Illegitimate History

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From top: one in three ‘illegitimate babies’ died in their first year, an “excessive” rate fully five times that of legitimate children; Simon Hall

No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 23:2

In 2014, Catherine Corless brought the attention of the world to bear on Tuam, County Galway and St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home. That summer, she was interviewed by RTÉ alongside Fr. Fintan Monahan, now Bishop of Killaloe.

Fr. Monahan was asked about the treatment of “illegitimate” children, and he gave the following response:

“I suppose we can’t really view the past from our point of view, from our lens.”

This is a popular refrain. The trouble is that it’s not quite true.

A great many people spoke up about the plight of illegitimate children throughout the twentieth century.

In this article, I will present statements from both the Registrar-General and Dr. Isabella Webb in 1924, the Relief Commission in 1927, Colonel Moore in 1930, Dr. Conn Ward in 1934, Dr. Robert Rowlette in 1936 and 1937, Inspector Alice Litster in 1939, an unnamed inspector in 1947, Dr. Noel Browne and Peadar Cowan in the 1950s, alongside Mary Robinson, Michael D. Higgins, and John Horgan in the 1970s.

Illegitimacy was a concept found in canon and common law referring to children born out of wedlock. The women and children of such unions were profoundly stigmatised.

Mothers who gave birth to illegitimate children were censured by society, leading many families to force unmarried pregnant daughters into Mother and Baby homes or Magdalene laundries, eventually giving up their infants for adoption or placing them into care. Canon Law excluded illegitimate children from all ecclesiastical office.

Professor Diarmuid Ferriter notes that it was in the summer of 1922, mere months after the establishment of the Free State, that the religious orders proposed segregating unmarried mothers away from other residents of the state’s workhouses, soon to be re-designated as County Homes.

This was the beginning of the state’s complicity with the operation of so-called Mother and Baby Homes.

These religious-run institutions operated from 1922 until as late as the 1990s. UCD’s Professor Lindsey Earner-Byrne has counted at least 89,247 illegitimate births in the state between 1922 and 1973. This is a conservative lower-bound.

Almost immediately, though, alarms were raised about conditions in these institutions. Over the coming decades, numerous government officials, politicians, and state inspectors spoke up about the plight of illegitimate children.

In 1924, during the life of the Cumann na nGaedheal government of W. T. Cosgrave, the Registrar-General for Saorstát Éireann released their annual report of numbers of marriages, births, and deaths. It included information about the high mortality rate for illegitimate infants.

The number of deaths of illegitimate infants under one year of age registered in Saorstát Éireann during the year 1924, was 529, consisting of 280 deaths of males and 249 of females.

Based on the number of illegitimate births registered, the resulting mortality rate is 315 per 1,000 births for both sexes, 330 per 1,000 for males and 300 per 1,000 births for females, as compared with 344, 375, and 311, respectively, in 1923. These rates must be regarded as excessive.

It may be stated that the illegitimate infant mortality as derived from the records for 1924, is about 5 times the mortality among legitimate infants, which as 65 per 1,000 births for both sexes, 72 per 1,000 for males, and 58 per 1,000 births for females. In other words, one out of every 3 illegitimate infants born alive in 1924, died before the completion of its first year of life.

In Northern Ireland in 1924, the illegitimate infant death-rate was 188 per 1,000 births and, in England and Wales, the illegitimate infant death-rate was 133 per 1,000 births, or about one death to every 8 illegitimate infants born alive. This rate is about twice that for legitimate infants, and it may be said that this proportion is maintained for that country yearly from 1906 onwards.

So, about one in three illegitimate babies died in their first year, an “excessive” rate fully five times that of legitimate children. The illegitimate infant death-rate in Ireland was nearly two-and-a-half times the rate in England and Wales, for example. A graph of these numbers makes the comparison clear.

Yet, for those children that did survive their first year, life was not so easy. In that same year, 1924, the pioneering Irish pediatrician, Isabella Webb, wrote about illegitimate children in The Irish Times in an article discovered by Dr. Elaine Byrne. She wrote:

A great many people are always asking what is the good of keeping these children alive? I quite agree that it would be a great deal kinder to strangle these children at birth than to put them out to nurse.

