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Republic must confront ‘hard truths’ of failures in basic humanity – Taoiseach
Taoiseach Micheál Martin Pic: RollingNews.ie

14 Jan 2021 / ireland Print

Republic must confront ‘hard truths’ of failures

An Taoiseach Michéal Martin said yesterday in the Dáil that, as a republic, Ireland must be willing to hold itself to account and confront the hard truths of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission Report.

“This detailed and highly painful report is a moment for us as a society to recognise a profound failure of empathy, understanding and basic humanity over a very lengthy period,” he said.

Laid bare

He thanked the three commissioners –  chair, Judge Yvonne Murphy, Professor Mary Daly, and Dr William Duncan, and their team for their work on the report, which he said laid bare the failures of the State.

“They have produced the definitive account of how this country responded to the particular needs of single women and their children at a time when they most needed support and protection,” he said.

“This should have been forthcoming from the fathers of their children, their family and friends, their community and their State, but so often it was not,” he said.


The most striking thing in the report is the shame felt by women who became pregnant outside of marriage and the stigma that was so cruelly attached to their children, he added.

“In the 1920s, the Irish Free State was a newly-independent nation which was determined to show the world that it was different; part of that difference related to the capacity to withstand the undesirable aspects of modernity, including sexual licence and alien cultures,” the report says.

“There was a strong alignment of views between Church and State, resulting in legislation against contraception, divorce, censorship of cinema and publications that was bolstered by church sermons denouncing sexual immorality and the evils of modern society.

“Priests who denounced a man or woman who was responsible for an extra-marital pregnancy were reinforcing wider social concerns with family lineage and the respectability of a community.

“It should be noted that, while there is evidence of such denunciations, they were not as common as is sometimes suggested," the report says.

The report says: “The Catholic Church did not invent Irish attitudes to prudent marriages or family respectability; however, it reinforced them through church teachings that emphasised the importance of pre-marital purity and the sexual dangers associated with dance halls, immodest dress, mixed bathing and other sources of ‘temptation’.”

Testimonies from the women speak of the pressure to make sure that no one in their locality would find out about their pregnancy.


Witness testimony describes how a dearth of sex education often left young women confused and unaware of how and why they had even become pregnant.  

Some of these pregnancies were as a result of rape and/or incest.

Horrific accounts of rape, either perpetrated within families or by someone within a woman’s community, are detailed in the report, with no accountability for the men responsible.

“The sense of abandonment felt by many of these children is palpable in the witness accounts.  The circumstances of their birth, the arrangements for their early care, the stigma they experienced and the continuing lack of birth information, is a terrible burden in their lives,” An Taoiseach said.

Many women, children and fathers left the country to escape this unfair judgement and life-long prejudice and because they thought it was the only way to protect their families’ reputations. 

“We embraced a perverse religious morality and control, judgmentalism and moral certainty, but shunned our daughters," An Taoiseach said.


“We honoured piety, but failed to show even basic kindness to those who needed it most.

“We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy, and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction,” he said.   

“And so, on behalf of the Government, the State and its citizens, I apologise for the profound generational wrong visited upon Irish mothers and their children who ended up in a mother and baby home or a county home.

“I apologise for the shame and stigma which they were subjected to and which, for some, remains a burden to this day,” he said. 

Women were admitted to mother and baby homes and county homes because no supports were forthcoming from any other quarter, he pointed out.

Forced to leave home

They were forced to leave home, and seek a place where they could stay without having to pay.

Many were destitute and while conditions in the homes varied, before the 1960s living conditions in many private Irish households were generally poor, he said. 

In the congregated settings of mother and baby homes poor sanitary conditions had much more serious consequences for disease and infection control.

County homes as well as Kilrush and Tuam are identified as having appalling conditions.  Conditions in other mother and baby homes were better and improved over time, An Taoiseach said.


Many of the women suffered emotional abuse and were often subject to denigration and derogatory remarks from the religious, with little kindness shown, especially when giving birth, he continued. 

The overall picture is of a hard, cold and uncaring environment, he said, with significantly reduced prospects for survival of children.

