“We are all connected with families who are part of this story.”
Independent Senator Rónán Mullen called for a national voluntary collection to be organised to enable individuals and families in the community to contribute to a redress package for those who spent time in the State’s Mother and Baby Homes or County Homes as pregnant women or children born in the Homes.
Speaking on the Report in the Seanad this evening, Senator Mullen said Judge Murphy’s Report painted “a sad and sobering picture of how women and children were failed by State, and by wider society, including in institutions run by the religious orders, and by the Church in Ireland, which did much to mould, and was itself moulded by, Irish society.”
“We should perhaps consider, as we ponder the case for redress, and how it might be organised and who should contribute, whether it would be appropriate to have some kind of National Voluntary Contribution as part of a redress package to reflect the social and community dimension to this story, along with Church and State contributions. We are all connected with families who are in some way a part of this story,” he said.
In his speech Senator Mullen wondered whether it would be possible for people in the country to “make peace with our past, with those who were wronged, with our forebears in our families, with the modern inheritors of State and Church bodies that were involved.”
Doing this would require the achievement of some kind of “consensus”, he said. Pre-conditions for this would be the prioritisation of the needs of people who had been in the homes, a “commitment on the part of the political media and cultural establishment to telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” about Ireland in the past, and attentiveness to the way unexpected pregnancy was treated in the present.
“Some have spoken about the lack of respect for human dignity in death. How can we not reflect on the 6,666 children who died by abortion in 2019? Isn’t this a big part of the State’s cold, detached attitude to unexpected pregnancy?” Mullen asked.
Responding to criticisms of the Commission’s report in the Seanad, Senator Mullen said he understood the criticisms that had been voiced by people who were in the Homes, and sympathised with them in many ways. But he thought the Commission had tried to be fair. A word of thanks from Seanad members to Judge Murphy and her Commission would not be out of place, he said.
MOTHER & BABY HOMES REPORT – Speech of Senator Rónán Mullen
19th JANUARY 2021
I welcome the Minister and I welcome this report. I understand why criticisms have been made and I sympathise with the people making those criticisms. Yet, I believe, looking at the commission, that it did try to be fair. I think a word of thanks to Judge Murphy and her commission is not out of place.
It is a report that paints a sad and sobering picture of how women and children were failed by the State and by wider society, including in institutions run by religious orders and by the church in Ireland, which did much to mould and was itself moulded by Irish society. I do not think we can say often enough how important it is that we listen to the stories of the mothers who were in the mother and baby homes and the county homes and to the children who were born there and lived there. To all those who suffered hardship after getting pregnant or at the beginning of their lives, and whose suffering was made worse by the harshness of life in the homes or in the community afterwards, I offer my personal sincere sympathy. I hope that they can feel heard in these days and that they can take some comfort in the acknowledgement by the wider community of the truth of what happened to them. I also hope that their needs will be prioritised now and that, as a community, we can make it up to them as much as possible for what they have suffered.
Some things can never be undone but it seems to me that the most important thing now is that there is real attentiveness to the desire of former residents of the homes to make contact with their birth mothers and relatives, in so far as that can be achieved, consistent with everyone’s right to respect for their dignity and privacy, and guarantees that were given to them. It must surely be possible to ensure, in any event, that people receive information about their medical history and anything that is on file that is relevant to them personally. All of this should be a priority for the Government and the necessary resources must be in place in order that this can happen speedily. Counselling and redress are, of course, also part of the story of trying to put things right.
I sat down the other day to think about the catalogue of sadness and neglect alleged and, in most cases, sadly, shown by this report to have actually occurred, this catalogue that we have heard about in recent years. There is the committal by family and authorities of pregnant mothers to the institutions. Yes, the report lays primary responsibility – controversially, in the eyes of some – on families and, indeed, on those who fathered children who were born in the home but it is a sad reality of what happened in Irish life, and we have heard much about the sociological context that contributed to that. Disrespectful attitudes to mothers and children are a big cultural problem that persists in some ways to this day. There was poor hygiene and healthcare, and high mortality. This is what will have scandalised and shocked most people first, to think that in Bessborough, in 1943, there was a 75% mortality rate. And people knew. Ms Alice Litster, who is, if one likes, one of the heroes of the report, wrote about this back in 1939. She is mentioned 440 times in the report but her name appears just once on the record of these Houses.
There is the question of disrespectful burial. There is uncertainty here and I, for one, am uneasy about the frequent recourse on the national broadcaster to the story of the sewage tank in Tuam.
It evokes so much anger, fear and concern, yet we still do not know the truth. We need to get to the truth so that we can consider it in a calm, measured and unflinchingly truthful way.
On the forced adoption issue, there is uncertainty here too. It has caused much hurt but it is quite clear that if a woman was in the home, she had very little choice in life. If it was not a direct forcing, there was still an unacceptable sundering of the relationship between a mother and her child. We have heard about falsified records, inadequate education, unpaid labour – which, we are told in the report, was a feature in county homes to an even greater extent – and cruel treatment on farms. Coming from a rural background, I am particularly conscious of the horrible reality that that was for some.
I also thought about whether it is possible to make peace with our past, with those who were wronged but also with our ancestors, relatives and the modern inheritors of State and church bodies that were involved. This needs some kind of consensus and of course there are preconditions for that. The first is that we prioritise the needs of those who were in the homes, namely, information, counselling and redress. Second, we need a commitment on the part of the political, media and cultural establishment to telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The report tries to lead the way here by drawing attention to the various economic and social forces that shaped the Ireland of that era. As we ponder the case for redress and talk about the contribution of church and State, we should perhaps consider whether some kind of national voluntary collection might be organised to contribute a social and family dimension to the redress in this particular case. That is something we should discuss. Most of us are connected with families where this kind of thing happened and we need to personally take some kind of responsibility for the past instead of just demonising our ancestors. There would be a generous response from quite a few members of the public, even if they are not personally responsible, who recognise that there is a communal story here that needs to be told, that is, if we are to be unflinchingly truthful about what happened.
We should of course discuss the story of the church in all this. It is a story of heroic kindness if one thinks of Frank Duff and the Legion of Mary who fought against the separation of mothers and their children. Tragically, it is also the story of the failure to get across the Christian value of mercy. What was against the gospel in 2020 was also against the gospel in the 1950s.
We need to consider what we do in the present. I do not flinch from the fact that I am somebody in this House who has stood up for the rights of preborn children in our law. I do not think we can divorce this issue from how we treat unexpected pregnancy in the present. The State, at the moment, is cold and callous in how it treats this issue. The number of preborn children who died by abortion in the year after it was legislated in this country was 6,666. Can we with integrity talk about the dishonouring of women and children in the past without also considering whether we have found the right track in the present? It was dark then. The Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, was wrong to say so blithely that everything is much better now. It is also dark now but in different ways. We need to bring the light into that situation too.