State of silence: Dismantling the legacy of shame and secrecy surrounding Mother and Baby Homes

Survivors of the Mother And Baby Homes, and those who advocate for their rights, share the decades-long battle for justice.

A statue of Mary: Mother and baby homes piece

This feature about the legacy of the Mother and Baby Homes was originally published in the January issue of GCN, on December 20th, 2020. As the Irish Government have today published the Commission report and ahead of a scheduled formal State apology from the Taoiseach to former residents and those affected by the homes in the Dáil on Wednesday, we wanted to share this piece to amplify the voices of the survivors and activists. The story has been edited to reflect updates.

Those who survived institutional human rights abuse in Ireland refer to the saying ‘deny until we die’ – where the State and Church enact policies and barriers until the problem goes away.

Across the span of one week in October 2020, Ireland once more reckoned with a legacy of secrecy and shame as the aforementioned Commission of Investigation Records Bill 2020 was fast-tracked through the Oireachtas. Like a jolt to the system, survivors and advocates were suddenly mobilised. 

Under the Commission of Investigation Act 2004, commission processes were introduced as a cost-effective alternative to tribunals and a method for investigating matters of public concern. Once the work has been completed and before dissolution, the chairperson deposits “all evidence received by and all documents created by or for the commission” with the specified Minister. Then, 30 years after the date when the commission had been dissolved, records would be placed in the National Archives. 

In 2015, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission was established to investigate the treatment and abuse of individuals detained in 18 Mother and Baby Homes and four country homes across Ireland. The Irish government issued orders to begin the process following an international and national outcry over the discovery of mass unmarked graves at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co Galway.

Writer, actress and adoption activist, Noelle Brown, opened up about her experience with the Commission, “To me, it represented lip service, it didn’t look like it was set out to achieve anything. As an experienced go-and-meet with the Commission of Investigation, it was less than heartening. I got the impression that what they wanted to give us was tea and sympathy basically.”

Brown has spoken openly about being born in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home and her search for her birth family throughout the years. She shared these experiences with the Commission in order to have her story heard but also in the hopes of finding information about whether she had been subjected to vaccine trials as a baby. 

58 infants in five Mother and Baby Homes were subjected to vaccine trials, which took place in 1961, according to the Kiely Report, published in 2000. It reads, “In the home in Bessborough, Cork, the mothers of the infants would also have been resident there, but there is no written evidence to indicate whether the mothers’ consent was sought or obtained for their children’s participation in this trial. Further, there is no documentation available in Bessborough which describes the arrangements made between management and the researchers for the conduct of this trial”

Despite Brown seeking answers from the Commission of Investigation over her involvement in these trials, she was sent to child and family agency Tusla, where they told her the vaccinations she did not have as an infant rather than the ones she did have. Her experience has been shared with many survivors who are continuously denied information around their own history through half-answers and gatekeeping from State bodies, especially in regards to obtaining their official birth certificates. 

Since the establishment of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, survivors have been left waiting throughout five years of delays for the final report. Led by former Circuit Court Judge Yvonne Murphy, the three-person commission initially worked towards a report deadline of February 2018. However, as that date neared, they requested and were granted, a one-year extension. Another 16 months were provided for the submission, which was further extended due to the impact of COVID-19 on their activities. 

Brown outlined the devastating impact of these extensions, “Five years of delay in terms of the report coming out really disheartened a lot of survivors, including myself because we were waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting, and the whole thing is time-sensitive. The older generation is dying without seeing justice.”

After waiting years for the final report and with many survivors publicly speaking out about the trauma they have endured, the State’s fast track of the Commission of Investigation Records Bill sparked widespread outrage. Brown said, “This is a living archive of what happened and what is still going on. To take that chunk of Irish history and lock it away for 30 years, you question why? It’s not something we wanted, it’s not something the nation wanted.”

Brown shared how this perpetuated a long-standing policy of silence shaped by State and Church. “Secrecy enabled them to run a system that sold babies, did vaccine trails, food supplement trials on infants without their mothers’ consent, disappeared babies, sold babies. So that secrecy, this made-up blanket of cover, facilitated all those crimes upon human beings. That secrecy again is being used continually to keep our human rights away from us and dehumanise us. As a nation, we have had enough.”

Growing up in ‘70s and ‘80s Ireland as a queer woman, Brown became familiarised with the means by which shame was utilised as a tool to silence people. Secrecy became a gag over the nation, allowing for widespread systemic abuse in the form of incarceration, dehumanisation, and the removal of basic human rights.

Brown shared, “It was a horrible, horrible reflection of the past but also something that was being reflected in the present, and that was really disturbing. We were supposed to carry that shame, birth mothers were to carry that shame of getting pregnant outside marriage, we were to carry that shame as children for being illegitimate, for being adopted. And they are still inflicting that on us. That level of secrecy is so destructive. But it’s not our shame, the shame belongs to the Catholic Church and the Irish State for what they did.”

