WHEN the veil of secrecy was lifted from Ceaucescu’s communist regime in Romania in the late 1980s, the world rightly recoiled in horror at the images of babies and children left to die in orphanages all around his country.
Fortunately, perhaps, for the leaders of state and church in the Ireland of the 1940s and 50s, few such images exist... for what was done under their watch involved a similar level of neglect and callousness that the world is rightly recoiling from now.
At a time when we are being asked to pause and reflect on difficult political and revolutionary periods of our history a century ago, it is the harrowing legacy of the Mother & Baby Homes (and County Homes) that should be the most unsettling of all.
The stories emanating from the pages of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother & Baby Homes are shocking... and it has becoming evident already that those stories do not even paint the full picture.
They are a damning indictment on the formative days of our republic in which a church and state theocracy permeated every aspect of life in Ireland and would continue to do so for generations to come.
That iron fist still tries to wield its influence every now and then, but thankfully we have moved on, become wise to the folly of accepting doctrines for mere acceptance sake and learned to speak our minds.
Those in positions of power in state and church during the height of operations of these Mother & Child Homes were, according to the report, ‘aware of the high infant mortality rates’.. in this light, crimes against humanity were perpetrated and the justice that is being sought must include a comprehensive review of what was done, who did it, and what can be done to heal the wounds.
The Irish have looked on aghast at other such unsettling situations around the world and called for answers... this is our Stolen Generation and we need answers too.
As a grateful past pupil of nuns and Christian Brothers, and the product of a solid Catholic upbringing, I acknowledge that not all religious or society leaders were at fault here. I am not — like others in the current age of a la carte secularism — tarring everyone with the same brush and casting blame around blindly or blanketly; there is always room in humanity for religion, even if there hasn’t always been room in religion for humanity. There were and still are countless religious men and women who continue do brilliant work in our communities, many of them — without fuss or headline — working with the most vulnerable.
However, it is clear from this and other church and state scandals in the recent past that there were bad eggs and that the systems in place facilitated extreme, un-Christian and often inhumane actions... the anthesis to their very raison d’etre.
It is now up to the current leadership of our country to call to account those senior politicians, the senior church leaders and those in the corridors of power in our society back then who told the citizens how to behave and yet who allowed all this to happen in the shadows. This report should only be the start of a process, not the end.
Of course there are others, too, who must share in the blame and shame of this dark episode of our country’s history: the fathers (some of them incestuous animals) of the children, many of whom disappeared off the scene without trace, concern or responsibility; the families who cast out the young mothers from the home out of a righteous and pious pride and who simply didn’t want to know; those ordinary citizens in society who knew that what was happening behind the walls of these homes was not right, yet who said or did nothing in silent, fearful acquiescence. (It is also fair to point out, however, that not all citizens knew and so the prevailing suggestion that it was everyone’s fault should be cautioned against.)
It is easy for those unaffected by, or uninvolved in, this injustice to come at this from the comfort of retrospect and it will be stated that neither the church nor state forced these young women into their services... but the society that these twin towers presided over and the ensuing mores of the time were force enough.
People lived in a state of control and authoritarian reverence and this was central to all the suffering and hurt caused to so many.
A moral sanctimony still pervades Irish society that can be traced back to this time and that must surely now undergo intense questioning and reflection; for the treatment of human life — of babies — in state and church-run homes in this country from the 1940s to the ’80s and ’90s by the custodians of the church and state did more damage to life than any amended words on a constitutional document could ever do.
As we come to terms with the evils and wrongdoings perpetrated on a young and vulnerable cohort of our own people in our own past, we also need to shine a light on the current day and upon the shadows that continue to darken our society.
We cannot repeat the inaction of our antecedents and use silence as an excuse; we must ensure our most vulnerable groups — the homeless, those seeking refuge and asylum in our country, the infirm or disabled and members of ethnic or minority communities — are not the mother and baby homes of today.
It won’t be enough in 50 years time to say we didn’t know.