Commission of Investigation Announcement on Tuam Mother and Baby Home: Statements (Continued)

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 942 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Jan O'Sullivan: Information on Jan O'Sullivan Zoom on Jan O'Sullivan] We have known for some time also that the mother and baby homes were likely to be equally shameful in terms of what was going on at that time. We did not have as much information at the time about mother and baby homes as we have now, and as we will have in the immediate future but we must get to a point where we uncover all of the uncomfortable and shameful truths because until we do, we will not have the foundations to build the kind of caring, inclusive and equal society we all want to achieve. It is really important in all of this that we get to the truth. It is also important that we do not leave any stone unturned and that we are unafraid to open things up, whether it is under the ground or in registers of births and deaths or wherever else. There is an onus on all of us to ensure that happens.

I welcome the fact the Minister has made an apology but I note it was a personal apology. I presume there is an apology on behalf of the State. I agree with those who have said there is a need for memorials and a conversation. I acknowledge that in her contribution the Minister said she intends to engage with people who are directly affected. Memorials in themselves are important but it is far more important to establish the truth about the lives of the people who are affected. It we could achieve that it would be a much more meaningful memorial.

I welcome the progress that is being made and more progress remains to be made. Unfortunately, there is much more shameful information about the past of this country, and some of it in the present as well and as representatives of the people in this Chamber we all have an obligation to ensure that we find out the full truth and that we face the consequences in that regard.

Deputy Mick Barry: Information on Mick Barry Zoom on Mick Barry In 2011 the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus discontinued its adoption service and gave the registers from its mother and baby home at Bessborough in Cork to the HSE. In 2012 senior HSE personnel who were concerned at what was contained therein sent a report to the Department of Health and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on the number of deaths that had occurred at Bessborough. The registers showed that in the years between 1934 and 1953 the deaths had occurred at Bessborough of 470 infants and ten women.

  According to a former chief medical officer of the State, James Deeny, in his autobiography, To Cure and to Care, in one year alone, of the 180 children born in the home 100 died. One in five of those who died in the 1934 to 1953 period died of marasmus, that is, severe malnutrition. June Goulding, a midwife at Bessborough in the early 1950s, is another witness. In her book, The Light in the Window, she told of a house of pain where mothers in childbirth were denied pain relief and women who suffered vaginal tearing in childbirth were refused stitching as punishment for their sins. She and others told of the Americans who arrived at the home to purchase healthy babies from the nuns.

  Some years ago I was contacted by a survivor who was born at Bessborough and I visited him in his home. He expressed to me his strong opinion that not all of the babies were buried in the tiny angels burial plot at the home. He believed the decision not to give babies who were buried a gravestone or a white cross was a business one. Simply put, the Americans rolling up the driveway at the end of their journey from Shannon Airport would be less likely to buy their baby from the nuns if they were to look out of the car window and see a small forest of white crosses on the grounds of the home. He asked me to call for an excavation at the home. I have previously done so and I am doing so again today.

  We heard from Carmel Cantwell, whose brother William died in the home in the early 1960s. She does not know for sure where her brother is buried - perhaps in the angels plot but perhaps not. How many more babies such as William are buried there and where are their graves? Where can their relatives go to pay their respects? It is not good enough just to point to a tiny plot and say "He is in there, somewhere". Do William's sister and his elderly mother not deserve better than that?

  The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, said the other day that before we go ahead with such decisions it is important to establish whether we have any evidence which might prompt such excavations. What more evidence does the Minister need? There should be excavations at Bessborough and all of the other sites too.

  Religious institutions no longer run mother and baby homes in this country. However, the mother and baby homes were the product of a society which refused to separate the church from the State. To this day, church and State remain unseparated and religious orders still have control of schools and hospitals. The Roman Catholic Church still finds its teachings reflected in the laws of the land.

  The ghosts of the women who were refused pain relief in the mother and baby homes in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s watch over their granddaughters and great-granddaughters who are sent to England in secrecy and shame for the abortions the State refuses to carry out here. Ending scandals of this kind is entirely linked with ending the scandal of a conjoined church and State sanctioned through the decades by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael alike. We should separate the church from the State now.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith In recent days many people have been talking about nothing else other than the details of Tuam but we also all have a collective memory of having grown up and attended Catholic schools and lived in a Catholic-ridden State. I was talking to a friend who recalled how the nuns in her school used regularly to beat everybody but especially the Traveller girls, who were pulled down corridors by the hair. She never forgot the face on those Traveller girls as they were beaten and dragged through the school. The woman who recalled those incidents is younger than me and she has a vivid memory of what happened. If we search our memories we will all find evidence of the same kind of incidents.

  Without being too dramatic I wish to refer to one extract from a journalist called Donal O’Keeffe. It is really incredible. It says everything about the church and in particular the Bon Secours order. He related that a healthy little boy called John Desmond Dolan was born in 1946 in the Tuam home. He died on Wednesday, 11 June 1947, when he was a year and three months old. He was described on his death certificate in the cruel language of the day as "a congenital idiot". In an inspection in April 1947 it was reported that he was "a miserable, emaciated child with voracious appetite and no control over bodily functions, probably mentally defective". That says it all about what we are dealing with here, namely, the legacy of the church and its handling of what at the time were described as unmarried mothers but what we consider a family today. A mother and her children, without a partner, are considered a family. That said, we do not treat them as equals because the statistics are startling and show that lone parents are more likely to live in poverty and suffer from homelessness than families with both a mother and father. There is a legacy still to be dealt with in terms of how we view women who try to rear their children on their own.

No matter how much we recoil over the historical facts, we must remind ourselves that we will be judged not by what we say but what we do.

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