Lecturer in human rights at the Irish Centre for Human Rights (ICHR) and programme director of the BCL Law and Human Rights, Dr Maeve O’Rourke, expressed, “the Mother and Baby Homes Commission itself has also been preventing survivors from accessing any of the documentation it gathered, the Department of the Taoiseach has refused to publish the archive of State papers on the Magdalene Laundries gathered by the McAleese Committee, and the Department of Education attempted last year through the Retention of Records Bill 2019 to ‘seal’ for at least the next 75 years every single document in the archives of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and the Residential Institutions Redress Board including from survivors themselves.” 

Led by Dr O’Rourke and Irish Research Council postgraduate scholar Claire McGettrick, the Clann Project provides legal assistance to individuals presenting evidence to the Commission of Investigation. It was established as a joint initiative by Adoption Rights Alliance (ARA), JFM Research (JFMR) and global law firm, Hogan Lovells. 

Dr O’Rourke has strongly advocated for transitional justice and transparency in the State’s response to survivors, as highlighted by her 2020 report to the UN Special Rapporteur on Ireland’s experience of memorialisation regarding human rights violations. She said, “I would also argue and have argued in the Clann Project Report, in opposition to the Retention of Records Bill and in relation to Magdalene Laundries records, that the State’s failure to ensure people’s access to their own information, to that of relatives who died while institutionalised, and to the State’s administrative files and the administrative files of the non-State bodies involved, breaches numerous other Constitutional, European and international human rights laws.”

Following the widespread backlash to the fast-tracked Bill and how those involved could access their own personal information, Minister O’Gorman clarified that survivors would have access. Dr O’Rourke stated, “It is not permissible under the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] to prevent access to personal data on a blanket basis, and this was belatedly acknowledged by the Minister, and by the Government as a whole after the Bill passed through the Oireachtas.”

Survivors must undergo two tests before their personal information can be released. Under GDPR, the Minister’s department will evaluate data access on the grounds of whether the request affects the rights and freedoms of others as well as safeguarding the operation of commissions of investigation and future cooperation of witnesses. 

Adoption Rights Alliance co-founder, Susan Long, addressed glaring issues within the current system of commissions, “It’s about controlling the narrative and stifling victims’ abilities to discuss and educate people on their experiences.”

“They gag survivors under pain of criminal prosecution, Long further shared. “If a survivor repeats or publishes their evidence outside the Commission of Investigation hearing, they can be charged with a crime. They are not given a copy of their own testimony. And then the evidence gathered cannot be used in any criminal prosecution. So the whole idea is we will punish the victims all over again.” 

Adoption Rights Alliance was formed by Long and McGettrick in response to Fianna Fáil member Bary Andrews’ planned consolidation of adoption legislation, known as the 2011 Adoption Act. She said, “Our mission is to vindicate the rights of Irish adopted people, to know their identities, their family of origins, their early care situation, to secure their medical reports.”

Long further outlined Adoption Rights Alliance’s demands for the State in their response to survivors; “We want first and foremost the clearest and swiftest access route to our personal information, no exceptions to that. Second, a State apology for the systemic human rights abuse committed against non-marital mothers and their non-marital children. Thirdly, compensation for the systemic human rights abuse we have endured.”

While the State’s handling of the Commission report presents a glaring step backwards, author and journalist Caelainn Hogan reflects on the urgency in rethinking responses to these investigations around systemic abuse. She said, “I am sure that there will be Commissions of Investigations in the future into institutional systems in Ireland from Direct Provision to emergency accommodation. And we need to think about how we are approaching that.”

Further speaking on how the current system in Ireland treats survivors of institutional abuse, Hogan stated, “When it comes to Commissions of Investigations, [survivors] are never treated as experts of their experience, they are forced to comply with a system of investigation that the State decides and told whether their testimonies will be private or public and told their records will be sealed. It’s as if it is for their own protection and there’s a sort of a paternalism there that I think really does not respect the lengths survivors have gone to make sure that the truth is heard. I think there’s a push for Commissions of Investigation to be survivor-led and to really be much more transparent.”

In 2019, Hogan explored the devastating legacy of institutionalisation on survivors in her debut novel, Republic of Shame. Navigating the Church and State’s control over women and children, she delivers an insightful look into the industry and culture behind Ireland’s ‘Fallen Women’. 

Hogan acknowledged how recent societal and legislative changes shaped a nation that will no longer stand for secrecy, and not just where Mother and Baby Homes are concerned. She shared, “The Marriage Equality Referendum, Repeal, all involved people coming forward speaking about their experiences, and Irish people speaking to each other about things which were silenced for a long time or thought of as shameful to speak about or stigmatised. I think that’s changed us as a country.”

© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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Issue 366

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 366 (January 1, 2021).

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