Dr. Webb was being deliberately provocative. This was stinging criticism of how these children — the lucky ones who survived infancy — were being treated in broader society.

A Commission on Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor, including the Insane Poor, was appointed on 19th March, 1925. Their report was released in 1927. It concluded that the “County Homes,” former workhouses, were “not fit and proper places,” particularly their “maternity departments,” and recommended the following:

We are of opinion that all private Maternity Homes should be licensed annually by the local authority, and that no license be granted unless the Home is properly and suitably equipped for the purpose, and that it was in charge of a respectable person trained in maternity care and nursing.

The Commission ominously warned:

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that if failures or even scandals are to be avoided the homes must continue as at present to be carefully selected, and precautions taken to see that the foster parents are fit for the trust placed in them.

Regrettably, scandals are exactly what we would get.

In June 1930, the government passed the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation Order) Act, to make provision for the imposition on the father of the obligation to contribute to the support of their own child, however illegitimate.

During debate on this bill, Fianna Fáil’s Colonel Maurice George Moore of old Moore Hall in County Mayo made this harrowing statement about the treatment of women at this time, particularly in rural areas:

The position of these girls in the country is ever so much worse than can be imagined by people who are not acquainted with the matter. In Dublin people can go here and there and cover up these things, but I know of cases in the country where girls who made one mistake were absolutely boycotted, turned out practically like lepers, driven out of their parents’ houses and obliged to live in such places as a little mud house on the side of a bog all their lives in the most terrible way. I think anything that can be done to ameliorate that state of affairs ought to be done, and I look forward with hope to this Bill to help their cases to some extent.

Then, in 1934, during the life of the Fianna Fáil government of Éamon de Valera, and in direct response to the Relief Commission report of 1927, the government passed the Registration of Maternity Homes Act, in order to try to improve standards.

Fianna Fáil’s Dr. Conn Ward, a medical doctor and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health, repeated the findings of the 1924 Registrar-General’s report and put the following on the Dáil record:

From the Registrar-General’s Report for 1924, it appears that one in every three illegitimate children born alive in 1924 died within one year of its birth, and that the mortality amongst these children is about five times as great as in other cases.

It is high for many reasons, but there is one to which we wish specially to refer. The illegitimate child being proof of the mother’s shame is, in most cases, sought to be hidden at all costs.

What frequently happens is that the mother, or the mother’s family, at the time the mother leaves the hospital or home, make arrangements with someone to take the child, either paying a lump sum down or undertaking to pay something from time to time.

These arrangements are often made or connived at by those who carry on the poorer class of maternity homes, and the results to the child can be read in the mortality rates.

If a lump sum is paid or if the periodical payment lapse, the child becomes an encumbrance on the foster mother, who has no interest in keeping it alive.

Read that statement again: “It is high [the mortality rate] for many reasons, but there is one to which we wish specially to refer. The illegitimate child being proof of the mother’s shame is, in most cases, sought to be hidden at all costs,” he says.

Independent TD for Dublin University, Dr. Robert Rowlette, another medical doctor, rose from his seat in Dáil Éireann in April 1936. This was exactly twenty years after the Proclamation had been defiantly read from the steps of the GPO, a declaration which had promised that all of the children of the nation would be cherished equally.

Dr. Rowlette was angry. He stood up and condemned a report from the Department of Local Government and Public Health which had provided the following inadequate explanation for the fact that the infant mortality rate amongst illegitimate children was much greater than the rate for legitimate children:

Doubtless the great proportion of deaths in these cases is due to congenital debility, congenital malformation and other ante-natal causes traceable to the conditions associated with the unfortunate lot of the unmarried mother.