The death rate among infants in mother and baby homes was almost twice that of the national average for children born outside of marriage.  A total of about 9,000 children died in the institutions under investigation – about 15% of all the children who were in their care.

He described the very high mortality rates as deeply distressing, in particular because official reports on these 'chilling statistics' were not acted upon.

“While women may not have been strictly legally forced to enter these homes,  the fact is that most had no alternative, especially those who did not have the support of their family or independent financial means,” he said.

Women as a group and regardless of age or class were systematically discriminated against in relation to employment, family law, and social welfare, solely because of their gender, An Taoiseach said. 


Children were similarly unequal, and none more so than those who were cruelly labelled ‘illegitimate’.

In 1967 the number of babies who were adopted in Ireland was equal to 97% of the ‘illegitimate’ births; this was the highest in the world.

The report says that ‘illegitimacy’ was widely regretted and disowned in most countries in the early and mid-twentieth century so, in that respect, Ireland was not unique.


Few single women had the financial resources to raise a child without the support of their family or the father of their child.

The proportion of Irish men who acknowledged paternity was low.

Few Irish men contributed to the maintenance of their ‘illegitimate’ child or acknowledged their existence.

Farm labourers

For the first half of the century many would have been unable to do so because they were farm labourers or unpaid workers on family farms or in family businesses.

While mothers had the right to apply for maintenance under the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation) Orders Act 1930, it generally proved impossible to secure the necessary evidence.

The report notes that in the past when a single woman was known to be pregnant the most common response in all countries was to try and arrange a marriage between the woman and the father of her child.

“In the early and mid-twentieth century the Irish marriage rate was the lowest in the western world and there is an extensive literature in fiction and non-fiction about the reluctance of Irish bachelors to marry,” it says.

The report has stories of women who became pregnant by a long-term boyfriend who refused to marry and often disappeared on hearing of the woman’s pregnancy.


In other cases, the man or the woman’s parents opposed their marrying because of difference in social background or religion.

In the light of Ireland’s low marriage rate and late age of marriage, it seems possible the proportion of men who married their pregnant girlfriend may have been lower than elsewhere, the report says.

While families were sometimes willing to welcome their daughter back into the family home following the birth, many were not prepared to accept her child. Many were poor and living in overcrowded homes so an additional child would have put them under pressure.


“Such a child would have been especially unwelcome in a farm house where the marriage of the inheriting son depended on clearing the home of non-inheriting siblings," the report says.

There is also the question of a family’s standing in the community. Many Irish marriages until the 1960s involved an element of match-making and a dowry and these processes were reliant on a family’s respectability.

An ‘illegitimate’ birth could destroy the marriage prospects, not just for the woman who had given birth, but for her siblings, hence the pressures to keep it a secret by sending her to a mother and baby home.

Family farm

The dominance of the family farm and family business and the slow pace of economic development meant that Irish men and women in their late teens and early twenties were more likely to be dependent on their parents than their counterparts elsewhere, the report points out.

“Land inheritance was important with farms passing from father to son. Agricultural concerns with breeding and lineage appear to have applied to marriage partners and children.

“When legal adoption was introduced in 1953, the take-up was slowest among the farming community. The rural values of respectability and family standing also existed in cities and towns, though to a lesser extent,’ the report says.

An Taoiseach said in his speech yesterday: “I share deeply the Commission’s unequivocal view, that the existence of the status of 'illegitimacy' until 1987 in this country 'was an egregious breach of human rights'. 

"This was a huge injustice and blighted the lives of many.”


Former residents speak in the report of a feeling of shame for the situation they found themselves in.

“The shame was not theirs – it was ours," he said.

“It was our shame that we did not show them the respect and compassion which we as a country owed them.

“It remains our shame.

“I want to reassure survivors, their families and the country, that this Government is determined to act on all the recommendations of the report and to deliver the legislative change necessary to at least start to heal the wounds that endure,” An Taoiseach concluded.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dáil yesterday that the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in some ways confirms what was long suspected, and in other parts it reveals a more nuanced, and more challenging narrative.  

