Bad days for single mums and babies: long gone, not forgotten

In her weekly column Ailin Quinlan outlines why we must never hesitate to help lone parent families or begrudge the support given to them by the Irish State
Bad days for single mums and babies: long gone, not forgotten
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WE GET a lot of things wrong in this country. Don’t start me — we’d fill this newspaper with them, and then some.

But we get some things right, at least partly, and at least some of the time (if occasionally with some reluctance). Take, for example, the many people who begrudge single mothers the State support to which they are now entitled.

These days, no parish priest is going to hammer on the door of a family home and order cowering parents to expel a daughter and infant grandchild, on the grounds that their presence is bringing shame on their home and on their parish.

No-one today would tolerate such an intrusion.

No priest would have the power, as one priest did, to expel a young, vulnerable mother and her baby from their home and from the community; to make social outcasts of them both, may he roast in hell. But then, today, no priest would be given that power by the community he serves.

Just in case you’re wondering, that actually happened. The story was told by a male caller to the Joe Duffy show during the week. When this man finally tracked down his mother in England he said, she related how, on the word of one shameful and arrogant priest, she and her baby were forced to leave their home in Ireland. The baby ended up in some orphanage and the mother ended up in England and the family ended up minus their daughter and grandson.

Bad days; long gone, but not forgotten. Days when the Catholic church was so powerful that a priest could literally decide who could or could not live in “his” parish.

However, as the Taoiseach pointed out this week, the awful sagas of cruelty, pain and abuse which have once again come to the fore as a result of more publicity around the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, aren’t only about wrong-doing by the clergy. The priests and nuns of that era were simply abusing power that was handed to them on a plate by the Irish people.

An old, wise, very experienced and much older journalist friend of mine once advised me to never, ever, put my trust in God-fearing, upstanding, respected pillars of the community. Not for a bald minute, he warned: “Stay well away from them fellas,” he quipped.

And when you come to think about it, wasn’t it God-fearing, upstanding, respected pillars of the community who enslaved, abused, tortured, raped and discriminated against black people in America for generations — and before that, who hunted and murdered the Red Indians and stole their lands?

Wasn’t it God-fearing, upstanding and respected pillars of the community who stole aboriginal lands, fed the tribes poisoned flour and hunted them over the edges of cliffs, watching with grim and righteous satisfaction as old people, children, parents tumbled to their deaths?

And wasn’t it many a God-fearing, upstanding and respected pillar of the community who has raped and abused vulnerable children over and over again — and all over the world? We didn’t have a tradition of black slavery in Ireland.

We didn’t have Red Indians. We didn’t have aborigines. What we did have was plenty of single mothers, plenty of fatherless little children and a powerful sprinkling of God-fearing, upstanding and respected pillars of the community both in the church... and outside it.

After all, as the Taoiseach so rightly said, no cruel nuns broke into Irish homes to kidnap children. The Irish people just handed them over, because of the shame created and nourished by God fearing, upstanding pillars of the community who took it upon themselves to tell everyone else what was right.

A shame that left young girls leaving on the boats for England, some of them at least, to unimaginably awful lives on the streets, while their children were abused, beaten, tortured and sexually abused in the orphanages, reform schools and industrial schools and worked half to death by the sound of it, in these places and others considered appropriate by Irish society.

It was shame created by these same pillars of the community which left a beautifully-dressed young girl sitting alone in a village dance hall ostracised by the ‘bould young men of the parish, because her father wasn’t around.

Sixty years later that story was also told to Joe Duffy. She told how the nuns had been arranging to have a baby called Sylvia adopted in America shortly after she was born — and she would, Sylvia says, now, have been sent there too, only that her grandfather and the local doctor forced those religious God-fearing women to allow her mother and herself to go back to Sylvia’s grandparents’ house.

Things didn’t change – 16 years later, that same baby, now a teenager, was publicly cut dead at a dance in the local hall by the young teenage men of the parish because of the fact that she was born to a single mother. There were no nuns or priests standing over these young men, beating them back with hurleys for trying to ask Sylvia out to dance. They too colluded in the smug atmosphere of shame and stigma that pervaded this country.

Another man told Joe Duffy about the flashbacks he gets of himself as a small boy, curling up to protect himself as he was beaten with a hurley in an Irish reform school.

One man born to a single mother told how he’d been placed by the religious with farm families who worked him half to death and battered him the rest of the time only allowing him to attend school when the weather was bad.

Yes, the Church’s role in all this was beyond shameful. But so was the behaviour of an Irish society which tolerated, and was complicity in, the Church’s outrageous abuse of single mothers and their babies. Bad days.

Today the resounding stigma surrounding a young woman with a baby born out of wedlock has diminished significantly in most places. In some circles it’s gone completely. Bad cess to it.

The State provides financial support to single mothers today. If they want to, these days, a single mother can return to school. She can repeat her Leaving Certificate exam. She can go on to college and study medicine if she has the brains and the grit and the willpower to get there. There’s help, for example, with the costs of caring for a baby through the lone parent allowance and the medical card and rent allowance. It’s not enough, but it’s there.

Starting next autumn there will be help for young single mothers who want to return to education or work with the introduction of the Affordable Childcare Scheme.

Before writing this column, I saw a single mother sitting at a table studying chemistry in her own home as part of her preparations to repeat her Leaving Certificate examinations. Her three-month-old baby son snoozed peacefully on a play-mat by her side.

No priest was going to bang on her parents’ front door and demand that that this young woman and her baby be expelled from her home for the sake of the respectable God-fearing, upstanding residents of her parish.

Nobody was going to pack this young woman’s infant son off to an industrial school to be beaten and abused and turned into somebody’s slave.

Nobody was going to send her off on the boat to an uncertain future in England to spare the blushes of her priest, parents and community.

Should we ever, for a single moment, hesitate to help lone parent families or begrudge the support given to them by the Irish State, we have to remember those lonely little bones in the septic tank in Tuam.

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