Dr. Rowlette responded furiously to this suggestion:

I do not know on what that is based. I do not know of any evidence that will prove that there is greater general congenital debility or malformation in the illegitimate child than in the legitimate child. I suggest the difficulty is not ante-natal but is rather post-natal, that is, the lack of care given to the illegitimate child compared with that given to the child that is more welcome. I know it is a difficult problem but I do not know whether any particular attention is paid to it, or whether any particular scheme has been tried to ensure that these children whose lot, at best, should call for sympathy, are given the same chance, or nearly the same chance as the legitimate child in getting through its first year of life. It is a disgrace to a civilised country, and to a Christian country like this, that three-and-a-half times more illegitimates are condemned to death in the first year of their existence than legitimate children. The responsibility rests upon the community. I press upon the Minister the necessity of taking special steps to deal with this blot on an otherwise satisfactory report in regard to infantile mortality.

Once again, it’s worth emphasising his point: “I suggest the difficulty is not ante-natal but is rather post-natal, that is, the lack of care given to the illegitimate child compared with that given to the child that is more welcome,” he said. It was the lack of care which was killing these children at a much higher rate.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that the then-Minister for Local Government and Public Health, Seán T. O’Kelly, did not take any special steps in this regard.

Then, exactly one year later, in April 1937, during questions put to Minister O’Kelly, Dr. Rowlette made another statement on the same issue, this time echoing an internal department report which demanded an investigation:

In the year 1934-5 there were 2,030 illegitimate children born, and 538 died under the age of one year. That is to say, the mortality amongst illegitimate children was something like 26 per cent., while the general mortality all over the country was 7 per cent. That is a shocking position in a Christian country and I draw the attention of the House to the demand that was made in the report of the Department on this topic for 1934-35:

“This mortality rate is out of all proportion to the corresponding rate in respect of legitimate infants and calls for investigation as to its causes and as to what measures should be taken to effect a reduction in this abnormal mortality.”

That is a sentiment with which I think we are all in thorough sympathy and I press upon the Minister to consider inaugurating such an investigation, whether by a committee or by officers of his Department if he can spare them, because it is a shocking comment on the civilisation of the country, that a child, unfortunate enough in other respects to be born illegitimately, has four times a greater prospect of dying in the first year than the ordinary child.

This is truly significant. Official government reports, plain for all to see, had triggered calls within the department and then inside the Oireachtas for an investigation into the treatment of illegitimate children as early as 1937. Of course, no such investigation was ever inaugurated.

The homes, however, were inspected by the state. In 1939, Alice Litster, Inspector from the Department of Local Government and Public Health, compiled a Report on Unmarried Mothers in Ireland. Here is Ms. Litster in her own words:

The chance of survival of an illegitimate infant born in the slums and placed with a foster-mother in the slums a few days after birth is greater than that of an infant born in one of our special homes for unmarried mothers. I except the Manor House, Castlepollard, in which the infantile death rate is comparatively low.

In theory, the advantage should lie on the side of the child institutionally born. Pre-natal care, proper diet, fresh air, sufficient exercise, no arduous work, proper and comfortable clothing, freedom from worry, the services of a skilled doctor, the supervision and attention of a qualified nurse, all should be available and should make for the health of the expectant mother and the birth and survival of a healthy infant…

Cleanliness, medical attention, dietetic knowledge, all the human skill may continue to preserve child life should be at hand. Yet any infant born in any other circumstances appears to have a better chance of life. I have grave doubts of the wisdom of continuing to urge Boards of Health and Public Assistance to send patients to the special homes so long as no attempt is made to explore the causes of the abnormally high death rate. The illegitimacy birth rate shows an upward trend. In 1916 it was 1530; in 1925 it was 1662. We cannot prevent the birth of these infants. We should be able to prevent their death.

Ms. Litster finds it very difficult to account for the fact that illegitimate children born “in any other circumstances appears to have a better chance of life” compared with being born inside one of these special homes. Yet the facts speak for themselves. In any case, the inspector has “grave doubts” about sending any more patients to these homes until some investigation is carried out.

In 1947, yet another government inspector spent two days, 16th and 17th April, at St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. He included 271 children and 61 mothers in his final report, making for a total of 333. The home, he said, was built to accommodate just 243. The inspector reported miserable, emaciated children with all sorts of health issues. The mortality rate was also of huge concern.

