clean it again!'”

“Some witnesses described that while working on their hands and knees, they were verbally abused about their status as ‘fallen women’. Witnesses reported being called ‘sinners’, ‘dirt’, ‘spawn of Satan’ or worse.

And of course there is this:

“As punishment for having a row over a toy on Christmas Day, I was put into a room for six hours with a corpse in the corner.”

The women in the Mother and Baby Homes were horribly victimised. To claim that responsibility for all this rests “mainly” with the anonymous men who impregnated them is simply grotesque.

* * *

In fact, attributing the “main” responsibility to these men — or to the amorphous abstraction known as “wider Irish society” — is a dangerous deflection. It locates blame in victims’ personal behaviour and welfare, and ignores the role of tribal norms, social scapegoating, and the power structures within which morality is arbitrarily controlled.

It was back in the 1960s when French philosopher Michel Foucault first described the rise of asylums as “the great confinement”. According to Foucault, the European impetus to incarcerate marginalised citizens en masse — a phenomenon seen across the continent, but in few places with greater numbers than in Ireland — was strongly influenced by socio-political power-dynamics. The masses were subjugated by elites. In societies dominated by organised religion, those who most offended the sensibilities of the morality police were simply sent away, permanently to be sequestered from an otherwise vulnerable populace.

Foucault’s depiction of this practice of confinement was his response to what he felt was the naivety of previous historians. Often influenced by evangelism, reformism, and political leftism, most older historical accounts of institutions were falsely framed in terms of salvation and state beneficence; any shortcomings were dismissed as policy mishaps — consequences of an inherently good idea gone wrong.

Foucault’s contribution was to highlight the fallacy of these accounts, to frame matters from the perspectives of victims, and to facilitate modern historians in applying a critical eye over the self-exculpatory rationalisations of regimes.

* * *

At the behest of Ireland’s cultural power brokers, the country’s Mother and Baby Homes forged an unforgivable social apartheid. Significant responsibility for these institutions resides with the State apparatus that established their existence, and the Church institutions who ran them, who defined their institutional cultures, and who shaped the very social norms that caused these women to be victimised in the first place.

For a country as intertwined with organised religion as Ireland has been for centuries, it would be misguided to let the Church off the hook. And yet here is what the Report has to say about the influence of religion on social attitudes:

The Catholic church did not invent Irish attitudes to prudent marriages or family respectability.

This sweeping, matter-of-fact assertion is presented without evidence, argument, or analysis. It results in a truly bizarre perspective. What are the Report writers claiming here — that there was no such influence at all? Are we to take it that it was “Irish attitudes” that shaped the views of the church, and not the other way around?

For very many reasons, the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes seems especially poor. Its narrative perpetuates the power structures that it purports to be investigating. Neutralising language is used to depict abused persons as mere witnesses to poor quality control, and in many cases to raise doubts about their heart-wrenching testimonies.

As a piece of social history on the enforced institutionalisation of marginalised persons, its scholarly approach is at least half a century out of date. Campaigners have condemned it as “a complete cop-out”.

I guess this is what you get when a state undertakes to investigate itself.

The shame continues.

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