He said that Judge Yvonne Murphy and her expert team, had assembled a report which shames the entirety of Irish society.

“Women pregnant outside of marriage, some very young, some victims of rape, were not supported by their families or by the father of the child,” he said. 

Cold and cruel refuge

This forced them to turn to the Church and State for refuge, and while they got a refuge it was a cold and often cruel one. 

“Church and State ran these homes together, operating hand in glove, equally culpable, and did so with the full knowledge and acquiescence of wider society,” he said.

Church and State re-enforced social prejudice and judgement when they should have tried to change it, the Tánaiste added. 

The report shows a stifling, oppressive and deeply misogynistic culture, where children born outside of marriage were seen as a stain on society, he said. 

It was known that children in mother and baby institutions were more likely to die in infancy than other children, he said, but there was no public outcry, Dáil debates or media interest.   

That these children were second-class citizens was a conspiracy of shame and silence and cruelty, he said, and children who were “boarded out” were used as unpaid farm labour or carers or servants. 

Terrible actions

Terrible actions can be rationalised away when good people believe bad things about others, the Tánaiste said.

He also pointed to “the more hopeful story” of a country that has changed and progressed,  and become kinder and more compassionate.

The flatlets and houses of the 1980s and 1990s were different to the mother and baby institutions of the 1950s or 1960s and the county homes and workhouses that preceded them.  

The Commission tells a story of enormous change. This is a story of social progress as the years and decades moved on.

“The fact that today’s standards are better is not an excuse for the standards of the past nor should we think that our standards should not be raised further,” he said.

“As we read this report – both hopeful and shameful – it should spur us on now to do better in the years to come, not just for women and children who survived the mother and baby institutions, but also for the women and children of today and of the future,” he said.

76 years

The Commission’s terms of reference cover the period 1922-1998, a span of 76 years. The report notes massive improvements in living conditions and changes in attitudes to religion and morals during that time.

“The experience of women and children in the 1920s was vastly different from the experience in the 1990s regardless of where they lived,” the executive summary says, pointing to considerable change in the institutions under investigation over the period.

Ireland was a cold harsh environment for many, probably the majority, of its residents during the earlier half of the period under remit, the report says. 

“It was especially cold and harsh for women. All women suffered serious discrimination. 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 was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches.

“However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when the families provided no refuge at all.”

Unmarried Mother’s Allowance 

The report points to changes such as the introduction of free post-primary education in the 1960s, membership of the EEC from 1973 and the introduction of the Unmarried Mother’s Allowance the same year, a direct State payment to assist an unmarried woman to rear her child in the community.

There were about 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children in the mother and baby homes and county homes investigated by the commission.

The greatest number of admissions was in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is likely that there were a further 25,000 unmarried mothers and a larger number of children in the county homes, pre-1960, which were not investigated.

The women admitted to mother and baby homes ranged in age from 12 to women in their forties. However, 80% were aged between 18 and 29 and 5,616 women, or 11.4%, were under 18.

The commission did not see evidence that the gardaí were routinely notified about pregnancies in under-age women.


Some pregnancies were the result of rape; some women had mental health problems, some had an intellectual disability.

However, most were indistinguishable from most Irish women of their time, the report says, but their lives were blighted by pregnancy outside marriage, and the responses of the father of their child, their immediate families and the wider community.

Mirroring changes

The profiles of the women in mother and baby homes changed over the decades, mirroring changes in Irish women’s lives. In the early decades most women who were admitted were domestic servants or farm workers. In later years, many of the women were clerical workers, civil servants, professional women, and schoolgirls or third-level students.

There is no evidence that women were forced to enter mother and baby homes by the Church or State authorities. Most women had no alternative.

Many pregnant single women contacted the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH), later the Department of Health, their local health authority, or a Catholic charity, seeking assistance because they had nowhere to go and no money.

Women were brought to mother and baby homes by their parents or other family members without being consulted as to their destination.

The vast majority of children born in the institutions have no memory of their time there, the report says, but some stayed in the institutions after their mothers left and a small number were in institutions until the age of seven.

'Boarded out'

Before the availability of legal adoption (from 1953), children who left the institutions usually ended up in other institutions such as industrial schools or were boarded out or nursed out.