The death rate amongst infants is high… The death rate had appeared to be on the decrease but has now begun to rise again.

In fact, there had been 21 deaths out of 66 births or admissions in the year to September, 1946. The inspector concludes his report by absolving the nuns and calling for an investigation:

It is time to enquire into the possible cause before the death rate mounts higher.

We have seen, therefore, that at least three independent figures — Dr. Robert Rowlette echoing a report from Department of Local Government and Public Health in 1937 and not one but two state inspectors, in 1939 and 1947 — have all called for an investigation into the treatment of illegitimate children in the first part of the twentieth century.

Usually the children at these homes were “boarded out” to foster parents. Legal adoption of babies inside Ireland was not an option at the time, as it had been in England, for example, since 1926. However, many illegitimate children were nevertheless given in adoption to Catholic homes in the United States.

This was done legally, with the issuing of so-called “adoption passports” by the Department of External Affairs, as well as illegally, as the number of foreign adoptions far exceeded the number of adoption passports, as reported by the Irish Times.

In 1948, the Minister for Justice, Seán MacEoin, floated the idea of adoption legislation, but Archbishop John Charles McQuaid opposed it for reasons of potential protestant proselytism.

Then, in 1950, during the coalition government of John A. Costello, Minister for Health Dr. Noel Browne proposed the now infamous Mother and Child Scheme. The scheme proposed to introduce a national health system, like the NHS in the UK, but of much more limited scope. It would be free and without means test for mothers and their children up to sixteen years old.

This would provide government healthcare for all children in the state, legitimate or illegitimate. It also aimed to educate women in respect of motherhood. Up with this, the Church could not put.

The scheme was opposed by other ministers in the same coalition, by the Irish Medical Association, and by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Church opposition proved fatal. It was castigated as “socialised medicine” and as a “communist” plot. Dr. Browne resigned, but it proved too little too late. The crisis eventually brought down the whole government. The lesson here was that, even when the state did try to wrestle back some control over public health from the Church, it was going to be blocked.

In the Dáil debate over Dr. Browne’s resignation, on 17th April, Clann na Poblachta’s Peadar Cowan took the government to task over its handling of the entire issue, in a phenomenal speech worth quoting at length:

The most disquieting feature of this sorry business is the revelation that the real government of the country may not in fact be exercised by the elected representatives of the people, as we believed it was, but by the Bishops, meeting secretly and enforcing their rule by means of private interviews with ministers and by documents of a secret and confidential nature sent by them to Ministers and to the Head of the alleged Government of the State. As a Catholic, I object to this usurpation of authority to the Government by the bishops.

As a Catholic, I protest against this secretive, occult and objectionable practice. As a Dáil Deputy, I am entitled to know all the factors that enter into the consideration of legislation, the enactment of which is part of my duty. The people I represent, the majority of them Catholics, are entitled to be similarly informed. It is wrong, morally wrong, for the Bishops to keep them and me in the dark and to exercise control in civil affairs behind their and my back in regard to matters to which they as citizens and I as their representative have express authority under the Constitution of this country to deal with. That control was exercised by the Bishops over the Government, and that control was accepted and tolerated by the Government without the knowledge of Dáil Éireann or of the people, and the public has been shocked by the revelation that that has been the position.

The majority of the people in this State are Catholics; the majority of the elected representatives of the people are Catholics. The Catholic Hierarchy are entitled to express their views on all matters of public welfare, as are the clergy of all denominations. Such views do and must commend respect, but they ought to be and they must be expressed in public so that they may be known to every citizen of the State. As a Parliament, we would be failing in our duty if we did not insist on this. If we do not, our democracy is a fraud, our Constitution a sham, and our general elections humbug, pretence and swindle. I may be the only Deputy who will speak thus openly but, let no one deceive himself, the sentiments I express are shared by the majority of intelligent Deputies. They are shared, too, by the majority of citizens of every religious denomination. They convey a warning that cannot be ignored.

