The Sisters in the Bon Secours Home were women of Ireland too. They were at one stage children of Ireland, from rural homes, from large families, and from poverty. They were part of a group that stepped in when society and state had nothing to offer these ‘fallen’ women. The Sisters are disparaged and discounted for doing something, yet those that remained idle, are guilt and blame free. The Sisters lived in difficult times. They worked long and hard with the women and children. The impression that they received some form of satisfaction out of the difficulties in these homes, that there was wilful neglect, that they sat and counted their money, is refuted in the Magdalen report, and the evidence from the Mother and Baby homes does not support these caricatures. A simplistic and moralising review of the past, where latter-day commentators, speaking from their ivory towers, pass judgement on a people and a time gone-by, in order to further their own dogma that everything about Ireland past is a poison ivy will not lead to understanding and truth. The homes were not just run by Catholics. They existed before becoming Church run, but there were no non-denominational or secular groups willing or able to take them on. The state and the tax-payer did not want the burden. They did not just exist in Ireland and a country that did not stigmatise single motherhood prior to the contraceptive pill and the welfare state (and modern wealth), did not exist. The views of the time were not just Irish, not just Catholic, and certainly not solely Irish Catholic, as many would have us believe today. Whether they were as toxic, given the time and the conditions, that is a discussion for another day. In a society that could offer very little for unmarried mothers, would it not be prudential for the Church to warn against (while still providing some form or succour in a cold and uninviting society, where everyone else turned their backs?) risking falling into single parenthood?

Making some comparisons: The Irish economy in 1936 was one twelfth the size it was in 2007. We were as poor as an African country today. Life expectancy and mortality was similar. Look at conditions for children in many of the poorest countries today. Look under the bridges in the cities; under cardboard boxes and along the railway lines. Look at the conditions in some of the institutions that the State in these countries offer (by contrast look at some of the homes for the disabled run by Irish (and non-Irish) Sisters across the country and realise the services, love and care they offer to children and mothers who society has abandoned). Read about the malnutrition, the rickets, the TB and gastroenteritis across the developing, if you can’t travel there. Are these judged as harshly as we judge our own past? Will the Sisters in Zambia who provide compassion and care one day be judged through the lens of modernity for failing those children? Will denominational and non-denominational NGOs who ask for the public’s money to support their work for justice and charity in the third world be looked back upon as malevolent, cold and uncaring for their failures? It is easy to be an armchair critic sitting at distance from the action. It is easy to criticise without providing solutions or getting involved. It is easy to offer rhetorical statements about justice and structural inequality and root causes. It is easy to demand that more money be thrown at the problem. It is easy to tweet and hashtag.

Take a look at Ireland today. Traveller children die at a higher rate than sedentary children. Who is to blame? There are more children now, than in 2007, that go cold and hungry. Children in lone parent families are less well off than those in two-parent yet policy to promote the family is frowned upon. Children are still being treated in adult psychiatric units. Asylum seekers spend years in direct provision, their children confined to a life of uncertainty. Yet as a society we disagree on how to address this. We bemoan the government for not providing, yet, as individuals, as the society of the Mother and Baby era, we are happy to have a salve to ease our conscience of doing anything ourselves. We debate the solution to poverty and we debate how to resolve welfare dependency. Some commentators, looking back in scorn at the mother and baby homes, refer to the rumour that there were ‘dying rooms’, where children are said to have been left to die. At the same time, we know that for the past thirty years, that children born with severe ‘deficiencies’ are left to die in a form of unreported infant euthanasia (see Linacre report: Euthanasia, Clinical Practice and the Law). For many, these children are equally inconvenient to society as those of unmarried mothers were 70 or 80 years ago. Barack Obama, who has achieved almost cult status here in Ireland,  has been a vocal supporter, and voter, of a policy that requires children born alive after failed abortion be left to die.  Undoubtedly, history will look back and say we could have addressed these much better and/or differently. It is not unreasonable to have this view in respect to unmarried mothers and illegitimate children in early-mid 20th century Ireland, but it is disingenuous and unjust to castigate those, many who are still alive, who were on the front-line, for their perceived failings and shortcomings. 

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