After legal adoption became available, it gradually became the most likely outcome which the report describes as a “vastly better outcome than the alternatives previously available.” 

County homes in Kilrush and Tuam had appalling physical conditions, the report says, but conditions in the other mother and baby homes were considerably better and improved over time; in particular, conditions in Dunboyne were very good.

The commission did not see any evidence of major shortcomings in any of the homes or flatlets that were operating in the 1970s-1990s.

Despite regimented treatment, the report finds no evidence of the sort of gross abuse that occurred in industrial schools but there are a small number of complaints of physical abuse.

The women worked but they were generally doing the sort of work that they would have done at home.

Many of the women did suffer emotional abuse and were often subject to denigration and derogatory remarks.

“It appears that there was little kindness shown to them and this was particularly the case when they were giving birth,” the report says.

There were no qualified social workers, or counsellors, attached to these homes until at least the 1970s, and until that time, there is no evidence that women were given opportunities to discuss the circumstances of their pregnancy or future options for their child.

Women were dissuaded from sharing their stories with their fellow residents, because of concerns to protect their privacy though such conversations might have offered some comfort at a traumatic time, the report says.

“Conditions improved in all respects in the later decades,” it says.


Women who  were transferred from a mother and baby home to maternity hospitals to give birth, for medical reasons, were subjected to unfriendly comments by fellow-patients and their visitors, the report continues.

It points out that mother and baby homes were greatly superior to the county homes where, until the 1960s, many unmarried mothers and their children were resident.

Conditions in the county homes were generally very poor and this was also true for the other residents who were mainly older people and people with disabilities.

County homes

The women in county homes were largely forgotten and included women on a second or subsequent pregnancy and women from the poorest families.

County homes admitted women with special needs, mental health problems, venereal disease or a criminal conviction, who would be rejected by a number of mother and baby homes.

They also accommodated children who had special needs, including the children of married families. The accommodation and care given to these children in county homes was grossly inadequate.

The county homes, successors to the pre-independence workhouses, were owned and controlled by local authorities.

The Legion of Mary-run Regina Coeli hostel was the only institution that supported women who wished to raise their child but it did not receive regular public funding.

Some women inspectors in the Department of Local Government and Public Health/Department of Health tried valiantly to have conditions improved, the report says.

“This is especially true of Miss Alice Litster who was an inspector from 1922 to 1957," it says.

No mother and baby home was ever prosecuted for health infringements. 

Although the Department of Health received regular inspection reports on mother and baby homes, which were often critical of conditions, the evidence suggests that the department preferred to use persuasion, not compulsion to implement improvements, the report says.

The department’s main interest appears to have been the occupancy figures, and the rising cost of maintaining women and children in these homes.

Local authorities often deferred to the views of the religious orders that ran mother and baby homes or to the views of the diocesan bishop.

Galway County Council acceded to the demands of the Sisters of Bon Secours that children should remain in the Children’s Home in Tuam until the ages of five (boys) and seven (girls), despite the fact that this contravened the wishes of the Department of Health.

When Mayo County Council decided to remove children from Tuam at an earlier age, the sisters threatened not to admit Mayo children in future and the local authority conceded to their demands.

There is no evidence that the Catholic hierarchy played a role in the day-to-day running of mother and baby homes, the report says.

The capitation payments for women and children in the mother and baby homes were financed from the rates paid to the local authorities. In 1947, the health services generally started to be partially financed from national taxation.

At this stage, the mother and baby homes started to be required to provide audited accounts to the Department of Health. These accounts were then used to determine whether an increase in the capitation payments was merited.

The commission did not see any evidence that the religious orders who ran the mother and baby homes made a profit from so doing. 

“At various times, it is clear that they struggled to make ends meet and their members were not always paid for their work.

“This was a particular problem when occupancy levels fell and women stayed for shorter periods. Payments by local authorities were not always on time,” the report says.

However, capitation rates, while they were not overly generous, and often failed to keep pace with inflation, were considerably more generous than the social welfare payments available to an adult and a child living in the community.

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