In 1951, the famous American actress Jane Russell announced her intention to adopt a baby from Ireland. She did so in 1952. However, the intense media reaction eventually led to the Adoption Act (1952) under the Fianna Fáil government of Éamon de Valera. This legislation allowed for the legal adoption of illegitimate and orphaned children inside Ireland for the first time, once assurances were provided to the Catholic Church about preventing cross-denominational adoption.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that things began really to change. In 1973, after decades of lobbying, the coalition government under Liam Cosgrave introduced an unmarried mother’s allowance worth £8.50 per week. This was the first social welfare payment acknowledging the existence of women bringing up children on their own.

In 1974, Mary Robinson, Michael D. Higgins, and John Horgan sponsored a new Illegitimate Children (Maintenance and Succession) Bill, giving illegitimate children certain maintenance and succession rights, but they agreed to withdraw this bill given the promise of forthcoming government legislation on this very issue. Surprisingly, the Catholic Church favoured a change in the law. It did not defend the status quo.

Nevertheless, the religious origins of our ideas concerning illegitimacy were elaborated on by Senator Mary Robinson, who made the following case to the Seanad during its second stage:

What stands in the way of reform is not rational argument but a public prejudice against illegitimate children based on centuries of unquestioning discrimination.

She continued:

Having examined what is meant by illegitimacy, we might ask where does the concept come from? How did we get such a concept in our law? The system of discrimination based on a concept of illegitimacy was influenced by the Canon Law, and it was through the Canon Law that it became part of the common law, and then was inherited by us as part of our legal system. The object of the Canon Law in having very strict rules about legitimacy was to discourage fornication and adultery. What might be questioned now, in modern terms, is the logic of trying to prevent fornication and adultery by means of victimising and penalising the innocent offspring of a relationship outside marriage. I would submit that there is no justification either in law or in church principles for this attitude. It was the Canon Law which influenced the English common law and, whereas in England they have changed by statute the harsh effect of the common law, we retain it in all its purity, in all its harshness and in all its discriminatory aspects.

Clarifying her comments, she said:

The point is, the 1918 Canon Law continues to classify illegitimates. In particular, for example, under canon 984 the Canon Law continues to classify illegitimates along with bodily defectives, epileptics, insane persons, persons possessed by the devil, bigamists and those who have incurred infamy of law, judges who have passed sentence of death and men who have undertaken the office of executioner. These categories are barred from entering the clerical state. That is the formal provision still of the Canon Law.

Michael D. Higgins, now President of Ireland, also contributed to this debate.

Our society is not human enough, so we have to legislate some semblance of humanity into existence…That is the whole substance of the Bill. It is the idea of whether all children are equal or whether children should go through life with the mark of degradation on them…We should be allowed in this Bill to mitigate some of the opprobrium which society has directed against a section of our community…It is a very small step. It is just the beginning of the redressing of the huge imbalance against women in regard to their rights in society. It is, more importantly, the beginning of the assertion of rights for children which have been granted in societies older than ours and more repressive than ours. It is the beginning of ending the myth that a child out of wedlock belongs in an institution rather than with his parents. What we need to do now is to mould society in the interest of its future children. It may be sad for us to have to take up the burden of oppression which we have raised against children, of the terrible legislation, of our terrible guilts of omission. But it still is not late and I would appeal to all Members of the Seanad to support this Bill.

John Horgan, NUI Senator, also made a worthwhile contribution:

Let us have the courage now, I ask the House, not only to change the law— which can and must be done—but to change the attitudes and the values which have helped to make this law as inhuman and as discriminatory as it now is. We may change the law but if we do not accept at the same time the need to change our attitude and prejudices the advance will be small indeed.

Dr. Noel Browne, now a senator in Seanad Éireann, also took a stand on this issue, not for the first time:

A general résumé of the attitude to the illegitimate adopted under Canon Law was that the child was to be used to instill moral behaviour in others. This dazzingly inhumane, cruel and barbarous provision is still effectively a provision of Canon Law. Anyone who tries to tell me that Canon Law is irrelevant or, what is worse, irrelevant in the formation of the pattern of our civil law, would have a very hard Catholic case to prove.

