On a sunny in Friday in May, we in Ireland voted to Repeal the 8th Amendment to the Constitution (effectively improving reproductive rights and abortion access for women). That night, my friends and I hugged and cried on the streets of Dublin. It was official – we were no longer second-class citizens. There were tears of jubilation and hope too, that a line had been drawn under what has amounted to decades of oppression for women.
You might even be thinking of your last trip to cosmopolitan Dublin and think 'Is she for real? What oppression?' But the darkest chapters of Ireland’s treatment of women and their children happened not so long ago.
Now, a new vivid, well-researched and emotive BBC podcast, The Home Babies, throws an unforgiving light on one particularly grim stain on Irish history.
In 2014, a news story broke in Ireland that was at once shocking, yet in some ways not at all surprising. Local historian Catherine Corless had decided to research the Bon Secours Mother & Baby Home in her locality, likely inspired by her own childhood memories of the institutions (she went to school with many children from the local home, and recalls their "otherness").
Almost by accident, Corless's research threw up evidence of a mass grave at the Bon Secours Mother & Baby home in Tuam, Co. Galway. The site was originally thought to be a mass grave from The Irish Famine in the 19th century. Further research over the next three years brought the ugly truth to light – 796 children had died in the home. Death certificates had been issued, but the burial records remained at large. And with that, the unassuming Corless became something of a reluctant Erin Brokovich-type figure, striving to make herself heard.
Before we go on, *raps blackboard with cane *, a wee history lesson first.
A toxic brew of religion, traditional values, lack of contraception (and abortion) and misogyny meant that women got an especially raw deal, and unmarried girls who got pregnant were shamed and roundly vilified
The Catholic church and the Irish State were effectively one and the same for much of the 20th century. A toxic brew of religion, traditional values, lack of contraception (and abortion) and misogyny meant that women got an especially raw deal, and unmarried girls who got pregnant were shamed and roundly vilified. These women’s only crime was having sex – possibly even enjoying sex – outside of marriage.
Shunned by their parents and the community, women pregnant out of wedlock were either sent to Mother & Baby homes away from public view, or left with little financial choice but to seek the help of the Catholic-run institutions. Others were sent to the now infamous Madgalene laundries, also run by nuns, to toil day and night for their sins.
The men involved, incidentally, was largely unaffected by the scandal, and would go on to have other lovers, and raise families of their own, with impunity.
"If a girl got pregnant, they’d go to the priest and the priest would say, 'we’ll look after it'," explains Josie, an interviewee in The Home Babies.
"The [women] would come in [to the home] in the dead of night, through the ‘wicked’ gate," observes another local. "You never heard of it, keep it to the background and leave it there. It was a taboo."
It has emerged that the residents of Mother & Baby homes (and Magdalene laundries) were subjected to vile physical and emotional abuse at the hands of nuns. In the mired logic of the powers that be, there were ‘sins’ to be repented for, and their babies were often taken from their mothers without consent, to be sold, trafficked or adopted.
Though it’s unlikely that true figure will ever emerge, it’s thought that around 35,000 women and girls went through Mother & Baby homes – either to give birth to children or, if finances were dire, to raise them – between 1904 and 1996. Some were converted workhouses, and most were run by religious orders.
The Home Babies’ reporter Becky Milligan travels into the darklands of the West of Ireland, and unravels the knotted history of the Bon Secours home and Corless’s unstinting journey towards the truth. The episodes contain emotive testimonies from former residents, as well as recollections of locals who lived near the home. Many of whom were reluctant to chat.
In some moments in The Home Babies, the anachronistic attitudes of 1950s Ireland don’t appear so far away. "I don’t know you’d describe them," coughs one interviewee, searching for the appropriate, perhaps least offensive term. "Unmarried women I suppose".
Corless’s findings eventually broke as international news story last year. The world was shocked; we in Ireland, less so. If sweeping scandals and injustices under the carpet was a sport, we'd be Olympic champions. The country has long been aware of how women have been treated.
"It’s a big thing, shame," observes Milligan at one point. "It causes all sorts of grief..."
In my professional life, I’ve interviewed several women with first-hand experience of Mother & Baby homes. The scars run deep and wide.
Those who gave birth in them spent the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder as they attempted to hide their secret. "I’d have genuinely been better off going home and telling my parents I’d murdered someone," one woman recalled to me, without a hint of exaggeration.
Another woman I encountered had been born and partially raised in a home in Dublin, and went on to experience a myriad physical and mental health challenges as a result.
I’m not a violent person, but I’d gladly burn the place to the ground
"I’m not a violent person, but I’d gladly burn the place to the ground," she admitted.
For these women the truth needs to be told, worldwide.
In Ireland, it really feels as though we’re striving towards a society that’s more compassionate towards women. Corless’s efforts are a huge part of that. A month after the abortion referendum, 230 survivors of the Magdalene laundries were commemorated by the Irish President, five years after a State apology. Still, try as Ireland might have done in the past - we can’t forget. We shouldn’t forget. A retroactive apology and public acknowledgement won't undo the years of torment Irish women and their children endured but it’s a start.