He continued:

We now know the Canon Law attitude to these children was cruel, repressive, totally unjust and its effect quite inestimable. It is impossible to say what suffering has been caused by the monumental stupidity and insensitivity of the men, the bishops, who made us here over the years do these various things because we were frightened of them. We did not exercise our own independent judgment to see that a child born out of wedlock is a precious and wonderful thing, a new human being. We do not care where it is born, it belongs to us, the society. It is our responsibility to protect that child from every possible result of whatever you would like to call it—the transgression, if there is one, of men or women.

Dr. Browne then responded to a point made by Senator George Russell, who had taken exception to the idea that Canon Law was ultimately to blame for people’s attitudes. In doing so, he adumbrates the long history of Catholic influence on social policy in Ireland.

It is unrealistic, verging on dishonest, for Senator Russell to imply that this decision in relation to the persistence of these provisions regarding the illegitimate child in Ireland is not directly and exclusively the responsibility of the totally obscurantist attitude of the Catholic Church and its Canon Law, over the years, and this is not an exceptional set of circumstances. How on earth can he say that, in the context of the continuing obstruction to the other piece of legislation, the Contraception Bill, in the context of our attitude to a provision particularly relevant to this discussion now, a provision which held that we should seek to educate the mother in respect of motherhood, a provision of the 1947 Health Act? Why was that killed? Not by the consensus but by the decision of the Catholic Hierarchy.

Education of mothers in respect of motherhood, illegitimacy, the unmarried mother, is the obvious need if one is serious about not using contraception but helping young girls not to have babies, surely the education of youngsters in schools or mothers or intending mothers, education in respect of motherhood, either in sex education on one hand or education in this other very complicated question of the psycho-dynamics of personality formation—why a child is likely to be one kind of child and not another. A most important provision in relation to women and mothers comes before this House and the cry is: “Vote it down because it is in conflict with the Canon Law.”

Most of my life I have attempted to promote the advance of social thinking in our society under the general theme of the welfare State, of the welfare society—education, health, care in old age, housing, and so on. This, again, was opposed. We could do nothing. Everything from old age pensions to free education was an interference with Canon Law and not the rights of the people. For 20 years and more I have pursued and attempted to make the case against corporal punishment in schools but this also was a necessary part of the educational system—the punitive, repressive kind of education.

The Catholic Church, on every important social issue of the twentieth century, sought to have its social teachings, its doctrines, and its code of Canon Law woven directly into secular law. Quite apart from the law, it was also Catholic social teaching which influenced the attitudes of all believing Catholics, the majority of the population. Dr. Browne concludes by saying:

But what depresses me, what so much upsets me, is that there is just as good and compelling a case and as many humane and compassionate arguments for therapeutic and legal abortions, for the homosexual, for the need for divorce, for contraception, for these other badly needed changes — badly needed changes which we do not appear to have the moral courage here to decide for ourselves.

We know now, of course, that each of these changes were eventually introduced in turn: restricted access to contraception was permitted in 1980, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, divorce was introduced in 1996, and abortion was legalised in 2018. Each of these changes was opposed by the Catholic Church.

It wasn’t until 1987, under the Fianna Fáil government of Charles Haughey, and after many decades of campaigning, that the Status of Children Act (1987) finally abolished the status of illegitimacy.

In 2012, Catherine Corless began investigating St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway, which was run by the Bon Secours Sisters from 1925 to 1961. She discovered that 796 babies had died in the home, according to the Galway Registration office.

She checked to see if they had been buried in the main Tuam cemetery, but they weren’t listed in the records. She questioned the Bon Secours sisters, the Catholic Church, and Galway County Council, who owned the land. No one seemed to know anything.

In her research, she found that, in the 1970s, two boys had come across a crypt and some bones on the land of the home, at the precise location of an old sewage tank which had been in operation at the time of the workhouse. This, she thought, was the likely location of their internment.

The ensuing scandal resulted, in 2015, in the establishment of The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. It was tasked with investigating the records and practices of fourteen such homes, and four County Homes, with Judge Yvonne Murphy as chairperson, alongside Dr. William Duncan and UCD Professor of History, Mary Daly.

In 2014, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference welcomed the announcement of the Inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes, stating:

It is disturbing that the residents of these homes suffered disproportionately high levels of mortality and malnutrition, disease and destitution…Sadly we are being reminded of a time when unmarried mothers were often judged, stigmatised and rejected by society, including the Church. This culture of isolation and social ostracising was harsh and unforgiving. The Gospel calls us to treat everyone, particularly children and the most vulnerable, with dignity, love, compassion and mercy. We must ensure that all children and their mothers always feel wanted, welcomed and loved.

The attitude and actions of these religious congregations were certainly harsh and unforgiving, but this statement (“including the Church”) pretends as though it weren’t Catholic doctrine as regards the illegitimate child that directly influenced people’s attitudes. Where, we must ask ourselves, did this moral rejection of illegitimates stem from? I submit that it was religious condemnation grounded in Catholic social policy.

The fourteen Mother and Baby homes included in the Commission of Investigation are: Ard Mhuire in Meath, Belmont in Dublin 4, Bessborough House in Cork, Bethany House in Dublin 7, Bon Secours in Tuam, Denny House in Dublin 4, Kilrush in Clare, Manor House in Westmeath, Mrs. Carr’s in Dublin 6, Regina Coeli Hostel in Dublin 7, Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary, St. Gerard’s in Dublin 1, St. Patrick’s in Dublin 7, and The Castle in Donegal.

According to the Fifth Interim Report of the Commission, the major issues around burial arise in the cases of Bessborough and Tuam. Bessborough, run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus from 1922 to 1998, was location for more than 900 infant deaths, with only 64 accounted for, while Tuam was location for the familiar 796. The Congregation provided an affidavit to the Commission which was, in their words, “speculative, inaccurate, and misleading.” The Commission found this unbelievable because the home operated under their control until as late as 1998.

The Commission reported that, in Tuam, human remains discovered on site in the memorial garden are, in point of fact, the remains of at least some of the babies, placed not in a sewage tank but in a second structure as yet unidentified, but likely related to the sewage tank, and probably installed in the 1930s.

The reason for their burial in such an “inappropriate” location has also yet to be revealed, but this cruel attitude of moral judgement against innocent children must be of some relevance surely. Thankfully this attitude was far from universal, as the dissident voices quoted in this article only serve to highlight.

In any case, the Commission are of the belief that information is likely being withheld. The Bon Secours sisters remained in Tuam, operating a private hospital, until as late as 2001. Yet, they have provided precious little information.

The lack of empathy for these women and children clearly comes directly from Catholic teaching, and from the nuns’ religious convictions. Up to this very day, both the Church and the various religious congregations have been a study in indifference.

How far this indifference really goes, we will discover with the publication of the Commission’s report on October 30th, 2020.

Simon Hall is a freelance journalist, just returned from Beirut, Lebanon. His background is in the history of religion and in the physical sciences.

9 thoughts on “Illegitimate History

  1. Gonzo

    A powerful piece and highlights the fact, if it was needed again, that even ignorance can not possibly be used in defence of the barbaric practices employed against the most vulnerable in our society.

  2. D

    great journalism. many thanks for this.

    this is a really small point, but i feel sick when children are referenced using the word “illegitimate” children even though that’s what they are called in times past. i think quoting this term is fine, but a different term needs to be used when you are using your own words such as children born out of wedlock (“CBOOW”)

    1. James Clancy

      A very good point. The term “illegitimate” to describe a child is repugnant. “Child born out of wedlock” is grand.

    1. D

      Its not the past. catholic church has indoctrinated us all. people still go to mass. older people (yes im being ageist) are more likely to be religious. until they die out. its with us today.

  3. Cian

    Scary, but interesting, read.

    Two things jumped out at me.
    1. the % of “illegitimate” children that died before 1 is mindboggling at 26%-33%.
    2. the % of all other children that died before 1 is incredible too – 7% – one in thirteen babies died before their first birthday; since families were so big that would mean that every-other-couple had lost a baby.

    Ireland (and the world) has moved on enormously in 100 years.

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